Vacation! director Zach Clark talks drugs, sex and death at the beach
The beach-party movie has fallen from its former pinnacle of popularity, but it still has its fans. Take writer/director Zach Clark, for instance. His latest film, Vacation!, resurrects the classic beach-party film formula, updates it for the 21st century and then twists it into weird places that Frankie and Annette never dreamed of going. His movie puts four hip young friends into a beach house for a week, winds them up with anxiety about sex, death and what it all means, then doses them with LSD. Not surprisingly, things go awry and not everyone makes it out alive. Before Vacation! shows tonight and tomorrow at the Sie FilmCenter as part of the Denver Film Society's Watching Hour program, we talked to Clark about the film's unusual approach, hipsters and why LSD is an essential part of the beach-party movie experience.
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Westword: How would you describe Vacation! to potential audiences?
Zach Clark: The sort of quick little summary I always give is Vacation! is an existential beach-party movie about life, death, sex, drugs and other shit that totally fucks you up. I don't know if you can print all that, but that's normally what I tell people. Four girls head down to the beach for a week of fun in the sun, and about halfway through things aren't quite as fun as they expected it to be. In order to liven up the fun they decide to take a psychedelic drug and they experience that drug. When they come to the following morning, one of them is dead. The rest of the movie sort of charts how they deal with that, with varying degrees of strangeness.
"Existential" and "beach-party movie" are not things you typically see as part of the same description... This might be the first time, actually.
Where does the concept of an existential beach party movie come from?
Well, I grew up going to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, which is where we shot. My dad likes going there so much he had a beach house built, which when I visited the first time, within a few days of being there, I was like, I should make a movie here. I've always been a fan of the Frankie and Annette films of the '60s, so it made perfect sense to just make a beach-party movie. But what I often find myself thinking about and doing when I am at the Outer Banks, in that part of the country, is I do get very reflective. I think about my place in the world and life and death and all those things. When you live in the city, and then you go and you're sort of faced with the great expanse of nature, at the beach you're sort of staring at the endless sea, it can really put you in a very contemplative space where you're thinking about existence and that sort of stuff. It comes loosely from there, from those two sides of things -- wanting to do something in the tradition of a beach-party movie and also sort of wanting to be true to my own experiences of that place.
Is part of that unique to that location? I've been there, and it's not exactly what people think of when they think of "the beach."
It's not Atlantic City.
Right, and it's not Costa Rica, or Hawaii, or whatever. It's not white sand beaches and palm trees. It's pretty and nice, but there's an element of almost bleakness there. It's grittier somehow...
It's also just a little series of islands, so the whole place, every time there's a hurricane, you never know what's going to be left standing on the other side. It's very much, the whole area, is very poised to not exist at some point. I think that's part of it too. It feels very fragile down there.
I was just down there for Christmas, and Sandy did some damage. Wiped some houses out and moved the dunes back a significant portion, so like the road is being moved, they keep having to move the roads and stuff down there. Everything in the grander sense of things is temporary, but everything is really sort of temporary down there. It's at the mercy of nature.
Thematically, what were you trying to express with Vacation!?
You know, the movie is really about [wanting] to explore the line of morality in a godless world, as a fun, candy-colored, hilarious comedy. I never have a grand statement I'm trying to make, but I do have things that I'm trying to figure out by making the film. Where is the line between right and wrong and good and evil? Does atheism make you more of a moral person or less of a moral person? Is there life after death? Those are all sort of questions I wanted to ask and to explore by making the film.
It hit me in some ways, if you can excuse the term, as a hipster film. The characters are all kind of hipsters, and even the color palette and the look of the film almost has an Instagram like vibe at times. What was your intention with that?
Really the only visual point of reference I ever talked about with the cinematographer, or the major visual point of reference, was Last Night's Party. Are you familiar with that website?
I definitely wanted that vibe, and I definitely wanted the characters to exist in that world. They're cool, hip girls who wear interesting clothes and have good taste in music. And then to put them through this process. I don't know that I conceived of it, or that I even see it now, as some sort of grander, generational comment, but the other thing about this film is we wrote it very quickly compared to any other movie I've ever done and we shot it very quickly. We shot it basically in two weeks, aside from the acid-trip sequence and a couple days of pick ups we did several months later.
In order to just get there and not talk too much about character -- we also didn't have a lot of time to retake things, or retake scenes, or even build a rapport between people -- I wrote the roles specifically for the actors. They're all cool, hip girls and they're all playing cool, hip girls. To that end, it also sort of made it a bit easier to accomplish everything we had set out to do. We all pretty much knew each other beforehand. We all pretty much did got to college in North Carolina together, so because of the quickness of the production and the quickness of getting the production ready, it made the most sense to keep everyone roughly in that area, rather than having everyone have to learn a crazy accent or have to jump that far out of their regular selves. They could still draw from themselves for the circumstances.
What was the reason to have them take LSD, specifically, rather than just having them get blackout drunk or whatever?
I think there are maybe two big reasons behind it. For about a year or so, and even to this day, I was totally obsessed with this filmmaker whose name is Stephen Sayadian. He also directed a lot of porno movies in the '80s and '90s under the name Rinse Dream. The LSD sequence in the film is the result of me being super into his work for about a year. I was so into tracking this guy's movies down and reading as much about them as I could, that the pinnacle of that year was to make one. The acid-trip sequence in the film is really, to me, trying to make a movie the way he makes movies, as best I could. In the initial script of the film, when I started writing it, had a lot more of his style throughout. It really got focused down to that acid-trip sequence. It allowed me to play with a lot of visual ideas that I'd had from watching this guy's films, and to use those in a context of a larger piece. Having it be a psychedelic drug allowed me to put that stuff into the film, whereas if they just got drunk, you couldn't really make that leap in that sequence.
Then LSD is just a very '60s drug. The film, to me, always has been and always will be my version of a Frankie and Annette beach-party movie. So there are things in it that are just in it because they carry on the tradition of those films. And LSD is, especially in '60s B cinema, LSD is the drug of choice. There are multiple, multiple amazing trip sequences in films of the '60s. It just seemed like the right step.
The film uses an interesting narrative structure, since apart from a quick flash in the opening sequence, there's not a lot of resolution to the death and what follows it -- the movie just sort of ends. Why did you choose to to end it there, rather than going on to give the audience the kind of resolution they were presumably expecting?
To me the movie exists entirely in the context of the trip. The story of the movie is the story of the trip. It's bookended by these two black-and-white sequences. The first black-and-white sequence acts as a prologue -- here they are getting ready for the trip. The final shots acts as the epilogue -- they're off, they're going off to places. I feel like if you have characters do things that might not morally sit well with an audience, I'm a firm believer in not having those action be rewarded or punished in any way in the narrative context of the film. Because I feel like it then gives an audience an answer.
If I'd shown them getting arrested, or getting put into jail -- and they really didn't do [anything criminal], they wouldn't go to jail. There really isn't anything horribly wrong that they do, except react really, really poorly. If there was another ten minutes and more of that sort of thing, then it's sort of resolves those questions -- answers those questions for an audience. If those questions are left open, then I feel like it invites questions from the audience about how they feel about certain things. Like, was that right thing to do, was that too much, how would I react in that situation. If you just punish them and put a button on it, then it puts a button on it for that conversation. I'm a big fan of showing poor behaviors and then not having the characters be punished for it in any way. It's always more interesting for me.
So as a filmmaker, you're more interested in asking questions, or provoking questions, than in answering them?
Yeah. To me, making a movie is ... I never have a statement I'm trying to make. I do have questions I'm asking with the film. They're not even grand ... I'm not like, "You, audience, should think about these things!" But they're things that I'm thinking about and the process of making the film is the process of me trying to figure out some of those things for myself.
There's a profound tonal shift that happens over the course of the film, where it starts off pretty light-hearted and fun, but gradually becomes very melancholy. It's dark in a sense, but it's not typical of what people might call a "dark comedy."
I really don't care for the term "dark comedy" at all -- some people will use that term in reference to the movies I've made. I don't think that accurately describes them. I like "sad comedy" a lot more. To me, the movie remains a comedy, but it's a comedy about very sad things happening. I'm also a firm believer that even though there are sad things happening, it doesn't mean those things aren't funny. That doesn't mean there isn't humor to be found. I don't know that I had any grand design behind it, that the tone shift has any grand thematic reason behind it. Other than once I knew what the story was, once I knew what was going to happen, that just seemed the best way to tell the story.
It's also an interesting way to put a movie together, in sort of two halves, and having those two halves sort of comment on each other. I've always leaned a little more toward experimental stuff and wanting to try things and push things, but in the context of a narrative film. Stylistically, narratively, thematically, those are all ways to experiment with and push what you can do with a narrative film. it's up to the audience to take what they want from it. Some people take a lot and some people don't take a lot. It's been interesting to see the reactions its gotten.
How has the reaction been, from both audiences and critics? Are people getting the film?
It's a movie that evokes strong reactions from people. People who like it really like it, and people who don't like it really don't like it. Some people will watch it and be like, "Oh man, that first half was really great [but] when it got all depressing I was so sad it wasn't fun any more." Some people are like, "I wasn't so sure about the first half, but once it got to the second half it really took off and I was really into that." It sort of offers a lot for people. [Laughs.] It's been interesting to see who gravitates to what parts of it, or who totally signs up for it, or who's totally unwilling to sign up for it.
The very first review ever published of the film, when we premiered at the Edinburgh FIlm Festival in 2010, was maybe one of the worst reviews of a movie I've ever read. It was basically like, "This is the worst thing I've seen in the past decade. I hope this guy never makes anything again. This is awful." Then from that same festival, we also got one of the best reviews we've ever gotten, from basically the UK version of Variety, Screen International, gave us a really, really lovely, glowing review. It's been really interesting, and you can't tell. That's sort of what I've figured out, is you're never going to know who's going to love it, or who's going to hate it.
It's very polarizing.
Yeah, and that's fine. I'd rather someone hate it more than anything they've ever seen than be like, "Eh, that was all right." So many movies, even independent movies, are the same. Indie movies are just as guilty of this as Hollywood movies. They just sort of toe the party line. They all sort of look the same and feel the same and are about the same sort of things.
And this one does not.
Is there anything else you want to talk about? Maybe your next project?
We're very close to being finished with this Christmas movie that we shot last December, December 2011 and on and off through August 2012. We're putting the final wraps on that and it should hopefully be hitting the film festival circuit sometime this year. It's called White Reindeer.
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