Talking to Todd Strauss-Schulson About His New “Body Horror Comedy” Short Film ‘Valibation’
Valibation, a new (NSFW) short film from A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas director Todd Strauss-Schulson, is really creepy, funny, and not at all like Harold and Kumar. The short follows Yale Guttman (James Kirkland), a man so in love with his iPhone that it fuses with his hand. If smart phones are the new cigarettes, as the short suggests, then this is a really compelling and cool looking Surgeon’s General warning. Take the next twenty minutes (don’t worry, it moves fast) to watch the short film, and then take the next five minutes to read my conversation with Todd. We discussed everything from his motivations for making the short film to ways in which you can help him feel validated.
Are you paying attention to your phone or me right now?
I’m currently on my MacBook in bed with my iPhone two feet from me. I’m sending emails about the short and furiously checking Vimeo hit counts. The irony is not lost on me that I made a short about affirmations coming from Facebook and Twitter and your devices, and here I am refreshing Twitter and Facebook to see what people thought about this movie.
How many likes do you need the short to get in order for you to feel validated?
The bucket of validation has a hole in the bottom; it can never stay full for long. God, that’s so sad and revealing. I would love for the short to break 100k views, but for a 20-minute body horror comedy it seems unlikely.
Hold on. I’m going to go “like” it on Vimeo.
You’re my Jewish angel, Dan Hurwitz.
I’m blushing. So let me make sure I understand the short. I’m just going to dive into my interpretation and tell me where I go wrong.
It makes us feel great when people “like” our short films, Facebook posts, Splitsider articles, etc. But, we become addicted to this feeling of validation. We start to live our life, both in real life and online, going to extreme lengths in order to be likable. I’m going to share this picture of a cat on a trampoline because I think other people will like me if I share this picture. Is that right?
I’m still trying to work it all out. I think these hits of validation or affirmation, if you want to call it that, begin to sustain us, console us, nourish us. They become the thing that feeds our own sense of self. We’re projecting a narrative of our self out there and having it reflected back. But, the question that I grapple with is: What happens when you stop getting those hits? Do you implode? Melt into nothing? Can you have a strong center of self without the constant hits of validation? Who are you when there is no one around to tell you who you are?
Has your relationship with your phone changed since you made the short?
I wish I could say yes. It’s a real compulsion. You should TRY to not grab your phone the second you get off the subway. Count how many times a day you just kind of mindlessly reach for your pocket. It’s an actual physical compulsion, but for what? That is the question of this short. What is the emotional root of that compulsion? What is the trigger that makes you want to bury yourself in that phone? And, I am public enemy #1 on this. If you’re reading this article on your phone, look up. Count how many people are staring at their phones around you. I bet it’s like 70%. So all those questions and observations became the foundation for this bizarro story.
It’s really bizarro. Why’d you ultimately choose to portray the relationship between human and phone as a nightmare? It’s like the opposite of every Apple commercial.
Ha! There were a lot of disparate ideas floating around before I wrote it, but I noticed that I was really attracted to movies that created a palpable mood. Each movie generates its own little biosphere and has its own little ecology and climate, and you’re attune to that more than anything else. I realized I had never really tried to create “mood” in my other work, and I thought that would be a really exciting challenge. I was also watching a lot of David Cronenberg movies at the time, and clearly was inspired by the body horror elements of those. Plus, the idea of a phone merging with your body felt like a nightmare to me. It felt like an anxiety attack, and I wanted to recreate the feeling of an anxiety attack in this.
I never really studied film in college so I don’t know the proper terms, but the camera spins around a lot and the whole thing looks really cool and expensive. What’s up with that?
It’s pretty aggressive visually and aurally. I had a great DP named Elie Smolkin and colorist named Alex Bickle who helped create a lot of that mood with me. I wanted the short to feel like it was SHOT by a machine. The camera should move like a robot, refined and mechanical. But the story should take place in very organic places — that dirty shoe store, dank hospital, stucco apartment, etc. — but look like they’re being shot by a machine. That seemed to play into the whole machine merging with flesh plot. Machine aesthetic on a fleshy organic world.
Similarly, Gregory James Jenkins created this score that feels primal and digital like Tangerine Dream or John Carpenter or something. These things all helped to create the ecology of a nightmare which was really exciting cause I’d never really done it before.
And isn’t that one of the main points of movies, novels, etc.? You can be transported to this weird, gross world with tinfoil men and scary doctors, but you’re still able to relate to the content on a human level.
Yeah, but you know, not all movies create a world. Wes Anderson movies do, the Coens do, but like Major Payne starring Damon Wayans probably less so. You know what I mean?
So only “good” movies create a world?
Of course not, but it was something exciting for me to attempt. And, that is really the main purpose of continuing to make personal work. Taking big swings and being able to miss without any real ramifications.
Most of your previous work was blatantly funny. How does the experience of making something darkly comic, weird, and a little bit scary differ from making a stoner comedy?
To me, honestly, this doesn’t feel so different than Harold and Kumar or my other shorts. I mean it’s a different genre but the DNA still feels the same. It’s still these personal observations or subversive ideas, just wrapped in a different shell.
The thing that’s exciting for me as a filmmaker is the idea that the way in which you tell the story totally informs it. The pacing, lighting, camera movement, sequencing etc. all play a huge part in how the jokes and story are being told. If you think about stand ups, it’s really all about delivery. The way Steven Wright tells a joke vs how Bobcat Goldthwait tells a joke. So much of it is the rhythm, the style, the way the joke is told more than what the joke actually is. So Harold and Kumar gets told like a very elegant Christmas movie, not a Cheech and Chong movie, and Valibation gets told like a panic attack body horror nightmare.
But even though it’s really gross and scary, you managed to throw in some LOLs.
I know, its crazy that it works… at least I hope it works. The style is so heavy and the tone is so weird and dark and creepy, but still, the jokes seem to be poking through — that tonal mix is working, and that was a real concern.
Yeah, let’s talk about the jokes more, since this is for a comedy website. Why do you think the jokes work?
It’s unclear why it works and I wasn’t sure they would. The thing is that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make a Joe Wright movie, movies that are just totally unapologetically melodramatic — no jokes and no self-awareness. So I think a lot of the jokes in this short are coming from a self-aware character kind of calling out the weird world I’m throwing him into.
My favorite jokes are the ones that are filmmaking based. Tarantino is the master of it. I’m well aware that having our lead (played by James Kirkland) jerk-off to Singing in the Rain is ridiculous. But James is playing it really straight and sincere and emotional. And my camera is doing this impossible spiral like a helicopter 360ing around the Statue of Liberty or something. There’s a juxtaposition between the silliness of the content, and the over the top seriousness with which it is shot and performed. The friction between idea and telling of the idea can create a joke that transcends a set up, punch line. Those are the most exciting jokes for me.
You also just directed a pilot for The Onion for Amazon Studios. Tell me about that.
In a weird way, it dovetails with what we we’re talking about. The pilot is hilarious and stars Jeffrey Tambor, William Sadler, Laila Robins, Cheyenne Jackson, and Chris Masterson. It’s basically a behind the scenes of a cable news network, like Newsroom, but filled with Onion style jokes, very aggressive comedy. But the idea, for me, like Valibation, was that it’s a high stakes show so it should feel more like Michael Mann’s The Insider than a comedy. So we shot it dark and the style is very heavy and mechanical. The show has sharp corners so the idea of doing silly jokes in the body of a Michael Mann or an Alan J. Pakula movie was funny to me.
I think that covers everything. Anything else you want to talk about?
Nope, just RETWEET AND FACEBOOK AND TUMBLR THE SHIT OUT OF THE MOVIE. VALIDATE ME!
Daniel Hurwitz is a writer and person in New York.