Closing The Infinite Gap
A Conversation with Cooper Raiff and Emma Olivia Cohen
One day, you leave home and never look back. Or maybe you do go back, or maybe you do look, or maybe you never leave home. At one point comes the feeling of leaving home, at least, whether that home was one that comforted you or not. Transitioning from one complex coded world to the next is one of the more painful life sequences. Doubly when it’s the first time. Cooper Raiff’s movie Shithouse (2020) has edges that snag as eerily familiar for this reason.
It’s a palm-sized movie, if plot, time, or space are the units of measurement. But it’s long and large when measured in emotional logic. It appears at first to be centred on Alex (played by Raiff), a freshman in college in the throes of a deep loneliness, unfruitfully waiting for a meteor shower of sociability to hit him, for people to care he exists. His only companions are the stuffed wolf he brought with him and his stoner, water polo-playing roommate who never thinks to invite him to parties. Then he meets Maggie, his sophomore RA, whose interest in him begins and ends, at that point, as a late-night, last-ditch hook up. From there the movie becomes a two-hander. A long night of connection unravels, and over the next days, their friction becomes a site for the better and worse parts of their respective relationships to intimacy. It’s a total pleasure to watch.
There’s flummox at the burial process for a dead pet turtle, there’s misreading eye contact across the dancefloor, chugging wine in a dorm room just for something to do with your hands. There’s divulging father-wounds while holding a swollen knee to an ice vending machine. Squint-eyed rejection of a breakfast burrito. Miming a home run. These are the kinds of emotional heights we’re talking about. Cooper and I are both fairly fresh off college-age. Whether or not you buy into autobiographical porousness, this might be worth noting.
Emma Cohen: I’m usually wary of asking about the relationship between autobiography and a piece of fiction, but you’ve spoken openly about ex-girlfriends, family, those kinds of relationships’ influence on Shithouse. Is being open with your life part of how you want to be as someone making work?
Cooper Raiff: I’m not really into the artistry of the gap. I’m always wondering how to communicate something to an audience, and if it gets the feeling across for them to think I’m writing my own story, then great. If people want to think Alex is literally Cooper, that’s fine, though I hope to god it’s not me. Alex highlights the pain of growing up and leaving home really well; that’s why he is the way he is, the annoyingness and dependence. I’m like Alex, and I’m like Maggie, but maybe I’m the most like the roommate, because I did drink a ton in my freshman year.
When you’re watching or reading something, do you have the impulse to wonder how autobiographical it is?
Not at all. I don’t have the mistrust that some people do around watching a movie. Like, am I just watching bullshit that was teed up to make me feel moved in a certain way? We all want to feel validated, and if you’re feeling something and these things on screen didn’t really happen, people think, what’s that feeling for? But I think that’s a bad question.
Shithouse’s main pulse is around the question of growing up. What does growing up mean, do you think, outside of the normative ways we delineate it? Like, you graduate, get married, get a house, what have you.
I’ve been recently writing about after college, and people love to talk about “the real world.” There’s no such thing as a real or fake world. Everybody is always coming of age, and growing up is just learning. If I think about moments when I feel like I grew up, it’s when I was challenged and feeling open—maybe not in the moment but in the next 24 hours—to the critique of the way that I’m living, or the way that I communicate or don’t communicate.
I’m interested in your resistance to older people making movies about youth, and not wanting them to tell you how it feels. You made a movie about being really young while you’re really young, which is not a typical thing we get to see.
Have you seen The Souvenir? That movie was made by someone very far removed from her experience. But Joanna Hogg cares so deeply about that person that was her, and not just telling that story, but taking care of everything around it. She says she wouldn’t have made that movie anytime sooner, and it’s been a long time since that happened to her. You do need that distance in order to make a certain kind of movie. But with Shithouse, it’s the inverse of that movie. It’s me trying to make a movie about someone who is learning. I’m playing the main character, and that adds to the immediacy. If a 50-year-old is writing about young people, that can be amazing if you really care and are really trying to capture something. But if it’s just looking back and feeling nostalgic and using high school or college as a playground for your awesome writing, it’s like, fuck off. I don’t think that a movie set at college has to really be about college. I didn’t set out to make a college movie; it started because I was on a college campus and there was no other movie I could make in that setting.
The emotions of Alex and Maggie navigating their differences and sudden closeness are what dictate the plot of the whole film. There’s that Rilke quote about how once you accept there’s infinite distance between you and the person you’re closest with, you can live side by side loving the distance. How do you love that distance?
That quote makes me uncomfortable because I don’t think I’ve fully accepted that in my life. I understand that quote so well, but I try to push against that with what I want to make. I always write characters that are just trying to get close, and then the same characters for some reason don’t want to be close, or go back. There’s always going to be a gap, but I like thinking about how we can close the infinite gap. We can always figure out how to make a deal, but how can we love each other way more?
During that first long night they spend together, it feels like Alex and Maggie are operating on the same wavelength. Later they’re having that fight at the party, and Alex is basically begging Maggie to acknowledge that they had this shared reality the night before. What do you think of this idea of sharing a reality?
I sometimes think of it as homes. I called it Shithouse because he’s just really bad at making a new reality or home. Alex is having trouble leaving home obviously; he’s stuck in that reality with his mom. The relationship with Maggie and Alex is based on my relationship with my ex-girlfriend, and the pain that I sometimes feel when we’re talking. The only way I can describe it is I’m talking to a robot. I’ll ask very specific pointed questions, like, what were you thinking here? And she’s like, I wasn’t. It’s like that scene in Normal People in Episode Five, where Marianne is like did you ever consider asking me to the Debs, and Connell is like honestly, no. That’s the greatest guy in the world saying no, I just genuinely never thought about it. There are really interesting gender dynamics there. Marianne sits there and cries and takes it in. And then you have a guy like Alex in Shithouse, who thinks he’s owed things, so he’s just yelling at her like, I need you to acknowledge what we had—and it’s so toxic in that room. And that’s why Maggie gets even more shut down.
Also, their relationship would’ve done awesome things if he was raised the way Maggie was raised; he could’ve been cool in the morning. He would’ve snuck out and wouldn’t have texted her for like four days, but they would’ve passed each other in the marketplace and he would’ve been like hey, I can’t stop thinking about you, and she would’ve blushed and loved that. But Alex is so desperate to have that safety net and comfort zone that he can’t do that. I think the realities we create with others have a lot to do with how we’re raised. I think the co-realities are a lot about how you were raised. Their realities are so far away from each other, even though in those moments they spend together, they’re so on the same page, so spiritually aligned. I love that they’re together the whole time that night, and that’s why it’s going so well. But as soon as there’s a night of sleep and dreaming, everything goes to shit because they process things so differently.
I’ve been thinking about how the rituals or traditions you have with people can bolster that feeling of shared reality, or of a home. Those things can tether you, make you feel sort of solid. Do you have any of those informal rituals?
I have this tradition—it’s weird to call it a tradition—with my ex-girlfriend. We’re still best friends. We do this thing where we keep our phones on loud and—this is like, devastating—when we wake up from a really bad nightmare, we text “nightmare” and then just stay on facetime with each other while we sleep. When we wake up, one of us will have hung up. It’s an act to show each other we still care.
Loneliness feels like a taboo to talk about in a real way while it’s happening to you, and this really comes up in the movie. Alex opens up to Maggie, and tells her he doesn’t have any friends at college, but then he backtracks in the next moment, saying, “Well, it’s not like I have no friends.” Though he does have no friends. Even while he’s admitting it he can’t admit it fully.
It’s nobody’s goal to get with Alex or even get something from him, until Maggie comes along and is like I want to sleep with this person, and she doesn’t even know his name at that point. He hasn’t felt purposeful or useful, and that’s what he wants to feel. But it’s no one’s fault he’s feeling so miserable by himself. I hate smoking weed. It makes me super anxious. But in my freshman year, I just had to do it to make friends. That’s just the reality—you’re not going to get along with your stoner roommate right now because you don’t see eye to eye on literally anything, so you just have to say: okay, hey, do you want to smoke weed? And he’ll be like fuck yeah dude, always dude. And that’s how you feel not lonely sometimes.
There’s this idea that to not be lonely, you have to really find this pure connection and perfect match, “your people” or whatever. I like this idea you present, that you can get there with someone, but you have to do these roundabout things to get it started.
With Sam, the roommate, you really see that. You see that these guys are not made for each other but they’re going to be friends. I think that some people watch the movie and are like—oh nothing was going his way and then he found this connection with Maggie, and it’s the thing that he needed and it felt real—but they’re terrible for each other! It’s the worst person for him to find. Yeah they have a nice night, but it’s going to be absolute miserable hell because they’re so different. Every life moment and relationship feels like making a sacrifice. It’s knowing you’re not going to get exactly what you want, but you’re going to meet great people. Honestly, it’s probably super unlucky that it happened to be Maggie, but that’s how it goes sometimes.