This interview originally appeared in Filmmaker magazine, much thanks to them. Cam's feature WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN is being released Feb 28 in NYC.
24-year-old Cam Archer was born and raised, and still lives today, in Santa Cruz, California. Archer’s short films, including BOBBYCRUSH and AMERICAN FAME 1: DROWNING RIVER PHOENIX have played many film festivals, including Sundance, CineVegas, AFI, Outfest and Tribeca. His first feature script, WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN, was accepted into Sundance’s January Screenwriting lab in 2005 and the finished film (well, read on) premiered at the 2006 Sundance Festival, before playing New Directors/New Films and the Locarno Film Festival.
With a kind but unabridged eye, Archer portrays the lives of teenagers in awkward gay love in most of his films, with vibrant color photography and constructed soundtracks of stylized dialogue, ambient sounds and music. The films are not showing an adult’s view of a kid’s world, but try to see it from the subject’s fantasy. TIGERS follows Logan (Malcolm Stumpf) and his naïve pursuit of a cool, older teen, Rodeo (Patrick White).
Your short films are all 16mm, and your feature is HD. What do you think of HD?
For the longest time we had it written into our budget that we’d be shooting on film and ultimately we could not afford it. Everyone wants to shoot their movies on film, or at least I still do. The HD is still a really big camera, you’re not going to be able to shoot even in a little store and not be noticed unless you're shooting with those really small DV cameras. We probably shot too much footage, that’s the thing with film we would just buy a certain amount. It’s not like we had more sitting in the freezer in case we needed it. We bought all that we could afford and that was all we got. We had to really be careful. But with the video we shoot around sixty plus hours I think. For my short BOBBYCRUSH, the shooting ratio I believe was 1.5 to 1. It was interesting to have the ability to shoot more.
You ended up reshooting stuff too, right?
We did last December. It was crazy, with the whole house arrest thing.
Can you talk about that at all?
We wanted to do re-shoots but then it wasn't as simple as just calling up the kids and getting them to do it because one of the actors was under house arrest. We weren’t allowed to go inside unless we were a family member, so we were going to have one of his family members go in and run sound inside the house while we shoot from outside, through the windows at him. Finally I was leaving messages for his parole officer. I guess it finally worked out - he was able to take a couple days away from his house arrest. I don't remember how that worked out.
I wonder if parole officers in California have established guidelines for working with actors and film productions.
Right??? I think he was pleading his case to them simultaneously with me, saying how important it was to him to be a part of the film. I think that they saw it as being a positive influence. They weren’t asking to see the movie, thank god.
WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN.
How do you even go about casting kids? Especially when you want real kids, not “professionals.”
Kids aren’t really actors, you know. They’re told there actors when they’re young. Things like, “Oh you are such a performer.” It comes from an outside source, maybe it's a parent, maybe its a casting director spots them on their looks. Then next thing you know they’re working and are an actor and they know about getting into a part. There are just so few kids that can actually become someone else the way that adults can. So what Aaron [Platt, longtime friend and cinematographer] and I have always done is just kind of wait for moments where either the kids are being themselves - that’ll work and then that becomes part of the character - or you shoot endless amounts of takes trying to get the right performance. I think the kids do a great job in the movie definitely, but one of the things I was always stressing to them is to listen to what the other actor in the scene was saying. They’re [often] not listening, they're just waiting for their line. They just want to get through the scene to prove that they’ve memorized it, so a lot of the most powerful moments are when the actors are just standing out in nature, looking into the camera. The viewer can get their own meaning out of it. I don't know, what does Larry Clark do? (laughs)
In your shorts you used friends as actors. With the feature you got kids that want to act. How does the vibe on the set change when the parents are there?
The energy changed. There were so many people working on this film, to go from working with Aaron, myself and Stephanie [Volkmar, his costume designer], to having a team of people crowding around a monitor and we have the parents sitting on the couch with us, doing a scene about how big is your penis? Everybody is watching you as the writer/director. “Okay, let’s just get through this scene.” It was changing the way I would have gone about it had it been just a couple kids and us. If the actor’s mom is in the other room and they’re doing a scene where they’re masturbating… Nobody masturbates in a another room while their mom is in the other room.
Safe to say some of the controversial subject matter got into the finished film.
I think I toned it down for the most part. The script was a lot more explicit and I was working out scenes and totally changing scenes. There was one scene where the Logan character puts on lipstick and then he kisses Joey on the hand. When I told the actors I took that out they were so excited. Yes, they did sign on and they read the script and knew what it was, but I found myself almost censoring parts. Was that a good idea in the end? I don't know. Did it have something to do with the parents and the large crew? I don't know. As we went along everything was changing. Looking back I realize I shouldn't have given up on things that maybe could have worked or we should have at least tried.
The images are heavily stylized. Was your goal to see the kids own viewpoints?
I think it comes from my days at UC Santa Cruz, where very early on they encouraged us not to rely on, or use at all, any sort of sync sound. I hated them for pushing that on us, but then I grew to love it. It forced us, Aaron and I, to come up with a new, original way of telling the not so new, or original, stories we wanted to tell. The characters in my films are rather conventional, they want things that other people want, but in their minds, and in the world of the film, things are all but conventional, which I love. Because there's such a diverse palette of costumes, sets, props and colors, people always want to know what time period the film is supposed to be set in. To me it doesn't really matter. Whenever you want it to have taken place, I guess. And...why not let it be sort of 'timeless'? There's nothing historical here, no truths. It's about emotion, style and the search for identity. I mean, it's a film about a kid's first crush, which is a very emotional, visual time. It’s an experimental time. So why not let the film be something of an experiment? Aren't people sick of the same old indies, with their handheld cameras and reality TV acting? I sure am. I like filmmakers like Jodorowsky. I'll watch one of his films and there will be stuff I don't get, and maybe he doesn't get it either, but it really doesn't matter. I'll create my own meaning, and if it doesn't appeal to me, I'll wait for the next thing that does. Independent films are losing their edge. They are all kind of starting to look the same to me. We need more films that confuse us. And I'm not talking about twists. Kyle Henry's ROOM is such a great example of the type of independent film that is, sadly, becoming extinct. Kyle is clearly a filmmaker who does what he wants. He takes a simple story and makes it his own, with the camera, the sets and with his characters. He’s challenging the audience to keep up with him, which is great. I feel like I do the same in TIGERS. Like, did you catch that Fleetwood Mac lyric I just used as Logan’s voiceover? What the fuck? Films that challenge their audience are what I look to for inspiration.
Wait, kids viewpoints? Yeah, that's why I did it too.
Are you using mountain lions to repesent something like the horrible ages of puberty coming for the characters? Or is a lion just a lion?
Puberty is a lion, I like that. Originally, the lion was supposed to represent the outcast, or the thing thing we know nothing about, but are told to despise and want dead. So Logan identifies with the lion, feels surrounded by the 'tigers' at his school, and wants nothing more than to be left alone, living independently of the madness, the close mindedness and the hatred. I don't know, it made sense when I wrote it. Puberty is a fucking beast, isn't it? It's just a question of when that beast's going to visit you and then when it's going to be done with you.
WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN.
Audiences who see your films always want to know if they are autobiographical.
I think more than anything I was a kid that an uneventful childhood and was staying at home writing little stories, reading books and nerding out and watching too much television. I was very much like my older brother, who ended up doing the sound for all my films. He was just old enough that he was starting to do things before me, of course, and getting into trouble. I would see how that affected my parents so then that kind of made me shut down in a way and just be this kid that would rather sit around and daydream than go out and actually create things. So I think that part from me is definitely in Logan. He basically gets what he wants for a time being then ultimately gets rejected or whatever or shut out from the world that he thinks he wants to be a part of. But I wasn't hanging out with mountain lions as a kid either.
How did the Sundance lab affect the script? There’s always the two schools of thought where it is great to get help, and then some people think the script is yours and now a bunch of people are working on it.
This is the first film project I was planning to do where I had a script. Everything before was all notes or I would come up with a shot or we had these actors and then that would determine what the movie would be. I wrote the script and I went to the lab thinking, “Oh, this is going to be weird. People don't know how I work…” Maybe I wouldn’t even use the script, this will be a really rough blueprint. I kind of realized in the lab that it is important to have a really tight script. I honestly think that the script really did help it. I’m proud of the script, it really does make a lot of sense and it does work and there are character arcs and everything. The movie is a big mess and I’m proud of that mess as well, but it’s totally different. So, yes, the lab definitely helped because it helped me learn how to write a story. As far as how to tell that story visually – I’m still learning that one. Maybe it had to do with having short days and having to rush through scenes and not liking those scenes in the editing room, I don't know.
What kind of discussions were there in the lab?
Working on story, concentrating on what was at stake for Logan, the main character, and working on that character arc and the idea of plot point and climax. Stuff you learned in classes that you take, but then here you have these pros. I actually didn't take notes every meeting. We’d meet and then I’d go back to my little cabinet and just write down the stuff that I remembered. I think it was Frank Pierson who was talking about, you're only going to use the stuff you remember. I thought well if that’s true I’ll try that out. I’ll just write down what kind of bothered me or what is a good idea or what I should concentrate on. [After the lab] I took time off and then I came back to it and started to rewrite everything.
And that felt like it worked?
I think it worked. It’s really hard to get honest feedback about a script especially if you’re sending it to friends. That’s the great thing about the lab is that not only do you have experienced people but they don't give a shit about hurting your feelings. Its not as if they’re ripping apart pages in front of your face.
But they’ve got that distance to where they can see. Unlike, “Oh man, we’ve got the same shift Saturday night and I’ve got to work with him.”
Yeah…. “I read it.” “Did you like it?” “No I didn't - what do we tell him?” “Just tell him you read it and it was good.” You know. That’s what you constantly have to seek out as an artist. I think that as you get more and more established or as you create more - I don't know if the two are necessarily the same - it just becomes harder and harder to find that honesty. I’ve actually been sending out scripts to people I’ve had as mentors in that lab because they’re open to reading it, which is awesome. Hopefully they will still be honest.
You’ve been a volunteer at Sundance, then got your shorts in, then the lab and the feature. Very few people have experienced Sundance on as many levels as you have.
There’s a bunch of people that diss it. Especially lately, I read a lot about how Sundance is corporate, Sundance is this or that…. But I still think hands down the best American films are there every year in my opinion, especially independent films. I’ve been going there for about seven or eight years. It’s been interesting to see it change, because it is changing, but independent film is changing. What, ten years ago, maybe we would have been all the rage for everyone hating it or loving it. It would have been a bigger film at the festival. But at the same time the festival is showing it, so it’s not as though the small films are completely shut out. It’s just that you now have to have a different approach to getting people to see it. Obviously everyone wants to show their movie at Sundance. Everybody knows what it is; it’s a very weird phenomenon. I read something online that said the only reason I get my stuff shown there is because I used to work there. I never got to meet anybody that would have anything to do with programming film. Never. It’s just such an odd thing to read but I could understand how some people might think that. Sundance has a strange energy, there’s a weird energy there especially between filmmakers who are showing their films there or not. Filmmakers are so competitive! I know a lot of people that would say that they’re not but man I feel like they are.
After your shorts played Sundance and you were in the lab, did producers or financiers offer to fund the feature?
Yeah. I turned down Bunim-Murray. They’re the producers from The Real World. I’ve spoken about this in nearly every interview and nobody has printed it.
Yeah, they were going to give us five hundred thousand dollars, which, at the time, was ten times the amount I thought that we needed to make TIGERS. Nobody believed me when I told them that we needed that little - and they were right because we spent seventy thousand. Bunim-Murray wanted to have a say in casting, they wanted final cut, the typical story, and then I thought about Real World… MTV misrepresenting youth culture for the past twenty years? Um, okay, should I jump on that boat too? I thought, we’ll just find another way to get the money. Also they were going to delay it so that we would maaaaybe be shooting it this summer, and that was going to be maybe. They wanted to do some rewrites. My producer at the time was saying I don't think the movie is going to make that much money back and [Bunim-Murray] said they were prepared to take this as a loss.
So what’s the point of making it for them?
I was already a loss in their eyes, which is kind of comforting because then you don't have to let anybody down. (laughs) Ultimately, it would probably be a very similar film, we just would have been able to pay everyone. But I would have been attached to that company. I made the film the way I wanted to, it turned out the way it did and that’s something to be stoked on.
So now IFC is going to release it to theaters?
Yeah, and Wellspring is going to do the DVD. After Sundance, and after having several months 'away' from the project, I went back into the editing room to swap out music I knew I (the project) couldn't afford. What was supposed to take only a few days, and only have to do with the music, turned into a three week, scene by scene re-edit. A total re-structuring of the film. I hadn't really watched the film since just before Sundance, when I had to approve the master, so it was like everything was fresh and new to me. I literally was in there re-loading tapes, using alternate takes, putting in new footage, new scenes and then deleting about 20 minutes from the Sundance cut. I was working by myself, no one giving me advice, so there were times when I really questioned whether or not what I was doing was good for the film. I was taking yet another risk on what had already been a risky project. At the time, we had just been told that IFC/Wellspring wanted to release the film and then here I was tinkering away, changing the film, its tone, its scenes, dramatically. I remember sending IFC the new cut and practically holding my breath until they told me they were cool with it. It was a total relief. Because really, I'm so much happier with the new cut, and it's like the Sundance, New Directors/New Films version never existed.
Are you going to move on to adult actors after this?
It was more that I was trying to figure this story out. It’s just taken me this many films to figure out what I’m trying to say and I think they were all leading up to TIGERS. If you look at the shorts its obvious, the progression is obvious. So it just made sense to make a movie about kids. Everyone wants to compare you to someone else so you can never be really thought of as original anymore.
WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN.
There are adults in there. I was happy to see Fairuza Balk.
I think what it shows you is getting her, getting Kim Dickens from Deadwood, is that maybe the bigger budgeted films aren’t that rewarding [for actors], or maybe it had to do with [previously] being in Sundance. Who knows, but what’s nice is there’s a collaborative effort. The scene with Fairuza when Logan drops the grocery bag is mostly improvisation. Originally there was only one line which was, “You know everything you touch turns to shit.” The rest was purely Fairuza improvising lines, it was great. Everyone has a fair say in these smaller films, I’m not opposed to hearing suggestions and being open.
WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN.
It played Locarno in August. Have you heard feedback?
No. It would be nice to see what the European audience thinks of it. No offense to Sundance but what kid or teenager can afford to go out there? I feel that the film has still yet to play to what I believe will be its biggest audience - teenagers.
How do you think teenagers will see the film differently from adults?
I just think young people will have an easier time identifying with the film and that they won't be alienated by the style. The few teens that have seen it, seem to really dig it, and that couldn't make me happier. Some old guy watched my film and told me afterwards that I should go see THE DA VINCI CODE (2006) to learn how to write a proper story. Shit. I would never see that film, and I hope anyone who digs my film would never see it either. The kids out there want something to shake them up, I know I did when I was a teenager, but I'd have to go back in time, to the 60s and 70s to see what I call 'progressive' films, films that make you think. Even if kids hate TIGERS, at least they're thinking about it. Movies like TIGERS and MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2004, Gregg Araki), which I love, come from a very young, punk sensibility, and not the type you can buy in the mall. And really, how many times can a kid watch a Wes Anderson film?
Is there a specific way coming-of-age films succeed or fail in their portrayals of kids?
Sure. You've seen TIGERS, right? We failed! Kids are all over the place. Some act like adults, some act like infants. It's tough to say that anyone's really getting it 'wrong' in movies. Are filmmakers sugar-coating their characters? Well, yeah, that seems to happen a lot.
What happened to you as a kid to end up making these films? Your answer can be mundane, fake or both.
Actually my parents and brothers are very supportive. Oh, I know – I had fainting spells.
When you were a kid?
Like from ages 10-12. I would just faint. It used to happen a lot.