Interview with Rob Richert – “No One But Lydia”

| February 4, 2014

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We caught up with My Name is Your First Love filmmaker Rob Richert before a screening of his second film, No One but Lydia, at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival. In No One but Lydia, a rift is created among a band of bud-burning bros when the lead becomes consumed by his desire to regain the affection of the lovely Lydia. 
The setting (Berkeley, CA) is far from inconsequential. Richert has hella hometown pride. He talks to us about taking the skills he honed while studying at Columbia University, and returning home to make films that capture the unique flavor and culture of the San Francisco Bay.
No One But Lydia

No One But Lydia

Hello and welcome back to the Bay Area! How does it feel to be in Berkeley after the years of hustle and bustle in the Big Apple?

Phew! Feels incredible. Seriously. While I do very much love and miss New York, when I got home I probably ate about one burrito a day for the first month.  

Have you been able to find a filmmaking community since returning to the West Coast?

It’s funny, about a year and a half ago, when I knew I’d be moving back, I felt as though I’d be going home almost in a hermitage, holing up and writing a first feature in little ol’ Berkeley. I’ve been totally wrong. The film community here is so tight knit and has given me so much of a sense of family and welcome. The months before I came home, My Name Is Your First Love won best short at Napa Valley Film Festival and SF Indiefest.

My Name Is Your First Love

My Name Is Your First Love

By the time I’d moved back, we’d screened with you all at KQED. That summer I screened Telluride and folded in part-time at their Berkeley offices. I started teaching film at DVC [Diablo Valley College]; the other professors and students there are SO awesome. And now my new short is at the SF Film Fest! It’s all kind of staggering, actually. This is the first time I’ve tallied all that’s happened here in this last year and a half. I always loved it here and this is where I want to set my first feature, but about a year and a half ago I really had no clue that I would feel so welcomed in the film community on my return!

All I could really ask for now is to meet Miranda July and for the Raiders to work out a plan to stay in Oakland.

Tell us about your inspiration for No One But Lydia.

Oh, I just mined a bunch of embarrassing material. As a writing exercise one day I wrote a ton of stuff in scene form that I would never want anyone to see. It started cracking me up and I continued to develop it. It seemed less and less hard to say as it grew into its own thing. The other main thrust was, ironically, to explore something totally different from my last film, to challenge myself. More on that irony in a sec.

At this point, you’ve seen the film with several crowds. This can be especially interesting with a comedy. Can you tell us about that experience?

Yeah sometimes there’s a roar and sometimes there are crickets chirping! Basically my feeling is, the bigger the theater, the better it will go. When it screened as a part of Columbia’s end of the year film fest, both theaters were huge! In a huge theater, someone, somewhere, invariably laughs at the first joke and it’s like punching a hole in the dam. With each joke to follow, the laughs start multiplying and gushing forth. Actually to the point that I almost worried I’d cut the film too quickly because the noise of people’s laughs in Lincoln Center were stomping on the next joke.

No One But Lydia

No One But Lydia

But then, I had another screening. This was in a 50 person theater, only half filled, with many older people. That was not easy for me to sit through. I got my chuckles, but they were scattered and didn’t come immediately. I squeezed my hand a ton. It’s nerve racking, you feel you are up there on that screen, bombing.   

You nail the character of the infatuated, suffering adolescent. Is there a Lydia (and/or Geena) in your past, or is it something else that draws you to stories about young men and unrequited love?

You know, you may find this funny or ironic, but as I said above, I actually wrote Lydia in part to try to make something totally different from My Name Is Your First Love. While the tones are in opposite worlds, there is so much in parallel thematically. It wasn’t until I started shot-listing that I got that twinge and realized, “oh man, I have another kid spying, obsessing, entering the room of the woman he loves, finding solace in his heartbreak.”

No One But Lydia

To answer the question though, I definitely had a heartbreak that I couldn’t get over in my early twenties. People who knew me around then and have seen the film all recognize where a kernel of the film comes from. Picking myself back up and dusting myself off took me a while. It felt as though the known universe had begun to turn in on itself, as though everything had ended, which, looking back, is so overly dramatic and ripe for comedy. I think the perspective of the film, from the start, is that this kid is on a hopeless mission. That he is due a big lesson in confronting reality, instead of always trying to fight against it. That was my lesson, much more than the one Christian learns in My Name Is Your First Love, which I think is more about discovering the kinds of people that attract us.   

Your music is always great. In No One but Lydia,  the music behind the babysitting scene is so familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Is it a sound-alike? Something you acquired? It’s driving me nuts. Can you also talk a little about any background you have in music and your approach when it comes to music in your films?  

That’s cool to hear. Thank you! Actually, probably ripe for another comedy, I was an aspiring rapper in the 90’s. Who wasn’t though, right?

I’d battle at High School parties and constantly was going to friends’ homemade studios ruining their beats with my overly verbose nasally rhymes! I had a few friends who were really good and I got good-ish, good-adjacent and under the right circumstances, with the right song on the radio, still love to freestyle in the car. Usually the topic is crappy drivers and where I am headed.

No One But Lydia

So maybe that time working on beats with friends has a connection with music in my films! It definitely was an inspiration for my writing. It led me to narrative based poetry at June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, which taught me not to hide in weirdo metaphors and wordplay and to dig deeper to the content of my life. That gave forth to an interest in narrative. So in a roundabout way, my love for those early albums of The Coup, Common and Outkast drove me to film and must have influenced my choice in music for the films.  

You portray an interestingly varied crew. Can you tell us a little about how the group took shape? Did you start with the main character and build out suitable complements, or was the dynamic between the young men the driving force?

So here’s the kicker, originally when I returned to Berkeley to cast, the script called for an overly proud wanna-be-tough white kid who keeps misusing quotes from the Autobiography of Malcolm X to justify lurking around but never approaching his ex about his feelings.

But as my sister and I fanned out around the park at Berkeley High, most of that crowd of kids took a ton of convincing to agree to come in to audition. After they’d agree to come, they wouldn’t show.  But I knew I needed to be open. We invited anyone that would come. I knew I needed to commit to the best actor I could find and be flexible with the script.

No One But Lydia

Arif [Lopes] came in and I was so impressed with what he brought to the part. Matt [Feucht] and Jon [Suguitan] were soon to follow. I did a few rounds of call-backs and these three quickly floated to the top. Their crew was originally a trio in the script.  As I started modifying the script and tailoring it to them, I met for coffee, outside of auditions, with an actor [Jeremy Friedman] with CP who came in for the lead, who was incredible!

No One But Lydia

I knew he wasn’t right for the part because he wouldn’t be able to physically do the things the script called for and, at first, I stupidly thought we would just do another film together some other day and so I’d met to ask him more about his life and ambitions with acting. It took me about a week, as I was midway rewriting a new draft, to realize how Jeremy fit into this puzzle and his presence really tied everything together.  I can’t imagine what the film would have been like without him.

No One But Lydia

It may look intentionally diverse to some people who aren’t from here, in the way those Colors of Benetton ads were, but this was only a happy by-product of my searching for the best actors I could get out of a diverse community.

How much/what did the actors bring to the characters and group dynamic?

Well, everything really. Our rehearsals gave way to further rewrites. I think that helped bring an organic feeling to the group.   

Have you received any criticism for your portrayal of the corrupting influence of the stoners on the wheelchair-bound brother with disabilities?

I haven’t yet but perhaps people who are offended haven’t felt they had the courage to talk to me about it? I’d totally welcome it.

As I’d said above, I’d met with Jeremy for coffee a few times before I realized I needed to write him into this story. To meet Jeremy, you almost immediately realize this kid is way more driven than your average teenager. He has one of those minds that’s always ticking and, fortunately for me, I learned he is ravenous to act, getting himself into stage productions constantly.

For me, preparing to meet with him about how I could direct him physically was wrought with anxiety. I didn’t want to offend him or put him in an uncomfortable position. He is so blunt, to the point and honest, though, so funny and comfortable and grounded. It’s incredibly refreshing and that is the inspiration for the character I wrote.

No One But Lydia

I wrote the character as having Jeremy’s wit and hunger, the trickster little brother, mind always ticking, but in this case his character is hungry to play pranks, have fun and smoke weed. He tricks the major pot-head of the crew Basho into giving him the joint, acting as the centerpiece behind distracting the father long enough for Arif to escape. So in my mind he is actually corrupting himself, like any teen should.

Tell us about the last scene you axed before calling it done.

Well I did have a problem with my opening. What we shot was really slow. Comedy is tough. You have to move plot forward and at the same time find jokes. In my original opening, I only did the later and it was slow. We went back a year later and shot the opening with the car. It’s much more in the world of a heist film, which is what I realized the movie wanted to be.  

You’ve said that it was important to return to your hometown to cast and shoot Lydia. Can you point out a few details that really capture your experience of Berkeley.

Really the diversity of the friends is the main thing that reflects my experience. The language is also a part of it. Some people find the word “hella” annoying. They’re hella wrong.  

I see in your credits that you received support from the Berkeley Film Fund. Can you tell us about the process of applying for those funds?

Sure! It was the first year that they’d begun offering grants for student filmmakers and I’d heard about it from a friend who knew I’d been developing a project that I’d intended to shoot in Berkeley with a Bay Area based cast. There’s so few grants out there for shorts and to have one based in my hometown was a dream come true.

No One But Lydia Production Still

Without BFF, the film simply would not have happened. I’m so grateful they exist and I’ve done my part to continue to promote the foundation and recommend it to peers who are making films.  

How did you choose Columbia?

Above all else I loved writing stories and that’s their brand. It helped that the interview I had, with Tom Kalin and Andy Bienen, went so well. Rather than feeling like I had to prove myself under some blinding spotlight, I felt like the interview was a conversation about my creative aspirations. It left me hurrying home to go write. It was an easy call and one I am very happy I made.  

What can you tell us about your experience in the program?

I feel like there’s this macho thing going around that aspiring filmmakers don’t need film school, that they should spend the money on a first feature. That might be true for some, but I needed it. Didn’t know how much I’d needed it until it was well underway. The faculty fundamentally changed the way I watch movies, the way I work and maybe most importantly, the way I see my flaws as a filmmaker as I continue onwards towards getting better.  

Tell us a little about your training, experience and interest in visual effects work.

Most of it is self-taught. I started filmmaking as a hobby, making claymations and later 3D animations. That background of being comfortable sitting at a computer for hours doing careful frame by frame work in Maya gave way to After Effects and DaVinci. At Columbia, everyone tends to fall into a slot in the grand rotation of crew roles as we help each other’s films into fruition. I became one of the few color correction/VFX guys. Having that background has been so helpful on set, to know how to frame and film a shot I intend to do work on in post. It sometimes helps in the edit as well, gives me opportunities to know when I can squeeze more material out of a shot.  

Did you meet Ramin Bahrani while studying at Columbia, and if so, how did that professor/student relationship evolve and lead into your VFX role on his 2012 feature At Any Price?  

I met Ramin in a directing elective during my second year at Columbia and he later served as my mentor through my thesis years. It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly our relationship evolved, although I know a mutual love of Herzog and my attending the Rogue Film School seminar was a launching point to our getting close.

At Any Price

At Any Price

I filled in on At Any Price during a week his regular assistant editor was unavailable and when need for an effect came up, knowing I’d done a ton of VFX for peers in the program, he asked if I’d be able. I was thrilled to help! I’d done a little bit of Photoshop work for him in the past and Ramin is incredible, he has such a wealth of knowledge. Even doing the most mundane task to help I’d learn something.

What’s next for Rob Richert?  

Well, if it’s not too crazy I am actually finishing a third short. We are editing right now. It’s a love story set in pot country about a couple who became business partners, growing weed in self-imposed isolation. They are at a breaking point in their relationship. We got an incredible cast, with Chris Chalk and Laura Heisler as the leads. They KILLED IT!

Filmmaker Rob Richert

Filmmaker Rob Richert

Once that is finished I am going to turn my full attention on a feature script that I’ve been working on. It’s set in a neighborhood in Oakland with some odd surreal/visually expressive flourishes. Maybe if you threw my aesthetic into a blender with Delicatessen, Pulp Fiction, Judy Berlin and everything that there is to love and hate about the culture clash of gentrification in Oakland? Big question marks at the end of that, since presently it is just a huge word document I’ve been vomiting into, with far too many scenes to fit in one screenplay. But it’s mostly about place, home, community and the good ol’ Bay.

Rob Richert is a Berkeley based director and adjunct professor. He teaches filmmaking at Diablo Valley Community college.

Related Links:

No One but Lydia screens at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas as part of San Francisco International Film Festival’s Shorts 2 showcase: Sunday, April 27, 2014 at 8:15pm and Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 9:30pm.

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

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