Terry McMahon is the writer and director of CHARLIE CASANOVA (2011) and PATRICK'S DAY (2014), two films that share singular qualities: they're passionate, angry, humanistic and thought-provoking. They're also intelligent, rich and ambitious, and hold a mirror to the injustices and wrongs of modern society, asking the viewer what they are willing to do if they are empathetic to McMahon's concerns. An uncompromising, fascinating and exciting talent, his career is only just beginning. I spoke to Terry about the two films, and here in part one, we address CHARLIE CASANOVA, a polarising, unforgettable, angry look at what he feels is all that is wrong in his native country of Ireland. 

Terry on PATRICK'S DAY.  
Growing up, what movies left the deepest impressions on you?
My father, who I wasn't very close to at the time but am now, loved movies and he told me one Saturday afternoon to sit down and watch a movie with him on TV. The movie came on and I pissed and moaned that it was in black and white. He wanted to kill me. The movie was 12 ANGRY MEN (1957). I had never seen him respond to a film in that way and I had never seen him insist that I sit down and watch something with him. It was a wonderful film but what was going through my head was ''What if in fact Henry Fonda's character was The Devil and him trying to turn everyone against finding the guy guilty was an orchestration of The Devil rather than a noble, human celebration of innocence?'' I was only a single-digit kid but my unique perspective of the film fundamentally altered my experience of watching it. Years later when I became immersed in the idea of wanting to write material, that experience of watching the film came back to me, and I started asking myself questions. Who presumes that a certain reality of a situation is the reality? Who presumes to know that what you're being told is true versus what you have been told is false? Who presumes to create an illusion or a delusion to protect their worldview or to manipulate or alter your worldview? I think, thematically, that came from 12 ANGRY MEN, and has existed in everything I've ever written since.

What was the inspiration for CHARLIE CASANOVA? Was it dissatisfaction with the way society was going in Ireland at the time?
We still have pure scum deciding our destinies and they are the weakest-minded, most pathetic cowards imaginable. They're Machiavellian, manipulating scum. They're in power now and the consequences of their policies and austerity and dehumanisation is manifesting everywhere. CHARLIE CASANOVA was an attempt to take a character who is a complete lying piece of shit and explore how he can justify his position in the world, and how we allow him to behave with impunity. I thought it would be clear to the audience that that was what the intention of the film was. It was almost a Brechtian construct where you're going ''This guy is lying to you. Watch him lie to you. What are you going to do about the lie?'' But instead, it seemed to generate a profoundly extreme hostility that made it become a national story that was played out in the media. I was depicted as a psychopathic moron who needed to be stopped. Even though it was picked up for distribution by Studio Canal in the UK and Ireland, it was utterly destroyed on its release. It's a very interesting process to go through where you're trying to make a film that deals with how the controlling class destroy the working class, the underclass, and you end up having it manifested in your real life. You realise you are utterly powerless against the small coterie of people who controlled the narrative of what CHARLIE CASANOVA became in the national media, and destroyed you as an individual. Then when banking tapes that revealed the systemic corruption in Ireland were released, and we started to see the narrative of the lies unfolding, it was interesting to see the film going through a revisionism or a re-assessment. What was seen as cartoonish in its grotesquerie became almost banal compared to the reality of what these guys were capable of doing, and how they use language, and how they dehumanise, and the consequences of their behaviour. 
Why do you think it got the hostile reception it got?
There are certain people who simply didn't like it, and they are absolutely entitled to feel that way. We also had some remarkable champions. I was very happy to embrace conversation with the people that didn't like it. But there were other people who saw the film as coming from a guy who did not go through the necessary process, the evaluation process that allows your decision making to get rubber stamped. If the film had come from Neil Jordan or someone who was authorised to engage in these complex issues, then the film would have been treated in a very different manner but because CHARLIE CASANOVA was made for less than a thousand Euros and had been made outside any given system and suddenly plucked out of total obscurity to be in competition at South by Southwest, immediately it generated an odd reaction. Some people celebrated it in a way that was quite beautiful, and they embraced the whole journey from before it came out to the way it played out for the next year and a half. But there were others who thought I was just a mouthy prick who didn't have the right education or background and so no authority to talk about the topics I wanted to address in the film. From the outset, it became a conversation of Us vs Them.

Do you think your own pronouncements in the press contributd to any of the controversy? I exacerbated the Us vs Them stance deliberately after we were decimated at South by Southwest. We were the first non-American film to be selected in competition in six years, and the first Irish film to ever be selected. We were expected to win the Grand Jury Prize but a reporter from Variety came and saw the film and gave it one of the most savage reviews Variety has ever given. So we went from the heights of our film being plucked from obscurity and put on the world stage to the absolute depths of public evisceration. We had no idea what to do, so we went back to the hotel, got drunk and at 4 in the morning, I decided it was time for a simple epiphany – it was time to become John Lydon from The Sex Pistols. It was time to drag this movie out of the fucking grave. I became a mouthy frontman because no-one else would do it. I presumed that people would understand I was presenting a persona to push and provoke and divide an audience. The film ended up having an extraordinary festival life, it caused fist-fights and all that kind of stuff, and it had such extreme reactions that those who embraced it were so protectively in love with it that it was almost embarassing, and those who despised it were equally as embarassing in how determined they were to be destructive towards it. I realised that what I had created was destined to be a punk rock film, and if you create something like that in a society that has been anaesthetised by boy bands and can't hear you, it's like listening to Mozart and then listening to The Sex Pistols. Your ears become so abrasively reactive to it that your reaction is either ''Wow! This is something new'' or ''Fuck that shit''. The ones who thought the latter were in power and it was very easy for them to destroy the movie. 
Was the impetus of writing the film to get your anger off your chest or to provoke a debate?
The whole point of writing it was to explore a central character that I had personally encountered too often. It was the arrogant swagger of a Viagra cock, a cocaine induced machismo and the facility to behave with impunity towards those lesser than them with a lack of consequences. That was a thematic exploration on a political level that I was very interested in on a human level. I am interested in the illusions we generate for ourselves to convince ourselves that we are not the person we know are, which is a complete coward. In terms of making the film, I was sitting in a flat with the missus and kids and it was 3 in the morning and coming close to Christmas. They were asleep and I was suffering from insomnia, sitting there with a glass of whisky and a sense of desperation that drove me to do something so stupid that it embarassed me the moment I did it – I typed on Facebook ''Intend making no-budget feature, CHARLIE CASANOVA. Need cast, crew, equipment, lot of balls. Any takers? This is sincere.'' Social media was something that was strange to me at the time. As I read what I had posted, I cringed with sheer exposed embarassment. When I reached across to delete it, someone responded. Within 24 hours, 170 people had gotten back to me. My only stipulation was that they had to read the screenplay. They seemed to have a profound reaction to it. In Ireland, everything shuts down at Christmas so I thought ''Let's try and make it in January.'' It was one of those notions of ''If you will build it, he will come.'' I ended up getting cameras for eleven days from Bradog Youth Organisation. They said the cameras had to be back by midnight on the eleventh day, so our production schedule was eleven days. When I turned up three weeks after my Facebook post, I met many people for the first time that day. We had a tiny crew and a tiny cast and we put everything we had into it. I had no idea what would ever become of it. I certainly had no idea it would become the international fiasco it became. Also, I had no idea it would take me to places all over the world, and that occasionally it would hit people with such a visceral force that the very political agenda you set out to engage with in the first place ends up manifesting itself in an immensely exciting and provocative way.

How did the Irish Film Board respond to the project?
The Irish Film Board have been very generous to several of my scripts. It's not as if there is any malice on their part in rejecting it. But they read it and said ''What the hell is this?'' You can't really blame them, because there was no precedent for that kind of movie in Ireland. Mike Leigh can make a movie like NAKED (1993) in England, and you can understand it, and you extrapolate further what his agenda is. But a moron like me makes a movie like CHARLIE CASANOVA and the reaction is ''This is a mouthy scream from an incoherent asshole. Let's switch it off. '' The Film Board ended up being very kind to it in the end after it was selected for South by Southwest and then for the Edinburgh Film Festival and multiple other festivals. Then they actually came on board and put forward the funds for what they call a 'Cinevator' print, which is a form of 35mm print. They don't exist anymore. We had a bunch of reels in a box with this movie on it, and unfortunately we had to physically cut out parts of scenes because we couldn't get the rights to particular songs. We played the film at some festivals and we got standing ovations at some places and won a slew of awards. And then we got the opposite. The same social media that generated the capacity to get the film made was also used to eviscerate it. It was very interesting to find yourself on both sides of its value and potential engagement, and then see how it devalues and then how it destroys.

What kind of an audience did you have in mind when writing the script?
I used to live in a bedsit, and I used to watch five movies a night because if you rented them after midnight and brought them back by 8am, you could get them for next to nothing. These movies would become the greatest school imaginable. You would walk down the steps the next day with a sense of empowerment and potential that you didn't think you had the right to have beforehand. I wanted to make CHARLIE CASANOVA for people living in bedsits - some guy or girl stumbling across the movie and thinking ''What the fuck is this?'' and it ends up becoming their own personal discovery. It's these kinds of people who seem to have discovered the film again and again. As recent as last night I got an email from someone who lives across the world who saw athe film and had a profound reaction.

How did you put together the cast and crew?
The title character is played by Emmett Scanlan, who before the film had had very little acting experience. I had originally written the role for another wonderful actor called Declan Conlon, but he wasn't ready. Scanlon had all the arrogant swagger of inexperience, and the belief that anything was possible. I told him ''I might regret this, but I think you're Charlie Casanova.'' He said ''I'm all over that shit.'' Then he read the script and he nearly shit himself! I went to his house and we took one small block of one of the monologues and I beat the living hell out of him with it. I explained to him the structure of the form and how to do it. I told him that that was the model for everything else. Because of his pure tenacity and pragmatic application and extraordinary generosity he locked himself in a room over Christmas to learn the dialogue over and over again. When he turned up on set we had a tiny rehearsal period in order to help the other actors understand the rhythm and the form and the beat. He just went for it in a way that I thought was extraordinary. One of my only disappointments about the whole aftermath of the film is that I had no problem being attacked personally by the media in the end because I had put myself front row centre for a real face kicking, but it saddened me that some people started to attack Scanlan. His performance is completely fearless and extraordinary. It's been proven subsequently. He's a very successful actor in America now, and has been appearing on television there. He's on the road to a great career.

Given the budget, was it a rough and ready shoot?
The money really went into the food, which my missus made. It wasn't just rough and ready, it was also the worst Christmas that we had had in recorded history. On the other hand though, there was a powerful sense of community, and a warm, humorous, loving engagement. We felt that we were making something that was unprecedented, no matter how it was going to be embraced. Even though a lot of nonsense happened when it was released, it's amazing how many people still come up to me and say ''Because of your film I made my first film.'' It's great to know that it created a precedent that empowered people who had previously felt disenfranchised to suddenly think ''If he can do it, I can do it.''

Was the film influenced by any other particular films? I sensed Cassavetes, AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000), BRONSON (2008) and others.
I adore Cassavetes, particularly A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), although I would never claim to have the capacity to make as great a film as that. I remember seeing AMERICAN PSYCHO when it was released and thinking it was a truly extraordinary film. Mary Harron got under the male psyche far more effectively than any other male thought was possible. At the time, the film was seen as almost pornographic or indulgently psychopathic or whatever. The film went through its own revisionism as well. Now it is seen justifiably as an absolute modern classic. I love the way it has a central character that is so utterly repugnant and is still able to be engaging to an audience. One of the most remarkable things about the movie is the sheer tenacity and courage of Christian Bale's performance. The scene where he is screwing the two prostitutes and flexing his muscles and looking at himself in the mirror is one of the iconic images of modern cinema, something that gives you an indication of the time you are in. The themes of the film would have fit CHARLIE CASANOVA across the board.

BRONSON is another extraordinary film. You watch that film and you realise that is making you so uneasy that you don't know where you stand on any level. Sometimes you have to watch a movie a second or a third time before you can actually relax enough to have exhalation and be able to say ''I'm actually really enjoying this film.'' What's interesting about CHARLIE CASANOVA is that many people who did see it two or three times seemed to have a profoundly different experience of the film and suddenly perceived it differently. People have articulated brilliantly to me how it affected them and it is very exciting that a film can still affect people in that way.

How much of your own darker experiences influenced the film?
I was homeless for a while, and when you're homeless, you don't exist. You're a ghost. I was never frightened of violence or any of those scenarios, and I had been in multiple scenarios that I survived. But the thing that nearly fucking killed me was loneliness. It descended like a cancer. A contagious cancer because you felt that people saw it and sensed it off you and got away from you as fast as possible. I had a stammer as well and dodgy legs. It was like a comedy in its own right, a FORREST GUMP (1994) scenario. I was a teenager at that time so I didn't even know who I was. I wasn't eating properly so my body wasn't developing. Everything that should be about the ebullient sense of self and discovery was the opposite. Eventually I withdrew so far into myself that the only responses I had were an incoherent mumble or a private silent cry. You have to invent a version of yourself before you can take the first step in discovering who you are, but you end up creating an imitation of who you are. You hope that that created self becomes some kind of humanistic, noble, decent, warm, embracing individual. But the idea of an orchestrated created self that comes with an ugly, destructive force is so much easier to create and so much easier to get away with and to exploit. That to me is where Charlie Casanova would have manifested in terms of a constructed self and it's going to have the capacity to destroy. Charlie's objective is to be a member of the Ruling Class but he has to destroy every residue of his humanity and his history to get there. He has to prove his newly constructed self is capable of the sickening dehumanisation deemed necessary to control others.

Do you think such experiences created the artist in you?
For the longest time, even the use of the word artist would have been something I blanched at for being ridiculous. Because to me an artist is a painter, someone like Egon Schiele. I felt I had no birthright and no sense of self, and there was no precedent to be given permission to engage in that kind of language. I had allowed my own doubts and own prejudices to censor an aspiration that's quite beautiful. I don't know that I am an artist but I do know that I adore art and it always makes me feel almost like a teenage boy who has fallen in love again and again and again. It blows my mind. It invades my soul, and haunts my life. If within that construct I'm occasionally allowed to feel capable of being an artist, then what a privilege.

Do you still run into people like Charlie Casanova in your daily life?
Some of my friends who worked on the film talk about a Charlie Casanova type. One of them is a very good friend of mine, Johnny Elliott, who plays the guy Charlie kills at the end. He's a taxi driver, and he talks about a Charlie type all the time. He'll say ''Charlie got into the car again last night.'' He talks about these guys who get in his taxi who are hopped up on drugs, talk about themselves like they are Masters of the Universe, and as if you should consider yourself lucky to be in their presence, to be graced with their articulation as they breathe all over you and sweat on your back seat. These guys are the manifestation of greed in its ugliest form but also the dehumanised notion that people are nothing more than products to be exploited and discarded. Some suggest that we exist in a culture that is only ugly. We don't. Most of the people that I encounter are generous, warm, human, shy people, but unfortunately scum like Charlie see that vulnerability and see how easy it is to exploit it. The moment they start exploiting it, our reaction to it is to acquiesce because of our decency and our natural shyness. But at what stage do we individually or collectively decide that it has to stop? We don't seem to have arrived at that stage as a culture yet.

I spoke to Terry by telephone on 5th November 2015,  and would like to thank him for his time.

CHARLIE CASANOVA is available in the US from Brinkvision and in the UK from Studio Canal

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.


(C) Chris Rubey
Reed Morano is the accomplished cinematographer behind films like FROZEN RIVER (2008), SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS (2012), THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE (2012) and AND SO IT GOES (2014) for Rob Reiner, KILL YOUR DARLINGS (2013), THE SKELETON TWINS (2014) and five episodes of the Martin Scorsese/ Mick Jagger TV event Vinyl (2016). She also just made an incredible directing debut with the moving, haunting, unforgettable drama MEADOWLAND (2015), starring Olivia Wilde, Luke Wilson, Elizabeth Moss and Giovanni Ribisi. She is, without a doubt, one of the most promising talents of her generation. I spoke to Reed about her early years, how she got into film, how FROZEN RIVER opened up a career in cinematography and the story behind MEADOWLAND.   

Growing up, what were some of your formative film experiences?
When I was younger, films were a big deal in our house, and we watched everything from SPLASH (1984) to MY LIFE AS A DOG (1985), which was a movie that I instantly gravitated towards because I had never seen anything like that before. E.T. (1982) was another film that stuck with me. It's profoundly emotional, and it captures a very specific moment in time. Somehow, even within the bizarre plot, the subject matter is relatable and the film makes you feel it, which is something I admire. I love adventure. It's also actually quite dark. Another film that profoundly affected me is THE SHINING (1980), which is just the most elegant, frightening film. 

Something that all those films share with your own film, MEADOWLAND, is that the most effective acting in the film comes from the facial expressions.
That's a huge compliment! What they all have in common is that they're not overdone and everything is under the surface. 

When did the idea of becoming a filmmaker first come about?
It was actually my dad's idea. When I was in third grade he was working overseas in Tokyo and he brought home a huge JVC camcorder which took VHS tapes. He gave it to me and said ''You’re going to document the family.'' At the time, I was into writing, and all day long I was sitting down in my glasses typing up short stories on my mom's Commodore 64. I wasn't really into bringing people into my creative endeavours. I liked writing on my computer because I was alone. Now, with this camera I had to be around other people and it was so annoying as I didn't like being around other people. I was kind of a big nerd. I had only one close friend at a given time. I took the video camera and started using it, and despite myself, I found that I couldn't put it down. I started recording all kinds of incredibly boring things like the grass growing and the animals in my back yard. Then I started making commercials and music videos using my family as my subjects. At high school I stopped writing and started doing photography. When it came time to apply to college, I was thinking of applying for a Journalism course but it was my dad that said ''Why don't you apply to NYU for film school?'' I didn't really think of it as a job people did. I thought being a writer was a job, and I assumed I would do that. But it got harder and harder for me to write and easier and easier for me to take pictures.

(C) Dikayl Rimmasch
When did it become clear that being a cinematographer was what you were interested in? From the very first shoot in film school that I worked on, I was intrigued by what the cinematographer was doing. At film school, the DP has the most control on set. I just saw the DP looking through the viewfinder and I thought ''Wow, that looks like the best job. Everyone that sees this movie is going to see everything through his eyes.''

How did you come to shoot FROZEN RIVER?
I had finished film school and I was looking everywhere for a feature to shoot. I'm pretty convinced I applied for FROZEN RIVER through Craigslist, but according to the producer Chip Hourihan, he didn't see any application from Craigslist and he called me for an interview because he had my reel from a prior interview. I probably wasn't even the director Courtney Hunt's second choice but I think she was impressed by my documentary background, and particularly a film that I had shot that was on the reel called OFF THE GRID: LIFE ON THE MESA (2007), directed by Jeremy and Randy Stulberg. It was about this group of people who live outside of Taos, New Mexico, and live off the grid. It's just incredibly moving, and you can't believe the place is real. Courtney wanted FROZEN RIVER to feel as real as possible.

Is it true that temperatures got to subzero on FROZEN RIVER?
Yes, it was freezing on that job. Of all the films I've done, it was the most difficult physically and mentally. Just in the will to keep going every day. We did a lot of things that would not have been possible had it been a union shoot. There were days where we got weather warnings to not go outside because we could die, and we still went out and shot all day. I am glad I did it though. It changed the course of my career. That's all it takes, one movie. I am still friends with a lot of people who worked on the movie and they all agree it was to this day the toughest shoot they've ever been on.

What was your brief on FROZEN RIVER? What did Courtney want you to capture?
She wanted it to be as if this was a documentary about these real people. We were helped by the talented actors like Melissa Leo and Misty Upham, who has since passed. The script that Courtney wrote was amazingly naturalistic. She has a knack for telling those kinds of stories. It was all a good recipe for something that felt kind of new at that time.

(C) Kirsten Johnson
Did the film have an immediate impact on your career?
It was actually more gradual. After the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, I started getting phone calls to shoot films in a similar naturalistic, handheld style. I started to get pigeonholed immediately. My heart was in doing handheld style photography but I wanted to also do more refined lighting. On FROZEN RIVER we were handicapped by time and money, so we weren't able to really light anything. It was just run and go, and try to find the best direction to shoot in. Before that movie I had shot a bunch of documentaries and also some reality TV and I realised I had an intuition as to what kind of shot was best to tell the story. Usually, in my experience, a director won't tell me where to go because they trust me enough to have a go myself.

Do you usually require an emotional connection to material to excite you about a project?
As a DP I'm always thinking ''What can I bring to this picture that's new to me or just new in general? Can I match the visuals to the emotion? Would I want to see this movie?''

Are you also interested in achieving things technically that you haven't done before?
I used to only want to do movies in my comfort zone and always hand-held, so I would avoid anything that was stylised. It wasn't that I couldn't do it, it was just that I wanted to do what I liked aesthetically. What I've learned in more recent years is that it's fun to be pushed by the director and the requirements of the story into a totally different style. Otherwise, I wouldn't learn anything new. I reverted to my comfort zone for MEADOWLAND, but for the new HBO series Vinyl, I did things I'd never done before, and I was also able to express myself so it took me to a new level in my own personal creative exploration.

When you shoot a historically based film like KILL YOUR DARLINGS, do you feel a pressure to have the film look like something akin to how people generally feel the period looked?
There were a lot of debates that the director John Krokidas and I had during making that movie. At first I felt that I had to shoot it the way people felt it would have looked like but now, after shooting a show like Vinyl, which is set in the 70s, I don't believe that everything has to be literal. When I was doing KILL YOUR DARLINGS I wanted it to be specific or at at least different from what things look like now. I had a very filmic look in mind, and we actually shot it on 35mm film, which was helpful because you have that unique texture. We did color-correcting in postproduction too to give it an old photograph kind of look. We went for a faded photograph kind of look for the flashback sequences, which I guess you could say was a bit of an obvious choice, but I think there are little nuances to the color that felt different from other period films of that time. I think the film is this special little thing. We were shooting a low-budget period piece that takes place in 1943, and we were shooting it in modern-day New York City, out towards New Jersey. The places were limited and the effects budget was small, so there were going to be all these lights that were either going to be in the background or in the foreground. It wasn't the type of budget where we could just turn off all the lights, or even get rid of them in postproduction. I felt like the color of that time period was not going to be sodium vapor, and more of a white color. In postproduction we took out all the sodium vapor and all the lights ended up this interesting greenish-blue. If you go back and look at the film you'll see that pretty much all the street lamps in the nighttime sequences are that color. We ended up solving a technical problem, but also creating a unique feel that I was very happy with.

(C) John Johnson
What kinds of different challenges did you face shooting the music film SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS?
When I heard about the project from my agent, she presented it as a film that was sort of a documentary but also a narrative. At that time it sounded very appealing. I signed on to that project with no script and no real idea of what it was going to be about. I couldn't believe that I had never heard of LCD Soundsystem or their music, so hearing their music for the first time was an amazing discovery. That was the moment where I realised I was such a mom, not knowing who they were! That project was all about being useful to the director and flying by the seat of my pants, which I love. I have no problem going to work and deciding what the best direction to shoot is on the day. Prep time is useful, but sometimes not so much. I like to make up a plan in advance, but that doesn't always happen. This film was about showing up, having a very basic plan, and just following the band. I loved having that freedom and I enjoyed working with Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern the most of all the directors I've worked with. I look forward to seeing them directing another feature.

Why did you love working with them so much?
I feel like we all know each other so well. I've also done some commercials with them. They're very trusting. They know how I see things, and they know I know what they like. They just let me go. When they want to see something different, the guys let me know. I like that kind of working, where you're allowed to show the director what you have before they step in and try to change it. The film was an organic experience and it was less about planning than ''You really got to be on your game because you're going to have to decide the most beautiful and compelling way to shoot something really quickly.''

How was working with Rob Reiner on THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE and AND SO IT GOES?
I still remember my agent asking me if I wanted to interview for a film starring Morgan Freeman and being directed by Rob Reiner. The generation I grew up with was STAND BY ME (1986), THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY... (1989). His movies informed my whole childhood growing up. He's a legend to me. We had a half hour meeting, and ten minutes later I got a phone call telling me I got the job. One of the most amazing things about Rob is that he is the best at making decisions really fast and sticking to them. On the two movies I did with him, there was only one time where we changed a plan we were going with in the middle of a scene. I learned a lot from him. Initially the idea of working with him was very frightening and scary but Rob is a very warm and loving person and we got along great. He never discriminates over gender or age. He knew I was this young girl who grew up on his movies. He treated me like a peer. This was the point where I realised I could shoot a movie in a way that suited the story, and it wasn't always going to look like FROZEN RIVER. This was a Rob Reiner movie so it looked like a Rob Reiner movie, with hopefully a little bit of me sprinkled in.

(C) Paul Sarkis
Did you direct MEADOWLAND because you wanted to direct a movie or because it was a project that you felt you had to direct because you had a personal connection to it?
I wasn't feeling like I needed to direct a movie at that point. I was feeling comfortable in my DP zone. There had been four or five scripts that had come to me for directing. There was one that I courted for a long time, but the script never got to the point where I felt like I could do the right thing with it, even though I really loved it. When I got MEADOWLAND I thought ''OK, this is really scary and a huge challenge.'' Also, as a mom, it was a frightening story to tell. I felt drawn to it because I felt like I could do something with it. It was something that would punch people in the gut. I've seen movies where I was so affected that I never forgot them. I realised that if I was ever going to direct a film, the first time was going to be the only time I was ever going to get to do what I want. There'd no pressure on me yet because I had never really done anything.

Did you consider making MEADOWLAND as your first film a risky proposition?
I did have producers that I worked with who knew me very well and questioned why I was interested in making a film about such dark subject matter when I was such a funny person, and it was such a risk for a first film. That just made me want to do the film even more and prove them wrong. There were no delusions of grandeur on MEADOWLAND. What I got out of it was sort of what I expected, which was I got to show people that I could make a movie that could make them feel something truly intense. That was the main goal, above everything else. When Olivia Wilde signed on, she was taking a huge risk on me as a first time director. She saw me as taking a risk on her too because she had never done a drama this serious before, or gone to such depths. I believed she could do it from the first moment I met her. She was so determined and dedicated that I wanted people to see the film and think ''Wow, I've never seen Olivia like this before, and she's never been better.''

Were you worried about the potential lack of commercial success given the dark subject matter?
The movie was never destined to be a commercial success. It was more about it being a movie to make you feel something, and what was interesting about it was that a lot of the actors in it were doing things they had never done before. Everybody brought 300%. I was so lucky to get the actors that I got. The thing with the film was to do something risky. The other scripts that I had looked at were more commercial and were more like the films that most people would want to see. The big disadvantage with MEADOWLAND is that once you have read the synopsis, most people become afraid to see the film. You almost have to bury the plot when you promote the film. Once people have seen the film, they are so affected and glad they saw it.

What was the extent of your personal connection to the material?
When I initially signed on to the movie, the darkest thing that had happened to me was that my dad had passed away when I was eighteen. Working with the writer on the script we were both bringing our own demons to the material. I have two sons though, so I was able to see the forest through the trees. I totally got the devastation that the audience needed to feel. Then, while we were in the process of getting financing, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer at the base of my tongue. I'm in remission now but I was in chemotherapy and radiation for a good portion of the time we were trying to raise the money. I basically couldn't talk. I definitely think that experience informed the way I told the story. If that hadn't happened to me, it's certainly possible MEADOWLAND would have been a little different. There are definitely moments in the film with Sarah, Olivia's character, that are directly drawn from when I was going through my treatment. There were eight weeks where I wasn't communicating with the world, because I couldn't speak because of the pain. I only communicated through by writing on a dry erase board from time to time and I didn't eat or even drink water by mouth for 130 days. In the scene where Sarah is brushing her teeth in the bathroom, the water in the faucet washes off the toothpaste from the brush but she doesn't put more toothpaste on, she just keeps brushing. It's very subtle, and you can almost miss it. That moment means so much to me because it encapsulates a very specific feeling from my experience of going through cancer treatment and being in so much (physical) pain you don’t give a shit about anything anymore. That's what the movie is about. You get to a point where you are going through something that is so bigger than basic human function that you don't really perform basic human functions anymore.

I think the way that you portray grief in the film is very real and palpable.
That makes me so happy to hear that. It seems most of the people who gravitate towards MEADOWLAND are usually people who have been through something very difficult or people who are open to feeling emotion. Once MEADOWLAND came onto VOD and reached a bigger audience, I had quite a few people message me on Twitter to tell me vehemently how important the film was to them. One was a father who lost two sons, one to childhood cancer and one as a baby and he told me had never seen a film that embodied grief the way the film did and felt like his own life. I got a message from another father who had lost his son eighteen months before, and he thanked me so profusely for making the film. As a mother of two sons, I can't imagine losing them, even though I had to imagine it every day of working on this movie. I will never pretend to know what that feels like. It has to be worse than everything I've gone through put together. To have people who have been through these things say that the film felt like what they were going through was really validating. 

(C) Paul Sarkis
I thought the film had some really beautiful details like how odd people's behaviour becomes when they are grieving, about how a lot of the grieving process is about learning how to grieve, and about whether closure was necessarily a positive thing.
It was an emotional journey for me, and it was good for me after what I went through, because I spent days in the edit where I would be crying my eyes out. I had to know in the editing whether I felt it. Maybe I handicapped myself because my son played Olivia and Luke's son in the movie, and I was bound to get emotional shooting and editing the movie. But it seemed to work for me. Casting him came from other reasons, like putting myself close to Olivia, but also finding the right kid was very difficult. The bottom line was that it was a cathartic experience for me.

Olivia Wilde has not done anything like this before. How did you know she was the right fit?
Olivia was interested in the role, and right before meeting her, even I was unsure because even though I knew she was smart and had a good head on her shoulders, I had never seen her do anything like this. The one thing that I had seen her do that made me think she might be really interesting for this was Spike Jonze's HER (2013), where she played the crazy blind date. Olivia was my favourite thing about that movie. That made me realise that there was more to her than met the eye. If anything, Olivia has been handicapped by her astounding beauty. She has the chops to do way way more than she has done. I think what she did in MEADOWLAND is just scratching the surface of her potential. I feel lucky that she came to me and said ''I'm doing this role.'' I am glad I went with my gut. I can't imagine anyone else doing it now. People in general in Hollywood need to get past what people look like, myself included.

Luke Wilson is also especially good in the picture.
I am the biggest fan of Luke and he's totally underutilised. I think he did amazing work in the HBO show Enlightened (2011-13) and he went quite dark in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), but I always felt like Luke could do more. He just fell right into this part, and he just knew what to do. He was doing the right thing from the first moment. I think Luke is underrated, and I love the subtleties that he brings to a performance. In all the scenes where he is by himself, he just looks so lost- his body language spells defeat. That's what I felt like. Pissed off with the world, and about to explode underneath the surface, but trying to keep it together. He was able to capture all of that. When we shot the scene towards the end where he is at the FBI Office, I was shooting a wide shot and I was just in tears. It was all in his body language. It was the most heartbreaking thing, you know. That's Luke. He just knew how to stand, how to carry himself. That's so much about what an actor does. They step into a character's shoes, and they walk totally differently because the character walks differently.

Giovanni Ribisi gives a memorable performance. His character on one level is a mess, but on another level he has an angle on how to cope with grief and is the most 'together' of all the characters.
Yes, his character is so ironic. He's the one doing all the drugs but in that moment when he and Olivia's character are on the roof, he has just smoked DMT and is at his most lucid. He's seeing her for the first time. What he brought to the role was an unexpected level of understanding and empathy. 

The subject matter is very dark. Was the atmosphere during filming very serious or did people try to lighten up the mood between takes?
It was not a serious shoot at all. As a person I am cracking jokes 24/7. Some of these are actors don't normally do such dark stuff, so they were having fun too. Olivia is hilarious, as is Luke, who basically does comedy all the time. John Leguizamo, Giovanni Ribisi and Elizabeth Moss had a good time on set. You wouldn't have known we were making a serious movie! But when the cameras started rolling, we were on. Pretty much every scene in the movie was heavy and there were no scenes where there was really a break. There was always an atmosphere that was good for the actors. The actors were so great that it didn't need to be dark all the time.

Now you have directed a film, are you aiming to direct films and also continue as a cinematographer?
I think I'd like to keep doing both. People always want to place you into one category. Since directing MEADOWLAND I have shot six months of an entire season of Vinyl, but I have a few directing projects that are in various stages of pre-production. As a DP, I love that I get to go on these many adventures with all these beautiful, creative minds and expand my horizons. I love lighting, and I love composition. I love telling a story visually and on every project I am learning more. I don't want to stop doing that. Maybe I'll be a little more selective, and continue working for directors I really want to work with, though.

How was working with Scorsese on Vinyl?
It was really cool getting that opportunity to pay homage to everything that Scorsese had ever done, without getting in trouble. He actually hosted a screening of MEADOWLAND for Olivia and I at the MOMA. He told me ''I'm really embarassed. I had no idea you directed MEADOWLAND until the end credits. I thought you had just shot it and when I saw your name, I was like WOW! '' He really liked the movie, which was honestly better than any award I could receive. To be talking with my idol about my own movie, and to have him analysing aspects of it, was a moment I never thought would happen in my life and was just about the coolest thing ever.

What did you love about working with him the most?
He is so inspired all the time about stories and narrative. We would have a meeting about the tone of an episode before we shot it. I had the opportunity to sit there with ten other people, one of whom was Scorsese. I got to hear Terence Winter and him discuss the characters and the story. I'd be sitting there in the corner, eating sandwiches quietly, trying not to be noticed. Scorsese would discuss things with such energy and excitement. His perspective of the storytelling and the characters was so unique. He had so many anecdotes and stories, and anecdotes to back up the stories and so forth. It was the most infectious energy that I have ever experienced. When he gets talking, you can't help but be riveted. He's fired up. He's a spicy motherfucker. He never ceases to amaze me with his amount of knowledge he has about topics outside of filmmaking as well. He has about a gazillion stories he still has to tell, I think.

What was the brief with shooting Vinyl?
Rodrigo Prieto and Scorsese set up this look in the pilot that is totally crazy and out there. It's very specific and embodies all of Scorsese's visual language that has been there since MEAN STREETS (1973), but then the way the camera follows the story is very close to GOODFELLAS (1990) or THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013). The cinematographers come in and are encouraged to tell the stories their way, and there are very few rules. The rule for me, based on Scorsese’s pilot is that whatever way you choose to tell it, it has to be motivated by emotion, even if the choice is larger than life. This show has handheld, Steadicam, dollies, and so on, but they are used in that Scorsese way where it all works. The challenge was to decide when emotionally a certain device is called for.

I spoke to Reed by telephone on 30th December 2015 and would like to thank her for her time. 

Vinyl is currently showing on HBO. MEADOWLAND is available on DVD and digitally.   

Reed's website. 

All photographs are the property of the copyright holders and cannot be reproduced without their permission.

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.


Greg Travis has had a wide and varied career. Starting off with an interest in magic, he then became a successful stand-up comedian. After that he decided to forge a career as an actor, appearing in such high profile films as SHOWGIRLS (1995), STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997), LOST HIGHWAY (1997), POODLE SPRINGS (1998), MAN ON THE MOON (1999), HALLOWEEN II (2009) and WATCHMEN (2009). Greg also developed his directing skills, working on various short films and videos, and writing and directing the films DARK SEDUCTION (filmed in 1984, released 2015), NIGHTCREEP (2003) and MIDLIFE (2015). In part two of our interview, we talk about those latter films.

Part one can be read here.

You are preparing to finally release the first film you directed, DARK SEDUCTION. I believe it has been a long road to get the film finished and released? 
I shot it in the summer of 1984, but it took a long time to get finished because of legal and post-production problems. It's a detective vampire film that we shot on black and white film. It's legendary amongst my circle because I spent about four years making it, and ten years trying to finish it. It was like an Orson Welles nightmare, you know. It's my OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. The negative got lost, and then certain elements got lost. I got all that back but then I had to deal with sound issues, which have now been fixed. 

What was it about the project that would never let you give up on it? 
I guess the fact that I knew I could find the correct cut of the film and make it work. It took me a long time to find the right cut but once I did I knew the film would work and find an audience. 

What was the inspiration for the film? 
In the early 80's with video stores everywhere, the re-discovery of 40's film noir films lead me to wanting to do something in that genre. The female vampire element was a way to infuse sexy but tough women into the mix. I've always loved really tough women in film.

 How did you come to collaborate with Steve Bishart, who cowrote and coproduced the picture? 
I had met Steve when we worked together on a video I made. He was looking to make this film and I was looking to direct one, so we agreed to make it together. He had a short script and we cowrote the full script from that. 

How did you cast and finance it? 
The cast was a mix of actors we found in casting sessions and people I knew from the comedy world and friends. Steve and I both put some of our own money into it and we had a few investors along the way as well. 

There are many different tones and genre elements in DARK SEDUCTION. Were you concerned about melding them together succesfully?

I didn't know if it would all work together. That was the experiment. I tried to keep humor with the detective and keep the vampires more serious but I do cross that line and break those rules sometimes too. To me the film is a feverish dream that changes moods and feelings constantly. I think its one that people can watch over and over and find new and fun things about it each time. 

How was working with your sister, the actress Stacey Travis? 
It was pretty good. We had already done a few short films and videos together. She's a really great actress so I am always happy to work with her. 

What was the impetus for NIGHT CREEP (2003)?
 I woke up one night and thought someone was in my bedroom. The notion that someone in your bedroom at night, might be the scariest thing imaginable. That was the basic idea, and I changed it to a psychological horror movie about a girl who moves into an apartment and believes her landlord is coming into her room at night. I sold the foreign rights, but I never sold the domestic rights. We shot it for 13 days in March of 2002, and it was very low budget. We were competing against a lot of bigger films. 

Was it influenced by your time filming SHOWGIRLS (1995)? 
I guess the three strippers in FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965) were more of an influence, and in horror films strippers are always good cause they have no problem undressing. 

How much of an influence was David Lynch? 
A little bit but I did not want to copy any of his style or look, so I tried to create a new look for the film. It was shot on the top end Sony just before HD digital came out in 2003. 

Where do you think the interest in writing strong roles for women comes from? 
I like strong women who are also feminine, smart and sexy. I don’t know where it came from but that’s what I like to see.

For the role of Cindy, were you thinking of a Madonna type personality? 
Yes I guess so. I lived with a Madonna look alike before I made this film so maybe that was what I had in mind. 

What did you learn from the experience of making the film? 
With NIGHT CREEP I mixed a few different tones and put in some humor and sexiness that didn’t have anything to do with the horror theme but made it a much more entertaining film. It wasn’t as scary as I wanted it to be and I learned a lot about how to make the fear factor work and what it takes to make a film really scary. I might do another horror film next. 

What inspired MIDLIFE? 
A few years before, I had gotten to the point in my comedy and acting career where it was becoming more difficult to get the jobs. I had already peaked, and I was on the back end of my career. I was wondering how much longer I could do what I was doing, and still be competitive in the world out there. It felt like I had a lot of baggage. Ex-wives, ex-girlfriends. I had been talking with friends with kids and other baggage about all the stuff they had to go through at that stage of their lives. I put all that stuff together. I gave myself a salesperson character because I have a big personality and it seemed like a good fit. My mom and dad had been sales people. 

Did you always want the balance of comedy and drama that you ended up with? 
I started off to make a serious film. There's a lot of humour in it. Its weird. Some audiences that I have screened it for laugh all the way through it and others just sit there totally dry and maybe laugh once or twice. I don't quite understand it. Usually I am more on the comedic side. Coming from my stand up background, I usually want to have people laughing all the time, but I definitely want to make movies that are not one thing or the other. They're everything, you know. They're fun, they're dramatic. They have a little bit more life feel to them. I think it's boxing a film in to say 'This is a comedy. This is a drama.' But then again it helps to sell a film if you have a genre to sell it as. I think the film has a nice balance between somewhat of a commercial film and an art film. 

When you directed the film, what things you learned from the directors you have worked with came useful? 
Working on big films is a much slower process. It takes a longer time to get the shots lined up and lit. There are a lot of elements involved. I learned a lot about directing actors from those directors and a lot about the basics of big budget studio cinema, what it entails and what it takes. The only way to really learn how to make a movie is to make one. It's hard to look at a building and understand architecture. You've got to start out with a short, make a few more and get an idea of what the process is all about. I've made about 20 or 25 short films and videos over the years, as well as the two or three features. It's given me a good round education about what it means to make a decent film. It's a lot of luck. I still don't know a lot about how to design shots that are built around sets or to tell an art director how to construct a soundstage because I have never had to do that. I shoot at locations and work with what I have. There's a lot of technology now where you design your shot after you shoot it. I'm not sure how all that stuff works either. 

Was the film influenced by John Cassavetes at all? 
Big time, yeah. I did try to give MIDLIFE a little bit of that feel and a little bit of that style. That humanist slice of life kind of feel was what I was going for. 

How much of the film was improvised? 
It's hard to say. I had it loosely scripted with a detailed outline, but I didn't always give the lines to the actors. In certain scenes I wanted to see what they would come up with. I didn't give anyone a script before we started because I didn't want anybody to have any preconceptions about what we were doing. When I auditioned people, I just interviewed them. I didn't have them look at a script. I just wanted to get a sense of who they were and what their personality was. On set I would set up the situation and what they needed to do. We would improvise it and play with it a little bit and see what would come of it. And then if I wanted to change something or add a line from the script, then I would. It's all about the situation and as long as that is clear-cut, you don't need to have the exact written line coming out of the actor's mouth. As long as you're in the right area, it'll work. At least that's my feeling. There were certain plot points and certain information that had to come across, but the other stuff was looser and we just improvised. All the stuff in the loft scene where we are drunk and we are partying comes off better because it was improvised. 

Why did you decide to shoot the film digitally? 
I love the look of film and I tried to get as much of a 'film' look as I could, but shooting on film would've just been too expensive. Film is soft and warm and fuzzy, whereas digital is a much cleaner, crisper, sharper image. You just can't get the same feeling. Film has a solid image whereas digital feels like a transparent image, like you could just stick your hand right through it. A lot of these new digital films look really great but I still don't feel like I am on solid ground. I don't get sucked into the movie as much when it's on digital. 

I thought you were very brave to take it so much to the edge and shoot the club scene so darkly. 
With the digital cameras, you can get away with it. You can level it off so it is still broadcastable. 

Where did you find the wonderful actors? 
Some of them, like Vicky who played my ex-wife, just came from casting sessions in LA. Billy Wirth was the friend of the Robert Mangiardi, who played Mr Bellini in the New York sequence. He's been in a lot of films and is quite well known. Some were friends or people I had met before. I had met Amanda Sorvino doing a couple of films back east with her dad Paul Sorvino. She was not really an actress. She had done a bit of acting when she was younger. I saw her cry at a table once and she was just amazing. I remembered it and talked her into doing the movie. The day we shot her stuff I was afraid she wouldn't show up because she didn't really want to do it. She did a great job. She came up with that whole song on the piano by herself the day we shot it. 

I was very impressed by Lelani Sarelle (BASIC INSTINCT)'s performance. 
Me too. Lelani has this warmth about her, and a lot of heart. 

Were you concerned that audiences might reject a film about a middle aged person? 
There aren't a lot of films out there about middle aged people, although BLUE JASMINE (2013) is in the same sort of genre: people having a midlife crisis, and having to start all over again. Apart from Woody Allen, there aren't a lot of films out there that appeal to that baby boomer generation. Most films nowadays have leads in their twenties, but the more life you live, the more character you develop as a person and the more interesting you're going to be on film. A lot of these young leads are good looking but what do they give us or have to say or show us? 

I liked how your character is so real and so flawed. 
He's not that bad of a guy. He's not out to screw anyone over. He's just trying to get through his life. He has some anger issues, left over from his drinking. He's trying to figure it all out, and this is his last downfall that he has to go through in order to get to that realisation. That was part of my own story too. About six years ago I quit drinking and everything, and it really was a leap forward in my evolution as a person. I got into some bad habits having all those nights on the road. 

It's rare for an adult film to end on an optimistic note. Most modern filmmakers see it as braver to end on a downbeat note. 
It was a hard call to end it on that note, but I do like some sort of a wrap up at the end of a movie. I like for things to be revealed and to come full circle, like most novels. 

The ending was unpredictable too. 
If you look back at the film, there are some clues along the way as to how the story will end. It was always intended to end the way it did. I hope it works! 

How did you decide on the music score? 
I was going for a LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972) feel because it's one of my favourite movies. It's not as down and dirty, but it has its roots in that Gato Barbieri score. I actually used it as a temp score. When I first saw that film it moved me more than any other film I had seen up to that point. 

Finishing MIDLIFE, was it therapeutic in your own life in any way? 
Well, making it took my mind off being middle aged. I did come to terms more with being middle aged after doing the movie. I got depressed after I screened the movie because I thought ''Now what do I do?'', but I started developing ideas for new projects. 

Your films as a director are all stories set in LA. What fascinates you about the city? 
It's got every possible setting one could hope for plus when its you own backyard, you might as well take advantage of it. It's a cold, every man for himself sort of town. It’s a fly by night crowd of stranger’s kind of place. Even friends fade away without giving notice. 

I spoke to Greg by phone on 21st January 2014, and corresponded by email during January 2015. I would like to thank him for his time.  

MIDLIFE can be seen on Indiereign,  I-Tunes, Amazon, and from the film's site

All photographs are the property of Greg Travis and cannot be reproduced without his permission.

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.