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Threat: An Interview with Matt Pizzolo
An Interview with writer/director Matt Pizzolo
by Scott Hefflon
Broke. Violent. Ranting against The Man. And the middle class. And whatever else ya got. Heavy music. New York City, before it was turned into a family-friendly theme park. Matt and his friends set out to make a movie. They learned as they went along. Many years later, Threat was released with a soundtrack and a "Music That Inspired The Movie" CD that'll knock you flat on your ass, no matter how tough you think you are. If the characters in Threat don't remind you of the troubled friends of your wild youth, or show the future your crazy friends will have if they don't die first, your friends are boring.
Unapologetic, gritty, not glamorizing or tsk-tsking anti-social behavior, Threat is simply a slice of life for broke, pissed-off, non-conformist youth who're slightly more eloquent than your dumb ass, without getting all preachy and statement-making. Buy it, steal it, do whatever ya gotta do to see it, then wonder why so many other movies are so timid and lame.
Did you do direct as well as edit Threat?
Katie Nisa and I edited the first cut, and that's what we took on tour, and then we met Brian Giberson in L.A. He's a punk rock editor guy, and he's great. When we edited it, we didn't know what we were doing. The special features on the DVD have the original opening and closing, and those are the ones we did. When he edited it, it looked a lot slicker and faster-paced.
Like the deleted scenes: I didn't want to provide a long commentary on everything, I really wanted to limit myself to why we shot the scene, where it originally fit in, and why we deleted it. I watch a lot of movies, obviously, and a lot of times, if I like a movie, I'll watch it again with the running commentary, and almost every time, I end up liking the movie less because of it. Once you make a movie and put it out there, people are going to think of it what they're going to think of it, and a director's original goal is less important than the personal impact and enjoyment of the viewer.
Tell me how your team, Kings Mob, got started.
It started off with Katie and me. We decided to make a film. The next person on board was Benjamin Brancato, our DP (Director of Photography). Katie knew him from NYU. In our case, because all of us wear a lot of hats, he was also the guy who shot most of the scenes. On a big movie, that would've been done by a Camera Operator. I've taken a few film classes, like in high school, using Super Eight, but I wasn't a film student.
Were you an AV geek in high school?
A little bit. I'm a little embarrassed to say I shot a horror movie on video in 10th grade called Blood Stains in the Hall. (laughs) We had an AV club in my school that no one belonged to, and one of my teacher mentioned there was a budget for it that wasn't being used because there were no members, so we were able to secure that budget. We had one guy who played the serial killer, and everyone else just made out. It's probably infinitely better than anything I've done since. (laughs) We got on the local news and stuff, it was pretty cool.
So you were a press whore from the start, huh?
Right from the start, yeah. (laughs)
So from the hallways to the bar/club, and that weird store... What kind of store WAS that? A lot of the movie takes place in a store that sells all kinds of shit.
That's actually St. Mark's Comics on St. Mark's Place in New York. It's a comic book store, and it's open until 2 am, so it's a real slice of alternative culture. It's a New York store. There's really nothing like that elsewhere. I used to work there. Most of locations were places at least one of us used to work. During a certain period of my life, I would go through a job a week, so I had a huge pool to pull from. (laughs) So yeah, after the store closed one night, we shot there from three to five am, all the scenes in the store. But like the room where they're eating lunch? That's actually just some random room, it's not actually part of the comic store.
What about the club? I noticed that, for as much as the movie is about hardcore and the lifestyle, and you have a killer soundtrack, you never actually SEE a band onstage.
That was Wetlands, a fairly important New York club that closed down a few years ago. That was one of the first things we shot. Because the club was in a residential area and people always complained about the noise, the exterior shots of the club are actually some film co-op building in the East Village. But the interior was Wetlands. We didn't have a band onstage, because in my head, the fight broke out while the bands were setting up. Ruby is in the band, and he's working the door, because it's one of those real small punk rock shows. But when we were editing it, we added music in the background, like maybe he was moving up in the world and had an opening band. The music playing, by the way, is Most Precious Blood.
What was the name of Ruby's band?
I don't think we actually named the band. The character who played Ruby was in two bands at the time, so in the scene where he hands out fliers, it was probably for one of his bands, both of which are defunct now. Film and music don't move at the same pace.
One thing I liked was the credits, where it listed off ALL the tasks each person performed.
Gotta use who you have at the time, right? There's the core team, like seven or eight people, and then there were a bunch of people who came down and helped out, and they became part of the larger team. On a normal film set, there are like 200 core people, each with specific jobs. We had seven or eight people, and we all did what we could figure out how to do.
I'm all for that way of doing things. Instead of applying for a specific job, you find good people and figure out how best to use whatever skills they have.
"What can you do already, and what can you learn how to do?" The only person who really knew the technical stuff was Ben, the DP, and he was only in his second year of film school. But he was crazy and obsessed, always taking apart and rebuilding his camera. I was writing a column for Under the Volcano at the time, and at the end of the column, I mentioned we were shooting a movie, and kids would come out and ask how they could be a part of it.
Another friend of Katie and Ben's was into sound, and it's really hard to find someone into sound. It's really important, but you don't seem to get a lot of respect or credit for it outside of the film world. The equipment we were able to get for free was an old reel to reel, a real archaic and technical piece of equipment, but at least we had someone who'd know how to use it. So he came down on the first night and said he'd gotten a new job, and he couldn't help out. So he spend 15 minutes showing Katie how to use the thing, and she ran sound for the rest of the shoot. Other people picked it up, but she was the main sound person, from a 15 minute lesson on set on the first night.
It actually took me a few minutes to get used to the sound quality. It's warm and analogue, not all crisp and larger-than-life.
We're kinda fucked for the foreign release, because our atmosphere and sound effects and dialogue are all on the same track. Real movies go in and rerecord everything so it's all on separate tracks. Then they can drop the dialogue and dub it into different languages.
Our sound, like everything else in the movie, is a result of chaotic, do-it-yourself filmmaking. In a loud city like New York.
I grew up on a four-track to cassette and newsprint fanzines. Sometimes the Journey tape I was taping over didn't line up quite right with the tape heads, and I forever have the ghost of "Don't Stop Believing" beneath my crappy song. And the first review I ever read of some cool band was smirched with the ink from the dark photo on the opposite page. Lo-fi has a lot of quirks and character, and ya just don't get that with ProTools, big budgets, and MySpace templates.
We didn't set out to make a stylized art movie, and we sure weren't making a stepping-stone demo. Cuz that's the indie film thing. You make an indie movie so you can send it out to agents and producers in Hollywood so you can make a "real" movie. A lot of my favorite bands, their demo - or at least their first record - was the best thing they ever did.
The original run time of the first edit of the movie was 100 minutes. That was the version we took on tour. It was pretty much everything we shot, because we pretty much edited the movie in-camera. We couldn't afford the film to experiment and try different takes, and we couldn't afford the time before the sun came up.
You ever notice how deleted scenes look kind of shitty? It's because they skip the whole expensive color balance process to make it all slick and uniform. Our whole movie looks like deleted scenes because we couldn't afford that process. Hollywood spends a lot of money trying to achieve a dirty, gritty sense of realism, and we couldn't afford the process to get rid of it.
Not that I wish you poverty, but what do you think would happen to your style if you had more resources? Like the difference between Clerks and Mallrats.
Kevin Smith is a smart, clever dude. He'll be smart and clever no matter the budget, and no matter the production values. Comparing Clerks to Threat is a little apples and oranges, because the content of Threat is so gritty, not just the way it was shot. But you can spend a lot of money and make Fight Club. That movie was fuckin' tough, even though a studio made it.
I think losing your virginity is a perfect metaphor for your first film. Your first record, too, I'll bet. While you sure don't have your technique down yet, and the person you're with your first time isn't enjoying your attempts as much as later partners will enjoy your finely-crafted skills, it'll never mean as much to you as your first time.
One of the dangers of becoming accepted and cool is an over-indulgence in cameo appearances. Like having Henry Rollins walk through and say something hardcore, then stroll offscreen.
I gotta live in the past with my Henry Rollins cameo. I'd want him from the time period of Richard Kern films, not post-Tank Girl and Johnny Mnemonic. There were some people who wanted to be in Threat, and we were like, cool, we can have you in the big fight scene, but they wanted bigger parts so they could "do their thing," and we were like, "Uhhhh, no."
Were there any cameos, like guys from Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, or Sick of it All or anything?
Justin and Rachel from Most Precious Blood had little roles. Rachel knows Neil Rubenstein who plays Ruby, so she didn't have a hard time getting into character. It wasn't a real intention to have cameos, they were just there, so we threw them into scenes. Honestly, I don't think most people really expected the movie to ever actually come out. Most people just showed up to help out cuz it was fun, and something to do, and it was an exciting place to be. I think if we really thought about the movie coming out, we would've been terrified we were doing it wrong, or saying things that were going to piss people off.
You really can't consider consequences when making art. You kinda just have to do your thing and be revered or reviled later. To consider impact during the creative process undermines the process. It makes it a deliberate effort, not an unconscious, natural thing.
Threat started out way more experimental than it ended up. The original plan was to pirate scenes from other movies. Like the zines I used to make: Favorite clipping from other zines, interspersed with my own stuff, making my own zine.
The original "fanzine." A scrapbook-style thing of personal interests and thoughts, photocopied and shared with friends, not mass-produced and sold.
Yeah, like a collage of all the things you're into. I thought we could make a cool movie like that, being an AV Squad geek who knew how to use a 3/4" deck. We were going to dupe it from one VHS deck to another and sell it at shows and stuff. Totally underground. We were going to shoot our friends as characters, intercut with scenes we stole from other movies, like car explosions and stuff. As it developed and more people got involved, the movie took on a life of its own and became an actual movie.
Threat has a real sense of personality and character to it, mostly because it grew organically from, well, a completely different idea than the end result, but it's the product of people who learned as they went along, just wanting to make something themselves. You use color and black & white and animation, all in the same movie. Maybe that's considered a Hollywood no-no, but that's one of the real refreshing things about it.
Yeah, you're not supposed to mix media like that... It saved us in ways... You might not've picked up on this, but the days are in black & white and the nights are in color. And we used animation mostly during the violent scenes. It wasn't random. There were scenes we shot at night, and they didn't work as night scenes, so we made them black & white and used them as day scenes. Also, the color of sunlight is different during different seasons, and because we shot over such a long period of time, it would've looked really weird to cut from a scene shot in the fall to a scene shot in the summer. In black & white, you can't tell. (laughs)
Uh-oh, I'm doing a Director's commentary and ruining the deeper meaning of color vs. black & white for people. (laughs)
The animation came from cutting a trailer on the 3/4" deck in true AV Squad style, and I wanted to put an Atari Teenage Riot track in the background, long before I met Alec Empire or had permission to use his music. I didn't have any equipment to edit music, so a friend of mine introduced me to Queque and we started bullshitting. A couple, Queque (Noah Brown) and Killili (Valerie Hallier) did the score and animation.
Did you actually do "casting" with auditions and stuff?
The people listed as Casting Directors are Katie and Neil, who plays Ruby. They were on the team early on, so they picked who else came on board. We tried to do things legitimately. We had auditions for actors and got headshots and stuff. But we were like "we can't roll with any of these people." Not that the people in Threat aren't actors, because some of them are, but it seems like acting school teaches people to be a blank slate. The production dictates what your persona should be, a make-up person decides what you're going to look like, a wardrobe person decides what you're going to wear, a screenwriter decides what you're going to say, and a director decides how you're going to act, and that's not what we wanted. We wanted people to express themselves, to bring some authenticity to the role because of who they are.
Tell me about the soundtrack, and the "Music that Inspired" CD. Because Atari Teenage Riot and "digital hardcore" is an inspired way to go. Cookie-cutter teen horror flicks may use metal, but digital hardcore just blows that stuff away!
It's funny, cuz when I talked to the bands, I was like "It's gonna be so cool... It'll be your song, mashed up by breakbeat electronica guys." And almost every single band said, "dude, like techno?" (laughs) That album is heavy as hell, ya know? Those mash ups are so chaotic and crazy and heavy!
Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth and, back in the day, Emperor and Mayhem, that stuff was clusterfuck chaos, but more based on blackened hate and mysticism, whereas digital hardcore was more political and technological, but also heart-racing and abrasive.
Being obnoxious and aggravating is part of the point, ya know? It's punk rock, before it became about singalongs about heartache. (laughs) Like early grindcore that made everyone in the room nauseous. If you can make people nauseous with sound, that's art. (laughs)
Digital hardcore, per se, isn't really active anymore, Alec's solo stuff is more rock. But breakcore is thriving in the underground. All the artists who did the mash-ups for this album, they're all active and playing shows. And a lot of them are based in the U.S. They play clubs in their area, but they also get flown out to play huge festivals in Germany and Switzerland and shit.
How's the reaction been, say, from New Yorkers, seeing as you paint a very violent, desperate picture of the scene?
Well, it represents a very singular TIME in New York. So a lot of people might say it's not at all like that anymore. Whole blocks have changes, stores and clubs aren't even there anymore, the Lower East Side has been cleaned up and gentrified a whole lot since the movie was made. The movie was inspired by the time we all ran around in Alphabet City, before the realtors changed the name to The East Village. Before 9/11, when Guliani became the Beacon of New York Togetherness, a lot of people hated him, and there was anger and resentment toward the gentrification and cleaning up of the city. The new era of New York is entirely different, so Threat is kind of a period piece, ya know?
You'd mentioned Richard Kern films, and those are New York period pieces from the mid-'80s, I think. And just to see people smoking indoors, walking down the street smashing bottles, it makes New York seem like a crazy place, and now those neighborhoods have yogurt bars and sushi joints.
Images from Hardcore will be with me forever. Especially "Fingered." When I'm 80, I'll have flashback of Lydia Lunch screaming and freaking out.
Getting fucked by a pistol. They just don't make 'em like that anymore.
And those films were made in the '80s, when obscenity laws probably made it much more dangerous to be making art and statements like that. Who's carrying the torch for saying things considered to be completely unacceptable?
Michael Moore is no GG Allin.
(laughs) That's good! I actually think this is a pretty good time for this movie to be coming out, not that I planned it this way... People are pissed off, we're in an unpopular war we can't get out of, and you'd think this would be a good time for strong, bold, political outrage, but it seems that in times of war, people cling to tame popular culture, whereas in times of peace, the arts are allowed to flourish and experiment.
Our protest rock is Green Day and the Dixie Chicks. I'm glad they're out there, saying what they're saying, but that shouldn't be as aggressive as it gets. Punkvoter.com is cool and all, but that's it? Hardcore singers are now screaming about how some girl broke their heart. What's up with that?
How was the reaction from the metalcore bands, when they heard their songs mashed up?
Most loved it. I think a few felt kinda, ya know, shown up. I don't think most of them had ever heard anything like it. Not all of them, of course. Justin from Most Precious Blood was lobbying for Alec to do their remix. He's no fool.