Upcoming film American Animal features the work of bold and talented director/writer/actor Matt D’Elia. Describing himself as a huge cinephile, living and breathing films of his favorite directors Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, D’Elia channeled his passion for the industry into a highly emotional film he considers to be like a child to him. His young, adventurous spirit really shines through his deep script that takes on themes of illness and isolation. I had the opportunity to speak with D’Elia this week before American Animal hits theaters on Friday May 18.
What was your inspiration for the script and the character Jimmy?
When I first got out of NYU, I wanted to make a film immediately but I was very ill and couldn’t do much of anything. I wasn’t terminally ill or delusional like Jimmy’s character, but my ideas for the movie and his character definitely came with my sickness. The script focuses a lot on the conflict between characters Jimmy and James within their little world and it kind of mirrors the conflict that was going on within my own head when I was sick. Everyone has a little Jimmy and a little James inside them.
Why did you choose to play the role of Jimmy and choose the other actors that you did?
As far as my decision to play Jimmy, well, I wanted someone big but had a very small budget. It was also hard to find someone who was willing to get naked on camera for no money. When I got out of college I kind of put acting on the backburner to focus more on directing, and so when I couldn’t find anyone that I thought would be able to portray Jimmy’s character, I decided to do it myself. It was a very last minute decision. When I first developed the script I wanted Brendan to do it. I had seen him in a movie called Tideland and I just saw James in him. We really developed a strong relationship throughout the process, working in the tight quarters like Jimmy and James actually did in the film. And I was a big fan of both of the girls, which is why I chose them.
What did you find to be your biggest challenge throughout the production of the film considering that you were a part of so many different aspects of the process?
I had a lot of fun editing the film. But, I think the hardest part was when I had to let go and say ‘I’ve done enough. This is finished.’ Learning to be okay with that was really difficult. It was kind of like what I would imagine raising a child is like, nurturing it and helping it develop until one day when they turn 18, move out, and you have to let go.
Did you enjoy acting? Would you consider doing it again?
When I think of myself, I think more of a director or a writer than an actor. Acting requires such vulnerability, and I think the director in me is unwilling to give up that control. I was able to do it in American Animal because I was directing myself; I had to be vulnerable for myself.
Is there anything about the production of the film that you think would surprise viewers?
You know the expression ‘he’s such a ham?’ Well Brendan is the ham and cheese. He has such a big personality, almost more of Jimmy in real life. Between takes we would reverse roles, he would read Jimmy’s lines and I would read James’. It allowed us to deepen the relationship between the two characters, and develop our own more.
What did you think about your time at SXSW?
SXSW was exactly the right venue or festival for American Animal to be introduced in. The festival is so embracing and welcoming of all different voices, exactly like what my movie tried to express. It was an amazing experience it was my personal introduction into the industry as well as my film’s.
Do you have any suggestions or tips for our readers who are also upcoming directors or producers in the industry that you learned in your experience with American Animal?
For young filmmakers, it can be really easy to be influenced by the wrong things. A lot of times they ask themselves, ‘what can I do that will get me into a festival.’ The thing is, festivals are there to look for and usher in something new, very specifically new. I always think about the movie Bellflower, written and directed by Evan Glodell. That movie is the most him a movie can be and that’s why it was so successful at SXSW. American Animal is the most me a film could be.
D’Elia really had some fantastic pieces of advice. The film was pleasantly shocking, taking the audience on an emotional adventure in the downward spiral of Jimmy’s life. It hits select theaters on Friday May 18th! Q& A’s with Matt D’Elia will be at the City Cinemas Village East Theater on 181 Second Avenue in New York after the 7:50 pm showings on 5/18 and 5/19 and after the 3:30 showing on 5/20.