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Cam Archer on “Wild Tigers I Have Known”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Still from “Wild Tigers I Have Known,” IFC First Take, 2007]

He first appeared at Sundance as one of the festival’s legion of volunteers. A few years later, he was back as a guest and filmmaker, first with several of his shorts, and then in 2006 with his first feature, “Wild Tigers I Have Known.” A poetic, borderline experimental exploration of teenage sexuality, “Wild Tigers” follows a lonely kid named Logan (Malcolm Stumpf) as he navigates the perils of middle school bullies and a storm of hormones. An intense crush on another boy named Rodeo (Patrick White) sends Logan on a trip that’s equal parts daydream and nightmare, into woods, caves and a feminine persona named Leah.

Archer calls the 06 Sundance “a nightmare… I mean, everybody related to the film came out there to see the premiere, and it was great to have that support; at the same time, you’re already so vulnerable. It was wonderful for everyone to be so supportive, but I just felt really awful the entire time because I was really nervous.” “You know,” Archer says with a chuckle, “Sundance is kind of a big deal”

Thankfully for Archer’s nerves, the premiere was a success, and “Wild Tigers” was ultimately acquired for theatrical distribution by IFC First Take. I spoke with the director on the eve of the film’s release.

The film feels very personal. I’m guessing you get asked constantly whether or not it’s an autobiographical movie.

Yeah, just a few days ago someone asked me, “Who was Rodeo?” I don’t know why everyone is so compelled to know that. Everything we make as artists should always reflect what we’re interested in or are going through or have gone through. I think that’s the nature of personal work and “Wild Tigers” is definitely a personal work. Of course there are several liberties, but it comes from a real place and it ended up being a nice reflection of things that either I’ve gone through or really good personal friends have gone through.

You wrote, directed, produced and edited the film yourself. What was your favorite of those four roles?

I’m a big fan of editing actually. It really is the ultimate power because you’re shaping what’s going to be the movie. I’ve always believed that my films are made in the editing room, and we just try to shoot enough footage so that I can really play with it in several different ways. So I really think that’s my favorite part. Is it the part I should be doing? Probably not [laughs].

You’ve had a long collaboration with your cinematographer, Aaron Platt, who was nominated for a 2007 Spirit Award for his work on “Wild Tigers.”

Yeah, Aaron and I met at school at UC Santa Cruz in a still photography class and we just started talking about our mutual interests in filmmaking. We’d done some small projects here and there but then I think Aaron called me and said something like, “Well you should call me cause I have a lot of the gear we would need,” and so it kind of went from there.

It’s interesting; there’re so few people who are fortunate enough to meet someone they can collaborate with again and again. There’s really something to be said for this relationship that Aaron and I have formed, and we’ve definitely grown from it. It’s really difficult to think of my movies without thinking about him. We’re both really inspired by growing up with MTV and cheesy horror films and that kind of very stylized culture.

I wanted to talk about what films and filmmakers influenced you, but I have to admit the ‘cheesy horror film’ thing isn’t something I got out of your movie. I’m surprised to hear you say that.

[Laughs] Well, “Wild Tigers” is so heavily stylized. And I think that was the case with these 80s horror films. Aaron and I just watched “Labyrinth” — these movies have these characters living in very non-real worlds and the lighting is very present. Now, I’m more of a fan of still photographers and, of course, Gus Van Sant [an executive producer of the film] is great, and Kenneth Anger and Terrence Malick are also filmmakers that I think are so distinct and unique are definitely inspirations to both of us.

And now that I think about it, there are spiders and lions in “Wild Tigers,” which are sort of tinged with horror.

There are, that’s true. And I think Logan adopting his Leah persona to me that seems like something right out of a John Carpenter film. It feels ridiculously performative, and yet you can’t help but be caught up in this mystery.

[laughs] I read online that years before your films showed there, you were a volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival.

I was, I used to work outside a theater. I had a wonderful time; I can’t say anything negative about the experience. It’s funny though, people will say “Oh, that’s how you got your films into Sundance.” If only it were that simple! I never met a programmer. Ever. I never met anyone who would have even known a programmer. It was just fun to be surrounded by that filmmaking community.

As a director, is it important to you that the film receive a theatrical release or do you really just want it to be seen by as many people as possible, regardless of the format?

No, I don’t, actually — it’s weird. I’m one of the few filmmakers who would actually discourage someone from seeing my film. [laughs] I think that film will definitely have a greater life on DVD, but there’s something to seeing a film in a theater that is really pretty fucking awesome. It’s the way to see a movie you’re really interested in. And “Wild Tigers” being in theaters is just so surreal; I always just thought it would end up being on DVD-Rs that college and high school students would be passing to each other in the hallways. At least I hoped for as much.

What are you working on now?

It’s something I wrote just after we premiered “Tigers” at Sundance. It’s about a middle-aged woman who suffers from a hair pulling disorder called trichotillomania, which is an impulse control disorder similar to kleptomania or pyromania. It’s these individuals who can’t help but pull out their hair, typically one strand at a time. It really destroys these people’s lives.

Well I don’t think you’ll have too many questions about your films being autobiographical after that one.

I know! I hope people start asking me, “Oh, do you pull out your hair?”

Wild Tigers I Have Known” opens in New York on February 28th (official site).

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