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Emergent (Filmmaker): Todd Rohal

June 25, 2008  |  4:48pm
Emergent (Filmmaker): Todd Rohal

Name: Todd Rohal
Hometown: born in Columbus, based in Brooklyn
Film/Release date: The Guatemalan Handshake (out now on DVD)
For fans of: True Stories, Nashville

"I wanted to make happiest sad ending I could make," says Todd Rohal of his feature debut, The Guatemalan Handshake. The build-up to Rohal's transcendentally unique payoff includes Will Oldham (pictured above) as the spectacularly absent Donald Turnupseed, a small electric car, a Kimya Dawson tune, an explosion at the power plant, a woman's existential search for her lost dog, and an ensemble cast of untrained local actors from the Pennsylvania town where the film was shot.

"We had these open calls that said, 'if you look like Ashton Kutcher don't come to this audition," the 32-year old Rohal explains. "Once I got to know who we were gonna cast, I went back into the script and rewrote things that seemed to fit those people a little bit more." Playing as a series of vignettes-- think David Byrne's True Stories or Robert Altman's Nashville-- the interlocking narratives arguably dive even deeper into the quirk, the film's only voice of reason coming in the form of its narrator, a seven-year old girl named Turkeylegs.

Honing the low-budget approach (with printing, it cost $150,000), the tight-knit crew was unpaid, living together in several rented houses. At his own insistence, Oldham lived there too. The songwriter's contribution to the film included nixing a Southern Culture on the Skids tracks from the opening sequence, but Rohal had input everywhere. "I was able to turn around to the person pushing the dolly and know that they read the script in its first draft, and had been with it since that point," says Rohal. "[I could] say 'does this seem to be working?' and that's kinda cool."

For Rohal, who also acted in Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, the communal approach is the only way to fly. "It's kind of an ideal situation. I want to be able to direct a film and then go work on somebody else's film," says Rohal, who recently directed a video for Brooklyn band Ola Podrida, starring Ivan Dimitrov, Handshake's Bulgarian break-out.

"It's kind of about these fucked-up scoutmasters that I had," Rohal says of his next film, which he describes (despite having the same vignette structure) as "a boy scout epic." "It's based on this true story about this real thing they did to us that really probably messed up everybody in the troop, and that's the starting point." Rohal does not pause for emphasis. "Then it gets kind of weird."

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