IFFR 2008: Interview with "The Skyjacker" actor / writer / director JEFF PICKETT
Ard Vijn here with what I assume to be the last article concerning this year's IFFR, and it's an interview.
While its world premiere was at the International Film Festival Rotterdam last January, Jeff Pickett's "The Skyjacker" will soon be shown on US soil: the North American premiere is set to take place in less than three weeks at the Atlanta Film Festival.
"The Skyjacker" is a movie loosely based on an incident which happened in the early seventies: a man aboard a passenger airliner claimed to have a bomb in his hand luggage. He demanded a parachute and 200.000 dollars. After receiving both at an inbetween stop he jumped from the plane in mid-flight (of course with parachute and the money), never to be heard from again. His name is assumed to be D. B. Cooper and he has become a bit of a legend.
Funnily enough Jeff Pickett told me this incident is currently back in the news, because the FBI is researching the recently found remains of a parachute which might be the one Cooper used during the crime.
In my review I was anything but kind about his movie, but Jeff was very nice about that.
So what do you ask a director whose first movie you just roasted?
AV: You've previously made "Snackers", a short movie which got rave reviews, but this is your first feature-length film. And its world premiere was actually in Rotterdam even though you are from California. How did that came about?
Jeff Pickett: When Eric (Jensch, co-writer and cinematographer, AV) and I had finished the movie, we assumed that it would be better received in Europe than in the US so we focused on European festivals to see if they were interested. For years I had heard very good stories about Rotterdam, to the point where it became sort of our "Holy Grail". Also... and another reason for us was that Rotterdam charges no entry fee for your film, you can submit your movie free of charge. Although to be honest this didn't quite turned out the way we planned: getting the film to the IFFR programmers almost cost as much as an entry fee over here (laughs). But the Rotterdam programmers were fantastic, they were the quickest to reply, like we had an answer within two days. They liked the movie and wanted it for the festival, so we were in!
And I have to say I was treated so well in Rotterdam, so much was taken care of, I'm probably spoiled for all future festivals. For me it was the experience of a lifetime.
AV: And then you go to the world premiere of your own movie, the cinema full with paying customers. What was that like?
Jeff Pickett: That was fantastic. And scary. As you know we've gotten very mixed responses to the movie. Reviews haven't been praising it, but I've met a good many people who loved it. As you mentioned, if you look at our audience rating it was very average, but we weren't at the bottom and I noticed the movie polarized the audience. People either loved it or hated it. The programmers loved it, and so did Rutger Wolfson, the festival director. I'm glad to see he will stay on as future festival director...
AV: Yes, for him it was of course also his first time.
Jeff Pickett: ...and he obviously did a good job, because they kept him! He's really fond of visual art, and I can relate to that. I used to work with Julian Schnabel, my mother and several friends are artists, so it's in my background as well.
And now that you mention "paying customers", later in the festival I suddenly realized... I mean lots of people used passes to get a reduced price for their ticket, but still, the average price must have been something like seven and a half, eight euro a ticket. And even though it's not like all that money flows straight back to us, it was... we had four public screenings at the festival, three sold out and the fourth was almost full, and I thought: in these four screenings almost as much money was paid as the entire movie had cost!
AV: Now that you mention it: what was the budget, if I may ask?
Jeff Pickett: You may. Our budget was 20.000 USD.
AV: Only 20.000?
Jeff Pickett: And dollars, not euro. Definitely not 20.000 euro!
AV: That surprises me, because it features a big plane and all... Was that a real plane or a set?
Jeff Pickett: That is a real plane, a genuine Boeing 727. Actually it is the exact same type plane that the real D. B. Cooper jumped from! There is this company called "Air Hollywood" which owns planes which you can use in movies. This 727 doesn't actually fly anymore but you can use it as a set.
AV: I know a bit about planes and I thought: either they've got their hands on a real one or they have a helluva set designer...
Jeff Pickett: I can tell you we really stretched every penny in our budget, borrowing equipment left and right but most of the money went into the plane. Some time ago we had shown "Snackers" to the people of Air Hollywood and when we approached them for "Skyjacker" they gave us a bit of a friendly deal. And what's really amazing about this type of 727, what blew my mind when I saw it for real, is that it got this backdoor that faces to the back of the plane!
AV: Ah, yes, I always wondered how D. B. Cooper managed to jump from that plane. I imagine if you tried that with a sideways door like most airliners have, the wind velocity will tear you in three, four pieces and smear you all over the tail.
Jeff Pickett: Exactly. But with a door facing straight backwards...
AV: ...it would be possible. Damn. But a 727 isn't exactly the largest of airplanes, did that cause trouble when you tried filming in one? Fitting the crew and equipment in, wasn't that really claustrophobic?
Jeff Pickett: We used two small digicams, and the crew didn't consist of many people, so that was OK. We also deliberately had written only a small amount of passengers in the plane. Which was actually quite realistic, as in the early seventies not too many people used planes as much as they do today. And we situated the story on Christmas Eve, when most people would either be home or would have already arrived at their family.
What was hard about filming inside the plane is that we had sunny weather, so the temperature rose to 130 degrees. We had to be careful to keep people from fainting, especially when we were shooting shots where we needed both the film crew and passengers inside. We had moments when Eric and I thought we might have been a bit too ambitious.
AV: Why did you choose the D. B. Cooper story to use for your first movie?
Jeff Pickett: Because it happened quite close to the region where I grew up. It was such a well-known story, I mean Eric and I hadn't even been born yet but when we were kids we heard our parents discussing the case. It's almost like a legend. One of my first scripts was actually about this skyjacking, but it never got to anything.
Later on as we were thinking about a feature film, we didn't want to make a movie about young people in a room, discussing life. Mind you, lots of great movies have been made about people in a room, talking but there are now so many of those that it was not what I wanted to do for my first feature. And then during a discussion Eric said "we should make a movie about D. B. Cooper" and we both really liked the idea, so we started working on the script.
AV: And then you think: we need 30.000, but we can probably only get 20.000...
Jeff Pickett: (laughs) You'll be surprised to hear it was actually the other way round. We estimated we needed 10.000 dollar, so the 20.000 was a big budget increase. We all put some extra money in, Eric because he wants to use this movie to further his career as a cinematographer, me because I want to further my career as a director. But really, getting a movie financed is so hard, that has taken the most time and effort.
AV: Now you're showing the end result in festivals. Did you visit any others apart from Rotterdam?
Jeff Pickett: No, we haven't yet. Atlanta will be the second festival where we show it. However, "Skyjacker" will be shown at the Warsaw Film Festival in October. We're all very excited about that, especially our executive producer Jakub Czyz because he was actually born there, and lived in Poland till he was seven.
AV: Are you nervous about the upcoming US premiere?
Jeff Pickett: Not really, the world premiere was in Rotterdam and it only happens once. I was very nervous about that first screening.
AV: You've already mentioned the mixed reviews. When you're sitting in the cinema with the rest of the people, and you feel the audience's mood shifting halfway through the film or people get restless, what does that feel like?
Jeff Pickett: Oh man, that's a very good question! You have no idea how scary that is. I mean, thankfully people laughed at the right times but it was nearly killing me. I've heard something about Woody Allen and I don't know if it's true or legend, but it is said he never watches his movies in a cinema because it's too stressful.
What is really devastating is... maybe some people felt they had something better to do but... we had some walkouts. Not many, at the world premiere there were over 300 people in the cinema and about ten of those left during the movie. But you really feel every one of those, they hurt!
But it's about of the most tense thing there is. As for other screenings, I was in the audience during the first two, and I decided to skip the last two. I'm thinking about not attending the screenings at the other festivals.
AV: Or just turn up for a Q&A afterwards.
Jeff Pickett: (laughs)Yes, maybe something like that.
AV: "Snackers" got really good reviews and a high score on IMDB. "The Skyjacker" scores a lot lower, and I said in my review I disliked it. I have to say you were very gracious about that...
Jeff Pickett: Yes, well, it's really true that bad publicity is a lot better than NO publicity. You guys paid attention to us and that helped, it gave us something to show other people. As for the lower ratings, "The Skyjacker" is a movie which polarizes the audience a lot more than "Snackers" did. As for "Snackers", I don't know if it got "rave reviews" but it has a nice score on IMDB. But it is a short movie so we could spend all resources on those 10 minutes and we had Jack Kehler, a terrific actor, in the lead. With "The Skyjacker" we knew in advance that stretching this story out the way we did would alienate some people.
AV: It's just that with this subject you either expect an action thriller or a character study. When you don't provide the audience with either of those two, people might feel disappointed.
Jeff Pickett: We deliberately set out to make this film a bit different, we were very ambitious about that. This ground has been covered so often that we wanted to set our movie apart. So it was going to be partly a thriller, partly an art-movie. Some people really disliked that while others responded a lot more favorably.
AV: During our screening, the audience started laughing when the fifth cigarette in a row was being lit.
Jeff Pickett: (laughs) Yes, one of the things we wanted to show is that during the skyjacking, not many exciting things happen. The things a skyjacker does are actually very, ehm...
Jeff Pickett: I was going to say "boring" but yeah, sedate!
So we knew in advance this approach would never please everyone, but I love the end result and I'll choose it any time over something like "Snackers". I'd rather make a movie which a few people really love, than a movie which many people feel slightly positive about. Of course it's always nice if you can make a movie which is loved by many people but well, this one wasn't going to be it.
I expect my next movie to be a lot less polarizing than "The Skyjacker" was. I'm working on the script and it will be more audience-friendly.
AV: What's it going to be about?
Jeff Pickett: It's going to be called "Notes", and it's about a guy who has chosen a corporate job but through circumstances goes on a journey back to being an artist. This person goes to Austin, Texas and finds an apartment with a roommate through Craigslist. The roommate, an unemployed ex-member from a past grunge-band, turns out to be his total opposite: instead of neat he is a slob, instead of having a job he lives off the royalties from the one crossover hit he was part of.
But then the neat guy enters a songwriting contest and gets a bit successful, so the grungerocker tries to beat him and both start to compete for months, each trying to outdo the other and write the best song. When the landlord has to sell the building and chucks them out, they realize that the past months were the best times of their lives.
And then our time was up, so that concluded the interview.
In case you're a friend of Jeff and wonder why he suddenly "talks" differently: this interview was done over the phone, and shortly afterwards I discovered to my chagrin that the recording device delivered a corrupt soundfile. I tried but did not manage to salvage the contents so I had to write this article from memory (Jeff knows and approves of the outcome).
I hope Jeff will take his next project to Rotterdam so I'll be able to meet him. I am still not particularly fond of "The Skyjacker", but speaking about it with Jeff was a hoot and quite enlightening.