Kai Kaldro is a film director, editor, and screenwriter from Brooklyn, New York. He is best known for his work on rock music videos and independent but ambitious action shorts that artistically rebel against their limitations to emulate the spectacle of Hollywood blockbusters.
His narrative works which he wrote, directed, and edited include the 2020 black & white neo-noir short Sinner’s Lullaby, followed by the cyberpunk transmission Dissolved Girl.
Kaldro also recently made his way in front of the camera for an appearance in the music video for The Chainsmokers’ hit single iPad.
He was mentored by the late great production sound mixer M Wolf Snyder (1985-2021), known for running sound on 2021 Best Picture Winner Nomadland by Chloe Zhao. Dissolved Girl was one of Wolf’s final pictures and is dedicated to his memory.
Kaldro is of Estonian descent, with a wild long curly blonde mane and icy blue eyes, often noted for bearing a resemblance to River Phoenix or Robert Plant. While boyish, he harbors a husky baritone voice. Resonant and deep beyond his 21 years— much like the artistic voice behind his films, which thematically explore perceived reality, gothic romance, and troubled outcast characters discovering their purpose within a dark city, infused with rock/metal soundtracks and a haunting visual style that often conflate Japanese animation, 90s MTV, and classic film noir.
As a director, he uses everything and the kitchen sink in terms of surrogating action, special
effects, and sets often deemed “too expensive” or “too ambitious” for independent productions.
Whether or not Kaldro’s equivalency of pulling a MacGyver' seamlessly replicates the grandeur of a 200 million flick is up for debate, but the uncompromising ambition to discover new ways of depicting the otherworldly on screen is evident. Soulfully akin to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead Trilogy… and makes you wonder if the young filmmaker may pioneer the best thing since “bullet time” from The Matrix in the years to come, as he heads into feature film territory!
Please tell us about yourself. I understand that you have had experiences of making great music videos as well. How did you start your career, and how did you get into the world of filmmaking? From the beginning, I always knew I was meant to be a filmmaker. As a kid (and I’m talking real young, like ages 3 or 4 years old) I watched the behind-the-scenes featurettes on DVDs even more than the films themselves. It was the earliest understanding of anything I ever had: I was cognizant of chroma keying and wire-stunt work… before I even knew the days of the week!
My first filmmaking attempt was as early as age six, the summer after kindergarten– with the
help of neighborhood kids, I procured a 10-minute Spider-Man short, shot on a camcorder. We utilized Halloween costumes, composited the hilariously rough “visual FX” in Microsoft Paint, and cut the whole thing together in Windows Movie Maker. Definitely something that pre-teen kids made, but at the time it felt like my first step into a larger world.
Growing up, I had other fascinations like harder rock/heavy metal music and comic-books, but because cinema is an amalgamation of all different art forms: I was not diverted by, but
encouraged to stand by my medium and infuse my other affinities into it.
Music translates into soundtracks and comic-books evolve into storyboards and thus, my shorts Sinner’s Lullaby & Dissolved Girl are exceedingly soundtrack-oriented, with entire sequences that emulate comic-book panels or are cut like music videos.
I was a lot like Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes as a youngster; I was very much in my own world because I didn’t understand why people in the real world thought, spoke, and acted the way they did. I would always act upon this pathological rejection of a lot of authority figures in the smalltown where my family had moved to, and the townspeoples’ structures, stipulations, or traditions that they either wouldn’t explain or I felt they didn’t have a good answer for.
One of those structures/stipulations was school, which I proudly dropped out of when I was 16, in favor of beginning my path as a filmmaker. I was born in NYC and always aspired to move back here ever since I was little, and I did just that the moment I turned 18.
Nowadays, I’d like to think I’m a little closer to Calvin’s tiger buddy Hobbes in being a more subtle agitator with a sense of humor… But paradoxically, I think making films which thematically ask these rhetorical questions I have, despite being works of fiction, have been what’s pushed me into the real world, for what an extensive and collaborative process film production is. I’m very thankful for all the lovely, talented people I’ve met and learned from.
I think I learned the most from my late great production sound mixer, M Wolf Snyder (1985-2021), best known for his work on Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Nomadland. He was a lot like a mentor or older brother figure, especially when we shot Dissolved Girl, which is dedicated in his memory. He was also honored by Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao at the 93rd Academy Award Ceremony. Wolf was a beautiful person, I’ll love and miss him always.
As an artist, who or what are your influences? I want to say that my films owe the most to The Wachowskis, Sam Raimi, Alfred Hitchock, and Rob Zombie. My music videos would owe the most to MTV guru Sophie Muller!
What was most parental towards my cinematic consumption coming up were the action flicks either based on or inspired by comic-books and Japanese animation coming out at the time in the 2000s, and then to contrast that; a lot of classic mystery or detective films.
My all time favorite is Hitchcock’s Rear Window! The love story between Jimmy Stewart & Grace Kelly had an impact on both the lead duos in both my short films. The notion of a couple who are from different worlds overcoming their differences by investigating and fighting crime together really made an impression on my hopelessly romantic young self.
Something about the action spectacles of the late 1990s and 2000s were so different from what came out before and after. That kickass rebellious energy that was and is so abrasively countercounteral, yet the general public couldn’t say no. The Matrix Trilogy and The Crow are like my mythology. A big staple of this era I’ve tried to revive in my own films now in the 2020s is the killer rock/metal soundtrack. Many of which I collected on CD back in the day.
Dissolved Girl’s music lineup would seem all but an homage to that, but I always dream it’s in fact a first step in revamping these headbanging playlists for all time.
My dream would be to welcome aboard the awe-inspiring rock goddess Taylor Momsen and her band The Pretty Reckless for an original soundtrack single collaboration on my next picture.
I recently had the honor of meeting Taylor during her acoustic set at the 92nd Street Y and got to chat with her for a moment about rockin’ movie soundtracks and hear that perspective firsthand from a rock musician, let alone my favorite rock musician! It was so fitting too because I’d first discovered The Pretty Reckless when I precociously went to see my first R-rated movie on the big screen at age 9, which was Kick-Ass (2010), featuring their hit “Make Me Wanna Die” as the end credits song. It was such a spiritual nourishment in hearing how she very much felt that same enthusiasm for soundtracks and we agreed that the music was ultimately what can make or break the picture. Super cool gal and a beautiful person. She was very sweet and wished me luck on my next film… which has got to have The Pretty Reckless on the soundtrack, right?! We’ll see.
I’d also love to feature recent material by Evanescence, Rob Zombie, Nine Inch Nails, Halestorm, Slipknot, and Garbage. In spirit, a jukebox musical, but instead of singing and dance choreography… it’s all rockin’ over ass-kicking and martial arts choreography!
What is your vision as a filmmaker? What types of stories do you endeavor to tell through filmmaking? Well, I’d love to say “I never try to shock, I just try to entertain”, but it truthfully is my intention to rattle the audience… but not in the sense of brandishing the macabre or lewd on screen. I feel like we’re a generation desensitized and jaded to that sort of thing and never going to break the same ground as say the shower scene in Psycho again. At least not with something so explicit…
My element of surprise is hopefully more within the slower burn of characters bound to attract certain narrative preconceptions, and then tossing the script aside to unveil unsuspected or hidden facets of their identity we weren’t expecting. Not in some comical gratuitous “gotcha!” expectation subversion, but rather; my hope is always for the audience (like the characters amongst each other) to think twice about what they know, as well what the audience assumes of other people they personally know in real life.
In my first short Sinner’s Lullaby, the love interest is Barbara Ann Bergman; a wholesome cabaret singer and seemingly a doting civilian, divorced from her partner’s dangerous metier as a private detective right? Well the preconceived dogma of being a demure blonde soon-to-be damsel is projected onto Barbara by the other characters, even her own partner, so much so that they’re all the more blown away when Barbara is the one step up when all hope is lost and bring the enemy to justice… despite her Grace Kelly sensibilities, even claiming our token PG-13 f-bomb during her moment of truth… so really, she was actually one of the heroes, not just a love interest.
I think telling new stories starts with having certain characters defying their own assigned role. I think seeing the deeper part of that iceberg that’s obfuscated underwater can indeed be very provocative, and in a capacity that’s not only more interesting, but resonates far more emotionally and cerebrally than anything gorey or lurid. In a sense; you’re rattled in the moment, yet simultaneously sobered and hopeful for the future.
What is your creative process? How do you decide on the plot, the characters and their traits? What advice would you give to those who want to build a career as a screenwriter/filmmaker? Dissolved Girl revolves around an era of heated political/cultural war between humans and humanoid robots; a wanted computer hacker Lenore Warner and the undercover robot cop Val McGinnis, who despite being so different and are ultimately alike how isolated they are from rejecting the dogma and stigmatization from the two divides of their world, and most importantly alike in their ability to stand up against it and blur the lines.
In my own personal life, I’ve always felt like an outsider and like I don’t really belong anywhere because I never quite fulfill whichever group of anointed people’s criteria in it’s entirety, so I end up being the odd one out and having a certain duality that others find irreconcilable or eccentric. I never actively tried to be the weird one, nobody wants to be the weird one, y’know? I’ve just always done whatever felt natural or most comfortable to me.
And just like the characters in both films, the people I’ve bonded closest with throughout my life and mean the most to me have always been the ones I least expected, who share a deeper nourishing common ground that lies beneath the iceberg, rather than on the part above water.
When it comes to my work, I think my version of Dan Akryod’s mantra as Elwood in The Blues Brothers ``we're on a mission from God!” would be “I’m on a mission to find the place where God and the Devil shake hands'' a la; Halestorm’s The Steeple, and I think that tempestuousness led to molding the equilibrium of the dark yet hopeful tones of both Sinner’s Lullaby and Dissolved Girl, and the contrasting dark and light sides of each character within.
My advice to any up & coming fellow filmmakers would be to not write or direct “what you know”, but rather, something that challenges something you know or what you’ve seen.
Despite there being some increase in female action heroes on screen in recent years, I think part of the reason why there is still felt to be a marginalization in this genre is because they’re often portrayed so masculinely and are stripped of any feminine qualities, and I think that’s where the nasty untrue reinforcement of femininity being “weak” is perpetuated. So in defying the algorithms, Dissolved Girl is in fact the ultimate girls’ girl, complete with a bedroom covered in stuffed animals with a princess mirror. She reclaims her lost girlhood, hence the double-entendre of her eponymous hacker alias, which by the end is more of a superhero alter ego.
What are the most difficult aspects of making a film today? Similarly, how has Covid-19 affected independent filmmaking in your field of work? The digital revolution has been both a gift & curse to all art-forms, and especially film.
Filmmaking is the easiest it ever has been in terms of resources— the practice of shooting films is so much easier, faster, and affordable in graduating from the expensive and delicate process of film stock to video. Even the most devout evangelists of film preservation convert their dailies into digital proxies to be treated in an AVID, as opposed to cutting on the dreaded steinbeck machine, wherein a scene transition like a dissolve costs money to photochemically process.
But, I think where trouble comes into paradise is in the repercussions that our digital revolution, and especially the internet, has had on what happens to the picture once it’s finished. While I’m grateful for my work to be consumed in anyway possible and I appreciate the utility of the online self-publishing world and streaming services, I would ultimately side with the strong urgency to preserve physical copies like DVDs and blurays, and especially cinemas over streaming services because at a cinema— even if not one single person buys ticket, your movie always has and always will be recognized as exactly that; a movie… as opposed to (get ready for it), our generation’s unholy term of homogenization… CONTENT!
Back in the day, when you’d see parental advisory stickers on CDs a la; “explicit content”, it was appropriately and accurately referencing what encapsulates the entity… but when that entity itself becomes the content, then I think we’ve taken a wrong turn someplace.
To me, entertainment will always supersede whatever platform distributes it, and that platform is just a means to end. After all these years, I only just picked up a subscription to Hulu this last month because I was eager to check out Craig Pierce & Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols biopic mini series Pistol, which I thought was excellent and highly recommend. I also wasn’t plugged into Apple TV until I realized it was where I had to go to watch this year’s best picture winner CODA, a beautiful film that would be gravely disserviced by being referred to as mere “content”.
Through this “content” lens, film resources and processes aren’t properly appreciated or accounted for. Whether it’s a multi-million dollar feature that took years to make or a YouTube video, as long as it’s big bandwidth and you can watch it on your telephone at ease on the subway ride to work. In regards to covid-19, I think everyone being universally isolated really exacerbated this. Everything became less appropriately distinguished. Art and entertainment became homogenized in cyberspace, because in that socially distant time, it was simply a matter of “what’s around you at home vs what’s online”, “what’s for real vs what’s for sale”.
But I think there are a lot of good people out there who you’d want to work with, who are actively searching for the diamonds amidst the rough in terms of self-published work out there. If you can stand your ground in foregoing the demand to package yourself a certain way and instead release your work as you envisioned, eventually important people will see you for all that you are, and from that launchpad, you can hopefully begin the next step in evolving your films or music into bigger better things. Possibly things that receive radio airplay or screen at cinemas! Your film, Dissolved Girl, can be called a ‘Cyberpunk Manifesto’. What are the themes you wanted to highlight? What made you want to put the story in such a unique setting? I think the two harshest blights of the 2010s and now the 2020s have been political/cultural divisions pertaining to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc, but also our technological oversaturation— I really think the latter has exacerbated and manipulated the former in the wake of social media and smart phones. Ultimately a far severer version of televisation.
Our digital world has really perpetuated certain algorithms or black & white thinking, and ultimately prevented, or “programmed”, certain people who are perhaps on the same side to fight against each other, instead of standing together. I think there are also a number of younger folks who’ve perhaps caught on to the unspoken programming of our time and feel isolated in their skepticism, and are not only searching for a truer peaceful consensus and natural equilibrium, but searching for open-minded people. That very much manifests the heroes of Dissolved Girl.
Dissolved Girl is a very literal approach to the conflation of culture clashes and technological clashes; where we see humans and robots are in a politically/culturally war-torn dystopia.
Since you have experienced the transition from music videos to films, what were the challenges you faced during production? I work on both music videos and films simultaneously, almost in a dichotomy where one informs the other, oftentimes the intercut B-story in a music video will constitute as a proof-of-concept for a narrative film— or in a vice vera case; the big superhero suit-up montage at the end of Dissolved Girl where we see the titular character embracing her “gothic princess” alter ego was in spirit like say the Evanescence music video I’ve always dreamt of making in disguise.
Acting in The Chainsmokers’ video for iPad was a wonderful experience in and of itself, but it really happened in the right place at the right time, like an artistic version of divine intervention.
I’ve directed & edited a number of music videos that are heavy handed homages to the classic MTV style. They assume the 4:3 square aspect ratio, high contrast photography, graininess, oversaturated celloid look, and shot transitions that experiment with altering of the frame-rate. And as proud as I am of them, I’m often apprehensive that they’d be considered gimmicky by the general audience and the hard work that went into the old school approach would be dismissed.
I was on set for The Chainsmokers— to find iPad was in fact being shot 4:3 and the filmmakers promised a similar vision… suddenly I felt 10 feet taller knowing that there is a place for that revival. A great testament to how, when done with some singular vision or rather; a revision, nostalgic filmmaking can be innovatively motivated filmmaking. And it was shot on 35mm! I had to emulate grainy stock in my own music videos shot digitally, so to then appear in one shot on film and observe that process on that scale in this day & age was pretty spiritual.
Lyrically, the song itself is such an accurate mirroring of a certain loneliness in 2020s New York City and the swathed-in-artifice Manhattan cliques amplified in cyberspace, “All your friends are verified, acting like they're first in line, I'm lookin' at your life through cellophane, hoping things would stay the same, you’re just a downtown socialite”.
But such a thematically contemporary track receiving an old school music evoked a resonance that really inspired me. Painting over or framing 2022 NYC and all these locations I pass on the train everyday through a 4:3 lens, 35mm print, and old school editing techniques gets the imaginative wheels turning in terms of what’s possible with this medium and how you can discover your own world all over again, almost like that feeling you get as a kid when you wake up to see it snowed outside and you want to go out exploring and sledding.
I was ecstatic seeing how one of the tight shots on me got that classic music video split second freeze-frame sequence, I missed those so much! If I’m lucky, perhaps I’ll wind up in the director’s chair or editing suite for a Chainsmokers video someday. Fingers crossed! How was the film received at film festivals around the world? Please tell us about your festival run. Putting aside that the TV pilot style 3 act structure and runtime deviated from the paradigm of a “short film” and what most fests are looking for, I felt ambivalent in entering Dissolved Girl into any circuit because of how it’s essentially like a comic-con flick, or scaled down version of one.
What put things in perspective and I’m really touched by is being approached folks at fests who will tell me that while they don’t care for the genre or direct influences behind Dissolved Girl, they appreciate it on the basis of the characters and performances, and seeing this dystopia from the perspective of a young woman and one whose struggling to find that balance between being tough and embracing her softer girlish side she obfuscates from the world to protect herself.
You never know who’s going to watch much less like your film, and it’s always worth whatever risk you feel to just let the world see it… because that’s the most fundamental reason why we make films, “to be seen” and under the pressure of the business and our own foibles, we forget that sometimes. Through the festival process, I really began to remember that for the first time.
What project(s) will you be working on?
Most prominently on the horizon is the feature-length action-packed upgrade of my first short film, my feature debut… Sinner’s Lullaby!
A gothic neo-noir, which follows the troubled frontwoman of the eponymous Sinner’s Lullaby rock band, who moonlights as private detective… and a wholesome cabaret singer; as the two ladies band together combatively, musically, and romantically on the eve of Halloween, when the criminal underworld plaguing their city is mysteriously overthrown by an even greater menace.
It’s very much inspired by one of my filmmaking bibles, The Crow (1994), whilst striving to revive the spirit of classic mystery or detective films by Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston.
We’re aiming for a summer 2023 shoot, the creative team is definitely coming together. We’ve recently had the tremendous honor of welcoming aboard Kim & Kathryn Kluge, the score composers of Silence (2016) by Martin Scorsese. They’ve also written for musical legends ranging from jazz classical icon Branford Marsalis to the great violinist Midori.
They’re such a beautiful couple who are an honor to converse with and I can’t wait to work with them. Kim and I are a bit alike in how we both grew up in smaller provincial areas, but stood by our artistic ambitions and were all the better for it. Having grown up in middle America as a Korean-American, Kim has a unique perspective that informs his work with Kathryn— their music derives from their passionate conviction that people of different backgrounds can share the essence of their humanity through artistic expression. A conviction which I too very much hold, and is most definitely reflected in the screenplay of Sinner’s Lullaby and its two heroes, so I think there couldn't be a more perfect fit. It’s lovely.
I was blown away by their album for Silence and their breathtakingly diverse, adaptive sensibilities throughout, and in their discography, so I’m bouncing off the walls just imagining how they’ll approach what aims to be a very eclectic score for a very music driven film.
A gothic neo-noir comic book opera amalgamating cabaret numbers, headbanging rock riffs, and angel choirs… I think there’ll be something in there for everyone. So tell your mom!