Shithouse, Cooper Raiff's first feature film with profane title, tells an inspired romance between two young souls on different university trips. Narrated with real insights about college-aged characters and their flawed relationships, the image earned 23-year-old Raiff – a soft-hearted prodigy who wrote, directed, and starred the film – the Grand Jury Award at the this year's SXSW with a pandemic.
Life between dorms and parties doesn't exactly suit shy newcomer Alex Malmquist (Raifff), who is most comfortable taking advice from an adorable plush toy from his childhood that he brought from home. Even though he struggles to adapt to dorm life, he still longs for the comforting embrace of his protective family. One night, Alex escapes his party-obsessed roommate and meets Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a charismatic, no-nonsense sophomore. As dreams and trauma emerge in conversation, a connection is established.
Raiff's emotionally skillful writing and unexpectedly delicate performance highlight Shithouse's humble, character-based drama. His talent was so promising that Jay Duplass stepped aboard Shithouse early on when it only existed as a DIY project by Raiff, his girlfriend at the time, and a friend during a break from school. That cheaply made first iteration uploaded online was enough to convince the veteran indie filmmaker to bet on a feature version of the fresh-faced outsider.
The college dramedy affectionately and poignantly announces an exciting new filmmaker whose interests are similar to those of directors like Noah Baumbach and Richard Linklater. Shithouse is currently being published by IFC Films.
Filmmakers: Her path to filmmaking was unusual. I understand that you didn't exactly set out to become a writer and director. What was the moment or incident that changed course for you?
Raiff: In my senior year of high school, I wrote a play that I played in. That was just because a lot of seniors did that. I didn't suddenly say, "I want to write a piece." It was just one class that seniors were in but I really loved it. When I got to college I was really interested in writing, but no one read anything I wrote. At some point in my sophomore year I decided that I had to do something to be able to read my stuff. So over the spring break, I made a movie called Madeline & Cooper that was about 50 minutes long and then turned into S #!% House. I put this on YouTube and then tweeted it to Jay Duplass of the Duplass Brothers. He looked at it, liked it and helped me turn it into S #!% House.
Filmmaker: Did you already have experience filmmaking at this point or was it completely spontaneous?
Raiff: It was definitely a totally inspiring situation. I had written before but never wanted to direct anything. It wasn't uncomfortable directing because I really didn't love it anymore, but I didn't plan on doing it. The reason I did it was just so I could show people things that I wrote. I thought hopefully it would be good enough and people would be interested. The short was a 50-minute version of the film, basically the one night, and it was written pretty quickly. Shithouse is obviously a lot better, but it was basically: these two people meet in college, a freshman and a sophomore, and then they go and bury that turtle. That was the main focus of the film.
Filmmaker: When Jay Duplass came on board, did you feel like you had to professionalize your visual style in a sense, or move from the spontaneous approach to something polished to do the feature?
Raiff: To be honest, I never really thought about it too much. I've really just been busy writing characters and acting. I just found a really good DP Rachel Klein and that made all the difference. She knew exactly what the film should look like. And she knew I didn't care that much. I wasn't that concerned about how a scene was covered. I always have my ideas and thoughts, but in terms of the graphics we only had one DP which was really great.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the process of expanding the script from what you originally had for the shorter iteration.
Raiff: The short film consisted of two acts and I left out the third act because we filmed it so quickly. Writing Shithouse was about adding that third act, that second day in the story, as the short film ends with that night. It was really easy. I had never thought of making anything bigger out of this until I met Jay for lunch and he hit upon the idea of making a feature out of it that looked good and was well done with professionals. We literally made the short film with three people. I was booming, my girlfriend who had never acted before was there, and the person holding the camera had never held a camera before. When he came up with the idea of making a feature out of it, it was super exciting. I wrote it very quickly because I was just excited to have the opportunity to do a feature.
Filmmaker: What is the most valuable piece of advice you have received from Jay Duplass on this process, given that he is a veteran in the indie film world?
Raiff: Endless advice. He taught me how to make a movie. Probably the best advice was that he wanted me to focus on what I wanted to focus on. He always cared about what he loved about the short film when he saw it, what just the grounded characters were, and how personal it is. The best advice was to stick as close to the short film as possible and trust the instincts I had on the first version of the film.
Filmmaker: Did you always know you wanted to be in the movie? If not, what motivated the decision to take on this role in front of the camera as well?
Raiff: I played briefly and when I went to Shithouse it was cheaper, but I just wanted to own the story I was telling, what I was saying about college. There were a few people I imagined playing Alex, but none of them had gone to college. Dylan Gelula, who plays Maggie, and Logan Miller, who plays my roommate, Sam, haven't been to college either. I really wanted someone in the movie to experience something like college life. There's also something more immediate about me when I play the character who feels just as visceral as if an outstanding actor walked in and showed off their skills.
Filmmaker: I read somewhere that you dropped out of college to do the feature.
Raiff: I did it. It's ironic. I got out as soon as Jay got the idea to do a movie. I didn't tell him because I didn't want to put pressure on him to help me. It was just before I had to pay for a semester and I just thought, "It makes more sense to take this opportunity." I always thought, "If that doesn't work, I can always go back and take the year off." But then it worked out really well. There's still a part of me that wants to come back because I think I missed a great few years. Buy I have no plans to return anytime soon.
Filmmaker: In terms of college life as portrayed in the film, what would you consider to be the thesis of your story? What does Alex & # 39; s experience illuminate about these formative places and the young people who inhabit them?
Raiff: The fact that nobody prepares you for how difficult it is to sleep under a new blanket for the first time. It's so hard to fall asleep that first night. Everyone cares whether or not they move down the street from their first home. I wanted the film to be about your second home.
College was a shitty home for me because I had such solid stones in my family members and was so dependent on them. When I got to college it was very difficult and very painful to take care of myself for the first time in 18 years. I also wanted to show how difficult it is for parents to leave their children there and drive away. At the same time, I wanted to show the Maggie perspective, which is very much based on the girl I dated for a long time. She is someone who did well in college because her upbringing was very independent. While I had such a safety net for 18 years and when I got to college I was just without it.
She wasn't raised on this safety net, so it was like she always did when she got to college. She's crushing it. Then they meet and they are such slides for each other. I wanted to understand both sides of this argument: "Should we take care of each other?" "Do we owe each other?" College was the first time I really thought about it. I realized that while I love taking care of people and taking care of each other, in order to do a really good job and help other people in healthy ways, I need to take care of myself first.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like certain films romanticize college or are more focused on the idea of careless excitement that kids have "the time of their lives"?
Raiff: I don't know if I would say they are romanticizing college. It's just that they don't know college very well. It seems like they are writing from a place of nostalgia or from one place: "These were the best years of our lives." I mean shithouse is very romantic but it just knows what the pain of it is. I haven't really seen that many college movies, but in the ones I've seen showing a scene from college or trying to bottle college, the writers see college as the playground for them to watch it all to do. For me, there was only one thing I wanted to make a movie about when making a movie about college and that was the idea of getting out of the house and growing up. The parties are here, we have party scenes, but they also deal with the topic. There really was nothing more to be said about college than the fact that it is your second home.
Filmmaker: It's also refreshing to see a college-aged male protagonist express such vulnerability on screen. There are several scenes in which Alex, as played by you, cannot hold back his feelings and allows himself to go through them – painful as they are.
Raiff: I cry very easily. Some of the wine scenes were pretty straightforward, but the climax scene of me crying on the phone with my mom was devastating that day. I was kind of surprised how emotional I was. There was one setting that I wasn't that emotional about, and I think some people said, "Maybe you should use that setting because it's pretty scary how intense it is." When I was filming this scene, all the gravity of never being able to go back to where you were with your parents, your first home, came down on me. It was just so devastating. It was really difficult. I was really so sad when I filmed this. It is usually never that difficult for me to go there. The camera gives me permission to feel the things that I keep pushing down. When I write myself a scene that I'm emotional in, it's almost liberating in a way.
Filmmaker: College movies are often associated with unchecked toxic masculinity. Elements of this are contained in the film, but are not glorified as an ideal, but rather questioned.
Raiff: Definitely. I have so many masculinity issues ingrained in me, but I'm much more interested in the person who is emotional. I tried to make fun of the people who weren't like that. I tried to show how “full of character” masculinity is. It's a performance and there's no organic place it's coming from. Alex is someone who always obeys his own rules and that's why he's a really crappy person sometimes. He hasn't thought through his value system very well, and part of that is that he doesn't have the masculinity value system like "I have to do this". He doesn't know what he's doing. People who don't know what they are doing are very emotional.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with the idea of having a plush wolf as a confidante of Alex? It's a whimsical but moving element that, strange as it is, fits his personality perfectly.
Raiff: I wanted to show that his dead father was somehow with him, although I never say directly. Of course only he talks to himself, but I always imagined that (the wolf) is the father character. In this way, the father is present throughout the film. But it's also a great storytelling device to start the movie off. It tells you exactly who the character is and helps you communicate to the audience what is going on in the character's mind at that moment.
Filmmaker: Why use subtitles to let the wolf communicate instead of giving it a voice?
Raiff: I could have really made fun of the stuffed animal. Some people said, "You have a really great chance of making him really funny talk or give him a very special personality," but I always wrote him as Alex 'father. What would papa say to Alex at this moment? And maybe the dad has a bit of a sense of humor, but he won't have a certain way of talking. I could have got through these lines, but I wanted to stick with my idea. It's a self-education device that works even if you don't have a dead parent. When you are not with your parents, you are in constant dialogue with the people you raised.
Filmmaker: After doing the shorter piece with just a few other people without worrying about the production value, was it difficult to adapt to a professional set where you were leading the projects?
Raiff: It felt intimidating. It was the most vulnerable thing I've ever done. Everyone wanted to see me to steer the ship, but I'm not a very good leader that way. I'm not comfortable in this position, but on the last question, all of the other supporting characters except Dylan, Logan and Amy were my friends. So I was surrounded by a lot of my friends. It was really nice to lead my friends, but also just to be around people I knew and with whom I was comfortable. That was huge, but the set was still super tiny too. I think if I do another film that is out of a studio, I'll be very overwhelmed just asking, "Why do I need all these people?" We didn't have the money for this one so we kept trying to kick people off the set and that made it less intimidating.
Filmmaker: You acted and directed at the same time. This is an ambitious double challenge.
Raiff: It was really difficult for everyone else. For me it was sometimes nice because I knew exactly what I was going to say and what exactly I was going to hit. The reason these roles are usually different roles for different people is because it is so difficult for everyone else. You want your director to be a director and you don't want your director to worry about how he says lines. You want the director to be responsible for what the director is responsible for. I think it really tested everyone on set's patience.
Filmmaker: You had a clear idea of why you had to play the protagonist, but what was that decision-making process like in order to cast the supporting roles? There are very famous actors in the film.
Raiff: Jay Duplass was really helpful. Jay is best friend to Amy Landecker, who plays my mom, so he asked a favor. Then, Dylan, I posted to her on Instagram with another person following her so I knew she would see it. We reached out to them very randomly, but we didn't have a casting director. We didn't do any casting at all. I didn't have anyone auditioning for anything. I just kept asking straight out: "Are you going to do this?"
It was about knowing who exactly the right person was for the job, which means there was a risk of getting too locked into the idea that someone like Logan was playing the role. I really wanted him to play the roommate. I sent him a very direct, personal message: "You are the only person for this job." And I think he took it seriously. In my experience, every time I fix myself on a person and tell them how much I love them and how much I need and want their help, they usually say yes. I would be the same if I received a message like this: "I need your special skills." I would say, "Okay, great. Let's do this."