Finn Taylor on Natural Selection and "The Darwin Awards"

Susan Gerhard September 10, 2007

Of course, you have never done anything stupid in your life. But director Finn Taylor admits that he has: He once held up a convenience store with a harmonica, he told SF360 last week while talking about his film “The Darwin Awards.” What Taylor himself netted from the transaction back in the day is unclear, but the effects of the action on his creativity were clearly long-lasting. Taylor’s bringing his movie “The Darwin Awards” to the Roxie this week, and the hybrid romantic comedy/literary satire based on the Darwin Awards themselves — awards bestowed on humans whose self-caused accidental deaths were the result of such inanity and hubris we’re supposed to be glad they’re removed themselves from the gene pool — clearly hark back to Taylor’s own experiences. But unlike the unforgiving Darwin Awards, Taylor’s film offers real empathy for those whose errors are brazen, bold, somewhat moronic, and extremely mortal. With a cast including Winona Ryder, members of Metallica, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jeanette Etheredge, and a Golden State Warrior, among others, and a story that converges at City Lights, the film also happens to be a love letter to San Francisco, ground zero for dreamers, losers, and the very unlucky for a long time now. spoke with Taylor (“Dream with the Fishes,” “Cherish”) about all the films he’s directed in a Bay Area that’s offered him years of inspiration. First of all, a personal note. The last time I saw you, I think, was at a Golden State Warriors game. It warmed my heart to see that Warriors player Adonal Foyle is featured in the film.

Finn Taylor: I wanted to put him in there because he’s done so much. The nonprofit he founded, Democracy Matters, is attempting to talk about campaign finance reform, particularly at universities, because that’s where the next generation of voters and power elite will come from. He’s done stuff with Josh Kornbluth, who’s also a friend. His part got cut down. I had him quoting a poem in the original.

SF360: How did you approach the story?

Taylor: I have an affinity for postmodern things. With film, it’s such a specific form. Much more so than novels or visual art. For the last hundred years it’s the same structure. It takes place in 90 minutes to 2 hours. You’re either following around a protagonist in real time, or chopping up the time structure — or an alternative structure starting with several story lines, intertwine and resolve them, and go into the third act at about the same time. This film had a slightly different screenplay structure. I like playing with the form, and seeing if it can work as an entertainment as well. There’s also the apocryphal nature of the Darwin Awards. Some [of the stories in the film] are true; some are partially true; one is untrue. I love the idea of the documentarian following him around. I love the complexity — the conceits given detectives. With “Vertigo,” Hitchcock has the guy get fired because of his fear of heights. In my film, he gets fired because he faints at the sight of blood.

SF360: The film as a whole is a love letter to the Bay Area. Why?

Taylor: SF’s got such a great history of detective stories, both in literature and film. And such a rich literary history. There was a perverse desire to combine the two. Detective stories often have such unrealistic backstories. I wanted to have fun with that.

I used to run the literary series for Intersection for the Arts, so I was really a fan of the literary history of the city. So I had this whole literary backstory in the film. Then when Winona Ryder got involved, it got even more expanded, because her parents were heavily involved in the Beat scene. Her father, Michael Horowitz, was a chronicler of the Beat scene. He was present at the trials of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. Through Winona and Michael, a lot of doors were opened. We shot in Kerouac Alley. It was the first film ever to shoot in City Lights itself. All those details were really fun.

Tim Blake Nelson is the frustrated poet in the film and is a good friend. He did his postgrad studies in comp lit. And sometimes we find ourselves playing the quote game with each other and I wanted to satirize that sort of thing in the film. We had the copy of “Howl” in Tim’s pocket tilted down, because it’s such an iconic book cover. Some people will know. It made me giggle in deep, perverse way to have the resolution of this crime story center around poetry and literature. It matched the comedy and realism level of Darwin Awards themselves.

SF360: I enjoyed the ribbing documentary filmmaking took. Do you have particular concerns about the genre?

Taylor: Many of my friends and heroes are documentary filmmakers. Probably my favorite form of film is documentary. For me, having the documentary filmmaker in the film is more of a commentary on media in general. Some people look at CNN and think it’s an actual representation of reality — during the Gulf War, for instance. I was also having fun making fun of myself as a filmmaker.

The Darwin Awards sprung up on the Internet, much like the famous telephone game, The stopries get altered as they get re-told. When people ask: ‘Are they real?,’ I say they are some version of reality — some are more real than others. That is sort of the form of ‘The Darwin Awards,’ the movie, as well. I like poking fun at filmmakers in general, not documentary filmmakers in particular. We all know people starting out in film, with an attempt to have an objective view, particular set of ethics that’s seriously flawed. I.e., they won’t call 911 because they’re trying to make cinema verite.

I’m a fan of setting up an obstacle of a form — the sonnet, haiku, villanelle — to unleash creativity. The screenplay is an obstacle that frees you creatively. I have disdain for a fear of the new. We totally accept any costume drama based on literature, or documentary because they’re based on a subject you don’t want to attack. But if something is different or varies from the structure expected, sometimes people get very nervous about it. Unless you’re attempting to do something slightly different while telling your story as honestly as you can, why are you doing it? There’s already been another drama made, or better comedy made. I’m never going to equal Hitchcock or Capra or Sturges. I feel like when I’m creating something, it’s important to acknowledge what has come before while trying to do something different now.

SF360: Is comedy particularly difficult? You’ve now done two.

Taylor: They’re all a little meta or postmodern and therefore a little funny. For me when I make a film, the challenge I give myself, is how do I utilize a new structure. This one has a strange structure about a strange subject: The Darwin Awards. Can I pull this off and still make it feel like a recognizable, entertaining form? I drew on the history of film — I have a romantic comedy/road movie thing at the same time. For me, I’m entertained when I acknowledge the forms that I’m using. When I’m making a film I show it to audiences over and over again, to see what’s working. I’m always surprised at what people laugh at, what they don’t laugh at. I like making these films that many people find entertaining. I more often call film a craft more than an art form — it’s a group effort, requires people in unions. As varied as film is, even foreign and obscure films, the structure is pretty set — it’s not like the screen turns blue for ten minutes. Like a good chair, it needs three legs to stand on. How can you make a chair that works quite well as a chair, but doesn’t throw out the fact that there’s been Chippendale or Bauhaus before you?

SF360: The music in your films has always been off-beat and very carefully chosen.

Taylor: I very often use music to define the interior life of a character. In a novel, you can go into the interior of a person. It’s difficult in film — the interior is described by what you see and hear — musical choices can describe their interior world. Burrows likes Billy Joel. You can tell by Winona’s character’s reaction to that, that she does not. That says a lot about her. When David Arquette’s character decides to do the mythic thing with the rocket car, he puts on “Radar Love” by Golden Earring. A song by the early Pretenders may have sounded more dynamic but I don’t think his character would have been listening to The Pretenders.

Of course the Metallica sequence goes without saying.

SF360: Risk has been a key theme in all your films. Why?

Taylor: Joseph Fiennes’ character is trying to solve, mathematically, why people do these things. Winona Ryder’s character says insurance companies reject claims as a practice, then when you call to complain you get sent to a tree of voice mails lasting an hour. These modern insults just build on a daily basis, and people eventually just lose it, and they end up strapping a rocket onto a Chevy. People just lose their shit. When I was 19, I kind of did lose my shit — I held up a drugstore with a harmonica.

I don’t have any problem with people creating great craft from a stringent tradition — I have a problem with being chained by caution or fear. I love that Buddhist saying that the only way to remain truly alive is to keep death over your left shoulder.

I have an affection for losers because any of us on a given day can feel like a loser. I like characters with their rough edges left on.

SF360: You were in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival with ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ ‘Science of Sleep,’ and some other big films. Why has it taken awhile to hit theaters?

Taylor: We unfortunately pre-sold our foreign rights. Even though we had a theatrical deal in place, because of the time it took to get the deal finished, it had already come out in 25 countries