Eugene Kotlyarenko talks to Asher Penn

Photos and interview by Asher Penn

Eugene Kotlyarenko is the most relentless auteur of millennial indie. Since the release of his tour-de-force 0s & 1s—a multicam post-internet fable of a young man’s quest to be reunited with his laptop—Eugene has consistently been making films that showcase the rising personalities of the avant-garde, propelling them onto increasingly bigger screens. A lover of the genre, his films A Wonderful Cloud and Wobble Palace are romantic comedies situated in a contemporary hellscape, capturing the exhaustive absurdity of his generation’s everyday, while inserting himself into the center of the action—both in front of and behind the camera.

How did you start making films?

By watching lots of movies. I was taking them out of the library and writing notes about what scenes I liked. Then taking them out again if they were really good. One night I downloaded an Adobe Premiere free demo so I could edit. It downloaded overnight with a 14.4 kbps modem. I didn’t have a camera, but that didn’t matter because there was also no way to get footage onto the computer—back then you needed a special capture card. Mega-expensive. So I used photos from the internet, plus some videos from my Encarta CD-rom, plus I downloaded some songs from Napster. Also, it was a demo so you couldn’t save your work or export, so if I was in progress or wanted to show someone my finished “movie” I had to leave the program open and make sure no one turned the computer off.

Has the internet always played an important role in your films?

I mean, yeah.  You can probably infer from the last answer I was coming of age during dial-up, rise of AOL, instant messaging and all that. At 32 years old in 2018 I am the ideal age: easily remembering the old world of writing and communicating, while always quickly adapting to any new digital/virtual development that has taken place since Y2K. The future feels pretty intuitive. I like being a transitional figure—it allows me to observe, expose, and satirize all the friction and grasping for connection I see around me.

How did Wobble Palace start?

From breakup experiences Dasha and I had. From noticing the gender enmity in the air. From noticing people breaking up after living together. From living through it myself. For needing to resolve my own living situation and making a pact with my ex: I would make a movie and she would keep the house.

How would you characterize Wobble Palace?

It’s an unstable situation. It’s a hub for self-involved delusional people. People always think they’re very successful at lying to each other. But unless they’re sociopaths, people’s poses are gloriously transparent. And I get a twisted sort of satisfaction from seeing through that. Our culture’s full of these delusional facades. Both IRL and in our virtual projections of ourselves on social media—which are increasingly the same. There’s a destabilizing force to the frequency and also faithfulness of people’s poses. Our identity, morality,  and relationships are increasingly wobbly now. Also the floor was uneven in that house.

How would you describe your approach to directing?

Casting and editing. Trusting your actors on set. Guiding them towards revealing their insecurities and fears. Hurrying everything up with a bit of frantic energy. Having very precise visual ideas sometimes. Figuring it out as you go other times. Having a strong collaboration with my editor. Working together to discover what you wanted to make vs what it is becoming. Making sure the rhythm is propulsive, engaging. If you watch a lot of movies, the grammar becomes ingrained, and the way you subvert it does too.

You star in Wobble Palace, too. How does that change the way you direct?

It makes my approach to working with whichever actor I share the scene with a little different, in that I can kinda “top from the bottom.” Instead of giving notes after a take, I can change my performance on the fly if I need the other actor to be in a different rhythm or vibe. It makes me a bit less like the conductor of the symphony and more like a saxophonist in a jazz quartet. Ultimately both ways go fast. You can always tell if you’ve gotten what you want or not. If you got it, move on.

Do you see this film as a period piece? An artifact?

Yeah, I do see it as a period piece. I learned from my first film 0s & 1s, that if you’re ever incorporating contemporary technology into your movies—which I’m doing all the time—it will inevitably feel dated by the time you’re done and people see it. So I’ve always embraced that element, when working on these like satirical “slice of life” films. On top of that, I did have a sense that this would be an unprecedented cultural moment because of all the energy around the election, the elevated stakes. Like, my car is old and only gets AM radio which is largely conservative talk shows. I’d hear these hatemongers and bloviated demagogues throwing so much hate at Obama in the most transparent, simplistic, vitriolic way. As Trump became more and more of a contender, I saw the mainstream, left-leaning media using almost the exact same approach and even same language towards him, that I was used to hearing on right-wing radio. It was really scary because it exposed the fraudulence of impartiality. When that happens, you enter a moment when the illusion of truth—which is so integral to civil society—disappears. I knew we were headed there and so really did want to just capture the fear and anxiety in the air surrounding Trump and the impending election. No matter what the results were, I knew we’d forget this pre-election moment, as humans tend to forget and adapt to anything, and I didn’t want it to be completely forgotten—that very common feeling amongst most people I knew, that we were about to “have our first female president,” as Jane says. Stuff like that is invaluable.

Wobble Palace has more political dialogue than your other films. Is this just unavoidable today?

Anything is avoidable for artists who don’t care about the world around them. I get most of my material from reality—so I mean, yeah it is in dialogue with politics, in a way that everyone is forced to be now. For the reasons I described before, it feels especially integral to the themes and goals of the movie.

What are you working on now? What can we look forward to?

A satirical horror film about white male privilege and the social media hellscape we live in. You know, another slice of life thing.