Project Space 13 was written over the course of a few days and then shot just as quickly. It takes place in a single location over one night in New York City during the 2020 summer protests.
“On a movie that shot this fast it doesn’t help to overthink everything. Because the second you start saying, how do you make a movie in four days, you talk yourself out of it,” writer-director Michael Bilandic says.
Thankfully, Bilandic was working with a trusted team of collaborators, people he’s made movies with before, people he hangs out with in NYC.
“You just have to take a leap of faith, and you can only do that with people you trust and your close friends,” he continues. “That’s the benefit of working with your friends. You can ask a lot of them and know that you guys are all in it together, because it really just takes one annoying psycho to ruin everything. It’s a house of cards.”
One of these trusted collaborators is cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Good Time, Tesla), who was in Rome shooting Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones when Bilandic sent him the script for Project Space 13. This was during the pandemic and there was serious concern as to whether Williams would be able to travel to New York City to shoot the film and return to Italy if needed. Williams has shot all three of Bilandic’s previous features, Happy Life (2011), Hellaware (2013) and Jobe’z World (2018), so a lot was riding on getting this situation sorted. Thankfully it all worked out.
Working with friends has another benefit: “It makes the stuff that usually sucks, enjoyable,” Bilandic says.
Williams shot Project Space 13 on the Digital Bolex, a camera without memory cards. “So at the end of the day, you have to sit around and dump all the footage, and it takes hours,” Bilandic says. “Usually that would be a complete headache. But it was me, Sean and our editor just hanging out for hours at the end of the day, listening to music, drinking beers, and having a great time.”
“When you’re with your friends, you’re lucky to have that time with them,” he adds.
In Project Space 13, a gallerist Pieter (Jason Grisell) hires two security guards: Ace (Theodore Bouloukos) and Evan (Hunter Zimny) to protect his Soho gallery from rioters during the summer of 2020. This gallery space includes Keith Poulson as Nate, who — in a ridiculous bit of performance art — is sleeping in a cage in the middle of the gallery. He is routinely fed bugs from a robot named Zebos. Zebos also electrocutes him as part of the show, and says things like “I am Zebos.” There’s a world in which Nate’s show might’ve been a big hit, but in this one, the timing of the shutdown means no one is reviewing his show in Artforum. Undeterred, Nate stays in his cage.
“It’s like he just discovered Reddit or something, and is now trying to do this powerful piece about how in the future, we’re all gonna have to eat bugs and drink Soylent,” Bilandic says. “And these tech overlords force us to live in a pod while we’re being tortured by these robots. The Zebos character was just supposed to be a dystopian future tormentor.”
If you’re wondering if the film is making some sort of political statement about the riots of that summer or about the state of contemporary art (and if the character of Zebos hasn’t clued you in so far) it’s not that serious.
“I definitely did not set out saying, I want to make this argument. I want to make this case. I want to make this comment. Because if I did, I would just write an essay or something,” Bilandic says.
“I just sat down. I had a few constraints. I said it was going to take place in one room, one person’s in a cage, and it’s gonna take place over one night. … It’s more just my natural sense of humor and worldview is satirical, but it wasn’t like I was aiming to fire shots at anyone specifically or get something off my chest. I’m just trying to amuse myself.”
That being said, Bilandic is too savvy an observer of culture not to work incisive commentary into the film’s interactions of the distinctly working class (the two security guards) with an artist who has ascended to certain heights within the art world.
A major tenet of contemporary art is this idea that the conception of the idea behind a piece is more important than the tangible skills to complete the piece. So while Bilandic pokes fun at this when Evan can’t comprehend that Nate didn’t build Zebos himself, he understands the implication as a filmmaker himself.
“I don’t want to take too harsh of a stance, because then I’d be taking a harsh stance on myself,” he says. “Because, who are we to make a movie? I don’t know how to load a camera. I can’t do any of that stuff either. There are things I see in myself in all the characters, so I wouldn’t say it’s a simple indictment.”
Project Space 13 has a surprise connection to Bilandic’s second feature Hellaware — itself a biting satire of the art world. At one point, Nate talks about a run-in with some kids from Delaware, and it becomes clear that Poulson is reprising his Hellaware role as an aspiring photographer who garners a certain amount of notoriety when he begins exploiting a group of rap-rock teenagers in rural Delaware.
“With all these movies, I’m always thinking about, what would they be doing right now? Where would they be right now?” Bilandic says.
“I’ve had a million other versions of what Nate would be doing. Two years ago, if we made this movie, he would have been doing something completely different. It just happened that at this moment in time, this is what he would be doing,” he continues.
New York City is a major part of the worlds that Bilandic creates and the character of the city informs the characters he populates these worlds with.
“It’s an expensive and competitive place to live. A lot of the characters in my movies are striving to make a name for themselves, make a career for themselves, or to even find a community to fit in,” he says.
For Nate here, Bilandic says he “will not quit his performance piece because he desperately wants validation. A lot of people are like that, and it’s a character type that’s funny and relatable to me.”
Project Space 13, written and directed by Michael Bilandic, is now streaming on Mubi.
Main image: Hunter Zimny as Evan in Project Space 13. Photos courtesy of Circle Collective.