Despite growing up in San Francisco, filmmaker Ari Gold has never shot a project in his hometown. His goofy 2008 feature Adventures of Power is set in New Mexico and New Jersey, while his short Culture was filmed in a New York City studio. And even though Gold’s Student Academy Award-winner Helicopter has scenes set in the city, the streetscapes are really just fabrications, built with toy Victorians on a train set model.
Though his career has taken shape in New York and Los Angeles, Gold still has notable familial roots in Northern California. Twin brother Ethan is a local musician, and his father Herbert is a well-known Beat novelist. Gold’s mother Melissa is well-known too, but not for the happiest of reasons: in 1991, she and the music promoter Bill Graham -- her boyfriend at the time -- perished in a helicopter crash near Vallejo.
Melissa’s tragic death inspired Helicopter, a frenetic hybrid of documentary, animation, and fiction. It’s remarkably different from the traditional narratives that usually come out of NYU’s film school.
“I have to do everything according to how it feels emotionally,” Gold says of his approach to directing, which includes both traditional and non-traditional styles of filmmaking.
Unfortunately, his professors at NYU thought differently. So in order to make Helicopter, Gold had to disregard much of their advice, and his only guide was an editing teacher who understood the overall vision. While this maverick approach eventually paid off for Gold, he doesn’t recommend it for every student.
“It’s hard to say 'ignore your teachers,' because I think you can learn a lot from a teacher and you can learn a lot from their pushback,” he says. “If you’re going to break narrative rules and find yourselves at odds with your school, you better know why. You better not just be because you don’t like following instructions.”
In fact, Gold is perfectly comfortable obeying instructions -- especially when he’s the one who’s written them. Culture, produced at NYU and part of Film School Shorts’ fourth season, is a minute-long experiment that follows the 10 rules “set forth in dogma [of] Ari Gold Films.” Though completed just before 2000, the short is surprisingly timeless. While Gold says he wouldn’t change anything about his “suicidal glorification of violence,” he thinks the audience’s interpretation of Culture has evolved over the last two decades.
“It becomes less and less shocking with each passing year, and in that sense, maybe it shows its age,” he says. When it first screened at Sundance and SXSW back in 1999, “it felt like a slap in the face in the right way, like a wake-up slap,” Gold says. “Now, I think with the insanity of stuff that’s even produced just on YouTube, it might not have the same effect.”
Gold has been busy lately completing his second feature, Song of Sway Lake, plus a novel, a film installation, and more. He’s currently scouting locations for his third original film, and he has plans to re-envision Helicopter with three to five new shorts. Each will refract off of the original and will follow a new set of rules, this time authored by Gold’s mentor, Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of The Holy Mountain and El Topo.
Only this time, Gold will actually shoot in San Francisco.