Warsaw 2015 Interview: Kenny Riches on Off-Kilter Comedy THE STRONGEST MAN
The titular protagonist, Cuban construction worker Beef, thinks of himself as the strongest man, a skill he occasionally demonstrates and loves to ride his BMX. Beef along his sidekick and his closest friend Conan suffer by textbook arrested development, a syndrome of frozen puberty. The Strongest Man riffs off coming-of-age albeit in offbeat fashion of two adults trying to make sense out of life. The most common point of reference becomes Napoleon Dynamite, with The Strongest Man sharing an oddball brand of humour. Both protagonists start seeking and consequently even catching their spirit animal after being talked into a yoga session, inarguable proof of their immaturity and misconception of the road to self-discovery. And Beef loses his precious bike in the process.
ScreenAnarchy bumped into the director on it´s way out of a cinema and ambushed him with demand for an interview that was conducted next to a popcorn machine.
ScreenAnarchy: How does an artist end up becoming a filmmaker?
Kenny Riches: I studied painting and drawing in college. I always wanted to double major, in art and film, but the program at my university didn't have money and it was before the big technology boom. So if I wanted to do a student film, it would be on MiniDV or the school´s 16mm camera, which was unrealistic for me to afford the film and processing. It seemed like a waste of time and money to do all that, to do it non-sync black and white, cutting on the flatbed, which sounds cool but way too expensive. I just couldn't afford it, so I stuck with painting and made movies with my friends. I made shorts films, which is the way you ultimately learn anyways. You have make mistakes, try things yourself and see if they work or don´t work. In my case, being a visual artist really helps. It´s really one and the same. If you're a storyteller, you're a storyteller -- and if you are not, you are not. I think making art helps because of the visual language. Filmmaking is storytelling and regardless of what I studied, I would have ended up where I am either way -- making art and films.
Does the film relate to your art production?
No, they are completely different practices. I think there's an expectation for the two to be similar, but I make pretty formalist artwork and my films offer a different sensibility completely. The only point where it relates is the satire in the film about the art collector, about how silly the art world is. My girlfriend is also an artist and the art director of the film and when she read my script, she had to design and build the props in the film, like the painting of the dog taking a shit. It was kind of fun to have something in script format realized and physically go into the film.
You have mentioned you made films with friends which is also the case of The Strongest Man. You make it sound like it's quite easy to make films nowadays.
I think it's more accessible now than ever before. Well, making a short film is definitely cheaper, and I think people should make short films until they get comfortable. It feels the exact same as making a feature film, except you shoot for a few weeks longer. You know, you do preproduction for a month and shoot for one week and you have a short film. You do preproduction for a month, shoot for three or four weeks and you have a feature. But you have to do the short films for practice and learn how to tell a long format story.
Your film is a small or micro budget film?
Micro budget. We had investors from Utah and Florida, but it was a tight budget.
The Strongest Man is labelled as a comedy. What is your relation to comedy?
Well, my films are not dramatic but they are not purely comedic either, so I do not know where my films fit exactly. I can´t help but write comedy into my films, though I'm much more interested in the sad kind of pathetic human existence-type of comedy. I mean life is funny but also really sad and lonesome and sometimes sad is funny.
Is there any influence on you by other filmmakers or authors?
I am a big fan of Catcher in the Rye and that´s the one book that always sits by my bed. When it comes to cinema, I'm interested in films living in the same world as mine. Even if they are not strict comedies but have funny moments in them.
Wes Anderson for instance?
I like Wes Anderson, I really love P.T. Anderson, old Hal Ashby films like Being There. One of my favourite things is the Antoine Doinel cycle by Truffaut -- 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, etcetera. There are a lot of great films out there.
Comedies are quite hard to write. When you were doing your script, did you look where to land a punchline or was it more natural process?
Yeah. Surely, my intentions were to make the comic moments funny, although I must say working with actors and working with non-actors gives you two different things. For example Patrick [Fugit] knows exactly what he's doing and can get a reaction, very intentionally. And Paul Chamberlain, who plays Conan, is really funny in the film and a lot of that comedy is a combination of being a non-actor and understanding the language of the film as a viewer. Paul is also extremely funny in real life, he's that person that enters a room and pretty soon he's the center of attention and he's making everyone laugh.
Since you were working with actors and non-professional actors, does it mean there was also improvisation going on?
Yeah, a little bit. Not a ton, but a little bit. We didn't have too much time to do extra takes, it was a very quick production. I think the actors wanted to give me what I wanted and there were a few moments in the film where we had a bit of extra time for them to play around. For example, when Conan slides into the swimming pool in the middle of his conversation, that was just him doing his thing, totally improvised and one of my favourite parts in the film.
The Strongest Man looks like a coming-of-age, but the characters are in their late twenties. Why did this combination appeal to you?
I think all of my films tend to be about adults acting childish, or maybe I'm just stuck in that zone, but I also think what differentiates children from adults are the things you have to do to stay alive, you know, get a job, make money, buy food and shelter. Otherwise, I feel like everybody is just a child pretending to be an adult - pretending they're not insecure or scared or overly amused by simple things.
You implied that some bits in the film are autobiographical. To what extent?
That´s hard for me to answer because there's a little of me in every character I write. Most of the stuff going on in my films is from my life or people around me. It´s not strictly autobiographical -- you are not watching my life, but everything is pulled from my experiences. Like in Miami, my bicycle was stolen, my mother and Conan´s mother might be quite different but we both share that Asian mother thing, the stress of education and career is pretty heavy. So little things like that come from my life but I'm not necessarily trying to make an autobiographical experience out of it.
You mentioned that the film is also a love letter to Miami. How did that happen?
Seven or eight years ago, my girlfriend and I started visiting Miami. We are both from Salt Lake City and found Miami to be this very interesting place. We have friends there, Meatball´s [Robert Lorie] wife is my girlfriend's elementary school friend. So we had this base there and each winter we went, we made more friends. And eventually, we just decided to move there. I kind of became obsessed with Miami, the people I was meeting, the things I was seeing, and I really wanted to capture these observations and interactions on film.
Your depiction of Miami diverts from, let´s say, mainstream movies.
Well, a lot of people noted that Miami in my film is not the Miami they are used to seeing in movies because usually it´s the South Beach type of Lamborghini, bikini, cocaine films, you know, a very tourist experience. So I just tried to paint a more realistic portrait of the people in the city. I think this is especially true in the case of studio films. In my case, it would be impossible to make a film true to the city without having a diverse cast of characters.
Are you comfortable working on small budget?
Honestly, I really hope I don't have to make another film on such a tight budget as The Strongest Man. It´s very stressful to make small movies. You know how that saying goes that you can´t fix your problems with money? That does not apply for film. You literally can fix most of your problems with money. If you don't have enough people, you can hire more crew, if you can't find a location, you can pay for it. We had to be very creative while doing The Strongest Man, we had to make all of the art design and props ourselves, I was constructing the walls the protagonist runs through in my art studio. Even if it's fun and awesome making it DIY, it could have been done much more efficiently if we had a bigger budget. Fingers crossed for the next film that I do, so we don't have to scramble so much.
Last year, the New Zealand comedy What We do In Shadows by Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement was screened here in Warsaw. Now Waititi is rumoured to direct a tentpole movie for Marvel. Would you consider such an opportunity?
I feel like it would be an experience I would want to have because it´s not everyday someone tells you to make a huge production out of your film. So I think I would try, I'm not sure which direction it would go. Maybe I would love working with big budgets, but maybe the film would be taken away from me, maybe I wouldn't get final cut or something like that. That sounds scary.
There were a lot of controversies recently that directors did not have full control over the outcome of their studio films.
I think that's a common worry if you're working in the US studio system.
So would you consider it even for the price of not having full artistic freedom?
Well, again, I would like to have the experience of making a big budget movie even though it sounds like a nightmare to have a film taken away from you. At the same time, it sounds like a complete joy to have the money to pay people, to not worry about your production and have more shooting days, to have more rehearsal time and art direction, and things like that. I'd be willing to try it. It could be really fun.
Do you have a new project line up?
Yeah, I am writing and hoping to shoot in April in Florida.
Do you have funding secured already?
No, all of that will happen in the months to come. I'm still working on the script.
Can you at least hint what the story will be about?
It will also be a very South Florida-centric story and unless I change my mind, which happens now and then, the story deals with the Florida Keys, the Fountain of Youth, and a character that has never left the island of Miami Beach before. It also deals a little bit with the porn industry in Miami. Sounds weird, I know.
The Strongest Man is available on iTunes, VuDu, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Playstation Store and others.