Classical Period: An Interview with director Ted Fendt

There should be a cinema of reading whose sole generic requirement be that it contain lengthy shots of people reading either to themselves or out loud for others to hear. Watching a film and reading a book are acts inherently connected to me: both require at least a modicum of attention, depending on the density of the material; both involve a zeroing in on a particular cast of characters, occurrences or places; both erect a wall and window to the world, a barricade against distractions whilst also allowing for pervious scraps of previously unseen minutiae to be revealed anew. Most importantly though, and this is in those rare moments when an unnameable something internally clicks in the body (like a fist opening up into a palm), it can induce a state of enormous attention and calm, of altering the breath, an aura of peace spreading out from the reader/viewer.

Such could be said of the effects of watching Ted Fendt’s second feature Classical Period, which had its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale. Clocking in at a brief, yet robust 62 minutes, the film circles around the members of a Philadelphia-based reading group, with Cal, a bespectacled armchair scholar, as its protagonist and center. Alongside Cal are his friends Evelyn, Chris, Mike, and Sam. Together they obsessively discuss, dissect, and cite Henry Longfellow’s 1864 American translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, whilst digressing into their own discussions about architecture, theology, urban planning, the English Reformation, Denise Levertov, Beethoven, Albert Hofmann, Borges, Frank Lloyd Wright…the multiplying web of citations, references, and secondary sources exponentially increase, leaving the viewer both amazed and confounded by the prodigious level of erudition that these characters possess. The intellectual material is placed both in the background and foreground of the film. There are no interpersonal relationships or personal connections – everything that is communicated is done so through the medium of a text, a specific architectural site, a historical anecdote, such as Cal’s very long monologue about the heretic English Catholic, Father Campion. Attempts at personal exchange quickly veer off into further academic confabulations. It is Evelyn’s character that tries hardest to break out of their weltfremd routine, wishing she could ‘speak more directly’, yet ultimately is unable to.

Sublimating character interiority in favor of surface transmissions, it is a style of acting that brings to mind the films of Straub/Huillet, or Bresson – the objective distanced performances, the somewhat visibly awkward delivery of lines, and the explicitly quotation laden content. A play between the performance and the content widens the scope for our attention to drift towards other things; the audience is free to roam elsewhere, or else to reach a new level of encounter with a text. Some of the monologues and readings are very long, to the point where at least I did reach a state of pure listening – that above mentioned internal click.

Wedged between these dialogue-heavy scenes are brief, yet breath-giving moments of stillness: Cal alone at home reading while bathed in soothing early evening sunlight; writing extensive notes in a notebook on the Cantos while his hand rests on two intimidating tomes; him standing alone in his apartment in a pool of light, the reflected pattern of the window frame on the floor – all images of the kind of beautiful poignancy that one find’s in the paintings of Edward Hopper.

Other moments: Towards the end whilst Cal and Evelyn are discussing the Purgatory outside in extreme close-up, the edges of their faces framed by green summer leaves lilting on wind currents, the light on Evelyn’s cheeks turning dark as a cloud moves in front of the sun (at least that’s what I imagine happened).

The film was shot on 16mm, using direct sound – all characteristic of Fendt’s previous work. He organizes the films under conditions of extreme independence, self-financing all of them by working as a projectionist at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, and as translator of German and French films. A strong collaborative strand is paramount to his mode of production, working only in small crews, always with cinematographer Sage Einarsen, and sound recorder Sean Dunn. There is an unspoiled rawness to his films that are not bothered by conventions or constructs such as naturalistic acting, character psychology, establishing shots, or credits.

I saw down with director Ted Fendt, and his lead actor Calvin Engime to discuss their film.

 How did the idea for the film come about, what was the writing process like, did the actors you worked with contribute to the texts?

TF: It was in October 2015 that I had just finished reading In Search of Lost Time. I was discussing it with a friend who had recommended it to me, and we were talking about the really long salon scenes in Proust, wherein the character goes to these literary intellectual salons. This friend of mine had just seen my last film, Short Stay (2015), and we were talking about what it would be like to transpose the kind of Proustian salon to the suburban American milieu I had been making films in before. He suggested that this other friend of mine, Cal, who appears in the last film, would be a good conduit if I wanted to bring in more of my literary interests to a movie. So that was kind of the generating thing, the transpositions of these Proustian salons, and Cal, whom I also wanted to film more at length for a while. The other thing was this 1864 translation of Dante by Henry Longfellow that I always wanted to read, and I decided this would be a good motivation to do so, and incorporate that into this literary salon group. And you also wanted to know about the writing process.

I was just wondering from where the points of references and topics came from, because the same things keep coming back, such as theology, architecture etc. If they came from you, Cal, or both.

CE: 85 percent of it came from the actors, from me, Mike, Chris, Sam…

TF: Yeah. I wanted the movie to be very verbose, because my other films had very little dialogue, which I mostly would write, or I would ask people to retell stories that they had told me before. I wanted this movie to be very talkie. Also because I felt like if you wanted to have some sort of authenticity to a book group it had to be talkie, and I obviously did not feel capable of writing that much. I would either ask Cal to retell some story he had told me before, or I would talk at length with Evelyn about Dante, and would take notes or record what she was saying, and then I would write a dialogue based on that. We would then rehearse, where everyone was allowed to rewrite stuff, customize it to their own mouths. For Cal’s lines I think I would usually just leave blanks, put in a description of what I wanted him to talk about, record and transcribe that, and that would be the text that would be used to think of the shots, and would be the foundation for when we were filming.

There were these kind of original three ideas that were mine, and then based on that I would then go further into other directions based on what Cal or anyone else in the movie was interested in. Their interests needed to be leading the movie in different ways.

CE: I don’t think it’s printed on the film, but I saw this was billed by the festival as written and director by Ted Fendt. [Laughs] I object to that.

TF: I object to that too. [Laughs] They are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

The end credits are also very brief.

TF: They are very brief, and I also think that movies are very collectively made, so I don’t like this directed by, edited by crediting. I just have one card with the names of the people that are in the film, and one card for the people who were behind the camera. I guess I organize the stuff, but I couldn’t make the film without the three other people in the crew.

All of your films, from the three shorts up until Short Stay have this very collaborative feel to them, and I wanted to ask Cal, because you deliver these incredibly long dense monologues on topics such as the English Reformation, on Father Campion, and-

CE: That was written on the set on the spot.

TF: Well, he had told me that story a year before. I began thinking about this movie in October 2015. I just finished making Short Stay, and any conversation I had with Cal or other people were feeding notes that I was taking about what I maybe wanted to be in the movie. The day before Thanksgiving 2015 we were in a bar in New Jersey, and we were having this conversation with three other people about the Reformation, and Father Campion came up, and I remembered that. Then a year later when we were shooting I said to Cal, ‘You’re going to tell that story at some point in the movie’. He arrived, was lying on the couch resting, he told the story, I recorded it to get a sense of how long it would be. I said ‘Can you tell this again, just like you did’, and ten minutes later we filmed it in one take. And that’s a movie.

Yeah, because it’s hard to see how much of a performance there was involved on Cal’s side.

TF: It’s a performance, anything in front of the camera is a performance. It’s not a psychological performance. I don’t think he’s thinking of something in his head and trying to give it form, gesture, and intonation. I just wanted him to talk causually, but obviously it’s artificial because he’s in front of the camera, and he’s retelling a story from a year before.

There is also a lot of reading in the film. People reading to each other at great lengths. Was there a lot of rehearsal done of the readings before they were shot, did you want to establish a tone?

TF: Well, I wanted the readings to be kind of casual too. So, for example, in the scene in the beginning of the film when Cal’s at his friend Chris’s apartment, and he’s reading this quote from Borges – that was rehearsed a little bit a week before, but it wasn’t something that we spent a lot of time getting down. I just wanted to make it sound like Cal reading from a book.

When Evelyn is reading from The Divine Comedy that was also never really rehearsed. She had read the whole book, reads a lot of poetry, so I just wanted to hear what it would sound like if she just read it. So, yeah, those were not really rehearsed, because I wasn’t looking to give a particular rhythm, other than the person’s own natural rhythm. I also think it’s just enjoyable to watch people read, so that’s why there’s a lot of shots of people reading too.

I really liked that about the film, how there is this constant flow of talking, but then you also have these really great moments of Cal alone reading in these beautifully composed shots in this early evening light – it gave me time to breath and just to be with this person in this solitary moment. But I never had the feeling that Cal was self-isolating himself from people, that you were just showing how these people go through life through a web of citations, and secondary sources, but not judging their mode of living.

TF: Yeah, I felt that the last movies had gotten too much in the direction of what I guess I would call, and have called, a behavioral composite where you’re trying to give an impression of someone’s everyday life though showing little details in short scenes. And so in this I wanted nobody to express themselves except through their literary intellectual interests, and that would be how to learn about them. It was to get away from this sense of realism. This is why the spaces are abstracted and in these rooms that are not really placed anywhere. There are no establishing shots, and there isn’t really any scene orientation either. I wanted this also to be the case in the dialogue, that the characters are not giving some kind of description of how everyday life is like, as say in a [Frederick] Wiseman film, but it be more abstracted in terms of who the characters are. You only learn about them through these specific interests. Although with the Evelyn character there are some cracks in the armor towards the end.

I saw it as Evelyn trying to rebel against this kind of behavior, but as she does so she immediately falls back into referencing. And it’s funny because Cal starts talking about this James Joyce short story, and she immediately cuts him off, which for the audience is an unexpected jolt.

TF: Yeah, that character is a mixture of her, me, and this other friend at the time wanting to incorporate some hostile journal entries I had made while I was in Vienna. Also I had been having a bout of insomnia, which her character also has. So I tried to adapt that to her character, hence the sleeplessness, the nightly walks.

Formally, this film is quite different from Short Stay, wherein every scene was in one shot. Here there is inter-cutting within scenes, lots of close-ups with characters isolated in these, as you say ‘abstracted’ spaces from each other. How did you develop the language for this film?

TF: It’s a couple of things. One is I wanted to have the movie be a bit more still, to have the movement not happen with the characters moving around, as I wanted it with Short Stay, but to have the movement in the cutting. Also, from a practical point of view, since the scenes are quite long, I thought it would be mean and rather difficult to have actors memorize so much dialogue, and get it in a ten minute take every time. Then I was also thinking of kind of partitioning the scenes into a series of shots that would not even be motivated by what was being said. That’s why sometimes you have a long shot of someone who talks, and then it stays on them while someone else is talking to them off screen.

CE: So this is the Straub/Huillet influence?

TF: I don’t think so.

I was going to mention Straub/Huillet, because it seems that, and this is also the way that you use direct sound, that they are two filmmakers who are a particular focus of interest for you.

TF: I like direct sound, and it could come from their films, but I like the way direct sound adds a particular kind of intensity to images. And, yes, Straub/Huillet use great direct sound, but so does Wiseman. It’s people just working with less means too. But this is something that I like, the clashes of sound between different scenes, loud and quiet, that are just the result of the different locations.

Yeah, because there are moments when the surrounding traffic almost drowns out the dialogue…

TF: In those instances I wonder if we should have just moved the camera closer so the microphone could have been closer.

It didn’t bother me, because I began to focus on other things like the leaves in the background, or the change in sunlight as it’s shining on a person’s face. So for me there are two things going on in the images: there is the content, that which is being spoken, and then there are these other background elements that are just as important.

TF: That was also related to using longer shots, because there is not really any story in the movie, so you would have…If you had begun to form some kind of context in your head, based on what was being discussed, these people are talking for so long that you would lose track of whatever that context was in the length of the shot, be it because it’s a long shot of Cal listening to music, reading, or talking with so much information that it’s almost too much to take in.

It’s also quite humorous as well the amount of information being compressed into these monologues, especially in that very long scene of the four together in the book group discussing Canto 5, with Cal talking crammed with information, and Sam’s response would be: ‘Thank you, Cal’. That generated a lot of laughter among the audience

TF: Okay, good [Laughs] That came about in the rehearsal. The idea of Sam leading the book group was always there, but his responses – that was his idea of what he would say in that context.

Could you talk more about that scene, because I think it’s the longest scene out of any of your films. What was it like to shoot that?

TF: It was the first idea for the movie, but also the last thing I wrote, because it seemed very intimidating, and I didn’t know how I was going to write such a long scene. Plus it had to be long in order for it to make sense to me as the kernel of the film. I had Cal and Evelyn read the Comedy. I then met with Evelyn in January 2017 to talk about Canto 5, and took notes based on what she was saying. Then I went to write the scene based on what she said, leaving blanks for Cal, giving Chris the questions I had to him to pose, with Sam being the reader of the group. The scene was then organized into three parts, which we rehearsed once with everyone changing things – I recorded and transcribed that. The day before we shot it I just intuitively broke it down into three shot sections, each shot from a different side of the table, and that is broken down into further shots just to make it more practical for the people having to talk for so long. It was all very intuitive what the shots were, what chunks of dialogue they would encompass, and just my reaction to reading text then. The editing was very intuitive too in terms of what take to choose. Everyone knew their dialogue very well, so there weren’t very many takes of it. Only three at most.

In that scene Chris says something about the footnotes of the Cantos being more enjoyable than the poem, which to me seemed like an analogy for the film, wherein you have these characters who approach life via secondary sources rather than life itself. Is that something you had in mind?

TF: Well, that comes because I knew I wanted to read this translation. It was the first American translation of Dante, and when I got that book I discovered that the footnotes are really dense and long, all citing sources from before 1864 compiled over years, in two columns, and they are a work of art in and of themselves. Through the footnotes there are a number of associative connections throughout the movie, which I noticed as I was cutting it. As I said, the content of the scenes came out of the intellectual and academic interests of the people in the films, and not interpersonal relationships, which leads to a block to talking about anything personal that can lead to feelings of isolation.

You really get a sense of Philadelphia in the film, and I was wondering how you choose locations, if I can use that word, or were they places that were familiar to you from before? The Powell House, for instance or other places.

TF: It’s funny because there were actually more exterior shots that we did that I did not include in the film. I wanted to try to not show too many exteriors, and make it less a film about specific Philadelphia sites, and more these abstracted non-specific interiors, but using harsh lighting with heavy contrasts to make them beautiful. The house that Cal is shown in is my grandmother’s – I just wanted to film there, which was also an early idea, and I happened to get lucky with the sunlight. The Powell House because that’s what Mike wanted to talk about. I wanted it to be an old house of Philadelphia.

One shot in particular stands out for me – the one where Cal and Evelyn run to each other during an early morning walk on a street with this great empty lot in the background.

TF: Yes, Washington Street it’s called and it’s an important one in Philadelphia. I had previously shot on Washington Street in Short Stay, two different shots of the same building. I wanted to shoot there again, because it’s an important historical boundary between the Center City area, and the more neighborhood type area in South Philadelphia. I also wanted to shoot it at dawn, but I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that.

Your films start and end very abruptly, this one included. No title cards, brief end credits. What is the impulse behind that?

I decided that I don’t like title cards, because the title is on the poster, the postcard, the calendar, it is redundant. Also it’s an additional way of trying to orient the viewer, which I don’t like. I just want the movie to begin, and you’re thrown right into it, like deep water swimming. I don’t like long credits. There is no one financing the movie, so I don’t have any obligation to put a hundred logos and shit at the end of it. I don’t like ‘Special Thanks’. I think that’s for movies where no one gets paid, so they get a ‘special thanks’. I think that’s also silly. Also being a projectionist, and having to project so many movies with really long credits at the beginning and end, I would just spend time in the booth making fun of them with a colleague. So I decided there is no need to have an opening title, because everyone knows it. If they don’t know it they can look at their ticket. If they want more information about the people who worked on the movie that is also available elsewhere. But, yeah, it has a lot to do with me not liking easing people together into the film. I find that the movies that have that abrupt quality I always find very exciting.




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