With her fourth feature, writer/director Kris Rey teamed with lead actor Gillian Jacobs (“Love”) to create I Used To Go Here, a comedy focused on a newly published author returning to her alma mater to speak on her debut novel. The woman, Kate, interacts with her mentor in Jermaine Clement, the current residents of her college home, and the places and people that she used to know. Tackling the weird power of nostalgia, the commercial elements of making art, and falling back into old habits, Rey’s film was accepted to this year’s SXSW and has now hit VOD. The Film Stage chatted with Rey about the last decade of her career, the importance of validation, and her own filmmaking mentor, Lynn Shelton.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Film Stage: Why did you make the change to go from improvised features to scripted ones with Unexpected? And why have you kind of continued with I Used To Go Here?
Kris Rey: I think the stories that I was telling with my first two features, or the way that I was telling them, since they were improvised, produced a lot of really interesting moments and produced two films that, again, I really love. But the process of getting to that place was extremely stressful for me at the time, not just because of the logistics, but because I wasn’t sure what the hell I was trying to say. And what the movie was even really about, and whether or not I was doing a good job telling the story. And often I would find both of those two films––which my friend David Lowery edited who is like a really successful, incredible filmmaker––him and I together had to figure out what this movie was. I mean often, you know my second feature Empire Builder, we made this very small movie. Both of these movies also cost under 10 grand. I just cast my friends in them.
We went to Montana, we took the cast to Montana. We shot this movie and then we edited it and we were like, “It needs another act.” And we had to bring everybody to Chicago and shoot an additional 25 minutes of the movie. We could do that back then. We had the freedom and our schedules because we weren’t making money as filmmakers yet and we also didn’t have very many responsibilities. We were in our mid-20s, you know, and, and we were just floating around and casting our friends who didn’t have much going on. But you can’t do that, everything is so scheduled. I can’t just call Jermaine Clement and be like, “Hey, we didn’t totally get it. Do you want to come to Chicago and just like, fuck around for a couple of weeks and see if we figure it out?” I mean, that would be amazing. But it’s just not practical for this level of film. Though, I do kind of romanticize what I did in the past. David and I have talked about this before, calling those guys and saying, “Let’s do it again. Let’s just, the three of us, the four of us, and a camera, just go to another country and make something for four weeks.” And 10 years after we had done something similar, and just see how it goes.
How do you feel you’ve changed as a filmmaker over the past 10 years, since your first feature? And how have you seen the independent film scene change in that time?
Well, you know, it’s weird because my very good friend Amy Seimetz is an incredible filmmaker. We came up together making movies around that time. And I think her first movie premiered the same year at South by Southwest that my second movie premiered in 2012. And now we both have features that are being released on the same day this year. We came up in independent filmmaking at this very special time when all of these really talented people were making their first films and she produced Barry Jenkins’ first movie. Barry Jenkins was chilling with us at South by Southwest and now he’s, of course, an Oscar winner. My friend David is now directing Disney movies and Amy had her own TV show. My first film premiered the same year as Lena Dunham’s first film, which was also like 60 minutes, and we were joking about it the whole festival. It’s a strange thing to see everybody grow.
And I always wonder, are the kids that are making their first features, are they experiencing the same thing that we did in our early 20s? Like, are they going to festivals? Are they meeting each other? Are they working on similar stuff? Are they supporting each other in the same way? And I hope so because it was such a special time and it’s a reason why so many of us have gone on to do so much. Because we had that kind of community when we were first starting out. In the last 10 years, my work has definitely changed. I don’t know if you watch my first movie you could predict that I would then make this movie. And, and vice versa. This is much more accessible and commercial, though still feel like it’s tackling very similar material. And it’s really, in its essence, the same story that I’m telling there. I Used To Go Here is a very, very different feeling. And I mean, that [first feature] is like an art movie. It’s very slow and meandering and there’s only two people in it. And like I said, it’s improvised. But it’s still tackling the kind of story that I’m interested in telling.
I know that Kate’s character deals with the idea of commercial art in the film. Is that something you’ve thought more about and had to tackle as your career has gone on?
There are a couple of benefits to making things more commercial. One is that more people see it, and then you can maybe eke out a living. There are a lot of people that are able to make art movies that are not commercial in a mainstream sense that are able to make a living and find various ways to kind of do that, but it is very rare and very difficult. For me, I love those movies that I made, and I love watching movies like that. I also really like movies that are more accessible. And I think there are ways to merge those two things and there are movies that still maintain that kind of artistic integrity and that is what I’m trying to do. I don’t always feel like turning on the Criterion Channel and watching an art film at the end of the day. I love doing that, but it always feels a little bit like homework. Like homework I really love, but still a little bit like homework. I like the escapism. I like watching a film where I am laughing and giggling and just delighted and that is what I was trying to do. And I feel good about it.
That brings up a much larger idea of accessibility versus artistic integrity? Gillian Jacob’s character seems to struggle with this in the film. Do you find yourself thinking about or grappling with these ideas in your own career, especially as you look at the other filmmakers you came into the industry with?
It is crazy how much it’s just a practical question of making a living. For me, it’s less about getting famous or being successful in a way. I live in Chicago. I’m not a real ”let me climb the ladder just because I want to be famous or something” kind of person. But I do want to make a living just being a filmmaker. And so I am trying to get work and trying to make stuff that will get me work. But I’m trying to get work on stuff that I think is good. And that I think is smart. And that I think is good for the world. It’s definitely a struggle. And I think the nature of the industry is really hot one minute and then they don’t want you the next minute. I mean, it’s such a cool job. The fact that it’s even my job is so mind-blowing.
I wanted to ask about the title of I Used To Go Here. How’d you come up with it?
I love the title. I always thought the title was so clever. No one is really acknowledging it. It was intended to be a double meaning. She used to go to the school but also she used to be engaged. She used to fit in with her friends more, she used to feel like she was doing well in her career. The whole movie is a story about what she used to do and who she used to be. And the grieving of that and the accepting that she isn’t that anymore in a sense. Who is she now and how does she move forward? I also love movies that have titles that are sentences.
Was it the original title?
Its original title was Alma Mater. I always hated it. It sounds like some sort of prestigious drama.
The idea of validation gets discussed in the film as well, as Kate looks for success with her book. How important do you think validation is in any level of art?
You know, I haven’t really talked about this before, but I got so depressed after I shot this movie. For me, I hadn’t made a movie in a while and I also had just gone through a divorce. I signed my divorce papers around June and we started filming the movie in July and I changed my name and it felt like a big moment for me. And you get an assembly cut of a movie, which is the very first cut the editor gives you where you have literally just all the scenes in a row. There are no transitions. It’s the roughest you’ll ever see your movie. It is depressing as hell. And every director talks about this and you know, it happens with every film, I think no matter where you are in your career. You’re like, “Oh, it’s bad.” And I got really worried that the movie was bad and it takes so long and so much effort and just so many different aspects. The score, the music that we use, the fine tuning of all of it. Taking a scene and rearranging it and putting it somewhere else. And it just takes so long for the movie to feel like the movie.
And I was in a bad state personally, until I got accepted to South by Southwest. And then that external validation popped me out of it. I was able to see the movie from the perspective of Janet Pierson, the programmer who wrote me an email and said, “I love it.” And then it popped me out of that depression, but it was rough for a while because my greatest fear is always making something that’s just straight-up awful. And now through that polishing of the movie, and through all the external validation, I’m able to detach enough to see the film as it is, and really love it and be proud of it. But I wish I didn’t need the external validation. Yeah, but I’m also not a narcissist, you know. If you can just internally be totally pleased with everything you produce, no matter what people think of it, maybe you have a happier life, but you’re also probably a little delusional and out of touch. So there’s that relationship with the audience that is viewing your work and is really important. And it’s a big part of making art.
Kate’s mentor in the film is her old college teacher. His opinion is important to her. He has influence. Is there anyone in your life that had that sort of impact, or had that influence?
No one who was predatory. [Laughs.] But yeah, I came up with the director Lynn Shelton. She was almost 15 years older than me, though she didn’t really seem like it. She was so energetic and youthful, and just cool. But Lynn and I got really close. We’ve known each other for years and years, she was at my wedding in 2007. But we really got very, very close the last couple of years and we talked on the phone almost every day and she was a big inspiration to me and in her career. She was able to make a really good living, directing TV and directing things for other people and also maintain her artistic creativity while making small features. She was planning on making another small feature, right before she died. I really looked up to her and she was, she was definitely a friend and we had a very equitable relationship. But she was a mentor for me, too.
I Used to Go Here is now available digitally.
Behind the scenes photos by Blair Todd.