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Now Entering A Better Place

An Interview with Vincent Pereira
by Michael McCarthy

Who is Vincent Pereira? Vincent Pereira was there when a certain Kevin Smith was just a Quick Stop employee contemplating his future and dismissing customers. He was also there as an occasional camera assistant when Smith helmed Clerks. In fact, he played two roles in the film, "Engagement Savvy Customer" and "Hockey Goalie." Perhaps even more significant is that Smith thanked him "for the inspiration" in the film's credits, something which foreshadowed Pereira's own inspired film debut. That film is A Better Place, a gritty, disturbing tale concerning a misanthrope and the shy new kid in town who makes the mistake of befriending him. It's currently making the rounds as part of the Flixtour and may very well be headed to a college or theatre near you. Visit their website for the complete schedule [ partners/flixtour/] and read the following interview to prepare yourself in the meantime. We insist.

When did you decide you wanted to be a filmmaker?
When I was about ten in grade school. As a kid, I just loved watching movies and was always fascinated. I wanted to know how they did it. I started reading about movies, particularly horror movies. I read Fangoria, and that kind of got me interested in the whole behind-the-scenes/making of aspect. So, I was pretty young when I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.

You were working at Quick Stop with Kevin when he decided to make Clerks, and I understand you were a big encouragement there. How'd it happen that he made a movie first?
He started working there, and one night I started talking to him about Twin Peaks. I asked if he was a fan, and we started talking about movies. We just started hanging out. The Village Voice was there, so we would always read The Voice and started seeing the midnight movies at The Angelica. We started to go see the independent films. I would talk his ear off about film for hours every night. He always wanted to be a writer. Over a period of time, it got him more interested, like that would be an outline for his writing. Then we went to see Slacker. You know that story, how that was the kicker, where he was like, "Holy shit. I could do this with my credit cards." I guess that for years he wasn't sure how he could get his writing out there. When it presented itself that he could do it through film, he was really itching to do it. He very quickly went out and did it, whereas I'm a couple years younger and always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. It wasn't some big revelation. So, it was easier to go a little slower with it. During the making of Clerks, I said to myself that I wanted to be making a film by the time I was 22, because that's how old Kevin was. And I ended up doing it, because it was two summers later when I shot A Better Place. It was filmed in August of '95.

How much of your main characters, Barret and Ryan, was derived from you and your experiences?
I wouldn't say they were derived from my experiences, but the characters themselves were both derived from me. Ryan is the ultimate negative side of myself and Barret's the positive side. The character backgrounds were made up to motivate the characters and give them a reason for being the way they are. I had to give Ryan a reason to get to the point where he could murder somebody. I figured giving him a violent family history was the only way to do it. With Barret, killing off his father in the beginning gave the character motivation to move and something in common with Ryan that would be a starting point for their friendship.

Did you intend for the infamous bloody nose in A Better Place to be so extreme, or did it just kind of end up that way at the end of the day?
When he breaks it? Yeah. I'd seen bloody noses in real life. I remember I witnessed this really vicious fight in the middle of math class. We were taking a test and out of the blue this kid started pounding on this kid and broke his nose. There was blood everywhere. Once, when I was ten, a friend of mine was running in my basement. He crashed into the wall and broke his nose. The blood was just pouring out. That's an image that stuck in my mind. You never really see that in a movie. I wanted to recreate it as I'd remembered it. It was so simple. It was just this really flat wire taped to the tip of his nose so the blood would drip out and look like it was coming from his nostrils. I guess maybe I dwelled on it longer than I should have because I liked the effect, but I liked the realism.

Barret is falsely accused of rape on his first day at the school. It's very ridiculous, and amusing at that, yet I can actually see it happening to someone. Was there any particular inspiration behind that?
Not at all. You see that kind of attitude nowadays, where people just misinterpret everything and get offended. The whole opening sequence at the high school is extreme because it's setting up the plot. It was my least favorite bit when I wrote it, shot it, and edited it. Now it works because it goes by so quickly. I remember, late in the editing game, I went through that one night and really, really got brutal. I wanted it to be done with as quickly as possible. I ended up dropping, like, two minutes without cutting an entire scene. Just dropping lines. I just wanted him to have an insanely bad first day of school and to intro the type of person Augustine was. Later on, she's vindicated when that dude walks up to her in the middle of the courtyard and says, "Hey, I want to fuck you." You can kind of understand where she's coming from.

What was the budget for A Better Place?
Kevin was putting up thirty thousand dollars out of his own pocket. I hoped we could do it for that, but we ended up eating up most of that in production. Just in the shoot. We ended up going into post production with only two thousand dollars left. It was while we were in post that Kevin made the deal with Miramax where they'd give him eighty thousand dollars to produce two films. Immediately, he was reimbursed, then we had another twelve thousand to get us through post production. We went a little over that, too. We ended up in the area of fifty thousand, give or take a couple thousand.

What obstacles did you face during the shooting process?
Obstacles? Well, we didn't have much of a crew. The films they did this summer, Vulgar and Big Helium Dog, cost a little bit more, but the way they were set up was worlds apart. Big Helium Dog had a production office, a production coordinator, and a production manager. It had a whole office staff as well as the entire film crew itself. It had a set schedule. We didn't have any of that. It was really, really off-the-cuff. Kevin didn't even have his offices in Red Bank until maybe three weeks before we started shooting. Since we didn't have an office, we didn't have the normal organizational things you can count on, like notifying actors when they're needed. As far as the leads went, we knew we needed them everyday, but there were a couple instances where we called in people when they shouldn't have been there, or forgot to call people. As far as problems during shooting, I kind of feel like I bit off more than I could chew. While I was on the set, I was looking at the script and I was like, "Oh my God, this is really complicated stuff to do on this level." A lot of things we would toss out and rework on the set. If you read the script and compare it to the film, it's obvious the film came from the script but there were lots of things changed during shooting. The first week we were shooting almost all interiors, which was not a very smart move, but it was the only week we could schedule the high school. Our gaffer couldn't make it until the second week, so we had a lot of sequences set interior that we ended up filming outside because we ended up blowing the power.

How did you come to cast Eion Bailey and Robert DiPatri?
We took out an ad in Backstage for an open casting call. We gave a basic breakdown of the characters we were casting and the general age range and told people to come with a prepared dramatic monologue of their choice. We figured that would give us a basic idea of whether or not they were a good actor. We had about four hundred people show up. We cast Eion out of that. The second he read, it was like, "Oh my God, this guy's got the part." Rob was actually a friend of Paul Finn, who is the co-producer. Before we got into casting, Paul kept mentioning his friend Rob. He's like, "Rob used to act in high school. Maybe he'd be good in this." He came and read and was just fantastic. It was amazing because he was better than anyone who came from New York. It was obvious Eion would be Ryan as soon as we saw him and I think it was obvious at the second callback that Rob was going to be Barret. Other supporting actors came mostly out of the Backstage ad. A couple were written specifically for people. I wrote the parts specifically for Carmen Lee and Brian Lynch.

Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee appear in the film under pseudonyms. What are they?
For Ethan it was Stan Dubar, and for Jason it was Lionus Peacock.

Were their parts written for them?
Jason's was written for him. That came up later in the game. In the original script, there was no boyfriend for the aunt. During rehearsals, Molly Castello, who played the aunt, was a little perturbed by her character. Thought she came off as too unlikable, that this woman didn't have a life. I normally wouldn't make a change like that because an actress was upset, but it sort of clicked, like, "Hey, Jason Lee's gonna be here because Carmen's in the film. He can play your boyfriend." It seemed like such a good idea. It was very easy to pop him into those sequences. I wrote a couple lines and he ran with it on his own. He did this really, really hysterical cameo. I always chuckle when I see it. As far as Ethan, he and I talked constantly on the set of Mallrats. Ethan was like, "When you make your film, I'm gonna come out, I'm gonna hang out." He said he would do anything in it. They just sort of came up with that. There was a little bit in the script where this guy comes up and insults the girl. It wasn't quite what was in the film. I trust Brian Lynch's comic timing, so I was like, "Brian, you, Carmen, Ethan, and the smaller guy, who's a friend of Paul's, go work something out, show it to me, and I'll let you know if I like it." We just went with it.

Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier are credited as executive producers. Did they have any involvement beyond financing?
Basically just the financing. Kevin pretty much left me alone to do what I pleased. Scott came for the first few days of shooting to make sure everything was running. That was about it. Kevin visited the set once, but I don't think it was while we were actually shooting. I don't even think he gave me suggestions during the scripting stage. He just wanted me to be happy with it. The first draft, I wasn't too happy with, but he kind of dug it. He was like, "Well, get it to the point that you're happy with it before we finalize this." When I finished the second draft, I was really happy with it and he was like, "Fine, go with it." During editing, everyone gave suggestions. Scott, Kevin, and, particularly, Bob Hawk. They weren't adamant that I had to change stuff, they just gave suggestions. If they were good suggestions, I took them. If I didn't agree with them, I didn't. Most of the time they were right.

Kevin and Scott also have executive producer credits on Good Will Hunting, which won two Academy Awards. Do you fear some people may have unrealistic expectations for A Better Place as a result?
No, because the film is so small, comparatively. It's not on the same level. With Good Will Hunting, they brought the script to Miramax. They weren't involved with the production and didn't put money into it. That's a different kind of situation.

Were any of the conversations in Clerks reminiscent of conversations you had with Kevin while working at Quick Stop?
The one thing that really reminds me of myself is the scene where Randal gets in the fight with the customer and she runs out, then he goes next door and goes, "You'll never believe what this unruly customer just said." When I first read that, I laughed out loud because that happened a few times. As far as actual conversations, it's hard to say. There were always these absurd conversations. Not necessarily like the Star Wars conversations and all that crazy shit in the film, but Kevin would ask the most ridiculous question. It always had some sexual bend on it. You'd have to sit there and debate it all night. I remember one time the question was like, "OK, a German scientist has discovered the cure for AIDS, but he won't release it to the world unless you have sex with him. Would you have sex with him?" Based on your answer, it would lead into this absurd conversation where the stakes would consistently get higher. It was so ridiculous and funny. By the end of the night, you'd been talking about this absurd subject for an hour and it got to this level where it usually involved Brian Johnson in some very bizarre and perverted sex acts with somebody. It's hard to explain unless you were there.

How did you become involved with the Flixtour?
Like any other festival, it was something I submitted to. That one seemed like it was a pretty novel idea. So, I submitted and got accepted.

You've already done some colleges, right?
I've done two. The first one wasn't really a college. It was a small movie theatre in San Francisco. Then I did Lehigh University. San Francisco was very sparsely attended, but the people who did go seemed to like the film. The first night there were only about a dozen people, but my Q&A; went for a good hour and a half anyway. The Lehigh one was really good. There were about fifty or sixty people, which made me happy.

Are there any cities you're most looking forward to visiting?
Probably the one I've already gone to, which was San Francisco. I really dug the city even though the screenings weren't that great. Most of the places are very local. The screening I'm most looking forward to has been rescheduled. It was originally going to be March 27th. Now it's April 13th. It's at The Café Cinema in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I've been told it's this enormous converted movie theatre. This ornate, old movie palace type of place with 1800 seats and a huge screen.

I wonder if some people who want to see the films might not go because they have reservations about the colleges where the screenings are held. For example, they have the Harvard Film Archive at Harvard, which is a nice little one screen theatre, but a lot of people in Boston wouldn't go there because they don't like Harvard.
I suppose. A few of the schools are only open to students, but a lot of them are open to everybody. You can just show up and see it. It would be cool if they were able to make a deal and get it at an art house in Los Angeles or New York. I don't see why that would be a major problem, but I don't know if they've looked into it yet.

Your bio says you're working on a script called Autograph. How far along is that?
I'm about a third of the way into the script and I have a treatment written out. It's kind of a sloppy treatment, but my treatments always are. But they're very detailed. It's just me sitting down and spelling out the entire film scene by scene in shorthand.

Is there anything about the plot you can tell us without ruining the surprises?
It's about an actor who's just had his first breakout success in this action film that was a huge hit over the summer. It opens with a little news report from Entertainment Tonight or something talking about how this actor has shocked Hollywood by turning down millions to do the sequel because it would conflict with his schedule where he's going back to his hometown to do a benefit play to raise money to restore this old theatre. The play is being directed by his best friend. In the opening, he's driving home from rehearsal one night, and it's intercutting with this young woman being attacked. This guy's trying to kill her and she ends up getting away. She gets chased through this old, abandoned part of town and ends up running in front of my lead character's car. As he's driving down the street, he hits her and kills her. This sets into motion a whole series of events where the guy who was stalking the girl turns his rage on the actor and starts killing people around him. Setting it up so he finds the bodies. Basically tries to fuck with his head and drive him crazy. Rather than trying to kill him, he does this for the bulk of the film. And there's a mystery about the identity of the girl and how she figures into it. The whole opening set piece is heavily Dario Argento-inspired. His films always open with this major set piece. The opening of Suspiria is a prime example. The first twenty minutes of Autograph is this enormous set piece in which three people get murdered, including the girl who gets hit by the car. Basically, all the evidence is swept from the scene and the actor is left wondering what the hell happened because he gets knocked out. He's unconscious for the bulk of it.

How do you intend to make Autograph? Do you plan to sell it to a company with yourself attached as director or make it independently or...?
There's no way I could do it independently. There's no way I could do it on the level I did A Better Place. It's a lot more commercial and visual. I really, really dig visual filmmaking, and this is my horror movie. Actually, it's the first one, because I'd like to do a few, but not entirely in that genre. It's kind of a murder mystery. It's inspired by the early films of Argento and, to a lesser degree, Brian DePalma. It would have to be sold to a company with me attached as director, where I could do it for a couple million. It couldn't be done for less.

Final question: Your nickname at the View Askew website is "the cleanest cat in the entire operation." What's the story there?
One time on the board someone asked Kevin about the guy who shot Dante in the original cut of Clerks. I think the question had to do with [whether that was] just a random character. I answered because I knew the story. It was, "No, it wasn't a random character. There was originally a long sequence involving that character earlier in the film where he tries to buy drugs from Jay and doesn't have the money, which explains why he has to rob the store. I was originally supposed to play that part but Kevin eventually recast it because he said I looked too clean. Kevin said, "In fact, you're the cleanest cat in this entire operation." I liked that, so I stuck with it.  

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