Interview By Bears Fonte
Sylvio wants more than anything to showcase his simple puppetry skills for an appreciative audience, but instead ends up smashing things for a cheering mob. Also he is a gorilla. Co-Directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney and written by Audley, Birney and Meghan Doherty, SLYVIO follows the creative struggles of a Gorilla trying to live amongst us, first as a debt collector, and then as a public access daytime television star. Part of the joy of the film is that Sylvio never talks, and is quite obviously a guy in a gorilla suit. Birney plays the daytime talk show host who stumbles upon gold when the gorilla ends up on his set and breaks a bunch of stuff.
But Sylvio has a tender heart, and wants to express himself with his hand puppet, Herbert Herpels, a balding middle man, who lives a quiet life (and also doesn’t talk). Torn between stardom, the people depending on him, his momentary lapses into gorillaness, and his (unspoken) desires, Sylvio navigates human life as well as he can. A thoughtful film, SYLVIO is an study of Otherness. Sylvio’s story is not that far from any immigrant or culturally-estranged person. He is trying to be one of us, but his idea of who we are is maybe out of step with who we actually are, and his attempts to assimilate meet obstacle after obstacle. In the end, it is hard for people to overcome how he looks.
Based on a very popular Vine account, SYLVIO is true underdog in the SXSW lineup. Boasting no stars, the film excels by telling a simple story in the most heartfelt way possible. This is a film that should never play something like Sundance, because SXSW is where something like this can shine. If you can overcome the suspension of disbelief for the premise (which admittedly, is pretty difficult), Sylvio rewards you with the triumph of the human spirit (by way of monkey – yay evolution!)
I had a chance to sit down with team behind Sylvio after the film’s world premiere at SXSW.
BEARS: So this project started its life on 6-second-film app Vine. Can you talk about what it was about the original Vines that got you excited about this enough to turn it into a feature length narrative?
BERNIE: After making 800 vines, it still felt like there was more to explore with Sylvio. Even though he doesn’t talk, he’s very expressive. Every little thing he would do in the Vine, you could do on a bigger scale movie. Just wanting to explore this character more and knowing that there’s people who are interested in him.
AUDLEY: Al and I both have a movie background so the Vine account was sort of more of a detour into our interests in movies. It felt like a natural thing after he had built the audience, and built the character up a little bit. So let’s take that and do the thing we actually want to do in the end, which is make movies.
BEARS: Yeah, what were the essential qualities of Sylvio that you had to see transferred over? If you were to break it down and say, these are the things we’re going to build off of?
BERNIE: Because he doesn’t talk and his face doesn’t change, he’s really this chill gorilla who goes through the world in this zen-like way. We wanted to make sure that came through but also show that there is an animal side to him. Sometimes he does lose his temper and has these big grand gestures. But at his heart, he is this gentle, loving gorilla.
AUDLEY: In the vine and the film, he appreciates nature and other animals. The tagline for the vine account and the film was, “he’s just an ordinary gorilla.” He’s trying to live a simple life. We wanted to capture that sense of him trying to live a simple life, but struggling with anger issues. Struggling with the world misjudging him by his appearance. You see a gorilla and you think aggressive beast. But really all he wants to do is this quiet little puppet show that highlights ordinary moments. He has this little bald fellow—Herbert Herpel’s life – that search for identity and that dichotomy between aggression and anger, and zen and peacefulness. That’s where the movie lives, inside that territory.
BEARS: So… now that Vine is gone…
AUDLEY: Our audience has logged out.
BEARS: How do you build off those people? You can’t even access them anymore.
BERNIE: You’re rubbing it in.
BEARS: Sorry! It’s interesting a lot of times you see something that has a devoted following on Youtube. It’s like, we’re taking this from Youtube and putting it on the big screen. You’re taking from something that’s gone. So how do you work that?
AUDLEY: I’m personally not very pleased about that development. But anyways . . . . It’s a challenge. It’s a huge problem that Vine is not around anymore.
BERNIE: Yeah, some super fans are still following Sylvio on other social platforms. Nothing close to what we had on Vine. But we wanted to make a movie, even if you’d never seen any of the Vines or knew Sylvio before, you maybe still could enjoy it because it’s a self-contained, fun movie.
AUDLEY: It’s like you see a brand in a grocery store: “I know that brand.” Maybe we’re not on the Kroger guest list any more, but we go through the store and we see the brands that we recognize. So, hopefully, there’ll be a life of people coming to it that originally saw it from the Vine. Just the nostalgia of “oh, I remember that.”
BEARS: Those were a good six seconds I spent. I enjoyed those six seconds.
AUDLEY: It also the nostalgia of that app because it was such a short-lived thing. There is something poetic about the short life that it lived and I think there is a nostalgia that is inherent in those characters and personalities.
BEARS: Plus you’ve got something most other films have, which is a giant backlog of content that you can reuse when you’re trying to promote the film. I’m assuming you still have access to your old videos.
BERNIE: We got them on the last day. I think I remembered to download them.
BEARS: So was there anything that was on Vine that when you did the movie, you were like, “this is one place where we’re going to be consciously different.” Other than just telling the story longer?
BERNIE: The character is a little bit different. While we focus on certain things, there wasn’t a central drama with the Vine account. It was just these isolated six seconds. In injecting an overarching story, you have to give the character a central plight. That wasn’t that central to the Vine account with the struggle of identity or the struggle with anger problems. I feel like we injected a lot of that a new.
AUDLEY: Yeah, that’s true. There was a central story kind of being told of Sylvio and his girlfriend, then wife, and then mother of his children. We were telling it over the course of a couple years. At one point, we were thinking about maybe introducing that into the film but we decided not to. That was one thing that sets them apart. One thing that is very similar is Sylvio had his puppet Herbert in his Vines and that’s what introduced Herbert. That was his creative outlet. Sylvio made a Herbert Vine account and you could see Herbert’s little story. We decided to bring that over and expand that.
BEARS: It’s interesting to think of a film that is essentially somebody and a gorilla suit then who also wants to take on another character on his hands. So it’s like someone inside someone else inside someone else.
BERNIE: Costumes on costumes on costumes. He’s in a clown costume for two-thirds of the movie.
BEARS: That’s true.
AUDLEY: And then he has the human mask that he puts on to sneak into the debt collection agency. It’s this idea of costumes and masks and identities and all those layers intermixing.
BEARS: The way people see you.
BERNIE: I love that kind of stuff. In the end credits, there’s a normal Herbert, and then you see he’s got a little Herbert on his hand, then that Herbert has a little Herbert on his hand. Just going deeper and deeper into this rabbit hole.
BEARS: I think my favorite moment of the movie is when he’s in his extended dream sequence and he’s playing basketball in the clouds. It’s just so absurd! In another movie, I would say, “oh, you can’t do that seventy-five minutes into the movie!” Right? But in this movie, I thought, well, given I’ve been watching a gorilla this whole time, this is not all that much more absurd.
BERNIE: Exactly. You do what you want to do, like setting that premise the way it is. You can go anywhere with that. The visual landscape needs to change so a lot times you watch these movies, and you fast-forward and the whole movie looks the same. This is like, you fast-forward, and you’re like, “wait a minute, what’s this? This is different. We’re in the clouds now?” We can do whatever we want. That’s where we want movies to go. We had this idea of pushing movies back to when they were fun and entertaining, not so serious and talky. Trying to go in that direction.
BEARS: It has a very strong nostalgia to it, the film does.
BERNIE: I get it’s the “now” that is forever. It’s in the future. It’s in the past. It’s in the world. It’s a little bit off but you recognize things from many different eras. It makes this heightened reality, like a dream “now.” Mixing time and different technologies.
BEARS: When I did my preview of the festival, I was talking about this film being like an immigrant story. There’s a strong sense of otherness. We’re having a person come into our world, trying to be like us, who can’t really communicate, who can’t really speak our language. It feels like a very quirky and fun way to talk about what is right now the central issue in America.
BERNIE: If that comes across, that’s huge because nobody’s really mentioned that. But we had a lot of conversations about that, as far as Sylvio being an outsider. In the later stages of developing the script, these immigrant, refugee, issues started to really boil up. We kept thinking, “oh, that’s Sylvio’s story.” We didn’t want to get too close or into the background, or too dogmatic about it. But that’s what his plight is: being in this place that is not his home and he has to deal with being in a world where he can’t communicate.
BEARS: Sometimes, he’s applauded for his “otherness”. Other times, he’s being assaulted for it, or wanting to be thrown in prison for it.
BERNIE: He’s being praised for his “otherness” as long it conforms to the expectations that his “otherness” is. “Your otherness works for us if it’s violent or aggressive, or comical, but it doesn’t work for us if it’s this quiet art that you do.”