Interviews With Indie Filmmakers: Zach Clark by Teresa McCormick Ertel

With his third feature film, writer and director Zach Clark delivers an unconventional dark comedy of a wife’s search for Christmas spirit in the wake of an unbearable tragedy in White Reindeer.

Zach Clark.
Zach Clark.

Tell me a little about yourself personally and creatively.

I grew up in Alexandria, VA and attended film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. After I shot my first feature, Modern Love is Automatic, I moved to Brooklyn, NY and have been here since. During high school and college, I worked at Alexandria’s Video Vault (RIP) which was probably more important in forming my cinematic style and creative outlook than anything else. The store’s specialties were cult films, European art house, and classic Hollywood, and those disparate influences are the core elements of all my work.

In White Reindeer you explore the fact that the tragedies and unexpected life experiences don’t pause during holidays. How does the angle of having the film set during Christmas affect the characters and their journey?

With White Reindeer, I set out to make a Christmas movie, so for me, the story and the characters and everything else are at the service of Christmas, not the other way around. As cliche as it might be, I really do believe that people can set aside their differences and come together during the holidays, and I think there’s a magic there that transcends any one religion’s claim to the season. Had this story happened at any other time I year, I don’t know that these characters might have gotten through it, or that their friendships would have been formed. Christmas can take tragedies and turn them into something hopeful.

What, if any, of your own Christmas experiences are found in the scenes?

White Reindeer is extremely autobiographical, except I haven’t done anything that any of the characters do. Emotionally it’s very autobiographical. We cut a few scenes where characters share Christmas memories that are verbatim stories from my childhood. Suzanne’s anecdote about leaving out carrots for Santa’s reindeer is my own. All the ornaments on her Christmas tree are my family’s personal Christmas ornaments. We shot in Alexandria, VA, where I grew up, so the location itself is very personal and meaningful for me since it’s where all my Christmas memories are from.

I would imagine that some audience members may relate on a certain level, if they have gone through difficult times during the holidays. Have you had any interesting comments or feedback from the audience members after a screening?

The nicest thing anyone has said to me about the movie is, “I used to hate Christmas, and now I think I like it.”

Your film includes tragedy, sadness, comedy, and sex. Describe the contrast of directing your actors through the gamut of emotions and situations.

I don’t know if I see these things as being as wildly different from each other as other people do. Even in our saddest moments, there’s humor to be found, which is very different than laughing at the characters’ misfortunes. Life is full of sad stuff, funny stuff, dirty stuff, weird stuff… When you’re shooting a feature, you’re always shooting scenes out of order and jumping all around the storyline and the emotional arc. I was very lucky to have a really talented cast and crew to help me keep track of everything. They really understood the tone and the trajectory and we couldn’t have succeeded without them.

Anna Margaret Hollyman, Photo courtesy of courtesy BAMcinemaFest.
Anna Margaret Hollyman. Photo courtesy of courtesy BAMcinemaFest.

Did you make this film for yourself or for an audience in mind while writing it?

I always hope that if something resonates with me, it will resonate with other people, too. On the flip side, if you’re not making movies for an audience you should probably be very wealthy or the movies should cost zero dollars. Neither of these was the case for White Reindeer. In my heart of hearts I hope it enters into the ‘Great Christmas Movie Lexicon’ and Ted Turner is running 24-hour marathons of it every December.

REINDEER POSTER_1How has your filmfest experience been? Which festivals have you screened at and which ones are coming up?

The best place to keep track of where the movie’s been and where it’s going is our website IFC Films is releasing it in North America, so it’ll be coming to screens of all sizes this December!

What is next for you?

I’ve got a new script about a young nun who used to be really goth in high school, who visits her estranged family because her brother just returned from the Iraq war terribly disfigured. As usual, it’s a comedy. We’re going to try to shoot it in 2014. Fingers crossed!


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