By Brian Tucker
Taylor Kowalski has acted in plays and starred in a variety of filmed projects – the locally made horror film Pieces of Talent and a role on TV’s Homeland. He’s in a new short film called We Can’t Help You that’s been playing festivals and evolving over the last year.
We Can’t Help You is a gritty southern gothic crime story written by Brad Land (Goat) and co-directed by Alan Scott Neal and Land. In it Kowalski plays a young man “tasked with violence.” Peppered with colorful dialogue and steely performances, the short is both unnerving and calm which evokes the reality of violence, and the surprising emergence of it.
Kowalski’s face refelcts that fear of violence, the anguish eating him up as he’s surrounded by animals and forced into something grotesque. Playing as part of last year’s Cucalorus Film Festival, it has evolved. With shades of indie filmmaker David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche) and a widescreen cinematic look, We Can’t Help You is visceral without being grotesque.
You graduated with an English degree, but was acting something you slowly came to?
Kowalski: My family has been working in the film industry for four generations, me being the fourth. It’s not something I necessarily thought I was going to pursue growing up, but I had always taken to acting. I started at age seven in theater and acting in a couple independent films my dad made. I got really into it toward the end of high school and eventually opportunities came up and I’ve been heading in that direction ever since.
Is the movie radically different from its showing at Cucalorus?
Kowalski: Yes, the way the story is told is fundamentally different from the version last year. There are new scenes that flesh out the details of what brought these men into their predicament. The motivation is now clearer, whereas before, we basically dropped the audience into the middle of the story. That’s not to say what we added is all expository.
What was learned from those early showings?
Kowalski: Our early screenings were all positive experiences. We’re continually told that the film plays best in a theatrical setting. In pre-production, Alan Scott Neal and Taylor Gill (cinematographer) were constantly figuring out ways to make the short look as cinematic as possible. Shorts that are programmed into festivals tend to be comedies/experimental and this is a meditative southern gothic crime narrative. And we’re proud, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Was the back-and-forth editing style always part of the design? Was it written that way in screenplay form?
Kowalski: The scene we jump back and forth to was originally written as the first scene. We made a choice to edit that way when we were deciding to include the ‘attic’ scene. Using that scene like a ‘memory’ for the characters worked well, because the film is fairly quiet, so it made sense to tell that scene through their thoughts and deliver the backstory through out the course of the main narrative – for both my character and Matt Land’s – so the information about these characters is like catch and release until we get to the very end.
You’ve worked on larger projects. What do you enjoy on smaller ones?
Kowalski: I enjoy working with friends and collaborating with them. There’s really no difference in the acting work other than the great camaraderie that comes with these projects. I love seeing Pieces of Talent, something Joe Stauffer’s been working on for four years, finally get the attention it deserves. Every day another horror magazine or film website is reviewing and praising his baby.
What were your initial reactions to Brad Land’s script? Had you read Goat prior or knew Land?
Kowalski: I loved all the characters, dialogue and how intense the situation was. It was the most complicated character I had ever played up until that point. Brad knew I wanted to play a character that had a lot to lose or something with tangible high stakes. I knew Brad, as a friend, and I had read his two books. Having his previous work in my head helped initially inform the world of these characters.
You were directed by two directors on the short.
Kowalski: Alan and Brad’s approach is different but the goal or vision for the film is the same. Most of that is discovered in pre-production from the script work they did together and discussions about movies they both liked. Alan came to the set with tested filmmaking experience, having made several excellent shorts as an undergrad and graduate student.
Brad’s immersion into the psychic landscape of his characters brought a gravitas and authenticity to the working experience. It was great as an actor because they connected on the material so passionately, I could go to either one with questions and come back with different but entirely usable answers.
How long was the shoot and was it all filmed in Charleston?
Kowalski: We shot the attic scene in one day in February 2010 in Wilmington. The rest we shot on location in Conway, South Carolina in November 2011. Neal initially came on to edit the attic scene and after he finished it inspired all of us to complete the movie a year and a half later.
Lastly, what are your memories of making Pieces of Talent? How did you prepare for scenes of violence, so they seem palpable and not cartoonish?
Kowalski: I remember almost everything – everyone’s hard work and sacrifices. For those scenes of violence, the thing to do is have your scene partner twist your arm just slightly, so you can get a light taste of what the pain feels like and then use your imagination to multiply it by four or five.