A scene from The Removals, making its world premiere here on May 4
We're big fans of Columbus-based publisher Two Dollar Radio here at the Wex. Thanks to their dedication to supporting many of contemporary lit's most compelling and challenging voices, they've become one of the leading independent publishers on the scene. Now, as they branch out into film, Two Dollar Radio furthers their commitment to telling new and interesting stories.
On May 4, we're thrilled to share the world premiere of their latest production The Removals, a thought-provoking, head-trip of a thriller. Director Nicholas Rombes will join us to introduce and discuss the Columbus-shot film (and to take part in a prescreening signing). To get ready for the premiere we chatted via email with Two Dollar Radio's cofounder and editorial director Eric Obenauf, about The Removals, the origins of Two Dollar Radio, and what's next for the acclaimed publisher. Get your tickets for The Removals here.
EP: Let’s start at the beginning: can you tell us a bit about the impetus to start Two Dollar Radio?
EO: Book publishing in the US was in a pretty bad way as a result of corporate consolidation over the last quarter of the 20th century. It created a stagnant and uninspired vacuum for literary culture. This was around the time I had just finished college and was chewing up books and because the types of darker, edgier stories that I was attracted to weren't being represented by the big presses, I found myself reading almost exclusively publications from indie publishers. But still, my appetite wasn’t satisfied.
At Two Dollar Radio, we publish “books too loud to ignore,” and it's the same type of work that we're attracted to in our movie productions: new voices with new visions that attempt to subvert the traditional storytelling formulas that are now ingrained into our expectations.
The culture website Flavorwire said recently that we're in a new golden age of indie publishing, which I agree with. Because corporate presses sucked so bad, coupled with the evolution of the internet, it created this incredibly fertile environment for new publishers to crop up and reach a niche audience.
EP: Why the decision to branch into film?
EO: We always knew we would branch out into mediums other than book publishing—it was only a matter of when. My background is in film, and I've written for children's TV shows. In many ways it is a natural extension of book publishing in that we're pursuing striking stories and distinctive ways to tell them.
The idea of a publisher producing movies itself isn't that radical. Barney Rosset, who ran Grove Press during its heyday, used to distribute films, including I Am Curious (Yellow), and he financed Samuel Beckett's only screenplay, for the movie Film.
I was also inspired by indie record labels like Drag City and Jagjaguwar. Every so often they'll release a micro-budget movie like Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers or Rick Alverson's first three movies. They do it because they want to, and because why not? It's that same spirit of creation that we're pursuing in our movie productions.
EP: How has independent publishing informed your work as a film producer? And vice versa: has working on I’m Not Patrick and The Removals impacted how you operate as a publisher?
EO: Someone told me once that no one recommends good books to friends; they only recommend great books. The titles that we've published that have done the best are those that have also been slightly frightening to take on. It's the distinctive, singular work that really strikes a chord. Readers respond to writers taking chances. I'm okay with someone reading one of our books and saying, “That was awful!” I'd rather inspire a reaction than no reaction at all. The enemy of culture is mediocrity.
It's important that now that we're working on movies and that the type of work we champion not fit cleanly into the present Hollywood status quo. By which I mean that many—but not all! —Independent features still follow a traditional storytelling formula.
A couple of the cast members are also writers we’ve published: Jeff Wood is an Ohio native who wrote a great “cinematic novel” called The Glacier, which we published last fall. He’s a super-talented actor who has worked with Eve Sussman’s acting group, The Rufus Corporation, who brought a lot of depth to the role of Mason.
Scott McClanahan—who wrote a book called Crapalachia, as well as a forthcoming graphic novel The Incantations of Daniel Johnston—plays the Accountant.
The writers we’ve worked with are so talented and so smart, and I feel so fortunate. They’re such sharp, creative people, and they’re the ones I want to work with to make movies, because I know that they are bringing something fresh and provocative to the table.
EP: How did you come to The Removals? What was the impetus to select this as your sophomore film production?
EO: Nick Rombes was someone that I was familiar with through his film theory and criticism and when we published a postmodern zombie novel called A Questionable Shape a couple years ago I wanted to share a copy with him, so we struck up a correspondence. Because of his knowledge of film, I mentioned that we were contemplating branching out into movie production ourselves. Nick has a typewriter and a collection of old letterhead. He snail-mailed me a cryptic, typed letter, with a link to a story that he had written and was considering expanding into a screenplay. I was so curious after receiving the letter that I read the story immediately and loved it.
Nick is a rare, brilliant visionary whose work is right in my wheelhouse. It's dark and mysterious and doesn't spoon-feed you answers. We also published his first novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, and that was both a positive and fulfilling creative experience.
There were several aspects to Nick’s script that leant itself to our modest production size, but perhaps the most important was that it called for these appealing backdrops—like greenhouses, vintage clothing stores, tunnels, serene forests with giant red cones, basement offices with cages. With our first production, we were filming at high schools, which I don’t know if you’ve been in one recently, but they’re depressing and bleak! We had to dig a little deeper to find some of the locations for The Removals, but then once we got around to actually filming it was incredibly inspiring visually.
Nick’s script was also heavily dependent upon sound. Mike Shiflet—a local noise musician—works with us at Two Dollar Radio on movie production. Mike did the cinematography for The Removals, so he can be credited for all the striking shots in the movie, but he also produced the soundtrack. In many ways, The Removals is a sonic showcase for his singular, piercing sound.
EP: Why Columbus? What, to you, are the benefits to keeping the Two Dollar Radio headquarters here and to shoot the Removals here?
EO: I’m proud of this piece I wrote about what I find attractive about Columbus for the Alive a couple years ago, but I think with all the work we do at Two Dollar Radio we’re clearly aiming to operate well outside of the mainstream (in case you haven’t noticed). Even if we were rich and could afford it, I wouldn’t want to be just another Brooklyn publisher.
Columbus is home. People here are artistic but I believe in a more humble way than some other places. They don’t wear it on their sleeves in a self-promotional way like they do in other cities where I’ve lived. You can be creative and idealistic, but we’re people first here, and I think there’s something very salt of the earth about that.
Many of the actors in The Removals also appeared in I’m Not Patrick: Joe Justus has a big role in both movies, as do Sandy and Pablo Tanguay. It’s fun to work with these people who are our friends and comfortable enough with us to agree to participate.
While he grew up in Ohio, Jeff Wood lives in New York and Berlin now, and we only had him in town for a limited window of time. We wanted to tack on another scene or two for him, to add some more meat to his character. He had the idea of filming at Malcolm Cochran’s “Field of Corn” sculpture. We were able to get in touch with Malcolm, who was incredibly generous and gracious, and agreed to let us shoot a scene for the movie there. That all came together within a couple of hours.
EP: What’s next for Two Dollar Radio, on both the film and publishing front?
EO: We’re working on developing our third movie production, but it’s in the early formational stages. We’re envisioning it as an episodic noir series that exists somewhere between Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, The Vanishing, and True Detective Season 1, with the charged energy and directness of the Run the Jewels video for “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck.”
While we’re on the fringe, we’re still going about distributing our movies through traditional channels, and I’d like to think harder about alternative ways of producing and releasing them, whether that’s through alternate versions of the movie itself, or other ways.
In June, we’re publishing the first novel by the winner of the PEN International New Voices Award, South African writer Masande Ntshanga. It’s called The Reactive and was also longlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature, which is Africa’s most prestigious prize for fiction.
In July, we’re releasing our first graphic novel, a spirited collaboration between Scott McClanahan and Spanish artist, Ricardo Cavolo—called The Incantations of Daniel Johnston—that will make your eyeballs pop out of your head.
In publishing you’re looking a year ahead and just this week we signed the debut novel by the frontman of Th’ Legendary Shack Shackers, J.D. Wilkes. It’s a mesmerizing, Homeric odyssey that features vampire cults and albino panthers.
I’m also working on Slovak author Jana Beňová’s novel, Seeing People Off, which won the European Union Prize for Literature and will be out March 2017. While Beňová’s work has been widely translated across Europe, this will be her English-language debut, so it should be pretty special.
There’s always something. I just try to remember to keep putting one foot in front of the other.