For much of the past 15 years, Adam Pinney has had some rather modest ambitions. Along with some friends he met at Georgia State University in the early 2000’s, Pinney has made films -- offbeat, niche exercises that were fun to work on and designed in many ways to amuse their creators.
As he supported himself with graphic design and other work, Pinney has relied on the same actors, filmmakers and crew from one handmade production to the next. "A film collective of interesting young people who appreciate a good taco and a firm handshake," is the winking tagline for the group, which calls itself Fake Wood Wallpaper.
That quirky obscurity all burst forth last week at the SXSW Film Festival, when the group's new movie -- with the fittingly esoteric title of "The Arbalest" -- not only premiered but won the narrative grand jury prize, the fest's highest honor.
"It's been a pretty wild ride. Our film is small, it’s experimental. I thought a few people would see it. We really were just happy to get into IFP,” he said of the screenwriting lab where the script was developed. “Then we got into SXSW, and that felt like the prize. Then this happened.”
Pinney was speaking by phone from Atlanta, where he had just returned after the whirlwind week in Austin. You could understand why recent events have been a surprise for the writer-director. His film is hardly a straightforward affair, even by the less-than-straightforward standards of indie-film gatherings.
As it follows an eccentric inventor of a don't-call-it-a-Rubik's-cube toy named Kalt (Mike Brune, an acting member of the collective, going outsized here), "Arbalest" jumps between three periods. There's a formative event in a hotel room at the 1968 Toy Fair (shot with "Mad Men"-esque attention to period detail), a Peeping Tom-slash-recluse section set several years later and an interview with a TV newsmagazine crew taking place several years after that.
Festival materials described the movie as a tale of obsession. And Kalt's preoccupation with a woman from that hotel room (Tallie Medel) long after such interest seems reasonable or healthy lies at the center of the story.
But the movie is also about eccentricity and our capacity for it, both within the context of Kalt's actions and for the audience itself. "The Arbalest" (the name refers to an old-timey crossbow and a "Risk"-like board game, one of several touches suggesting this is and isn't our world) is at bottom about the ingredients of crazy, assembled in a Wes Anderson-y language of full frames and deadpan dialogue.
"It's a very artificial film. It's very designed,” Pinney said. “Even the acting is not what you seen in low-budget indie films in terms of bigness and smallness.”
The movie has polarized since it began screening in Austin. At one showing audiences members could be heard tittering during an unexpected moment, prompting a crew member to shruggingly take note of the reaction at a post-screening Q&A.
Critics were unsure of what to make of the film, or its win. Indiewire wrote that "Just as Kalt manages to con his consumers, 'The Arbalest' has had a similar effect on some of its first audiences, as it inexplicably won the grand jury prize at the SXSW Film Festival.” Variety said that "most of the time 'The Arbalest' seems to be striking a deadpan posture without there actually being a joke behind it."
Yet the film won plaudits from the jury, which included New Yorker critic Richard Brody, Associated Press writer Lindsey Bahr and The Wrap's Alonso Duralde. And it has the earmarks of a cult favorite. Shot with a keen eye toward composition, the movie matches a formal discipline with an unruly structure.
It also is just plain weird. Even at 76 minutes, the film packs in enough bizarre to fill a surrealist's suitcase. The ending will inspire debate, puzzlement and, possibly, even interpretations that it's a gun-control parable. For anyone crying into their copy of Film Comment that cinema has been bled of vision and idiosyncrasy, "The Arbalest" is here to offer a hug and some reassurance.
"I know it isn't for everyone," Pinney said. "And that's OK. For me, it never starts with 'oh, what's something that's going to provoke the audience?' It comes from ‘I have this idea and it's interesting to me, and I don’t even know if it makes a lot of sense, but wouldn’t it be fun to explore?’ The awareness of how different this was coming out only happened very late in the filmmaking process," he added.
Previous efforts have been similar efforts in organic strangeness. In addition to Brune, Fake Wood Wallpaper includes such figures as Alex Orr, frequently a producer of the group; Hugh Braselton, a camera whiz; and Chris Kelly, a key force behind the company's Adult Swim series "Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell.”
The collective’s previous efforts including a horror comedy, "Blood Car" and a sideways parenting story titled "A is for Alex" ("hapless inventor/filmmaker Alex is coping with the impending birth of his son -- all the while, his mother is in jail for child pornography, giant electric bees are falling from the sky, his film’s cast is in revolt and it’s all his fault.")
“Arbalest” had been in the works for some time, and even after everything was shot there was plenty of edit-room work, as Pinney shaved down the film from nearly two hours to its current concise form. (Lest you think that version offers more explanation, it doesn’t --"if you didn't like what you saw in 76 minutes, I don’t think you’d like the longer cut either," Pinney laughs.)
The director said he understood the analogies to Anderson and, with the film's portrait of violence and Kalt's cool psychosis, to Kubrick. He said he admires Anderson in particular, but such affinities make for strange dancing. "At times we were shooting and it looks like a Wes Anderson shot, I’d say let’s switch it up. I was very conscious of not trying to mimic the style, even if the style is in there.”
As of several days ago, Pinney didn’t have an agent and seemed OK with that. He has new ideas and wants to continue making films — particularly as a day job. Even with Georgia’s robust production climate, there are only so many big-studio set jobs Pinney and his Fake Wood Wallpaper comrades can stomach. (And we’ll see how robust it remains given Hollywood's newly emergent boycott threats over a proposed anti-gay law.)
Will “The Arbalest” change the game for Pinney? An SXSW grand jury prize can mean big things, as it did for "Short Term 12," the emo indie gem that, among other gems, introduced many filmgoers to Brie Larson, or "Tiny Furniture," the Millennial-minded feature that helped put Lena Dunham on the map.
It could also be more of a cult fascination, as a number of SXSW winners have been. (The 2015 winner, the family-gathering alienation parable "Krisha," is hitting theaters now.)
But mostly Pinney said he couldn’t control too much of what happens from there. (The film is working out its U.S. distribution plan.) He is going to keep making movies like “Arbalest,” movies he wanted to make fun and weird and watchable. But, in an aptly twisted phrasing, he said accessibility was not necessarily a conscious choice.
"I want everyone to enjoy my movies and I don't want to alienate audiences," he said. "But I'm also not trying to structure my movies in a way that doesn’t alienate audiences. I’m just trying to make a film that’s accessible under my vision and then at some point accept what I have.”