From S#!%house to the Penthouse

By Dick Anderson

Cooper Raiff ’19’s coming-of-age movie with an unprintable name became the Cinderella story of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. He only had to drop out of Oxy to complete it

It was October 14, 2020—two days before the video-on-demand and theatrical premiere of his South by Southwest-award-winning feature, S#!%house—and Cooper Raiff ’19 was “super nervous.” His movie was being screened to a virtual audience of Oxy alumni, followed by a Q&A with Media Arts & Culture Assistant Professor Aleem Hossain, and this marked the first time he talked to anyone at Oxy about the unorthodox making of the film.

“I don’t know if you know this,” he explains months later, “but there are certain shots that are on Oxy’s campus and we didn’t have permission.” All his worrying was for naught. The subject never even came up in the Q&A, and the event “was a nice icebreaker,” he recalls. “Oxy even did some nice social media posts that made me think I wasn’t going to be in trouble with the school.”

While it never identifies Occidental by name (ahem, not even in the credits), S#!%house—which is available to stream on demand as well for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray—may well be the most Oxy-specific feature film ever made. The movie is awash in references to actual locations, with references to Pauley, Berkus, the Marketplace, and Mount Fiji, to name just a few. The title itself refers to an actual off-campus residence rented by students and renowned for its parties.

Although the Motion Picture Association assigned S#!%house an R rating for “language throughout, sexual content, and drug/alcohol use,” viewers expecting an Animal House-style college romp may be surprised to find instead a sweet, thoughtful, and occasionally very funny rumination on “the pains of leaving home and growing up,” as Raiff has described his film.

While protagonist Alex closes himself off in his dorm room and has conversations (thoughtfully subtitled) with a miniature plush wolf from home, “That really wasn’t my college experience at all,” the Texas native says. “I was trying to find a character that was showing the interior life in such a visceral, outward way. I think everyone has those feelings that Alex has about leaving their first home and trying to figure out their second home, and most people bury that in order to survive and thrive. Alex can’t stop thinking about home, and that’s what’s paralyzing him." (In a sense, he adds, S#!%house is "a perfect metaphor for the experience of the second home.")

Eventually Alex hooks up with his resident adviser, Maggie, played by Dylan Gelula (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). The two bond over a bottle of wine, a dead turtle, and a softball game gone awry. The morning after these events, Alex wakes up next to Maggie, who pushes him away. The events that follow (a flurry of texts and unrequited likes on Instagram) can be painful to watch—well, until Alex gets beaned by a basketball in one of the film’s funniest moments.

The making of S#!%house would make a pretty good movie itself. It’s the story of an aspiring young filmmaker, his mumblecore mentor, and the chutzpah it takes to drop out of college to make your first feature at age 22. “I just feel so lucky every time I get an opportunity,” Raiff says. Since the SXSW win, “I’ve been saying yes to a lot of things and trying to meet with everybody because I’m so excited. My life has entirely changed.”

Raiff enrolled at Oxy from Greenhill School, a coed private day school in the Dallas area. (His character in S#!%house, Alex, spends much of the film in a Greenhill hoodie, and the film includes a fleeting video clip of his senior address from Commencement 2015.) “Everyone at Greenhill knows Oxy very well in a way that I think a lot of high schools probably don’t,” he says.

As a media arts and culture major, he was sold on the College’s approach to teaching filmmaking. In an editing class, he says, professors might talk about the classical “Hollywood” approach, “and then they’d talk about six different, fun approaches that are not what Hollywood wants. It’s not that I necessarily employed these things that I learned, but just the idea that are so many different ways to do things helped me feel very self-assured.”

Madeline Hill and Cooper Raiff in the title roles of Madeline & Cooper, shot at Oxy in five days over Spring Break in 2018.
With a runtime of 101 minutes, S#!%house expands upon the narrative of Raiff’s 56-minute short, Madeline & Cooper, which he and a couple of friends shot over spring break in 2018. (Patrons who spring for the S#!%house Blu-ray or DVD will get Madeline & Cooper as well as a number of deleted scenes and bloopers from the feature.) That film became his calling card to Hollywood.

“I think it was probably a month before spring break. It was right around the time when people were making their spring break plans. Yeah. And I wasn’t particularly excited about going to like Vegas or Joshua Tree because I’d gone to Joshua Tree my freshman year and I just had the idea, Let’s make a movie.”

While it took some convincing, Raiff eventually persuaded Will Youmans ’20, a history and theater major at Oxy, to be his director of photography, and Madeline Hill ’19, an urban and environmental major and Raiff’s girlfriend, to play the character of Madeline. “I didn’t feel like the character was me but I didn’t try to be someone else,” she says. “I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know anything about acting.”

Hill, who met Raiff through mutual friends in Fantastiprov, Occidental’s improv troupe, had previously worked with her boyfriend in a handful of Adult Swim-style shorts titled Hal & Harper for CatAList, the Oxy TV anthology show available on Vimeo. In the shorts, 7-year-old Hal (Raiff) and his 9-year-old, sister Harper (Hill), engage in conversations about atheism vs. agnosticism, and are prone to saying things like, “I have a high tolerance for bleakness.”

Raiff and Hill as 7- and 9-year-old siblings Hal & Harper, made for CatAList in 2017.
“It was probably easier for me to play someone named Madeline than, for example, how in Harper, I was playing a 9-year-old girl who has the emotional maturity of like a 40-year-old,” Hill says. “It was this really specific character that Cooper developed in his head.” By comparison, playing Madeline, “I knew what the scenes were trying to get across. I had a very intimate understanding of the dynamic of each scene.”

Despite her own misgivings, Hill gives an engaging performance in Madeline & Cooper—which she attributes in large part to Raiff’s dogged work ethic. “It was definitely not a pleasant experience,” she adds with a laugh, “but in retrospect I have to give Cooper props for pushing us through it.” (Although he and Hill are no longer a couple, “Madeline and I talk every day,” Raiff says. “She’s my best friend.”)

With his co-star and director of photography locked in and Youmans returning as a producer, there was also the matter of having the equipment to shoot over spring break. The MAC Department houses all of its production equipment in a small room commonly known as the Cage. “They’re very specific about who they let have the camera equipment,” Raiff says. “You have to be in a video production class to use it, and I had been in one the semester before. So, I had a friend who rented it out for me—so a bit of it was borrowed without permission.”

In a story that has quickly become DIY filmmaking legend, Raiff set out to edit Madeline & Cooper and post it to YouTube with an audience of one in mind: Eagle Rock resident and indie-movie multihyphenate Jay Duplass, who with his brother, Mark, ushered in the mumblecore movement with their 2005 Sundance entry The Puffy Chair.

“I created a Twitter account just for this,” Raiff recalls. “I had zero followers and I followed one person— and it was Jay. And I tweeted him, ‘Bet you won’t click on this YouTube link.’ And then I put my Oxy email.”

As Duplass recounted in a Film Independent-produced “drive-in Q&A” tied to S#!%house’s premiere last October, “Cooper did, in fact, challenge me to watch it and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll watch the first two minutes and then I’ll turn it off when I realize what a big piece of shit this movie is. And it turned out to be incredible even though it was made by hand and it was more like a home movie than an actual movie. There was something so special about it and I had had a similar experience in my first year of college [at the University of Texas at Austin].”

“Jay didn’t come in saying, ‘I’m obsessed with your short and I want to talk about it with you.’ It was more of like, ‘Hey, I was interested in your movie and I want to get to know you,’” Raiff recalls. They met for lunch at Cindy’s on Colorado Boulevard, two miles from the Oxy campus. “We stayed at Cindy’s for four hours, talking movies that we love, and then we went on a two-hour walk. We just hung out for six hours and it was the best day of my life.”

After Raiff’s lunch with Duplass, Hill could see that the pair had a genuine connection. “Jay’s amazing at what he does and Cooper was just starting out. So, there was obviously that dynamic, but it was also cool that Cooper had someone that he could vibe off in that way. I don’t know if Cooper had really had that before with another filmmaker.”

Three meetings later, Duplass offered to go through the short with Raiff and give him all his notes. The next time they met, Raiff says, was like a “master class” in filmmaking: “He would say, ‘Here’s why I love this,’ or ‘Here’s why this makes no sense,’ or ‘This is terrible editing.’”

Dylan Gelula as Maggie and Cooper Raiff as Alex on the streets of Eagle Rock in S#!%house.
Talks of doing reshoots slowly turned into a conversation about remaking Madeline & Cooper, with a more fully realized script and a handful of professional actors. “Jay just loves making movies for cheap and loved helping out with that process,” Raiff says. "It was a very gradual thing of realizing that we were going to make it into a movie.” Raiff set out to rewrite the screenplay, adding a third act and changing Madeline and Cooper to Maggie and Alex, and S#!%house began to take shape.

Unbeknownst to both Duplass and his own parents, Raiff withdrew from Oxy prior to the start of the Spring 2019 semester to devote his energies to the movie. At the time, he told his parents that there were shooting dates lined up when that wasn’t the case just yet. “I lied to them,” he admits, “and I told them that Jay knew that I was going to drop out and that’s what he wanted. But that was also a lie. Jay had no idea until like a month after I dropped out, because I didn’t want to pressure him.”

At some point Duplass said to Raiff words to the effect of, “Dude, do you not have class?” and Raiff came clean about his situation. “About two months later, we set the shooting dates,” he recalls. “There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to make it, but no good parents are gonna let their kids drop out of college for no reason.”

After discovering that going through proper College channels would be prohibitively expensive for the microbudget indie—“Filming on our college campus for one day would’ve been a fourth of our entire movie budget,” he wrote in MovieMaker magazine—S#!%house stealthily shot over two weeks using Oxy locales under the guise of “a student short with no money and four crew members.”

With Gelula cast as Madeline, Duplass reached out to actress Amy Landecker, his TV sister in the Amazon series Transparent, to play the small but pivotal part of Alex’s mother. Rounding out the key players was Logan Miller (Love, Simon) as Alex’s extrovert pothead roommate. Having seen Madeline & Cooper, he recalled in the Film Independent Q&A, “It was a great little road map” for what S#!%house would become.

Hill appears as a background extra in a number of scenes and acts alongside Raiff and Duplass as a college instructor in a classroom scene cut from the film but on the DVD and Blu-ray extras. On her first day visiting the set, she recalls, “I felt like I was like totally out of my element at that point and Cooper was in his.” Watching him work, “It didn’t feel like an arts and crafts project. It was a serious film with really professional, hardworking, talented people on it.”

Cooper Raiff '19, photographed by Greg Feiner.
After shooting wrapped on S#!%house in late August 2019, the race was on to edit the film in time to submit for South by Southwest by the end of October. Thanks to Duplass, Raiff and his co-editor received “a massive extension”—and even with that, he says, “What I submitted was very rough. We had to send a message saying, ‘It’s gonna get better.’ And they trusted us.”

Out of 1,305 narrative feature submissions in 2020, 10 films were chosen for the festival, including S#!%house. While SXSW was canceled on March 6, one week before its opening—the first major pop culture casualty of COVID—the festival’s three-member Narrative Feature Competition jury screened all 10 movies and awarded S#!%housethe top prize. No one was more surprised than the filmmaker himself.

There’s just no part of me that thought we’re going to win,” says Raiff, who awoke on the morning of March 24 to a call with the good news. After he confirmed the news with a publicist, “I hung up the phone and screamed with my family.”

 “When he got into South by Southwest, I thought, ‘OK, this is the highlight of the decade,’” Hill recalls. “And when he won, I was a little bit taken aback—like, ‘Who are you, Cooper?’” she adds with a laugh. “It just made me really hopeful that with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, a lot of things are possible.”

Michael Angelo Covino, The Climb Punch Drunk Love

How did actor-producer-director Michael Angelo Covino ’08 become the sweetheart of the festival circuit with his feature film directorial debut, The Climb? It’s not as easy as riding a bicycle—even though he makes it look that way

In January, nearly nine months after the SXSW win, Raiff reflected on what he calls “the craziest year ever. There are so many opportunities that I just didn’t realize were in play. Certain things felt so unreachable, and for an award to all of a sudden get you in every single door that you’ve ever even dreamed of is an amazing year. So many awesome things have happened that I’m really excited to tell people about when I can.”

Production began in late July on his followup feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth, with Raiff starring opposite Dakota Johnson and a cast that includes Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, and Raúl Castillo. The film’s logline: "A young man (Raiff) who works as a bar mitzvah party host strikes up a friendship with a mother (Johnson) and her autistic daughter." Again, Raiff is writing and directing as well, only he’s traded the Oxy campus for a shopping center northeast of Pittsburgh.

This time, he says, he’s playing by the rules. “I won’t be making anything where I’m worried about police officers showing up and asking, ‘Hey, do you have a permit?’”