Cody Clarke is an independent filmmaker and film critic from Brooklyn, NY. He has made two feature-length films in the last two years, Shredder (2011) and Rehearsals (2012). He is currently filming his third, Siobhan, a fully silent, PG-13 romantic dramedy (with subtitles for spoken dialogue and ASL) starring Tami Lee Santimyer and a bevy of other talent from the Deaf theater world, including Briana Birks, Jackie Roth, Greg Anderson, John McGinty, Aneta Brodski, Eddie Buck, and Tad Cooley.
Cody, tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up? What’s your background? When and what made you get into filmmaking?
I was born and raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and still live there. If you’ve ever seen Noah Baumbach’s masterpiece The Squid and the Whale, thats the neighborhood. When my parents first moved there, it was a pretty rough area, but for most of my life it’s been a wonderful and safe place to live, with lots of character. I’m shooting a lot of Siobhan there.
What inspired you to make Siobhan?
When I get an idea for a film, a lot of times it just comes to me as an image in my mind’s eye, some compelling visual that I can tell could be part of a beautiful movie, even though I have no idea what the story will be yet. In the case of Siobhan, it was just the image of a sad, lonely Deaf woman with long black hair sitting alone in a big apartment. And that image would pop in my head from time to time, nagging me that I still need to crack its mystery. But I didn’t really have any ideas.
Then one day, while researching the history of silent film, I came across an essay online by John S. Schuchman called ‘The Silent Film Era: Silent Films, NAD Films, and the Deaf Community’s Response’. I didn’t actually read the whole article, because it was on an academic site where you had to register and pay to read it, but I read the free sample, and in it he describes the silent film era as a brief golden age for the American Deaf community, since Deaf and Hearing audiences alike could appreciate these movies on the same level. And that really stuck with me. It seemed so sad and unfortunate to me that as a side effect of movies starting to rely on spoken dialogue, that golden age was gone forever. Especially since subtitling technology has gotten lightyears better since then—back then you had to break up the visuals with interspersed cards that explained what the character had said, but now, as we all know, subtitles can be there on screen with the spoken dialogue. The technology is there to support immersive, fully silent films that allow Deaf and Hearing audiences to once again have a shared, pure experience, but for some reason no one is really making movies like that, despite the fact that there is a wide audience who loves to watch subtitled foreign films from all over the world. Why not treat ASL like a beautiful, intriguing foreign language?
So once the concept of the movie was there—a fully silent film with subtitles for the spoken dialogue and ASL—I was pumped. I decided to see who was out there, what Deaf and Hard of Hearing talent were available, to see if seeing some faces gave me any ideas. So I put out a lot of posts online searching for actors. When Tami Lee Santimyer contacted me, there she was, the woman in my head. And the story started writing itself in my mind, just from seeing her. The riddle of the image of the sad Deaf woman in my mind started solving itself. I started realizing why she was sad. And then when Briana Birks contacted me, I knew there had to be a sister character, and that she had to be Tami’s sister. And then that crucial sister relationship started writing itself in my head too. Not long after that, I had a first draft of the script completed.
Can you tell us what the film is about?
The film is about a reclusive Deaf woman in her late 20’s, named Siobhan, who lives alone in her late grandmother’s huge apartment in Park Slope. Siobhan is a very serious type, a perfectionist who so far has spent her life pleasing her mother and doing as best as she could in school—at the cost of a social life. She’s never experienced romance, never been kissed. She regrets missing out on all that, but is too socially awkward to anything about it.
In comes Sophie, her estranged, troublesome, outgoing, hard-of-hearing 18 year old sister who is essentially her polar opposite. Awful in school, has had trouble with the law, and definitely way too much romance. But Sophie is sick of all that, and wants to fly straight. So, she shows up unannounced into Siobhan’s life, wanting to patch things up as a first step towards being a good, responsible person. Siobhan is dismissive, but Sophie hooks her by saying that she can help her find love. Over the course of the film, they go through ups and downs, both comedic and tragic, as Sophie tries to do just that.
Is there a special significance to the name Siobhan?
I’ve always thought it was a beautiful name. It sounds great. ‘Sha-vaughn’. I like that it’s not spelled the way it sounds. It’s enigmatic. And I thought thematically, it’d be interesting for a Deaf character to have a name that’s difficult even for Hearing people to pronounce. The name is a hurdle, but a beautiful hurdle.
Did you make this film for yourself, or did you have an audience in mind?
That’s an interesting question. I’d say I primarily make films for myself. I think a lot of filmmakers do. You make a film because you simply want that film to exist. It’s something you yourself would want to watch, and so you do what you can to bring it into existence. And it’s also like that saying, ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ When you have a great, powerful idea for a movie, the responsible thing to do is to do your best to make it happen. It’s not like the idea came to you for no reason—it came to you because you’re supposed to do something with it.
I also think that the whole thing of being concerned whether others will like a film you make is a waste of time. Whether or not you even like it yourself, there will be people in this world who love it and people who hate it. So you might as well just make films you yourself truly love. Because you really can make movies for others simply by holding true to what you uniquely believe a great movie is. No one is so unique that they’re the only person in the world that can like a particular film, so no matter how ‘for yourself’ you make a film, there are tons of other people who will like it as well. There’s nothing narcissistic at all about making art ‘for yourself’, and artists shouldn’t feel guilty about doing that.
What have you learned along the way, making Siobhan?
I really had no awareness of how big the Deaf theatre community is, for one thing. Or how bursting with talent it is. The actors I’m working with on this film are just a small portion of the extraordinary pool actors within that community, actors that, if they weren’t Deaf or Hard of Hearing, would be getting tons of work. It’s really a shame there are so few roles for Deaf or Hard of Hearing actors. I hope that Siobhan will help open eyes to this vast well of talent, just like my eyes were opened, and I hope more filmmakers write significant roles for them.
I also learned a lot about the beast that is Hollywood. I spent two years trying to find funding and support for this film in that foreign land, and it was hell. The stereotypes are true. So many empty promises, entitled jerks, and visionless people in positions of power. Obviously, not everyone in Hollywood is like that, and I did meet a couple good people, but overall I had a pretty bad time. I should have just kept to my DIY way of doing things, and not wasted time down that road, but it was at least a learning experience. I learned just how truly blessed I am to be a broke, fully independent filmmaker who doesn’t have to answer to idiots all day.
How do you want others to see you as a filmmaker?
I’d like people to see me as a filmmaker with integrity, even if they don’t like my work. Someone who always puts out films they fully stand behind. Because my films are all huge labors of love for me. I put my all into it every single aspect, and it’s not finished until I adore every scene.
Have you done any other films before this? If so, how many others and what were they about?
I’ve made two feature-length films in the last two years, ‘Shredder’ and ‘Rehearsals’. Shredder is a black and white, minimalist teen film about falling love with music. It’s based somewhat on my experiences falling in love with metal and music theory. Rehearsals is an experimental documentary where I filmed fly-on-the-wall footage of sixteen aspiring actresses just living their lives, and then collaged the footage to form a day in the life one actress, with each actress essentially ‘playing’ that one actress. Both movies are kinda hard to explain in just a sentence or two. You can find out more about them in detail here: Chill.com/killthelion/shredder
What have you and the Siobhan cast learned while making this movie? Both the positives and negatives.
Obviously I can’t really speak for them, but one of the things I think we’ve learned is patience. A lot of the actors on this project have been here since the get go, which was years ago. They stuck with me because they believe in the film and they believe in me. I couldn’t do this without their support.
And as far as negatives, I think patience can be a good thing and a bad thing. In my Hollywood dealings, I was patient with some people that probably didn’t deserve it, and was hurt as a result. It’s important to learn when to be patient with people, and when to just walk away, and I definitely learned that.
What’s next for you, after Siobhan?
I have a few projects in the pipeline, one that I’ll definitely be shooting and completing in 2014 (in keeping with my one-film-a-year craziness) which is a love story starring just two people, that I want to shoot in a single day. And also I have two other scripts I’d like to finish writing. Those would be for 2015 and 2016 I guess. Who knows. I might have to bump this up to two films a year. The ideas keep piling up!
What can our readers do to help Siobhan on along?
Spreading the word always helps. That’s a very simple way to help. The more people know about what we’re trying to do, the better. It’s very difficult for independent films to find their audience. Word of mouth is crucial to Siobhan becoming a film that can reach a global audience of Deaf and Hearing filmgoers alike.
Any last words?
I should mention that in addition to being a filmmaker, I’m also the editor-in-chief and head critic of a movie site, Smug Film. I and a bunch of great critics do movie reviews, essays, interviews, and lists. If you’re into that sort of thing, definitely check us out at SmugFilm.com
Completely Silly Random Questions:
If you had only six months left to live, what would you do with the time?
I wouldn’t be hedonistic about it at all. I’d be diligent. I’d simply spend most of it writing finished scripts for all the movie ideas I have swirling around my head that I haven’t yet gotten to. In fact, that’s kind of a good concept for a movie: a writer who does that, instead of living the last six months of his life by having as much fun as possible. Urgh, now I have to add that idea to the endless mental pile!
You have the choice to live with a gorilla who knows sign language or a dog who sings lullabies, which do you choose?
The dog, definitely. The gorilla would break my heart. I’d just cry all day. Have you ever seen that documentary, Koko: A Talking Gorilla? Gorillas that know sign language just tug on my heart strings like crazy. I’m vegan, I see animals as friends not food, so that kinda stuff just hits me hard. It’s so beautiful.
If you could be a superhero, what would you want your superpowers to be?
Money. I’d like to have a lot of money. I think that’d be a great power. I’d be able to make all the big movies that are waiting patiently in my head for me to afford to make them. And also, I could help people out. Maybe I couldn’t stop speeding trains, but I could help people get a leg up in life.
If you were a Star Trek® [or Star Wars® ] character, which one would it be?
Yoda. He lives a long life, does a lot of good, and dies peacefully. I like his arc the most out of any of the characters.
The ten questions Lipton asks are:
What is your favorite word?
Movie. It’s just a funny, pleasant word. It has a nice ring to it. Even if I wasn’t a filmmaker, I think i’d like it.
What is your least favorite word?
Manslaughter always struck me as a weird word. It sounds worse than murder, yet it’s not as bad as murder.
What turns you on?
Wisdom. Not even intelligence per se. I know some really intelligent people who are cold and have no real wisdom to offer. Wisdom is extremely attractive. I like people with solid judgement.
What turns you off?
The opposite. People with values that are all out of whack. People who have awful views of right and wrong.
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What is your favorite curse word?
Fuck. I didn’t say it in the interview, because fuck that shit, but I actually say it a lot.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I guess I’d like to be on TV, as a political pundit of sorts. Politics fascinate me, and I’m a pretty staunch libertarian. I love the show Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld, and I think I’d be great as a regular guest on that, or other news shows. And I’d like to do some stuff with Reason.com as well.
What profession would you not like to do?
Doctor, lawyer, teacher, cop, office drone. Anything along those lines. I’m just not cut out for that at all. Too much bureaucracy.
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
I’d like him to shake his head from side to side and say “people, man.” And I’d be like, “I know, right!” and we’d just shake our heads like man, why can’t people just not be so lame and/or evil.