Of all the films that I've seen at Fantasia this year, The Master Cleanse from writer-director Bobby Miller ranks among the weirdest and most unique. I have to admit that the first 20 minutes of the film didn't draw me in, but after that, WHOA! Things get weird, cute, squishy, sad, and heartwarming, sometimes all at once. As Miller's first feature, that's an amazing feat to pull off. His previous short film, Tub, played Cannes, Sundance, and SXSW. You can watch it here.
The Master Cleanse stars Johnny Galecki and Anna Friel (in addition to Anjelica Huston and Oliver Platt) as broken people on a retreat to cleanse their bodies and become more whole in body and spirit -- with some quite unexpected results.
If you see this film coming to a festival near you, go see it -- you'll be in a bizarre sweet treat on what it means to be emphatic -- and on what makes us human. Check out the clip below.
I got a chance to talk to Miller about puppets, practical effects, Anjelica Huston, and more at Fantasia for his international premiere (next up, FrightFest).
ScreenAnarchy: THE MASTER CLEANSE starts off in diet fade and self-help territory, then veers off into a completely different type of film. How did you come up with the story?
Bobby Miller: I’d done a short film called Tub, which is also a body horror thing, and I was attracted to the idea of something non-tangible, like feelings, becoming a tangible thing, perhaps a creature. And was I looking into the master cleanse (a blend of lemon juice, water, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper), the actual fad diet at the time.
How’d that go?
Not too well. The big idea was to go on it for ten days and write a script. It was the worst idea, because within 30 hours, you’re a complete, irritable mess. It didn’t work out for me, but I read other people’s accounts of being on the cleanse -- if you go on YouTube and search “master cleanse journals,” you’ll see people documenting their experiences.
People were really treating this thing like a religious experience, and had an outlook of “if I can get through this 10-day experience, I can get my life together.” I was that was odd and also kind of moving.
One of the character’s motivations for lying about something awful was interesting to watch -- and something that you rarely see. Was this character based off someone you’ve known?
Well, I’ve dated an actress! (Laughs.) I’ve always thought of that character as an emotionally closed off person, but yes, I’ve known a girl like that!
How long did it take from first draft of the script to final cut?
Five years. Tub got some attention at Sundance, and then it took awhile to get interest in The Master Cleanse because it was pretty weird.
How did you get Anjelica Huston?
I still don’t know how we got her! There isn’t an exotic story there. We got the script to her and she just responded to it. It was very surreal. Johnny (lead actor and producer) and I went to visit her after she read the script and we didn’t know what to do -- do we bring wine?
She was so lovely, and at the end of our meeting, she popped champagne. I thought, What life am I living?
The puppets came out of left field for me; I was expecting to see nasty monsters, but they were adorable. I’d love to hear more about the design of the puppets.
We found Shreya Shetty online; she’s an artist and I love her work. She did some beautiful paintings for us. There are practical puppets and animatronics -- I think we had five creatures. We reused the skeletons of some for others due to budget
I wanted a mix a cute and creepy; this idea that you cling to your baggage at first. When you’re depressed, you get on your sweatpants and order takeout. There’s something comfy about depression sometimes. Initially, I wanted the creatures to be cute to draw you in.
Did you imagine that cute look when you were writing the script?
For sure. We’d go through paintings; it was a delicate balance. Earlier designs were too scary or gross, and I wanted them to sneak up on you.
Was it a challenge for the actors to work with puppets?
The actors loved the puppets! They’d still be there acting with them if they could. Everyone turned into little kids.
What have audience reactions been toward the puppets?
We premiered at a few festivals and have seen the reactions. It’s been interesting, because at festivals, there aren’t any trailers and no one is given the plot ahead of time. It’s been a treat to me to see how people react. Some people laugh, some groan when something creepy or weird happens, and then some people come up to me after and tell me that they were moved by the ending. It’s been a wide gamut of reactions, and I love it. That’s what we’ve been hoping to do.
Did you have alternate endings written or shot?
That’s the only thing that’s never changed from the script. It was always that ending.
Have you dreamt up a sequel?
I don’t know what that would look like! (Laughs.) Someone joked that it would be Anjelica and Oliver (Platt), and we’d follow those characters.
As a first-time feature director, what was the most challenging thing that happened on set?
Every single day was a challenge! You never have enough time to do everything. I’d say it’s tough working with practical effects. When you’re working with puppets, everything goes three times as slow, so there was a lot of adjusting expectations. The real balance is knowing when you have to gun it. There was some stuff with Johnny in the cabin we had to burn through in order to spend some quality time with the creatures.
Did anyone ever try to convince you to go CGI over practical?
No, no one ever did; it was already really embedded. My short and my presentation had practical effects. No one challenged that and I’m glad. We had some pickups; we added a creature scene that I’m very happy with, too.
Do you have a favorite on-set or post-production memory or anecdote?
There’s a scene where Johnny’s bonding with his creature, and it’s kind of an intimate moment. Then I yell, “cut” and then in my enthusiasm, I then yelled, “suck it, E.T.!” I later told that story to Entertainment Tonight Canada, and they thought I meant them, and I had to explain, “No, no, I meant the Spielberg movie!” It was pretty funny.