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by Ad Wasey
July 15th, 2010

Rooftop Films, indieWIRE and Snag Films are pleased to present a special sneak preview of Aardvark as a joint celebration of our birthdays. Three New York City organizations committed to supporting independent cinema, all born around the same time, we have grown up together as a vital part of the independent film scene in New York and around the world.

Get tickets for Thursday night’s sneak preview screening of Aardvark on the Lower East Side.

Aardvark stars Larry Lewis Jr., a man who’s been blind since birth, in a role inspired by his own life. After a tragedy severs Larry’s relationship with a Jiu Jitsu instructor who’s helped him regain control of his life, the story twists into a thriller that transcends genre.

Aardvark marks the feature directorial debut of Kitao Sakurai, the noted cinematographer of You Wont Miss Me. I talked with Sakurai ahead of his Rooftop screening about working with a blind lead actor, blending documentary with a genre thriller and directing non-actors.

Rooftop Films: Tell us about Aardvark, for people discovering this film for the first time on our blog.

Kitao Sakurai, Aardvark: The film stars Larry Lewis Jr., playing a role inspired by his own life. He’s congenitally blind, he’s been blind since birth. We see his relationship with his Jiu Jitsu teacher, Darren (played by Darren Branch), who’s very charismatic, a wild person who’s based around the real Darren — a real Jiu Jitsu teacher. We follow their lives, something horrific happens, and Larry goes on [a] vengeance quest. At this point, the movie is in the realm of non-reality, but it’s gotten there from a place of reality.

RF: The film wavers between documentary and narrative, and for a while, it’s a convincing documentary about a blind man who’s overcoming alcohol addiction by studying martial arts. Were you thinking, like on You Wont Miss Me (the Ry Russo-Young film for which Sakurai was the director of photography), about shooting verite that would somehow flow into something fictional?

KS: Totally. It was always along those lines. One movie I’d seen immediately before having the idea was El Cant Dels Ocells, which is a beautiful film about the Three Wise Men on their way to visit Jesus, just this simple biblical story — but shot using mumblecore means: two HD cameras on tripods, and there’s really no script, and the cast is friends. Doing it that way, it transforms everything. I was inspired a lot by that film and by (director Rainier Werner) Fassbinder’s films, the period of The American Solider, and films like that where clearly these filmmakers are saying, “You know what? We’re just going to do something very immediately and not wait no matter what. We’re just going to go and do it.”

RF: Were you able to do that, just go with your actors? Did you have a script?

KS: I had the major beats, but there was no script. The script… to this day is in 20-page outline form, scene breakdowns, with some dialogue and some key lines, but it’s basically prose. I love films, but I’m not the best watcher of things that you really have to pay attention to in the narrative. I get characters confused a lot. I don’t remember names in movies. I get characters mixed up. I lose the plot a lot. So, I wanted to make something really simple. I wanted to make a movie that I could keep pace with.

Writing lines that came out of my mouth didn’t seem quite right. There is a nature to this project that is truly documentary in that it’s a document of something. It’s a document of Larry, it’s a document of Darren, it’s a document of this situation. Setting it in the backdrop of the Jiu Jitsu academy — it’s a real class that’s going on. It would impossible to stage that. We pan across this room full of bodies… and it is equally documentary but somehow a narrative. That push and pull was what a lot of it was about.

RF: But there’s a pivot, where the narrative overtakes the documentary. Did you think of the film in that way, where the build up to this inciting incident would be a first act and the act of avenging a second act?

KS: It went through a lot of permutations. My original idea was to have a real break, more along the lines of (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s) Tropical Malady, where the film just stops and then starts over. But at the end of the day, that didn’t feel right. We didn’t shoot the real-life things any differently than the genre elements. It all feels like the same movie. It’s the same story.

RF: When Aardvark becomes a genre movie, how did you get your cast of non-actors to continue to function as actors?

KS: What was important to me was to set up scenarios that the players could feel and connect to, in a physical way, with their lives. Larry actually has this recurring nightmare of finding Darren dead. Because that fear was there, and because Larry truly is the person to not stop if he has questions, or to not back down — that’s really in his personality — there was very little that didn’t feel real.

And it tapped into some deeper fears and anxieties that I myself had about blindness. As a filmmaker or visual artist, if that situation were to befall you, you’d consider it to be the end of your world. But that’s not the case with Larry, clearly.

RF: Larry is not an actor, right?

KS: He’s never been an actor before this film.

RF: What made you think that a movie could work where you have an actor who has never seen himself and may not have screen presence?

KS: I don’t know what made me think it would work. We didn’t do screen tests. But anything Larry did would’ve been interesting. What I wanted to photograph had a lot to do not just with Larry emotionally on this quest, but had to do with, Let’s look at Larry “seeing” the space. How does he “see” the space and get a sense of understanding the world around him.

RF: Beyond Larry and Darren, other significant roles are filled by people who I assume are non-actors. How did you find them in Cleveland?

KS: We held an open casting call for people who were not leading-person-type people. And we had school lunch ladies and bus drivers and mechanics come in — “I’ve always wanted to act.” We couldn’t have done that in New York. You can’t post something in New York and have a motley crew of people come in who’ve never had any sort of acting experience. You can’t do that.

RF: Everybody in New York is an actor.

KS: “Everybody’s an actor.” This guy, Jay, came in. We wanted to meet him because he was there. “Are you an actor?” “No, I’m not actor at all.” “How do you feel about acting? Do you want to act in this?” And he was like, “Well, I guess I wouldn’t mind. I have nothing against acting.” “You have nothing against acting? Great! You’re in it!”

RF: And how did you find Dutch Crouse, who like Larry and Darren, feels like he’s part of the documentary, and then is required to act, convincingly.

KS: He’s another total non-actor. Andrew (Barchilon, producer of Aardvark and You Wont Miss Me) and I were doing a project in Baton Rouge, a music video, and Dutch was a teamster mobile home driver. He was just such a personality. We were like, “We’ve got to use Dutch in something!” Like Larry, there were no camera tests. We flew him from Baton Rouge to Cleveland, and the farthest he’d ever been was Alabama! It’s another one of those things that seemed crazy, not obviously the right thing to do.

RF: You also cast yourself as a character, Darius Szopa, who plays a critical role in the story toward the end of the film. How did you decide to put yourself in it?

KS: Like a lot of things, it is obvious [now]. Both characters, me in reality and the Darius Szopa character, have to do with being unseen forces. Darius is an unseen force, but somehow is important — or not. As a filmmaker, it’s the same way, there’s an ambiguity about how much is being orchestrated versus how much is just there. That was one of the more existential ideas: Does anybody have a view of reality? Is Larry’s view on reality any different or disadvantaged than my view on reality simply because I can have the capacity for sight? Having spent time with Larry, no. Actually no. His experience of reality is as rich as mine. His lack of vision is only a small component of who he is. Even thought it’s a large component of how we see him. The Darius Szopa character may be a commentary on that.

RF: Were there any directors or works that you’d list as thematic influences?

KS: I wasn’t trying to think of directors. I was trying to think more about photographers or writers that I liked. I took more inspiration from Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Stephen Shore and David Hockney than I did from David Lynch or something. I like when something is allegorical, and I like when you can know that the filmmaker is using the powers of interpretation, or looking at reality in a myth-like way… but I like it to feel viscerally good to watch. Production value is important. We didn’t have a budget that was bigger than any other mumblecore film, but it was more in the priorities, how we produced the movie, that it looks the way it does.

RF: It sounds like you never seemed to have any of the elements that you usually need to have to make a movie: a script, actors, money. How did you get going?

KS: Andrew and I, we’ve been producing together for a few years now. And we have a rapport, we go off gut a lot. And I think that’s been really working for us. This seems like the wrong thing to do, this seems crazy, we shouldn’t be going into production right now, but somehow it feels totally right…

RF: Aardvark is screening at the Rooftop Films Summer Series on Thursday. What’s next for the film?

KS: The Rooftop thing is our first sneak preview screening. But it’s going to have its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in the Filmmakers of the Present competition, which is for first and second features. Then after that, it’s been invited to the Vienelle, the Vienna International Film Festival — we’re honored to be invited to that.

RF: And then beyond the European film circuit, is there a plan to get in seen in the U.S.?

KS: We’ve been trying to think very creatively about how a movie like this can have a life. I think it’s going to be challenging. We’re trying to stick with what we always stick with, which is our gut, and our friends.

Watch Aardvark this Thursday at 8pm on the Lower East Side. Get tickets and information here, and for updates on Rooftop screenings and news, follow @rooftopfilms on Twitter.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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