ABOVE: MATT D’ELIA AS JIMMY IN AMERICAN ANIMAL.
Matt D’Elia wrote, directed, produced, and starred as the outlandish iconoclast Jimmy in his debut film American Animal. But it’s not a personal film, we agreed, even though D’Elia, 27, lent his Los Angeles apartment for the set. D’Elia’s ferocious and wild character could never direct a movie. The film is a reeling study of Jimmy, a 20-something with a terminal illness who attempts to hold his guests and roommate hostage to his increasingly bizarre demands. In Edward Albee fashion, as the evening progresses, frenzy sets in.
The film premiered at South by Southwest, with a shocking effect. Here, D’Elia details how the movie became something he never expected and thinks through what American Animal has to say about America.
MAGGIE LANGE: The first scene of American Animal begins with hunting imagery combined with pastel—antlers, a few violent paintings. Why did you establish the movie with these images?
MATT D’ELIA: The colors we wanted to make as alive as possible. With the animal stuff, it was about Jimmy: as much as he fancies himself the next step of evolution, his actions would lead one to believe he was devolving. That was the irony I was interested in. He was getting closer to being an animal and at the end he was a complete animal. The paintings of the penis, gorilla, and vagina [three large paintings in a triptych in the apartment], I had those made for the movie. I had this idea that Jimmy would be taken with the idea that humans are just animals with thumbs.
LANGE: You filmed American Animal in your apartment in Los Angeles. How much did you change your place?
D’ELIA: 100%. It was completely a production design, thank god, for anyone who’s ever lived with me before. Before the movie, everything was gray, or black or white. The production designer came in to make the apartment this weird, colorful, twisted playhouse with weird paintings and furniture. When production was over, I changed it all back. I don’t want to live in Jimmy’s space.
LANGE: How different is your character from Jimmy’s?
D’ELIA: 100%. Even someone who meets me for five minutes can tell I’m not Jimmy. It’s hard for people, or the audience, to watch this movie and not know that because I wrote, directed, and starred in this. Also, no one knows who I am before this movie; this movie is what introduced me to the world. So it’s easy to think this guy made a movie about himself. I’m fascinated with Jimmy, I’m very interested in him, but I’m not like him. He’s 100% made up.
LANGE: Like the main character in American Animal, you were very ill for a time, and this was the time when you started the script? Was this an outlet, or did the illness serve as a flash of inspiration?
D’ELIA: I was sick, and I was in a bad place. When you’re sick for that long, you start to ask a lot of questions. Is it okay to be this sick as a young person? I physically could not do the thing I want to do, or become the person I want to be. Is that okay? How do I justify this? When I thought about this I thought about someone that could be completely in denial and wouldn’t accept his illness. Then I asked what if this person was terminally ill and in denial and delusion until his death? Being sick and creating this character helped me through getting sick.
LANGE: When did you come up with the title of the film?
D’ELIA: We went through so many titles. It was named “Putting on the Ritz,” like the Irving Berlin song. So many shifting titles, but when we were shooting it, we didn’t really realize what the movie was fully, until it was finished. Then it was really a lot more than I initially thought. The animal thing once came to me as a title and it just clicked, just made sense.
LANGE: Why American?
D’ELIA: He is a specific creature to America. This can come off as social commentary: he’s rich and he’s dying. It becomes emblematic of a generational thing. I think that it’s uniquely American. He has all these spoils, but he’s a dying creature.
LANGE: Throughout the film Jimmy dons a variety of different costumes, from a prim dandy with a wig to a sort of Zen hippie. What is his obsession with costumes?
D’ELIA: Jimmy appreciates all things that are larger than life, as he would say: “Putting on the Ritz.” He just likes to do things as big and theatrical as possible: the more outlandish, the better, for Jimmy. As a filmmaker, this helped to keep it interesting. It’s a very bright thing and colorful thing; the juxtaposition of the dying character obsessed with things that are alive says a lot about the character. That was interesting for me to play.
LANGE: Throughout, Jimmy names a series of famous men that he wants to dress as or pretend to be: Dean Martin, Alexander the Great, Jeff Bridges. Is this a fascination with history? Are they his role models? Or is it about legacy?
D’ELIA: It’s all those things, but primarily, it’s the last thing. He’s expiring and he’s going away. He doesn’t have a chance of leaving any kind of legacy. Immediately, he’s very afraid. He’s so desperate to keep James [his roomate] and both Angelas [the women are “blonde Angela” and “not-blonde Angela”] in his apartment because if they go away, there’s no one to see him. No one will remember him. He’s fascinated with these people who will never be forgotten. He’s unwilling to accept he will be forgotten.
LANGE: Jimmy protests getting a job in the movie. Do you consider this film political, or about capitalism at all?
D’ELIA: I think in being so anti-political, he becomes political, because if you go so hard against something, you’re just by nature part of it. As a filmmaker, I’m less interested in “political,” [or] “intellectual.” I’m more interested in emotional dynamics inside the apartment. He has big, extreme opinions. It’s important to say he thinks these things by necessity. He can’t go to work, he can’t be the person he wants to be like James is going to do. He thinks these things because he’s been back into a corner, and he’s lashing out, like an animal no other options.
LANGE: How is your next project, Powder Keg, going to be different from American Animal?
D’ELIA: I wanted to write something that I actually can explain. I still can’t explain American Animal. When it comes to making summaries, or answering what it’s about, I still can’t. Powder Keg is similar to American Animal—it’s in one location, it goes wild, off the rails. But this falls into a definable genre. Genre has always interested me. I love American Animal, and I would love to make another crazy, out-there movie, but it’s not all I want to do. Powder Keg is a crime film, a post-heist film. These nimrods pull it off and are successful, but after, in the hideout, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. It also has a heavy theater influence; [David] Mamet is one of my heroes, this is inspired by my love of Mamet, the masochism floating above itself is what I’m trying to channel with this one.
LANGE: Will you be in this next film as well?
D’ELIA: Yes. In making American Animal, I didn’t write it for myself, but no actors signed on. I can’t say I’m surprised that no actors wanted to do a movie with a new director, in the director’s home, for $100 a day, and they had to get nude. Understandably, they had reservations. Somebody had to do it, so if I give someone the chance to make or break my movie, I thought it better be me. I can’t watch American Animal because I can’t look at myself, but there must be some masochistic streak in me because I hate seeing me but I’m doing it again for my next movie.
LANGE: Any new scripts in the offing?
D’ELIA: I’m writing something that I don’t plan on being in; it feels like I’m freeing myself up. The one I’m writing now is interested in subverting the genre classical typical framework of movie. I’m really excited about it actually… I don’t know if there’s a term for this, but a group of people go on some kind of vacation and getaway and while there, they have a sexual reawakening. There are two kinds of movies made like this: ’60/’70s French film and soft porn. I’m interested in sex, obviously evident from American Animal, and the shifting dynamic between male and female relationships. There are two couples on vacation in a cabin and the unexpected couple are these very animalistic, purely sexual beings. I’m interested in sex and in modern movies; it has been influenced by cheap porn. Sex in movies has been drastically changed by easily accessible, disgusting porn. It’s very confusing to guys. There aren’t a lot of sexy American movies. It’s odd to describe a movie as sexy, but it’s important to know what really turns us on and what’s really, actually sexy. I don’t really see a lot of American movies that are very sexy, so this is a reaction to looking as landscape; I don’t see it so I want to do it.
LANGE: And is there a running title for the next film?
D’ELIA: For whatever reason, I’ve been listening to a lot of Chris Isaak—my music taste is weird—so I’m thinking “Heart Shaped World.”
AMERICAN ANIMAL IS CURRENTLY IN LIMITED RELEASE.