Inevitably there must be a point of origin, and whilst it would be an exaggeration to term the short film Point Mugu (2013) as such, it is a film of firsts for three individuals who have expanded and explored their creative horizons.
Actress Amelia Jackson-Gray couples her writing and producing duties with a starring role, whilst Skeet Ulrich merges the ominous hitchhiker with the part of producer behind the camera. Meanwhile, photographer and music video director Francis Dreis also follows suit and steps into the arena of producing, whilst helming the first short in a trilogy of psychological drama tales, the second of which The Girl on the Roof (2014) has just been completed.
Point Mugu looks back to the past as the trio attempt to tell their version of a Hitchcockian cautionary tale, boldly stepping into the shadow of the Master of Suspense where they seek to fuse together inspiration with their own point of view in a tale of the descent into madness out at Point Mugu.
In reflection of the inaugural short Jackson-Gray told Film International’s Paul Risker, “I feel proud of Point Mugu, because even though there is a lot happening throughout the film, it’s also very mellow. It doesn’t feel as though we are rushing through the story, and the first two acts effectively set up a strong third act.”
Speaking with the trio they present themselves as students of film who value the short film medium as one that offers an opportunity to learn the craft of filmmaking, but also one that contributes a rich and vital form to narrative storytelling. The trio shared with us their thoughts on expanding their creative horizons, working within and escaping the shadow of the Master of Suspense, manipulating the audience, and the reflective and interactive nature of film on both sides of the camera.
Connecting the three of you is the fact that Point Mugu was a film of firsts. How do you reflect on these new creative experiences?
Skeet Ulrich: I’ve always been a hired actor, and so it’s the first time I’ve done a ‘passion project’ where I have helped to put it together from the start. Whilst I’ve done this with other scripts in the past, it was not from a producing standpoint; rather it was more focused on tasks such as finding directors. But in terms of the producing aspect it was very different – a lot more hands on. When you are doing something on this scale where the crew totals eight people you have to do things that you are not accustomed to doing – if you want to tell the story then you do whatever you have to do.
Amelia Jackson-Gray: I have always wanted to get into producing because as an actor I feel that no matter how hard we work our control is limited. There is a significant element of giving yourself over to, and having to surrender to the fact that you are not able to shape your own destiny. Luck and the right timing is involved a lot of the time, and so I felt that if I developed my producing skills then I would be able to increase my chances of playing the parts I wanted to play. So that’s why I thought it would be fun to start writing shorts and comedy sketches.
Francis Dreis: It’s a bit of a full circle for me. I moved to Los Angeles some sixteen years ago with aspirations of learning the craft of filmmaking so that I could make two scripts I had written while in college in Seattle. I started as a set P.A. on commercials back when Propaganda Films was at its height – Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Michael Bay, David Kellogg and Michel Gondry. Then I worked as a camera loader and then as a 2nd Assistant Cameraman, before I went into being a Location Scout for my first mentor – Sean Thonson. After that I became a photographer and I started directing commercials and corporate documentaries at the same time. I had met Amelia years ago and we always wanted to do a project together, but the timing was never right.
What was the genesis of Point Mugu?
AJG: I feel that in our day and age, if you are going to do something then you need to be sure that it is meaningful, and it has a message behind it. I grew up in Southern California where I was always outdoors at the beach or exploring with my family, and then I moved to the Yorkshire Dales where I lived in the countryside of All Creatures Great and Small. So growing up climbing waterfalls, living on the moors, and always being outside has meant that nature has become very dear to my heart.
In the times we are living there’s a delicate balance between how we are living as human beings and the need to preserve our planet. I go camping a lot, and I have been going out to Point Mugu for eight years now. Every time I have been to that camp ground I have always felt inspired and come away with a belief that there was a great story waiting to be told. Even though I enjoy being there and I find it relaxing, it’s still a very eerie place. There are elements that are very sensual and mysterious, and where you camp on the sands you are wedged between the ocean and the Pacific Coast Highway. When the sun sets at night all you can see and hear are the waves crashing on the shore, and the cars coming along the highway as their headlights light up the rocky cliffs. As you can imagine it is rather creepy being so close to the highway, and so I’ve always felt inspired by the location and considered it to be the ideal setting for a Hitchcockian cautionary tale.
FD: The concept was two stories blended into one movie. Amelia was inspired to write a story based around Point Mugu, whilst I had been tinkering around with the idea of a woman suffering from amnesia that wakes up in a tent at Point Mugu. So we blended them together with the idea of making something timeless, Hitchcockian, and with a hidden antagonist.
AJG: Francis has been a good friend for a long time, and we had actually been talking about developing, and the possibility of making a feature film he had written. But as neither of us had experience producing we felt that we needed to start small first, although we are building up to what we ultimately want to do which is to make a feature film together.
Having now completed Point Mugu how invaluable was the experience in preparing you for a future transition?
AJG: It is unbelievably useful, because a short film has the same structure as a feature film; the only difference is the timeline is more condensed. But you still need the same beat of the story – those fifteen story beats that make a compelling tale. With a lack of time to elaborate on certain story beats it can be more challenging, and it requires you to be conservative in your storytelling where you have to get to the point – get in and get out. It is this challenge that attracts me to making short films, and of course it’s great practice that doesn’t take up two years of your life – you can make a great short film within six months or a year. So I look at it as an opportunity to continue to practise my craft.
FD: Shorts are of great value to any filmmaker at any point in their career; not just for first timers. I look at directors like Spike Jonze who did a series of short films in between features, before he did Her (2013). Other Directors use commercials as their short films in between doing features, and shorts are something to cut your teeth on and to keep your teeth sharp.
On the subject of Hitchcock can you recall your first introduction to the Master of Suspense?
AJG: I had an audition for The Birds – an experimental project by a student filmmaker. I had seen other Hitchcock films including Psycho (1960), but seeing The Birds for the very first time, learning the lines of the character for that project was the first time that I truly fell in love with Hitchcock. It was just so charming, scary, exciting and unusual. It was an absolutely amazing spectacle of nature, and that’s what inspired our short. Point Mugu is the perfect Hitchcockian location, and of course the villain in The Birds is nature. So it got me to thinking of the approach to Point Mugu, and I started to research the drama between the sisters, specifically how to justify their behaviour whilst not giving away what is really happening. The idea was to hide a more menacing truth as to why these young girls lose their minds.
Hitchcock was brilliant at capturing the psychological drama between characters, and distracting you from what’s actually going on underneath. What I also love about Hitchcock is that the stories feel timeless, and despite the fact that a lot of his films were made in the fifties and sixties, they still work for an audience today.
FD: To be honest, I am not much of a Hitchcock fan. His work just never grabbed me, although I do see what he’s contributed to the whole of the motion picture industry – the incredible volume of work, technique and brilliance. But Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) are my two favourite Hitchcock films.
There is a school of thought within storytelling that you should stay away from creative influences, the reason being that they can intrude on the creativity or work of the individual.
FD: There are a lot of school of thoughts on this one. I do remember several moments during production where I felt like this could be much more than just an Hitchcockian tale, and eventually it did become much more than that. At a point, I flat out abandoned Mr. Hitchcock in favour of Antonioni and Lynch, albeit it was a wry depiction of them in the film. So I always see other pieces of work, my own experiences and imagination as a starting point. Then as the film takes on its own life, you hop on board and guide it through the birth canal.
Point Mugu could be compared to a magic trick where you have the sleight of hand that misdirects the audience. For the filmmaker working within a restricted narrative form wherein every story has been told, he or she needs to find a way to successfully engage in a little gamesmanship to give the audience what they want, but not how they expect.
FD: This is where cinema and storytelling in general can be so much fun. It’s about where you focus the audience, and what questions arise from each sequence. While it is fun for the storyteller, I do believe that equally there is great responsibility, because the audience is counting on a trustworthy guide during these moments. So when a director starts to travel in this territory, there is a great opportunity but also a responsibility to the audience to come out the other side.
One of the ways you misdirect is through Skeet’s casting. He is amongst the group of actors that includes Cillian Murphy who can make an immediate transition from a trustworthy and sympathetic to a disconcerting and unsympathetic onscreen presence.
SU: Having hiked various trails it was for me about an individual who had not been around people for a long time, and when you’ve been outside of society for a spell then conversations don’t have the same rhythms. You look at how keen and observant he is – geared to see how people interact. So it was more about him trying to fit into the conversation than serving as either a red herring or a menace. I was more focused on how those rhythms would play out, and 23:46 that was interesting in itself because it did seem as though he could go either way – was he just a normal guy; did he have some other motive or was he in fact the hitchhiker that was killing people? In the end it was somebody who didn’t quite remember how to talk to people.
AJG: I was particularly excited when Skeet not only wanted to be involved in the project but wanted to play the hitchhiker. From a writing standpoint owing to my great admiration of Hitchcock and these being Hitchcock inspired short films, I felt in my heart that he was the perfect choice to play this character.
When you consider he has played the killer in Scream (1996) and has had other darker starring roles, then just by casting him it is misleading, because the audience ultimately thinks, it’s Skeet Ulrich; he’s playing the hitchhiker; he must be the bad guy!
In 1960 Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho transformed man into monster or the object of fear, a contrast to the sci-fi horror films of the 1950s. The human threat is something that runs through Point Muguman as a potential monster, and yet at the same time it explores the sense of danger born out of isolation, of the threat of nature, which connects it to The Birds. Hence Point Mugu could be described as a portrait of fear that depicts the individual or individuals caught in the crosshairs of nature and humanity?
FD: Yes, and I always wanted to have the antagonist of the film be present without giving away the ending. It’s a bit of an illusion or misdirection, but ultimately it is about where you focus the audience as a storyteller. Like the scene in Mulholland Drive (2001) at the Club Silencio. On stage the announcer says, “This is all a tape recording, it is an illusion.” Yet the actresses are still moved to tears after hearing the singer (the illusion), and the audience is left awestruck. The singer falls lifeless on the stage, but the recording continues, and we see the girls react in shock as they realize that it was all just an illusion.
The idea of stating the illusion or meaning of the story up front, and then becoming emotionally moved to the point where you completely forget, and it becomes something that is felt, before then revealing the illusion on the backend, where you are brought back to reality and a larger understanding of the experience is gained. Through this, a transformation occurs, and this is what I thought would elevate Point Mugu. The very first image opens on the ocean with oil rigs on the horizon with a perfect wave cresting in the foreground soaking into the rocky shoreline. It says it’s all right there, and so by threading that theme of man’s impact on nature using images of water became the essential close up for the antagonist.
What scares you the most: nature or human nature?
FD: Definitely Nature, because it will always be more cruel, although we are coming into an amazing era of genetics and epigenetics, which could change my point of view. The idea of us controlling nature to the degree of genetically engineering offspring will be a huge turning point for our civilization. The question then becomes how will nature react? Will parents implant desired aspirational genes into an embryo only to realize they created a super sociopath in the end?
The auteur theory is an integral part of the discussion of film. But contradictorily film is one of the great collaborative art forms. What are your thoughts on the auteur theory as it relates to the filmmaking process?
FD: There are advantages and disadvantages to both. When you have a great team of people with like-minded ideas working on a project who are willing to make concessions, then the collaborative aspect is truly a great way to make a film. It provides a system of checks and balances during the process that can improve the film. I look at David O. Russell right now as a great collaborator. But the auteur theory can reap great results with that defining singular vision. There’s no debating about who makes a Wes Anderson movie when you see it. The drawback to the auteur theory is that it may be so specific that it fails to connect with more people. On the other hand, the collaborative process can create diluted films without a strong point of view. But, it can also have larger audience turnout. So the cycle goes round and round and round…
AJG: Every story has already been told, and so it’s just about what your own personal point of view is. You need to stay true to your authentic opinion and breathe that into your writing and storytelling. As long as you stay true to how you feel about something, and you can translate that into your stories, then it is always going to be both authentic and original. Again, that’s what our group tries to do as much as possible – to have a strong point of view and then move forward towards that to try and tell the most compelling story without standing on a soapbox.
Intertwining the responsibilities of writing, producing and acting how did that impact the dynamic of being in front of the camera? Although the script is only ever a blueprint was it challenging to separate the writer from the actress?
AJG: It was very much a collective group of minds (Skeet, Francis and I) that guided and shaped the script from the very beginning, and over the two months in which we were writing. In the daily meetings and conversations we were all always on the same page, and everybody knew every breath of the way what was happening with the story; what needed fixing and developing.
So when I stepped on set I felt that everyone was on the same page, and the biggest challenge for me personally was having to be in every single scene whilst having to do all the craft service – to make sure that everybody was looked after. I ended up doing all the catering myself, and when we were on location I was running between being in hair and makeup, rehearsing scenes, setting up the art direction and deciding what props we needed to setting up lunch. Even though that does sound like a lot of work and an immense challenge to be spread so thin, by playing the lead role in the story it helped because I was so involved.
I feel particularly proud of my performance in Point Mugu because I gave the project my all, and I just surrendered to whatever it needed, and I believe that was absorbed into my performance.
On your site Francis there is the following quote, “His inclination toward narrative can be seen in the way he captures his subjects, whether it is people, nature or product.” How has Point Mugu allowed you to develop this inclination to explore narrative, and how do you contrast the experiences of photography and commercials with the challenges of the short film?
FD: Point Mugu as well as many nature sanctuaries carries a sense of emotional memory, and it was where the sisters spent time with their mother – an intimate time to share thoughts, insights and laughter that is similar to the family camping, skiing or Lake Cabin trip – even the backyard tree fort and so on. It is in these places among nature where true familial bonds are formed. Point Mugu is that place, and the sister’s trip there is a form of closure for them after their mother’s suicide.
But we see in the film that whilst the family bonds and memories remain strong, the landscape has changed. The appearance on the surface hasn’t, but the chemistry of the landscape has changed due to pollution. So it was exploring the relationship between man, nature, and time that were the synthesis of the film.
With photography and commercials, time is compressed. You’ve got to do a lot in a short amount of time, while the short and feature film allows the audience to time to settle in and get invested with the characters and story before being shifted.
From photography and directing commercials why the transition into filmmaking?
FD: For me all the disciplines are intertwined. One leads into the other and so forth – back and forth. I like being fluid within each and travelling freely throughout all of them. When I was growing up I liked playing every sport. They all seemed very similar and I was very good at all of them. I know what people think about being good at all things and not great at any one, but that’s not how I’m designed.
What is it that continues to drive your enthusiasm for storytelling?
FD: In an attempt to understand things about the world – the physics, mechanical, spiritual and the emotional, I find myself developing my own curriculum along the way. This is the driver, the need to explore new territory. I often wonder what the first explorers must have felt when discovering parts of America like Lewis and Clark, or the first migrations from Siberia to North America. I look at the world a lot from this angle on a daily basis – a bit naïve and filled with curiousness. Having a daughter has made that even more present, but it’s always been there for me – what’s around the next corner, what’s inside our genes, what is outside our universe, who are you and what am I?
SU: It has always been a powerful tool to relate to the human condition. For me it is so much fun. It is almost like being a newscaster where you are sort of holding off all this information and playing your audience along, before you get to spin them emotionally into feeling something they didn’t realise they were going to feel or they were resistant to feeling outside of the cinema. It’s a very powerful tool for the sub-conscious, and it’s releasing parts of ourselves as storytellers and viewers.
So for me personally it has always been the power of metaphor, and the inability to say what I feel and I want to say to people that I just can’t express, other than through metaphor, the words of other people, characters and stories. There is a little bit of that sense as an audience member as well when you get to live through your own emotions, and the feeling of other people, which is very cathartic act.
AJG: As actors our job is to show our emotions; we are emotional salesmen. When you are truly connected as an actor the audience feels it as well, and it can be a very healing moment not just for the actor, but also for the audience because you are feeling what the actor is experiencing. I think this is very important to understanding the joys of life where films and stories help us process what is happening to us. But in order to sometimes understand our own lives we need to first sit back and process by watching a film or reading a story.
Dreams are a means to solve those problems we cannot solve in our waking state, and so cinema possesses certain dream logic by helping us to understand our connection to humanity, and our human identity. Discussing The Brood (1979) David Cronenberg asserted to Chris Rodley, “Everything you do is autobiographical in the sense that it’s filtered through your experiences and sensibilities, especially if you write your own stuff.” He went on to explain, “The Brood ended up nowhere near autobiography in strict terms, because I refuse to have invention taken away from me.”
SU: That is absolutely true. You are not painting by numbers in the sense that this was like this for me or it is important to filter everything through your own experiences. But sometimes by doing that then you find a different perspective in life of situations, people or even moments. So you always start from yourself.
AJG: I think you start from what you know and feel, your perspective and emotions. But as humans we are connected, and I feel that film and stories help us to connect which is essentially the point of everything – connecting with each other; the collective.
Are you looking to continue to explore beyond these initial creative experiences Point Mugu afforded you, and are there any specific stories you have your eye on telling or are there any genres in particular you’d like to work in?
Skeet Ulrich: I’m certainly interested in doing more, and there is a goal for all of the short films to be a collective. I’ve directed the second one which was a lot of fun, and we are close to finishing that. We are very proud of them, and so aside from any monetary gain or loss they are just a blast to work on – it is just fun to have this much control.
AJG: I think in terms of what genre we want to move into, we want to continue making these shorts by completing a third in the psychological drama genre. If we continue making short films it will to be to fit into this series of shorts that are around twenty five minutes in length, and are psychological, cautionary tales of the times we are living in today. We aim to tell them in an old in a timeless manner so that they hopefully they will stand up in twenty years’ time. Whilst we want to continue to practice telling stories in the short timeline, we also want to move into feature films as well, and I think our preferred genre there will be drama.
FD: There are three stories I know I need to make before I die – one about creation; the second about death, and the third about limbo. All the films in between these will be detours along the journey, although sometimes detours can be the best. But I’m not partial to any one genre. Rather it is about whatever serves the story and suits the universe you’re trying to create.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.