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Category Archives: Interviews

Filmmaker Interview: Terence Davies

Terence Davies, who rose to prominence with the autobiographical masterpieces Distant Voices, Still Lives (1998) and The Long Day Closes (1992) is widely regarded as the greatest living British director. His latest film, A Quiet Passion, is an astonishing biopic of poet Emily Dickinson (played, in a revelatory performance, by Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon) from her graduation from seminary school as a teenager to her premature death at 55. The film is injected with so much genuine insight and feeling about what it means to be an uncompromising artist, and Davies so clearly sees Dickinson as a kindred spirit, that the whole thing feels like a veiled self-portrait. I recently sat down to talk with Davies in advance of the film’s first Chicago run. (Note: A shorter version of this interview can be found at Time Out).

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MGS: A Quiet Passion is obviously a very literary film but it’s your first film in almost 25 years that isn’t adapted from a work of literature. What was the impetus to make a film about Emily Dickinson’s life?

TD: Well, the poetry, really. I fell in love with the poetry. When I started reading her properly, I then discovered this extraordinary life. Which apparently is “uneventful” but, of course, no life is uneventful. And especially within the family, that very tight-knit, close family. I come from the same thing. Unfortunately, half mine are dead now but I know what that was like. And I also responded to her spiritual quest because I was a very devout Catholic, I really was. I spent seven years struggling with doubt until I realized it was just men in frocks, really. And the fact that she walks this very fine line between believing in a God or not, which always implies hope in the poetry. With the exception, I think, of one poem, which comes close to despair: “I reason Earth is short — And Anguish — absolute.” That’s about the only one that I’ve read that comes close to despair. So those two things really drew me to her. It was a rich inner life but she was ill in pain most of the time. She wrote 1800 letters, three volumes of letters, continuous correspondence with Judge Lord, she baked, she cooked, she played the piano and wrote 1800 poems as well! And she was in pain. These days we can have any pain killed. Imagine even the slightest thing, like a headache, not being able to get rid of it. It must have been awful. What she did was truly heroic.

MGS: Did you read her when you were young or did you discover her later in life?

TD: I discovered her when I was 18, on television, Claire Bloom was reading some of her poetry. And then I bought a little anthology. And it wasn’t until round about ’95, something like that, that I thought, “I want to start reading her again.” And then discovered this extraordinary life.

MGS: In America, we read her in high school and she’s often taught in a way that’s reductive and simplistic; teachers teach that she was a death-obsessed recluse who never left her house. One of the things I loved about the film is that you show her sense of humor and her passionate side. Were you consciously trying to demystify her?

TD: I didn’t want her to be solemn! Because there’s nothing worse than films about “great people” where they go around looking glum for 90 minutes. There’s nothing interesting in that, is there? She was an ordinary human being doing all the things that ordinary people do. She happened to be a genius. And any genius, whichever era they live in, life is difficult because they’ve always got one skin missing. They respond to the world in a way the rest of us don’t and that can be extremely painful to experience. And something like winning only second prize for the bread would not only hurt her, she’d never forget that. She just wouldn’t: “I’m not really good enough.” Her standard of morals and ethics was very high and she was merciless if you dropped below them. And she was merciless to herself as well: if she thought she dropped below them, she was equally merciless. But, you know, Lavinia (Dickinson’s sister) said, “Integrity, if taken too far, can be just as ruthless.” And it comes as a shock to her because she hadn’t seen that. Like when she was brought back from the seminary when she was 17, she was ill with homesickness, literally. And I think when she got back home she was so happy to be back in the bosom of the family and wanted that family to be like that forever. Unfortunately, families grow up and die and go away. And when she realizes that it’s actually become a prison, it’s too late.

MGS: Right, and there’s a decisive shift in the film because the first half of it is almost a comedy…

TD: Good!

MGS: It reminded me of Love & Friendship, actually, the Jane Austen adaptation that Whit Stillman made…

TD: Which I haven’t seen.

MGS: It’s wonderful, it’s very funny. Your film is like that before the pain and suffering kick in.

TD: (Laughs) Good old pain and suffering!

MGS: Cynthia Nixon is extraordinary and a revelation. I think on paper it might seem like an eccentric casting choice and then, when you see the film, she’s perfect. What was it about her that made you think she was right for the part?

TD: I’d seen her about five years before for a film that didn’t come off and I’d never forgotten her. I thought, “There’s something really, really good about this person.” Anyway, I started writing the script and then did some research. And there’s only one photograph of Emily, which is a little daguerrotype when she was 17. And one of my producers used to be a stills photographer and he superimposed Cynthia’s face on it. She looks like the older version of Emily! But when we met, when the script was finally done, not only did she know the poetry — because she had records at home of Julie Harris reading the poetry — but she could read poetry herself, which is not easy. Not a lot of people can read poetry. And I just knew she was right. She stuck with it for four-and-a-half years. It took four-and-a-half years to get the money together. She said — and it was so touching — “You won’t get money for a film that I’m starring in!” I said, “Yes, we will.” And she stayed with it when she could have done other things. If she pulled out, I have no idea who I’d have cast. I have no idea.

MGS: I’m glad you said she knows how to read poetry. The way she recites the poems in voice-over is one of my favorite parts of the film…

TD: And, if I could just interrupt, we did that as a “guide track” on one of the sound stages one afternoon. And she said, “Well, when do you want me to record them?” I said, “I don’t. You’ve done such extraordinary work.” That was the guide track. I didn’t want to spoil it.

MGS: How did you decide which poems to use?

TD: There were some that I was determined to have in. And they were “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”…

MGS: Which had to come at the end.

TD: It had to. “This is My Letter to the World,” which is the final one (heard in the film). “I’m a Nobody!” — I thought, “If she says this to a little baby, it’ll really be lovely.” There were about two more, I can’t think just off the top of my head. The others came as I was writing it. You go back to the anthology again and again. And in one of the biographies it would say, “She wrote this at such and such a time.” It’s a mixture of six of one, half a dozen of the other, really.

MGS: One of the most extraordinary scenes is the fantasy sequence where a man walks up the stairs in her home, which is heartbreaking because we know that threshold will never be crossed in reality. What was the inspiration for that scene?

TD: It was her, it was her. Most of the words in that sequence were hers. I think I added one line. “She longed for the looming man to come at midnight.” “Looming” is a very odd word to choose because it has menace in it, you know? And she did write, “Let him come before the afterlife, let him not forget me, please let him not forget me.” The problem with fantasy is that no one can ever live up to it. I think if he had come along she’d have been terrified because how can anyone live up to that level of intensity? They just can’t. And also, if you had sex and had a child, you could die in childbirth. It was common, it wasn’t extraordinary. Can you imagine? I can’t imagine having children now — with all the safeguards — but then when they had none? So there was that as well. And because this very nice young man comes who just wanted to be pleasant, and have a pleasant afternoon, she misconstrues everything he says. Because, in the middle, she’s had a great fantasy that he’ll come. And this fellow downstairs is just far too clever for his own good. She’s really unpleasant to him: “I don’t want to be a burden to you. A burden can always be laid down. You are not required to be a Sisyphus.” Sharp! Straight from the knife box!

MGS: So when you’re reading these things she wrote, did they translate into images in your mind? That scene you’re talking about is so dreamlike and painterly. Were you trying to come up with a visual corollary to her poetry?

TD: I wanted that sequence to be strange and not “actual,” which is why, of course, you don’t see his face. It’s largely dark. But I wanted to try and get over the intensity of that feeling, of longing so deeply that it actually becomes almost morbid. And this is where wonderful things happen on the set. This lovely lad did all the flowers for me — and the track, originally, was to bring the man to the bottom of the stairs, dissolve to that — and he put these flowers in front this mirror. They looked like les fleurs du mal, they looked like the flowers of death. And when I saw it I said, “We’ve got to track in on it.” I said, “It’s a fabulous, fabulous bouquet of flowers. How on earth did you think of that?” He said, “I just thought it would be good.” So things like that help. And it was also shot at 48 frames-per-second, so it’s slightly slow.

MGS: Keith Carradine is also extraordinary in the film. When I saw him, I didn’t immediately recognize him. I thought, “Who is this actor? He’s incredible.” Then, when I saw the end credits, I thought, “My God, I can’t believe I didn’t realize that was him.” How did you end up casting him?

TD: Well, we were in Los Angeles casting and, apart from one person, it’s usually the lead, like Cynthia, everybody else has got to read. It’s as simple as that. And his agent said, “Keith won’t read.” I said, “Okay, fine.” Then we started auditioning other people and then he came in. I said, “Mr. Carradine, your agent said you won’t read.” He said, “Of course I’ll read. I’m a terrible reader but I’ll read!” And he read and I said, “Will you do it?” And he said yes. He’s a lovely man. He’s got the most caressive voice. It’s a lovely voice. I was blessed with this wonderful cast!

MGS: You’ve never made a film set in the present day. Is that something you would ever consider?

TD: I don’t know. The reason is very simple: I’m a technophobe. I can’t use any of this technology. I was the same as a child. If I’m not interested in something, I can’t retain the information. I’ve got one mobile (phone), which doesn’t work when I come to America, and there are three numbers on it. If anyone else phones, I switch it off and shout at it. And, because of that, I’m afraid of the world. I don’t understand all this technological junk. I’m also repelled by it. There’s a level of narcissism that I don’t like at all. Why do you want to take photographs of yourself when you’re having a meal? I mean, what is the point of that? I don’t understand it. And what I do hate is the way the language is being systematically destroyed — because I love English. I think it’s one of the great languages, one of the most expressive, and it’s being destroyed.

MGS: Because of texting?

TD: And the words that people use. I mean, the Grand Canyon is awesome but little else is.

MGS: Well, I think one of the great things about this movie is that it’s going to inspire a lot of people to read Dickinson’s poetry.

TD: Good. That would be the greatest reward if they do that, because she deserves it.

A Quiet Passion opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, May 19. For more information, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Music Box’s website.

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Filmmaker Interview: James Gray

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The Lost City of Z is James Gray’s remarkable film adaptation of David Grann’s best-selling novel about Percy Fawcett (played by a revelatory Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer who disappeared with his son (Tom Holland) while searching for an ancient civilization in the jungles of South America in the early 20th century. Many critics have noted this thrilling adventure film is a “departure” for Gray, although the classicism of the filmmaking and the focus on family dynamics make it all of a piece with his earlier New York-set dramas from Little Odessa through The Immigrant. I recently sat down and spoke to Gray about his terrific new film, which opens in Chicago on Friday, April 21.

MGS: Like all of your work, this film is about family. The line early on about Percy Fawcett being “unfortunate in his choice of ancestors” is so funny and ironic…

JG: (laughing) That line always gets a big laugh, which I’ve never understood but I’m glad it does.

MGS: And the relationship between Percy and his son Jack at the end is really the heart of the film. I was blown away by the last 30 minutes and how emotional it was.

JG: That’s my favorite section of the movie. But you need the first hour and 50 minutes to get there. The thing is, I’ve had some people say that to me about the last 30 minutes and would I make the whole film like that? The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. Narrative, it’s sequential linkage. You have to build to it. If you did the whole movie like that, it wouldn’t have any meaning.

MGS: Don’t get me wrong: I loved the whole thing!

JG: No, no, I’m just explaining what I had always designed in that father-son relationship, which to me was always the key to it. That’s what made me want to make the movie. In the end, it’s a tricky thing because my own view is that if you read his obsession as repetitive then that means I failed or you’re not paying attention. Either one, I’m not sure. Because the nature of his obsession changes through the film. It starts, he has no medals. But after that, it becomes a kind of thing where he has to ratify his exalted position with that other guy, Mr. James Murray (Angus Macfayden), who comes along and turns out to be a catastrophe. So rank and honor and glory don’t really mean much after a while. So what’s left? He’s got this kid who he really didn’t spend any time with. The episodic nature of the film was meant to emphasize these chunks of time that he had missed with his wife and children. And, in the end, I didn’t see it as a tragedy because he achieved some measure of transcendence. His son, I’m sure, resented the years he missed but in the end he went along with him and they had seen a part of the world that virtually no one from Western Europe or North America saw or sees today. And that’s not, by the way, Sienna Miller’s story. Sienna Miller’s story is tragic because she was left at home. She wanted to go and she was a woman and she couldn’t. So I saw the film as interesting for story purposes because it’s her tragedy and their transcendence.

MGS: When I think of filmmakers going into the jungle to make epic adventure films, I think about stories of shooting a million feet of film and then finding the movie in the editing room. Were there a lot of scenes left on the cutting-room floor or did you have to be shrewder about only shooting what you needed?

JG: Yeah, we didn’t do that. The age of being able to do that is over. There’s such a level of control that the machine has put on you now, with completion bonds and the way the movies have to be financed, that the ability to be backstopped by Columbia or United Artists, in the case of Lean and Coppola, is over. You have to stick to a plan in a very detailed way. Let me say that in some ways shooting a million feet of film, going a little bonkers and all that, lends itself to a very fantastical, almost sensate experience. It changes the way the movie feels. And you become a different person – Francis Coppola was in the jungle for a year, which I can’t even understand – and you become a different person over that year. And knowing that you don’t have that as part of your weaponry, it has to take on a different feel. Now may I say I think that if I had approached the movie the way that Francis did Apocalypse or Herzog did Aguirre, the means of production being different, I think I would’ve made a really bad and fairly racist movie. Which is not to say they did. They didn’t. Herzog’s Aguirre, for example, is about a man who goes to the jungle – a conquistador – and through greed and megalomania, goes insane. In the case here, I felt that if Fawcett became a madman in the jungle, that would’ve really sucked because the movie wasn’t about that. It was about his confronting, engaging the indigenous peoples of South America. So if he goes mad confronting and engaging the indigenous peoples, that’s a racist concept. I’ve been asked, “Did you think of making him go crazier?” I feel like that’s a covertly racist idea because it means that the viewer cannot accept any sense of “normal” from the indigenous – and that’s pretty dangerous, and a very common error, I think. My own feeling is that the style of production, which you asked about, that this kind of lengthy process where you shoot a million feet of film, lends itself to another kind of filmmaking. And in some ways I think it helped me that I had to stay in a measure of control.

MGS: I’m so glad you shot this on film. In contrast to digital, the texture of 35mm is so thick and moist, which seems especially appropriate for the jungle setting.

JG: What you’re talking about, whether you know it or not, there’s a term for it called temporal resolution. When you say “thicker,” I think it’s very interesting that you use that word because with the digital image you’ve got essentially a grid. The image is made of pixels. It’s a fixed grid. Frame 1, 2, 3, 4: the pixels are in the same position. With film, it’s made of grain. The position of each grain changes from frame to frame. So what you are essentially looking at is a new image every time a frame comes on the screen. Your brain obviously doesn’t process each image individually. It can’t. That’s called persistence of vision. But it adds up and, unconsciously, it makes a difference. So the analog aspect of film, when you say “thicker,” what you’re actually talking about is this idea of temporal resolution where each frame is a different image.

MGS: I wanted to ask about Charlie Hunnam. I know he replaced Benedict Cumberbatch, which is hard for me to wrap my brain around because their energies and their personas seem so different. Did that casting change cause you to make any adjustments in terms of how you decided to portray the character?

JG: It always has to because you can’t make a movie thinking that you have Jimmy Stewart when you want Marlon Brando. And you can’t make the same movie with Charlie Chaplin that you do with Robert Mitchum. It’s a different language. I didn’t know who Charlie Hunnam was, really. I mean, I knew who he was but I didn’t know his work except for Sons of Anarchy. When his name first came up, I said, “I would never cast him.” Because I thought he was some California biker guy with tattoos. And then the producers at Plan B said, “No, no, no, he’s from Newcastle.” So he came over for dinner and I quite liked him. And what I saw in him was a shocking parallel with Fawcett, which is that he was the same age, had the same – not inferiority complex, but a real sense of striving, that he had not done the quality work that he wanted to do, and he had not been able to communicate that to himself and others. And I saw that as directly related to Fawcett. Benedict would’ve focused on more – I don’t want to say “odd,” but the iconoclastic qualities of Fawcett. Charlie almost feels like a swashbuckling actor from the ‘30s, so you use that. You use the weapons you’ve got. You’ve got this handsome, swashbuckling figure, then you use that. If you have this interesting, odd, great movie face with this (does Benedict Cumberbatch impression) “deep baritone,” then you use that. I suspect that Fawcett, with Cumberbatch in it, would’ve been an odder, darker movie. I don’t know if better or worse, just different.


Filmmaker Interview: Andrew Stasiulis and Eric Marsh

The following interview should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime in the next few days.

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One of the highlights of the film-going year so far will occur on Friday, April 21 when local filmmakers Eric Marsh and Andrew Stasiulis quietly debut their feature film Orders at DePaul University. This surreal war film follows the adventures of a nameless soldier (Keith D. Gallagher) as he wanders the less-than-hostile streets of the Chicago suburbs fighting a faceless enemy in a series of scenes shot through with a potent absurdist humor. I recently spoke to Andrew and Eric about their film ahead of its local premiere.

MGS: Where did the idea for this crazy movie come from?

AS: I went to grad school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where I became really into the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet. I came across a novel called In the Labyrinth and I had this dream of adapting it. So when I came back from grad school I started writing a pure adaptation of the book. I sort of sat there and, after I’d written the adaptation, I was like, “I’m in love with the ideas in this story but it needs to become something different. It needs to become something American, something contemporary, and my own.” So then I just kind of threw that out and took the basic premise of a soldier wandering around, this sort of odyssey-like structure, and started writing out notes and scenes and fragments. Then when I reconnected with Eric after coming back – we had worked on a couple shorts together – one day I was like, “Hey, do you want to help me do this?” So Eric helped me put it into some kind of script.

EM: You should talk more about the idea.

AS: Yeah (laughing). I was a senior when 9/11 happened. I felt like my class, my generation, that was born in ’84, we were the 18-year-olds who were watching the Towers come down and knowing it was a Pearl Harbor-esque moment. A lot of my friends signed up – for patriotic reasons, for the “poverty draft,” or whatever it was – but a lot of my friends were galvanized by that moment. I didn’t. I’m completely 100% glad I didn’t make that decision but I stayed close with all my friends who did and I watched what they went through and I watched what America was going through and I was becoming enraged by a lot of what I was seeing on the screens, the combat image of the War on Terror. And in making the film I wanted to encapsulate the idea of an image of war, an experience of war, that is so much more internal than external and how subjective it all really is.

MGS: It occurred to me that it could be seen as an allegory for PTSD and the things that soldiers bring home with them.

AS: I think that that reading of the film was one we welcomed. We wanted to create an open text, something people could engage with on multiple levels. When we were starting to shoot it, we just had little bits of footage here and there. We had some on Eric’s Vimeo page, some teaser footage, and my Dad, he’s such a proud papa, he’d be showing it to every one of his patients – he’s a dentist. They’re sitting there and he’ll pull it up on his computer. “You wanna see what my son and his buddy are doing?” I was in the office once and there was a woman that came in. And she’s now the caretaker of her nephew who’s a vet. He was wounded and he lost a leg and he’s suffering from all kinds of combat trauma. She’s a sheriff’s dispatcher so this is a salt-of-the-earth kind of lady. And my Dad pulls this thing up and I’m thinking, “Oh this woman’s going to be like, ‘What the fuck are you assholes doing? This isn’t a joke.’” And she started crying and she pointed and said, “That’s my nephew. That’s him. He’s still in full battle rattle. Even though he’s home, he’s not entirely present. He’s still haunted by this other place.” If that’s the reaction we’re getting from somebody – and no offense to her at all in any way, shape or form but she doesn’t seem like anyone who knows anything about Robbe-Grillet or French mid-century modernism – I feel like we’re getting something across here.

MGS: The opening scene feels like a microcosm of the film as a whole. It seems like a battle scene and then you have this hilarious reveal of the well-manicured lawn and the riding lawnmower comes into view. Why did you want to juxtapose images of soldiers in combat with this kind of idyllic suburban landscape?

AS: We were thinking of collisions and disruptions, collisions of the real with the surreal or the artificial – losing the ability to differentiate between what’s going on and what maybe you’re imagining. Look, I’m a fucking huge student of Baudrillard, man. I’m all about the “death of the real.” I get it. So, for us, it was meant to be a savage coupling between the aesthetics of war and violence and cookie-cutter suburban Middle America, the Leave it to Beaver kind of thing.

EM: This appealed to me as well because I grew up in Glen Ellyn, he grew up in Elmhurst. Obviously, we’re both film history obsessives. We like everything but we like dude shit (laughs): war movies, and all of the Hollywood action movies. So that was common ground for us. War, in reality, is televisual for Americans. We don’t see war, we don’t experience war ever. When was the last time there was war in America? Hundreds of years ago. So bringing a bunch of dudes with assault rifles to Elmhurst, that image of soldiers in the fucking Chicago suburbs? I get this project. And, of course, it’s almost like real life one upped us because the militarization of police has made those images quite common. We started the film in 2012 and now it’s like some sheriff’s department has a Humvee and assault rifles. But it seemed sort of daring when he pitched it to me.

MGS: The filmmaker I thought of the most while watching it was David Lynch. Was he an influence?

EM: That’s something that sort of happened organically because I think once we cast Scott Morton as the Dad in the family, from the minute we saw him in a casting session, this guy’s got this David Lynch/otherworld quality to him. He’s so great. We started getting those vibes and kind of ran with it.

MGS: The family scenes reminded me of Eraserhead. I loved the barbecue scene where the main character isn’t able to man the grill. It’s really funny but it’s also disturbing. It shows anxiety about not being able to fulfill a social role.

AS: I think in a lot of the notes that I brought to Eric, it was just a lot of moments like that. It wasn’t a plot. For me, it’s like “Think of iconic, Middle-American suburban activities and how can we now make this uncomfortable. How can we make this somewhat twisted?” One of my favorite scenes is when everyone’s at this “Welcome Home” thing and everyone starts stuffing their face with watermelon. Growing up, it’s summer in the suburbs and you’re eating dinner, it’s like, “Where’s the watermelon?” Everyone’s eating watermelon so we’re taking it to this almost Leone-esque level of disgust. Eating is like sex: it’s pretty ugly when you think about it. As great as it feels, watching someone else do it can be horrifying, especially with the camera’s ability to make small things large and large things small.

Orders screens for free at DePaul University’s Loop Campus at 14 E. Jackson, Lower Level Rm. 105 at 6:30pm on Friday, April 21. Stasiulis and Marsh will be present to discuss the film. You can sample teaser footage from the film here.


Filmmaker Interview: Frank V. Ross

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Elevated Films, the enterprising non-profit charity that supports film and local youth arts programs throughout Chicago by hosting film screenings at innovative venues, will hold its first screening of the year this Thursday, February 9: a FREE screening of Frank V. Ross’s seminal suburban-relationship drama TIGER TAIL IN BLUE (2012) will take place at Interior Define, a Chicago custom-sofa showroom in the heart of Lincoln Park from 7-9:30pm. Join filmmaker/actor Ross, and his co-star Rebecca Spence for a Q/A following the feature, along with beer from Half Acre Brewery, and snacks from Berco’s Popcorn and Dough Dough Bird Baking Company. Seating is limited but free tickets can be obtained in advance through eventbrite here. I recently interviewed Ross about the film for the occasion of this screening.

MGS: I love that your films have always been more character-driven than plot-driven. Was this a conscious decision when you started out or is it more the case that you’re just constructing movies in the only way you know how?

FVR: The way I learned how, is more like it. I try not to make many conscious decisions, most of the good ones have already been made. The only way to find something new is to rely on the unpredictability of people and just let that shape the story. I think of it like a furthering of the Marx Brothers structure, like yeah there’s an unfolding story in there… But who gives a shit? It’s the least important element of the film to me and I think most people. You don’t watch a Marx Brothers movie or ROCKY over and over ’cause you love the plot. It’s the little human things, the jokes, the songs that bring you back.

MGS: Your films are also very much about work and TIGER TAIL is no exception: there is great emphasis on Chris’ job as a waiter and Melody’s job as a schoolteacher. Why is it important for you to depict the work lives of your characters?

FVR: ‘Cause work is where we spend most of our time. We always need to be somewhere else. Ya gotta go to work almost every freakin’ day. It’s work. It’s in the way of your life and it’s your livelihood. It’s how we keep pace with the world, but all our complaints about it stem from there. I try not to focus on big moments in life ’cause they’re few, far between and well documented. Punching a clock and makin’ a poop are the things that shape a day.

MGS: All of your films are about relationships but TIGER TAIL IN BLUE is the first one to tackle marriage. What was compelling to you about the dynamic of a married couple struggling to find time to see one another?

FVR: That goes back to work, doesn’t it? The big moment, the titular moment, is a married couple stealing some time and having a donut together. It’s a personal thing for sure. My wife and I worked contradicting schedules more than ten years and it was a strain. I thought it was a good structure for a lower-middle class love story. They are best friends, they are crazy about each other but work is in the way. Now that I’m thinking about, it’s about values too, isn’t it?

MGS: Rebecca Spence is phenomenal in this movie in an unusual dual role as Melody, Chris’ wife, and Brandy, his co-worker. What was the logic behind casting her as two different characters in a film otherwise characterized by its realism? Would the same actress have played both roles if you hadn’t cast Spence?

FVR: One, she’s phenomenal sunrise to sunset. Two’s there’s a bit of a catch. I wrote it for her. She was in one scene of my previous film and months later we bumped into each other, literally. The idea came to me then and there almost fully formed. (Cinematographer Mike) Gibisser came up with the color shift between the two stories and we treated the whole one actress/two roles thing like a joke. A set up and punch joke, not some huge revelation. It’s best not to be too precious with cleverness. Rebecca playing both roles ends up emphasizing a certain type of attention guys need that isn’t sexual. Weird, right? I dunno, maybe it’s something different to other people.


Filmmaker Interview: Melika Bass

Melika Bass is arguably the most important filmmaker working in Chicago today. Her mesmerizing short and medium-length movies have screened at prominent festivals around the globe over the past decade, although she is probably still best known for directing the music video for Sigur Ros’ “Vardeldur.” This should change now that three of her best films, Songs from the ShedShoals and Waking Things, are available to stream on Fandor. Her work—dark, enigmatic, exquisitely atmospheric—hybridizes experimental and narrative elements to create troubling, mythic worlds in which characters engaged in repetitious behavior seem curiously lost in time. She is also an acclaimed installation artist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of the Art Institute. On Thursday, April 6, she will exhibit new work at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their Conversations at the Edge program. I recently had a lengthy chat with Bass about her work, influences and upbringing.

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MGS: Songs from the Shed, Waking Things and Shoals were all shot in the Midwest, and when you show landscapes in those films, the land looks very flat and Midwestern. But, because I know you’re from the South and because I’m from there too, your films have always struck me as being very Southern in terms of what I’d call their “psychic landscapes” – almost as if you’re transposing a Southern Gothic sensibility onto the Midwest.

MB: I think there’s something about this idea of a landscape or a place having a charge to it, so that the textures, the sort of shadowy potential of a place, what could have happened there – this idea of dread or shame and the tension of those things are all being abstracted. And they come from a kind of layered Southern Gothic sensibility. I’m definitely somebody who has a mixed relationship to natural landscape: Waking Things and Shoals are pretty rural or pastoral but that sense of pastoral with “creepy crawlies” underneath, you know? (laughs) It’s Southern but it’s also a certain kind of Americana.

MGS: It’s haunted. It reminds me of Faulkner who was interested in the ghosts of the past even though they’re not literal ghosts. That’s the way your films are.

MB: Yeah, and I think too this idea of a certain vegetable darkness, which I like. I think of it as like when you turn a rock over: it’s sort of cold and wet and maybe there are worms and surprises underneath. It’s a rock-turning sensibility. That’s in there too.

MGS: That makes me think of David Lynch – the opening of Blue Velvet with the beetles underneath the grass and the idea of “what lies beneath” that that conjures up. “Vegetable darkness” is an incredible phrase!

MB: Yeah, and I actually think cinema and being a filmmaker is a perfect way to play in this too because it’s all about illusion, right? For me, it’s about this relationship to reality and fantasy and this pull between abstraction and something really familiar – and how disorienting that can be. So, for me, the idea is treating things in a really imagistic way that’s not written in dialogue, at least not in these three films, as much as it is by these imagistic situations or stories or worlds that are then charged with a lot of sonic detail and a lot of slowness as a way to say, “Okay, here’s the surface of something but don’t you sense XYZ beneath it?” And then hopefully giving people the framework to kind of spin off in their minds what those things could be.

MGS: Is it fair to say your work is not really concerned with narrative?

MB: I think it is, actually. I mean, not in a conventional way and not in a way that addresses certain kinds of psychological realism and the traditions of certain forms and conventions of theater or literature. But I hope it triggers a kind of cognition or a kind of efforting to create narrative out of fragments. So, in that sense, I think it’s really concerned with narrative because all the ellipses are there. And I spend – and the people that I work with spend – a lot of time and attention to detail so that details are supposed to be holding and speaking a lot in terms of “Where is this place?,” “What could be going on?,” “Why are they there?,” Why are they acting this way?” “World building” is maybe a little much as a phrase but I think there’s a lot of that going on. And these details of place, or the really specific casting I’m doing – certain kinds of archetypal figures or certain kinds of behaviors and energies – these things, for me at least, are connecting to some really specific ideas. They’re just not fleshed out in a way that’s super-causal.

MGS: That’s what I mean when I say “narrative”: cause and effect.

MB: But there’s event and there’s behavior and there’s character.

MGS: And there’s location. You talked about the rural quality of Waking Things and Shoals. In Songs from the Shed, there’s a weird hybrid of rural and urban. It’s like you’re creating a cinematic space that doesn’t exist in reality but that makes perfect sense onscreen.

MB: That was one of the narrative possibilities there; that it was a kind of future and maybe it was post-disaster, so that things were somewhere on the edge of being urban, with nature taking over, or a kind of depletion of resources. So these people are protecting themselves or cocooning. Waking Things is the most explicit, but in all of these films there’s this sort of makeshift family or alternative “found family,” cult, whatever – and I realized I was making the same film over and over at some point – that somehow there’s a kind of xenophobia to that as well. It’s not overt. It’s most overt in Waking Things. But there’s this kind of strange isolationism and self-reliance, etc.

MGS: And sense of imprisonment.

MB: Yeah, but towards an idea of survival or perseverance. I think, for me, it’s almost like there’s this kind of anthropological fiction or fantasy going on with each one of the films – and this is part of breaking the causal chain of narrative too – that it becomes some sort of site where you only have a few relics that remain and you’re like, “How do these go together?,” the sort of narrativizing that I know happens in archaeology. You have very scant elements.

MGS: You have to put the bones together.

MB: Yeah. “What did happen here?” “Who are these people?” I’m often trying to decode, in real life, a lot of things about humans. (laughs) And so I guess it makes sense that the films are coded in fictional ways on a lot of levels.

MGS: The idea of entrapment vs. freedom is present in all your films but it’s something you really elaborate on in Shoals with the asylum-like setting. What attracts you to this theme?

MB: I think dependence and interdependence and co-dependence within support systems, the dynamics of that, whether it’s family or chosen, are often pretty contradictory. There’s something very archetypal in the films about the older male figures and the younger characters who are too big to be children but are sort of being treated like children, who at moments are breaking out of that but then coming back to this role that’s been delineated and that they’ve all chosen to continue perpetuating. In some ways there’s a lot of overt psychologizing in that. And I think there’s also in some ways a fable-like quality to the films that takes that dynamic and links it to a lot of really dark fables that are about the same thing. You could look at some Grimm Fairy Tales and see similar dynamics.

MGS: Do you feel that the world you live in is a dark and sinister place or do you just enjoy creating that world up there on the screen? (laughs)

MB: People that see the films or installations that don’t know me and then meet me are often surprised that I’m wacky or shy and not super-dark and scary. You know, it’s nice to have the privilege to make art and put things elsewhere that may be inside you that don’t dominate you in everyday life. So there’s that. I also actually think that the experience of creating durational tension and an atmosphere of dread is pleasurable to experience. There is something cathartic about it and there is something where, if you go through it in a sort of simulated way and you survive then somehow you feel more… It’s a sort of trial run for actual problems or disasters. It’s also looking at a kind of loose ethics of authority figures. In a larger way, I do wonder about the governing systems behind a lot of things. What are the systems that we create, that are social, what are they doing? What are the systems and values and meaning that we give to our lives? What are these sort of repeated rituals or behaviors? Do those create values? Do those come out of something? What are the things that we just perpetuate without thinking about what they mean? And the darkness or the tension, yeah, it’s there. There’s other stuff there too! I would totally make a rom-com.

MGS: Your films do relate to genre, especially horror movies.

MB: And some melodrama!

MGS: Yeah. Songs from the Shed is also a kind of musical. Where did you discover that incredible song, “Land of Heart’s Desire”?

MB: I went to undergrad at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana and at one point they were having a library sale downtown at the local municipal branch and I was trying to be cool – about ’95 or so – with the vinyl records. So I bought three that day including this box set, with limp string tied around it to keep it closed, it was of this woman named Dame Maggie Teyte singing light operetta and opera and folk songs. I remember knowing immediately the vocal treatment through all of those musical genres was going to be super-weird. Maybe I should say I grew up singing in choirs. I started at four-years-old, went to choir camp, singing lessons. I grew up with both my parents in singing groups that performed. There was a lot of religious and folk singing in my family. Even when I moved here in my early 20s, I was in choirs, which I didn’t tell anyone about because it’s not cool. But I missed it as an experience. So I’ve always been interested in music. I encountered that song in that box set. And then there’s this whole niche-y thing with opera and divas where they have their day, like ballerinas. They have this really slim couple of years where they can rule and then after that they’re really lucky if they can…

MGS: It’s like being an athlete.

MB: Yeah, exactly. So she was a British opera singer who made her reputation in light operetta, mostly. And she had this kind of stylized way of singing that was not fully trained out of her. So the song that she’s singing, “Land of Heart’s Desire,” is not super-famous. But the song is about nostalgia and longing for the land of your family, which in this case would’ve been Ireland. I love the distortion on the record, when she hit those high notes, it sort of breaks, almost. I love that in texture sometimes where it’s pushing against the edge of legibility. It’s really expressive. But I liked this idea of someone who’s an overgrown child who seems to be at home but it’s obviously a set; through the repetition of certain behaviors, or light, or material, it’s a simulated environment. And he’s obviously trying to break away but he’s coming back, so adding in the song makes him a kind of science experiment, responding in this Pavlovian way. That’s what the use of the song is about. But it actually connects to this whole other idea around who people are and what culture they belong to. There’s this feeling of – back to this idea of xenophobia or the making of your own culture and Americana – there is something about maybe having family from Appalachia and being Southern, maybe shooting a film in Wisconsin (Shoals) that actually, as it turns out, was shot in a place where there historically were a lot of cults because people bought land and did whatever they wanted there and made their own rules. There is something quintessentially American about having a lot of romantic nostalgia for “your homeland,” which is a very contradictory cultural thing, identifying yourself with something, in this case, very Irish sounding.

MGS: I’m glad you mentioned repetition. In Shoals, you have women being instructed to do tasks that seem meaningless. In the other films we see people obsessively peeling and chopping potatoes, which makes me think of Jeanne Dielman, the ultimate cinematic statement about repetition.

MB: Yeah, and gender.

MGS: Is Akerman an influence?

MB: Yeah, I find her films really honest.

MGS: I also see a lot of Bresson in your work, especially the close-ups of hands working. Your sense of fragmented composition reminds me of A Man Escaped and Mouchette.

MB: Yeah, the Nanty character in Shed is partially based on Mouchette. In the new films I’m working on she’s evolving from that.

MGS: Her hair color is evolving!

MB: Her hair color is evolving. A lot is going on with her. Time is passing. But my shorthand joke is that she’s moving from Mouchette to Vagabond in the course of a decade, which seems right. Those two poles are nice – and realistic.

MGS: What kind of relationship do you have with Sarah Stambaugh as an actress? Do you have a pact that she’s going to play this Nanty character forever?

MB: Sarah is amazing. She’s just a natural performer for the camera. She’s interesting and compelling in every day life but she’s also one of these people that, when you put her in front of the camera, something becomes atomized that is only in the image. I talked her into it the first time in 2006 and then, in 2010 or ’11, I warned her I was thinking of doing more. There’s a feature script actually, that this character is the protagonist of that’s set primarily in North Carolina. It starts here and then goes there. So I was talking to her about that over the years and I saved her costume from Shed. Leone Reeves did this amazing distressing work for that film; the white jacket and jeans, she cooked on her stovetop with different spices, so it smelled really gross. It had food in it but it looked amazing. So I saved all of that in my basement and then had to air it out (years later) for Sarah. And she put it on, which was nice. So, she’s been up for it. Every chapter of the project (The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast), things have changed for the character. With the last shoot, this past summer, the character is talking in conversation with other humans. She would play multiple roles in the feature, some of which would talk and some of which wouldn’t. So there’s this kaleidoscopic character that’s split in different ways but in the same body.

MGS: You’ve introduced dialogue gradually into your work over time. In Songs from the Shed, you represent dialogue with title cards, as in a silent film.

MB: And part of that is because I love sound work. I love doing really detailed sound work and the three films all have, with the exception of the monologuing patriarch scenes or the singing scenes, those were shot synch, but everything else was done by hand. That’s constructed soundtrack. There’s tons of detail and foley and field recordings and stuff and I worked really closely with Mat Jinks and Lou Mallozzi on all three of these films, to build the sound.

MGS: Let’s talk about this monologuing patriarch character. (laughs)

MB: How many of them are there?

MGS: He’s bald regardless of who’s playing him!

MB: True. The bald thing is not required…but it happened.

MGS: Matthew Goulish has a great voice. I think, between Waking Things and your installation The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast, he talks more than all your other characters combined. He’s part of Every house has a door, the performing arts group you collaborated with on Waking Things. Was that your first time working with professional actors?

MB: I think so, yeah. Waking Things was a commission from Every house has a door to work with their performers to make a film that was in response to a live show they were doing called Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never. It was two Croation performers: Selma Banich, who I did the Sigur Ros music video (Vardeldur) with, who’s primarily a movement-based performance artist, and Mislav Cavajda, who’s a renowned theater actor; and Stephen Fiehn, who’s an American performance artist now in New York, Matthew, and Lin Hixson, the director of the group. Matthew is a writer and performer. He’s wonderful to work with because he’s very theatrical but he understands his relationship with the camera really well and he’s capable of so much nuance. So, in addition to things being “theatrical,” he can also do really small, beautiful things. So he’s just really inspiring to work with.

MGS: Is he the reason why you started using more dialogue in your films?

MB: One of the things about how I’m working with language has to do with my family. I have a lot of ministers and teachers in the family. So there’s a lot of talking and a lot of writing and a lot of discussion. For whatever reason I’ve always been really attuned to it as something really performative and also something that, even though it’s often about clarity or persuasion – again the surface level of things – there are often lots of layers of meaning or suggestion. So I think about, “Oh, I think I want my characters to speak,” or “Oh, if I’m interested in human behavior, people actually do talk – to each other and to a public.” And because there’s this observational/behavioral thing then in working with other humans – the fascination sort of drives you to make something – I then want to have characters whose M.O. is a certain verbosity, right? And a kind of contrast between their physicality and their speaking – not necessarily in a cynical way, in a complicating way, in part because that seems realistic to me. Those are “public servant” jobs. So there is this sense of “We go to work and we do this for people.” Then there’s a sense of another kind of behavior, something much more private. And there is an interesting divide there.

To get back to your question: I saw Matthew Goulish and Bryan Saner, who are both in the Latest Sun project, in Goat Island’s piece, The Lastmaker, at the MCA in 2007; there were these monologues given by both Matthew and Bryan. And I just remember realizing, “Oh, there’s something oratory here. It’s not conversational.” With Bryan especially, it had a kind of religious reverence to the language and the cadence. It felt really familiar. And with Matthew, there was a wry wordplay and love of contradiction. So, I just wrote in the program “Minister Film with…” and I just wrote their names and put it away. As I got to know them over the years, I realized that they both have very different religious backgrounds. So I thought it was going to be a really autobiographical project about my religious family but I realized I was more interested in this process of rehearsal that’s super-collaborative where I have really specific ideas about things I want but I’m also, as an extension of being into behavior – and doing these portraits and installations – I actually want people to bring something from their lives. So it ends up being this biographical fiction where the material that’s generated is this hybrid of anecdotes, memories from all of us, staged in a very constructed fictional context.

MGS: I’m glad you brought up your family without me even asking! You talked about the divide between hearing sermons in church vs. hearing those same voices at home. What was that like for you as a kid, growing up in that culture?

MB: At different points I had about 12 ministers in the family – so grandparents, parents, stepparents, uncles, aunts, and first cousins now. If you go beyond the first-cousin layer, the numbers go up. It’s my mother’s family, my father’s family, my stepfather’s family, my stepmother’s family.

MGS: Different denominations or the same?

MB: They’re all Southern Presbyterian except for one really awesome Methodist, who we love, of course. Because my parents divorced when I was a kid, and they both remarried, I didn’t grow up with my Dad every day though I saw him often, so I didn’t grow up going to church every Sunday. But my mother is also a preacher’s kid and my Dad married my stepmother at the time, who was a minister. So, at one point, that was two ministers who I would go visit. My mother married my stepdad who wasn’t a minister but who had been to seminary and had briefly been a minister and then he went on to teach political science. And his mother was a Presbyterian missionary in China. And two of his siblings and two of their spouses went to seminary. My dad’s brother became a minister. And then my mother’s parents: her dad, my granddad who was a minister, was a huge part of my childhood so I was around them a lot. So, even though it wasn’t a daily or weekly thing, whenever I saw family it was, and is, there. It’s interesting: it’s family culture more than my individual experience as a preacher’s kid exactly. One of my jokes is: you should see what it was like at Christmas dinner and Thanksgiving dinner because it’s like, “Who’s going to do the prayer before we eat? Who’s going to bless the meal?” I remember distinctly, I don’t know how young I was, but I was aware immediately when I was a kid that it was like, “This is not just a prayer. It’s a bit of a performance because we’re all experts in this particular sacred art.” It’s a very unusual job and it’s a very lonely job, I think. It’s hard to be a part of a social community if you’re a minister because people might not feel totally comfortable…

MGS: Kind of like being a cop, in a way?

MB: Or a shrink or something. Can you relax around them? Can they relax around you? It was something that I noticed. It’s also about writing a paper every week and the anxiety of that. Even though the text you’re working with is very set, there is this challenge of the job where “you have to make something relevant and meaningful of this.”

MGS: Did you ever consider going into the family business?

MB: Yeah. There’s a joke that it’s my fallback career. You can go at any age or at an advanced age. And I’ve done a fair amount over the years of, you know, liturgical dancing, reading the liturgy, starting at 12 and then into my 20s. I was a philosophy major as an undergrad and that was another way for me to process all that stuff.

MGS: And then you shifted to cinema (laughs)?

MB: Yeah, I did. There’s also this kind of devotional slowness that goes on in the films. And I think, for me, making installations is maybe the most direct relationship with that: how to stage a space so that it invites people to devote their attention in this very frontal way.


Filmmaker Interview: Seth McClellan

My interview with Little Wound’s Warriors director Seth McClellan was published at Time Out Chicago today. I’m reproducing the article in its entirety below:

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Little Wound’s Warriors, the latest film from Chicago-based director Seth McClellan (King in Chicago, Creative Writing), is a powerful documentary about the Lakota Sioux residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota. It focuses primarily on the students at Little Wound High School as they come to terms with rampant poverty, alcoholism and a recent suicide epidemic. The film, which alternates between interview scenes with these resilient young people and stunningly beautiful footage of their natural surroundings, ultimately expresses hope for the future as these subjects seek to reclaim their heritage and, as McClellan notes, recreate “their sense of personal and shared Lakota identity.” Little Wound’s Warriors screens this Saturday, January 21, at the Gene Siskel Film Center with McCLellan present for an audience Q&A.

MGS: The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located in the Badlands of South Dakota, far from your Chicago stomping grounds. How did you first hear about this remarkable place and become involved in making a documentary film about it?

SM: When I was a little boy my family visited Badlands National Park, which is directly north of Pine Ridge, and I remember even as a small child being blown away by the beauty of the land. There is something about the landscape that I find incredibly beautiful in its starkness and overall composition. My old and great friend Mark Hetzel ended up working on the reservation through Teach For America, he teaches at Little Wound the local high school featured in the film, and we had discussed some of the challenges his students faced and started to talk about how we might document those issues. I’m very lucky now to have had the chance to have extended conversations with so many members of the local community and hike and film the Badlands in the midst of winter.

MGS: It was troubling to learn about the teen suicide epidemic on the reservation. It’s discussed simultaneously as if it were a recent phenomenon and also the inevitable result of an entire generation of people “inheriting trauma” from their ancestors. What do you see as the root causes of this epidemic and what steps have the local residents taken to prevent it from happening again?

SM: Genocide is the root cause of all the problems. Along with the outright slaughter of natives by the US government and other groups, the US also stole their land and forced them onto reservations where they then were forbidden from speaking their language or practicing traditional ceremonies. A generation of kids were taken from there parents and placed in Christian boarding schools. Imagine if most of your friends and family are killed by a foreign power and then you are forbidden from speaking English, talking about the Constitution, celebrating fourth of July or Christmas or watching Star Wars, and then your kids are taken from you. At the same time the foreign power makes available a powerful new drug that you have no experience with, alcohol in this case. How would any community handle that? The destruction and disruption of cultural and personal narratives destroy communities. Think about how violating the election of Trump feels to many people and then magnify that a thousand times. We are bound to each other through our shared sets of values, traditions, and the “story” of who we are. When a community loses that, they flounder. You see the same problems with all the murders in Chicago. It’s rootless young men killing each other. Young men who have no sense of being part of a larger narrative and tradition that values and needs them.

What’s really exciting and hopeful and what the film’s main focus turned out to be is how high school students on the Reservation are reengaging with there language and ceremonies. They are young Lakota Warriors practicing a distinct way of life. Redefining and recreating their sense of personal and shared Lakota identity. The film tries to celebrate that.

MGS: One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way the story is told only through the interview subjects (and not through scripted narration, on screen text, etc.). Was it your intention to allow the Native American subjects to tell their story in their own words without forcing your “outsider’s perspective” onto it?

SM: I find narrators pretty heavy-handed and intrusive most of the time. For better or worse as a documentarian, I am much more interested in what the people immersed in a context have to say than I am in imposing “voice of god” techniques that create more of a sense of order in a story.

MGS: The interview subjects span a great range of ages and life experiences, which allows for a wide variety of intellectual and emotional responses. How exactly do you go about “casting” a film like this? What do you look for in an interview subject?

SM: We conducted about twenty hours of interviews and I sifted through them trying to find the most truthful and insightful voices and statements and then looked for ways to weave those voices and ideas together. The most important thing to me is that the interview subjects speak from the heart and hopefully reveal something about themselves and what it means to be human in their experience. We definitely wanted to focus on the experience of the high school students, but having older voices in there helps tell a larger and more dynamic story.

MGS: I love how the film alternates between interviews and stunning landscape photography — it feels very “composed” in a musical sense. What was your guiding philosophy in the editing room in terms of how to shape all of this material?

SM: The films original title was Little Wound Winter Love Songs and I was thinking of its structure much more in musical terms than a traditional narrative. I wanted it to feel more like these young people were singing a song than telling a story. As we edited, it evolved into something somewhat more linear than I had originally intended but the musicality of the editing certainly remains.

MGS: Have you had a chance yet to screen the film in Kyle, South Dakota and, if so, what has the reaction been like?

SM: We screen in February in Kyle, but all of the interview subjects and some community members had a chance to watch the film and offer feedback before we finalized the edit. It was very important that the film feel representative and truthful to the actual community and not just “poverty tourism.”

For more information about the Little Wound’s Warriors screening, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


Filmmaker Interview: Robert Putka

My interview with Mad writer/director Robert Putka was published at Time Out Chicago today. I’m reproducing the article in its entirety below:

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The 2016 comedy/drama Mad is an auspicious, uncommonly sharp debut feature from the young Cleveland-based writer/director Robert Putka. The independently produced film, which centers on a mentally ill mother’s relationship with her two adult daughters (all three roles are played to perfection), deservedly traveled far and wide on the festival circuit last year and was picked up for distribution by The Orchard. Although it only screened once theatrically in Chicago, as part of the Midwest Independent Film Festival, Mad has had the kind of strong word-of-mouth buzz that virtually ensures a healthy home viewership: it was enthusiastically recommended to me by fellow critics Jason Coffman and Daniel Nava and I was able to stream it at home just in time for it to make my list of my Top 50 Films of 2016. I recently interviewed Putka about the film via e-mail.

MGS: Mad has enjoyed a lot of critical and audience support since it premiered at Slamdance last year. I think part of the reason why is that you handle mental illness in a way that feels refreshingly honest and very different from how that topic is usually portrayed in American cinema (i.e., it’s not presented in a sensationalistic or romanticized way). You’ve discussed your own mother’s bouts with mental illness in interviews. Was it a cathartic experience for you to tackle this particular subject in your first feature and to what extent did you feel a responsibility to “get it right?”

RP: It’s been bizarrely enlightening and life changing for me, and not in the way you’d probably expect. Listening to, and seeing people’s reactions to the film was something of a wake-up call to me. People seem to think it’s horrifically dark and even “sociopathic” at times, but this is a film that contains none of the brutality we usually associate with film. No blood, no physical violence. I always felt it was actually tame… maybe too tame, and even a bit sanitized compared to my actual experience. I wrote from the gut and tried my hardest to tell this story in an entertaining way; so what you’re seeing is an honest, if not necessarily always flattering look at my own struggles as a child to a mother with emotional problems. Seeing how people processed that relative to their own experience made me realize that maybe I had some work to do of my own – to be more understanding, more accepting… less of a raw nerve. I’m still nowhere close to having “mended” my relationship, nor have I been able to completely let go of some of my own personal hangups, but I’m more aware of it now than ever. I guess subconsciously I longed for that, considering I pushed myself in that direction within the context of the narrative, as Connie (who represents my nastier tendencies) seems to find that same awareness near the end of the film… I think I just had another “a-ha” moment, and now I’m sweating and nauseous. This has been a year of hard-won emotional truths for me. If I felt any responsibility at all, it was to the ragged emotional core of these characters, and less about the circumstances that surround them. I didn’t want the emotional beats to feel false.

MGS: I love films that are successful at blending comedy and drama and I have the feeling you do too. I noticed in your Letterboxd review of Knocked Up that you described it as “walking a tonal tightrope,” which is a phrase one could easily apply to Mad as well. What is it about combining comedy and drama that appeals to you as a filmmaker, especially considering we live in a world where audiences expect their comedies to be funny and their dramas to be serious (and rarely the twain do meet)?

RP: OK, I love this question, and I love that you dug up my Letterboxd review of Knocked Up. I think maybe more than anything, I’m one of those people that always has to “do it the hard way” and take the road less traveled. Easy-success be damned, because I am full of self-loathing, I guess (and cliches, apparently). Finding comedy in drama, or drama in comedy is, I believe, such a feat, and it makes me sad when that goes unnoticed by cinephiles. Dramedy is the tone closest to that of life, right? And if you can reflect life in an entertaining way, then you’ve captured something special, I think. My near-militant championing of the dramedies of Apatow, Payne and Baumbach is a reaction to that. People are so very ready to anoint films with slick camera moves and in-your-face directorial flourishes as art, and I think I just saw a niche that I could fill because no one else has really been trying to fill it lately. I use the word “emotion” a lot, don’t I? I think some of my favorite films are the ones where they earn that emotional gravity, so I’m desperately chasing that in my own work. My hope is that earnestness in film will come back into style before people stop taking my calls, because my movies aren’t sexy-looking or sexy-feeling. OK, climbing down from my high horse now.

MGS: Another aspect of Mad that a lot of critics have honed in on is the absolute viciousness with which the sisters, Connie and Casey, insult each other. Movie characters aren’t usually quite so verbally nasty but this is, of course, how siblings often really interact. As a writer, where does your particular brand of acidic banter come from?

RP: I’ve noticed that people say a lot of nastily bizarre, mean stuff in the heat of the moment. Me included, obviously. When the emotions are amped up, people so readily bring out the knives, because it’s about “winning that moment” and hurting the other person as much as you’ve felt they’ve hurt you. It’s certainly not healthy, and I’d equate it to getting a quick fix that doesn’t do you any good in the long run. But I believe it’s human. I feel that with family, there’s a bit of elasticity there. Like, you can let loose and tear into them because they’re bonded to you for life – you’re in a cage match to the death with them, and even if you win, you still lose because you’re stuck right there with their rotting corpse, or vice versa. I’m not a misanthrope, though, I promise! It’s a loving, knowing kind of friction born out of familial closeness.

MGS: I once read that the Seinfeld writers had a rule that they wouldn’t allow their characters to hug each other or apologize. Did you have any similar strategies in place in order to avoid sentimentality?

RP: I’m terrified of sentimentality. Emotion is good, but being over-sentimental is bad. I’m always afraid of dipping into schmaltz since the line between the two is very, very thin, and if you’re not careful you can lose a handle on it. I try to feel it out by staying true to the moment, and I rely a lot on my actors to know when something is too much or not enough. My actors helped me out a lot by holding themselves to a standard of honesty and naturalism. If anything, they really encouraged me to be comfortable with a certain level of warmth, that while in the script, was something that my directorial instincts were trying to bury out of fear of doing a hack job.

MGS: Both of your lead actresses do an incredible job. I noticed that you’ve worked with Eilis Cahill extensively in your previous short films but that you were working with Jennifer Lafleur for the first time. Was it a challenge to work closely with two collaborators with whom you have differing degrees of familiarity, especially considering your methods involve improvisation?

RP: I actually worked with both prior! Eilis to a lengthier degree, but Jen knew how I worked and was game. All the actors were game, and I’m so thankful they made this movie with me. My directorial inclination is to find a balance between making sure the actors are comfortable and feel inspired, but also retaining the dialogue that I fall in love with writing (for better and worse). I find that a lot of the emotional beats are more open to interpretation by the actors – those really need to be “felt,” so I’m OK being a bit looser with those moments, and I was rewarded with raw performances that I probably couldn’t pull if we went verbatim – which has a lot to do with my relative inexperience still as a writer/director.  The comic dialogue, while also being open on-set to ad-libbing, needs to be a little more exacting with the timing being very important to the individual success of the line at hand. Luckily my actors, all of them, were able to roll with what I was asking of them. I’m sure it was frustrating at times, but we’re all really just searching for some form of “the truth,” whatever that felt like in the moment.

MGS: What can you tell me about any future projects you may have on the horizon?

RP: I’ve got a pet project that I’ve been putting together slowly for the last year now, trying to cast and find the money. It’s a step up in budget, and in my wildest dreams it’s the “breakout” film that every writer/director is in search of.  I’ve also been really lucky to have a door open to me at a pretty cool TV network – now, actually capitalizing on that amazing opportunity by selling something has proven difficult. But I’ve always been in a sort-of “war of attrition” with this industry as a whole. This considering I shouldn’t even be where I am as a kid from Cleveland who never went to film school or had any sort of connections to speak of, so I’ll keep plugging away at it and hopefully something will materialize… eventually. I’m also starting to write and direct for hire, which like most things in my life, I’ve stumble-bumbled into like the dope I’ve proven to be time and time again. But send care packages if you’re reading this, because I’m still very near-broke.

Mad is currently available to stream on Netflix and various On Demand platforms. 


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