by Gilda Davidian

I am so excited to share this interview with Jason Underhill, an artist/filmmaker who also happens to be one of the funniest and thoughtful people I know. I first met Jason as an undergraduate at CalArts. He went on to complete his MFA at Goldsmiths in London and has since exhibited internationally in the U.S. and in Europe (see his CV here). He now lives and works in Los Angeles, making videos and other things. Here he is talking to us about his childhood traumas, his creative process, and more.

Hi Jason! What was your biggest fear as a child? Calling a child gullible is probably unfair, considering how little experience living they have, so to start this thing off on the right foot, let’s say I was the opposite of a pragmatist. When I was six-years old, I remember asking our Sunday School teacher, Joyce, how we could see God. ‘God is all around you,’ she said. ‘He’s watching all the time.’ I thought that was a nice thought, until later that night, when I saw an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about a former US Marine’s claims that an alien ship had landed on his base in Montana. He described a rapid succession of laser beams aimed at the First Officer’s Hummer as possible communication by ‘The Devil or something’. This made sense: if God is everywhere all the time, then The Devil should be too, trying to get the upper hand, taking possession of flying saucers and attempting to militarize the universe, setting the board for a giant, invisible war. That kept me up for few nights, sweating.

I should add that my fears were rarely this philosophically complex or so fully realized. A few weeks later, my brother convinced me that the new, dark square on our street where a pot-hole had been filled in was actually a midnight stairway to the Netherworld where, after dark, Dracula emerged and stole neighborhood children. This was his response to me asking why our bedtime was eight-o-clock.

How/when did you start making videos? When I was in high school, I fantasized about becoming a filmmaker, but I abandoned it in favor of painting – I honestly think seeing Dawson from Dawson’s Creek’s blind optimism about his home-made horror movie hit a little too close to home when I was 15; watching James Van Der Beek earnestly direct Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson while shooting a Swamp-Monster slasher film with a Handycam looked a lot like my attempts at directing Smashing Pumpkins music videos, filming my friends stylishly murdering one another under a strobe light in my parents garage. I’m still reminded of this moment when I’m shooting sometimes, but I’ve learned to embrace the delusion.

I came to video, in part, because I was interested in the way the first artists videos from the 1970s documented a performance to an unknown audience, for the camera (Vito Acconci performing intimacy in Theme Song, 1973, might be the best example). I thought of it as an interesting counterpoint to the development of Hollywood Blockbusters – in that world, scripts and productions and budgets and salaries are all based on what producers claim we all want to see, developing an audience by controlling their desires. I wondered what it might be like to come full circle, to script a project based on a character from this Crystal Pepsi Generation, performing their mediated desires and expectations to the camera, all for the sake of being filmed. That’s when I made a video called Jessie Lives (2006) with Roxie Fuller.

How would you describe your creative process? The process of making a video often feels like building a production out of many small improvisations. With The Road to Margaritaville (2010), we shot and wrote the film over the course a year, basing the script for each new scene off of what we (myself, Ben Smith and Roxie Fuller) had done previously, and developed a narrative from that. Other times it’s much more spontaneous, and the video happens very quickly. When I made Universal City (2010) last year, I rented a house in Laurel Canyon for four days, wrote the script the first night, and we shot over the course of the next three days.

I realized early on that I like to work with a core group of actors, and often times ideas for new projects come in between takes, in the conversations that happen after tape stops rolling. Also, before I start writing a script, I like to meet the actors and have a conversation about the project, and that’s usually how an outline for the script develops. It all sounds so calculated when I write it out, but it’s really not – I have never finished a script until the day of shooting, which used to stress me out, but I’ve learned to turn it into a way of inviting spontaneity onto a set.

Tell us about something you saw or heard recently that stuck with you. It was wintertime in London, and it was an exceptionally cold, rainy night. I was walking home with my bag of wet groceries, and I saw a large rat, standing on someone’s stoop, chewing on an onion. I felt like I’d unwittingly stumbled into that scene from the Disney version of Cinderella, when the clock struck midnight and the butler turned back into a mouse, and the stagecoach into a pumpkin. Except in this version, the butler was starving to death, and eating his stagecoach.

Do you have any favorite quotes or song lyrics? I do – It’s from a Yeats poem called The Second Coming:

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Thank you, Jason!


Jessie Lives, 2006. Digital Video, 16 min 30 sec: LINK
Cast: Roxie Fuller. Written by Jason Underhill and Roxie Fuller. Directed by Jason Underhill.

Universal City, 2010. Digital Video, 20 minutes: LINK
Cast: Ben Smith, Ignacio Genzon, Roxie Fuller, Ayana Hampton. Story by Jason Underhill, Rena Kosnett, Roxie Fuller, Ben Smith. Written and Directed by Jason Underhill.