Director John Magary Talks His Ferocious Debut Feature 'The Mend'

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Originally posted from BAMcinemaFest, run again for this weekend”s release of The Mend

As refreshingly playful as it is emotionally ferocious, John Magary’s frenetic and biting comic drama, The Mend, delivers absolute pleasure in a sardonic grin. As the writer/director’s debut feature, the Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett-led film examines the wrought psychology of brotherhood, love, and madness. Set in Harlem and shot in the apartment where Magary and co-writers Myna Joseph and Russell Harbaugh all reside, The Mend explores what happens when short-fused and bizarrely engaging Mat (Lucas) reunites with his seemingly stable younger brother Alan (Plunkett) at a house party on the eve of a romantic vacation Mat had been planning with his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner). But when Alan comes home much sooner than expected, he finds Mat has made himself at home in the apartment, accompanied by his on-and-off-again girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen) and her son Ronnie. Returning without Farrah, a now vulnerable and temperamental Alan succumbs to the strange state of his apartment, and when the power goes out, is forced to come face to face with the delicate familial threads on the verge of destruction.

As one of the most exciting films of the year, The Mend emerged at SXSW to a flurry of praise and last night had its New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest. Last week, I got the chance to sit dow with Magary to chat about the collaborative process of the film, embracing the divisive, and his myriad pools of inspiration.

Before you began working on The Mend, was there another script you”d been developing?

Yeah, I had this script that was called Go Down Antoinette, and might become Antoinette. I made a short film in New Orleans called The Second Line and it did okay, it was at Sundance and places like that. Then at the same time, this feature script I’d written, set in New Orleans, was at the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab. So for that six month window there was a lot of momentum behind the script. After the Lab I got a little lost with the script and kind of scared of it. It’s not totally the Lab’s fault, but the Lab puts so much focus on the flaws within the scripts and the things that aren’t working, and also how really, really deeply hard it would be to get made. It takes place over 45 years, and it’s a huge task, not just because it’s a period piece and the budget, but at some point I said: “I can’t—I don’t know if I could make this now.” There was also a little bit of—there was so much of New Orleans in the movies at that point, because of Beasts of the Southern Wild and stuff—I felt like I missed a moment or something. So I did the exact opposite of the movie and tried to something we thought could be small and containable and in our apartment.

I”m assuming you have an older brother.

I do have an older brother, but he’s not like Mat exactly. The characters are both kind of composites of us. He’s not like a drifter. We’re both very messy people, but he’s a nicer guy. It’s funny how Mat gets described as a drifter. I don’t think I ever thought of him as a drifter until the movie was done.

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What did you think of him as?

I think just an asshole or something. Just this force that comes and weasels its way in. I don’t know if I had a metaphor for it exactly. I guess I hadn’t known any real genuine drifters in my life—who does, really?

The design “work” he does is also a strange job for the character.

It became a choice to not go further into that within the film. I get a little frustrated with movies when they completely lose sight of how the characters make money or exist in the world. To me, it’s like if you see one of those embarrassingly bad websites, those would be Mat’s websites, or like a website half done and you click on everything and it’s under construction. I was very interested in this guy who is five years behind—behind technology; his computer is terrible. He knows how to consume technology and take part in it, but he doesn’t know how to master it.

But in a film like this, how they make money isn”t something you find yourself concerned with. It felt a bit elevated from reality.

Most movies it doesn’t even occur to you how someone makes money. But since we’re in the apartment, it might occur to you how they are able to live in an apartment. It’s weird. One of the big choices in writing and editing was taking that trip to the younger brother’s workplace; we had to decide whether or not that was worth taking. It doesn’t conclude in any way, but it adds a little to his back-story and stuff. I enjoy little things like that, embracing tangents and following characters as they leave the story.

The film had definite odes to Arnaud Desplechin—the emotional chaos, the tangents and pockets of life that are usually cut out. I was recently watching Mathieu Amalric’s break dancing scene in Kings and Queen, which is one of my favorite examples of a scene that may be unnecessary to the character’s overall story, but so satisfying to watch.

And what’s amazing about him is that it’s not just unnecessary, but potentially embarrassing. What I love about Desplechin is that he embraces these flourishes and tangents that could be stupid or silly. And it’s not even a question of whether or not they satisfy a character’s journey., it’s just that they would seem utterly superfluous, but they don’t. His talent is weaving that into the overall texture of the movie. I know a lot of people who think his movies are too long and too big, and they’re crazy. He’s interestingly divisive. 

But even with the dramatic weight of his films and their dense texture, a real pleasure always runs through them.

And also that overflowing narrative design where he’s very novelistic, mapping characters within plot and stuff. It’s something I aspire to. Yeah, his movies have a density to them that feels not lifelike, exactly…

So in terms of the writing process, how was the experience of collaborating? 

The structure happened with Myna, who’s a producer and my girlfriend, and my friend Joseph, and Russ Harbaugh who’s a director, and Myna’s also a director. Russ is actually our roommate. We structured the film in a fairly traditional writer’s room way where we did index cards and sequences and broke it down into stretches. So weirdly, the bones of the movie are all three of us. Russ and I were kind of splitting duties for a while, but he has his own script and so it became like I’ll just take it. I tried to bring it in and make it my own thing. They were both on set a lot and they were pure collaborators. I like to have someone to bounce ideas off of. It’s not something I was used to, but I like that.

Do you write in small moments or sequences, or is it a linear process?

I wish I could’ve, but it was mostly linear. I’ll sometimes miss a point where I’m really blocked and just jump ahead and write something I know but it’s very planned. Part of the slowness of my writing process it that I can’t move on until I feel like the page is totally right, even though it might get demolished at some point. It was often structured around ideas for vignettes. Having him go to work. That’s just a general, generic idea. Keep that in mind and possibly bring the narrative back there, or just get rid of it if it’s really not working.

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Do you find yourself writing around little obsessions you wanted to incorporate into the story—like the e-cigarette and Mat’s constant asking about Menthols?

The e-cig thing was actually a late addition to the script. I’m curious how that will age the movie. It’s already not as popular as it was. I liked that idea that even cigarettes, a cool signifier for this drifter guy, are being overtaken by an electronic thing he can’t quite catch up to. So the image of him smoking that e-cig, or asking the guy on the street about a menthol cigarette, is incorporating the world outside and the neighborhood.

He’s the type of character who would be smoking all the time just because he always needs to be constantly stimulated.

And e-cigs are hilarious because they feed into one more electronic obsession. You can plug them into your computer and recharge them! It’s so weird. You can’t even do really unhealthy things without electricity being involved somehow. The scene in the outdoor coffee shop where they move in on him, and up, and he yells at the camera… he goes “I’m going insane! Help! Save me!” That was an idea. Certain scenes are visual first and then you build the scenes around them. Others are character based and then you best online casino work on the visual part of the movie. Scenes that were visually led are the ways I like the most and get most excited about, because they seem more like pure cinema. I guess I’m trying to define what cinema is—that weird idea without the camera move or the zoom in on the guy, or looking at the camera. Without that, the scene is nothing. Without using the tools of cinema, the scene becomes—you could cut it.

Why did you choose to begin with a blow up between Mat and Andrea and follow him after rather than seeing him for the first time at the party? I enjoyed the frantic madness of the opening, knowing nothing but then slowly peeling back.

It was written in a very elliptical way. When she kicks him out of the room, we never know why. I was basically trying to set the tone of what the relationship is. It’s like this is what happens when they break. A lot of the stuff was very much a product of editing. Our editor was just bouncing back—there’s probably 20 different versions of the opening.

Were you thinking about the editing during the writing process? It feels like a real expression rather than just a means of putting the narrative together.

Yeah, definitely. I edit myself a lot, for money and for fun. The writing is very much driven with editing in mind, but not always. Certain scenes I’ll write and not know until right before shooting whether we’re going to shoot it. How you shoot it is how you edit it in some ways. There’s a kind of style that interests me which comes out of a 60s French New Wave, into the 70s—a blunt, hard cut style that I like. I want editing to be a separate process. I don’t want it to just be finishing up the directing or cleaning up fuck ups. I want it to be its own writing process. What I love about editing is that you can create a feeling that wasn’t there on set or in the script, through sound and stuff. I tried to be as engaged with sound as much as possible, in terms of what’s going on in the background and how loud things are. It’s the part of the process I enjoy the most.

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Can you talk about the cacophonous score and how you wanted that to exist within the story? 

The score was tricky. We were working with Michi Wiancko and Judd Greenstein, who are very talented musicians that had never done a film score before. I was trying to do something a little different with the music. I don’t like scores that are mixed very low to try to create a reassuring hum of tension or hum of warmth or something. I don’t see the point. It’s a cliché, but this score becomes its own character. It creates this ironic dissonance with what you’re seeing always. It makes it more an act of theater.

Like when he’s eating the cupcake and the music that’s playing is in total contrast to the mundane nature of the moment. 

That whole sequence on the street, and when he angrily chugs Red Bull, it’s basically taking someone doing something tough and then slightly deflating it. I feel like the movie always rides that line between real misery and mocking misery. There’s something about when people are really low that can be a little funny. At the climax when they have that fight and then they look at each other, the music there gets very genuine in a way. Michi was really driving the composition there. I love music in movies. I played in the orchestra in high school and college but I don’t know how to compose. I don’t know how to word it, exactly. I think you can let the music resolve the character; I think it’s okay. It doesn’t have to be weird. It can be just genuine: “This is the climax of the movie, and I’m gonna do what I do.” I was really happy with it. Their input was great. They were experts on the movie. They analyzed it, and watched it over and over again, and really grew to like it, which was cool. Talking with them about the music was like seeing it anew for the first time.

Thinking of the movie Margaret, there”s that scene when she goes to Mark Ruffalo’s house and she’s walking up to the door, the music is just so emotional and heavy like it shouldn’t be there—but then again it”s allowing you to engage in her heightened emotions without feeling manipulated in any way.

The effect of it is it really does focus you. “Maybe I should be taking what I’m watching more seriously right now.” There’s a lot of spillage in Margaret that I just loved. Unafraid drama, but also unafraid aesthetic. The movie isn’t Scorsese, it’s someone a lot less experienced, but you’re watching someone trying and really pushing themselves. And it has such an amazing dramatic instinct, like there’s a grenade the entire movie.

Were your aesthetic choices, like the irises, written into the script?

Maybe it’s just a stubbornness, but I feel like the choices I’m trying to make aesthetically are to destabilize things constantly. So if the music feels like it’s stabilizing things, I’m not happy with it. And that applies to the dialogue, and sometimes too much. I hate basic dialogue—”Are you enjoying that sandwich?” or something like that, but I shouldn’t always. It’s helpful to sometimes use that, and a nice little discussion can be good. But in terms of the irises, I’m sure the influence there was Desplechin or Scorsese. I’m a big Scorsese fan. I love the simplicity of the an iris and it feels, for obvious reasons, like an antique artifact. But you also focus differently with an iris in a weird way, and you look at something differently. It looks more like a portrait, and you take it less seriously. It becomes something other than reality.

I love all devices, they’re all fun to me. It’s funny, something like irises, when you watch a Chaplin movie, they really were used a lot, like it was a very common way to end or begin a scene and it’s just something that I hope comes back. 

How did you go about casting and did you have these people in mind from the beginning?

In weird ways I wrote with people in mind that would never be in the movie. Maybe it’s obvious or not, but Naked was a big influence, because David Thewlis performance in that was this articulately vicious person, which I like. I don’t think Mat comes off nearly the same way, but otherwise we had a pretty traditional process. We had a casting director and a lot of auditions. Steven was the first person we cast and we had him involved for over a year. Josh Lucas was an idea, and it’s tough with a role like that because he’s has been in so many movies and you don’t know if they’re going to take a chance or be interested. But he just liked it a lot, I think he wanted to go where the character went in some ways. It was really cool. I liked how handsome he is—just bringing that baseline of sexual attraction. I don’t know, I think that creates a greater danger in some ways and weirdly, maybe makes you like him a little more even when he’s being an asshole. He’s got those blue eyes. [laughs]

Women are clearly charmed by it.

Sometimes mysteriously charmed! Casting is a fun part of the process and can go on for a very long time, so when you’re small and casting often at the same time that you’re looking for financing, it can be pretty dicey.

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The party scene established a great tone right away, and was also long enough to really immerse you in the world of these people and get the experience of being there.

Some people watch it and think the entire movie is just going to be at the party. But yeah, there are so many ways of shooting a party scene. Sometimes they’re made up of discreet little moments of conversation, sometimes the question is whether or not you just capture the feeling of the party itself. Something that interests me, I knew with this party I did want it to feel long. A lot of readers we had and people that watched our rough cuts were like, you know you can cut this? And we’re like, oh we know but we wanted to keep it going. It’s a great way to introduce people, and also a little bit about what people are talking about now. It also can introduce tensions among people and dynamics.

Did you have time to rehearse with he cast and block out scenes in the apartment?

No, almost not at all. We had some discussions, I would talk with Josh, talk with Stephen, I would talk with Mickey. Next time I would love to have like a week of rehearsal, just because when you don’t rehearse you have to bring blocking with you to set. So in some ways, it feels a lot less organic, and in some ways I feel like those decisions should be made with the actors. There’s a lot of stuff that the director has to bring that can interrupt the organic flow. With movies, usually when there’s no budget it’s rare that you get to rehearse at all. But then because it’s digital, you can start to look at takes as a way of rehearsing, which I think is the ultimate triumph of digital, the fact that you’re not worried so much about burning through film. 

Was there anything in particular you were re-watching or reading and looking to for inspiration?

It’s weird, I feel like one of my slight issues is that I don’t have a rigid ideology of how I approach things. I like a lot of different movies and I don’t know if I have  a personal rules of how I want to make things, which I think is good but could be nice sometimes to just know, no I’m never going to do that. But with this I was influenced by watching and re-watching A Christmas Tale and weirdly watching and re-watching The Age of Innocence and reading American Pastoral and some Jonathan Franzen. At all points I’m just trying to engage and dig as deep as I can and like, ring as much as you can possible out of every single scene and have as many ideas going at once. If you feel secure with one scene then you need to fuck it up somehow or add something on.During the pre-production they did that Leos Carax retro at the French Institute, and Myna and I went to every one and I’d never seen Mauvais Sang before and was just blown away. Denis Levant cuts his hand at one point in the movie, so little things like that, they plant in the back of your head and you forget why you came up with the idea. Then you see the same movie again and then you’re like, oh yeah that’s where I got that.

You mentioned in another interview that you’re never sure how much chaos the audience can handle—is that something you are constantly conscious of when both writing and editing?

I’m always conscious of it definitely. Even at the beginning, I literally was like I want there to be a really long party and the length was the first thing that interested me. But it’s always a question of when you need to focus, and not just make the scene shorter, but have the character say something helpful that’s expository and a guidepost. I sense from people who see it, that’s the thing that pisses them off about the movie, that it’s so loose and you kind of know where it’s going but you don’t. The foundation of the relationship between the brothers is what animates the entire movie. But it’s funny, in the editing, the question of chaos becomes very concrete. It’s like that’s when you’re like okay you do you really want this there. We had to cut some sequences that were later in the movie and just take it too far away from where we want to be. Someone brought up that they don’t like that ending and it should end with the two guys sitting on the couch sad, which is very like 60s art house ending, like here they are, they’ve made their beds.