the AU interview: Zach Clark, Director of White Reindeer (Virginia)

Set in suburban Virginia, White Rindeer is the epitome of how everything is not all what it seems to be. Vanessa Dang had a chance to speak to White Reindeer, writer, director and editor Zach Clark briefly about the characters in his film, his love of Christmas, the film’s production process and what’s happening in the current independent film environment in the United States.

Congratulations on a great film, I really enjoyed it. When watching this, I personally took Christmas as a metaphor - was it closer to being a metaphor about the perception of religion? Or was it closer to the character of Suzanne discovering truths about Jeff?

To me, the metaphor was just Christmas. Things do have symbolism and mean and relate to other things in a finished work of art, but I’m a firm believer in not really trying to think about that stuff too much beforehand and focus on telling a story. Things will have meaning in the long run, and I don’t want to colour people’s perception one way or another. Honestly - I just wanted to make a movie about Christmas.

So I'm seeing you really love Christmas then.

I do. It's my favourite holiday.

I read in another interview somewhere that the main character Suzanne was a little autobiographical. What about Fantasia, the "other woman" in the story - is she also a little autobiographical and have you ever been the "other" person?

They're all autobiographical in a way. The easy way to write a bunch of characters is to take various parts of yourself and assign them to different people. She is an amalgamation of some people I've known - of an ex-girlfriend and someone I'm related to. Her journey is a little less my journey, but everything she says about herself is taken from someone I know. Anytime she tells Suzanne a fact about herself or her life is a story from someone that I've known. I've never been the other woman though...

I found the supporting cast to be quite hilarious, like they were kind of caricatures of themselves. Were they meant to be caricatured to be comic relief to the heaviness of Suzanne's story? Are they also based on people you know or have come across?

A lot of the smaller roles a little less so. I try and treat anyone who has a major role as fairly evenly as I can, and try to make them as well-rounded as human beings as possible. Lydia Hyslop, who plays the wife Patti of the swing couple, has that sincere scene in the bathroom (with Suzanne) - to me characters like that who would play in other movies probably wouldn't have a scene like that. They're not allowed to be real people and talk about things in that way. But it's just one of those things where you have a movie with a lot of smaller, little pieces in it, and you get people to go in, have fun with it and have a good time. The real estate ladies are obviously stylised in a certain way.

Even though they were slightly over the top, they were very close to the actual real estate ladies that I know who work around the corner from me!

Ellie Nicoll, who plays the tall one in that trio, has been in all my movies, and I wrote that part knowing that she would play it. I wrote to her personality and her strengths. My movies get talked about being stylised in that regard, and every movie is stylised to a certain degree. Hopefully in using stylisation you can get at things that are usually true and accurate. The goal is to create something that feels emotionally truthful at the end of the day. Anytime you point a camera at something it's going to be stylised.

You're Writer, Director and Editor, so you're quite involved in the whole shebang of the process - pre, production and post. You probably get asked this a lot - but what is your favourite out of the process, or at least the most enjoyable?

When you're directing the movie you get to talk to the people the most. The writing process is just basically you and the computer. Those are fun and interesting parts of the process. The directing part is when you get to put a costume on someone and tell them what to say - that is the most actively fun but also the most actively stressful because everyday and every hour you're working against deadlines and all sorts of things that could go wrong and derail in the course of the one day film shoot. But (directing) is the most exciting in the long run, in terms of energy and that sort of thing.

Talking about directing - what drew you towards Anne Margaret to be your Suzanne and how did that process come across? She was amazing in the film.

I met her through a mutual friend and met her in a movie whilst we were casting White Reindeer. We already had people read for the role at the time, and another mutual friend recommended her and then she read for us, and she did a really amazing job. We had dinner once a week leading up to the production to talk about the movie, about life. I loaned her some movies to look at, and it was as simple as that!

I'm a bit late to the game, but I just recently discovered the whole mumblecore movement that’s prevalent in the US independent filmmaking scene. Would you consider this film as part of it? Or just classified as an independent film of sorts.

That thing is sort of over…

So it's waning already! Ah gosh! So late to the game…

We're in post-mumblecore now. The people that I know that were proponents and get identified with that don't even like to self-apply that term. It's not a real genre - like dramas, or thrillers or comedies. There is definitely a group of us here that are making small personal movies for not a lot of money. That has been happening in one way, shape or form off and on for about as long as cameras have been around. The thing that defines "mumblecore" - casting your friends, and hand held cameras and post graduate malaise aren't necessarily what most of us are making movies about anymore. They're all sort of in a loose genre - they're about atypical stories. With the indie films in America you're starting to see a lot more stylistic chances being taken. You're starting to see a lot more experimentation with genre, which is what is happening in micro-budget films right now. Stylistically they're getting stranger, and also in terms of content. What's happening right now is pretty fun and interesting.

I think it's also because people are taking their films into their own hands. I noticed you did a kickstarter project? Which I believe gives you more integrity and control over your project as opposed to a big production company with their producers going "No, don't like that part of the script you need to change it" sort of thing.

Sure. Not like I'm saying I wouldn't want to work with a big production company. If they asked "Do you want to work with us?" I would say yes. Luckily we live in a time where the technology is advanced to the point that you can make something that looks really good without having to spend a lot of money on it. So you can create something fairly quickly and have it look professional. Reality TV did an amazing thing to the independent film world, which was what made the aesthetic of prosumer video cameras something acceptable to people all around the world. It made that "look" as an okay aesthetic to watch something, and allowed the micro-budget films to be shot on video that started popping up in the early 2000s.

Lastly, do you have any other works up your sleeve at the moment?

I just finished a new script which is in the IFP labs in New York in a couple of months, which is about a nun.

Are you Catholic or something? I get this Christian kind of vibe with Christmas and now a nun!

Well my mother is an episcopal priest, and I went to Catholic school when I was really young from Kindergarten to 1st Grade and I hated it so much.

Did you have nuns as your teacher as well?

Yes I did. I guess it's a little bit about that as well. It's about a young nun who comes home and visits her estranged family for a week. She gets into some whacky adventures.

I'm a Catholic as well - not a practising one. But it'd be interesting to see that. Because I also related to Suzanne (in White Reindeer) in that I only go to church around Christmas and Easter time to appease the parents.

I only go to church on Christmas.

Not even Easter?

No I don't really go home for Easter. To me going to church now when I do, I'm an atheist and I don't believe in any of that. But my mother does and there's something to that and having the experience of going as a family. There's a nostalgia built to it. So I only go on Christmas Eve because I love Christmas so much, as a good way to eject some Christmas spirit.

Well thank you for taking the time to speaking to us at The AU Review and congratulations again on a great film.


White Reindeer will be making its Sydney Premiere at the Possible Worlds Film Festival on Thursday 15th August, 6:30pm at Dendy Opera Quays.

Book tickets here:

You can read our review of the film here: