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Sundance '11: Matthew Lessner Talks About His Edgy, Ambitious Debut Feature 'The Woods'

by Kevin Jagernauth
January 21, 2011 3:58 AM
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Sundance is now officially underway, and with Hollywood decamping to the hills of Park City, many up-and-coming filmmakers will be unspooling their films hoping to get they break they came looking for. And one of those folks is director Matthew Lessner, who will be premiering his debut feature, "The Woods." For the indie minded folk out there, you might have Lessner’s work if you managed to catch a look at his 2005 short film “Darling Darling” with Michael Cera, or one of the handful of music videos he’s directed for such bands as The Raveonettes, Dirty Projectors and Le Loup. However, for his debut feature, Lessner had something very specific in mind, an absurdist commentary on contemporary culture filtered through a group of young people who take to the woods, bringing their technology and comforts of home with them. And it took an eye-opening job placement to get the idea for the film rolling.

"I took an internship at Democracy Now and I started following current events a little bit closer and reading a few books and just getting interested in this idea of collapse. And just playing with this idea of dropping everything, moving to the woods and starting over. And this idea of being aware of all these crazy problems that are going in the world and not really knowing how to react to those problems and that really became more of the motivating force [behind the film]," Lessner said. "Having this feeling and not really knowing what to do about it and [making a film] was the best way to figure out how to do something instead of taking to the streets with a picket sign or throwing a brick through a bank window. Making a film about people with the same sort of sensation."


And if it sounds like a satire with a bit of a throwback feel to the edgier, riskier fare of films from a while back, it's no surprise to hear where Lessner got his inspiration. "Films in the 60s and the 70s in particular were doing a lot that you don't see much of now, that I'm personally inspired by. A combination of humor and poignancy -- I love the way that Godard in particular was engaging in important political and social issues but was doing so in a playful way. I feel like in modern day films -- I don't mean to generalize -- I feel like a lot of comedies veer away from that stuff a little bit."

And while music videos take up a healthy portion of his resumé, Lessner fell into directing them by accident and only as a result of money running out while shooting "The Woods." "This film took quite a while to put together not necessarily because I was sitting in the editing room, but because we reached a number of points where we couldn't continue working because we had run out of funds. And that was the time where I started making music videos. I came to making music videos in a roundabout way," Lessner said. And it was something that went against the attitudes that prevailed from his professors in film school. "There was a period where I was a little [judgmental] about music videos. When I was in high school I really wanted to do them -- it was the Spike Jonze/Michel Gondry era of music videos -- and then I went to film school and they were really poo-pooing them. So I think I kind of avoided them for a while. And then I came back to them in this roundabout way where I wanted to continue making my feature....and I'm not in the position where Levi's is ready to hire me for a campaign or something and if I wanted to keep working as a director it seemed music videos were my best option."

However, the connections made shooting music videos would pay off in dividends as it would allow him to meet several great bands and artists, some of whom have contributed to the extensive soundtrack for the film. "In the process of [shooting videos] I did meet a number of musicians, people I had previously been fans of. So it [allowed us] to be able to approach them and ask 'Hey, can we use this track?'"

And that DIY spirit was the driving force behind "The Woods." The film is arriving at the Sundance Film Festival with a story no one else will be able to claim - it’s the first film to play the festival with partial funding provided through the micro-funding site Kickstarter. It was a financing route chosen by the director to allow himself and filmmakers a chance to make they film they wanted without having to answer to anybody.

"Because it was our first time out we wanted the ability to experiment and do things our own way. We wanted to kind of live out the film. We wanted to move out to the woods. I think a lot of us identified with the characters in the film and had a desire to do something radical," Lessner said. "And we didn't think that would be a necessarily a way we could work if we had traditional funding sources. We wanted to shoot the film almost like a documentary, we wanted to work with non-actors. We wanted just to be able to experiment and didn't want people looking over our shoulder. We wanted to just have complete control. And that's one thing about Kickstarter that's really exciting to me, it's allowing for people to try and go out do things that are perhaps a little more true to what they want to do. I think anytime you start taking money from people you have to at least, to a certain degree, capitulating to their wants and needs."

Ambitious and idealistic, we're curious to see the results. Long in the making, and made with the determination to keep the spirit of its thematic intent intact, "The Woods" will make its premiere tonight at midnight at the Sundance Film Festival.

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