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“I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road”
A Discussion Of (And With) Filmmaker Julian Grant
By Pablo D’Stair
Director Julian Grant has mentioned elsewhere what it was in Jed Ayres’ writing that attracted him, but I wanted to get at something I’ve always wondered about and which seems especially pertinent in this case: why adapt a work from page to screen at all?
I explained to Grant that I quite understand the impulse to read a story, to become inspired to do something in the same vein, but that I feel it has to be admitted that it is a peculiar thing to cinema, this trend toward ‘adaptation’—after all it is not so common that an author watches a film and then says ‘Hey, I’d like to do that as a book!’
And in the case of Fuckload of Scotch Tape, there is such a filmic thing to it, such a verve that—as Grant serves so many functions in the film making—seems to be ‘of him’ and not dependent on the source material, I wondered why adapt from an author instead of just originating, outright?
Grant responded quite to the point that to him, “Narrative fiction is a jumping off point. A place to start. There is something in the writing that propels me to imagine it as a visual story. That process of discovery is married with my own visual evolution. Every film is different – and has a visual aesthetic that develop. I have to find the look in order to proceed.”
This stylization struck me in several ways. Firstly, to see in a ‘micro budget’ piece of cinema such control, polish, and ‘rococo cinematic’ is always very cool. As nowadays such things are more and more possible, I always like to see films working at the shoestring or below level go all out on the surface look.
I found, though, as the film progressed that, as happens often with distinct stylization (from Amelie to Fight Club to everything in between) that a sense of ‘prolonged prologue’ came over it. The split screen, the voice over, the still photo, the music etc etc one after the other with little ‘straight scene’ between them: there was a sense of the look washing over the particulars of performance.
I told Grant I wondered how much it was intentional or if he thought I was even on point with what I was saying. I felt that ‘post Tarantino’ film makers (I said to further attempt clarity on my point) especially ‘noirish’ filmmakers—either hard noir or light noir (from Lock Stock to Ocean’s Eleven, you know?)—seem to always be straddling a line with the method of storytelling delivery. And in Grant’s film, when taken individually, the particular performances by the players were quite complex (and very well done) in themselves, so I did wonder if as a film maker he had more of a broad stroke view—i.e. the performances being looked at less as ‘scenes’ and more as ‘bits in a collage’–than the pinpoint view of letting the performances be the story, full on.
As to the ‘collagist’ aspect, Grant said, “An astute observation. The fragmented and bitter shards of life are reflected in the tonal palette of the film. It’s a beautiful ugly and is conscious of itself. Look to the 150 page comic book adaptation to see this pushed even further.”
Something I felt had to be brought up was the musical element of the film. What, particularly, was in Grant’s mind with having the performers actually mouth the songs—the music video look, especially, more than the ‘musical’ look. Obviously it is neat thing to do, but it seemed there must be more to it than that. Something so distinct—similar to the ‘sing-a-long’ in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—is something that cannot be as simple as ‘it seemed cool.’ To me, there was an outsider-ness, an other-ness to the inclusion of this technique, almost as though the characters portrayed singing, at times, gave the entire story a disembodiment, a sense of inevitability, like a ghost singing its own murder ballad.
Grant says he “was inspired by Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective). Both TV shows use this artifice and it is evident in the Hollywood bastardization in Glee and Hollywood High. It is of the times, the inner mind and the soul of the characters. It gives voice to inner thoughts and feelings that are traditionally omitted in cinema. Hollywood is surface gloss. A well preened poodle. This is a dirty junkyard where we see within and that is shared with the audience.”
Now, this works well with the piece in one sense, but in another sense I found it risky, a thing that could go awry. Playing with noir—especially pulp-noir—is a tricky thing to do right and best intentions often go astray (think the Sin City adaptation—it did what it wanted to, but ought it to have done it?). I guess to put a fine point on the question I asked Grant what did he want the musical aspect of the film to do and did he feel it was successful in it, now that he could reflect on the picture as a whole?
Grant explains that “If Jed Ayres’ work is the heart of the film, Kevin Quain’s music is the soul. I am just a hurdy-gurdy man grinding away and trying not to get in the way of the performance.
“Too many directors and storytellers approach cinema in a cultural magpie way – think Tarantino (stealing riffs and mix-mastering infinitum) – where as I am an instrument responding to the beats and needs of the story. I like musicals. I like noir. I like sad little people in too far. Why not sing about it? Why not give voice to the pains of the soul and the needs of the heart?
“Audiences looking for Hollywood are not served here. This is (dare I say it), art – and not designed as commerce. Watch my other films, The Defiled or Fall Away and you will see how integral music is to understanding the story. As a visual storyteller, I am interpreting the sounds and visuals as suggested to me by the written material, the musical soundtrack and the performances of the cast.”
In that Grant sees narrative fiction as a jumping off point, I asked did he have much or any concern for an investigation of the (I could not help but parenthetically add the qualifier ‘so-called’) authorial intent of the original?
Grant replied, “The written work will always exist on the shelf. I mix mastered two different stories (FLOST and Mahogany and Monogamy) to make my version of FLOST.”
There is always the debate as to how cinema ‘based on’ a literary work (or a pulp work, but let’s not split hairs) should be handled. Camp A is strongly for ‘exact adaptation’ so to speak (Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing, for example, Mother Night by Keith Gordon or End of the Affair by Neil Jordan) and Camp B is equally as strongly for insisting on absolute newness, almost a discussion of original made through adaptation, a nearly religious belief that it would be ‘impossible to capture a book on the screen.’
I would think that since Grant so emphatically spoke of the ‘Look’ that he fell in Camp B, so I presumptuously went on with a bit more pointed a question: Did he feel that the film, as artwork, is in anyway defined by the ‘type of text’ it originates from—i.e. I would say Polanski would purposefully take Pulp writing and make Art film (Rosemary’s Baby, for example, or Frantic…even Ghost Writer, to an extent, but a pretty weak film, that) but would never suggest that the basis-novel was Art Writing (per se); and often highly literary works are made into less-than-artful cinema, but at the same time never suggest that the basis-writing is anything but the highest of literature.
Grant first added in a comment about Polanksi, stating that in his opinion “Polanski makes anything fucking creepy – he is a man wrapped in loss. See The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski—this would be the ultimate Polanski film for him to consider.”
He then went on to touch on the larger discussion. “Filmmakers,” he explained, “infect and invest their material with their own sensibilities. David Lynch making a comedy would still be a very strange affair. Sweeny Todd or anything by Tim Burton cannot help but smell of 1950’s horror, camp melodrama and a sweeping soundtrack courtesy of Danny Elfman. We redefine the work through our own eyes and lenses. Jed’s FLOST is not Julian’s FLOST – but they exist in the same adoration of film noir and small people getting into big trouble.”
I dug what he said there as it touched on his film, but allowed myself to take a sidestep with it. Because I totally saw what he meant, but wondered how in the Indie Scene (at least as I know it) the availability of new technology blurs the line of such intention (that is, the intention of keeping Indie away, full stop, from Studio).
Because one of the things I very much admired in FLOST was the control, the layering of effect and stylistic-on-top-of-stylistic, but at the same time for years I was consciously of the what I will call Abel Ferrara Driller Killer camp, of the mind that it is almost necessary for Indie to actively, consciously shun any sense of cleanness. That is, part of the ‘ugly beauty,’ to borrow Grant’s term, of a film like Driller Killer was its necessarily…shabby look. Not an ‘affected shabbiness’ but one that was going to be there, no matter what, and so was not avoided any more than it was embraced—just accepted.
A lot of the available technology etc. which Indie filmmakers have easy hands on, today, I think makes it unavoidably forefront to access their output through a filter of ‘Are they trying to do this to look more ‘pro’ or are they just doing it because they want it to look that way, period, and since they can they do?’
Done with my meandering, I told Grant I supposed I’d like to know how much the look he goes for is influenced by what is readily available (tools to make it look that way) and then, just generally, would like to know if he thought the advent of available technology has perhaps negatively affected DIY cinema, just unconsciously—a little less DIY, a little more ‘let’s use what’s most easily available.’
To all of this, Grant replied, “I paint or draw with the tools available. I come from a professional ‘movie’ world where everything is technically perfect. My indie world has the same sense of responsibility – but it is colored by the available equipment and personnel. I want my films to be in focus and be technically audible and appreciated (without mechanical gaffes) – but the look and style and feel of the film is something that I am deeply invested in.
‘I film using strange plastic lenses from HK, using pin-sharp Leica glass, knowing the color palette I want to draw from – not out of any hip need to be cool – but rather to filter and shape the skin that covers the body and dramatize the action with a direct pictorial understanding of how I am shaping the narrative in my visualizations. I am always consciously aware of how look affects interpretation.”
A point I wanted to explore was one of the differences Grant suggested between a ‘Tarantino figure’ and himself. Because I completely agreed with his remark about Tarantino-as-cultural-magpie and go a step further (my opinion, not saying he shared it) to say that Tarantino’s style, his ‘grift-homage’ (because it’s not straight homage) is why I have never felt the least bit of connection or depth, nothing beyond the surface level to his characters, never been emotionally hit by anything he puts on screen.
Grant’s work, on the other hand, it is almost entirely emotional—maybe even a better way of putting what I earlier meant by saying he used the individual performances as pieces in the mosaic, in a very extreme way. I feel that his film, in totality, is one single performance and certainly FLOST stands or falls for a viewer based on…well…everything altogether.
Tarantino and many of those who can be camped with him, I think there is a sense of safety in how they make a film, each tick and tock can be isolated, so that even if there is no ‘whump’ of a single thing, the film can be defended based on the ‘merit of this and that bit’ which, really could exist in any film, not just the specific one they are in. FLOST seems to me to eschew such safety—if it flops for someone, it all the way flops, if it wins, it all the way wins.
I asked Grant did he feel that he is an ‘all or nothing’ artist, that his films are looking to be vulnerable, unprotected in order to have the (perhaps only spiritual) reward of absolute connection to a small audience rather than a lukewarm reaction by a vaster crowd?
And seeming to hit on something as vital to him as it was to me, Grant jumped in that as he sees it, “When lifting (stealing) completely from others, there is no sense of true ownership. When QT stole from City On Fire to make Reservoir Dogs, he initially disavowed any artistic ‘homage’. See the film Who Do You Think You Fooling? to see the initial response to his ‘theft’.
“Now, he and others in his camp borrow liberally and can watch safely knowing that they are using a tried-and-true (though obscure) approach. Jackie Brown, the Kill Bill movies, Django all now speak openly of their ‘loving homages’ – if you liked the original, you’ll love my interpretation and it’s a shtick that works well now for QT.
“FLOST is not for everyone. Nor should it be. This film is a love letter to Noir, Dennis Potter and Jed and Kevin – but it is also an original dramatic attempt to convey my complex emotional responses and resolutions to a myriad of concerns. It’s balls in – you dig it or you hate it.
“And that’s what art is? Isn’t it? Illustration masquerades as Art and we applaud the technical reproduction or the ‘correctness’ of it all. True Art is dangerous, challenges the status quo and demands you make an interpretation without the benefit of a safety rail or training wheels. Art confronts, confounds and asks you to pick a fucking team.
“Perhaps my work is more akin to Abstract Art (my kid could do better) or Open Verse (what the fuck is he trying to say?).
“Did you come to be mindlessly entertained (movies) or did you come to experience a communion (film)? Are you slurping down cinematic Chef Boyardee (movies) or do you want some ass-burning Chili (Film)?
“My indy cinema (The Defiled, Fall Away, FLOST and the forthcoming Sweet Leaf) don’t give a fuck if you don’t get it. ‘I didn’t make him for you’ – Frank N Furter (RHPS). I no longer have to define myself with watered-down movie fare. I get to make indy cinema that is a swift kick in the nuts to the middle ground. Fuck mediocrity. I see enough stale and insipid work everyday.
“What is the point in just adding to a landscape cluttered with technically proficient but emotionally vapid clutter?”
I wanted to press a bit further on some remarks—if in a slightly more ethereal way—as I thought it touched on one of the perpetual intrigues of Art in general, but certainly in art born of interpreting other art, so to speak.
To what degree did Grant separate the notion of Interpretation (as in ‘how the audience is going to perhaps react’) and Expression (as in ‘what you are aiming to get across, for and of yourself’)?
I admitted that in my own way of looking at things, the notion of any sort of ‘predicting audience reaction’ based on choices I make as an artist is something I avoid. The audience will, without fail, contain any and all response possible, so it is, for me, a moot thing to consider, this bit of audience or that.
To make it a bit more concrete, though—Grant is interpreting Jed’s work, but it would very interesting if what Grant got out of Jed’s work (as seen in the film) was anything Jed had intended, particularly, was any way he ever ‘hoped to come across’—Jed’s art, quite unconcerned with Grant, birthed Grant’s, so to speak.
To this point, Grant says, “I would like to think I responded to Jed’s tone of story and the timbre of his characters. I knew these people – low rent schemers and losers and I wanted to document their love, loss and struggle to remain alive.
“I think the audience for this film is basically the same as me. They know these characters and can empathize with the continued kick in the nuts that life seems to give Benji (and by extension, themselves). FLOST’s audience are low-level criminals, drug-addled dreamers and schemers – looking for a quick score – and this cautionary tale tells them not to do it. It’s an ‘After School Special’ from Hell that hopefully entertains and educates.
“I want an audience smart enough to fuck up and know when they are. Most audiences blithely follow – my audience leads with their chin, gets knocked in the shit – and is ‘too dumb to quit.’ My kinda people.”
How does Grant see Audience—both in the sense of how does he see it ‘abstractly as concept’ (when he is working: the idea of audience before there is one) and in the sense of ‘audience concrete’ (his work is done, it is actually being regarded, remarked on).
It was an old question, I supposed, but does Grant—with regard to audience—create for one that does not exist (an Idealized Audience) or for one he knows specifically exists (i.e. he has in mind people who are already ‘into what he is into’ as Audience, and people who ‘aren’t yet’ are kind of a side thought)?
Just to flesh out this point a bit, because it was so near to my heart went on that I find ‘homage’ cinema (whether it is ‘almost wholly’ Homage, as in the case of Tarantino, or is ‘homage laced with a very specific original outlook’—for example Burton, who Grant mentioned) kind of a half-formed thing. And this touches on the specified audience thing: these filmmakers create kind of ‘for the base’ so to speak—any converts are gravy, any detractors are easily deflected due to the protective umbrella of Homage, of ‘this is what I do, these people get it, you don’t, no worries’.
But of course, I admitted, this could be said of the Balls in approach as well, and said in fairness to a larger extent.
As to the notion of the incendiary, the volatility of Art, I did wonder how far, as an artist, Grant takes it in himself. Some auteurs (I consider Grant one, based on his work and remarks) seem to only accept that definition by, I would suggest, literally making films that are For No One (Haneke comes to mind, von Trier, even folks like Harmony Korine, to an extent, or Jarmusch, in a less ‘aggressive’ way) perhaps counting on an emotional, non-cinematic, non-familiar draw to cull an audience from. That is, the films are made—whatever type or genre, the film is seen as complete reinvention, as close to genre-less as can be, in conception—and whatever audience comes is what comes, their fondness and the details for the fondness almost necessarily not based on a fondness for any third-party thing (they don’t already ‘like horror’ or ‘like quiet long films’ or anything: they are blank slates.)
Now, all of this I said in preamble to the final, more airily philosophical question I wanted Grant to address: Knowing that his audience will likely already have an affinity for some aspect of his work, that they are likely going to come to it as somewhat predefined and are then going to define it with regard to themselves (the ones who like it will feel, so to speak, that it was, in fact ‘made for them’) does Grant feel that his stated philosophies as artist are localized to the act of creation or does he feel they carry through to his position as interactor with audience after his ‘work is done’?
Grants says, “My former audience was relegated to TV safe formulaic entertainment. I spent 20 years conforming. My new audience (as I define my career from The Defiled onwards have had to jump from plague ravaged monsters to broken bi-sexual anti-heroes to this – and my next film continues this downward spiral – so I don’t know if I would ever think anyone would follow my work. I think they come in looking at the title, Fuckload of Scotch Tape and probably assume they are going to see some kind of bondo-porno title.
“Perhaps I should have just done that and delivered on the promise of the premise?”
To put a plain face on the question, I finally asked: If someone told you they loved your film and felt it was for them, would you feel obligated to them it wasn’t for them at all, or would you just let the comment pass?
“I am, of course, honored that anyone finds a story I tell interesting. That the time spent helped them feel something or inspires them to action – as opposed to a cinematic tit for them to suck on and be lulled to sleep.
“I hate cinema that takes an invisible approach to its formation. Aping the milk-toast television fodder passing as mindless entertainment.
“Art should challenge/destroy the status quo when most undiluted. Is FLOST art? Maybe? It has a particular world view that is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s more like Absinthe. Rotting away in the brain and maybe taking you to places that you don’t want to go. But it does it with its heart gleefully pinned on its sleeve. You are beaten and seduced throughout the film in a rough trade equivalency. You feel a little sad and a little sticky when the lights come up.
“It ends on a sour note and you have a lotta questions about yourself and despite the fact Benji is a complete shit – you are sorry when he goes.
“Love it, hate it – watch it and have the decency to form an opinion.’”
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing October, 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.