Sundance ’11 Interview: ‘Catechism Cataclysm’ Director Todd Rohal

One of the films premiering in the genre-friendly Park City at Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival this year is directorTodd Rohal’s Catechism Cataclysm, a quirky buddy comedy/horror flick/absurd mash-up that tells the story of an “eccentric young priest” (Steve Little) and his ex-rock star childhood friend (Robert Longstreet) who embark on an ill-fated canoeing trip. B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen recently got on the phone with Rohal to discuss the hard-to-pin-down film, which according to the director was partially inspired (tonally, at least) by both Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (!) See inside for the full interview.
Frustrated filmmakers, take heart: things can get better. Catechism Cataclysm director Todd Rohal, for his part, was about as discouraged as he could be after years of trying to attain funding for his film projects and coming up empty-handed time and again. He’d made one feature previously – 2006′s little-seen Slamdance entry The Guatemalan Handshake – but was beginning to feel rather washed-up when actor/friend/fan Robert Longstreet got behind Catechism in a big way, not only by ponying up some of his own cash but soliciting even more funding from his influential friends over at Rough House Pictures (David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jody Hill). Now Rohal’s unorthodox story about a priest (Longstreet) and a former rock star (Steve Little) whose shared canoeing trip takes a bizarre turn is premiering in the Park City at Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival, in a mash-up of comedy, horror, Mark Twain homage and…well, just what is it exactly? I recently hopped on the phone with Rohal to get the skinny.

Bloody-Disgusting: Talk about how the project came together.

Todd Rohal: This whole thing came together really quickly…[I've been trying to get another film] off the ground for two and a half years…actually maybe it’s three years now. Over the course of this last summer, [I realized] that film wasn’t going to be happening, and it just really hit me hard in terms of `I don’t think I can go another year’…it’s been five years since I finished `Guatemalan Handshake’. And it was like, `I’m not a filmmaker, I’m not making anything!’ You know, I’m worrying about anything else but making a movie.

This idea…I’d gone to talk to the producers about it, and talked to them about trying to raise the financing for it and put it together. To me, [it] seemed like a great package, we were gonna shoot it really low-budget, and have Steve Little…I just felt like that would be easy to put together, and it wasn’t. It was insane. It was insane to raise 20 dollars…it really felt like begging for change.

And Rob for years had been saying, `you need to make another movie’…and finally after telling him about all the difficulty of the previous film and then this…he said `somebody just needs to tell you yes’. That’s all you need, [is] someone to just say `go do it’ and stop really digging in to the details and questioning why you’re doing something. He’s like, `as a fan I’m gonna put in the first [bit] of money and I’m gonna go call and get the rest of the money’.

And that call went to David Gordon Green, and then that kickstarted [the project]…and then Roughhouse Pictures came on, David’s company with Danny [McBride] and Jody Hill. And Matt Riley getting excited about the movie. That first push came from Rob. And then another actor that I wanted to play his role couldn’t do it, and I was just like, `shit, I know Rob’s doing plenty of other movies but he’d be really good at this!’ [Laughs]…I turned back around and asked him to be in it, and it’s the best decision I could’ve made.

BD: Had Steve Little been attached before that?

TR: Yeah…I had met him actually on that previous [film] I was trying to get going, in a reading with the Sundance Institute…he was great. [I] met him, and was surprised to hear that he wasn’t getting…after seeing `Eastbound and Down’ I was ready to see him in any kind of feature. I was really surprised to find that he wasn’t offered those kinds of things.

So immediately I was like, `I wanna write something for you’. [Laughs] Like, `if nobody else is gonna put you in anything, I will do it.’ Then I just emailed him and said, `I have this idea about a priest that drops his Bible in the toilet. We’ll shoot for a couple weeks, we’ll make it as easy as possible. Will you be up for doing that?’ And he came on board.

BD: It’s such a unique project, and I imagine that maybe was one reason why it was hard to get financing. Do you think that played into it?

TR: For me, what played into it the most was that I hadn’t made a movie in awhile, like five years. I’ve met a lot of people that are producers and stuff, and I just feel like in their eyes I was a person that made a movie and was not making movies. And therefore, if nobody else was making my movies, then they shouldn’t be making my movies…that’s a total paranoid view of myself, sure, maybe, probably. But it really felt like if you’re not an active filmmaker, then why is somebody going to invest money in you?

I think that’s really what’s to blame…every time I would try to bring it up, it just seemed like, `yeah, that sounds like a really funny idea, but we’d really rather put money into this drama about a little Mexican boy with big sad eyes’, you know? [Laughs] But to me it’s like, `I don’t know who sees those movies!’, you know?…

For me, it just felt like these ideas I have don’t seem as difficult [as those]. Certainly not as difficult as the things that I’m seeing released in theaters and getting written up and stuff. At least I’m not seeing the [type of] ideas I’m having in the theater as often. So it was very confusing for me. That’s the only thing I can put my finger on, like if you’re not an active artist you’re definitely putting off that vibe to producers…

BD: Talk about the tone. What line does it walk between comedy and the horror/supernatural elements?

TR: Tone to me is the most important thing when making a movie. That’s it to me. It’s more important than story, it’s more important than performance. It dictates to me what kind of performance[s I get]. But to me, tone is it. This movie is difficult…as much explaining as you can do of this movie or any of the movies I truly love, it’s impossible to convey what the movie’s about or really what it is without seeing it.

That to me is what makes films great…the tone of the film makes it. You have to see it…that’s it. That’s all I wanted. That’s all I’m interested in with filmmaking…It’s really like a feeling…the tone of something. And then your story builds off of that, your characters come out of that.

So with this, I don’t know if this is a comedy, I don’t know if this is a horror film, I don’t know if this is a straight-up drama. You get that sense of this tone and you feel that tone in those scenes. And that’s what dictates how you direct those scenes and how you edit those scenes and how the music plays in those scenes. That’s the only way I know how to put these things together.

That’s the challenge of what I’m learning as a filmmaker, is how to keep that tone in your head, you know? It’s like a tuning fork thing, like you get this one note and then everything [is based] around that. I just build off of that…

I’m rambling a little bit. Just for me, tone is everything in this in that it doesn’t matter if it’s comedy or horror. If that tone remains consistent throughout I feel like we can pull off anything. This movie should move between…what’s funny, what’s really dramatic and sad, and what’s ultimately horrific or scary.

BD: Yeah, it must be a difficult balance to strike for sure. Well since I write for a horror site I obviously have to ask about the horror elements in your film. Can you give me any specifics on those?

TR: Sure…I love hearing about when directors have screenings before their shoots for the cast and crew. And this totally felt like the right movie to do that for. We watched three movies together…’Funky Forest: The First Contact’…this movie that I absolutely love, this three-and-a-half hour Japanese movie. Then we watched `Deliverance’, then we watched `Texas Chainsaw Massacre’.

[`TCM'] was really what established [the horror tone]…the biggest scene in that…is the kitchen table scene. I think that’s pretty much what we kinda have going on here…That was certainly what we looked at a lot. I love that movie, and how that was made and nothing really compares to that or has been made like that. But it’s a great thing to look at…

BD: What kind of effects were required during the shoot?

TR: We did a mix of practical and some digital things. I was a bit skeptical of what we could do digitally…[but] people are so capable of doing post[-production] effects stuff. It’s phenomenal. We found so many people ranging from people just on their home computers to pretty high end visual effects places that were very willing to help us with different aspects of effects in the movie…simple kinds of stuff that’s like taking up maybe five percent of the frame or something. We’re not doing giant visual effects or making monsters or anything. But I feel like the [practical and digital] blend pretty seamlessly together. I hope so.

BD: Was it always a goal from the very beginning to take the movie to Sundance?

TR: It was definitely…that’s what Rob and I talked about on set a lot…this would be amazing to have this come together after…[me] not being able to make something for so long. Just make this thing exactly what we want[ed]. Nobody ever said `no’ about anything. Every single person [who] came on board just…followed the vision of what we were going after. And to have that be screened in Park City, that’s it.

When that call came…that was it. The end all and be all of what I wanted for this film. It’s an insane honor. Especially the Midnight category…where it was just like my favorite movies from Sundance [have] screened, like `The American Astronaut’ and `Napoleon Dynamite’ and `Foot Fist Way’ all showed at midnight. That’s great company to be in. Those are some completely different, very fucked-up, fun movies.

BD: What night is your film premiering?

TR: It’s tomorrow night, Saturday night, at the Egyptian, which is gonna be pretty bad-ass.

BD: That’s a big theater, right? [Note: It's actually 400 seats.]

TR: Yeah. They lost one of the biggest, the Racquet Club, this year. But it’s the quintessential Sundance theater, you know? That’s what everybody [who] comes into town takes pictures of. It’s the only real movie theater that they’re screening in…I’m very psyched about that.

BD: It must be pretty nerve-wracking too.

TR: It is. It’s definitely stressful just figuring out how to get so many cast and crew out here and like how to make different plans and your phone exploding with text messages. [Laughs] That’s my least favorite part of it, of `How do I get to the condo? Where can you get a hamburger in this town?’ I have no idea. And that’s pretty much what I guess being a filmmaker in Park City is about, is being more of a travel agent and making sure everybody’s got their tickets and that kind of stuff. [Laughs]

BD: Well, there’s something to fall back on. You can become a travel agent if you need to.

TR: Yeah, it’s like you get a sales agent, you get a publicist, and then you get the travel coordinator that shepherds everybody around and asks them what they want to eat all the time. Actually, I’m sure that exists for some people.

BD: What’s next for you after this, do you know?

TR: Well, hopefully that film I’ve been trying to put together for the last couple years will come together…things are looking good with that, and this is definitely [gonna be] a kick in the butt to get all that stuff going…that’s the hope, really just to keep making more stuff. So hopefully this summer I’ll be shooting this movie about this messed-up Boy Scout trip that maybe has some similarities to this movie. But yeah, I’m moving from priests to Boy Scout leaders, so there you go.

BD: So that has some horror elements in it as well?

TR: Not as…it’s definitely a very different movie than this one, but yeah, it definitely…things get a little weird. [Laughs] That’s the worst way to describe any movie is `things get weird’. But at this point yeah…I’m just terrible at explaining the plot to any movie, even my own.

BD: So we’ll be looking forward to news on that one I guess.

TR: Yeah, yeah. That’s the ultimate hope…I just hope that [we] can get something else going…for the first time in awhile, it just feels like maybe these couple years are looking up.

BD: Is there a title for that one?

TR: It’s right now just called `Scout Masters’. I have other titles for it, but [unless] the old Boy Scout Association decides we can’t use that title, then we’ll go with that one. Because it’s easier to explain what the movie’s about. [Laughs]