Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Mark Kaercher
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Hailing from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, Temple University senior Mark Kaercher is currently hard at work on his thesis film while eyeing a future career in filmmaking. Made last year, Giraffe follows a recently broken-up couple—Dwayne (Jared Myers) and Chelsea (Jackie Watkins)—as they sort through what’s left of their failed relationship (including a stuffed giraffe).
PFS: When did you first start getting into filmmaking?
MK: I got a JVC digital camcorder when I was in like fifth grade and started clowning around with my friends in my backyard, making little shorts. At first I’d do in-camera edits, and then I started cutting them together. That turned into doing movies for school projects, which then turned into doing more movies for fun. And I decided to go to school for it.
PFS: What’s the experience been like studying film at Temple?
MK: It’s definitely opened up a lot of doors. Temple has given me access to so many different people; which I feel like is the major thing, in addition to actually sharpening my skills as an aspiring director. I got an internship in Philadelphia through the connections at Temple and have really gotten into Philly’s film community through those connections. I guess what was the most refreshing thing about getting to Temple was finding other people who were willing to put in the amount of work that it requires to make a good film. It’s no surprise to anyone at Temple how much work goes in to actually making a movie, especially at the student and really, really micro-independent level.
PFS: Tell me a little bit about Giraffe. Where did the idea for that come from?
MK: Oh man, the inspiration for Giraffe. I had actually recently gotten out of a relationship, and I thought, “Well, I guess I should just make a movie about these feelings that are sort of festering in me.” I wanted to make something that would have at least one truly genuine-feeling moment. I didn’t care if the rest of the movie turned out like shit, but if I got one moment where the audience felt like the two characters were having a real interaction and the emotions felt genuine, then I would have considered the movie a success. And I liked the idea of playing with just two characters and one space. I wanted to make it sort of universal. These two characters obviously have a history and love each other very much, but he did something that really messed things up. I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to: relationship issues or having regrets for messing something up.
PFS: Did you think about which character the viewer might be sympathizing with more at various points in the film? I feel like it shifts a little bit as we get hints of what the underlying issue might be.
MK: Yeah, absolutely. You come into the film with the male character, and he’s sort of the protagonist. But the female character obviously has emotional stakes in it as well. Who you identify with and who’s right and who’s wrong becomes muddied throughout the conversation. When you’re in the end of a relationship and those sorts of conversations are happening, both parties are sort of right and wrong at the same time. So being able to go back and forth was interesting.
PFS: Did you ever have them ending up together at the end?
MK: I actually asked the actors on set, “Do you think she calls him and he comes back?” I’m pretty sure one of them said yes and one of them said no. But I always had the idea that this wasn’t truly the end for those characters. In my experience with relationships, you say, “it’s over, it’s over, it’s over” a thousand times, but then a month later, you’re sending a text message or calling.
PFS: What was the process like of working with the actors? Was there time to rehearse before shooting?
MK: Well, I had initially cast another actress for the female lead. I met up with both leads independently to talk about the characters and their back stories, and then they had a rehearsal together. Two days before the shoot, the actress who I had cast sent me a text message and said she had gotten a big opportunity up in New York for the same weekend as the shoot. I immediately got on the phone with my assistant director and my DP and said, “What are we going to do?” We put our heads together and within 45 minutes we found Jackie, and she agreed to do it. So on the day of shooting, Jared had a lot more background on what I was thinking. But I was able to give Jackie a run-through about her character and her circumstances. It was difficult on set because we had had so little rehearsal time, and we were getting into deeper emotional territory. In between set-ups I would take them both down into the basement of the house that we were shooting at and just do exercises, having them try and connect as much as possible. It was a lot breathing exercises and stretching and things like that, doing some yoga and sort of staring at each other for a while to form a connection.
PFS: I would never have guessed that either of them hadn’t rehearsed together before.
MK: The first time they met was the morning we rolled.
PFS: Good for you guys for making it work.
MK: Yeah, she did a wonderful job.
PFS: Is working with actors something that you worked on a lot at Temple?
MK: Yeah, it is. In one class in particular: Screen Directing, with Professor Elisabeth Subrin. We go over different strategies for breaking down a script, carving it up beat-by-beat, and then working with actors to really latch in and connect with the material. I definitely used a lot of those strategies on set, because filmmaking is really just storytelling. I like to sit down with the actors and present scenarios and tell the stories, trying to connect the characters to their real lives and finding pieces of their story that they can bring to the character. Some of that is improv on set, some of that is the training from Temple, and some of it is just winging it. To be perfectly frank, it’s an amalgamation of whatever works to get the desired effect.
PFS: Did you always sort of know that Giraffe was going to be pretty pared down, with just two people talking?
MK: That had sort of been the goal all along. It was a good exercise for me, because I had to find a way to make two people walking around a room compelling. It also removes the temptation for spectacle, because a lot of the time when you rely on the “wow” factor it takes away from the story. It can lead to sloppy filmmaking. I really wanted to focus on performance and blocking. I think blocking really makes Giraffe.
PFS: There’s also no score, which is interesting.
MK: Yeah, no score. There’s just sound design. I wanted to do that because it felt more realistic. It felt more like you’re actually sitting there in the living room with these two people having this private moment.
PFS: Did you always know that the toy was going to be a giraffe? Or was the giraffe just what you happened to have on hand?
MK: No, I wrote it with a giraffe in mind. That one was thought through.
PFS: Was there any symbolism there?
MK: That was more of a personal thing. It was a way I could incorporate part of me into it and make it more real for me.
PFS: Was it cathartic or therapeutic at all to work through stuff you’d gone through by making this film?
MK: Oh absolutely. It distracted me from what was going on, but it also made me really think about both sides of my relationship, or any relationship. During rehearsal both actors asked me a lot of questions about who these characters were and it forced me to answer those questions and think not only about the characters, but about myself. I think it really did help me get through it and grow as someone in a relationship. So that was a very cathartic experience.
Giraffe will screen on Thursday, April 12 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.