A Conversation With John Magary (THE MEND)
I wrote this about John Magary’s The Mend in my SXSW ’14 Wrap-Up, where I awarded it my own personal Narrative Grand Jury Prize:
Oh, to sit down in a theater for an 11am screening, feeling a bit groggy, and then, lo and behold, here comes the screen reaching out and, whammo, punching you in your wide-eyed, alert, supremely giddy face! John Magary’s acerbic sibling dramedy is like Arnaud Desplechin’s Margaret, a ballsy, sprawling, messy, grueling, go-for-broke experience that doesn’t stop to breathe for 111 furious minutes. Music, slo-mos, zooms, elliptical editing… it’s all here, and it’s always alive. While it felt like the entire narrative competition was set in the confines of New York City, The Mend was the only movie that made me actually sort of miss living in NYC. Magary’s film electrified me more than anything else I encountered at this year’s fest. I can’t wait to see it again.
Having recently rewatched it for the purposes of having this conversation, I can confirm that my enthusiasm for The Mend has not only not diminished in the slightest, but my esteem for it has exponentially grown. Thanks to Cinelicious Pics, The Mend (official website) will finally be available for public consumption starting on Friday, August 20th, as it opens at the IFC Center in NYC before spreading across the country (go here for a fuller list of cities/dates). On the heels of the film’s release, I made my way out of Hammer to Nail retirement to talk to Magary because his movie is so frigging excellent and demands to be seen.
Hammer to Nail: The movie feels loose and drunken but also calculated and controlled. It’s a really dazzling blend. I’m wondering what the balance was between premeditated storyboarding and planning versus you threading that line in the edit.
John Magary: There’s always a little bit of both. I mean, it was very storyboarded. Particularly stuff like the party. I was just so intimidated by the whole idea of shooting the party because I’d shot stuff with extras a little bit, but not anything that just goes on for 20 minutes. So I just felt much more comfortable going in with some kind of a plan. I don’t know if I actually ended up storyboarding the whole movie, but I storyboarded most of it. For me, I literally draw stuff out but the drawings are only really useful for me because I can’t draw, so they’re basically stick figures. Every now and then I’ll show them to Chris [Teague, cinematographer] and he’ll be like, “Oh, okay, that’s what you mean.” For the party, for example, we spent a long time—me, Chris, and our AD [Dan Taggatz]—just sort of going through every single shot and making sure that we could fit it all in. We had four nights—our AD was very good about giving us time and squeezing as much as possible in hopefully a way that wouldn’t break us all.
I don’t have much faith in my ability on set to create a kind of consistent and good visual for the movie, so I have to do it beforehand, or I have to at least really think about it beforehand. I’ll feel like I’m going in unarmed if I don’t have that.
H2N: How about with actors and blocking. If you don’t go in without a plan I agree that one feels naked and unprepared, but you also have to respect the actors and their comfort levels with how they want to act out a scene. How do you navigate that?
JM: I’m still learning. That’s the hardest thing. You can sing forever about what certain bodies are gonna be in the frame, who’s gonna be on the left side and the right side, and you’re still not gonna be able to control when you get there how true that feels. You might have some kind of theoretical blocking in your mind that feels right and then you get there and realize that it’s bogus, or something’s happening a little too early, or it really makes more sense for someone to walk over there. I mean, you have to remain open to that, but it’s hard! [both laugh] To remain open to that you need time, and to get time you need more money. I’m actually more interested in a kind of performer-driven way of directing, but I just don’t know if I know how to do that yet, or if I ever will.
H2N: But then again if you give up too much of that the controlled chaos that makes your movie feel so distinctly alive things get compromised and then the vision starts to crumble. That’s the tug of war.
JM: Yeah. It’s knowing how much control to exert, and when to fall back a little bit. Most actors to this day that I’ve worked with don’t like rehearsing, for the most part. There wasn’t much rehearsal, so we were sort of setting the blocking on set. And so I would basically be leading the blocking discussion because, you know, all of the extras were just there and didn’t know where they would be exactly. A lot of times they were finding out stuff in real time! [JM laughs] So we would block stuff out and then our AD was always great about doing a very slow and deliberate blocking rehearsal with Chris the DP, and then just going from there. There were definitely a few times during the shoot where I felt like I was hammering a square peg in a little bit, and the actors would speak up, they’d be like, “I really don’t think this is working, let’s figure something else out and just reimagine it a little bit and it’ll be okay.” But it’s scary. Once you open the floodgates and once you feel like you’re losing control, it’s very scary. It’s important to me to know visually at least what the movie kind of is. Once I lose that or am at risk of losing that it’s like panic time for me. [H2N laughs]
H2N: The visual approach and the score work so well together. Is that something that was discovered in the edit or were you working with your composers from much earlier on and you always had it in your head that it was going to be… I don’t even know what the adjective is—dissonant? percussive? off-kilter?
JM: I don’t either! We talked beforehand, I told Michi [Wiancko] and Judd [Greenstein] that I wanted them to do it, but we kept on having to push the shoot or whatever because of financing and stuff, and so when we were finally able to lock in dates, I talked to them and gave them some examples of music… I can’t even remember exactly what they were… some of it was simply score that I liked. Because neither one of them had ever done a feature film score—I think Michi had done some scoring for shorts or commercials—so I was like, “Listen to Bernard Herrmann, he’s great!” [both laugh] But it really was created in the scoring process. They would create these pieces of music and then I would come back with revisions or a larger kind of idea of what I wanted. Our editor [Joseph Krings] just reminded me recently that when he came in he asked, “So what are you thinking for music?” and all I said was, “I see a lot of music!” [both laugh]
H2N: That’s true visionary speak right there!
JM: You know this. You see a lot of movies where the score feels like a last-minute afterthought, just a foundation to keep us from sitting in silence! I didn’t want that. I think the movies you and I love tend to be music forward. They’re unashamed of the understanding that at some level they’re artificial objects—music that’s either pushing against the drama or heavily supporting it. And Joe, the editor, is a musical guy. He’s not a musician but he’s a very rhythmic editor and he has really good music taste and ideas.
H2N: Without turning this into a bitchfest, we both said it would be nice to have an honest conversation about things. It’s great that Cinelicious saw what I saw in the movie and you seem to be having a great full-court publicity press with the release, but it’s been a long journey to get here. Maybe you could speak to those filmmakers who are currently experiencing those darker times when their films have yet to find their footing or place in the world?
JM: Just as a person, I tend to rely too heavily on outside validation. I think the more a filmmaker can resist that—or, in blunt terms, being obsessed with reviews—the more you can resist that, the stronger you are as a filmmaker and an artist. Also, it will keep you a saner person. What’s interesting is at SXSW… I mean every stage was difficult. Raising the money took forever, writing it took a long time, shooting was exhausting. Every movie’s like this, but nothing fell into place immediately throughout this whole process. And then it continued after in post.
Post is that weird period where it’s kind of nice because you have everything there to work with, you have the movie shot, you’ve achieved the nightmare logistics of putting a shoot together—well the producers have—but the post process can feel really lonely in comparison. It can get pretty dark because there are certain days you might not like anything you’re looking at—at least that’s how I am. But what’s interesting about SXSW is I let myself get a little too consumed with press and publicity and what people think and what reviews are coming in—the review that just came in this hour is negative—letting that really affect me. And allowing myself to feel like, “Oh, this is the final word on the movie; this is what people will think; we’re screwed.” And then after that waiting for a distributor… the only thing I can say is just to have faith in your own work? I don’t know. It’s just really, really hard, I think. There’s a reason some of the best filmmakers are essentially sociopaths, because they don’t doubt what they’re doing. [H2N laughs] They’re just really not that full of doubt. That’s why they’re able to ask for insane things and just sort of sit there blankly while people tell you something’s impossible, and it’s because they’re, you know, psychopaths! [both laugh] They believe that what they’re doing is worthwhile.
H2N: That’s your lesson: “The closer you are to full sociopath on the spectrum, the better your chances at directorial success will be!” But you’re right. The emotional roller coaster doesn’t exist for them, which means that by default they transcend—or conquer—that issue.
JM: Yeah. I think that’s true. [H2N laughs] A reason why this week is so crazy is because, you know, the nature of publicity and when releases happen, it feels like 90% of the attention the movie has ever gotten is happening in a period of four days. So it’s crazy. And part of it is attention we’ve worked hard to manufacture and arrange, you have to really work to get that attention, you have to really work to make sure people see it, and you have to continue to work to get people to see it. Does that seem like a satisfying answer?
H2N: Yeah, I like that. The sociopath angle is a little bit disconcerting but you’re right. [JM laughs] It’s like in the editing process. The more you do it you know intellectually there will be massive ups and downs: the rush of seeing the footage and thinking the movie is definitely in there, followed by your inevitably horrific screening where it feels like it’s been lost completely, followed by another breakthrough; it’s a broken record. The same thing applies with that initial reception, so it does seem like blocking out the external is really the only way to avoid those ups and downs. But at the same time, those ups are what keep us going. I mean, your appearance on the Morning Joe was surely something you’ve been dreaming about since you were two… [JM laughs] Is there video of that online or just Brandon’s [Harris] screen grab?
JM: Yeah, if you just Google “Josh Lucas” and “Morning Joe.”
H2N: I’m gonna do that as soon as we get off the phone! [I did! Watch it here!]
JM: Also, you were talking about going through these [mood] swings with your new movie in Ireland, and then once you can lock it in again that it will happen it’s like night and day. I don’t know if people realize, especially in the low-budget independent film world, how often you’re deflated. You get your hopes up for weeks and weeks and weeks, then one actor pulls out and everything falls away. Then you just have to inflate yourself again! It’s insane. You have to basically just convince yourself even before the movie’s shot that the movie exists, and then after it’s shot and after it’s edited you have to remind yourself that it exists. [both laugh]
H2N: At the very moment are you rejuvenated to move forward on something new or are you too caught up in the momentum with the release?
JM: A little of both. Myna [Joseph] and I—between getting our distributor and now it’s been a long time—have been working. I’ve been doing commercial editing and commercial producing which “sort of” pays the bills. And we’ve been working on writing. Myna and I have a script that she’s gonna direct that she’s been workshopping since the Sundance Labs, for at least like six years, and we’re hoping to get that made, but it’s still a process. This is going to sound so discouraging, but nothing really got immediately easier. I didn’t know. I was like, “Maybe after SXSW an agent will email me? Or something?” [H2N laughs] “Something will become easier?” But no. But to answer your question and to be positive, this weekend has felt great. Just because you know people are watching it and some people are connecting to it. It just feels real.
H2N: I confess that when I rewatched it this weekend I watched with a friend. He’s a film guy but lives in New Orleans and isn’t really embedded in the film scene and he loved it. So that’s someone you don’t know who genuinely got fired up by your movie!
H2N: We even rewound parts. Of course, the menthol bit outside the subway station, which is just absolute perfection. But there were others. Oh yeah, when Josh Lucas is on the couch and it might be a dream but might not be and he wakes up and just kind of laughs and falls back asleep again…
JM: You mean with the power going on and off?
H2N: Yeah. He gives this shrug-laugh and then rolls over? Was that done multiple times to get it just right or was that a case of that delivery just being pure magic and you could say, “Right, we got that, moving on!”
JM: I can’t remember. I mean, I’m sure that was him. Everything becomes blurry and you forget what was given to you on set by the actor, and the answer is tons of it! [both laugh] Especially Josh. He has such physical control, he would just do things that at first scared me a little. I remember one shot where he’s cooking a steak at the stove—this is maybe during the first couple days of shooting—his foot is bandaged and he just put his foot up on the counter while he was cooking the steak and I was like, “What the fuck is that?!” [both laugh] But it was awesome too! It was funny and a little cartoonish and broad, and I was like, “Okay, he’s just making big choices.” And because he’s done this a long time he knows that he should make big choices and basically allow me to say “no” or “try something else.” But that was what was so cool about working with Josh is that he’s just so experienced, he’s done this so many times that it’s just second-nature.
H2N: I guess that’s our job as directors, to navigate that line.
JM: How did it work for something like Septien? Was there tons of improvisation?
H2N: I think my approach—we just did it again on this short I directed—is a bit of a blend. I’ve mostly worked with people who actively don’t want to rehearse either, so for me the best pattern is to sort of find the official dialogue starting with the blocking rehearsal and then while the camera and lighting are getting set up going over it with the actors to get to a place where it feels natural. So by the time the cameras roll there’s no “improvisation” but it also isn’t a 100% recitation of the script. The biggest problem for me, which I never learn—it just happened to me again on this short film—is that I overwrite and take eight lines to say what can be said in two.
JM: The compression thing is something I haven’t talked about enough but I overwrote pretty much every single scene in the movie. [H2N laughs] We ended up pruning tons in the edit, but it’s actually why during the shoot I became very scared of doing any one-takes or locked off wide shots, because I feel like I just can’t trust the tempo of the scene as is, and I know that it can be shortened, but I didn’t shorten it when I wrote it… [JM laughs]… so we’ve gotta get more than one set-up. Talk about something that I need to learn. Then I start recognizing things that I didn’t. You know, watch a Woody Allen movie. His writing can be kind of clunky but he is so good at just sort of stripping down things to their dramatic essentials, and then just shooting it as it’s working. That’s hard.
H2N: Man, I just went through that as well. I had yet another “brilliant vision” for a one-take and “how it was both funny and dramatic” and was “the perfect choice to make,” then we got in the edit and it was like, “Well, that didn’t work!” Fortunately, you can find ways to salvage the shot—usually by starting much later than you’d anticipated—but it’s another lesson that I never seem to learn.
JM: It’s a terrible feeling when you realize that you can’t alter the timing of something because you’re stuck on one angle. But that also seems like the ideal, kind of, to be just stuck with one? Someone like Noah Baumbach, he does a lot of minimal shooting and has learned what he can get away with and what he needs to fit in, and he also has his actors generally talk really quickly.
H2N: That also helps! When you mention Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach it’s like what makes those one-take directors different? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’ve always heard their primary note of direction is, “Faster.”
JM: But then you watch—to use an extreme example—Tarkovsky. If I were to make a scene that is worthy of Tarkovsky and shot it like Tarkovsky, would I be able to watch it in the edit room and trust the slowness, trust the pace? Maybe it’s the nature of non-linear editing or whatever, but I don’t know. One of my issues as an editor is that I am often a little impatient watching my own stuff and constantly feel the need to cut it down. Which is actually a good impulse. I mean, usually what marks a bad student film or a bad short film is just that they’re fuckin’ slow usually, or that they could tell the same story in half the time. But, you also want to remember that time is an element in what you’re doing.
H2N: But with regard to pacing and rhythm. Let’s say you do cut responsibly—whether it’s a feature or a short—one shot can create a fully developed sense of space and time, so if you’re being honest with the footage and sculpting where you need to be sculpting, one “longer” take can do enough work that you need not resort to that again. And viewers won’t hate you as much!
JM: It makes a statement too. It allows you to vary the timeline of the film, which is another thing to keep in mind when you’re shooting.
— Michael Tully