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A Conversation with with Steve Macfarlane (SHIRT TERMINATORS)

Since meeting Steve Macfarlane in 2009 (he programmed one of my short films at the Showpaper Intramural Film Festival and later interviewed me for my film Go Down Death), I kept hearing talk of a film he was making with the sublime, improbable title of Shirt Terminators. When I asked him about it, he was evasive, but rumors of the film’s existence persisted for years. Mutual friends either assured me that it was on the cusp of completion, or else doubted its very existence. So it was a pleasant surprise when the 37-minute film actually materialized at New York’s La Di Da Film Festival last year. And yet the film introduced its own, new mysteries. Kind of like a gun that terminates shirts, the film feels like a divine gift designed to liberate, excite, embarrass, provoke and entertain us.

The film follows two ex-cons who find a shirt-terminating gun hidden away among other forgotten refuse (like a dusty life-size Obama cardboard cut-out) in the church basement they’re cleaning as part of their community service. They immediately begin “killing” all the shirts in their path. Though warned by the priest, the gun’s original owner, that the weapon must be destroyed because “the power is spreading… the neighborhood is not ready for it,” notorious party-planner Deep makes them an offer that no self-respecting Shirt-terminators could ever refuse.

Shirt Terminators premieres today (April 21, 2014) on Kentucker Audley’s website NoBudge, where you can—and should—experience the film yourself for free. I sat down with Macfarlane to talk about all things related to shirt murdering.

Hammer to Nail: My favorite film title used to be Bierkampf, but Shirt Terminators has taken its place. Do you remember the origin of it—the film or the title?

Steve Macfarlane: It was the summer of 2009 when I got the idea. A friend introduced me to the work of this guy Godfrey Ho, he’s kind of like Arizal, one of these directors who does these hacked-up, half Hong Kong, half British movies. And they would usually have a familiar or just an eye-grabbing term in the title plus a new one, like Ninja Terminator or Hard Bastard. So the idea was, if you’re looking across the rental shelf and you see Shirt Terminators, you’re gonna be like, “What the fuck is that?” So once I started to think about how you would terminate a shirt and what that means, it’s either a metaphor or you take it in the most literal direction you can, and to do that you need a magnetic wand or a gun or a photon beam or something.

H2N: The title is provocative, but the movie itself is actually fairly chaste.

SM: It’s totally chaste.

H2N: Even the men, after their shirts are killed, they’re wearing undershirts—the movie has the vastest, most colorful array of undershirts I’ve ever seen. Despite all the shirt-terminating, there’s no nudity in the film. Is it supposed to be raunchy?

SM: I think it was meant to be raunchy in spirit more than in actual content, so you would kind of feel ripped off when you watched it. Disappointment was really important to me as a thing to think about when we were putting it together. The most repeated comic trope is that the audience’s expectations are totally underwhelmed, like a balloon deflating. So it becomes more of like a wink-wink thing, where you’re dealing with the idea of titillation but you’re failing to fulfill that promise.

H2N: Yeah, on one hand, there are the accoutrements of party culture—these hot pinks, neon greens—but everything around it is grey industrial wasteland. Even the big party at the end is kind of sparsely attended.

SM: From the get-go I was compelled towards these really strong colors, especially this pink-and-green thing and then you also have these neon melty-popcorny yellows, and you have some hot orange stuff and some pink highlights, some gold. When we started, we thought we were actually going to make something that could compete with a really colorful, swingin’ music video or something like that.

And then the actual process of making the movie—I’m sort of more aware of how much trouble goes into something like that, how these images that we have in our minds as clichés, easy to produce, are actually really difficult. You want this hot summertime party type scenario, but to actually consider how it would materialize… you think, “Oh, I can easily go out and shoot this,” and then you realize you can’t, so you actually end up with, like, a 1950s film. [SM laughs]

H2N: There is an old-fashioned element to this comedy duo, it’s like Car 54, Where Are You? or something. How did you find these guys?

SM: Once I got stuck on the title I started seeing aspects of the movie in my day-to-day life. Dwaide was written for Ariel Rodriguez, who was a coworker—and I hardly knew him when I asked if he’d star in the film. He was totally inspiring—extremely funny, very suave, and he can say something totally ridiculous and make it sound pretty plausible. Herbert Marcel, who plays Sandy, was a friend of a friend, and onscreen he was so square and so stiff and opaque, they just seemed like a perfect combination. I felt like I could get some of that classic comedy vibe from the two different personalities.

My favorite movies to watch, just to to revisit for the millionth time—not as a strict rule—but I enjoy the genre of white guy/black guy comedies… 48 Hrs., the Lethal Weapons, Amos & Andrew, The Last Boy Scout, whatever…

H2N: Amos & Andrew? Amos ‘n Andy?

SM: Amos & Andrew, with Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a huge bummer, but… it’s weird, those films are still really popular and a new one gets made apparently every three months or whatever.

H2N: So this is your contribution.

SM: Well, the scene in the priest’s office is pretty much a dupe of any police precinct scene where the chief is upset with the duo for, you know… [SM laughs]

H2N: Except they’re ex-cons instead of cops. Maybe I missed it—do you ever find out what they did?

SM: You never learn what they did. Herbert wanted to have a backstory, he was like, “I want it to be something really nasty and horrible.” I agreed but I wanted to keep it unspecified.

You know, you watch a lot of rap videos—or I do, anyway. In some sense the film is me trying to understand why I went home every day after school and watched TRL for a year straight, even if it was the same videos as the day before. In the ’90s and early 2000s, there was a strange thrill in watching rappers, knowing that these guys had some kind of criminal past, something unsavory about their character. So for the film, I guess that’s a comment or a joke about the types of people who we choose to spend our time idolizing.

But there’s also something there about hip-hop culture and about how people—white males in particular—want to be included in things that aren’t really theirs, at least not originally. After all: the movie starts with a kid putting on a pair of those old Kanye sunglasses, and immediately he feels like some kind of big shot.

H2N: It’s an audacious move to start the film on this kind of secondary character having a 5-minute phone conversation. It’s like a Lubitsch film.

SM: I get really pissed off when I see people on the phone in movies: the film may have a scrupulous, physical, location-specific sound design, but once somebody picks up the phone you get both ends of the conversation, so you’re basically just cheating. I thought it’d be more disorienting, like a mystery or a puzzle film, to open with two characters you’ve never seen before, you don’t know what they’re talking about, the lingo is bizarre and fabricated. That kind of disorientation is pretty important to me.

H2N: Yeah, you spend this five-minute scene on these secondary characters…

SM: Two minutes and ten seconds…

H2N: …Two minutes… and then afterwards you jump right into the main characters really quickly, with no exposition or explanation. They’re in this basement with this life-size Obama cut-out, they find the shirt-terminating gun within seconds…

SM: It was like this withered cardboard cut-out that had actually… I soaked it in a bathtub and drained it and let it dry for two days. So there was a day where I’d look in my bathtub and see Obama smiling up at me, kind of bubbling beneath the surface. He was so fresh when the movie started in 2009, I thought that was some big “fuck you” and now, years later, it’s just some weird quaint thing.

H2N: It was a long process, several years of Shirt Terminators. Do you want to talk about it?

SM: So this film had probably like 14 or 15 or 16 shooting days cumulatively between September 2009 and September 2012. I, my screenwriter AJ, my cast, we were all very young when it started, and thinking it was gonna be something we could bang out in like two/three weeks, and for this reason and that reason, money, our own inexperience, we could only shoot it a little bit at a time. It all takes place on one day and it’s all outdoors. I said in 2009, “Okay, we’re gonna finish it in 2010.” And then in 2010, I said, “Okay, I probably can’t finish this before the fall of 2011.” Some people told me just to not finish it—even cast members! And I’m not like a gold prospector or anything, I’m not a super-determined guy, but I was like, “No, we should probably finish it.” [SM laughs]

Ariel also moved to Florida at one point, so shooting got real expensive. But the nice thing about seeking money publicly, first through Kickstarter, then Indiegogo, and getting your friends amped up about it, means that you have to finish it. Even if it sucks, you have to finish it. But doing it as a bluffing game to yourself, I’ll admit that’s a pretty immature way to make a film. I’m very lucky because everybody chose to stick with me, obviously.

H2N: As a mature person, I think it’s absolutely a bluffing game you should play with yourself. The film’s roughness is part of its charm and it seems intentional throughout.

SM: It wasn’t. People would ask me about it, and all I was comfortable saying was, it’s gonna feel kind of like you got hit on the head really hard. [SM laughs] Dash Flanagan made the score, and actually finished most of it before I was done filming! So his score influenced me as I was doing the remaining shoots, which I think is the reverse of how it normally works? Egyptian Lover was a creative inspiration for both of us.

Anyway, Dash coined this term back when he was in high school that I still love: irritainment. Why are you irritated by this? Well, why are you entertained by that? I like those questions. It’s not like I tried to make an arthouse film and it accidentally turned out to be Shirt Terminators. I tried to make Shirt Terminators and I got pretty much what I signed up for.

H2N: It feels like a movie called Shirt Terminators.

SM: I like a lot of stuff from the early ’90s. I like The Toxic Avenger, I like Swamp Thing, Ninja Turtles, any number of yogurt/soda/candy/junk food commercials. All that stuff has this weird underlying vibe of everyone being really stupid or unaware of the world. Do you remember these McDonalds commercials, or maybe Burger King, where they would have in slow-motion each aspect of a burger falling perfectly into place? So like the bottom bun, followed by…

H2N: It’s like that video game, BurgerTime…

SM: Hm. I don’t know it.

H2N: Where you run over each element of the burger and it plummets to the layer below.

SM: To form a…?

H2N: Yeah, the goal is to assemble a whole burger for some reason.

SM: I’m probably gonna go home and play that for a couple hours.

H2N: Go assemble some burgers. Anyway… In the scene with the priest, he says this line I really like: “The genie didn’t mince words.” If a genie offered me three wishes, and I recounted the anecdote years later, I wouldn’t begin it with, “The genie didn’t mince words.”

SM: The genie is basically an easy out from a screenwriting perspective, like, “How do I get the… oh, we’ll just have this ancient Arabian… you know… God.” Some people really like that priest scene.

H2N: I think it’s great.

SM: To me it’s necessary and his performance is fantastic, but there’s this part where he says, “Would you like to hear how I got that gun?” Well, after three straight minutes of him talking, anybody in the audience would stand up and be like, “No, please, stop talking, give me a break!” And Dwaide and Sandy are both like, “Why not?” So the heroes make decisions that make the movie even more drawn-out and dumber.

H2N: No, I read it differently, because until then, they were denying everything, they pretended to have no idea what he was talking about, but their curiosity about the gun’s origin made them drop this façade. They’d rather know the origin story than escape culpability.

SM: They definitely respect him more after that, even though they blow him off afterwards.

H2N: The priest asks them whether they think the gun is being used for good or for evil. The question recurs a couple times in the film. Do you think the gun is being used for good or for evil?

SM: You can’t really use something like that for good—maybe unless you’re, like, helping a friend make a porno.

H2N: You could be liberating the cloth-oppressed masses.

SM: I’m Catholic, I was raised reading a lot of self-examinatory literature and shit like that. I remember this book Vipers’ Tangle that blew my mind—it’s a guy in the process of realizing he’s been repressed his whole life. For a lot of Catholics there’s a huge gap between what you can talk about and what’s actually out there in the world, so the movie is sort of about that. It never fully resolves this question of whether the gun is good or evil, and I think that’s fair.

Those moral predicaments are interesting because neither one of the characters are sophisticated in how they look at the world, they’re just following their impulses. That’s why we see them eating junk food and drinking… uh … Ecto Cooler? Capri-Sun?

H2N: Hi-C Drinkbox?

SM: That’s right. They may have second thoughts about using the shirt terminating gun, but in the end, they end up using it and that’s like the greatest accomplishment of their lives.

–Aaron Schimberg

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