FilmQuest Interview: Jon McDonald and David Gouty on Muddy Corman

Muddy Corman got FilmQuest off to a great start as the opening night film this year. The comedy made lots of people, even the festival programmers, think of Wes Anderson and Napoleon Dynamite, but in the post-screening Q&A, director Jon McDonald said his influences were Brian De Palma and Mike Nichols. One Utah local even recognized a restaurant long gone as one of the film’s interior locations. However, it was just coincidentally a storefront housed in a set warehouse.

McDonald and producer David Gouty were already scouting locations for their next feature in Utah. I sat down with them at FilmQuest to discuss their comedy, which stars Lucas O’Keefe as a man hired to help an art school start a football team.

1897999_434723243388535_5802875518136981965_nSo where did the name Muddy Corman come from?

JM: The funny thing is I came up with it so long ago that I struggle to even remember the story. I think it was a play on another art school name. I want to say it was a rival of Art Center because I went to Art Center, but I honestly can’t even remember what the school was. I’ve tried looking it up recently and I’m like, “What was it?” So I don’t even remember, it was so long ago.

I had to correct myself a few times typing “Muddy Waters.”

JM: I think eventually it became a name. I fell in love, in the middle of writing it, with Buster Keaton. So I was like okay, I’m going to do a painting of Buster Keaton. He will be Muddy Corman. The school will be named after this guy Muddy Corman but the name now escapes me where it came from, it’s been so long.

What was your background in filmmaking?

JM: I was trained in art. I went to Art Center to be an illustrator. In the middle of it, I switched towards animation production design. So I left school and started working with animation in features and TV and doing storyboarding and character design. Around 2008/2009, I was at a studio and I decided I wanted to try to do maybe independent. I felt I wasn’t climbing the studio ladder fast enough so I wanted to direct. I couldn’t find anyone to write anything so I just wrote whatever I could think of. Then went on the path to finding money. It’s completely independent. I had never really had any experience with live-action stuff at all, being on sets or anything. I’m not even sure if we did everything conventionally or not, but I kind of built a team of people who were also like me, who were like, “I’m new to it but I’ll go on the adventure.”

DG: Whatever it takes, let’s just do it.

Were you part of that?

DG: I met him on the short and we slowly became friends after that. Over the years, once he started Muddy Corman, I came in and helped and slowly transitioned into a producer role and learned everything on the way. This is my first thing in film so learned everything on the way.

When you say you’ve never been on a set before, but you’ve seen DVDs, right?

JM: Yeah, I like bonus features, yeah.

So once you’re there, does it seem familiar because you’ve seen what goes on on a set?

JM: Yeah, I did the short film, I said it was to help build momentum to get money for a movie but it was really to see how do I do this? I knew you could yell, “Action.” Bonus features definitely help. I did watch a lot of the bonus features for Hellboy II. Have you ever seen those?

I don’t remember but I know Guillermo del Toro is very in depth.

JM: Oh, it’s so great. He shows a lot of stuff. That stuff helps, definitely. If I would’ve tried this in the ‘80s it would’ve been pretty tough.

DG: I think Project Greenlight too is a really good one. So you do that then and this is how it goes. Here’s the checklist essentially.

JM: But it was nice because it actually feels like, because I don’t know the rules, it was like what works for this? I ended up taking on a lot of stuff that I think a normal team would’ve been like, “Don’t even bother. It’s too much.”

DG: You’ve got your producer and director doing location management and building props and artwork. Jon did all the artwork for the film which looked amazing. So we’re definitely unconventional, but because it worked for us, we’re also translating that into the new one. I think it only brings us more premeditation.

I can see why people, even the film festival, compares it to Wes Anderson and Napoleon Dynamite but I’m glad your references are even deeper cuts than that. Is it sort of like what if Brian De Palma did a comedy?

JM: Honestly, yeah. Blow Out was a huge eye opening movie for me. So I was always referencing De Palma and Mike Nichols. What I love about their work is every scene was shot for that scene. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I need an over the shoulder and then another over the shoulder here and then we’ll get a wide.” It was just what works for this scene? If anything, I felt like I put so much pressure on myself early on. Every scene’s got to be perfect, I would just lie in bed going how do I start it? I can’t even board it until I have a start. I think in the end, hopefully it shows or at least it creates some kind of feeling when people watch it. Even if they don’t know why, it feels different in some way.

Did you toy with how long you could let some of the uncomfortable scenes play out, reel some back or let some go on longer?

JM: Yeah, that’s a challenge. We had a young cast and I think even they were unsure of what was natural. Kevin was so good at reading moments, but I think even he may have felt uncomfortable at times with the length of our takes. I would do a take that would be a page and a half of dialogue in one take and the camera wouldn’t move. I know even he would kind of have moments of, “Wait, what’s that line?” I would be off camera going, “Please get it in the next two seconds because if you don’t get it, I’ve got to cut and we’ve got to do it over again.” Editing, I did end up editing the thing too which was a whole nother learning experience of directing that you start becoming very self-indulgent going, “I’d like this shot to just last. It’s so great and people can really feel things” but they don’t. You need to cut things shorter than maybe you want sometimes.

What did you shoot on?

DG: We shot on a RED 1.

Is there some sort of process that makes it look more like film?

JM: We have a few little tricks that we went through. I think a lot of it comes down to the mental place that Jason, our DP, and I were in when we decided to shoot shots which was our camera needs to feel really heavy. I think nothing screams digital more than the camera floating around a room. So it was partially framing and camera moves but also in post, we did a lot of little tricks with grains and with bending corners of our film to make it feel [anamorphic.] We did our best to create a rich feel despite maybe not having all that stuff.

That’s a really good point. Just because digital cameras have become more accessible and flexible doesn’t mean you can’t shoot like the old films.

JM: Absolutely, yeah. In fact, most young filmmakers references those old films as how much they love them, but it feels like they immediately turn their back as soon as they get behind the camera. They do what’s current which is just get the camera two inches from someone’s face and move it with them and flow, let light blow out most of their shots. I knew I wanted a very flat feeling film because that’s the stuff I loved. I tried to emulate that but again, always with the purpose of what’s going to sell the scene.

13418905_511916715669187_4066966383661360509_nI definitely thought it took place in the ‘70s by the phones and TVs. Is that just my own association or were you dressing it to be the ‘70s?

JM: Yeah, Kevin Corrigan warned me about that. He’s like, “What year is this?” because he kept going to phones. I don’t know, it’s supposed to be anytime, anywhere. I think it started because nothing pulls me out of a movie more than the technology. Especially in the last 10 years, as soon as someone holds a phone up, I’m like oh, this was shot in 2008 because that phone appeared. What’s going to get me out of that? That was in every choice in the movie, whether it was props or music or costumes. I wanted something that felt almost neutral, or an iconic version of a car, an iconic version of a phone.

DG: I like the way you described it. “What kind of props do you want?” And he goes, “If you were a kid and you were to draw a phone, what would it look like? If you were a kid and you draw a car, what would it look like? That’s what I want for this film.”

JM: Yeah, I wanted iconic versions of things so that the movie felt like it had no date and it was sometime, somewhere. We shot a lot of it in Salt Lake and I was like, “I don’t want to see mountains or anything recognizable.” That was always a challenge, just trying to find a frame that felt like a neutral place.

What was the restaurant that the guy in the Q&A recognized?

DG: Port of Call.

JM: I don’t know anything about that.

DG: I don’t know the history behind it. That was in a big warehouse with a soundstage for concerts and they did MMA fights there.

JM: It was basically a mall restaurant. We just made that look like outside.

It’s just amazing to think something that was torn down could exist in a prop warehouse somewhere.

JM: Yeah, it is bizarre. I had no idea. I guess the school that we primarily shot a lot of the school stuff in was shut down recently too. We got there right before it closed.

Where did you shoot the fake Sesame Street?

DG: That was in a garage.

JM: We shot that in a friend’s garage. Luckily his wife let us paint the walls in certain spots. He just let us do it. I remember pulling up with Doug E. Doug to this house in a regular neighborhood and walking in. “This is it.” He loved it. He was such a good sport. He was so cool. We just painted up a patch of a wall and put up some fake foam stuff and tada.

And you made the puppet?

JM: I made the puppet, yeah. I just went to Michael’s or something and bought foam and cut it up, put fur on it. I had to learn how to make a puppet, and then I voiced it under a little box which was also uncomfortable and terrible. I think it came out okay.

13325454_509198122607713_5744483742383336125_nHow did you find Lucas O’Keefe?

DG: He was a local that we stumbled upon.

JM: I didn’t have money at the time and I was like, well, I’m going to try to make it on my own dime. I couldn’t put out a real casting call for anybody so I went online and found a place where people could post their picture and say, “I’m an actor.” I don’t think he’d been in anything but I was like he looks like the kid. I really didn’t search very hard. I just found the first kid and brought him over. The whole time, he was like, “Is this real?” Two weird guys just called me and met me in a Starbucks and said, “Do you want to be in a movie?”

DG: I think we were doing the same thing. Is this real?

Can you tell us about the film you’re scouting now?

JM: Yeah, totally. We’re shooting a movie called The Hyperions. It’s a heist movie similar to the vein of Dog Day Afternoon. It’s about a Walt Disney type character in 1955 who invents these little badges that give a superpower to a person. He decides to put together a three person team similar to The Mickey Mouse Club that go off as a family and fight in action packed adventures. Our movie takes place 30 years later when the family’s fallen apart. He’s let them go over time and they want their powers back. So it’s a heist movie where they’re trying to steal their badges back and they get stuck in this museum.

Will any of the cast of Muddy Corman be in The Hyperions?

DG: Yeah, Doug is coming back which is pretty exciting.

JM: I can see Doug E. Doug being a good collaborator for a lot of projects. I think he’s one of the most talented guys out there. I don’t know if it’s his focus. He’s a big family man. I know he likes being close to family but I feel like we’ve got a good discovery with Doug. Outside of that, we’re kind of opening up a little bit for new actors. We are bringing back our cinematographer. It’s mostly new actors as far as that goes.

Who will Doug be playing in The Hyperions?

JM: Doug’s going to be playing one of the adopted kids of this Walt Disney type character. Our Walt Disney type character is in his ‘70s or so. He adopted them when he was maybe in his 40s and 30 years later.