During the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Don Thacker, writer and director of the inventive, absurdist film with the talking mould: Motivational Growth. Now, Don’s a wonderful guy. But to say that I spoke at all would not only be an understatement, but it’d be a downright lie. Neither myself, nor my two fellow interviewers, got a word in edgewise save for asking all of five questions. The beautiful thing is that we didn’t have to. In spite of the months he’s been doing his festival tour, Thacker was just as excited to sit down and chat with us, as I’m sure he was on his first interview.
I don’t even think we had a chance to ask how he came up with the concept for Motivational Growth before he started his story. “I was living in LA,” he began. “I did this foolish thing when I was 19 where I was like ‘I’m gonna save up $3000! I’m gonna go out to LA! And then I’ll be famous, and make all the movies! It’ll be great!’ I went to LA, and found that there’s a giant wall. […] [A]nd it’s built on broken dreams. It’s forded with hell tears, and it’s made metal by the aspirations of the young. […]And at the top is this giant line of networking that you have to get through to even get near the wall.
“At 19 you don’t know this,” he continues. “[…] And L.A. […] can be like a giant meat grinder from hell that destroys souls. My soul was one of those souls! I got into a bunch of bad business, worked with people who were shifty. And at one point I was living in this Australian lady’s apartment, but I was living in just one room of it. I didn’t have access to the common areas. […] And in the middle of the night […] I’d wake up, sneak out of the room, and I’d walk over to the couch and quietly turn the television on. And I sat there depressed. It was the only thing I had in my whole life. I couldn’t afford rent. […] I had no money. […]So I’m sitting there in my underwear, flipping through channels, and every time something went bad or I didn’t like something I’d just [change the channel]. And I just thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if I could just click and change to a different life?’ And then I [thought] ‘if this TV went away, I would fucking kill myself.’ That’s where I was. […] I was a kid, I didn’t know shit. Everything’s melodramatic when you’re 19, right?”
And thus was born the concept for Motivational Growth, before Thacker even knew that’s what it was. The opening line of the film was conceived of as Thacker sat in front of the television, all too aware that, should it break, he’d be doomed. The Mould, he says, was a totally different scenario.
When work was coming a bit more steadily, Thacker wanted to sign up for some online tutoring courses. As the tutor, not the tutee. What ensued was being invited to dinner by a man who ran a website that, shall we say, duped men into illicit interactions for cash. When the scam became evident, Thacker very honestly explained the miscommunication, and the gentleman in question ventured to the bathroom. Upon returning, clearly stoned out of his gourd, he said this simple sentence that Thacker never forgot. “So, uh, you ever get that feeling like the fuckin’ … caulk in the bathroom is, like, talking to you and shit?”
“No!” replied Thacker. “But that’s a great idea, dude!” And thus was born The Mould.
Thacker stores many of his ideas in little notebooks he keeps on hand at all times. If something abnormal or utterly insane happens, he writes it down. If something strikes him, like a sentence or a turn of phrase, he writes it down. In these notebooks are stored countless little anecdotes and incidents, many of which were the genesis for Motivational Growth. The opening line of the film, and the birth of The Mould are among some key examples.
“So it’s kind of autobiographical in that way.” Thacker explains. “I think I was watching Real Genius at 4:00am,” he says of what he was watching the night he penned what would later become the film’s opening lines. “If you notice in the movie he wears an ‘I Heart Toxic Waste’ T-shirt, which is straight out of Chris Knight from Real Genius. There’s a lot of jokes from Real Genius in that movie. Because it kind of inspired it. It’s one of my favourite films.”
His love of Real Genius, and moderate crush on Michelle Meyrink’s Jordan, sparks another offshoot: the 80’s teen comedy. “I have a treatment for a teen movie!” Thacker begins, excitedly. “[…]It takes place in 1986. It’s basically a throwback to those teen movies that we went away from because we have to be edgy and hot now. Fuck edgy and hot, man!”
He continues on the new state of teen films with an inadvertent backhanded compliment towards 80’s and 90’s heartthrob, John Cusack. “John Cusack is not attractive,” he says, “I don’t care who you are! If you’re a 35 year old [woman] you think Cusack’s attractive, but that’s because you grew up seeing John Cusack as the main hot dude. He’s an ugly dude! Well, not really ugly. Brad Pitt’s an attractive dude. I would snuggle up with Brad Pitt. John Cusack, if he wasn’t John Cusack, I’d have him doing my taxes, or something. He’s […] just a normal guy! And that’s what made him so attractive in the 80’s and 90’s. I could be that guy! I could get that hot girl! That was back in the day, and now everyone looks like a fucking model and none of them can act, and it’s all shot in this really edgy, but super slick way.
“Where’s the magic? It’s all cynical,” he continues. “Where’d the magic go? My movie starts cynical specifically because I want to show you some fucking magic and I’ve got to knock you out of this weird place you’re in[…].”
As he continues on wanting to bring his audiences into a magical space, he says “I’m a high fantasy guy. […] I want to go sit in a movie and be taken to a place I can never possibly ever go on my own. I don’t want to watch [Crash]. I don’t want to see that Sandra Bullock’s kind of racist this one time. Why is that entertaining? […] Requiem for a Dream was shot really well, but that is just some terrible shit. [W]hy is that what I want to see in my life?
“Motivational Growth starts out with some terrible shit,” he continues, “but then a bunch of really cool stuff happens and, like, fantasy stuff comes and brings it together.”
Continuing on what, at first, seems like a tangent, Thacker pays tribute to Canadian television as the reason he got into film in the first place. “[…]I lived in Detroit, so we had a lot of Canadian broadcasting. […] I was between four and five, and my mom comes over and turns some of this stuff on. And when you’re four, you don’t understand the world. You don’t get that a television is manufactured by Toshiba[…]. That doesn’t exist. What exists is a magical box that fantasy comes out of. The sun comes up in the morning, Mom gives you food, and there’s a box that fantasy comes out of. Sometimes water falls out of the sky. It’s just part of the universe!
“[…][A]ll of a sudden this show comes on, and it was this behind the scenes making of CBC special about Return of the Jedi. […][B]y the end of it, my little four and a half year-old brain just clicked. People make that fantasy stuff! That’s not just some stuff that happens. [People] do that! And I know people! And I’m people! And one day I could do this thing that I love more than anything in the world!
“So I wanted forever since I was that age to be a guy who makes those things,” Thacker adds. “[…]I meet all these film makers who are like ‘I’m an auteur, I’m an artist, and I want to show you my compositional whatever! I went to school for-’ […]I don’t give a shit, man. What I want is […] to have people just watch it and go ‘wow!’ I want to talk about this, and ogle over it, and wonder over it and have magic.
“I want to make magic,” Thacker concludes. “I want to hew the universe into a magical shape. That’s movie making.”