SxSW 2020 Interview – RUNON director Daniel Newell Kaufman

“All Luke and his mom have are two garbage bags full of clothes, and two tickets out of town on the midnight Greyhound. Like he’s assembling a puzzle, Luke has to figure out the why of it–all before the person they’re running from puts together the pieces.  RUNON is a short film that is a cinematic run-on sentence, done as one rambling handheld take…about a pair of run-on people: nomads trying to escape their very nature.” Director Daniel Newell Kaufman on Runon which screens in Shorts Program 1 at the 2020 edition of SxSW Film! 

Editor’s Note: While SxSW was officially cancelled on March 6th, 2020, the below interview was one of many that already took place prior to the festival. To respect the creators, all already performed interviews are presented in their unedited entirety below. All of the below works WILL make their way out into the world in one way or another, and we will update this article with updated information when we have it. — JW 

Welcome to the amazing SxSW and congratulations! Are you planning to attend SxSW?

I am! Last time I was in SXSW was for a documentary I made about an electronic musician named the Range. It screened as part of the music festival and I remember late nights and loud music and rambling through the crowded streets on St. Patrick’s Day. It was right when I’d started dating my now long time girlfriend, and she flew in to join me. We barely knew each other at that point and ended up falling in love, swimming at Barton Springs a lot, and ultimately driving back to LA together. The whole experience was understandably a bit rose-tinted. 

What is it about Austin, either the festival or the town itself, that excites you the most?

The first time I came to Austin was for the music festival about ten years ago. I remember I couldn’t get tickets for any of the main stages and so instead I ended up stumbling upon Jad Fair of Half Japanese playing a 50 person show in the back of a cafe. It was chaotic and joyous in a way that embodies the spirit of the town and the festival: the open arms it’s always had for rugged American outsiders; the inclusivity, the intimacy, the edge.

How did you first hear about the SxSW and wishing to send your project into the festival?

I’ve always thought of the festival as having a certain relevance and independence to it that you don’t get anywhere else: an eye not just for quality but for cutting edge. It’s been on my radar for years because of this and because of premieres it’s provided for some of my favorite recent films. Especially because of the rugged, American backdrop of my film, it seemed like the perfect fit.

Tell me about the idea behind your project and getting it made!

My step father died and I found myself under the same roof as my mother for the first time in years. While she’s a wonderful, loving, totally different person than the character in the film, I was nonetheless struck by our shared sense of transience in that moment, despite her being more than twice my age. I was humbled by our deep feeling of being unmoored; of wanting to break free of the pain that we carried, but not knowing how to step out of the closed loop of grief. I wrote what became an ode to those feelings set in an environment defined by that same transience, one I knew far too well: a greyhound bus station, that distinctly American fluorescent limbo.

After trying and failing to find financing, I decided to invest my own money that I’d made as a commercial director. Ultimately this liberated the whole process. I wasn’t beholden to anyone and could make whatever movie I wanted. Many of the people involved were previous collaborators from my commercial work, but the cast came together through pure chance. Erin, the mother, I cold emailed after seeing her in a TV show. Mike, the father, I met at a comedy show (he was sitting next to me in the crowd). And Luke, the star of the film, I met at a Thai restaurant in rural upstate New York. His father bred horses and he’d never acted before. But he was deeply intuitive and took to it naturally.

Who are some of your main creative inspirations?

THE 400 BLOWS and humanism of Truffaut was certainly a subliminal influence, but the two references I spoke about a lot with the DP were  Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis, and the films of the Dardenne Brothers. I wanted to capture a tone that similarly balanced grit and transcendence. On a deeper level though much of the film’s texture came from the brooding Americana of Sam Shepherd; both his plays, his prose writing (Motel Chronicles), and one of my favorite films of all time, Paris Texas. I’m really interested in distinctly regional American cinema and wanted to make something that bottled these influences into the unique landscape of the northeast rust belt where I was raised.

How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use and/or did you have any creative challenges in making it?

I feel extremely alienated by clean images. I like grit, grain, hairs, and scratches on the lens. I want what I make to feel as scrappy as I do. For RUNON it was important for DP Adam Newport Berra and me to make the film as grounded in this principal as possible, so that the viewer feels as vulnerable and full of wonder as the child at its center. That meant striving for an unbridled intimacy and vibrancy in image while making sure the film felt totally subjective.  To achieve this we shot on 35mm and pushed two stops. This was further accentuated by Stan Brackhage style celluloid scratch animation directly on the negative done by Joe Ridout of Ana Projects in London, along with the help of vine lab London. Hopefully overall this created an aesthetic that feels equal parts punk and humanist.

After SxSW, where is it going next? Anywhere you would love to show it?

I want RUNON to play at Cannes, which to me stands for film not just as a mass medium but as an art form.

What would you suggest to theatres or even film festivals as a way to show more short films theatrically or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?

I always love it when a feature film is paired with a short, and it actually seems to speak to the origins of the cinematic experience. Back in the early days of cinema, one reel shorts were common fare, playing alongside newsreels before main events. I love that spectacle and making cinema a full day event. Today, especially with theaters struggling to assert their relevance in a world dominated by streaming, it seems like that format would make the theatrical experience more singular.

If you know of anyone around you wanting to become a filmmaker/creator, what would you suggest to get their start?

Go out and make something. Keep making films like they’re disposable, until the process becomes both intuitive and necessary for you. I’ve always liked what Cocteau said “Film will only become an art form when it’s as cheap as pen and paper.” That’s the era we live in. We’re swimming in images and are constantly capable of creating more but hopefully with a sense of purpose. 

And finally, what is your favourite short film of all time?

GASMAN by Lynn Ramsey.

For more information on this film and to follow its progress into the festival world, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film!

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