Shaking Hands with Todd Rohal By Mike White. Winner of the Grand Jury prize at Slamdance, The Guatemalan Handshake is a much-anticipated film by wunderkind Todd Rohal which fulfills the promise of the writer/director’s potential...

Winner of the Grand Jury prize at Slamdance, The Guatemalan Handshake is a much-anticipated film by wunderkind Todd Rohal which fulfills the promise of the writer/director’s potential. Picking up where his short films, Knuckleface Jones (1999) and Hillbilly Robot (2001) left off, The Guatemalan Handshake serves as another voyage into the creative and colorful mind of Rohal.

Starring Will Oldham as Donald Turnipseed, the singer/songwriter is absent through a good deal of the film, though his presence haunts nearly every scene. Donald has gone missing after an accident at a local power plant. All that’s left of him is his father’s funny little electric car—which changes hands more often than a novice poker player—memories of him, and his unborn child. Sadie (Sheila Scullin) is the baby’s momma. She’s going into her third trimester as an outcast from her family after her father, the off-kilter Ivan (Ivan Dimitrov), kicks her out of the house for being a slut. Never mind that Ivan has to use a short bus to transport his fourteen illegitimate daughters.

The film goes back and forth in time, focusing on a wide array of eccentric characters that live in anticipation, or dread, of a big demolition derby. Will Sadie drive Donald’s father’s car to victory? Will Ivan defeat her? Will Turkeylegs (Katy Haywood) ever be reunited with her friend Donald? Will Ethel Firecracker (Kathleen Kennedy) ever find her lost dog? These questions and more are woven into the rich fabric of The Guatemalan Handshake.

As to be expected from a Rohal film, nothing can be expected—with the exceptions that any boy scouts in the film will be malicious little punks and that the plot will follow logic of its own. The Guatemalan Handshake does not disappoint. It’s a pleasure cruise of an independent film.

Cashiers du Cinemart:What inspired The Guatemalan Handshake?
Todd Rohal: A lot of short short stories I was writing. I really wanted to make something that seemed like it came from a different place. I wanted to make a movie with a demolition derby in it. I wanted to use kids, retirees, strange cars and animals. I had friends I wanted to write roles for. It was more of a matter of writing stories with these elements and figuring out how they could all work together. I also found a documentary on a government access channel in Ohio called "TigerTown," which was a heavy influence on some things. It was the only movie I wanted to directly reference.

CdC: Did the power outage of 2003 have an impact on the film?
TR: You’re the only person to have ever asked me that. I was writing during the power outage and I was jealous of all the people in New York who got off of work and got to hang out together in the streets. It sounded like a really good time.

CdC:How did you get hooked up with Will Oldham?
TR: I helped author a DVD for a film he acted in called Slitch, by Dianne Bellino. She was working on a script at the same time as I was, and I asked her if she thought Will would be interested in acting again. I sent him the script hoping he’d come on for a background role, but he asked to do something more substantial, and that led to me casting him as Donald. Will drove himself to the set, jumped right in, and got down to business. He was a lot of fun on the set and I think he’d have a good time making a comedy about moonshiners.

CdC:What kind of car is that and where did you find it?
TR: A fully-electric 1981 Vanguard Comuta-Car originally invented by Bob Beaumont of Baltimore, Maryland. They were a fledgling car company in the late 1970s during the energy crisis and they were cranking these things out in Florida for a few years until Consumer Reports wrote an unfairly scathing review of them and destroyed the company. Bob Beaumont continues to create electric vehicles in Baltimore. I think someone should make a movie about his life; it’s pretty amazing.

The car in the film is mine. I bought it from a retired electrical engineer in Columbus, Ohio. He put a lot of work and restoration into it. We have a ten-part podcast on the film’s website documenting the trials and tribulations of hauling that car from Ohio to Park City, Utah (and back again) for the premiere of the film at Slamdance.

CdC:What is next for The Guatemalan Handshake?
TR: I thought we had a DVD release ready to go, but now it seems like a bad idea. I’m talking with some more companies now, but if it goes on too long I’m going to make it available only on 35mm and BetaMax. We’ve had offers, but I’m very much wanting to put out a DVD that looks good, as that’ll be the place most people will be able to see it. If it can’t happen that way, then it can’t happen that way. I’d rather go make another film than release a bad version of the film. It’s very likely things won’t go in my favor, but most of my favorite things were found through bootlegging, so maybe that’ll be the path for my film as well. That will be sad if that ends up being the case.

CdC:About what percentage of the audience gets that the woman with the missing dog is dead?
TR: Not too many; those that do usually ask me about it first, assuming that their ideas about things are wrong. I always say that it’s like two negatives making a positive connection. The dog dies and the woman is searching for it. Maybe God feels so sorry for her that he kills her off as well, instead of dealing another depressing blow to her life. The last person seen with the dog in the film is Donald (who disappears himself). So there’s this connection about lost things being found and how eventually everything will work out. I didn’t want to do any of that explicitly, so when anyone says they wish that things would all come together and connect, I know they aren’t looking hard enough. It’s all there, just like the cheesiest of O. Henry stories.

CdC:How has the reception of the film been?
TR: Would it be crappy of me to describe it as being "passionate"? Some people fall in love with it and others want to kill everyone involved with making it. It’s a hard film to explain from the start, and those who love the film love it for the right reasons. It’s challenging and stupid at the same time, which sometimes makes smarties uncomfortable.

CdC:How long did it take to make The Guatemalan Handshake, from inception to premiere?
TR: I started writing it in 2002. I did three full scripts, each one completely different from the others. This led to the final shooting script. We raised money for a year or so and put together our 35mm camera package, recruited the crew, and found the cast. We shot in the summer of 2004 for a month straight. I edited for a year while working full time. I quit my job for six months leading up to the premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in January of 2006.

CdC:Who is the actor who plays the foreman in the power plant?
TR: That is none other than Jim Krut, who played the helicopter zombie in George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead. He came to our open audition call and we had a lot of fun with him. After he left we looked at his resume and saw who he was, and that he just happened to live in the area. Two other producers from the film and I were basically weaned on that movie, so it was like having John Wayne show up to your casting call.

CdC: What are you working on now?
TR: I’ve been releasing the film on my own for the last year and a half. It’s been painfully time-consuming, but for someone who had never been out of the country until last year, it’s allowed me to travel all over the world and live off the success of the film for a bit. Last year the film took me (directly and indirectly) to Holland, Japan, Germany, England, Italy, Austria, Canada—just about every major city in the US and then some. I’ve booked screenings on my own and continue to do film festivals, although I’m currently wrapping up the festival screenings now.

I’m also writing as much as I can. I have a new film I want to make which is part Killer of Sheep, part Stand By Me, part Silver Streak, and part "Benny Hill."

For more on The Guatemalan Handshake visit

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