Vacation! director Zach Clark talks drugs, sex and death at the beach
The beach-party movie has fallen from its former pinnacle of popularity, but it still has its fans. Take writer/director Zach Clark, for instance. His latest film, Vacation!, resurrects the classic beach-party film formula, updates it for the 21st century and then twists it into weird places that Frankie and Annette never dreamed of going. His movie puts four hip young friends into a beach house for a week, winds them up with anxiety about sex, death and what it all means, then doses them with LSD. Not surprisingly, things go awry and not everyone makes it out alive. Before Vacation! shows tonight and tomorrow at the Sie FilmCenter as part of the Denver Film Society's Watching Hour program, we talked to Clark about the film's unusual approach, hipsters and why LSD is an essential part of the beach-party movie experience.
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Westword: How would you describe Vacation! to potential audiences?
Zach Clark: The sort of quick little summary I always give is Vacation! is an existential beach-party movie about life, death, sex, drugs and other shit that totally fucks you up. I don't know if you can print all that, but that's normally what I tell people. Four girls head down to the beach for a week of fun in the sun, and about halfway through things aren't quite as fun as they expected it to be. In order to liven up the fun they decide to take a psychedelic drug and they experience that drug. When they come to the following morning, one of them is dead. The rest of the movie sort of charts how they deal with that, with varying degrees of strangeness.
"Existential" and "beach-party movie" are not things you typically see as part of the same description... This might be the first time, actually.
Where does the concept of an existential beach party movie come from?
Well, I grew up going to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, which is where we shot. My dad likes going there so much he had a beach house built, which when I visited the first time, within a few days of being there, I was like, I should make a movie here. I've always been a fan of the Frankie and Annette films of the '60s, so it made perfect sense to just make a beach-party movie. But what I often find myself thinking about and doing when I am at the Outer Banks, in that part of the country, is I do get very reflective. I think about my place in the world and life and death and all those things. When you live in the city, and then you go and you're sort of faced with the great expanse of nature, at the beach you're sort of staring at the endless sea, it can really put you in a very contemplative space where you're thinking about existence and that sort of stuff. It comes loosely from there, from those two sides of things -- wanting to do something in the tradition of a beach-party movie and also sort of wanting to be true to my own experiences of that place.
Is part of that unique to that location? I've been there, and it's not exactly what people think of when they think of "the beach."
It's not Atlantic City.
Right, and it's not Costa Rica, or Hawaii, or whatever. It's not white sand beaches and palm trees. It's pretty and nice, but there's an element of almost bleakness there. It's grittier somehow...
It's also just a little series of islands, so the whole place, every time there's a hurricane, you never know what's going to be left standing on the other side. It's very much, the whole area, is very poised to not exist at some point. I think that's part of it too. It feels very fragile down there.
I was just down there for Christmas, and Sandy did some damage. Wiped some houses out and moved the dunes back a significant portion, so like the road is being moved, they keep having to move the roads and stuff down there. Everything in the grander sense of things is temporary, but everything is really sort of temporary down there. It's at the mercy of nature.
Thematically, what were you trying to express with Vacation!?
You know, the movie is really about [wanting] to explore the line of morality in a godless world, as a fun, candy-colored, hilarious comedy. I never have a grand statement I'm trying to make, but I do have things that I'm trying to figure out by making the film. Where is the line between right and wrong and good and evil? Does atheism make you more of a moral person or less of a moral person? Is there life after death? Those are all sort of questions I wanted to ask and to explore by making the film.
It hit me in some ways, if you can excuse the term, as a hipster film. The characters are all kind of hipsters, and even the color palette and the look of the film almost has an Instagram like vibe at times. What was your intention with that?
Really the only visual point of reference I ever talked about with the cinematographer, or the major visual point of reference, was Last Night's Party. Are you familiar with that website?
I definitely wanted that vibe, and I definitely wanted the characters to exist in that world. They're cool, hip girls who wear interesting clothes and have good taste in music. And then to put them through this process. I don't know that I conceived of it, or that I even see it now, as some sort of grander, generational comment, but the other thing about this film is we wrote it very quickly compared to any other movie I've ever done and we shot it very quickly. We shot it basically in two weeks, aside from the acid-trip sequence and a couple days of pick ups we did several months later.
In order to just get there and not talk too much about character -- we also didn't have a lot of time to retake things, or retake scenes, or even build a rapport between people -- I wrote the roles specifically for the actors. They're all cool, hip girls and they're all playing cool, hip girls. To that end, it also sort of made it a bit easier to accomplish everything we had set out to do. We all pretty much knew each other beforehand. We all pretty much did got to college in North Carolina together, so because of the quickness of the production and the quickness of getting the production ready, it made the most sense to keep everyone roughly in that area, rather than having everyone have to learn a crazy accent or have to jump that far out of their regular selves. They could still draw from themselves for the circumstances.