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A Conversation with Michael Tully (DON’T LEAVE HOME)

I met with filmmaker Michael Tully (the former editor of this site), on Friday, March 16, at SXSW 2018, to discuss his latest movie, Don’t Leave Home (reviewed by Don Simpson), which premiered at the festival. The film, a disturbing psycho-religious thriller, follows an American artist, played by veteran indie actress Anna Margaret Hollyman, who travels to Ireland at the invitation of a former priest whose involvement in the long-ago supernatural disappearance of a young girl forms the basis of her current work. This is Tully’s first feature since the 2014 Ping Pong Summer, and showcases his unique cinematic aesthetic, mixing the seemingly ordinary with an appealingly odd sensibility and unexpected plot twists. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for clarity.

 Hammer to Nail: So, your last film was Ping Pong Summer, in 2014. This, not to state the obvious, is quite different. How did you get from there to here?

 Michael Tully: (laughs) By making that one. I think my whole career – my whole agenda or drive as an artist – is to sort of cover all the food groups of cinema. I think what you’re supposed to do to have a successful career is do what you did, and then do it again on a bigger, more palatable scale, and then just keep growing in that. And for me, it was like, “Well, I just made an ’80s coming-of-age comedy. I have no interest in doing that again right now.” You know, I had no interest in pitching Ping Pong Summer as a TV show. I had just made the movie; why would I do that? Art-horror and dream-logic cinema was really rising for me, and that was something I had yet to attack, so I thought, “OK!”

But also, a function of that, what’s the most practical opening for your next project? My producer asked me, “Some of the investors seem pretty happy with your process, so what are your next ideas?” And I gave about 12 or 15 ideas, some of which had fully formed scripts, some of which – like this one – were very under-baked. It was like, “DON’T LEAVE HOME: A creepy movie in Ireland.” I didn’t know what it was about, but I knew what it was going to feel like, and that was the one that they seemed excited by.

HtN: Cool! So, you won’t be doing that again…

 MT: Well, that’s funny, though, because I was talking to my composer, Michael Montes, who I think really elevates this film in a major way…

HtN: The only part of the film I liked, in fact, was the music. (laughs)

 MT: (laughs) Exactly! He’s so good. So, we both have this that maybe we’re not done with the vintage Euro-horror – the Gothic – and maybe there’s something out there. So I perhaps haven’t put that fully to bed, but for now I’m definitely moving in another direction.

HtN: So, what genres, then, interest you to explore that you have not yet explored?

MT: Well, there is one that seems to be on the table that I haven’t written, which is a politically charged, rapid-fire comedy, and while that may not have been my initial choice, that’s definitely a box that I’d like to check. So, I may be heading in that direction, attached to direct. And then, the next weirdo Tully movie is the port-noir thriller, the sort of Body Heat or Gingerbread Man. You know, I always think of Robert Altman…

HtN: What was that phrase? “Port noir”? What is that?

MT: (laughs) You know, it’s always like the steamy noir, set in a port town.

HtN: OK. Got it!

MT: And the kind of Cinemax, or “skinemax,” thriller.

HtN: So, that’s what you want to do.

MT: Yes! So, I have this script, “Somebody’s Watching Me,” that I think is in that vein. I’m kind of pitching it as if Brian De Palma directed The Naked Gun. That’s my quick pitch. (laughs)

Our Chris Reed and Filmmaker Michael Tully

HtN: Oh, wow! That’s pretty amazing. So, for politically charged comedies, do you like, for instance, Armando Ianucci. What was that film he did before doing Veep? In the Loop?

MT: Yeah, In the Loop is great, and so is Veep. But it’s hard, you know, with things like The Office or Veep, because those are such touchstones now that it’s hard for me not to compare this new project to them. And I didn’t see The Death of Stalin yet, but everyone’s like, “You have to see it.” So, I’m trying to bring in even more of an old Hollywood It Happened One Night kind of thing; inject that kind of vibe.

HtN: Or, since we’re talking Frank Capra, have you ever seen State of the Union?

 MT: I have not.

HtN: Check it out. It’s got Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and a very young Angela Lansbury.

MT: Wowwwwww!

HtN: It’s not really a comedy, but a politically charged Capra drama.

 MT: And I’m sure it’s just snappy.

HtN: Yeah! So, from influences to casting…Anna Margaret Hollyman, who I believe is Austin-based…

MT: Yes.

HtN: How did you come to cast her, and how did you find your somewhat creepy Irish actors?

MT: (laughs) Yeah…So, Anna Margaret is someone that I’ve known for a long time, on the festival circuit, and directed…To be honest – and I’ve been open with Anna Margaret about this – we initially envisioned this movie to be bigger, with the package-game, which we played for about a year or two, and it wasn’t really sticking. So, finally, we got to the point where we definitely had some commitments, fiscally, and I went, “Can I make this with people that I trust, who I know will ground the weirdness?” You know, Anna Margaret is someone who I’ve never seen deliver a false note. I always believe her. She’s got that touch about her. and this is such a strange alchemy of a movie that I felt that if that lead character were too weird – if she was the “weirdo artist” – then the whole thing would fall apart.

In some ways, with Ping Pong Summer, people would say, “Oh, you should have gone Napoleon Dynamite-wacky with [protagonist] Rad.” And I was like, “No, you want all the strangeness happening around this person.” So, I made a music video for a friend, Orenda Fink – for her song “Holy Holy” – a few years ago, and I thought it was a good opportunity to just test the waters with Anna Margaret. I knew it would go well, but she was totally great to work with, and I was like, “OK! This is exactly what I expected to happen.” And then I just sort of…I didn’t exactly put my foot down, but I said, “Can we just trust that the genre might help it to become marketable?” And the producers and the team just all supported that, and everyone liked Anna Margaret and everything they’d seen her in.

And then, with the Irish actors, I had actually met Jon Wright, the director of Grabbers, that Irish film from a few years ago. Have you seen that?

HtN: No.

 MT: It’s like the best hook ever: small Irish town with these bloodsucking creatures that are killing people, and the only way to kill them is if you have high blood-alcohol content. So, everyone has to get shit-faced so that the creatures will suck on your blood and die. It’s perfect Irish dark humor. So, I met him at the London Film Festival, and I asked him about the comedian David McSavage, who plays Padraig in my film. He’s kind of like the Irish Sacha Baron Cohen: he’s not really an actor, but a performer. So, I asked Jon Wright about him, though McSavage had only been on his film for a day.

Filmmaker Michael Tully

But there was this other actor he mentioned, Lalor Roddy, who was also in Grabbers, whom he called a magician and a wizard. He said, “If you don’t have to play the name game, I highly recommend that you look at him.” And I went online, and looked up a picture, and thought, “This looks exactly like [the priest] Alistair.” So, I reached out to him and sent him the script, and we Skyped, and he just seemed to be fully connected with it.

And then, with the part of [caretaker] Shelly, that was actually Lalor’s agent…they share an agent, and his agent suggested Helena Bereen, who was in Mark Cousins’ I Am Belfast a few years ago. She’s done a lot of stage stuff. Same deal: I sent her the script, we met up and just connected. But it is a but of a leap of faith when you haven’t worked with someone before.

HtN: One thing I noticed, and I don’t know if this is intentional, but I saw an interesting resemblance between the actor who plays the young version of the priest and you.

MT: This is so funny! Nobody said this until I sat down with someone yesterday, who went, “I have to be honest, when I saw you at the beginning of the film, I thought that was a little bit…” And I said, “Dude! That’s not me! That’s Lalor’s son.”

HtN: Well, I knew it wasn’t you, but he looks a lot like you.

MT: I don’t think anybody commented on that. Which is weird, because I get so many look-a-likes. Last year, I got my picture taken with someone who though I was Jon Hamm. She actually took a picture, and I didn’t know why she was taking it, and then she said, “I loved Baby Driver.” So, I’m always getting compared to people, but until this week, showing it to people, no one said anything about this. And, of course, I was the idiot who put myself in a lead role in my feature Septien, but that was also hiding behind a beard and it felt like the right part. But the idea of doing the Hitchcock cameo, especially for this movie, wasn’t something I considered.

HtN: I thought that you were maybe alluding to some dark part of your personality.

MT: That’s funny.

HtN: The other thing is, I felt that Melonie, the character played by Anna Margaret Hollyman looked like what the little girl from the opening, Siobhan, would have looked like had she grown up, which is very interesting. I saw a real resemblance between the two of them, and I don’t know if that was intentional, but there was a resonance there, as if the priest has a type.

 MT: Yeah. Well, there is that tourist later. I didn’t want to make it all women that disappeared. That has happened in Ireland. There was this thing called the “vanishing triangle,” in the late 1990s, where young women went missing, so this movie is touching on a lot of different true Irish mysteries, but I didn’t want it to just be that women are disappearing, again. I made a point to include at least have some of the names of the disappeared, that you see in the opening credits, be male names. And then with the tourist at the end, we see that all food groups are victims.

But there was talk of that, of that sense of like, “Is Siobhan Melonie?” I really wanted to give viewers enough to chew on and create their own path, but I didn’t want to make it so specific that … like, the dream-logic cinema that I love and admire the most is something that has the confidence to not tell you every step of the process. And that was a very conscious choice. But if you ever re-watch this film, and say, “What if this is Melonie as Siobhan?”…that’s a way to watch this movie, and I think it would get really interesting.

HtN: I think it would, too! And casting is a way to do that. You don’t have to explain it. So, why the dioramas? I’m curious. It’s an interesting choice to make Melonie an artist who does dioramas. What motivated that?

MT: For me, all the creative forms of expression are their own little worlds unto themselves. You know, if it’s a script, it’s this 100-page book; if it’s a novel, it is an actual book. Dioramas, to me, give that sense of the artist trying to control the world, and they’re the god of their own minor world. And to me it’s just a really cool metaphor for that, of being in control. Same with the painter and the canvas … all of it is the same thing. And then, by the end of the film, I like this idea of that final scene, which has Melonie entered into her own diorama, becoming the Virgin Mary.

HtN: That makes total sense, and the diorama is perfect for that.

MT: And also, Wyatt Garfield, the cinematographer, and I talked a lot about this idea of “is she in a frame?” That’s why we wanted the film to be shot in 1.85:1 and not 2.35:1 CinemaScope, to have that sense of being like a portrait, or landscape painting, of “is she in her own diorama, or painting?” It was a way to play with that, as well.

HtN: Speaking of aspect ratio, when I first started watching your film, it was in 4:3. That turns out to be the flashback, or the past prologue, rather. Why did you choose to do it that way? Also, in what format did you shoot the film?

Anna Margaret Hollyman

MT: We used the ARRI Amira and the Mini. But we were just thinking of a way … in some of the rough cuts, we had titles to describe “Present Day, America. Past, Ireland.:..and we just thought, let’s not do that. I just think it’s a striking form of visual expression unto itself. I mean, I know that this past year there’s been like a little mini-wave of 4:3 movies, with A Ghost Story, and Dayveon

HtN: And Pet Names, here at this year’s SXSW, as well.

 MT: So there are a few. But I just liked the idea, and the model for that was really The Spirit of the Beehive, which wasn’t 4:3, but just had this sense of still, formal framing.

HtN: And I should add, to the 4:3 mix, Paul Schrader’s latest, too, First Reformed, which I also just saw here.

MT: It’s in 4:3?

HtN: Yep!

 MT: Oh! I’ve heard how great it is! But the one thing, if you’ll notice, when we do the actual flashback, we didn’t go back to 4:3. When they’re on the boat?

HtN: Huh! I didn’t catch that!

MT: That’s a good thing, because technically we broke the rule, but I felt that we would have broken the rule had we gone back to 4:3, so we stayed 1.85…

HtN: Also, that could be kind of jarring, cutting between the two.

 MT: Yeah! It’s like doing that in The Grand Budapest Hotel, ‘cos you’re jumping around, is fine. This? I wanted the movie to not be self-conscious in that regard. So, it was the color correction that we did differently. Our colorist, Alex Bickel, has worked with me since Septien. He’s the man, having now done Moonlight, The Big Sick, Lady Bird…

HtN: And … Don’t Leave Home!

 MT: Yes! So, my direction, for the overall look of the film, was “a wetter, rather than dryer, oil painting.” We were shooting digitally, which I hadn’t done with my last two films, and I was like, “How can we make this movie feel like an oil painting?” And then, with the prologue, we said, “Let’s do a look that’s more Kodak. Maybe even Kodak reversal film.” And then Fuji was for a different approach to the rest of the film. Usually I go for a more golden hue, but since we were in Ireland, I thought the blues and greens of Fuji would work better, and maybe putting some grain on the image, as well. So that was our idea: flashbacks–Kodak; movie–Fuji. And that was enough to Alex, as the technician, enough to work with.

HtN: Well, it looks great! Congratulations on the film. I really enjoyed it. I wish you great things with it.

MT: Thank you!

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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