“Here I Am, a Stranger, Texting Children”: Michael Beach Nichols on Wrinkles the Clown
It’s tempting to sum up this weekend’s pop culture focus as rooted in chronic coulrophobia. As Todd Phillips’s Joker, the latest big screen incarnation of the DC Comics ubervillan, opens across 4,000 theaters, a fear of clowns (coupled with a pathetic lack of common sense gun laws) has collectively stricken the country. Temporary bans have been put in place that discourage moviegoers from adorning clown makeup, security amped up for extensive bag checks, and theater chains encouraged to emphasize Joker’s well-earned, hard R-rating. Has the mere thought of clowning (that is, the obscuring of identity under facepaint) brought about an unfathomable mass hysteria?
That collective fear is at the forefront of Wrinkles the Clown, the latest documentary from Michael Beach Nichols which is also opening in limited release (and On Demand) this weekend. Based in Southwest Florida, Wrinkles is a for-hire clown who will travel to your home to terrorize your misbehaving children. His phone number and headshot have been placed on stickers found all over the South, and if you have the cash, Wrinkles is more than happy to be your family’s anti-Kris Kringle. If you were to request any proof of his work, he would steer you toward this viral video from 2014 that ignited the Wrinkles legend (or toward local news coverage that continued to fan the flames).
Equipped with unprecedented access to the man underneath the mask, Nichols’s documentary is adept at both uncovering and enhancing the mystique of an internet legend who has been the recipient of over one million phone calls and text messages requesting his services and/or death threats. Just as you’ve pinned down Wrinkles as a Natural Light-drinking, frozen dinner-eating, strip club-frequenting elderly redneck, Nichols provides a twist that completely alters what we took to be true, reveling in the endless artifice inherent in internet virality and nonfiction storytelling. In effect the frankensteinian lovechild of Stephen King’s Pennywise and the street artist Banksy, Wrinkles is as much grumpy retiree as he is a serving of foul creepypasta.
A few days after Wrinkles the Clown had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, I spoke with Nichols about his own Florida origins, clowns in the current zeitgeist, why “talking heads” can be useful in documentary and the neverending hassle of reaching out to children over the internet.
Filmmaker: You grew up in Southwest Florida, right?
Nichols: Yeah, Fort Myers.
Filmmaker: How early was Wrinkles the Clown on your radar? While you were still living in Florida?
Nichols: Nope, I had moved by then. Wrinkles wasn’t really doing anything until 2014, and by that point I had moved out of Florida and living in New York for a considerable chunk of time.
Filmmaker: So you caught wind of his viral phenomenon from the internet videos of him scaring people?
Nichols: Yeah, one day a friend of mine sent me that infamous black-and-white video of Wrinkles coming out from underneath a sleeping girl’s bed. It was a weird, creepy video and, to tell you the truth, I was somewhat amazed by it. Not long after, a Kickstarter campaign was launched by a local filmmaker down in Southwest Florida trying to raise money to make a documentary about Wrinkles. Having been intrigued by that initial creepy video (and by loving the fact that this story was local to where I’d grown up), I was excited for the project and donated to his campaign. When I later noticed his campaign was running out of time (with tens of thousands of dollars away from reaching the set goal), I personally reached out. Having done four Kickstarter campaigns myself, I wanted to provide advice, to make sure he tried a variety of things that had worked for me. We struck up a good correspondence, but ultimately his Kickstarter campaign was unsuccessful.
I spoke with Christopher K. Walker [co-director of Welcome to Leith and co-writer of Wrinkles the Clown] and a few other collaborators about how big of a bummer it was that this guy wouldn’t be able to make the film. We briefly considered reaching out to see if we could still help him make it, but then we felt a little weird taking that approach (we obviously didn’t want to swoop in and take control). Then a Los Angeles production company reached out to him and discovered that he was interested in working with more established filmmakers on the project. Cut to six months later: our manager brings the project to us and we express interest in moving ahead. Long story short, we were introduced to the filmmaker and he introduced us to Wrinkles.
Filmmaker: In addition to Wrinkles, your film touches on the use of clowns throughout pop culture, and while it feels strange to make this observation, I feel we’re currently in some kind of “clown renaissance.” There’s been the gargantuan It: Chapter Two last month, and this Friday, there’s your film of course, but also Joker. You couldn’t have planned this when you began the project, but how do you make sense of the current clown fascination/phobia that your film taps into?
Nichols: I think we’re interested in that inherent light/dark duality that clowns and clown imagery provide. You have someone with a painted-on smile and a painted face and they’re acting a certain exaggerated way and performing for kids, but you don’t really know what their intentions are. You don’t know what’s beneath the facade. The fact that clowns, who tend to be strangers and males, are given access to children, provides its own creep factor. Over the past thirty years, there’s been the various warning signs of “Stranger Danger” and things like that that have permeated throughout our culture, especially starting in the 1980s with the additional “Satanic Panic” scare. It’s not hard to see how the practice of having a person with a painted face performing for your children could go in a terribly wrong direction. As a result, the potential in a clown for bursts of unexpected violence is something that holds a lot of dark appeal for storytellers, especially for filmmakers who wish to dance on that line between violence and the potential for violence. That’s been tried and true of Hollywood storytelling for years.
Filmmaker: And Joker is causing something of a modern day panic, at least amongst exhibitors. The appearance of hundreds of moviegoers dressing up as clowns has created something of a national freakout.
Nichols: While I find all of that stuff to be really bizarre, regarding my own opinion on the matter, I don’t think we’ll fully be able to wrap our heads around [the hysteria] for at least another ten years or so. We need some distance away from it. As of right now, all I can say is that the circumstances feel really bizarre.
Filmmaker: Your previous film, Welcome to Leith, was about an elderly man who antagonized and terrorized small communities, and so too, I think, is Wrinkles the Clown. Would you say you have a fascination with collective fear (and a community’s response to it)?
Nichols: Yeah, and it’s only something I’ve recently begun to realize. I’m certainly interested in scary or dark things. For example, I love horror and genre films, but I find myself in the unique position of making documentaries. I think I’m naturally attracted to things that are a little scary, that have an element of high stakes and, as a result, how the affected parties respond to it. You’re right that that’s a big part of both Wrinkles the Clown and Welcome To Leith. The films end up being in large part about people’s reactions to the antagonist and how they regroup and respond to that new presence.
Filmmaker: In both films, you take us beyond the communities at the center, placing us in tall buildings and offices and urban settings of scholars, psychologists, law enforcement, and more. How crucial is that additional contextualization for you?
Nichols: I think it’s completely a directorial choice. I’m sure other filmmakers would stay away from the “talking heads/voice of authority” technique and, of course, I understand the appeal to avoid that mode of filmmaking and keep the focus super local. However, it makes sense for both of the films, to give the audience some additional context and expand the story outward. In Welcome to Leith, it was about stepping out and having experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center describe domestic extremism and how it affected Leith and, to a larger extent, how it had been affecting America for decades beyond that (and why their resources weren’t what they used to be after the September 11th attacks).
Regarding Wrinkles specifically, much of the concept of internet folklore was new to us. I’m in my late thirties and Chris is in his mid-thirties, and compared to the kids featured in the film, we’re old! We don’t have any kids of our own and aren’t tapped into the online ecosystem these ten-or-eleven-year-olds live and breathe. For us to understand what was going on with these endless Youtube videos featuring Wrinkles, it helped to speak to experts about folklore and culture, about how this isn’t dissimilar to old school folklore that just happens to be moving into the digital realm. It’s becoming more performative.
Filmmaker: Why do you think that is?
Nichols: You can share things much faster now. Kids can film themselves doing some creepy, scary stunt and then they share it online and watch it catch fire. Our “voice of authority” segments were thus always in service to the story and hopefully the additional information enriches the experience.
Filmmaker: Speaking of those children, the film is filled with “victim testimony,” i.e. customers who’ve called Wrinkles’ public cell phone number to request his services. Many of these people are teens (or younger). I imagine getting their consent to be interviewed for your film would prove something of a logistical nightmare?
Nichols: That’s a perfect description. It was a logistical nightmare and involved spending four months rummaging through Wrinkles’s old voicemails. I have a friend who’s a software engineer and he built us an interactive interface where we could search the voicemails by keyword, city, state, etc. and tag certain calls for further use. For four months, we spent all day, every day, listening to these voicemails and flagging the ones that jumped out as the most interesting.
Filmmaker: And from there?
Nichols: From there, we’d text the kids. As you can imagine, here I am, a stranger, texting children primarily and asking them to be in a documentary. You’re obviously going to receive some hesitation, with people asking, “Wait, what is this for? Are you Wrinkles The Clown?” It was a nightmare. I would be getting texts and calls from these kids at all hours of the night. There was a phase where we were exclusively reaching out to children all day, every day and it was a complete nightmare. We hit a little bit of luck every time someone would get back to us and let us speak with their parents to request further permission. Once we could explain everything to the adults, things became easier. We’d subsequently set up a Skype interview and gauge whether or not it’d be worth meeting them in person and including their stories in the film. But yes, these steps were absolutely the hardest part of production, of reaching out to kids all across the country.
Filmmaker: The film feels as steeped in narrative horror as it is in documentary. Several scenes feature dramatizations of Wrinkles’ rumored conquests, abducting children and painting the walls in their blood. Being a horror fan, I imagine these sequences possessed their own kind of appeal for you.
Nichols: Those moments were a lot of fun and we wanted to make sure that they were firmly rooted in (and informed by) real voicemails children left Wrinkles or, at the very least, the interviews we conducted with them. We wanted everything to be rooted in documentary, even if we were doing these stylistic evasions. As we combed through the voicemails, we flagged several that referenced kidnapping, murder, abduction or stalking. Our inspiration ultimately came from the fears kids shared with Wrinkles on those voicemails, all with the intent of going further inside their headspace and creating a nightmarish version for our documentary. We created a sequence where Wrinkles stalks and kidnaps a child as she comes home from school, or, in another instance, have him murder a child and use her blood to paint artwork all over the walls. In another instance, they’re on the run from the parents, having a good-natured adventure. Being a horror fan, those sequences allowed me to play with a different kind of toolkit I wouldn’t normally get to as a nonfiction filmmaker.
Filmmaker: As you interview Wrinkles throughout the film, you preserve the man’s mystique and anonymity. His face is obscured by your exacting shot selection; we get glimpses of a white beard and a balding head, but not much more. That too feels like a choice based as much on documentary ethics as it is the modern horror film, i.e. the obscuring of the soulless masked villain. Can you explain that choice?
Nichols: Much of that had to do with an agreement we had in place: Wrinkles would only participate in the film if we agreed never to reveal his identity. That was made clear right off the bat and we honored the request. But you’re right, the restriction offered an additional effect, one that enhanced the unsettling mood and style of the film. You’re always more scared by what you don’t see, right? It’s creepiest to let your imagination run wild. By not revealing his identity over the course of the film, the viewer never knows who’s really behind the mask. Of course, the film reveals quite a bit about him (more than anyone knows about him up to this point) but due to his anonymity, you still don’t know who’s at the other end of that phone number. There’s some mystery and a little bit of fear there. By choosing not to reveal his identity, he, unintentionally or not, makes the proceedings more sinister.