04 December 2007

A Conversation with Chris Rathjen and Nick Wagner

This week at Bittersweet, I chat with Chicago filmmakers Chris Rathjen and Nick Wagner, who can tell you a thing or two about improv, radio, and the lessons to be found in a bottle of whiskey.

Chris and Nick, you currently have a short film, Sing, O Muse competing with films from twelve other cities for the title of "Best Film of the 2007 Racing Tour" as well as glorious cash and prizes. How did you get involved with this project, how do you feel about representing the City of Broad Shoulders at the national level, and how did you talk a bunch of dudes into singing songs while wearing togas?

Chris: We got involved when Grinnell celebrity Kate Herold saw an ad in the Chicago RedEye and sent it our way. As for the four of us singing in the horse (including co-filmmakers Jeremy Blodgett and Adam Schwartz), well you can just look at it film and see it's really the only legitimate ending, except for maybe a 45 minute action sequence depicting the sack of Troy. So, Art demanded it. As for the two Trojan guards, Mark & Scot, they actually showed up dressed like that. We were planning on giving them sheets, but there was no need.

I'm of course very pleased to be representing Chicago. I don't really know what to say on it though. Nick?

Nick: We are certainly the most Chicagoiest filmmakers I know, and thus are eminently qualified to represent this great city. The turnout from the Chicago filmrace was pretty interesting. I'd say that with an average filmmaker age of 26.2, we were among the oldest filmmakers there. It seems they did a lot of promotion over newer media, the "Myspaces" and the "Facepaper," which naturally attracted a younger crowd. Some of our competitors were even in high school, which I thought was really great, and I hope those kids keep making films.

You have gained recognition, praise, and the devotion of fans making short films that both pay homage to and cleverly subvert familiar genres. How did this trend begin, and where do you see it headed? Will you ever repeat genres – say, make another dystopia pic, or another war movie?

Chris: My first genre piece was (half of) 2 for 1, when I got to be a noir detective. Genre pieces are great for short films because so much of the work has already been done by decades of pop culture. The audience can be brought on board very quickly thinking they already know the story, which then leaves you free to mess with it. For 2 for 1 we watched and studied as much noir as time permitted, but pretty soon we figured out that doing a genre piece it’s actually better to just use what associations we already had, since thats a pretty good indicator of what associations the audience will have going in. I would certainly use any genre a second time if I felt it would best serve the story we wanted to tell.

Nick: Dressing up is fun. Also, I think we do shy away, at least a little bit, from repeating ourselves out of a desire for originality. But I do think there's much more to be explored in genre work, especially the largely untapped "brains on a table" genre.

Of the films you've made, both independently and together, does any one stand out as a personal favorite?

Chris: Independently, I'm pretty pleased with This is Titular Head, the mockumentary I made my senior year at Grinnell. I was over time and actually cut the ending short, but when I made the DVD that year I set it up so you can see the complete version if you hit enter during the tape-burning scene. So anyone with a copy of the 2002 DVD can check that little easter egg out. Also, make me a copy and send it my way, mine was immediately destroyed after I moved to Chicago. Group stuff: In The Sheets may be the most realized of our films, one of the few occasions where circumstances allowed us to make almost exactly the film we set out to, with all the beats, jokes and ending we wanted. But all of them have moments I'm fond of and ideas I'm still proud of.

Nick: Definitely "In the Sheets" stands out for the reasons Chris mentioned, and because it's a very original concept. Everything we've done has its own special place in my heart, of course. Even the ones I hate, which are in the dark part of my heart right next to the cholesterol deposits. Just kidding; I don't hate any of our work, and I really don't eat that much meat or dairy.

Not to sound too Tiger Beat, but what are the roots of the Myth of Chris and Nick? How did two young men from such diverse backgrounds come together in joint pursuit of the Noble Art of Funny?

Chris: In a word, Grinnell. I met Nick my sophomore year on Ritalin Test Squad. I'll admit that I'd been itching to get on the radio, but hadn't yet found anyone who I felt met my banter standards until Nick came along. Only at Grinnell could a nerdy, white, middle-class guy from a tiny, rural, midwestern town with a nurse mother and a farmer father, like myself, end up friends with a nerdy, white middle-class guy from a tiny, rural, midwestern town with a nurse mother and a professor father like Nick. Talk about an odd couple!

Nick: I had taken a semester off from college, and when I returned I found this new guy on the improv team. In fact, Chris was a bit intimidatingly hilarious at first. And so tall! But then we bonded over the fact that we both love talking about how awesome we are, and the rest is history. Of course, there are some things about Chris I'll never fully identify with. I mean his PBS station was in Iowa City! I could barely pull that in on my antenna! But we did watch the same Fox affiliate growing up, so really we're not so different after all.

You've both studied improv at iO, and now both perform with several teams in our fair city, the Hog Butcher to the World. How did improv find you, and how has it affected your lives? Can it truly be used to win friends and influence people, or is that just a rumor?

Nick: I've always been in love with acting, directing, theater, and movies. But I've also always been a very lazy man. So when I saw the tryout notice for my college's improv team, I thought, "Perfect!" I've found improv to be a very rewarding art form, and it really does kind of change your life. The central tenant of always adding to an idea, never knocking it down, has I believe made me a much more positive person than the snide, sarcastic little shit I was in high school. I'm still very, very lazy though.

Chris: Improv was first thrust upon me by a high school drama teacher, but I was in such a blissed-out haze upon arriving in Grinnell I didn't actually start reading any loggia posters for two weeks(seriously) and missed try-outs until the following year. Throughout college, improv served as a reminder of how much I love having performance and creative opportunities in my life, and with out it I may have ended up in law school or something equally terrifying. I've won a few friends through it, but its effect on my influence remains unknown.

Chris, didn't you once tell me that improv helped you to get a job?

Chris: That I did, good catch. One technique for setting up an improv scene is to mirror your partner's initiation. Matching their energy level, having the same goals as they do, and getting yourself in their mindset. When you do this several times a week, it becomes second nature, so I shouldn't have been surprised to catch myself doing just that the last time I was looking for a job. The interview went well and I was hired. In general the positivity and agreement improv relies on can be applied to personal interactions, allowing you to, yes, win friends and influence people.

As far as you can tell, what is the one book that every improviser should read?

Nick: Truth in Comedy really is the big one for me, because it basically outlines the tenants of group work that make spontaneous art generation possible. Without it, improv is a series of jokes that often come at the expense of genuine statements, or "Truth." That being said, Keith Johnstone's "Impro" is also quite good.

Chris: This is pretty embarrassing: I've never actually read Truth in Comedy. I know what you're thinking: its like a clergyman never having read the Bible, or a doctor never having watched Grey's Anatomy. That shameful secret finally out in the open, let me put in a word for Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. It has a specific chapter on improv but the general topic, subconscious thought & instinct, is relevant just so that you begin to understand what your brain, when properly trained, is capable of. Learning to trust your instincts is of course a huge part of improvisation, and the book is fascinating in general.

Do you remember how we met?

Nick: I honestly don't remember the precise circumstances of our very first meeting, but Molly Backes and I were in our freshman tutorial together, which means that we met before classes even started, under the watchful eye of Ellen Mease. Every Tuesday and Thursday at 8:30 AM, Molly made me secretly suspect that I wasn't smart enough to be in college, by knowing about Agamemnon and Orestes, and generally appearing to have done the readings. When she was awake, that is. That class was very formative for me, and I have loved Molly ever since.

Chris: I don't have the foggiest. The association "Molly Backes=Awesome Girl I Know" was in my head for much of my time at Grinnell, but if I'm looking for a specific memory I keep coming up with things from junior year, and I know that’s not right. Answering this, I'm terrified I'm going to offend you by forgetting some formative shared experience we had, like how we dated sophomore year.

We didn’t date.

Chris: I know.

But you wanted to.

Chris: Of course. I'm not a total fool.

Right. Then you heard about the "make me sandwiches for work" requirement, and you regretfully backed out.

Chris: Yeah, you've got high standards.

Thanks! Last question: what is the best advice you've ever gotten, and who gave it?

Nick: Hmm. I'm having trouble thinking of specific "advice," but there are several refrains that always seem to come back to me a certain times. My directing professor Chris Connelly liked to say, quoting Yogi Berra, "It gets late early out there." Which is always applicable to movie projects and to life in general. And my good friend Chris Rathjen knows that "The only way out is through." Which can apply to improv scenes, adverse filming conditions, or, preferably, a fifth of whiskey.

Chris: Most of my life lessons have come from people setting good examples, not from pithy advice. The amazing, wonderful people I've been lucky enough to know are kinda lame that way. That said my grandfather, upon dying, made the observation that while it would hopefully shake the rest of us up, his death wasn't going to bother him a bit, and I hope that's my attitude when I'm eventually devoured by wolves. For the record, my family name supposedly translates to Small Advisor/Small Clearer of Trees, so if you're looking for advice about the little things in life, or clearing trees, I'm your man. Also, Nick once said we should drink some water before finishing the whiskey, and while I argued at the time, I see now that he was right.

Awesome. Thanks, you guys!

See the films, live the dream:veryclever.org.

Last chance to vote for Sing, O Muse! - voting closes tomorrow.

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