Interview with Matt Stryker| “Play Things”

| March 11, 2014

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Just like that, you’re dropped into a scene: a bruised boy sits on his bed holding a toy. Context? That’s where you the audience comes in. Made at the University of Austin in Texas, Matt Stryker’s Play Things might as well include the viewer as an action figure: we’re plopped and posed and molded by the hands of a powerful imagination.

Play Things will screen as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts. We caught up with Matt over email to talk about exposition (or lack thereof) and filming a dreaded sex scene.

"Play Things"

Play Things

Tell us a little about your background and about your film Play Things.

I’m currently a student filmmaker at the University of Texas in Austin, been out here for about 4 years now. I’m originally from West Orange, New Jersey and have wanted to be a director since roughly the 7th grade when I made a terrible parody of Jurassic Park in my English class (It was called Wordassic Park and is over 40 minutes long just to paint you a picture). After that I started taking an interest in what goes into making a movie and did the New York Film Academy’s summer programs for the next 4 years, cementing my obsession and making some of the best friends I have still to this day.
Play Things is a hard movie to pitch just because the directions it takes are hard to talk about without spoiling the experience for the audience but I’ve always felt its tagline got the general idea across nicely: A coming of age story about sex, death, and dolls. That captures it for me in a very vague way.

This was not an easy movie to watch and you deal with some raw topics, but you reveal them in a calculated and very effective way. Like Hitchcock would say, you play us like a piano. The layers of the film peel slowly away like an onion, and initial interpretations are constantly challenged. Can you talk a little about that?

Thank you so much! Also sorry. The Hitchcock comment is very appreciated because when I was actually pitching the short to my class, I told them I wanted to shoot it as if Todd Solondz made an Amblin film but Hitchcock drew the storyboards (Rear Window was very much an inspiration for this among other things). That’s all just to say that I wanted to tell a story that could work on a visual level first and foremost, and forgo needless exposition. By just dropping the audience into the scene, I think it forces them to pay closer attention to the details being presented and in a way gives them a similar perspective as the lead child. Without having any prior context to the scene, they have to constantly make their own inferences as the information comes to them. I want to always try getting my audience to think.

The sound is spare and effective. I still keep hearing those crackles and crunches. Can you tell us a little about its design?

Yeah, the sound design was something I was very conscious of while working in post. It all goes back to trying to draw my audience into the story as much as possible. Because they’re not getting any dialogue, I feel like every slight sound carries more impact, acting as subtle clues to an already vague story. Maybe too subtle, I’ve gotten some crazy interpretations as to what’s happening, but I THINK there’s enough there for people to reach general answers as to what’s going on. For me, there’s something more true to life in the uncertainty where we have to draw our own interpretations.

"Play Things"

Play Things

When dealing with this kind of subject matter and situations, what did you learn from working with a child actor? How did you direct him differently than an adult?

At this point I’ve made two shorts that feature young boys at a point of lost innocence. It’s a weird, unintended niche to be in but the only reason it works is because I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the boys I’ve cast in them. Deke Garner is such a trooper and ridiculously talented for his age, the movie couldn’t have happened without the maturity he displayed in the role and the supportiveness of his parents. The first two days of the shoot he was actually extremely ill and couldn’t perform for more than a few hours at a time before being too sick to continue. I felt so sorry for him, but he and his family offered to actually delay their vacation in order to get what we needed. I’ll always be grateful for that. In regards to directing Deke, it was interesting because I wouldn’t tell him what to do but rather talk to him almost as an inner conscious and see how he reacted. I knew we’d be taking out the majority of our sound for post work so I could talk to him in the middle of takes and he’d adjust accordingly. Dan [Hershbergeron the other hand needed very little from me. I’d set up the scene and beats for him and he’d run from there. I was incredibly fortunate to have both of them, cutting their performances together was a wealth of riches.

I have to ask: what was it like filming a sex scene? Any tips for other filmmakers needing to film the same?

Honestly, I was terrified. It’s the first sex scene I’ve ever done and finding the right tone for the lovemaking was a high wire act. It may be weird to some (my parents) but I do consider the short to have a dark sense of humor to itself and the introduction of the lovers was a large part of that. Too broad and everything becomes cheapened; too tender and it wouldn’t have made the impact I wanted it to have on the boy and audience. If I had to give advice on filming the same, I’d say to rehearse and put the time into making your actors as comfortable with the action as possible. We basically got together on the day and shot. [Actors] Carley and Bejan were great and they’re both filmmakers themselves so they were incredibly game and supportive, but I wish I’d been more prepared in general for that day. I could have used the practice more than anyone else.

The couple’s lovemaking is wild. The room is red and there’s a picture of Che Guevara in their room. Am I reading too much into that?

Maybe just a tad, but that’s a great catch. My good friend Rory Harman is a very talented artist and I loved the production design he contributed to the film. I told him I wanted each room to feel like it was representative of its character’s headspaces, so while the boy’s is blue and melancholy, the lovers’ are reds and extremely passionate. I wanted the rooms to be almost totally separate worlds that we were only getting windows into, making all the more powerful when the two manage to correlate towards the end. As for Che, I think that had less to do with the fact that it was Che than that it was another set of eyes staring onto the scene and tying back into the voyeurism of the whole story. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve made Play Things so the intentions on some decisions get a little fuzzy after a while.

Filmmaker Matt Stryker on set

Filmmaker Matt Stryker on set

What training did UT provide you to best tell your story and how has it influenced you as an artist?

As much as I love UT, I think the biggest thing it’s offered me are connections to a grossly talented pool of students. I’ve made great friendships and working relationships here and I hope to collaborate with the people I’ve met in Austin for the rest of my life. The city just feels like it’s on the cusp of a filmmaking boom and there’s so much personality to be mined from it. Hopefully I can be a part of that.

Any advice for fellow filmmakers?

If I had to give advice, I’d say things that seem obvious…are often taken for granted. First and foremost, make something that you’d want to see, regardless of if you made it. So many student films feel like they’re appealing to what others might want than what you would want. There’s got to be something personal to you in there, otherwise it’s for no one. Also, please please please feed your crew well. I’ve been guilty myself of not adhering to this when the budget’s low, but when you take care of them, they’ll take care of you. A positive set can make all the difference in a production.

Matt Stryker is an Austin based filmmaker and editor. He is currently in the midst of thesis productions with his fellow classmates.

Like Play Things on Facebook.

See the trailer for Play Things:

Play Things screens as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts film showcase on Tue March 11 @ 1:30PM, Wed March 12 @ 9:30 PM and Fri March 14 @ 9:15 PM.
All screenings at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose.

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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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