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Death, sex, & deodorant: inside the hysterical film "KILLER"

Ian Durkin
August 31, 2016 by Ian Durkin Staff

Director Matt Kazman loves to embarrass his characters onscreen. Not because he’s cruel, but because he’s found an interesting way to explore emotion through moments of intense vulnerability and simultaneous hilarity. As we peer back through the archives of Matt’s work, we see this recipe successfully utilized many times before. It’s at these junctions of public exposure and self-realization that his characters experience the mortifying reality that they are only human: imperfect, oft-times naive, and generally insecure about being exposed.

In Matt’s laurel-laden short “KILLER,” we meet Dusty, the young protagonist at the intersection of childhood and puberty, where every young boy’s life is filled with embarrassing questions and even more misleading answers. Watch below as Dusty and his group of similarly developed comrades find the meaning of sex, death, and what deodorant is really for.

With a film this emotionally effective, sincere, hilarious and just about pitch-perfect for a coming-of-age story, we had to chat with Matt about the making of it.

Ian: “KILLER” brings back so many buried memories of adolescent school days: bullies, friendships, and the general confusion about everything. Where did the idea for the film come from?

Matt: I was thinking about guilt and how consuming it can be. I wanted to make something about that, and when I was looking for specific examples from my life, I thought about how when I was younger and exploring sex (in other words, masturbating) for the first time, I felt a lot of guilt. And I don’t know why, but I attributed it to feeling like I was doing something wrong. Whenever I would finish I’d immediately be hit with a wave of, “What did I just do? Do people know what I just did?” And I thought that in that headspace, someone could make a giant leap of logic when something bad happens and think, “This is my fault.”

Once I had that starting point, and knew it was going to be about someone that age, I brought in more from my own experiences — mainly that confusion about everything.

The writing feels so authentic and the actors you cast are a perfect fit. What was the process like of writing from the perspective of kids? Did you reference old journal entries? Did the kids you cast influence any of the script?

First off, thank you! I was definitely thinking about myself and my friends at that age. We were not very well-spoken. And I wanted the kids’ dialogue to reflect that. But the kids in this film are different from how my friends and I were. Back then, part of the reason why we were so interested in sex was because just getting a glimpse of it was an endeavor. Nowadays, kids can see pretty much anything. There’s so much more information — and misinformation — out there for them to take in. And I thought it would be funny if the effect it had on these kids was that sex wasn’t a big deal to them anymore — like they’re so “knowledgeable” about sex that they’re blasé about it, even though they haven’t experienced it.

With Dusty, I was trying to show another aspect of being that age, how sometimes you feel so uncomfortable and confused that you just don’t know what to say. I like writing dialogue for those situations, and centering the film around a death made that approach even more appropriate.

Casting the film influenced the script, but not in a major way. After the first round of auditions and hearing kids say the lines for the first time, I did a lot of tweaking so it sounded more natural. But thankfully I was able to find actors who fit the roles for the most part, which feels crazy in retrospect. I’m really surprised that I didn’t have to change anything major.

Your film “FLAGPOLE” also follows around a group of kids. What do you think attracts you to that stage of life?

I like coming-of-age stories because it’s a subject matter that so many people can relate to. And I like that as an adult, you watch stories about younger characters with perspective. You can take so much more from them than what’s on the surface. They also just feel inherently personal, and even though what happens in “KILLER” didn’t happen to me in real life, I put a lot of myself into it, and I think (I hope?) people respond to that.

You also seem to gravitate towards embarrassing situations, like in your Staff Pick “TIGHT SPOT.” Is it just fun to watch sexual embarrassment play out on the screen? Are these all secretly autobiographical?

In general, I love watching embarrassment play out on screen. It’s so painful and intense to watch, but at the same time, it can be really funny. I’ve had my fair share of embarrassing moments, both sexual and otherwise, and almost every time I look back on them, I laugh, even if they were awful in the moment. So making these films is cathartic in some way.

Strangely enough, none of them are autobiographical. I mean, emotionally they are, but not to the extent where they’re based on true events.

The other thing I’m interested in is the emotions and neuroses that surround sex. “TIGHT SPOT” came from a one-woman show that my friend Carmen Angelica was doing at UCB called “Who Am I and What the Hell Am I Doing.” Mid-way through, she comes out and says to the audience “I think now’s a good time to answer the question that’s on everyone’s mind … have I done anal?” She starts talking about how she’s never done it and how she would only do it with someone she feels close to. And it becomes a monologue about how she can’t get to that emotional place where she loves someone, and it’s very sad. I loved the honesty in it. And “KILLER” has a similar approach, where I get people’s attention with masturbation, but surprise them with the emotional aspect of it.

From the shots, to the performances, to the execution, your films all are so well-done. What went into making “KILLER”? How long did you work on it for?

You’re being too kind. “KILLER” actually took a while to make. I wrote it almost two years before we shot it and initially thought I could never make it. But my friend Ryan Nethery, who’s an incredible DP, read it and was like, “We have to make this.” He was really passionate about it from the get-go, and very creatively involved. We have similar taste in films, so he knew exactly what I was going for. He’s also just really talented, and it shows.

We eventually decided to shoot it in New York, and once my friend Ben Altarescu came on board to produce, it started coming together. Casting took a while because it was tough finding kids, and families, who were comfortable with the subject matter, which was understandable. I worked with a casting director for the first time, and we cast almost every role, but I couldn’t find someone I liked for the lead. We did some more reaching out — I contacted a bunch of art schools in NY but got no response — and I almost gave up.

But then I found Hale. I had seen him in this short film “HENLEY” that played at Sundance a few years ago, but he popped up again in another short and a feature. He had such a unique look and his face was so expressive. He felt like he could carry a film with very few words. So I got his mom’s email and reached out. They responded immediately and after talking to them about it, I went to Richmond, Virginia to meet them and run through some of the scenes. We shot it not too long after that. It’s crazy recounting how much work went into it beforehand, because the shoot itself was a relatively smooth four days.

Even though I don’t recommend having that long of a gestation period, it ultimately helped the film because by the time we shot it, we had put so much thought into it, we were prepared for anything. About a week before the shoot, we did a tech scout. The final “showdown” was originally supposed to take place on the back field, and it was a much bigger scene. But it became clear that we didn’t have the resources or the time to pull it off — especially because we had limited daylight hours — so I decided to move that into the school, which made the scene much stronger and allowed us to shoot it at night. It was a win-win.

Editing also took a while, partially because I was doing it while balancing freelance work, but also because the first cut was very long, [about] 28 minutes. So it took a lot of finessing to cut it down without feeling like I was compromising tonally or losing important information. At the end of the day, almost every scene has material cut out of it, and I cut out three whole scenes.

You had an impressive festival run with “KILLER.” Did you have any goals at the onset of making it?

I had creative goals, but I wasn’t thinking much about festivals when we went into it. I was honestly thinking more about putting it online, because in my experience, the most benefits I’ve gotten have come from doing that with my work. Getting into Sundance was a huge surprise. By the time I finished the film, I couldn’t see past its flaws, so I was glad that they saw something in it. And this whole festival run has been incredibly rewarding and encouraging.

What about short films attracts you? What are you working on next or at least, hope to work on next?

I like making shorts because it’s helped me develop my voice and figure out what kind of longer-form stories I want to tell. While I was making “KILLER,” I made two other shorts, “TIGHT SPOT” and “HASTA LA VISTA.” They’re all different and I didn’t even write two of them, but I connected to them and felt like they represented the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. Especially after making these three shorts, I have a way stronger vision for the kind of work I want to make.

Right now, I’m working on a feature script. Ben and I are writing it together, and I’m really enjoying the process. It’s involved a bit of research, including a road trip that also served as a soft location scout, and we did that with Ryan a couple months ago. It’s great to be working on something with them again, and I’m excited to see where this new thing takes us. This might be a weird way to cap off this interview but I feel so indebted to friends and collaborators like them who lift you up and bring so much to the table, to [the point] where it feels like a collective. Making films is tough and you can’t do it alone. I mean, you can, but it’s much harder.

Thanks for the insight, Matt. 

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