William Dickerson (Detour) Talks Collin Schiffli’s Animals

Drawing on his own dark past, an actor fashions a portrait of two drug-addicted lovers who are prisoners of their primal urges but yearn to be free.

“Poetry is music without the music,” a character says while under the influence of the female lead’s flirtations. The flirtations are disingenuous, but his reaction to them is genuine. Why is it genuine? Well, it’s quite simple: it’s primal.

Our primal nature is the theme of Collin Schiffli’s Animals. It must also be highlighted that the lead male actor, David Dastmalchian, wrote the script and that the story is very much autobiographical. Dastmalchian’s visage is the stuff of nightmares — you may remember him from disturbing roles in The Dark Knight, Prisoners and my friend Kern Saxton’s Sushi Girl. By all accounts, David is a sweet fellow, very much the opposite of the people he usually plays on screen. His character, Jude, inspired by David’s past as a drug user who grifted to maintain his habit, uses others’ primal vices against them in order to survive and satiate his own primal vices.

Poetry bookends the film: whales swimming underwater at the beginning, humans swimming underwater at the end. Schiffli makes a not so subtle correlation between animals and his main characters. But that’s OK, themes don’t need to be subtle; the harder it hits, the better. Hence the title.

From the outset of the film, the concept of freedom is coded with the image of a couple swimming in water. A recurring conversation that Jude has with Bobbie (Kim Shaw), his girlfriend and fellow drug addict, involves an intrinsic desire to go swimming — it’s as though they’ve never been swimming before (and for all I know, they haven’t). The trouble is, extenuating circumstances keep getting in the way of achieving such a seemingly simple goal: drugs, fear, sickness, etc. Metaphorically, it seems like it’s society itself that won’t allow them to swim, that won’t grant them their freedom. The image of the whales underwater provides a distinct contrast with the images of the caged animals that Jude and Bobbie lovingly gaze at in the zoo later in the film.

The scene at the zoo is striking primarily because of the one that immediately precedes it: Jude and Bobbie sitting in their car, peering up at the windows of unsuspecting apartment-owners. They imagine themselves behind those windows, in the homes high above them, living “normal” lives. However, the distance is tangible and the mood is ice-cold — these people are caged, like the animals at the zoo. The difference is that their cage is self-imposed. The animals don’t have any choice in the matter. Schiffli shoots the couple at the same eye-level as the animals and frames them almost identically, establishing a direct connection between them — in contrast to those anonymous strangers in the windows. He romanticizes this moment. He romanticizes his characters in this moment. He does not romanticize their drug use, though. Their drug use is the antagonist that stands in the way of their goal of achieving freedom; in other words, the drugs are their cage.

Jude speaks of being tricked into thinking that he and Bobbie are not alone, as they’re surrounded by firetrucks and babies (i.e., society at large) when in fact there is only them. Them against everything else. They are what is real, and it is everything else that is not. Besides those animals in their cages.

For these two people, society is their version of the wild, and they are roaming through it as best they know how. While poetry is music without the music, Schiffli deftly uses music to demarcate the sections of Jude and Bobbie’s world. In the first half of the film, percussion accompanies the sounds of the street as his characters hunt for their next score. As they prep their drugs and ready themselves to shoot up, he employs ’60s pop music. In the moments of the high, and the inevitable comedown, Schiffli enters the realm of the synthetic. At the midpoint of the film, Schiffli’s earlier musical playfulness surrenders completely to synths, which quickly assume an ominous timbre. Finally there is no music at all. The sickness, the downside of their drugged-out bliss, rears its head and assumes control of them. Their Bonnie-and-Clyde mischievousness has come to a halt and the viewer is left waiting for the hail of bullets.

Poetry is music without the music, or is reality music without the music? Or is reality the poetry that they’ve been seeking all along? A reality in which they can thrive and achieve their dreams without the insidious rush of heroin in their veins? The end of the film seems to bolster this argument by finally allowing the couple to go swimming, but only after they’ve both achieved sobriety. Because of their circumstances and their addictions, they may not be able to stay together, but their circumstances have led them to this moment and have bestowed its joys upon them.

In the film, Jude exclaims that his life is nothing — nothing before Bobbie, and nothing after Bobbie. He is fully committed to the present moment. They strip off their clothes and go completely animal — mirroring the whales underwater — and, as a result, achieve their happiest moment together. But life is fleeting, and society’s illusion of permanence, stability and incongruous morality is a cage that almost certainly waits to ensnare them the moment they emerge.

I’m attracted to characters who see beyond these illusions. In my film Detour, Jackson Alder begins as a character who has bought into the illusions, but as he confronts the horrific circumstances he finds himself in, he must shed them and face his life as it is, in its harsh, raw reality. Jude and Bobbie are characters who see the truth from the beginning, and as a consequence they are both blessed and cursed, trapped and free. They are more similar to Bridget “Bri Da B” Harrison, a character from my novel No Alternative. Bridget is 15, with a long history of misdiagnosed mental problems that have left her dependent on prescription drugs. Numbed mostly into submission, she escapes into a richly textured mode of expression that rejects her family’s cherished values, namely gangsta rap. While outwardly she looks just like she ought to — a preppy kid from Westchester County, New York — her art turns her into an outsider. She is shunned by society and therefore she shuns it right back.

That’s exactly what Jude and Bobbie do. They do not succumb to the world, they rebel against it and live outside of it. Society may deem them “animals,” but society is wholly unaware of the fact that such a classification is not an affront, but rather a badge of honor, something characters like Jude, like Bobbie, like Bri Da B, stitch onto their sleeves. Society needs characters like these, characters on the outside — not necessarily to idolize, but to keep society and its self-imposed, often narrow standards in check.

William Dickerson is an award-winning screenwriter, director and author whose debut feature, Detour, was released theatrically and On Demand in 2013. He self-released his metafictional satire, The Mirror, and recently completed his third feature, Don’t Look Back. His first book, No Alternative, was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ‘90s music” by Kirkus Reviews and his latest, Detour: Hollywood – How to Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter) is out now. Learn more at his official site.