Director Danny Mulheron has a really huge personality, and talking to him last week I could sense a lot of that in the movie Fresh Meat. Both he and actress Kate Elliott were in town for the Tribeca Film Festival, and the fest was just the beginning of an extended New York holiday for Mulheron before he heads back to New Zealand in a few weeks.
Even though we may not be familiar with Mulheron’s work stateside, discerning cult movie fans have seen him in action before: Mulheron was the actor inside of the Heidi the Hippo suit in Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles.
Mulheron and I had a free-wheeling conversation about a whole bunch of things, including the suburbs, the awesomeness of Robert Mitchum, meeting idols under odd circumstances, and even the potential for making movies in the Philippines. Look for our review of Fresh Meat tomorrow.
[For the next few weeks, Flixist will be covering the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs April 17-28 in New York City. Check with us daily for reviews, interviews, features, and news from the festival. For all of our coverage, go here.]
Have you been to New York before?
Yes, I have. We try and get here as much as we can, even if it’s only for a week or two. My wife and I love it, and we’re staying in a little B & B place down in NoLita. I love it here. I feel so relaxed. New Zealand’s lovely, but it’s isolated. It’s the last bus stop in the world, you know?
It tries to pretend it’s first world, and it is, but again, it’s 4 million people on big island.
That’s like half the population here [in New York].
Yeah, yeah, so it’s isolated, and coming here is like filling yourself up with fresh water, you know? Beautiful.
I had fun at the movie, by the way.
Good! Glad you like it.
Fresh Meat reminded me of the things I would have rented in middle school and high school and watched with my friends.
I think kids would like it, you know; 15-year-old boys would love this sort of movie. And that’s who it’s kind of made for and aimed at, I suppose. In a way it’s a sort of movie that a younger director, hopefully, would sort of make. You know, when you’re in your twenties you make these sort of mad splatter movies and things. And that’s great. Because it’s certainly not– It’s a cartoon really.
Yeah. Brad [Abraham, who wrote the original script that became Fresh Meat] was at the screening the other night. Did you talk to him about what his script was like compared to what the film was like?
Yeah, of course. I still haven’t seen the [original version] of the script. He’s going to maybe send me one, I don’t know. But I got onto the project quite late in the piece. By then, Briar Grace Smith was the writer, who’s a Maori and a really well-respected writer in New Zealand who really let her hair down with this. She’s a big horror fan, and she’d written very worthy, good pieces — The Strength of Water and others, plays and films — and she said, “Oh, bugger it. I’m gonna do this.” And she may be slaughtered for it, but it’s fine. And it needed that sensibility, because the whole Maori thing, which is why it works set in New Zealand, it was important to have their input.
So I never saw Brad’s thing, but from my impressions, I know how hard it must be for a writer here: you write a great idea, you’re probably asked to do rewrites, you really clean it, and then someone buys it and changes it completely. So [Brad and original co-writer Joseph O’Brien] probably wrote a really hardcore Texas Chainsaw Massacre — which I love — movie, with full-on gore and cannibalism and home invasion. Real full-on stuff. And they turn up and they get a Road Runner cartoon. [laughs]
And I apologize to them for that, but in a way, my job was to bring that to it, actually. They didn’t want it to go too R-rated. I don’t know what you call it here.
Like NC-17, the really hard adult restriction.
And it may be too much for people here. I mean, NC-17… we have R-ratings, and even R20’s sometimes in New Zealand. [Editor’s note: In New Zealand, their rating system includes G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance recommended, M for material suitable for but not restricted to mature audiences 16 and up, and then R-ratings for restricted viewing. The R-ratings include an age after the letter to designate an age at which someone is able to view a film. R16, for example, can only be watched by people 16 and older; R18 for people 18 and older.] So we couldn’t go too far up that ladder, and the only way I could do that was by creating a comic grindhouse parody, if you like. Not that it’s a spoof exactly, but it does use various tropes with shameless abandon.
Like, okay, lesbian shower scene. Yeah, check that off. [laughs]
[laughs] Like a list. “Finished that one. Onto this…”
Not really that motivated in deep, character-driven way, but it was just like, “Why the hell not?” This is what they want to watch, let’s give it to them without much nonsense. And that was kind of the spirit of the movie. Maybe it suffers from that, but it’s up for the audience to decide. But also, the comedy was something that brought me to it. I’ve done mostly comedy stuff, and possibly to the sacrifice of the dread that a lot of horror movies thrive on. And “dread” is probably a good word.
Just the sense of something around the corner?
It’s not just suspense, because suspense is easy, really. You know, “What’s behind the door?”
Yeah, that’s true.
But a sense of real dread that a film like The Exorcist had, or the sense of Let the Right One In. There’s a real sense of emptiness and dread — wonderful things. What was that one, Cabin in the Woods? That was out recently?
Yeah, the big meta one.
Yeah they use some tropes and things, it was very interesting. There were some scenes in that that [made me go], “Oh shit! That’s really terrific!” My favorite one, with a New Zealand actress, actually, was kissing the wolf’s head.
Oh yeah! Just making out with it.
Yeah! And I thought, “Wow! That I haven’t seen.” And if I haven’t seen it, well why in the hell not? I really enjoyed that. Anyway, I’ve gone off point of the question. I can’t even remember what it was now.
Something about dread or– It’s not really a horror movie in that sense. It’s more like a Road Runner cartoon with real blood. [laughs]
[laughs] And a real hand![laughs] Yeah! Yeah, yeah, that was a real hand. We couldn’t get a prosthetic good enough so we got a real one.
They’re cheaper. [laughs]
Yeah, they’re cheaper.
I remember you mentioning at the Q & A that it’s also a kind of goofy take on the suburbs.
Could you talk about your feelings on the suburbs?
Well, I reckon there are a lot of people in New Zealand whose idea of paradise is like the gated community. And they’re dead cemeteries, aren’t they?
Yeah, all of them look like they’re the same sort of house.
They’re a nightmare! Do you know anything about architecture programs? 3D CAD?
CAD is an architectural program that makes geometric shapes, and these things are like someone’s gone mad with a few columns in a CAD program and just dropped triangles, blocks, vast garages. Vast! And again, I know — deep bullshit, wank, filmmaker — very important for me to find the right-sized garage, because it was a big mouth.
A great big mouth that opens up in the front of all these awful houses and eats up the people in it. And it wasn’t a haunted house in the sense that it wasn’t a creepy house. It was much creepier than that. Just bland. There’s nothing about it that has any real personality, which is really horrifying to me.
Because then it’s just this thing that swallows people up.
Yeah. And at night, no one is on the streets.
Which is always the creepiest thing about suburbs. I mean, I was a suburban kid, and the emptiness growing up in the suburbs just freaked me out.
I mean when I was a kid — in the 1960s, I know that makes me sound terribly old, but — the street was where it happened. We were playing cricket, or whatever — you played baseball here — but we were all playing on the street. The only time we heard mum and dad was when they yelled out, “DINNER!”
Otherwise, we were outside. And maybe it’s technology that’s changed, so we’re all interior now, and connecting to the world through bloody these things [points at a TV on the wall] and computers. But to me, those deathly suburbs, which we aspire to, oddly enough, are what’s eating us up. And that’s the kind of the metaphor for the cannibalism. Consumption is a way of eating ourselves because we think we want what we want, but when we get it, it just eats you up. It eats you up, and you’re swallowed by it.
And then there’s no personality.
Nothing. Nothing. You know J.G. Ballard?
Oh yeah. I love his writing.
Yeah! Well he’s got that: the horror of nothingness. Not that this is really a horror movie, it’s a comedy, but it was really important that we didn’t go for the great haunted front of the house. Everything is bland land, you know? And really, by pursuing these aspirations, they’ve lost their identity.
Especially with the Temuera Morrison character. He’s just losing all sense of sanity just to pursue this bizarre belief in his book, with basically Michael Jackson on the cover. [laughs]
That’s right! Michael Jackson! Well, no. The [guy on the book] is not quite that horrific. [laughs]
No, no, that’s, I don’t want to get that… [Editor’s note: audio unclear.] But it does look like Michael Jackson! I hadn’t thought of that, that’s great!
It wasn’t an intentional–
No! But that’s terrific! I love that! [a beat] Yeah, it is Michael Jackson now.
But yeah, [Temuera Morrison’s character], he’s a failed writer. He wants to be successful and his wife is far more successful than him. He’s impotent — he doesn’t sleep in the same room as his wife. So he’s finding his mojo through this mad religion that he’s maybe created. And good for him, in a way.
It’s always hard with horror movies. Whose side are you really on in a movie, you know?
And part of you is on the so-called goodies side, but really, for me, I’m really on the baddies side. That’s why it’s quite nice to have Gigi, Kate Elliott’s part, who’s really sort of a baddie, if you like. But she’s also a winner in this film, and you go with her. It’s like Cape Fear, you know? Which is a terrific movie.
Oh yeah! The Cady character. Max Cady.
Yeah, Max Cady! And Scorsese said it: we were rooting for Max, really. [laughs]
[laughs] He’s nuts, he’s doing horrible things, but I want to see what he does next!
Yeah! And even though Nick Nolte and Gregory Peck were terrific, it’s really Max Cady’s movie. And Mitchum, along with De Niro… Mitchum is one of my favorite actors of all time.
And Mitchum is just so insane in Cape Fear.
But man, you see so many quotes from that movie in so many others. Even Silence of the Lambs. You know the last shot of Silence of the Lambs.
Where he’s just walking off after the phone call.
Walking in that white suit, and he’s just padding off in that soft, silent way, off to eat that chief psychiatrist, or whatever. That just reminded me totally of Mitchum — the white suit and Max Cady. And the way Mitchum moved! Just his weird, just… AH! There’s just something beautiful about that guy, and I recommend him to all movie actors.
Because, well. You know I just read a Roger Ebert book because he died recently. He interviewed Mitchum, and it’s a terrific interview, and Mitchum really doesn’t seem to care, but he obviously does. Because Night of the Hunter is one of my favorite movies as well.
And he’s incredible in that too!
Aww! He’s Shakespearean!
Like pure menace!
He is terrific! And Kirk Douglas– There’s a great story in that book about Kirk Douglas and him in Out of the Past. Have you ever seen Out of the Past?
No, I haven’t seen that one.
’47 — terrific movie! A real noir movie. I’m a big fan– When I say b-grade movies. This word, “noir.” They used to just call a lot of them b-movies, you know, which I prefer, because noir has kind of got a cachet value that’s a little tasteful for me. [laughs]
I’d hate to be restricted by any notions of what good taste is meant to be, because that’s a [kind of] death. But Mitchum says a brilliant thing. Someone said that when he and Kirk Douglas were working together they had very different styles of acting. Kirk was wanting to underact Mitchum. As a co-star said to him, “No, you can’t do it. You can’t do it. Mitchum’s not even doing any acting. He’s just there, man! You can’t underact him.” And Mitchum heard about it and said, “Yeah. No, Kirk’s an actor. I’m just a hired hand.” [laughs]
That’s badass. That is great. [laughs]
I love that! And I love Kirk Douglas too, so I’m not criticizing him, but I thought, “Man, that’s what you want.”
And he’s beautiful at it. And I’m not saying he’s not inhabiting characters and all this stuff, but let’s not mess with Mitchum.
And he didn’t give a shit who his directors were or anything, and maybe that’s a hip kind of mask that he had, but he’s worth studying, that guy, just to see how…
We’re off point, in a way, but he did an exercise which I use with the kids. He said, “What am I? I’m a guy. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m in this business falling off horses and getting beaten up. That tree that I’m beside is a better actor than me. It’s a tree, man.”
It’s just what it is. It’s not even trying.
“So what I’m gonna do is I’m just gonna lean on that tree. I’m gonna lean on that tree — really lean on it.” So he’s leaning on that tree, “And hopefully that tree will make me feel real.” And he realized something, and he said, “I’d like to have a real gun.” The reality of that gun made him real.
Because it’s not just some flimsy prop.
And that’s what film is good about. Even though you’re surrounded by madness. It’s much harder now with all the digital shit, which I’m not a fan of. I like it enhancing a story, and you have to use it for budget reasons sometimes or whatever, but I love it live. You get real reactions. Guns going off, even if they’re not on shot, I want them going off because there’s nothing that would give the actor the same experience.
It’s an actual reaction.
It’s an actual reaction! And it’s a miracle if you capture a real thing happening on camera. And as soon my heart goes “Whoa,” I go, “Yes, got it! Move on!” And I’m fast, which is why I’m a hack. And these are compliments. [laughs]
It’s like what you’re about. We’ve gotta get this done!
We’ve gotta get it done. Five weeks. Get it done! And I think a lot about movies, and possibly too much, but at the same time, I’d hate to say I had a style in case I had to stick to that. People are looking for some kind of consistency from me, and consistency to me is the refuge of idiots. [laughs]
[laughs] It’s all about what you have to do on each project.
It’s what the project tells me. The script tells you what the style is, not me. You’ve got to think, “What does this feel to me? What am I dreaming here? What are going to bring out the elements that I enjoy?” And I want to enjoy filmmaking. I really enjoy the process, and meeting people like you, and coming to this festival has been terrific. Absolutely wonderful experience. And I love actors and crews, and even… I have a love/hate relationship with the producers, and Dave [Gibson] and I have known each other for 35 years, you know, and he’s tolerated me for-fucking-ever!
And I must drive him mad, because I say things he doesn’t agree with, but I really love the fact he’s been able to help me make this movie, you know?
There’s so much left I’d want to ask, but since I have time for just one more, I have to go back in time: what’s it like being in a hippo suit? [laughs]
The [Heidi the Hippo] suit smelt of sweat and rancid butter! It was hot and it stunk and it was terrific fun. It was a 15 week shoot in a mad warehouse doing the most obscene things you could possibly do. Shooting machine guns. Man, it was a blast!
And you know, one of the strangest experiences I ever had was in Japan, actually. Me and Peter [Jackson] went to a film festival — some sort of fantasy film and monster thing in Japan — and I’m sharing a dressing room with two of my idols: Donald Pleasence–
And Chow Yun-fat!
Youwerewith– Holy shit!
And I was in this room with them, and I WAS IN A FUCKING HIPPO SUIT!
And Donald Pleasence is talking to me and says, “It must be hot in there.” And I said, “MMM MBRRPH MMM UMMM BRRRMPH UMM MMHM.” [laughs]
And then there I am on stage standing next to Donald Pleasence and Chow Yun-fat in a fucking hippo suit with a machine gun. But I upstaged them!
And then this Japanese kid from the front row– Are you Japanese?
Filipino. The Philippines! That’s where I want to make movies!
I fucking like The Philippines! Both of my actors [Leand Macadaan and Ralph Hilaga] are Filipino. And I’m into a Filipino movie called Harana.
I haven’t seen Harana.
You know what Harana is, yeah?
Serenading. In the old days they used to serenade people, before phones. Boys used to play guitars outside girls’s houses. It’s an old Philippine tradition that’s been destroyed by the fucking internet and everything else!
But Filipinos… You know The Raid, the Indonesian movie The Raid?
The Raid is so much fun!
The Filipinos should be doing this kind of movie. 80 million people, something like this?
Yeah, it’s a massive country.
Incredible heritage, incredible talent, and wonderful, wonderful people. Natural actors, man. And I also think it’s an unexplored territory. It’s not just Asia, it’s not just the South Pacific, it’s its own weird thing.[a beat] But anyway… This Japanese guy gets up an says, “Miss Heidi? Would you mind shooting me?”
And this was on stage! And everyone was like [starts applauding]. So I say, “MMMBRUMPH MM HMMMM UMMMBGH.” So I had a fake machine gun, get that out. I took my head off, you know, with great difficulty, and went, “BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG!” And this Japanese guy goes, “AHHHH! OHHH! AHHH! OWW! AHHHHH! GRRRRAHHH!”
He falls back in his chair, and then everyone goes like this [applauds]! So amid all of that, someone getting killed by Heidi the Hippo! [laughs]