STUCK—Interview With Stuart Gordon, Mena Suvari and John Strysik
On October 26, 2001, Chante Jawan Mallard who was intoxicated behind the wheel of her car hit a homeless man, Gregory Biggs. Instead of getting Mr. Biggs help, she panicked and drove home with him stuck in her windshield. Two days pass and Mr. Biggs has still been left in her garage, still stuck in her car. Miss Mallard then seeks the help of male friend, Clete Jackson, who disposes of Mr. Biggs at a park. Four months pass with the coast clear for Miss Mallard. At this point for reasons unknown, she mentions this episode at a party to Maranda Daniel. Not only does she tell Maranada about the episode she also says she plans to destroy the car and make an insurance claim. Maranda immediately tells the Fort Worth Police, who put together enough evidence and testimony that results in Miss Mallard being busted for 50 years in prison for killing Gregory Biggs.
The case drew national headlines, not only because of the audacity of Miss Mallard to leave a dying man she hit stuck in her windshield, but also because of the fact she was a nurses aide at a retirement home. Perhaps she wanted to be promoted or pretend it didn’t happen. Regardless, it was a modern day horror story come to life, that shook the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
The tale of Mr. Biggs, however, does not end there. Veteran filmmaker Stuart Gordon and screenwriter John Strysik have brought his tale to the big screen with the 2007 film, Stuck. Gordon and Strysik flesh out the characters and their motivations in a very stark world where individuals are clawing their way to stay afloat with their careers.
This human tragedy and a horror film is one hell of a wild ride that delivers on every level! Even those already familiar with the real story will find themselves wondering what will happen next as the film furiously starts spiraling out of control. As Mack said on his review here at Twitch, “Car crashes should never be this entertaining but thank god this one was.”
Many films that tackle real life events are just way too glossy and offer up no depth or seem to have anything so say. Luckily this isn’t the case with Stuck, it’s a film that will stay with you long after the closing credits role. There is depth to the characters both from the script and in all the very humanistic performances where we can at both empathize and feel shocked by characters in equal measure. Stuck also features a career break out performance by Mena Suvari. Stephen Rea is nothing short of Shakespeare in a windshield with a completely unique physical and rousing performance in portraying Gregory Biggs. Special mention also needs to go to Russell Hornsby who hits all the right notes and right balance of drama, shock and humor as Rashid.
THINKFilm will be releasing Stuck into US theaters this Spring and Image will be releasing it on DVD around the same time. Most recently it played to great responses at the always rocking Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival and at the 40th Sitges Film Festival. I currently rank it as my 3rd favorite film of 2007, right behind There Will Be Blood (#1) and Timecrimes (#2).
Stuck features a very wonderfully realized tight script, human drama, black humor, action, suspense, social political commentary, girl fights and finds Stuart Gordon once again hitting on all cylinders. Between this film and Edmond, Mr. Gordon is on one of the best film rolls currently going. This Stevie Ray Vaughn like groove of cinema he is on is one of the hottest acts going on in current cinema. As I left the Sitges film festival screening where I originally saw it, I really wondered to myself what kind of film noir films Mr. Gordon would have been making, had he been making films back in the 1940’s and 50’s.
STUART GORDON: Is the Alamo Drafthouse in its new Downtown Austin digs yet?
BLAKE: Yes and they have taken over the famous music hall building on 6th Street known as The Ritz.
STUART GORDON: Is it bigger?
BLAKE: It has two movie theaters in it. One big. One small. And at least this time they have more than a parking garage to work with, which the last location was, to turn into a full-fledged rocking movie theater.
STUART GORDON: That’s sad; it was such a great location (the previous Alamo Drafthouse movie theater on Colorado).
BLAKE: With this one at least, they will get to craft a sound system the way they want and put in sound barriers to keep out the noise of thumping dance clubs.
STUART GORDON: Oh, that sounds great!
BLAKE: I should note before we get started that at Fantastic Fest last year, your film Edmond was screened.
STUART GORDON: How did the audience react to it?
BLAKE: I don’t think anyone, me included, knew what they were getting into!
BLAKE: The prison sequence alone was so well done but emotionally brutal.
STUART GORDON: Miss Suvari. Paging Miss Suvari. (Tries to get the attention of lead actress Mena Suvari who has just walked into the room)
(Brief pause as Mena Suvari joins the interview)
BLAKE: Great! Well let’s talk Stuck! So with the character of Brandi I’m curious about the crafting of her down to her look to how refreshingly human her character is depicted and realized.
MENA SUVARI: For me the way I approach my work is a very organic process. There isn’t anything specific I do. I try to look at the story as a whole and dissect it moment by moment. Then try to understand what the character may be going through in that moment. It’s not so much what kind of expression or mannerism I may do at that moment and sometimes each take might be different for me.
BLAKE: I thought you did great, especially in crafting a character and performance I haven’t seen from you before. Like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood you create an entirely new flesh and blood person we have never seen from you in any other film.
MENA SUVARI: Thank you very much!
BLAKE: I’m very curious on the look and universe the film is set in. It feels intensely life like and very bleak in that regard.
STUART GORDON: In getting back to Mena, one of the things that we talked about early on is that I didn’t want her to look like a movie star in this film. You know, most actors and actresses are very concerned about their look and Mena will just do anything she can to throw herself into the role. So she got behind this idea [of not looking like a movie star] and her hairstyle in the film is not the most flattering.
(MENA SUVARI LAUGHS)
STUART GORDON: The makeup lady did not do all of this carefully crafted makeup that they would normally do. We presented her as a real person, a working person. And that was the approach, to make it like a documentary and make it as real as we could.
BLAKE: And the bleakness throughout the film that accentuates the life like feel of the film?
STUART GORDON: Well, that’s the world we are living in now. People are very selfish and afraid. The original story, you know this is based on a true story that took place in Texas. When we were told it was going to be shot in Canada, it took John and I some time to adjust to that idea. Then when we got there we realized we could really make use of the coldness, in the environment. In the trees the leaves had all shed their beautiful leaves and it was like everything was barren and stark. Overall, I think it really added to the movie.
BLAKE: I was living in Texas at the time this originally happened.
MENA SUVARI: Oh wow and you know what? We actually started production of this film on the exact day of the anniversary it happened, ironically enough!
BLAKE: As it’s based on a true story, I was curious about adding into it black humor, social commentary and girl fights?
JOHN STRYSIK: It was based on a true story and as such the realism was there to begin with. We were trying to make it as real as possible. And it’s funny as the first version of the script had an entire subplot about Tom’s (Stephen Rea) family and his wife trying to rescue him. It stopped the forward movement of the story and once we eliminated that character it opened it up quite a bit. We weren’t trying to make a comedy per se, but in extreme situations you push yourself into it. The key is in making it realistic. Mena and Stephen Rea just brought this fantastic drama with them in making these real characters. You really feel for both of them, I think, and that’s really what happened with the real woman.
Stephen’s character is more made up than the real life character was. We really didn’t know much about Mr. Biggs other than he was a guy stuck in a windshield. So his back-story is all fictionalized. Though I think our exploration of this gives him even more sympathy, I think.
STUART GORDON: There is some similarities, I think, between Gregory Biggs [real life person that was stuck in the windshield] and Stephen in that they both had families and sons. Here is a man that has a life and we wanted the audience to feel that; he isn’t just some loner that no one is going to miss.
BLAKE: I liked the parallels of both Tom and Brandi’s plight in the film and how you don’t over balance either character with more sympathy than the other.
STUART GORDON: I think it’s great that they both play them as someone the audience could actually really care about.
BLAKE: Very true and to me it seems too often with this type of material that actors and actresses will be relegated to playing their roles as just camp. In Stuck everyone is completely immersed in layered characters. And everyone also seems to approach their roles organically versus mechanically.
MENA SUVARI: With the mechanical feel that can sometimes come from the director’s instructions.
STUART GORDON: Could be… but not the case here!
MENA SUVARI: No there wasn’t but in other films there could be times where the director gets their cast to do something so specifically it comes off as mechanical. I think this is what is great about Stuart; he gives you freedom as an actor and to bring your own ideas to it.
BLAKE: Was there a lot of rehearsal time? There was a lot of great chemistry and tension between characters in the film.
STUART GORDON: I would say we had about a week.
MENA SUVARI: Not a whole lot, but I would also say that worked for us.
BLAKE: Your character and Rashid (Russell Hornsby) in particular worked so well together onscreen that I would certainly love to see an entire movie just about them.
STUART GORDON: Wasn’t he great?
JOHN STRYSIK: Oh, we should definitely mention Russell! I mean he is REALLY good in this movie! And their relationship really is terrific!
MENA SUVARI: He was so great and again I think with that fight, Brandy she is just desperate and doesn’t have any time to waste.
STUART GORDON: In a way, that is the key scene in the movie because in it Brandy finally takes charge.
MENA SUVARI: It’s life or death for her.
STUART GORDON: Yeah and she goes there looking for him to help her and straighten everything out. And then in that scene she realizes Rashid is not to be trusted and that she has really got to take it on herself.
JOHN STRYSIK: But at the same time she is also stuck with him because she thinks he can take care of it. Everyone in the movie is stuck in various situations.
STUART GORDON: The other thing that is interesting is that both characters get stronger as the movie goes on. Brandi rises to the occasion and really becomes a force to be reckoned with and so does he.
One of the things that Stephen Rea said while we were working on it was that after this story is over, Tom is not going to be out on the streets anymore and is going to take control of his life.
BLAKE: Speaking of Stephen Rea – he does a Shakespeare in a windshield performance (everyone laughs) without a lot really to work with!
STUART GORDON: He said to me when we were shooting – “The real guy was in the windshield for three days and I’ve been in it for three weeks!” It was rough on him.
JOHN STRYSIK: It was funny when we had the table read and most of his lines were, “Help me, help me!” I apologized and told him he was one of the greatest dialogue actors in the world. He said, “Listen, I’m here.” He really wanted to do it, loved the script and I think he does a silent movie performance.
STUART GORDON: He made the suffering so palatable, in that everyone can feel it with him.
BLAKE: Did you use anything special to prop him up?
STUART GORDON: We had a thing for him to rest on.
MENA SUVARI: A little bit of padding (laughs).
STUART GORDON: Yeah, we had some foam so he wouldn’t be on the actual metal and windshield. That was it and it was very painful for him.
He had to undergo three hours of makeup each day before he was even put into the windshield. Poor man.
MENA SUVARI: One of the concerns of Stephen was for his blood rushing to his head, because he would be leaning in so much. It was always a concern.
STUART GORDON: He told me he was working on a new movie and that they asked him if it would be ok if they tied him up for one of the scenes (Everyone Laughs) and he said, “Sure go ahead!”
BLAKE: Mena, what would you say was the toughest scene in the film for you to do?
MENA SUVARI: Really for me, to get to the moment at the end took a lot! It was very emotional and I had to draw a lot out to lose it completely.
STUART GORDON: I remember also the scene where you faced off with him and he’s got the gun. We talked about that scene a lot.
MENA SUVARI: That’s true.
STUART GORDON: You were saying to me, “Why would I go after a man who has a gun pointed at me?” I said, “You have to realize that you can take him.” And it comes through so strongly with that look on her face, she’s like a lioness! She has that look that this guy is toast!
MENA SUVARI: She convinces herself that there are no more options.
BLAKE: Great point and I think it was wonderfully realized that as the film spirals out of control, so does the main character’s desperation.
STUART GORDON: It’s a battle to the death for these two.
BLAKE: I have to ask about the opening credit sequence of the film that features a rap song overlaying visuals inside a nursing home. Was this in the script or how did it come about? (Everyone Laughs)
STUART GORDON: It’s funny, that rap song didn’t get put in until very late in the process. Originally I think the song was “Some Enchanted Evening,” (Everyone Laughs) and the whole audiences [I was screening it to] were starting to nod out and our editor Andy Horvitch threw in a rap song in one of its cuts just to see what I thought. I thought it was hilarious and really worked!
And there are always things you wish you could have done differently and if I could do it over again I would have had her listening to a Walkman or iPod to show this is what she is listening to while she is serving them their meds.
BLAKE: Any cut scenes of note?
STUART GORDON: We used everything that we shot.
JOHN STRYSIK: They had great producers because they left them alone and no re-writes or anything like that.
MENA SUVARI: We got a key to the city and a press conference in doing so before we even started filming it.
STUART GORDON: The town of Saint John turned over the whole city to us and it was like having a fantastic back lot. We could shoot anywhere in town we wanted to.
MENA SUVARI: It was really wonderful how they welcomed us with the big press conference.
STUART GORDON: The intersection where the accident takes place is one of the major thorough fairs of the city and they closed it down completely for us. That wouldn’t have happened in Los Angeles. (Everyone Laughs)
BLAKE: Moving to spoiler territory, in the real life event the victim doesn’t get revenge, but in Stuck he does.
STUART GORDON: This was really a thing as we worked on each draft of the script and I felt this was what we wanted to see happen.
JOHN STRYSIK: We wanted to do reversals too, where suddenly Brandi is put in Tom’s place by using the car. And he has that one moment with the match where he decides against it and I think that’s a great scene in the film that always gets a great reaction from the audience. There were always reversals going on with this script.
BLAKE: Upcoming Projects for everyone? Mena, I know you’re in one that looks interesting called Day of the Dead.
MENA SUVARI: Day of the Dead is coming out next Spring. They wanted to release it in 2007, but they wanted to work on the effects some more.
STUART GORDON: I’m going to be doing an episode for Masters of Horror, which has been renamed as Fear Itself and it’s going to be on NBC in 2008.
BLAKE: You’re still going to be doing The Thing on the Doorstep?
STUART GORDON: Yes and it’s another project for next year. It’s another Lovecraft story. Dennis Paoli who is a longtime collaborator for me wrote the script for it.
BLAKE: Possession stories always seem tough to translate to the screen.
STUART GORDON: It is but Lovecraft manages to give it a whole new spin. It’s the only story Lovecraft ever wrote that has a strong female character and I’m looking forward to it. I’m also hoping this might be another collaboration with Miss Suvari.
MENA SUVARI: Thank you!
JOHN STRYSIK: I have a script under option called The Jitters. It’s kind of based on Pandora’s Box where something gets released in some snowy mountains, but I can’t really say any more than that.
Thanks to the Sitges Film Festival for making this interview possible and to the wise eye of Peter Martin for helping me Q&A it.