I recently had the chance to speak with David Raboy, who wrote, directed, and edited the dreamy, lyrical thriller The Giant. (You can check out my review of the film here.) We discussed the authenticity of the film’s small-town Southern setting, how Raboy worked with the talented cast to balance scripted and improvised moments, the intuitive nature of creating such a personal film, and the ways that cinema works as an “engine of empathy” through storytelling.
We Who Walk Here: I loved the film, and I was surprised that this is your feature debut. You’re the writer, the director, and the editor, and there’s such a clear, confident vision to the film. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached the film to achieve that vision?
David Raboy: Sure. And thanks for that, by the way. I think the number one thing for me with The Giant was that it was never an idea that I had for a movie. I mean, there wasn’t a day that I woke up and thought, “I have a great idea for a story I’d like to tell.” It was always a feeling, and I think from the beginning of this journey the movie was already a concrete thing. It’s easier maybe to liken it to a dish that you taste that you want to recreate. I knew what it was supposed to taste like even if I didn’t know what the ingredients were necessarily. And that was the bulk of the process of putting the film together. So in that way, I think — and I think it may be frustrating to hear this — but it was always very much an intuitive thing. I think the entire endeavor of the film was to articulate a feeling and something that I had felt that I didn’t understand in my young adulthood, which I certainly understand better now having made the film. And that was the whole point of the film, was to try to arrive at this thing that was abstract and formless for me for so much of my life and try to find a way to bring it down and put it on the screen.
WWWH: I’m a Southerner, and I think Southerners can always tell when someone has lived in the South and knows what the South is like. I was really impressed with the authenticity of the film from production design to the acting to the sound, just everything. Was that something that you consciously worked towards?
DR: Absolutely. Well, first of all, where are you from?
WWWH: I’m from Arkansas.
DR: Wonderful. Yeah, the most important thing for me was that people could feel the film on their skin. It’s something that I’ve always wanted from cinema, was for it to be more tactile. That it wouldn’t be so much about these people and these specific places, that if you could use the screen and use sound to bring people into that space, you could generate a different kind of empathy. I mean, ultimately, I think that cinema is an engine of empathy when it’s used to its fullest potential. So that was always my rather extreme sort of notion going out with that, if you could find a way to bring you into that humidity and to make the sound of those late August cicadas your own personal soundtrack that you would feel closer to Charlotte. I think that there is something about the South that is inherently lyrical, and I’m certainly driven towards things that are more lyrical. The town that I grew up in is in Northern Virginia, but when I was growing up it was definitely much more of a Southern town. I grew up around the good ol’ boys and that whole vibe. And those cicadas and that night song were an essential part of who I became. As I grew up, I think I fell further and further from those things, but it was a deeper, crucial part of the film to me, to tap into that and to bring those things back to life for myself and for the viewers as well.
WWWH: The cinematography is beautiful, and I love that you can see the sheen of the humidity on all the actors. And the cicadas are almost like a second score that felt so realistic, especially for people who grew up with it. And the performances, as you mentioned being an engine of empathy, the performances are really naturalistic and draw you in. But the script is so poetic. How did you work with the actors to get that balance between naturalism and this sense like they were reciting poetry at times?
DR: It was, you know, it was definitely a process. And I think I feel foremost very thankful to have the actors that I did who were always game to try things differently. Because I think there was a degree to which the film does feel, you know, a little bit different from others. And I think, like I said, lyricality has always been something that was important to me. At the same time, you know, so much of the movie is concerning memories. And I thought that if we had a chance to create something that felt like memories that the audience members wouldn’t have actually lived through but could feel like their own, then we would have a chance at getting at something kind of special. There is obviously also this dichotomy in the film between improvisation, because a lot of the happier moments are improvised, and the scripted moments, as you say, have this sort of lyrical quality to them. And I think a lot of it goes back to trying to find a way to put ourselves in Charlotte’s skin and to hear things the way that she does. There are words that these people say in her youth that will linger with her always. And I think there is something about the cadence of natural speech that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that, but nonetheless there are things that people have said to us that will always stay with us, and I think that has the quality of lyricism. I think we were always trying to experiment, to find a way to make certain words linger for her that would speak to the themes of the film. But also to just the experience of, aren’t there things in our lives that we wish we could hold on to? Words that we wish we could hear for longer, even amidst the din of the rest of everything else that’s going on our lives?
WWWH: Yeah, there is a lot of dichotomy in the film. I really loved the editing, because it gives this dreamy paradox between a sense of timelessness but also a sense that time is slipping away so quickly. Can you talk a bit about your approach to editing?
DR: I think you’ve already spoken to it quite concisely. There is a part of me that is still such a sucker for old-timey series of montage. Just one image next to another can create a prism that generates a third meaning. And I think so much of the film was trying to get at what I would call during production “a third place.” There is the literal and the figurative, and then there’s something else. There’s a third place that exists between those two things. And I think it was just a constant experiment in the editing process to find a way to articulate that as well, to articulate something that can feel like memory in one moment, but then obviously very tense and present in moments of more immediate peril for Charlotte. You know, it was a long editing process. We edited from maybe August until April the following year, and there were a lot of things that I tried that just didn’t work. Ultimately, I just had to go with my gut. I remember the day that I felt like I had sort of unlocked the film. I’ll never forget it, because I just had goosebumps. I know that a lot of this movie may slip through the cracks for a lot of people, but for a moment I realized that I had something. There’s something about the succession of certain images that, to me, finally articulated something that I had spent the better part of a decade trying to understand. Honestly, there’s a degree to which it’s kind of inexplicable for me. But that’s kind of the magic of cinema, is that it can explain things that are inexplicable in more prosaic terms.
WWWH: Your director’s statement mentioned how autobiographical the story was in terms of where you grew up and some things that had happened when you were around Charlotte’s age. But it also feels really beautifully universal. Were you expecting viewers to see their own experiences in what was such a personal film for you?
DR: I had hoped that when people would watch it that they would know it meant something to me…that people would feel that there was a personal quality to the film. And you know, it’s so funny. I mean, I’ve gone through a world of emotions from making the film to releasing it at a festival to releasing it now again over a year later. And I feel in retrospect quite naïve about how I set out, because I really did think that there were things about the film that would be universal to people. But actually I realized that the film is ultimately trying to articulate feelings that are not known maybe to more people than I thought. Nonetheless, in my heart I know that I made it for people who had seen “the Giant,” as I would say, or had felt these things. And I think if people look closely then they will realize that they’ve felt its shadow maybe more than they realize. But I made it from a sort of pain that I felt must be universal. It’s been fascinating seeing the response to it. So I don’t know if it’s universal or not, but I know that surely someone else has felt what I felt and hopefully will see it in the film.
WWWH: I loved that you gave it a name because, obviously I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but that’s something that I experienced very keenly, and I thought, “Oh, there’s a name for this now!” So thank you for that.
DR: Oh, thank you.
WWWH: The cinematography in this is just gorgeous. One of the things that stuck with me most was the way that the light itself smears as if it’s melting from the humidity and the haze of memory. How did you work with Eric Yue on going for that thematic quality in the cinematography?
DR: Well, I should make it known that Eric is my best friend in the whole world and my brother and we lived together for, like, six years. And when he moved out, he moved to the apartment literally next door to me, so we’ve been inseparable since we first met at NYU. So there is a degree to which there is a sort of a tacit understanding between us about how we would do this because we’ve been talking about it forever and watching films, you know, unwittingly in research and preparation for this. But then we obviously did talk about it more concretely, and I think there is a degree to which, insofar as the movie is about darkness, we always felt that we would have to be really conscientious about how we portrayed light itself and the way it bends and the way it could be speared and skewered. Even in the beginning of the film, we go to this house and, you know, there’s the shot of candlelight coming off of a cake. And even that image always felt for me somehow like the light weaponized. I mean, the light itself looks like swords or like blades. And I think when you’re in the place that Charlotte is and in the place that I have been in my life, there is something about the light that feels like it could just break in on you. And even though you want it so badly, it still feels like it could harm you. And I think that that is very much the position that Charlotte finds herself in in this story, which is longing for light and for beauty even though embracing it feels sort of like this doomed endeavor. And, you know, obviously there were a number of influences on us, but I think that was always sort of an intuitive image for something that we knew we would have to try and find as opposed to learn how to create. It felt very much more like a discovery.
WWWH: You mentioned a little bit earlier about experiencing the film on the festival circuit versus experiencing it now. Is there a major difference between those two things? I know it’s been about a year since it last premiered at a festival, so what’s been the difference for you?
DR: Mainly it’s just me feeling different about the movie and just having grown since then. But I’ll never forget the premiere. It was out there in Toronto, and there were all these people telling me like, “Oh, they heard about it. They tried to get tickets.” And then I realized the entire theatre was filled with buyers and it was actually like a business meeting, and it was terrifying. And people are walking out, you know what I mean? And I would go on to learn that this is a normal thing, you know, people deal with this all the time. I was just reading this interview with David Fincher where he talked about people walking out of the premiere of Fight Club in Venice. So I recognize that this is not necessarily unique to the movie, but I was devastated. I was like, “What have I done?” You know, that was genuinely the feeling that I left Toronto with, and I think a lot of that is because I wasn’t willing to come to grips with what the movie was for me. Eric and I got together on the Friday that the movie came out, and we got a little drunk and we watched the movie. And I watched it for the first time as though I hadn’t made it, and it was such a relief. And now I think I know what the movie is. I know sort of who it’s for. I just feel like I have a lot more clarity, and it’s been lovely to hear people’s reactions to it in that light.
WWWH: How has working on this film informed how you think you will approach future work? I know it was very personal for you and you worked on it for a while, and there’s quite an undercurrent of the Southern Gothic. Are you going to take any of that for future projects?
DR: In terms of the kinds of stories that I want to tell, the kinds of movies that I want to make, I think that will always be there somewhere. Certainly there’s a lot that I want to do, but I think mainly what I feel now…I feel like I’ll just come to grips with the disease that I have where I’m going to have this compulsion to do things in a kind of way that will probably never make me a rich man. But I feel really excited. I feel that there is so much more to be expressed in this medium, and I just want to push it to its limit. So I have a movie that I want to make next, and I’m really excited about it. I think it might be also a difficult one, but nonetheless I feel with all my heart that I’ve just got to keep going.
The Giant is now available on VOD. Watch the trailer here.