“My Vampire has a Beer Gut”: Director Onur Tukel on Summer of Blood
Charmingly crude and equipped with the gift of gab, filmmaker and painter Onur Tukel’s Summer of Blood is a Brooklyn-set vampire comedy with a love for witty banter. The film’s writer, director, and editor, Tukel also stars as the pugnacious Erik, a fast-talking pessimist who shoots down a marriage proposal from his longtime girlfriend. Now a solitary bachelor with a dead-end job, Erik takes to the streets to contemplate life and has an unfortunate encounter with an ominous vampire. A thirst for blood, a higher sex drive and fear of sunlight soon follow.
Watching Summer of Blood, you observe a lead at constant odds with himself, his mind furiously racing to impress, intimidate, and tear down all who dare to strike up a conversation. The humor creeps in from his inability to connect with a world he observes but never partakes in. Before the film opens this Friday at the Made in NY Media Center as part of IFP’s new Screen Forward initiative, I spoke with Tukel about his horror influences, walking around New York City as a vampire, and what he really thinks of Tyler Perry.
Filmmaker: How did the inspiration for this film come about?
Tukel: I’m 42 years old and I’ve dedicated my life to painting pictures and making movies that don’t really provide me with an income. I ask myself all the time how long I can keep going like this — squeaking out a living at my job, barely paying my bills, drinking too much, thinking about only myself. Ten years from now, am I going to be that old loser at the bar with no family to go to? Am I going to be married, have a real home and a family to take care of? Why can’t I carry on thinking about myself, making my inconsequential art, living in New York with my bohemian beard and living on my creative impulses? Why all this pressure to make something of myself, to be responsible? Summer of Blood is a movie about a confused man and, at 42, I’m as confused as ever.
Filmmaker: How fast was the shoot?
Tukel: Ten days with just two cameras! It was ten days shot over two weeks. It was mildly chaotic but lovely. We had a tiny crew, a tiny budget, and very little responsibility. The smart people we had involved made it all so rewarding and inspiring. I swear to God, I think I’m depressed right now because I just want to do it again!
Filmmaker: The cast is filled out with some notable indie presences — Dustin Guy Defa, Jonathan Caouette, Keith Poulson. What’s your relationship like with them?
Tukel: New York from the perspective of a man who grew up in a small town in North Carolina is very large and almost impenetrable. And then I moved here and the city shrunk to the size of a neighborhood. A few film screenings, a few after-parties, a few drinks and a shameless need to be a part of something bigger allowed me to meet almost everyone I know in New York. There’s something celebratory about indie film in New York. There’s an awareness that there aren’t many people watching our movies, but there’s a passion for filmmaking that’s very infectious here.
Filmmaker: How would you describe Erik’s politics and view of the world? How do you make someone equally lovable and intensely unlikeable?
Tukel: Erik flip-flops politically to his advantage. He’s extremely right-wing, until espousing his right-wing views upsets the date that he’s with. So he shifts his position to being more inclusive and liberal to impress a new date, but the core theme of the movie is a man trying to reconcile with his own selfishness. Now, you can make arguments from both sides about who is more selfish. A strong liberal might say conservatives are more selfish because they want to be taxed less and because they are fond of laissez-fair economic policies or because they lean towards Ayn Rand’s ideologies on selfishness. Liberals may claim conservatives are selfish because they don’t want universal health care or because they’re not interested in policies that might actually improve the environment. Conservatives could make the same claims of selfishness towards liberals. There are plenty of rich liberals living in 20,000-square foot houses and there are plenty of rich liberals buying $50,000 sofas. To claim that that kind of behavior is not selfish is just untrue. It is.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot those restaurant scenes where Erik goes on his dates? Did you always want to use the same location? It serves as a location signifying a constant re-start (and in some cases, end) to Erik’s love life.
Tukel: The beauty of having little or no money is that you often have to be crafty. Yes, this has been said time and again, but in this case, it really did work to our advantage. There’s no way you’re shooting seven restaurant scenes in New York with a ten-day schedule and no money. It’s hard enough shooting in a restaurant for one day. So we knew right away that each date would take place in the same restaurant and that we’d shoot each scene back to back. We shot in a restaurant called Milk and Roses in Greenpoint. We needed to find an outdoor patio with nice ambiance and no music that was spacious enough that we could shoot in while the restaurant stayed open. The owner of the restaurant was so sweet. He let us shoot there for free with the understanding that we’d spend several hundred dollars there. We had a skeleton crew, two producers, sound guy and two camera guys, and we occupied four tables or so. We shot on a weeknight when it was slow. We were there from 7 pm to 2 am and shot seven scenes, drinking and eating the entire time. Each actress brought their costumes and we spent about an hour on each scene, changed outfits and shot the next scene. I hadn’t originally written the script with this in mind but the repetition of the same location added to Erik’s overall lack of taste and thoughtlessness.
Filmmaker: It’s a vampire film about commitment, about committing to a relationship and committing to his newfound nightlife identity. One is by choice, the latter less so. Would you agree?
Tukel: Erik has no choice but to feed. He ventures out and finds victims. That’s what a vampire does. If he doesn’t feed, the pain becomes unbearable. When he does finally commit to a relationship, I don’t think he has a choice there either. There’s a different kind of pain that comes with loneliness. And although Erik initially rejects marriage, he’s presented with something worse — empty relationships based on sex. He’s a vampire at this point and at first this promiscuity is exciting. Eventually though, it becomes vacuous. And when Erik remembers his ex-girlfriend, the thought of living an eternity having random sex with strangers becomes troubling. He loved his ex-girlfriend. He felt for her. To feel for someone else isn’t selfish, so this idea that marriage means a death to individuality is nonsense. A commitment to something other than yourself is a noble choice. So these ideas of choice, responsibility and commitment lend themselves well to the story.
Filmmaker: The film plays with certain elements we expect from a vampire films with a twist, portraying them in a naturalistic way. How did you balance the fantastic with life’s mundane realities?
Tukel: You just play everything straight. Never let the actors in on the joke and never let the acting get too smug. You should play everything as real as possible. The word “vampire” is never spoken, and often no one even notices the madness around them. A man walks the streets covered in blood and life goes on. People get their throats ripped out in the streets and the subway glides by, blind to the mayhem. That’s the thing about New York. It’s a crazy city. But there’s something very matter of fact about things here. I’ve seen fist-fights in the street, people screaming so loud they look like their heads are going to explode, and more. But I just keep walking and within a few minutes, it’s like a weird hallucination. “Did that just happen?” I ask myself. New York is ethereal like that. There’s a madman sitting close to you on the subway, yet there’s a collective shrug from everyone. Just keep walking and pretend you didn’t see anything. I think in an unconscious way, those things crept into the movie. New York feels like a city where you can be very matter of fact about the fantastic elements.
Filmmaker: What was it like walking the streets of New York as a vampire? There’s a sequence in broad daylight where it appears as though the passers-by on the street (and the street card vendor you purchase food from) are unaware you’re shooting a movie.
Tukel: Well, I had to work up a little nerve for that one. It was just me and the cinematographer Jason Banker that day. Banker was pretty far away from me, but zoomed in so that no one knew we were filming. That way the reactions from people would be (hopefully) authentic. When you watch the movie, there are so many hysterical reactions from people. The more we shot, it got to be kind of exhilarating, like we were waking people up or something. You can get in such a fog when you’re just buzzing along with the rest of the herd in New York. Sometimes it’s nice to shock someone visually, like shaking their hand with a buzzer.
Filmmaker: In some ways the film serves as both a critique of religion and a testament to it. Was this your intention?
Tukel: I wouldn’t say it’s a critique of religion. I think if religion can inspire people to be less selfish, to actually empathize with others, to feel compassion for others, to think and pray for others, then I wouldn’t begrudge anyone’s religion. The idea of a book that people turn towards to be good, you know, that’s a beautiful thing. But if there is such a thing as sin, then I believe it’s rooted in selfishness. So the prayer in the movie is a critique of those who think you can be both pious and selfish. It also seemed appropriate to work God into a movie about vampires. Plus, I just really really wanted to see two vampires praying. Dakota Goldhor is so off the charts good in this movie. All the actors are.
Filmmaker: Brooklyn is a pretty central character in the film, with its dead ends, J and G trains, bodegas and more occupying the background of most scenes. The city lights illuminate every corner. How important was that to you?
Tukel: I dig south Bushwick because there’s a grittiness here that I always imagined New York to have when I moved here. My first year here was in Manhattan on 2nd Avenue and 5th Street, so I was constantly bombarded by the NYU crowd. It was fun, boisterous and reminded me of college a little bit. I then moved to Greenpoint, and although I liked it a lot, it was quiet. I currently live in Bushwick near the Kosciuszko stop, and it has a nice balance of charming and swarmy, trashy but cool. As far as the lights illuminating every corner, that’s just the great cinematographer Jason Banker finding a way to shoot a movie in ten days. We didn’t have time for lighting anything so we could find locations that had lighting in place that would work.
Filmmaker: The score sounds inspired by synthesized scores of horror films of an earlier era, often evoking sounds of a malfunctioning video game or a psychotic, slowed-down carnival ride. How did you achieve that effect?
Tukel: Most of that score was banged out on a crappy old synthesizer I’ve had for about 20 years. When I had a rough cut finished, I needed something to give the scenes some texture until I found a composer, so I spent an afternoon sitting at the keyboard experimenting. I recorded about an hour or so of noises and music onto DAT tape and imported it to Final Cut,slowing the sounds down, speeding it up, playing it backwards, etc. I was totally going for a bargain basement John Carpenter kind of thing. I never intended to use any of this until I started showing people the rough cut and they thought it worked. We agreed that a professional score might be too polished for this lo-fi film and I didn’t have the money to pay for a composer anyway.
Filmmaker: As a writer/director/editor/star, how do you feel about working on multiple aspects of production? Who are some of your favorite auteurs who also work this way? You have some choice words for Tyler Perry in this film.
Tukel: I think Tyler Perry is a genius, and the castigating finger I point at Tyler Perry in Summer of Blood is really an indictment of the main character. Only an asshole would criticize someone’s movies without having watched them. I don’t think you should criticize anything until you thoughtfully watched something. I’m guilty of it all the time, ripping something apart without having given it my true time and attention. To this day, I still haven’t watched a Tyler Perry movie, but you can’t do what he’s done and not be brilliant. The man has built an empire outside the Hollywood system. I also watched him give a sermon of sorts after Whitney Houston passed away, and that’s when I knew he was extremely talented. He understands people’s emotions. He understands theater and performance. Look, I have too much self-awareness to criticize Tyler Perry as an auteur when I’m making movies on a budget he probably uses for craft services. If there are ever any Summer of Blood sequels, you’d better believe there will be someone defending Tyler Perry.
As far as working on multiple aspects of production, it’s not by choice. I’d like to have an editor, but I usually don’t have the money for one. I like the writing process because I write my first drafts so insanely fast that it doesn’t feel like I’m writing. It’s almost like discovering something suppressed. While I do many rewrites, the initial draft is done furiously, pouring out like an effusive splat. Acting is fun too because, well, it doesn’t feel like acting. It’s just me playing a kind of fantasy version of myself.
I used to love directing from a standpoint of figuring it all out. Storyboarding it, crafting the blocking, the camera angles, etc. It’s all very boring to me now. I don’t want to be tethered to a pre-conceived idea of a movie. It’s much better for me to come to set not quite knowing what I want. That’s been my approach with my last two movies, Richard’s Wedding and this one. I’m discovering the movie as we shoot it. I don’t want to direct anyone.
I heard Abel Ferrara speak at the Fantasia Film Festival. He was halfway through a marathon 2 hour Q&A for Welcome to New York and someone asked him how he worked with actors. His answer was that he didn’t want to direct actors if he didn’t have to. “Why would I want to direct them?” he said. “They’re artists.” When I’m in a scene, I don’t mind being directed by the producers, but it’s usually a very minor tweak here and there. That’s the way I prefer to give direction. If I have to sit and talk it out with an actor, well, then I didn’t cast it properly. The thing is, we’re making a movie in ten days, so there’s just no time for that!
Filmmaker: The film played earlier this year at Tribeca. What was the response like there and how did Dark Sky Films get involved?
Tukel: I love the Tribeca Film Festival so much. They were so good to us. We had four good screenings, all well attended. I made an ass out of myself during a few of the Q&As but, you know, I have a tendency to do that kind of thing. Anyway, we got good reviews, we got bad reviews and for a week and a half or so in New York, I was deluded in all the right ways — having fun feeling like a big shot, but enjoying the ride and realizing that ultimately, it’s not a big deal. Our wonderful sales reps, XYZ Films, were shopping the movie around the entire festival, and some folks at Dark Sky Films eventually saw it and liked it and made us an offer.
Filmmaker: What will it be like showing the film, the inaugural selection in the new Screen Forward series? Is it tough to find screens in New York to show smaller independent films nowadays?
Tukel: I imagine it’s tough to find a theater anywhere to show small indie movies. I saw that the big story a few days ago was that Robert Downey Jr. will be appearing in the new Captain America movie as Iron Man. I imagine that when it opens, there will be 4,000 screens across America showing it and the studio is going to spend millions of dollars promoting it. And then they’ll make another one. Meanwhile, most of the older folks who used to love going to the movies are going to sit inside their living rooms, watching television. To have Summer of Blood be part of the inaugural selection of Screen Forward is a huge honor, and it excites me so much to show our movie in a theater. I know that Dracula Untold made over $20 million last weekend, so there’s an appetite for vampires out there. Unfortunately, my vampire has a beer gut.
Summer of Blood opens at the Made in NY Media Center tomorrow. Learn more about screenings and the initial program line up here.