For Evan Glodell, surviving a bad breakup by making a movie wasn’t enough – he also built the camera it was shot on and the car features in its story. Dubbed the mad scientist of this year’s Sundance, he takes Septien director Michael Tully through the apocalyptic fever dream that is Bellflower. Photograph by Henny Garfunkel.
Evan Glodell must not have been immune to the universal sensation of young heartbreak, for his debut feature Bellflower jumps off the screen with the visceral pain and fury of a dude who just got his heart shredded open. Not only did Glodell write, direct, and star in this literal and metaphorical tale of young love gone up in flames, he also built the car, “Medusa,” and the working flamethrower that brings the story to a more extremely blazing life. As if that weren’t enough, Glodell hand-built the camera (the Coatwolf Model II) that he and his small crew used to shoot the movie. Not bad for someone who didn’t go to film school.
Bellflower tells the story of Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), best friends who relocated from Wisconsin to Southern California in order to live a more exciting life. Infatuated with the idea of an impending apocalypse, Woodrow and Aiden prepare for the end of the world by building a flamethrower and the tank of a car that will enable them to outlive everyone else. But when Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a different kind of flame is ignited. For a while, life is great. But when Milly lives up to her early promise of romantic destruction, that metaphorical apocalypse arrives. As the film progresses, Glodell ups the violent ante by bouncing between time and space, fantasy and reality, and the resulting sensation is disconcerting, immediate, and intense. Bellflower is a cinematic assault made by someone who is both young enough to tap into those primal feelings and talented enough to turn them into an emotionally involving spectacle of a motion picture.
Bellflower debuted in the NEXT Section at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was quickly snatched up for distribution by Oscilloscope Pictures (which will open the film in August). Filmmaker talked to Glodell over the phone about how this crazy production came to be just after he returned home from driving Medusa to film festivals across the country.
It seems like everyone has focused on your admittedly impressive engineering skills with regards to the car, the flamethrower, and building your own camera, so I was actually going to try to avoid that, if that’s humanly possible. [laughs] We’ll see.
So how was this particular idea born? What was the point when you said to yourself, “I’m going to make a feature, and it’s going to start with this”? And was “this” all of those fiery elements — the car, the flamethrower, etc. — or was it the heartbreak? It was the heartbreak.
I was hoping you’d say that. Yes, and the flamethrower came shortly afterward. The whole story was always the main thing. It was what I spent the most time on.
So, how did your own heartbreak wind up leading to the movie? At the time I was going through the breakup I had been making a lot of short films, just shooting around the house on a camcorder with my brother or a couple friends. They were very strange, like people yelling weird monologues at themselves and destroying things. I didn’t realize it at the time because they were so abstract, but they were obviously about the things I was going through. When the relationship finally ended, I had a particularly hard time dealing with it. I wanted to die very badly because it hurt so much. I remember having my friends lock me in their garage from the outside for a couple days with just water. I thought if I was forced to freak out by myself with nothing to distract me I would eventually burn out and get over it. I’m probably being too honest here, but that’s okay with me. Anyway, flash forward a bit. I came back to reality, and it hit me right away that I should make a movie that really tries to show what that whole experience was like. I had seen other people go through it but I didn’t feel like I really ever saw a movie that captured it properly from the point of the person experiencing it. I also finally realized what a strange place the short films were coming from, and I incorporated a lot of the ideas from them into the second half of the movie.
Were you still processing the break-up when you started the film, or did you have some distance? This is a tough one. It was a couple years later that we finally started shooting. And part of this question is too complicated to answer at this point, but I did a lot of things to try to remember where I was and what I was feeling at the time I was first working on the script. But I definitely feel that the moment my primary focus in life switched from making Bellflower to working, paying rent and normal living, my life became stunted. It lasted a couple years and I hope I never make a misstep and lose focus again. Making the movie allowed me to finally move forward and grow, and move on to new ideas in my writing as well, which has been awesome.
And how did you turn your experience into a more fictional story? For me I think this happens naturally. The idea kind of comes in as a fictional story. I write what comes to me, which is usually only a couple scenes, and then I have to analyze the idea to realize where it came from and find ways to immerse myself in it. And if it keeps growing then it gets finished. I don’t have a very good memory for specifics anyway. If I tried to write something as it actually happened it would be a mess.
At what point did the backwards-footage-forecasting-the-future prologue enter the picture? Was that in the script stage, or was that something you discovered in the editing room? That came later. We initially had [another] scene that would have set up all the themes of the movie. It was kind of an exciting scene. But at one point I watched it again and was suddenly like, “It just doesn’t fit here. It’s too juvenile.”
I watched the movie again last night and became even more fascinated with your structuring of the narrative. When Woodrow is confronted with Jessie’s betrayal right near the halfway point, that’s when your bold, ambiguous narrative technique begins. What I admire about it is that it doesn’t feel like you’re rubbing it in the viewer’s face and trying to confuse us. You’re actually helping us to be firmly, viscerally lodged inside this character’s vibrating skull. Yeah, this wasn’t supposed to be a “figure-it-out” movie. The purpose was to tell a more emotional story.
Does this more freewheeling second half of the film closely reflect the shooting script? Or was that something that also developed in post-production? The second half plays out almost exactly as it was in the script, except for a few little things. Like maybe one or two scenes were flipped around, or maybe there was one that didn’t work that we took out.
You have four credited editors. Even when everyone’s on the exact same page, editing rooms can devolve into too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen. How did that work? Was it like each person picking a different section, or was one person working on it at a time when you guys were doing other things? Or were you in fact working together all along? Oh no. At first, just because I was losing my mind, [editor-co-producer] Jonathan Keevil and [d.p.-editor-co-producer] Joel Hodge were going to assemble the movie as it was in the script. I don’t want to say I’m not good at editing, but I have a very hard time handling long periods of time sitting in front of the computer. I wasn’t allowed to see anything during that time period — that was the plan. And then I came in and watched it and took notes. We did a couple rounds of that, and then it eventually got passed over to me. At that point I had to go into a room and go crazy for quite a long time. Everybody else got involved afterward, but I guess it was the same thing, where I’d end up the main editor. I would get to a part where I’m like, “Fuck, I’m stuck in this part!” Then different people would take a stab at it until we came up with a version that worked.
How many outside eyes did you get? Or do you try to keep it personal and say, this is our film, this is what we’re doing? I very, very, very much value input. It’s a huge thing to me because I’m so heavily in [the film]. So you try to show it to people who don’t know anything and hear what they’re getting out of it. And then you’re like, “Oh okay. I was trying to do this, but this is what happened.” So how do we rework it to make it do what it’s supposed to do?
When I saw Bellflower at Sundance, it felt like a genuine discovery in every way — to the point where I didn’t even know Woodrow was you. I had just gone through that potentially very bad idea of casting myself in my film, Septien. Was it a function of your production that you cast yourself in the lead role? Do you have acting aspirations to appear in other people’s work? No, I don’t. I’m open to it if things come along. But for this one, it was a really personal thing. The idea was that I would play the character, even though at the time I didn’t have enough experience directing actors. I thought I might do the best job because I understood it on a level that maybe I didn’t even understand.
[laughs] But you had trusted people there. My d.p. Jeremy Saulnier was really helpful, because I wasn’t even checking the monitor or doing anything, I was just trusting the world. So, would your buddies call you out? Or did you have a specific person to do that? If things weren’t going well, I would get help in different ways. But also I think people were careful not to damage my ego too much, or I would freak out. I could tell. And depending on what the scenes were, everybody had a different part. Joel would do it a lot. And Tyler [Dawson] would as well. And then Vince [Grashaw]. But it was an interesting thing. You could kind of tell the different people who “got” the scene, and you’d find yourself looking at them after the take to see the look on their face.
I know you shot the film over the span of a few months, but I was really struck by the performances and how natural they felt every step of the way. Even a scene that’s not performance-based, like that one take of you going into the party, getting the beer, waiting for Milly, and then walking out back — that just felt totally natural to me. It didn’t feel like anything awkward was going on production-wise. It felt awkward when we were shooting it. It was totally silent in there — I think we had nine people [in the crowd]. Everybody had called friends to help us shoot this scene. We thought we were going to have a keg party, but the [extras] realized they had to be quiet and stuff. So people would show up and be like, “Oh, this is lame,” and leave. I think we wound up with only between eight to 12 people, total. So to get the shot we had everybody out front wearing hoodies, and then when we got out back they’d take their hoodies off and join us [again].
Did the Sundance selection really help you in concrete ways, like finding representation? Or is that my wishful thinking for your sake since nothing magical has happened in my life? [laughs] It changed everything. We were at our lowest point. We had the movie to a place where we thought it was good, and we had had screenings with friends of friends, people who didn’t know the people in the movie, at some peoples’ houses. Everybody really liked it, and so it was time to get it into somebody’s hands in the industry who really knew how this all works. Everyone tried to get in touch with someone who knew a distributor or a producer, someone who could do the last steps of the film, to finish it and get it out there, and it went very badly. We had zero interest. We’d talk to people who would watch it and be like, “This is not good. Don’t show anybody else this.” And then a friend of a friend called. He’d seen the film at one of the screenings and he knew we were at a low point. He said, “Submit the film to Sundance.” And I was like, no way in hell. I had $300 from working a job that week. I’d been broke for most of the time period [making the film]. I had never submitted to any film festival before, but he pushed really hard. Finally I was like, “Okay, I’ll submit to Sundance.” So I went online, submitted it, and then forgot about it. Trevor [Groth] called me a month later, and was like, “You’re in.” I thought someone was playing a joke on me. I was in the car with Joel and Jed, and when I got off the phone we just started planning. At that point I didn’t even know what a film festival was. We’re going to have to drive to somewhere in Utah, show up at one theater where there was going to be one screening, and then that was going to be it? And then we’d leave? Of course, the following day my phone started ringing off the hook. Literally, off the hook. My email, everything. This was seven or eight days before the announcement came out. Someone from the festival had told someone else that a lot of people at the film festival were really excited about our movie, and that got to the appropriate industry people. And they all just swarmed me.
[laughs] By the time I got to Sundance, I already had a lawyer and had CAA repping me, repping our movie. I went from a place where no one wanted to talk to us — I don’t think I’d ever met a producer in my life — to the point now where it seems like there are a lot of people who want to meet with us and talk about producing our next projects. It was like a tornado. The added thing is that most of us are retarded when it comes to business. We couldn’t sell ourselves if our life depended on it. I was in Ventura and we were all just fucking around shooting this movie. And then all of a sudden, Hollywood attacked us.
[Laughs] That is beautiful. You’re coming out in August, and we’re getting our opening in July. We’re both really lucky that our turnarounds have been expedited from premiere to release. So how do you stay excited? Because my attention span is really short. Two days after finishing something, I’m usually embarrassed about it and never want to think about it again. Yeah, I’ve been going through a little bit of that. On this project, because it was so personal, every once in a while I’d wake up in the morning or right before I’d go to bed, and I’d think, “I should delete the movie. It’s too weird. It shouldn’t be out there.” I didn’t want everybody who sees it, who I don’t even know, to have preconceptions of me. But then I’d get over it.
As far as getting excited, I’m sure everybody is that way. We still feel like this is our big chance, the only one we’re going to get, so we’ve been freaking out about every aspect. We had to replace a song and we took too much time on it. The trailer we’re just finishing — we have two different trailers, and we’re kind of going crazy. We’re making sure we’ve tried every different thing, that we’ve got them the best they can be. But then I have these other scripts I’m working on that I need to push. And so sometimes I’ll get sidetracked and I’ll start writing, and then I’ll be like, “Wait, you should not be doing this! You have your other movie. And if that movie doesn’t come out then nobody is going to care about your script.”
Everyone wants more money for their movies. Do you want to make a big action movie and try to bring your skill set to that? Or do you prefer scrappy filmmaking where you call all the shots? Does the idea of working your way through the studio system seem fun or frightening? I guess I haven’t gotten deep enough in it to know, but that’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about. The basic goal of making this movie was to somehow find a way to make any kind of living making films. About getting bigger budgets, I have some apprehension about it. I don’t really know what that’s like. I certainly hope our shooting schedules are a little bit longer so we have time to have fun and play and try things. But I don’t want to end up with a crew of a hundred people that I don’t know. That sounds terrifying. I hope there’s a happy middle point in there. As for future movies, I’m one of those people who doesn’t have any intention of making other people’s scripts because I have ideas that come to me and those are the ones that I get engaged in. As far as how big those go, I didn’t know if anybody was going to be able to handle this movie. I thought it was probably going to be too weird. So if one of our movies happens to get really big, that would be the greatest thing in the world. But I feel like maybe that’s for the world to decide.