Derek Sitter: Exploring the ties between privilege and trauma

The Bend filmmaker hopes his ‘Tutu Grande,’ in the upcoming McMinnville Short Film Festival, will spur discussions about power, greed, and consequences

Derek Sitter’s film Tutu Grande is little more than 12 minutes long, but it’s surely the most excruciating, difficult-to-watch of the 127 films the McMinnville Short Film Festival will screen later this month. It’s also one of the best. Given the #MeToo movement, it’s in sync with the cultural zeitgeist. The film has won a slew of awards on the festival circuit and is nominated for a Grand Jury Award at the McMinnville festival, which begins Feb. 18. Watching it is like pulling the pin from a hand grenade and waiting for the explosion.

I very nearly didn’t watch it, because even a glimpse of the poster or the trailer suggests that one will be subjected to torture porn. Indeed, the opening shots offer visual cues — a man bound to a wooden slab, a stash of surgical equipment on a nearby table, and the snapping of rubber gloves by the captor — that seem swiped from Hostel or Saw. The narrative (spoilers ahead) consists of little more than a darkly comic monologue masquerading as a conversation (and a mostly quiet one at that) delivered by a father to the young man who raped his daughter.

When the grenade does explode, it’s not as you expect. A surprise awaits the rapist, sitting in the shadows.

Derek Sitter, director of "Tutu Grande," has spent more than 30 years doing stage and film work and also owns the Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend (currently closed because of COVID).
Derek Sitter, director of “Tutu Grande,” has spent more than 30 years doing stage and film work and also owns the Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend (currently closed because of COVID).

Sitter wrote the story and directed it with cinematographer Taylor Morden behind a single camera. He also plays Jesse, the father, in an understated but pitch-perfect performance. His wife, Jeanne Sanders, plays the rapist’s mother. A few short shots hold her in the frame for less than 30 seconds, but that’s possibly the most agonizing and emotionally truthful segment of the film.

Jared, the young man who spends Tutu Grande prone at a roughly 45-degree angle, is played by Nathan Woodworth. He speaks few lines but with extraordinary subtlety and nuance conveys oceans of meaning, largely with his face. Woodworth has done film and theater work in Oregon and California, including the lead role in Johnny Got His Gun, a stage production a few years ago in Los Angeles by The Actors’ Gang and directed by Tim Robbins.

Sitter is something of a rock star in Bend’s cultural scene. Family connections brought him there a decade ago, and he spent a year and a half remodeling a concrete warehouse and wood mill into the 2,500-square-foot Volcanic Theatre Pub on the city’s west side. Bend Source Weekly’s reader poll has regularly named it the city’s favorite indoor venue since it opened in 2013, and the theater is a hotbed of creativity — live music, stand-up comedy, film screenings, and live theater — from The Blasters to David Mamet’s American Buffalo. It hosts, in a non-COVID year, some 225 events. Sitter also teaches acting classes there, and for several years, Woodworth was among his students.

“I definitely made my biggest leaps being directed by Derek and getting a lot of time on stage with his guidance,” Woodworth told me.  American Buffalo and Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter were among the shows they worked on together at the VTP.

“You never really know what Derek is going to do in the moment, that’s what makes him such an exciting scene partner to have,” he said, adding, “Having studied under Derek and worked closely with him for years, I knew instinctively how he wanted the scene to be shaped. We have kind of a shorthand.”

Sitter earned his MFA in 1994 and is a life member of The Actors Studio. He has worked professionally on stage and screen for more than 30 years, gravitating to the plays of some of theater’s heaviest hitters, including Mamet and Pinter, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, and August Strindberg. He has a growing body of short films that may be seen on Vimeo, and describes his cinema work as influenced by another set of masters: Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Bergman, and Lynch, among others.

I conducted this interview with Sitter by email, and it’s been edited for length and clarity. In one of our first exchanges I commented on what struck me as a contradictory, but effective, aspect of Tutu Grande, which appears in the McMinnville festival’s drama/comedy screening block that becomes available Feb. 23: The intense realism that also seems fantastical and even improbable.

Sitter acknowledged Tutu Grande’s absurdist streak. “I rely on elements of realism, absurdity, outrageousness, and my own wild bipolar imagination and vision in order to execute stories,” he told me. “It’s all I have and I trust it.”

Tell us about the genesis of Tutu Grande.

Sitter: For me, all stories are spawned by a fire that burns inside you. Tutu Grande is a very personal story about the entitlement, privilege, and power that can lead to inflicting trauma. The notion that a person can get away with anything they want without consequence deeply troubles me.  Tutu Grande began on a solo road trip. I travel a ton and talk to myself and I remember asking out loud, “Do you understand trauma?” The dialogue and story just evolved from there. Privilege is far too common in our culture.

It feels like a #MeToo story, although from a different perspective.

I wrote it just prior to the #MeToo movement. The story evolved into a revenge story after an assault, but I didn’t want to tell just a vigilante story. That bored me.  I wanted to explore the depths, far-reaching impact, and the proper consequences of trauma. I hope it becomes a timely and relevant piece that begs questions and propels discussions regarding power, greed, privilege, consequence, and trauma. I had no interest in answering any questions. I just wanted to explore them.

Tell us about making it, after the first botched attempt where I understand you had technical problems with the audio. 

There was little or no rehearsal. Nathan has been studying with me since high school, about 10  years, and we’ve done quite a few plays together. So he’s accustomed to my intense realism and the “in-the-moment” approach. He had very few lines. All he had to do is be with me. He was genuinely afraid of me because he’s worked with me in class and other productions. He never knows what I’m going to do, because I never know what I’m going to do. It creates unpredictability, suspense, and honesty. That’s where the magic is. There were a few lines and beats that were not scripted. They just happened and we kept them.

How about the women?

The ladies arrived for the last shot mid-shoot without any rehearsal. It was my wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and my niece. I sat them down in the chairs and left Nathan on his “torture table” for eye-line and for Jeanne to have someone to connect with during takes. We panned across the ladies at least six takes, then got close-ups with Jeanne. She was the only trained actress of the four. We snagged her close-ups in a couple of minutes. I let them go after about a half-an-hour.

How long did it take to shoot?

It took just over four hours to shoot once we had the set lit properly. We shot it in my theater in the middle of the room. We liked the darkness and shadows. It set the tone of the mysterious warehouse. It’s very similar to the Dogme 95 approach. Keep it simple and tell the story.

You mentioned that you wrote this before #MeToo was part of the culture, but tell us about the moment where an ice chest is kicked across the floor into the scene at the end. That’s a #MeToo reference that might slip by some viewers.

I added Jared’s line “I don’t remember” when we shot the second time. The sexual assault allegations and the #MeToo movement were surfacing and I wanted to address Kevin Spacey. Spacey tweeted “I don’t remember” when addressing Anthony Rapp’s assault allegations. I found that quite insulting and self-indulgent. I added the reference to Spacey where “Keysor” was written on the ice chest. It was a reference I found important even if I was the only one that got it. Keysor Söze [Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects] has become synonymous with fear, trauma, and elusiveness.

Actor Nathan Woodworth (left) finds himself at the losing end of a conversation with Derek Sitter, who wrote, directed and performs in "Tutu Grande." The film has won many awards in festivals around the country and later this month will be screened by the McMinnville Short Film Festival.
Actor Nathan Woodworth (left) finds himself at the losing end of a conversation with Derek Sitter, who wrote, directed and performs in “Tutu Grande.” The film has won many awards in festivals around the country and later this month will be screened by the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

How did the actors deal with the darkness and gravity of the story?

In fact, we were all having quite a bit of fun on the set. This is just executing a simple story and thrusting yourself into the circumstances. Once you’ve done your homework, you jump right in. There is always a little recovery period. But it was just a few hours of living in it. I’m not trivializing the work. Not at all. I take the craft very seriously.

You mentioned that you don’t like labels, but this is probably one viewers might be inclined to label. At the very least, it’s a dark film.

There are people who think Tutu is a dark comedy. We’ve won awards for horror, drama, dark comedy, thriller, mystery, suspense, crime, and even social justice. I’m fine with all of them. I believe over the years of training and experience, I have developed my own voice. My own style. I think that’s what every artist strives for. “Dark” never really enters my psyche.

It’s a bit of a cinematic Rorschach test. It’s a simple story, but emotionally and morally complex. Have there been reactions that surprised you?

The responses to Tutu have been all over the map. I mentioned that we have been honored in all genres. I love that the story provokes so many different responses and genres. I don’t genrefy anything I write or direct. I leave that up to critics, programmers, audiences, and marketers. That’s not my job. I suppose the most surprising is that many people have gotten physically ill from watching it, while others are laughing out loud. I just love that.

Let’s talk about filmmaking in general. How has COVID affected your work?

My theater has been closed since March. So all I have been doing is writing, reading, studying, and preparing to shoot my next short, Bugtussle. My feature-length script is over 90 pages and I still have a long way to go, so that’s keeping my brain occupied. I’m usually always busy with theater or traveling, so I’m stuck here trying to be as productive as I can. With VTP and other venues closed, there’s not much to do for the creatives. I did shoot a TV pilot in the summer of 2020 in Forest Grove. But that’s been about it, as far as work.

How would you characterize the state of the industry in Oregon right now, how it’s evolved in the time you’ve been active in it?

After grad school in Louisiana, my wife and I ended up in Portland in 1994. I began working a ton as an actor in theater, TV, film, commercials, infomercials, industrial films, shorts, and whatever I could do. I was making a particularly good living acting. Back then, Portland was a union city. So there was a lot of work and not a lot of competition. It was a very good small-market city. I got my first SAG job my first month there and worked continuously until we left for LA in ‘96. I couldn’t stand the rain and it was time to move on. Upon returning to Oregon in 2007 to raise our child, I discovered Portland had very little work for union actors. I did shoot several TV shows that came to town, but nothing to sustain my busy brain.

As far as the Oregon film industry now, I just don’t think it’s much of a market. Cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, Austin, Chicago, Charlotte, and even Savannah are hot markets. I do see a new blossoming scene in Oregon over the past couple of years. I think the transplants are eager to produce more film. Film festivals and cinema lovers are everywhere. Portland, Bend, and Ashland look promising in the next few years. 

Derek Sitter directed and acted in a May 2015 production of Sam Shepard's "True West" at the Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend.
Derek Sitter directed and acted in a May 2015 production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend.

You’ve clearly done well in Bend. Live music, theater. Harold Pinter in Central Oregon.

Bend doesn’t have much of an industry — yet. However, many professionals have transplanted here and are developing their own businesses, like I have. We’re all developing relationships and planning projects once this thing ends. It’s all pretty exciting, really. But I can tell you that I’m exhausted with the isolation. I thrive on human connection. Remove it, and it’s a delicate balancing act to remain healthy. But I’m doing fine. My wife and daughter are tired of online learning, but I suppose we can’t complain. I know people in much worse situations.

I built Volcanic Theatre Pub where I started producing professional theater, teaching acting, along with booking national, regional, and local artists. It quickly became Bend’s top spot. It’s kept me very, very busy. I took time off from auditioning to get my head straight and run the business. It’s an insanely busy place.

It wasn’t until I got involved with BendFilm Festival that I got the bug to start writing and directing short films. My first film, Black Cloud, was a 5-minute micro-short shot and edited in a day. It was selected for the festival. I entered it to other festivals and had some fairly good luck. But I was fairly new to the process. Now my gears have shifted to producing more films locally. I’ve met other professionals with the same goals. I think we’re going to do some great work as soon as this damn pandemic is over.

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