An interview with David Von Ancken

Richard Raskin

How did you become involved with making Bullet in the Brain?

Actually I read the Tobias Wolff story in The New Yorker. A friend of mine had pointed it out to me. I think it's about a four-page short story. Very dense prose. What fascinated me about it relative to a potential for film was that the short story was all about what someone did not rememberů which I thought was inherently not visual. I thought basing a film on the story would be an interesting problem. I had started to write one-act plays in New York. This was probably about 1999. I had made a couple of avant-garde jazz short films that had no dialogue. And I didn't know anything about optioning. I just phoned The New Yorker and found out who Tobias Wolff's agent was. I went to them, and they had no idea who I was and probably thought I was a fuck-up [laughter]. And then I got in touch with Toby Wolff and sent him my first short, called Box Suite [1997] and then I forgot about it for about six months. Then suddenly I got a call from Wolff's agent who said he saw the first short and was very impressed with it and was willing to option the short film rights for Bullet in the Brain. So that's really the genesis of it.

It took me about eight months to write the script.

One of the things that interests me most concerns the classroom scenes in the first half of the film which are so striking, and aren't in the original short story.

You hit right on the topic that concerned me most in collaborating with Wolff. That I had to put my writing up against his on a hard cut. His writing is so very well thought out and the more you read Bullet in the Brain or any of his short stories, the more you realize just how well thought out every sentence is. And after becoming friends with Wolff, I found out that it took him many months to write Bullet in the Brain even though it's such a short story. And he actually responded very positively to my version of his story. He'd had a number of his stories or scripts made into movies and he'd hated them all. So he'd reserved the right to keep his name off of it if he didn't like it. And because he really enjoyed itů we became friends.

I think those initial scenes really enriched the story.

Well you know, ultimately it was trying to get a visual medium in a story that is apparently not visual but happening in someone's mind. And without simply illustrating things that are in the story, like driving his dad's car into a tree, or going to an anti-war rally. I hate pictures that simply illustrate a voice-over. That's why the voice-over comes so late in the game in that short. I think it's over half way through the film before we introduce George Plimpton's voice.

Wolff has Anders as a book critic which fits a story where a man has lived his life in his head but is not really an occupation that is very visual. I changed Anders to a teacher b/c it gives the character a visual platform - the classroom - through which we can get a little bit into his psyche.

Anders's wrist-watch plays a recurrent role in the story. Can you recall how and why you thought of adding it in the film?

The wristwatch of it all. Since the concept of time plays such a central role in the story and the short film, making the concept of time physical becomes a challenge and an opportunity. The compression and for a moment control of something as immutable as time by something as elegant and fragile as the brain is, I believe, one of the most interesting elements of the story. We are in the end no more than our collective memories and we die when they die but remain somehow alive in the memories of others. The watch then becomes the reminder that as Wolff says you cannot outrun time. Even as a child Anders was fascinated by the passing seconds and it hints at the man he will become.

A linear time-line is broken repeatedly in the film, for example when Anders's arrival at the bank and departure from the classroom are interwoven. Was this planned from the start or an opportunity you thought of during the editing of the film?

The breaking of a linear time line was both planned and found in the editing process. Since the story and film are essentially about the passage of time, the creation of memory and how we fleetingly bear witness to events in time, a sequence of events or memories of those events does in fact become a life remembered. Since memories - at least my memories are always fragmented and overlapping, I thought narrative right angles in the film would work. And of course, Wolff opens the door to such non-linear story telling by using a third person narrator. I remember using the intercutting between the classroom and the bank to shorten the film because above all else I have always felt that short films need to be short. The shorter the better.

Did you have Tom Noonan in mind right from the start or did that come later?

I had seen a film called What Happened Was [1994] which was fascinating. And I did not know him at the time. I wrote the script with no one in particular in mind, but then as I got around towards the end of it, I started thinking of him. Because he has an ability to articulate things in a way that is very unique. I trimmed it to him. And once I had him on board, we worked on the initial monologue.

The initial monologue that we filmed was four times longer than you see in the movie. And I believe short films should be short. I think the original version was twenty-two minutes long. It was kinda sad because it was a really good monologue that I wrote and ultimately we had to cut it apart. But it plays better for being short I think.

July 14, 2008/January 15, 2009

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