Ian Asbjornsen has been making movies his whole life. The level of his commitment to approaching life through his chosen medium is staggering and pretty exemplary.
He was also my prospective student during my freshman year of college and my scary roommates and I managed to freak him out by accident his first night on campus. He decided to attend the following year anyway. He has balls of steel, brains to match, and a beautiful girlfriend named Amy Reed. He is currently a grad student at USC.
Ian is one of the great people: a good-hearted, multi-talented, passionate person that deserves lots of attention. I got to chat him up earlier this summer and the fruits of my procrastinatory efforts can be seen below. Google him immediately if you want to learn.
Or make it easy on yourself:
being real: what are you working on tonite?
ian asbjornsen: well, i usually read and write at a book store.
look at pictures
write stream of consciousness nonsense
but tonight i'm going to see the new viking movie SEVERED WAYS
br: cool. sounds like some hard work. do you consider going out to films or reading, even if it's casual or fun, to always be in some way research for your own work?
ia: yes, totally, i'm completely obsessed with analyzing every visual thing I see, whether it's film, magazine ads, or real world stuff
i really never stop thinking about how to make a new film
br: how does writing figure into that?
ia: film is such a team effort, i HATE SITTING DOWN and writing, but it is a necessary evil with film, at least for the types of films i want to make now.
in the past i NEVER wrote
but i think i was just being lazy
although great stuff comes out of free-form shooting/directing
i'm still trying to find a medium between chaos and form
i like taking photos more than writing too
so sometimes i do that to make myself feel productive
and as an excuse to not be writing
i just always feel like i have to be doing something
and shitty digital photos and writing are the cheapest things to do
br: very true. as a small aside, i would say that your recent short film Shatter comes across as more tightly structured than previous work. would you chalk that up mostly to the sort of preparation that writing and photo-taking involves?
ia: totally. Shatter was the first time I did real directorial "pre-production." It's a skill I'm learning at USC
I did a ton of prep
like 10 drafts of the script
20 hours of casting
2 drafts of storyboards
1 rehearsal with actresses
lots of meetings with my producer and production designers
it was fun
the effort is really worth it
br: yeah it shows. how was shooting the finished product? did it feel more mechanical or less interesting because of all the prep work or not?
ia: well, because of all the previous prep work, in a way i felt way more pressure than normally to preform well. It's not really more "mechanical," it's just that there was a path I set for myself to accomplish, but it was still full of randomness and chaos.
the thing I love about filmmaking is that is it SO CHAOTIC
it is completely impossible to really plan for anything, to know your future
I try to embrace it, although usually directing is extremely exhausting and stressful
I operated the camera on Shatter, and I honestly didn't do much on-set directing of the acting
my actresses, Ericka Clevenger, and Ela Brumm, were both amazing to work with
Ericka is super young but already extremely knowledgeable and talented at film acting, like she plays for the camera angles perfectly
and Ela (Soldier) was just TOTALLY natural. It was the first acting of any kind she had ever done
br: hard to believe. how did you find them...describe the audition process a little bit and their backgrounds
ia: my producer and I put up online casting notices on various sites (nowcasting, lacasting, etc)
we just got a bunch of girls to come in, and they were perfect
Ela is from Berlin
She manages and is the chef of a restaurant in Santa Barbara, i think its called Brummis
this is Ericka's blog: http://erickapedia.blogspot.com
they are both super hard working and really smart people
casting is the thing I'm most proud about for Shatter
and I shouldn't forget to mention Alexander Aquino (Soldier), he is amazing too
br: do you plan on working with either of the girls again, or would you rather totally move on or what?
ia: I'd love to work with them again
i do want to meet lots of young actresses and actors
br: what's the next project as of now?
ia: an all POV murder mystery with a rig i made where I attach a tiny video camera to a hat that I (or the actor) is wearing. I will film some of this in Maui in a bamboo forest near Amy's dad's house
and a rap video with Charley Hood
Amy is writing a feature film that I might film all of or part of for my USC thesis
who knows what of those things i'll actually do
br: how was Severed Ways?
ia: really great
it will make any black metal fan explode
br: into how many pieces?
ia: a double billion
br: double billion, haha
two of them huh
wow, that sounds messy
ia: the movie made the vikings seem like really natural humans, like just regular guys
its very doc like
br: cool. so can you like break it down for us, like how did you sort of assimilate and work on it in your brain and start forming ideas towards your own work?
ia: i don't personally want to make films that are much like New Wave or Werner Herzog (as Severed Ways is), i feel like i already did that with LA Inferno and I want to do more linear stuff
but what i'm sure i'll draw from is the awesome long-lens, high shutter speed close ups in the thick woods
amazing natural lighting
br: huh. my technical knowledge of shooting fades daily (much like my grasp of Spanish) so can you kinda describe what that effect looks like visually?
ia: i don't know, it looks super frenetic and very edgy/stylized
contrasty, but not too much, and the movement is exaggerated because of the shutter stuff
and it looks very flat because of the long lenses (think opposite of Terry Gilliam's visual style)
i want to film part of my thesis in the snow
in the wilderness
br: is that definitely going to be a project that Amy writes are do you have a bunch of ideas floating around?
ia: well, if i want to start shooting my thesis next summer, then i have to start raising at least $40,000 (if i want to do a feature), and Amy has a great script already that i'm really into, so there's a good chance
but at this point it could be anything i guess
and i don't know how to raise film money by the way
it might be a WAY cheaper if i do a short instead of a feature
i dont want to think about it
br: well i would think so. is that the norm though, $40,000 for a grad project?
ia: 30,000-50,000 is a bit normal
br: i'm throwing up and crying. let's move on
ia: yes, PLEASE
br: okay, so one thing i've always been curious about with your work is there seems to be a very distinctly pop sensibility, like a kind of tone that rewards an open, hopeful and fun-loving mindset.
ia: yea, i think growing up on the west coast there is a lot of exposure to BOTH pop/industry "art" as well as "high art"
maybe that has influenced me, i dont know
maybe it's just my personality.
br: it seems like a lot of LA shit is like there is a glitzy 'positive' veneer that is glamorous and fun and it obscures a shitty underbelly and your work seems to kind of be like: 'i like the veneer, sorry it is cool and fun!'
what is the "shitty underbelly"?
i definitely strive to make my movies "entertaining"
it may just be my personality
i am really optimistic in my thinking and i'm quite hyper
br: i'm sure it is. why do you think you approach things that way? i mean, do you ever consider not doing it that way, or is that just always your default?
ia: i never watched MTV when i was little or anything
i always try to do things differently, but i think part of it is that I see ALL art, AND life as superficial, but other times extremely spiritually, and maybe there is no difference at all
i don't know what my own style is, because i never have really thought about it and i'm probably the worst person in the world to figure it out
i loved fast-paced cartoons as a kid, but so did a ton of young filmmakers that now make super-slow, boring ass vids
and i don't actually consider my films to be especially fast paced or hyper actually
br: haha, hmm. what for you would be an interesting like downer ending to a film that you would make. or would it just not cross your mind?
ia: wasn't the ending of Shatter a downer? and LA Inferno? Everyone always dies in my movies.
br: but not before experiencing transcendent love (as in shatter)
it's a freeing death i think
ia: haha i could see that
maybe it is just sad to me
i like nostalgic stuff. sad movies are my favorite, the first part of The Decalogue is one of my favorite films and its so heartbreaking
br: remind me what happens in that one
ia: a kid and his dad use the dad's computer to use mathematics to see if the frozen lake is safe, it says it's safe, and then the kid goes onto the lake and dies
Heavenly Creatures is my favorite movie right now and its super sad and disturbing
i really only like tragedy
br: i don't mean to imply that there isn't a range of motion and sensitivity in your films, but there is certainly a shell of fun, adventure, humor and a kind of airyness. you don't seem to be questioning that kind of positivity even as you add depth.
yea i agree
br: haha, maybe i'm being vague. i'll use more of these ? things
ia: yea, i try to make dark and mysterious videos, but maybe they come out as too playful
br: they're clearly both, i just find it interesting that you don't seem to express a lot of tension between being dark and being playful. i guess that's a better way of phrasing what i observe that like violence and technological destruction can exist as a humorous event without like a critique behind it. do you think that's a fair estimate and if so, is that something that is a conscious decision as you kind of implied above or is that just you being you?
ia: oh yea, i totally agree
i think it's both
i'm very neutral about issues
i don't like to think that there are essential truths in anything, so the last thing i want to do in a movie is teach the audience my individual views:::: i'd rather construct a cinematic environment, a virtual reality world where people can enjoy an exciting scenario, and watch hot and/or cool actresses and actors do things they wish they could do
i'd rather make creepy things fun, and fun things creepy
br: i like that, like you kind of make something so fun about something so fucked up that the audience is kind of split across was that gross or was that funny and probably they (hopefully) don't resolve it for themselves, they just say Whoa!
ia: yea, i think that's right
not everything has to be resolved
nothing should be
br: well very little can be
hey, let's write poetry together!
ia: i would rhyme with together but i suck at rhyming
br: don't worry son, it's all about timing
br: FUCK IT ---------------> (0)
ia: you need to say in the blog that I was your prospy at CC!
br: i really am running out of the ability to be serious and coherent. i'm also drinking budweiser mixed with clamato, so really
were you scared when you visited college?
be 4 real.
ia: yes of course!
that was my first trip to a college!
and the first thing your roommates say is "we need coke" or something hahaha
br: i would have been really scared too. more scared probably. i mean i was scared then.
br: okay like where did you start? like can you think of one or several formative experiences that convinced you to be like i am Ian Asbjornsen and i will make really good movies and help the world and not be a dick?
ia: I always wanted to be a director. I said I was going to be one in my 5th grade year book. obviously I was just copying my only male role model, my dad.
i think i made my first movie when i was like 8 or 9
ia: it was all one shot, very complicated, of a dinosaur theme park with toys (this may have been post-Jurassic Park)
but i forgot to press record, so when i tried to show it to my parents, i cried
but it's the process that counts so it doesn't matter
br: that is such an amazing story.
tell me a quick story about something cool happening that you are really into like relating to robots or whatever
like just make up some silly shit
related to current thoughts about film or not. up to you!
ia: haters luv to hate
i think robots should be treated with respect & i'm not joking
br: becuz they are gay. this is interviewy again but have you ever gotten any hate for your movies or attitude or anything
[oh, good point. i really agree. i think the same thing about even less sentient objects like paintings and walls and shit. like it is all alive, so respect.]
okay your question:
my music video with Adam Cahan (rapper Zero Reference + Amy) was super embarrassing
the kids at college didn't understand it
and the sound got out of sync
but that wasn't really hate
lots of people thought my video was sexist because of all the suggestive shots of Amy
and i guess they didn't understand Adam's lyrics (regarding organ harvesting, etc.)
br: because asking beautiful people to be beautiful is always demeaning
ia: its true
i was messing with expectations of what a hip hop video is, and i was trying to blur the lines between sexiness and non-sense
they just thought i was showing off my girlfriend i think
which was only partly true, but even if i was, who cares?
in high school, drama kids always hated on my films, saying things like "the dramatic arc sucks"
br: exactly. Amy is fucking ideal and hot and smart. FUCK. those kids were so fucking lame and retarded. i liked that video a lot. anyone who had ever touched a vagina has no right in feeling jealous or stupid and resentful. deal.
ia: thanks, yea, i like it, its just hard to explain to people sometimes.
it was really fun working with Adam of course
we had a blast
and i remember he ate a semi-frozen quesadilla that had been sitting out and then he rapped for the camera and then got sick
i hope we make another video someday
he is a rapper
god i CANNOT SPELL or i CANNOT TELL if i am spelling correctly
br: hahahah that is a good story. did you see him throw up at all?
ia: no, he survived
we live on like opposite ends of LA
br: i would love to watch Adam throw up. i bet it would be hilarious.
ia: I've been out to shows like 5-10 times with Adam here in LA, and literally EVERY TIME random girls come up to him, or dance, or chat
i have NO idea how he does it
br: he is nice. being a nice guy is one of the best ways to get laid
ia: it's like, we are just STANDING there, and some girls would come over and talk to Adam
it's not fair
i think it's because he has remained a musician
and i have resorted to unsexy visual media
br: let's talk about Werner Herzog and Lindsay Lohan
ia: Herzog is like super nice, but Lyndsay ran away because Amy and i like turned a corner abruptly and scared her with our loud talking. we felt betrayed, because in a weird way, i feel like i would get along fine with her hahaha, i mean, she likes to be social and party and her ex-girlfriend is a DJ who likes anime. But she is way too skinny and has like massive lion mane hair.
and with Werner Herzog, i just got a book signed from him and saw him.
kind of met him as in, i stood next to him
ia: no, i just waited in line for an hour and he signed it
i didn't try to talk to him
it was cool anyway
br: what was his demeanor like? or posture or anything?
ia: he was really friendly and happy or whatever, not acting serious at all
he seemed healthy
br: of course, he's probably a good person
and on a smoothie diet or something
that spelling was an accident but rad
by the way, Amy is obsessed with Harry Potter and keeps showing me pictures like these: http://media.photobucket.com/image/draco%20and%20harry/owl4ever/male_models/HarryPotterGay.jpg
br: okay, if you died tomorrow how would you like your legacy described?
ia: ooohh that's the type of thing I love thinking about, as if anyone would really care, but i guess
i would want to be known as one of the best in my field
and i would want to add something to art/film/philosophy whatever
i'd also like to save an endangered species
i answer all your questions like i'm a 3rd grader
i have no idea why
br: a perfect 3rd grader
okay, i'm giving your eulogy. what do i say that you've added to visual culture/contemporary thought?
ia: it sounds super cliche, but i really want to make movies seem as REAL as possible, like create tear-inducing terror and pure physical pleasure
maybe i could invent a new kind of movie theater
br: sounds good. why are you so into such authentic-seeming illusion. like what do you think is the positive effect on your audience?
ia: usually when i'm in theaters i hate them
i don't really know why good stories (cinematic environments or otherwise) are important, but the more drawn-in and immersed in the world of the story the audience is, the more effective it is at convincing the audience of something, good or bad
for me it's not really about giving a positive message
it's just an illusion or story and it has to real to really confuse people's brains into understanding an idea
sometimes i think video games are better at what i'm trying to do, but real actors give something very different than multiplayer games (which r also awesome)
br: i agree
ia: also sometimes i get sad when i make movies because when i'm editing them i feel like i'm looking at death. it's all in the past, it's all gone forever and the camera captures such a microscopic nothing of what was really there
and i suck at being in the present (which is the best time)
i feel most relaxed when i'm drawing or playing piano, something solo and immediate
i try to bring the positive aspects of painting and drawing and music into filming and editing
but there is so much pre-planning that it is very difficult
directing is like the ultimate balance between structure and chaos
it can be a nightmarish imbalance or it can be perfect
br: great. thanks Ian. good luck with the busy week
ia: thnx, say hi to your kitten and roommate
br: will do