“THE MISSING PERSON”‘S NOAH BUSCHEL By Alicia Van Couvering
Noah Buschel’s The Missing Person stars Michael Shannon, last seen as the asylum-bound neighbor in Revolutionary Road, and if Sam Mendes had directed this film, he might have played it straight, disregarding the minefield of clichés to pay reverent homage to The Long Goodbye; Buschel knows what a bold move it is to make a noir in 2007, so he subverts the genre with un-ironic simplicity and a few tall guys hitting their heads on the ceiling.
We meet Shannon’s character in his dungeon-like Chicago apartment. His cell phone is ringing; he’s a PI; he’s offered a lot of money to get on a train and follow someone to California. He drinks too much, generally, but the liquor isn’t filling the hole gaping open on his sleeve. As the case develops and winds its way through L.A., Mexico, and back to New York, he is forced to choose which side of this case he wants to be on. Instructed by his employer’s secretary (Amy Ryan) to obtain a cell phone with a camera, he spends much of the film learning to use it. Buschel (previously the director of Bringing Rain and Neal Cassady) wanted the film to play like a dream, he says, because sometimes movies that feel like dreams are more real than real life.
Filmmaker: The world of the film, especially visually, is very controlled. Can you talk about how you placed the film in time?
Buschel: Hopefully it all plays as sort of a dream, and feels like its own world. He’s sleeping in bed in the first scene, and I would like to think that we retain the possibility that maybe he never woke up, that it was all just a dream. [The story] is sort of about him wandering through his past, him wandering through his own mind. Those are my favorite kinds of movies, where you can see the story literally but also you could view it as a trip through the main character’s mind. Movies by Hayao Miyazaki, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Hitchcock — The Conversation is like that, where it might as well just be the inside of Gene Hackman’s mind. To me that’s more like life than movies that don’t have that quality.
Filmmaker: How did you describe the world you wanted to create to your designers?
Buschel: For them [Eden Miller, Costume Designer and Aleta Shaffer, Production Designer], it was about mixing and matching 1945 and 2007. It’s present day, but it’s about a guy who’s stuck in the past. For Alita, her job was more to cover up anything that was too 2007. You don’t want to have Nike sneakers around or anything that distracts from this being its own world. But Alita did force that Segway [driven by a power-drunk Santa Monica Promenade guard] on me. That’s probably the biggest 2007-era distraction in the film, that and the cell phone store — but you need those to show that he’s essentially out of place.
Filmmaker: The dreamiest stuff to me is the non-diagetic lighting when he’s listening to music (clearly unmotivated blue and red light washes over him as the camera pushes in during some musical takes) — what was your idea behind that?
Buschel: You know, it was a tough shoot, and at a certain point that was the kind of groove we got in – let’s be simple, let’s just be, almost, dumb. I like [those shots] because we’re not hiding the fact that we’ve got a light rigged. The whole movie was about being small, about just saying, ‘OK, let’s turn the light blue.’ We had a blue light, and we turned it up, and it made it blue.
Filmmaker: Was it complicated to split the shoot up (one half in Los Angeles and the other in New York)?
Buschel: Yeah, it was. It was a very ambitious project and a kind of rushed production. We actually got on a train from San Diego to LA to shoot the train scenes; we were out on the highway with all the madness. It definitely made me want to write scripts for only one location from now on. (laughs)
Filmmaker: What’s wrong with location shooting?
Buschel: You can’t control the energy when you’re moving around that much, that fast. It’s hard to keep a thick atmosphere on set. You’re at the mercy of the location, someplace you’ve never been. I like to keep it just quiet and contained. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the more you can shoot in one location the better. The less exteriors, the less elements you have to control, the better, for me. In some ways I’d rather make a movie on a studio lot – no people walking through the frame.
Filmmaker: What was the hardest part of the production?
Buschel: We just didn’t have a lot of time. You feel like you’re letting the actors down when you run out of time, even though you know that they’re gonna be good no matter what. But it’s a horrible thing to have to rush actors, especially with Michael Shannon, whose energy is endless. I felt like he could do this 24/7 — we could have had longer days and he would have been in his element at hour twenty. He’s coming from years of crazy theatre so he’s like a phenomenal beast who never gets tired; an athlete.
Filmmaker: Did he bring anything to the character that you didn’t expect?
Buschel: We were both worried that it was going to be really depressing – he’d say, ‘Noah, I don’t want to be drunk and depressed the whole time.’ So we started talking about how he was Holden Caulfield a little bit, in terms of having that dry sarcastic attitude, and he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress. We even talked about maybe putting a white mark on the side of his head, like Holden had [in Catcher in the Rye.] So any time I felt like it was getting a little heavy I would say, ‘add some Holden to it,’ you know. Get a little more snarky and sarcastic and defensive and drunk, have some fun.
Filmmaker: It definitely seems like the actors are having a lot of fun.
Buschel: Well, what happened when we were making it is that we found out that it was a comedy. We started doing things where, like, Shannon would hit his head on the ceiling. That was great, because I think we avoided it being too melodramatic by adding little pratfalls here and there — just stuff that was dumb and simple.