Q&A: Eddie Mullins on “DOOMSDAYS”
Fantasia’s sprawling catalogue always includes a subsection of indie films that confound fans and critics alike by their inclusion – barely straddling the genre line, if at all, the fact that they are there says a lot about them. Basically, it says that the programmers dig the movie so much that they broke their own rules to play it. So when you see those titles in a genre festival, take notice.
One of the standout films in this capacity last year was Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s HAIL (which, to my knowledge, has still not been picked up in North America – see our interview with the director HERE), joined this year by Felix Van Groeningen’s THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN, Tom Berninger’s MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS, and of course, film critic-turned-filmmaker Eddie Mullins’ debut feature DOOMSDAYS, whose dream-team casting of Justin Rice (MUTUAL APPRECIATION) and Leo Fitzpatrick (KIDS) had me sold from the revelation of a single publicity image.
Despite the apocalyptic title, DOOMSDAYS isn’t an end of the world movie – although impending ecological disaster does weigh heavily on the mind of one of our protagonists. Justin Rice plays “Dirty Fred”, a self-styled hobo on the suave side, who meanders through the Hudson Valley with his comrade Bruho (a very grouchy Leo Fitzpatrick) – whether or not they are actually ‘friends’ is open for debate – breaking into empty, off-season vacation homes for the sole purpose, it seems, of fucking shit up. They invade and destroy the private space of the upper class, mocking the notion of stability and ownership, but without making any kind of inflated moral mandate of it. Ironically, DOOMSDAYS comes closer to realizing that belligerent battlecry Peter Fonda famously gives in THE WILD ANGELS that was a centerpiece of the festival’s closing film, Edgar Wright’s THE WORLD’S END:
“We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! … And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we are gonna do. We’re gonna have a good time… We’re gonna have a party!”
While the veil of mystery is lifted from the character of Bruho over the course of the film, Fred’s destructive impulses remain enigmatic. But he’s charming enough to pull it off, and the combination of astute casting choices – including newcomers Brian Charles Johnson and Laura Campbell – and its dryly comical tableaux made DOOMSDAYS one of the highlights of the festival for me – a sentiment bolstered by a great conversation with director Eddie Mullins on the making of the film, the importance of contorting your influences, and the role of the film critic today.
Spectacular Optical: So you were saying in the Q+A that you had a million locations and this is breaking one of the cardinal rules about how to make a first picture…
Eddie Mullins: Well I think I honoured a lot of those rules too, the thing I did do was aggregate the resources I already had. I live in the Hudson Valley, all my friends live in the Hudson Valley, I have access to tons of homes. So before I even put pen to page, I knew that logistically this was a feasible thing. That I could shoot it in my adoptive hometown, live at home while I did it, and put people up on the area – very cost-effective.
SO: Plus you were doing a lot of composed shots that didn’t require multiple setups for every scene.
EM: I think there are four match-cuts in the whole film. Two of them are axial cuts and one of them is an axial cut that had been the same shot because there’s enough digital information on the red that you can do that. But in terms of actual match-on actions, maybe…one?
SO: But one of the things that’s interesting about it is that even though it all takes place in this area that – at least in the world of the movie – is all relatively in walking distance from each other, it is kind of like a road movie. And the road movie has a million locations, but it is also a common type of film for someone to make as a first film. I’m thinking of things like RADIO ON, Chris Petit’s movie – he was a critic also - it’s brilliant. And BORDER RADIO…
EM: Well I’ll tell you what some of my influences were: Bertrand Blier’s GOING PLACES with Patrick Dewaere and Gerard Depardieu – those guys are a lot less likable than my guys. But you know, it’s a French picture from the 70s. I love Patrick Dewaere, amazing actor. And TWO LANE BLACKTOP. I actually sent the short that I did for kickstarter to Monte Hellman.
SO: Are you a fan of COCKFIGHTER too?
EM: Oh, absolutely. What’s the one where it’s like CHINA 37…
SO: CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37.
EM: I’ve seen that, THE SHOOTING, anything with Warren Oates.
SO: I love Warren Oates.
EM: And Laurie Bird…
SO: I hate her.
EM: Awww! I just think her star went…bloop. But I’m sure – here’s your pull-quote – that’s what you get for dating Art Garfunkle.
SO: I always thought Laurie Bird was the weak link in TWO LANE BLACKTOP, and in COCKFIGHTER she’s literally given away!
EM: The scene that’s so bad in TWO LANE BLACKTOP is where she and James Taylor are sitting on the fence talking and it’s just like two pieces of wood. My buddy who’s here with me, he works as an assistant cameraman on a lot of big shows, and he was doing ENTOURAGE for a couple years and he said having to watch Adrian Grenier and Sasha Grey do a scene together was so excruciating that if it wasn’t for editing you wouldn’t even be able to pass it off as a human interaction. Just like clank-clank-clank, like banging rocks together.
SO: So how did you put Justin Rice and Leo Fitzpatrick together, how did you see the chemistry they were going to have?
EM: Well before I even finished the script I was tailoring the role for Justin Rice.
SO: Did you already know him?
EM: Yes. My girlfriend and I had been living in Brooklyn and we bought a house upstate in the Hudson Valley, in Kingston, New York. And when we did this, a New York Times columnist approached us and said “we’re doing an article about couples who buy their first home upstate instead of in the city, because it’s too expensive”. So it was us and three other couples. And they put a photograph of us on the front page of the real estate section. And at the time Justin and his wife were looking for a house in the Hudson Valley, saw it, and ended up buying a house a mile away from us. My girlfriend and I run an art gallery – the one that appears in the film, that’s our house – and he walked in the door with his wife one night when we had an opening, and I yelled out “Justin Rice!” And then to my total surprise, he turns around and goes “Eddie Mullins!” Blew me away. I’d seen him live like eight times, I’d seen Mutual Appreciation, and I was sort of impressed that he was here in my house, and then en he already knew my name, I freaked out. So we became fast friends after that. And then eventually we got to talking about what I was working on, I think after a few too many beers he was emboldened enough to ask when I was going to cast him in this fuckin’ thing. And I did it on the spot. I said “You wanna play Dirty Fred? We’re gonna have to upend your whole persona. You always play the milquetoast sensitive guy with the guitar. You’re not gonna play any music in this, you’re gonna grow your hair, you’re gonna be the dick.” And I think he really welcomed that opportunity. Anyone else would have made it too flamboyant, too “Withnail”, if you will. But even though his character is a terrible person, there’s something poetic about the way…anyone else would have made him just a real jerk.
SO: And I think that’s the difference, when you talk about bloggers saying that your characters are unsympathetic, I don’t think you have to make them sympathetic, you just have to make them charismatic to some extent. Because he’s not likable from a conventional perspective, but he’s very watchable.
EM: And the other thing that was very comfortable about casting him is that the dialogue that character has is pretty high-flown. And Justin, being a Harvard man, and being a friend of mine for a couple years by the time we shot, I knew this would not be an issue for him. That he’d be able to sell this organically, he would not have trouble getting these lines out. And that can be an issue for actors sometimes. The only line Justin was worried about was the line I made him do in French. This was just terrifying for him. We were holding it up – he’ll hate that I’m saying this – holding it up behind the camera, but he nailed it. It was fine.
SO: It’s always funny here in Quebec, whenever you have a movie where English people are speaking French trying to be sophisticated, people in Quebec just howl, they think it’s the funniest thing.
EM: Well the line is from François le Champi, a novel by George Sand that I was forced to read in the seventh grade. And I remember just picking out this line, and thinking, “I’m gonna take this line to France and lay this heavy rap on every girl I meet!” And I wasn’t actually confident enough. Nevertheless, it adhered in the ivory dome, and years later I was able to trot it out in a screenplay, so I’m glad that French teacher made me read it. I’m actually thinking of doing a “Dirty Fred” diary.
SO: Like Laura Palmer’s Secret Diary?!
EM: Yeah, and I would cover the events of DOOMSDAYS in the diary but they would occupy like a page and a half. It would just be a glancing mention as part of this larger tapestry. I’m really into the idea of ramifying that world, and also just coming up with different things, like art editions of the script and selling them through our gallery. Take a leaf from Matthew Barney. I want to make the film part of a larger battery of stuff. So there are different avenues for people to follow what I’m doing that might cross from media to media. But I think I have a pretty strong DIY impulse. I did everything on this fuckin’ thing. I scored it, but I used my old band name because my name being on it so much was just unseemly to me. If I just had “written, directed, produced and composed by…” it just seemed gross.
SO: How did Leo Fitzpatrick get cast?
EM: He auditioned on the second day and that was it.
SO: I was just raving the other day about his performance in STORYTELLING and the person I was talking to hadn’t even realized that was him, they thought it was a real person with cerebral palsy! So he’s way more versatile than people give him credit for.
EM: And I thought I was having him do a typical Leo Fitzpatrick kind of role, but he corrected me, and he was like, “No, man, everybody wants me to play the junkie, the derelict, the street hood, but you’re having me play the straight-edge guy. Believe it or not, this is a pretty unusual thing for me.” But I think the other big appeal was that it’s a lead role. I think this is some of the best work they’ve done, both of them. Brian and Laura, this is their first picture, those guys came in at the very end and they were perfect miracles. Leo…(laughs) I’ll give you an idea of what Leo’s like. The night of our premiere, Tuesday, I think I got a text from him saying, “Hey you and Janet should come to this Richard Prince closing over at blah blah blah…” You know, he’s forgotten that the film is World Premiering and we’re in Montreal. Some Montreal journalist wanted to do an interview with him and they asked for his phone number, and he was like, “Well, the phone I’ve been using for the past year only works with texts. So I guess have them call my girlfriend’s number.” But it was the wrong number. So, you know…he’s partially engaged. But I don’t think anyone else could have pulled it off like that. I saw him and just thought, “that’s the guy.”
SO: What was the timeline between being in school and taking film, and then becoming a critic, and then making your first movie? How long of a time period was that?
EM: Well, let’s go through it. I graduated from NYU in ’96…
SP: And this was in film production, you wanted to make films at that time?
EM: Yes. I don’t know how I made the jump. When I was 13 years old, I wanted to be Tom Savini so badly. I had the GRAND ILLUSIONS book and I looked through it so many times that the pages fell out. And I was like “I’m gonna make that monkey critter that he made from CREEPSHOW!” And my dad was a dentist so I had access to mould-making materials and stuff, but what I really just made was a mess. And what I can’t quite trace is how I went from being that kid to suddenly – by the time I was in high school – being a snobby Godard fan. I went down tom VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) and basically sat in on film classes without paying so that I could buttonhole a certain professor to ask for his copy of WEEKEND. He had a VHS copy of Godard’s WEEKEND that he had filmed off a 16mm projection on a wall. So for the first 20 times I watched that film, I thought it looked awful. And I was very fortunate to have discovered this video store in my town. I picked 8 1/2 up off the shelf when I was 16 because I liked the box. Ditto SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, all these things that New Yorker was putting out on VHS at the time made a big impression on me. I think I discovered Herzog and Fassbinder the same way. And one just led to the next.
So when I went to NYU I thought there would be all these kindred spirits and finally I’d be able to have some sort of meaningful engagement, and I was disappointed – they’d go around the first day of class and ask “what’s your favourite movie?” and I was like “AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD”! And this didn’t seem to strike a chord with anyone. No one knew what I was talking about, it was a little bit demoralizing.
SO: So what kinds of things were they interested in if not things like Herzog films? Because to me, Herzog is fairly mainstream as far as arthouse goes.
EM: I totally agree. But maybe it was just the fact that this was a room full of 18 year olds. The edgier kids liked David Lynch. I thought about transferring, I actually applied and got into UT Austin, and I remember visiting and they were taking me around the school and saying “We have a guy who used to be a producer on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.!” And I was like, “No shit? Back at NYU we’ve got the director of CHUD 2!” You know, if we’re gonna talk about dubious honors…So then I thought well, I like being in New York, I’ll just tough it out here. But I really felt like film school was the SPACE CAMP of colleges. I don’t think anything about the way that I work, or the kind of work I do now was informed by my film school experience. I give them credit for nothing but demoralizing me and steering me off the path of wanting to be a filmmaker for a while.
So I got my Masters degree and after a brief stint working on a bunch of vineyards in Northern California driving a tractor – I wanted to do the least ‘intellectual’ thing I could think of - my friend’s father liked me working for him so much he asked me to come to Chile to work with him there. But I went down to Buenos Aires first and liked it there so much that I decided to stay – I didn’t go to Chile. I started teaching at a University down there, worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, but most of all there was a cinematheque down there that sucked me back in. I discovered the works of Abbas Kiarostami, all of Fritz Lang’s American films, I was at this place every day. They would do lock-ins overnight and show weird Latin American exploitation pictures – things that I couldn’t even tell you what they were now. But I loved the obscurity of it, the enthusiasm, it kind of reminds me of Fantasia a bit.
So, as I was writing the Associated Press things, somewhere it occurred to me that I should be a film critic. I don’t know how to even begin making a movie, but I know how to write, I’m being paid as a journalist, I’m obsessed with films, so when I got back to the states – after a couple knockabout years – I started doing some things for Films In Review when they were still around, and I finally got my gig at Black Book. I was the number two guy behind Richard Hell, who was the main critic at the time. Which I thought was really cool, because I had a bunch of Richard Hell and the Voidoids albums and Television, but he would never remember me. It made me a little dour. Every time they had an editorial changeover they would fire everyone but me, I don’t know how I survived. And I thought everything was jake because I could sort of live off of that. But when it finally went away, this was ultimately the catalyst for me to get off my duff and make a picture. I’d written three scripts before, all much more conventional projects than DOOMSDAYS, I had an agent, had a couple of option offers for the first two, but I thought this way lies madness, nobody really buys spec scripts anymore, my agent doesn’t understand me and I feel like I’m doing diluted versions of myself anyway. So DOOMSDAYS was sort of a cri de coeur as I was working this awful grind of a database job. Though my boss was Nick Dawson of Filmmaker magazine, so there was a silver lining there, he’s been very helpful with advice. But it was during that time that I wrote the script, and I guess that’s the trajectory.
SO: So you were just saying yourself that you didn’t know how you went from a monster kid to a Godard fan, but what do you think now, what’s the connection? Do you still have an interest in those kinds of films? Because this is something I always struggle with, there’s a lot of horror fans who think that there’s no room for both, and I don’t understand that mindset at all.
EM: No, no, if that was the case I wouldn’t even be here. It is a beef of mine when people want to turn film appreciation into a high school lunch room, and everybody’s gotta sit at a certain table.
SO: What was the movie that made you cross over?
EM: I was 15 years old and my passion for movies was pretty manifest by this time, even though it was mostly horror and cult films, I recall being really into John Carpenter’s THE THING, REPO MAN, and I went to a film programming series at the University in Virginia where I saw JULES AND JIM, BREATHLESS, LANDSCAPE AFTEER BATTLE, I AM CUBA, and every week it was like having my mind blown. And that discovery of what this art form can be, I’m still trying to drag my friends and family across that threshold. Everyone thinks they’re an expert on films. They’ve been going to see them their whole lives. And I feel like people are much less inclined to think themselves experts in any other arena. Certainly visual art, music – nobody would listen to a symphony and say “Oh, that sucks.” But there is a tendency for an unusual harshness in the way people talk about cinema.
SO: So what do you think the role of the critic is, now that everyone has a blog, everybody’s opinion is out there – other than aspiring to be a film critic because it’s a way to make a living watching and writing about films, what do you think the purpose of a film critic is now? What differentiates them from people who do it as a hobby? What is the point?
EM: It’s easier for me to say what I think it should be. And I’m really taking a leaf from Jonathan Rosenbaum who was a critic for the Reader in Chicago that I admire very much. You know, I took a stand in my blog and said that I will not be writing about AVATAR. Because who fucking cares. But the role of the critic is to write passionately about the works that aren’t being written about a) passionately and b) at all. The problem is editorial – there aren’t institutional outfits that are paying people to write about marginal films anymore. So I guess the plus side is that the people on the internet have a voice, and they can promote films that might not otherwise get a lot of attention, but there aren’t a lot of outlets that have that big tent mentality where they’re going to write about the little platform releases or things that are going straight to VOD.
SO: So then are film critics just advertisers?
EM: That’s what I think, when I’m trying to assign blame, yes.
SO: Because it seems to me that what I’ve seen happen over the years is that more and more that the whole process only exists so that you can advertise somebody’s movie and get a free DVD or free admission to a screening in exchange. So the film fans get something free and the filmmaker gets a free plug. And there’s very little actual criticism going on at all. And because I don’t subscribe to the thumbs up/thumbs down thing, most of the time when people read a review I wrote they can’t even tell if I liked the movie or not. But I focus on what I think is interesting or culturally relevant about a movie, I feel like the critic is meant to be the interpreter. Let’s say you have a film like HOLY MOTORS, I don’t think it’s the director’s responsibility to sit down and explain what the movie means.
EM: Yeah, I’ve already made the picture, do I really have to stand in front of it and be the Cliff’s Notes too?
SO: Right. So I kind of feel like that’s what the film critic is for. To contextualize everything.
EM: My blog at Black Book was a numbers-driven situation. You know, how many hits on ‘Digg’ are you getting? I had no editorial oversight at all, I could do whatever I wanted, but ultimately I think that’s why I lost the gig, because I would do things like write articles about the death of Karl Malden, or I did one about the director of BIG MAN JAPAN – number-wise they were complete throwaways. Like 12 people would read it.
SO: So do you think being a critic taught you tangible things that became valuable when embarking on your own film?
EM: No. No, I don’t. It gave me the time to teach myself tangible things that were valuable to me. Being a critic basically taught me that I didn’t want to be a critic anymore. You know when you start out – and I’m sure you can relate to this – it’s the greatest thing in the world. My job is basically going to a series of air-conditioned caves in midtown and then talking about the lights that dance on the walls. It’s a lovely occupation. But the Black Book gig took up only about two-thirds of my time, so it gave me time to write. And my viewing agenda is very rarely motivated by what’s coming out, but by whatever weird tangent I’m on. Since I’ve done DOOMSDAYS I decided that Carl Dreyer was the greatest director and I have now watched DAY OF WRATH so many fuckin’ times in the past three months, to the point that I’ve become an asshole about it. When I first read Noel Burch and David Bordwell it changed everything for me. I guess I went from a top-down thinker about movies to a bottom-up. And I guess now I’ve become a crazy formalist – it’s nice if I like things, but it’s also sort of irrelevant. I mean I don’t especially love Ozu, but I like technically what he’s doing, and a lot of the filmmakers I borrow from, like Hsiao-hsien Hou and William Wyler and Mizoguchi Kenji – these guys are the least funny filmmakers on the block. And Miklós Jancsó, the Hungarian who I just adore, these guys are so serious. And I feel like I’m appropriating the style but using it to completely different ends. Complex staging that results in ‘gags’. I certainly wouldn’t compare myself to Tati, but he’s somebody else that used complex staging for humorous ends.
SO: Do you think it’s possible to see too many movies, or that it’s damaging to see too many movies before making your own film? Because you look at examples like Kubrick, who didn’t like horror films but made a brilliant film with THE SHINING, and certain filmmakers who have no innate knowledge of a certain genre but then they just go in and knock it out of the park.
EM: Wittgenstein has a quote somewhere about how most people go to a museum and they spend two hours looking at 200 paintings and they don’t remember anything. When you should look at two paintings for an hour each. And being a critic made me see too many movies, it sort of dulled my senses. It’s been a tremendous joy to not have to do that anymore.