Outfest 2011: ‘Vacation!’ -- bikinis included -- comes to you

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Sometimes we all need to get away -- from our jobs, our relationships, our homes and perhaps most of all ourselves. In ‘Vacation!’ which has its Los Angeles premiere Saturday night as part of Outfest, four college girlfriends reunite for a week at the beach. Hanging out, laying out, drinking a lot, it seems to be going well despite a few minor annoyances and the dawning realization they don’t know each other that well anymore. One ill-fated acid trip later and things have taken a definite turn for the worse.

The film is the second feature from writer-director Zach Clark, following 2009’s ‘Modern Love Is Automatic,’ about an emotionally detached nurse who begins to moonlight as a dominatrix. Both films have a sharp eye for costumes and production design that is unusual for the American micro-budget scene. Stylized without being full-on camp, Clark’s films make the most of their limited means.

Clark’s interest in the formal aspects of filmmaking informed his decision to break ‘Vacation!’ cleanly in two, with the fun, sexy early section playing as a beach party romp, the acid trip a wild, weird transition sequence that collates ideas that will then reappear as the film’s final stretch takes a turn for the emotional and the sad. It’s an audacious series of tonal maneuvers.

‘A lot of ideas behind ‘Vacation!’ are me testing how far I can bend something without it breaking,’ said Clark during a recent phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. ‘It’s just an interesting way to structure something. It’s certainly not how you’d ever be told to structure something. I just liked the idea of splitting it very clearly down the middle.’


In crafting the exploration of personal identity that runs throughout ‘Vacation!’ Clark opted to color code each of his actresses, having their wardrobe built around one key color. He also had his four lead actresses all cut and dye their hair, giving him a redhead (Melodie Sisk), a blonde (Lydia Hyslop), a raven (Maggie Ross) and a brunette (Trieste Kelly Dunn, seen earlier this year in ‘Cold Weather’). The conflicts and shifting attractions among them are only heightened, or highlighted as it were, by Clark’s decision to give each actress a distinct look.

‘I don’t know if I’m the best person to articulate how and why I do that, but to me it just feels like these are opportunities,’ said Clark. ‘I’ve always responded well to films that use color and style.’

‘When he makes a film, he develops a set of rules, and they can be pretty arbitrary but it’s how he writes; they help him to shape it,’ said Sisk, who starred in ‘Modern Love’ with Ross and on ‘Vacation!’ is also credited as a producer. ‘And one of the early rules for ‘Vacation!’ included the colors. We didn’t want it to feel super heavy-handed because we didn’t want it to feel like this is all Zach Clark movies are ever going to look like. We were incredibly mindful of it, but also mindful of making it subtle.’

The film is a step forward in style and production from ‘Modern Love Is Automatic,’ yet it has struggled to be accepted at American film festivals. The screening Saturday is only its second festival appearance in the U.S., more than a year after it first premiered. (There was also a one-week commercial run in New York City.) The film’s status as something of a orphan has left its filmmakers perplexed.

‘You can’t help but notice things aren’t going the quite the way you want them to go. One comment we got from a festival was that everything that makes the movie special makes it very difficult to program,’ said Sisk, adding that festivals can’t decide whether to show it during the day or at night, or what section to put it in. ‘Which is maybe the most honest answer we’ve gotten.’

‘My initial thought was, ‘Who’s not going to program a movie about four girls in bikinis who go to the beach for a week and get into trouble?’' added Clark. ‘And it’s gotten really polarizing responses from people. Maybe the extreme juxtaposition of the two parts is off-putting for some reason. I don’t know.’

Clark is currently raising funds to shoot his next film later this year, which is designed to specifically take advantage of the natural, ambient production design of the Christmas season. He remains proud of ‘Vacation!’ and is just happy whenever anyone anywhere gets a chance to see it.

‘I’m a big fan of that Alejandro Jodorowsky quote, that if you are great, ‘El Topo’ is great and if you are limited ‘El Topo’ is limited. Maybe I’ll just ascribe to that for this one.’

-- Mark Olsen

Below: trailer for ‘Vacation!’