Festivals Interviews SIFF

SIFF interview: Ben Kasulke talks about Banana Split, his directorial debut

If you’ve watched any films from the Pacific Northwest over the past ten to fifteen years, there’s a good chance you were seeing them through Ben Kasulke’s eyes. He has 69 credits to his name as a cinematographer on IMDB, starting with We Go Way Back, the first film from Lynn Shelton. He won the Mayor’s Award for Achievement in Film in 2012 and has been one of the most in-demand cameramen working today, having shot films for Guy Madden, Isabella Rossellini, and more. It’s a thoroughly impressive resume, and now he’s directed his first feature film. Unsurprisingly, it’s excellent.

Banana Split, which plays tonight at the Seattle International Film Festival, is an authentic teen comedy about two young women, just before they leave for college, forming an unlikely friendship: being the former and current girlfriend of the same guy. It’s a smart and nuanced film that is also very, very funny at times. Right now, it has a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The Stranger raved “there’s not one boring or bad moment from beginning to end.” In short, the movie is very, very good.

I talked to Ben Kasulke by phone earlier this week to talk about his directorial debut and more. Actually, we talked a week before, but it was rehomed somewhere in the ether after an embarrassing tape recorder malfunction. He was gracious enough to talk to me a second time.

Your career up until this point has been working as a cinematographer, but I always wondered when you were going to make the leap to directing. How did Banana Split come to be your first feature film as a director?

I was fortunate enough of Banana Split to have it sort of fall into my lap. Hannah Marks is an old, dear friend, and we had a long history working together at the Sundance Institute, and we’ve known each other for a good seven or eight years now, and over the last five or six of those years, we’ve been sort of batting projects back and forth and showing each other things we were working on, keeping in touch.

She sent this script over for Banana Split and I just, you know I thought she just wanted some notes on it. I read it. I loved it and I thought it was very funny, and her co-writer, Joey Power, had just made something really complicated, interesting, and funny, and feminist, and timely. And I think they really cracked open a good look at a generation that I think is not always represented as humanly as I wanted them to be.

And so all those things sort of combined but the thing that really drew me to the film and wanting to make it was that it was very, very funny, and the jokes were very, very well written. And underneath all the jokes, there was an agenda that really had something to say about young adult emotions and having to grow up, and learning relationships are much more in a gray area than they ever are in black and white. And it really was a sweet, but complicated story about young women growing up. I really liked that. So that was sort of what drew me to it.

I loved the movie and I just… I don’t know, it just felt like these were really real characters, and, I think that I mentioned that, when we talked last week, I think it was the character Ben … that would have been me in high school.

Same, yeah, no Ben was totally me. The one who’s sort of like everybody’s third wheel. Working with Spencer Roberts who played Ben, and coming up with that character and that character’s arc, it really was like, he kind of, he is the moral compass of the bunch and maybe more than I was at that age. He has a little more wisdom and he seems to have existed on Earth a little bit longer than his peers, or acts that way.

The character Ben’s best years are well ahead of him. He’s still got some time until he really blooms into his own. I think he might at certain times be the smartest one in the bunch, and he’s able to sort of try and do damage control on what is potentially a pretty volatile situation.

This film really seemed genuine, and I think it’s because you let us in to seeing what each character was thinking. All the acting was really, really good and it was really, really funny. I know I asked this at the end of when we talked together the first time, but can you tell me about the actress that played the younger sister? Because she was hilarious. She was probably the funniest part of the movie of a very, very funny movie.

Whenever we were worried about about a laugh, we would at least have a scene with Addison Riecke, who plays Agnes, the younger sister, who, you know, whenever I watch the movie, I’m like, “okay, if they don’t laugh at this scene, we’ve got another Addison scene coming up”, with April dealing with this little landmine of a little sister.

Yeah, that was a total, wonderful coup on behalf of our casting director, Amy Renee Casting. She found us a ton of people to kind of audition for the role of Agnes. And that’s a tricky part: she’s got to be a young girl and she says a lot of pretty terrible stuff. It’s very, very funny but it’s also … you know what someone at 13 or 14 years old is going to bring to the table.

Addison turned 13 during our shoot. I mean there were a bunch of tapes that came in. Her tape really just like jumped out at us. Like she just had this sort of inherent sassiness to the delivery of the lines and was just very just incindiarily funny in a way that fit the script and fit the tone of the script and was a good counterpoint to the struggles that April was going through. She has this little sister who’s like not only antagonizing her, but over all of the issues that April’s going through. And it’s just a good counterpoint to the sort of temporariness, but also validity of her emotions.

And yeah, with Addison, it was like you know, we saw the tape and I was like, ‘oh my god, this little girl’s great.’ And I didn’t know much about her. She has a really long history of acting. She’s a full-on child actor who works all the time, and so she comes out of the Nickelodeon World and she does comedy but she does comedy in a sort of very wholesome way. And you know I knew that she had done some comedic work.

But I knew that she had worked in The Beguiled, a Sofia Coppola film, so I knew that understood things that might have to exist as visuals or have a little more nuance to them. So she came from a good pedigree and then the word on the street was that she was just this like powerhouse actress, and that all proved to be true.

I was a little nervous. It was my first film and I you know worked with lots of younger actors and actresses as a cinematographer and spent a lot of time with directors like Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths, who are really adept at making a set that’s conducive to safe, emotional space and getting good performances out of actors of any age, but in particular, children at times. And so I knew that I’d had some good role models as directors and people I’d collaborated with over the years.

But I was nervous about Addison just having to deliver these lines. I mean she’s got some pretty burner jokes in there for a young kid to be saying, and I remember as soon as she took the job, getting on the phone with her parents and talking to her parents and being like, ‘you guys, if you … I don’t know what your parenting plan is, but she’s saying some pretty rough stuff here. It would be really nice if she has any questions, if you were around to answer them, because I don’t want to scar your child.’ And they were so sweet, you know.

She’s like this really sweet girl from Louisiana. Her speaking voice is kind of a southern drawl, and it’s very proper, and she’s not that person at all. I think she’s had multiple times throughout the shoot that she just really enjoyed it because it was nothing like what she has as an everyday working experience when she goes back on set on more youth oriented stuff.

Photo from Twitter.com/BenKasulke

Yeah I think she stole the movie in a lot of ways because you just didn’t know what she was going to say, but it was so bawdy, and it was hilarious. And yeah, I can see just being really nervous about asking her to say some of those things she said.

I came from a household where people were pretty free. Like those interactions especially with Susan, the mother, and Agnes and April, where it was just like all three women just sort of going at it, and Agnes is just sitting there in the corner like this little time bomb, like kind of throwing these things out to test the waters.

Yeah, absolutely, and one thing I know we talked about that I wanted to ask again about, was that you talked about how you kind of put your own spin on it once you came on board, with like the music and wardrobe and stuff. Can you talk a little more about that?

Yeah. Hannah and Joey were really great in that they were super, super collaborative. Now Hannah … this is a very personal story for her, and I think she lived as a… not exactly the same but a similar kind of dynamic in a relationship in her life at a certain point. So I was working with someone who was coming in from their own experience and like trying to universalize their own experience in a way that was both funny but also maybe had some things to say about how gender roles, and friendships, and sexual politics work at a certain age.

So those are very specific things, and to her credit, Hannah could have been extremely guarded and not in a collaborative place when it came to the tone, or some of the content, but she was so open. She’s such a collaborator. Joey is so open to changes in screenplays. There were certain things that I wanted to push back on, tone-wise, or there was some version of the script that was a little bit meaner throughout, and I felt like we could soften some of the blows a little bit but leave in some of the funny stuff.

There was an earlier version where April sort of like swung a lot lower and got a lot darker before she kind of broke out of her funk and started to embrace the friendship with Clara, and things started sort of lighten up in the second half of the film. So they were open to that and Hannah and Joey didn’t really cling to any frequency notions about music choices. I’m a big music guy. I think in another life, I probably would have played music, or performed music, and that would have been another track for me.

But I wake up in the morning, I listen to music all day. I listen to a lot of music directing the movie, and we listened to tons of music editing the movie, so I wanted the soundtrack to feel like another through line of the film, and I wanted to use the film as a way to make a great mix tape for people and maybe hopefully open some doors; it’s a film I hope will be seen by younger people and talked about and thought of in a way of a lot of directors that I grew up watching their films could make a really good mix tape that starts to open doors and nudge you in a certain musical direction as your tastes come into being. I was sort of hoping to do that and I never really got any resistance from anyone. It was, if anything, everybody was pretty encouraging about musical choices.

And I had a wishlist of costume. You know like a costume arc and a wardrobe arc for everybody. I knew I wanted a certain result, but I didn’t know how to get there. Luckily Hannah in particular, but also the other producers were very gung ho on a decision that wanted to hire another costume designer, Mona May, who is this legendary costume designer. She did Clueless and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, and Never Been Kissed, and just like some iconic films about stylish, smart, funny women. She was a real asset to us, especially as a first time director, Mona has a way of working that’s so thorough and has such a distinctive voice to it, but also adds a whole other level to what you’re seeing on screen. She has a way of dressing people at a given moment and at a given part of the screenplay that really adds a whole other world that I knew I wanted but didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate.

So I got really lucky with Hannah and Joey, and in particular Hannah, just with such a personal piece of work, was open to another person’s interpretation of it. I feel really lucky that she trusted me to kind of run with it, you know?

You mentioned last time we talked, Amy Heckerling and Clueless. You just mentioned Clueless again, and I think that’s probably my favorite high school movie. I just think that it’s a perfect film.

Oh it’s the best.

I was wondering if you wanted to talk about that relationship or that kind of influence with this movie? Because you could definitely see that if you like Clueless, you’re going to like Banana Split.

I’ll be 42 by the time you probably write this. But I grew up on John Hughes and there is a sort of pedigree that the movie that I wanted. I love John Hughes, I love Amy Heckerling and I’m fortunate to have worked with Amy Heckerling a lot on an Amazon show I did called Red Oaks and so she became a friend, and she was kind enough to give notes on the cut and give me some notes on the screenplay as we were coming together and do our shooting draft.

I love her handling. She’s got this sort of great humorous but also a very matter-of-fact handling of like gender, especially in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Like she deals with some pretty heavy-hitting stuff in a way that like, you watch it, and it’s integral to the movie, but it’s also like it’s not everything. You know? It’s everything that the characters, but it’s not everything to the movie. I’m extremely thankful to her and her friendship and also for her guidance. She’s just a powerhouse director that’s been doing it for a very long time. She’s very good at it and she’s very funny and generous with her advice to filmmakers.

So, yeah, I love Amy Heckerling, and then the biggest influence for me was the Howard Deutch film that John Hughes wrote – Some Kind of Wonderful. It’s another love triangle, much different type of love triangle than what Banana Split ends up eventually dealing with, but that’s a film I grew up on, and always come back to and love and watch it a few times a year.

That was a huge, huge turning stone for Banana Split, and then the other one, the more recent one, is Superbad, which is a much more masculine take on a similar sort of platonic friendship territory that you get into with Banana Split, where it’s like … you know, Superbad‘s a film where you watch some very hilarious, but guarded young men get to a point in their lives where they kind of know they’re going to lose each other, and they admit that they love each other. And that’s a really hard thing to do. Greg Motolla really nails it in that movie, and you know, usually with that age, in a way that feels honest, but is also funny to people that are in their late teens and early 20s. That’s a really hard demographic to reach out to. You have to embrace big emotions that are universal but also they cannot feel falsely amplified.

I feel lucky to have grown up on films like Some Kind of Wonderful, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, you know, I adore John Hughes and I adore his work. Those are complicated kind of adult takes on complicated youthful emotions that everybody has.

I think that’s what I loved about Banana Split, that has this universiality that feels like you could relate to the characters without being the same age they are right now.

That was the hope; if we can keep that every character emotionally honest in this, if we make sure we just don’t like write somebody off as a one off joke. It was really important to me and the treatment of the Nick character played by Dylan Sprouse. I really wanted to make sure that he wasn’t just this hit-and-run accident. I wanted to make sure that there was an arc for Nick and that you could kind of tell in both the way that Dylan plays him, and in the way that the script tracks his reaction to all of this in the unfolding of it, in fact that you don’t see him for a little while in the movie, then when he comes back, he’s still got feelings for his ex-girlfriend. And he’s in a pretty compromised position and then these girls kind of pull a fast one on him. You know that’s going to affect that guy going forward in his life.

At that point that might be one of the worst things that’s happened to him. He lost his ex-girlfriend and then he lost the new girlfriend, and then they are friends behind his back the entire time. I didn’t want it to be just like, ‘oh, forget the guy. ‘ Part of the difficulty of Clara and April’s friendship is that there’s very real stakes and they actually really hurt people. I think it’s really important for April to have come clean and realize that she hurt him in a way that’s pretty significant, and to own up to it and apologize.

I wanted to ask something I hadn’t before, because between the times we spoke, I had seen Sword of Trust. Have you seen it yet? I really loved it.

I have. Yeah, it’s hilarious. It’s really, really funny.

But I was wondering what you learned, or how working with Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths, and all the other great Northwest filmmakers kind of prepared you for directing your own film?

I’ve been really lucky in that; I had a really good early career training and coming up with really strong, articulate directors in specifically the Northwest, a lot of them women, which is really kind of rare for a lot of film scenes. It’s rare in New York and L.A but it’s extremely rare outside of New York and L.A to have the real kind of movers and shakers in the city’s film scene to be women. We were really lucky in Seattle to have that and you learn something different from everybody, and there’s a great paraphrasing of Bruce Lee that’s just sort of like, ‘you absorb what’s useful and move on,’ so there’s a lot of youthful, technical and emotional directing techniques that you can sort of (absorb through) osmosis by working with people like Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths.

But you know, in a really tangible way, like Lynn comes from an acting background. She came from the theater acting background. She understands emotional vulnerability and performance vulnerability, and what you’re really asking someone to do to create a character and then just throw it out there for the entire world to judge. And her sets, particularly from Humpday onward, really were, if above all else, conducive to a perfect performance. They were calm places. They were places where the energy was fun and sweet, and people didn’t feel judged or were not put in a place to be performative in front of a bunch of crew members that are standing around staring at them.

It really was a curated space that even though I watched Lynn do that over and over and over again, and I watched Megan Griffiths do that over and over and over again, that it was sort of a trickle down effect. I sort of felt like their sets almost if you were to graph them out, looks like a whole pyramid, with like, there’s like there’s Lynn and the performance, and the screenplay all kind of floating at the top, and things similar to Megan, and then like if the needs of the performers, and if the needs of the script, and if the needs of the emotional tone that the director is trying to conjure up on set with the lighting and everyone else involved.

Like, if those few core things are accomplished, the mood of the set and the needs of the set sort of start to build all the blocks underneath the apex of the pyramid, and it gets really strong, and they all have to sort of serve to build the same building, right? So you can’t create a film set that is conducive to people truthfully in one building, and then hire a bunch of like screaming, really loud, over the top, crew members that are off making their own movie in the corner. It just doesn’t work that way. So it was, if nothing else, I learned to prioritize what’s really right for a movie, and curate everything else around that.

I sort of move forward within other parts of my career, and I shot a lot for the Sundance Institute, for the Future Film Labs, and that’s another thing where it’s like, not only are you working with new directors all the time, but the access to professional mentors in the form of other directors and cinematographers, and people that are dropping by your set. You really start to take in certain lessons, but I mean, I think you know for me that the most tangible example that I can come up with after working with Lynn, and working with Megan, and going through the professional grad school slash bootcamp that is the Sundance Labs, it’s like I would work with Cinematographer Dan Moran, set up a frame, and then I would sit right next to the camera and watch the performers.

I’ve tried, and I want to be there for the performers. I have a real aversion to a style of directing that I’ve run into, where a director would just set up camp near a monitor and kind of bark commands at everybody from 50 feet away. It just doesn’t work. I’ve never seen it work well, and it’s the antithesis of what you see on a set with someone like Megan, or Lynn, or even Amy Heckerling.

Right yeah, and I remember from an interview I did with Lynn for her last movie, Outside In. And she talked about in that interview was like how she kind of thought that like her emotional intelligence is like her superpower. And I feel like that kind of really comes through in this movie, in Banana Split also, where you could really … you could see, like I was saying earlier, that you could really tell like what each person was thinking, and they weren’t just like hollow characters or someone that was there to move the plot along.

That’s great. That’s really great to hear, man, thank you. There was a lot of behind the scenes set photos and like almost any one of the ones that were taken of me that I kind of saw, you know and just in the exchanges, it was like I’m sitting on like a little box next to the camera just like scribbling notes while people are talking and I’m watching their faces. I don’t know if that’s emotional intelligence. I think a lot of it was … you know, just knowing that you know what I thought was fun, fun in the screenplay, knowing what I thought rang truthfully in the screenplay, knowing that I wanted people to feel complicated and real.

And I think that like especially in making a film that’s it’s mostly funny but it’s also kind of sweet and sad. If you’re making a bunch of jokes but nothing feels real behind it, like what’s the point? You know, you can kind of just throw one-liners out all day but it’s pretty hollow. But if you start to sort of say something about what you’re doing here on the planet or what you’re doing here with your life, or we’re all trying to just … I think everybody’s trying to do the best with what they have, and part of that is screw up and you hurt people, and you make jokes and you get defensive, and you cop to it, and you overextend yourself emotionally, because you need something, and you start to feel vulnerable, and you start to feel intimate, and none of those things are possible without creating a world that feels real and approachable.

Yeah I was justthinking about this after we talked, where for me, I really have to have a connection with the characters in a film. If it’s a comedy, unless it’s like a Mel Brooks movie, or like Airplane!, or something where there’s like a million gags thrown all at once, it’s gotta be like over the top, or the actor’s like be empathized with someone in the film.

Yeah. Yeah no, I’ve worked with Todd Rohal and lots of other filmmakers. He’s had stuff at SIFF and we’ve done a couple of things that where we create a little 15 minute thing for “Adult Swim,” but we did one that was just … the entire point of it was to fast forward through a feature film, an entire feature film in like 12 minutes, and to just like pack it with so many gags and so many jokes that I just remember talking about it, conceiving it with him, just being like if nothing else, this movie should just try and set the world land speed record for dumb jokes per minute.

We put the most dumb gags in it, and this is a total success and I found that when he and I get in that mode of like, the jokes become about the jokes, about the jokes, about the jokes, about the jokes, we learn very quickly that underneath all of the stupidity, there’s like a real film theory working that’s happening. You know, there’s like a real like monkeying around with like why are you sitting through any movie at that point. I think there is a really good place for just tons and tons and tons of jokes without any emotional background behind them, but this movie was not that.

I think that those kind of experiments and comedy for me are really about a medium. I think it’s about an exploration of like comedic performance, and why you would even … you know, what the power of sitting through a story is, if you create a story where we’d be like howling laughing, and at the end they walk away and there’s nothing to cling onto. And what does that mean when the dust settles?

Rick Alderson is a filmmaker I really love, and he works in that world of kind of chipping away at the idea of narrative and what, as a person, you really give up when the lights go out in the theater, and you start to suspend disbelief, you know, but this movie was not that, to go on a tangent, but I needed Banana Split to feel real and I needed everybody to feel, you know, torn and in gray areas and not quite sure what to do with a moment, you know?

Absolutely I’m going to just ask a couple of questions and then I’ll let you go to get your evening.

With you, Hannah, or whoever, who has really strong feelings towards “Call me Maybe?” I ask because 1) I love that song, and 2) it was in the movie a bunch of times.

Yeah, I mean the Carly Rae Jepsen stuff was written into the script. I think that Hannah and Joey, the co-writers really loved Carly Rae Jepsen. I think that there’s a … and Joey in particular, I think has a real passion for that type of pop superstar. You know, that’s the one music cue in the film that to me is like that’s … she’s just not for me. You know, they’re beautifully made songs. They’re very well produced and it’s kind of like astoundingly good pop music, but it’s just not … it’s not my jam. What I like is that you know, it starts pounding in the movie and you realize it’s pounding out of the love interest’s car, and then she’s just makes fun of it and then like there’s a needle drop onto like a Lizzo track right after that.

I do think there’s probably some autobiographical element to someone that might have gone through Hannah or Joey’s life at some point. Like this person is super cool, except for this non-ironic attachment to like huge top 40 music, you know?

Before I let you go, I just want to ask, is there anything else you want people to know about your movie that we hadn’t talked about? Or that we talked about last time that I forgot to ask about?

You know, I feel pretty good, I mean, if nothing else, I just wanted to make something like fun and funny that had inter-gender underneath it that wasn’t trying to pull something over on people. You know, I just wanted it to be a story about growing up, but maybe have a bit of a feminist bend to it without being preachy. And then I just tried every step of the way, every single step of the way, from the conceiving of it, to the production of it, to the editing of it, I just tried as much as possible to not like white mansplain my way through the story about two young women.

I do have a lot of gratitude to, in particular, to a lot of the women filmmakers I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with, and a lot of the ones that came through our editing room and came to screenings and gave notes, like I’m very indebted to the learning curve and the work I have to do as man, and I just feel lucky to have the opportunity.

Oh, excellent. And last thing, is there anything else that you’re working on that you want to talk about? Or that you can?

Yeah, I’ve got an episode that I co-wrote and directed. I co-wrote it with Mark Duplass as an episode in the third and upcoming season of the HBO show, “Room 104.” There’s an episode called “Night Shift” that’ll be coming out. I think they’re going to drop that in the late fall on HBO. Some people will want to look out for that, and then I’m writing and reading a lot of scripts right now, trying to figure out what the next thing is. And in the meantime, I’m continuing to shoot films because I love it and don’t ever really want to stop.

Banana Split plays at the Seattle International Film Festival on Saturday, May 18 at 6:30 PM at the Uptown Theater; Sunday, May 19 at 1:00 PM at Pacific Place; and on Thursday, May 23 at the Ark Lodge in Columbia City at 6:30 PM.

Keep track of the SunBreak’s ongoing SIFF coverage on our SIFF 2019 page, plus news, updates, and micro-reviews on Twitter @theSunBreak.