Sac Attack: The Story of Animal Collective's Mindbending Film

Oddsac is a bad acid trip and a laugh riot.

By Jonathan Valania
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Apr. 13, 2010

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"I have been told by a lot of people that the movie made them feel like they were on drugs, that they came out of the screening a little dazed, even people that don't smoke weed or take hallucinogens," says director Danny Perez, sitting on the balcony of the shambling third-floor walk-up he shares with his girlfriend, Ariel, sipping Johnny Walker Red and ginger ale and puffing on a hand-rolled Amsterdam special. "I like that the film does that work for you,” says the Philadelphia resident. “At the same time it is kind of annoying when people assume that Animal Collective is on LSD all the time. And that's not the case at all. I'm not going to lie and tell you I haven't done my share, but somebody doesn't have to be on drugs to think outside the box."

The movie in question is called Oddsac, an aptly-titled grab bag of headfucking psychedelia directed by Perez and starring, scored by- and jointly conceptualized with the indie rock band Animal Collective. Oddsac comes out on DVD in June, but the film is currently being rolled out for a limited theatrical release with a cross-country tour of one-night stands—including two screenings Friday at International House—accompanied by both the band and the director for post-screening Q&As. Judging by online commentary and questions from screening audiences, Oddsac has been confusing, confounding and, quite frankly, scaring the hell out of large segments of the band's burgeoning audience, which has grown exponentially in the wake of last year's crossover smash Merriweather Post Pavilion—an album that topped many critics Best Of lists that year and Pitchfork coronated 2009's Album Of The Year.

"There are a lot of new people who got turned onto us by Merriweather, you know the poppier more feel-good stuff we do, and they seem kind of thrown by the movie," says Josh Dibb, aka Deakin, of Animal Collective. "During the Q&As we have been getting a lot of questions about 'why is this so dark?' And we have to explain. I don't think any of us in the band think of the film as being dark. We have always been into horror movies, a lot of the movies we like to watch are definitely more twisted, dark, psychological and visually kinda brutal. That's something we all really enjoy. And musically, Animal Collective's roots are in making music that shares some of those qualities."

"I feel like Oddsac is in many ways about the space in between fear and humor and about how those two emotions are similar," says Animal Collective's Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, who doesn't share his bandmates love of horror movies.

At turns disturbing, confusing, disgusting, hilarious, mesmerizing and stone cold beatific, Oddsac is perhaps best explained by clarifying what it is not: it is neither a rock documentary nor a concert film, nor is it the kind of film you would see at the cineplex. There are no stars, no car chases, no dreamy romantic interests who meet cute and live happily ever after. In fact, there is no plot, no linear narrative arc. Instead, there is a series of hallucinatory vignettes: a girl attempting in vain to stanch the flow of black goo oozing out of the walls of her home; a sad-sack vampire (played by AC's Dibb) slowly disintegrating at sunrise after preying on a young boy; an ominous procession of fire spinners led by a gibberish-spouting demon (played by AC's Dave Porter); a wigged-out drummer boy (played by AC's Noah Lennox) maniacally beating on his kit in the middle of an eerie boulder field; a bearded blue-hued muscle man (played by AC's Brian Weitz) harvesting mysterious eggs from beneath a waterfall; a nuclear family sitting around the camp fire suddenly projectile vomiting foamy marshmallow goo; and it all ends with a food fight. These images are buffered by Perez's arresting visual abstractions and framed by an untitled set of Animal Collective songs created for the movie. As for the music, Oddsac finds the band continuing to move away from the rhomboidal Fugsian folk-rock of their early albums while eschewing the iridescent dance music of Merriweather. It is a song cycle cued and composed to the visuals, and as such it is both darker and brighter, more heaven and hell, than anything they have released to date. As cinema, Oddsac is nothing short of remarkable—a mind-fucking eyegasm for people who like that kind of thing. As for what it all means, well, you are at odds with the film's purpose by even asking.

"If I really don't feel like explaining I just say it's a weird, like, art film, but I don't really believe that at all," says Brian Weitz, aka Geologist, of Animal Collective. "I don't even really like calling it a film because that has so many expectations attached to it, like the idea that there is a plot that people are supposed to be looking for or a narrative and if it doesn't it's just completely experimental and has no meaning whatsover. And Oddsac is neither of those extremes. We look at it as just another one of our records with a visual component that is like another instrument, another influence on the composition. When you make an album it doesn't need to have a story or characters or a plot. It doesn't have to be like Tommy or a rock opera for people to get it. They just accept that it's a collection of songs by the same group of people and that's what ties it together and we approached the film with the same idea."

And if half the people who see it are put off by the way the film drags the viewer down a wormhole of freaky dream logic, that's a small price to pay for blowing the minds of the other half.

"I feel like the film is critic-proof," says Perez. "You either really like or really don't like it, there is no sorta in between. That's just indicative of my personality, all the movie people and music people that I like are all pretty divisive and extreme examples of their genres. And the range of reactions the film garners are all well within my personal experience in this world: fear, joy, anxiety, tension. I feel those things every day, and I am pretty sure I am not the only one."

Born 30 years ago in northern Virginia, Danny Perez is the son of educated Cuban immigrants—dad's an economist who used to work for the International Monetary Fund, mom is an art historian—who fled the stifling totalitarianism of Castro's Cuba. As a young man, he drew inspiration and the courage of his convictions from the then-thriving D.C. punk scene. The all-boys Catholic high school he attended had a television station, and it was there he learned the power of moving pictures to shock, amuse and annoy. He invented a recurring character named "Vespeaux The Exchange Student"—played by himself with greased back hair and lipstick-smeared mouth—who hailed from "an undisclosed European nation" and starred in a series of comedic video shorts that quickly became a hit with the student body. "I think it kept me from getting my ass kicked by the jocks, to be honest," he says. Eventually he ran afoul of school authorities when he created a video segment for the school's TV station that superimposed all the sex scenes from Basic Instinct over footage of a crocodile eating an antelope in gruesome slow motion. But NYU was impressed enough with his reel to admit him into the film school, and it was there he began grokking on mid-20th Century experimental film makers like Jordan Belson, The Whitney Brothers, Hy Hirsh and Hollis Frampton, people who went beyond mere shock value to question of the very limits of cinema and thereby expanded its formal possibilities. It was while living in New York that he befriended the edgy electronic outliers of Black Dice, eventually serving in the dual capacity of roadie-ing their tours and providing background visuals for their live show. In 2000, Black Dice brought the then-largely-unheard-of Animal Collective on tour as opening act, and Perez and the group soon became fast friends. "It was another one of those stinky van tours, weird venues, people booing Animal Collective," recalls Perez. "I remember in Mobile, Alabama, somebody throwing beer on Animal Collective and me storming through the crowd to find the culprit." But by 2004, the fortunes of both bands began to reverse, as Animal Collective went from from also rans to buzz band. "I remember we were all sitting around listening to Sung Tongs before it came out and just being like 'Wow, you guys are gonna be huge,'" Perez recalls. It would take another four years, but his prediction would eventually become prophecy.

In 2006, the New York-based indie Plexifilm, noted for bankrolling and releasing the Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, asked Animal Collective to make a movie. The studio wanted either a tour documentary or a concert film, and while the band had zero interest in participating in the former, they were mildly intrigued by the prospect of creating some iteration of the latter. So they took Perez on the road with them to shoot live footage, but during the long rides between shows they brainstormed. "In the van we talked about how it would be nice to put in little interludes between songs, film some non-concert footage, like, fantastical stuff," Weitz says. "The ideas we had for that were more exciting than anything we did on stage and so we decided to scrap all the concert footage and use all these interludes as the meat of the movie."

In between tours and recording sessions, Perez would assemble various members of the band to shoot the so-called 'fantastical stuff.' The bulk of the film was shot in and around Wing's Castle in upstate New York—an actual castle created out of recycled and found materials by the father of one of Perez's crew members. It was there they shot the fire-spinners, the girl with the black goo coming out of the wall, the sad vampire's head-melting demise, the campfire marshmallow freakout and the movie's food fight finale. Other scenes, such as the boulder field and waterfall scenes were shot at Hickory Run State Park, about two hours north of Philadelphia. Perez called in favors from friends—people whose day jobs are on Law And Order and 30 Rock—and assembled a professional film crew that essentially donated their time, as did just about everyone else. Professional actors were hired, but they too agreed to work for a fraction of union scale. All told, Perez estimates that the film wound up costing about $75,000. "That's not even the porta-potty budget for a Hollywood movie," says Perez, who speaks from experience having worked as a production assistant on Spiderman 2. 

But one shoot involving child actors came to a crashing halt when one of the mothers accused Perez of being a Satanist, pulled her child out off the set and threatened to sue if he used any of the footage. Further adding to the prevailing air of bad vibes, a gaffer fell off a ladder and hurt himself, the producer assistant suffered a panic attack, and one of the child actors ate too many cookies off the catering table and vomited all over herself. The scene, which Perez refers to as 'The Satin Entertainer,’ features Animal Collective's Dave Porter, aka Avey Tare, wearing caulky white-face makeup and satiny-scarlet vestments, seated on a dais, surrounded by children and making cryptic utterances. The scene was filmed at the home of Dibb's parents. Dibb's mother is a 'spiritual consciousness therapist' and there is a meditation room adjoining the Dibb family homestead in Maryland. The room is hexagonal and festooned with a purple carpet, and because of its small size, only cast and crew were allowed inside during the shoot. When the parent in question—hopped-up on Red Bull and chain-smoking, according to Perez—got a look at the set, she assumed they were filming some kind of Black Mass ritual and went ballistic in front of all the other parents. Soon everyone was demanding an explanation."I had to sit all the parents down and assure them that I was a nice guy and there was nothing to worry about," recalls Perez. "They wanted to know what other scenes we had shot and everything I could think of was not very parent-friendly—'hmmm, let's see there's the scene with the vampire with the melting head, and the girl in the room with the black goo coming out of the wall and the family sitting around the campfire with marshmallow goo foaming out of their mouths'— but somehow I gained their trust back."

After principal photography wrapped in 2006, Perez spent the better part of the next three years hunched over the computer in his West Philly apartment editing and tweaking the footage, in between soul-deadening, pay-the-rent gigs working on other people's movies and commercials. "I would get up at five in the morning and edit for two hours before leaving for work just so I felt like I was doing something worthwhile for at least part of my day," he says. He points to Boris, a shaggy sweet-natured mutt perched on his lap, saying the dog kept him sane and helped him regain perspective whenever he lost it. "For 80% of the edit he would be sitting on my lap and there would be times when I would get frustrated and scream at the computer screen and then I would turn around and see Boris hiding under the sofa and then I would feel like a jerk and dial it back," he says. Perez would send rough cuts to the Animal Collective guys, who then composed songs to go with the scenes. Sometimes Perez's visuals and edits would determine the tone and the shape of the songs and other times Perez would find himself editing to the twists and turns of the songs. It was a long arduous process that was only brought to completion three weeks prior to Oddsac's premier at Sundance back in January. Although there were some walkouts, the Sundance premier was judged a success and, in a roundabout way, led to an unexpected invitation from the Guggenheim for Perez and Animal Collective to do some kind of multi-media art installation in the museum space. The band and Perez readily agreed and scheduled the event for the day after Oddsac's March 3 New York premiere at the School of Visual Arts. "We basically had three weeks to turn this around from scratch," says Perez. They brainstormed an elaborate must-be-seen-to-be-believed audio/visual tableaux with the bandmembers masked and anonymous, bedecked in long black robes, standing stock still for three hours while a series of ambient loops blared out of speakers positioned every eight feet along the Guggenheim's five-story spiral ramp and Perez's prismatic visuals swirled all around them. They called it Transverse Temporal Gyrus. Here's how the New York Times described the scene:

The band members Avey Tare, Deakin and Geologist, wearing white horned masks and black robes, stood nearly still at podiums that looked like biomorphic blobs with glowing portholes. They made occasional enigmatic gestures, like wizards or slow-motion disc jockeys. In front of them was a simulated rock topped with upward-pointing plastic icicles to be lighted from within; behind them was a white mass, like a curved pup tent, that became a video screen. Loops of video — waves, ripple patterns, light-show dribbles — were projected on the museum’s white balconies. Three dozen speakers provided surround sound that could travel vertically and horizontally. In one section, it sounded as if Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island were clattering down through the spiral galleries. People who had come expecting a concert (despite the Guggenheim’s advance description of the event as a “kinetic, psychedelic environment”) chattered, drank complimentary absinthe cocktails, grew annoyed and left well before the nearly three hours were over. One merry group of fans, in face paint, intermittently skipped up and down the ramp, squealing and clapping.

"I was mildly frustrated by the [public's] reaction," says Perez. "But it was basically a high-profile experiment."

The event was scheduled to last three hours, but demand for tickets was so high that a second showing was added, requiring the Animal Collective guys to do their human statue routine for a total of six hours. "One of the most difficult things I have done in my life, we could barely walk afterwards," says Dibb of the experience. "It was Dave's idea to be human statues, although he envisioned us sitting down. And we all thought it would be really intense, but meditative. But we were all in constant pain afterwards, Dave was limping and Brian thought he was going to fall over. The masks didn't really fit, so I couldn't see out of the eye holes and after 30 minutes I realized I was in trouble. And psychologically, we all lost track of time, it was the most disorienting experience I've ever had unassisted [by hallucinogens]."

"It was extreme torture," says Weitz. "I would not do it again."

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1. Anonymous said... on Feb 22, 2011 at 04:50PM

“I seriously think, no matter what Perez says, that he or they are indeed satanists.”

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2. Haleyc said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 10:54AM

“This piece of art is revolutionary. And people who can't appreciate it are dull and closed minded. There is no point because it's not a movie it is a work of art, and never have I seen anything that applied to my life so much.”


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