Raise Your Kids on Seltzer: The Filmmaker's Statement

   I started with the title, then I made the film.
   To many artists, that’s like naming a baby before conceiving the baby in question.
   As my film inches towards its world premiere (a cast, crew, friends and family only event), I consider the process of having made the film, what it means to me now that it is complete, and how it has evolved and morphed over the period of its production.

   Years ago, though, I was struck by a particular combination of words when shooting another project, a rather unfocused documentary about a close friend, a woman whose uniqueness is unrivaled.  She then lived in a small, windowless Upper East Side apartment with her 100-year-old mother and nineteen cats.  I do not exaggerate.  This arrangement reminded me at least somewhat of Grey Gardens (and as it turns out, she happened to have once been the secretary of Grey Gardens filmmaker Al Maysles).  Speaking off the cuff about what being Jewish meant to her growing up on an upstate chicken farm resided over by her beloved Socialist poet stepfather (whose fifteen minutes of fame came in writing lyrics to the Paul Robeson tune “Spring Song”), she said, “You know, you had bagels on Sunday and you raised your kids on seltzer, and that was it.  That’s what I thought it meant to be Jewish.”  I never finished that particular project because it never really took me anywhere, but the words “Raise Your Kids on Seltzer” echoed through my synapses years after she first uttered them.

   Over six years later, her mother is gone (having passed at the age of 101) and the number of cats has dwindled from nineteen to three.
   I knew I wanted to one day make a film entitled Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, but I could not imagine the subject matter.  Would it be about a seltzer dynasty, kind of like Visconti’s The Damned, perhaps replacing that movie family’s metallurgy industry with a soda water empire?  The truth is, I just like the way it sounded.  It was snappy, it was punchy, it was catchy, and the word “Seltzer” looked attractive to me on paper, and not just in the merit of the drink itself.

   When I shot the still-in-editing Ezer Kenegdo throughout 2013 with my collaborator Deniz Demirer in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had the tremendous fortune of meeting most of the members of the current Rob Nilsson filmmaking troupe, who are now my fulltime filmmaking partners following my move to San Francisco in March of this year.  Never let it be said that a single fateful meeting (in this case, my meeting Deniz and having an epic six-hour conversation with him on an initial 2012 business trip to San Francisco) cannot dictate the unpredictable direction your life takes.

    On one of my trips to shoot that project, I was able to catch a rough cut of Rob’s film A Leap to Take, an ensemble feature set at a wayfaring birthday bacchanal and shot in a single night (in what was originally planned as a single unbroken take).  Two minor characters, a sculptress and her blind husband, were played by Penny Werner and Jeff Kao.  Quite simply, I found them incredibly funny and charming together onscreen, and thought a film in which they were front and center playing a married couple would be priceless.  I even voiced my delight to Deniz that night, with a cockeyed smile still in the midst of reacting to them as a team: “I want to make a film with Jeff and Penny.  That’s my next project.”

    Now, what’s funny is that I had first met them individually and never saw them together before seeing them in Rob’s movie.  And I think Deniz first deemed my random musing a “haha, that’s funny” lark of a comment.  But I was serious.  Really serious.  They really turned my wheels that night, and they were really only in two scenes.

    So, I went about approaching them to suggest this project.  All I said to them was, “I want to do a movie where you guys play a married couple, and I already have the title.  Raise Your Kids on Seltzer.”  They were suitably puzzled, as was I.  “I don’t know why, or what any of it has to do with seltzer, but that’s what I want to call it,” I told them.  At the foundation level, I wanted them to play a corporate video production tagteam notorious for their unintentionally funny affectations.  They were to make corporate media with style…bad style.  This was, of course, based on my many years working in the world of corporate media and wanting to scream at the top of my lungs just to spite how indescribably boring it all was.  I thought, the movie could be about how we all try to enliven the drudgery in our lives, by injecting it with whatever dose of art and making it personally fulfilling in spite of itself.

    I didn’t dislike that idea, but it just wasn’t enough.  It ran the risk of being precious and twee.  I asked myself, how could I make it really intriguing?  So, I probably did what any writer would do.  I gave the characters a past.  A doozy of a past.  A humdinger of a past.

   As a teenager, I was rather obsessed with cults and the charismatic individuals at their helm who had an uncanny power to control people.  Mind control as a subject was one in which I was steeped.  I knew the most minute details concerning the Manson Family case and the Jonestown massacre, and would often pour over literature written about cults.  At many junctures, I got the feeling that my parents were concerned about this obsession.  So, with Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, it was about time I made a film that put my “magnificent obsession” to use.

   I considered Martha Marcy May Marlene to be one of the finest films of the new decade, but I started a regiment of watching and re-watching slightly older movies about the cult phenomenon, pictures made at the height of the boom, like Ticket to Heaven (1981), Blinded by the Light (1980), Split Image (1982), and Guyana Tragedy (1980).  A fairly consistent but backgrounded element in these dramas was the figure of the deprogrammer, the person called upon to kidnap and counsel the main character out of their brainwashed state.  Normally, the deprogrammer enters the story as the third act begins, and ultimately saves the day.  They are the deus ex machina.  What interested me in watching these films was something the directors of them didn’t seem to care much about: What kind of person deprograms cult members for a living?  How does one become a deprogrammer?  What are their lives like?  Only in Ted Kotcheff’s Split Image do we get a sense of the character of the deprogrammer, played by a deliciously unhinged James Woods.  But the problem for me was that the character felt cartoonish and overbaked.

   I contacted Jeff and Penny and told them that they were now playing retired (and all too human) cult deprogrammers (kind of a good cop/bad cop mom-and-pop operation, if you will) who, in the last 5-10 years, switched professions to corporate media, and are now running away from their past.  They ran away from deprogramming, despite its lucrative-ness.  Penny’s first reaction: “Whoa! That’s heavy!”  I expressed my passion for the idea, and with equal doses of trepidation and excitement, they immediately got to work on researching the roles, as did I.  As the center of my own research was the real-life figure of Ted Patrick, the “father of deprogramming,” and perhaps the most famous in the “business.”  Patrick earned a reputation and notoriety because of his liberal use of physical violence and indiscriminate abuse of all varieties, in order to initialize the rousing of his subjects from their mentally comatose state.  He was often met with lawsuits from “clients” after the fact.

   All of this reading and researching of the process fascinated me, but what really intrigued me was the story of the marriage itself.  I remembered something that Alan Alda claimed that a friend told him, which inspired his 1981 comedy The Four Seasons.  Friendships and relationships go through seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter.  I wanted to examine the winter of a healthy marriage.  I wanted them to get downright nasty and abusive towards each other, but know deep down that love hadn’t died.

   It was around then that the McGuffin of the movie hit me.  I had conspired at one point to write a short story about a “snail mail” letter that makes a claim for a character’s complicity in a suicide.  The letter would suggest that the main character was named as an “accessory” in the suicide note, or rather a reason for this person’s decision to kill him/herself, either because of a previous transgression the character had committed against the deceased, or some other unknown reason.  The baffled, emotionally dumbstruck accused would then go about the rest of the story questioning why, and what he really did to inspire the suicide, questioning his own actions, grilling and thus torturing himself with guilt.  I worked that concept into the film.  The letter would throw a monkey wrench into both their marriage, and into their efforts to effectively put their past behind them.  It would also jumpstart the rest of the story.  The deprogrammers would now get such a letter from one of their ex-clients.

    Then came the idea of “ritual,” as it exists in the home.  The notion came to me gradually.  To what degree are any of us “programmed”?  How much of life and love is based in the idea of control?  How much do we stoop to control, and how much do we allow ourselves to be controlled?  I then encountered a literary quotation from Jorge Luis Borges: “To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.”  A few such rituals were deleted from the final cut, but a vital one that remains involves the dream diary sequences, in which the characters keep daily written accounts of the dreams they have, then share them at the breakfast table.

   I hatched a subplot idea of a reformed, ex-cult leader in the couple’s circle, who is ironically being “controlled” and “programmed” by his own daughter, whose job it is to handle him, especially in his dealings with potential outside influences (like our main character, in his efforts to write a book partly about him).  The ideas flowed like a pulsating river current, with one idea bleeding into another, lending everything an added complexity.  An off-handed comical remark from Penny about a “twin” single-handedly invented a rich, new aspect of the story, and before we knew it, we had a strange creature of a movie.  A sasquatch.  I was asked by my mentor Sidney Furie, “It’s really interesting, but what would you call it?  A comedy?  A thriller?  A drama?”  I couldn’t answer.  I don’t think he expected me to.

   A few days before departing for the west coast (I still lived in New York when the film was shot), I met up with director Josh Safdie (Daddy Longlegs, the newly released and acclaimed Heaven Knows What) to record ADR for Ezer Kenegdo, in which he plays a key role.  At the end, I told him I was about to embark on shooting Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, and we proceeded to discuss cults, about which he seemed to have much knowledge.  We discussed “cult leader” Mel Liman, the related appearance of Zabriskie Point stars Mark Frechette (“The main purpose of the community is to serve Mel Liman”) and Daria Halprin on The Dick Cavett Show, what became of Frechette, and what became of Mel Liman’s “community.”  Josh instructed me to be careful, stating that he tried to write and direct a film about a cult at one point, and that it just got too messy for him.

   Shooting the project over fourteen days, with nothing but a detailed outline, in late April/early May 2014, predominantly in Lafayette in the East Bay, Raise Your Kids on Seltzer quite organically took root by the time we turned our cameras on.  A “Siamese pickle” that I found in a jar the night before departing to San Francisco from New York for shooting played a major role in the first sequence we shot.  We arrived in the daytime and staged a beautiful scene around the pickle that night, hitting the ground running.  I started with something I thought would be fun and I knew from their performances that we were in business.

   My trusty cinematographer Aaron Hollander was back on hand, devising some of his most painterly lighting and shot design yet (we based much of the visual style on his namesake Adam Holender’s gorgeous work in Jerry Schatzberg’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child, with its delicate, earthy mix of exterior and interior light, which spoke to our primary location needs as well as our themes).  The camera style was to be deliberate, mostly steady, locked off, with selected moments of “embedded-war documentary photography,” domestic-style.

   Though much of the film was “stolen” guerrilla-style in terms of shooting strategy, we shot most of the film in a house belonging to two of our friends, who were moving out of it at the end of the month.  So, we went into it knowing there was no possibility of reshoots (as the house would also to be redesigned and renovated after move-out).  The house, however, was too perfect not to use and, with its wide-open windows, suggested many high-concept motivations for its use.  “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” for one.  Another idea for me was the couple being, in a way, exposed, out in the open for all to see.  There were no secrets anymore.  Look inside and you can see them at their most pathetic with little effort.

   One of the great discoveries of the film was the 17-year-old actress Nancy Kimball, who made her feature debut in Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, after starring in a short film called Charlie co-starring the great Andrea Marcovicci the previous year.  It is rare that I shoot only one take on any scene or piece of coverage.  Usually, I am always in favor of doing "one more for safety," but Nancy so impressed all of us, especially me, on her first major day of shooting a big emotional scene that I opted to move on without even thinking for a moment that we could get it better.  She is a prodigy, a rare breed of young actor who is truly and absolutely born for it.  She has a bright future ahead.  Unfortunately, Nancy will not be able to make it to the premiere because she is away at an acting camp this summer.

   At this point, we still didn’t really have a handle on the title’s meaning.  I concocted that it was a mantra they used when deprogramming: “Raise your kids on seltzer, bubble per bubble.  The best things are the most painful going down.”  The code for the deprogramming location became “the RYKOS center,” and the film itself became commonly known as Rykos.  Only after picture wrap on principal photography did someone inquire, “Does the title have anything to do with Kool-Aid?”  The problem was thus immediately solved.  “For those who’d rather not drink the Kool-Aid, raise your kids on seltzer!”  We went back to include it later in the pickup shots.  The title also speaks to the theme of complacency.  Kool-Aid is sweet and non-abrasive.  Seltzer is refreshing because of its roughness; the bubbles seizes the throat and, when the carbonation is potent, provides a wake-up call to the gullet and the taste buds.  The central marriage in the film needs such an awakening from complacency.

   Two additional pick-up scenes included a special appearance from actor Barry Newman (Vanishing Point, “Petrocelli”, The Limey), who did me a favor in playing the attorney of the film’s central Neoneida (Nee-oh-nigh-dah) cult.

   The name Neoneida is a conflation of Neo and Oneida, adopting the principles of John Humphrey Noyes’s original Oneida colony, founded in the 1860’s, whose members practiced free love, complex marriage (a polite word for polygamy) and believed in the notion of Perfectionism (bringing about the Christian milennial kingdom on Earth, freeing oneself of sin in this life, and being perfect in this world and not just the next).  John Humphrey Noyes is a historical figure that has fascinated me since my high school days, mostly because I perceived him very much as an early cult leader in America, and because his community possessed all the qualities of a cult and what one does to its members.

   Editing proved a formidable challenge because of the number and variety of story threads, and how they subsisted on each other and flowed into each other.  You couldn’t excise one of the threads without affecting or negatively impacting the others.  As I joked with Aaron and the cast, “I think maybe we got too ambitious on this one.”  Narratively, the film was a juggling act during the post-production process.  It was akin to arranging and conducting for a mega orchestra.  I had to establish the nine individual plot threads, fade them out for some stretches, bring in another, fade that one out, bring in another, etc. while considering how they would cohesively fit into the film’s larger context.  Success came only in striking the most delicate balance.

   The film took the better part of a whole year to reach an assembly cut.  In addition to the fact that I was trying to finish my book on Sidney J. Furie, the meticulous plot thread “orchestration” took time and care.  And because the film was improvised within tight parameters, every take was different.

   Raise Your Kids on Seltzer has screened four times in rough cut form and, with each successive screening, I made adjustments and organized two important reshoots.  It was during this stage of the process that I was made aware of the movie Faults, an independent film about a former deprogrammer employed to spring a young woman from the cult of the title.  I was motified when I discovered it, because I was convinced that I had something utterly original.  I saw my way to actually scoring a copy of the film, but upon seeing it, I was relieved to discover that not only was it a radically different film, but that I also didn’t care for it very much.

   Now, it is in picture lock mode. The film is as good as I hoped it would be with the material shot, and reactions have been fairly uniformly positive and, I daresay, even enthusiastic.  Like I had hoped, people connect with the couple’s story, seeing the cult material as an intriguing and compelling backdrop for the story of a relationship.  I look forward to unleashing it to audiences after the premiere screening next month.  It is a quantum leap forward for me in terms of my own filmmaking, and was a personal triumph for me in the creative process.

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