The contemporary world continues to awake to the threat of cyber-attacks, the recent incident during the U.S election evidencing the significant threat to democracy and national security. While Aram Rappaport’s The Crash (2017) looks to a financial cyber-attack on US stock markets in the future, there is an air of timeliness to the release.
The drama centres upon Guy Clifton (Frank Grillo), an unscrupulous federally-indicted stock trader that is enlisted by the federal government to thwart a cyber-attack that threatens to cripple the economy. Rappaport’s anti-hero is an example of the cynical side of cinema, the immoral protagonist-hero that counters the adolescent moral perspective of moviemaking that shrouds the individual as being morally either, or. Yet the alarming thought that permeates these dramas such as the one here, is the vulnerability of technology and infrastructure to the faults of human ideology.
In conversation with Film Frame, Rappaport discussed process as a source of inspiration and the structure of the universal process that a filmmaker must work within. He also reflected on the impact of irredeemable characters on the experience of making a film, the filmmaker as a romantic optimist through the pursuit of perfection and his desire for the audience to take ownership.
Film Frame: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Aram Rappaport: I think it was out of necessity. I loved the idea of telling stories and controlling the world you can create in film. For me the process was enticing. The idea that you could be in your head, write and fantasise about a story, and then you make a public face thing. You have to acquire a team and fill them in on the vision, which is a secondary creative process. The third is much more introspective and lonely in the edit because you are alone putting the movie together and picking up the pieces retroactively. I don’t think I was ever someone that wanted to do one thing, yet I did always feel that I had a specific drive and overarching goals. So this sort of made sense to want to craft stories, but in a way that allowed me through these different processes to have chapters of my life, and chapters of my career.
Film Frame: Have your experiences as a filmmaker influenced the way you watch films as a spectator? The overwhelming consideration when I’ve put this question to filmmakers is that whether they lose themselves in the experience is dependent on whether it is a good film or not.
Rappaport: I think I am the opposite. When I watch movies I watch them because they got made, and it’s just fantastic that anyone’s making a movie. To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad review of a film. There are those movies I am obviously drawn to for certain reasons, but I have never personally been hypercritical of a movie that wasn’t great. I was just happy that someone had the chance to see their vision onscreen.
Film Frame: What was the seed of the idea for The Crash and the process by which it took shape?
Rappaport: There are three processes to the structure of how you actually physically create a film, from the writing, to the actual production, to the edit. To begin there are so many avenues behind the research activity and the process of how you come up with any specific idea. This began with an idea around the fact that the American Federal Reserve system is something very mysterious and is something that people don’t know a lot about. There are many theories behind what it was meant to be and what it is now, how it works and the aspects of our lives that it impacts. So I started with this need to research the financial applications of the FED, and from there I realised I was imagining these interesting and irredeemable characters that ultimately became the movie.
Film Frame: To pick up on your point about irredeemable characters, there is a school of thought that it is essential to have a sympathetic character to guide the audience through the narrative. I’d offer the contrarian point of view that sympathy is a secondary concern to an interesting character or cast of characters.
Rappaport: Sure, and look, I don’t think you have to have a sympathetic character. You just have to have something to root for and as long as you are rooting for something in every scene, within every character, you are okay. I don’t necessarily know that we were able to accomplish that in this film because we did have certain budgetary constraints, and certain reasons why we couldn’t explore the intricacies of an irredeemable character to the point that maybe they should have been explored on a storyline that’s very plot heavy. So I speak to this in theory, but I don’t know if I am the best person to execute a story like this without a redeemable character. In the production of this film I very quickly learned that it is lonely to make a movie without redeemable characters, and it’s lonely to make something that’s plot driven because you are not falling in love with your characters like you would in a love story. You are not living in this fantastical, beautiful world. You are living in a place of deep analytics and articulation of a plot.
Film Frame: The loneliness must offer an alternative experience, leading you down avenues that are rewarding, but in a different way?
Rappaport: Absolutely! I completely agree with you. What this film was even at the beginning of the edit was very different to the one we ultimately went to market with. The temperature of our culture had changed in terms of finances and cyber attacks, and so the character for us was about trying to figure out a way to ride the line of over-information, mis-information and too little information, while still maintaining some semblance to these characters. And that in itself was a process and a schooling. So you’re right about the loneliness of not being able to root for one set thing, where you know, A, B, C, this is what’s happening in this film. I probably learned more on this than I have on any film, as far as structure and information, and how you relay the forwarding of a plot, while still trying to express a tangible emotional connection to these people.
Film Frame: Is the fascination with the creative process whether it be film, art or music the fact that it is learning a language which will never fully reveal its secrets to us, but one which we can’t help but pursue?
Rappaport: I think that’s absolutely correct. I’ve made a few movies, but I make a lot of commercials and through every single project, whether it’s in the thirty second format or a ninety minute, two hour format, there is always something that comes out of that where you think, there’s a way that you could have mastered that story better. But you never can, which is what drives the arts, and it’s what drives us to continue – the movie comes out and you think, darn, I really can do better than this. It’s that constant fight to create a world, to create a story that you feel is perfect, but that perfection doesn’t exist. I think all of us are these romantic optimists at heart that believe perfection exists, but it doesn’t, and so that’s what drives us to get better and better.
Film Frame: There are of course two stories unfolding in the making of a film – the story that is under construction and your own personal story. The latter is an ambiguous one, whose creative compromises and sacrifices the audience are oblivious to, yet can effect the film that is experienced. In the process of exhibiting a film there is a lack of context in the reception of a film.
Rappaport: Sure, and I don’t think I’d ever argue that we should give people context. Audiences and critics should hold films to the highest degree. For me the biggest praise would be a really scathing review that held this film to the highest standards, knowing the compromises and sacrifices, the budget, casting and storytelling restraints just to make sure this got out there. My only hope was that this was treated like a movie that didn’t have a handicap and to see reviews like that makes me happy. You should absolutely treat this as if it could have been the greatest movie in the world and some people love it, and some people are going to hate it. But I would much prefer that and let me prefix this by saying that we lost half of our budget the day we started filming, and so we had to make some cuts. But I would never want anyone to know that. I would much prefer them to just think it was a bad movie.
Film Frame: On this film you worked with an ensemble cast. Do you enjoy the part of the process of working with actors, and how did they surprise you in their interpretations of the characters that may have differed from your original conception?
Rappaport: I truly love working with actors. I studied acting including Strasberg for a long time. There are so many unique methodologies as to how you can inhabit a character and it’s one of the most interesting aspects of filmmaking to me. I wish we’d had more time to allow the actors to workshop these characters and develop them in their own right a little bit more. Some actors don’t want to do that, they just want to come, read the lines and go home. But I think most actors will attest to wanting to create a character that they can inhabit and to have some ownership over that as well. The best thing you can do as a director is to cast an actor that’s going to surprise you in a way that you’ve never written, or in a way that you could have never directed. And that’s something that’s super special. On a very small film like this where we were trying to shoot more pages a day than you would in TV and with a smaller crew, it’s hard, and you end up rushing through these developmental periods. While that development may just be ten minutes in the morning to talk through the script, or it may just be three extra takes, sometimes you don’t even have that time. And that’s the shame of working with great actors who you want to live in these moments with, but you can’t really savour it because you have to move on.
Film Frame: On the subject of surprises, can the filmmaking process be described as one out of your control in which you are chasing the final film? Is the process one that reveals things to you and you don’t know what the film will be until you reach that final cut?
Rappaport: You never know what you are going to get, but I think you always know what you want. All I can do is vigorously rally the troops to deliver a vision that I am expressing to them, and then after that you can guide it and curate that vision. But there’s a lot of moving pieces to a film and there’s never one person that creates these things. So while I can be the leader, my job is to really craft a vision and motivate the troops in a world where they are working twenty hours a day, are not getting paid a lot of money and they need that emotional connection to want to believe in what we are doing. So I feel my strength as a director is bringing people together and motivating them. Do I think that I’d sit back and just let it happen as it happens? No. I think it’s a very proactive process, but I think it’s one in trusting the people you have hired to execute.
Film Frame: Filmmakers have told me that editing is the best training ground for a director. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the experience of editing The Crash will impact your approach to writing and directing in the future?
Rappaport: I think it’s phenomenal. But less on the writing and more in the coverage of scenes -how you set up and you shoot because when you end up in the editing room you think, oh man, I wish I would have had a shot of Minnie Driver’s hands on the piano to cut away to one last time before I go to Frank Grillo walking out of the room. You think about these things and you’re, well, I directed it and I could have had that. So I think it really informs.
I don’t think I would have necessarily opted to edit this myself if it wasn’t a financial necessity. We had no money and the film was left to pure passion and motivation on mine and the producers part to just get it done any way we could. So that meant me editing and it was a learning process. Do I think it could have come together quicker or in a different way with a different editor? Definitely. But it was a very unique learning experience for me that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and on the next one there will absolutely be different ways to utilise that skill set in the coverage of scenes.
Film Frame: Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Rappaport: I would only hope there’s an audience that finds ownership over it because the point of impactful art is to motivate people to action in some way. And so one definition of action is to take ownership over something, for them to call it their own, to be impacted by that and to utilise the experience, and then adjust their behaviour outwardly. From a filmmakers perspective there’s a point where you have to abandon it and leave it up to the devices of who it was meant to be left to, which is the audience. And so there’s always that point where you want to hold onto it, but you just have to let it go, and I definitely relate to that. But yeah, that’s a very interesting point that I’d never thought of. It’s nice to think there are members of an audience that would take ownership over a film, and parade it around like it was something that was very impactful to them.
Film Frame: Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Rappaport: I definitely think it’s transformative. It’s really hard to go into a movie, especially an indie movie without being changed or transformed, because for a matter of years you are sacrificing everything to ensure that this product, this piece of art is going to make it to a screen somewhere. And a lot of times those decisions might be damning or resourceful, positive or negative, or ultimately just for the good of the film, and I think those things change you. There comes a point in every filmmaker’s journey where you realise that things get real for the sake of art and that’s when you make a decision to either connect and grow closer to it, to give yourself a reason to fight on for that project, or you back away from it and say, “I don’t want to get too close to this thing.” So for the people who see these things through to the end, I imagine it must be as transformative to anyone else as it is to me, knowing that just finishing a film in itself is a feat.
The Crash is available on VOD courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.