In March 2018, as Occidental students were relaxing on campus, embarking on road trips or taking flights home, Cooper Raiff ‘19 had different plans for his spring break. He had a vision of a film starring himself and his then-girlfriend, Madeline Hill ‘19, tackling topics such as love, collegiate loneliness, family dynamics and mourning the death of a pet turtle. He convinced Hill — who he is still close friends with — to be in the movie and enlisted the help of his friend Will Youmans ‘20 as cameraman. In five grueling days, the three of them produced and filmed a 50-minute movie.
After cutting together his film and uploading it to YouTube, Raiff tweeted a link to filmmaker Jay Duplass. Duplass is one half of the Duplass Brothers, famous for their well-received indie movies including “Jeff, Who Lives At Home,” “Cyrus” and “The Puffy Chair.”
“I said, ‘Bet you won’t click on this link and then email me after’ — that was the tweet,” Raiff said. “And then 12 hours later, he emailed me back and said I won the bet.”
Almost exactly two years later, “Shithouse” — a full-budget remake of Raiff’s film that is set to be released in select theaters and video on demand Oct. 16 — won the Grand Jury Award for Feature Films at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival.
Soon after Duplass’ email response, the two met for lunch and formed a friendship, Raiff said; suddenly he had a mentor in the business who was willing to help him make his budget film into a professional production. The original version, fittingly called “Cooper and Madeline,” was a nightmare to film, Raiff said — he had to hold the boom microphone while simultaneously acting.
“It was just three people, so I’m booming under the frame while I’m acting a scene with my girlfriend at the time,” Raiff said.
Raiff said it was fun for him to see the night-and-day difference made possible by a crew with filmmaking experience and the proper equipment.
“There are certain lines that are the exact same,” Raiff said. “Seeing how much better ‘Shithouse’ looks just because we had lights and we had professionals who had done it before, that was fun.”
“Shithouse” comes from students’ name for a house with a brown paint job and frequent parties near Occidental. In the film, Raiff plays Alex, a first-year student who is having trouble adjusting to life at college in LA, far away from his supportive family in Texas (Raiff was born and raised in Dallas). After trying to make friends with his unusual roommate Sam (Logan Miller), Alex hits it off with his Resident Advisor (RA) Maggie (Dylan Gelula), but they soon find they have very different world views and communication styles.
Raiff said he first wrote the movie because he wanted to talk about his love for Hill and how she is like no one else he has met before. He said the characters are based on himself and Hill, and the two are foils for each other. Throughout the film, Alex stays in contact with his concerned and supportive mom (Amy Landecker) and finds college to be an unwelcoming home, another meaning behind the film’s title. Maggie, meanwhile, feels little connection to her parents and loves college life.
“For Alex, he was with this awesome safety net for 18 years,” Raiff said. “And then he got to college and was without a safety net for the first time, so it really felt like such a shitty home. But then for Maggie, she’s someone who, I think, has lived her whole life without that safety net.”
Media Arts & Culture (MAC) professor Aleem Hossain said Raiff’s success story shows that independent filmmakers can go out and shoot a rough cut of their film instead of waiting for funding from a major studio.
“I think he’s found success precisely because his version of a ‘College film’ is very different from the standard Hollywood ‘College films’ which are usually about a protagonist who sees college as an amazing place of freedom and fun [and] is desperately trying to become cool and go to parties, get drunk and have sex,” Hossain said via email. “In this film, the protagonist is not sure he wants any of those things. He is not even sure that college is for him and he’s struggling to reconcile his deep attachment to home and family with his peers’ insistence that the freedom and leaving that all behind is the point of college.”
Raiff’s vulnerable acting is a highlight of the film, along with dialogue from all characters that feels real and honest. Social life at Occidental features heavily in the movie, and a series of inside jokes and references will bring students both nostalgia and groans.
During the larger production, Raiff remained director and one of the film’s three producers, along with Youmans and Divi Crockett.
“It did feel similar to the making of the first movie because it was just us in charge,” Raiff said. “[Youmans] is a producer on it and was the MVP of both movies, really.”
Even after Raiff texted Youmans saying Duplass liked the movie and wanted to help them remake it, Youmans said he still felt he had to keep his expectations low.
“It never really felt real until it suddenly felt extremely real,” Youmans said. “When we were in pre-production, it all felt like, ‘At some point, there’s gonna be a movie,’ and then day one, 25 people showed up, and we’re like, ‘Oh whoa, this is weird.’ And then [I] didn’t think South By [Southwest] would happen at all.”
Hossain said he believes Raiff is the first MAC major to get a film released in this manner, although MAC has only been a stand-alone department for three years.
“In terms of the release, it is rare for any filmmaker to get a fiction film released theatrically by a major distributor like IFC,” Hossain said via email. “It’s a major achievement to even get accepted by SXSW, which is one of the four or five most prestigious North American Film Festivals, and on top of that he won the grand jury prize.”
Raiff said he was shocked when he got a phone call from the festival’s organizers saying “Shithouse” had won the top prize.
“We were so excited that we got in in the first place,” Raiff said. “It was just a really surreal, crazy day, because I was just so excited and also knew that the movie was now going to be looked at in a very different way, which is good, but also super scary and vulnerable.”