Following my roundtable interview with Don Thacker during Toronto After Dark, and after seeing Motivational Growth, I had a few follow up questions for the delightfully verbose director. Sitting on a Starbucks patio at Queen St West and John, Thacker was kind enough to answer my questions. The result was an in depth discussion on what makes his film tick, the problems with contemporary auteurship, the obsession over cult films, and the cynicism with which films are being made today.
Ariel Fisher: Were you aiming for a nihilistic tone with the film?
Don Thacker: No. Absolutely not. Nope.
A: So what were you aiming for?
D: It’s a love story! He gets the girl! At the end of Inception, […] you don’t know if the top falls. That’s the thing. You shouldn’t care. If you’re arguing over whether or not the top fell, you missed the point. The movie is about whether or not he’s going to get home to his kids. Whether or not it was a dream doesn’t matter. The whole point of the film is that this guy has lost so much connection to reality – in Inception – […] that it doesn’t matter anymore whether or not it’s real. He needs to get home to his kids. […]
A: So if you’re arguing whether or not he died, you missed the point?
D: Yeah! […] Something of him left that apartment, you know? And that’s a beautiful thing. […] Imagine this statement. As opposed to a nihilistic “oh my god, everything sucks, he just died,” imagine a scenario in which I’d said “yeah, he died, but he got a chance to make everything right and fix it!” That’s a beautiful ending.
A: When speaking to a friend about the film, he’d said, “I don’t know how I feel about it, because he died.” My reaction was that he leaves the apartment in the end, so whether or not he died, he’s still-
D: He’s happy!
A: He’s still where he should have been. Even if it took an inevitably successful suicide, and, you know, dying to get there, he did get there at some point.
D: Yes. Exactly!
A: So is it kind of like the Before trilogy, in which its ambiguity is whatever you make of it?
*WARNING: Spoilers for Jacob’s Ladder and The Occurrence at Owl Bridge!*
D: Kind of. It’s more of an Ambrose Bierce thing, like The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The confederate soldier gets hung for treason, but the rope snaps and he has magical powers, and he can dodge bullets and whatever. […] He finally gets to fight through a bunch of soldiers, and get home, and protect his wife and save his family, only to wake up a second before the rope snaps his neck. It’s Jacob’s Ladder. What was his concern? It was trying to get to his dead kid that caused the whole problem. What did he do? He got to his kid. When he’s walking up those stairs at the end are you like “this is cynical!” No! This is a beautiful thing! His soul, or his essence, or whatever it is you want to believe in, made it somewhere […].
A: So, ultimately, what are you hoping audiences are going to take away from this?
D: The desire to see it again, and the purchase of a DVD! Haha I mean that’s a joke, obviously – although that’d be great! We didn’t have the money to go tall with the movie. We couldn’t have robots blowing up buildings, so what we could have were puzzles, and questions. They’re not baked in there to be puzzles or questions, but I had to craft [them] to give the audience something to hold onto when essentially it’s a dude in an apartment. […] For Motivational Growth, the methodology was the story. [T]here’s a guy, Ian, and it’s about him and his life. I want the viewer to want to know more. And if you do, I can tell you as the writer, I laboured every single line of the film, which has part of the puzzle in it, and it does work out. There is literally a map at my house. It all makes sense. There is nothing left needlessly ambiguous. […] Every nuance, how many times we repeated things three times, shit you probably didn’t even notice while watching the movie. There is so much going on in there […], but it was never on the nose. Because I don’t want you to have to do work. If you liked it, then great. If you want to watch it again, that’s what I want you to take home. I want you to take the movie, enjoy it, go see it again and find something. And go see it again and find something else. Keep digging. But if you don’t like it, I don’t want to say “oh, you’re stupid, you didn’t get it.” […] I know my audience is going to be 1x% of the populace, or maybe .1x% of the populace, so I’m going to give them something to love. I’m going to give them something to watch over and over and over.
I had a guy from Barcelona write me a 79 page PDF describing what he thinks the movie is about. He dug and he dug! He asked for a screener. He was press, so I gave it to him. He never wrote an article. He instead wrote a book. A 79-page thing, where he went through scene-by-scene, line-by-line, and made a chart. He had drawings, and he worked it all out! He came up with stuff I didn’t put in the movie! But it was impressive, and that one guy justified it for me. If there’s somebody out there who loves it, who gets something from it, that’s what I want […].
A: In some form or another.
D: Exactly! If you enjoy the fact that there’s a crazy dude talking to a fungus and that’s it, or you’re a Jeff Combs fan and you love that Jeff Combs said some words that one time, that’s great. But if you’re into the idea that there’s a deeper meaning to the story, and you want to go digging, it’s there for you to find! […] I wanted to make a statement, but I didn’t feel pretentious enough, or skilled enough honestly to make a big engrossing statement with subtlety, and beautiful shots. [W]e just saw The Battery. There’s a four-minute tooth-brushing scene in that movie!
A: Which is awesome.
D: It’s awesome, right?! If you told me “Don, you need to represent these two characters in a four minute, no dialogue, tooth-brushing scene” I would run away. I have no idea how I would do that! There’s a level of craftsmanship in that that I didn’t feel capable of doing. What I can do is blow your mind up a little bit. That’s what I’ve got, that’s my angle. So I’m going to give you a world where there’s a bunch of cool stuff happening. You can pay attention to all of it, or half of it […]. So we would give you a bit of something that’s serious, a little bit to tweak you out, and then pull it back with some funny and we just did this loop over and over again to keep you interested. […] At one point the guy literally says what the secret to the movie is […]. But it’s wrapped in so much stuff that you have to pick it out.
I’d like a viewer, to ultimately answer the question, to be delighted by the film, and to use it as a vehicle for exploration. Beyond that, have fun! For me, a filmmaker is an engine of delight. That’s the only job we have. […]
Did I over answer? I tend to over answer.
A: No, no. Your answers are perfect. They’re great.
D: I just talk! […] It’s all about honesty! […] I read a really cynical review of Motivational Growth the other day, and the dude said it was “hipster catnip.” It was references for the sake of references. And it’s not that. If you’ve met me, you know that I, in point of fact, am not a hipster. In any way! I’m just a big nerd, man! I wasn’t making references; I was putting myself on the page! And if that guy doesn’t believe that there are people who talk and think like that, that’s a cynical and terrible thing to feel, I think. To live in a world, enclosed by a bubble, in which anything that’s not your mainstream is an ironic reference? That’s terrifying! […] [I]t’s about honesty. I put me up there. Ian is me! He said shit I have thought and wrote down myself. I wasn’t making shitty references. I sat on a bus, I looked at a girl knitting, and saw her looking around to see if people were looking at her knitting, and thought what is wrong with you that you need to fake-knit on a train? So I put that in the movie. […] I have a cat, a beautiful little kitten, and I watched her tear the shit out of another animal. She’s like four months old, and she murders the shit out of another animal. We are tricked into believing that these are fluffy. They’re not. Life is there to destroy life. So I put that in the movie. That’s not ironic […], that’s some shit I saw this one time and wrote in a book.
So it’s about honesty. […] I don’t want to make a movie that’s like Darren Aaronofsky’s movies. Darren Aaronofsky makes movies. They’re good movies. […] Some of them I love, some of them I hate. Akira Kurosawa made some great movies, he also made some shitty movies. And all […] of these guys, they weren’t doing Aronofsky, they just did their thing. Alfred Hitchcock got out there, and people thought, “oh I like that thing.” There are plenty of people who go up there and do their thing and others don’t like it, and they never make it, and that’s fine. I don’t expect to make it. I am only going to do my thing, though. […] That cynicism, to look at my film and say “what’s more wannabe cool than 8bit references?” Nothing is “more cool”, that’s bullshit. I program chip tunes myself. I make video games for a living. I just put […] myself on the screen.
A: That’s the unfortunate thing, is that there’s this misconception. So many things that were popular amongst kids who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s have had this resurgence. But what people are forgetting is that, once upon a time, that was new. And when that was new, it was influential.
D: It was influential! Influential and delightful! I was delighted by those things, and wanted to deliver delight to my friends […]. I can say “remember that cool thing that I thought was really fun, and would really influence my film-” which takes place in 1991 by the way […], so there are things from 1991 in my movie.
A: Which is also why the fitness programs and the infomercials make sense, it’s all a part of that time.
D: And in 1991, that shit was happening to me. The stuff from the beginning. Like the questioning of life […], that […] happened to me when I was about 12. 1991 was an influential period in my life. Maybe it’s because it’s too soon and that guy sees people wearing tight pants and whatever. […] That’s the first guy to ever say that, and it was just shocking. Tell me my movie’s bad. Tell me you didn’t like that 90% of the film is a talking fungus. […] Don’t tell me that I was trying to be ironic. That’s ridiculous.
A: That’s the problem, and you said in our previous interview the other day, how you’re not trying to make yourself an auteur. How James Cameron was never trying to do a specific thing, or emulate a certain style. Hitchcock was never trying to be a Hitchcock, he just was Hitchcock.
D: Somebody asked me when I was a kid “are you going to be the next Steven Spielberg?” And I said no! I’m going to be the first Don Thacker! And that’s just going to be whatever that is, whatever I can put out. Whatever delights me, and I hope delights other people. And if it doesn’t, then I have to change my ways.
A: And that’s the misconception is that auteurs can be created. They aren’t created, they simply are or they aren’t and the films will speak for themselves when the body of work is large enough to do so.
D: Exactly. I had a conversation yesterday where I spoke to this College student. […] She asked me how do you make a cult film. You don’t make a cult film, you make a film. A cult makes a cult film. So you have to leave that to the audience. […]
A: This College student asking for the how-to on making a cult film, is something that’s becoming more evident, especially now. Young students and filmmakers are increasingly obsessed with the notion of creating a legacy, an auteurship or cult film. Do you find that more contemporary notion of filmmaking troubling?
D: Absolutely. It’s cynical and horrible. It does the worst thing you can do in story telling which is mistrusting your audience. […] How cynical is it to think that you’re smarter than your audience? […] How cynical is it to think that my story is smarter than my audience? And not only is my story so smart but my audience is so dumb I don’t have to make a smart story. I can make Birdemic. Or Sharknado. Those things are ironic, cynical films that speak down to an audience. They try to sell to a generation that has grown up laughing at things because they’ve been told it’s funny to laugh at, and not understanding. I went to a theatre that was playing War Games. […] I went, and there were a bunch of young 20-somethings all around me. So the movie starts, and Matthew Broderick picks up a phone, and everyone laughs. He puts the phone on the modem, everybody laughs. The first time you see the girl, she’s running and she’s got leg warmers, they laugh. Everything’s ironic. “Look at how ironically 80’s they’re being!” No, it’s just the fucking 80’s! It wasn’t ironic at all, it was serious and wonderful and deep. I left. It was the second film in my entire life I’ve walked out of. I walked out of the worst film I’ve ever seen, and then I walked out of fucking War Games, which is one of my favourite films. I had to leave because of how horribly treated this film was. I was stunned at the cynicism that had just sewn its way into the theatre. And it’s not their fault. We’re telling them to do that. Not me per se, but filmmakers are in general. They’re taking the easy route. […] It has a lot to do, I think, with image. It’s gotten to the point I think where Edward has to sparkle or you can’t like him. John Cusack, […] they put him in movies because he looked like a regular dude.
A: Absolutely, the every man was the hot guy who gets the girl.
D: Right, yes. He was the every man. The hot dudes were always the bad guys in the 80’s movies, remember? The cool guy with the chiseled face and the perfect hair. That guy was a piece of shit in those movies!
A: Cheek bones were a sign of malevolence.
D: Yes! If you had blonde hair and cheekbones and an ascot or something, you were the worst person in the film. It was probing that the normal guy- That’s not cynical. It’s showing a world where everybody can do it. You can get the girl, you can get the guy, you can do whatever you want to do! It’s so wonderful. And I’m not just being nostalgic. […] Escaping into a world where I, a computer nerd who’s in love with Star Trek, can find a functional relationship and get a gang of friends- Real Geniuses is a film about an Ultra Nerd going to a school for Ultra Nerds coming out the best Ultra Nerd! And also saving the world! That’s a beautifully non-cynical, delighting story. And that’s what I think we should be providing.
Terminator was a delightful story. Linda Hamilton was beautiful and powerful, but not objectively beautiful. She’s not what you’d puton Sports Illustrated. In the first Terminator Linda Hamilton was the waitress girl who’s kind of normal, and she’s attractive because she’s surviving. And in the second one, she’s super hot, not because she’s in skimpy clothing, but because she could beat the shit out of you. She has power. She worked the power into herself to protect her kid! That’s awesome! That’s not cynical. A bunch of underwear models running away from the Sharknado is not interesting. […] Hobo With a Shotgun. That is a non-cynical film, which is funny to say because it’s a movie about everybody killing everybody and it’s a horrible place. The story is about a cynical place. But the film is not cynical. It does not think the audience is dumb. It gives the audience an entire universe. The minute the The Plague shows up in that movie, you know there’s a world far deeper than the 86 minutes you’re getting. […] Robocop I can re-watch and find more stuff in. Robocop is, on paper, the dumbest movie. It’s a feather light concept. Guy turns into a robot! And he’s a cop! You know? […] On paper it’s a terrible movie. However, in practice, Paul Verhoeven took that and said I’m going to give somebody a work of art, and they’re going to love it. It’ll appeal to an eight-year-old because it’s a robot man, and it’ll appeal to a 38-year-old because it’s a scathing satire on the American capitalist corporate identity in the 80’s. There’s so much in that film! […] It’s a different movie every single time [I’ve watched it.] […] It’s a dark movie, a bloody movie, but it’s not cynical. It trusts the audience to be able to enjoy it.
[…] There’s this one-shot mentality. You’ve got the first weekend, so you’ve got to put a bunch of faces on posters because the audience is stupid, they’re lemmings, they’re idiots. That’s the worst thing. The modern wannabe cult thing isn’t trusting your audience to be a cult themselves. Cult movies were made by people enjoying films. There are cult movies now that were amazing films when they were made. But it’s been thirty years, and people are revisiting these films and they’re becoming cult films. But they’re not becoming cult films because they’re ironic and stupid. […] The final point that I made to this college student was that a cult film, at its core, needs to be a good film. And good is completely relative to its target. Rocky Horror Picture Show is not Lawrence of Arabia. But it’s perfect for what it’s trying to do, which is engage an audience and have them laugh with it, not at it. This ironic filmmaking thing, Birdemic and wehatever, it’s funny for a bit, but it can’t continue to be the way we make films. Alien at no point said “you’re dumb”. […] Those movies did not expect us to be stupid. They did not expect us to be high and drunk and watching it on a Saturday night with 45 people. They expected us to go in expecting to be told a wonderful story. […] Those filmmakers put themselves on the line, bore their souls and tried to give us something that, as a discerning viewer, you could leave with. […] [E]ven the fun movies were made with a level of care for the audience. We need that. That’s important.
A: And ultimately that’s at the core of what you hope to do with your career?
D: Yeah. And I’m not saying I’m there. I mean, I’m trying. If I didn’t have an audience last night, I would feel like I’d completely failed. Last night I went into a bar, and I was “attacked”. I got pictures, I got all these people telling me what they thought the movie was, and how they want to see it, and that they want to go buy a copy right now. That means I’ve delighted those people. And in that way I’ve succeeded. If I’ve made some guy think I’m a hipster douchebag, that’s fine too. But at least I made some people happy. Not everyone loves Robocop.