An Interview with Jakob Bilinski – By Josh Samford

For those who haven’t read through my reviews for his work in the past, Jakob Bilinski is an interesting filmmaker to say the least. His work has certainly been in debt to genre-cinema in the past but he is a filmmaker that is growing harder and harder to pin down in any one given area. Having reviewed so much of his work, I was glad to sit down and have a conversation with the man for the sake of Rogue Cinema. Having just finished his latest project Obsolescence, we catch him in the promotional stages as he aims between projects. A talented filmmaker with a lot to say, we would like to thank Mr. Bilinski for his time and efforts.

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Rogue Cinema: For the Rogue Cinema audience who haven’t read up on you or seen our coverage for your previous films, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the kind of films you make?

Sure thing. I’m from southern Indiana – Evansville, to be specific. As for the kind of films I make, it varies quite a bit. I try to explore multiple genres, rather than focus on making one particular “type” of film. I tend to prefer telling dark tales, or ones that have complicated (and often sinister) currents running throughout, but, like I said, dabble in a bit of everything. Cinephreak Pictures is my production company home, it started technically back when I was in high school, making über-geeky short films with my friends. Things have grown more professional since then (hopefully that’s obvious!). Over the years I’ve done over 20 shorts, and numerous music videos for bands in the Midwest. My 2006 short FOXXY MADONNA VS THE BLACK DEATH, a 70s grindhouse throwback, was a top 15 finalist in the National Film Challenge (a 48 Hour Film competition), and went on to a very successful international festival run, picking up a few awards and numerous accolades along the way. My first feature, SHADE OF GREY, received some very nice reviews (including one right here on Rogue Cinema!), won “Best Feature Film – Suspense” at the 2009 NY International Independent Film Festival in L.A., and was released on DVD by Celebrity Video Distribution in March of 2010. My latest short, OBSOLESCENCE, a joint venture with Imp Films, was completed this year and is currently making the festival rounds. I think that covers most of the highlights, hope that wasn’t too boring.

Rogue Cinema: A closely tied together question, but perhaps deserving of its own answer, but how did you become a filmmaker? What set you on this path? Was it any one particular film or event?

Honestly I’ve always been hopelessly addicted to cinema, ever since I can remember. And stories in general (I consider cinema to be the ultimate form of storytelling). While my friends were wanting to play outside, I preferred to stay in and watch movies (read: I was a dork… scratch that, still am). In school I found ways to avoid doing class presentations by asking to make a video to show to the class (which often involved me editing together not-so-school-appropriate clips set to whatever music I was into at the time). My senior year of high school we had a massive cumulative project due for our Advanced English class. I opted to make a fifteen minute modernized, abridged version of Hamlet, with guns (it’s worth noting this was just pre-Columbine). Despite how rough (and in retrospect, rather embarrassing) it was, the class ate it up. I even won an award for it. People were coming up to me who I never talked to before wanting to engage in a discussion about it… you know, a real, deep, serious analytical dialogue to the tune of “Dude, you made a movie! Sick!” Anyway, it occurred to me that I worked ten times harder on that project (days of filming with no sleep) than I had on anything else, and it never once felt like work. It’s the only time I’ve ever experienced hard work consistently feeling like fun. That resonated with me, and I carried that planted seed through into college, where I realized the only thing I wanted to be, the only thing I COULD be, was a filmmaker. As for a particular film playing a factor, it was actually two (honestly there were several that were critical here, but I can distinctly trace it back to two): Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL and Fellini’s 8 1/2. I grew up on genre cinema, and these films changed the way I viewed the construct of what a movie was. I saw them both around the same time and realized that film was truly an art form, as well as a boundless source of entertainment. That duality still fascinates me.

Rogue Cinema: You mentioned working on music videos and such, what do you think of the art form? There’s a lot of debate within the film fan community about music video directors and such, but what is your take?

I completely understand the merits for debate amongst fellow cinephiles here. On average music videos can promote shorter attention spans, cheap and superficial imagery, and often lackadaisical storytelling, sure. But that’s a vast generalization. Music videos have a place in the mix, and it’s a genre all to itself deserving of recognition. I think the best music videos are treated as silent short films, set to music. I remember coming home from school and spending hours watching music videos on MTV (you know, back when they were in the business of showing them), and the good ones always stood out (and were quite influential). Sure there’s a lot of crap out there. But you have that in every genre. For every miserable waste of time you have to endure (e.g. the recent Rebecca Black craze… I’m actually embarrassed I just referenced that), there’s real art to be found. Given, they’re not as current (and conveniently available in a nice DVD boxset), but look at the works of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham. There’s brilliant work right there. Many other quality directors got their start in music videos – Mark Romanek and David Fincher (who’s one of my favorite auteurs), for instance. On a more recent note, I love the look of the majority of Lady Gaga’s videos, and she works with visionary directors (I’ll stand by my claim that the video to “Telephone” is the best music video I’ve seen in years, and one of the best examples of the continuing grindhouse resurrection). One of my most anticipated films this year is DETENTION, by Joseph Kahn, and from the looks of things (as well as early reviews/audience reaction) it might be a prime example of music video influence done right. I think it’s kind of unfair to write something off as being too derivative of a “music video aesthetic,” because a music video can be damn well anything you make it. People refer to that aesthetic when things are superglossed and hyperstylized, like the output of directors like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder. Sure it might not be your thing, but there’s absolutely a place for that stuff, and overall stylistic approach, in the medium (why do I feel on the verge of crucifixion at this point in the interview?). So yeah, I like music videos as a whole. Personally, I have a blast making them, and find them to be fantastic arenas for experimentation. I think you can hone your skills and try new things in the realm of music videos without as much fear of consequence, and that can make you a better filmmaker – it’s a much safer place to learn from any potential mistakes than, say, on a feature you’re trying to market. And like I said, they’re a helluva lot of fun.

Rogue Cinema: It’s interesting to find that art-house cinema was so integral in your growth as a filmmaker. Your previous works have definitely been influenced by genre cinema, but with OBSOLESCENCE one can definitely feel the clashes of culture. It seems as if you bring the patience of an arthouse film, but mix in the "high concept" thinking of genre cinema. Can you tell our audience a bit about OBSOLESCENCE and was this mix of aesthetics intentional?

Wow. First off, thank you for catching on to that. I’ll address that in a moment. In a nutshell, OBSOLESCENCE tells the tale of Nick (Scott Ganyo), a man who has recently suffered the loss of his wife. Unable to cope, he sets out on a dangerous journey to uncover the truth behind her passing. I’d had this idea for a feature I’d been kicking around for awhile but had shelved. I was crashing with Scott while spending a week in L.A. for a festival SHADE OF GREY was playing at (which Scott is the lead in). We’d been looking for a new project to work together on, and started talking about my old script. Digging the concepts there, from that we co-wrote and co-produced OBSOLESCENCE, which is essentially the first chapter in the back story to one of the main characters in the overall tale. The idea was to pitch a web series, the story of which would lead up to the larger-scale (hopefully) eventual feature. Worst case scenario, a short film is a helluva souvenir for the trip. We wrote and re-wrote the script up until mere hours before we shot. The actors got the script, in some cases, minutes before I called action. It’s a testament to the actors’ talents that their performances are so good given the circumstances. I can’t speak highly enough of the foursome of thespians on board – Scott, Jen Lilley, Rosalind Rubin, and Luca Ellis are hands-down the best cast I could’ve asked for. We shot the thing in 12 hours (spread across two days), so it was a very fast, renegade style shoot. And yes, that mixing of arthouse and genre cinema aesthetics was intentional. SHADE OF GREY was a very personal project, and I knew it would have a limited audience (artsy character-driven drama set in a single motel room with no name actors = tough sell). But it was something I was passionate about and had to do. With OBSOLESCENCE, I wanted to do something different. Focus foremost on the characters still, but up the stakes in terms of tension and conflict. And being my first time delving into the realm of a sci-fi thriller, I wanted to make something a little more genre-driven. But the “high concept” element we thought would work well as a sort of sneak-attack. Don’t rush into it, so to speak. So the film has a somewhat slow-burn build to it. This is a character drama that just happens to be dealing with a very specific set of genre elements. And as for the aesthetic approach, I tried to shoot the visuals with a sort of ethereal, kinetic, almost documentary-like approach. And I wanted each sequence to have a style of its own, to further enhance not only the non-linear structure, but also blur the lines between the characters’ fiction and reality. Hopefully that all comes across, but really it’s up to the viewer as to if it works or not.

Rogue Cinema: I really liked what you did with OBSOLESCENCE from that visual perspective. Although your films have looked great in the past, I think you really stepped up to a new stratosphere with the short. From a visuals perspective I was reminded of an Australian revenge thriller from a couple of years back called THE HOREMAN, and not just because of the torture! OBSOLESCENCE can be brutal at times, but it can also be very peaceful. The mixture never seems chaotic and it flows very well in that regard. How distinct were your visual ideas beginning at the scripting phase? Did you know you wanted "this" section to be harsh and brazen, while "this" section of the movie would feature a more "back to nature" sort of serenity, etc. or was it all just improvised as you went?

Thanks, man. I really appreciate that and am glad the visuals worked so well for you. The concepts I had for the film’s look definitely started forming as Scott and I wrote the script. The way I write, I don’t usually write a script as just a script. Rather, I see the film in my head. Co-writing with Scott was very beneficial. We were able to flesh out the story and characterizations much more fluidly by talking things out to one another. I sometimes tend to get hung up on visuals, so two pairs of eyes on the page helped in spades. I knew I wanted to distinguish separate tones for the film’s sections, to sort of polarize the worlds (the happy and lush memories of the past and the cold hard reality of the present). I wanted these two realms in which our protagonist exists to feel unique from one another, that he doesn’t really belong in either – one being pure memory and fantasy, the other being a place he longs to separate, and save himself, from. That juxtaposition was very exciting to me, and I thought could further be enhanced in the editing process. One particular aspect Scott and I were intrigued, and challenged, by was the notion of plunging into meeting this character as he’s torturing someone. You’re introduced to this guy as he’s doing terrible things, and this is our damn hero. We wanted to see if it was possible to redeem Nick in the audience’s eyes over the course of the rest of the film. Being that this was my first time shooting in L.A., and furthermore my first time not shooting in Indiana, I wanted to take advantage of the scenery. SHADE OF GREY was set in a single location – a dim and dismal motel room. OBSOLESCENCE was designed to be the polar opposite, with lush, diverse scenery and a more epic scope, location-wise. Of course there definitely was improvisation along the way, though. You can map out, structure and plan something until you’re blue in the face, but once you’re on set and the cameras are ready to roll, your mind starts working in a different way (at least mine does). There’s a creative energy on a film set that’s highly infectious, and often this infection can give way to new ideas and revealed concepts you might not have originally planned. You have to be open and receptive to that. If you get bogged down in your original course of action, sometimes you can unintentionally restrict yourself, and in turn, hurt the film. People will bring ideas to the table in the collaborative process on set, the weather could change, elements you thought were secured might fall through – if you don’t adapt and progress you might find yourself one step closer to failure. It’s that never take no for an answer adage. A large part of directing is problem-solving, and I love trying to find creative solutions. As I said before, I’ve always claimed film is the ultimate form of storytelling. And who doesn’t love stories? They’re part of the very fabric of our society. You can read a story, you can watch a story, you can hear a story, you can interpret a story through context, etc. Film combines all these storytelling forms – visuals, audio (dialogue and music)*, actors’ performances, subtext, the written word, et al – and clusters them into this one mutated, powerful, fused conglomerate whose impact is heightened through a multi-level stimulus attack. For me, it’s the perfect medium. Art and entertainment. So ultimately I was just concerned with telling the best story possible.

*It should be noted how integral I feel that Christopher John De Mory’s brilliant score, and Paul Grajek’s masterful sound design are to this tale.

Rogue Cinema: What has the promotion for OBSOLESCENCE been like so far? What have you been doing with the film and what are the next steps? Still pitching it as a series/feature?

Honestly things are still just getting started. We’re pending at several festivals right now (I hope to know more soon in the coming months), and have been accumulating reviews. So far they’ve been pretty flattering. I’d be lying if I said I expected that – of course as a filmmaker you always want to put your best foot forward and emerge with your strongest work, and I believed we had a good film on our hands… but it’s always a bit surreal to have people respond so well to something you create. I’m not sure why, but it is. It’s also very encouraging. I’m also arranging some special event screenings throughout summer, including a double feature event in May with my good friend and fellow local filmmaker P.J. Starks and his film, A MIND BESIDE ITSELF. I always enjoy promotional screenings, and it’s nice to keep awareness up amidst the festival run. As for the next steps – yes, Scott and I are still pitching the series and feature continuation of the story. This really is just the tip of the iceberg of these characters’ realm, a tease of what could be. We’ve got some great ideas as to where things can go from here should we attract the interest and funding needed to bring it all to fruition, and it’s always exciting to discover (to quote my favorite exclamation uttered at the end of every episode of “24”) what happens next.
 

Rogue Cinema:

As much as you’ve enjoyed shooting outside of Indiana, are there any plans to go back out to the West Coast?

Definitely. The exhibition and business side of all things cinema requires at least some occasional presence in L.A., and I love the environment, energy, and options that are available there. You also have a lot more access to seasoned cast and crew since that’s where most are located. But I thoroughly enjoy making films here in the Midwest, and there’s a wealth of quality talent throughout the area here that are always looking for projects to work on. So I still have plans to shoot on my home turf. Honestly, I’m most interested in wherever’s best for the film, be that in Indiana, California, or elsewhere. The nice thing about making movies is that you can really do it anywhere. Sets and locations can pass for just about anything if you’re creative enough. It doesn’t matter if your story takes place overseas, in the desert, in the forest, in a bustling metropolis – with the right set dressing and angles you can achieve that location wherever you want (within reason, of course). You just find what’s best for your story. Cast and crew are just a plane ticket, or even car drive, away. This is definitely more possible now due to the progressions in digital technology over the years. Back when I was in high school everything had to be shot on film. And filmmaking resources existed almost exclusively in L.A., it seemed. The technology just wasn’t around to make the process friendly for those wanting to get into independent filmmaking (and things were much more expensive). I remember walking into a Best Buy back then, trying to talk to someone about how I wanted to shoot something on my 8mm camcorder and get it into my computer to edit and I’d just get a blank stare. Computers didn’t even come with firewire ports. Now you can buy everything you need (technically) to make a movie off the shelf at your local electronics store. Digital cameras have come a long way in terms of capability and quality, and now there’s so much available to independent filmmakers, so many resources you can access online to teach yourself new tricks, and prices have come down to where it’s reasonable and affordable to most anyone, that the only thing keeping you from making your movie is, quite honestly, you. Of course there are always budgetary considerations, and you have to be realistic and smart about things (read: don’t think you’re going to make INCEPTION in your back yard), but still. That accessibility, and endless possibility is exciting, and ultimately just more fuel to the creative fire, and more colors on your palette. I’m pretty jealous of those high schoolers who are making the commitment to be filmmakers. They have access to all these tools that everyone in my generation would’ve killed for back then. Of course, this all gives way to the discussion of quality versus quantity, but that’s a completely separate (and equally lengthy) argument.

Rogue Cinema: What’s next on the agenda for Jakob Bilinski after you’ve finished all of the press/promotional work for OBSOLESCENCE? Have you given any thought to future projects?

Like I said, OBSOLESCENCE is still in its fetal stages and we’ll be continuing to develop and pursue expanding on that franchise. But yes, I’ve given a lot of thought to what’s next. I’m actually already starting pre-production on my next feature, my first official foray into horror. For some reason I’m continually referred to as a “horror filmmaker” even though I’ve never made anything in that genre (save for most of the music videos I’ve done being horror-themed). Being that it technically is my favorite genre, and I’ve danced around the idea for years, I feel like it’s the right time to take a stab (sorry… had to). Everything’s in the early stages there still, but I hope to be making some exciting announcements over the course of the year. I’ve got ideas for projects beyond that and am working on the scripts for them, but that’s all still pretty far down the line. What can I say? Never a dull moment.

Rogue Cinema: So where can our readers find out more about OBSOLESCENCE and Jakob Bilinski

You can learn more about everything I’m working on by visiting Cinephreak Pictures at http://www.cinephreakpictures.com, and while you’re there feel free to visit us on Youtube, Vimeo and Facebook. To learn more about OBSOLESCENCE specifically, you can either visit my site, or Imp Films at http://www.impfilms.com, and while you’re at it, “like” the film at http://www.facebook.com/obsolescencemovie. Man, all that self-promotion whoring’s made me tired… Thanks for humoring me.

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For those interested, make sure to check out his latest short Obsolescence which was reviewed within the magazine last month. We would like to thank Jakob Bilinski once again for all of his time and efforts, as he was a great sport while enduring this endless barrage of questioning!