The 23-Year-Old Greenhill School Alum Talks His Acclaimed Feature-Length Debut Film, How It Got Made And Just How Autobiographical It May Be.
During spring break of his sophomore year at Occidental College, Dallas native Cooper Raiff shot a 55-minute film with his two best friends, neither of whom had ever held a camera before.
Filmed over several long days with equipment stolen from school, Madeline & Cooper was uploaded to YouTube upon its completion. And while Raiff wasn’t entirely sure what he had on his hands, that didn’t stop him from tweeting the link to Jay Duplass, the indie filmmaker and producer known as one of the pioneers of the “mumblecore” filmmaking style.
In the one-off tweet he fired off, the Greenhill School alumnus bet Duplass that he wouldn’t click on the link. Less than 24 hours later, Duplass sent him an email not only telling Raiff he was wrong, but that he and his wife had watched Madeline & Cooper and wanted to meet this kid filmmaker who had sent it their way.
Over the course of the next year, Duplass mentored Raiff as he transformed his plucky self-production into his debut feature film, Shithouse. Raiff wasn’t interested in slacking off any of the duties; he directed, wrote, edited, produced and starred in the semi-autobiographical film about a homesick college freshman who falls head over heels for a sophomore girl.
In the film, Raiff plays Alex, a lonely Dallas native (throughout the film, he wears Greenhill and Dallas Mavericks merch), who feels isolated while attending school in Los Angeles. His daily interactions are limited to wordless conversations with his stuffed animal, a friendly greeting to the server at his college’s cafeteria, listening to his obnoxious roommate Sam (Logan Miller) complain about life and the occasional mournful phone call home to his loving mother (Amy Landecker) and sister (Olivia Welch). Alex’s first experience at a college party reflects this same loneliness initially — but then things change when he sparks up a conversation with his resident advisor Maggie (Dylan Gelula), who is taken aback by Alex’s openness and ability to listen.
Described by Raiff as a “warm hug of a movie,” the painfully awkward yet heartwarming film has been compared to everything from Before Sunrise to the films of the John Hughes era — and not even COVID-19 has been able to slow Shithouse’s success. Although the film didn’t receive the in-real-life premiere it was supposed to earn at this year’s canceled South by Southwest film component, it still took home the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the digital competition, while earning plenty of rave reviews. In the wake of that attention, IFC Films nabbed the film for a distribution deal that saw it released on VOD and in select theaters on October 16. (On Thursday, October 22, the Texas Theatre will host an “extremely limited capacity” indoor screening of the film, with Raiff in attendance for to introduce the film and to offer a post-viewing Q&A with the audience.)
Like many great coming-of-age tales, part of Shithouse‘s appeal is its instantly iconic soundtrack. Released by Dallas’ Eastwood Music Group, which is co-owned by Raiff’s uncle and media personality Jeff “Skin” Wade, the soundtrack features contributions from Nick Das, Alex G, Waxahatchee, Girlpool and even the renowned Dallas acts John Dufilho and Cure For Paranoia.
We recently spoke to Raiff about what his journey from bold up-and-comer to SXSW success story has been like, how the music helped shape the film’s tone and what it means for him to bring such personal tale of love and loneliness to the screen.
How’s the first weekend of release been?
I honestly just can’t get away from my phone. My eyes are just glued to every single thing that’s being said about it. It’s small enough to where I feel like I can read everything — so I am, which is not advised. I’ve just been sitting on a couch reading all of the reactions. Hopefully, the movie will get bigger and I’ll tell myself, “Oh, you can’t even read everything, so you might as well not read anything.”
So how long have you been into filmmaking, and what were some of the important films for you growing up?
I am just obsessed with movies, and I always have been, although I’ve never really wanted to be a director. I’ve never really thought of myself as a filmmaker, but I really liked to act in high school and I think it was just because I loved movies. I went to this studio in Dallas called the Dallas Screen Actors studio, and the reason I joined that studio was because I was obsessed with movies like even 13 Going on 30, and I was obsessed with the Duplass brothers, and I think The Spectacular Now came out around then. Movies like that, I just always loved so much, and they made me want to be an actor. Then, my senior year of high school I wrote this play because it was for a class, and I really, really didn’t hate it, so I kept writing after my senior year.
I went to L.A. for college, and I kept writing my freshman year a ton, and then my sophomore year I kept writing, and then realized no one was going to read anything that I’d written — so I just decided to go and make something over spring break. That was the first time I got a camera and did the whole filmmaker thing and directed the movie, but it was just me and my two best friends, so we were all kind of the director, and we all acted in it, and were all booming each other during scenes.
After that, I put that on YouTube, because I really liked it. I thought it was good, and then from there I tweeted the link to Jay Duplass of the Duplass Brothers — and then we got lunch because he liked it OK. From there, we talked about making that movie that I’d made over spring break into a feature.
I’ve always been obsessed with Sofia Coppola, and Lost in Translation. Obviously, I love Richard Linklater and I love Before Sunrise, and I even love Bad News Bears and School of Rock. I just think he’s the kindest director in the world, and he’s given permission to filmmakers to make movies just about people that don’t have much plot.
I’ve been inspired by lots of different filmmakers, but mostly I love movies — and I don’t know if I watch a ton of them, but I watch my favorites over and over and over again. I think that’s how I got interested in filmmaking. It started with acting, and then it went to writing, but I think it was always about filmmaking; I just didn’t have the confidence to be a leader on set or anything like that.
What’s it like when you admire someone like Jay Duplass, and then they see your movie and say, “Hey, I want to get involved in this?
It’s amazing! It’s interesting because for, some reason, when I was in high school I was like, “I’m going to make something with the Duplass brothers” — just because I’m obsessed with them and I was obsessed with Togetherness, their show on HBO.
They felt really accessible because I knew they were kind to young filmmakers, and I just knew that I was going to go to L.A. for college and I was going to somehow get connected with them.
The whole goal of that first movie was to be seen by Jay Duplass. It felt like it was in my head for so long, and then when it happened, it was so overwhelmingly awesome — like one of those dream boards. It felt amazing, and it gave me so much confidence too because it totally validated that movie that I made. Because I just wasn’t sure that it was great. The only people that saw it were those two friends that helped me make it and my family members, and I think they all thought “Oh, this was good, but it’s pretty slow.” Jay saw something in it and that was a huge confidence boost.
What were some of the main things you learned from doing that earlier version and then transitioning into something with a bigger budget?
It was everything; I just learned how to make a movie. I learned how to be a filmmaker in every sense. We didn’t have lights on that spring break movie. We were lighting things with our iPhones, and most of the scenes you couldn’t even see our faces really well.
Even though we had only like 10 people on the Shithouse set each day, it felt so professional. It just felt like a bigger deal because there were so many people to worry about.
The script changed a ton. I wrote that first thing for spring break in like three weeks, and I was taking classes while I was writing it, so I was kind of throwing all of these college experiences in a movie with only two people. It was not that great and kind of rushed. So, when we made it into Shithouse, I had six months to make it into an actual feature script, and Jay was super helpful in reading drafts.
The one thing that didn’t feel like a barrier was that I didn’t feel like I was grasping for things. It wasn’t a stretch to make it into a feature because the first movie was actually 55 minutes; like, it wasn’t a short. It wasn’t like, “Oh, how can I make this into a feature?” It was more like, as soon as I got permission, I wrote 200 pages and peeled back from there — because I had so much to say about college.
How did you pick and choose which aspects of the college experience you wanted to show?
It was always just about the pain of leaving home and growing up. I wanted everything to be based around that, and it was also based around this relationship I had with this girl named Madeline. We were together for about three years, and I know her very well. I wanted to make sure I got the whole freshman year pain and loneliness, but I wanted it to be a love story at the end of the day. I really wanted to make sure that the Maggie character had her arc as well. I wanted it to feel like a two-parter even though she wasn’t on screen as much — because I don’t think the movie would work if we didn’t have that.
There was always a balance of making sure the absurdity of college and the funniness was in there, but making sure it was about the love story and the spiritual divorce between Alex and his mom. That was always in tandem with the other love story.
It was hard to pick and choose what I kept in. Even the final scene was too long, and we had to cut a lot of scenes. Maggie’s mom was a big character that we had to completely cut. I always wanted the movie to be like three hours, but I knew no one would be awake the whole time. I had to show it to friends and see where they were zoning out.
When you have the characters that are inspired by your relationships, how do you combine what you actually went through with what you’re writing for the character?
Well, Maggie is not Madeline, the girl in real life. Alex is very much based on me and how I talk, but I think Maggie, while her behavior and the way she talks is very like Madeline, the background of her character and the way that the conversations shed light on the themes… that wasn’t all the same. I wasn’t like, “I have to get Madeline exactly right!” It was just so informed by it. I drew on my life in such a huge way, but it was also original while it was personal. I drew on my life in the same way I think everything original and personal has to.
When I was writing the script, I really wanted to get this certain character right that was very much spiritually aligned to and talked and had the same kind of behaviors as Madeline. When we got Dylan Gelula and I had my first lunch with her, and I did our first scene with her and filmed it… she’s kind of like Maggie on steroids in a really wonderful way. It was scary because I was like, “I don’t know if this is going to work because there’s so opposite; I don’t know if anyone is going to buy that they’re together.” But there was just such chemistry.
She brought out an entirely different part of Maggie. It’s so palpable with her. I can’t say that it’s because of the writing — because she’s just such a force. You’re holding your breath watching the scenes because she’s so fearlessly isolated. Dylan’s someone who’s just so focused when she does her thing that we’re always trying to lean into Dylan’s interpretation of it. There was never a point on set where as a director I said, “We need to bring it back to who Madeline is.” I was obsessed with Dylan’s Maggie, so we were always leaning into that.
Meanwhile, Alex is someone who wants to please and is just in love with this person. He’s a more impressionable character who can change his behavior based on what someone is bringing to him — and, so with Dylan’s Maggie, she always led the way on set, and her interpretation of the character was really king.
Do you have to put yourself in a different mindset when you’re trying to draw from your own experiences? How did you balance relating to the character while also adding something else?
Alex is like my insides. In real life, I have some walls up and put on a front, and I thought Alex was also just me on steroids, what I was feeling and what I was going through freshman year. It was really easy to tap into Alex, because it was so personal. He’s someone who’s just right up close — like two inches away from the pain of leaving home and growing up, whereas I was maybe about five feet away from it my freshman year. Alex was just this sort of exercise in getting super intimate with that, and envisioning what would’ve happened if I was just consumed by that pain and sadness, and realizing how that would’ve paralyzed me. I don’t think there was much adding on; I just really wanted to get to the heart of how I would act if I was a little bit more annoying and immature. It gave me permission to kind of act like a baby, which I think everyone wants to do.
It’s such an empathetic movie, and you really feel for all these characters — like, I’m thinking of Alex’s roommate Sam. How did you have patience with those characters and let them develop over the course of these conversations?
I know this is a quote, but “love is patience.” I just obsess with all of the characters and have so much love for them, and I’m deeply in love with the roommate. Even through the beginning, I see through the façade. Every relationship I have with a guy ever feels like there’s such a performative quality. I always thought of Sam where I have so much empathy for him, and I knew people would eventually. You just have to see him in more than two scenes. It wasn’t really about, “Oh, I need to make sure that we get his arc in.” We need to just follow him over the course of two days, and there’s no way you’re not going to fall in love with him, and there’s no way you’re also not going to hate his guts at times — because he’s not an objectively great person, but neither is Alex or Maggie. I was never trying to make sure that I needed to make sure these people are all three-dimensional; it was just a matter of, the more we spend time with them, the more we see the dimensions.
Being from Dallas, were there any of your own experiences you tapped into being an outsider in a new school and city?
I was shocked when I got to California and I walked down the street and waved at someone, and they would give me the nastiest look of, “Do I know you?” In Dallas, we just wave to people when we cross their paths, and that’s just not how people roll in California. It was very isolating. People are not looking out for each other in L.A. especially, and so I did feel isolated in that way, and I did feel that I had to grow up really fast. I was grappling with, “This isn’t mature; they’re not looking after me,” and maybe I was more mature and I’m just dumbing myself down for these self-absorbed people, but I think that’s the argument of the movie. There’s maturity in both, and there’s a balance.
I got to L.A. and was very resentful of the fact that people looked at me weird when I said hi to them, and it feels really sad. There’s a scene where the girl Georgia says “I’m Georgia, and I’m from Texas.” That never happened, but if I ever found someone who was from Florida, or from Georgia, I was like “Oh, cool!” I was constantly aware of the fact that I was from a different place, and everyone was, but I think there’s something about the vibe of a college in L.A. that feels scary. I think that’s the thing that people are reacting to, because everyone feels alone when they’re in college. Everyone is going through their own exorcisms when they get there, and they don’t want to be touched when they’re throwing up.
This is different from a lot of college movies because it actually feels like it’s made by someone who’s been to college.
Yeah, even these high school movies are written by 50-year-olds! Especially with college, I think these older writers just see college as this playground where they can write anything, and anything goes and they can write the funniest, most entertaining thing, or they’re coming from a place of nostalgia that just feels incorrect. Also, part of the reason I knew I really wanted to play Alex was that no young actor who was good and had been successful was going to be someone who has been to college. Dylan, who plays Maggie, didn’t go to college. Logan, who plays my roommate, didn’t go to college. If you’re that age and you’re doing well, those actors never go to college because they’re busy on film sets. But I was 22 when I filmed the movie, so I was very close to it.
Was the soundtrack something that came together during the writing process or more during post-production?
The first assembly, I did edit to all the songs, which was unheard of I think. I didn’t know that I had the rights to the three main songs, but I basically sent like 50 emails and annoyed people so much that eventually ended up saying yes. There was never a time when I edited to a song that wasn’t in the movie, which was just so nice. I didn’t write the script to any of those songs, but Alex G’s “Southern Sky” came out I think a week before we started filming, and it was the song I listened to the whole time we were filming.
What was the process like of getting into contact with those artists?
I never met any of them or talked to any of them! It was just me reaching out to their licensing people. I’m sure all of them had at least seen the part that their song was in. Waxahatchee, she sent me a personal note saying she loved the movie. Alex G, I’d never heard from. So I don’t know if he’s ever seen the movie or what happened there, but for Girlpool, I actually did text them back and forth and they were really excited.
It was a really hard process. We didn’t have any money, so their people were so confused by what we were offering. They were constantly like “Well, we need more,” and we were like, “We genuinely don’t have any money to give you.” It was genuinely a painful process to get through, but I truly wanted those songs.
So what’s it been like releasing a film in this unprecedented time?
It’s been nice. It feels like everyone’s home and looking for something to spend their time on, and so I kind of feel like it’s a nice moment. I wish college kids were at school and could watch it while they’re on campus, but maybe if they’re in it they don’t want to watch what they’re inside of.
I think it’s been kind of awesome. The word of mouth has been at an all-time high because people are inside and wanting a warm hug of a movie and are OK with meeting a movie where it is. I think that’s what this movie needs — for people to be in a place where they want to dive into something and they’re OK with having to put in some effort and energy into meeting a movie where it is.
I could never have expected that for this movie, that more people than my immediate family would see this.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Shithouse is available now on VOD services. It is also screening in select theaters.