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Sarah Tomlinson

Grant Singer on His Sky Ferreira-Starring Short Film, ‘IRL’

The kids are not alright. The short film IRL makes this clear in just 17 minutes. DirectorGrant Singer, an up-and-coming music video director (Sky Ferreira, The Soft Moon), and writer Patrik Sandberg, who moonlights as an editor at V magazine, have created a stark-but-stylized portrait of their life in NYC, starring indie ingénue Sky Ferreira as a lost girl who tries to piece together the previous night. Filled with street fashion, sharp dialogue, and raw performances by non-actors, the film’s verite immediacy evokes that other urban coming of age story, Kids, without ever referencing it. With cameos by Damien Echols (of The West Memphis Three) and Genesis P-Orridge (Psychic TV), and an original score by Salem’s John Holland and Gatekeeper’s Aaron David Ross, it’s an au current portrait of a youth culture so insular there’s nothing to revolt against. Here, Grant Singer talks about his cinematic inspiration, casting non-actors, and his debut feature.

What would you say IRL is about?
To me, it’s just about a girl who is disillusioned with her life and her friends and lives in a very, very, very contemporary version of New York that’s also highly influenced by late ’80s/early ’90s rave culture, which is, to me, very relevant to what it’s actually like to live there right now. Patrik and I wanted to make a film about what it was like to live in New York as a young person, and we didn’t really feel like there were many films at the time doing that. There were shows like Girls, or other things that are set in New York that we didn’t feel like we could relate to; not that there’s anything bad about Girls. Actually, I’ve never seen it. I’m sure it’s amazing, and obviously it’s successful, so it’s doing something right. But there wasn’t really anything that we felt was reflective of the people we knew and were living with at the time.

I was very moved by the film and told friends they had to see it because it’s like a new generation’s Kids. Do you see that connection? Was it conscious?
I guess maybe it’s like Kids in the sense that we didn’t use actors. Everyone was either a friend or someone we knew, or who was like a cultural figure, like Genesis orDamien. There weren’t really any professional actors in the film. Obviously, I like Larry Clark a lot, and I love Harmony. So Harmony’s an influence of mine. But I actually haven’t seen Kids in fifteen, maybe ten years. It’s been a long time. I remember the story, and I know people have said that about IRL, but I actually haven’t watched it in a long time. So no, not Kids. I’m super influenced by Gaspar Noe and Patrik is very influenced by Gregg Araki.

You’ve said you have to fall in love with your actors. What do you love about Sky?
She’s got such a rich, unique voice. And a speaking voice to me is really important, especially as an actor. I think people are very blinded by looks, but actually it’s the voice of a person that is way more striking than their looks. And her voice is just incredible. Obviously, she’s a singer, and her singing voice is amazing. But also, when you look in her eyes, there’s a lot of depth to her. She’s not just a pretty face, or whatever. She’s a complicated person. She has depth to her, especially being so young. She just turned 21. She’s had a really interesting life. I think I just looked in her eyes and could tell that there was something there.

You’ve said that as an artist, you go with your unconscious. Can you talk about that?
Actually, that’s sort of my favorite thing to talk about. If you look at the films that I like, at least my two favorite films of the past year—Post Tenebras Lux by Carlos Reygadas and Holy Motors—they’re very meditative, really sort of in their own specific worlds. You can’t even describe them to the normal person because they’re very much unique to those filmmakers. A lot of them don’t have to do even with story, or plot. They’re just really ingrained in the filmmaker’s subconscious. And the genius behind that is the filmmakers’ ability to execute that.

And, to me, the greatest filmmaker of all time is Stanley Kubrick. If you look at his films, obviously, they’re genius on many levels. He was so obsessive in every little detail, and that’s why his films are so brilliant, among other things. I think he is sort of the ultimate testament to that; he has a vision, he has an idea, and it always comes from within him. It’s not about appealing to anyone else, or creating a story with a hook. And I think, where film is at currently, it’s not even about telling a story. It’s about creating a world. How well can you create a world? If you look at all the really successful filmmakers right now, who are very stylized, like NicolasWinding Refn or Gaspar Noe or whoever, you’re looking at their own subconscious.

IRL was very much of your life in New York at that moment. Will your feature, which you’re currently writing, be like that? Or will it be not so place-specific?
Oh, it’s very place-specific. It’s set in northern Michigan and Detroit. It’s very much set in the world of crystal meth and Americana, and it’s like my power noise film. To me, it’s really striking and surprising that there’s totally a crystal meth epidemic in America. And yet, there are really not that many films—at least fictional, narrative films—that are really being made about that world, besides Intervention and Drugs, Inc. and all those shows on TV. Although I’m actually not interested in making a drug movie or glamorizing drugs, or making drugs seem harmful. And I’m obsessed with power noise, and all that kind of music, and I don’t feel like there are that many films that use that music. I want to make something so visceral and intense that it really is chilling. I want to terrify people, but not make a horror film.