Phil Mucci talks FAR OUT, THE LISTENING DEAD, and nunsploitation!
Phil Mucci may be a name unfamiliar in the world of fantastic cinema, but that should soon change. Mucci’s second short film, Far Out (reviewed here) will have its U.S. premier at the upcoming Fantastic Festival in Austin, Texas. Following his pitch-perfect ode to silent horror films, The Listening Dead, Far Out confirms Mucci as a genuine cinematic stylist, blending an impeccable sense for period detail with wit and dark charm.
I had the opportunity to chat with Phil on the eve of his new film’s U.S. debut.
Collin Armstrong: I’d like to first discuss your new short, Far Out. As with The Listening Dead, it’s a period piece. What draws you to period filmmaking - notoriously difficult to pull off on a budget - and what films helped seed your inspiration for Far Out?
Phil Mucci: Its funny- I've never really thought about that. The first short film script I ever wrote wasn't a period piece, but everything that followed has been. In the case of The Listening Dead, it fit in with the entire story. I don't think that film would have worked in a modern setting; the time period and the technique were inseparable from the narrative. In that way, I guess it was also an aesthetic decision. Once I knew I was going to go that way, it gave me a "look" to go for stylistically, which really helped. It even began to dictate how we designed and executed the special effects.
In terms of Far Out, I'd been watching a lot of films from the late 60's and early 70's, both American and European, and started reading up on the filmmakers who made them. There was a quality to those films, like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and 5 Dolls for an August Moon, that was very fantastical, even though they were supposedly "modern" films at the time. The stilted dialogue, the costumes, the crazy camera work and excessive use of zoom lenses, all added to a sense of unreality- which I don't think is a bad thing.
I'm not a realist. I'm not all that interested in making a film that feels "ripped from today's headlines" or anything like that. I'm really intrigued by the artifice of the whole thing. I like seeing films that are hyper-stylized, that aren't trying to convince me of how realistic they can be. I've lived in Brooklyn for 14 years, through 9/11 and beyond, and I don't really need any realism in my entertainment. And that's really what Far Out is to me - an entertainment. Much more so, in a way, than The Listening Dead which was more of an artistic statement, a "here I am - and I love cinema" kind of thing.
Since I was a kid, I've loved the kind of movies that offered stylized visions of alternate worlds. Films like Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Alien were what inspired me to want to make films in the first place. I think by tackling time periods, both in terms of aesthetic and technique, I'm sort of attempting to do that.
As far as specific films that inspired Far Out, I would have to say Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is, obviously, the main inspiration, and to a lesser extent, Mario Bava's 5 Dolls For an August Moon. Psyche Out and The Trip as well, especially for some of the lighting effects, and of course there's a bit of Jess Franco thrown in there for good measure. In terms of how I wanted to do the blood in the film, I referenced the amazing blood spray on the white wall in Dario Argento's Tenebre, and the glorious decapitation scene in Akira Kurosawa's Ran.
Armstrong: Having spoken with you about The Listening Dead, I know you're well-versed in tech aspects of production and open to experimentation and risk. From its first frame Far Out really envelops you in that artificial, hyper-real world you mention, the sort of environment on display in more outré '60s and '70s films. Can you give some insight into the production from a technical standpoint - creating its look, sound, feel?
Mucci: I think my interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking comes from my experience in commercial photography. I'm very comfortable working in Photoshop, and when it comes to film, After Effects is very similar. A lot of what's on display in Far Out comes from that experience.
Obviously, I watched a lot of films to determine what was important to creating the look. The filmmaker who really inspired me the most in those terms was Mario Bava. He worked as a cinematographer before he became a director, and even then, he did most of his own lighting. He painted a lot of his own matte paintings, and did his own special effects as well, which is pretty much unthinkable today.
One of the things Bava was known for was using foreground miniatures, very close to the lens, to create the sense of something larger in the scene, like a castle or a house on a hill. We took that idea to the next level for the opening establishing shot of Far Out. The house that we see is a miniature, built "to camera" by production designer Michael Houk. We actually took the design of the house from A Clockwork Orange. It's the exterior of the writer's house that Alex and his "droogs" wreak havoc in. We placed that model on a blue-screen set, lit the windows, and shot a digital still of it. The only thing in the original shot is the house, a few fake trees, the edges of the "pond", the driveway, and the cars parked to the right of the frame. Next we shot a 1/18th scale miniature car on a blue-screen set, approaching the house (which was no longer there) in stop-motion animation, using again, a digital still camera. The trees, the sky, the grass, and the moving foreground elements, were all still photographs as well. In After Effects, we combined all these pieces, and animated the stills to get a sense of camera movement. In the end, it was a lot more work than simply placing a miniature in a live action shot, but it was worth it. It gives the scene a subtle sense of unreality. You know at once that you're entering a different world.
Armstrong: Can you talk a little about choices regarding Far Out’s cinematography – camera, film stock?
Mucci: Color and grain were important factors for me as well. For the live action portion of the film, we shot on 500 ASA film on a 16mm camera. We were hoping this would give us the right amount of grain, but in the end, I added even more. The color was something Predrag Dubravcic, my cinematographer, and I worked out in the color timing session at Technicolor. That's when you convert your shot film to digital so you can edit it on a computer. It's your first opportunity to adjust the colors in the film. Mostly it's used to make sure scenes match-up color wise, from one shot to the next. In the case of Far Out, we used it to make the film look old, as if the color had faded over time. We achieved this by brightening the blacks in the film, and adding a bit of red to them. We also took down the overall color saturation, and added a dark vignette to the outside of the frame, as if the center of the frame began to fade compared to the edges. Later, in post, I further de-saturated the colors, added more grain, and softened the image slightly.
The optical effects, like seeing through the punchbowl, and the refracted "acid-vision" scene, were inspired, in large part, by Lucio Fulci's Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. These effects were achieved in-camera, on set. By positioning the lens close to the punch bowl, then focusing beyond it, to where the actress would be standing, we got some strange refractions, but with enough clarity for the audience to see what was happening. The "acid-vision" was literally a Coken special effects filter - like a prism - placed in front of the lens and rotated by hand.
For the constantly moving colored light patterns, we used a theatrical lighting rig. It's basically a motorized stencil holder you place in front of the light. By combining different stencils, which you have to buy, with different colored gels, rotating in opposite directions, you create these awesome psychedelic patterns.
Armstrong: I loved the over-pronounced “looped” quality the dialog possessed – it really puts you in mind of old-school Italo horror pictures.
Mucci: Sound was another important aspect of the finished piece. Watching European films from the era, I always loved the obvious dubbing. It was another one of those things that reminded you you were watching a movie. Since we were shooting in a warehouse, the sound we recorded on set was pretty awful. But we only used it as a reference. After we had the edit done, we brought the actors back in and had them loop their lines. Michael Houk built us a small sound-booth to record in, and it worked out great. Then sound designer Karl Scholz flattened the recorded sound, to give it that old-school mono type feel. He also used Logic to create some of the more complicated sound effects, like the voices Carmilla hears as she walks through the crowd. It's supposed to be her hearing people's thoughts, but I'm not sure that came across. It just sounded cool!
Another thing that added to the whole feel of the piece was the way we worked on it. We shot it run-and-gun style. We rented the space for 5 days. We spent the first two days building the set. Then we shot for two days (which is not a lot of time considering how many people we had in each shot). On the fifth day, before we even saw any of the film, we were tearing the set down. No chance for re-shoots, no going back and doing pick-ups. Whatever we had in the can was it. This method affected the entire shoot in a strange way. It was all very exciting, and very risky. The actors and crew knew this going in, so everyone worked really hard. We're incredibly lucky it turned out at all!
Armstrong: The opening animation in Far Out provides a through-line from The Listening Dead - it sort of ties the films to a body of work, which is a very nice touch. There's a black bit of humor in The Listening Dead, also present in Far Out but much more pronounced. Was this a conscious evolution? Was it organic to the process of writing the script?
Mucci: It definitely was. A lot of people didn't really see the humor in The Listening Dead, which blew me away. I thought it was funny. A little sick, but funny. I wrote that script from a pretty dark place, though, right after my divorce. I think maybe that anger came out in the film, and some people probably picked up on it. Far Out was a totally conscious effort to be a bit lighter. It's still dark, but not in such a grim way. I didn't want to come off as being so serious, or pretentious in any way, because that's not really who I am. I wanted to make something more purely entertaining. I used to joke that with The Listening Dead I wanted to make something beautiful, but with Far Out I wanted to make something stupid.
In that way, I guess, it wasn't organic to the writing process. It was a deliberate goal at the outset, something I had in mind all along.
Armstrong: It’s always interesting, what other people see in your work. With projects that are so design-conscious, I think it's a tribute to the whole that audiences pick up on the characters, the humor, emotion - it would be easy to just let yourself sit back and enjoy the show. That people key to something deeper should tell you you've tapped the right vein, so to speak.
Far Out will screen at the upcoming Fantastic Fest in Austin. Is this its premier, or has it been playing other festivals?
Mucci: Fantastic Fest will be its US Premier, and it's really the festival it was made to play. I'm looking forward to the first midnight screening, which, at the Alamo Drafthouse, means a rowdy, blood-thirsty, beer-fueled crowd. It had its World Premier at CFC's Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto this summer, thanks to Todd Brown here at Twitch. He sent a copy of the film to Anita Wong, programmer for the Midnight Mania section. It got a great response. Within a week of its first screening I got an email from The Sundance Channel asking me to send them a screener. Apparently an acquisitions executive had seen it at WSFF, and really dug it.
Two weeks later, Ian Bricke from The Sundance Channel called and told me they'd like to buy the film for television broadcast. I was a little flabbergasted, and a bit suspicious. I mean, I never imagined it to be a "Sundance" type of movie. But Ian explained to me that they had just acquired rights to some Jess Franco films, and they were interested in playing Far Out in front of Vampyros Lesbos, which they plan on screening during their own "Midnight Madness" style broadcast. Of course, I said "Hell yeah!" immediately. I still can't believe it. The deal starts Spring 2008, so keep your fingers crossed that it all goes according to plan!
Armstrong: There's a good deal of momentum - well-deserved - behind you and your work right now on the festival circuit. It has to be asked - what's next for you? Do you see yourself attempting a transition to feature-length projects in the future?
Mucci: Yeah, for sure, I hope. I've slowly been working on a feature-length dream project of mine, entitled “Blood of the Virgin’s Crypt”. It's sort of a Hammer horror meets Jess Franco vampire-lesbian-giallo-nunsploitation thing, if that makes any sense. I should be finished with the script by the end of the year, though I've been saying that for awhile. The two short films I've made, plus all the traveling and promotion, have left me pretty broke, so it's been hard to find the time to write, since I need to make money right now. Contrary to what people might think, making short films doesn't pay the bills! I know “Blood of the Virgin’s Crypt” will be a hard sell, based on the projected budget and subject matter, so I'll probably do another short, and work on a different feature script that I can produce independently. I've been lucky to get this much attention for my short films so far - that's typically not the case. It seems like you need a feature before anyone takes you seriously, so that's the long term goal. Hopefully not too long!
Thanks to Phil for the interview. Far Out will appear on The Sundance Channel in the spring of 2008, and will be making the rounds at festivals between now and then. The Listening Dead will appear on Atom Films and FEARnet this October.
Far Out reviewed at Twitch
Far Out on MySpace
The Listening Dead online
Phil Mucci online
The Hive Films online
Fantastic Fest online