As a sophomore at Occidental College, Cooper Raiff didn’t have a spring break plans. So why not make a movie?
The week he spent filming guerrilla-style around the California campus with his girlfriend and a buddy wound up leading to Shithouse, his semiautobiographical debut feature that earned the 23-year-old Greenhill graduate the top narrative prize from the South by Southwest Film Festival.
“I wrote a script in five days, and we stole equipment from the college,” Raiff said. “My friend who had never held a camera before shot the whole thing. It ended up being a total piece of crap and looked awful.”
The short was rough around the edges, but it was also heartfelt — examining the transition of a college freshman from Dallas who’s struggling to adjust to life away from home. Raiff could certainly relate.
“It was the first time I was without this safety net,” he said. “Am I going to go home or stick it out? That hasn’t been explored a lot. It’s about college through the lens of this very sensitive boy who misses his mom.”
Raiff uploaded it to YouTube, then tweeted a link to acclaimed indie filmmaker Jay Duplass (Cyrus), figuring he’d never click on it. However, 12 hours later, Duplass emailed Raiff, and they met for lunch the next week.
Despite the sketchy production values, Duplass saw promise, encouraged him to expand and polish his short idea, and agreed to shepherd the project into feature form. So Raiff dropped out of Occidental, and filmed Shithouse last fall in true DIY fashion.
“I got all the main actors through Instagram, but mentioned Jay Duplass’ name like 15 times,” Raiff joked.
In the coming-of-age drama, Raiff plays the emotionally fragile Alex, who is more than 1,000 miles away from his support system for the first time, struggling to make friends, and desperately homesick. He meets an older girl (Dylan Gelula) at a party and connects during an all-night walk around campus, only to have her push him away.
“It’s very personal. I’m very similar to Alex in that I had an awesome childhood and I missed home a lot when I got to college,” Raiff said. “Figuring out my second home was hard because my first home was so rock solid.”
At Greenhill, Raiff played basketball and was active in the theater program, both as an actor and a writer. He credits four years at the Dallas Young Actors Studio with nurturing his knowledge of dialogue and character development.
“The last thing on my mind was being a filmmaker,” he said.
By coincidence, two of the supporting actors in Shithouse have roots in the Dallas area — Logan Miller (Love, Simon) plays his stoner roommate, and newcomer Olivia Welch portrays his younger sister. Plus, debut cinematographer Rachel Klein hails from Bedford.
Although SXSW was cancelled in March due to health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, which scrapped world premiere, the film still won the feature narrative competition through an online vote.
That provides plenty of momentum for the sales and marketing teams as they attempt to find a distributor. And it also boosts Raiff’s career prospects.
“We were very excited and a little surprised that we got into SXSW, because we rushed that thing. With SXSW being canceled, it feels super sad,” Raiff said. “Right now my goal is to sell the movie to someone who can get it seen by as many people as possible. A festival would be awesome, but I don’t know what I’m missing because I’ve never been to one.”