Filmmaker Jack Dunphy makes personal films. His short films Serenity, Chekhov and now Revelations tell stories from his life with a dash of fiction. He uses construction paper as the base material for his animated films and apparently works in great detail with the junk he has available. These stop motion worlds are dingy and handmade; There's not a pretty veneer between us and Jack's emotions, although they are beautiful on their own. In Revelations, now streamed as part of the Slamdance Film Festival, he combines animation with video and photos from his past to tell the story of his high school relationship with Selene Bennet. To get their attention from "30 year old rock star Jared" and "Squidboy", Jack's friend Ian, he asks them to star in his films (the footage is woven throughout the film). His plan works and the two start dating. They are happy together. Jack learns what it's like to be happy because what he thinks is the first time in his life. But then Jared's mother dies and he comes over while Jack and Selene hang out. Jared draws on Selene for emotional support and introduces her to oxycodone and morphine, which makes her addicted.
In a "final attempt" to save their relationship, Jack and Selene sour together for the first time. This sequence introduces hand-drawn animations, current footage from the real world and breaks out of the two-dimensional plane of the film. Jack has revelations about his father on his acid journey, realizing that he's a guy like any other, and that he should probably tell him he loves him more. Revelations, like many of Jack's films, focus on a relationship with someone in his life or on a specific memory, but show how those people and events are related to his growing understanding of his late father.
Even before the credits roll for a Jack Dunphy film, which is often the case when they confirm its autobiographical nature (assuming you haven't read about it before), you know that the films have no ability to bullshit and no reason to to pretend or lie for you. When I saw Revelations, I was reminded how rare it is for me to instantly trust a movie and what it has to say. The film disarms you from the start.
Dunphy talked to me about his DIY animation process, what it feels like when an audience cries in response to his films, and the portrayal of death in the films.
Revelations poured into Slamdance from February 12th to 25th. Dunphy also has a podcast of the same name interviewing topics, including addicts and convicts, about addiction and loss, as well as a feature film in the Works called Dear Mo.
Filmmakers: I cried a lot the first and second times I saw revelations. Have you seen someone cry in response to your movies? what does that mean to you?
Jack Dunphy: I take it as a compliment. Laughing and crying, unlike applause, are involuntary reactions. So it's nice to know that something I've done can occasionally give people this kind of emotional release. At Sundance, a man started crying while telling me how much my short Chekhov, who also deals with my father's death, had influenced him. His father had died too. It was an intense and honest moment. All the status traits that preoccupy us – the acceptance of festival programmers who Instagram likes – all those lizard-brain things fall away when I realize that I've really touched someone and maybe even helped them a little. Everything else is bullshit.
Filmmakers: Did you cry at any point during the shoot?
Dunphy: The boredom of editing will stun you pretty well. But when I was animating the acid sequence alone in my father's office and manipulating the cut-out photo of my father hanging over my head in the short version, I heard a symphonic version of Warren Zevon's “Keep Me In Your Heart.” It was intense. If you Being emotionally prepared to engage in this type of pain can be cathartic and healing, I have probably torn.
Filmmakers: Filmmakers like David Lynch and Paul Schrader encourage others to turn their craft into their therapy. Lynch believes a therapist would affect his creativity. Yet none of the filmmakers really bares their soul in their work, and their films still exist in a vacuum of the film world. You don't feel therapeutic, but yours do. Are They Therapeutic For You?
Dunphy: A vacuum in the film world, that's such an interesting idea. I know what you mean. Lynch and Herzog both stop psychotherapy and they're both full of shit. But I think making art is more necessary for me than the actual therapy. It's more revealing. I have to do this to survive. Problem is, after doing this thing, you're still alone with the feelings. The girl won't come back, your dad won't come back to life, but the process definitely brings you closer to accepting the events and actions that make up your life.
Filmmakers: How did you come to this tactile animation style that we first saw in Serenity? Something about it blends the other elements of actual live action footage and other styles together seamlessly.
Dunphy: They are very friendly. It's not like I worked as an animator, I somehow came across it. Cutout Stop Motion seemed really self-explanatory from South Park and Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartoons. I liked the collage aspect. Serenity was the first thing I animated – at least as an adult. I stayed with stop motion because, as you say, it has a delicate, tactile feel to it. A character in Bluebeard, a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, says: "People do not come to perfection to art, but to imperfection." With stop motion, especially the type of DIY stop motion I do, you can definitely feel the imperfection.
Filmmakers: Why do you think people are prone to imperfection? Why is this turning people off?
Dunphy: Because they can relate to the vulnerability, the clutter – Daniel Johnston's original lo-fi tapes are timeless because they are raw. You hear a child struggling through personal pain through an art form they navigate. The hiss in these ribbons transports you to his basement – you can almost touch him. Then his sparkling clean, later studio albums that were produced by other people – I mean overproduced – are just lame. There's too much crap in the way of the songs. Daniel Johnston is too raw for the mainstream audience. But the mainstream audience isn't looking for art. You're looking for entertainment – not that art and entertainment are mutually exclusive. But it is people who are just looking for entertainment who may have an imperfection problem. If a Pixar short film looked like my shit, you would have crying kids and confused parents all over the country demanding their money back.
Filmmakers: Do you animate in your home? What is the lighting setup like?
Dunphy: When my co-animator Gus Federici and I were doing what became revelations – which was originally supposed to be part of a feature I'm still doing – we were working in my father's office. It was available because it had recently passed. Working in the room he's worked in all my life likely had an impact on the way I think. We just used the overhead light in the room. That simplicity helped us.
Filmmakers: Can you talk about the making of the acid trip sequence breaking up into all sorts of styles and changes of perspective etc?
Dunphy: I like to play with form and express form. I realized a great way to express that moment when you look deep into someone's soul, or at least believe that you do, to let my friend Selene go from a rough cartoon to a realistic, very detailed illustration that Gus made Has. I can't draw like that. Without Gus, I couldn't have done the acid trip or anything else in the movie. His portrayal of space for the moment that completes the acid sequence in which I float through space as a literal fool – this backdrop was so surprising and impressive. He just splashed white on a black piece of construction paper to make the stars. I said, “Woah. This fucker is a scholar. "
Filmmakers: To my understanding, you can make these movies (animated and archived) yourself. Was it a challenge to get other people into the room?
Dunphy: Roger Miller said songwriting is like kitties, you just go out on the porch and do it yourself. That's how I approach most of what I do. But occasionally someone like Gus comes along who fits into my little world and elevates everything. We don't talk about the emotions behind things – we don't talk much at all. I don't think we ever had a "theoretical" discussion about anything.
Filmmakers: How was the locking process?
Dunphy: I hate to say the pandemic was good for me because it was and still is bad for so many people. But it was good for me. The mandatory isolation forced me to stop running with the wrong people and going to the wrong places. I got well and learned to be alone with myself again. If you're not afraid of being alone with yourself, there is no end to what you can do.
Filmmakers: Is the work sustainable?
Dunphy: How financially sustainable? No, you get a check here and there, but it's not a living wage. I have other jobs to do. It's funny what you work the hardest on, your own work, doesn't pay off. But the jobs that you hardly have to work on – like video editing or voice-over work – pay off. But it's not that these appearances grow on trees. There is a lot of luck involved. I am always grateful to them when I receive them.
Filmmakers: How do you assess the general portrayal of death in films and the media? Can you think of an example that met with a response? One that didn't?
Dunphy: Oh, so many films are insincere and it makes me angry. The Hollywood version of death and dying, in which the dying person gives a great speech on his deathbed and his children are closed and everything is wrapped in a neat arch – it doesn't work that way. It's the way Hollywood presents love. Unrealistic expectations arise. It's such a disservice. I thought Michael Hanekes Amour got it right. Death is cruel, let's not kid ourselves.
Filmmakers: The final scene where your father asks you if you had any revelations during your acid journey and you ponder the loving revelation you had from him along the way but decides not to tell him, brings me every time.
Dunphy: I've been on acid so many times and decided, "I'm going to write my grandpa a letter and tell him how amazing he is!" Then you are sober and you never do. Now my grandpa is gone. If you are using a harmful drug like cola it is probably best to forget about the plans you made with it. This script idea that you jotted down after your fifth line probably doesn't need to be written. But psychedelics – if you get them right – come up with some good shit. Shit of life. Then you make the mistake of saying, “Ha! those crazy drugs. What crazy thoughts I had about those crazy drugs. Okay, back to my life exactly the way I lived it before I had these great revelations – put those blinders back on, hop back on the hamster wheel. "
Filmmakers: My partner also lost her father, but wept less than I saw revelation. She said it was impossible to live in this deplorable room of "unspoken feelings" for someone who has lost a parent (or both) without going insane. She felt that the ending might feel more emotional to people who have both parents because they still have the option to say what they regret not saying, but not. You have the privilege of making you feel that regret.
Dunphy: I am sorry for the loss of your girlfriend. And I'm glad you have a girlfriend. I always tell people who haven't lost a parent: it's unfathomable until it happens. Then you realize that life really goes on. Don't get me wrong, it will throw you off balance. But it is natural. We want our parents to die before we do. There can be relief in finality. In the meantime, it's terrible to live in fear that you can never tell your parents what you really want to tell them before they die. Why are we so emotionally constipated? I dont know. My grandpa and I never said we love each other. If I ever told him I love him, he'd probably just break eye contact, give me a dollar, and walk away. It was an Irish generation thing I think. So I thought I'd show him I love him by interviewing him. He was on the news once and he loved it – some old people want to be reminded that they will have a legacy to leave behind. So I was in a constant state of fear like, “God, I have to take care of interviewing my grandpa. But not this Thanksgiving Day, I'm too miserable. Next Thanksgiving Day. Next Thanksgiving Day – and so on. “After all, he literally died on Thanksgiving. And I never interviewed him. So what should I do? Do you stick with this regret? I already regret so much about things I have never told my father and other people in my life who mixed up this mortal shell. So I can't accept any new ones. I'm busy rising above those I already have.
Filmmakers: Your films often show real people from your life who are shockingly unfiltered. Are you preparing them for this? Are there any rules?
Dunphy: I mean, there are legal rules. I was sued once. I used to think the way to do personal work was to be a little bullied and just plow through boundaries and other people's feelings. I don't think so anymore. But no matter how gentle you want to be, if you want to tell a story honestly, or at least in a way that you find honest, there are occasions when you have to choose between protecting someone’s feelings and doing work. I lost a close friend because I chose the latter. But 90% of the time, nobody is mad about how I portray them because they see love. And the way I portray it isn't entirely unfiltered. I don't want to reveal what's real and what's not. It's not all factual, but it's all true. There are a lot of Selene. I plan to fix the one that is still alive.