Far Out Meets: Alex Kavutskiy, the director of 'Ear Ache'

At Far Out Magazine we believe in cinema’s ability to heal.

At a time when millions of people continue to adapt their daily lives amid strict social distancing measures and cinemas around the world continue to keep their doors closed, we want to shine a light on filmmakers on a personal level. Turning our attention to the work created by independent artists, we have launched our new weekly series ‘The Far Out Film Club’. The project will focus on one filmmaker during each episode and will premiere on both Far Out Magazine’s Facebook page and YouTube channel every Wednesday.

As we enter series two, the Far Out Film club welcomes Alex Kavutskiy, the writer and director who earned critical acclaim for his brilliant 2018 short film Squirrel. Known for pushing his art across numerous platforms, Kavutskiy has dabbled in short film, web-series, television work and, most recently, a feature film.

“I am drawn to darker stories and character maybe because my sense of humour and general outlook is a little bleak,” Kavutskiy tells Far Out. “I’ve recently, for the first time ever, been working on a script about a real historical event. So in a certain lens of aesthetics or dialogue or rhythm, it does feel very different than the other things I’ve written, but I think at the core, it’s a dark, somewhat absurd tale, so maybe it’s not so different after all,” he adds, in what is the clearest indication of his desire to consistently push the boundaries of his own imagination.

While the current pandemic has wreaked havoc throughout the film industry, Kavutskiy has been busy burrowing away on new projects, writing relentlessly to keep himself sane. Like many, the filmmaker was personally affected by Covid-19, something which stopped him being able to hit festivals in support of his most recent shot film Ear Ache.

Starring the likes of DeMorge Brown, Shelby Steel, Bruce Bundy, Celeste Den and more, the film tells the story of a struggling actor who is struggling from an ear infection and, in response to his inner turmoil, decides to unleash his frustration out on the world. “Right after I made a short called Squirrel, I wanted to immediately work on something that was the exact opposite,” Kavutskiy explained of the film. “Instead of a high-concept comedy, I wanted to make a moodier character study. Visually, I wanted it to look different too. Instead of keeping the camera on a tripod or dollying, I wanted to keep it handheld with zooms.

“And sitting in the space, I got with my good friend and incredibly talented actor DeMorge Brown, and we had a lot of conversations about people in our lives and things we were interested in exploring. Eventually, the thing I went back to write was about self-pity. I could see it in people around me – especially in the LA film scene – and, worse, I could see it in myself. And it was about this guy who, albeit having real difficulties in life and a very real pain in his ear, still would never take any responsibilities for his own problems. The problem was always somewhere else or someone else.”

Here, as part of the Far Out Film Club, we are premiering a screening of Kavutskiy’s short film which is available through our Facebook and YouTube channels.

You can read a full interview with Alex Kavutskiy below and, at 20:00 GMT, watch the premiere of his film.

#FarOutFilmClub welcomes Alex Kavutskiy and his film ‘Ear Ache’. The film tells the story of a struggling actor suffering from an infection who decides to takes his pain out on the world…

Posted by Far Out Magazine on Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Alex Kavutskiy Interview:

Far Out: Given the current circumstances, and the struggles that the film industry is facing, how difficult is it to be an independent director right now?

Kavutskiy: “Fortunately, I consider myself as much of a writer as I do a director, so I was able to take the ‘opportunity’ of the lockdown to catch up on writing. One of the things I wrote last year that I would like to direct is being read, and I’m taking Zoom meetings — so the Covid situation hasn’t affected it…yet. We’ll see what happens once the conversations turn to a less nebulous plan for production. I don’t envy anyone trying to film things right now.

Similarly, on a personal level as both a film viewer and creator, how important is cinema as a form of release at the moment?

“Well, as a film viewer and creator, I’m pretty biased because I’m brain’s thinking about movies and television a lot. So to me, it’s a huge form of release — pandemic or no pandemic. But I think with the problems of the world being more and more blatant – not that they were subtle pre-pandemic. 

“It’s kind of hard, even as an artist and lover of art, to make a case for how important art is to people—especially compared to basic healthcare and ability to pay rent and other things people. As a form of release, if movies – or any other art like music or books or podcasts – give people any sort of catharsis or distraction, that’s great. For me, having something to work on is what keeps me sane. If it makes someone else feel good, awesome, but I don’t have high hopes right now.”

We’re focusing on your project ‘Ear Ache’. Could you explain where this idea came from? How was the scenario of this project formed, how did you develop your ideas and did the end product match your initial expectations? 

“So right after I made a short called Squirrel, I wanted to immediately work on something that was the exact opposite. Instead of a high-concept comedy, I wanted to make a moodier character study. Visually, I wanted it to look different too. Instead of keeping the camera on a tripod or dollying, I wanted to keep it handheld with zooms.

“And sitting in the space, I got with my good friend and incredibly talented actor DeMorge Brown, and we had a lot of conversations about people in our lives and things we were interested in exploring. Eventually, the thing I went back to write was about self-pity. I could see it in people around me – especially in the LA film scene – and, worse, I could see it in myself. And it was about this guy who, albeit having real difficulties in life and a very real pain in his ear, still would never take any responsibilities for his own problems. The problem was always somewhere else or someone else.”

Did your creative vision change when you began to understand more about your process?

“Even though the story and various things changed as the production went on, we did always stick to that initial core. With Jay’s cinematography, Ester’s production design, Jason’s score, and other Alex’s editing, we would always try to make decisions based on DeMorge’s character. And it felt like we touched something universal — it especially seemed like every actor in this very naturally slid into their role, having interacted with a person like that before.

Did you encounter any unexpected difficulties in its creation?

“I think the trickiest part of working on a character piece is the amount of choices you have with story. A plottier thing, in certain ways, is easier to execute. Like in editing, if it’s more of a plot-driven thing, you have to keep certain things in for the sake of the story — ‘this sets up this, which sets up that, and it comes together at the end here’. Whereas in our editing room – which was specifically other Alex’s bedroom – we really had the freedom to put whatever we wanted in, take whatever we wanted out. 

“We found that certain things played heavier than we wanted, certain things didn’t hit as hard. So we would just keep coming back to the central character and the initial tone and feeling that got us excited about this. But of everything I’ve made, this is the project that ended up changing the most in the editing room.”

What, in your opinion, is an essential quality of a film director?

“I think holding it all in your head. Not literally — you can have notes or whatever you need — but production is so many moving pieces that you really gotta be able to keep some version of a singular vision in your head while working. We all know how it feels when that’s happening — the scenes are going great, someone asks you a question about camera angle or production design, and you have a great answer because you know it in your gut. But the rubber really hits the road when you lose it. So then you have to be able to talk it out with your collaborators or sit alone with the script or whatever you have to do to get back to keeping it all together as one unit in your head.”

We’ve reached a point in cinema, much like that of the music industry, when the phrase “we’ve seen it all before” becomes a topical debate.

How do you stay original? How do you find ways to produce something unique in a market that has so many creatives? Or is being unique even that important?

“I had already felt like that point had been reached by the time I started making stuff. I think it’s just something creatives have to actively not think about — I don’t think it’s helpful. You just gotta do the work. Every project has a different entry point that gets you excited and, as you develop it, you HAVE to borrow or steal from other things. 

“For Ear Ache, for example, you can’t separate your brain thinking about writing this character and story from the brain that has seen Taxi Driver a thousand times. You just have to go with wherever the story takes you and be inspired by other works and try to avoid things that are directly taken from something else and, hopefully, the final product will be unique because the X factor has been you all along filtering these influences into your own Frankenstein point of view.

“And, on the flip side, every once in a while I’ve rewatched movies or television shows I hadn’t seen in like ten years, and I see a joke or a line, and I realise I unintentionally stole a joke or line or something for a project because it’s just been sitting in my subconscious. That’s just going to happen, and oh well.

Given the mention of Scorsese there, i’m curious to know what or who some of your major cinematic influences are? Do you think those influences are prevalent in your work?

“I think if I listed out my list of influences, it would be real boring. I’m imagining someone reading this like, ‘oh wow, I can’t believe this guy has uncovered the rare films of such obscure names like Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson’. If I had to really narrow it down to what influences have been most prevalent in my work recently, I would say Noah Baumbach, Todd Solondz, and Yorgos Lanthimos.

That’s fair. Given some of those names you briefly touched on, could you run us through your process? I know you see influences seeping into your own consciousness as a natural progression; I just wonder if it has impacted how you plan your work. 

For example, what distinctive themes are you looking to create, if any?

“I don’t know if I have a great clear answer. Every new project has an entry way that gets my juices going. Maybe a premise or a tone or a location, I don’t know.  

“Eesthetically, I really enjoy mixing it up and finding new ways to approach each project, but eventually, they all tonally feel somewhat ‘me’.”

Generally speaking, what attracts you to a certain subject or field?

“I am drawn to darker stories and character maybe because my sense of humour and general outlook is a little bleak. I’ve recently, for the first time ever, been working on a script about a real historical event. So in a certain lens of aesthetics or dialogue or rhythm, it does feel very different than the other things I’ve written, but I think at the core, it’s a dark, somewhat absurd tale, so maybe it’s not so different after all.”

Moving on to the subject of independent cinema, I’m keen to know your thoughts on its current standing. How important is independent film today, what does it mean to you? 

“I’m someone still on the fringes of it all. I haven’t done too much ‘legitimate’ work where I’m paid to write and/or direct, and we have filming permits and things like that. 

“While the goal is always going to be playing in movie theatres – which I’m being optimistic will exist for movies that are smaller than Marvel, at least in major cities like Los Angeles – I think the streaming world does open new opportunities for people like me to get things made.”

Short films are often closely affiliated with independent film and filmmakers, do you think the landscape of this medium has changed over time?

“Shorts are so weird to think about. With some exception, they’re not really on streaming platforms to watch. And even though there’s cool sites like NoBudge that showcase them, shorts are generally too long for what people watch online. I’m part of the problem, too. I realise outside of film festivals; I rarely go check out different shorts online. I think, unfortunately, shorts as a finished art form don’t really have a solid place in our culture. They seem to either be for the purpose of a filmmaker to improve at being a filmmaker, or a way for a filmmaker to try to get a feature made – whether based on the short or not. 

“It’s very bizarre to think about how my short Squirrel has been seen by so many people and helped my career a lot, almost simply because it seemed to catch the programmers of Sundance on the right day, and they decided to put it into their festival. Whereas Ear Ache, which means as much to me as Squirrel, didn’t have the same festival circuit success and feels sort of lonely just sitting there online. It also didn’t help that I couldn’t attend any of the festivals Ear Ache got into because of Covid. I guess what this rambling answer is saying is to make shorts for yourself, submit them to festivals, and go make friends at those festivals if the pandemic ever ends.:

Sound advice. It’s refreshing to hear a new and honest take on the medium. With that said, finally, do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of cinema you may be exploring next?

“I’m still pursuing making movies and also pursuing television stuff. So the main spheres I’m exploring aren’t new spheres. However, I’ve always been very drawn to hybrid things — ranging from prank shows to something like Nirvana the Band the Show to meta Iranian cinema. And, a few years ago, I’ve worked in that space in a very satisfying way for a webseries for Channel101 called Late Tonight with Nick Burton, and I’ve always been very hungry to do more things like that. But I don’t have anything on the horizon yet, and the pandemic isn’t helping push me toward filming something with random people on the street. We’ll see.”

Good luck Alex!