Brian McGuire returned to London Raindance Film Festival this year with his latest feature, Sick of It All, a noir-infused comedy based on The Little Prince (according to press materials—it’s more of all all-out genre-fuck with obsessional detours into style and irreverent glee). It’s a chance again for McGuire to make his own uncompromising hybrid indie movies, featuring his ensemble cast—made up of friends, family members, and, this time, the producer in the lead—and his own L.A. apartment. This is true indie cinema at it’s purest.
He sat down with Garth Twa and Simona Viackute for Pure Movies.
So you’ve been coming to Raindance for a while.
Brian McGuire: Yeah, this is the sixth year that I’ve come and this is the seventh film that I’ve shown at the festival. One year we showed two films.
That’s incredibly prolific. And you do features, unlike most indie directors who make shorts in order to stretch the budget.
BM: Yeah, well, in my mind, when you make a no-budget film or a low-budget film, and you’re going to make a short, you might as well make feature, you know, with the money that you’re spending. Some people spend what $20, 30, 40, 60 thousand… you’re right there! If you have the right material, the right story… something like Sick of It All, where it’s essentially all one location and it’s everybody I know. Know what your budget is and you know what you can get away with. And probably, if you’re shooting a short, your goal is to shoot features…typically.
Exactly. If you’ve done all the legwork for a short, why not do a feature? You’ve already got your equipment, your permissions…
BM: And you’re giving yourself an opportunity for there to be a feature that could succeed. Also you’re giving yourself the opportunity to really, really educate yourself.
What’s the fate of a feature for, let’s say, a nobody filmmaker compared to the fate of a short? Like, if you’re just starting out?
BM: I was lucky enough to be cast in a film that was low budget film, made with a group of my friends. I didn’t write it or direct it – I just acted in it. It’s called In Search of a Midnight Kiss.
BM: Oh great. You know the film? Yeah, so it came out 2007 and won all sorts of awards…we won the John Cassavetes Award at the Independence Spirit Awards that year… and we traveled around and went to all these film festivals and I was with the director and it’s, like, fuck, the only person that they really care about in the end game is the director. Even writers don’t get love, you know? It’s just the directors; they don’t want to talk to anybody else. So after travelling the world with that film, I thought, shit, if I’m gonna make a living as an actor in independent film, I probably need to start making them just so I can sustain myself in this game. So I made my first film and then, like, six months later some of the cast and the crew were, like, ‘When are we doing our next one?’ So I started writing and it became like I was doing almost two movies a year, from 2010 ‘til 2015 – that’s when most of these films were made. I think it was that desperation of wanting to just be able to survive and make a place for myself in indie film or just filmmaking in general. I can tell you, the very first day that I was on set of my own project, it was like the first day of fucking school. I hated it. It was, like, this cold sweat coming from my hands and it was midday and I was, ‘Oh shit, what did I do to myself? What did I sign up for? I don’t know if I can pull this off, this is freakishly crazy. Forty-nine actors in the cast of my first film and it’s called On a Holiday. But by the end of the day, I was, like, ‘Alright. This is fun. I could do this.’ And by day two, day three, I couldn’t sleep and I was too excited. Let’s shoot some more! It’s so fun! The addiction was completely in my veins.
You work with a lot of the same people. Can you talk about your casting?
BM: Well, with Logan Sparks, the lead actor in Sick of It All, he’s played cameos in about five of the seven films we’ve made and he’s been one of the executive producers of all these films. And through Logan came Harry Dean Stanton—we were able to throw Harry Dean in four of the films that we made. I used to play music at this bar called Cranes in Los Angeles and John Hawkes was there, and he would play music with his band and we got to know each other and he was in one of the first features I’d written and acted in. Then James Duvall was another actor that was just popping up and we ended up being roommates for a couple years. So I got lucky, I guess. I didn’t meet these people in auditions or anything; it was just, like, out at the bar drinking, or music. Even Logan—how I met him was at a bar, and Robert Murphy, the guy that shot Sick of It All, I’ve known for over twenty years – we grew up making films together in Austin, Texas. He shot In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Carlos Spills the Beans, …that’s what it’s like for me, it’s all about people, you know? I need people that I just love around me or else it’s not fun.
For all the frustration of living there in L.A., and talk of shallowness and fakeness, it truly has a heart. There is a lot of authentic creativity, and stuff you don’t see in every city. It’s a place of possibility.
BM: An old roommate of mine, he was in a band, and he had this one line in a song where it was something about, like, the jewel in the strip mall. And that’s how it is there. It’s like you’ve passed this strip mall a hundred times, there’s your 99¢ Store, and some shitty doughnut shop or whatnot, but then right next to it, you open it up and it’s fucking Christmas all year round in there – these old people that have been working there for forty years and there’s a million of these. After sixteen years of living there, you still find these little weird gems.
How was working with Harry Dean Stanton?
BM: Harry’s really funny to work with. He’s now ninety years old and the first film that he did of mine he like put me through the ringer – and it was just like one line as a cameo. Like he’s got some sort of angst to him as he’s gotten older that makes it even crazier. He starts asking me question after question, like, ‘Alright, so, where does my character work?’, you know, and I never thought of any of this shit. So I’m like, ‘Ah, Boeing. You build airplanes.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, and how many kids do I have?’ and I’m like, ‘You got three’ … and it was in that moment where I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m directing one of my heroes and a legend.’ So cool, you know? It’s the charm and the honor of having Harry there in your movie. I’ll take it every chance I get.
It is very cool to have Harry Dean Stanton. What’s your writing process like?
BM: I’m dyslexic and so it’s like marination…marination… I can write it in my head and tell it to people before I ever get it down to the page. Then I’ll write an outline and that usually guides me through, and I think dialogue is one of my best qualities as a writer, I can do very natural and whatnot, and so I usually write a first draft and I will maybe do a second and a third but I’m usually so precise and down to it because I don’t have the ability to keep revising. I don’t like writers that do that – they frustrate the hell out of me—they keep developing, developing in the middle of a script. Then when I get to set, I’m like pretty open to like improvisations or changing things in a way they’re said, but I would say that doesn’t happen all that often. Usually people are pretty happy with the words that are written, and they try to do that, but it depends on the actor. For me, rewrites always come in the editing room. And it’s usually other people that I’m working with that are like trying to get me to change my mind and I’m like, ‘Absolutely not!’ and then something happens, and I’m like, ‘You’re absolutely right! That’s so important.’ But the actual sitting down to write? I hate it. I fuckin’ hate it. But as soon as I’m doing it, it’s fine, it’s wonderful. So, in order to do that, in order to sit down, I might have to masturbate once or twice, check the email, play a game of online chess, smoke a joint or two, three cups of tea, and then I can do it. Like, there’s nothing else I can do now, you know? So that’s my writing process.
How about your production process? How big are your crews?
BM: Crews, ah… Sick of It All crew had five people, maybe, you know, at the most. I think the biggest crew I had was Carlos Spills the Beans and that was the biggest budget that I ever had, granted it was still under a million dollars, way under a million dollars. Under half a million dollars. But it was like, I actually showed up to set the first day and it was the first time that I had other crew members that I didn’t know. I was just looking around and I was like, ‘How do they fucking know where to put the camera?’ Like, I haven’t even talked to anybody yet, this is insane. You know?
So you were working with a big crew, having a first AD, a second AD…?
BM: Yes. I have my own script usually but AD’s are important even on my sets, but I haven’t worked well with the military-style AD and I don’t know if you know this or not but I was told that a lot of first ADs were ex-military people. That’s where the time thing came from.
But it’s good because they’re literally the storm troopers. No one likes them but they do what needs to be done, so people can still like the directors.
BM: Carlos Spills the Beans was the first time I was working with a more stereotypical sort of like hard-ass AD and it was annoying to me and I didn’t like it. I need somebody that can do it and not be like such an asshole. I found a couple of people that can do it cause I’m a softer guy than that and I feel – I don’t like the irritation of it. That’s why it’s good to surround your work with the same people because then they get the vibe, they know usually what you’re going for and there’s less explaining. And also, the way that all of my films have been made is by convincing everybody else that this is their film, and like if you feel that way then it’s not a job anymore, or if you’re not getting paid that much, that doesn’t matter—you believe in this thing. But ultimately, that can becomes a problem, too, because then peoples’ visions become so strong and when I, the ultimate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ sayer has to say, it can piss people off. It’s definitely hurt some of my friendships for a little while – we always mend them but it’s, like, it’s different. I grew up in Texas making films and we used to cuss each other out and throw the kitchen sink at each other and then go get a drink afterwards. But in Los Angeles, or maybe because it’s now 2016, everybody’s so fucking sensitive, so that style doesn’t work much anymore. I’ve definitely had to dial myself back and whatnot. But when I’m with my Texas boys, it doesn’t matter. You can say whatever, ‘Your script sucks, you fucking idiot!’ or whatever. It’s all for the goal of making the thing better, and everybody realises that, but you can’t do that with strangers I’ve realised. I’ve made mistakes; I’ve had some bad mistakes.
Sick Of It All screened as part of Raindance Film Festival 2016.