On its surface, the word ‘gifted’ almost exclusively connotes positive attributes. It implies a passive receiving of great treasure. What could be better than that?
It’s a word that was surely employed by adults to describe Patrick Kennelly in his youth. Whether it actually happened or not, it’s easy to imagine a kindly teacher, not at all Patrick’s intellectual equal, confidently introducing the slender boy to a new roomful of ‘Gifted and Talented’ students.
For most, in an elitist time such as ours, prodigious gifts in terms of one’s intellect and aesthetic should be the psychological equivalent of a mammoth trust fund. You have an edge. Something to separate yourself from the crowd…and climb a little higher. And yet, examining the life and work of Patrick Kennelly, it’s hard to ignore his brilliant but brutal struggle with his own exceptionalism. For Patrick’s foray into pop musical theatre, he looked into the lives of Patty Duke and Patricia Hearst in Patty: The Revival. Although Duke had her turn on the public stage as a precocious American sweetheart, even winning an Oscar, a quick Wikipedia search illuminates the dark personal cost to her accomplishment. In his debut feature film Excess Flesh, the impossibly high standards of the fashion world provide the backdrop for ‘mere mortal’ Jill to confine her bitchy, demeaning roommate Jennifer in chains. It also so happens that it’s Jennifer that meets those impossibly high standards of the fashion world they occupy.
I suppose being exceptional doesn’t make the intense feelings and primal drives ‘gifted’ to human beings any easier, after all. If anything, perhaps it makes one more aware of the inevitable parts of yourself that are just as messily human as everyone else. But in the right hands, the gifted among us can observe and depict the fundamental challenges facing us all…and look stylish while doing so. Luckily for us, Patrick is exceptional and ruthlessly exploits his many talents to make movies and direct plays that shed some light on the human condition.
Hunter: You’ve explored a dark part of the human psyche in Excess Flesh. Do you see a particular value in examining those parts of ourselves or is that aspect of the film incidental to why you made it?
Patrick: I’ve always gravitated towards those themes, both in the work I do and in the content I consume – though not exclusively! I’m actually a huge fan of This Is Us, heh. I know that, in general, after a hard week of work, people often look for escapism when they go out for a movie on a Friday night. And I’ve always wanted to make work that exists on this level of popular entertainment, but also smuggle in some substance. I think I achieved this greatly with my Patty: The Revival pop musical. It does seem though that I generally end up coming back to this darker, more extreme work. I’m not sure I can explain that, but work that veers far off-center seems to be what I’m good at.
Hunter: I love your aesthetic. How would you describe where your aesthetic came from? Is it a sense that’s internal or something you’ve developed by observation or study? Or a combination of the two?
Patrick: A combination of the two. My knowledge of film history is obsessive, almost to an unhealthy degree! This, mixed with my long and deep background in literature, the fine arts, and music all combines to infuse my sensibility. It does come out in different ways – specifically referential, referential by proxy, or purely instinctual. Though even that is automatically informed by my knowledge. Most of the reference comes about in the pre-production, particularly as I’m often commenting on specific historical, pop cultural, and genre themes. Then when I get into production, all that flies out-the-window and I shoot from the hip.
Hunter: You said something interesting to me once, that you truly thought both Excess Flesh and Patty: Revival were stories that put you in a position as an observer or storyteller, then at some point realized both projects were actually about you, even down to the similarity in the name between Patty and Patrick. Can you talk about that a little?
Patrick: Yes, it’s a completely unconscious thing. What I gravitate toward in terms of stories and themes, it all comes from a deeply personal place, as it probably does for anyone who considers themselves a creative. By the way, I like to use that word *creative* instead of *artist* – at least when I factor myself as part of the equation. For some reason, I find labeling myself an *artist* pretentious. I don’t know. But anyway, I don’t really think about the personal aspect of the work until pretty late in the game. Everything is put together very objectively. It seems to be a therapy of sorts.
Hunter: Tell me, do you have a strategy for dealing with the admin grind that accompanies being an underpaid creative professional in 2017? I mean, making a movie or directing a play or music video is a lot about logistics and time/human resources management. How do you set up/deal with the parts of the job that aren’t creative so that the creative in you can have the best chance possible to do his job?
Patrick: Producing is the absolute last thing I want to do, but I’ve had to fill that role purely out of necessity up until now. Still, even with directing, I believe 80% of it is management, with the other 20% being creative. I see my role as a director being akin to a curator – bringing together the best team in-front of and behind the camera to reflect, to riff on a story or a theme in their own unique way. In this regard, I don’t think I have an actual “style” – it really depends on what the particular project calls for and who’s involved in creating it. In this way, I’m always looking for new people to work with. However, it IS important to have a core team around you that you trust and can go with you from project to project. I was lucky on my feature film, Excess Flesh, to be producing it with Leo Garcia, who I work alongside at Highways Performance Space. He’s my most trusted creative partner. After I created the initial budget and pulled together all the principals, he really took over the bulk of the producing duties, which are immense for a feature film, and I operated more as a creative producer of sorts.
Hunter: You’re a terrific editor. I feel like your editing mimics the way images move through the brain somehow. How does your experience as an editor impact your process or choices as a director? In other words, has your background with editing at this point affected how you shotlist or envision the film in the first place?
Patrick: I’ve worked on a lot of projects as editor where I wish I had this shot or that shot. There are these moments missing that connects the dots – and would make my life as an editor much, much easier, heh. So I’ve learned the absolute necessity of collecting as much material in production as possible, so there’s plenty of options in the editing room. This is where the film is really made. I’m not one of those filmmakers who has everything precisely mapped out ahead of time when I go into shooting. Preparation is key, but once I’m on set I’m interested in a lot of flexibility and improvisation, from all involved. My favorite kind of film actor is the one who’s really going to explore the scene in different ways while we’re shooting it, instead of having it all carefully mapped out ahead of time and telegraphing their performance.
Hunter: I can’t remember the details, but I still remember being blown away by your performance as Lon Chaney for a piece you created back in the day. I’m not sure you’re still acting from time to time, but how did you approach work as an actor and how has that influenced how you now direct actors?
Patrick: I haven’t really acted much. Most of what I’ve done has been performance art works for other artists or created by myself. When I’ve done that, it’s a mixture of this sort of Method acting kind of thing, mixed with the purely technical. And the process, for me, is pretty draining. I much prefer being behind the camera. But I know the acting process inside and out, particularly with my extensive background in the theater, and I love working with actors. I used to want tons of rehearsal time, but now I find that completely unnecessary and actually debilitating – it kills the spontaneity and energy on-camera. In his iconic book on directing, Sidney Lumet extols the virtues of weeks of rehearsal with your actors, which he does on every movie, treating it like a stage play. And his movies, with some exceptions, are bloated, indulgent and enervating. Whereas Ridley Scott doesn’t rehearse at all, actually hates it, along with auditions – and look at the work he gets in Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, The Martian and on. He’s so confidant, he can just replace a principal actor in a few days, shoot the scenes and get the film out three weeks later! However, I’ve learned there’s no one way to work with actors – it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
Hunter: Two of your major works have pairs of women with alliterative names – in Excess Flesh, it’s Jill and Jennifer. In Patty: The Revival, it’s Patty Duke and Patricia Hearst. This idea of pairs of women…is that something that keeps coming up for you? Or just coincidence?
Patrick: This is definitely a specific strategy. Excess Flesh is a direct outgrowth of Patty: The Revival, though the story and style is very different. This links back to my primary interest, the theme that seems to keep running through the majority of the work I do – and that is identity – particularly role-playing and bifurcated identity. In the case of Patty, it was representing the central figure onstage in characters that represented different aspects of the self – the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego. So all this Freudian psychology, its big in there. But as I mentioned previously, I’m not seeking out these themes in specific stories. They just come to me. The film project I’ve been working on most recently is about co-dependency, which is primarily the excessive reliance on another for a sense of identity. So there it is again. But this whole project started from my great interest in serial-killing couples. The script is based on the true-story of one such couple.
Hunter Lee Hughes is an actor-filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and founder of the open source production company Fatelink.