By James Van Maanen
No less a light than Steven Soderbergh (once upon a time the flag-bearer for independent American cinema) is on record as calling Choking Man "everything an independent film should be." If that kind of all-encompassing praise sounds difficult to live up to, not to worry. Steve Barron's film is plenty good and certainly worth its 83 minutes of your time (see my review at Guru). Though he was on vacation at the time, he was kind enough to answer a few quick questions via email.
Where did the line-drawn, animated visuals - the opening credits and the short scenes that happen along the way (with the rabbits, etc) - come from? I am guessing that something like the rabbit "gift" Jorge makes for Amy exists in Ecuador? These visuals really add a richness, as well as something exotic and charming, to the film.
Rabbits are plentiful in Ecuador, but I first saw a papier mâché rabbit from Mexico that my sister had. So I imagined that it might be one of a few creative, expressive things that Jorge had done at maybe age 5, when his uncle was bringing him up in the hillsides of Ecuador. And that when he got to New York to stay with cousins after his Uncle had died, he closed right up. When the cousins moved to Chicago, he didn't go with them. Acute shyness and mild Aspergers had made him isolate. So the rabbits represent a happier, freer time for him. He associates them with that ray of sunshine that the waitress Amy brings. And making one of papier mâché again at the end of the film is cathartic for him.
Can you talk a little about Jorge's "roommate"? This fellow is, to my mind, anyway, the strangest and most problematic character in the film. He is played by Paulo Andino and is listed in the film's credits as "Choking Man," right?
Yes. Paulo Andino's character represents a manipulative demon in Jorge's head: his tormentor, his dark side. Jorge has to stand up to this demon and get him out (which he eventually does). And at that point, he gets slightly more in touch with reality. Making the paper rabbit at the end (it was from the newspaper Amy gave him) is also a way for Jorge to put his passion for Amy into another place, away from obsession.
One of the things I especially appreciated in your film was that you did not allow the viewer (or the characters) to get any closer to a happy ending than was warranted. Was this ever in question for you? Did you wrestle with adding a little more "closure," connection, communication or whatever?
I really wanted to have a character arc that represented a baby step for Jorge. I felt that - realistically - the loneliness and isolation doesn't change for this person. But being noticed and losing a little bit of the invisibility that traps him might have a big impact inside. I never wanted the film to get more "accessible" in the traditional sense.
The only actor I recognized in the film was Mandy Patinkin, but the entire cast is excellent. How important a part of the whole process was the casting?
Casting is always massive. And for a subtle performance piece like this one, you've got to get it right.
The diner proves a most interesting locale for the film, in that it allows us to become involved to some extent with many of the other characters. Did you do any research (other than that mentioned on the DVD about you and your son sitting in a Long Island diner) regarding how a business like this one operates, and what it takes for it to survive?
We did quite a lot of observing and asking questions in diners while I was writing. There was also some "over-hearing" that ended up in the film.
You say "we"? Who else was involved in this research?
As research for his role, Octavio Gómez, who plays Jorge, worked (well, he would call it "slaved") as an undercover dishwasher for a month and reported back every night - sometimes in tears at what these immigrants have to go through. So we brought that into the film.
In the director's statement on the Film Movement DVD box, you mention being influenced by movies such as The Station Agent and Raising Victor Vargas. Any other small independents you'd like to mention?
Yes: Pieces of April, and the kind of subtle, dramatic tension of the German film The Lives of Others.
I understand, from what I've read, that this was a film you wanted to make. What was the most important difference between making Choking Man and making, say, Electric Dreams, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Pinocchio?
This experience was a real return to my days of conception on music videos: filling a blank page then shooting it. It was all low-budget, on-the-fly and adrenalin flowing. This is a very good feeling, compared with the more languid, big budget productions.
As one of the film's producers, you must have had more control over Choking Man than over your other films? Any thoughts on being writer, director and producer?
I love control. (Therapy required?)
Is there anything in the film (anything important, that is) that you might have done differently in retrospect?
There were a few shots that I would like to have gotten. But after awhile, the film is just the film, so you accept it for what it became and don't look for anything else.
In some ways, my favorite scene takes place in the rug shop, as the dealer shows Amy and Jerry his "magic carpets." Oddly, this scene does not feel pivotal to the story since Jorge is not really in it. Yet it gives us - and the characters - a break from the drudgery and it lifts the movie in a surprising way. It also suggests that Jerry may have more to him than we first imagine.
I've always felt that you could find a little magic on every corner, no matter how grim. With Jerry's character, I wanted the audience to question its own "first impressions."
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