An Interview with American Animal Director Matt D’Elia

When I first saw American Animal I was a bit shaken and excited by it’s concept, but my first thought was that I need to see this film again. Now that I have seen the film multiple times and outside the electricity of a film festival I can safely say American Animal is the real deal. I’ve told people to see it for over a year and this Friday everyone can join in on the conversation. For now enjoy my interview with American Animal Director Matt D’Elia.

Ryan Davis: So, Friday is a big day!

Matt D’Elia: I’m so exhausted right now and I’m sure I’ll feel even more dead on Friday, but this has been the best possible week, and I’m super excited.

Ryan: I’m excited, because I finally got to see the film again. That first screening was like a slap in the face and the second time I was ready to embrace it all.

Matt: Like you said the first time watching it can, kind of be overwhelming, and if you really loved it it can add so much. I think a second viewing can help you understand the inner narrative.


Ryan: I know that it did with me, I know that when I first saw it the film rung so deep for me. I don’t know what the says about me, if I’m a screwed up person or not (laughs). I just love it and I continue to love it. Since SXSW and that first showing, can you catch me up on where this thing has gone?

Matt: Festival wise, believe it or not, we haven’t shown it in Europe yet. We were holding out for The Director’s Fortnight in Venice, and while we were waiting for that we played all of these American festivals, and then when we found out that we weren’t getting in, around August or September, we had already sold the film. So, then I thought: Why don’t I let it find it’s biggest audience in the US and then see about taking it over to Europe. The US has been great and we’ve done so much here, and I wanted to make that my first priority, because it is American Animal after all. It is in theaters now, and I am a little bit overwhelmed with joy by how generally positive the response has been, because as you know the movie is potentially divisive . Over all though it has been really well received and I’m just really thrilled about it.

Ryan: I agree. You can’t attack the film and say it is poorly made or poorly acted. It is a film that can really hit home in it’s subject matter, and I think the people that “hate it” have a lot to work through on their own, because it is a film that could make you face our own inner demons.

Matt: I think you’re right, because with the people who “hate it”, it can come across as more of an immature response. They don’t have a bone to pick with how it’s made, or any kind of film making aspect, it is just that “Oh, I hate this character”, or something. And that doesn’t have anything to do with the film, but more to do with the issues that they have with people like that, or carry those certain qualities.

Ryan: I think that is the greatest thing I think that you did with Jimmy, because I think that people can see a little piece of themselves, maybe not in the extreme aspects, but find something similar in the things that he is saying.

Matt: It’s interesting, there are all kinds of different sides to Jimmy and a lot of different things people can latch onto. I think that when people respond well to the movie and to Jimmy in particualar, there is always a side of them that they end up coming away from and say: “You know what, that side of Jimmy is something that I can latch onto.”

Ryan: I agree completely, that is what happened for me. So what was the inspiration for American Animal?

Matt: The most concrete situation was that I was really sick when I was in my early twenties and I wasn’t terminally ill and I didn’t have what Jimmy had, but the idea of a young man sick and not able to live his life the way he wants to is something I can relate to. Because I was sick for two years, and while I wasn’t dying, I did have that inner crisis of ” I’m young and able-bodied, what the fuck can I do with myself if I can’t do what I want to be doing?” That is where you come up with these weird little tricks to get through each day, so you sort of lie to yourself, you’re not going to get better today and that tomorrow becomes next month. You run into that challenge of how do you get through each day? So, you try and trick yourself, and convince yourself through little tricks to get through each day. So I thought, what if there was someone that started to believe these little tricks, and they became a fully formed concrete world to them?

I’m always drawn to madness in general, and a lot of my favorite protagonists, whether they are likeable or not, that doesn’t matter, it has more to do with the plight they have to deal with when falling in and out of madness, that decent so to speak, so that is how the character came to be. Then I came up with James, had a conflict, and I had a movie.

Ryan: I love that about the film and it works so well that I was surprised to hear that you brought this entire production together so quickly. How did you end up with this great cast on such short notice?

Matt: It was just one of those things that, with actors or anyone working in this industry, that even if you’re working a lot there still might be a two month window where you could do something too. I think I just got lucky, with the cast, because all three of them are always working, and it just so happened that  they were who I wanted and were all available. The good news was that they all really loved the script and believed in me to make it what it could be. For the role of Jimmy, it was just that nobody that I want to do the role, would do it for no money, get naked, and do that for a first time director with a crazy vision. So I thought, if somebody will have the potential to fuck this movie up, and be a relative unknown, I would rather it be me because I would rather fuck up my own movie. I mean I don’t think I fucked it up, but that was my thought process, “If somebody is going to have the responsibility of carrying that weight I’d rather it be me because I don’t want to have to look at some other face for the rest of my life and think “fuck that guy”, I’d rather think’ “fuck me.”

Ryan: When we talked at SXSW you said that you weren’t interested in going down the acting route, but after this you have to had offers for roles. Has that thought changed for you?

Matt: It is funny, I can’t watch the movie. I hate the act of watching myself in it, but even after that, in my next feature, I wrote a role for myself. So, I must get some kind of masochistic thrill from it. But acting is still at the back of the line, now that I’m writing and directing, but I do love it. There is just something about being able to express myself as an actor with my body and voice, it is kind of a great thing to do if you wrote it. My thing about acting is that I’m kind of a control freak. I have a hard time giving myself up to another director, I admire how actors, time and time again are physically giving themselves up, and it is such and admirable thing, that I don’t really have. So, if I was to really jump in head first I would have to work on my vulnerability.

Ryan: It has to be hard to become a part of someone else’s dream.

Matt: It takes a lot to really give yourself up like that. I don’t know if I am built for that, quite yet.

Ryan: You have a great presence on Twitter(@mattdelia), and you also have an account for Jimmy Pistol (@jimmypistol), but as time went along I see more of Jimmy in your twitter. Has he opened you up to come out more and say how you feel?

Matt: I created the Jimmy account just on the off chance that  this movie would ever see the light of day, and I thought it would be fun for fans to go back and see the years of him really existing. So, now that the movie has been excepted and has been a success, it has been fun. I think this was also happening when I was making the movies, the lines became blurred and I was just giddy while making the movie. I mean I’m not a crazy person running around in my underwear, but it still is fun for me to channel parts of Jimmy. I think that just flows out into my personal being.

Ryan: I love it. Your twitter feed is amazing. It is hilarious and anyone reading this should follow you. It just brings me right back to the movie. The other thing that draws me into the movie is your color palate that you use in the film. What made you choose all those neon colors?

Matt: I’m a big fan of directors and photographers who explode colors to their palate and when I think of my favorite cinematographers, like Vittorio Storaro. Storaro is as big of an influence to me as a director as Coppola is, and their work together, their use of color is very very inspiring. When I think of lighting, I mean I’m not a technician, but I do know how to express myself in color. In general I’ve always been a fan of expressing yourself in color on film. In this movie specifically, we have a character that is dying and he wants to surround himself with everything that isn’t dying. That includes surrounding himself with paintings, and shocking blue and all that stuff. With the vibrance and aliveness of those colors juxtaposed with this dying character just seemed perfect. It was also great, for me as a filmmaker to not have to explain anything. You see this dying character surrounded in his home with all this pink and you understand something without ever having to say it.

Ryan: I like that, not only is Jimmy in your face, but the film is also. You can’t ignore it, and that is stated ever so profoundly in his pink t-shirt that says “highlighter.” You used cinematographer Julian King to help create this. Are you two going to reunite for the next film?

Matt: Yes, he is set to produce with me and shoot it again. He and I work really well together, we have that short hand now, where it would take me ten minutes to explain to someone else. We perfected that on American Animal, and now I think we are a well-oiled machine, that affords me that ability to get exactly what I want, in a quick and precise manner.

Ryan: What are you planning on for the next film?

Matt: As you can see in American Animal, I’m interested in these chamber dramas or comedies. Where it is one location and the tension and mistakes are created in those four walls. This one is like that as well, but it is within a genre and I’m excited about taking what I’ve developed within American Animal and throwing that in a genre film, and see what happens.

Ryan: You mention chamber films, and a film from this year that reminded me a lot of American Animal was Carnage. I’m interested to hear what you thought of that film?

Matt: I loved Carnage. First I have to say that I’m the biggest fucking Polanski fan on the planet. Knife in the Water and Death and the Maiden were both big influences on American Animal, and Carnage I was particularly excited about because it seemed to be like American Animal on the surface. I had seen the stage production and I’m a big fan of the text, but the first time I saw it I was surprised by how reserved it was. Then when I saw it again, I looked at it’s formalist values and  I was beyond blown away. He is a real master of the simple things, he is taking what Hitchcock did and just building on it.

Ryan: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and I’m excited for everything you have coming up and I’m looking forward to hearing what other people think of American Animal.

Matt: Thanks!


By Ryan Davis

About Ryan Davis

Ryan is the Founder of Lost in Reviews, a member of The Kansas City Film Critic's Circle, and a key component in the movement to digitally restore the 1986 classic film The Gate. Ryan is also the co-host of Blu Monday a DVD and Blu Ray review show which Lost in Reviews co-founder Angela Davis also appears. While he may be a film and music snob, that doesn't mean you can't be friends. Well it could if you don't like the same bands or films he does, overall it might be best to avoid the subject all together.

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