Interview/Review by Bears Fonte
Kasra Farahani has made a horror film about life under Trump. Trump is not really a character in the film, but his campaign and the resentment he stirs up menaces over the TILT in much the same way the lead character looms over the sleeping homeless man in the still above. Joe Burns (Joseph Cross) is a moderately successful documentary filmmaker searching for inspiration in the shadow of the USA election cycle. When his wife (Alexia Rasmussen) tells him she is pregnant, something changes in Joe. Imperceptibly at first, Joe begins to act out. Tiny protests against housework and chores, lead to long nights wandering the streets, lead obsessively cutting and recutting his new film. His first film, ‘Tilt,’ is all about pinball, and in Farahani’s film, we watch Joe bounce back and forth between flippers, ricocheting off the constants into his life.
TILT cannot be called a traditional horror film, but due to the way it is shot, the tension that exists throughout, and foreboding state of mind Joe seems to be slipping deeper and deeper into, it uses that familiar language to tell a tale far more frightening. We live in a world infinitely less safe than a year ago, and Farahani exposes our safest place, our home, as the frontline. I had a chance to talk with Kasra after the film screened at Fantasia International Film Festival.
Farahani: Yeah, for sure. It is an unflinching film and that sort of was the goal. This movie was made with no money and with no resources. We really tried to elicit a discussion with the audience. I think the more money you spend on a film, the harder it becomes run a risk quite like that. If you were to follow the trend to the largest budget film, you begin to find that actually they’re not defined by how many people like them, but by how few people they antagonize.
Bears: The blockbusters almost try to be forgettably pleasing.
Farahani: With Tilt, we knew that the parameters of making this film were very unique. You know, shooting this in my own house, shooting this with a crew that varied from three people to nine people. Then shockingly fast, getting scheduled, the shooting only taking a couple of days. A film like this is only worth making if you can try to say something. Push people’s buttons and make them think about things.
Bears: Of course. Obviously you were filming this during the Donald Trump candidacy. You probably didn’t realize you’d be releasing this during a Donald Trump presidency.
Farahani: No. I had no idea.
Bears: Were you surprised by the election?
Farahani: Oh my God… surprised is a nice way to put it. Yeah, no, absolutely. When we wrote this film in the fall of 2015, there were 17 or 19 Republican candidates. Every poll was reporting that Hillary Clinton was going to be president. Most likely she would be running against Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. By the time this film came out, we thought we’d would all be looking back at this Trump candidacy as this interesting, fluke detail of the 2016 presidential election. We had no idea it was going to go this way.
Bears: Does it change how you see your film? In retrospect?
Farahani: Absolutely. 100%. It’s a completely different contact we never anticipated. At the time we shot it, he was not the nominee. But, he became the nominee some months later, and at the time, we were editing it. Even then, the film took on another meaning – just having him be the nominee. Then, when he becomes president, it takes on a new meaning entirely. I think it actually worked against us, for him to become president, that he’s so antagonizing. He’s such a toxic figure and a source of, I don’t know, emotional turmoil, for a lot of people.
Bears: Because its hard for people to relate to Joe Burns and see his fascination with this candidate – we’ve all forgotten that none of thought it would end this way.
Farahani: The thing that was unique and really related to the character is up until recently, this marginalized white regressive male anger that had always been around, but recently, at least the past few decades, been kept at bay. These sort of hateful misogynist, racist things that people would hardly say in polite company, let alone on a national political stage. To the point where, it’s now not only these things are being said in the time we were writing this film, but they were being organized into large political demonstrations. This emergent mob of regressive, white, male entitlement was popping up in these rallies. While Trump himself is part of this big thing, it’s this movement that leans to people’s base instincts. Their reptile brain, not the more progressive, evolved part of their intellect. That’s the world that it occupies in Joe Burns.
Bears: He’s a filmmaker, so he’s not someone you would think would relate to that movement, or maybe that’s just my close-mindedness.
Farahani: Outwardly, Joe is the super intellectual. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is, but he has above average intelligence. He’s your average coffeeshop philosopher, but just a bump above that. He thinks he’s this iconoclast, this game-changer intellect. But he’s not. He’s just slightly above average. And outwardly, politics are intellectual and civil and progressive. But inwardly, I think there’s a part of him that can’t stop listening to Donald Trump because he agreed. Maybe he’s angry about the fact that he’s a white male and a couple of generations ago, that was enough to get you pretty far in this country. That a middle class life is harder to come by now. His wife is actually the one who is the breadwinner and that’s emasculating for him. He’s got to clean the litter box and cook dinner and do all those things. And on some level, while he might not even realize this himself, I think there’s this seething resentment component to him that’s at odds with this other part of his brain.
Bears: Well, let’s talk about fatherhood. It’s sort of this thing that looms over the film. It’s the horror of the movie. It is the thing he is most afraid of. Do you think because, for us in this day and age, as it gets harder and harder to achieve that middle class life, does that make the prospect of fatherhood that much more terrifying? How does Joe view the next twenty years of his life?
Farahani: I think definitely if you live in a major metropolitan American city, you’re probably noticing the trend that people are getting married much, much later – getting close to forty. Definitely happens in their 30s. But for example, in my parents’ generation, they all got married in their early 20s. I think people are putting this idea of getting married and having children off as long as possible. It’s also showing that the number of children people are having is declining, especially with people like Joe, who are college-educated. More than anything, I think the biggest part of it is not so much specifically fatherhood, but about mortality. The moment you have a child, you are no longer on the front line of time. There’s now a generation that has come after you. You are one notch back in the wave of history.
Bears: Right, it’s sort of the proof that you are now an adult and that, I guess, children are the future.
Farahani: When his wife tells him on that trip to Hawaii, when she tells him that they’re going to have a baby, it causes him to put this whole chain of events into motion. It’s this realization that he’s having a baby and that his time is up. He has to stop putting himself and his own desires ahead of everything else – all his other obligations and responsibilities in the world. He has to start accepting that maybe, he isn’t going to make the iconoclastic mark on the world that he thought he was going to make.
Bears: He’s really proud of that first film, but it didn’t make that huge, game-changer mark. You know, I really want to see his “Tilt” documentary. What about his film do you know? It seems like a SXSW movie. And now his next documentary is the myth of the American Dream. It’s such a leap. It doesn’t seem like the same filmmaker. I’m just curious, how is that doc that he made? Is it any good?
Farahani: Well, I don’t know a ton about the doc that he made, except it’s about a Russian and American pinball player who become friends. In some ways, there is also a geopolitical through-line in that. I think he’s a political junkie, Joe Burns. There’s some component of that he’s fixated on. But I also think that Tilt is about the control of randomness. The control of chaos. I think he’s fascinated by pinball. There’s a shot in the film where the camera zooms down past the poster for the Tilt documentary and there’s this super pretentious Nietzsche quote on the poster. I think it says like, “you must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star,” or something like that, right? It’s just so pretentious. So I think the Tilt documentary is about chaos and it’s presented in this glib, ironic, nauseating, hipster-friendly package of pinball.
TILT just screened at Fantasia International Film Festival and will continue its festival circuit run this summer.