Safety Is No Fun: Talking to John Magary About The Mend

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In the opening seconds of The Mend, Mat (Josh Lucas) is kicked out of his girlfriend’s apartment at the climax of a screaming fight whose beginning (and, indeed, middle) is elided by the jumpy editing. We realize, in an opening-credit montage covering an uncertain period of time, that this expulsion has left Mat functionally homeless—a situation rectified when he shows up unexpected at his brother Alan’s (Stephen Plunkett) apartment, popping up on the couch in the midst of the extended party sequence with which director John Magary opens the film. Amidst awkward mingling from Alan and girlfriend Farrah’s (Mickey Sumner) s dual friend groups—dorks and dancers, creating plenty of space for digressions, detours, jokes and tension—we learn that the couple are en route to a vacation; they leave hurridly the next morning while Mat sleeps it off in a guest room. He’s soon joined by Andrea (Lucy Owen), the girlfriend from the opening scene—and her son; and then Alan, back from vacation early and alone.

Lucas, with his fawn-brown scruff beard and black leather jacket, is as sarcastic as David Thewlis’s Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked, but not nearly as bright, though we see, as he draws his younger brother onto his belligerent, opinionated wavelength, the nature of his charisma. As the two unpack the baggage from their upbringing, and face up to crises in their relationships with women and each other, the tension rises in a manner as neatly structured as a single-set play, with the same scarifying emotional content and paint-strippingly funny dialogue. But Magary, who has spoken of the influence of Leos Carax and Arnaud Desplechin, shifts adroitly to moments of cinematic playfulness, from voiceovered text messages to personable, vivid supporting characters, while also weaving in motifs of portent (cuts from broken glass on the hand and feet, helicopters, a power outtage) that give the film a slightly open-ended, magic-realist vibe. He wrote the film with his partner Myna Joseph, and their roommate Russell Harbaugh; the Harlem apartment which shapes the drama is their own, on West 147th between St. Nicholas and Convent—though, as Magary added when I asked him some questions via email, “the building we live in, a townhouse, is being sold by its owner, so we might not be in Harlem for too much longer.” Magary and Joseph have three scripts in development: one with Mickey Sumner, which Magary and Joseph will co-direct; one called Breezin’, a comedy set on a cruise ship; and one called Charlotte XVI, to be directed by Joseph, the script of which is, according to Magary, “fucking good.” The Mend opens in New York City on the 21st.

Several years ago, when Mike Leigh did a Q&A after an NYFF press screening, he told us that his favorite question he’d ever been asked was at the presser for Naked, when someone asked, “Is Johnny still alive 24 hours after the film ends?” I’m tempted to ask you the same question about Mat, but more generally, I’m also curious about Mat being—from the beginning, when he appears at the party suddenly, like an apparition—a sort of quintessential New York figure, forever in the peripheral vision of people who ride the subway because they have somewhere to actually be. Do you see the movie as exploring a curiosity about the invisible lives of other New Yorkers?
First off, I think that Q&A question is a funny, and really smart, question. It’s impossible to answer, but I think directors who claim they don’t “know” what the future holds for their characters are either being a little coy or have a greater imaginative discipline than I do. I mean, what’s written is what’s written, and the imagined periphery of a script/film can only stretch so far. But, on the other hand, how a character leaves a movie is how he leaves us. The exit can hint at some new path, or shut possibilities down. It’s probably an obvious point, but for a director, how you end a movie is a consideration that sticks with you from the writing phase into shooting and well into post-production. It is, artistically speaking, incredibly important. With Johnny, in Naked, which had a huge, haunting influence on me when making The Mend, there seems to me a distinct possibility he won’t be alive 24 hours later. That’s just the nature of his existence as we know him. And that’s the edge the movie rides on. He’s such an extreme figure, so aggressive and nasty and funny and violent and roughly handled; expiration hovers over like a cloud. But I like to think he’ll just keep going on. He’ll fall into something else, and piss people off and make people laugh and push the situation until it breaks. And then he’ll limp off, again, into some new mess.

It’s funny, I just—for some reason—watched The Doors again. It’s a silly, bogus, unbelievably beautiful looking movie, about a weird faux-shaman hippie depressive who’s obsessed with death. And he “finds” death in the end, and this is of course what really happened—Jim Morrison did, in fact, die young—but honestly, I find the ending unsatisfying. Someone looking for death and finding it? Where’s the narrative interest in that? It all feels so neat and closed-off. No one cares what happened 24 hours after The Doors ends. It enshrines itself.

With Mat, I was interested, maybe even primarily interested, in marginality. What happens when you fall through the cracks but you’re still there? You keep sliding down the ladder, but you haven’t hit the ground yet? And what kind of people gravitate to him? And what do you do if this guy’s your brother? I wasn’t really trying to examine a broader view of New York’s periphery, but part of what makes New York frustrating and wonderful, is that it’s forever open to the marginal. No matter how much of it is bought up by the wealthy, the marginal simply must be absorbed. The private spaces are public. If you’ve been kicked out of your girlfriend’s place, you can try to grab a nap in a coffee shop. If you’re drunk, you can crawl along a subway platform, moaning like a lunatic. The city’s just too large to reject your wallowing outright. Ejected, you can go out on the street, or jump on a train, and tell the world just how marginal you are. Eventually, you’ll be silenced, or stopped. But you can get your licks in. That’s how I think we end with Mat. He gets some licks in, he gets silenced, and then he’s on to the next cycle.

Because you and your cowriters worked together to create this fraternal relationship, and family mythology that we get glimpses of in the film, I’m curious how detailed Mat and Alan’s backstory is in your mind, and if it was something the three of you discussed together—and whether that was something you had to hammer out before you got more specific with the writing, or something that filled in as the process chugged along.
Well, I work better when something is structured. Russell Harbaugh and Myna Joseph, who wrote the story with me, work in the same way. They share a faith in the architecture of a movie. The backstories, if memory serves, developed along with the structure. My favorite films are densely packed—stories overlap, characters appear and disappear, and the overall expression is of simultaneous action. And so that was kind of a guiding principle as we structured the film’s sequences: it’s okay to let things overflow. In fact, it’s essential.

That being said, we would write out character sketches—a few paragraphs of prose about Mat’s life and where he was before Page 1, and Andrea’s life, and Alan’s, etc.—and use those as sort of reference guides to scenes and structure. I find it impossible to approach a scene as writer or director without knowing at least something about what happened just before the scene takes place. Of course, some scenes just happen, because they happen—they don’t need some kind of historical validation.

Backstory is perilous. A film thrives in the present. A film that constantly looks back—at, say, a past trauma, or even just a reason for present behavior—could easily grow self-aware and start to stiffen. And then the audience can step ahead of it and feel safe, and safety is no fun! Mat and Alan have a pretty simple backstory. And much of it remains murky, because, ultimately, they cannot be saved by their past. They cannot be redeemed. They can only try.

You shot in your own apartment—so presumably you knew, writing the movie, how the rooms would flow into each other, what spaces the characters could be together or apart in. Do you think that there were any scenes or moments you would have written differently if you hadn’t known the somewhat quirky layout of your location?
A great deal of the moment to moment interactions in the film are influenced by the physical location. The party is a perfect example. When Mat and Alan first notice each other, they avoid actually talking. Instead, they play a kind of muted, pathetic hide-and-seek. I knew that could work, because I knew that we would have a sliding door and that the whole flow of the place is sort of a big, sloppy circle.

Our apartment has quirks—some of which were quite aggravating to work around—but Chris Teague, our cinematographer, and I tried to embrace as much of the apartment as we could. To take advantage of corners and hallways and skylights. To milk our humble abode for as much production value as we could get.

One nice thing our place’s layout offers is a distinct separation between the back bedroom and the front living room. The spaces can exist as different worlds, connected only through something intangible, suggestive: a laugh hovering down the hallway, for example, or the creak of a door. An apartment in which the living room shares a wall with the master bedroom, or the kitchen is detached and off the hallway, would create very different dynamics. Things might feel a bit less personal, a bit crowded, or a bit lonely: not a bad thing at all! Just different. But physical space influences blocking, and the blocking influences the scene, absolutely.

You’ve talked about the influence of Arnaud Desplechin, which is clear through things like the playful iris shots, and dramatic tangents, and gratuitous tonal shifts; but also about the very careful index-card structure of the film, with the escalating drama, and emotional deterioration of the characters charted physically, and the finite time and money you had to work with. Did you find you had much freedom to experiment, and be surprised, during the shoot itself? It seems like with something like the party scene, it would have required a lot of preparation, but also had a lot of moving parts and dramatic potential, so I’m interested to hear about that balance.
We were quite limited by our budget, but the project was conceived from the beginning to accommodate limitations. It was written, from day one, to be a small affair. But of course, every film feels huge when you’re finally making it. Every day is exhausting. Every scene feels like an epic of engineering.

It can be fun to push the limits of resources, and see just how much you can get away with on a shoestring. And I feel much more comfortable doing that with a good deal of planning. For example, the party sequence was entirely storyboarded out. I was incredibly nervous going into it, because I’d never tackled something so long and with so many people in the frame. All those actors! But the longer you puzzle over shot selection, and the geometry of the room, and how many people you’re dealing with, the better you understand how sequences like that can be managed. They can be broken up into digestible set-ups. And not every frame must contain twenty-five extras. A certain largeness can be suggested through sound, by a few people on the edge of frame.

So, Chris Teague, our AD Dan Taggatz, and I spent a long time going through each shot, paring away what we couldn’t possibly have time to do, and counting up how many people would be required, and who should be where in the apartment at any given moment. It’s a lot to keep in your brain, but if you go slow in the planning stage, it’s fine. The planning gives you confidence. We shot four nights for the party. And, honestly, it was one of the best times I’ve had as a director, because our cast and crew were up for it. Even as the nights dragged on, everyone had energy and good humor. It was extensivly planned out but felt loose—and that’s like filmmaking nirvana. That’s the sweet spot. It sounds pretentious, but while we were shooting the party, I felt like I kind of understood a little better what people talk about when they talk about the “relaxed” feel of, say, a Robert Altman set. Before then, I’d thought of directing as primarily anxiety management.

But (to paraphrase Oskar Schindler) I could’ve done so much more! I was learning as I was going and was, at times, too attached to certain setups, and didn’t fully realize the value of getting lots of loose cutaways. Catching bits of life on the periphery. A laugh, a tangential tryst, a cigarette stamped out. We caught some of these, but even more might’ve taken some of the pressure off our editor, Joseph Krings.

Many directors can jump into a scene with no plan and just go from there. I’m not one of those directors. I think better when I’m not on the spot—so, even with an “improvised” cutaway, it’s better for me to have that little gesture of spontaneity written down somewhere on a sheet of paper during pre-production.

It’s interesting that the brothers, and even uncle Earl, are all shown to have these slightly oblivious racial attitudes—the way Mat is always asking African-Americans if they have a menthol; Alan’s over-familiar “what up” to his coworker and his coworker’s client, both of color; their older avuncular figure Earl (Austin Pendleton) waxing nostalgic about how much more “mingling” there was in 70s NYC. I’m curious about how this ended up being an aspect of the characters you thought it was worth looking at.
It’s a question of privilege, isn’t it? A reminder—even if primarily for our audience—that the world we’re watching isn’t totally cohesive. New York is diverse—to represent it any other way is, to me, just dumb. It’s a lie.

These interests, or concerns, of privilege and obliviousness, are a result of how I grew up, how I was taught, what I gravitated to in my tastes and education, and finally, what I think it means to live in a big city like New York. Alan and Farrah live in Harlem—they are gentrifiers. Not wealthy ones, of course. But to live where they live, somewhere down the line, displacement was necessary. And I didn’t want to take that entirely for granted. And so I put these small, blunt, crass little plays of ignorance into the narrative every now and then. Usually with the somewhat nonserious goal of making the audience laugh.

The menthol thing started as an inverse of the gag that’s in there now. It was a slightly different joke, as written: Mat asks for a cigarette, gets a menthol, and then gives the cigarette back because he hates menthols. Now, in the movie, he asks for a menthol—at some point, Josh and I had worked out some little bit of improvised business that Mat really loves menthols—and it’s immediately the kind of oblivious assumption a white narcissist in Harlem might have, that a black man will have a menthol. But then, we flip the joke a little and reveal that the guy actually does have menthols—I mean, I don’t know, more than anything, that’s just kind of funny to me. A little moment of privilege-based miscommunication leading to the successful bumming of a cigarette. Everyone wins. It’s kind of stupid, but it makes me laugh.

Alan, on the other hand, works in a diverse office, and deals with the concerns of folks trying desperately to hold on to their apartments. But he still, at least at this point in the film, can’t connect to his clients on some very crucial level. He cannot feel their pain. He’s too obsessed with his own pain.

What are they shooting in Central Park, in the scene where Mat and Alan stumble on a film shoot and steal a PA’s walkie-talkie? Some sort of WWII romance, based on the actors in costume, with an expressionistic smoke machine and lighting scheme? Like a remake of Minelli’s The Clock, or what?
You have stumped me with this question. My imagination simply didn’t reach too far on this one! It was important that the film that was being shot was of another time—something foreign, maybe a little romantic, like Brief Encounter. Something very far from what we’ve been watching. Something with an unimpeded expression of love.

The fog, the trees, the park—what I wanted with that scene—meaning the scene in The Mendthrough the writing and shooting and editing and scoring, was a sense of profane magic. Possibilities seem to grow and grow, and the world seems to be taking a turn for the mystical, and then a PA steps out and kills the illusion. Magic turns to regulation and ownership. This sets Mat and Alan off, and gives them a common cause: to belittle a hapless PA. It’s an easy victory, and they can’t pass it up.

More generally, because the brothers make a joke about the smoke-machine smoke being “magical,” and because this scene follows one in which a painter character talks about trying to “move past representation,” it cues us in to the ways in which this naturalistic story—shot around eye level, in an apartment, about family drama, with realistic dialogue—is, throughout, this heightened, cinematic version of reality. Why is it important to you, philosophically, that the drama of the movie takes place on this elevated plane?
It’s funny, when we started shooting the movie, the very first day, I really, honestly thought I was making a Mike Leigh movie. A kind of hardcore-realistic dual character study about hard-talking brothers. But as soon as I saw some of the performances, and the way the light looked, and the way the shots I designed were cutting together, I realized how much more bizarre and goofy this thing was, and how broad and funny it could be sometimes. It really freaked me out. I had to acclimate myself to the movie I was making. A very strange experience.

I wouldn’t say it’s philosophically important to me that drama in general takes place on an elevated plane, but I always somehow end up drifting to the unreal when I sit down and write. Feelings, which I spend a lot of time filtering out in the writing process—and ahem, in my life, maybe?—tend to sneak in anyway. But it’s the repression of said feelings that, I think, throws scenes slightly off. I just can’t stand watching a character say what she’s thinking, I guess. And so I try to find a way around. A normal interaction gets a little more absurd the more and more I revise it, or I get obsessed about something really intangible, something I want to pursue but can’t yet explain. I’ve had to teach myself to follow my instincts, but my instinct is often to stifle instinct, and this sometimes leads to choices that are more abstract than I’d thought they’d be. It’s fun, and it’s terrifying.

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