Sundance ’11 Interview: ‘Septien’ Director Michael Tully

Debuting simultaneously at the Sundance Film Festival and on VOD this week, writer/director Michael Tully’s Septien is the dark, quirky story of a reclusive sports hustler who returns to the family farm after 18 years and reunites with his two emotionally damaged brothers. B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen recently got on the phone with Tully to discuss the film’s journey from bizarre conceit to fully-fleshed out Sundance entry (with a pre-fest distribution deal!), why he purposefully conceived it to alienate the majority of the moviegoing public, and how the little-known 1974 made-for-TV oddity ‘Bad Ronald’ served as one of his major influences. See inside for the full story.
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: if you go in to director Michael Tully’s Sundance entry ‘Septien’ expecting heaps of gore or even a standard thriller narrative, you will be gravely disappointed. This is ‘not’ ‘Saw 3-D’, or ‘The Crazies’, or even ‘Antichrist’. There are no nubile screaming teenagers running for their lives from a masked killer. Buzzing chainsaws ripping through flesh do not factor in here. There aren’t even any ghosts in the film – at least not in the literal sense. Hell, it’s not even really a horror movie; but then it’s not exactly a drama, or a comedy, or a [insert name of traditional movie genre here] either. So what is it, then?

The filmmaker doesn’t seem all that sure himself, but he nevertheless made an attempt at explaining it to me (full disclosure: I have not yet had an opportunity to see the movie) when we hopped on the phone the other day to discuss ‘Septien”s forthcoming Sundance/Video On Demand debut.

[The] primary goal was capturing the feeling of `you’re back in the `80s, and you’re younger than you are right now, and you turn on the T.V. at 2am and it seems like you’re watching a sort of quirky, humorous character piece that starts bending into increasingly odd directions’“, said Tully, speaking to me from his home base of New York City. This in answer to my question of how, exactly, his film was appropriate for coverage on a horror film website. In all honesty I never quite figured out the answer to that question, but judging by his influences – ’71 chiller ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’, ’74 made-for-TV anomaly ‘Bad Ronald’, Charles Laughton’s expressionistic 1955 classic ‘Night of the Hunter’ – it seems practically a guarantee that some of what’s in the film will skew in a decidedly darker direction.

It’s not overt, outright horror“, he continued. “It’s more like me being six years old and watching `Bad Ronald’ and just feeling like, `this movie is weird!’

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of watching `Bad Ronald’ (number six on my list of “Ten Underrated Horror Gems“!), the made-for-TV film, based on the book of the same title by Jack Vance, concerns a young, socially-awkward teenager who accidentally kills a young girl in his neighborhood and is forced by his mother to hide out in a wallpapered-over room to avoid arrest. If it sounds like a rather unusual premise, the actual film is even stranger than it sounds – and at about the halfway point, things only get weirder. ‘Septien’, while admittedly a much different kind of film, seems to share that quality in common with the little-known oddity.

The script…is a sort of bifurcated narrative, where the first 40 minutes are just like…’is this even going anywhere?’” said Tully. “And then it sort of kicks in.

The premise itself is about as bizarre as you might imagine. As summed up by the Sundance website:

Eighteen years after disappearing without a trace, Cornelius Rawlings returns to his family’s farm. While his parents are long deceased, Cornelius’s brothers continue to live in isolation on this forgotten piece of land. Ezra is a freak for two things: cleanliness and Jesus. Amos is a self-taught artist who fetishizes sports and Satan. Although back home, Cornelius is still distant. In between challenging strangers to one-on-one games, he huffs and drinks the days away. The family’s high-school sports demons show up one day in the guise of a plumber and a pretty girl. Only a mysterious drifter can redeem their souls on 4th and goal.

While it’s a synopsis bound to pique the curiosity of independent film-lovers with a darker bent (myself included), Tully understands all too well that ‘Septien’ won’t appeal to a majority of audiences, and that’s by design. In fact, he seemed genuinely amazed that Sundance – a Festival that at least claims to celebrate artistic innovation in American cinema, though some detractors would question that assertion – warmed to the film at all.

['Septien'] sort of defeat[s] the Sundance Labs theory of how to tell a story“, remarked Tully, in reference to the program at the Sundance Institute where every year several up-and-coming filmmakers are invited to workshop their projects with established professionals. “So I just thought they were gonna be like, `this seems like an unfocused, weird mess’. Miraculously, I think they caught on to the spirit of it – the overriding spirit that we were trying to be sincere, even if we were trying to do something different.

Even more miraculously, the film already has a distributor in IFC Films, a company known for taking risks on exceedingly quirky projects (Exhibit A: they released ass-to-mouth extravaganza ‘The Human Centipede’ last April). Tully certainly realizes how lucky he is.

Septien

First of all, I’ll tell you that…anyone who put money in[to the project], including myself, was of the understanding that we would never see a dollar“, he told me sincerely. “That was just understood, and I was very honest to the investors – friends of mine, and associates. Like, `we’re not doing this for that reason’. It was almost a reaction against everyone saying…’you have to know your audience, and only make a movie if you know that there’s gonna be a way that you can sell it and connect with viewers’. And after writing about movies at hammertonail.com [the independent film website founded by Ted Hope and Corbin Day] for a couple years, I was just like, `I want to make the exact opposite statement’.

Tully certainly has a unique perspective, in that he regularly writes about the films of others while also penning and directing his own projects. Indeed, there is an air of the “jaded film journalist” about him – the feeling that he has seen and written about ‘a lot’ of movies and come away with the impression that even the independent film world is currently suffering in many ways from what could best be described as a hive-mind mentality. I have no idea if this is what Tully actually believes (it’s only my best guess), but like a true film journalist he consistently referenced other titles in describing his own project, influences that ranged from quirky classics underappreciated during their initial run (the aforementioned ‘Night of the Hunter’) to near-unknown arthouse films (Sean Baker’s ‘Take Out’, which Tully believes is “in the same class as `The Bicycle Thief’“). It is the spirit of these influences – which include Victor Erice’s ‘Spirit of the Beehive’ and the aforementioned ‘Bad Ronald’ and ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’ – that Tully strove valiantly to capture in his own work, although true to the fiercely individualistic nature of ‘Septien’ these influences may not be obvious to anyone but the director himself. This is also by design.

You know, my instinct as a filmmaker is to not…where it’s like Wes Anderson in `Rushmore’ literally takes a scene from `High School’, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary, and just sort of incorporates that into his movie, I personally have trouble doing that“, said Tully to the idea of overtly referencing these other films. “My influences are more like the spirit of something. So we have a musical interlude in the film that was sort of a `Night of the Hunter’ tribute, but in no way is it direct. And anyone would laugh if I told them it was.

The core “brothers on a farm” premise behind ‘Septien’ was conceived rather casually several years ago by Tully, fellow filmmaker/friend Onur Tukel, and actor/friend Robert Longstreet (both of whom co-star with Tully in the film and received a story credit), but for years it remained unrealized. It was only during a visit to the set of friend David Gordon Green’s latest film ‘Your Highness’ that Tully began to take the idea more seriously – a fire he credits Green for stoking.

When I went to the set of `Your Highness’, he has three shoots going on at once in this old, converted…where they built the Titanic, this huge hangar“, he said, in awe of the enormous resources Green now enjoys after becoming a fixture on the arthouse circuit for many years. “And he’s like, `ok, what scripts are you working on?’ You know? He was just like, `let’s talk about your movies’. So the guy has just boundless energy and enthusiasm. We came away from that conversation with the really formed outline…that sort of made it all the way through the shooting stage.

That was only a few months ago – sometime in early 2010 – but the project blossomed quickly. With buy-in from Tukel and Longstreet, Tully quickly wrote the screenplay and in short order they found themselves shooting the film in Tennessee with producers Brent Stewart, Ryan Zacarias and Brooke Bernard of Nomadic Independence Pictures, headquartered in Nashville. All three had previously collaborated with idiosyncratic writer/director Harmony Korine (‘Mister Lonely’, ‘Trash Humpers’) and his actress wife Rachel, both of whom Tully had come to know through his sister Carol several years previously. Though Harmony’s schedule wouldn’t allow for his involvement in the project (Tully initially wanted him to appear in the film), Rachel agreed to star in the role of underage teen “Savannah” (“the pretty girl” in the synopsis), a part Tully had written for her specifically. As for the central Rawlings brothers, Tully took on the lead role of “Cornelius“, described as a “reclusive sports hustler” who returns to the family farm after 18 years; Longstreet was cast as “Ezra“, who has taken on the persona of the siblings’ deceased mother; and Tukel signed on as “Amos“, who “fetishizes sports and Satan“.

Rare for an independent production now, the film was shot on Super 16mm, both because Tully prefers the quality of film stock (“watching a movie on film feels a little richer“) and also in an effort to capture the “timeless” quality he was aiming for in the final product. It also helped to engender the go-for-broke sensibility on set that in hindsight Tully believes helped make the film what it is.

I just don’t think you can replace the magic of shooting on a film camera“, he said of his preference. “And we were doing this…you know, I’m directing and acting. So I barely was looking at a monitor and trusting our awesome D.P. Jeremy Saulnier to make beautiful imagery. But even that first week he was like, `bro, I have not shot [on] film in eight years, we need to look at dailies, I don’t know if any of this is coming out.’ And that added to this like `fuck it’ spirit that we had…everyone was way more enthusiastic. If we were shooting on video, I just don’t think it would’ve had that spirit in the production itself.

As for the IFC deal, Tully was approached by Manager of Acquisitions & Productions Jeff Deutchman – who he’d become friendly with during his years of making the rounds in the independent film world – long before his movie was ready for public consumption. The offer put together by the independent distributor guaranteed ‘Septien’ both a Video On Demand release concurrent with its Sundance debut (in a co-venture between IFC and Sundance Selects, a new program which brings festival selections directly into the living rooms of independent film lovers who don’t have the luxury of traveling to Park City) and a limited theatrical run later in the year. It also mandated a January 10th deadline to deliver the finished film, which at the time Tully considered a near-impossible time frame to work within. However, after shopping the project around to a few other distributors (in the spirit of playing fair) and being greeted by sweeping rejections, it became apparent that the IFC deal was his best bet.

In talking to our sales agent George Rush out of San Francisco, who’s an attorney as well, in his experience was like, `I love your movie, I think it’s got this sort of cult spirit to it. But I think your deals are only gonna be going down once like half the room is scratching their heads in Park City’“, he recounted. “It was made to have like five weirdos talking about it, and not being able to stop thinking about it…I mean, we didn’t want to antagonize viewers and make people upset and not like it. But the purpose was to make something that was like a handful of people thought was pretty amazing, and the rest of the room was like, `What did we just watch? I still don’t know’.

That description will ultimately apply not only to general moviegoers but hardcore horror fans as well, and Tully made sure not to plug the film as anything other than a mad experiment free of the traditional genre trappings that would make it an easier sell. In other words: if you’re looking for a film where characters solve their problems by slicing off each other’s body parts, you’d best be moving right along.

I don’t want to give one thing away until people see it…but where it should be getting violent it doesn’t“, Tully admitted in no uncertain terms. “There’s a flirtation with it, hopefully there’s a tension, but again, I don’t wanna lie and tell all the horror genre heads out there that this is gonna be some mind-blowing, violent explosion because it sort of takes a turn and it goes in a concentrated direction in the other way. I don’t wanna get philosophical about this film and this story, but I like the idea that this is a tale of revenge, but it’s not revenge in the sort of `eye-for-an-eye’ sense. It’s more accepting the past…and trying to move on with it.

What’s refreshing about the director is that, unlike many in the film world who attempt to sell themselves and/or their projects as “all-things-to-all-people” (in an industry where “four-quadrant” appeal is held up as the ultimate prize), he is acutely aware of what his movie is and makes no attempt to sell it as anything else. Which doesn’t mean he harbors no desire to move on from the extremely niche audience ‘Septien’ caters to later in his career (though his hoped-for next film, a “period piece ping pong hip-hop comedy” entitled ‘Ping Pong Summer’, admittedly doesn’t scream “blockbuster“).

I’m sort of interested to see if this will…I mean, it’s just such a weird movie that I could not see how anyone would watch ['Septien'] and think I’d be perfect for a Hollywood rom-com or I don’t know what, you know?” he admitted. “I mean, David [Gordon Green] is a huge model, Steven Soderbergh and now David, and even Jody Hill and Danny [McBride], the Rough House [Pictures] crew. What they’re doing is super-inspiring. And they’re sort of playing the game on their terms. If I can find a way to do that, I would love to make a paycheck making a movie…if I could keep sort of sticking to my guns while getting bigger budgets and talking to people, I’m game to try it.

Septien