Xander Robin is a filmmaker raised in South Florida, currently based in NYC. He received a BFA from the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. His work as a director, including his debut feature Are We Not Cats, has screened at film festivals across the world including Venice, AFI, BAMcinemaFest, Stockholm and Sitges.
In the elective adventure of making a film, you meet a variety of unforgettable people. While other aspects of my debut feature Are We Not Cats might make more salacious or shocking headlines (“Hair-Eating Millennial Body Horror!!!”), what I’m going to focus on here are the movie’s orbiting father figures for the protagonist Eli, both literal and void-filling. Naturally, we had a lot of dads to cast, and here’s a little on each of them:
The moment we truly knew this movie was being made was after we found the nearly defunct (and now evacuated) Torrone Signs factory in Staten Island, which used to build signs for Yankee Stadium. The warehouse was able to pass as multiple locations in the film – and we were able to build sets in the basement and on the main floor. The first thing the owner of the building, Dean, said to myself and the cinematographer was, “Is this going to be a horror movie, or what?” Deano (as we quickly came to know him) was promptly given the fourth biggest speaking role in the film: Al, the owner of a lumber yard.
Shortly after meeting Deano, we met his right-hand man, Tony, who was wielding a hammer while helping Deano fix the broken heating system in the warehouse. Tony’s nickname is “Wires,” because he is great with electronics. The warehouse was falling apart so Tony and Deano were constantly doing repairs and we had to politely ask them to stop yelling at each other during takes. Tony claims to have had a small part in the classic film The Warriors, during the opening sequence, so we were able to convince him to play a walk-on part as a boss who gives the main character a quick cash job.
Joe and Eddie
On the third day of production, we shot a scene where the main character rides on the side of a garbage truck. Two strange men came to the location with the truck we hired, and I heard out of the corner of my ear one of the strange men calling Quentin Tarantino a “nutjob.” I said to this incredible stranger, who introduced himself as Joe, “Please be in my movie.” We had a scene that he was perfect for, playing the owner of a salvage yard.
The owner of the salvage yard where we were shooting was called Eddie. He was also incredible. When we first met, I begged Eddie to be in the movie; sadly, he refused. But he did make sure that the engine he let us use in the film, which Eli delivers as an errand job upstate, looked neat and pretty. I remember his kids running around the junk yard as we were filming, and the oldest son ate all the bacon at the crafty table that morning. Eddie claimed his son would one day be a New Jersey State champion wrestler.
Joe was a natural at playing the salvage yard owner. Eddie made fun of Joe for basically pretending he was him – even though Eddie didn’t want to play that role. Eddie helped Joe rewrite the scene so it would be more authentic. I think Joe enjoyed himself, but he did say it began to wear on him how many times he had to repeat each line.
I looked everywhere to cast the part of the Russian father, asking random people in Brighton Beach grocery stores if they were interested in being in a movie. I figured if I left them my number, maybe their families would convince the men that they were movie stars and then they would call me back. I found a picture of “legendary theater actor Ernst Zorin” on a flyer for a theater company in Brighton Beach. I found the email of their in-house director and asked if he knew of any actors who were similar to Ernst that would be interested in acting in a movie. He said, “Why not just ask Ernst?”
Ernst – or Ennick, as his wife called him – didn’t speak great English, although he had lived in New York for over a decade. He was to play a part based on my Zayde, my dad’s dad, who is not very theatrical, more tough with dry humor. When I met Ernst at his Brighton Beach apartment with our costume designer for a fitting and read-through, his wife prepared us a traditional Russian lunch. Ernst asked me if the scene was supposed to be funny. I said yes. He then decided that his character should wear all Adidas and a Russia shirt. We found a nice compromise between my Zayde’s style of undershirts and one of Ennick’s cardigans. I hope one day Ernst can see the film; I believe he may have thought it was a short.
In his role as a lumber yard owner, Deano drove out to our logging location in Hackettstown, New Jersey, owned by Tim Kasharian. Tim was easily the nicest person we met in the pursuit of making this film, and reminded me of the hospitality of location owners in the place I learned to make films, Tallahassee, Florida. By some force of insane coincidence, I was acquainted with Tim’s nephew Ben in New York City, which definitely helped in his decision to accommodate our production. Tim also takes loving care of homing pigeons.
It dawned on me that it didn’t make that much sense for Staten Island Deano (who in the ’80s owned the “best nightclub in Staten Island,” which I truly believe) to be playing a lumber yard owner. We added in a scene where Deano, who is also a musician, would sing. Deano describes his music as “Bowie meets Springsteen,” which is completely accurate. After I sent him the script, he sent me back a song called “Cats” – a gem that I wish we could have fit into the film.
On our last shooting day, we needed to find a remote exterior facade for the warehouse in Staten Island. Our co-producer Judy found an amazing location in Connecticut, near where her family lives. A huge red barn-style warehouse on the top of a snowy hill. We drove up to film the scenes there, even though we didn’t have permission yet. We couldn’t find who owned the location, but we didn’t need to go inside it. We made a plan to film the first shot at sunrise to get the perfect light. On the first take, our picture car, a bright red box truck, got stuck in the snow right in front of the house. After a frustrating hour of trying to tow it out ourselves, we left a note on the truck and went to get lunch. Soon we got a call from a confused old man wondering how a truck had gotten stuck in the snow in front of his house on a semi-private road. We got back to the truck and met the nice 80-year-old man named Wally. He owned the barn and built its interesting windows himself. He let us finish the scenes while we waited for the tow truck to come, and gave Judy his number.
I’m not sure if all of these men were dads in real life, but for several weeks in the winter of 2015 they played father figures to Eli in the movie, and in real life were our weird uncles, sharing questionable sage wisdom to myself and the young crew of Are We Not Cats.