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Director Interview – RONA MARK

RONA MARK is the director of the upcoming movie, The Crab. We first met in Austin two years ago while she was traveling the country with her first film, Strange Girls. It was at that time that she first told me about an idea for a movie about a guy with a deformed hand who’s a complete dick to everyone.  Lo and behold, 2 years later, the feature is done and she has just completed the first trailer. Here it is:

I called Rona and asked her for an interview, and she graciously agreed. We sat down at New York’s famous Hungarian Pastry Shop over Hamentashen and discussed things, a small portion of which you’ll find below:

From the trailer it seems to me to be more a character piece than a horror movie… I like to say that it’s a monster movie, but it’s not a horror movie. The kind of monster you meet at parties.

Your first film, Strange Girls, was also a character study, right? Some people think of it as a horror movie, I mean I thought I was making a horror movie, but then when I directed it I didn’t treat it that way. I treated it like I was making a coming of age film.

All this horror-by-way-of character study is pretty highbrow stuff, isn’t it? Highbrow meets lowbrow is what I’d call it. I think my storytelling is pretty traditional, actually- I’m not trying to be original or anything, I’m just saying what I gotta say. I hate to say this but for me personally, they’re [movies are] kind of therapeutic to write. I mean, I don’t want people to feel like they’re sitting on the couch with me, but I do hope they’re relateable to other people too. Like this one [The Crab] was all about the despair I felt after the last one.

Did you find inspiration for it in any particular films? The Crab’s inspirations came more from literature. Levi’s an academic, his field is American poetry, so there’s some of those references. There was a part in there which we ended up cutting where he references Mein Kampf, but I don’t know if anybody would’ve gotten it unless they read it recently.

So he’s an intellectual? A failed intellectual.

With a deformity. And very much an anti hero. Yeah, he goes around provoking people, antagonizing people, he has a girlfriend but he doesn’t like her. He has one friend left who sticks by him even though he’s a big drunk asshole all the time, but he kind of thinks he’s funny or charming. They’ve been friends since high school so he doesn’t really get rid of him, even though he should. And this friend starts seeing this girl, and he [Levi] decides that he likes her and starts to stalk her… that’s sort of the plot.

Guy Whitney as Levi in Rona Mark's The Crab

Do you meet unhappy people and say to yourself, “I’m going to make a movie about this person?” (Hesitates) Alright, so he’s a little bit of a composite character. (laughing) There’s a lot of me, obviously, in most of my leads, and him too. There’s also a little bit of this boyfriend I had for many years. The movie starts with Levi defending his thesis – he wrote this large volume about the history of American poetry but refused to put citations in it on principle, like a big “fuck you.” I had a boyfriend who did that. All he needed to get his master’s was to put citations in his thesis and he just wouldn’t do it. I mean, I’m sure his reasons were different. My guy [Levi] doesn’t want to finish it because if he finishes it and nobody likes it then he’s just a circus freak with a book. Insert movie instead of book and you have me.

Does the entire process for you begin with character? I think so. I think that’s what’s happening. I mean, I never really knew how I work, but the more I’m doing it, I’m beginning to realize that I like characters that nobody likes, and I want to try to make an audience care for them. That seems to be my goal as a filmmaker: to make people care about the people nobody likes. Murderers, assholes…

Did you do research? About people with deformities? Oh, no… When I did Strange Girls everyone asked if I did a lot of research about twins, and I mean… someone made a documentary about twins, they don’t need me… I’m about the drama, I’m not particularly interested in the science that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m not making an issue movie.

How hard was it to cast the character of Levi, going into production? I feel like 85% of my job as director is casting. And I have to cast just right. It doesn’t have to be exactly the way that I imagined the character, as long as the essentials are there. If he can get to that place, wherever it is, then if he’s tall or short or whatever, I can work with that, but he has to be able to emotionally get there. And that’s the hardest thing. He [Levi] wasn’t easy to find. We put out a couple of calls and got 1200 head-shots, ‘cos if you write “drunk, lobster claws,” every actor in the world thinks they want to do it. But then when they arrive… (laughing). I think one day we saw  30 guys for the lead and I’d say 24 of them were completely incompetent, 5 were deranged, and one was good but not right, and I didn’t think he would be, no matter what. So our casting director, she basically just called in some friends to audition, and the one guy that we went with [Guy Whitney], his first read was good – but angry – and Levi has to also be funny. But I guess she told him, and at the call back he turned it on and it was good. And he’s super dedicated, he had just quit his job and needed to get another one but decided he wasn’t going to, he was just going to live in character for the 6 weeks before we started shooting. I just hoped he didn’t get arrested. But you can feel it when someone’s committed, in their performance… you can’t deny it makes a difference.

Did you learn anything from Strange Girls, about getting the performance out of him? Well, it was different. I had more aesthetic distance with Strange Girls. My leads were twins, and they had worked together a lot, the relationship between them was already there, which made it easier. This one – you know, he did most of the work. I mean, we talked a lot about the character, for weeks, but I could count on him to do the grunt work, it became a matter of refining it, and working with him and the other actors. I learned about myself as a director, that I don’t have a lot of separation between me and my work, so it made it difficult to direct this character, because he was so troubled that I found myself feeling sorry for him all the time, found myself on-set trying to mother him, I felt bad, you know, I cried when he cried, that’s when I realized that I don’t separate at all. It was easier in Strange Girls because there were horror conventions, which is what I mean by distance – one more layer between you and the content. Just a little less real, in a way. You know what I mean?

Rona Mark directing Guy Whitney in The Crab

So you weren’t kidding when you said it is very emotional, a therapeutic journey? Put it this way. I’m not getting any money to do these. I’m only doing them because I want to, so I’m gonna put as much into it to make it worth my while as possible. As much of myself into it. I have to really care to do it because it’s so hard to do.

Do you ever find yourself doubting whether to continue making movies? No. As long as I can I want to continue making movies. But the thing is, it has to get easier at some point or I don’t know just how, physically, stamina-wise, much more I can do. If I don’t get some money injected in there at some point, I just don’t know.

Do you like the film festival circuit? Or find it frustrating? Anything that’s organized like a contest in film I find very frustrating, you know, unless I get in, and then it’s not (laughing). I mean, I think it’s bullshit, you just never know why people choose or don’t choose you. It doesn’t mean anything about your work. I mean, I guess if you get rejected with every single thing you ever apply to, maybe you should listen, but otherwise it doesn’t mean anything. They program all kinds of shit, at all the festivals. so it doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. But there definitely is this feeling, that you have to have a famous person in your film for it to be good. If I would’ve waited for that to happen I probably never would have had any film made, let alone 2 features. ‘Cos it just makes everything take forever. What am I gonna do, wait ten years to get so and so attached in order to raise the money to do it properly? I can’t do that, I gotta keep going…

Rona and Cass Bugge in a scene from The Crab

Do you feel like having one under your belt is going to help the Crab? Well it definitely helped me make it. I mean, there’s that education by fire. I was able to do this one much more efficiently, and also my priorities during production were really different. My biggest problem with Strange Girls was that I couldn’t direct everything to the fullest because I had production issues, and I was directing and producing. What I learned from that one was that I need to gel with all the people working with me. I can’t just hire them – I have to really vet them for personality, to make sure their film-making personalities mesh with mine, and that they can get with the culture of our production- especially the DP. We don’t care about getting a glint off the Fichus. That’s low priority. We shot like 8-10 pages a day on The Crab, and it was fine, it wasn’t a problem.

So it was easier to get this one made? Yeah. My producing partner [Craig Schober], we’ve known each other for a while, he wanted to shoot a feature, he owns his equipment and everything and I was like, if you want to make one, I’ve got one. Let’s go. So that’s how it came about. We didn’t have to pay for equipment, and by design it was a smaller project. We had a crew of like 8 people on this one.

Are you currently developing anything? Your next film? My producing partner’s company is called Tridango, the next project I’m doing is with him. He’s spearheading it but I’m helping him produce and write it. It’s a choose your own adventure zombie apocalypse sort of thing. It’s for the iPad or iPhone or something- he knows all that tech stuff- my only thing was there has to be a gang of vigilante children. Like a gang of tough little kids that are fighting zombies. If you have that, then I’ll work with you. The main guy has to encounter them. You decide whether to go with them, kill them, whatever. And I have other things I want to do too.

Do you have that “million dollar script” waiting for that “golden” opportunity, when The Crab takes off and becomes a hit? I have like 17 screenplays sitting in my computer (laughing). I’ve got the 2 million dollar screenplay that if I can get the money I’ll do, but I also have the one that if I don’t get any money I’m going to do next. On some level, I feel kinda like I don’t even want to write things anymore that I don’t know that I can make myself. Because, like I said, I have 17 sitting in my computer that might never get made.

When you’re not making movies, you teach, at Sarah Lawrence. Do you enjoy it? I’m liking it more and more, because I feel like I’m getting better at it… but I’d rather be making films 24/7. As far as day-jobs go, it’s pretty awesome. But there’s a problem with film education. You gotta teach them [students] something, so you find yourself teaching rules that you don’t necessarily believe. And whenever someone really gets the bug, I always feel like I’ve done them a disservice- like, “wow, I just ruined your life, ‘cos now you’re gonna suffer like I have, and feel how I feel.”

The Crab’s world premiere will be at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Be sure to look for it at other film festivals and select theaters in the near future. And check IsleofCinema for reviews of both of Rona Mark’s films, coming soon!

June 1, 2010   1 Comment

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