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“Obsess Over Characters” Cooper Raiff Talks ‘Shithouse’ 

“Obsess Over Characters” Cooper Raiff Talks ‘Shithouse’ 
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When Cooper Raiff wrote his first play for an assignment in high school, he realized he actually knew more than he thought about writing dialogue. “I realized I knew more about how people talk in real life and how that can translate to a play or movie,” he said. “When I got to college, I kept writing.”

Then, in my sophomore year in college, I made a fifty-minute movie in five days. It was just me and two other people, so I was booming scenes I was acting in.” Raiff’s curiosity and take-action approach was essentially the beginning of his filmmaking career. “A lot of stuff written in that made it into Shithouse,” which won the prestigious SXSW Grand Jury Prize this year.

Shithouse, Raiff’s screenwriting and directorial debut follows a homesick college freshman who goes to a party and ends up spending the night with his sophomore Resident Advisor, Maggie. “I’ve always been interested in writing. Directing kind of came because there was no one else to direct my story,” he continued. “No one else wanted to do it.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Cooper Raiff

This all changed, however, when Raiff sent a tweet to Jay Duplass (Room 104, Togetherness), who not only watched the short, but helped get his feature made. There was a period when Jay Duplass agreed to direct Shithouse, but due to scheduling conflicts, Raiff decided he knew the film better than anyone else and felt he could make it work.

I’m glad that I did it because I realized directing combines the things I love about writing and acting,” declared Raiff. “What I really care about is the way character arcs weave together.”

Raiff claimed his biggest problem as a director was the responsibility of being a leader on set. “I get overwhelmed easily, but I did love coaching actors along with scenes and thinking about the bigger picture of the movie. I never was interested in directing until about three days into filming Shithouse,” he joked.


Writing Coming-of-Age Stories


I always draw on my life to write my stories. It’s original in the way that the things in Shithouse didn’t happen to me, although Maggie (Dylan Gelula) is based on someone I was in a relationship with for three years – and who I’m still with friends with.” Raiff added, “I think with everything, you have to draw upon your life if it’s going to be personal and feel relatable or universal. I do write personal things and even steal some things.

The writer/director said memorable fights he had with his ex-girlfriend made their way into the movie, but he tries not to journal or write down ideas in day-to-day conversations. “I hate that so much. There have been times when I have my notes section, but I really just try to live my life in a thoughtful way and when it comes down to it, I can sit down and write stuff.

The way that I look at writing is, I’m obsessed with two to four characters and I want to know them so well, and know their dynamic so well, and then from there, these themes emerge.” For the screenwriter, understanding dynamics create themes, like a form of synergy on the page. “I try to write characters that are foils for each other in that way.”

Theme is an argument. What I really care about is getting those themes across, which stems from caring so much about the character. But I don’t like plot and I’m not a story guy.


Writing an Argument


I definitely over-write and cut back later,” confessed Raiff. “I don’t think about what each scene is going to accomplish. I write thirty pages at a time, and whatever happens, happens.” By allowing the characters to speak for themselves, he’s able to let scenes unfold. Later, he can cut back or think more about the entertainment value scenes.

When people ask me about tone, I never think about that. I never want to wink at an audience or set up anything. I’m also really bad at it,” he joked. “I don’t do jokes. I even said that with the first scene and the set-up joke.” That said, focusing on realistic dialogue for the characters is everything. In this case, since the characters are college kids in a coming-of-age story, there’s room for excessive emotional reactions.

I always try to say certain things, not philosophy, but [things like philosophy]. It was really easy in this movie because the characters are in college and people just walk and say stuff, or argue about anything. It made sense because that’s what I did in college.” These conversations also allowed for characters from different backgrounds to provide different insights to better shape the dialogue. “That was a nice thing to have.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Dylan Gelula (Maggie) & Cooper Raiff (Alex). Photo by IFC Films

In terms of Alex [played by Cooper Raiff], I knew I was writing an emotional guy. With Maggie, it was the opposite. But planting Alex in that scene helped the emotional scenes. I think the funniest stuff is the stuff that’s given the most emotional content.

Raiff also doesn’t see his cinematic style in other movies, so he rarely considers using familiar scenes to shape his work. Instead, he focuses on character.


The Normal Rules No Longer Apply


I don’t think rules apply at all. They clearly didn’t apply with Shithouse. But, at the same time, I’ll write a novel of scenes, but then look at what I have and I’ll often realize it does have three acts.

Raiff has noticed that critics might say he’s trying to turn the genre upside-down or pay homage, but that’s essentially never the case. “There’s zero thought about my movie and another movie,” he said.

When people ask me about the time jump, that’s just something that needed to happen,” he said. “That’s how I wanted to end the movie. It wasn’t me trying to defy anything or be in conversation with how things usually end.

To some degree, the same is true for Raiff’s style as an actor/writer/director. “It really helps not knowing anything,” he mused. “When I did the title cards or the opening credits, I just did what felt right. It feels unique, but it’s not. I don’t have that aesthetic mind. I just put scenes here and there.

I think the reason why I wanted to act is that I love to act, but I also just wanted to know my story. I knew any actor I wanted to cast probably wouldn’t have been at college. Dylan, who plays Maggie, or Logan [Miller], who plays my roommate, they never went to college. Good actors at that age never went to college. So I wanted someone who had experienced that.”


Writing Personal Stories


Despite being very personal, the bulk of this story is not related directly to the screenwriter. “I always feel emotional when I’m writing or thinking about people seeing things, but when I take stuff away, there’s no sense of loss.”

I really care about communicating something to someone or sharing something, but I don’t feel like I need to share everything. When I take away or even cut thirty pages that are super personal, I don’t feel any sense of need for people to see it.

I don’t need people to see all my baggage. I don’t feel like I’m unloading. I feel ready to unload, but I don’t have a problem editing myself. I wasn’t precious about Alex’s character because I didn’t think about him as an extension of myself.

There also wasn’t anything, in particular, that was added to distance himself from the character. “I cry easily alone in a movie, by myself, but Alex will cry in the middle of a conversation. He’s also very annoying in a way that I try not to be in my life. It was nice to have this annoying character who says everything,” he said. “He’s just getting out what he’s thinking about the situation, but I think anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t do that.”

As for the overall experience, Raiff advises for any aspiring filmmakers to make their movies, because there’s so much room to grow simply by pursuing creative work. “I did capture something in my life that meant so much to me to see on camera,” he said.

My biggest advice, also, is that a lot of people are thinking, what is going to be good? For me, it’s more about, what do I really want to say to people I’m close with and people I’m in love with? So I never think about what’s good until way later.

Once you care about something, or saying something, you’re going to make it watchable because you want people to watch it. But, ninety-nine percent of people are wondering what’s going to be awesome, and I think that’s a trap.

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