Interview: Graham Reznick ‘Can See You’

By  · Published on September 18th, 2010

I Can See You is a strange film. The best way to describe it is as a very low budget take on what perhaps a David Lynch set-in-the-woods horror film would be like. For the most part, very little happens until it hits the third act. But once it gets there, you’re treated to a music video, characters driven to madness and death for no clear explanation, and an array of other types of odd touches that’s not exactly easy to describe.

This is Graham Reznick’s feature debut, along with a high concept short film titled The Viewer that plays before I Can See You. Reznick has worked as both an actor and a sound designer; he worked on House of the Devil for the latter. Sound plays a big part in the tone and atmosphere in I Can See You, so it’s no surprise someone with Graham’s track record was behind this.

Here’s what Graham Reznick had to say about I Can See You and The Viewer.

With the short film The Viewer, did you see playing that before the film as a way of letting audiences know what they were in for when it came to I Can See You?

Yeah, that’s actually funny you picked up on that. It came out of the fact we were screening I Can See You and we hadn’t gone to any festivals, and I thought we needed to prime people for what they’re going to get to. I felt a 3D short film was a good way of doing that.

Stylistically and tonally, they’re very similar.

Definitely. The 3D thing, at least for now it requires glasses; the idea for The Viewer was that you’re sitting in as an observer. Using glasses to observe this interrogation, which sort of ties into the glasses and Ben’s perspective part in I Can See You. Thematically it felt appealing.

How did the idea come about of making The Viewer almost entirely done in POV?

I’m trying to think of how that came about specifically, but I just love the idea of subjective storytelling. I’m not really a big omission perspective type of guy. I like those films like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, but it’s not what I like to make. I like to pick a subjective experience to explore. I Can See You is an example where it’s not entirely POV, but you’re seeing the world through the way he’s experiencing it.

The difference between Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums is that Tenenbaums is sort of a subjective experience, but for a group. And Rushmore, that’s subjective to the character Max. For I Can See You, I wanted to see literally through the eyes of somebody who was having a breakdown and who didn’t know how to comprehend their own reality. And so, the story itself came out of other things but I wanted to explore that type of subjective view.

There’s one moment in particular in I Can See You that’s probably the simplest, but also the weirdest scene: where the businessman is drinking coffee it oddly sounds disgusting….

(laughs) Well, the whole idea for I Can See You comes from experiences I’ve had with friends who direct music videos. In music videos, there’s a weird pressure put on the young filmmakers who are hired to do it right after film school. They’re really taken advantage of, but they’re so hungry and they’re willing to work for free. Producing music videos is not like producing films. With films, everything is sort of spread out, so the stress is spread-out. It’s very stressful, but with music videos everything takes place between a week or two. The stakes are high, the money is big, and you’re basically shooting a commercial for a company.

In this case, I changed it slightly in I Can See You to advertising for a branding campaign. The higher ups in this case I wanted to be completely disinterested in the people and the ideas, they’re just doing business. In some ways, it’s a cheap shot. But I wanted them to be totally off-putting.

It’s funny, that scene with the coffee was once much longer. Originally, she brought him coffee and eggs. When he doesn’t like the coffee he just spits it out on the eggs. When we were shooting it someone mentioned it was just like Mulholland Dr., and I just went, “Shit!”, so I took it out. I didn’t intended on ripping off or homaging Mullholland Dr.

Obviously with working in sound, and looking at your filmography, you end up doing several jobs a year. What was it like to go from that type of work ethic to say, spending maybe a year of your life on a film?

Absolutely. It’s funny, the answer to that is I Can See You was greenlit in the spring of 2006 and we started shooting that year, so almost every sound design job I’ve had has been since then. It wasn’t a project we saw as being vastly commercial or to push out in a big way. I mean, we hoped it would make money, but it was odd getting to explore something like this with that in mind. It became a project that I was working on in-between all these sound design jobs, which I was able to get because of my work on The Roost and through Glass Eye Pix, so I was able to support myself. I Can See You was very low budget, but I had this community of people I could work with.

I a sense, I wish I could’ve focused just on the film, but I really enjoy working with other directors and collaborating. The community of Glass Eye directors is a very close net. I felt like I’ve learned so much from working with other filmmakers and getting to experience giving myself over to them helping them with what they want. It helps me develop. I don’t plan on doing that for the rest of my career, because it’s pretty time consuming (laughs). But it is a lot of fun.

When you get to end credits, the amount of people credited is extremely different than what you see usually from a film. Was working with such a small crew more of a burden, or did that make things easier?

It was shot in a couple different sections. We had one main ten day shoot, and that was all the stuff out in the woods. It wasn’t too hectic and it was pretty well managed. We had very little money, but we had friends and people we knew well working on it. All the cast members are also filmmakers, they’re apart of Waverly Films, which is a music video and ad company, and so everybody knew how to work together. It was a situation that could’ve been hectic and chaotic, but it kept together pretty well.

All the other shoots like the guys in the city or the effects shots would only have two or three people on the crew, so it was very simple and relaxed. We could shoot something, think about it, making a decision, and then two days later go back reshoot it. You don’t usually have that luxury on bigger films.

Stylistically, the film constantly shifts. It starts off fast cutting and then goes to long takes in a monotonous fashion and then goes all out during the climax. What was your approach when it came to changing the style over the course of the film?

I was really influenced by Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. I’m a huge Nicolas Roeg fan. The several movies he’s made are among the masterpieces of film. Walkabout starts off in the city in Australia, but ends up in desert. There’s this huge shift that happens where everything at the beginning is totally chaotic and the world seems to be tumbling on itself; it feels super messy. But once you get out to the desert, it just stops. It’s completely calm. I just love that idea of being tumbled into a different place like that. You go from chaos to something completely different, but it wears off and you realize that the woods are filled with a different type of chaos. It’s just as maddening when you let that creep into your consciousness as well. That’s how I wanted to structure the film.

And the same goes for the sound as well. It starts off chaotic, but when you get to that calmness where every sound detail seems to be picked up and it’s almost overwhelming…

That ties into the previous question, but I don’t know. I have a very specific love for forest ambiance and sound. Whenever I go out to visit my parents in Delaware I go out into the woods, which is where we shot it, and I’ll sit out there for hours with my pocket recorder and capture different kinds of stuff. When I go back to the city I’ll put it on occasionally while I’m working. I feel like it ties into the story with how they’re using nature to tie into the aspects of their campaign. I wanted to be overwhelming and hit with the specifics of the vibe of the forest, so you have all of these shots with Ben walking around and just basking in the ambiance.

What’s the idea behind the music video sequence? That ends up coming out of nowhere, and of course it’s quite bizarre.

That actually is why I also mentioned Nicolas Roeg before. He co-directed this film called The Performance, which is about a gangster who is on the run and holds up with the crazy musician, who’s Mick Jagger. They end up doing a bunch of drugs and respecting each other, but it’s way more psychedelic than that. It’s almost impossible to understand on the first viewing, but it’s a brilliant social commentary.

There’s a point in the film where it invents the music video for a couple of minutes and Mick Jagger is in a suit and tie walking around in an office. It’s this weird re-imagining of who Mick Jagger is in the gangster character’s subconscious, and in I Can See You there’s a similar purpose. The two people oppressing Ben, the main character, become the same person in his mind. Doug, the guy who was his friend, has run off with the girl Ben thinks he’s in love with. He doesn’t know what’s happened to them. He can only think the worst, so the dream takes on this jealous sexual connotation. It goes pretty far in its innuendo, but I wanted it to be this horrible innuendo of sexual jealousy. I thought a great song and dance number would be the most awful way to rub it in your face.

When it gets to all the manic craziness in the third act, the reasoning is left mostly ambiguous. What was the decision behind not giving a clear answer or indicator as to what’s happening?

As I mentioned before, I wanted to keep things very subjective to Ben’s experience. Things are happening that Ben doesn’t understand, and I like the idea of characters being kept in the dark and the audience being left in the dark because of that. Since Ben doesn’t understand and is losing his grip on reality, the dots aren’t connecting. You basically have a bunch of dots that should connect to form a picture, but the dots are all in the wrong order. He’s connecting the dots improperly. It’s basically a hallucination. All these things that have been bubbling in his life literally affect that section where he’s breaking down.

Couldn’t you argue the last half of the film is just a complete hallucination?

I wouldn’t say it’s not necessarily hallucination. Well, yes and no. The word psychedelic is an interesting word to me in this regard because it roots from mind manifest, which is how it was coined in the fifties or sixties in regards to LSD. The term mind manifest is really interesting in terms of hallucinations.

People think of hallucinations as a visual phenomenon, but I think they can apply to literally to all of reality perception, and I think it’s interesting to manifest the emotional and narrative aspects of that onto the screen. So, yes, it is a hallucination, but it’s not like he’s seeing things that aren’t there. He’s experiencing a reality that isn’t there.

Going back to The Viewer, how’s it been expanding that into a feature film?

We’ve been developing a project for a year and a half called The Teleport and I wrote the original treatment for that about a year ago. We’ve been working on the screenplay, which has recently been finished and revised, and we’re incredibly happy with it. We’ve been working on financing and we’re hoping to get into pre-production within a year.

It uses the structure of The Viewer, but not the plot. It uses the telepathic interrogation and the different levels of intensity, but the plot of The Teleport revolves around a great of teleportation researchers that are trying to invent wireless teleportation. In this world, wired teleportation is used as a big industry thing with rich people zipping around to beaches and such because there’s overpopulation in cities.

Basically, they gotta get off world because of the over population. They’re trying to invent wireless teleportation to space, and needless to say things don’t go as well as planned. It’s set on this off world base where they attract this alien entity and things go funny from there.

Speaking real life, the concept of The Viewer would probably raise a lot of legal and ethical questions. Is that an idea you plan on exploring?

In what aspect?

The concept of interrogating someone through their mind and against their will.

Ah, yes. It’s not something I really explore in The Teleport, but that is something I have been thinking about. In The Teleport it’s there as a threat in the case of ethical and scientific practices. That’s how they will interrogate people if they believe they’re acting unethically. The actual telepathic interrogation aspect of it isn’t really explored as a political issue.

The way you describe it makes it sound pretty big in scope, what type of budget are you going for?

Larger than my previous budgets, for sure. It’s definitely a bigger project in scope, but also scalable. We have plans to make it on a variety of budgets, so I think it’ll work. If somebody wants to give me one hundred million, I think that could work.

I Can See You is now on DVD.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.