Aram Rappaport on the magical realism of satire in his new film ‘Syrup’
Aram Rappaport grew up in the hills of Los Angeles. His father was a screenwriter. Talking to him, you get the impression that he could care less about celebrity or fame. He didn’t grow up in that LA. He grew up in a world of artists who made movies because they loved it.
Between his father’s friends projects, and his father’s writing, he spent a lot of time on film sets. This taught him an appreciation for the art of storytelling and filmmaking. He became enamoured of the craft, and in high school, he made his first movie. When I ask him what some of his favourite movies are, he has trouble coming up with an answer. Instead he tells me that he admires anyone who can put together a movie. Having tried himself, he knows how much work and how difficult it can be. Simply completing the task is admirable to him.
While at the Waterfront Film Festival in Michigan, Aram was asked to mentor high school filmmakers. “We watched all their short films, and we just were like, ‘dude you guys are in school full-time and yet you still go out and are trying to do this with no guidance or professional experience whatsoever and it’s awesome’,” remarks Aram. “We just didn’t know how to address even like partial corrective criticism. It was just great because they were doing it.”
This passion is also balanced by the high standards he learned from his father. Rappaport knows that storytelling is an art, and that it takes a lot of effort to do it well. He talks about plot structure and repeatedly rewriting scripts. He remarks on watching movies and thinking ‘that’s great, I could never do that’. He is much harsher on his own work than that of others.
He began acting when he was 16 and planned to become an actor, and his screenwriter father encouraged him to write his own material because then he would have more control over his own destiny–instead of auditioning and waiting for call backs he would be in charge of the project.
In high school he wrote and produced his first film. It was a short film called One Line, about a kid who puts on a high school play. “It was very simple, just–you know–like a ten-page thing, but along with the writing, I ended up producing it and planning the logistics of it and finding someone to direct it,” says Aram.
He started his own production company with the goal of writing and funding projects that he would be able to star in. He quickly changed his mind. Most acting jobs were short, lasting a month or two. He wanted to be able to devote his time and energy to a single project for two or three years. “I really liked the idea of being able to write something and then shoot it, and then be in the editing room with it, and then promoting that one thing and having this be the thing that you do for two years,” remarks Aram.
He is also drawn to the leadership roll that directors play. They are responsible for exciting and motivating a crew. “That was always something that was a strength of mine,” says Aram. “Rallying the troops and explaining my vision and then letting other people execute it. I think that that leadership on a film set is something that you don’t necessarily learn, but you kind of develop.”
His production company’s first film was a kidnapping thriller called Innocent. Based on a true story, it was shot in real-time in Chicago–a city that continues to attract Aram. Aram had written another screenplay that was set to go into production where he would co-star with Alexa Vega of Spy Kids. The money fell through just before shooting was set to begin, however. Innocent became his backup plan. He filmed it on the $70,000 they had raised, and Alexa, who is friends with Aram, agreed to star in it.
A common theme also emerges in the movies that he’s drawn to on a story level. He likes magical realism and stories of redemption. Much like Syrup, the movies he loves–like Big Fish, Tim Burton films, and Life as a House–blur the lines between fantasy and reality. He also tends to work on thrillers.
Aram has no formal training. The closest is what he learned from his father and from hanging around movie sets as a child. Otherwise he believes in the learn by doing method. Innocent was his first movie and he refers to it as his film school. “I was kind of just learning how to do it and making mistakes and figured things out,” said Aram.
Syrup is the second film Aram’s production company has made, and it’s a satirical look at the marketing world and image. In the story, a creative type falls in love with a marketing executive and is forced to question whether he is in love with her, or just her image. It is based on the book of the same name written by Max Barry, published in 1999.
Several producers had expressed interest in doing an adaptation before Aram stepped onto the scene, but Aram’s determination won the day. He got Barry’s personal number and started calling him. Aram spent six months rewriting the script that Barry had done before winning the rights. Certain plot points were changed for budget reasons. Originally, the second half of the book covers a product placement deal in which Tom Cruise stars in a film where he kills aliens with Coca-Cola. Instead, the movie was driven by the decisions and motives of the characters. Preserving the integrity of the characters won Barry over (and Aram hopes will win over fans of the book too).
“The through line is that people are still trying to inhabit someone else’s image–someone cooler, someone sexier–and that’s why you buy things for a lot of money, you know. There’s basics–you know, you need to wear clothes. If you’re cold, get a jacket, but why do people spend a thousand dollars on a jacket versus the $20 that they could just go to Goodwill and buy any jacket,” says Aram.
Aram is now back in Chicago preparing for the filming of his third movie. It’s a political conspiracy thriller about the financial world written by Aram. “We’re setting it in Chicago because New York has sort of been shot ,as far as financial movies go, with the Wall Street and various movies like that,” observes Aram. “We figured Chicago would be sort of like a new visually stunning way to shoot a thriller because the whole city is situated on the lake and it’s very beautiful, and you know it is a financial city with the mercantile exchange and various boards of trade.”