Simone Films Debuts First Feature 'Salamander Days' – And Makes Friends In The Process
An interview with Rebekah Sherman-Myntti and KJ Rothweiler, filmmakers and founders of Simone Films.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti and KJ Rothweiler, filmmakers and founders of Simone Films, recently took a trip down to Kim’s Video in Alamo Drafthouse Lower Manhattan, seeking conversation and perhaps a bit of mentorship from indie film auteur Alex Ross Perry. Amidst the labyrinth of classic videotapes, the filmmakers engaged in candid dialogue, discussing the joys and hurdles of the cinematic creation process. Perry, whose feature filmmaking journey began with Impolex in 2009, shared insights from his own practice, while Rebekah and KJ soaked in his experience, balancing it with the fresh exhilaration of being on the brink of unveiling their debut feature to the world.
Salamander Days, Simone Films’ inaugural venture into features, made a splashy premiere on Friday night in Los Angeles. Tickets vanished in a flash, indicating a potent interest from the film community. This success, mirrored on the opposite coast, was underlined by an identical fervor in New York City, where their upcoming screenings also boast a "sold out" badge.
Alex Ross Perry: So I mean, you've denied me seeing this movie, guys. You sell out screenings before I even know they're getting announced. Nothing I can say will be contextual about the content...which is maybe fine because I'm not interested in things like that anyway. Like filmic content of stuff. It's so much less interesting to me than everything surrounding it.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: Exactly. What does David Lynch say?
KJ Rothweiler: "The film is the talking."
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: Yes. He says it perfectly.
Alex Ross Perry: He's got sound bites, that guy. I feel like the story of you, especially with distributing the movie yourselves, is kind of less universal than talking about the themes of the story, which you’ve been working on for five years. So when you say five years, describe that – because I'm now finishing something I've worked on for nine years. My explanation of how that time passes is both incredibly specific and also really nebulous. So when you say it's a five-year journey, what does that actually mean?
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: And actually, we'd probably say maybe even longer than five years.
KJ Rothweiler: We met signing up for film class when we were 18 and decided that someday we wanted to make a movie together. I mean, we didn't really know what that meant or what it would be then.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: Yeah, we were in an experimental film class. We had a weird co-director alias, and we were hand-scratching the film… very funny to think back on.
Alex Ross Perry: On like the Steenbeck?
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: Yes. And then fast forward to graduating from college and the realities of trying to be an adult living in New York, getting jobs…we were not able to focus on making a movie. All of a sudden, we were 25, and we really started questioning what we were doing. We also quickly learned as first-time filmmakers with nothing to really show for ourselves, it's hard to get big money or money at all for a film. And so we were like the only way that we are going to be able to pull this off is if we leave New York. And how can we go about doing this where we're not reliant on classic film financing and therefore waiting for permission that we're not sure we'll ever receive? How can we figure out a way to be crafty and do it ourselves and maintain some level of creative freedom? So we left the city for a couple of years and did random paid video work.
Alex Ross Perry: It's not that long after graduating, but it is an eternity when you're 25. But it's closer to graduating than many people would actually be like, "Alright, it's dream time." Many people at that point are still drifting. You know, and that's a very strong commitment - that's not saying like, "Oh, well, we'll write one night a week, and we'll get it done eventually.” You're saying like, "It's time to leave." What was the sort of model for that, both artistically and logistically? What made you think that that was a good idea?
KJ Rothweiler: There definitely wasn't a model for it. I feel like New York puts you on this weird treadmill of momentum where you can never really pause. I think Rebekah's mom was actually the one who suggested that we get out of the city and focus.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: I had a very all-consuming full-time job back then. My mom reminded us that silence and isolation can be the best thing for breeding creativity - you know, when you're finally able to just sit with yourself and really engage with your thoughts. New York and how we lived here at the time was not going to allow for that. She said we either needed to accept that truth or leave and feel more free to explore and re-evaluate our goals.
KJ Rothweiler: My family has a cabin in the woods in Pennsylvania, and so we went there and lived there for two years, writing and doing the pre-production out of there. We shot at Rebekah's school in Rochester, and the cabin was halfway between the city and where we wanted to make the movie.
Alex Ross Perry: That's how I made my first movie. My family has a cabin that my great-grandfather built in seven days in Vermont. And it's a resource that, you know, is used by everyone in my family. But for me, it was a resource of, like, I can fit ten people in here, and we can make a movie near here. And that's my advantage. Because I'm not raising money. I'm not getting grants, but my advantage is, like, we have this thing.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: Totally. In our case, we were really taking into account, like, in order to do this, what are the things that are accessible to us that can allow for us to make this happen? Being able to go somewhere and just save money was essential. We also would not have been able to make the movie without my school, where my mom had worked for many years, literally giving us the keys and having a free location to shoot in for three weeks. And I think we were asking ourselves - what is it that we're attracted to? Like, at that particular moment, what were the types of stories we were interested in? I think we gravitated toward coming of age.
Alex Ross Perry: I feel like oftentimes, if someone were to make a high school movie, they would be further removed from that experience. Maybe not. I don't know. But I feel like lately, if people make a coming-of-age movie, they make it when they have years of perspective on it. Yeah, but you guys had, like, a few years of perspective on it.
KJ Rothweiler: I mean, I can find adulthood to be massively uninteresting, and I've never found my life to be as cinematic as it was during high school.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: Yeah, I think for the two of us, those teenage years were something we wanted to delve into as we were definitely still processing them. There were a lot of mysteries about that time period, at least for me.
Alex Ross Perry: Even in film school, the script is just kind of like a blueprint. And I continue to consider that true, even as stuff I've done has gotten more written. Now I'm like, the script is a blueprint to get cast and get money, and then you figure it out. So there's always this sense for me of caring about what the writing is but also knowing that, ultimately, this is just a base for putting other things on top of it.
KJ Rothweiler: I distinctly remember we finished the script in this bunkbed room and always knew it would function that way, as a blueprint that we were comfortable abandoning at times.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: As we all know, writing something can be very different from what you end up shooting, which is very different from the thing you end up editing, and so there are many different movies that have existed over the course of us making Salamander Days. There was so much life lived during that entire time period.
KJ Rothweiler: Exactly. How did you approach doing Impolex?
Alex Ross Perry: The script for Impolex was 30 pages long. You know, I was like, we're just gonna go to this house in the summer, and once we get there, we'll figure it out. But also, the idea was this is a movie that has three four-minute long shots with no dialogue. So yeah, the script is 30 pages, but it'll be like 75 minutes. Yeah, you used to be able to make like 70-minute movies and have people take it somewhat seriously. I don't know if that's the case.
KJ Rothweiler: Ours is 64 minutes.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, that’s long enough to play and get reviewed. But certainly, by 2018, you're kind of out of the lifecycle of a 65-minute small movie landing at a major festival and doing well. In 2008, that would have been a perfectly viable pathway. A 65-minute movie could and would have played at South by Southwest and made a name for that person. That was very much a thing ten years before you guys began making this. So there is no world for something like your movie at all by 2018 or '20 or '21.
KJ Rothweiler: I think there was a moment where we were like, let's just make the movie we want to make rather than make a movie that's gonna work for us.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, and we’re talking first movie - that's a very big concept because it's either a footnote in somebody's life or it's the defining pistol shot mission statement of their artistic career. Or, in my case, I view it as a bit of both. It's a deeply irrelevant piece of work as far as my life and my professional career are concerned, but is also deeply important to me. Because I still do feel like the stupid phrase of “your first movie is the only movie you spend your whole life preparing to make.”
KJ Rothweiler: I love watching those first movies because there's a roughness or a rawness that shows me maybe who the filmmakers are a little bit more than later, polished work.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: Yeah, there's an unreasonableness and purity that can usually be seen or felt. Your first movie is a complicated thing. My friend, who is like 80, said to me recently, “Your first film should introduce an audience to your sensibility and your sensitivity, and I see you both interwoven throughout it all”. That was nice for us to hear, as I think it’s easy to lose your mind, and we certainly lost ours in the years of working on something like this.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, and I’m curious - when you're making your movie, are you confident about what you're doing? …And then, of course, somehow, life always beats that out of you with a left turn or two.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: I don't know if it was confidence as much as a dreaminess or a feeling like we were conducting this big experiment, and we had a very strong desire to pull it off. We definitely were not driven by the outcome or by what we hoped the outcome would be. I think we were drawn to the adventure of it and to doing something we had never done before. And so I think we were really fortunate to have this sense of tremendous openness and spontaneity and the freedom to explore and run around. Through that, we were able to discover things about the movie, even on set, that we didn't anticipate, and then whole new worlds would open up to us, especially in the edit. That's definitely the word to use - discovery.
KJ Rothweiler: When we were writing, there was a moment where we kind of switched gears and decided to do something more exploratory that we knew would teach us about filmmaking. I think we weren't that confident-- we were really excited and curious about what it would be like to try and make something together and see what it would turn out to be.
Alex Ross Perry: The way you're talking about it is very open-minded artistically and, I mean, I tell people this all the time, there's no doubt that this movie with no festival laurels will, within probably the next two months, be seen by more people than my first movie ever has been. Maybe not literally, since I've been showing it for 15 years, but like, I have never had a sold-out screening of that movie. Ever. And you already have, you know, a handful locked in without any press or PR and without anybody having any reason to be like, actually, I've heard good things. But that's the power of the internet, and because you both have spent a couple of years creating a network of people that are like, "Whatever is going on here must be interesting."
KJ Rothweiler: Yeah, and you're focusing on that resourcefulness thing. Making something that's low to the ground like this is what you need to be open to as any sort of artist making music or making a movie or whatever else. And I think that's something we resisted that we saw in people we knew - they were doing that thing - "it's not ready, I'm not ready. The thing is, you know, I need all this, all of these things first.” We’re all guilty of it. You need to figure out what you already have and make it work.
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: And it also goes back to something we've all talked about before, which I think is so essential and so true to the three of us - working with our friends. Our collaborators are our friends. Like the DP who shot our movie, Bart Cortright, we work with him on everything we do. Brian Kinnes, who edited the film with us for a couple of years, has become a member of the family. Some of my best friends worked on Salamander Days, and we work on all of their stuff, and I think it is absolutely the way to do it.
Alex Ross Perry: Yes, there's no greater advantage than having friends.
KJ Rothweiler: And lots of those people in the seats are friends, too.
Alex Ross Perry: And then for me, maybe like five other people who read about it in The Village Voice and showed up to further date how long ago that feels. Because you've spent so long with it, I don't know what it must feel like. What does it feel like? You're both putting it to bed but also now starting this other process of, like, well, because we don't have another company doing it, we're still solely responsible for the life of this thing. Whereas now, I am always very grateful to be like, this is not my problem anymore.
KJ Rothweiler: We'd love to get to that. However, we like-
Rebekah Sherman-Myntti: -to do things ourselves.
KJ Rothweiler: We like that we have to do it.