By David Ertischek ’01
Before Todd Strauss-Schulson ’02 even finished the short film, Rat, it had gone viral, with the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ice-T, and the State of Pennsylvania tweeting and ‘gramming videos of the production.
“The thing with Rat was it was COVID,” said Strauss-Schulson, who directed the romantic comedy Isn’t It Romantic?. “I was in New York and kind of going a little crazy. I was feeling quite sad and fragile. The election was coming up. I had a relationship just kind of dissolve. I was just feeling kind of melancholy.”
Strauss-Schulson remembered the character that performance artist and puppeteer Jonothon Lyons created of a man dressed up as a rat. Strauss-Schulson thought it’d be interesting for the rat to go around the vacant, desolate streets of New York City.
“I said let’s shoot this before the election, because we can capture what’s in the air. Shit’s boarded up, cops are everywhere. People are feeling sensitive and scared,” said Strauss-Schulson. “It came together in five days like a college film or a high school film. We had no crew. He built the masks, the [human size] rat trap. He’s amazingly talented.”
Lol.. The dude that jumped over the rail is definitely a NewYorker… Rule 1. Mind your business. https://t.co/sLvsvoDmYT— ICE T (@FINALLEVEL) November 17, 2020
They got a few friends to be production assistants. Another puppeteer helped create eyes that move on the mask adding a lifelike quality. Strauss-Schulson, who also directed The Final Girls and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, scouted spots in the city where they could take advantage of the lighting so they didn’t have to light anything.
He was also planning on using his iPhone, but as he saw the beautiful props, like a dress made from surgical masks, he found a director of photography with their own gear to film.
Greatest city on Earth https://t.co/lFvjoFo2lG— Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) November 17, 2020
On the first night of filming passerby recorded Lyons dressed up as giant rat.
“He put the head on, was running around and messing with people, and they took out their cellphones,” said Strauss-Schulson. “It went crazy viral that night, and over the course of nights people recognized the rat and it went more and more viral.”
Strauss-Schulson’s plan was to spend November relaxing by slowly editing the film.
“But when we finished and AOC and Michael Keaton had retweeted posts about it, I said, ‘Let’s finish it quickly,’” said Strauss-Schulson. “As I’m editing it, Jonothon, he’s such a performer and loved the attention, he kept on dressing up as the rat and was going out again and again. He brought the [fabricated] pizza to Union Square and those videos went viral.”
Grammy-winning rapper and actor Ice-T commented on the subway rider who instinctively jumped a railing to get away from Lyons. Mia Farrow tweeted about it, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority even thanked the rat for wearing a mask. Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo retweeted it, as did New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.
Strauss-Schulson said doing independent short films reminds him of his Emerson College days, when he had a really great sense of freedom and community to create films. He added he still works with many Emersonians he worked with in college.
“They are personal creative projects, and it’s a way to stay trained or fresh or stay pure, and not be professional, and stay amateur,” said Strauss-Schulson. “Even after making professional movies, the shorts are so important still. You really get to be yourself. You can always apply what you learn to big projects. People get into entertainment and then stop doing these things. But I don’t think I ever will.”
For behind the scenes action, check out Strauss-Schulson’s Instagram page.