Interview: Matt Wilkins on Filmmaking, Family and ‘Marrow’

Marrow screens at Northwest Film Forum for two nights, on Tuesday, January 24 and Wednesday, January 25. See the NWFF website for showtimes and ticket information.

I’ve known filmmakers Matt Wilkins and Eliza Fox for almost eight years. I met them when their first film, Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, had its local premiere at SIFF in 2004, and would check in when we ran into one another at film events and receptions around town. But it had been a few years since I was able to really catch up, which made my interview with them in May 2011 doubly pleasurable. Their second feature, Marrow, was playing SIFF 2011 and I had the good fortune to profile the filmmakers for Seattle Weekly and cast a spotlight on Marrow, a personal, intimate, haunting film and a significant step forward for director Wilkins.

The conversation, which lasted well over an hour, took place at the Fort St. George Grill in the International District on May 7, 2011. Ryan Purcell, the film’s director of photography, joined us toward the end of the interview. We began by talking about what’s been happening since I last spoke with them in 2006.

Eliza Fox, Matt Wilkins, house

Matt Wilkins: I’ve been trying to get it for quite a while now. I don’t know how long it’s been, actually.

Sean Axmaker: Buffalo Bill’s Defunct was 2004.

MW: Sorta since then, yeah. (laughs)

Every ten years or so you get a feature out.

MW: It’s like the seven year itch. It was project that took a long time to put together. It started with, about thirteen months before we even shot Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, my dad was dying and the stuff he was telling me on his death bed was the beginning of the story. So really it’s been ten years in the making if you count all that thinking time.

Buffalo Bill is about family and the kids worrying about a father who seems to be losing his good sense as he’s getting older. Does that come from the same place?

MW: That’s more about my grandpa. He really did try to tear down the garage and it was really frickin’ dangerous and we were truing to convince him now to do it and were really worried about it. That happened in the late nineties and was the beginning of that story.

The wellspring of your films is your family.

MW: Yes, definitely.

And your stories are all about family.

MW: It’s all personal stuff. I try to take my own life experience, which has formed a specific world view, and turn it into art.

I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but Wiley Wilkins is your son, correct?

MW: Yes, Wiley is my son.

Does he act outside of your films?

MW: He was in school plays from seventh grade through twelfth grade and he’s been in our short videos and comedy sketches pretty much since he was born. In fact, his first screen credit is in a student film by Chris Smith, the guy who made American Movie later on. He’s the baby in his student film called Space. He’s two or three months old. So he’s been around it the whole time so it’s a natural progression. But the other thing is, if you don’t have a lot of resources you have to make use of what you do have. So I had a really great actress, Frances Hearn, from Buffalo Bill. I thought she was the best one [in the cast], so as I was developing the story, I wrote it for her. And I had a kid actor I didn’t have to audition. People watch like 2,000 auditions or 5,000 auditions to cast a role. The entire budget of my film wouldn’t cover that many auditions. So you have to use the resources that you have. Our house is the house. The bedroom in the movie is Frances’ real bedroom, Wiley’s bedroom is his real bedroom. I think that helps the actors feel comfortable in their environment, especially kid actors.

So you put a hole in your own wall?

MW: That was a fake wall. We built the wall. But I would have done it. (laughs) We did cut up our own floor. That’s part of the reason it takes place in our house. It’s hard to find a location where they’ll let us tear up a floor.

Did you then use the opportunity to redo your floor?

MW: Yes! (laughs) Eliza got to pick out the tile.

There are four names on the screenplay credits: you and Eliza, actress Frances Hearn and your DP, Ryan Purcell. How did that collaboration come about, and what was the dynamic?

MW: I was writing it for Frances and Wiley and we’d have rehearsals and I’d go back and rewrite it based on what happened in rehearsals. And then I’d show it to Eliza and Ryan—Ryan came into it a little later—and they’d give me feedback and I’d rewrite it and then I’d do rehearse it again and then we’d just keep doing that. We did it 24 times, 24 drafts.

That was seriously workshopped.

MW: Yeah, it was workshopped pretty heavily, but mainly because we didn’t have the money. So we were like, Well, let’s just keep working on it until we get the money together. And I think it really made it better. It gave Wiley and Frances a chance to really get to that point where they actually got on each other’s nerves. That’s a hard thing for people to do when they’ve only rehearsed a few times, but every weekend, going over to Frances’ house, driving over to Ballard, dragging Wiley over there, really developed a more natural mother-son kind of feel to their relationship.

It’s completely believable. The moments where they are okay, where they have that natural ease of being around family, but then when something gets in the way sets them on edge with each other, the way the film rises and falls with that I found very honest and recognizable, that that’s how people are. It’s not a theater piece impression, it’s something very distinctive to human nature.

MW: I was trying to get across that rollercoaster ride of being a parent. You’re like, “Okay, I’m doing a good job, I’m on top of it, he’s doing good, he’s doing good,” and then it just squirts out from under you and he’s his own person doing his own thing and you’re, “What? Where did that come from?” It’s a lot of positive things and a lot of negative things and you never ever stay on top of it. It’s like Whack-a-Mole.

And you can’t separate out the positive from the negative. It’s all churned together in their lives. You caught that hormonal out-of-control quality of teens, where he’s pissed off and the littlest thing turns him into a nasty, insufferable brat just making a show of his anger by pushing and pushing and pushing his mom.

MW: That’s Wiley’s acting, that’s his performance. That was what came about in rehearsals, that he would be able to do that. If he couldn’t have done it, it wouldn’t be in the movie.

I think it makes the movie. I think it is the movie, that relationship between Wiley and Frances. When you see Frances’ flashback to the scene where Wiley arm-wrestles his grandfather, the look on her face tells me that she is anxious and anticipating that very thing to explode when Wiley beats him. Her father has an ego and Wiley inadvertently was pushing his buttons and it looks like he comes right up to the line, then he backs off and smiles and chooses to be proud that his grandson beat him, rather than challenged. And you can see a look of relief on her face that it didn’t melt down into a confrontation. You don’t actually have a scene in the film where that dynamic plays out in the flashbacks between Frances and her father, but there are lot of scenes that it is always hanging over their relationship, that the anger and the fear is there.

MW: The rage, the temper tantrums, that’s sort of what the animal in the wall is, a metaphor for the animal in us, the wild, squirrelly things that people do and this family in particular does when they’re pushed. You get hints of what happened in the past…. I wanted to make those memories seem like real memories, so instead of making them play realistically, I tried to capture the feeling of a memory. The things that we remember from twenty years ago are more like bits and pieces of obscuration.

The house feels more isolated than it really is physically the way you shoot it. When you see Wiley him drive up in the daylight and they are on a suburban street, a little rural but with neighbors all around them. But the rest of the film it seems like it’s off by itself in the woods, miles from anyone else and cut off from everything.

MW: That’s part of that feeling of extreme grief that I was trying to create. When people are going through those horrible times in their lives, they do feel cut off and isolated and alone. And that’s where the core of the whole story came from. After my dad died, I had trouble seeing the world clearly, I felt isolated, and I was just trying to recreate that feeling through the tone of the film. But it uplifts too. There’s a certain desperate feeling and it just felt so full of despair, but one little one little thing can just change it and the curse is lifted.

You mentioned that the story was autobiographical, so how much did Wiley bring to it and how much of it reflects your relationship with your son?

MW: A lot of things that happen in the film are things that I did when I was when a kid, a lot of things that happen in the film are things that Wiley actually did, a lot of things that are said in the film are things I said to my mothers and still regret to this day. So yeah, it’s a mix and it’s fictionalized, but a lot of that is definitely inspired by our lives.

You developed the film for years. How long was the actual production once you started shooting?

MW: 24 days, and then nine months later we finally got the animal. In the early drafts we had just a puppet of the possum that comes out of the wall, and then we finally tracked one down and so we shot that nine months later. So 26 days in total. The first 24 days were shot over the course of six weeks. We had days off. We would shoot five or six days in a row and then take a few days off. It was fun. The lighting is what takes the time. If you don’t light things, you can shoot things much quicker. If you want to do anything with the tone and atmosphere of the lights, that just slows you down.

You didn’t really do that much with lighting in Buffalo Bill.

MW: That’s true. That was a fifteen day shoot. Plus it was 16mm film. This was the RED digital camera. We were just more careful because it was 16mm and a smaller budget.

Marrow has amazing color control and shadow control.

MW: A lot of that is vignetting. We did a lot of graphics work.

For the flashback sequences?

MW: Yeah, for all the flashbacks. The present day scenes are mostly lighting. But Buffalo Bill is a different story, too. It’s about a broken-down old man and I sort of like the rickety feel of that film: 16mm, some washed out scenes, it’s just the right tone. Marrow is a film about a woman haunted by the ghost of her father, haunted by something living in the walls of her house, and the differences in the story makes you want to make it look different and feel different.

Ryan Purcell was grip on Buffalo Bill. The challenge on the cinematography of this film would be much greater than the Buffalo Bill—as you said, more lighting, more mood, more sculpting—and it would be much more demanding to get that look. What was it about Ryan that made you decide he was your DP for this film?

MW: That’s so long ago, I don’t really remember. I like Ryan. He did shoot some B-camera stuff on Buffalo Bill, but that wasn’t really why. I don’t know. I liked him.

Eliza Fox: I can remember. I remember that you found him to be flexible and a good creative partner from Buffalo Bill’s Defunct. When you had ideas and things you wanted to accomplish on Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, you found that he listened and he responded to you and you felt that he really brought something so that’s why you wanted to work with him again.

MW: Yep, that sounds right.

The film has a distinctive and evocative look. I don’t mean it’s just an impressive visual display. It just seeps into your bones and it’s so much a part of the film that it helps define the story in the same way that the characters do. In the flashback scenes, with all the shadows, it made me try to peer into the screen and get a better look.

MW: Trying to create the desire to see was one of our goals. Because this a woman trying to see something that may or may not be there, so it’s great if it feels like that too. The desire to see more parallels, her desire to see her dad again, to know if the supernatural rodents are real or not, and so on.

I never saw her reveal the same anger that her son does and her father does, but I see in her the fear that she has it in her and I can’t tell, and I like that I can’t tell, whether she has in the past shown it or if she has been able to control it all along and she’s simply terrified that it’s burning inside her about to break out. But it’s obviously a huge fear for her.

MW: I think it’s more about the fear. And the other thing we were trying to do was make it seem like that the things her father told her on his deathbed, his prophecy about their bloodline, just the general grief she has over his death, makes her see the world in a different way, see it through a haze of grief. So she misinterprets her son’s behavior at times and that’s why I purposefully make it a bit gray as to how bad he is. He’s not getting arrested but he’s getting in trouble, and is it that serious or is it just normal teenager stuff? I try to make it in-between. So some people see the film and say, Well he’s not that bad, and that’s the point.

The worst behavior we see is when he gets angry or cranky and he behaves like a brat, just being surly and nasty to his mother and not letting up until he pushes her past her patience. It just wears her down.

MW: I think it was great how Wiley got bigger over the year we rehearsed. It’s almost like the longer I wait, the scarier this climax is going to be because when I started they were about the same size and a year later he’s bigger than her and physically intimidating.

So as you rehearsed over the year he got bigger, but you were still working on that same dynamic. It’s like he doesn’t know his own strength.

MW: That’s what’s so scary, because teenage boys don’t know their own strength. And he’s just trying to carve out some space for himself. When she goes into his room to once and for all find out what he’s up to, it’s a deal breaker. But I think at the end they come to terms with that. First of all, there’s an obligatory exorcism of the animal living in the wall, the ghost of her father, this thing that’s been affecting her the whole time. To get that out, they have to go through this whole fight. The fight for me was the wooden bullet or the wooden stake, that they had to go through to get it all out there. That leads to chasing out the animal in the wall. I think at the end of the movie, Wiley sees her as a person for the first time, he sees her differently as a person with her own problems. It’s not all about the relationship, he sees her, in this moment, more clearly and that’s a great turning point in the relationship and that’s where it ends.

Why are they in the father’s house?

MW: She’s a single mom, it’s a cheap place to live, and she’s drawn back to it, you know? She has a problem with letting it go and getting over it. It’s exposition that was in the film but I cut out.

There are a lot of things that aren’t explained and I think that’s one of the reasons that the film sticks with you. By the time it was over, I realized that in the flashbacks we never see the mom, only the dad. In the present day, we never see Wiley’s father, he’s never even mentioned. We have no idea what the story is, it’s just them, and the film has simply carved out a now-ness.

MW: All that was there, but I made a conscious decision to cut out all the boring exposition, even at the expense of being a little coy or a little bit obscure, just because it kills tension. Exposition kills tension and kills drama. Did we cut to much out? I don’t know.

I don’t think I missed anything. It’s a mystery that’s part of their lives and I don’t know that the explanation would illuminate anything about the drama we’re seeing. It’s just not important.

MW: It’s not important. We call the movie Marrow, like the heart of the matter, so you really do want to cut it down to the bare essentials.

Ryan Purcell arrives.

You have a gaffer credit on Matt’s first film, Buffalo Bill’s Defunct.

Ryan Purcell: Yes, I was gaffer on Matt’s first film. I like that movie a lot. It’s got a quirky charm and a lot of the same themes as Marrow, only in a different way. That really made me want to work with Matt again. I was just glad that he chose me to shoot this one and it was a good opportunity.

Marrow was a very different looking movie than Buffalo Bill. Had you done anything like that before?

RP: Because of where I come from, which is as a lighting person on a lot of larger-budget movies, I try to step back from that and let the actors take control of what we were doing as opposed to having a massaged look. It’s a lot grittier, it’s a lot of handheld, a lot of following the action. So I definitely made a point not to have a real glossy look to it but still look interesting.

Marrow is not glossy. It’s very internal, very shadowy. We were talking earlier about how it feels so isolated from the rest of the world.

RP: A lot of that comes from Matt. The image that he talked about at first was the image of the father in the darkness with the light on his face. I was like, I don’t know, it’s dark. But reading through the early drafts, the movie just kept illuminating things and narrowing its focus.

Matt Wilkins: And we shot a lot too. The really rough assembly edit was three hours.

RP: There was a lot of distillation.

What do you do when you’re not shooting Matt’s movies?

RP: Mostly I’ve worked locally in the industry. Obviously with independent films you’re not making a ton of money shooting these projects, so there’s a lot of corporate work going on to keep some cash flow going. Because I love shooting narrative, I make a point of trying to do it even though the money is not very good.

Are you saying Matt is cheap? [It’s a joke, of course, and we all laugh]

RP: No, Matt’s not cheap. Matt spent a little money on the crew. Unlike some people who don’t spend ANY money on the crew, Matt spent a little.

Eliza Fox: Do you remember shooting Buffalo Bill’s Defunct? We were on the set and there were people who were working under you that weren’t going to get paid. Just a few key people were going to get paid. And you sat me down and you told me, “You’re going to pay everybody. I don’t care if you take it out of my money, but everyone’s getting something.” And I said, okay.

RP: I don’t remember that part. I especially don’t remember the “take it out of my paycheck” part. (laughs)

EF: But he was right and it made everyone feel good. I think it was a hundred bucks, I gave everyone a hundred bucks.

RP: I did not want to do Buffalo Bill’s Defunct because I didn’t want to work as a gaffer. Just because you don’t have any control. As a shooter you get a lot more input, as a gaffer you don’t get as much creative control as I like. So I didn’t want to do Buffalo Bill but the DP twisted my arm and I did it. And I’m glad I did it, because it was a good movie and you don’t always get a chance to work on good movies. And it turned out good for me, I got to shoot Matt’s next movie.

What was the biggest creative challenge for you on Marrow?

RP: It was a very small crew, a lighting guy, a camera assistant and me. And Matt, who sometimes helped. So it was pretty small and getting the look I wanted…

EF: I think the actors were thrown in sometimes too.

RP: Everybody was. “Here, carry this.” The movie industry is a lot of junk that you have to move around and manage, so move this stuff here, move this stuff there. So maintaining that look that was going to make me happy and was also going to illuminate the action and be enough out of the way so the actors would have room to do their thing was a challenge.

You shot mostly in Matt and Eliza’s house. There’s can’t have been a lot of room for lights and crew.

RP: No. And the RED at that time was before the MX chip. It was a slower camera so we were shooting wide open on still lenses a lot and focus was a constant issue. You’ll see in the movie, we’re out, we’re in, we’re out, you know. Actors are moving, the camera is handheld. So I definitely was like, We’re just going to get what we get, it’s going to be rough and ready and we’re just going to go to it and capture the performance and I’m not going to worry too much about looking good as a camera person. It wasn’t about that. The budget made it challenging, especially that night scene in the climax of movie, that was a pretty tough scene. The location was just hard for a low budget production: night, in a forest, no crew, we’re stringing electrical cords for a mile down the street and we’re backed up right against a cliff.

Matt, you also work on the TV series Hoarders. How long have you been working on the show and what exactly do you do?

MW: This is my second season on Hoarders. I’m a film producer and story editor, so I go out and meet the crew, do all the interviews, and while I’m on location I try to figure out where the story is going to go. And then I come back and I do a story edit—it’s sometimes called writing—but it’s the first half of editing. You take the 30 hours that you’ve shot and cut it down to about 20 minutes in a rough outline and pass it off to the editor. It’s really fun, it’s really interesting, and it’s a great thing to do right after this feature. Just jump on something else that’s totally different. But it’s about crazy people and I’m good at that. I love talking to crazy people.

You’ve made two features that were inspired by things in you’re your life, specifically tensions, breaks in the family. Now you’re meeting all these people in Hoarders with some serious issues. Are you getting any inspirations for new scripts?

MW: The funny thing is that so many things that were in my films, I’ve come across in the Hoarders stories. There was an opossum living in a house, that came out and jumped off the sink in one show. And then this last show there was a hole punched in the wall, and we used it for some of the back story for abuse. It’s funny, life imitates art.

What I find about the best documentaries is that they tell interesting stories. They are non-fiction stories but they are stories nonetheless. In Hoarders, you’re telling stories about often broken families and relationships.

MW: Exactly. It was an easy transition. It’s also fun just to be outside my own head. Marrow is like a psychological drama and a lot about that was trying to recreate things in my own head, the personal experiences. This is outside of myself. That’s a fun place to be.

You can purchase Marrow on DVD or as a digital download from the Sisyphus Productions website.


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