Q&A: Ruben Amar & Lola Bessis, Writers/Directors of SWIM LITTLE FISH SWIM

(Re-posted from LimitéMagazine.com)

by Daniel Quitério

Life in New York City can be hard, especially for young artists on the verge of self-discovery. But with an abounding energy and “magical atmosphere,” as described by French-born filmmakers Ruben Amar and Lola Bessis, it’s, perhaps, the ideal setting for an individual to come of age. Amar’s and Bessis’s feature debut, Swim Little Fish Swim, captures the difficult reality often faced by idealistic artists—striking a balance between an uncompromised art and the economics necessary to survive in an increasingly expensive city.

In Swim Little Fish Swim, the multi-hyphenate filmmakers (Amar and Bessis both wrote, directed, and produced the film; Bessis also stars) tell the story of musician Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) and his more practical wife, a nurse named Mary (Brooke Bloom). The couple struggles in raising a young child in an unforgiving city, let alone hosting young French artist Lilas (Bessis), who has problems of her own.

Although Amar and Bessis have collaborated on several short films in the past, Swim Little Fish Swim represents new territory for the duo. Coming off a successful festival fun (including a win for Best Film at Gen Art Film Festival and a nomination for the Grand Jury Award at SXSW), the feature opened in New York City’s Cinema Village on September 19, with a limited rollout to follow (including Los Angeles and Chicago on September 26 and Seattle on October 24). I recently had the opportunity to conduct an interview via e-mail with Amar and Bessis, who provided joint responses to questions regarding the film, their collaboration, and their impressions of New York City.

Olivia Durling Costello, Dustin Guy Defa, and members of The Toys and Tiny Instruments in SWIM LITTLE FISH SWIM (photo courtesy of Under the Milky Way)
The film highlights themes that are fairly relatable to many transitioning into adulthood, as well as finding a balance between their passions and living in the rather harsh “real world.” What about the story compelled you to make this film?

As we are ourselves artists, like the characters we were asking ourselves the same questions: Should we work on commercial movies, or should we focus on a more personal and artistic film, but take more risks financially?

For both of us, the will to work in cinema comes from childhood—a will to tell stories, to act, to invent a character. To direct a movie is an extension of childhood. It’s this spirit that we wanted to have while we shot the movie, so we shot the movie in our apartment and the actors are our friends. All the characters are kids in an adult’s body—Leeward, who is irresponsible, plays with the toys of his daughter; Lilas, who is so naïve; and even Mary, who engages for a house even though she doesn’t have the money. Maybe one of the most mature characters is Maggie/Rainbow, who looks at the grownups’ world with her kid eyes.

The characters of Leeward and Lilas are both fragile artists, struggling to come into their own. Do you find any part of yourselves in these characters?

Yes, definitely. As we were directing the movie, we were asking ourselves so many questions. We wanted to be directors, but for what kind of movie? What about the artistic component? How [do we] make choices without compromising our ideas and ideals, and make some money at the same time?

Carl Titolo, Joy Seligsohn, and Dustin Guy Defa in SWIM LITTLE FISH SWIM (photo courtesy of Under the Milky Way)
At the risk of sounding clichéd, New York City, in a way, plays a character in the film. Describe the city’s influence on the story.

We’ve always been very attracted to this city that we knew mainly through the work of powerful, independent New York filmmakers, including Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch, John Cassavetes, and Spike Lee. This explosive and intense independent cinema has always fascinated us, and I think that we unconsciously associated it with New York. So we wrote screenplays that took place in New York in order to have a good reason to go there! We shot several shorts in New York, separately. We were immediately struck by the city’s energy, the almost magical atmosphere emanating from it, and its undeniable [photographic] potential. We were influenced by the New Yorkers and the people that make New York such an amazing city. A few months later, when we met, we decided to move to New York because we thought it would be the perfect place for inspiration and imagination.

Bessis in SWIM LITTLE FISH SWIM (photo courtesy of Under the Milky Way)
You’ve both worked together and found success on multiple short films, most recently “Checkpoint” (2011). How have your previous collaborations prepared you for this, your first feature?

The conditions were very different. “Checkpoint” was a command and we had a very professional team, well organized, lots of funds, and lots of help.

For Swim Little Fish Swim, it was not professional and [was] made from scratch. We were maybe a little bit prepared because of the first experience of “Checkpoint,” but the shooting was more free; we depended on nobody and we were self reliant with no obligations, no framework.

However, the carrier of “Checkpoint” in festivals allowed us to meet so many people in the world of independent movies: actors, directors, technical teams, and was a source of inspiration. Meeting the independent scene greatly helped us to direct Swim Little Fish Swim later.

Bessis, Olivia Durling Costello, and Dustin Guy Defa in SWIM LITTLE FISH SWIM (photo courtesy of Under the Milky Way)
What was your greatest learning in shooting this feature, compared to your experiences working on shorts?

The biggest learning was that [since] we did not have any budget, we had to produce ourselves … and nobody was there to help us, to assist us. So we had … to learn how to deal with the relationships with the actors, the teams, etc. It was an extreme situation that helped us to learn about us and about the job, and it taught us a lot for the next movies.

With Swim Little Fish Swim, you’re both directing, writing, and producing a feature for the first time. That’s a lot to take on in one shot. Don’t mind the pun, but did you ever feel like a fish out of water?

Yes, we did, because we are not producers and we had to manage everything, and we were not ready for that. All these jobs (actors, directors, producers) are so different and were unknown [to us]. It’s hard to find legitimacy, but we did not have the choice.

Brooke Bloom and Olivia Durling Costello in SWIM LITTLE FISH SWIM (photo courtesy of Under the Milky Way)
Lola, this is your first credited acting role. How did you come to find yourself in front of the camera, and how was the experience directing yourself?

It was very hard, as it was the first time for everything: director, actress, and producer. But I did not have the time to ask questions, and I had to make it and fend on the job. I was not prepared; I did some workshops with the actors, but not enough, and it was hard to direct and act at the same time.

Besides, my character is a foreign girl who is more in the observation and filming everything. It is a mise en abyme of myself.

I wouldn’t do it again. It’s too hard. The repartition in my two jobs was hard to balance. I could only direct in the scenes I was not acting in.

As a filmmaker, myself, I know that one of the greatest challenges in bringing your vision to life is the often unpleasant, but necessary task of fundraising. Can you describe how you went about raising the necessary funds to make this film? Would you mind sharing your budget?

No problem! It’s a very small budget: $50,000. There was no fundraising. We started with no money, [except for] some personal savings. So the money we didn’t have, we had to make up for it by spending all our energy in going door-to-door to get some authorization and convince people. And that cost us lots of time and energy. We had to make a lot of compromises because we did not have any money. In the end, we had nothing left for post-production, so we applied for a support of the région Île de France to finish the movie.

Olivia Durling Costello in SWIM LITTLE FISH SWIM (photo courtesy of Under the Milky Way)
Personally speaking, I’m currently collaborating with a friend on a short film for the first time. Based on your history working together, what’s your soundest piece of advice for us?

The best advice I could give you is to be very organized upstream and to divide the roles well. Other famous duos (like the Coen Brothers) are very organized and divide their roles. Otherwise, it’s very confusing. The actors need to know where to turn.

For more information about the film, including screening details, visit SwimLittleFishSwim.com

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Su23njsK2Ow]
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