Still from "You Turn Yourself Around." Courtesy Harry Perales.

You Turn Yourself Around: A Short Interview with Harry Perales

A new 15-minute film, “You Turn Yourself Around,” caught OffCite’s attention for the sense of place and the presence of Houston and Austin architecture. Lone Star College Professor Greg Oaks calls it a reminder “that life is really about the small moments, often when you’re alone.” The video is embedded below with an interview of the filmmaker, Harry Perales, by creative writer and critic Aaron Reynolds.

Aaron Reynolds: Can you describe the initial genesis of this project, how it started, and how it’s changed over time?

Harry Perales: My friend Patrick Stockwell asked me if I wanted to participate in his show The Short Fiction Soundtrack after he decided he wanted to add a Benshi video component. He was going to use a story that he’d been working on for several years and I happened to be in the writing workshop in which he’d first written it, so I was very familiar with it. However, I didn’t want to do an adaptation of the story. Instead the initial idea was to present a visual companion piece to work off of the narrative instead of commenting on it, but inspired by the emotional state of the lead character in the story. I had originally wanted to do a very simple visual narrative and I had thought up shots and where it was going to go, but Patrick thought it would be too confusing for the audience to have to focus on both. I had gathered the people I wanted to use and really just began filming them and really only directed them to do whatever it was they wanted. Unfortunately, the Short Fiction Soundtrack show for “You Turn Yourself Around” itself was cancelled and it never got screened. My writing mentor Greg Oaks had always been a fan of the footage I showed him, and he suggested that I re-edit it without the audio of the short story and suggested music by the jazz pianist Gonzales.

AR: The way Houston’s presence manifests itself may be surprising to most Houstonians as well as familiar to those who walk and know the Inner Loop intimately. How did you approach the choice of scenes?

HP: I really left most of the ideas for locations to my collaborators and let them lead me to them. Patrick’s story takes place in Austin, so Patrick took me around to certain spots that inspired the story (the diner, 6th street, the hotel/bar, etc.) and I filmed these locations and other places I found interesting along the way (the mannequin window display, the couple on the bench). Kathryn Tyler, one of my actors, was extremely helpful in leading me to locations around Houston I would have never known existed.

AR: The footage looks so professional and spontaneous at the same time. What kind of equipment did you use, camera-wise, editing-wise, etc? How long did you spend shooting this footage? Did you have something specific in mind, or how much of it was improvised?

HP: I used a Panasonic Lumix GH2 which I borrowed from one of the actors (Tom Adams) and various pieces of equipment from family members. I was pretty much my own crew, though. The shooting only took place over a few nights spread over a couple of months whenever the participants were available. I initially had a vague outline of what I wanted to do, but I basically threw it out when I began shooting with Kathryn. I found it much more exciting to simply trust my collaborators and ask “what do you want to do now?” and film them doing whatever it was they were interested in. For example, I knew I needed some kind of dance in the middle of the film to correspond with the planned musical accompaniment in the Short Fiction Soundtrack show. I wasn’t sure what I was going to film and was worried that whatever I did would seem contrived and inorganic, but the portions with Carlos Sanchez and Teresa Vicinanza arose when they started playing soccer in their backyard. Realizing it was too dark Carlos suggested we go to the baseball field. I started filming them playing and realized this was exactly the kind of “dance” I needed, but it presented itself organically instead of being a contrivance.

AR: How much did you “find” a story – or is a better word “feel” or “vibe?” – through the editing process? Could you point to a certain sequence or series of shots that you think nailed this best, or put you on the right path for the piece as a whole?

HP: The shooting and editing was really a process of throwing things at the wall and seeing what stuck. I eventually realized that I wanted to film these people at night, revolving around different kinds of loneliness and intimacy, but that only came about after I began filming with Kathryn. With Kathryn I wanted to present the freedom in solitude. I wasn’t sure of this when I began filming her, so it kind of evolved the more we shot and the more comfortable she became. In Tom’s portion, I wanted to present that after-hours frustration/anxiety that is present in Patrick’s story, the feeling one gets by driving around aimlessly at night with nowhere to go or anyone to be with. With Carlos and Teresa I just wanted to present a couple that genuinely loved each other and to show them being intimate without necessarily including a shot of them kissing. I feel that “dance” segment with Carlos and Teresa in the baseball field really captures this sort of intimacy, and I’m happy with how it turned out.

AR: I know you’re a big, big fan of more disreputable genre flicks (horror especially) and exploitation films – but obviously you’re a fan of more than that, as this piece is much more lyrical and impressionistic. What filmmakers – or writers, or any other kind of artists, really – would you point to as influences or models here?

HP: I was inspired by Terrence Malick, but less in the kind of gorgeously lyrical but ultimately navel-gazey visuals and more inspired by “Badlands” (one of my favorite films) in the idea of letting someone like Martin Sheen or Sissy Spacek just exist in the frame without necessarily making them hit a mark. I really had that in mind particularly working with Kathryn, and I was just endlessly fascinated by her own actions and movements more than any direction I could have given her. I see the obvious influence of filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, Wong Kar Wai, and Nicolas Winding Refn when I watch the footage, but that wasn’t necessarily a deliberate stylistic choice for this specific project. It was actually the godfather of disreputable Italian horror, Mario Bava, who was a huge influence in the color, lighting, and shot-composition of a lot of Kathryn’s segment. I was also really, really inspired by the music of Yo La Tengo and Lotti Golden, and even resorted to making Tom listen to a specific song on repeat as we were filming to achieve a certain vibe. In fact, while answering these questions I am also listening to Yo La Tengo on repeat.

Aaron Reynolds has considered Houston home since 2001, and completed his PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Houston in 2006, where he continues to work and teach for the UH Honors College. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Laurel Review, Sonora Review, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, and Willow Springs.

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    1. 1

      What we need in this country, more than ever before, is support for independent filmmakers and artists from both the private and public sectors. Exquisite footage in this piece, as well as an enjoyable and immmmmmm cogent interview. Question: Is the soundtrack audible, or is it absent due to my device? BTW, Lotti Golden’s artistic vision is an inspiration to my creative endeavors as well. Peace!

    2. 2

      What we need in this country, more than ever before, is support from both the public and private sectors. You Turn Yourself Around, turned out some exceptionally exquisite footage plus a cogent interview. Question: Is the soundtrack audible, or is it absent due to my (older) device (iPad) ? BTW, Lotti Golden’s artistic vision is an inspiration to my creative endeavors as well. Peace!

    3. 3

      Very interesting interview! I am curious as to how Lotti Golden’s artistic vision has informed Mr. Perales’ work.