Five Questions for Applesauce Writer/Director Onur Tukel
Onur Tukel’s Summer of Blood was a hit of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, a work that saw the Brooklyn filmmaker venture from the relationship comedy drama of his previous pictures towards a sly, anarchic genre tale — in this case, a vampire story. Far from a generic riff on the genre, it contained all of Tukel’s typical emotional queasiness and edgy humor while adding quite a bit of the red stuff. With Applesauce, his latest, Dylan Baker plays the role of a man coaxed into recounting a story from his past on a radio show one day. He probably shouldn’t have. In what is said to be an inspired mixture of horror, noir and relationship drama, Applesauce essays the escalating results. The film co-stars Tukel, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Max Casella and Jennifer Prediger and premiered last night at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Filmmaker: Your film is about a man who reveals something about himself that he probably shouldn’t have. Was this scenario inspired at all by anything in your own life? What’s something you have publicly revealed that you shouldn’t have?
Tukel: Applesauce is based on an event that happened to a friend of mine in college. At the time, it was mildly traumatic for him. For years he was haunted by it. Years later, he told me that he called into a radio talk show and confessed the whole affair and that it was very cathartic for him. I’ve heard him tell the story of what happened a dozen times. I’ve told the story myself a dozen times. It’s fascinating. Last Summer, I called and asked my friend if I could make a movie about what happened. We had a long discussion about the implications of such a thing. Could it be dangerous in some way? If the parties involved were to see the movie, might it dredge up traumatic memories? Would they come seeking revenge? Is it unethical to wring comedy from a blood-soaked sponge? In the end, we thought enough time had passed that perhaps it was safe.
The movie asks the question, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” I’ve done lots that I’m ashamed of. I graduated college in 1995. If cell phone video existed back then, I’d probably be living in a cave somewhere, ashamed to show my face. But I reveal embarrassing things about myself constantly through my films. My movies are based on my own fears, beliefs and experiences. When Les (Max Casella) reveals the worst thing he’s ever done, that’s based on something from my past.
Filmmaker: Like Summer of Blood, Applesauce has elements of relationship drama as well as genre storytelling. What’s your approach to balancing these elements? Do you want your films to live comfortably in more genre worlds, or to set themselves apart?
Tukel: I read a book last year called One Night Stands and Lost Weekends, by Lawrence Block. It’s a great collection of short noir stories, riddled with mystery and sex and paranoia and fear. I’ve never been a huge fan of noir, but these stories were so insanely fun. I probably ended up reading another six or seven crime novels after that. On the page at least, noir seems to blend a lot of genres. There’s definitely a lot of situational comedy in these books, as well as drama and horror. It all seemed doable in a no-budget movie. I love mixing up genres. I long to make a sequel to a popular horror franchise like Friday the 13th or Halloween and just genre-mash the shit out of it. My pitch would be to make each act of the movie a different genre. For example, in my Friday the 13th sequel, Jason Voorhees would spend the first 40 minutes of the movie killing counselors at Crystal Lake, like he always does. But then, he’ll get arrested and undergo due process. The next 30 minutes becomes a courtroom drama, where the defense attorneys argue that Jason is a victim of child neglect. Jason will end of going on a bloody tirade in the courtroom and he’ll slaughter dozens of people, including the judge and reporters, who are turning the whole thing into a celebrity circus. The last 30 minutes becomes a prison break movie, where Jason has to slash his way out of the prison. I love the idea of taking something as campy as a slasher film and making it even more campy. But I do think television shows could benefit from this. It would be awesome if the final season of Girls had Hannah on trial for killing Ray in a drunken rage.
Filmmaker: In 1971 the artist Vito Acconci did a work called “Untitled Project for Pier 71,” where spectators were invited to meet him at night on a lonely pier, and he’d reveal to them something he’d find “disturbing to make public.” It’s difficult to imagine that piece today, in the age of the internet, where a secret whispered to a stranger on a pier could travel at light speed through the internet and across the world. How does your film deal with the issue of privacy and personal information in our networked age?
Tukel: We’re all vulnerable. And the internet exploits our vulnerabilities. But billions of people are happy to volunteer personal details about themselves on the internet, making them more exposed. My character Ron is ready to share an intimate secret with thousands of people on talk radio. Applesauce might be tapping into this idea of “sharing too much,” though in a very primitive way. I’m a little bit of a Luddite. I don’t get inspired by technology at all. When I think of technological progress, I think of money and war. I think of bunker busters. Let’s find a way to more efficiently blow things up that we don’t like. In that regard, I think it’s evil. My cell phone is old school, and I don’t like to use it. Every time I get a text, it stresses me out a little. It feels like it’s pulling me out of whatever moment I’m having. You know that phrase, “be in the moment.” That’s a great fucking phrase right? Live in the now. Well, it’s hard living in the now when there’s an annoying electronic device seducing you every five minutes. Yet, I’m a slave to it. In theory, it would nice to take a year off, live on five acres of land in a little pre-fab house off the grid, with a bookshelf full of books and an easel for painting. A little garden out back. Sounds like fucking heaven. I’d probably last a week out there. Fuck, Vito Acconci sounds cool! A pier feels so appropriate. Like walking the plank before diving into the dark waters of your subconscious. I carry so much shame around. I suppose many of us do. I guess that’s why therapy is important. One of these days, I should see one.
Filmmaker: Visually, what were you trying to do differently with this film?
Tukel: I love Jason Banker (the cinematographer) and Jorge Torres-Torres (camera operator) so much. They’re directors themselves so they have great instincts on what the camera should capture at a given moment. We had a little more money and time than we had on Summer of Blood, so that gave us time to talk things out a little bit. We wanted to lock off shots more and find a balance between close-ups, medium and wide shots. I miss digging into the aesthetics of a film, but you don’t always have that luxury on a movie with such a tight budget and schedule. Also, when you shoot with two-cameras, that limits where the camera can go. You’re always in dangers of capturing the other camera in the frame. Banker is always trying to talk me into going back to one-camera filmmaking. I used to love it. Story-boarding, designing shots. I do miss the dolly shot! But I’d rather spend the limited time on set exploring performance.
Filmmaker: You’ve discussed this film as having to do with “post-9/11 paranoia.” In what way? How have your own observations of life in the city over the last decade factored into the movie?
Tukel: Terrorism. It’s the new normality. We’re constantly reminded that the threats of Islam are going to bring the world down. I’m of Turkish decent and I have many Muslim relatives so I take this stuff personally. I’m still bitter about the Bush years. I refer to the 21st Century aughts as the “decade of defeat.” The collective in this country was so inane after the Bush years, we almost elected Sarah Palin as vice-President. Had McCain died the day after getting elected, Sarah Palin would have been president. Think about that. Really think about that. I want a woman to be President more than anything. But Sarah Palin never cared about serving the public. People have to be reminded of the “decade of defeat.” They have to imagine a scenario where things might have worked out in Iraq had we taken a more diplomatic approach or just left it alone. There are always alternatives to war. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have seen those Twin Towers come down, and naturally people wanted blood. And living here for the past five years has made me look at things differently. I have so much love for this city. But it’s hard watching the bombing of Bagdad and not feeling anger about that time. Pre-emptive war stems from paranoia. And since 9/11, there’s been this residue of fear. When will we get attacked again? How can we stop someone from attacking us? Who do we bomb? How do we stop ISIS? It’s nasty business because it dehumanizes Arabs. It forces people to make fear-based decisions. People are not their best selves when they’re scared. New York has made me less afraid. It’s made me more empathetic. You see misery every day so you’re forced to feel for other people. Sometimes, I think about what the Iraqis went through once we started our “shock and awe” campaign. I imagine a military attack on New York. I see fighter planes soaring over, bombing the shit out the financial district. The hospitals. The Empire State building. The museums. When I do this, it’s a lot easier to understand this disdain of the West in many countries. The idea of pre-emptive war becomes nauseating. Some may sneer at these kind of comments. But there’s an election coming up. If artists don’t start talking about these issues, the mass media is going to dictate the conversation. I can’t stomach another election season of false journalism and corporate pandering. Applesauce is a thesis of sorts, a no-budget filmmaker’s attempt at a very simple statement. The themes are easy to spot. There’s dark comedy and madness and blood and sex and body parts. That’s the important part. The “post-911 stuff,” that’s just me trying to sound smart.