I spent much of Sundance going on about a film that even after having reviewed it, championed it, interviewed the director and celebrated its win of the top prize, still can’t remember the damn title. It’s not like I don’t feel at home in this world anymore is less poetic than its working title (The Untitled Macon Blair Project), and its reference to a Gospel classic is part of the film’s undercurrent, but it’s still a heap of words for this movie-addled brain to remember in order.
Blair’s best known to indie audiences for his work with Jeremy Saulnier. With his mighty beard the focus of Blue Ruin’s remarkable opening, it was actually his turn in Green Room that really made me fall for his capabilities as a performer. Subtle, incredibly human in his role as a middle-manager of a Nazi club, I suggested at the time that his role is like that of Tom Sizemore in Saving Private Ryan – thankless, perhaps, but indelible.
IDFAHITWA is his directorial debut, and save for a brief cameo it’s most certainly not one of those typical Sundance indies that becomes an almost narcissistic excuse for a performer to go behind the lens. This film, with its rich mix of tone and fantastic performances by Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, is terrific stuff, a calling card to a real talent in terms of words and direction that makes for one of the more remarkable debuts at the prestigious Park City festival.
Over loud music, burgers, and drinks at a Main Street location, a day before he’d be handed a trophy for his work, Macon and I sat down to discuss this gem of a film.
How did it all start?
Directing my own thing was always something that I wanted to do at some point and I kept kind of kicking that can down the road. The producers on Green Room and Blue Ruin were very encouraging, saying “as soon as you’re ready to do your own thing, please take it to us first”. So a couple of years ago I decided to just knuckle down and find something to write, something that I could do myself. I’d had this idea of the main character in my head for years, I just wasn’t sure what to do with her. She’s a nurse character who’s kind of lost her capacity to do her job and has given up on people.
What originated that idea?
It just sort of popped into my mind as something that would be fun, where somebody’s job is all about caring for people and they have decided that people are not worth caring for.
What do you do with a person whose job is empathy and they’ve lost their empathy?
Precisely. What the plot around that would be I didn’t know. When I started to think of it in terms of something that I wanted to direct, I did have the attitude of assuming you will only get to do one movie in your lifetime so this is what will be on your tombstone. What does that need to be? Based on the things that I enjoy, I knew I wanted it to be a crime story, solving some sort of mystery or confronting criminals. I knew I wanted it to be a comedy that was fun and kind of lightweight and easy to watch. And I knew I wanted it to be kind of a romance in the sort of Harold and Maude zone – kind of a platonic friendship/ romance. It became sort of about crushing those things together and checking off all those boxes simultaneously, which probably leads to a little bit of whiplash. It jumps between these different worlds of brutal crime and sweet melancholy.
There’s two fundamental ways that it’s going to go: It’s either what you described as gumbo, with all these different elements but you can still taste the individual constituent parts. Or it’s going to be a slurry, trying to be everything to everyone.
I think some people would argue that there’s too many spices in it and that’s totally cool. I was aware that that would be a reaction to a certain group of the audience. I was hopeful that another group of the audience would like all those different flavors being at odds with each other. But we also did our best to try and make the transition between those worlds as gentle as possible so it wasn’t so abrupt and so whiplash-inducing. We tried to sort of start the movie at one temperature and, little by little, sequence by sequence, turn the temperature up so that in theory, by the time you end up at the end where it’s kind of full of mayhem and absurdity, it didn’t feel like you had suddenly changed the channel and wound up in a totally different world.
Was there a cut, an assembly where you were watching like, “Oh my God, we’re jumping around too much.”
Yes, for sure. Several. We did some test screenings, and some people were like, “It feels like two movies at odds with each other. It feels like toothpaste and orange juice”. The story always remained the same – what happened didn’t change too much – But we did go back in and kind of look for alternate takes of things, highlighting of certain beats so that in the more melancholy sweet parts of the movie those would feel a little more sinister, and the more sinister parts would feel a little lighter.
I would think that learning how to draw these lines would be the biggest thing one would learn in finally making a film yourself.
When I watch it now, although I am very proud of this movie and I love it and it represents all this work that everybody put into it, I am hyper aware of all the mistakes that I made on it. That’s all I can see. I’ll make different mistakes next time but I want to try to learn from those. I think the tonal stuff is probably at the top of that list. It’s very gratifying that for some folks it seems to work and for the folks that it doesn’t work, I’m kind of like, “I get it! I kind of agree with you”, you know? [Laughs]
Yet surely you’re proud it’s here at Sundance?
I’m so delighted because the crew and also the cast just worked so hard and nobody was getting rich off this movie. Everybody just poured their heart into it, so it was very gratifying to be able to send out a group email and say guess what, guys? It’s going to the best festival! Not only that, but it’s going to opening night!
It was a real sort of validation of everybody’s work. The premiere was great but I haven’t watched it since then because I feel like the audience at that opening screening reacted to it in a really warm, generous way. It’s fun to sort of keep that in my head.
How soon did Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey get involved?
I had had them in mind when I was writing it, hoping but not necessarily counting on being able to get them.
Elijah is another Austin boy. Do you know him well?
I know him well now. Before the movie I had seen him at film festivals and had said hello and mutual admiration type stuff. Melanie and I had said nice things on social media to each other back and forth but had never met in person.
There was a good year of trying to raise money in various places, and a lot of places that we were talking to had a specific list of actors who made their model of financing work. So we had to go through those hoops and kind of do the due diligence and look at a wide variety of actors who, by the way, would also have been great in those parts but for a variety of reasons none of those worked out. At the tail end of this process we connected to XYZ Films and through them we connected with Netflix. I gave them my pitch and I told them who I wanted and they very quickly gave the thumbs up to that. That was at Sundance a year ago, almost to the day, that I had a meeting with them. Then a couple of weeks later, we were in preparation in Oregon.
I got home and found out that they were going to go ahead with it so I got to call up Melanie and Elijah and be like, “Guess what? Not only is the movie happening but we can offer a part to you!” It was just really exciting getting to go with the first choice people, who just happened to coincidentally be available at the time that we needed them. It was just things in a very supernaturally fortunate way lined up. I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop and it never did!
Would you have made the film if they had said to you, “We’ll do your script but you can’t direct”?
I don’t know. You know what, I think if Jeremy [Saulnier] was going to direct it, then yeah.
That’s a very good answer! [laughs]
I’m sure there are plenty of other directors who would have done a great job with it, but this one was super personal, [while] not autobiographical.
You obviously have a great deal of connection with Jeremy’s work, what, if any, role did he play explicitly or implicitly in the project?
He was busy working on the movie that he’s now making up in Canada so he was not actually involved too much on the production end of things. Implicitly, his fingerprints are all over it because I have grown up with him. Our styles and what we like about movies and don’t like evolved in concert.
I think I like things a little bit more goofy and I think he likes things a little more grounded, but it’s about an 80% overlap. He’s the greatest director that I know personally and I’ve been lucky enough to watch him work at a very close range for so long. I was just always mentally taking notes for how he ran a set, for how he’d talk to actors, for how he’d talk to his camera crew. He has a great method for communicating things and for arranging the workflow and I tried to take as many pages from his book as I possibly could.
Did you go to film school?
I did. I went to Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond and they had a small film school. This was sort of, like the last year I was there they got one of the very first Avids, the rest was like flatbeds and 16 mm and stuff. I graduated in ’98. A lot of the people I met there I’m still close to and trying to collaborate with on different things.
Jeremy wasn’t there.
We did high school together, he went to NYU. We kind of reconnected in New York with a bunch of other people from our high school. There was Paul Goldblatt, Chris Sharp, Sandy Barnett, Irene Trullinger, and everybody is doing their own thing now but everybody is still friends. We had a period in New York of really trying to make this collective filmmaking team work. So we did short films and we did some spec commercials, and eventually made a really low-budget movie in 2006 [Murder Party].
Only in the last two or three years has it become feasible for me to do this kind of thing in a way that can pay the bills for my family. I think coming on the heels of a long period of being profoundly broke was actually a very good thing because I appreciate the shit out of this so much.
What day of the shoot did you realize, “Holy shit, I’m a director”?
The first day. It’s great when you’re up there on prep running around visualizing everything and checking out locations and doing camera tests with Larkin [Seiple], looking at casting tapes and everything. And that feels like a lot of runway, but then all of a sudden it’s like all the noise goes down to zero and everyone’s looking at you like now we have to start actually shooting shots, and you have to tell people how to do stuff.
Did you call “action” or did you have your first A.D. do it?
The first time I did it, and then subsequently Kiya [Entwisle] the A.D. called it. Yeah, it was fun. The first scene was Melanie and Gary Anthony Williams and they were both totally destroying it. It’s kind of spoiling because on the one hand it can be like, “Oh my God, this is not what I imaged at all” or “How do I course correct this ship?”, but instead it was like “Huh”. That was kind of like exactly it. I guess we’ll do another one because that’s what you do? Take two? I don’t know. It looked kind of perfect.
We have to talk at length about the magic that is Melanie. I am absolutely convinced you put her in anything and it just makes it better.
She had been on my radar since Heavenly Creatures and she had a part in Away We Go that really blew me away. Knowing that we were going to be doing a sort of genre-y, thriller-y type movie, I liked the idea of putting her in the midst of that because she is so sympathetic and empathetic and not someone you’d associate with running through the woods and shooting guns and stuff like that.
Initially, Tony, in my mind, was maybe going to be a little bit more of a gentle giant oaf type character. Like a big, blundering type of guy.
Like a Dave Bautista kind of character?
I think a big sort of sloppy dude that would seem ill-suited to the karate. But then at a certain point I started to wonder if maybe I’d seen that before. I started to change and get excited about the idea that this guy would have a little bit of a Napoleon complex. He would like a very tiny, slight, guy who would always try to overcompensate that with noise and flashy displays of his prowess. As soon as I made that switch I was like, “Oh, well then”, and coincidentally that happened around the time that I had seen [Elijah Wood] a lot at Fantastic Fest.
People ask “Why the hell do we have film festivals?” and here’s a really good example. Because it’s not just a matter of just seeing films and celebrating films, it’s about building the community.
I agree 100 percent. I very rarely have a chance to see movies at film festivals. I much more often will meet people that I end up having a continuing friendship with.
And now, as for that fuckin’ title.
I love where it comes from. I love the emotion, I love what it represents, I love that on Netflix it’ll be very easy to find. Yet I still can’t remember it.
You’re not alone. Nobody can.
What other titles you went through, and how you came up with this one?
I started outlining the story and figuring out what I wanted to do around the same time that we were wrapping up shooting Green Room. I had my birthday on set and Jeremy gave me a record from a place called Mississippi Records up in Portland which has all these weird, old, kind of forgotten music collections. This was the title of the record and it was a bunch of old, spiritual and gospel music from the early part of the century, forgotten stuff.
I just started listening to it on repeat as I was writing and the song kind of got stuck in my head lyrically and the melody. It felt like the way Ruth would express herself.
I turned the script in to the producers and they were excited about the movie, they had a lot of great things to say about it, and they said, “But the title, man, it’s a little bit of a mouthful. I don’t know about a poster, I don’t know about a VOD menu, I don’t know about word of mouth”. And they’re not wrong. And so it became The Untitled Macon Blair Movie all through production. Everyone was like, “Wait, what is it called?”, and I was like, “I don’t know yet”.
We had a list of about 50 or 60 alternate titles and every now and again we would get sort of excited about one. Invariably through this brain trust of me, Anish [Savjani], Neil [Kopp], Vincent [Savino] and Mette-Marie [Kongsved], they would never be unanimous. They’d always be like, “It’s okay. It’s a little too tough guy sounding” or “Eh, it’s a little too mopey sounding”.
Mette-Marie – she’s awesome and is an exec at XYZ and she lets you know what she’s thinking. So she just goes, “Man, just go back to the goddamn original title, that’s it. Isn’t it it?”. And I was, “Yeah, it is it.”
Netflix were very sweet. They said, “This is going to be a pain in the ass for our art department but if that’s what you want to do we will support you on it”. And so we said, “With apologies to the art department, I think that is what we want to do”.
I’ll own it. I know it’s a mouthful but I couldn’t find anything that summarized it better and I’ll take the heat for it being hard to sort of talk about conversationally or tell people about. I was unable to come up with another version that crystalized it as well for me.
Next time I will be more succinct with my title.
You’ve got to admit that as a dude most famous for pithy-titled Blue Ruin and Green Room that this is certainly a shot across a bow
Well yeah, Jeremy’s next one is called Hold The Dark so I’ve seen some people say, “What happened to the colours?” That was always accidental and coincidental and was not intended to be that way.
Because this film’s on Netflix it means that it’s not just going to have a festival run, it’s going to be seen.
It’s going to be seen in countries all over the world. The deliverables on this were really intense because they’re going to be translating to dozens and dozens of languages. It’s really exciting. We would not have gotten that kind of release otherwise.
It’s also fun because it’s not like an opening weekend that it’ll live or die on. I mean I love seeing movies in the theatre and that would be awesome, but the reality is I don’t think people are going to rush out and see this on one weekend and it’s not going to get held over for 6 weeks. So the fact that it can kind of live indefinitely and be seen by kids in Thailand or Australia or anywhere, assuming they have a Netflix subscription, it’s pretty remarkable.
Are there plans for a physical media release?
I don’t think so. Not that I know of. Probably not.
Are you a guy that still actually buys Blu-rays?
Oh yeah! I just bought the [1960s TV Show] 87th Precinct collection last night!
I’m certainly not diminishing the amazing ability for a film such as yours to find an incredibly wide audience super quick, but we’re still losing a little bit.
It would be cool if there was a way to have that kind of access on a big screen, you know? Obviously everything plays in a really satisfying way with the big sound and the big projection. But there’s also something to be said about sitting on your couch in your underwear and pause it to go to the bathroom and not miss anything and have a beer, you know?
If someone is on a cell phone, at least it’s you, not some asshole in front of you.
That’s my big thing about theatrical these days-people do not know how to behave.
Fuck you. You live in Austin. You’ve got the best theatre in the world to combat that!
[Laughs] The Alamo is my haven because they take that so seriously and I appreciate that. I know there are bigger problems in the world but my God, put the fuckin’ phones away, dudes!
Was there ever a moment where you thought you would fail?
No. And I’ll tell you the reason why: It was because Larkin, the D.P., and Kyle, the A.D., are two super experienced technicians. They always kept the needs of the story at the forefront but were very realistic and practical, like, “We can’t do this, but here’s the next best solution based on what we have available”. If they had not been there, “I can’t do this” would have been at the top of my head. But they were there and I felt very protected by them and by their experience.
So, in the end, how are you feeling?
I feel amazed and dizzied and delighted. People have been really kind and warm. It’s nerve wracking every time but people come up afterwards and express how different reasons why they responded to it, and they’re often exactly the reasons I had in mind.
This is one of those things that I’ll be thinking about for my whole life. Everybody bonded and connected and had so much fun. The crew went out on the last day of shooting and got commemorative tattoos. Everyone stays in touch and it had this real familial feel. Everyone got really close. So this feels sort of like the last step in this really beautiful experience that I’ll always think of. It’s lovely.