GORE IN THE STORE
Adam Egypt Mortimer expands the universe first introduced in DANIEL ISN’T REAL, with a story of the powerless and drunk hero Max Fist (Joe Manganiello). In another universe he saved his world from falling through space and time wound up in a desolate American suburb, where no one believes his heroic tales. He meets Hamster (Skylan Brookes), a teenager who wants to be somebody, and when the mob his sister works for comes after him, Max learns what it is to be a hero without any superpowers.
In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Mortimer spoke about his struggles with the cycle of misery, his films as an ongoing project of resolving personal anxieties, and cinema as universe connected by portals and vortexes.
FRIGHTFEST: 'What we are' versus 'who we feel we are' can often be out of synch. I've spoken with directors who say that it took films before they felt they could call themselves a filmmaker. Do you feel that you can call yourself a filmmaker?
ADAM EGYPT MORTIMER: The difference between what we feel and what we are is an obsession, and that’s what my movies are about. I've thought of myself as a filmmaker confidently in waves throughout my life.
The first music video I ever made back in 2003 was this experimental noise art collaboration, and I walked away from that feeling like, ‘Holy shit! I made a piece of art, this is amazing.’ But I was certainly not paying my rent with that, and then having made SOME KIND OF HATE, I felt glad I got to make a movie and get it out there. Some people liked it, but I didn't feel it was a full expression of my potential and my understanding of film - I was learning how to make a movie while I shot it.
The feeling I recall most and hold onto was when I got back home from New York after shooting DANIEL ISN'T REAL. I felt a sense of peace that I had not previously experienced, and it goes back to some dark things. Prior to making DANIEL, I would sometimes go on these weeklong jags of thinking, ‘I'm dying of cancer. I'm going to die now, and I won't have ever left on the floor my whole soul.’ Then after shooting DANIEL thinking, 'If I get hit by a truck tomorrow it's okay, because I really put myself into this one. It’s fine, I can leave this behind as a marker of who I was’, which is a stressful line of thinking.
That sense of peace was great, and it doesn't persist so totally that I could live for the past three years in peace [laughs]. Having finished the movie and having people react so awesomely gave me a sense of confidence that I know what I'm doing, and I can communicate what I want to communicate to people. Even so, making ARCHENEMY I was thinking, ‘Oh, this movie is going to end my career. Why am I doing this thing that's half the budget of DANIEL, is shot in less time, is more insane and nobody's going to understand it? I'm going to totally fuck this up and everybody was looking forward to my next movie.’ You create new problems, and before DANIEL nobody gave a fuck who I was, so that was miserable, and then after DANIEL, I don't want to disappoint people who like that movie, so now that makes me miserable.
FF: To creatively express yourself must heighten the anxiety that naturally comes from one’s preoccupation with his or her identity, how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.
AEM: I do think about this a lot and how it's part of what you do in your career. The project I have is to figure out ways to not be in this eternal cycle of misery. I read a lot of Buddhism when I was a kid and when I was in college, and as I've gotten older, I’ve realised it’s wasted on the young. These ideas about cycles and feelings, how all life is suffering and how do you find peace, you think that is cool when you're 19 years old because it's just cosmic and weird. Now as a man with a life, that's when I need to understand how to protect myself from this inner dialogue of insanity. At the same time that's what my movies wind up being about. Luke was in this cycle of excitement and misery, and Max Fist is in this cycle of violence and elation, misery, self-hatred, and self-grandiosity, so I guess that's what I'm doing.
FF: In cinema the hero’s journey can be presented with a dramatic and fantastical grandness, but we should not forget the scale of the heroic can be small. DANIEL ISN’T REAL and ARCHENEMY are about characters going on their own personal heroic journeys, that are grand but also small and intimate tales. We connect with these two films because they’re identifiable, but they also offer us an opportunity to escape our ordinary and monotonous everyday lives.
AEM: The sense of scale in both DANIEL and ARCHENEMY, there's suggestions of these vast cogent worlds, but my focus is on the heart of these very specific characters. This is part of what we get at in our best genre stories, and that’s what I came to understand SUPERMAN is about, by talking to Grant Morrison, the great comic book writer who wrote ALL-STAR SUPERMAN.
A lot of filmmakers have struggled with the character, and they're always taking his powers away or making him evil because they don't know what to do with action SUPERMAN. What he's supposed to be is a guy who goes out and must fight the giant and intelligent galaxy, but that's simply representing how we feel when we must get up in the morning and go to work. I think that's that thing you’re talking about with scale.
For me, it's all about making a movie with a big idea, but what that feels like is the thing that's part of our daily lives. Throughout that 24-hour period you're going to have all these internal struggles, an argument with somebody, maybe a hug, and those feelings need to be splashed up big, but still be those same feelings. Hamster in ARCHENEMY is someone who wants to do something with his life, and what he winds up with is an interaction with a cosmic entity who's insane. We all know what it's like to want to do something with your life, and what the relationships are that we end up forming because of that.
FF: There's a subconscious aspect to film that neither you nor we as an audience can control. A film can open doors in the mind that neither we ourselves nor the storyteller can anticipate. How we tell and experience stories is not magical but cosmic, a grey area where there's a complete loss of control for all. As a filmmaker, do you have to be willing to let go of control and see what the actors and the film will give you?
AEM: I wrote a graphic novel once and the reason I ultimately didn't want to stick with that, and why I liked film making so much more is that in writing a comic book, I had too much control.
What I find in making movies is the collaboration is incredible. If you choose the right people to work with, then it becomes a village hive mind, and so what I do as a director is trying to make sure I understand what it's about, what the emotional spine is and the themes are, and communicate that well. Then everybody can go running as fast and as far as they can, as long as they're seeing as they’re headed in that direction.
When I was rehearsing with Joe and Amy [Seimetz] for ARCHENEMY, we did a part of our rehearsal where they were just talking to each other like they were a miserable married couple. It was an exercise where I was trying to get them to apologise to each other, and it just went on and on. I was sitting there, and I started to feel so uncomfortable. It was like I was watching a couple have a gnarly passive-aggressive communication, and I thought, ‘This is the movie. This scene is not going to be in the movie, but this vibe will be - this is the relationship between Cleo and Max Fist.’
It’s that human interaction and weird spark of surprise, and so as a director I'm framing the container for for these human experiments to go off correctly.
FF: The opening of ARCHENEMY connects it with the universe of DANIEL ISN’T REAL. I’ve read that you want to add a third film to complete the trilogy. ARCHENEMY had a different style to its predecessor, but will the third film stylistically combine the two, or will it be different?
AEM: The most interesting trilogies are the ones that have a strong thematic connection but are not necessarily one continuous story. When you look at THE THREE COLOURS, that's an amazing trilogy with Juliette Binoche playing the same character. It's three stories, but they have this connection between them, and that's an interesting way to do a trilogy.
I have to be honest, I want to do a third movie, but I don't know that I'll ever get the opportunity. When I think about what that movie is, I have to start first with what the story will be and how I’ll connect all these characters. I have a sense of how the universe connects, but as far as what the style and the feeling would be, my process tends to be first I have the idea for the story, then I write it, and then I look at it and start to figure out what the style is.
I’ve an inherent style in that I want things to be immersive and grab you in certain ways, and I love playing with colour. When I first started ARCHENEMY, I thought it was going to be a little quieter and more grounded, that it might feel a little more like THE WRESTLER.
I find my style when I'm looking at what the story and the emotions are about. Without having written the third movie I don't know what it would feel like yet. Maybe I'll write something, and it'll turn out I'm having a bad year, and this is the darkest, most depressing anxiety ridden thing yet, and it's going to be scarier than DANIEL. Or maybe I'll write it and all these characters finally find love and hope, I don't know [laughs].
What I know is there’s the idea of being able to connect these multiverse ideas, and I was so insistent that the first image in ARCHENEMY be the same first image [from DANIEL ISN’T REAL], but it's morphed and transformed. It’s a different colour, but it comes from the same footage of vortex that we shot in a cloud tank, so I couldn't say it more clearly.
DANIEL ends with him jumping through a vortex, and we start ARCHENEMY with another guy falling through it. I can almost picture people falling through the frames of a film to get from one story to another, which is a way I think about genre sometimes. What if Nicholas Cage from LEAVING LAS VEGAS fell into a superhero story? [Laughs] Genres as these bubbles of worlds and universes, and my characters fall from one to the other. So what happens when you take all these guys from a sci-fi superhero movie, and connect them with characters from an anxious horror movie? I don't know yet what that is, but I know that it's mind fucking jam [laughs].
ARCHENEMY is available now on DVD and On Digital.