Mouthful (2012) opens on a shot of bare buttocks. A neurotic 20-something year-old male confronts his girlfriend with his pants down, demanding to know what she thinks of his penis. Awkward, tense, and hyperbolic, the conversation staggers on and on as he grills her about the size of her ex's equipment. Finally, after some hours pass, the couple meets again in the kitchen. He persists: "Do I have a small penis?" Fatigued, she says, "Yes."
Mouthful, directed by Robert "Bobby" Putka, is, of course, about male insecurity, but more interestingly it's about a break-up. And this is Putka's power as a filmmaker: just when we've been bluffed by the dialogue — sometimes inane, sometimes mean, sometimes beautiful — he plays a final card that demonstrates there was much more at stake than we realized.
Putka, a 23-year-old filmmaker from Cleveland, Ohio, has been attracting attention on the film festival circuit over the last couple of years, leading HBO to offer the young director an opportunity to develop a series based off the characters in Mouthful. Where Does It Go From Here (2013) and Oi, Meu Amor (2014) are his other short films currently making the rounds, and they also feature Putka's signature stamp: darkly funny, heavily autobiographical, melancholic but surprisingly sweet.
Recently, City Paper caught up with Putka to talk about his approach to movie-making and his plans for his time in Charleston.
City Paper: Your films expose awkward and painful situations between lovers and family members. Why are these the kinds of moments you wish to capture?
Robert Putka: I've always tried to write about what I know. I've found that a lot of times intimacy can be very tense and earnest and emotionally high-stakes in the moment, but removed from it, the things that people say to one another are often ridiculous. That sense of what I'll call "emotional absurdity" has driven comedy home for me.
CP: Dialogue is the key element of your movies. Conversations become plots in your works. How do you approach writing dialogue, and how do you know when it's good and when it's not?
RP: I like to write films about people who talk a lot because I talk a lot. Also, I like a challenge. If I can make people talking compelling, then everything else is gravy. A lot of the dialogue is inspired or pulled directly from conversations I've actually had or have heard. I write long scenes, and I let my actors play around and improvise a bit on set (it helps in pulling naturalistic performances). At the end of a shoot, I'll have enough footage so that my editor and I can cherry pick the most natural and funniest stuff.
CP: The framing seems super tight in Mouthful and Where Does It Go From Here. Is that sense of claustrophobia important to your films?
RP: That's something I've been a bit self-conscious about in my filmmaking, my maybe over-use of tight close ups, as it sure doesn't help the comic elements. But, for whatever reason, I always seem to gravitate towards those shots instinctively. I think part of it is that I like to challenge the audience to laugh at something so seemingly intense because if they laugh in spite of that, it means I made something truly funny in its own right. On a few different occasions I've told my editor, Ben Measor, that I want the audience to laugh at first but then get punched in the stomach just like the characters do. I'm an equal-opportunity masochist.
CP: What are your plans for the workshop you're running at Park Circle on May 10?
RP: I'll be doing a directing workshop where we'll be doing a staged read-through of a few scenes from my debut feature script. I'll direct it as if I was actually on set to show people how I work with actors through rapid-fire takes and improvisation. It's a bit messy, but that's what makes it so unique. I feel a lot of young filmmakers are locked into doing things "by the book," and it stifles them. I want to show them that it's OK to go against the grain. It's not just "OK;" it's probably actually beneficial. I'm also really interested in seeing and discussing all of my work thus far with people. I want to see what resonates with people about my work so I can continue to refine it as I move forward onto bigger projects.
CP: You are showing a number of short films in the evening after your workshop. Why did you choose this batch of movies?
RP: All the shorts that I'm curating were made for less than $10,000 ... a lot of them for less than $1,000, actually. In spite of their small budgets, I feel these films showcase truly singular voices. They're funnier, sadder, and more interesting than a lot of short films I've seen that sometimes cost between $40,000 and $100,000. I don't care that you can frame a shot and make it look good. Anyone can do that with enough time and resources. It's what's going on underneath it all that matters to me.
CP: I hear you are working on a feature. Can you tell us about it?RP: It's a film about familial bonds amongst a family of women and how far those bonds can bend before they break. To be where I want in my career, it's a film I need to make. I want to control what I'm doing and the type of content I'm creating, and to do that in LA, you need to have a ton of respect. To get that respect, you need to make a successful feature or two.
CP: What are the biggest challenges you face as an indie filmmaker? Greatest rewards?
RP: Even at my level, making films on the cheap, raising money is hard. I can get by making shorts for nil, but with a feature you actually have to pay people. The biggest pleasure I derive from making films is actually quite simple. When I screen a film with people, and a joke hits big, that's the greatest joy in the whole wide world.
After Putka's workshop, he will curate a selection of some of his favorite recent shorts at 7 p.m. For more info, go to parkcirclefilms.org.