Julian Castronovo shares the particulars behind his latest microbudget project, which sees its world premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival on April 14.
The stark, yet restrained setup of Noise‘s casting audition might lead viewers to believe this eight-minute short film is destined to dive straight into a predictable commentary on an actor’s view of the industry. But then someone screams on the other side of the wall where a series of Asian women are seated; they all remain unfazed.
This moment is just the first in a series of artful diversions in the greater misdirection at play throughout this 2022 short by Madison-born, Los Angeles-based writer-director Julian Castronovo, who skews and subverts the spirit of playwright Konstantin Stanislavski’s most famous quote: “There are no small roles, only small actors.” Noise innovatively nurtures an ambiguous cinematic space. While confronting bigoted typecasting of white-centric sci-fi narratives on one level, it also takes a fascinatingly absurd angle to the schisms of communication and pragmatic concerns of any bit-part regular in the world of moviemaking.
Set for its world premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival on April 14, at 8:45 p.m., as part of the “Strangers In A Strange Land” shorts program, at the Chazen Museum Of Art, Noise emerges as one of the most subtly elaborate and stimulating selections in this year’s “Wisconsin’s Own” lineup, the festival’s annual effort to showcase filmmakers and films with ties to our state.
In late March, Tone Madison spoke with Castronovo over Zoom about the essence of no-budget filmmaking, analytical linguistics (in the abstract), dead-end language and nonsense, discovering new connections between his work, the boundaries of performance, as well as his upcoming feature-length hybrid project that involves a collaboration with fellow filmmaker (and sister) Maya Castronovo.
Tone Madison: I’m curious about your inspirations for this short and how it came about. To me, it’s funny but a disturbing piece of work at the same time that feels like an evolution of very shrewd sketch comedy; and yet that doesn’t fully characterize it either. But I love the interplay and dual qualities of the grounded and the absurd in this short.
Julian Castronovo: Maybe this is overly explanatory, but, to me, what it’s about is animal noise versus political speech. I’m trying to think about cinema as a place where that is complicated and blurry.
As far as inspiration, the way I approach making these types of things is [thinking about] what’s the best I can do within my material means. What’s the most I can achieve artistically or intellectually within the simplest framework? Essentially, the question I started with is, “What’s the best film I can make that’s just people in an empty room?” Then I had these other intellectual considerations, but I think I wanted to make something really simple, absurd, and austere; but at the same time, have it gesture to a larger question that’s more open-ended and evocative.
Tone Madison: When the women are coming in to the audition room, and the casting director is describing the premise of the particular scene they’re reacting to, he talks about a futuristic society where wealthy families are exploiting humanoid servants. Was that in any way mocking something like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015)? It feels like a very specific response to something you saw and took issue with.
Julian Castronovo: I don’t know if it’s a specific response; but I think Ex Machina is an example of this thing that I was thinking about, and that’s technological fantasies, and how they have a racial aspect to them. And, as you brought up, that’s that specific dance scene in the Alex Garland film [with] the Asian robot character [Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno)] who’s secondary [to Alicia Vikander’s Ava]. But yeah, I think that’s the thing I was interested in thinking up, but it was not a specific response to Ex Machina necessarily.
Tone Madison: I feel like there are plenty of examples of films like this, but I couldn’t pin it to anything as specific as Ex Machina. That’s the first thing that popped into my head.
Julian Castronovo: I think that’s the right impulse, definitely.
Tone Madison: You won’t be here for the screening, but I’m curious if other audience members will take away that same impression or they’ll bring something else to it entirely.
Next I want to talk about the sound design in this film. It is striking but pretty simple to the naked ear. You use it in a disruptive way but also as a drone soundtrack—the noise of the electric floor fan that you hear before you see anything, what sounds like the hum of an HVAC system, and then use this whirring vacuum or power tool for distraction or comedic effect. Could you talk about your collaboration with Song Hui (sound) and Andrew Kim (mix)?
Julian Castronovo: It’s really, as you said, pretty simple. I wanted it to be full and, at the same time, very spare in a way. I wanted to do those kinds of droning things and also have them be motivated in the space. The oscillating fan has a visual character of going back and forth, but part of the reason I wanted to do that was to have that sound that’s unplaceable and science-fictiony.
Tone Madison: Like on a spaceship, almost?
Julian Castronovo: Yeah, exactly. The whole thing is about sound in a way. It’s called Noise, of course. The whole thing is about language and sound—that’s what I’d say about it. And it’s about times when language is nonsense, and times when nonsense or sound functions as language. It’s about finding all these dead-ends of language. And so that’s why I wanted to have that drill sound in there.
Tone Madison: Oh, it’s a drill? OK.
Julian Castronovo: It’s a drill sound that I used, but it’s just supposed to be this unplaceable mechanical [sound] happening somewhere else in the space that keeps interrupting. I was interested in where sound and speech run into dead-ends.
Tone Madison: Did you have any specific cinema references for that? My automatic go-to for miscommunications or language barriers for comedic effect would be Jim Jarmusch, if you know his work.
Julian Castronovo: The person I think about most when it comes to sound—and I don’t even come close to the complexity of her sound design—is [Argentine director] Lucrecia Martel. A simple, effective thing you can do is stagger things by a few seconds sometimes. You hear something before you see it, or you’re still hearing something after it’s already gone visually.
Tone Madison: That’s a common sound editing practice, even in mainstream cinema, I would say. But you described this film as “austere.” You’re drawing attention to it in a slightly different way here.
Is there an entertaining or unusual story behind the process of recording the screams themselves? How many screams did you record in total with all the actors?
Julian Castronovo: I don’t know that there’s any particularly compelling story about shooting the screams. I did, though, have to post a bunch of signs in the building so people would know I was filming. As for takes, I did very few. I can’t imagine there’s more than a couple that didn’t make it into the film.
Tone Madison: I have a long preamble before this next question [laughs]—so, apologies—but I watched your earlier short Hannah’s Video this morning again for the second time after it was part of the virtual 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival here a couple years ago. And I was trying to zero in on your aesthetic interests. And we sort of talked about that a little bit here already.
That film is just a single static shot in a bedroom, but it has a similarly minimalistic style, there isn’t any music, and characters seem to be struggling to respond to the awkwardness or frustration in a prompt they’re given. And also, both films showcase types of performances for a camera within the film. It’s more defined in exact terms in Noise‘s auditions. So, I’m wondering, were you looking for something specific in the actors and their performances when you cast this?
Julian Castronovo: I didn’t even realize the extent to which those two films are really similar.
Tone Madison: [laughs, gesturing] I’m glad to be throwing new stuff at you.
Julian Castronovo: Yeah, they’re basically the same setup of people being recorded in an empty room. I think the thing that interests me about that—and this also kind of gets at your question—is the moment an actor turns it on, and you can see them start to perform. In a normal live-action sequence, you don’t get that line. You don’t see them put on the mask or pose. I like to capture that, because it’s unclear where they start acting as an actor in a film versus them being an actor for me, for my camera [as director], versus the camcorder in the space [of both Noise and Hannah’s Video].
Before one of the women starts screaming in Noise, you see her take a breath, and her face changes. You can see her pose, and I think that’s one of the most interesting moments for me.
Tone Madison: Did you envision that?
Julian Castronovo: Yeah, I think I did. I don’t like to make claims about trying to capture “real moments.” I don’t think that’s a real thing, but I am drawn to those moments, because there are moments when the actor is asked to do the same thing their character is asked, which is to start to perform. Does that make sense?
Tone Madison: Yeah, it’s like a documentary element in an otherwise fictional film or an artifice, a construct. Is that essentially it?
Julian Castronovo: Yeah. [Thinking about an unfinished project, Lunch, which was disrupted due to COVID-19], that’s why I made this film, Noise. Because I couldn’t quite get that one to work, I thought I could mobilize these same interests in a simpler, better way.
Tone Madison: The film concludes with the first actress we see, Yuying Tang, warming up to this action description: “800 model soldiers ran north and artillery soldiers ran abreast,” etc. Then the translator (Xuege Cai) in the film comes up to her and says that he has a history with this rehearsal, too. What are the origins of this? I did try to look it up through a simple search, and I couldn’t find anything.
Julian Castronovo: It’s a tongue-twister, like “red leather, yellow leather,” something like that. The idea is that, in English, we [practice] a vocal warm-up before saying lines. It was interesting to me, because it’s this dead-end language. There’s an image, but the words don’t totally make sense. So it’s a nonsensical speech act, but at the same time it means something effectively to this translator who remembers it from his own childhood or somewhere. It [speaks to] this whole thing I’m trying to do—when is language noise, and when is it speech?
Tone Madison: I guess I was, at the same time, overthinking it and underthinking it. [laughs] The translator says something about the tongue-twister recalling the image of a dog with teeth, which is fascinating. That isn’t even explicitly mentioned in the tongue-twister. But there’s a direct mention of violence, so maybe he had an incident with a dog in his youth.
Julian Castronovo: I kind of wanted to leave it on an opening rather than a closing.
Tone Madison: Both of the films I’ve mentioned during this interview have a real strong identity and artistic sensibility. It feels like you could lift these scenes from a feature, and then tell me they’re part of something larger, and I would believe you. Have you envisioned making something longer that’s sort of like Noise or Hannah’s Video, or are you more comfortable working with these smaller productions with a small crew, and the end result is something less than 10 minutes long?
Julian Castronovo: I am attempting to make a feature-length film right now. It’s gonna be quite different from these; it’s not necessarily live-action. It’s kind of a hybrid thing, called Debut. Although, that’s subject to change. It’s a detective story about art forgery.
Tone Madison: Have you seen Art And Craft, that documentary from 2014?
Julian Castronovo: I haven’t. Who did it?
Tone Madison: It’s an Oscilloscope release. It’s about Mark Landis, this prolific art forger [and this guy Matt Leininger trying to catch him]. Co-directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker.
Julian Castronovo: Oh, I’ve heard of Mark Landis, just not the film.
Tone Madison: The premise of your hybrid fictional film just instantly recalled that for me. [laughs] When you say “hybrid,” do you mean documentary-fiction, or hybrid in terms of live-action and animation or something to that effect?
Julian Castronovo: It’s a little bit of everything. I have dolls, live-action actors including myself, and a lot of it is kind of based in archival documents.
Tone Madison: Thanks for sharing.
Julian Castronovo: Yeah, the goal is to make it a microbudget thing. It’s no-budget, in fact. It’s coming together in a way that feels good right now.
Tone Madison: It sounds highly ambitious for something that’s no-budget.
Julian Castronovo: It’s sort of the same way I opened our conversation—”What’s the most that I can do with the least material means?” I try to match the formal stuff within certain constraints.
Tone Madison: You have a younger sister, Maya, who’s also a filmmaker. The last thing I saw by her was Rah-Rah Riley, which is, curiously, another film about performance and rehearsal. Do you confer with each other on individual projects? Or, if you haven’t, do you think you’ll start to?
Julian Castronovo: Yeah, to some extent, we do. To some extent, it’s also a little sister taking cues from an older sibling. But she’s helping me with stuff for this new film, Debut, which will be fun. If it works out this way in terms of availability, this new film will maybe be our first real collaborative effort.
Tone Madison: How involved will she be with Debut? Is she in New York?
Julian Castronovo: She’s in New York, and that’s part of the reason I need her. Because I need things from New York. So I don’t know exactly what title she’d have, or how I would characterize her role in this. Things are still up in the air. It’s been an iterative, casual process by which I’m making this film. So I don’t totally know yet.
Tone Madison: You mentioned her taking cues from you. Has that been the case for a while, going back to high school? Was she following your lead, or did you share ideas about things back then? That’s interesting, because my brother and I had a lot of similar interests, but we were so different in other ways that made collaborating impossible. [laughs]
Julian Castronovo: We’ve always had similar interests, yet different aesthetic sensibilities. When you’re raised in the same household as someone, you’re bound to converge on some things and go your own ways on others.