Full Disclosure: this post is by a cast member of Trevor Juenger’s COYOTE. On the minus side, this means that the author has a vested interest in the film. On the plus side, this means that he was there for the filming and knows what he is talking about (in a general sense…)
I got a mail from Trevor Juenger after returning to LA from shooting my role in COYOTE. It included this sentence:
“People are going to hate this movie, man – HATE IT!”
Hell of a tagline for the poster. Even though he went on to explain why he thought so by writing “They’re going to be completely immersed in mental illness as they watch it, and frankly, I don’t think that’s going to be a pleasurable experience for many people,” he did not say that he hated that they were going to hate it. Most strikingly, he did not say that he intended to make changes so that people would not hate it. My commercial marketing brain recoiled. People hating a movie is bad.
Filming with Trevor was an experience for which I was totally unprepared. He is brilliant. And demanding. And dark. I have worked with all of those things before in different directors. I like all of those things. I admire the creative combustibility of that combination in an artistic compadre.
But there’s something else about Juenger; something I rarely encounter in my commercial acting career:
Trevor Juenger doesn’t care if people like his work.
He really doesn’t. In fact, I think he would far prefer confounding, confusing and distressing his audience to having them walk out of a screening saying “That was fun. What’s for dinner?” Juenger wants to make an impression on people, all right, but he could give a rat’s ass about making it a positive impression. Or an easily digestible one.
Despite the accolades heaped upon his young head already (a film archive site called one of his shorts “the most engrossing audio-visual art film since Eraserhead” for God’s sake,) or perhaps because of them, Trevor Juenger seems to want more than anything to draw viewers into a nightmare…and hold their heads under the cinematic pillow he has placed over their gaping mouths for as long as possible.
I am an actor by trade, which means that’s how I eat. Actually, truth be told, I am not much of an actor, but have learned to be a pretty good entertainer. I would have done well in vaudeville (“what? you don’t like ventriloquism – wait – I juggle plates too!”) My first thought is always of how what I am doing fits into the marketplace I am competing in; of how it fits the supply and demand model. I am a statistician. I am a media whore. It’s how I survive. Trevor is an artist.
For the 4 sweltering weeks in St. Louis in which I was immersed in the bizarre world of COYOTE, Trevor Juenger continually made me ask myself questions to which the answers were always “No:”
* Is art-house horror, the hybrid genre COYOTE falls under, a money-maker in general?
* Are there many independent venues left in the USA that will even play art-house films?
* Is COYOTE easy to describe in one sentence? Or even two?
* Is a film with real vomit and duct-taped eyelids likely to be an easy sell to distributors?
But there are other questions (which I had never thought to ask until I met this guy) to which the answers are less easy to pin down:
* Is cinema a form of art or a form of commerce?
* Does art have to be pleasing?
* Should it be?
* Is it better to gamble that controversial art will find an audience or to make safe money?
* Is telling a story reason enough to make a film in and of itself, profit aside?
* When Trevor asked me “Can we do real vomit?” why was my “yes!” so immediate?
In the midst of a St. Louis heat wave, clad in boxer shorts and a dogskin (more or less,) I realized that I wanted to be like him. I wanted not to care either. I wanted just to create art and let it stand or fall as art without the constant grind of marketing behind it. The damned guy and his insistence on pleasing himself and no one else with his art had awakened my inner idealist, dormant since the first Bush administration.
Look, this whole business is a crap shoot. All of it. If every movie calculated to make safe money by playing it safe with 100% guaranteed people-pleasing content actually did make money, I’d say Juenger was doomed to obscurity. But that isn’t what happens all of the time. It does some of the time, but not all. The movie business will drive you crazy if you try to figure out what people want and give it to them. It isn’t like the audience has ordered a pizza. It’s more like they closed the menu and said “Eh, surprise me.”
I was recently asked by a German horror blog who is friendly towards my work to write an article for them on German horror films. Besides the obligatory Mentions of M and NOSFERATU I had to do some research, in the course of which I came across a 2006 German-language film called CANNIBAL. It more than disturbed me. I can’t say that I enjoyed the experience of watching it. Yet I did watch it and I am glad I did, even though I was troubled and haunted by doing so. Afterwards I thought of the elements in COYOTE that are likely to be visually disturbing (and there are a lot of them.)
And I thought of nightmares.
We all have nightmares. And we all hate them (while we are having them, at least.) Yet we will have them, on and off, until we die. As did our ancestors. As will our descendants. Nightmares must serve some spiritual (or if you prefer, neural/physiological) purpose. Apparently, we need them to….to what? To remind us that our waking lives are not all that horrible after all? To experience and file away the illogical fears that free-float around our hippocampus? To teach us not to eat cake after 1am?
Who knows? We have them and life would be poorer if we didn’t. Erat autem nox.
So Trevor Juenger made a nightmare. And I helped.
It’s a gamble. Trevor doesn’t care if people like it. I do. Neither one of us can help that – it is how we are each built. But while the damned thing is getting finished; all through the silent months of post-production; I will wonder if the combination of entertainer and artist might have resulted in something people will love to not like.
Ha! As if I care.
(Bill Oberst Jr. is an actor in Los Angeles, CA)