EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors who have films screening at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival.
Screening in the Narrative Feature Competition, writer-director Jake Mahaffy‘s “Wellness” is having its North American Premiere at South By Southwest Film Festival. Detailing the haotic journey of one man trying to succeed in a business that doesn’t exist, “Wellness” stars Jeff Clark and Paul Mahaffy. indieWIRE talked to Jake Mahaffy about the film and his hopes for the festival.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
As a kid, I wanted to create other worlds and have control over them. That’s what attracted me to movies in the first place. I went to art school and studied filmmaking and then tried attending the Russian State Institute of Cinematography. I’ve been working on a variety of projects since then.
What was the inspiration for this film?
This film is the evidence of an ongoing process, not an object made for effect. Rather than completing a preconceived plan, we were making it up as we went along our merry way. And I’ve been into the ideas of realism and reality- how a common, seemingly sane view of a normal world can shatter upon perceiving a lie. What’s normal is not benign.
My wife told me stories about an actual pyramid-scheme salesman. He was an ex-preacher and struggling music teacher selling pre-paid legal insurance. Although I never met him, he sounded incredibly sympathetic. And the salesman motif is a great structure for film because it forces your main man into various episodic confrontations with different people. It’s a lot like proselytizing- something I did a bit of as a child. But the scam is universal.
Jeff Clark, the actor who plays Thomas Lindsey, would in fact make the world’s worst salesman (but that’s the best thing Jeff – so don’t feel bad!). I gave him a pitch and demanded he be charming, slick and sure. What we see in the film are his very best attempts. The harder he tries, the more hilarious and unbearable it is to watch. In the course of making the film, I came to think that by failing as a salesman Thomas succeeds at just being a man. So by failing in this material enterprise, no matter how tragic that is, he succeeds at keeping some of his own soul- really despite himself- and that’s grace.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
The project was made for very little money. There was no producer, crew or prepared budget. Casting was done by who showed up or whoever agreed at a moment’s notice to be videotaped. All the people who appear in the film are either non-professional actors or just complete not-actors. So of course I didn’t give them any lines to memorize from a script.
The technique was largely a result of me having one camera with a radio mic. Shooting unrepeatable scenes and salvaging performances required a lot of angling, panning and zooming to make future cut points. I based the editing on saving the better performances- on the audio rather than the picture. The result is anti-visual and brutally un-cinematic but also relentlessly intense.
For one scene we walked into a gas station – Jeff and I. We had a chat with the clerk who agreed to be videotaped. I stood aside and filmed about 15 minutes of Jeff trying to decide on a $1 hot dog or a $6 burrito. I’d call out a few directions while zooming around. I edited that down to a 2-minute scene in the film.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?
Practically speaking, the biggest challenge is always time. It doesn’t cost much to shoot a movie but making the time for it can cost a lot.
What are your goals for the SXSW Film Festival?
Meet people, see friends, find a few collaborators, have good times. I’ve heard that SXSW is the best festival for low-budget independent films getting seen and sold. Selling the film to show would be a big help at this point.