Michael Tully, who lives in Ditmas and edits the indie film site Hammer to Nail, is the writer and director of Septien, which opens today at IFC Center. In the film, he plays prodigal high school football star Cornelius Rawlings, whose return to rundown estate that’s home to his brothers—the fey, devout eldest (Robert Longstreet), and the artist kid brother (Onur Turkel) who paints watercolors of football players self-mutilating and eating shit—shakes up the family’s equilibrium (the plumbing burbles ominously). Tully’s sincere, sometimes puzzle-missing-the-last-piece obvious, about the traumatic expectations of religion and sports; with his Jesus beard, aviators, stiff-legged walk and abrupt monotone, he’s also the best case for his turbulently incongruous sense of humor. Cornelius hustles strangers at sports—watching this hairy, withholding writer-director drain jumpers is weirdly indelible. (The gauzy skies and pearly grass—a gorgeous Thieves Like Us color palette—is courtesy DP Jeremy Saulnier.) Tully answered some questions over email last month.
Were you always going to star in the film? Or did you step in only after trying and failing to find another laconic stifflegged bearded guy who could rain down jumpers?
The tiny kernel of Septien was born almost ten years ago when I met Onur Tukel after his film Ding-A-Ling-Less screened at (and won) a festival in NYC. At the Q&A, I was won over by Onur’s charisma. We hung out that night, and I realized that both of us shared a scruffily bearded, vaguely Middle Eastern look (Onur’s is justified as his parents are from Turkey; mine is not as I’m a 50/50 mix of Irish and Italian?). For whatever reason, I had a flicker of a vision of us acting in a movie in which we played brothers on a farm. The flicker died there.
Ten years later, Onur sent me a short film he made and acted in called The Wallet (), and I was immediately reminded of that old brothers-on-a-farm idea. A brainstorm session over Irish Coffees at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival with my buddy David Gordon Green turned that tiny kernel into a really weird piece of popcorn that got lodged in my throat. Six months later, we were shooting Septien.
The film suggests something about how crippling the expectations of sports and religion can be, and I guess I’m curious about your background with both.
I was born and raised Catholic, to the extent that I received First Communion and spent years as an altar boy (in light of the film’s revelation, let me clarify that Septien is not autobiographical in any way, shape, or form). I was even confirmed. But I was never a big believer in what I was being taught, so when I graduated high school and left home, my already tenuous connection to the church was mercifully severed. That said, to this day I remain stained with the unfortunate burden of Catholic guilt.
As for sports, I grew up an obsessive. When I wasn’t playing football in the backyard, I was playing with football cards in my bedroom. I went to basketball camp every summer and played on the traveling team in middle school, and I have wasted more time shooting baskets in my parents’ driveway than doing almost anything else. Though I played tennis on my high school team, I never took lessons or anything like that. I wasn’t good enough at any sport I played for the term “crippling expectations” to apply.
Your sense of humor, a particular mix of flat affect, gross-out and eccentric, almost turbulent incongruity, is pretty unique, but I’m curious about your comic inspirations, if any.
I would say that I am generally more drawn to an understated approach to humor, though of course my tastes vary widely. One thing I have never really felt a deep connection with is the whole “sketch comedy” universe, whether on stage or in short online clips (I’ve encountered very funny stuff there, don’t get me wrong). I guess I prefer my humor to be grounded in reality, if that makes any sense. When it comes to movies in particular, I’m more drawn to those that are laugh-out-loud funny but which aren’t definitively categorized as “comedies”—things like Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May or Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers or Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, just to name a few.
As for Septien, it became clear to me early on that the only way to approach this material was to shoot it as a drama. The situation and characters were so over-the-top wacky that to ham it up would have been redundant. It would have been way, way too much. Treating it as a drama, with the most naturalistic performances as possible, only added to the excitement of the production, because we just didn’t know if the humor would even shine through or if this would make for a too jarringly incongruous tone or what. I’m still not sure if I know!
I suppose, too, that the influences needn’t have been comic—do you see the film, with its religious overtones, rundown estate and smoldering family secrets, as a Southern gothic?
Southern Gothic was without a doubt a major, primary source of inspiration, but it wasn’t the only one. While I deeply abhor the idea that Septien plays like a game of “spot the influences” by making direct references to other movies, an undeniable reason for making it was to perform a risky experiment by tossing a wide variety of genres and tones and styles into a blender and wondering if the resulting smoothie would be tasty, if it would be off-putting, if it would be smelly and disgusting, or if it would taste too weird to make even the tiniest semblance of sense. In this way, I can site the following list of films and literary references that found their way into the picture: Spirit of the Beehive, Stroszek, Bad Ronald, The Night of the Hunter, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Raising Arizona, All The Real Girls, Brother’s Keeper, Seventeen, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, The Straight Story, Nashville, Crumb, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, etc.
If I may add, there were also many real world influences: the rainstorm, for example. I used to sit on the back porch and watch the rain with my dad, sipping on our respective drinks, and though the exchange in Septien isn’t father-and-son and the circumstances are completely different, it was a situation that nonetheless felt very personal to me.
I’m also curious about the post-production process—given the blend of impossible-to-parse jokes and gradually revealed, very private psychodrama, I wonder how you expected people to react, how they in fact reacted, what kind of feedback you sought…
Just by asking this question, I think you’ve managed to express exactly what we were wondering as we wrote and shot and edited this thing! I remember saying during the shoot that my ideal reaction would be a screening in which 97 out of 100 people were watching in cock-headed silence while 3 were cackling loudly. Having said that, I should make one thing clear: it was never our intention to make a purposefully obtuse or frustrating movie. It just seemed more fun to not play by conventional narrative rules and it was especially exciting to make something that hinted of darkness and danger and all sorts of R-rated shenanigans but, aside from a few curse words and a lot of demented artwork, was pretty PG and could have been written by an innocent eighth grader in Language Arts class. Believe me, it was a scary alchemy, and I am well aware that as proud of the finished film as I am, this movie will not work for everyone (Understatement Of The Q&A). Ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that the reaction we hoped to get from viewers was a sense of surprise and appreciation that when all is said and done, the movie somehow manages to be both funny/absurd/preposterous and dramatic/tender/sincere at the very same time.
I’m a huge fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s work as a cinematographer on Putty Hill and especially here. When did Saulnier come aboard the project, and what sort of discussions did the two of you have about the way the film should look?
Everyone should be a huge fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s work. He has a very special gift, which is that his cinematography is artistic and beautiful and patient and immersive without ever calling attention to itself too loudly (of course, that shot of Savannah in the bathroom is like a masterful oil painting, but go with me here). Compared to Jeremy, my taste buds can veer to the artsier-fartsier side of the screening room, yet one thing we both firmly agreed on from the very beginning is that we should try to veil our presence as filmmakers and make it feel as if the story was telling itself (this applies to the editing as well—compliments of fellow Putty Hill alumnus Marc Vives). Of course, the strange nature of the content and the way the narrative plays out can be jarring at first, but we didn’t want Septien to feel like a bunch of “hip filmmakers” were standing behind the camera and winking at the audience. We wanted it to unravel for viewers in a way that made them wonder if this movie was even made in the 21st century. Maybe it was actually a lost made-for-TV movie from the 1970s or 80s.
As the production came together so quickly, I put out a few broad feelers to DP friends. But when Jeremy and I met up to discuss things—mind you, I had never worked with him before though we’d been friendly for a few years—more than trusting his skills as a DP, I just had a sense that he would be the type of sturdy presence that I needed behind the camera, especially since I had moronically cast myself in such a prominent role. Jeremy is an accomplished director in his own right (see: Murder Party), so I trusted him to tell me if I was particularly bad in a take without being too harsh about it. Making movies is really stressful, especially when you’re shooting 16 days in a row on Super-16mm celluloid in a nearly 100-degree Nashville July, and I personally don’t operate well when “the pressure is on.” Jeremy’s calm, stable presence and sense of humor is a godsend, but when you mix that with homeboy’s skills, it becomes something freakishly special. Jeremy Saulnier is a humble stud.