When setting out to make his feature directorial debut with Little Death, a surreal genre-bender premiering tonight at Sundance, Jack Begert looked to synthesize “two very powerful influences” — a love of “surreal” cinematic stylings, carried over from his work in high-profile music videos, as well as a much more “grounded, authentic, humanistic” mode of filmmaking.
Produced by Academy Award nominee Darren Aronofsky for his Protozoa Pictures, the film is visually and, to an extent, tonally reminiscent of the director’s early works, Requiem for a Dream and Pi. A formally experimental feature telling a series of interconnected L.A. stories, which makes memorable use of AI-generated art, as well as visual and practical effects, it hones in on a series of dreamer characters on a darkly comic collision course — a middle-aged filmmaker (David Schwimmer) in the midst of a existential crisis (or breakthrough?), and a pair of dopehead taco truck entrepreneurs (Talia Ryder and Dominic Fike).
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A native of Miami, Florida, Begert partnered with friends to launch the production company Psycho Films, focused on “zero-budget music videos,” after attending USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, breaking out with his stunning videos for everyone from Doja Cat and Jack Harlow to Olivia Rodrigo. In his only interview ahead of Little Death‘s premiere, Aronofsky joined the rising filmmaker to discuss the work that went into creating what Begert calls a “hyper postmodern whirlwind.” The pair also touch on the productive “level of intensity” that collaborators brought to the project, the long-ago origins of Aronofsky’s friendship with Schwimmer, their personal takes on AI and its place in the future of cinema, and Aronofsky’s feeling that “we’re on the edge of a defining moment” for Hollywood.
DEADLINE: Jack, I know Little Death is based on a short film of yours from 2019. But what inspired the story?
JACK BEGERT: It started as an idea for a structural experiment. I was watching movies like Slacker and a few others that really inspired me to break those rules, formally, and I wanted to do a short first because I wasn’t sure that the concept for the structure of the movie would even work. I’m really glad that we did because I learned a lot, but it kind of proved that it could still be an entertaining and compelling movie, even while taking a couple left turns.
DEADLINE: How did you come to connect with Darren and his team at Protozoa?
BEGERT: It was really just a meeting I had with Dylan [Golden] and Brendan [Naylor] from Protozoa. I think it was through my agents, one of a few more traditional meetings that had been set up. I was feeling like I didn’t know if anyone would ever really want to make this weird little movie, and Protozoa was one of the first companies that I talked to that felt like you guys actually understood and liked the same movie that I liked.
DARREN ARONOFSKY: Dylan and Brendan are producers that work with me, and they’re always looking for exciting new voices and projects. So, I guess the hunt led them to Jack and then they presented it to me, and I just liked that it was outside the normal box of independent films. It was something new, something I haven’t seen, and I thought Jack in the short really proved himself as a filmmaker, so we decided to give him a helping hand.
DEADLINE: You’ve expressed an interest in the idea of tapping deeply into the interior of a character through subjective filmmaking techniques. I imagine that facet of the project was intriguing, as well.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah. I did recognize some similar aesthetic and taste from Jack and some of the work I had done. I was just more interested in how it would play, how it would feel, because it was such a bold choice to start with. But those are always the ones that are memorable and that you don’t forget.
DEADLINE: It’s rewarding to take on projects you’re not entirely sure will work?
ARONOFSKY: Very much so. But I think it was worth the experiment. When you’re trying to do something in the independent sphere that hasn’t been done before and you do your homework and really execute it, it just allows for things that haven’t been done before, to give it a shot for the big screen and see how it plays out. It’s just such a unique experience watching this film for audiences because they’re really taken on a journey. They think they’re in one type of experience, and then it turns into another experience, and I remember the first time seeing it just being like, what the hell is going on? But I was just so excited by the choices.
DEADLINE: It seems like you share an interest in giving great actors who maybe haven’t been given their due a chance to shine by taking on risky and original roles — David Schwimmer in this case, who’s great in a very different kind of part than we’ve seen him in. What drew you to David?
ARONOFSKY: I’ve known Schwimmer since film school in the ’90s. He was friends with one of my best friends in film school and acted in a few of his shorts, and David’s just always been an amazing, great guy. I remember when Jack came up with the idea, I thought it was great, and it was fun to reach out to my old friend David and see if he was game for it.
David comes from independent film. People don’t know that, but early on, he was a real big supporter of a group of young filmmakers that I knew, and was always one to put himself out there. So, it was nice to see that David immediately was willing to do this crazy experiment with Jack and has just been so supportive the whole way. I’m happy that it’s worked out in that way, like an old friend and a new friend working together.
BEGERT: For me, David was perfect to play this role because I always knew that David was a very deeply serious actor. I knew he had this very strong theater background, and that’s a background that’s very similar to mine. I grew up doing a lot of theater and taking the craft of acting very seriously, and when you see the movie, I hope that it’s a lot of fun. I have a lot of fun working, but I do really look for actors who take the craft seriously and are interested in bringing the best out of the scene. David took that to the max, and I think I just got really lucky with all of my cast in that sense. Everyone brought this level of intensity to the project that I think I really needed on my first film.
DEADLINE: One of the visual elements that makes Little Death so unique is its use of some pretty unsettling AI art, as a means of tapping into the psychology of Schwimmer’s character. What was the impetus for including that?
BEGERT: I’m really interested to see how people react to some of the visual style. We used this combination of animation, CGI, traditional VFX and AI altogether in a soup to create this kind of maximalist, hyper postmodern aesthetic that I think the movie is trying to really push onto the viewer. That gets juxtaposed with a lot of the other parts of the movie, and I think that’s something that I was really interested in doing. The section of the movie that you’re talking about is using every trick in the book, whether it’s needle drop music, voiceover, hyper styized, subjective sequences, even playing sort of in the meta space with some of the subject matter, and I think that this was just another tool in the arsenal to try to really push the style over the edge and create this hyper postmodern whirlwind. I’m interested to see how people respond. I’m digging the way that we used it.
DEADLINE: AI obviously became a hot button topic during last year’s double strike. How do you look at the technology and the impact it will have on cinema? Is it a tool, a threat, or both?
BEGERT: I think all of these things are just tools. I don’t think that we’re necessarily using it in a way that is really what the hot button issues are, or what the hot button conversation is even talking about.
DEADLINE: How do you feel about AI, Darren, as someone who’s always experimenting with form and pushing cinematic boundaries?
ARONOFSKY: It’s super complicated. There’s a lot to talk about. That’s one of the most exciting things about Little Death and Jack’s approach to filmmaking, is that he is on the cusp of the conversations that need to be happening and being had in Hollywood. So, I’m really curious to see how fans react to the movie — how critics, how buyers, how everyone reacts to this. Because I think we’re on the edge of a defining moment.
They are absolutely tools. The threat, I think, and the fear is just that filmmakers need to figure out how to use them and how to work with them. I think it’s a growth moment for everyone because so many different types of things are possible — so many new ways at thinking about images and presenting them to the world are possible for so many more people, and how they get used in the next four or five years, in the next few months, even — in the short term, in the long term — it’s definitely changing how films are made. I think every filmmaker needs to look at it very, very closely because ultimately, it comes down to stories, and how can these new tools help us tell the stories we want to tell, and how can they help us tell new stories? But that’s why I think Little Death is one of the most exciting films right now, is because Jack is really pushing those tools and asking a lot of questions of us.
DEADLINE: The first third of the film delves into the current state of Hollywood, the prospect of limitations on creative expression within a so-called ‘woke’ culture, and what kind of future cinema has in store, given an apparent dampening in interest amongst younger generations, who have so many other options to look to, when it comes to entertainment. How do the ideas discussed speak to your experience? Are they reflective of your personal feelings or concerns?
BEGERT: It’s a good question. Sort of like Darren said, I think hopefully the movie can be a conversation piece for a lot of these things. A lot of these discussions, I don’t even know exactly where I land firmly, and I wanted to create something that is part of a very contemporary dialogue. But part of me wants to just let the movie speak for itself.
ARONOFSKY: I do think how people are watching things has completely changed, and I think everything that you make has to move people in a big way or ask big questions, or challenge how things are done. I think run-of-the-mill stuff is not that interesting anymore. You have to figure out how to create something as an independent filmmaker that is very unique to people and captures their imagination to pull them in. The competition is just tremendous for what people can do with their time, so if you want to be telling long-form stories, they have to really connect, which I guess is what we’ve always been trying to do. It just seems to be more extreme now.
BEGERT: To that point, I feel like there is so much competition for people’s attention, and I do feel like at least what I’m trying to do with the film and with some of the commentary in the film is talk about how indie cinema, I think just needs to stay as fun and exciting as possible. Those were always the movies that inspired me when I was younger to become a filmmaker, so I wanted to make something that was a bit more of a ride, that could hold your attention and pull you all the way to the end.
Also starring Gaby Hoffmann, Jena Malone, Karl Glusman, Sante Bentivoglio and more, Little Death screens tonight at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, UT at 9:15 p.m. MST. Written by Begert and Dani Goffstein, the film’s producers are Aronofsky, Andy Cohen, Golden, Naylor, Sam Canter and Noor Alfallah. Ari Handel, Christine D’Souza Gelb, Tyler Sobel-Mason and Victor Moyers served as executive producers.
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