What characterizes a challenging film? Some might say it's a matter of subject (think Son of Saul); others might deem it a matter of intellectual acuity (Primer). It could also be argued that a challenging film is simply one that asks much of its audience. Sarah Adina Smith's Buster's Mal Heart is the latter.
Starring Mr. Robot's Rami Malek in his first leading role in a feature, the elliptical film presents two starkly different realities with little to no backstory, and asks the audience to create meaning. We first meet Malek's Jonah as a clean-cut family man stuck in a dead-end job as a hotel concierge. Though he loves his family, a wild and angry spirit rumbles underneath, threatening to upend this conventional veneer; more than anything, Jonah wants to disappear into the wilderness with his family and live off the land. Then, we meet the same man—or is it?—this time known as Buster, a haggard vagabond who squats in remote vacation homes, runs from the law, and rants about Y2K. Cutting back and forth between the two identities, the film delivers no definitive answers but for a few shocking twists in the parallel narratives.
For Malek, this is a role reminiscent of Mr. Robot—but which, incidentally, preceded it by mere months. Fans of that show will find themselves wandering down a similarly unsettling wormhole: Are the insane perhaps the most sane among us? ("What I wouldn't give to be normal," says Elliot in the pilot episode, though the same words could have been uttered by Jonah or Buster.)
No Film School caught up with Smith at TIFF 2016 to discuss pulling Tarot cards to cast Malek, her decision to blend improv and scripted material, and why you should stop waiting for that Hollywood budget and go make your microbudget movie right now.
"I'm trusting my audience. I think that audiences are really smart and that they're hungry for something that's going to challenge them and ask them to go to really deep and scary places."
No Film School: This is Buster's movie and his alone. Did you conceive of the character before the story itself?
Sarah Adina Smith: Yes, actually. Sometimes I'll start with an idea or sometimes I'll start with an image, and for this one, the character was the driving force. I just fell in love with this guy. I thought it was really interesting. I wanted to tell a story about a man who was literally split in two. One incarnation of him is seeking a reckoning with his maker and another one is sort of forced out to sea. I also was really interested in the story of how that came to be more than anything: a heart that is so strong it can defy the laws of the universe. It's something I was interested in with The Midnight Swim, too, my first movie. I'm really interested in asking if the laws of physics can be broken—and is love the force that can do that?
Smith: We don't get to choose to be born. We didn't create the universe. In a universe governed by causality—you could say it's purely deterministic—whose fault is it if you're born with a bad heart? What if he's a guy who's born with a sick, bad heart, but who, despite it all, wants to be good and loves so much and loves so strongly, he's defying fate. Fate had it that he was supposed to be a bad heart, but maybe, just maybe love is stronger than that, and he fell in love despite what fate wanted for him and had a child despite what fate wanted for him. It was almost like his heart was a bug in the system. He was going against the path and going against the road that was meant for him.
NFS: How did you wind up casting Rami?
Smith: It was really important to me that the character be bilingual, because I think sometimes when you speak a second language you can be of two minds, and you can actually in some ways be a second person in that other language. I was very set, and our investors were as well, on casting a Latino actor for the role. We explored a lot of those venues and were striking out on schedule and availability and finally realized if we were going to make the movie before the year ended, then we had to open our net a little bit, and Rami was at the top of that list. I can be a little superstitious sometimes, and I will pull a Tarot card before casting to see if someone's the right fit for the movie.
"I really felt that Rami Malek was the guy to play this role. I hadn't seen Mr. Robot. It hadn't even come out when I cast him."
NFS: What did you get for Rami's Tarot card?
Smith: Rami's card was like, "this is your guy." I really trusted that. Then we met and I just felt it, and now it's—perhaps you could say this with any movie you make—but it just feels now that it was so meant to be. I really can't imagine this role for anybody else.
NFS: Me either, actually.
Smith: I really felt that Rami Malek was the guy to play this role. I hadn't seen Mr. Robot. It hadn't even come out when I cast him. Obviously, he's drawn to this type of material. It's something that he is very personally is interested in exploring, and I think that he took a real risk by not shying away from it. Certainly, people are going to draw parallels.
Credit: TIFF 2016
NFS: If people do draw parallels, what do you think distinguishes your movie from Mr. Robot?
Smith: I think that Mr. Robot explores these questions on more of a sociopolitical level. It's fascinating because it's very much a world we recognize right now. It's a man going up against the machine of society. Whereas this movie—and I think what drew Rami to the material—is a man going up against the machine of fate, against the machine of a deterministic universe that he didn't create and didn't ask to be a part of. I think that it's a little bit more spiritual or biblical in nature, and I think that's what Rami was hoping to explore. To take some of those same questions he's asking in Mr. Robot and ask them in a different way.
NFS: It's also more emotional than Mr. Robot.
Smith: He's got a lot to lose. He's got real stakes. Something Rami said earlier today in an interview, which I thought was really interesting too, was for him getting the chance to play a father and a husband was a good opportunity. He was wonderful. He and Kate Lyn Sheil just did such magical work with Sukha Belle Potter, who is the actress who played Roxy [their toddler in the film].
NFS: How did you find that little girl? She's such a screen presence.
Smith: Sometimes, I do feel like there was a force that wanted this movie to be made. I thought we were going to have to see 1,000 kids, and she was the very first kid we met. Certain things like that happened and it just felt like, "Okay, let's just keep going with it. Let's keep trusting our gut. Something is telling us to keep going."
"If you're not pushing yourself a little beyond what's possible, then you're not pushing yourself hard enough."
Actually, I've found that in my life, too. Sometimes I'll be pushing and pushing and pushing for a project, and sometimes there's a reason it's not getting traction. If you try and listen a little bit more closely to the things that want to go, the things that are finding their own momentum, I think that it makes things a lot easier. You end up tapping in even further, I think, because you're not fighting at every turn. Instead, you're working with the current. Which is ironic, because what Buster's Mal Heart is about is swimming against the current. A man who's constantly at war with it.
In fact, maybe that's what I'm partly supposed to learn. Whoa! Maybe that's why I made the movie.
Credit: TIFF 2016
NFS: Now you can say it all came together right here! What were the most challenging aspects of production?
Smith: We were totally ambitious with this movie. We shot all the way into the oceans in Mexico, all the way to Glacier National Park in Montana, and it was a lot of moving parts, a lot of characters, a lot of locations. We did everything we're not supposed to do on an independent film: night shoots, animals, children, improv, water, weather.
Partly I feel that I've got something to prove, and I have a lot of movies in me, and I didn't want to shy away from any challenge. I just wanted to go for it and I kind of live by this motto of "impossible missions are the only ones that succeed." It's a Jacques Cousteau quote, and it really is the thing I come back to every time. If you're not pushing yourself a little beyond what's possible, then you're not pushing yourself hard enough.
"We did everything we're not supposed to do on an independent film: night shoots, animals, children, improv, water, weather."
NFS: I completely agree. I think some people set up arbitrary limits for themselves, like, "Oh, I've met my quota, I've done enough here." But this movie does feel ambitious at every turn. You're not explaining everything— or, really, anything—to the audience.
Smith: I'm trusting my audience. I think that audiences are really smart and that they're hungry for something that's going to challenge them and to ask them to go to really deep and scary places. I try to make movies for people who are seekers at heart. Who go to the cinema not just to be entertained—though, of course, I want it to be entertaining—but go seek art and seek movies and seek music for the reason that they're trying to make sense of the universe. I think we're all longing to experience awe and wonder, and we really crave that from our art.
Credit: TIFF 2016
NFS: You said earlier that you did a little bit of improv. How did you work that into the script?
Smith: I've been trying to figure out a different word for improv—at least the way I do it. We think of improv and we think of UCB or something, which is a totally different thing. It's nonscripted but very deliberate. It's really not as loose as you might think. It depends on the scene, because different scenes we do differently. For a lot of the scenes, there was no memorized dialogue necessarily, but it would be more suggestions of the beats. "You say something like this, maybe you say something like this," and then maybe an actor surprises me. It's an organic give and take, but also not a free for all.
I would say the thing that was the most "loose" in this movie was anything with the little girl, Sukha Belle. She's two and a half, and I wanted to create little inhabitations of a real family for her rather than trying to do scenes, per se. We tried to keep that really documentary-style.
Credit: TIFF 2016
NFS: Do you have advice for filmmakers that want to make outside-the-box projects like this but don't know how to secure financing?
Smith: So, if I could talk to my younger self, basically. I would shake my younger self because for seven years I really struggled to try and get financing for bigger movies I wanted to make. They would get close and then fall apart, and then get close and then fall apart. If you're not someone who's born into money or connections, you're just banging your head against the wall, to be honest.
"I wish I could shake my younger self and say, 'Go make your microbudget movie even sooner.'"
I wish I could shake my younger self and say, "Go make your microbudget movie even sooner." My poor husband, who's my cinematographer and composer on this movie, had been saying that for years. I just thought, "Well, you know, my vision needs this money." I really think it's true to write within your means for your first one and to write for the resources and the support you know you have and make the best possible movie you can with whatever pennies you can find on the street, and friends and family to pitch in. You should make that one first. Then, you're really taking control of your own destiny.