Eugene Kotlyarenko is Telling God’s Honest Truth
Remember Eugene Kotlyarenko, the indie filmmaker who landed Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman as leads for a sequel to his 2015 film A Wonderful Cloud, in which he reunites with his real-life ex? That wasn’t the real story, of course; ike many things in the writer-director’s orbit, it was a deepfake, the result of a doctored Hollywood Reporter article announcing a geriatric remake that caught the eyes of A24, leading to an awkward, ill-fated pitch meeting. It wouldn’t be the first prank the Wobble Palace director has pulled. The failed-influencer-turned-murderer at the heart of his 2020 slasher-satire Spree (Kurt Kunkle, played by Joe Keery) has an actual Instagram, where he clout-chases Shay Mitchell and makes unauthorized spon-con for Kim Kardashian’s shapewear label Skims. More recently, Kotlyarenko came out—via film-bro shit-posting cooperative Ioncellectuals, a fan account of the Ion Pack—as half of the anonymous podcasting duo. (This, too, is a fiction.)
At the crack of New Year’s, Kotlyarenko dropped We Are on Vimeo, which is something of a Big Tech-era Office Space with VR headsets. In an age of conglomerate-owned indies and A24ification, Kotlyarenko is unabashedly off-leash, not unlike Andy Warhol with his B-movie pulp. Kotlyarenko joins me on Zoom in Issey Miyake pleats from somewhere on the Western Seaboard. He starts by telling me about his days guerrilla filmmaking, and leaves me with what’s surely god’s honest truth about his involvement in season two of Emily in Paris.
EUGENE KOTLYARENKO: What are you holding there?
CHARLIE JANELLE FREIBERG: A little stress ball. Well, it’s actually a beauty blender.
KOTLYARENKO: I’ve edited makeup tutorials before, for Condé Nast, for Glamour, for Vogue. Some “This is my makeup routine in the morning,” some “This is how you take drag makeup off.”
FREIBERG: Is that how you subsidize your movies? You’re quite the self-made director.
KOTLYARENKO: I worked to save money so I wouldn’t have to work. I’d go out and pitch scripts that no one would finance, and was like, “Fuck, I only have enough money to live for two months, so I better come up with something that could convince some rich guy to give me $50,000 to make a movie.” Even better if I can convince everyone that everything should be free. That’s how we did We Are for less than $10,000—really fast, dirty, and cheap. But yeah, I’ve worked lots of different jobs. I recommend anyone interested in the business to get a job as an editor. You’ll figure out real fast what footage you need and don’t need on your own sets.
FREIBERG: You mentioned on The Perfume Nationalist how the industry is something of a castle on a hill now compared to back in the 30s.
KOTLYARENKO: That’s the beginning of every industry. I bet 30 years from now you’ll have to be the son of a famous memer or the daughter of a FitTea influencer to get anywhere in whatever’s next.
FREIBERG: Where’d you get your start filmmaking?
KOTLYARENKO: Columbia didn’t have a filmmaking program, so I’d just make movies with my friends, like this short 0s & 1s, which ultimately became my first movie. I worked at a company one summer in college where I was approving student loans, and was like, “Is this person ever going to be able to pay back $120,000? Am I ever gonna pay mine back?” So I chose to graduate early. I still haven’t paid them off, 14 years later.
FREIBERG: As Jane from Wobble Palace says, all we have is student debt and our front-facing camera.
KOTLYARENKO: Hopefully Dasha has paid off all of her student loans. She is living the great millennial dream of being a star podcaster. Her movie is going to premiere soon in Berlin.
FREIBERG: Any Red Scare guest spots in the future?
KOTLYARENKO: I don’t know, they haven’t invited me! I love Dasha, I love Anna, but sometimes it’s too much haterade for me. I talk to Dasha about this over text sometimes. She believes it’s valuable to call out hypocritical people, and I think it’s a bit of a lost cause. We’re all kind of sad, pathetic, and desperate regardless of what side of the ideological spectrum we’re on. I just think that there’s so much hatred, contempt, and pettiness out in the world that I don’t want that to rule over my reality. Spree is anti-ideological, in that sense. That said, out of the few podcasts in my rotation, theirs is the one I enjoy the most. They’re actually funny. I like that they get Žižek and Glenn Greenwald on.
FREIBERG: How’s the movie club going?
KOTLYARENKO: Pretty good. I reinvigorated it a few months ago. We had this screwball comedy that most people hadn’t seen called Midnight. I like to find these old movies that get lost to history that I feel are also very contemporary. Are you on it, by the way?
FREIBERG: No, but I want to be.
KOTLYARENKO: Send me your email. The movie that’s up now is Origins of a Meal, this French documentary by Luc Moullet about the horrifically exploitative world food labor market: the bananas from Latin America, the tuna fish from French-colonial Africa, the eggs from a factory in the French countryside. Most of the movies I choose I think are inspiring, but this exposé was transcendent in its own brutal, disturbing way. If anyone wants to join, they can email me at [email protected], and I’ll add you to the club.
FREIBERG: That’s why I chose to interview you—I ultimately figured you wanted to promote your movie listserv.
KOTLYARENKO: I wanted to show Salon Kitty years ago, this Tinto Brass movie. It’s riding the coattails of Visconti’s The Damned, but it’s just like a more dirty, lurid, horror house version, and I think Brass is a really underappreciated, brilliant filmmaker. But then horrible shit in Charlottesville happened with neo-Nazis, and I was like… this movie obviously isn’t pro-Nazi—it’s exposing the horrors and secret decadence of Nazism—but it has swastikas in it and all the characters are Nazis or Nazi collaborators. It felt wrong to proliferate the imagery.
FREIBERG: That reminds me how you’ve said that there’s a reason to be literal in movies and there’s also a reason to abstract, so as not to keep what you’re making limited to the present. It’s a convenient way of absolving yourself of these sorts of problems.
KOTLYARENKO: It really turned me off to movie club. Sometimes I go like seven or eight months of not doing movie club because I feel weak. But movie club is back, and I’m not feeling afraid anymore of making curatorial choices. I write these essays for them too.
FREIBERG: How was putting Spree out on streaming during the pandemic?
KOTLYARENKO: Spree premiered at Sundance in January 2020, which is maybe like the last real film festival for now. We sold it, it was going to have theatrical distribution, which was a big deal for me because it’s my sixth movie, and my previous films Wobble Palace and A Wonderful Cloud played in just one theater in L.A. or New York. This was going to be a “real” release. Based on what I experienced at Sundance, I thought it would work out, that it’d be a real popcorn movie. People are laughing, screaming, enjoying it in a crowd together, whatever. Corona kind of fucked that up. I wrote two scripts during quarantine, at least.
FREIBERG: Imagining Spree’s release in theaters has me thinking of its parallels to Spring Breakers.
KOTLYARENKO: Certain things are potentially commercial about Spree, but nothing matches Spring Breakers on the marketing level. You almost had something like that with the Adam Sandler Uncut Gems photos. Remember a few years ago when everyone was like, oh wow, why does he look like that? The other thing is we released Spree on August 14th, at the end of superhero season. Maybe it would’ve come out in theaters and no one would’ve given a shit because they’re going to see Captain Marvel 2 instead, you know?
FREIBERG: That said, it seems Spree was particularly successful with teens, and is having a good run on Hulu.
KOTLYARENKO: Part of it is because of the Kurt’s World Instagram [an Instagram account for Kurt Kunkle, Joe Keery‘s character in Spree]. It was highly engaged in fan art and memes. Teens loved it; everyone was DMing Kurt. Kurt was DMing back, and putting out a message to check yourself on your social media obsession, your addictions, your virtualized identity, your value system.
FREIBERG: You have this stridently savvy style of marketing, getting the Sonja Morgan Cameo, making a fictionalized Instagram for Kurt, yet you strike me as a techno-pessimist. Is this just a necessity of current marketing, or have you found a way of using the tool subversively?
KOTLYARENKO: Advertising in its DNA is all about virality, right? In the late 20th century, advertising was just throwing a bunch of money at something, making it ubiquitous, and pummeling it into people’s brains. The potential glory of the internet is that if something is just interesting, or popular, or naturally intriguing, it will show up everywhere.
All of this is to say there are no marketing budgets for my movies. So what do you do with nothing? I’m not a techno-pessimist per se, just a realistic observer. All these things are changing rapidly, and in a revolutionary way, and revolution is not always progress.
FREIBERG: Your mom guest stars on your 2015 feature A Wonderful Cloud via Skype call. What’s her favorite movie of yours?
KOTLYARENKO: My parents, for my entire adult life, have been like, “We didn’t bring you to this country so that you could struggle and be broke and constantly disappointed, and hate yourself, and feel like a failure, and we think you’re a failure, and no one is watching your movies, and this is disgusting. Why are you always naked in these things? And what is this? This is not fun. No one likes this. Please, please, please become a lawyer, please, or find a way to get a job working on a TV show and stop this.” My mom was a nurse, and she had three jobs for a lot of my childhood. They come from the Soviet Union, so working hard and being rewarded for it with money is what they thought this country would be for their children. The fact that Spree had a budget, that they knew who David Arquette was, that they then saw people laughing and enjoying it at Sundance—I’d say it’s their favorite movie.
FREIBERG: You’ve called yourself a maximalist before. With your movies, and your recent music video for Sofie, you’ll barrage your audience with social media, FaceTimes, texts, dating apps—but you’re not necessarily intending for people to absorb everything they see. It’s less the details than the gist, the sensation of being on the internet.
KOTLYARENKO: They used to call maximalists “baroque filmmakers,” like Max Ophüls, or Fassbinder, or Welles. Filmmakers who fill the frame—lots of movement, deep colors, and things that intrude the calmness of the composition. For me, I believe we’re processing so much text, movement, and color in how we use our phones. I don’t want to say it’s integral to contemporary storytelling, but I think it’s integral to my version of it. There’s this schizophrenia of sorts at work in our general consumption of media, and my films are formally trying to express that. A sense of calm, I think, is really rare now. Where can you ever be calm? Maybe the shower, but hey, guess what? Phones are waterproof now. You have to portion 30 minutes to meditate, or go on a walk without your phone, or sleep with it in the other room. We all have these sorts of struggles.
FREIBERG: So I’m going to bring up ioncellectuals.
KOTLYARENKO: Incellectuals is the original. They combined the words “incel” and “intellectual” for like, an anti-meme meme account from the subversive internet.
FREIBERG: Whereas ioncellectuals is a fan account of the [film meme-makers] Ion Pack. They seem to have a fixation on you, where they alternately worship and loathe you. They’re obsessed with you, and with spreading misinformation about you.
FREIBERG: They wanted me to ask how production of season two of Emily in Paris is going
KOTLYARENKO: Well, here’s the deal. They brought me on, I met Darren Star a few times. Great guy. They saw Spree when it came out and said, “Ugh, we love what you did. We need you to Spree-ify Emily in Paris.” That’s the verb they use for me in the industry.
FREIBERG: Makes sense.
KOTLYARENKO: They want me to Spree-ify Marvel movies, they want me to Spree-ify YA movies, and they want me to Spree-ify Emily in Paris. I said, “That’s cool. But I can’t shoot it in Paris. The last time I went there I got super depressed.”
KOTLYARENKO: I had what they call Paris syndrome, where I had really high expectations. I want to always have peak experiences because I’ve been so broke for so long. My vacations have to be amazing. So I said, “Can we shoot the whole thing on a green screen?” They said, “Of course, anything for you to Spree-ify it.” I haven’t really told them this, but I’ll just announce it here with you on Interview Magazine first.
FREIBERG: That’s what we’re here for.
KOTLYARENKO: I haven’t even watched season one. I don’t know anything about the characters. I didn’t even read the scripts they sent me, but it’s happening. We’ve already shot the first two episodes on one of the biggest green screens in the world.
FREIBERG: Is it in the MoMA PS1?
KOTLYARENKO: No, it’s at what they call the Western Seaboard. I take what’s called a phantom train—it’s kind of like a bullet train, but it goes through a portal. I get there in less than five minutes.
KOTLYARENKO: Anyway, it’s super fun. Today is one of our off days. It actually feels better than the real Paris. You know how Kubrick constructed New York in London for Eyes Wide Shut? It’s kind of better than that. I’m like, “Can we just move the Eiffel Tower a little bit to the right here?” And they’re like, “Why don’t you move your camera?” I’m like, “Why would I move the camera if I can move the Eiffel Tower?”
FREIBERG: Are you going to cast Frankie Grande in this too?
KOTLYARENKO: We got the entire Spree cast besides Joe and Sasheer—they weren’t available. But we got Lala Kent. And we got Frankie. I love Frankie. He’s a great improver. He watched Spree with his mom and his partner and they all loved it. It actually meant a lot when he called me.
FREIBERG: He’s on the best season of Big Brother.
KOTLYARENKO: He’s got a great role in Emily in Paris, season two. He’s the new boss in town, and he speaks great French.
FREIBERG: In Paris, yeah.
KOTLYARENKO: He didn’t speak French when we got him the role, but we have this AI where when he opens his mouth and says something in English it immediately translates. It’s like the speed of light.
FREIBERG: Sounds like the French will be even better than the first season.
KOTYARENKO: They tried to make that joke in the script, but that’s not on my radar. That’s not how we Spree-ify shit.
FREIBERG: You mentioned on The Perfume Nationalist a shift from blogging to recapping, and how the attention economy is funneling our behavior towards search engine optimization. How do we nurture an honest critical environment in this climate?
KOTLYARENKO: Recapping is very toothless, lacking at any sort of perspective, just a simple third grade summary that no one can get in trouble for. It’s much safer to run a zillion of those than offer any real insight or opinion, which could get you in trouble in the corporate world. I think that’s why Substack is on the rise. I subscribe to Nick Pinkerton, one of my favorite film critics, and to Matt Taibbi, a former Rolling Stone writer. I just read something of his about families that got fucked over by the financial crisis, but it wasn’t one of those normie ass articles; he talked to people who don’t fit into narratives of “Obama’s America” or “Trump’s America.” I’d gladly pay a writer $4 a month for that if it means they don’t have to write recaps on a $34,000 salary without benefits.
FREIBERG: Do you love house slippers as much as your Wobble Palace character does?
KOTLYARENKO: Yeah. It’s a Russian immigrant thing. The streets are lined with the residue of hundreds of years of fecal matter, human and animal, and then you bring it into my home.
FREIBERG: A good reason for having AstroTurf in your house. But it looks like you ditched that.
KOTLYARENKO: Yeah. What about you, any AstroTurf?
FREIBERG: No. The line about carcinogens—I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, so that turned me off.
KOTLYARENKO: Maybe they’ll make a non-carcinogenic AstroTurf, just for you.