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2014, 81m, drama
CATALYST follows two brothers searching for closure while coping with their parent's divorce. The younger brother, Terrence (Justice Rieth) looks above, to God and the church. The older brother, Keeran (Nick Kavanaugh) hopes a friendship he has with a talented classmate (Erika Sorenson) can turn into more, proving to himself that he will not take the same road as his parents. CATALYST blends neo-realism and religious metaphor to dive deep into a family living with echoes of a harmful past.
Produced by: Kyle Arpke
Cast: Justice Rieth, Nick Kavanaugh, Erika Sorenson, Linda Cieslik, Scott Bailey, Ricardo de Herrera, Tyrone Wesley, Tommy Moua, and Jean Yang
10 questions with Catalyst director, Kyle Arpke at the half-way mark.
Sunday, May 29th, 2016
1Hi Kyle! Thanks for being a part of our 2016 Spring Festival. First, what was the initial seed that made you want to make Catalyst? At the time I was having a lot of conversations with another filmmaker about 'the core of a person' - more specifically, the question: "Do people change?" I believe people do change, while the other filmmaker does not.
We're both raised in Christian upbringings, and I was always bothered by the response of "no, people don't change" because, in a way, it kills 'the root' of Christianity. Or, at the very least, it only leaves room for Calvinistic Christianity. If people don't change then how can than become 'Christians' if being a Christian is about 'transforming yourself'?
So with that philosophy in mind I wanted to create a film that was about people who do not change. In a way, the thesis of CATALYST is: if you don't change, the world around you won't change either.
2You wrote the script as well. What's your writing process like and how long did it take you finish? I think it took me about a year to write, maybe a little less.
It was originally titled THE GREAT CATALYST - a take on CS Lewis' "The Great Divorce", a book I was reading at the time that influenced the first draft. Alongside that, the work of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul was a huge source of inspiration. He creates films that blend surrealism with realism, which I find extremely captivating. The first drafts of CATALYST reflected that style of storytelling, and it also incorporated a lot of visual effects. The two brothers would go to the woods, which ended up being this sort of "The Great Divorce"-esque afterlife place.
Sadly, as deadlines were approaching to get the film made, I had to abandon that portion of the story because I knew I couldn't pull off the visual effects work. So I crafted a script that was way more realism than surrealism. However, the fish bowl sequences in the final film were kept in from earlier versions of the script. They create a sort of quirky element to Terrence's character, but they also reflect the 7 days of creation - which creates an added metaphorical layer to the film, in my opinion.
3This is your first feature film. How did you know you were ready to tackle a feature? CATALYST is technically my second feature film, with the first feature being a 2 hour long film I made in high school. When I started college at UW-Milwaukee I made it a goal to create another feature film before graduation. I made CATALYST for my senior thesis, and while a lot of people thought creating a feature was a daunting task, I knew it was doable, having done it before. That's not to say it wasn't challenging, because making a feature is a huge undertaking, but I had experience which gave me the confidence to make it happen.
4What were some of the films that inspired the look or story of Catalyst? Besides works by Apichatpong Weersethakul (namely, "Tropical Malady" and "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives") the films that really stood out to me were early films by contemporary neo-realist filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt, Ramin Bahrani, Rick Alverson and Debra Granik.
Films like "Down to the Bone" and "Man Push Cart" were big jumping off points for me. I love neo-realism filmmaking. I'm a huge advocate for the philosophies behind it. I think in some ways, people are less empathetic towards others nowadays, and that partially has to do with the types of films we consume.
A lot of popular filmmaking is based around character archetypes, which aren't as complex as actual people. We create empathy with superheroes, which solve every problem by themselves (unless you're the X-Men) and the problems they do have are super unrelatable. So when our viewing eyes are trained to empathize with the 'impossible person' then we have trouble empathizing with actual people and actual problems.
I love a lot of popular filmmaking, but I also want people to view films that are... human. To me, everybody needs a dose of neo-realist filmmaking once and awhile.
5What's the film that made you want to become a filmmaker? Well... after ranting a bit about neo-realism... the film that made me want to become a filmmaker is Star Wars.
As much as I want people to watch films that ask questions about real life problems, I know that the reason most people watch movies are to get away from everyday problems. Star Wars was my storytelling outlet growing up. I loved to play as a child and create my own stories, and Star Wars was the universe that a lot of my playtime stories took place in. A lot of the stories I created were more Empire Strikes Back then Return of the Jedi, which is probably why my films tend to be more drab than happy.
To this day I'm still a Star Wars junkie, and as much as I champion neo-realism, I can't blame people for loving big, rousing adventure films.
6What's the scene you're most proud of and why? The climactic argument scene between Keeran (Nick Kavanaugh) and his father (Scott Bailey). It's the one scene in the script that I hated, because I couldn't find the right way to write it. So we completely improvised the scene and I'm proud of it because it reflects my ability as a director to work with my actors to create the points of tension within that scene.
I'm very proud of Nick and Scott and really thankful for the performances they gave that day. I spent a lot of time rehearsing with Nick and Scott separately, and really going through what their characters motives and feelings are throughout the film. On the day of filming, we blocked out the written scene and I just wasn't happy with my dialogue, so I pulled an audible and had them completely improvise. We discussed the beats, changed things in between takes and then I trusted them to bring the pudding... and they really exceeded my expectations.
That day was a true testament to the work that the three of us put in across the entire rehearsal and filmmaking process. I'll forever feel a bond with them because of what we accomplished together.
7What do you think about the current state of indie film and distribution? It's a truly wonderful time to be alive as a filmmaker. Everybody has access to the tools they need to make films and the amount of ways people can view a film just means that more stories will be seen by more people. I can't see how that can be anything other than a good thing.
It also means that in order to stand out as a filmmaker you have to tell a good story. Anybody can pick up a camera now, but in order to be seen and heard you have to tell great stories with that camera. Like a book, a stage play, a painting, a wrestling match - the only way a film is remembered is if it has a great story and is told well. It's the most worthy challenge an artist can have.
8This film deals with themes of growing up, divorce, alcoholism. What interests you in those themes. Do you find yourself more attracted to drama than other genres? One of the cliches about writing is that you're at your best when you write things that you know. When I decided on my premise I looked at points in my life where I (and sometimes the people around me) was bullheaded and unwilling to change myself. The two brothers represented some of my outlooks in middle school (Terence) and high school (Keeran).
About 90% of the film is based somewhat on real events in my life. It continues to be a film that I have an issue sharing with my family, because of its rawness and how 'close to the bone' it is to reality. It also is a film that focuses on the negatives in life, and for the most part I'm happy with my upbringing and I don't want people to feel like I wasn't.
But as an artist your job is to talk about conflict. That's what storytelling is - it's about conflict and how people choose to deal with conflict. I wanted to highlight very real conflicts that people think are taboo topics, because I hate that we try to hide away from the scars of life. We can learn a lot from low points in people's lives, and I think alcoholism is a really important topic to discuss. We can't grow if we don't learn from the mistakes of ourselves and others.
9Can you share a war story from the shoot? I don't really think I have a specific war story. The film was shot over 16 days, so the war was actually completing it in that amount of time. I wrote, shot, directed, and produced the film myself, so a lot of the complexities came from juggling all of those roles at the same time. Shuffling scheduling conflicts, finding locations, making sure your shots are right while trying to direct talent. I had, at most, two other crew members besides myself on set at the same time as myself. I couldn't have done it without Steve & Jessica Dompke, Matt Balz, Bob Gregory, and my entire family - they helped me immensely in many different ways and I am forever grateful for their willingness to help me pursue my dream as a filmmaker.
So the war of the film was keeping a mental sharpness. Some of the scenes certainly suffered from me taking on too many roles at the same time, but I am proud of the film. For the most part it was the film I set out to make. It's a divisive film and isn't for everybody, but it was an experimental film for me and I knew it would be divisive. I learned a lot from the experience and think it will help me tell future stories with even more focus.
10What's next? I'm not 100% sure. At the moment my mind is sort of hopping between a half dozen script ideas and I'm trying to figure out which one I'm most passionate about pursuing. I'm doing a lot of research on time periods and film genres. In addition to that I'm filming some stuff for an aquatic conservation documentary series, and in the development phase of some films with area filmmakers where I'd be the producer. So right now I don't have a solid direction for my next film, but that's okay. I work in film and am always surrounded by it, so my gears are always turning and inspired by different things. I'm excited about the future and very confident that there will be more feature films to come.
About the Interviewer: Ben Hicks
Ben Hicks is a writer/director and co-founder of Fandependent Films. Ben is currently working on making Fandependent Films awesome and is finishing up his first feature film entitled Kids Go Free to Fun Fun Time which was selected for the 2017 IFP Narrative Lab.
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