Interview with Filmmaker, Trent Jaklitsch

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Field Notes Interview #85: Trent Jaklitsch

We chat with Brooklyn filmmaker, Trent Jaklitsch about his new Vimeo Staff Pick film, Hiraeth, and how he used sound design as a driving force in this emotionally complex story of family and home.

 

Sound as vision.

Filmmaker, Trent Jaklitsch takes the notion of "if these walls could talk" to a new and innovative level in his new film Hiraeth. The film explores a house room by room, using sound design and narration as a guiding narrative of family, memory and all of the complex emotions that come with it. One of the fascinating elements in this film is the impeccable pairing of dynamic audio and sparse imagery, creating an immersive experience. Sometimes inverting the relationship of sound and vision can create a memorable mood. We sit down with Trent and get to know his experience filming this ambitious film and how he overcame the obstacles involved with it. Enjoy.


Marmoset: Who are you and what do you do in the world?

Trent Jaklitsch: I’m a filmmaker out of Brooklyn.   

M: Why film over every other art form?

TJ: Because I can barely carry a tune. I would’ve loved to be a musician, but I just don’t have the sense for it. I tried piano lessons as an adult and it was pretty clear that this wasn’t the art form I was going to use to move people -- unless I wanted them running away from me. Film is one of the few mediums that incorporates many other arts: it’s sound, visual and writing. When all of those elements click together just right, it creates a fully immersive experience for the viewer. To me, that’s exhilarating. 

M: When was your first film? What was it about?

TJ: I was probably in eighth grade when I made my first film. I didn’t have actors or even a story, but I had my dad’s 8mm camera. I made these short animated films with wire, aluminum foil and clay, just making it up as I went. I’d make the forms morph into each other and create the action as I went along. I remember the tremendous excitement when the first films were developed, and those inanimate objects came to life. I’d never seen anything so amazing. 

M: How did Hiraeth come into form? What was the inspiration behind that?

TJ: One day, I was sitting in my father’s workroom and looking around. It was strange seeing all of his tools and equipment just sitting there lifeless… usually I saw them in action, while he was working. I looked at the radial arm saw and felt like I could hear its ring as the blade spun. I imagined the drill press’s hum as it sinks into a piece of pine. It was as though if I turned my back, these tools would spring into action. Even in their stillness, the objects were full of such inherent life. I liked that concept and wanted to make that feeling of a living space, like my experience in my dad’s workroom, more universal. I became captivated by the challenge of creating a film of an empty house, making it compelling without actors, and spanning an entire lifetime with a single shot.  Although it’s a simple concept, it was risky. And I liked that -- a lot.

I recorded audio of different families from a fly on the wall perspective, and then we used that audio to construct a documentary-style audio piece which traces a family through different phases of life. The older woman speaking at the end is my friend’s grandmother; she is a ‘fire cracker’ of a 95-year-old in the early stages of dementia. She sometimes forgot that she was being recorded and said such honest, touching things. The film ultimately took its shape and character from some of her phrases. 

M: How did you find the music for this film? How did you know it was the right fit?

TJ: I didn’t want much in terms of specific music in this film. I felt it should be sparse, and the score would predominately feature the natural, everyday sounds that happen in a house. But, the sounds would occur in the right sequence and key, and fall together at times, like the chords from a piano. That was our starting point. Nils Frahm’s “Pause” from his album Felt was a big influence. When it was time for us to score the piece with Vonavi, we kept taking away chords, and let the notes hang longer. Once the notes felt right, we went back into the score and tried to create those same notes from sounds you would’ve heard around a house. These chords were surrounded by the piano’s hammer strokes, giving them them more depth and texture.  

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M: There's so much emphasis on letting your imagination create the characters in this film, as it's heavily guided by sound design. How did you arrive to the decision to tell a story this way?

TJ: I love sound as a storytelling device. If I were to teach a film class, I’d have my students pick up a microphone before they touched a camera, and then craft a story with nothing but sound. It’s a centrally important component of filmmaking that’s often undervalued. 

This film was a great exercise in sound design for myself and for my editor, Eddie Ringer. The challenge was telling the story subtly, managing to make it compelling with only the audio and visuals of the house itself. 

M: What were some challenges in making this film?

TJ: It’s funny to think about it now, but when I first conceived this film, I was working on a couple others and thought this would be a relatively simple film to make. And, I was completely wrong. It turned out that every aspect of the project was complicated. I started by writing the dialogue as a script and it felt so contrived. I believe film should become truer, more honest; it should become more fully itself, as we enter into a particular story. A film doesn’t need to be “clever.” I realized I was approaching the risk of making a short that was more clever than sincere. 

So, I decided to work with real people, instead of giving my script to actors. And then there’s hours of audio to deal with, and all the psychological and aesthetic questions that came with assessing and cutting that audio. The location had to be perfect. I looked at thousands of houses online and when I’d thought I found a great spot, I ran into a lot of “no’s.” It took a very long time to find the location we went with. Then it took another week or so to prep the space, to make it appear as though a family had just left. The stains on the wall, the papers scattered on the floor, the scratches and dust and imperfections in the carpet… they all had to feel natural, spontaneous and real. 

M: If you were writing a letter to a young filmmaker, what would the opening line be?

TJ: Love the broader parts or your film, but love the details even more -- the things only you will notice when you watch it again years down the road.

M: What was the last album you played in your car?

TJ: I’ve been listening to the album Lost In a Dream by War on Drugs. It has an old feel to it that I dig.

M: What's coming up for you?

TJ: I have a couple shorts I’m really excited to make, but right now I can’t seem to stop thinking about creating beautiful stories using virtual reality. I’m hopeful that one of my next projects will be seen through a VR headset.