In describing Cooper Raiff’s emergence onto the independent film scene, it’s easy to lean on what sounds like a novelty hook: at just 23 years old, he’s written, directed, starred in, and co-edited Shithouse, a college-set romcom that went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at South by Southwest—an achievement regrettably complicated by the festival’s ahead-of-the-curve decision in March to shift to a virtual model amidst the worsening COVID-19 crisis.
To focus on the unlikelihood of Raiff’s success, however, would be a disservice to the artistry of Shithouse. Telling the story of one weekend in the lives of Alex (Raiff), a freshman at a small liberal arts college struggling to fully acclimate to life away from the comforts of home, and Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a sophomore whose carefully calibrated self-reliance is shaken by a string of minor but compounding disappointments, the film evokes the texture of 21st-century campus life with a density of detail that attests to the lack of sentimental distance between storyteller and subject. Shithouse has been frequently (and aptly) compared with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, but far from another derivative walk-and-talk indie, this is as personal and vulnerable a film as you’re likely to see this year. Raiff delivers a performance of startling emotional acuity supported by a confident visual hand that suggests an artist with years of training and experience rather than a novice learning on his feet—albeit with the help of producer Jay Duplass, to whom Raiff reached out with a link to the DIY short film that would become Shithouse’s proof of concept.
A week before the VOD release of Shithouse, I spoke with Raiff on Zoom, and while I intended to pick his brain about the process of turning this unlikely dream into an award-winning reality, our conversation quickly took a remarkably emotional turn, one that befits his remarkably emotional first feature.
(Be advised that this conversation discusses the plot of Shithouse in its entirety, including details of the final scenes.)
This is a movie that I personally feel like I was waiting a really long time for. College is this time in your life that is so specific, both silly and emotionally huge, and I’ve never really seen that reflected on screen when you have Animal House and all the college clichés. So I was wondering what you felt was so significant about this time in someone’s life that it was worth spending years of your life telling this story.
I think I just found it jarring that no one really talks about how hard it is to fall asleep that first night under a new roof. And I’m obsessed with parents, and I love my mom so much, and I have so much empathy and don’t understand how it’s possible to just, like, drop your kid off and leave them there. I think that has to be the most painful thing in the world, to then be strong and pretend everything’s OK. And I got to college and I wanted to look after people, and help people when they were throwing up, and I wanted to be a part of people’s lives, but they were, like, having these exorcisms—I don’t wanna talk, I don’t want you to touch me, get away from me. And it was so scary to be by myself because I realized I don’t know how to take care of myself by myself. It was the first time where I realized how important it was to figure out who I was separate from other people in order to really, truly be there for other people.
My experience was not like Alex’s. Like the roommate, I drank a ton, and like Maggie, I ghosted people. Alex is me stripped away and trying to get at the core, and chip away at my true feelings about divorcing my mom, and the fact that I don’t know how to make my bed and that’s a huge problem, or I don’t know how to clean up after myself, and really making those things very significant. I have to believe that it’s hard for everybody, even people who didn’t have the best family life. I have to believe that it’s so hard to fall asleep by yourself for the first time.
But also, the movie is entirely my relationship with this girl named Madeline who I was with for three years. Maggie’s very much based on her, and those arguments are very much arguments that we have all the time about what it means to be a good roommate, and whether or not people should be looking after each other or whether it’s important to be on your own. I think what I realized, and what I want Shithouse to come to is: those two things are not working against each other. You do need to learn how to take care of yourself before really being there for someone, but you should be able to depend on people. A lot of people think I had, like, the worst freshman year of all time. I had the worst freshman year of all time in the same way that everyone has a horrible time adjusting. But I really wanted to write a character who was this close [holds palm directly in front of face] to the pain of growing up and leaving home.
I wasn’t planning to go here first, but now it’s grabbed me: one of the first things that you just talked about was the mom. You shifted right away from your own character, the protagonist. And the empathy for all the characters comes through so strongly, but the mom, in particular, I found so vivid. Did you get input from your own mom or from the actress, Amy Landecker? Or were you just conjuring that completely out of your own head?
I’m not a super observant person, but I watch my mom more than anyone else in the world. I’m just obsessed with her in a way. She’s a psychologist, so we talk about things pretty openly, it’s not just me coming up with things. I think that was helpful in creating the mom character. But I didn’t have her input, because I really wanted to present it to her and show her how much she means to me, and how much I see her. I wasn’t in Dallas watching her on the phone, but the thing is—close relationships with kids and parents, when you move away, you just know that they’re crying on the other end of the phone, but they’re holding it back, especially moms. And I wanted her to know that, I see you, and I feel that, and it crushes me too, and I’m doing the same thing. I don’t think I’ve ever truly had that [climactic] phone call with my mom. We always danced around the divorce, I think we had a very long divorce. But I wanted for the movie to just really hardcore confront the fact that things are never gonna be the way that they were, and I’m never gonna be small, and I know that that’s devastating for her ‘cause it’s devastating for me, too. There’s a line [of Alex’s] that’s just, I’m sorry. I wanted her to know that I’m sorry it sucks so hard to be a mom, ‘cause it does. And there’s this moment where she looks over at her daughter—I didn’t write that into the script, but on the day, I was like, I want you to look at her, ‘cause she’s gonna be gone, too. And I hated asking Amy to do that, ‘cause she has a daughter.
This is a total tangent, but I just wanna talk about it: My sophomore year, I got a flight to Dallas for her birthday. I was envisioning, like, Oh my God, you’re here! But she saw me and just broke down in a way that was not what I wanted to see. And she’s apologized profusely for it, because it was such a traumatic moment for me, just realizing how broken the firstborn leaving can leave you.
Did you surprise her, or did she know you were coming?
She didn’t know I was coming, I surprised her entirely and she just broke. But she tried to communicate later that the reason was because it felt like such a gift. I think moms sometimes don’t get that. They’re such unsung heroes, because they give you so much energy and attention, and for you to give them that energy and attention—it just made her sob. And I wanted to do that with the movie, just show her how much she impacts me every single day and how I really carry her on my shoulder. I’m a sensitive person, but I’m not someone like Alex who’s calling every day. I push it down. And this movie was me trying to access what’s deep in my bones.
That’s really interesting, because I think more than anything in this movie what struck me was the emotional vulnerability—of you as a performer, but also the character that you created. So much of the dilemma of the movie is that Alex wants hugs from his mom, and it’s not presented as anything to be embarrassed of. And that’s not something that you typically see a 19-year-old guy talking about and wrestling with. Did you have any self-consciousness or did you just believe, This is gonna be relatable?
I think it probably is because I had a psychologist as a parent, and I grew up thinking feelings were cool. Like, that was dope. And so I didn’t have reservations, I wasn’t self-conscious in that way. But I also wasn’t trying to necessarily be like, Y’all are gonna see a dude cry right now. I wasn’t trying to be in-your-face. I know that it is in-your-face, but I wanted that climax to be jarring, I wanted the scariness of what he’s feeling to come through. In therapy sometimes, I know how people just—like Madeline, my girlfriend for three years, in her first therapy session, she scared herself with how much she was crying. She was like, What did I eat? What’s happening right now? And I think that’s always a profound thing, and I experienced that when I filmed that climax scene. We did another take where I didn’t cry as much, and so many people said, Use this take, please use this take, people are gonna be terrified by you. But I was like, No, I need to. It felt real. Even though it is a bit scary and a bit uncomfortable to watch, I really cared about showing it and being true to Alex as a character.
Well, I can say as an audience member, it’s one of the most vivid and real crying scenes I’ve ever seen. I think it is very easy for crying to come across as weird or uncomfortable on-screen and there was something so emotionally available about what you gave in that performance. And I would love to talk about that some more, but we’ve got like four minutes, and we’re gonna get nowhere near all the stuff I wanted to talk to you about. So let’s talk about the title, how about that?
Yes! Shitty house. For Alex, after 18 years of a safety net, this is a shitty home for him, and that’s his attitude. There was an actual house called “Shithouse” at my college, and when I first heard that, I was like, Are there any other houses or is this what college is gonna be? And I thought it was a perfect metaphor. But I also wanted to show in the movie that it’s his fault that it’s a shitty house. He doesn’t have the tools to make a better home, and that 2 ½ years [between the main story and the epilogue] is, I think, him trying to make it not so shitty so that another person can maybe join him.
So the idea is that he’s built a life for himself that’s a “shitty house?”
It’s a shitty house ‘cause he doesn’t even have his hammer yet. He’s just showing up and thinking that people are gonna take care of him like they did for 18 years. ‘Cause from 0 to 18 you don’t have to take part in making sure you have—that is so not true, so many people do. But for me, I was so coddled, and when I got to school I wasn’t coddled, and I wasn’t working on myself and working on my space. Like his decorations—if you look at the screen, it’s like, What is this kid doing? He’s totally paralyzed.
And that’s one of those details that I can tell is so recent for you. I’m 10 years older than you, and I would never have thought to put a case of juice boxes next to the bed, but as soon as I saw it, I thought, That’s exactly what it’s like. So what do you think is the journey that Alex goes through?
I think the journey is that he’s stuck because—it’s gonna make me emotional. He’s stuck because he has this tie that I think is by his doing. But I think his mom does have a part in it. I say in the movie, he really is still in Dallas. And I think with Maggie, that night gets him out of that comfort zone for the first time. And what I tried to show the second day is—what I do is, when I have a new thing, I make that my new comfort zone. And that line where he’s like, Maggie is outside of my comfort zone, and [Alex’s roommate] Sam is like, No she’s not, you just talked to her all night—he does go from comfort zone to comfort zone. And I think the journey he goes on is realizing that he’s gotta do it himself, figure out his space, so that someone can come into his space, and he can go into someone else’s space, and really find a home within himself. But the other journey is—so many people told me, Cut the beginning, the first couple crying scenes. Because they wanted it to be like: he’s holding it, holding it, and then all of a sudden it releases. And I was like, No, the journey is, he’s for the first time crying to his mom, and communicating the fact that it’s been so shitty. ‘Cause before it’s just: hang up, cry by myself, and that’s the comfort zone, just crying by myself and complaining about it. But the journey that he goes on is finally facing the person that’s causing those tears and telling her, I need to go and you gotta let me go and you gotta let me try. And then I think the journey that Maggie goes on is like, OK, I’m gonna give it a go. And in that last scene, I’m trying to say, like—
You mean the flash forward?
The flash forward, yeah, the very last scene where they’re in the library. I think of that as: Alex has his moment of, I at least want to try, and that Maggie’s is, I at least want to try and give this relationship a go, and give a go to depending on someone, to see what that’s like. I don’t see that ending as them ending up together. I see it as: Maggie’s gonna take the leap to, Can I fuckin’ depend on people? People don’t talk about the look Maggie gives. I know it’s really small and specific, but in the last scene, when I’m like, I do want it to feel like we have each other’s backs, there’s a look that she gives that I really cared about. I don’t feel controlling about, like, See this, but on the day I was like, this is something that just comes with the territory of being in a relationship with Alex, and I wanted to show that Maggie’s like, Yeah, I know what you’re gonna say. I don’t necessarily carry that in my heart, but I know that that’s what you need, and I’m gonna say yes to it. I don’t want my movie to come across as, like, emotional propaganda, I want to show that Maggie’s still grounded in what she thinks is important. I just think those things, like I said, aren’t working against each other. So I think they both go on this big journey of, he learns how to take care of himself and she learns how to say yes to depending on someone.
With our allotted time having flown by and so much left undiscussed, Raiff suggested we find time for a follow-up conversation, and so we got back on the phone four days later with the goal of discussing the production details we’d barely touched on. Unsurprisingly, though, with the film’s release date fast approaching, we quickly found ourselves in a conversation even more unguarded than we had the prior week.
How are you?
I don’t know. It’s just such an insecure time. I feel so controlling over the way people watch the movie, and I can’t do that anymore.
How have you been controlling in the past? And what does it mean to you to be losing that control now?
I didn’t realize that more than, like, 50 people were gonna watch it, and I feel like I can be controlling of those 50 people. I can make sure they know who I am, and know how much money the movie cost, and know that it’s awesome that it’s watchable and that sort of thing. But way more than 50 people are gonna watch it, and people are gonna hate it, and that’s just part of being someone who makes a movie that multiple people see.
That is true. So when you were shooting it, were you not expecting it to, I don’t know, win South by Southwest, and—
Definitely not! I was dreaming of getting into South by Southwest and being around other filmmakers and meeting people. I was just really excited to be a part of the club of filmmakers trying to make movies, and South by Southwest is really good about first time movie makers and young people, and I was just excited to get involved. And then for it to not happen, and then for it to also be—winning is so awesome, of course, I’m so grateful and so lucky and so happy that a lot of people are gonna see it. But I feel like it puts me in a different area that I don’t necessarily want to be in, ‘cause it feels isolating. I think this is me just projecting, but it can feel like my instinct is to get defensive, ‘cause I don’t want people to come in to the movie and be like, All right, what’s this fuckin’ movie all about that won South by? But yeah, I’m with some friends and just trying not to think about it all week.
I get that. Like I’ve mentioned, I did this too. I didn’t have anywhere near the production value that you have, and certainly did not get into any festivals on the order that you did, but I have that same memory of being in the week leading up to release.
The vulnerability is just ridonkulous. I hate that I read all the Letterboxd things, but I do, and some people are so furious on that damn app. Are you controlling of the way people watch your things, and read your things? I feel like this is my first time being naked and I don’t have any practice at it.
I think you just have to figure out a way to disassociate. In my experience, people’s perceptions have a lot more to do with—
With them, yeah.
With them than necessarily with the work. There’s no objective truth to what a work is, it’s so much about what people are bringing into it and what they’re projecting onto it. And certainly there’s one really negative review of my own movie that I could quote to you with a lot more accuracy than I could quote any of the nice ones.
But also, I feel like I can see in that review who that person was and so that doesn’t bother me as much, because it’s like, Well, then you were not predisposed to like the thing that I made. I made something that is geared toward people with a heart and a soul like mine.
So, I’m curious now—there’s no way, obviously, to predict the feelings that you would be having right now, but while you were making it, what sort of path were you dreaming of, or expecting for it?
I wanted to get into South by Southwest because I’ve seen movies that have gone there. I didn’t know the logistics, but Jay [Duplass] has a connection with South by Southwest, and I knew that they would watch the movie—I mean, I hope that they watch every movie, but I knew that they would actually give it a good watch and watch it all the way through, and I knew that the movie, if watched all the way through, does land. But what I wanted it to do was just find a really nice niche, a pocket at South by Southwest. It’s this festival of a thousand movies, and maybe 200 people end up seeing my movie in the theater and have a really great experience, and then I also watch all of the other thousand movies and get to know people and that’s how I start off my journey as like an actor, a filmmaker, a writer. After meeting those people, I’m gonna figure out what I want to do, I’m gonna be able to work with good people and make nice relationships and that sort of thing and everything’s gonna open up. And everything opened up in a severely different way, an incredibly large way. I was on set knowing that it was gonna do what I wanted it to do. I knew it was gonna be good, and it had the special quality that I wanted. But I didn’t think it would ever be on this scale. I knew that certain people were gonna connect to it really hard, I think that if you went to South by Southwest and saw the movie, I could have envisioned this conversation, but I didn’t think it was gonna be, like, for a piece. There’s three projects that I was working on before Shithouse that I care about so much and I feel like those are things I could envision people watching, but I would never have been able to make those things. So Shithouse was kinda my way in to maybe, possibly, one day being able to see those things with other people. And I guess that’s happened, but it’s happened in a way that—I don’t know, I just wish it could stay a little bit smaller at times.
So when you messaged Jay Duplass—you had made this short film and you send him the link. Is the goal just, This is a guy I admire and I’d like him to know I exist, or is it, This is a guy I admire and I want him to produce an expanded feature version?
There’s so many different little miracles. He lives right next to the college that I went to. He’s someone that I watched from ninth grade on, because I was obsessed with Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives At Home, and then Togetherness came out and I watched the HBO talkbacks that he did, and I was like, This guy cares about the right things, and he seems like a great producer. And I also knew that he was super nice to young filmmakers. So all that was in my mind, and I had a bunch of things that I had written. And then it was about a month before spring break my sophomore year of college, and I was like, There’s no way anyone’s gonna read these things. So I was like, I have to make something, get Jay to watch that little thing, I know he’s gonna like it enough to talk to me, and then when we talk, I’m gonna show him all these other things that I’ve written. And so when I tweeted him, he did watch it, and he was like, My wife and I liked it, let’s talk. And then we got lunch and I told him about all these other things I was writing, he told me about something he was writing, and it was this great relationship and great friendship. I’ve said in other interviews, just to bookend the story, that we talked about it at that lunch, but I don’t even think we talked about making Shithouse into a bigger movie. I think he really liked the short and was like, I think you can clean this up and film some more things and make it a bigger thing, and I was like No, I don’t really want to do that, I have other things. But then as we kept talking about what we were gonna work on together and what we were gonna do, I think he was just like, What if you just remade Shithouse with more than three people? ‘Cause we did the short with three people, and I was, like, booming while I was acting. And so when he said that, I kind of thought, Oh crap, I know this so well, and this could be a really great opportunity, I should be excited about this. There was a point in time where he was gonna direct it, and then it just became clear that that wasn’t gonna happen until the next year, and so at some point, I was like, I think I should direct it, and he was like, Sounds great. You’re gonna hate it, that’s gonna be a nightmare, but it’s gonna be fun at the end of the day. And so pre-production was, I’m not kidding, like a week. I got actors, like, two weeks before, and we rehearsed, and stole every location, and it was just a miracle that we finished the movie and it looked so beautiful, ‘cause Rachel Klein, the DP, is so amazing. Then in the editing room it just felt like it did on set, and I’m so glad that I didn’t think that there was gonna be a big audience because I really stuck to my guns in terms of really making a patient movie that was OK with the audience meeting it in its place.
Francis Ford Coppola has a quote that I think is really interesting: he says being a director is about making decisions all day. And in my experience that was the case, it seems to me that directing is a lot about having to be very confident and answering questions in a way that creates confidence in the crew. So is that something that came naturally to you, or was there a certain learning curve to doing that?
I think people were disturbed by how little I cared about certain things. I don’t feel like a leader, and it’s really hard when people ask you questions, and you don’t know the answers. But I knew every answer that I cared about. I was very, very, very specific and only wanted one thing when it came to character arcs, how I wanted things to feel and what I wanted each scene to accomplish. I knew when I had something and when I didn’t have something and when I loved something or I didn’t love something, so I was very, very specific and I was a confident decision-maker in that way. But there were so many times where—like, I made the first movie with those three friends without lights, and so we didn’t have any setup time. But getting on set for the first time making Shithouse, I was like, Oh my god, you guys are taking so long to set these shots up, and when they would ask questions, I would just be like, Whatever’s fastest! Those were the decisions that I was making and I think people were annoyed by that. But there was also a freedom. Talking to lighting guys, talking to the DP, I trusted them. Their work was so amazing going into Shithouse that I was like, I want you to shoot this the way that you want to shoot this, I just need it to be locked off, and I want the chemistry to come across, so it’s probably gonna be a long take. I knew those specifics. But I’m color blind, so when they would ask me, Do you like this blue light or do you like this blue light, I’m like, Bruh, I don’t care at all. I was never lying about things, I was always very upfront and transparent about the fact that I need it to be the fastest thing possible.
One specific shot that I was really struck by, and was curious about your thought process on, was the initial hookup scene. It’s all in one long take, the two of you are in the background, the wine bottle is really dominating.
The wine bottle, yeah, I did place that. ‘Cause he can’t get it up, and I wanted that to be phallic.
[laugh] I didn’t necessarily see it that way, but I like that.
Well yeah, but also to show they’re drunk, I did want that to be dominant. But I really wanted Rachel to film that the way that she wanted to film that, because I really cared about this 28-year-old girl from Dallas, TX, where I’m from, who has a very different outlook on life than me—I love her perspective, and so I really wanted her to focus on the things in that sex scene that she wanted to focus on and not show us the things that she didn’t want to show us. We didn’t do any nudity or anything like that, so I was like, You can’t show this ‘cause they’ll know nothing’s happening, you have to frame it this way. But I really wanted it to be up to her. I really do love that whole room, the way that whole room is shot is really incredible, and Rachel did have the idea to do the over-the-shoulder shots for the sitting down talk, that was her idea and I really loved that so much. Rachel is just a really, really great DP.
Did the two of you have any particular visual references that you were talking about as you put the movie together?
Yeah, she put a whole Powerpoint together with all these images, and she was like, I want you to pick what feels the best. There were, like, 10 movies that she picked from, movies from 10 Things I Hate About You, to Drive, to Flower that Dylan [Gelula]’s in, Spectacular Now was in there. And I would pick what frames and what colors—I can see colors to some extent—what I loved the most and what spoke to me and that’s how she developed exactly what she wanted.
Is there anything that you feel like you want to get out there that you don’t feel like you’ve had a chance to say or share yet?
I mean, I’ve really spilled the beans to you. I don’t know if we talked about—playing all the parts was really, really hard on everybody else and I really want people to know how much the DP shouldered, and how much patience was required of the whole crew, because you don’t want your director to be worried about how they’re gonna say a line or how they’re gonna be present in the scene and then have to watch the whole take again on the monitor. So I always want to say that, because it’s like, Oh my gosh, how did you do all these things? And it’s like, How did they not leave the set? Because you’ve got one guy running around thinking about all these different things when you just want to ask him a question, you want him to just focus on a certain thing. So yeah, Rachel Klein is awesome, and Dylan Gelula, who’s acting in scenes with the director, she’s so awesome for that.
(Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)