It's no secret we here at ScreenAnarchy love up-and-coming director Adam Wingard's low-low-budget shocker Pop Skull. On the eve of the release of his freshman feature, Home Sick, in a feature-laden special edition courtesy of Synapse (the disc streets August 26th, 2008), I had the opportunity to speak with Wingard about his work thus far and what fans can look forward to from him in the future.
Collin: I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me about Pop Skull. Congratulations on the win (Best Narrative Feature – American Spectrum) at the Indianapolis International Film Festival. I know it isn’t the Oscars—
Adam: (Laughs) No, no it’s cool – I was just thinking a second ago about our win there. I think it’s the first film festival we’ve played at that was in a little more of a “southern style” state – it isn’t in the south, it isn’t Alabama (Wingard’s home state) but it has a similar vibe if that makes sense.
Collin: I know what you’re saying!
Adam: Really cool that people who live in a similar climate to the one where the movie was made are responding to it so well.
Collin: So where did Pop Skull come from? It’s such a unique film. I’d like to know about the genesis of the project. What was it that made you think, “This is the sort of project I can drive myself to invest a lot of time and energy into.” The circumstances of its production involved a lot of blood and sweat from you and your crew.
Adam: Essentially the film came from the need to express myself and to help my friend Lane Hughes do the same. I met him at a time in his life when he was going through a difficult period with his girl, I had just made it through a similar period and we just sort of had this intense connection. He wasn’t working, I wasn’t working. I was just doing all these short films. I thought, “Well, I don’t have anything going, you don’t – you look like you could be an actor so why don’t we try doing a movie about what we’ve both been through recently and you can play a fictionalized version of yourself.” We threw in the supernatural angle which was all based on things he and I had experienced separately growing up. We looked at it all in an experimental way. You could say our reality inspired what was going to happen next in the film. We just skewed it slightly and made it more compelling for the screen.
Collin: The film was obviously very post-intensive. You could tell a lot of time was spent after the fact transforming it into this sort of experience for the audience. Can you talk a little about what it was like crafting the film after you had wrapped photography?
Adam: I think it comes down to our having made the movie in a unique experimental style. For starters we didn’t have any money.
Collin: The film cost around $2,000?
Adam: Roughly. There was a lot of improvisation going on. None of the dialogue was scripted so when it came to the more conversational scenes there were these monstrous long takes, sometimes upwards half an hour of these character just existing in front of the camera. I had become very interested in the idea of improvisational movie-making when I saw Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels. I really liked the idea of just shooting a ton of stuff and finding a way to glue it all together with editing. We would shoot hours and hours just for little scenes. Some days we’d be sitting around at three o’clock in the morning and say, “Let’s drive around and see if we can find anything cool.” And we’d find fog banks, old roads and stuff. We’d take advantage of it. After it was over we had this huge database to pull from. . I had to find a cutting style that would allow me to put you in the head of this lead character and his environment, and would let me cut around the fact that we didn’t have a lot of continuity. Ultimately the style of shooting suggested this choppy style, which still feels very organic while managing to resemble the state of post-traumatic shock Daniel is in, mixed with the over-indulged, drugged state that he exists within.
Collin: How many hours of footage were you working from?
Adam: I’d say 90 hours.
Collin: No kidding?
Adam: That’s the cool thing about this project. I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. Our investors put in a little bit of money and gave us full access to their equipment, free of charge. It wasn’t really until after we finished shooting that I pinpointed my goals as an editor. My first approach in editing the material was to do a more straightforward style but it wasn’t working and I had to take a step back and say, “I know there is a great movie in here but this is not the way to get to it,” and that’s when I decided to make the film more of an interactive experience. The strobe effects and flashing which the movie has become known for creates an amazing effect in the viewer, specifically if they’re on certain drugs - namely DXM which is the ingredient kids are tripping off of in over the counter medicines like Robotussin and Coricidin Cold and Cough. The dugs sort of become the 3d glasses for this film allowing inebriated viewers to become totally immersed beyond those of us who just watch it from a topical normal state of mind. If 2001 A Space Odyssey is considered the LSD companion film, then Pop Skull is the film to watch while you’re robotripping. I’m not endorsing over the counter drug use but kids are doing it everyday and they need something to watch. So in addition to being a scary movie with some very emotional subject matter that young adults can relate to, they can also trip out on the pretty colors!
Collin: You mentioned collaborating with E.L. Kats and his brother Peter on the project. You’ve worked with them before. Tell me about your relationship with them and where you see yourselves going?
Adam: I go way back with the Katz brothers. Evan and I (E.L,) went to film school together and we worked on our first production together called Home Sick, which is coming out through Synapse this year in August. That was a good trial-and-error thing for us. We worked with a crew for the first time, we shot on film, we had a little bit of money. I think I realized what worked for me and what didn’t. Unless you’re working with tried-and-true Hollywood crews you’re at the mercy of who you’ve hired. I felt like that was a constraint on Home Sick. When the film was done I spent a year or two just working on short films and music videos to learn as many aspects of production as possible. That way, when it came time to do another feature I couldn’t have someone tell me what I couldn’t do because I would know what was possible.
Collin: You aren’t beholden to anyone.
Collin: I know what it’s like working on projects where a lot of your crew is volunteering time - it’s great that they’re there, but they’re only there under their own will. You can’t go after people too hard because at the end of the day, it’s the positives of working together that has to keep them coming back.
Adam: Right. You can’t go around pretending you’re shooting a regular, big-budget feature. A lot people shooting cheap will still pretend they have a lot of money and hire a crew, pay for certain things that aren’t necessary. You have to lose that spectacle when you’re making something for a small budget or no budget. One of the best ways to do it is to figure out how to do as much of it as you can yourself. I think I’m one those few people who took Robert Rodriguez’s book (”Rebel Without a Crew”) seriously. I grew up reading that in high school and I thought he was saying a lot of things that made sense. With Pop Skull I tried applying a lot of those lessons and they worked.
Collin: One of the things that struck me about Pop Skull was despite its aggressive style it really has a strong sense of place and time throughout. I identified with the types of people I was seeing on screen, with their problems. It’s an interesting part of the country to set a horror film in (the Midwest).
Adam: Even in the middle of nowhere, kids are still hip on what’s cool. Daniel may live in the middle of nowhere but his interests aren’t stereotypical southern kid interests. He likes obscure horror movies and indie rock. The internet makes these types of people possible. All my Alabama friends are just as hip as my LA ones. They all read the same trivia on IMDB.
Collin: I know the film has international distribution, but what’s going on domestically? As its playing people are hearing more and more and want to see it for themselves?
Adam: We’ll see. It’s a challenging horror/drama film with tons of psychedelic visuals and harsh soundscapes. What is the market for that? I think there is a huge one but Hollywood is nervous about new things. To me it should be a no-brainer!
Collin: What’s next for you? What will we see in the future?
Adam: I’m working on a script with Evan. It’s more of a Hitcher-style story, a little more action, a little more “Hollywood” – but once we make it I think people will be surprised by how insane it is. I really want to branch out and do something concrete this time. Definitely horror. It’s my thing. I like doing horror movies, but I like doing things that help elevate the genre. I think it needs a little bit of help these days. You could almost say – and I don’t mean this the wrong way – but there are too many horror fans making horror movies now.
Collin: I know what you mean, absolutely.
Adam: It seems like for the genre to succeed we need to bring in people with different perspectives. Like I said I love horror movies but I also have other huge influences like Shinya Tsukamoto, Gaspar Noe, and Darren Aronofsky. These guys all make dark stuff but I can guarantee you that none of them would tell you their favorite film is Friday the 13th . I say if you want to do horror films, learn about cinema as a whole and find a way to plug your knowledge into the genre. But don’t get me wrong - I love bad Italian cinema just as much as the next guy. Most nights I would take a Bruno Mattei double feature over watching some overhyped Hollywood shit.
Adam: I try to put those influences into everything I do.
Collin: It’s refreshing to hear someone who’s not afraid to say they’re a fan of the genre and want to work it. I think it can be a little disillusioning for fans to see filmmakers disown the genre as they advance in their careers even though they had experienced a lot of creative success within it. It’s great to hear you embracing it – that you want to grow it.
Adam: I think real art transcribes the fears and frustrations of being human. Whenever you can do that, you’re doing it right. Horror is the quickest outlet for that sort of story, that’s why I find it so fascinating. You can do something light within that, or something dark. If you do it right, it’ll stick around.
Thanks to Adam Wingard and Peter Katz!