When you hear Tilt described as the study of a man who succumbs to mania tied to the current political climate, you might well expect it to be a critique of the antagonistic attitudes of our current president, as expressed by a character who takes them to extremes. Instead, writer/director Kasra Farahani makes the intriguing choice of casting Joseph Burns (Joseph Cross) as a Trump dissenter working on a documentary chastising the values that carried him to office. As he submerges himself in research, he becomes alienated from his pregnant wife Joanne (Proxy’s Alexia Rasmussen) and eventually homicidal.
However, Farahani, who scripted Tilt with Jason O’Leary, believes that Joseph has a little more common with the material he’s dealing with than he might want to acknowledge. “It’s absolutely true that Joseph is outwardly a liberal, and he is cutting together this documentary about this period of time when America was very white and male-dominated, and if you were those two things, you basically had it a little bit easier. And I believe that’s still true, but less so, and I also think that Joseph, probably subconsciously, is actually sort of enamored of the ideas in his documentary, and that inside, maybe he sort of is a Trump supporter.”
Certainly, he’s chafing at Joanne’s insistence that he put his movie project aside and get a job that can help support them, with the baby on the way. Joanne’s entreaties are completely reasonable, but Joseph increasingly sees them as a kind of oppression. “Maybe,” Farahani observes, “he’s pissed off that he doesn’t have the privilege that two generations back had, where he could just sort of walk into a middle-class life and own a home. I don’t want to be reductive, not everybody could, but it was a lot easier to do that, due to a lot of factors, in the period between the ’50s and the ’70s. But now times have changed and it’s not that easy. He’s not the breadwinner, he feels emasculated, perhaps, he’s underemployed and his wife pays for everything… There’s a lot of white male rage in this character that is very much in sync with the Trump movement.”
Part of the inspiration behind Joseph, in fact, was less political than practical. When it came to conceiving him as a filmmaker, Farahani says, “Candidly speaking, we wanted something we could shoot in my house, for obvious logistical reasons. It made a lot of sense to try to find ways to tie the story in to the resources that we had available. But beyond that, I came across an article that pointed me toward some very cool places on-line where there’s a lot of public-domain footage I found very interesting. I spent some time looking at this footage that, ultimately, Joe Burns looks at in the film, and that’s where I came up with the idea to make him a documentarian assembling this stuff.
“We also wanted it to serve as a bellwether of Joe’s emotional state, and be a sort of clue as to when he’s starting to go off the rails. In the early part of the film, there are several scenes of him working on his project, and he’s very professional and his office is tidy and organized, and by the end, he has clearly lost it, and the footage is just playing in the background while he’s trying to record this unusable audio. So we used the documentary as a sort of parallel to his mental state.”
Some of the most striking images in Tilt are clips of Grand Guignol animation that Joe incorporates into his movie. “That stuff is beautiful,” Farahani says. “They’re called phenakistiscopes, and they’re these 19th-century animation discs, basically. They were organized by this guy in Europe named Richard Balzer, who has an exhaustive collection of the. You can see a lot of them on his website, and he very kindly let me use some of them in my film. They’re haunting, terrifying animations, and I found several that were very thematically appropriate to what Joe is going through. Particularly, there’s one of a big woman eating a man on a fork, and Joe thinks of himself as this beleaguered, oppressed guy; his wife’s telling him he can’t be a documentary filmmaker anymore, and he’s got to go find work. He’s obviously completely out of touch, and he’s totally out of his head about it. From his position of entitlement, feeling entitled to success as a filmmaker, he sees her as a bully who’s killing his dream.”
Filmmaker Farahani successfully evokes Joe’s deteriorating mental state, with strong assist from Cross (who’s been acting since childhood and has been seen in the likes of Flags of Our Fathers, Milk and Lincoln). He has also captured eerily beautiful nightscapes around Los Angeles, when Joe goes out to do his dirty work. “We were really lucky in that we got an unbelievable deal on a set of Leica 1.4 lenses, which made that exterior night work possible,” Farahani says. “And my DP [Alexander Alexandrov] uses the Arri Alexa Mini, a little camera that you don’t need a big crew to move around, and it shoots in very low light. With that lens package, you can almost shoot in darkness. So we were able to go out and shoot that stuff at night, and the biggest our crew ever was on those shoots was maybe four or five, and there were plenty of times when it was literally just me, Alexander and Joseph.
“The other key part of all that was that Alexander and I spent a lot of time in advance scouting at night, to find these places that were going to be beautifully lit by incidental lighting. That took a lot of time, but in the end, once the money clock was ticking, and I had the crew and the actors ready, we knew exactly where to go and what time to be there.”