A highlight of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, Septien has its UK premiere on October 2 at Abandon Normal Devices festival in Liverpool.
A resolutely strange confection meshing Southern Gothic, black comedy and outsider art, the film tells the story of Cornelius Rawlings, an itinerant sports hustler, who returns to his family farm following an 18-year unexplained absence, disrupting the lives of his already unhinged brothers, Ezra, a neat freak with a thing for Jesus, and Amis, an artist fixated on the profane. The appearance of their high school football coach throws in further dark forces and pushes the possibility of redemption into a tight spot the film resolves with a refreshingly original flourish.
Funny, awash with a warm 80s glow and constantly confounding genre expectations, the film is assured a cult following, managing the rare feat of being both compassionate and hip. Kate Taylor caught up with Michael Tully, Septien‘s writer-director, who also stars as Cornelius in the film.
Kate Taylor: Let’s start with art and the Daniel Johnston-esque illustrations that fill the film and its poster. Where did they come from?
Michael Tully: Onur Tukel, who plays Amis, did the all the original artwork himself. For three months he went on a bender and he was sending me scans. He sent me the first eight and asked if I had any notes. ‘More sandwich on the dick?’ I didn’t know what comment I could give to him, so I was like, ‘different colours maybe, mix it up?’
He’s a writer, director and obviously a super-talented artist. I met him in 2001 with his movie Ding-a-ling-Less, which stars Robert Longstreet, who plays our other brother. I fell in love with Robert and wondered why this guy was not a star. Hanging out with Onur, he had this commanding presence at the Q&A. Both Onur and I had beards at the time and I thought we should play brothers on a farm in a movie, although neither of us were actors. It was one of those kernels that just stays in your Word document of ‘Movies I Wanna Make’. It was number 800.
How did it rise to the top?
Last winter, I saw Onur in a short he’d made where he’s in front of the camera and that kernel just popped. Then I had a brainstorm with David Gordon Green over an Irish coffee at Sundance. All the outlandish things and the crazier ideas came out of that brainstorm, and something happened. I have eight scripts that are lifelong projects, and I thought, are we gonna make this one?
For the next few months, Onur and Robert and I started bouncing the story around and created this skeleton, and then fleshed it out more and completed the casting. Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife, just has this presence that you can’t really train to have or teach. We needed a pretty girl in the movie to lighten the mood somewhat because it’s a bunch of repressed male weirdos.
Initially I wanted to keep it in a Word document as ‘things I wanna see in a movie’. Because if you shoot it, it could be boring and maybe not add up to a film. I wanted a Terrence Malick magic-hour vomit. But then Onur’s and my storyteller instincts came out. And at that point I finally opened Final Draft and tried to make a story out of it.
One of the pleasures of the film is how it sidesteps clichéd story patterns. Were you thinking about genre?
It was trying to defy genre. Lately at film festivals there’s been all these panels where filmmakers are told that they need to have a target, know their audience and know exactly what they’re making. And I thought, fuck that, let’s make something that we don’t know if it’s going to stick. So it was a kind of reaction against the system.
When our distributors in the States were putting it through Video On Demand on the television you have to check the genre box, and no one knew which box to check. Some people are calling it a horror film, some people are calling it a comedy.
In audience Q&As, the fact that the film doesn’t go far into a violent realm often comes up. I think that there’s enough negativity and violence in the world that to be able to create this sense of danger and violence without it ever getting graphic was a challenge. And it was important to try to do that. To have the sense of tension without going into ‘and now they cut his throat off.’ Who cares about that?
You mentioned the Malick magic-hour vomit. Was there a particular reason that you shot on film?
Aesthetically I wanted it to have this timelessness, to feel like time stopped on the Rawlings’ farm in 1986 when Cornelius left. When he shows up again they’re all back in 1986. It’s not a period piece per se but we don’t have cell phones and we tried to make that feel organic, where the audience isn’t just wondering where they’ve gone. It was important visually for it to feel like an 80s film. Or 90s. A late 20th-century movie.
The other thing is, when you’re shooting a movie and the film camera’s rolling the stakes are higher, no matter what. I was trying to make this trick shot that’s very hard to do [Tully performed all of the film’s sports stunts]. Even if you’re shooting in video the sun is still going to go down, you still have to make your day, so it’s still a battle. But when you’re told ‘we have five takes, try to make this Mike’, the stakes are way higher. So when that shot goes in and the crew looks at each other, there’s a sense of unity that doesn’t happen on video.
There is a lot about shit, toilets and the return of the repressed. Where is that coming from?
Honestly, not to be flippant, but I think part of the challenge to make this movie was how preposterous a premise can we start with and make a convincing movie that people take seriously? So it’s not like the joke’s on the viewer, we want people to be genuinely moved, but we were thinking of very elementary juvenile ludicrous elements. So when the preacher emerges from the porta potty, a valid question is, ‘is he the personification of shit?’ I think Robert was the one who was the most faeces-obsessed in his contributions to the script.
Throwing these things out there but also making it sincere was a real challenge and I thought it was fun to try to do that. To say this is like an eighth-grader was asked to write a mystery story and try to make it a sincere genuinely affecting film. In the final shot I wanted people to be thinking, ‘I feel a sense of resolution and I am emotionally affected but my brain is telling me I should not be feeling this. Why am I actually moved right now?’
Interview by Kate Taylor