A conversation with Mark Pellington (part one):
Mark Pellington needs little introduction to film fans. Getting his start working for MTV in its heyday producing interstitial promos led to music videos for such heavyweights as Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails and Moby. Beginning his feature film career with the period drama Going All The Way led to atmospheric, frightening thrillers like Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies; and most recently the uplifting, earnest Henry Poole is Here and the palpably bleak I Melt With You. On top of that he’s created personal documentaries, commercials, TV pilots; and gone where his creative needs take him.
Mark graciously made time for us to have a candid conversation encompassing his recent film work; bouncing back from loss; his trust in intuition through the making of his abstract, creepy/beautiful musical film LONE, and ultimately the healing and cathartic rewards of the creative process. Some of it may read a bit too ‘inside’, if you have yet to see LONE; but we hope you’ll find this casual interview an incentive to seek it out. Mark and the Icons of Fright staff are both equally excited to see where his muse will lead him next.
Click here if you haven’t read our First Look/analysis of LONE yet.
MP: How are you?
AB: I’m good! Still a good time to speak?
MP: Perfect. You’re calling from New York?
AB: Yes sir.
MP: What street are you on? Manhattan?
AB: I live in Hoboken now but I’m in an office on 49th and 6th, in Manhattan.
MP: I love Hoboken. I love 49th and 6th. Fuckin’ fantastic.
AB: I’m trying to think of the music venue you’d know in Hoboken that just closed down..
MP: Yeah yeah! That Steve Fallon owned. Maxwell’s! I was probably there for the first time in 1984.
MP: What is Hoboken like now?
AB: Hoboken is..a lot of ‘bro’ culture, not many people who like subtitled movies. The west side is still very much the old Italian social clubs, the guys who like quiet.
MP: I love that.
AB: And I’m glad they’re still very firmly rooted there. True Italian grocery stores, that kind of thing– they won’t give up that culture without a fight.
MP: Nor should they.
AB: And the closer you get to New York, block by block, the more it becomes plexiglass places that cost 4 grand a month to rent.
MP: God, the CHANGE in New York! The change..and the money and the change..
MP: I lived there from ‘84 to ‘99, really saw the post-Giuliani cleanup. Truly there were places I was scared to go to, and I’m 6’4″, I’m fuckin’ huge, right? I would be intimidated to go there. And I saw it clean up… Change is inevitable. But when you’ve seen a place change so much.. I grew up in Baltimore, Baltimore hasn’t changed, it’s revitalized to a degree as many urban places have. But nothing to a degree that I’ve seen the change in Manhattan.
AB: Yeah. I haven’t been to Baltimore that many times, but there’s still an extraordinarily distinct texture to the neighborhoods, that never went away.
MP: Yep. Like any city, they cleaned up from the inside out, it never lost its charm or character..but Manhattan is just incredible. And I can understand cleaning it up..
AB: Well, there’s changing things for safety and then there’s “Where is the actual culture now?”
MP: Exactly. Just the brooming out, the steamrolling out of anything (unique) and money and status being the driving force of the push- and these powers getting bigger. It’s really kind of America at its most obscene and worst, on one level.
AB: Yeah, there are still the things that people come here for; but you need to fight to find them. I don’t know how anyone comes here to START anymore.
MP: I don’t think that they start in Manhattan anymore, do they?
AB: I don’t know. I’m kind of holding on by a thread to this coast. The sadness of the sameness is starting to really permeate.
MP: Oh, good phrase. Better get that in your writing.
AB: What’s funny, I was kind of binging on your work- I watched LONE a third time last night, along with Henry Poole Is Here and I Melt With You back to back.
MP: Wow. Oh my God!
AB: So I’m in a raw, but good, place.
MP: Did you see any continuity between those three?
AB: What’s funny is what I noticed.. I have no dire plans, life’s good here but I completely get that male mindset.. I’m sure back in the day I entertained the thoughts that these guys (in I Melt With You) have- ‘Well, if I get to the forties and can’t make my life what I need it to be, I could always hop off a cliff!”
AB: I understand that mindset when things don’t turn out as you hoped and you feel trapped. See it all the time. It was interesting to see it taken to the max. What was interesting was that (watching) Henry Poole, I felt wonderful after it; and I felt I’d experienced great cinema after I Melt With You, but felt beat up. But both, in a way, I had the same reaction to: they both made me want to take an even harder charge at life.
MP: Wow, good!
AB: One was a cautionary tale, and one was about celebrating what’s good even when it’s so dark that you can’t see it.
MP: Mmm. Well you know, I made both of them after 2004, my wife died in 2004. So Henry Poole was..I had gotten sober, after she died I really hit the bottom to where I was like, fuck, I really need to look at this. Turning my back on many years of that was a huge revelation. It was exactly what I needed to do, that movie was really what I needed to make at that time; I was very, very sad. Very sentimental. Very much a ‘man searching for faith’ and I connected to the feeling of it, the earnestness of it. Loved making it, put my heart and soul into it. Even when it didn’t do any real business; I didn’t care on one level.
It came out, decent reviews, it had its fans. Anytime you’re dealing with faith or something like that, you’re gonna push some people away. I saw its flaws not so many years later, like (it’s)a little bit overly engineered, propping up some script issues by over-engineering or rendering it with the form of a little bit too much music. I remember looking at the first assembly of the film, it was very dry; and I was like “Why didn’t I have the balls to just put a little bit of score in there and let that be it?” Probably an insecurity in it, or a “I wanted to FEEL sad here and I wanted to feel sentimental here, so..” It was a great way to express that.
AB: Do you feel you over-underlined some beats, you mean?
MP: I over-underlined, yes. So some of the reviews pointed that out, I couldn’t argue with them; but if somebody criticized it for being sentimental or sincere, that didn’t hurt me at all. There’s some cynical fuckin’ haters out there. And I hadn’t made a movie in years. The internet, and the whole culture of writing about film, and criticism, had changed very much since 2002 so I was really taken aback by the people unleashing, and the personal digs; I was like “OK…” You survive it.
I was proud of it, proud of Luke’s performance; and I was ready to go make what I thought was a “Hollywood” movie, I was gonna remake The Orphanage for Guillermo Del Toro. I was like “Perfect.” Dread, suspense, but also sad..I said “What a perfect place for me to put myself into.” Guillermo is a huge fan of Mothman, he really liked Henry Poole, he really supported me personally. They could just never get the movie made. The financing of it, the actors- it just never worked out.
So then I was getting really frustrated, and then the economy collapsed and I was like, FUCK. And all of a sudden, everything started shutting down; and it dovetailed with my Mom getting sick, and I relapsed. I didn’t really know, I hadn’t really done the work; but that’s where I was in my life.
My mother was sick, I knew she was gonna die. She was 80. It wasn’t something like cancer, but I knew she was near the end. That realization that your second parent was gonna die, that really hit me. Within six months, she’d died and I had relapsed. So I never really..the progress and the healing I’d made, it’s like climbing out of a well; you really pull yourself out, and just as you’re ready to get out, something breaks and you’ve slid back down. And you’re raising a daughter…you’re just like “keep going, this happens to other people. It happens, this is life. You’ve just got to keep going. Keep making videos, keep shooting, keep learning.”
We had been making these music videos on 5Ds, and shooting a lot of beautiful stuff for like, no money. And I was just like “We have to make a movie like this. Fuck this, I’m making a movie, I’m not gonna ask somebody to make a movie.” My friend Glenn (Porter) had written a script, my casting director showed it around, some actors got interested, and a guy I knew said he felt he could get some money for it. And within the time of deciding to make it and shooting was about four months. You’re not waiting for the system.
AB: Yeah it’s not the artist with ten things between them and the decision, it’s just the decision.
MP: Right! It’s not the system and the money and “Well, depending on who you cast to trigger the foreign sales, and…” We said let’s go make it for $600,000 which was under the Guild level*.
*Note(SAG Modified Low Budget Agreement for feature films)
Glenn’s script, it spoke to me at the time. And I said “I need to get this shit out of my system.” I was definitely in that place where I needed to take all the bad crap and get it out. I knew that.
And so I knew Big Sur, said let’s find one location that will look cool; and just did it! And had so much fun doing it; the process of making it was so empowering, the freedom of the actors and the (tiny) cameras and I was like “Oh man, I never want to make movies any other way.”
AB: You went the ‘digital Cassavetes’ route.
MP: We totally did!
Through the editing of it, I got my shit together, recommitted to sobriety, and started getting healthy again. I came out of it and it went to Sundance.. I was just shocked. I knew that it was dark, but what MY dark was, my level of what I thought was dark-I thought Amour was a beautiful love story. I was shocked by how vicious the attacks were on the movie, we never escaped the first reactions from Sundance. We never got away from the “some people walked out” reaction. People review a movie they walked out on, that I’ll never understand. So that was bullshit. And I would meet some of the haters and I could tell they had never had that kind of male experience. That’s fine, there’s 31 flavors..but it got under their skin.
Now years later, looking back at it, I’m like fuck yeah, it just takes an unflinching, really ugly look at the dark side, beyond these guys (getting) fucked up and the way it was told, it’s UGLY. It’s a really ugly movie, yet kind of truthful. At least for me.
AB: That’s what I wanted to say! The other thing that made Henry Poole and this kind of companion pieces to me; one of them you feel great after, and the other one, you feel great you survived it..
AB: But people don’t like it when you’re really fucking honest.
MP: Not at all. Not at all.
AB: You made an uplifting movie that’s so sincere, it’s shocking in a way; and then you made another one that’s sincere in its darkness. People like sincerity if it’s in the middle and it doesn’t ruffle feathers. (laughs)
MP: Right. I’ve never been good with irony. That’s where I was in my life then, I made it, and I couldn’t make that now. I wouldn’t be drawn to it now, if I was rewriting that now, I wouldn’t make it.
AB: Nope. You tossed that piece of yourself off the cliff like (character in the film) did.
MP: Sure did. And came out of that, but it led me to other life changes like moving into a new house with my daughter, which was a huge healing step for me with my healing and grief; and then I quit smoking which was a radically unbelievable..when something has been your friend for 35 years and then you stop, the changes that it brought on.. literally within a week of buying the house and deciding to quit smoking, I finally committed to making this movie I’ve been working on for 18 years, it’s called CLANG. It’s a murder mystery, it’s a father/son story, based on Father’s Daze, this documentary I made about my dad. A murder mystery about dementia. It’s by far, the most ambitious- if I make just one (more)movie, that’s it.
So I’ve committed myself to making it; I’ve got Kurt Russell to play the dad, I’m trying to cast the other kid; I’m going through the real tough battle of trying to get it financed; but unrelentingly so. In the process of “Keep going, and make stuff.” I need to just keep pulling back the layers of honesty within myself as a filmmaker, and developing my own stuff.
The Chelsea Wolfe thing opened me up in such an incredible way to using the tools of the image… making images and creating images on an unconscious level, not bound by plot. And that’s really nice, I love telling stories and working with actors, but sometimes you need to access different things and this album opened me up in a really amazing way. I was able to put a lot of myself in it.
AB: Can you describe LONE to someone interested in it?
LONE is more than a music video, it’s an attempt at creating a longer musical film that takes the abstractions and nonlinear emotional strengths of the music video form, and merges it with…it’s longer than a video, not quite a feature; herein lies the new nature of it. It really doesn’t fit easily into one category. So it breaks the conventions of music videos in that it kind of expands on the sonic palette, both in the artist’s voice, in that she’s not the traditional verse/chorus pop structuralist, but it’s not just soundtrack and imagery. It shifts between a lot of forms.
I did write a script loosely based on the lyrics, and I then improvised- there was enough of a script where I said “I need this old guy, a kid, a girl, a tall person..” I need these characters to represent something, but it’s beyond an allegory. Where the characters represent something..In a way that’s what I Melt With You was. I said this is really just a terrain. It’s more ambitious than a music video. It’s a suite of songs; I kind of improvised and was very, very free in discovering at the moment, what it was. I’ve never painted nor made music myself..
MP: Nope! But the only thing I attribute to it- in making videos or taking stills- kind of that purity of “you’re really doing it as you’re doing it”. I mean we scouted, we knew what we were shooting, roughly; but the form, I had been making a lot of videos like that: “Get me these people and these things, here, and it’s going to emerge.” And just be open and feel confident enough to let it be, to veer off of the shot list and let it tell me what it is. The girl’s sitting there with a mask, we’re shooting, – “OK, Chelsea, the guy’s here..kneel down. Take this sheet! Put it around him…”
AB: It was that moment-to-moment, huh?
MP: Moment to moment.
MP: Not one iota of “OK, in an hour I’m going to shoot that.” You get a little bit freaked, because your movie ambitions are met with the “low budget and we have a crew of seven” realities. Where you’re just pushing the camera crew to the edge. Kind of like driving a car way beyond its means. I’m an animal when I shoot. My assistant, who shot the movie, he gets it, so he knows I’m like “Just trust me and just go with it, something’s gonna come out of this and just keep the camera rolling,” protect the actor, protect the people so you know when the image you’re making feels right.
If you take interesting people and interesting props and objects into interesting locations, that work for you on a nature-symbolic level; you can kind of put anything anywhere and it should feel OK if your choice of texture and space and color and shape all work. You know?
And really, the foundation is Chelsea’s energy; her music. I wouldn’t have accessed any of that, if it wasn’t for her music. Her music was my portal, it was the juice to let me access that deep stuff that was not even sure what it was. Still to this day, I know what it’s kind of colliding, but it’s colliding between so many layers and levels of meaning, that I really don’t want to know what it is; I just want to feel it every time I watch it.
AB:You don’t want to concretely define it all now since you didn’t do that from the start, right?
MP: Yeah. And I just was ‘open’(on the set). There was this tree, and the Italian production designer …I had these bloody sheets…had no idea where… He tells me “I’m gonna cut them up and put them in the trees.” I’m just like “go!” He puts them in the trees… I tell Richard the actor “let’s walk the girls to the trees”, I’m shooting this and going “Oh my fucking god, what era am I in?” (laughs) It reminded me of Paper Moon, I have no idea…all I know is that the girls were haunting, and (I told) the guy, “pick up the girl”! I have no idea. Was kind of in an altered state.
I knew what the horse was, exactly what that motif was; I knew what the other things were, but some of it (symbol’s origins) was Chelsea; we never talked about what anything ever was; I asked her for a list of images, for her songs, asked her “Write down what the song is about, what you see, for every song. Let me make that be the guide.”
I wrote this long, long stream-of-consciousness script, and I handed it to her and said “Just make sure that there’s nothing in here that you don’t feel you can associate with you.” There was only a couple. Some we never got around to, and others I made up as we were there, when I saw something happening like the aforementioned sheets. I have no clue how it unfolded, other than it unfolded.. but I spent a lot of time editing it and laying out the shape. I knew it ended in the house.
Cameron Crowe gave me a good piece of advice. He said “Iif you know your first image, if you know your beginning and your end, that’s a really great thing.” We knew that “Feral Love” had a black eye, opening up kind of what you see in your own darkness..we knew that was the beginning, we knew that kind of percussive beat was almost gonna be like a little title sequence opening, it’ll kind of show everything; we’re gonna open under the skin, and the environment, and her, and her feelings. I knew that was the opening; I knew (her song) “Lone” was the ending.
I had no idea while we were driving around, that we would find this house that looked like “home” yet it was empty. Just a shell. Had no idea ..but all I knew is from far away, as we drove past, it drew me to it; it was just really beautiful. It’s a home but there’s something hollow and just transparent about it; yet – that’s all it was! I understand somebody that needed to go back to this home, to see the vestiges of their past, and to get detached. And at the end, Chelsea’s looking at it; she’s not like, “Oh, it’s all OK now.” If anything, when she did the music at the end, and Chelsea edited the score, it wasn’t like we wanted the score to (then) go to some beautiful place, it was like bzzzzzz (imitates the dark tones the sound design brings on)
AB: There’s an understanding there, but it’s still tumultuous, what she confronted.
MP: Yeah. Just the same darkness, and then the red.. I shot this red head-
AB: Yeah it is a head! I remember the second time I watched it, that I’d seen that head earlier.
MP: Right, there’s a little flash of it. And then we’re shooting that on a stage and I ask them to just pour the fucking blood over the head- it was slow motion, and so gorgeous. Then we had milk (running) on it. It looked like smoke! It reminded me of my lungs, and reminded me my lungs had so much to do with quitting smoking. This whole image, that was what that was(to me), kind of out of character for the rest of the piece, it’s so fake and studio-looking; I almost cut it but my DP was like “use it for the credits!” I love that.
AB: There’s a texture there; I was reading the credits and not focusing on the image even though it’s affecting me. I connected the red and the bloody imagery to red textures earlier, but I felt this could be connected to ‘later’ when things have changed for the character.
MP: It was ash, milk, smoke, blood, all kind of combined. And then the memories…My editor Nathan Cox, I had done a lot of videos with him and we go back and forth, we edit together. I let him do the work on the shape of the performances, let him get those to a decent place, and then I always attack them and move stuff around, and then other connective tissue, I cut.
I think I showed Chelsea this really long, rough thing that was about 70 minutes. And you could just tell it wasn’t meant to be that length. So we then went through it, she called me on a couple of things, which was really good; a couple of sequences that just ran on. And we even cut some of her voice stuff. I was very open to it; then we got very close to what you saw.
AB: A lot of those closeups of her are so shockingly direct, confrontational..in a good way; she’s staring me down- Or in those close-ups towards the end during “Lone”, I feel like I’m seeing something I’m not supposed to see. In terms of the level of vulnerability.
MP: Yeah, very much so; it was uncomfortable and I like where it pushed me to, yet I totally had to respect where she was, and find that balance.
But she was very respectful of what I was putting into it, and I love her for that. She would say “What did you want to say in that sequence?” And I’d say “That’s a good point, I don’t know, let me think.” I would have to do some more work so I could say what I wanted to say, or suggest what I wanted to suggest in a much shorter manner. Happens on any project.
AB: I had a feeling that this was a very intuitive process, but it sounds like you trusted that from top to bottom. I’m glad that you were given the resources and freedom to go there.
MP: There’s something about musicians as artists, that are different than, say, creating a TV pilot or a film. This was much more like a really independent film; there’s no interference. The producer, Cathy(Pellow), who was funding it, she trusted me; I don’t think she really knew what we would end up with. She knew we’d end up with pieces and a piece of business she could break down into (individual) videos.
But it was all for the sake of “We love the music, we love just making something.” Everyone was doing it for that reason.
So I’m really proud of it and want people to see the work and that’s all we want. It’s work we’re proud of.
They sell it at her shows, you can buy it online on a USB- they’re in the process of getting it where you can buy it on iTunes, places like that.
Check back Monday on Icons of Fright for the second part of this interview where we dive deeper into the creation of LONE.