Michael Bilandic’s cinema has, over the course of four very small-scale features, staked out a distinct corner in indie film. Focusing on niche interests—be it the fledgling trance scene of 2009 or YouTube horrorcore rappers—the New York-based director’s films feel of the moment but never trend-chasing or too cool for the room. Simply put: a truly personal corpus. 

His distinct style and interests are perfectly encapsulated in his newest work, Project Space 13, about Nate (Keith Poulson), a performance artist who sees his latest stunt involving bug-eating and other narcissistic, attention-grabbing shenanigans halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nate still has somewhat of an audience, though, as he’s protected by two assigned security guards at the performance space, one a young loose cannon (Hunter Zimny) and the other an older COVID-denier (Theodore Bouloukos). While outside riots escalate New York City into an apocalyptic state, the three men discuss their variety of differences. And as most contemporary films seem to dart away from addressing the pandemic, Bilandic stares it straight in the face, but of course through primarily the spectrum of an art-world satire that also seems to capture the justified and unjustified anger we feel in these times. 

With Friday’s release of Project Space 13 and a retrospective of his work at the Roxy Theatre commencing in New York, we chatted with Bilandic over Zoom.

The Film Stage: So just to start off, I wanted to thank you for putting the robot in the movie. After Sylvester Stallone removed Paulie’s robot from the Rocky IV director’s cut, I feel like it was important. You showed solidarity with the robot community. 

Michael Bilandic: Do you know about the origin of that robot? So, what’s that show with Taffer? Bar Rescue? Um, this is a show about a guy who goes to dive bars and rehabilitates them. And he originally owned what was, like, the Studio 54 of Philadelphia. It was like a multi-story nightclub. And Sandman from ECW was a Chippendales dancer at this club. And they created this robot for the nightclub and it would be, like, on the dance floor and that’s where Stallone discovered it. And then they brought it into the movie. I was reading about it recently and, like, it’s for rent. I think they upgraded it now, but you can rent it for parties, corporate events.

But now Stallone is super ashamed of it 35 years later.

It’s so insane. Why would you get rid of that? Hey, he’s an artist. Did you hear about the Bob Dylan show the other night?

Yeah, he brought up Rambo: Last Blood?

Yeah. I guess he never talks in his shows. He just plays music and then he finally spoke and said that he thought Last Blood should have won the Oscar. It was very sick. 

To get to your movie, though, we should talk about the genesis. What were your initial pandemic months of 2020 like? It was an interesting time because it was kind of split between people who thought we were literally seeing the end of the world and people who were kind of enjoying just being able to retreat into their homes and watch TV. How was it for you? 

It was really surreal because I live in Greenwich Village. In my neighborhood it’s a mixture of older, rich people who all just moved out of the city and then there’s NYU students who all went home. So it was, like, completely empty. You could walk 20 blocks and not see anyone except for some person who looked like Lester from Safe, you know, with goggles and a hundred masks. So I’m walking around and then, there’s a couple of people in hospital gowns, so it was pretty dramatic. But then the Safdie Brothers started that radio station Elara radio. So I just got really into Euro dance music and really put all my energy into putting these playlists together. I did it with my friend, Matt, where we just really checked out of everything and just got into technobilly music, high energy, tech, stuff like that. 

And it was kind of cool because, you know, Sean [Price Williams], our cinematographer, he had a radio show also on Elara and our composer Paul Grimstad had a show and our editor Steven [Gurewitz] had one. It was kind of a unique moment where all these people were just putting their energy into their interests and weird music. And it was a kind of new form of socializing. Then when that ended I kind of didn’t know what to do with my time, because I was spending 24 hours a day listening to this stuff. And then that was kind of the genesis: I got to come up with something to occupy my time. And that’s when I started this movie. 

Was there a point that you knew you wanted to make specifically a pandemic film? I think when people early on were wondering what a pandemic film would look like, initially they were thinking it’d be like that HBO movie, Coastal Elites, where it’s like Kumail Nanjiani talking into a webcam about there being a cheeto in the White House or whatever. And then other people were like, “Oh no, there’s kind of potential there in making a pandemic film.” Did you feel that? 

Um, no. I don’t really view it as a pandemic movie. I didn’t want to make a pandemic movie. I just don’t want to make period pieces and I don’t want to make sci-fi. [Laughs] I like movies to take place where I live in the present tense with my friends in places I like to go to. So the pandemic aspect of it was more just that’s what’s going on right now. It wasn’t like: “I have an important statement to make.” If I want to really say something profound about that, I would just say it, you know? I was more interested in getting together with my friends and the process of making something and trying to entertain myself and other people. 

This movie is kind of a stealth sequel to your 2013 film Hellaware. Did you instantly know that was something you wanted to return to? 

It’s funny because I’ve thought about it over the years. I’ve had other ideas for what that character would be doing, but weirdly when I wrote this, I wasn’t thinking of that. But then the second I was done writing and I was like, obviously I have to cast Keith as the artist. So yeah, that was kind of a no-brainer, but it wasn’t actually the original conception.

There’s a point in the film where Keith’s character notes that the “badboy stuff” is out of fashion in the art world. Do you kind of feel like there has been a distinct shift in the art world since Hellaware, like one that you wanted to address? 

Yeah. I mean, definitely. So if I had made this movie a couple of years ago, it absolutely would have been Nate trying to do some type of woke, ethnographic work. You know, where he would be just as exploitative, he’d be just as social-climbing, and he’d be just as manipulative of people, and that would have been the avenue he would use to try and get to the success he wants. But I think with this one, it was like, that almost felt too obvious. So I was going now with: it’s like he’s discovered Reddit now and he’s, like, found out about the, eating bugs, living in the pod medium, you know. I think he’s trying to get some acclaim by going bad-boy style.

There’s a recent film that just came out that your name is on, as part of a special thanks: Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones. You said you weren’t really aiming to make a pandemic film and I think that film is very much a pandemic film, but I noticed the interesting overlaps between the two. Both films present the pandemic as kind of an abstraction. Also, in that film Ethan Hawke is playing two characters. It’s this binary between the soldier and this kind of radical Marxist revolutionary. And I think in this film there’s also sort of a similar binary: you could say Keith is almost like the radical, while the two security guards are the soldiers. I’m curious: were you and Abel in contact and at all kind of sharing ideas during the pandemic, or is that just purely a coincidence? 

No, no. We were in contact and, you know, we had some really ambitious, crazy projects that were going to happen that didn’t happen. Abel had a couple things that were ready to go that didn’t happen that would have been around the election. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say some of this stuff. [Laughs] But no, he’s just someone who has to keep working at all times and just goes with whatever is happening. You know, Sportin’ Life was going to be something completely different and that morphed into what it became.

But yeah, they definitely are. It was shot immediately [after]. So Sean was in Europe working in pre-production on Abel’s movie and he was out of town through most of the pandemic. So it was very complicated to get him back because everyone was scared about travel visas and they were worried, you know, what if someone got sick and had to take two weeks, blah, blah, blah. 

So he immediately came and shot this and went right back to that. And then Steven, who edited my movie, he was an editor on Zeros and Ones also. So it was sort of linear, almost like they just kept working and all sort of morphed into one workflow. Steven would be editing Zeros and Ones during the daytime and then I would come at night to their house and he was roommates with Sean and we’d just hang out and work after they were working on that. I think that’s one of the reasons it took a little bit to finish is because we were having such a good time hanging out. It was a mixture of editing and hanging out. 

There’s a retrospective of your work going on, so I wanted to kind of ask about the making of your debut feature Happy Life a little bit. That’s a film that was very obviously made with very, very simple means. I mean, how was he on the set of that film with limited means, kind of making the most out of it? 

With that movie, we were really enjoying being obnoxious, in that we shot it on standard-definition video on the PD 150. This was at the time when it was like the Red Camera was the big thing. All the consumer cameras had just become HD. So we were shooting on a camera that was just a little out-of-date. Which is the idea, as so was the character—he’s a little out-of-date. We love that aspect of it and it ended up looking like something different. But I think when a lot of people saw the movie, they just thought it was public access or something. [Laughs]

You know, I thought this movie was going to play at Cannes, like you know I was able to get Abel to produce but it doesn’t get into there. And then I’m like, all right, maybe it’ll play like a mid-tier festival, like Telluride or one of those ones. Then it doesn’t get in there and then I’m like, all right, well, at least it’ll play at my friend’s festival. Like I have a couple of friends who have film festivals, it’ll play at their festival. They all said no, too. [Laughs] We don’t want to show this thing either. So it ended up playing as a part of this Abel retrospective and then at the theater called Rerun.

But back to that camera now: it’s had a very nice life in the last year and has played a bunch of times. And I think watching it now, 10 years later, you know, I love the look of it and I think there’s more ways to contextualize it. And I think the look of it is more pleasing to people now than it was 10 years ago, because it specifically can only be dated to this specific window of time, which is also the locations we shot and most of those places are out-of-business. And it’s just a specific glimpse at that weird, you know, 2009, 2010 New York, which, you know, no one really gives a fuck about, but now it’s like people are, I guess, trying to make sense of whatever that was. 

We should talk about your cast. Keith Poulson is obviously pretty established—he’s basically like the Jean-Pierre Léaud of New York indie film at this point. But can you talk about your other two primary actors, Hunter Zimny and Theodore Bouloukos? I know Hunter’s an up-and-coming cinematographer, but it seems like Theodore is a very experienced actor, has a lot of credits, while Hunter has some credits but is maybe something of a novice. Was that interaction between those actors on set interesting, where they have different processes and you had to kind of accommodate that? Or was it very simple? 

The dynamic is really interesting and enjoyable. You know, Keith is really the glue. He’s the guy who holds it down because he’s very consistent. And then Hunter is hilarious, but it was a big thing for him to do. He was hesitant to do the movie because there was so much dialogue and such a commitment. He was totally hilarious, but he had these actors to work off of. I’m really excited for people to see him. And then Theo is the biggest personality and he really can go super hard. And those are my favorite moments in the movie, in a lot of ways. But what was crazy was we didn’t have any time to rehearse because Theo was upstate, Hunter was working, no one was socializing. You know, it was not easy to coordinate just: “Hey, let’s go hang out and do a table reading of this.”

So we got there and then it’s like, “Okay, we’re only in the gallery for three days.” So we had to do 26 pages of dialogue in one day, you know, with no rehearsals. So that’s asking a lot out of your actors and it’s the type of thing you can only do when you know them and you’ve worked with them before and you’re friends with them. But it was also fun to see. And I think people are on their A-game in that situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s half the fun of it. They say, “How are you going to make a movie in four days?” I have no idea how we’re going to do it. Because if you think that through, you’re not going to do it because you’ll talk yourself out of it. So that was a lot of the fun of it, was just not knowing what was going to happen. 

Did you use real riot footage throughout the film?

Yeah, that was found footage. All the other shots of the stores boarded up and stuff, that was actually from the shoot because we shot between Halloween and election day. So the whole city was shut down again. So like every store was boarded up because they thought, if whatever might happen on election day could be chaos. So that was all real stuff. So it did feel like a little bonus dramatic aspect to the production. 

I thought it was interesting centering the film around this trio of characters conversing and all their different viewpoints. Again, you said you didn’t want to make this directly a pandemic movie, but it’s sort of in a weird way encapsulated what the pandemic has been like in terms of that. People obviously spend more time online and now everyone’s in their own little glass chambers, essentially, arguing with each other. And I feel like people are a lot more aggressive these days online because they haven’t actually spent time interacting with people in person. Was that something you were consciously thinking of?

Completely. I hate Zoom. I hate Skyping. I like hanging out IRL with my friends, you know? And that was one of the big reasons I wanted to make the movie. I just refuse to Zoom with them. You know, there’s the part in King of New York where he’s like, “Why didn’t you visit me when I was in jail?” And he’s like, “I didn’t want to see you in a cage.” [Laughs] That’s how it feels Zooming with my friends. I don’t want to do that. With comedy it’s like you need to see a comedy in a movie theater. It’s a very healthy thing that people need to do instead of having meltdowns online all day.

Yeah, they need to see Project X at Metrograph!

Yeah, it was amazing. Yeah, we did that a couple of weeks ago and it was just so fun. You know, it was sold out—clearly there’s a demand. People want to be doing this, but you know, they don’t want to see us laughing in a movie theater. They want us arguing on Twitter. [Laughs]

Project Space 13 screens at Roxy Theatre this Friday, December, alongside a Bilandic retrospective, and arrives on MUBI on Decemeber 10.

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