David Russo is not a madman, despite what some may think. He's not clinging to sanity.
I can say this even after he's shown me a photograph of a sink clog he found beautiful, even after he's boasted to me that after 14 years of methodical work he's finally created the perfect pie, even after he informs me outright that when he's making a film he tends to go a little insane.
"That's part of the problem," he tells me. "I think that's why I want to quit."
But while Russo may not be a madman, he is a man in perpetual motion, and when he talks about his film work he gains even more velocity. He doesn't fidget; it's something more. He'll be sitting in front of you calmly discussing the Romantics ("I'm starting to agree with my college professors that they're just a bunch of jag-offs") and his eyes will dart between you and the door. Then he'll suddenly spring from his seat in mid-sentence to furiously pantomime some bit of action. Each movement he makes appears to be entirely necessary, for him if not for us. His hands, his legs, the way he slouches--all of it works to enhance whatever point he's making, no matter how minor it may be. He's a man who can't, and shouldn't, sit still. He's also blunt. Case in point: "I reject all this 'genius' shit. I'm entirely not a genius." This he tells me while I'm scribbling notes in his living room--notes for this very article on just how much of a genius he is. "If Seattle produces a genius," he adds, "we'll all be the last to know. Genius is way too cool for the media."
If Russo's not a genius, though, then what is he? He appears to be in his early 30s, with an off chance at being on the downslope of his 20s (he refused to tell me his age). He's handsome and lean and wild-eyed. And he's both self- effacing and supremely confident in his talents. The former may just be a defense mechanism, as it is for most of us; the latter can be backed up by the work he's done so far--work that has appeared at the Sundance, Toronto, and Chicago film festivals, among many others, and which has earned him awards in 8 of the 16 Academy festivals in the United States. Russo creates short films that are fits of live action and animation, rapid in their editing, and beautifully designed. In Pan with Us (2003), he brings a Robert Frost poem to life with a large metal bird and a giant ream of paper, telling the story of the ancient Greek woodland god Pan, whose name has given us the word "panic." Populi (2002), which is on permanent display at the newly monikered Qwest Field, is an ambush set to Holst's "Mars: Bringer of War," involving a carved wooden human shape, a steel sphere, and travels not just around the globe but possibly into other dimensions.
Both works expose a vision that is shocking in its size, seemingly random but entirely planned. Russo can assemble images in his head and transport those images to film like few can. He's truly blessed. As fellow Seattle filmmaker Web Crowell says, "Russo is one of the incredibly few people who is actually doing things with film that people haven't seen before, and that's what a young art form should be about." He adds, "Most of us are just using various tricks on the same thing that have been done the past hundred years, and he's actually figuring out new ways to make you look at stuff."
Russo's latest short film, The Van Gogh Thing, was shot in a dash at this year's Bumbershoot, and at the moment the finale for it languishes in his garage. There is just one more shot to be created for the film, but like all of Russo's work, that shot is an absurdly complicated one, involving a near-finished camera mount, an ancient Eyemo camera, and a cutout of a fish. The Eyemo is a camera meant for rugged use--it was sent out into the field with soldiers during World War II--but Russo's scheme may spell the end of it. Said scheme: To drop the entire rig from a great height.
"I bought this camera to destroy it," Russo says, "but then I started to think, 'This camera's older than me. It may have filmed people dying and shit. I don't want to destroy it.'" Hence the camera mount--welded and finagled, yet artfully made--that attaches the Eyemo to the fish, and which Russo hopes will keep matters intact enough for useable footage after the plummet. If everything goes according to plan, The Van Gogh Thing will have a truly spectacular ending--a big crash to close the show. The film itself will also serve as an ending to Russo's short-film career. "This is an epilogue to all the art films I don't want to make anymore," he tells me, and it's obvious that he means it. Like those Romantics, short, arty works are about to be abandoned by him.
But though Russo is giving up short films, he's not quitting filmmaking entirely. At least, not yet. He has plans, and those plans involve a script he's written called #2, which he hopes to produce sometime this year. #2 is not just a departure for Russo, it's a full-on reinvention--a comedy about janitors and corporate responsibility, cookies and messy bowel movements. The script, which clocks in at a mean 106 pages (in its first draft), was written in a fever by Russo, scrawled out in longhand and later assembled into a proper script form by his wife. Even though it's rough, it's often very funny, successfully tight-roping between smart and scatological. It will be a film for the masses instead of the few, and it's one of the major reasons Russo is kicking short films to the curb. "If it's allowed to exist, it's going to be a cannonball," he says. "It won't be ignored."
He's probably right. Every Russo film up until now has been a cannonball, and it's both intriguing and frightening to imagine what a feature-length effort from him will look like. The technical aspects of filmmaking can be learned. Artistry can be studied and copied. Vision and passion, though, are less academic. David Russo, despite his frustrations with filmmaking, and despite the fact that he occasionally goes a little insane, possesses everything greatness relies on.
GENIUS DATA SHEET
BIRTH DATE: "When I was 19."
BIRTHPLACE: San Francisco.
TURN-ONS: "My wife is playing a heavy metal cheerleader in a play right now, and it's kinda cool."
TURN-OFFS: "Mood stabilizers, sulfites, et cetera."
CITIES I HAVE CALLED HOME: "Seattle."
FIVE THINGS NEAR MY BED: A laser pointer, After-Bite bug repellant, a shot put, earplugs, and "a photo of my most recent drain clog, which I think is beautiful."