Filmmakers Tao Lin and Megan Boyle aren’t the first people to find causal connection in drugs and art, but they may have broken new ground in their conspicuous consumption. The name of their production company, MDMAfilms, is the embodiment of truth in advertising: They take drugs and then they make movies.
Since forming the company last November, they have produced three features: “MDMA,” “Bebe Zeva” and “Mumblecore,” all of which were filmed using a Macbook’s iSight camera. “MDMA” is a one-shot experiment that begins with Lin and Boyle taking the titular drug and, in what appears to be an unedited two-hour shot, meander around Manhattan, getting lost on the subway and ending up giving each other a sarcastically ironic interview while on the ferris wheel inside Times Square’s Toys ‘R Us.
“Bebe Zeva” is a portrait of a 17-year-old fashion blogger. The third, “Mumblecore,” is a particularly fascinating and well-edited chronicle of Lin’s and Boyle’s relationship, capturing early interactions, their escalating romance which climaxes in their Vegas elopement.
Of course, it’s easy to write off the films as a clever way to extract PR from Schedule I substances. And Lin has a genius for self promotion; he sold shares of his novel, “Richard Yates,” to strangers in order to pay his rent and he’s been profiled and reviewed in the Atlantic, the Guardian, the New York Times, among others.
However, there is quite simply nothing else like MDMAfilms’ drug-fueled, loosely formed documentaries that capture real, uninterrupted interactions and inadvertently craft a commentary on a young person’s relationship to drugs, the internet and those around him.
iW spoke to Lin and Boyle via e-mail, their preferred mode of communication. Please be aware that the views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of indieWIRE.
How exactly did MDMAfilms begin?
Boyle: Tao had a reading in Baltimore in early November 2010, after which we ingested MDMA and went to my apartment to use my MacBook to film ourselves answering a series of questions we would later answer ‘soberly’ (earlier that year we had hung out and watched YouTube videos of people answering questions both ‘on and ‘off’ various drugs, which seemed funny and like they got a lot of hits), intending to later edit the footage into some kind of promotional video. After we answered each others’ questions, we forgot to stop recording. The next day we joked about releasing the maybe three hours of footage as an ‘experimental film,’ but then gradually became seriously interested in the idea of using a MacBook to document our experiences.
Lin: The next day (after the MDMA night Megan described), I think, we talked about it more and I remember one of our ideas was to hire someone to follow Megan and me around Manhattan as we carried bags of energy drinks and fried chicken or ice cream and ate and drank while also self-enforcing snorting cocaine every 30 minutes. We also had an idea to look at the internet and do normal internet things while on heroin. Over time we seem to have become more focused on making movies that, in my view, are more affecting than other things.
Were you recording footage before you had the idea to show them as features?
Boyle: The ‘question/answer MDMA’ night was the only footage we recorded before forming MDMA Films. We used parts of footage from that night in “Mumblecore.”
Lin: Adding to Megan’s answer, we have probably something like 200+ hours of footage of things, but in my view they weren’t necessarily all filmed with intent to make features out of them, but just to have and watch for personal reasons. I think only “Bebe Zeva” out of the first three movies, was filmed with full awareness that the footage was going to be edited into a movie that was going to be released and promoted.
Which film came first?
Boyle: We filmed “MDMA” first, a few days after the night at my apartment.
Lin: “MDMA,” then “Bebe Zeva,” then “Mumblecore.” We haven’t started the fourth movie, currently titled “World of Warcraft,” and aren’t sure what it will be, exactly. New York Magazine was going to write an article about us and we were going to film them reporting on us filming them and us and have that be the movie maybe and to maybe title it “New York Magazine” but the person who was going to do that changed jobs to the Wall Street Journal, I think.
Your production company is MDMAfilms. Why MDMA? What does that drug in particular lend to your filmmaking process?
Boyle: We had discussed calling it something like Depleted Serotonin Levels Productions but liked MDMAfilms better because it sounded more like an actual corporation, and that seemed both funny and relevant to our interests at the time. We were taking MDMA together pretty frequently for a period of a few months. I have liked MDMA because it has made me feel temporarily increased levels of self-esteem, energy, excitement and motivation, and more talkative and likely to follow through with spontaneous urges.
I wouldn’t call it my drug of choice anymore, due to experiencing a unique kind of extreme depression which seemed to be a result from withdrawing from it, and have since only taken it maybe one or two times. In terms of the filmmaking process, we’ve filmed ourselves while on MDMA a few times and the movie “MDMA” is about one of those times, but I don’t think it’s relevant to our filmmaking process in any other way. I like that we’re called MDMAfilms. Most things I feel really excited about in life seem both intense and transient, which is similar to both the sensations MDMA has produced in me and my experience with doing it heavily for a period in my life.
Lin: MDMA isn’t my drug of choice either. MDMA seemed like a nice company name though. For example Heroinfilms seems unseemly and Adderall seems… also seems unseemly. MDMA is beneficial to films though because it makes you really uninhibited. One time Megan and I used MDMA and we were, just, like, walking through SoHo literally screaming unintelligible noises, and it was fun.
Artists have long credited substances as a catalyst for their creativity in mediums other than film. What is it about film that is different?
Boyle: I don’t know if I’d consider filmmaking a sober art form. I don’t know if I’d consider anything about life sober, because it seems like I’m always thinking about what thing I try or do to to make me feel different next. I feel like ‘substances’ is a broad term. I don’t know. I’m always using or thinking about some kind of substance, whether it’s something neutral and socially accepted like mangoes or something some people feel uncomfortable about but still like using, like Xanax.
Lin: I feel like filmmaking is not a sober business. Noah Cicero acted in the movie adaption of my novella “Shoplifting from American Apparel” and he wrote in an article that he was on Adderall the entire time while acting. I feel like most actors are on drugs often, due to being rich and having access. I feel like if I was an actor I would be on Xanax or MDMA or Adderall whenever acting, or else I would be too nervous or slow or boring. In terms of being a director, I feel like since they don’t require a lot of mental energy or creativity, in the moment, to say “cut” and things like that, they probably “save” their substance usage to other times. I’m not sure about any of this though.
What would your films look like without drugs?
Boyle: Probably pretty similar, since I think we’d still be using our Macbooks and filming each other. We’ve been not ‘on drugs’ for portions of all of the films.
Lin: For most of “Mumblecore” I think we weren’t on drugs. For “MDMA” I feel like we would be similar, but with less loudness when we talked and less yelling when in Times Square, I think. For “Bebe Zeva” I would’ve been quieter and seemed somber the entire time, like I was near the end, when I was depleted. I would’ve been more nervous, though, which maybe would’ve made me seem more energetic. I probably would’ve been less witty.
What is the ideal way for viewers to watch these films? On screens, on TV, or on a MacBook?
Boyle: I feel like it’s ideal for each individual viewer to watch them in whatever way they most like to watch movies.
Lin: I feel like I would most like watching them in movie theaters on gigantic screens.
Why use a MacBook rather than a camera?
Boyle: Neither of us own nor have experience using professional camera equipment, but both of us have MacBooks and use them a lot. I feel like I almost always have my computer with me or near me, which I think has enabled me to commit to spontaneous ideas and urges to film things with Tao.
Lin: We didn’t even have video cameras. I feel like the kind of camera a movie would require would cost like thousands of dollars or something. I feel like in the past 10 years the most expensive thing I have comfortably thought about buying is an organic mattress for something like $800. If I were rich though I think I would’ve still preferred using a MacBook, because of reasons Megan said and also because with a camera it seems like you need to hold it in front of you or in the air or something and like point it at people, but with a MacBook you can just hold it like a bag or something against your body or set it on a table or something and it’s not conspicuous.
Let’s talk about Bebe Zeva: What made you choose to make a film about her?
Boyle: Tao and I had both known of Bebe for some time, via her involvement with Hipster Runoff. We were vacationing in Las Vegas, knew she lived there, and felt curious about her life and what it would be like to spend time with her. From what I could infer from Bebe’s internet presence, she had a level of cultural, existential, and self-awareness that, to me, seemed uncommon in most people. The idea of filming someone I had never met, knowing we likely shared similar frames of references (mostly internet-based), seemed exciting.
Lin: We were in Las Vegas and I felt like she would feel comfortable being filmed, wouldn’t feel embarrassed or self-conscious of possibly saying or doing things she wouldn’t want people to see – I felt she wouldn’t say “don’t put that in the movie,” – and wouldn’t feel bad, to a large degree, about any possible shit-talking the documentary might generate when it was released. We thought she was interesting and would say funny and interesting things. Also, no one else was going to make a non-angled documentary that didn’t focus on some “newsworthy” thing about her or about anyone like her, or pretty much anyone that isn’t extremely famous. That’s what made me want to make a documentary about her.
The films, especially “Bebe Zeva,” appear to have a recurring theme of over-sharing. Within the first ten minutes of “Bebe Zeva,” she’s talking about her parents’ breakup, and in “Mumblecore,” there’s the fifteen minute scene of you two talking about your past sexual relationship. Is this a specific directorial decision or was it something that just happened?
Boyle: I don’t think I view any of those things as “over-sharing.” I view them as forms of honest communication. To me, “over-sharing” would be if someone started volunteering information about themselves without considering the comfort or interest levels of the people around them, with a goal of seeking attention rather than wanting people to genuinely relate to them. When we talked with Bebe, conversations about her family and worldviews flowed naturally, partially because Tao and I were asking questions about her life, but also because I think Bebe is an open, candid, honest person who wants to feel connected to people.
The same thing applies to Tao’s and my conversation about our pasts. In the beginning stages of a relationship, I feel like I want to find out everything there is to know about a person, so it felt exciting and natural and good to ask and answer questions with Tao about our pasts. We (Tao, Bebe, me) all do it in different ways, but I think each of us are interested in creative projects involving communicating our experiences honestly.
Lin: I don’t view those things as “over-sharing” either, because they’re movies not people. I feel like a person could be viewed as over-sharing if its audience has designated a level of information that could be surpassed and then it is surpassed, but to me I view the movies as being edited (or what I edited) to be what I want to see, so I’m like both person and audience, and I feel like I don’t designate a level of information that could be surpassed, so to me I don’t view movies as having the possibility to “over-share.” In terms of directorial decisions I think probably most things a viewer would notice in “Bebe Zeva” and “Mumblecore” were the result of specific or intuitive decisions, due to the amount of editing each of those required.
What role does editing play in the filmmaking process? You didn’t edit “MDMA” at all, but “Bebe” and “Mumblecore” are heavily edited. Do you just shoot and craft films later? Or is there a structural filmmaking goal while shooting?
Boyle: “MDMA” was all one cut, but it was edited down from maybe five hours of footage to two. We discussed wanting it to be all one cut after we had filmed it, and at different times decided we wanted “Bebe Zeva” and “Mumblecore” to feature more cuts and editing. When Tao and I first started spending a lot of time together, we would often film ourselves with non-specific intentions of using the footage for something (which ended up being “Mumblecore,” edited from maybe 200 hours of that footage). When shooting, I think the only “structural filmmaking goal” I have is to ignore the structure of making a film, I want to pay the most attention to the physical things happening around me and my reactions to them.
Lin: On “MDMA,” we spent something like 20 or 40 minutes deciding which 2-hour part to excise from the 5-hour continuous footage. On “Bebe Zeva,” we spent maybe 15 hours each over six days editing, taking turns each day and talking about it each day, editing 5 hours of footage into 90 minutes. “Mumblecore” was all edited by Megan and she used footage from September to November, probably from 15 different instances of filming.
What are the pros and cons of no-budget filmmaking?
Boyle: The cons are not having a lot of money, having to ask my dad to borrow money, and not making very much money. For pros, I think a lot of people would say something like “creative freedom” or “integrity” or something here, but I feel like I’d feel just as creatively free – maybe even more so – with a lot of money than without.
Lin: There’s no money, no ability to hire people to do things for us, and we have to do things ourselves or get friends or acquaintances to do them. I think Megan spent like 10 hours one time figuring out how to burn a DVD, then we got someone we knew to do it by paying them with Adderall and money. We have freedom to do whatever we want, no obligations to other people who give us money to get a producer credit and try to influence us to do things like change an ending or something, and no need to get credit cards and max them out to get money.
What would a fiction film look like in the MDMA films style? Do you ever plan on making a narrative film?
Boyle: I feel interested in writing a screenplay, though probably not in the near future. It would probably look similar to “Mumblecore” or “Bebe Zeva” in terms of editing.
Lin: It would, in my view, be almost exactly the same maybe, if it were in the style of the films we already put out. In my view there isn’t a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, there is just what there is. I feel like “Mumblecore” was a narrative film, it has a plot, in my view. I also feel like “Bebe Zeva” is a narrative film, in that it’s linear and also, in my view, has a plot. I feel open to making any kind of film.