Shem Bitterman Discusses His Film “Distant Tales”

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Writer/Director Shem Bitterman about his four-part film, Distant Tales, which was filmed during the height of the pandemic and serves as a time capsule of sorts for one of the most traumatic experiences in recent human history. I hope you enjoy this conversation!

AG: I read a quote from you that said you were filming during the pandemic. But when did filming start for Distant Tales?

Shem Bitterman: That’s a very good question. It was in the height of the first wave of the pandemic. So the film is pretty raw in a sense. I would say it was the summer. So I’m trying to remember when the pandemic happened? I guess it was March. I think we were shooting in maybe as soon as August.

AG: Oh, wow. So really early on the lockdown.

Shem Bitterman: Yeah. I think some of that uncertainty informs a lot of the film. Like the kind of feeling that nobody really knew what the outcome would be. Would it get a lot worse, or would it somehow fix itself eventually or should I be making my will out? What should I be doing?

AG: I was curious about when you started filming because this film is very much like a time capsule of so many of our experiences across the four parts. I was curious about your early pandemic experiences and was this film shaped by imagination and fear or was it shaped by things that were happening to you?

Shem Bitterman: Well, that’s also a great question. Obviously, none of this happened to me but it was informed by various things. For example, the first piece was informed by the idea of people who are no longer able to leave abusive relationships, that were trapped in the house in an abusive relationship. Obviously, we went a little beyond that in the storytelling. That was sort of a point of departure, like, wow, this is really interesting. I don’t know if you recall, but everything was shut down. So, it was actually kind of hard to imagine like, where would a person go that needed to go to an abuse shelter? If they were in a relationship like that, how would they continue a love affair? The other thing of course, was that you can’t touch anyone, you can’t be intimate with anyone. You had to find another way to do it. So that was that piece. But then, for example, Black Lives Matter had informed the last piece, the piece about where Zoom is sort of almost like a character in it. The Manfred one where you start to feel like the actual fabric of the world is a little bit falling apart. We shot that one on actual Zoom and on camera so that the camera starts to get weirder and weirder looking. More and more degraded.  All those glitches and everything in that movie were authentic to Zoom. You kind of felt like the advent of this new kind of wonky technology was sort of the early collapse of everything. The kind of fear underneath everything – the loneliness, the fear, the sense of uncertainty of what would happen and whether people would even survive this or how bad was this going to be? Was it going to be like the plague of 1918 where 10% of the world was going to die? 

The vaccine piece was obviously informed by Moderna and the new vaccines coming out in experimentation and whether people could trust it, what their motives were, and the black experience with vaccines. So it was, it was an amalgam. I like that you would use the phrase time capsule because a few people have said that to me now. That it’s almost like the immediacy of a time capsule. It’s sort of gone but elements of it have remained with us. 

AG: For example, there is still a mistrust of vaccines. You had written this years ago now and It’s still very evident in our culture.

Shem Bitterman: Yeah, 100%. There’s still a lot of people working remotely like my daughter. That became a thing, that everything was just done remotely. It’s interesting that the pandemic did a bunch of things. It kind of accelerated these societal changes and these technological changes. 

AG: Placebo really resonated with me. I think just because even now we’re still experiencing this pushback on the vaccine and a lot of people are attributing it to side effects and by-products that they’re seeing. I think that chapter really stuck out to me just because it still feels so evident even a few years later. But I also wanted to discuss the section on the right-wing conspiracy theorist talk show host. You had written that prior to January 6th, correct?

Shem Bitterman: That was intentional. I think we were all pretty shocked by the storming of the Capitol building, but definitely the seeds were there. They’ve been there in the culture. The character of Bunker Bob, this sort of disconnection from mistrust of government. It is interesting to think of the movie in that way because all the characters sort of are kind of alone. They’re sort of apart from even the government. They’re kind of having to figure this all out on their own. Then there’s people that are going to exploit the opportunity to provide easy answers or to provide any answers. In the case of that last piece, the young soldier’s inability to connect emotionally with what’s really happening in his life has led him into this. It’s harder to deal with your life than to kind of put your emotions into someone else’s paranoid vision. If you can sort of jump onto a bandwagon, then you can take a lot of the stuff that you can’t unpack in your life, that’s painful to unpack. You can just sort of take all that extra energy that you have and commit aggressively to the fact that somebody in the government is screwing you over. Then you can take action and kind of get the relief that you want, that you couldn’t get through the emotional work that you might have to do.

AG: What was it like filming this movie during the height of the pandemic?

Shem Bitterman: It was really an amazing process actually because my son was my Director of Photography. We were a little bit of a unit and then we went to each actor’s location to shoot. So the actors were kind of isolated in their own place. We came and then I had an AD, a sound recordist, and a set decoration person. It was a very small crew, and it was kind of fascinating to shoot a movie where you shoot one side, one day of a conversation, and the other side the next day of the conversation. Which is also suitable to the theme of the whole thing.  It’s a bit of an experimental movie because it’s kind of like can you sustain a movie with a very limited visual palette and everything down the barrel almost of the camera? It was just fun for me to see; can this sustain as a movie? You’re really limiting the things that you have to paint with that you would normally have in a movie. We were very deliberate, like when we went out of the down-the-barrel shot.

AG: What impact do you think that had on the actors having to film like that with no other actors with them? They’re filming their side of the conversation. It very much feels like theater in a sense.

Shem Bitterman: It’s not entirely true that they were alone because sometimes they would show up for the other actor so they might be there for the other person to play their side. We really spent a lot of time on each of the stories, working with the actors and developing the text because I wrote it. Then I had a writing group called 123 that I work, with Tom Schulman, who wrote Dead Poets Society. We had a lot of group response to it and then on top of that, I did a lot of work with the actors themselves. By the time they did it, they were quite familiar with what the beats were and everything and what the story was for them. That was a really great process that you don’t normally get in the film process. 

AG: What was it like for you to be creative in a time that was unprecedented for us? Obviously, people in previous generations have been through plagues but we never had, and nobody was really creating at the time. But you were. 

Shem Bitterman: It was pretty necessary. We felt like it was the only affirmative thing that you could do. The whole play or movie, even though it is sort of a play, is sort of an affirmation of human existence. Humans keep affirming their existence even in complex and difficult situations. That’s sort of like the nature of what people do. Even in very limiting circumstances, they still reach for these basic things like human connection or love or understanding, or peace. However much their lives are interrupted by whatever happens in the world, they’re still looking for those things. That’s sort of like an extension of that I would say. 

AG: It was interesting to hear you refer to it as a play because that was one of my next questions. Could this ever be a stage production?

Shem Bitterman: I mean, there’s a kind of a sense that it could be, but everything would have to be translated into theatrical language because what makes it filmic is what you don’t see. There’s a lot of things that you just don’t see, like in the first piece, you don’t see anything around her. So, you don’t know what’s happening because you don’t see what’s around her, you make assumptions that there’s another person there. That’s like a bit of a film trick. Similarly, the loneliness that you might get in Placebo when you cut away from her conversation and you see her alone in her apartment, there’s a sort of a grim reality to it. Or when you see Megan’s apartment in the last piece, and you see in her house and how middle class it is and how nice it is. The way we shot that where the camera is facing sideways and they’re in two different rooms but they’re having a conversation, the background’s just changing. If you did it as a stage play, I guess, what I’m saying is you’d have to find the theatrical equivalent of those things, which so it would be a different, it would be an adaptation I guess what I’m saying, it’s very much of a film script.

AG: There are certain elements that made me think of a stage production as I was watching it. But that does make sense that you would have to adapt it some.

Shem Bitterman: I think that when people tend to see dialogue-heavier films, they think stage productions. In reality, if you look back at the history of filmmaking, there’s a lot of dialogue-heavy filmmaking. It’s less common now. When you look back at a lot of these movies like The Maltese Falcon and things like that, it’s pretty satisfying to hear the dialogue. This movie is actually quite filmic. Because of the glitching and because of the times we go to black and the way that the thing is controlled and the sound and the music, but dialogue is a big part of it. I’m beginning to realize that as a filmmaker, I enjoy dialogue and I enjoy watching the actors work in that way. I know there’s a film school thing that says everything should be visual, storytelling should be visual. But I kind of think that a lot of the pleasure of a lot of films is in the dialogue. 

Cover art for Distant Tales

AG: I wanted to ask if you were to compare where you were at when you first conceived of this film and you were first writing it to where you are now, what’s the difference? How do you personally feel now that we’re not necessarily on the other side of all these things? But we have moved along on the journey of these particular issues that the film brings about.

Shem Bitterman: When I made this film, there were a number of questions I had. One of them is can you go down the barrel, and the other one was how interesting is the pandemic? Now that we’re a little bit removed from it, it feels very relevant suddenly. It’s like you said, it’s like this time capsule of a very interesting time when there’s a before and after, this is sort of a fulcrum moment. Like the fulcrum of vaccine skepticism, the fulcrum of going to remote meetings, the fulcrum of distrust in the government where there’s an armed insurrection. We now have these deaths of despair that are traced, going all through the country. For the first time in America, we have suicides that are rising among older people. It used to be very young people who behaved impulsively, and I think that’s attributable in part to the breakdown of the social order. That’s the piece I’m referring to is Please Log On, which sort of is a breakdown of the social commons. I see this more and more that we’re seeding the social commons to the digital space. Obviously, whoever’s providing the digital space is profiting, but there’s also a cost and that cost is human connection. The fact that it’s now a little bit historical makes the film feel oddly more relevant because it’s that fulcrum point where all these things were new and the beginning of them and now, we’re kind of living in it honestly. I feel like we’re living in a pretty different world from the world that we inhabited, just prior to the pandemic.

Distant Tales is currently available on Amazon Prime.

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Written by Andrew Grevas

Andrew is the Founder / Editor in Chief of 25YL. He’s engaged with 2 sons, a staunch defender of the series finales for both Lost & The Sopranos and watched Twin Peaks at the age of 5 during its original run, which explains a lot about his personality.

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