Interview: John Magary
An unspoken rule of surviving in New York is the necessity of making the most of opportunities, no matter the infelicitous (or moochy) circumstances. Much of the story in The Mend is precipitated by this reality, but complicated by slightly ominous overtones, in John Magary’s energetic, honest, and witty feature film debut.
When professional flake Mat (Josh Lucas) is kicked out of his living situation with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen), he spontaneously crashes a party at his estranged brother Alan’s (Stephen Plunkett) Harlem apartment. Alan and his live-in girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner) are set to leave on a romantic vacation the next day, and their absence allows Alan (and later Andrea, her son in tow) to set up shop. And then Alan returns early… without Farrah. Many of the tensions (and bonds) between the characters are established in a whirlwind opening sequence.
Following the film’s SXSW premiere, FILM COMMENT spoke with Magary—who had only finished editing the film days earlier—for a talk about the intricacies of making this uniquely paced independent film.
Could you talk about how you generated the idea for the movie, and what the writing process was like?
I was developing another script called Go Down, Antoinette for a long time at the Sundance Labs. I had done a short that was set in New Orleans [The Second Line, 2007] and a feature that was set in New Orleans. The feature was a big script that takes place over 45 years about a woman who has seven kids—but it got very large and very scary. There was no way I could make it, basically. So I wanted to focus on a project that was just makeable. I had wanted to make something about brothers. I had also wanted to make something that was in New York, and loose. So I wrote the screenplay with Myna [Joseph, one of the producers and Magary’s live-in girlfriend] and our roommate Russell Harbaugh, drawing on our own experiences with our brothers. I had different visual ideas in my head that I wanted to pursue and string them together into a movie.
So it was more vignette-based?
Exactly—ways of shoehorning those vignettes into a narrative structure. Little motifs, like the sleepwalking, or the irises, or the cut hand. And so I started with that—a terrible way usually to write a script—and structured it around those little landmarks I wanted to hit. I wanted a massive fight at the end, and I wanted to do a party. The writing process was very meticulous. We planned the entire thing out on notecards in eight different sections.
Had you worked that way in the past?
I’d written something with Myna, but I’d never planned something like that from scratch with two other people at the same time. Which is a great, freeing experience, because you can really just bounce ideas off each other, and you work faster. We basically structured the entire movie in about a week. Even during the writing process, certain things were being folded in, influences from certain filmmakers. I saw Mauvais Sang again recently, and I’m pretty sure Mat and Alan’s cut hands came from there. During the writing, Myna and I had gone to the Leos Carax retrospective at the French Institute. What was inspiring about his work is that you can see him chasing two ideas within the film.
What really drew me into your movie, even before the credits, was the tremendous energy and the tone that is immediately established by the party scene.
There had been discussions during the writing process of starting at the party. That was the most pesky idea that wouldn’t let go—why do we need to start with Mat? From a storytelling perspective, we really don’t need it; he could just show up at the party as a stranger. But I wanted to see this tiny, lightning-fast portrait of a really horrible relationship blow up, and for her to gently come back into the movie later on.
Even when Andrea’s ex-husband shows up, it’s obvious this is a woman who has problems making decisions generally, but also with men.
There’s not one man in the movie who makes sense for her. [Laughs] You just keep looking around thinking: “What is going on?” You have the really weird scene with the kids on the couch wrestling and then making out and strangling each other in the bedroom, and then we cut to him getting kicked out: that’s written. But it was very hard to keep in the movie, to find the right balance. How much sense do we have to make for an audience? It was very tough sometimes to watch with an audience, because you don’t know how much chaos is palatable.
In terms of shot composition, this is also very different from the vast majority of films I’ve seen at SXSW, which have lots of soft focus, bokeh or other glowing lights, and really tight close-ups.
Yeah, it’s a conscious effort. A lot of it comes from spending a lot of time at Film Forum and watching George Cukor and John Ford. I don’t like to push in too much. Trying to keep so many people in the frame and stuff, it’s something I didn’t have much experience with. Like at the party, trying to get eight people in the frame.
Some of the party guests are professional dancers. Was that also based on wanting to have certain motions visually?
Yeah, I wanted the idea of someone walking into a party and there’s a weird choreographed dance routine going on. That’s a very good example of something I’d latched onto before I wrote it. It’s not about developing Farrah as a dancer necessarily; it’s more just shot ideas, which you work out from there. It’s fun having people physically interact in some choreographed way.
Working with the actors, was there a lot of rehearsing, or more improvisation?
There was not a lot of rehearsing, but also not a lot of improv. Next time, I’d love two weeks of rehearsals. We ended up re-casting Andrea two days before we starting shooting, for example. She had two days to learn all her lines, and she had a nude scene the first day of shooting with a bunch of people she didn’t know. For the party, it was almost always scripted, then there would be cutaways.
I’m much better at noticing what I don’t like than in getting to what I do like. Which can be tricky for the actors sometimes. One of the really interesting things about working with someone like Josh Lucas is he’s been in so many movies, and he has such a physical awareness of the camera. He’d ask what lens we were using, and we’re thinking, “Oh God, here we go, the actor’s asking what lens we’re using.” But he did it because he wanted to know how much of himself was in the shot, and he was very good at making the frame more interesting just by where he stood, how he moved, stuff like that. And that to me is like the Hawks ideal, or the Cooper ideal, where it’s just enlivening the frames with the bodies that are in them, which is so hard and so…
It’s rare, I think.
It is rare. It’s fallen out of fashion a little bit too. I am really in love with certain things that are a little old-fashioned.
How many days were you shooting? Did you end up shooting a lot more than you ended up using?
It was 25 days of shooting. We didn’t shoot a lot more… There was a sequence in the script we ended up cutting—the night out with Mat near the end of the movie where they spend more time with those two friends, Michael and Sarah, and they all go out to a nightclub, Lit Lounge. It was the most elaborate day of shooting and probably the most expensive day of shooting. That’s painful. But once we cut it out, it was a revelation: things flowed more, they became a little less explicit. Other than that, tons of dialogue was cut during the editing. Our editor Joe Krings was amazing at that. He would do it in a way also where I couldn’t tell. I was a little precious sometimes.
Were the locations mostly at your apartment, or at your friends’?
That was our local deli—which didn’t make them that easy to get. The people who own the deli were trying to shake us down, and we had to be like, “Guys, we come here every week.” But Alan’s apartment is our actual apartment, which was one of the things that made us able to do it on our budget—having a central location that we didn’t have to pay for and that was pretty easy to deal with. A lot of crazy things come from shooting in your apartment that are hard to deal with, like waking up on set every day. It’s draining in a weird way.
I ask because it feels like there are certain economic realities of small-scale independent filmmaking, and setting it in your own apartment is a way around things. But it can also lead to filmmakers having fewer actors and limiting what they’re doing visually because it just gets too expensive. So it is refreshing to hear someone who’s trying to think around certain things and not make sacrifices visually.
Yeah. And even with the physical space of the apartment, you know, we put wallpaper up, we repainted every room, tried to tailor it to the movie and turned it into like a little bit of a mini-movie studio. We made our beds smaller, so we could move the camera in the bedroom and stuff. Just little things like that.
We painted the kitchen pale avocado, which is not the most attractive color out there. After the shoot, the cinematographer said: “Yeah, I should’ve stopped you before you did that. We shot on a RED, and it’s kind of a different color in every shot—sometimes it’s green, sometimes it’s yellow.”
Yeah, it’s emotive. Emotive of puking. But it’s become comfortable again to live there—I’m not tripping on dollies anymore. That was another thing: tons of movement. The only costly thing that I really, really wanted was a dolly. Because it is that fluid ideal of moving the camera rather than cutting to get from a four-shot to a three-shot. Trying to transition fluidly from room to room. I tried to do that. I tried not to rely totally on editing.
As an editor, do you feel like that’s an impulse?
A little bit, because I’m lazy. I don’t want to spend all my time editing. A lot of my formative movie-watching years were probably the early 2000s: Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Béla Tarr, and Haneke. I don’t think this movie feels anything like any of them, really, but there is this ideal of letting the frame do what it’s doing, and staying back.
But when the kid’s father comes to pick him up, we shot that on a lot of wides, but it felt much more like a sitcom. You know, characters walking in and out. A friend of mine, David Lowery [director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints], said that was his least favorite part of the film: “Yeah, it just felt like a sitcom!” And for the screenings here, it has been the sequence in the movie that works the best. I think it’s because people like sitcoms. [Laughs]
It should be out of place, but they’re all so clearly dysfunctional that it really works.
My inclination is to push against that by making it ridiculous, or making it like a sitcom. The big thing that drove the making of the movie, even when we were writing, was mixing tones willy-nilly. This is something I love about Desplechin and a lot of Korean filmmakers—it doesn’t matter if this scene is sad and that scene is funny. They can be right next to each other and you don’t have to answer for it. Just put them next to each other and see what happens. But that is why you get a lot of old Texans saying [in Texan drawl] “That guy didn’t know what he was doin’!”