Parker Smith, an Austin-based filmmaker, is the director, cinematographer, and editor of Ramblin’ Freak.
A Gravitas Ventures release, Ramblin’ Freak had its World Premiere at the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it was nominated for the inaugural SXSW Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award. A melancholic, powerful documentary meditation on loss, cats, and car accidents, the film features Smith on a road-trip to New York in search of bodybuilder Gregg Valentino, “The Man Whose Arms Exploded.”
Smith spoke with Sean L. Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about his relationship with Valentino two years later, making festival friendships, and the grief that inspired him to make his feature film debut before he was 25.
A word of caution: this interview, which has been lightly edited and compressed for clarity, contains both spoilers and material that some might consider inappropriate for the workplace.
Sean Malin: You showed Ramblin’ Freak for the first time back in March. At this point, you’ve been touring with it and promoting it for nine months. This is usually around the time that most filmmakers stop, or want to stop, talking about old work. Are you at that point?
Parker Smith: I have only been talking about it at South by and Argentina because the film didn’t get in anywhere else. I would like to be tired of it. But after SXSW happened, that was kind of it.
SM: What’s your diagnosis for why that is?
PS: The movie is not an easy sell, I guess. I really thought putting the SXSW logo on it would help it get into [festivals], at the very least. I know Glen [Zipper] did a lot of ground work to help get it into places. But I also know that a lot of these films are watched in a vacuum, and a lot of those people are going to turn it off in the first twenty minutes. If you don’t make it to the car crashes, there’s no chance.
SM: That’s true. When I first reviewed it for the Austin Chronicle, I was exhausted by it, and I hated the first twenty-five minutes at first. I felt like shutting it down and getting on with my life. But once you see that car crash montage, something starts to change. That is the moment where your taste as a filmmaker starts to really come through.
PS: Yeah. I couldn’t figure out how to get onto the road in my car without explaining what I was doing, at first. But once I did that, I felt more comfortable making the movie.
SM: Once the film got into SXSW, did you think you might be due for some kind of windfall financially? If I was in your position, I might have thought, “Maybe I’m not going to be wealthy, but at least now I’m going to be okay.”
PS: Of course I thought about that a lot. But I also knew that this movie was a tough sell and that not everyone was going to like it. I had my fingers crossed that maybe it would blow up and….I had this vision that if it got into a festival, people would bring me bags of money and say, “Now what do you want to do?” But nobody wants another solo cat movie *Laughs*.
SM: This is a very auspicious success for a first-time filmmaker with your background. From what I can tell, you’re an autodidact who dropped out of film school so you could see if you could make a film. But making a film requires editing, visual technique, and some measure of directorial skill. How did you learn those skills?
PS: I went to film school in Colorado. But I don’t really feel like I directed anything. It was just shooting and editing myself, really.
SM: And performing, as well. You’re on camera for most of the film.
PS: That was difficult. I didn’t have any desire to be on camera, but I just had to do it. I was trying to have an emotional journey, some kind of growth and experience for myself, yet half of my brain was across the room, worried about what the camera was getting. Worried if things were in focus and if the mics were turned on. The other half is trying to explain to this muscleman why I’ve driven across the country to meet him. So as a result I think I might’ve half-assed both aspects. Editing was much harder, emotionally speaking.
SM: I think you are very interesting to watch, especially during the film’s climax. As you start to get more emotional in that conversation, you show some composure on camera that can’t really be taught. As you found yourself “starring” in the film more and more, did you become more comfortable participating on camera?
PS: Kind of. You know that feeling where at some point over a couple of days, you know you’re going to cry? I knew that was happening – I was welling up – and I really didn’t want to cry on camera in front of Gregg. That might have been better, but I didn’t want to do it. When I left my aunt’s house [in New York] to meet him, I started rehearsing what we would talk about. There is a shot of me driving there as I’m crying, which was happening as I was rehearsing it. So I had practice, and I guess that is performance in a lot of ways.
SM: I love how you repurposed negative criticism of people calling you an “amateur” and stuff like that into the trailer. Off-camera, you don’t seem to take yourself too seriously. Ramblin’ Freak is quite serious except in this perverse way around Gregg. He is kind of your comic foil.
SM: You know who he reminds me of? Tommy Wiseau. He’s this self-serious, self-made man. Gregg Valentino is the deformed version of the American Dream. Did he have any awareness of that?
PS: He knows he is funny, but I believe he thinks that he’s in on the joke. And I’m not quite sure if he is or not. In a way, I felt like I was deceiving him, because he was under the impression that [the film] was about him.
SM: Is he happy with the film?
PS: Yes. We had a screening in Brooklyn with a Q&A, and he got choked up. It was really great. But I can see in the movie that there’s a point where he realizes, “This is not about me.” He sees that there’s this kid who drove 1200 miles to come meet him and interview him, but then he thinks, “Oh shit. What is happening?”
SM: An inverse question to that is what your parents thought the film was about. Were they expecting it to be about your sisters?
PS: I was struggling to figure out, “How am I going to make this about my sisters?” Everyone thought it was about Gregg. I told them I was going to meet this muscle man because it can be difficult to talk to them about the girls. My stepmom is the one who started pulling out tapes of the girls. That’s something she does all the time – watches home videos. And I could barely convince my dad to come to the cemetery with me, but luckily, he came. Then when he told this story about goats raping each other, I felt that things were clicking, that I’d found what links these two things.
SM: Gregg is obviously proud to be in the film. Do you think your sisters would be?
PS: Of course, totally. It’s weird – as I was editing, I would forget that they weren’t alive. I would think about how I wanted them to see it, but then realize, “That’s not going…”
SM: What was the gap in time between your sisters passing away and the beginning of the film?
PS: Catherine was June 2013. Samantha was November 2014. And then I shot the film over two weeks in October 2015.
SM: As an editor, you found a rhythm that is so hypnotic and mesmeric that it lulls people into a particular netherworld. I’ve spoken to some people who have seen the film and who have tragedy in their family lives, and I find that people who know grief like that recognize the kind of mental space this film takes place in. It’s like it’s suspended in some kind of goo; it’s a purgatory, of a kind.
PS: Yeah, yeah. It’s like being at a cemetery and you can’t even talk about…
SM: Who you’re at the cemetery for.
PS: I was totally incapable of dealing with this and handling this experience.
SM: Was your family aware that you were basically driving cross-country in this fog of suspended animation?
PS: My mom thought that after I met Gregg, my plan was to just drive around to nowhere. She said, “I think you’re planning on your van breaking down somewhere and just staying there forever.” I was like, “Yeah, I do want to do that!” But I held onto my cat. He was the one thing keeping me from falling off the face of the world. So I came back from the trip, and two weeks later, they had this 5k walk in Fort Worth.
SM: Having a performative streak and making YouTube videos to put out into the void is a big part of my life. It’s how I got started professionally as a critic, and it’s part of the culture now: if you want to become PewDiePie, you have to make your own stuff. That’s what your sisters did with make-up videos. Do you think they had aspirations to be professional performers?
PS: They were homeschooled, so they were stuck at home all day, they couldn’t go anywhere. So they found an outlet through YouTube. One of the videos they made has something like 200,000 views. And Gregg does the same thing: he sits there in his kitchen and he makes videos. That is his contribution to himself every day.
SM: This desire to be seen is extraordinarily human. I wonder if your family thought of the film as a gift to the girls.
PS: After the screening at SXSW – everyone had already seen it, but it’s a different thing to see everything up there, twenty feet tall – my mom (and they weren’t even her kids), said, “It’s like a memorial to the girls.” Then later on, my dad said, “It was like a memorial!” and everyone said, “Oh yeah, you’re right!” They see it as a tribute, like there’s a cause to it, and I see it like that, too. And in the credits, I added a thing that says, “Go to this website if you want more information.”
SM: Your sisters are goofballs –
PS: They’re funny! They were getting laughs!
SM: And there’s something electric about them, too – they have presence. I think of the movie as secretly a star vehicle for them.
PS: That was my intention. I wanted people to come in thinking this was a goofy movie about a body builder and a cat and a guy with long hair. Then I wanted to sucker punch them with the saddest thing I could do.
SM: The film is very painful, obviously. Even though I know it’s on Amazon Prime, and consider it one of my favorite movies of the year, it is hard to recommend. I don’t know how to safely communicate what it is that you’re going to see.
SM: It’s like mother!. Did you see that?
PS: Yeah, I loved mother!.
SM: I did, too, but I had to tell everyone that they should see it only if they knew that it was deceitfully marketed, and that they’re not going to get out of it what they think.
PS: My girlfriend wanted to buy her dad the DVD of [Ramblin’ Freak] for Christmas. I was like, “Oh, no!”
SM: Knowing that, if you could have this film be discovered by a community of people, who would that dream audience be?
PS: When it got into SXSW, I wanted to meet people who were filmmakers, too – like a brain trust or something. I wanted to make friends. And I did make some friends, like Peter Vack, who made Assholes, and Albert Birney, who made Sylvio. That was my goal.
But I would say that anyone in their early twenties who wants to make a movie is the #1 audience to me. I looked for movies like this, and stories like this, about how somebody made their first film. It’s a how-to; I’m literally showing how I made the movie. On top of that, anybody that is like I was at the time – where they can’t break out of or face their grief – I would first tell to see a therapist. That’s probably better than making a movie. But aspiring filmmakers and grief-stricken twentysomethings.
SM: You’re about to start shooting your second film. What’s happening there?
PS: Yeah, Glen is producing it. Another personal documentary. Again, it was never my intention to put myself in my films but I don’t know what else to make with zero resources. This is also about an unfortunate thing that happened to me, so for my own sake I hope I never make another film about myself again… if I do then something awful must have happened. All of the reviews, even the good ones, call me a narcissist. At some point I’ve got to turn the camera around.