Part One: A Great Organic Tomato
Now my friends all came to see me they point at me and stare
Said he's just like the rest of us so what's he doing in there
They hide in their movie theaters drinking juice-keeping tight
'Cause they're certain...that zoo's no place to spend the night.
-- James Taylor, "Knocking 'Round the Zoo" (1968)
[The song recounts Taylor's stay in a mental ward.]
Last September, I interviewed local director Robinson Devor (Police Beat) for
a magazine article. Since I was only able to use a few quotes, I transcribed the en-
tire interview for Siffblog. At the time, Devor, along with co-writer Charles Mud-
ede (The Stranger), was working on In the Forest There Is Every Kind of Bird.
Since then, he's completed the documentary and changed the title to Zoo.
Subsequently, it was accepted by the Sundance Film Festival, where it screen-
ed last week, eliciting widespread praise for an extremely tricky premise: The
film was inspired by the infamous Enumclaw Horse Case. At the time, Devor
mentioned that he had a negative pick-up deal with THINKfilm (Murderball,
Half Nelson). They have since picked up Zoo for theatrical distribution.
Where are you from originally?
I'm a New Yorker. I grew up outside of New York City, about 50 miles.
You got rid of your accent, apparently.
You know, there's an accent perimeter. It's about an hour in every direction.
You get just outside of that, and you don't have a New York accent. I went to
college in Texas, kind of on a fluke. I had a friend from back East, and he said
there was a good film school in Dallas at SMU, which is Southern Methodist
University. I was probably gonna go to NYU or something like that. It seem-
ed really intriguing to go some place different, and I had a couple good friends
who were going there. They had a good program. I was very broke in college,
and film school is an expensive thing-to make films. In college, if you have no
money whatsoever--this was back before video was such an easy way to
work on your craft-just to buy the film and develop it and stuff, I was always
just scraping by. So, I didn't really have a lot of production experience, but
they had very good criticism classes that exposed me to...Italian cinema
and other things, the basics of film education. It was not bad.
So, you were working exclusively with film and not video?
Yeah, it was a comic degree title, it was Radio, TV, and Film. [laughs]
I interviewed Lynn Shelton, who went to school in New York.
She has a weird degree, too. It's not film, it's like Media Arts...
Media Studies or something like that.
Yeah, a combination of things. So, where in New York did you grow up?
I grew up in Pound Ridge, which is in Westchester County.
It's basically, you know...suburbia. John Cheever country.
[According to Wikipedia, Eli Wallach, Richard Gere,
David Letterman, andEartha Kitt are some of the
celebrities that have called Pound Ridge home.]
I grew up in Connecticut--Hartford--but we left a long time ago.
I grew up right on the border of Connecticut.
Devor working on Police Beat (2005)
Is it true that you divide your time between LA and Seattle?
You know, that's an old fact. I think that [his IMDb bio] was
written about five years ago. I lived in LA for at least 10 years,
then I moved here. I actually just had my five-year anniversary.
You couldn't have made Police Beat if you didn't
live here, that's the feeling I got from that [film].
Well, that was just a new person [Z, a Senegalese bike cop] experiencing Seattle.
But it felt like it was made by someone who knew the
city, because I could recognize things that somebody
from out of the city might not. You didn't necessarily
film the obvious landmarks, like the Space Needle.
I was advised against filming certain things. [laughs]
That's probably a good idea, unless you film
things in a different way, like in The Parallax
View. That's a good use of the Space Needle.
Absolutely. So, I was dividing my time a little bit. I kept a place
that I had--it was rent-controlled--in Santa Monica that I didn't
want to give up, but I had to give it up. It was just, you know,
when you move to a new place... It was just for a year that I
was holding onto it, but I fell totally in love with Seattle.
The Parallax View (1974)
When did you decide to become a director?
I was directing some theater when I was a junior in high school. I
guess that's fairly early, but I wanted to get very enamored with
theater. I guess, it's the most immediate... Certainly, you know, you-
are watching films at an early age, when you're a teenager, and they're
a huge influence, but you grow up in New York and you have a chance
to go into the city and watch theater and things like that, and also I
was reading a lot of plays. The most immediate way...was just to
get into theater, so I was very into theater for a couple of years.
But you knew you weren't going to be a theater director?
Well, I still love it. It's just one of those things I was doing when I was a junior and senior in high school, and then I took a few years off, honing my social skills and just going to college, and not being as serious about the arts. [Later] it was the typical thing: I wanted to be in a band, and then I came out to LA, and I was working on being in a band and then I directed a half-hour documentary. I used to go to this kind of avant garde film group in LA, and I met this guy named Michael Guccione--no relation to the other Guccione. He's one of the best filmmakers who's working in the United States, he's just very obscure. His films were magnificent, and I asked if
I could co-direct something with him, and he said, Well, sure. If you can get the money, you can co-direct something with me. [laughs] A very shrewd answer.
You got the money?
I found the money. We did a documentary on Angelyne.
She's kind of a billboard queen. So, that was the first thing
I did. After that, though, I was very serious about trying
to be a poet. I was gonna go to graduate school and study
with James Dickey, but he died the year I was gonna go
study at the University of South Carolina.
[Maybe that's why critics describe his films as "poetic."]
Was there a particular film, director, or incid-
ent that convinced you to become a director?
Film is such a special experience that I would hope it's not
there merely to inspire me or someone else to just do it. All
the great film influences really have nothing to do with, Yeah,
I wanna do that. They're private, profound experiences.
Or was there something that just seemed doable, that made
you think, I could do that. Or I could do that even better...?
It's like when you get a great organic tomato, and you're
like, I could grow this. It just didn't work that way for me.
It sounds more gradual then--or organic, to go back to that word.
Yeah. It's not that you want to do what somebody else does or what's possible. It's really about creating that space that you're in that's a hypnotic environment, so that you can go there again, and you never really will be able to do it... Of course, you're a participant in other people's films. I think with those great experiences, it's almost like somebody shows you a new world, and what you're trying to do is find entrance to those worlds, and go there again through your own work. And sometimes you can do that. Of course, you're the one that's creating the smoke and the mirrors and all that stuff, so it's not actually the same thing, but you can feel like you're entering a strange world, an interesting world. That's really what it is. I've always said for me, like with Police Beat, it was a film about place, an environment, and a tone. I can be very happy in a movie if at least somebody takes me into a new environment. If it's captured cinematically, if I feel it's new and exciting. You get that feeling when you're scouting and when you're thinking, and then it goes away when you're shooting, a little bit. And it still goes away when you're watching dailies, but then it comes back when you're editing, and you start to feel that... You lose it as you start to edit, but it's really about just trying to create that very strange sensation of newness.
Are you saying that once you started making films, then you really knew
it was for you? And also that all these other things, like poetry and mus-
ic and theater directing, were all steering you towards film directing?
There are a lot of very talented people in this world, with much more tal-
ent than I have, who can excel in a variety of arts. I had a ridiculous aspir-
ation when I was 20 that I would be like Marcel Duchamp, and I would do
a little poetry in the morning and a little filmmaking in the afternoon and
cut a record in the evening. But I always said whatever I'm worst at will
fall away quickly, and maybe whatever I'm okay at will be clear. So, I was
terrible at music and poetry was all right... But filmmaking is such an enor-
mous endeavor. It takes so long to show that you have any skill at [it] or
that you are happy with what you've done, so in a way it's a perverse en-
durance test. I take some pride just in the fact that it takes a lot of stami-
na to hang in there, to keep working, to try to build a career. So, half of it
is being stubborn, but feeling very passionate about it. It's one of the
tougher art forms, I think. All art forms are difficult, but filmmaking is
especially difficult, because it takes a lot of money, relatively speaking,
to do it. Not as much as it used to. You can scale it down, just like mak-
ing an album, writing a novel. It just takes time and time is money.
So, that was a roundabout answer. What was the question again?
Duchamp (as seen by Man Ray)
Next: The Beauty of Loose Filmmaking
Devor images from The Los Angeles Times (Myung J. Chun) and
The Seattle PI (Joshua Trujillo). Click here for Kenneth Turan
on Zoo and here for Sean Axmaker on Cascadia, AKA Police Beat.