Rookie filmmaker Cooper Raiff is the 22-year-old director, writer and star of the coming-of-age film "S—house," which debuted online in the SXSW film festival and took home the grand jury prize for Best Narrative Feature.
The film stars Raiff as a freshman named Alex who is struggling to adapt to the college experience in his first semester. Looking for companionship, he meets a girl named Maggie, played by Dylan Gelula, and the film follows their misadventures and turbulent relationship.
"S—house" is a film perfect both thematically and content-wise for college-aged people. We reached out to Cooper for a Q&A via email about the film, his inspiration and his process.
Q: How did you get the idea for the premise of "S—house?"
CR: It’s based on my experiences in college and also what I could gather from others. I felt like I was floating at college. At some point I realized everybody feels that way. But we do things to make it feel like we’re not. I wanted to make a movie about a bunch of college kids floating and trying not to. The movie is also based on my relationship with this girl named Madeline Hill. ["S—house"] is largely me trying to express what I learned from her and what we gave each other. It’s also based on my relationship with my family. I wanted the movie to be a bit of a tragedy based on the pain of leaving home and growing up.
Q: As a filmmaker, were you trying to make a film that empathizes with these characters completely? Do you feel that some of the intention of the film was to be critical or challenge perceptions of the college lifestyle?
CR: Yes, I was trying to make a movie that empathizes with these characters completely. This goes hand in hand with what I was saying about everybody floating and trying not to. I have endless empathy for every character. I guess there are two characters that were more me trying to point out the absurdity of some interactions I've had. And I think yes, maybe it was me laughing at perceptions of the college lifestyle that then become more than perceptions because people go into college and try to meet their perceptions. But I love and have empathy for those people too.
Q: With Covid-19, how did the festival experience change?
CR: Physical SXSW didn’t happen, but it went on virtually and jury members gave ["S—house"] the grand jury award and that award is the reason IFC bought it and released it. I’ve felt so lucky and excited the whole way through, so I haven’t thought about how things have changed or like what could’ve been. But watching other movies I’ve thought about how weird it is watching people on screen not wearing masks. But it’s also refreshing. I hope ["S—house"] will be a warm hug for people craving some affection. I also think corona has highlighted all of our connections - like it has taken away everything but talking to the person you’re living with or like calling someone on the phone. For ["S—house] we had a tiny budget so it’s just people talking. So I think it’s fitting? Is that a stretch?
Q: Is there any advice you could give to first time filmmakers?
CR: If your main reason for making something is “because it’ll be good,” you should not make it. Make something that means a lot to you. From there you’ll make sure it’s good enough to keep people watching. Unfortunately but fortunately, if you make something that means a lot to you, you’re unlike so many people making things. Most people are like “What'll be good?” People watch those things and say “yes” or “no.” I think that’s bizarre. Let’s get far away from that. Let’s make things that mean something to us so it'll mean something to people watching.
Q: What was your writing process like? How much was improv?
CR: There wasn’t improv just because we didn’t have time. But I care about things feeling real so I work hard to write dialogue that feels realistic. Then on set I tell actors to rewrite whatever they want so it feels real for them.
Q: What films and filmmakers were your biggest inspirations in the making of "S—thouse?"
CR: I guess like every movie I’ve ever loved (long list) inspired ["S—house"] and me. I guess Miranda July is my biggest inspiration.
Q: What kind of mindset should people have going into the film?
I hope people don’t go into it expecting anything. It’s always scary thinking about a wider audience watching our super small, very specific movie because I thought only friends and family were going to see it. But I think people are liking it because they’re going into it not knowing what to expect, so they're not expecting anything. And they’re meeting it where it is.
"S—house" is available to rent on Amazon, Google Play and iTunes.