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“You Plan to Make a Film and Then You Try Not to Make the Film You Planned on Making”: Jake Mahaffy on Free in Deed

Free in Deed

Filmmaker readers first encountered the singular cinema of Jake Mahaffy back in 2005, when we placed him on our “25 New Faces” list on the basis of his extraordinary, Tarkovsky-esqure War, a post-collapse saga shot on a handcranked camera (and made years before post-collapse films and television became suddenly fashionable). On the basis of that film and the two features that have followed — including his latest, Free in Deed, currently in theaters (in New York, it’s playing Cinema Village) — Mahaffy has, in my opinion, staked out a quiet reputation as one of our most accomplished and necessary of independent auteurs. His films, dealing with people who find themselves untethered from social, political or interpersonal moorings, are rigorously conceived works that are alive to life’s rhythms and unexpected in their narrative development. They don’t necessarily adhere to a pre-conceived style — both his sophomore feature, the SXSW-winning Wellness and Free in Deed are, visually, far away from the primitive austerity of War. But they are all rigorous fusings of form and subject matter and by a filmmaker for whom a deep questioning is the basis of story. In Free in Deed, about an African-American pentecostal healer, that questioning is a particularly severe one having to do with the limits and implausibilities of faith. Or, that’s one way to read it, as Mahaffy’s approach is open-ended enough with regards to its treatment of religion — indeed, near-documentary scenes shot in basement churches crackle with the passions and authenticities of their participants — so as to be read as a parable for the faithful.

Free in Deed is based on a real-life story of a Milwaukee minister convicted of child abuse for his misguided attempt to perform an exorcism on an eight-year-old boy. Mahaffy has transposed the action to Memphis, where Melva Neddy (Edwina Findley), a beleaguered single mother seeks help for her autistic pre-teen son (RaJay Chandler), prone to violent behavior, by placing him in the hands of a would-be faith healer, Abe (David Harewood), who practices his ministrations in a basement church. The outcome is tragic, and Mahaffy explores its multi-layered effect on both Abe and Melva, capturing psychological torment as well as the bureaucratic heartlessness of a society that drives the poor to such wayward approaches. Shot with a compelling expressionistic brio by Ava Berkovsky, Free in Deed has almost the quality of a horror-movie, with punishing sound design and colliding shards of visual information.

Below, I talk with Mahaffy as much about the film as about his unique development and directorial process. We start by flashing back over a decade, to the first time I was aware of Free in Deed.

Filmmaker: I sat on the Creative Capital panel in 2004 that gave you your first grant for this movie. And then, in 2006, I visited you at the Sundance Directing Labs and sat in on your set as you directed early scenes from this film. Many films take a long time to get made, but this has taken longer than most. So how did the passage of so much time affect the creative development of this project?

Mahaffy: There were three major things [that happened during that time]. The first was encountering the actual people that the events were based on, [which caused me] to change it from a white person’s story in rural America into what it originally was — a black person’s story in urban America. So from the Sundance Labs to now, it’s a new project entirely. And I was pretty disinterested in religion by the time we actually shot the film. My original interests and passion were more religious and philosophical ideas, and they grew to something more interpersonal about relationships and people’s inability to connect. So the film became more emotional in that way — more human. The third thing was a shift in my aesthetic interest — being able to clarify how it was going to be shot, [which was], I guess, more in a photojournalistic and less of an overtly arty way. To me, [Free in Deed] doesn’t feel arty — it feels pretty straightforward. I mean, as we were shooting this film, I felt like it was a made-for-TV movie type of thing.

Filmmaker: Your producer, Mike Ryan, screened Free in Deed at the Venice Biennale College a couple of years ago, and he said that same thing to all of us there. And it got a big laugh. I wondered at the time how much hyperbole there was to his statement — whether you actually believed that or not. I don’t think anyone would accuse you of making a TV movie.

Mahaffy: I’m not being hyperbolic whatsoever. It was how I felt at the time. You know, the process was so far from what I’d previously experienced. I felt so out of control. I didn’t feel a connection with the material as it was being shot. And that’s why it took me a year-and-a-half to edit. I [had to] accommodate myself to what the film actually was instead of what I’d imagined it to be for the last decade. Usually, I’m very adaptable and creatively engaged in the process of shooting. That’s my favorite part. I encounter all sorts of obstacles and frustrations and just adapt to them. I love that process. But this particular film, it was so different with the larger crew and professional actors, and I wasn’t operating the camera. I had sat with the project for 10 years, I was a bit more rigid in my outlook, and I found my brain cracking under the pressure. Obviously, we did adapt and we made the most of it, but it was a very different process for me. I learned a lot, really.

Filmmaker: You say it was a larger crew than you were used to. Do you feel you understood going in how that would affect your process?

Mahaffy: No, I mean, I knew it was going to be different, but I had no idea how different. The Sundance Labs was the closest thing I’d been to a [real] set before. So going into this, with our budget —

Filmmaker: It was something like $200,000, right?

Mahaffy: It was $230,000, I think, in the end. I had no idea what that would afford to me [taking into account] what people got paid or the cost of the equipment and this and that. I really had no concept until we got there, and I could see what we could afford. And I never had a producer before, so I didn’t know what I could leave to be done by other people or what I should just take over and make happen. It was a bit late in life for me to sort of figure that out. It was like, “Oh, okay, actually, I do have to do some producing activities here. On a small project like this, I don’t just hand everything over and expect it to get done.” You know what I mean?

Filmmaker: Give me an example.

Mahaffy: Getting locations. We’d go to real churches — from pretty big places to really small storefront churches — and we’d have to talk to the pastors. I thought, “Okay, I’ll leave that. That’ll get done and we’ll just make those connections and get in there.” But then, I realized, when things weren’t working out sometimes, it was actually better that I go in personally because I knew the language. I knew the project. I had the emotional connection. We had a great location manager, and she would make the initial contacts. And sometimes it would work out great. But [sometimes] I’d have to go in to really get results. So, things like that — not knowing that I should really be doing as much as possible and not just sitting back and being creative. It was really interesting. It felt less creative than what I thought it would be. I thought I’d be sort of in a bubble, where I was just creative and artistic. And it became more like averting disaster at every moment. Which is fine, now I know. Now I’ll read about other [directors’] experiences and I see that that’s pretty much the process, just averting disaster and adapting to compromise at every moment.

Filmmaker: Was it that much different than Wellness?

Mahaffy: Oh my god, yeah. With Wellness, it was just me, and I was shooting, recording. There were non-actors, and we’d just make stuff up. If we wanted to keep shooting, we weren’t on anybody’s clock. There was no money involved, and I could shoot and then I could stop and come back weeks or even a year later and shoot more. You didn’t have to plan spontaneity, do you know what I mean?

Filmmaker: How did you plan spontaneity on this film?

Mahaffy: That that was my favorite part — shooting the non-literal, more visual subjective moments in the film that aren’t written as dialogue and not not specially scheduled. You’ve got to set that time aside to be able to capture those moments. Whereas before, I could just do them on my own. I wouldn’t have to schedule or explain them to anybody. Here, I had to very clearly communicate why we needed them and how they had to fit in the schedule. We would basically get through with the dialogue pretty quickly so we would have extra time to shoot some of the other stuff. And then, a lot of [the creation of those moments] was in the editing, too. I was able to take what we’d shot with dialogue and make them into non-dialogue scenes.

Filmmaker: Tell me about your collaboration with your DP, Ava Berkowsky, especially given that you had shot your previous films yourself.

Mahaffy: We got together. We went over looks. I showed her examples of things I was looking for, frames I liked, lots of reference photos and look books — sort of the idea of a poetic, photojournalistic approach, where every frame is inherently narrative. No shaky cam. And then, I shot listed and storyboarded. I drew a lot of pictures. Because I’m coming from fine arts and always operated [the camera] myself, I know what I want the film to look like. I know the framing and the compositions. I hadn’t realized that’s often what a lot of DPs do. They sort of take a dramatic scene, and they figure out what the shots are. I didn’t realize that all directors didn’t just do that.

So we planned that out. When we got to the actual set, we’d adapt and see what we could do out of what the plan was. I’d usually frame up shots, but then she would also. And then, during the more documentary stuff with the church services, she’d just run around and grab moments. One of the most important things I wanted was to record as much negative space as possible. This was really about high angles, framing people up. I didn’t want to have a lot of ass shots. Keep it above the waist and have negative spaces between characters. [The film] is about this sort of spiritual absence, this void, and I wanted to include that in the composition. It wasn’t just about following actors talking and being emotional. It was more about the space between them.

Filmmaker: Talk a little bit about tone. Free in Deed feels to me almost like a horror movie in terms of its intensity and emotional rawness. Of course, the subject matter is bleak, so that’s appropriate. But the style of the film almost intensifies that even further.

Mahaffy: My original intention was that it would have a degree of subjectivity. Abe inhabits a world of supernatural horror, where demons and angels are real, and supernatural forces are influencing people. Illnesses are caused by spiritual demonic forces, and they’re living at the end of the world. There’s the apocalypse and all these monstrous things happening. And so, I wanted to represent that in some way, but find a balance so it would still have some naturalism as well. So yeah, that’s where [the horror vibe] came from. And some of it also comes from the music and the dolly moves and some of that negative space stuff, which is about something unseen, or [having] an unidentified point of view on a scene.

Filmmaker: You said it took a year and a half to edit.

Mahaffy: Oh my god. Well, Michael Taylor, who is great, did the first assembly. He put it all together according to the script, and I was devastated. It took me months to even go back and look at it again. It was a very literal representation of the film. I didn’t feel like I had enough material to go back and reconstruct it in any sort of poetic, subjective way. I was still going over all the things we didn’t get, all the things I had wanted and intended and wished we’d had, and that’s all I could see in the footage. So it took me that long to adapt to what we had. And then, basically, my job after getting that first assembly was to try and fuck it up as much as possible — to go back and reorder things, to try and use the edit to get at some sort of degree of subjectivity for the three main characters and to find a balance between the explicit narrative and the implicit narrative, a balance between what’s clearly the plot and what is more sort of the internal experience of the characters. I had to go in and make it where I would get excited by juxtapositions and cuts and work with the audio. Thee final stages of the edit was probably the most fulfilling part of the process for me, just because it was only at the very end that I realized we actually had any kind of movie.

Filmmaker: I think Larry Clark once said some thing like, “To make a good photo, you frame it perfectly and then do one thing to fuck it up.”

Mahaffy: Well, you end up planning the film, trying to make it exactly the way you want it, and then you realize that if you do that, it will be too obvious, or too cliché. I happened to get in contact with [Andrew] Bujalski, and he was talking about the same thing. You plan to make a film and then you try not to make the film you planned on making. You end up the whole time fucking up your own film. You’re like, “No, I can’t do that [original thing]. It’s too obvious.” So you end up doing the other thing.

Filmmaker:Where does the audience fit in, in terms of this? Do you think about them or not?

Mahaffy: Not really. I can’t. I have no idea. Every time I make a film, I feel like I’m headed into a complete disaster, like no one’s ever going to see it. And I don’t know if that’s a self-defeating sort of outlook, but I just can’t imagine anyone seeing it, let alone liking it. In the edit, I really think about how to represent the subject. I’m thinking of the subject of the film, even if it’s fictional. I’m trying to either authentically or dramatically or in some compelling way represent the subject. I think of the film as an object, not so much as a presentation of something to present to other people, but as a self contained, self sufficient object that can sustain itself and be an actual authentic thing that isn’t too movie-like. I try to avoid movie conventions for the sake of audiences. They are there, but I try and just make [the film] exist in its own right as something that’s not in any way making concessions for what I would imagine or assume a general audience would appreciate.

First of all, I don’t know what that is. I feel very isolated — like, I don’t get what people are into for the most part. I feel very disconnected from society at this point, and not in any sad way. I just really don’t get Miley Cyrus or Twitter and stuff like that. I just don’t get it. So I just [make a film] for the sake of for what I think the subject is and then what I can appreciate. I can’t have bad performances. That just takes me out. So if anything makes me squirm, I have to find a way to cut around it, and I’ll do anything. If I have to lose a plot point to keep [out] a bad performance, I’ll lose it. I’ll lose exposition, I’ll lose the character.

If a shot is great, but there’s a bump that I can’t smooth, or if the shot is kind of crappy and we would have to lose a plot point [by cutting it], I’ll lose the plot point. You know, I just can’t have a crappy shot. So those kinds of very basic aesthetic considerations are primary, and then I work my way backwards. The story becomes subservient to the theme and the tone and the aesthetic. Because I feel like people can construct enough of a story. We’ve got enough of a spine, enough of a narrative. People can sort of reconstruct it in the watching of it. But I can’t tolerate anything that’s inauthentic or bogus.

Filmmaker:This movie, obviously, have you thought about whether a faithful audience versus a secular audience would have a different take on this film?

Mahaffy: Oh, they have. I’ve gotten different feedback. It’s not an agenda-driven film. It’s not pro religion or anti religion or anything. It’s really about the people. And now religious people are watching it and, exactly as I had hoped, they have different responses. Some religious people see it as a confirmation of their beliefs. Atheists or skeptics see it as confirmation of their beliefs. Some people have newfound sympathy for people in these situations who have turned to religion or superstitious beliefs. So it worked out; that was always part of a plan.

Filmmaker:And finally, talk a little bit about your main actor, David Harewood, and how did you wound up casting him. What were the conversations you had going into the film, and how did you get him where you needed him to be as a performer?

Mahaffy: So he’s British, and he had no experience with African-American churches. He was just willing to do [the film], and I’m kind of a determinist in that way. Anyone who is willing to be on these films is the person who is meant to be in them, you know? And the people who aren’t willing aren’t meant to be part of it. David, he was just willing, and that was the most important characteristic.

So we talked it through. He went to some churches, and we talked a bit about themes and about the character. And I sent him the footage [of the real-life inspiration]. Originally, we were basing his behaviors and characteristics and performance on the actual guy. We had no rehearsals, and David showed up and we started shooting the first day. And it wasn’t working. We went through the first three days of filming this character, and David playing his version of this actual guy, and it just wasn’t working out. At the beginning of the fourth day, we talked and just completely recreated the character, created somebody new, who is not at all based on that guy, a new person who is very constrained, not verbal, sort of quiet, dignified, stoic, and who, until we get to the break at the very end, is not expressive. A new character we created basically in the middle of the first week.

Filmmaker:When you say it wasn’t working out, did you both feel that it wasn’t working out or just one of you?

Mahaffy: I think we both felt it, but it was hard to articulate. The film was just rolling along like a runaway train. Just to be able to stop it and say, “Okay, we’ve got to figure this out” was what it took. The great thing about David was that on that day when we sat down, he was like, “Oh my god, what does this mean? Is the film over?” But then he said, “Jake, whatever you want to do, I’ll do it. We’ll change the character. I don’t have to do this thing. We’ll do something else. Just tell me what it is.” And he just rolled with it, and he did a great job.

You know, there is the scene where David gives his little testimony [in the church]. That was the first day we shot in the church, and we shot actual people doing their actual testimonies, talking about their lives on hard drugs and prostitution and this and that. It was really emotional. It was David’s turn to go up, and he had a one-page monologue that I’d written for him that had to do with his life and had all these details. And he was like, “I can’t do this. What can I do that’s going to compare to these people’s real life stories?”

So I said, “Okay, forget the script. Don’t do the thing, just go up there and say, ‘I came out of the darkness.’ And just say that over and over again.” He looked at me and was like, “I can’t. That’s nothing.” I said, “Just do it. Trust me. Watch what happens.” So he went up there and said, “I came out of the darkness. I’m not going back.” He said it over and over again, and the real church people are there, and they start freaking out. People just lost it. We used the first take because his nervousness came through in the performance. He was shaking. It was super intense. “I’m not going back.”

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