Named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in the summer of 2007, no filmmaker has stuck to his guns like Calvin Lee Reeder. Embodying everything that makes Independent filmmaking dangerous and boundary pushing, Reeders’ short films and features dare audiences to think in a way mainstream cinema will never achieve, and his latest film The Rambler is absolutely no different. Delving into something full of mummies, gore, dark humor, and an endless journey, Reeder will no doubt challenge viewers to interpret the actions on screen in their own way, leaving a highly ambitious story completely up for full dissection.
I recently had the chance to chat with writer/actor/director Calvin Lee Reeder, and the result was an extremely honest dialogue about the inner workings of Independent cinema and how less and less filmmakers are willing to take that gamble on a surreal cinematic experience that explores the unknown. I truly appreciated everything Reeder had to say about how watered down the genre is getting, because I completely agree – less and less movies are really attempting something awe-inspiring these days. In any case, read on to hear Calvin discuss his film The Rambler and its crazy production, his experiences with the original V/H/S, and his thoughts on the state of Independent filmmaking today.
This is a good one, enjoy!
We Got This Covered: So I wanted to open with a rather vague question so I could hear an initial explanation of things. Who, or what, is this idea of “The Rambler?”
Calvin Lee Reeder: I suppose it’s not something you can summarize in one little example, but I’d definitely point to American classics like Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, guys like that. There’s also a little bit of Charles Bukowski in there.
We Got This Covered: The Rambler is really a hodgepodge of genres when you look at the whole package. Was there ever a version of the story that favored one genre heavily, or was it always this tonal chameleon?
Calvin Lee Reeder: Not really. So far I haven’t had to think in terms of genre too much. I’m attracted to all that stuff and I let my ideas be the compass, I don’t try to categorize them too much.
We Got This Covered: Considering your visual style and attention to detail, because there’s a lot of stuff you can miss in The Rambler, is all this pre-planned? Is there any element of adding something cool on the fly?
Calvin Lee Reeder: It’s all very deliberate; we didn’t have a lot of time to make the movie. Everything had to be pre-determined otherwise we wouldn’t get it. That’s the way it goes with movies like this, I think. If you didn’t prep for it, you’re probably not going to get it. Everything is to the numbers.
We Got This Covered: Sometimes filmmakers say their work reflects a portion of themselves or a period in their life. With that in mind, are you “The Rambler?”
Calvin Lee Reeder: [Laughs] You know, I wish I was. I’m probably more the cab driver if anything. I just think “The Rambler” shares a curiosity of mine, the probing of the unknown, and I think the best way to do that is through a dream logic narrative. It’s our only window into what may or may not be the unknown, it’s a little mystery that happens in our subconscious. I wanted to explore that, and I’ve done that in my last couple of films, but “The Rambler” was the perfect guy to take us there.
We Got This Covered: Mentioning that dream logic narrative, I did want to ask if there’s an alternate reality aspect to The Rambler. Can you describe the realm he’s in?
Calvin Lee Reeder: I would shy away from using the word reality when discussing film. Every film is contrived, there is no reality. I just try to explore the same things my heroes did, people like [Ingmar] Bergman and [Michelangelo] Antonioni, people like Alex Cox with Repo Man, people like El Topo. These people weren’t adhering to a type of reality, they were exploring the unknown.
We Got This Covered: Being that there are so many ways to interpret The Rambler, is there one set vision you have for this film? Or is this film intended to be a different experience for everyone.
Calvin Lee Reeder: That’s not really up to me. Whoever watches this is going to take away what they will. I’m not so egomaniacal where I’m going to tell someone what to think and how to feel. I know I put something out there that will hopefully make a person’s brain work in a different way for those 97 minutes. They can interpret The Rambler how they wish. I have my own thoughts, but I do enjoy hearing other people’s interpretations.
We Got This Covered: Oh, so you have a set vision in mind? Do you mind explaining it?
Calvin Lee Reeder: Well, I want everyone to have their own interpretation. I don’t want to ruin it for everybody.
I’m probing the unknown, I’m exploring things I don’t know about. Sometimes that’s scary and sometimes that’s funny. The best compass I can use is the subconscious dream world. Anything involving that I can really get with.
We Got This Covered: So you’ve already mentioned a few of your influences, but a few people have been describing The Rambler as a tad bit “Lynchian.” Can you hit on your biggest influences, and is David Lynch one of them?
Calvin Lee Reeder: I like David Lynch, but I haven’t seen as much David Lynch as people think. I’m really into [Michelangelo] Antonioni, [Ingmar] Bergman, and [Federico] Fellini. I’m also really into Nicolas Roeg’s early stuff. Everything from Performance to Eureka is something I’ve seen a lot. That’s really where I draw my inspiration from both visually and sonically. This film does delve deeply into the surreal, but the Charles Bukowski influence shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s a lowlife, but he’s not a scumbag – sort of a king of the road. It’s actually not so much film as it is a feeling, like a feeling of the West – a hobo.
We Got This Covered: One word that definitely describes your filmmaking is challenging. You challenge viewers to think outside of the box and perceive stories in a way they might not have before. Do you think there’s enough challenging cinema being created today, in the time of big blockbuster popcorn films?
Calvin Lee Reeder: No, I don’t, and I wouldn’t blame Hollywood. I don’t think there’s enough challenging cinema being made in the Independent world either. I think a lot of us go to blame Hollywood for their pretty faces and explosions, but some of that stuff is pretty alright by me. What I get upset about is the self-righteous point of view that the indie film is untouchable. I believe indie filmmaking has become way too pedestrian. What happened to the gamble? That’s my question. All those films we just spoke about, those were indie films, with the exception of Repo Man. These were all movies that did things you didn’t expect. [The filmmakers] didn’t go out there so people would write nice things about them – they went out there to push it. What happened to that? It’s like people just spend all their money on NYU now so they can have the New York Times write nice things about them. That’s what I feel – it’s a vanity thing. For me, I’m truly interested in these things I explore. Like I said, Hollywood is not the villain. With the indie film, people have painted themselves in a corner.
We Got This Covered: Do you think audiences are partly to blame as well, as less and less viewers are searching for challenging, surreal, and obscure cinema, while more and more are becoming content with being spoon-fed?
Calvin Lee Reeder: I suppose. That’s an observation for sure, but it’s so big that I don’t even have the data to answer that question. I have faith that there are enough people out there interested in different stuff, and I think those people turn to indie cinema, but again I’ll blame indie cinema for watering itself down, subsequently watering down the expectations of both critics and viewers. When something does come out of left field, the only reference they have is David Lynch. That’s not fair. There are a billion references out there of interesting cinema which has been going on since the beginning. Surrealism was started about 100 years ago.
We Got This Covered: We’re talking so much about the indie cinema people are missing today, so now you’ve got even me curious as to what else is out there, but have you ever seen Quentin Dupieux’s films Rubber or Wrong?
Calvin Lee Reeder: Oh yeah, Quentin is great. I met him once. I admire his work so much.
We Got This Covered: So can you give me some other examples of people attacking surrealism like both you and Quentin are doing?
Calvin Lee Reeder: Well there’s the Zellner brothers. A lot of their shorts go into that, and their two features haven’t quite been so surreal, but they definitely delve into the existential. There’s also Todd Rohal, whose film Catechism Cataclysm played Sundance back in 2011 when mine did, and he’s going in there. I’ve always looked at those guys as partners of mine in this, whatever it is we’re doing. It’s hard to categorize it. There’s a few of us out there I suppose, but we’re all on our own at the same time.
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We Got This Covered: So there’s The Rat Pack, The Splat Pack – what would you consider your group then?
Calvin Lee Reeder: [Laughs] Oh man, I don’t know. Unsuccessful? That’s what I would say!
We Got This Covered: Getting to how you cast The Rambler, once again you’ve put your girlfriend Lindsay Pulsipher in an incredibly demanding and gory role (as she previously starred in The Oregonian). Does she take these parts willingly, or does it take some coaxing? Especially with the scene in which there’s some brutal work done to her arm?
Calvin Lee Reeder: So far she has, but I don’t know, I might be in trouble now. [Laughs] We might have reached the saturation point. But so far, yes.
It’s one of those things where I describe to her what we’re going to shoot, but neither of us know the kind of effect, and what the weight of that is, what it feels like – we don’t know. It’s such a low budget movie, we just saw that location on the day, when we also didn’t know it was going to be 110 degrees. We can only kind of know what we’re getting into at this budget level, you can’t try on the fake arm and reshape it to her. It’s just “Here you go, honey.” That was a very typical day, and she brought it really hard to make it happen. One of the hardest working actors was on set that day. She was amazing.
We Got This Covered: Does she like the gore? Does she have fun with it?
Calvin Lee Reeder: I don’t think she had fun with it in that scene [Laughs], but I think she does have fun with it for sure. She knows how to bring it. I think she’s into making an eye-popping event for the audience not to forget. That’s really the idea there – let’s put an image in the audience’s mind that they can’t really erase. The stronger the image we know we’re creating, the higher morale is.
We Got This Covered: Absolutely, you really brought the reality in that scene.
Calvin Lee Reeder: And again, isn’t that the job of indie cinema? That’s what I think it is. Not just to create the imagery, but to create something that isn’t easily forgotten.
We Got This Covered: Now how did Dermot Mulroney get involved as The Rambler. Did he approach you, or did you approach him?
Calvin Lee Reeder: I had a buddy who had worked with him before, and he said “This is a great role for Dermot, I’m going to call him.” He did, Dermot and his agent loved it, and that was really what got the ball rolling. He was very easy.
We Got This Covered: Was it hard watching him take over as The Rambler? People may not know, but in your original short, you actually played “The Rambler” yourself.
Calvin Lee Reeder: [Laughs] No. If you saw the short, you know I’m not that good of an actor. I’ll just take it in the face if you know what I mean.
I’m a writer. I spend twenty days out of the year as a director, the rest I’m a writer. It’s a frustrating process for sure, but that’s kind of what I am the most I think.
We Got This Covered: Getting to some of your other acting, you starred in the first V/H/S as one of the men in the interconnecting story. It looks like they’re not going to stop making these for a while, so I was wondering, would you take the directorial gig if you were offered a segment?
Calvin Lee Reeder: Well, they have approached me, and then rejected my idea for the first one. It was interesting though because they approached me about it, and I hated the idea. I’m so uninspired by found-footage, first person, blah blah blah. Then my buddy Adam Wingard said “Hey, you want to come out to Missouri and do this thing? They pay pretty well.” So I was thinking “Alright, cool.” Then when they told me what they were making off of it, they told me it wasn’t too late to submit my idea to them, and I’m just saying “this is so gross, the movie we’re making is so stupid,” but they’re all just telling me “it doesn’t matter, just go give the pitch!” So I pitched it, and I think a couple people like it, but it was just way too weird.
Would I do it again? No, I really think it’s not my premise. I’m not interested in those movies at all.
We Got This Covered: So is it the idea of an anthology film that doesn’t really strike your fancy? What about an anthology like The ABCs Of Death?
Calvin Lee Reeder: Well I think The ABCs Of Death would be kind of cool because you get a little bit more freedom. That’s the thing – they tell you about V/H/S when they sit you down in the room and say “It’s specifically first person, found-footage, now go.” I’m just thinking “Man, you’ve taken my whole aesthetics, completely, but OK, I’ll go.” I tried, but it’s probably better that it didn’t work out for me.
We Got This Covered: So what does the future look like for you? With The Rambler winding down, do you have anything else coming up?
Calvin Lee Reeder: Oh sure. I’ve got an acting gig coming up, but that movie may or may not happen.
I do have three or four scripts out there, but at this point we’ve just got to see what wins. There are projects that are bigger and projects that are smaller, and they’re all going very well – I just don’t know which is going well enough to get made first. It’s a strange place, and I’m sure you’ve talked to other filmmakers about this, but after one film, there’s several ways we can go. We end up going all of the ways, at the same time, until someone throws enough money at us to let us make something again.
We Got This Covered: It’s like you’re stuck in a filmmaking limbo?
Calvin Lee Reeder: It’s just what happens to us guys. You have your moment and then you’ve got to get back in line.
We Got This Covered: Can you give us a taste of the stories you have out there?
Calvin Lee Reeder: Well there’s a story about a ventriloquist, a story about a Satan worshipper, and a story about a rodeo clown. There’s all kinds of stuff. Men of the West I’d say.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Calvin Lee Reeder for this exclusive interview, and be sure to check out his film The Rambler, which you can pick up on DVD/Blu-Ray today!Previous