Arts & Culture Film Hartford

Donnée Brings DIY Scene to the Silver Screen: An Interview with RJ LaRussa

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RJ LaRussa at Tainted Studios
by Dylan Healy, Contributing Editor

RJ LaRussa met up with CT Scramble on a sweltering day at Tainted Studios in Hartford. Barefoot and grateful for AC, we climbed up a ladder to chat in “The Treehouse,” an alcove decorated with photographs, murals, and crystals — a safe space to create, converse, and nap.

RJ recently screened his latest film Donnée, a fictional narrative portraying the Connecticut music scene through the telling of a failed relationship between former bandmates, as played by Sephrina Martinez-Hall and Paolo Celentano. Almost every scene was filmed in various venues recognizable to any CT DIY dweller, such as The Notch, Blind Moose, and Crunch House. Full of dreamy sequences and a stacked soundtrack, Donnée (pronounced dawn-AY) is a reflective look at a buzzing scene that is, at times, a little too close for comfort.

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Paolo Celentano (left) and Sephrina Martinez-Hall (right) in Donnée

RJL: So is this a podcast?

CTS: No, no.

RJL: Okay, cool.

CTS: So from conception to birth, how long did it take you to create Donnée?

RJL: Close to two years ago, counting the past six months of editing and tweaking. The additional idea started when I was living at The Notch — I needed to do a senior thesis and I knew I wanted to either make a film about terrorism or the music scene. Once I started speaking with my roommate, Alix (co-writer of Donnée), we realized we had many of the same experiences in the music scene happening around us.

CTS: You’re someone who is super immersed in the CT music scene — how did you want to portray it? What were your hopes with the film?

RJL: I pretty much blended documentary techniques with fiction filmmaking. The goal was to create something “real” but ambiguous — ambiguous enough where anyone watching could relate and impart their own meaning on it. We don’t necessarily get too much background on the relationship in the film other than inference by the other characters, which is intentional because the things that we hear play into the same tropes that we hear in the music made by people in the scene. There’s an interesting relationship where the music fuels the culture and the culture fuels the music — it’s sort of circular.

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Paolo Celentano in Donnée

CTS: Yeah, I mean the soundtrack alone is stellar. How did you choose which songs you wanted to feature in the film? How do you believe they fueled each scene?

RJL: The song this film was somewhat built around is “I Think You Were In My Profile Picture Once” by Modern Baseball: “I saw you from the bottom of the stairs / before you knew I was coming / though nervous and scared / I lingered on.” I basically lifted the confrontation scene in the film from those lyrics.

I drew from music I was listening to at the time. Almost every song you hear was released during the filmmaking process. I’d be working on a scene while listening to an album like LVNDR TWN by Jelani Sei — if CDs wore down like records from playing too much, that CD would be trashed — and realize that “Divinity” hits with the scene I was working on. Some choices came from bands that played at The Notch, like The Planet You — we hear their song “Winterlude” in a scene where we’re watching the show getting shut down, which actually happened during their Notch set. One of the most iconic memories I have of The Notch is moshing to Cheem’s “EOE” at the Chinese New Year Show and then watching steam roll out of the door after everyone left. There are very direct connections to personal experiences that shaped the soundtrack.

CTS: You perfectly soundtracked scenes with songs one hasn’t otherwise seen in a film before. To see them in a cinematic context revealed a novel power to create a powerful musical backdrop. I couldn’t help but recall my own personal experiences while listening to “Divinity” or “It’s Become Clear” (by Queen Moo).

RJL: Oh yeah. There’s the scene at Crunch House where Sephrina sees Carlin outside with Paolo’s lighter, giving her the indication, “Oh shit, my ex might be here.” It’s maguffins like that that drive the film along. I wanted Bilge Rat’s “Sneakers” in that scene because it has a line that’s almost an inverse to the one in “I Think You Were In My Profile Picture Once.” It’s, “I walk down to the basement but you didn’t notice me.” When I put that track in the scene to get the line where I wanted it, its placement just nailed the emotion. It was able to happen super naturally.

CTS: There are a bunch of subtleties in the film, like lyrics aligning with a scene or maguffins like the lighter, that took me ’til, like, the third watch to even notice. The one that I’m most curious to know about is your “character” that lingers in the shadows with glowing eyes. It almost felt like Hitchcock-esque cameos, but far less blatant. What did you intend in doing that?

RJL: I do the David Lynch thing where I don’t like to talk too much about interpretations as to not narrow someone’s engagement with the film…buuut I will say that you should think of my character very literally as the director, taking Paolo from one scene to another based on the emotional conditions of the scene. In the same sense that these characters are self-reflecting on their past relationships, the film is sort of my own engagement and representation of the world around me. It’s a literal portrayal of my filmmaking process and telling other people’s stories.

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Sephrina Martinez-Hall in Donnée

CTS: I couldn’t help but overthink things and wonder what if you were a manifestation of Paolo’s character’s delusions or schizophrenic hallucinations.

RJL: Yeah, I mean one of the best things of including so many subtleties is hearing what people pick up on and interpret. One of the most rewarding things about making this film was having conversations with the people involved about what they noticed and what it meant to them.

CTS: Is this where the title comes from?

RJL: Kind of. It comes from a W. H. Auden poem, “At the Grave of Henry James,” where Auden is narrativizing the world around him as he stands at the grave of another poet. The film hadn’t even been written before Alix and I found this for the title (laughs).

Donnée means “a basic fact or assumption” and “the set of assumptions on which a narrative is based.” That resonated with the film’s themes of challenging self-perspective, -reflection and -overcoming; “Startling the awkward footsteps of my apprehension, the flushed assault of your recognition is the donnée of this doubtful hour.” Cue that Modern Baseball song once again. It’s the same damn line, but the poem predates the song by who knows how many years.

Honestly though, it’s the last time I use an accent in a title, though; I have to Google “e with an accent” every time I type it out (laughs).

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RJ LaRussa at Tainted Studios

CTS: It’s so neat how those same themes pop up over decades. Do you think that motif of recognition governing one’s experience translates beyond the interpersonal conflict between Sephrina and Paolo into the CT music scene? Which can be a little too close for comfort, sometimes…

RJL: Oh yeah, absolutely. To quote Andrei Tarkovsky, “Art always a metonym” in that it stands in as a larger whole; personal relationships are a metonym for societal relationships.

CTS: What influenced your own creative direction of the film?

RJL: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Harmony Korine’s Gummo and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, especially season three. The first two engage with the relationship of reality and cinema, such as telling a loose narrative of a story in the context of which it could happen, and then let people be people. Gummo did that phenomenally. In his writings, Korine actually argued against documentary precision to creating realism because it takes away the sort of natural evolution that happens in life. That notion guided a lot of Donnée’s process. There’s no better series than Twin Peaks to demonstrate narrativizing the artistic process. Alix and I watched Season 3 together during the editing and filming process, so there was some direct response and direction shifts going on. I could go on for hours on how David Lynch does that (laughs).

CTS: Literally still wondering who Judy is… How did you assemble the cast?

RJL: Alix and I liked this idea of finding the people around you who naturally fit the part; that’s how we casted Paolo and Sephrina. Sephrina is an incredible musician, she’s super involved in the music scene, and is actually a big part of why The Notch existed; she was the chill RA who let us run shows out of our campus apartment (laughs). Paolo, by contrast, was not as involved in the music scene, but has an acting background so served to represent the narrative side. Our supporting cast naturally came from the people around us. Carlin lived at The Notch…

CTS: …and Brandon Rizzo [of Tiny Box Booking].

RJL: Yeah, that was the first scene we actually shot. They way we did that was by setting Brandon and Paolo up on the couch at The Notch and throwing them a couple interview-style questions, then let them just riff off each other. They both kind of arrived to the same conclusion that at some point in your work, you have to become someone else and separate yourself from the situation. In Brandon’s case, it’s running a show and being the point man for so many people. In Paolo’s, it’s like playing a role in the larger story, so to speak. This process has informed how I shoot interviews to this day.

CTS: Any projects you have coming up?

RJL: We’re thinking about doing a sequel to Donnée, actually! All the major people are on board. I also have two other visual arts pieces coming up. The first is titled “Tea Time in Catawba”, which is a cyanotype print / sculpture about a raid on a village in Afghanistan in 2010. It appropriates various aesthetics of cultural memory to talk about civilian casualties throughout the war on terror and through the nominal engagement of culture that comes with these hearts and minds missions; special ops troops will drink tea with the village elders, but then it’s the same village where they just executed a night raid, killing five civilians. There’s this dichotomy going on where there’s a purported respect for culture, but you’re inherently unable to respect culture because if you’re committing imperialist violence, you’re not being respectful of that country at all.

I’m also starting an experimental short called Sight Green about the detention site in Thailand where groundwork for the world-wide torture program was laid by the Bush administration. This piece imagines the visual and auditory hallucinations that may be experienced by someone held under torture. There aren’t many people who have made it out of these situations; they’re still being held in places like Guantanamo Bay or in Bagram indefinitely because if they got out, they would speak more about their experiences. Obama continued the program, it still continues to this day. But we don’t talk about it at all. You can’t charge someone with a crime if the confession is obtained by torture, so they’re just stuck in this detained limbo. One thing that struck me is that if a person is held in complete darkness for months straight, the mind starts to invent its own visuals, so you hallucinate in the dark essentially.

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RJ LaRussa at Tainted Studios

Those are the two me-pieces I’ve worked on recently. One cool collaboration was with local comedian Rob Santos where we did a Dave Chappelle’s Block Party sort of thing but with all Hartford artists: throw a big show, film it, and make a short film out of it. I also recently shot a music video for Queen Moo at our new Wherehouse space, “Jessie Lee” by Donnie Alexzander, and one for “Gogol Bordello” by Fat Randy, the latter two shot on 16mm film and Mini DV tape, respectively.

It’s funny how both of those bands go by people-names but not the names of anyone who’s in the band (laughs).

CTS: I guess it’s like you mentioned: At some point in your work, you have to separate yourself and become someone else to do what you need to do.

Watch Donnée by RJ LaRussa and check out its killer soundtrack below:

  1. “Lasting Impressions” by Hovel (Danbury, CT) from the EP Hovel
  2. “Winterlude” by The Planet You (Montclair, NJ) from the album I Too, Me Also
  3. “EOE” by Cheem (Hartford, CT) from the album Making a Planet
  4. “Seven Cases” by Xila (Twin Peaks, WA) from the EP Aftertaste
  5. “Twist” by Bat House (Boston, MA) from the album Bat House
  6. “Sneakers” by Bilge Rat (New Haven, CT) from the album Bilge Rat
  7. “The Fuck I Felt” by Leor Miller (Annandale-On-Hudson, NY)
  8. “Lizard People” by Fat Randy (Bloomfield, CT) from the EP Conspiracy Facts
  9. “Divinity” by Jelani Sei (Hartford, CT/Jamaica, Queens) from the EP LVNDR TWN
  10. “It’s Become Clear” by Queen Moo (Hartford, CT) from the album – Mean Well