Writer-Director-Actor Cooper Raiff on Feature Debut Shithouse (Interview)
We spoke with Cooper Raiff, the writer, director and leading star of the new feature Shithouse, a comedy-drama exploring loneliness and connection at college.
Making a feature film at 23 is no small feat. Making a first feature film at 23, while serving as the screenwriter, director, leading actor, and co-producer is an even more daunting if not impossible task, but for Cooper Raiff, this challenge proved successful, resulting in a spectacular feature film debut. Shithouse tells the story of Alex (Raiff), a lonely freshman at a small city university in LA. Already halfway through his first year of college, Alex hasn’t made any friends yet and desperately wants to transfer to a school in Dallas to be closer to his family. Fed up with boredom one weekend, he decides to attend a party at “Shithouse” and makes an unexpected connection with his RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula) as they spend an adventurous night together. However, Alex’s world falls apart the next day when Maggie acts as if nothing happened that night, leading them both to reflect on themselves and their relationships.
Shithouse is a thoroughly impressive debut from a new cinematic voice, balancing comedy and drama with graceful ease. Raiff demonstrates sharp talent as a screenwriter, crafting memorable characters through realistic dialogue and careful attention to detail, capturing college on screen with welcome honesty and even moments of vulnerability. His talent as an actor also excels in bringing to life the instantly relatable Alex to screen, joined by a strong cast that inject genuine humor and unique personality into their characters.
In this interview, we spoke to Cooper Raiff to learn what inspired him to tell the story in Shithouse, why he wanted to make a feature film, and the challenge of performing all of his roles behind and in front of the camera.
Behind the Scenes: Cooper Raiff’s Inspirations
What was your filmmaking experience like before you made Shithouse and what inspired you to make a feature film?
The only experience I had was that I loved movies a lot. And then my sophomore year of college, I made a movie over spring break with two friends who weren’t filmmakers and weren’t actors. I somehow convinced them because we didn’t have spring break plans, so we made this movie in five days. I had always liked to write and act, I was also interested in acting but I never thought about directing until I made that movie over those five days. That movie was about 50 minutes to an hour long and so it wasn’t like a short film that then got turned into a feature, it was pretty long itself. I put that on YouTube and then I tweeted the link to Jay Duplass, of the Duplass brothers. He liked the movie and helped me turn it into Shithouse, so that movie was like the beginning seeds of Shithouse. So, yeah, I’m really interested in features and like don’t know a lot about short films, so it’s never been of interest to me to make a short film. And I know what most people do is start with a short film and then turn that into the feature, but the movie that I made over that spring break probably was a feature, but we just ended up not having enough time to keep going.
What inspired you to tell the story in Shithouse?
My relationship with this girl named Madeline Hill, who I dated for three years and we’re still best friends, so we’re not dating anymore. But she is very much who Maggie is based on. My relationship with her was the best thing ever and the best experience of my life, but it was also super rocky because we were such foils for each other and we’re such opposites. We’re polar opposites in so many different ways, because we were just like raised so differently. The leap to Shithouse was me kind of trying to figure out what I really wanted to say about the college experience and what it means to leave home and grow up in pain of that. And there’s also the element of the parents in Shithouse: no one prepares parents for how hard it is to drop their kid off at college and leave them there.
Were there any particular influences on Shithouse, like any films or TV shows that influenced you?
I really love Lost in Translation. The sweet spot of that movie hits, where every scene feels like it’s saying something about the themes. I just find the scenes in that movie to be so genuinely funny, and not in a jokey way or a setup-y way, there’s no setups in that movie. And I’m not good at writing setups or jokes or anything like that, but I do think that Lost in Translation is such a funny movie. I always wanted to write funny scenes and stuff like that. So I think that’s my biggest influence, everything that Sofia Coppola makes.
On Set: How Cooper Raiff managed his multiple filmmaking roles
How did you navigate all of your roles in front of the camera and behind the camera as a writer, a director, an actor, and a producer, especially on a first feature?
I don’t think I did a great job of it because every day was really challenging. Mostly for everybody else, because I think everybody on set wanted their director to be just their director. But I was also going into scenes and I was calling cut. So the biggest challenge having to ask for forgiveness constantly, like, “sorry guys, I need to do one more take,” or “sorry, I really need to watch it on the monitor,” because there’s times when we had to rush in and I would like feel like the scene went well and ask the DP if it went well. And like that’s how we would move forward, I didn’t even have to watch it. But then there were other times where I was like, “I have to watch the whole take” and this is just hard on everybody.
What was your biggest challenge while making Shithouse?
Being a leader on set because, when you’re doing all the roles it’s hard to not feel like you
need to shrink, and that it was somewhat the “Cooper show.” I just wanted to make myself small constantly, because I felt like it was a vanity project at times. And so I think the biggest challenge was reminding myself that I’m making a movie and I want to own the story and I want it to be the best it can be. I have to lead this crew and they have to trust me. So yeah, I’d say it was really hard to be a leader on set, that was the biggest challenge.
What was the most memorable experience of working on this film?
The very last scene of the movie, which is a scene that I loved, I was really excited to film. But right before we did that scene, I somehow got an allergic reaction to something: I’m allergic to peanuts but I don’t know if that’s what it was, but I had welts on my face. And we didn’t know what we were gonna do. So I just took a bunch of Benadryl and the swelling went down. I was out of my mind on Benadryl. And so I ended up doing that whole scene: if you look closely, you can see that my eyes are like bloodshot red. I did that whole scene very not high, but the Benadryl just made me very loopy. And that really opened me up in the scene in a way that it called for. That’s my favorite memory of the experience, just feeling so open and happy and in such a good mood about it, close to the end of filming. So, it just felt really great, that was a great moment.
Cooper Raiff on his protagonist Alex
In what ways are you most like your character Alex and in what ways are there differences between the character that you wrote and starred as?
I’m very similar in that my first 18 years of life were so awesome because I had a support system: I had safety nets in my family members, I was so dependent on them and I was really taken care of. I also went to a small high school that was very much a community, and we were all looking after each other. And then when I got to college it felt like a really shitty home, because I was without those safety nets. And so I’m very similar to Alex in that way. I struggled with just the shift to starting a second home, which I think everyone experiences. But Alex is very different in that I did turn my brain off a lot when I got to college: I did drink a lot and I partied and I’m similar to the roommate in that way. I’m also similar to Maggie in certain ways, I had walls up. Alex was kind of me trying to envision myself if I didn’t have those walls and if I was just like right up close to the pains and the realities of college and leaving home and that sort of thing. So, I don’t think I’m as vulnerable as Alex. Alex is a character that really shows you exactly how traumatic college can be, but then you have Maggie who shows the exact opposite of that: you need to learn how to stand on your own two feet.
Looking Ahead: Where Cooper Raiff wants to go next
What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re planning to work on? Do you see yourself more in front of the camera or behind it, or are you interested in doing everything?
I am interested in everything. I realized on Shithouse that I do love directing so much, it combines everything that I love about acting and writing and so I want to keep directing for sure. But I also love acting and I also will always write no matter what, if things get made or not: that’s how I spend my days a lot of the time. But as far as things that are coming up, I’ve realized that this is a big lucky moment and it might be a small window, so I’m trying to say yes to all these opportunities that are coming on the table. So I’m busy right now, just working on a lot of things.
Shithouse opens in US cinemas and on VOD on October 16, 2020. Click here to read our review of the film.
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