Josh Fox’s “Memorial Day,” which premiered last year at June’s CineVegas Film Festival, is a challenging film to summarize. It might seem like it’s about spring break, but its also an art film about war. As described by Fox himself, the film “is about ‘spring break’ girls gone wild culture which is the seedy underbelly of our American Puritanism, the inverse side of the coin. It’s also about how we forcefully exported that culture and then pretended to not know what we were doing.” Executive produced by Michael Stipe, the film is Fox’s first cinematic work after over two dozen directorial efforts on the stage. “Memorial Day” is actually loosely based on his “traveling, site-specific theatre event” “Death of Nations 1: The Comfort and Safety Of Your Own Home.” It opens today at New York’s IFC Center.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.
I’m 36, grew up in New York City. One of my earliest memories is of the 1977 blackout when I was five. My whole neighborhood was destroyed. Every store window smashed and looted, Riverside Park was blaring with boom boxes and with heat. It was a loud place to be. I remember growing up in a city full of guns and drugs and violence and homeless people and yuppies and AIDS. And great art, great music, great films. Scorsese, Metal shows, CBGB ska shows and hardcore matinees. Live atmosphere. The rush of electricity on the streets. And danger. So everything I make I try to push all of that energy into it somehow. Explosiveness and what’s outside the mainstream. I respond to that kind of extreme tone and place. Watching a film should feel like you just tore a hole out of the air and the void caught fire. Making “Memorial Day” felt like that.
Although “Memorial Day” is my first feature film, it’s not my first major narrative work. I’ve written and directed about 25 full length plays with my company International WOW, which is a theater and film company with a membership of over 150 actors from 29 countries. The film is about some of the things at the core of all of my work with International WOW, a clash of cultures, culture shock.
“Memorial Day” is about “spring break” girls gone wild culture which is the seedy underbelly of our American Puritanism, the inverse side of the coin. It’s also about how we forcefully exported that culture and then pretended to not know what we were doing. During the Bush years, we saw evangelical groups rise in popularity and power, we also saw porn go mainstream, which of course, is interconnected. So Girls Gone Wild USA is it’s own country, a vast and popular country that lives inside America with it’s own value system. Psychotic, fragmented, overexposed, thrilling, sexy, lustful, violent and amnesiac. People mistake this film as being anti soldier or anti American. It’s not. If that is what you get from it, you judged it from the outside, which many people have. I want people to get inside of it. To embrace it. Like an intoxicating nightmare that you can’t shake that somehow you enjoyed.
Please discuss how the idea for ‘Memorial Day’ came about.
“Memorial Day” began almost by accident. The film started as a series of snapshots that I took on my cell phone camera while I was having a horrendous Memorial Day weekend. I went down to the beach planning on sun and sand and relaxation and I got Girls Gone Wild and people throwing up and fighting everywhere. The only way I could get through the weekend was to pretend I was in a movie–somehow being the protagonist of my own personal verision of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” got me through the three days.
I compiled those cell phone pictures into a five-minute trailer with my own narration and showed it to Jim McKay who was a friend of my advisor, collaborator and dramaturg and friend Morgan Jenness. He then showed it to Michael Stipe, his partner in C-Hundred Film Corp and they gave me the initial backing to start the project in earnest.
Later, Hunter Grey and Paul Mezey from Artists Public Domain and Journeyman Pictures got involved when we needed to do the second half of the film which was much more complicated, expensive and difficult to pull off. My good friend and amazing producer Laura Wagner, with her new Bay Bridge Productions company, was integral to the process of development the whole time, it was her crazy beach town I was visiting.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
It’s all built into the holiday–I didn’t think this stuff up–Memorial Day weekend is a war holiday and it’s also the “unofficial” beginning of summer. A time for remembering war and a time to party your ass of and get totally shitfaced. At first that seems like a contradiction but really it’s a symbiosis. The film is about wild abandon. It’s about losing the contexts of various kinds of morality and how that happens without you even noticing it.
Culture is the air we breathe all around us. If you are in a spring break type place it’s going to be much much easier to get completely drunk, strip in front of a camera, generally lose your moorings–those thoughts are going to come easier, just as it is going to be more appropriate for you to wear shorts with no shoes to the beach and not a suit and tie. We think appropriately to the occasion. We move with the herd. And of course, in a war it’s much easier to kill and abuse people, it’s part of the culture of war. The striking synthesis to me, of course, is that Memorial Day the holiday is supposed to be a somber occasion, a time when we are supposed to remember those that died in war (not just soldiers, by the way, civilians who died as well, we often forget that on Memorial Day) but we have stressed the patriotic/soldiering part of it, which leaves us in a mess of violent emotions–sexual and bloody– Memorial Day becomes a day to hit the beach and get rocked and throw up on your date.
But the weirdness of the total connection is so clear. And it’s uncomfortable-it’s Freud talking about Eros and Thanatos. The sex/life force and the death/self destruction/risk/violence impulses are connected. So while it may seem that the film is saying look at all these drunk naked teenagers, how fucked up of them, they should be thinking about war instead of partying. That’s the superficial way to see it, It’s not saying that at all. It’s asking other kinds of questions about why partying and warring are connected to begin with. Those partying drunk naked kids ARE thinking about war, they just don’t know it. Why the hell is that? Why are humans made that way?
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
“Memorial Day” had a great time of getting made. It found the right people to push it along at every stage. And now we have found the perfect way to open… at IFC in New York. I think the greatest challenges for the work lie ahead, in getting the film out to a larger audience outside of New York City. I think the film itself challenges the audience to see themselves inside of it and not judge the characters as strangers but as friends, family and neighbors.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
I’ve worked with the many of the same people for the last 10-12 years in New York in our stage productions. Which are more like stage-managed riots than plays. So actor collaboration is extremely important. All of the main characters in the film are played by actors that I have worked with for quite a long time. And they created those characters and built the scenes. There was a constant on the spot communication about what we were doing, on many levels. When you work with people for a long time you start to sense what they are thinking without having to communicate explicitly. So in that sense it was a very intimate process.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Godard, that’s a big one. His politics, his incisiveness, his profound understanding of love. Can you find a film more lyrical and moving than Pierrot Le Fou? And of course the jump cuts. The rhythm. Jim McKay’s films are big for me for their sheer depth of humanity. Scorsese no doubt and Woody Allen and Spike Lee, sort of the New York musts. Arthur Miller, The Clash, Ariane Mnouchkine, Boccioni, Rosenquist, Rothko, lately Nellie McKay. Matthew Barney just did a performance at his studio in New York with a horrific and amazing death metal band called Copremesis playing high voltage thrash and a tranny that shot an enormous quantity of fluid out of his/her asshole just before turning over a porta potty all over the audience mosh-pit which really revolted and scared the shit out of me and that’s going to influence me for years. I just saw Darwin’s Nightmare which blew my head off. Koyaanisqatsi and Naqoyqatsi are big films for me. I love Hal Hartley’s Trust. The Marx Brothers. Bugs Bunny. The plays of Charles L. Mee, Jr. Robert Pirsig. David Foster Wallace. Pete Seeger.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
I am currently making a documentary on the harmful effects of Natural Gas Drilling in America. Gas Drilling is occuring all over the United States and an extremely environmentally dangerous way of drilling callled Hydraulic Fracturing or Fracking was made legal by Dick Cheney in 2005 when he pushed the congress to suspend the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking water acts. There is all this hype about Natural gas being clean burning fuel of the future but the process of extraction is incredibly toxic, damaging to health and destroys water systems wherever it happens. And it’s happening in some of the country’s most scenic and beautiful areas, wrecking landscapes and turning people’s lives and health upside down. It’s very devastating and vastly underreported. I’ve been filming on and off since May and I am editing now with Matt Sanchez, a terrific filmmaker, as a collaborator. Sections of the film in progress can be seen at www.waterunderattack.com
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
I am stunned and excited that “Memorial Day” is actually opening. It went from a series of cell-phone snap shots in 2004 to a feature film that is opening. That’s been a pretty stunning progression to see happen. I am really happy that my company International WOW is entering its 14th year of making innovative work. I am surrounded by utterly amazing creative people and I hope that “Memorial Day” paves the way to the making of many more films.