In Conversation with HER WILDERNESS’s Frank Mosley

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Actor/producer/writer/director/editor/[insert any other film production job title here] Frank Mosley has had a hand in number of films over the past couple of years in the American Independent scene, appearing in Upstream Color, Sabbatical, Some Beasts and Collective: Unconscious, just to name a few. His latest feature, Her Wilderness (which appeared on my Best Undistributed of 2015 list), has been released on Fandor this weekend; along with his debut, Hold, and his 2013 short film, Two Story, which he wrote with Lee Luna.

 

With Her Wilderness, you don’t seem all that interested in narrative storytelling; you hint at one but you don’t appear overly concerned about furthering it (in the typical sense), or even its actuality for that matter…

I wanted to make a film that had as few scenes as possible but to make them as nuanced and dense as possible.  Instead of a feature with a ton of scenes, I wanted to focus on only a handful of them that played out like theater in real time.  Scenes that seem to exist both cyclically in terms of theme…but also could be watched in almost any order.  They exist in the same plane of time, almost co-existing.  It was difficult writing scenes so that they felt like both the precursors and the consequences of previous and following scenes.  I wanted the film to feel as much like a premonition as it does a memory.  But only in the sense that we think of them from our own dreams.  I wanted the film to feel like literature as much as a piece of theater, but for the narrative to exist as a fragmented puzzle (with its repetition of numbers and words and phrases in which all people and actions are linked):  I wanted it to feel like the ripped pages from some lost, abandoned novel that we find strewn about in the road and attempt to assemble into a narrative.

How did the film come about? What compelled you to create and tell his story, this film?

I had just come off of my first feature, written by my friend Robby Storey, HOLD (also on FANDOR), that was much more of a tense, linear narrative.  Focused and tight and lean.  A film that I chose to shoot in still long takes with very few movements.  And while I toyed with certain experimental elements within HOLD:  bursts of red that fill the screen as if from the characters’ flux of emotions, frequent breaking of the fourth wall for characters to confess or interrogate, and subverting genre expectations and making it an almost anti-thriller (a gun is bought in the film and yet never fired), at the end of the day, I wanted to make something that had more scope that I could explore in opposite ways aesthetically than HOLD…to make a total nonlinear experimental film that abandoned narrative entirely.  That would be held together by a tenuous thread of one.  I didn’t wanted a tone poem this time around; not the straightforwardness of HOLD.  So with HER WILDERNESS, as with most of the films I make, I set up rules for myself to limit myself.  It can be overwhelming with all the possibilities when making a film, so I set up a box for myself.  In this case, I did some of the opposite things I did with HOLD:  I now have an almost constantly roving camera with only a few moments of stillness, and there is a swelling score by Clint Niosi that acts as the “voice” for the silent child character in the film—the mute witness to the adults’ turmoil, instead of the complete silence and scoreless soundtrack of HOLD, etc.  

It was a chance to experiment and do something different.  I also had done mostly masculine-led fare up through HOLD and wanted a chance to write something that was focused on female characters and a chance to finally collaborate with  some talented actress friends.  Edward Albee’s THREE TALL WOMEN really resonated with me.  The idea of three women being the same woman but at different points of one life.  I wondered if by having only a few characters, they would all be emphasized more….as if these people are the only people on earth because they’re the only types we see.  They are all archetypes that dip into both Biblical and fairy tale devices… But all three women are attempting to define themselves at different points in their life and escape the male gaze that has held them there through history and their own relationships.  They’re all attempting to escape the fairy tale that has ultimately been a lie…..because it’s been a patriarchal device for control.  The film ultimately explores identity.

Her Wilderness

How does the film’s website – herwilderness.com – play into the experience of the film itself? Admittedly, I found it to be just as opaque as the film, if not more so.

I was really influenced by the loneliness encompassed by the figures from Antonionni films and the characters situated within Edward Hopper paintings and compositions.  I also was in the middle of discovering more video installation fare (Hubbard/Birchler, Bill Viola) that walked that line between narrative and non-narrative.  Resnais’ LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD is the perfect film puzzle to me.  It says so much and yet says nothing at all.  What it does is give a feeling unlike any other…  In this way, I wanted HER WILDERNESS to be larger than just a film.  I wanted it to be an installation, a feature film, and an online interactive experience… a multi-media project whose forms could actually further obscure or enhance your perception and understanding of the film’s narrative.  (Even the soundtrack, when released before the film, has dialogue tracks in it that hint at the narrative of the film, linked within the score itself.)  Originally, I wanted to have a physical large scale installation version of the film but I couldn’t get a space large enough and the money to make it happen.  It would actually be built as a sort of labyrinth with dead ends and secret doorways for people to wander through (much like the twisty paths of the little girl in the film).  Quotes from the film and dramatic portraits of our characters (just like the “character posters” we released for the film) would adorn the walls, and at every dead end, would be the three key dialogue scenes from the film playing individually on loop on monitors: the nighttime phone call, the kitchen scene, and the scene with the mother and daughter and the old books.  The website experience as it stands now is more of a “tease” until the site experience is completed.  The idea there was that when you get to the site, you’ll be able to choose on the home page whether you want to watch HER WILDERNESS as a feature (as I cut it), or you can investigate the site, where the film’s scenes have all been extracted as sole scenes.  You are literally watching them as if you’re a detective, finding various scenes in a white void, with transitions of quotes, and images of characters revealing written “back stories” that almost act as “deleted scenes” from the film itself….all told from their first person perspectives.  You’re also playing God in a way, because each time you were to visit the site, you can see the scenes in a different order that might change your perspective not only of the story, but your feelings about the characters…who you like, who you dislike, who you think is culpable…  But each time you visit the site, it’s a different order, a different experience…chaos…randomness.  This also plays in line with the idea of fate vs. free will that falls heavily upon the characters’ seated discussions.

Because of the inability to do the large scale installation idea, I’m attempting to merge that idea with the intended website one.  Once the film has premiered on FANDOR, the next step will be releasing the full interactive experience of HER WILDERNESS.  

Much of your work has been as an actor, in what ways do you think your acting experience inform your directing choices/style?

I think acting makes me a better director, and directing makes me a better actor.  It definitely makes me pay attention to performances, obviously.  But in a way that is more indicative of the subject matter predicating the choice in acting style in a film I make.  For instance, there was a naturalism that HOLD had that I completely threw out the window with HER WILDERNESS, opting for a more stylized route, a la Hal Hartley.  (My friend Brandon Colvin has stated that film acting is the “final frontier of experimentation in film”, and I hasten to agree in this respect.)  I wanted my actors in HER WILDERNESS to act as in a daze or they were almost talking in their sleep.  I wanted their work to feel like “a wax museum with a pulse”.  As an actor, I realize I’m a part of that director’s vision…and as a director, I always hope my actors understand that they are part of a larger canvas of the story…that they are a single hue of paint on a canvas full of many colors.  The actor in me then actually gets excited if the director of the film I’m in is going to shoot the entirety of the scene on the back of my head—because I love how much more interesting that could make the scene!  I look to act in films by directors who take risks…who in turn inspire me with my own directing choices later. It’s assuring to be in the hands of directors who not only take risks but also appreciate their actors and invite actual collaboration.  I like to do the same with my actors.  Much like John Cassavetes, I definitely flirt with both sides of the camera in a way as i direct, where I want my actors to know that I’m on their side….right there by the camera….at once there to challenge them and protect them….and to ultimately be inspired by them as well.

The acting in Her Wilderness is wildly divergent in terms of the acting styles you see in the majority of contemporary indie filmmaking. Whereas they seem preoccupied with blurring the line between reality and fiction in performance, you seem interested in exploring the other end of the spectrum.

If by other end of the spectrum, you mean anti-naturalism, then yes, that’s what I was trying to explore with HW.  In my last answer, I tried to describe the style of the performances I was going for with HER WILDERNESS…and how opposite they were from those of the ones I directed in HOLD.  I’m not opposed to any style of performance; it depends on the type of film it is.  I just think that it seems most “good” acting is judged by if it feels “natural”, unless it’s a comedy where you can get away with a lot more high performance…..but that if you have a stylized or intentionally stilted performance, than it can be misread because it’s not the norm that you see in films, as you said.  I, myself, as an actor—will always veer toward just acting truthfully, basically trying to give a “natural” performance…unless I’m directed otherwise in some kind of experimental way, which is all too rare and I wish I had more opportunities to explore.  There are silent films with performances that by some standards might seem over the top or what some might call “theatrical”, but that, by the end, could make you cry.  Then you have performances like the one in Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF ST JOAN OF ARC which was so natural, it was going AGAINST THE GRAIN and stood out against what was considered good acting by the day’s standards which was not as “subtle” or “nuanced”.

I got the sense that the individual scenes themselves in Her Wilderness were of utmost importance, as if each scene were their own film in a way. Which is why I assumed your acting strongly influenced your directing choices.

In HER WILDERNESS, all the adult scenes/conversations were supposed to have a cryptic density about them….and each going on for about ten minutes.  Each scene was crafted as to carefully connect thematically and with dialogue repetition to other scenes in the film.  So if each scene felt like its own standalone film, that’s good if that means there’s weight.  But the idea was to just simply find the balance of not revealing too much but revealing just enough information in each scene so that it could link to other scenes of the same ilk.  In a weird way ,the whole movie is just one LONG scene.  That’s what I meant by “wax museum with a pulse” earlier.  There’s a stillness to all the scenes I tried to capture with the performances (contradicted and enhanced by the roving camera that floats around them like a dream), as if they have happened before and could happen again….as if the characters are doomed to repeat the same conversations and make the same choices again and again….as if we’re looking in at them through a zoo glass.  

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You’ve recently collaborated with Cameron Bruce Nelson on a number of projects: starring in his feature-length debut, Some Beasts; he was the DP on one of your latest shorts; you were a producer and an assistant director on one of his. What draws you to collaborating with Cameron?

Cameron is not only one of my best friends, but he’s a true genius.  I say this because he not only understands the craft of storytelling (and is a hell of an editor), but he has such a wide breadth of knowledge:  he infuses his films with his interest in philosophy, anthropology, mythology, etc.  This makes his films have layers, and they are all the richer for it.  He also is one of the people I mentioned above…he revels in the energy of filmmaking with your peers and friends…He is a true collaborator, but one that has a very firm and honest vision on every film he is wanting to make, and that vision is the anchor that makes the film later be so memorable. I think we gel on a lot of interests and have similar tastes.  We’re interested in each other’s work and have each other’s backs when it comes to our art.  It also helps that our personalities (after so many projects of working together both in front or behind the camera) really click.  We have a shorthand.  We can sometimes finish each other’s sentences and often times have the same idea in the same instance.  With SOME BEASTS, he could sometimes just look at me when directing, and I could understand what he was saying.  When he shot my Cuba short film CASA DE MI MADRE for me, he was very intuitive and knows my style so well that he could anticipate in any given scene.  He knows what I want.  He knew to stay on my actress Carmen Rodriguez during her monologue with as minimal movement as possible, and that allowed her to visually control the scene with every nuance of her face.  Basically, I’d work with Cameron on anything anywhere, and he would do the same with me.  That’s a rare thing.

You recently attended a workshop in Cuba led by the late Abbas Kiarostami, what did the workshop mean to you at the time?

The workshop was a jolt of electricity. I lost ten pounds and came back hungrier than ever for creating more work.  I honestly didn’t think I had a shot in hell getting in when I applied.  So it was very surreal not only getting to finally work with one of your heroes, Abbas Kiarostami…but also having the workshop in Cuba of all places!  It also didn’t hurt that one of your best friends had gotten in with you.  I had applied because I wanted to make something raw…to create something in a mere ten days…outside of my comfort zone.  That’s exactly what I got.  I had gotten too comfortable when making some of my previous shorts post-HER WILDERNESS, and I knew this would put a fire under my ass again and loosen me up.  Liliana Diaz, Juliana Revelo, and Estephania Bonnett were incredible at organizing and leading this workshop through their Black Factory Cinema group and our host school, EICTV.  Not any exaggeration, but it was one of the best experiences of my entire life.  Those ten days felt like three months in the best possible way.  Severed from any internet or phone or distractions, you were basically at a commune of like-minded people to collaborate and work on each others’ films.  Paradise.  

What does the workshop mean to you now?

In the wake of Abbas’ death only a few days ago, I’m still at a loss for words.  TASTE OF CHERRY had changed my life when I saw it back in college (as many people say), and I’m happy that I got to tell him that.  Getting to pitch him my film idea was one of the most exhilarating moments in my life.  It was simply an honor to even have met him.  Though he was somewhat ill while there, you would never know it by the way he carried himself there in Cuba.  Such a spryness, humor, and hunger to learn and create.  A gentle spirit and a brilliant poet.  There were 50 of us students there, and the biggest and best takeaway from the experience were the 50 new amazing friendships I made….all brought together to Cuba because of one man.  Such talented, wonderful friends and now we’re forever bonded by our time there together…learning from each other…learning from Abbas.

When will audiences be able to experience the fruits of this workshop?

The filmmakers are all at various stages of their films, and the group that hosted the workshop, Black Factory Cinema, is actually submitting a batch of them out to festivals…. but the filmmakers are submitting them out individually as well.  I’m in the middle of finishing the sound mix for mine, and then I hope to submit it to festivals this fall.