Interview: Peter Vack, PVT Chat

Perhaps better-known for his work fronting the New York art band BODEGA, Ben Hozie is also a director of stylistically-daring documentaries and independent films that centre around the unusual lives of artists and societal outcasts. His latest, PVT Chat, stars Peter Vack as a professional gambler and part-time cynic who nurses a private romantic streak when pursuing a mysterious cam girl named Scarlet (Julia Fox).

Here, Vack tells us about improv in the age of YouTube, working without an intimacy co-ordinator and using your own mouth as an ashtray.

Tom Duggins: I thought I’d begin by asking – did you really put out that cigarette on your tongue?

Peter Vack: Yes.

TD: Is it as unpleasant as it looks?

PV: I’m trying to remember. It may have been one of those things where the lead up beforehand is worse than the event. It really is the psychological terror before that’s worse, but I did do it. I think actually I did it once as an improv. We had filmed scenes where I was soliciting her [Julia Fox] to do this stuff and then I did it in an impromptu way. Ben thought it was great but wanted to re-do it, so it was a re-imagining of something we found spontaneously.

TD: That leads me onto another question. There seem to be quite a lot of improvised moments in the film. I’m wondering what the balance was between the scripted material and those more spontaneous scenes?

PV: It was a mix. The movie was vigorously scripted by Ben and every scene is based on what he wrote. We moved away from the scripted dialogue in many moments but we rarely completely re-imagined the scene as it was scripted.

I often think about what it is that ushered in this new phase of film-making that uses improv as a technique. The best guess I have is that it has to do with the proliferation of YouTube content. I’m sure there are examples that refute this theory, but in the past ten years you get all this YouTube content with people talking about their lives unscripted, in the moment, and I think it’s helped people to feel the distinction between something that’s really being captured and when it’s actors saying lines. It also started with the Mumblecore crowd and that was partly drawn from Cassavettes, but that style has emerged even more post-Youtube, I think.

TD: It’s an interesting point to make, because the film is partly about how people communicate nowadays, specifically online. Did an awareness of the visual grammar of these things feed into your acting?

PV: Yes and no. I think I knew, going in, how Ben was going to shoot it, and it seemed to jibe conceptually with what he was trying to do. But when you’re acting the goal is to not consider the apparatus of the movie so much. So, yes in the sense that we were dealing with modern characters and a relatively new dynamic to present. It does influence you.

TD: If I had to sum up the film in a word or two, I would say it’s about intimacy. Would you agree with that?

PV: Sure.

TD: The camera work seemed to reflect that as well. It seems like, half the time, the camera is literally hanging over your shoulder.

PV: Yeah. I agree that intimacy is the theme that feels most relevant in a movie that’s about two isolated people. She [Julia Fox’s character] is as isolated as he is, although she has a partner. Maybe one thing to mention which ties this together is that Ben shot the movie just using one wide-angle lens. It was important because it mimicked the fixed focal length of the webcam camera, and because of the lens, it meant that Ben had to be very physically close to us while shooting.

So it was something of a challenge, to play someone who is very alone and isolated, whilst the director of photography is incredibly close to you, but that whole emotional conundrum, I think, is what makes the movie feel the way it does.

TD: On the topic of intimacy, there’s been a lot of recent focus on the role of intimacy co-ordinators on film sets. Did you have one for PVT Chat?

PV: This film was made before I had even heard of intimacy co-ordinators. That work fell to the director, who is more traditionally the intimacy co-ordinator. I actually did a television show recently where they had one, but I’ve yet to come across someone in that role on a film set. I’ve been lucky to work with directors who are already skilled at coordinating these things.

TD: And that was the case with Ben Hozie, the director here?

PV: The movie wouldn’t exist unless Ben had been able to create an environment in which Julia and I felt comfortable. This movie is the result of intimacy well coordinated, otherwise it just wouldn’t feel right. In a movie like this that does deal so much with sensitive material, people would want to turn it off immediately if it didn’t have the right feel to it.

TD: Did Ben have a particular approach? Did you discuss the scenes much in advance?

PV: In a way, the particulars of how a director addresses a scene, there’s a lot of throughline. There are only so many ways you can discuss it. So, I think the difference comes from the personalities involved. If the film-maker really knows their material, if they believe in it and you believe in them, then suddenly the environment is intimate and becomes easy to coordinate.

The same is true when you’re working with a performer who knows how to give their full humanity to a role. It becomes easy and the scene explains itself. Our approach was quite classical: we discussed what the scene was about, tried it and then revised things. There wasn’t much out of the ordinary.

TD: To talk a bit about Jack as a character. He spends most of his time gambling online or on cam sites, but is he an addict? I feel it’s a bit ambiguous whether he’s in control of his actions or not.

PV: It’s an interesting question, and I think it’s one that a lot of people are asking themselves when it comes to devices and all the substances we enjoy. I’m drinking a coffee right now, while we’re talking, and though it’s fairly benign, I can’t start a day without it. I look at my phone first thing in the morning, to check social media. The easy answer is yes, but I don’t think this is a movie about addiction. It deals with a character who uses the internet compulsively, but who doesn’t?

We talked about it a lot, with respect to the gambling: clearly, Jack cannot stop. I believe Ben included that detail because he wanted something that might stand in for a number of different technologically-mediated late capitalist addictions. There’s even an element that gambling is a stand-in for late capitalism itself. The fact that we’re all people who are forced into this oppressive and wasteful system.

TD: There’s a scene in which Jack refers to some people as yuppies, in a disparaging way, but his online gambling doesn’t seem all that different to being a trader, for example.

PV: I think that’s an interesting contradiction in the character. I don’t believe he has money, but he’s not organising. He’s at home trying to turn ten dollars into a hundred.

TD: He’s obsessed with the idea that relationships are transactional, but he’s also very romantic. He listens to Beethoven and wants to take Scarlet to Paris. Is that another contradiction, or does that suggest he’s hiding a more sentimental core to his character?

PV: It’s both, for sure. It would be an interesting question for Ben, too. The way I felt about it, I never really trusted myself as Jack, when I said I thought everything was transactional. I think sometimes we have these theories about the way life is structured which are the exact opposite of how we feel or want the world to be. So we construct them as protection against our sensitivity.

I think Jack is just as romantic as he seems. He’s like a little boy, obsessed with his crush for Scarlet. He says that everyone treats each other like ATMs, but that’s like an armour he wears to shield his longing for connection. He’s been unsuccessful at bringing that connection into his life, so he makes this protective jacket. That contradiction is what makes him human.

TD: The film also stars Buddy Duress and Julia Fox, both actors who have worked with the Safdie brothers. Do you think PVT Chat fits into the same New York-centered world that the Safdies have created?

PV: The short answer is yes, because these are films that are being made right now, in New York, and there’s clearly some collective unconscious threads amongst the people making movies. It’s similar in that both Ben and the Safdies are taking a look at marginal, down-and-out New Yorkers and treating them lovingly. Going into their psychology and dilemmas. Although, whilst I knew Buddy from his films with the Safdies beforehand, I didn’t make a clear connection between their work and this movie at the time. It feels obvious now, that it’s in conversation with their work, but that actually came as a surprise. I wouldn’t have known it while we were shooting.

TD: What was Buddy like to work with?

PV: He’s so cool. A unique, one-of-a-kind actor. There’s no one else like him and it’s obvious. He doesn’t know how to be anything but himself and that’s always compelling.

TD: The last thing I wanted to ask is about the scene involving Ulysses by James Joyce. I wondered if part of the joke is that Ulysses features a famous scene in which a character masturbates?

PV: I can’t imagine that’s a coincidence. I haven’t read the book, but Ben loves it. I think there’s a criticism that it’s quite masturbatory and navel-gazing, especially given how long it is? Jack has those qualities too. I think all those things are in there.

PVT Chat is available now on digital platforms.

Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom