“I’m Not Even Sure Satire Exists Anymore”: Writer/Director Tom Gilroy Talks with Jim McKay About His Dystopic — and Timely — Short, #WaynesvilleStrong
With the rallying cry of its hashtagged title, Tom Gilroy’s #WaynesvilleStrong is a darkly comic and scarily plausible vision of a very near future in which low-wage work, enforced patriotism and the panoptic powers of the internet combine to create a pandemic hellscape that one laid-off meatpacking worker must delicately navigate, one videocall prompt at a time. The short was made quickly, in May and during quarantine, with everyone appropriately socially distanced, and to its great credit that what was political satire just two months ago is now turning into, with the current battles over “reopening,” political reality. The short stars Orange is the New Black‘s Nick Sandow, and the slow burn of his impatient anxiety as he subjects himself to the merciless probing of the government’s AI-fueled videochat adjudication system will create a frisson of recognition for anyone who’s been stuck on hold trying to receive their stimulus check.
Gilroy has been making independent films since the mid-’90s, with features including Spring Forward and The Cold Lands. In the conversation below, fellow director Jim McKay discusses with him the work’s relation to science fiction — particularly 1984 and J.G. Ballard, how the short was produced during quarantine with a iPhone 10, the influence of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, and what it means for a work to be political today.
Watch #WaynesvilleStrong here at Filmmaker.
McKay: This film was conceived about a month into stay-at-home and made about a month later and finished a month after that. The world changed radically in those three months but the story stayed very relevant and at times is even more in-the-moment than when it was conceived. Can you talk about its inception and then how current events effected the work, if at all?
Gilroy: The impetus in writing it was to respond in real time to the government roll-out of yet another unprecedented and mismanaged disaster. I never thought about what the script could be or where it could go. I’d just reached a point where there was no holding back; it was an almost unconscious act. This impulse was of course pressurized by the inability to leave the house, and some kind of “producer brain” must’ve instinctively kicked in where I realized quarantine dictated the piece would be a monologue.
We all know now how quarantining begins to feel like incarceration and then ultimately solitary confinement. You become a prisoner talking to the walls and ceiling — or in 2020, a website, which can be the same thing.
So I just listened to the voices in my head and pictured a guy sinking in quicksand begging a machine to pull him out, this schlub of a guy in his basement trying to navigate the tsunami of news and misinformation, the tweeting of lies, schoolyard name calling, dog-whistles, the aggression, the gaslighting, the fear, the law and order, the denial of science and demonization of expertise, the Babel of social media, the lack of empathy, the blaming as diversion, the utter lack of responsibility, and the approaching cloud of death. It all funnels down to Nico, the furloughed meat packer, in his basement in Ohio, who has run out of options and money and guidance and self esteem. He’s cramming all these unruly fragments into a soulless algorithm to find a way to feed his family — and maybe garner a little bit of self-respect, the kind of barebones self-respect that comes with mere survival. If that means to cop to a crime you didn’t commit, to mouth slogans you know are empty, to search for any way to appease your abuser, to denigrate your wedding anniversary or the gender identity of your child, then so be it. Nico is like Winston in 1984 when he finally realizes they’ll let him live if he’ll just turn on Julia.
The fact that much of it came out funny is probably a testament to how much Beckett I read.
McKay: We’re in a moment in time in which there’s a new crisis everyday, and because the crises are also somewhat never-ending, cycles emerge: kids in cages/police killing/Karen of the day/billionaire bailout/coronavirus spike/border patrol murder/white supremacist threat/Karen of the day/police killing…. The story of this film could have taken place two months ago, last week, or in the near future. And there’s a science fiction element to it, but even that has become, in a few short months, more like a current event….
Gilroy: Perhaps the only genius of this administration is its ability to keep the outrage coming so fast it’s almost impossible to respond as an artist, since creating something takes time. But many artists (Andy Borowitz, for example) have internalized the template of the likely sequence of events; we’ve learned to imagine what would be the worst possible course of action that no rational person would undertake and then simply wait for it to actually happen. Predicting things in this era is easy once you push aside your expectation of ethics or morality or even logic. It’s like the guiding principle of the White House is “Do The Wrong Thing,” (apologies to Spike Lee). It’s almost like math.
So in the writing I applied what was actually happening in the country to where Nico was at, and that naturally morphed into a very confident prediction of what could happen.
And, well, here we are only a few weeks later to find the very pork factories that lobbied to reopen to “save our food supply” were massive GOP donors and in fact the pork was being sent to China (as planned before COVID) so the industry could expand its global market share (pork consumption has been declining in America for decades — ever since the release of Babe, coincidentally). The “patriotic duty” of the workers who went back, often in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, had nothing to do with “America First” at all. It was “Pork Producers First.”
And now, literally last week, it’s come out that many American workers are being asked to save the economy by taking a 25% salary cut, while their CEOs get bonuses.
Did I “know” this would happen? Of course not, but when you do the math…
McKay: Were you influenced by science fiction?
Gilroy: I was reading a lot of JG Ballard at the time. I love sci-fi obsessively but to me this wasn’t ever sci-fi, this was more like Orwell writing in 1948 and calling it 1984. We are living in sci-fi. I was projecting the character into the near future as a kind of warning of what may happen, reading the tea leaves. Of course now a lot of it has happened, which isn’t a testament to any clairvoyance on my part, more a function of the obviousness of how our government operates. It’s really just a matter of time before citizens confess to things they never did and their plea bargain is to be human guinea pigs for vaccines. I know it sounds outrageous, but then again I never expected to see citizens armed to the teeth and encased in Kevlar storming statehouses to demand their right to a haircut or happy hour at Hooters, only to be tweeted encouragement by the president. And we’ve already had older Republican politicians saying they’re ready to die to “save the economy,” and others should as well. So what is sci-fi anymore?
I’m not even sure satire exists anymore.
McKay: How about political work, whether it’s films, directors, graphic art….
Gilroy: I honestly don’t see #WaynesvilleStrong as political. It’s really just a guy dealing with his disintegrating world. Quarantine and masks are hot politicized subjects right now (hello again, sci-fi), but this is just the setting. It’s really about how every structure Nico’s based his worldview on is crumbling outside his basement — marriage, kids, reliable government, health insurance, food supply, good job, civic responsibility — and he’s asking himself (and a machine), “What am I?”
On the flip side, I suppose one could say politics is inherent in everything we see so it’s inevitable what we create will be imbued with it. Any work of creation wants to delight you into thinking something, whether it’s To Kill A Mockingbird or Moonlight or the haiku of Jack Kerouac. Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, George Saunders and Ocean Vuong are political. Fashion trends are political, music videos, Viagra commercials.
I try to stay aware of my culture. I love artists like Robbie Conal, Dredd Scott and lately I’ve been obsessing on Winston Tseng and Edel Rodriguez, listening to Kendrick Lamar and Nick Cave. Is Sunn O))) political?
In terms of directors, I worked on three films with Ken Loach, and he had a profound influence on me not just in terms of subject matter and social responsibility, but also in the very way you make the film. The biggest film influence on #Waynesville was this beautiful and hilarious short by Mike Leigh, A Sense of History, a monologue written and performed by Jim Broadbent, satirizing how history and tradition enshrines privilege and class. It’s a gut punch but you cry with laughter. Oh, and I love Ben Palmer from @Palmertrolls. And Terrence Nance.
McKay: How did the actual making of the piece come about? Can you talk about the limitations that COVID-19 presented and the technical process that you had to undertake?
Gilroy: Things can be quite simple when you have no money. While writing the script I called Nick and asked him to do it. We knew we’d never be in the same room together. I called my friend Wyatt Garfield, a cinematographer, on how to best shoot it for the POV of a computer cam — it turned out to be the iPhone 10, which Nick had. It’s shot in his attic which we decorated to be a basement with stuff that was already in his house. I called Luke Thorpe to see if he’d help with post, and when he suggested the graphics I knew the three of us were in mind-mold. Luke asked if I’d ever want to hear the off-stage voice of Candace, Nico’s wife, and so Luke’s partner Bianca Muccia ended up recording it with him. They were they only two people ever in the same room together. There was no other crew and no money. It was very punk rock.
McKay: The film feels very natural but is obviously tightly scripted — you not only have Nick Sandow giving this amazing performance, but the unseen computer website is his acting partner. You and Nick have worked together before: how was the writer/director/actor process different with this piece, given the restrictions due to COVID 19?
Gilroy: Nick and I were in a theater company together back in the Stone Age, and we all still work together in various combos — along with Lili Taylor, John Ventimiglia, Chrisopher Rossi, Michael Imperioli, Maggie Low. Last year he asked me to write a feature for him to direct, a kind of YA gender-fluid time-travel film called Star Of The Sea. He was also in my last feature, The Cold Lands (as were Johnny and Lili), so he knows what’s behind my dialogue. Like all theater companies, we had a common vocabluary, which for directing actors is 80% of the job. You snap into a family shorthand shoptalk, which saves time. No ego. I tell Nick when he sounds fake and he tells me when the words are stupid, then we have some wine.
I wrote it in about four days and all Nick knew was it was a meat packer in quarantine in his Ohio basement. We rehearsed over FaceTime for a week, stopping and starting and micromanaging different beats as I cut and rewrote (a holdover from our theater company days). Then he did one take a day all the way through for about three days, filming them on PhotoBooth and I’d watch them at night and gave notes. We spent a day tweaking the background and his clothes and hair (I love that he’s wearing a dress shirt but below-frame he’s got on sweats). Then we set up the iPhone to shoot (with an external mic for back-up (thank God), and Nick did one take a day for four days without me saying anything. I chose the one I liked and sent it to Luke. Nick stayed out of the rest except to say he didn’t like one of the font colors. Luke and Bianca were basically left to their own devices.
One interesting quarantine story; Nick’s adorable son Sterling had elementary school classes via Zoom while we rehearsing upstairs. At one point there was a knock on the door and he said, “Daddy are you going to do another take? My entire class is hearing all those f-bombs in the background.” So Nick the actor was in many ways juggling similar family stuff as Nico the character. And you can’t give a kid wine to chill them out!
McKay: Did you think at all about how you wanted the piece to be seen or what effect you’d want it to have on a viewer?
Gilroy: We both agreed it had to be a single take without cuts to let the confinement and paranoia accumulate, the sense of the world crumbling upstairs and outside, and to draw the viewer into the kind of psychotic web he’s spinning. We wanted the viewer to be as trapped as Nico, unable to escape but also unable to look away from the screen. Everyone slows down when they drive past a car wreck. It’s why it’s so hard to turn the TV off when Trump is doing one of his word-salad soliloquies of bile.
McKay: What is your plan for having people view the film?
Gilroy: Nick and I are responding to the present, and making money off of it or waiting around are out, so those limitations become powerful guiding principles. Literally the first thing I did was email Scott [Macaulay] and Filmmaker, and then a few other friends in media. I think our “platform” is going to be a kind of simultaneous release via the Instagram and Facebook accounts of all our friends — some of whom, like Michael Imperioli, have massive followings. Rather than wait for press quotes or festival catalog blurbs we just did a deck of filmmaker responses, trying to keep the focus on the work itself. Nick Dawson at Talkhouse asked me to write something and he has a great following. We’ll link to it here on Filmmaker and maybe at some point put up a Vimeo link without password? I really don’t know. YouTube? We applied to some festivals where our work had appeared previously. Hopefully some will see what we’re trying to do and not get hung up on exclusivity or premiere stuff now. These times require letting go of those kind of boilerplate marketing considerations. I feel like Fugazi taping up flyers for a gig at night, avoiding cops.