Noah Buschel’s neo-noir “The Missing Person” hits theaters November 20, courtesy of Strand Releasing. The film stars Michael Shannon as a detective hired to track down a missing man. indieWIRE contacted Buschel via email to discuss the film and his career.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I was six years old and had the chicken pox. Me and my cat, Crazy, we just lied on the couch for a week, drinking iced tea out of Seltzer bottles, watching T.V. Cinemax kept playing “On The Waterfront.” I was so sick and the movie was so powerful and Cinemax was playing it seemingly every five hours or so. I’d go to sleep and wake up and Brando’s big kabuki mask of a face would be in my face again. It was like being hypnotized. There was something so familiar about it.
As a little kid I tried to walk like Brando’s Terry Malloy, mumble like him. Whenever I had a bloody nose, I’d pretend Lee J.Cobb did it. But over the years, going back to “Waterfront,” I’ve been struck by how it’s not a film about the individual. Brando isn’t the hero. The hero of the movie is the community. Like Eva Marie Saint’s Edie says: “Isn’t everyone a part of everyone else?”
A lot of movies pretend to be about oneness, but to me “Waterfront” is one of the few films that is really expressing it, from the body. Budd Schulberg’s script works on so many different levels, simultaneously. His use of metaphor is so clear and so deep. You’re watching a scene and you realize that every character is a different part of the same body. And all the different characters are different aspects of each other. So when Terry throws change at a bum in the park– you’re watching both two people and also just one person. It’s really mind blowing. The movie works as a meditation on vulnerability, a moral fable, a piece of pulp, a contemporary political report, a character study, a neighborhood portrait, a poem about Christ. The acting is all so honest and heartfelt. And Kazan shoots it in a very simple and beautiful way. Like the scene where Terry breaks Edie’s door down and then Kazan follows Terry into the apartment as the brutality morphs into tenderness. We end up pinned against the wall, in a close-up kiss, with peeling white wallpaper flowers all around us. In the middle of all the harshness of the city, we’re all the sudden floating. It’s magnificent and ordinary at the same time. So, yeah, that movie changed my life. It still haunts me. I still hear Leonard Bernstein’s score when I see a pigeon.
One time I heard someone define beauty as anything that is unrepeatable. Movies are like that to me. It’s not so much a question of how well are they made as– is it unrepeatable? Excellent craftsmanship, to some extent, can be repeated. Feeling is what I care about in movies, not craftiness and the hiding of feelings. That thing that is so subtle it can’t even be spoken of. All the technical mastery in the world can’t touch a movie where the director isn’t trying to fit in. Where the director is simply expressing their unique heart.
Please discuss how the idea for “THe Missing Person” came about and evolved.
At festivals and stuff I’ve been asked where the idea for “The Missing Person” came from. I kinda came up with a pat answer about Raymond Chandler. But that’s not right. The truth is, I never did have an idea. Maybe that’s a Hollywood notion, that movies come from ideas–ideas for stories. For me, movies come from a certain emotion, or a certain mood. Or maybe just a certain atmosphere and you think it might be interesting to try to sustain that atmosphere. It could be an image also. A woman in a wedding dress walking alone at night. Then other images come out of that. But there’s no idea really. I suppose inventors and scientists and storytellers have ideas. But I’m not a storyteller. Those actors and directors who talk about wanting to tell good stories–I don’t relate. I’m more interested in movies as paintings, or movies as ballads, or movies as I don’t know what. The story is like eleventh or twelfth on my list.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
The movie I’m most proud of is my first one, “Bringing Rain.” It’s very raw and low budget and we did a hack job on it in post-production. Still, the sincerity of that movie is bona fide and it is it’s own thing.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I don’t feel genres are that important. They’re just window dressing, the surface. You can’t compare a Nicholas Ray noir to anyone else’s noir. At the same time, you watch Vincent Minnelli’s musical “Meet Me In Saint Louis” and then watch his drama “Lust For Life,” and you can tell it’s coming from the same mind.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Well, I don’t think any emerging filmmaker is gonna care what I say–but I guess my advice would be to stay away from the fashion world, college, and heroin.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Ozu is probably my favorite director. His later color stuff especially. He’s just chillin’ so hard. He lets the whole universe flood his stuff. You can feel how much he loves the characters and the actors and the camera and the buildings. There’s a real sense of how nothing lasts forever in his movies. But instead of the impermanence making things meaningless; for Ozu, it has the opposite effect. Every little detail becomes this cosmic thing. And his stuff just sneaks up on you so quietly. I watch Ozu and think I’m bored, and next thing I know I’m crying.
I like movies where the actors are front and center. I don’t really care about seeing a big period set or an awesome spaceship. Just give me Patricia Neal and go away.
What is your next project?
My next project…not sure. Maybe this film called “Mu” about Maura O’Halloran. Maybe “I Thought About You””where one of my favorite actors, Martha Plimpton, would play an agoraphobic. I don’t know. Financing is pretty hard to come by in the indie world right now. I just know I don’t wanna graduate to bigger movies. It’s hard enough to make a truly independent, fresh movie with a small film these days. Maybe writing for work and making movies for Youtube is the answer. Maybe I’ll get a kitten.
What is your definition of independent film and has it changed since you first started working?
Somewhere along the line American independent film got minor league syndrome. It’s become a given that one does indies to eventually do studio stuff. But, and at the risk of sounding earnest and naive: weren’t indies created to battle the studios? Rather than support them? Wasn’t Gena Rowlands going nuts an answer to all the mindless mainstream t&a? It seems like now you mostly gotta look overseas to find that kind of honest filmmaking. Directors like Cristian Mungiu, Ari Folman, Aki Kaurismaki. I don’t think we have too many decent indie directors in America anymore. There are the “Little Miss Sunshine” type directors and there are the IFC darling directors who suffer from Williamsburg, Criterion Collection cold, fetishistic preciousness. Little in between.
A lot of the New York indie producers now use big test screenings. They are like Simpson and Bruckheimer without the Ferraris. The auteur theory is not exactly a respected theory among these producers. That’s different than even ten years ago when I started out in the indie film world. Things have really deteriorated, including my health. An agent at WME Entertainment should not be running independent film. I went to high school with one of those agents. He was much more interested in football than going to the Ziegfeld. I mean, if it was baseball or basketball…but football?
Sidney Lumet says the auteur theory is pretentious. Maybe so, but there’s nothing like watching a movie where the director’s vision isn’t tampered with or watered down. Seeing something by Malick or Miyazaki–that’s clean. The assembly-line method of manufacturing movies is based on lowering everything to the least common denominator of art. If you listen to test screenings, it pretty much insures that you will shape your movie into something everyone has seen a million times. I feel like movies need to be the product of, broadly speaking, one person. The movie works best if that one person is the director. If the dominant personality is the writer, or the producer, the movie is thrown all out of whack. Like “The January Man.” John Patrick Shanley’s script is so strong, but there’s no director.
If “The Missing Person” retains any of it’s own singular personality, and isn’t just a bad low-budget “Chinatown,” Lois J. Drabkin is the reason. She’s a great producer. And that is to say, she defends the director. When other producers would be pushing me to use suspense score instead of Bud Powell, Lois would say “No, gosh darn it. We’re going with Bud!”
All the Truffaut ranting aside, at the end of the day, the thing is getting to work with kind and talented people. Rodrigo Lopresti, Frank Wood, Mike Moffa, Merritt Wever, Eden Miller, Mike Shannon, Shannon Dennard, Yul Vazquez, Ryan Samul, Amy Ryan, Gray Madder, Ben Buschel, Alex Estes, Aleta Schaffer, Liza Weil, Mollie Goldstein, Paul Sparks, Daniel Franzese, Aaron Levine, John Ventimiglia, Jason Orans, Linda Emond, David Blazina, Margaret Colin, Javier Bennassar… I wish I could repeat it.