“SEPTIEN” DIRECTOR MICHAEL TULLY
Michael Tully began his career with a flurry, getting selected for Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2006 on the back of his debut feature Cocaine Angel, and then following it up the next year with Silver Jew, a documentary about Silver Jews frontman David Berman. In the years since, Tully has stayed active, shooting Mary Bronstein’s Yeast, acting in a handful of movies by fellow Generation DIY peers, including Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and Ry Russo-Young’s You Won’t Miss Me, and editing the indie film website Hammer to Nail. But, in terms of new films, he has kept his head below the parapet.
Now, however, he’s back with his second narrative feature, Septien, a fantastically idiosyncratic tale in which he plays the lead role of Cornelius Rawlings, an athletically-gifted prodigal son who after an unexplained 18 year absence returns to the family farm where his two brothers, Ezra (Robert Longstreet) and Amos (Onur Tukel), both live. A film that audaciously blurs genre boundaries, it will be released by IFC on VOD (with limited theatrical) as one of five films put out under the Sundance Selects banner during the festival itself.
In the days leading up to Septien‘s world premiere in Park City, Filmmaker caught up with Tully to discuss what he’d been doing during his time away from filmmaking, and how he came to get back into the director’s chair.
It’s been four years since your last film (Silver Jew) and five years since your narrative film (Cocaine Angel). Had you been trying to get projects off the ground in the interim?
The only project I was trying to get off the ground these past four years was climbing out of personal debt. Until my credit cards were paid off, I refused to go back into a gaping financial hole, and that’s the only way a movie like Septien was going to get made. (That said, I did get help from my executive producers Andrew Krucoff and Robert Longstreet, whose contributions softened my own personal fiscal blow). I was also enjoying my new job getting Hammer to Nail (www.hammertonail.com) off the ground, but after three years of watching and writing about so many movies that I can’t even guesstimate how many I saw, combined with the added bonus of having no more debt to be depressed about, the time came to dive headfirst into the abandoned pool once again.
How and when did you first come up with the idea of Septien? Was there an incident that sparked your creativity?
Septien had been a kernel of an idea since around 2002—basically, the vague concept of Onur Tukel, Robert Longstreet and myself playing brothers on a farm, and that was as far as we’d gotten—but it wasn’t until Onur sent me a link to his latest short film, The Wallet (http://www.hammertonail.com/genre/comedy/wallet-the-watch-online-now/), in December of 2009 that the brothers-on-a-farm movie idea reappeared. I saw Onur on screen and immediately wondered what had happened to that idea. Cut to a few weeks later at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. One afternoon, I met up with my good buddy David Gordon Green, who was in town to spread the word about his newly launched Rough House Productions, for one of our typical shoot-the-shit/brainstorm sessions. But something mysterious happened in that 90 minutes. When I left David to head to another press screening, I literally got on the phone and called Robert to tell him that I had a weird feeling that this idea was actually going to stick. From the title to the “climax” to many other elements, that initial brainstorm session produced many ideas that are included in the finished film. It was one of those conversations that should have never left the bar, much less been shot on Super-16mm, but I was at a place in my life where taking a potentially idiotic chance seemed like the most hilariously fun thing to do.
Can you explain why the movie is called Septien?
“Septien” is a word that reminds me of growing up in the 1980s and playing with football cards. Also, not to be too pretentious about this, but we were really trying to create a unique, difficult-to-describe tone, something that would make it impossible to pin down with one overriding genre, and it seemed like maybe if we came up with an unfamiliar word, perhaps that could be the adjective to describe the movie.
Was it always the plan for you to play the central character? And how early on did you have an idea of who the other principal cast members would be?
The plan for this project, which miraculously morphed into an actual “movie” thanks to the incredible Nashville-based production company Nomadic Independence Pictures—Brooke Bernard, Ryan Zacarias, Brent Stewart—began and ended with the idea of myself, Onur, and Robert playing brothers on a farm. That was always the way this particular project was going to go. I think there was probably some initial concern that it would be too much for me to bear as a non-actor who was also directing, but that’s why I wrote parts for individuals that I trusted and believed in, from acting veteran Mark Darby Robinson to upstart Rachel Korine to director John Maringouin to schoolteacher/musician Jim Willingham.
How involved were your co-stars Onur Tukel and Robert Longstreet in the creative aspects of the film? Did you three do a lot of improv?
Robert, Onur and I came up with the story. Initially, I wanted to keep the script in a Word document. I just wanted to write a list of shots/moments/things that I personally wanted to see in a movie and might not have seen before. I felt like if the film was a non-stop collection of those ideas, then it wouldn’t be boring (at least to me). But, of course, as we began to flesh it out, Onur was the most helpful force in nudging me into a more narrative direction. At some point, I threw caution to the wind, opened up Final Draft, and typed: FADE IN. As for the shoot itself, you might be surprised at how closely the dialogue reflects what’s in the script, but when we were shooting, I had to be reminded that there even was an actual script. Working without pre-production rehearsals and with several actors who’ve never appeared in front of a film camera before, the last thing I wanted to do was create an atmosphere where we were beholden to my stupid words. That’s what makes bad movies. And that’s why I chose these actors, for I knew full well that they would take things to a much brighter level (for example, many of John Maringouin’s best lines were his own).
You shot on a micro-budget over a very short period of time – what was the shoot like? (Was it exhilarating to be making a feature again?)
It was such an exhilarating, magical experience that I’m simultaneously inspired and terrified to ever try it again. I can best compare it to the spirit of when we made George Washington back in 1999. It was important to me that we shoot on film, and while that caused for some sleepless early nights on the part of our DP Jeremy Saulnier, who hadn’t shot celluloid in many years, once we got the first (i.e., only!) batch of dailies back, we trusted that all was well. Let’s just say that when you’re about to try to make a borderline impossible trick basketball shot on the first day of the shoot and the sun is fading and you’re only giving yourself five takes to make it happen because you’re already shooting more film stock than you budgeted for, when you actually make it on the first take, the sense of exhilaration and excitement is incomparable. As for the overall production, I had actually only just met Brooke and Ryan at the Sarasota Film Festival months before we shot (they were there with Brent Stewart’s great The Colonel’s Bride). At that time I was planning on shooting in Central Maryland and doing pretty much everything by myself, but Brooke and Ryan presented a pretty alluring case for shooting in Nashville. When I got there, I was astounded to find everything they had promised and so much more. Aside from Jeremy and myself, this was a Nashville crew consisting of nobody I previously knew. But immediately, we gelled and the entire shoot became one of those effortlessly fun summer camp experiences that never spun out of control or got unruly. Every morning when Jeremy and I drove up the long driveway to the house and saw this group of talented individuals getting ready to get back to it, working for free in the summer heat, I wanted to cry.
The film can be best described as straddling multiple genres, and it is visually very striking. How did you pitch (or just explain) it to people? And which films were touchstones for this project?
I think my initial pitch was “Brother’s Keeper meets Stroszek meets Spirit of the Beehive.” But that has morphed into other films, like Bad Ronald and Let’s Scare Jessica To Death and Night of the Hunter and Brian’s Song and Seventeen and 3 Women and Friday the 13th and The Brown Bunny and the list goes on and on and on. When David Green watched the first cut, he called it “Greaser’s Palace meets Raising Arizona meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” It’s different things for different people. Also, let me clarify that when I reference masterpieces like Spirit of the Beehive and Night of the Hunter, I’m obviously not comparing Septien to them. It’s just that these were films we reference along the way (SOTB for the opening credits, NOTH for the musical interlude, etc.).
Did you feel a lot of pressure having to act as well as direct? (And did the character’s minimal dialogue and lack of discernible emotion help?!)
How do I put this… YESYESYESYESYES. I’m not an actor, I was putting myself in some serious debt, there were 15 or so people busting their asses for no money for 16 days straight in the midst of a scalding Nashville heat wave, we were using an utterly preposterous foundation of a screenplay to try to make something that was actually genuine and sincere… it was a recipe for Serious Pressure. But with the help of Jeremy and Brooke and Ryan, as well as our AD Drew Bourdet and our enthusiastic crew, it really was more fun than stressful. As for my “performance,” my direction to myself was “narcoleptic Jesus.” Jeremy was instrumental in keeping me in check. One lesson I learned is that you don’t have to do much for the screen to pick up on things, and I trusted that all of the elements would help to fill in my actorly blanks. I guess you could say I tried to get my Clint Eastwood on (as an actor, not a director, that is).
You are very impressively athletic in this film. Was all the tennis, basketball, football, etc. real? And what is your background in sports?
Hell yeah that was real! I always use the example of that shot of Edward Norton dunking in American History X—his titties are above the rim!—as an example of how to pull an even somewhat well-versed sports viewer out of a movie. I wanted our ‘hero’ to look like he actual had dope skills, so I chose sports that I have played all my life (another great recent example of this is Trieste Kelly-Dunn’s bowling virtuosity in Brett Haley’s The New Year). Let me stress this, though: I am not an incredible athlete. This is a mixture of someone who has a bit of talent hopefully knowing how to wave his directorial wand to make the actor look better than he is. I told Mike, the b-ball player, that I would put a disclaimer in the closing credits, but I didn’t, so allow me to do that here: I would have gotten hosed in tennis and basketball (and probably in can tossing) had I been playing my competitors in real life. Give editor Marc Vives credit for making me look good!
You secured distribution for the film through IFC even before the Sundance began, so presumably the festival will be a little more relaxing for you. What are your aims now for the film?
We have already shattered any and all aims and expectations for the film and we haven’t even screened it for the public yet. This is a very rare, strange, and fortunate position to be in. For me, the most important thing is to stay grounded and humbled and not think this movie is bigger or better than it is, no matter what continues to happen (what more could possibly happen?). As we literally just finished it the other day, I’m simply exhausted and grateful to be where we are and I look forward to finally relaxing in Park City. Of course, I want everyone who sees it to like it, but the fact remains that we made this for the four weirdos in the theater, so any positive reception wider than that will continue to be a delightfully pleasant surprise.