We are sitting on a powdery bench in the freezing cold as Ray puffs smoke from a cigarette that had been waiting behind his ear to help him achieve the haziness that his character demands in this scene.
Ray Tintori has cast himself perfectly in the role of Ray Tintori. He never breaks character, and yet, like his performers, he is never acting.
"There's a lot of stuff that just sucks about being alive, and a lot of people have no way out of it," the decisively deadpan Tintori told an audience of sheltered art students at a lecture at the University of Virginia last week. However, Tintori explains, "As a director, you structure your own reality." And so he has done exactly that.
Tintori first garnered attention when his beautiful black and white senior thesis project at Wesleyan, 'Death to the Tinman,' won an Honorable Mention for Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 2007, and since then he has been busy making music videos for his friends. Granted, his friends are the members of MGMT. Along with the psychedelic video for 'Time to Pretend' and the mother-disapproved video for 'Kids,' Tintori has also directed for The Killers and Chairlift. His other celebrated dramatic works include his writing and directing of 'Jettison Your Loved Ones' and, more recently, his story for 'Glory at Sea.'
Internet coverage informs us that Ray is currently working on a film called 'Light Boxes' with Spike Jonze, but on this uncharacteristically snowy afternoon in Charlottesville, Virginia, the fittingly handsome director cannot share any details of the 'longer feature' he is a part of. He is understandably wary of misrepresentation.
Out on the bench we talk of films crazier than The Holy Mountain (Ray suggests Bill and Coo, a 1948 color film starring trained birds), and the less-than glamorous fact that his last name actually means 'dry cleaner' in Italian. Ray admits that topics of international politics and colonialism are on his mind, but he smiles knowingly as he holds back any further information that could "give anything away."
When I compliment his fantastic work on the 'Kids' music video, Ray counters by crediting the work of the director of the 'making of the Kids video' clip that I had watched on YouTube, and he recalls all the great ideas that his friends had during the project. It is difficult to catch Tintori using anything other than 'we' and 'fun' to describe his impressive film credits. It is unclear whether or not this is in the script.
After only a few minutes of chatting it seems entirely forgivable now that Ray has not answered a single one of my emails before this meeting, and that he has arrived significantly late to multiple events during his short residency at the University of Virginia. In fact, it seems remarkably necessary.
"We always try to start with the worst shot and get better and better after that," he half-jokingly, maybe even quarter-jokingly, told the students at the lecture. This is how you "trick people into thinking you know what you're doing." The Brooklyn native now living in New Orleans operates under this deceptive reality of opening with the lowest quality shot. His social inconsistencies, his thinly veiled shyness, the large hole under the right armpit of his striped shirt, these are the illusory lenses through which he initially frames himself. And yet, within his works and his life, Ray remains shamelessly honest. He shows the seams beautifully, deliberately, authentically, insisting in his experimental filming styles that he's, "not trying to fool you into believing this is real."
As an intelligent director he intrinsically knows that his youthfulness and resistance to over-sophistication cannot accurately be recreated by the insincere. "You can't fake the energy of a young person making a film," Tintori shares. Luckily for Ray there is no faking involved, just a very well-written part that he has constructed appropriately for himself in the same way he generously provides for each one of his non-acting cast members.
His choice to avoid casting actual actors, and his command over these 'non-actors' in his films is unparalleled. The distinctively deadpan humor and often absurdly dramatic nature of his dialogue speaks itself perfectly through his inexperienced performers. This isn't a coincidence. Ray explains to me that he will, "write parts specifically for certain people." These individuals tend to consist of his friends, or in the case of the crazy old scientist Paul Mermelstein in 'Death to the Tinman,' his high school teacher Mr. Illman. Tintori's apparent disdain of misrepresentation is what led him to direct the MGMT videos as well, actively aiding his buddies in the battle against corporate character-manipulation. This is not some burden that he reluctantly bears, but like his desire to build everything in his own films, an opportunity for authenticity that he vivaciously takes head on.
Tintori's do-it-yourself attitude aligns perfectly with his love for sculpting and building absolutely everything, especially the seemingly impossible.
The snow-covered ground extinguishes Ray's mood-setting cigarette as I signal my friends to come join us. For the first time, I align scripts with Ray. After the overly ambitious proposal (by Ray) of constructing a pterodactyl out of the too-powdery Virginia snow, we settle on a T-Rex as our equally improbable goal to build in the remaining minutes that I have left with Tintori before he must go off to teach another class.
In the snow, Ray is masterful. He is perfectly in character. His hands, through fingerless gloves, begin to shape the impossibly long mouth of what is becoming a snow version of Big Bird and Reptar's love child. When asked about his favorite theater experiences, Ray fondly recalls building a set that was meant to 'collapse' during the performance, but accidentally sent audience members into a frenzy of fear thinking that the actors had actually been crushed. He smiles. He does not look up from the snow. As I gaze around the circle of my closest friends playing in the powder with the award-winning director, I remember what seemed like an accidentally sentimental statement by Ray in one of the lectures-- "When you work in film, you never have to say goodbye to anybody."
I check the time and remind the avant filmmaker that he can leave if he needs to get to class. His eyes remain locked on our little sculpture, "Nah, this is fun." We are both fully aware that he will get to the class late and covered in snow. He will start with the worst shot and then get better and better.
TEXT BY: Jeff Luppino-Esposito
PHOTOS BY: Annie Locke Scherer
Tintori's Award-Winning Short, 'Death to the Tinman'