Monday, March 11, 2013

SVFF 2013: SHORT FILMS—MAGPIE (2011): The Evening Class Interview With Joel Wayne

An eclectic assortment of short films and music videos have been selected for screening at the upcoming 2013 Sun Valley Film Festival (March 14-17). The 20 short films and 15 music videos were selected based on their focus on story, no matter the medium. These additional films and videos will complement the outstanding lineup of 33 feature films to be presented throughout the festival weekend.

Of the selected short films, five are world premieres and one is a North American premiere. Idaho is well represented in the film and music video selection as 8 of the shorts were filmed in Idaho, and 9 of the music videos were made by Idaho filmmakers. One that caught my eye was Magpie (2012) [IMDb], written and directed by Joel Wayne, and produced and shot by Troy Custer. Magpie boasts its World Premiere at Sun Valley. As synopsized at the festival's website: "Morris is a middle-aged, recently-divorced man recovering from pica, an addictive disorder characterized by an appetite for inorganic food, like chalk, metal, or detergent. When Morris' son, Peter, checks himself out of a sober living facility, Morris spends the day searching for him and finds himself relapsing in the process."

It ends up that pica is not only an eating disorder characterized by an abnormal appetite for earth and other non-foods; but, it's also a genus for the magpie, thus the wry title to this edgy narrative that daringly visualizes the stressors that trigger such an unusual and provocative disorder. By comparison, a son addicted to drugs seems normal and tame. My thanks to Troy Custer for putting me in touch with Joel Wayne for a conversation.

Magpie (Director's Cut) from Joel Wayne on Vimeo.

Michael Guillén: Joel, I take it you come from a writing background?

Joel Wayne: Yeah, I went to school for English and creative writing and I'm currently a part-time grad student in an MFA program for writing at Boise State.

Guillén: Your writing style is dark and edgy. Who are your influences?

Wayne: It depends on the medium. Influences in terms of screenwriting would probably be in the vein of the Coen Brothers or Woody Allen. I'm interested in relationships more than anything else. Those two influence my prose as well.

Guillén: Has any of your prose been published?

Wayne: Yeah, I've just had my first short story "Deliquescence" published last year in a small magazine called apt, based out of Boston.

Guillén: Congratulations on getting your first short film Magpie into the Sun Valley Film Festival. You've written, directed, and acted in this film, which is a strange, but effective story. I had never heard of pica before. How did the subject of this eating disorder come to your attention as a writer?

Wayne: Different reality shows have shown people with this eating disorder, who a lot of times eat the same thing over and over and over. They'll eat toilet paper or dryer sheets or something like that. It's a habitual, self-comforting activity. I've taken some liberty in Magpie because my character Morris (Chris Thometz) eats a few different things: detergent, paperclips, bullets (although there are people who eat metal in general). A number of years ago there was an artist who made collage work out of the stomach contents of people suffering from pica; nails and things like that.

Guillén: Oh, my God!

Wayne: I find addictive disorders like that interesting in general. In film, you tend to see the same disorders depicted over and over, usually OCD—people tend to write about OCD—but, there are so many other interesting disorders, whether they're dibilitating or not, like synesthesia (the mixing of senses). I find all of that interesting.

Guillén: As subject matter, these disorders are intriguing. Why your script worked for me, however, was because of the juxtaposition of the father's pica eating disorder triggered by and contrasted against his son's drug addiction. Usually an audience would feel sorry for a drug addict, but in this instance Peter—who you play—comes off quite normal by comparison to his father. I thought that tension was both unexpected and comic. I loved the exchange when Peter asks his dad, "What are you doing to yourself?" and Morris answers, "I'm working on it. What are you doing?" And Peter protests, "I'm working on it too!" A very funny, yet poignant, moment.

Wayne: I tried to look at the influences in Morris's life—his recent divorce, his son's problems—as stressors that might be leading to his eating disorder. As I said earlier, I'm interested in relationships, especially familial relationships where—in this instance, let's say—the father is obviously at a certain point influencing his son without having to take responsibility for his actions.

Guillén: With regard to writing for different kinds of short form mediums, how do you approach that? I understand you wrote the script for Troy Custer's I48 entry Closure and in that film there was no dialogue at all. How did you negotiate visualizing that story with Troy?

Closure from Bumblebird Films on Vimeo.
Wayne: Well, as you probably know, there are very strict parameters when you're making a film for I48. You basically draw a genre out of a hat (not literally). What we drew was a silent film. Years ago I remember Troy doing another silent film in more of a vaudevillian style about a guy getting ready for a date. When you go into a competition like I48, you already have a couple of ideas or stories in your head that you try to turn into whatever genre you get. For Closure, this was not a story that I had in my head; it was actually a play off a story Troy had; but, we switched it up: it wasn't a man killing his wife but two lovers killing this man who was cheating on both of them with each other. We tried to turn it into something of a dark comedy; to give this dark idea a little levity. I argued that the idea of a guy killing his wife was something that had already been done a lot and that it would be more interesting to have the woman kill her boyfriend instead.

Guillén: Well, I have to be upfront here and say that I thought it was the best selection that I saw from I48, both in style and atmosphere. I think it deserved the top prize and was surprised it didn't win. It certainly drew my attention to both your work and Troy's.

Wayne: Good, I'm glad to hear that. I wrote Closure but Troy directed it. We've worked together now for a couple of years; but, we're starting to switch back and forth now with the directing.

Guillén: As someone who's come from outside who's monitoring Boise's film production, it strikes me that there are creative teams at work here: you, Troy Custer, actors Jim Lile and Kristy Lussier, you're working with each other again and again and familiarizing yourselves with each others' talents and developing an ensemble style. Would you consider that a fair assessment? The fact that you're working together a lot?

Wayne: We have. In terms of talent, it tends to rotate a bit. Jim Lile is always up for just about doing whatever so he's someone who's easy to involve. The lead in Magpie, Chris Thometz, used to be located out of Chicago and did some acting there. We had seen him do a character-driven piece in an I48 film and I talked to him and told him I would love to work with him on something else and he was into it. When I was writing Magpie, I was writing it for him, though I hadn't yet told him that or anything. Then I sent it over to him and he got on board.

Guillén: Along with Magpie being selected for the short films program, you've also earned a slot in the program of music videos with TW Walsh's "Pawn Shop Guns", on which you lent a directorial hand. Walsh, in turn, provided the unsettling score to Magpie. How has that collaboration come about and what is involved in working with a musician to create a music video? Did you approach him with a concept after listening to the music or did he approach you saying, "This is what I want?" How did that process work for you two?


Wayne: That project was sheer happenstance. I follow TW Walsh on Twitter and I'm a big fan of his work, both when he made music with David Bazan in the band Pedro the Lion, and then in his solo work. Walsh has come out with his first album in eight years or something like that and he had said something on Twitter about anyone wanting to make a music video for a song from his new album? I replied to him and asked if it would be my choice? He sent me his email address and we went back and forth a few times and I said I had a couple of ideas for a couple of different songs. He said that sounded like a lot of fun. So I said, "Why don't we do a little test shooting on one of these ideas?"—a time lapse shot on that song "Pawn Shop Guns"—so over lunch one day we did a test shoot and sent that over to him and he really dug it. I did more of a formal treatment and sent that over to him and he gave us his blessing and we shot it.  The cool part was that he said, "You know, I don't have a set budget for this but what I can do is pay you in trade. I can pay you with original music, if you want to do something like that?"

Guillén: What a great deal!

Wayne: Yeah, it was fantastic for us because I had already written Magpie and had originally created it for a film contest out of Chicago, and that specific contest required original music. So we needed original music for it and I worked with TW Walsh on it and he made some original music for us. Then we asked him if we could use one of his songs from the album for the final part of Magpie and he said, "Yeah. Absolutely."

Guillén: So to wrap up here, how do you subsidize your film work in Boise? How do you earn a living?

Wayne: I'm a copy writer in an ad agency. That's my 9 to 5.

Guillén: Any thoughts on what it means for you to have been accepted into the Sun Valley Film Festival with both projects? Is there anything you're hoping to get out of the experience?

Wayne: It's a big, big deal for me to be accepted because it was something totally that happened out of sheer luck. Our script supervisor on Magpie sent us an email alerting us that Sun Valley was calling for short films and music videos so we submitted both, just a couple of days before the deadline. When you do these short film projects like this, you kind of create it for one thing and you submit it to whatever that thing is and then you move on, y'know? If you win an award, great. If not, it doesn't really matter. You move on to the next project. But this is an instance where we were able to get a little more life out of Magpie and we feel good about the end product so we've been searching for something to spur us on a little bit, to maybe look at other film festivals that we can maybe submit it to. Sun Valley Film Festival feels kind of like a jump off point for us.

Guillén: You're developing your film festival cred?

Wayne: Yeah, and we didn't think that was a possibility but now we're thinking, "Maybe it is!"

Guillén: Most short form content—short films and music videos—usually inhabit a space online. Both Magpie and "Pawn Shop Guns" are already available on the Internet. However, the value of being accepted into a film festival such as Sun Valley means the project takes on a portfolio quality. It exists in both on and off line spaces, with their respective audiences. How do you feel about having an audience for the "in-cinema" world premiere of your images?

Wayne: I don't know if it's age or what—because I'm not sure if I necessarily value having the traditional audience in a cinema—but, I do like that aspect of it, of people actually going to a physical cinema to view something I've done. That's still something we do as a society. Granted, I don't know if the in-cinema experience is necessarily dying or not; but, it seems more likely that people watch a film in their home rather than go out. Yet people still do trek to the cinema so I think it's kind of a fun idea that people would physically go somewhere to see something that you do.

I did a reading recently at Hyde Park Books and, similarly, a number of people that don't normally go to those readings showed up when I mentioned I was going to read there. That meant a lot to me because these were people who made the physical effort to come out and hear me read.

Guillén: Your seeming unfamiliarity with in-cinema experiences intrigues me as characteristic of an online generation; but, I do believe that the portfolio approach I mentioned before—of being present on line and off—strengthens the flow of community and response, commensurate to scale. I'm hoping that your experience at Sun Valley proves to be a rich one for you.  Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

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