Andrew DeYoung Interview: 555, Improvised Films, and ’90s VHS Tapes

Director Andrew DeYoung doesn’t get excited by scripts, beautiful lighting, or painstakingly manufacturing a perfectly orchestrated film. Andrew’s obsession is with the unintentional comedy of everyday interactions and tense situations. He often explores what happens when you mix actors with people who don’t know they’re on camera, and collates the best shots into a narrative.

After stumbling upon his first major release (555, which I reviewed here), I had to find out about him, his other films, his process and his inspirations. Partly because there’s very little information about it online, and partly because I needed to satisfy my curiosity after watching 555 and the rest of his work in one neurotic, coffee-fueled sprint at 5am.

Here’s the first Secret Cave interview — a discussion on why the most interesting moments in film are the ones that happen by accident.

Here’s the full recording of the interview:

See below for the transcripts, and to watch all of the mentioned videos.

On writing, filming, and releasing 555

How much of 555 was improvised? Did any of the improvisation take it totally off track?

The main plot points were scripted, but the dialog was improvised.

We knew where everything was going but just because we had a crew and a lot of people working with us we didn’t have the luxury of exploring and being in the moment — saying “oh, that’s interesting, let’s do that now”, like I have in my past work.

We write things that are loose enough, and we get to find fun and interesting moments within the structure we set up.

Did you have less freedom with 555 than your other work?

We were on a very tough schedule. We shot it in 9 days, so there was less room to experiment. Especially with money involved.

It’s interesting to see that not many people are paying for it. It’s only a few dollars, but it is giving me a sobering look at the business side of entertainment. Throughout all of my career, I’ve just been paid to make something and don’t have to worry about the marketing, or who’s going to look at it.

Now I see why broad, awful stuff gets made.

I get to see the numbers, and it’s interesting how a few dollars will stop fans from watching something starring people they like. We’re close to 3,000 sales.

On Ohio, and filming unaware strangers

Ohio seems like it’s made up of interactions between people who were seemingly unaware they were being filmed, and actors. Did they know they were being filmed?

No, unless they come across it. A lot of those, when we filmed, there were other people with cameras around because it was an event, so it’s easy to have a camera on a tripod. It’s with really long lenses, so I’m pretty far away so no one really notices me or notices what I’m doing. None of those people knew what I was doing, and I never revealed it to them. I never got permission, which is probably a bad thing, but I look at it like I’m not out to make fun of these people, and I hope it doesn’t come across that way because I don’t really like that kind of humor.

As long as the joke is on my actor, that’s how I morally justify it to myself. But I could see other people not agreeing with that. I’d not like to be in someone’s short that I didn’t know about.

I find it interesting when I watch something and think “what’s real here, and what’s not?”. It’s a strange, complex zone. A lot of the people in my earlier stuff don’t know they’re in a short, or that we were filming.

What kind of structure did you set out for Ohio? What did you tell Maria to do?

We just had a couple of lines pre-written, and we knew her backstory. Maria’s so brilliant, that’s the other half of it. It’s always a collaboration. She’s so smart! We knew she was going to meet Tony and she was going to have a connection, and that he was going to disappear at the end. I found it hysterical, but some people found it so sad. It’s so sad that it makes it so funny, because it’s the last thing she wants in her life — “of course. This is how life works”.

I was the only crew. Tony came in, and we drove around and said ‘how about we shoot a scene where you guys are eating burgers?’. It’s very loose, and all we’re spending is our time. There’s no weight of a budget on our shoulders. We’re not renting anything, I own all my own equipment, so it’s really nice to just be able to experiment in that world.

On film as unfiltered, real life

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What is it to you about tense and awkward interactions with strangers? Where did the influence come from?

I respond to real people, unconsciously living their life. In films like Gummo, or Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsay. Or the movies of Terrence Malick. These filmmakers aren’t really interested in acting, and want to capture the immortal fly on the wall, performance-style. That’s something I’ve always been fascinated with, so that’s where my gravitation towards the format of being hidden and secret comes from.

It’s like stealing performances.

It’s a natural, unfiltered response.

Exactly. And that unfilteredness is exciting. It feels dangerous. Instead of knowing “here’s actors, here’s lights, look how beautifully this is lit”.

With your love for improv, would it bore you as a director to do a film where you knew exactly what was going to happen?

I do direct TV — a show called Man Seeking Woman, on FXX. It’s comedy, but it’s totally scripted with a giant crew. It’s not that exciting to me, but it’s a job and it’s still rewarding at times.

I’m not against traditional filmmaking in any way, but I do find the most rewarding work comes from not knowing what’s going to happen in the moment, and from setting up scenarios that give me surprise.

In Ohio, especially, sending Maria Blasucci out with a couple of ideas and going into this space where people don’t know that they’re on camera and we don’t know what the reception’s going to be. There’s something so fun and exciting about that type of work that I really love, and something boring about scripting everything out. Maybe it comes from a laziness — not having to write the whole thing. The stuff I really love and respond to, I can tell are moments of accident or improvisation. That always feels so much more worthwhile than something scripted.

Do you think audiences respond better to spontaneity? People have an affinity for unscripted moments on TV that ended up making the cut, for example.

We all respond to those moments. It’s almost impossible to put a whole project together based on those moments, so you definitely need a guiding structure but it’s something that I find the most rewarding. When there’s real life. Whatever ‘real life’ means.

On VHS tapes and nostalgia

Did you watch a lot of 80s and 90s VHS tapes to get inspiration and clips for your earlier work?

Growing up in the 90s, nostalgia for that time and aesthetic is important to me. I’m not interested in it any more.

There was a time where I’d go to thrift stores, get a bunch of VHS tapes and try to make stuff with it.

Did you use found footage from them?

Yeah, and I put a lot of them through VHS machines, too. I’d make it, edit it, record it through VHS and digitize it back. There was a period where I was really interested in it, and a lot of people were making that kind of stuff. A lot of it goes back to Tim and Eric, too. They did a lot of the 90s VHS aesthetic in their own brilliant way.

I found the spiritual themes in some of your VHS-style shorts interesting. What’s the idea behind that?

That’s interesting! The spiritual thing is funny, no one’s brought that up to me before. It’s something that’s very real from wherever I get my inspiration. I don’t practice anything, but do gravitate towards that interest. Terrence Malick is favorite filmmakers, even though his films are humorless. And they are deeply spiritual, with a lot of sincere Christian stuff in them. His movies affect me like no other work of art. He must be speaking to some desire in me that I don’t quite know about, and that’s reflected in the videos I make.

On Passport to Adventure, and low budget travel shows

Where did you get the inspiration for Passport to Adventure? I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like what it’s parodying.

You guys must have these things in Europe, as well.

There’s a lot of low budget travel shows in America, and I did the comedy version.

Specifically, there’s a Huell Howser show, California’s Gold. A lot of it, honestly, is so boring. He goes to places no one cares about, so there’s a quality of accidental humor but he’s really sincere. He’s a lovable person, and I always watch his episodes with one foot in actual genuine interest while thinking “this is so silly” at the same time. It was an experiment.

Did you plan for the Passport to Adventure show to fall apart because the host constantly needed to go get more wine?

No, actually we thought we wouldn’t be able to shoot in there. We thought they’d not allow cameras, so we started to shoot expecting them to ask us to leave. We were going to do that a bunch of times, but no one stopped us.

So you had to contrive a way for them to kick you out, without being too obnoxious?

Yeah. So, I had a coffee cup and the guy was like “no drinks allowed”. So we went to get white wine.

It’s all about being present, working with what you’ve got, not being weighed down with crews and equipment, and just being able to chase the funny thing in the moment.

On creative freedom vs. making money

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Do you prefer shooting alone as opposed to something less flexible but with more backing?

Ideally, I get to do something like Passport to Adventure but get paid for it. That’s the goal. Everything I hope to make, I want to have that kind of flexibility.

I directed a lot of TV last year, and I do feel very constricted at times when something more exciting comes up but everyone’s more concerned with getting what’s on the page. If I’m hired to get what’s on the page, that’s fine, but it’s not what I find the most rewarding.

Ideally, with all my projects, I want to create an environment that allows us to turn left at the drop of a dime if we find something more exciting. It’s hard to do, at times. There’s so many permits and releases and walls when there’s money involved.

Are you set to work on projects in the future that give you the freedom you want?

Yeah, I’m writing TV shows and feature films that I would be in charge of. But that goal is always to be flexible. Later today, I have an interview to direct some episodes for TV. I want to do them, it gives me good experience to be on set with a crew, production, and money behind it. It’s helpful, and it helps me to figure out how to do the same thing with a lot less, and be a lot more flexible.

The goal is not to not have a script when you shoot.

That’s what I love about Terrence Malick. He shoots his films with no script, and he’s so flexible. He’s looking for honest moments and constantly throwing his actors into situations where they don’t know what to expect. He’s throwing them lines. The crew is super small, and on steady-cam. They can walk down the street if they want to. The element of surprise is such a breath of fresh air.

How did you break out on Vimeo?

Truly, I have no idea. I’m the worst self-promotor. It makes me sick, the idea of self-promotion and I’m so bad at it.

It feels like luck. I have seen my peers make mediocre videos, and promote the hell out of them. That’s always turned me off so deeply.

I have this philosophy of “make something that’s good, put it out there, and start making the next one”.

Luckily, Vimeo sniffed it out somehow and made it a staff pick. It immediately gets exposed to a bunch of people, and I’m super lucky to have them championing me. It’s more helpful than any festival. I’ve had friends who have gotten into Sundance, and Cannes. They don’t have careers, and I’ve never gotten into a festival but I do have a career. A lot of that is because of Vimeo’s exposure, and the internet.

The internet is the new Sundance.

I know you don’t like self promotion, but tell us where we can find your work.

I just use Vimeo as my website. It’s vimeo.com/andrewdeyoung, and you can find links on there to my other work. My stuff also lives over at andrewdeyoung.tumblr.com. I had a website for a while, but I didn’t renew it or update it. Some other Andrew DeYoung bought it. God bless him.

On Shopping, and secretly filming in Costco

How did you capture footage and audio for Shopping?

It was a tricky one. It was the same sort of thing as Ohio, but I had to be really discrete about it. Kate had  a wireless mic, and I got a shopping cart and put my camera on top of it. We’d walk around the store, and say “how about we shoot that over there?”.

I’d set up my cart, hit record, and pretend like I was shopping.

I’d not really be looking at the screen but I’d check in with it. It was a lot of undercover work. It was hard to focus.

Did you get caught?

No, I was surprised about that. We were extra stealthy, though. I just made sure I looked like a guy who just put his camera on a bunch of stuff. And everyone’s preoccupied with buying, not expecting anyone to be shooting a short in there. People would look at my camera and disregard it because people carry cameras all the time. I had to do some acting myself, there.

It took me quite a while to realize the store clerk in Shopping was acting. I think it was about when he took out the stone axe. Where did you get that?

Kate’s dad collects them. He’s an artist, and he was an obsession with Neolithic tools. He has hundreds of hand axes. It’s crazy to see. That’s a real hand axe, hundreds of thousands of years old, made by ancient man. It’s so crazy. We’re lucky to have access to an expert in the field. We asked him to tell us a little bit about the axe, he gave us a quick rundown and let us borrow it. We thought that’d be a bizarre thing that happens in the car that also feels believable.

Those are the most rewarding moments: left turns that are completely surprising but completely believable. If it feels real, and if we’re laughing that means it’s working. There’s a lot of material that I’ll never put out there because I didn’t get that feeling from it in the end.

Space landscape-obsessed dreck penman. Appears on TechCrunch, The Next Web, and on Secret Cave in a far less restrained capacity.