The strangeness is (in) the detail.
Director Jim Hosking shows things on screen that many of us never thought we'd want to see. Whether that's oiled up senior citizens bumpin' uglies or grown men in short shorts shouting nonsense at other grown men in wigs, his work may be difficult to digest, but no one can deny it's oddly captivating.
It does beg the question, however, of what the hell is going on in this guy's brain? Before introducing his latest film, An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn at Sundance two weeks ago, Hosking took the stage and made mention of what everyone in the audience was thinking. "Yes, I am the exceedingly normal looking person that makes these incredibly fucked up films." As I found after interviewing Hosking, his co-writer David Wike, and his lead actor Jemaine Clement, the director's style is anything but normal.
Prior to where my recording begins, Jim, David, Jemaine and I were trying to land on a definition for the term "deconstruction" as it can be applied to filmmaking. We came to some sort of agreement of it meaning the different elements of mis en scene that are first separated and then re-put together. In Hosking's work, this is apparent via how actors tie specifically awkward gestures to dialogue, or even how he takes away lines completely, replacing them with grunts and moans.
The strangeness of Hosking's work comes from complete and utter attention to detail. He breaks down performances to the slightest twitch of a finger. As you can see in the interview below, while there may be some odd methods to his style, all of these elements ultimately come back together to form something wholly unique.
No Film School: Jemaine, what was it like working with Jim when he found moments to provide you with gestures that matched your dialogue? Did you find any of those yourself?
Jemaine Clement: It's hard to remember. There's one part where I'm pretending to be trapped under the ice and I feel like it must have been in the script, but it could've possibly been me.
Jim Hosking: But there's something you do that is so funny that I don't even think you're aware of it. Your fingers are sort of shaking in a way that's just so funny. What's great is when you watch stuff back, you notice these nuanced things that were happening that you don't notice on set. I mean, there's actually a moment in the film— I have no idea how Aubrey [Plaza] did it—when Aubrey slaps Lawrence in the face, and I didn't even know they did that. It must've been so quiet, because it was right down the hall.
NFS: So when you're doing takes, are they really varied in terms of performances to get these little nuanced moments? And then when you're in the edit, what are the moments that speak to you, as a director, for your style?
Hosking: I think there's some people who vary things massively in order to make each take radically different, whether that's in the performance or the dialogue or whatever. I don't know if I do that much. I'll cling to the things I really like and then try and throw a couple of other little elements in there I think would be interesting. It could be as simple as, 'Let's do that one again, but this time, with your hands.' I might focus on hands rather than the performance. It's like, 'Could you make them look more like they're men bowing at the court of King Arthur?' That kind of thing.
NFS: So it seems like your directing style is very visual in that you're giving your crew these images to work with.
Hosking: Often times, I really don't understand plots and stuff. I watch films and I just can't follow anything. I'm more focused on how people look and little details and things and then I'll just get really lost. Whenever I watch a film with my wife and have to say every five seconds, 'Oh god, sorry. Could you just pause a second? Sorry, why are they talking about that?' I just have no idea what is going on. And I feel like, even when I am directing, I'll often ignore the bigger picture of what might be a really important emotional arc for a character to follow. Instead, I'll fixate on their hands, saying like, 'yeah, can you waggle your fingers like that?'"
Clement: Well, that's the deconstruction, isn't it? You've probably told me to shake my fingers and try to think of the emotion of the character. I'd be coming at it from two different places.
Hosking: But if the emotion wasn't right, then I would focus on that as well.
"Even if they do come up with stuff that's eccentric or silly or whatever it might be, if the foundation is really precise to how sincere they are, I think it opens up a real spectrum to what you can do when you film it."
NFS: It's such an absurd story and there are so many absurd moments. Rather than just being funny bits, how do you bring meaning to them? How do you make those moments earned?
Hosking: There's a separation between what you're intending, what you do when you're shooting and then what you find when you're cutting it as well. It's just contextual. It's in the subtle choices when you decide to not go with something that's too extreme or off-putting or confusing. But in the moment when shooting it, I don't know that I would necessarily have a great idea about that. It's just very much instinctive and right there and then. I don't know what the hell I'm thinking about while I'm watching them do whatever they're doing, but I'm probably thinking, 'Oh, God! I hope I can think of something good to tell them to do after this take.'
NFS: That's a strategy in itself is this instinct, right? You collect moments that will feel genuine in the moment and later on you go into the edit with those moments and find the most genuine.
Hosking: And everyone works in different ways. Aubrey thinks in a similar way to me in some ways. I would see her experiment with physical positions and different ideas that weren't necessarily obvious emotional connectors or pointers to things. But if they come out of you (and you're playing that character), then it is a valid choice and it's making sense. It doesn't have to be watertight logic with everything. It's all, "life's weird and things happen in peculiar ways." So, I don't know. I don't try to stay on a straight path.
David Wike: I actually think that starts with the way Jim and I approach the characters while writing the script. Even if they do come up with stuff that's eccentric or silly or whatever it might be, if the foundation is really precise to how sincere they are, it opens up a real spectrum of what you can do when you film it. Anything can happen if that groundwork has been really, really explored within the characters and how they speak. We were really meticulous when we wrote it.
Hosking: The director can still fuck it up though.
"I wanted there to be these really memorable characters playing those roles so that it got a bit weirder around the fringes."
NFS: Was there any note that you remember Jim giving everyone in the cast as to a tone that was to be struck for the performances?
Clement: It's just something we have to find together very quickly when we head out together.
Hosking: I don't know that I would have ever given a specific tonal note. I think it's more that I would shoot a first take with whoever the actor might be and then start to sort of adjust from there. I feel like it's good to keep it as wide open as possible from the beginning and then go in on it.
NFS: You had such an incredible ensemble of established cast members, and then you also had very unknown actors on the set. What kind of value does that bring to the production for you?
Clement: Some might even say inexperienced. Where did you find them?
Hosking: I found them through the casting directors in LA that I use. Some of them were through making commercials and short films. They weren't necessarily people that I had ever used in anything. I would just remember someone I liked. We did a casting for Beverly Luff Linn just around the time that I was making The Greasy Strangler. I was curious what it would be like if I made the film with less experienced, unknown actors. You always get casting directors sending you known actors and a surprising amount of people who want to come and play even small parts. I wanted there to be these really memorable characters playing those roles so that it got a bit weirder around the fringes.
Clement: Watching it, a lot of people just laugh from the casting. One example is the guy who plays the barman, for example, 'The Captain.' He was our boom operator. The actor couldn't turn up because of snow or something?
Hosking: It was actually supposed to be Michael St. Michaels who played The Greasy Strangler, but he fell over and hurt himself. No one had told me until it felt like two hours before we were shooting the first scene with this captain. So I just thought, "Oh, it's got to be that guy." And then I got them to give him a really alcoholic nose. Or actually, maybe that was his nose.
Clement: We talked to the boom operator a lot because they were always there, so we already knew him quite a bit.
NFS: So you already had an established rapport with him.
Clement: Yeah, but he would say his line in quite a strange way. "Fresh nuts, straight from the captain."
Hosking: "And here's my nuts, fresh from the captain." But actually, in the film, we lost "fresh from the captain."
NFS: How did making Strangler inform what you wanted to do with this film?
Hosking: Not wanting to make stuff that seemed to be pushing certain subject matter. I just got really bored of people talking to me about being gross or being disgusting. I wasn't trying to be gross or disgusting. I was trying to be funny, you know? I was trying to make a comedy, I suppose. But it was thought of as a disgusting horror film.
NFS: I'd like to wrap up by asking if you had any advice for aspiring directors or others looking to get into the business? What would you tell them?
Hosking: The most important thing for me is to always do what feels like the most interesting thing, what you really want to. You can't second-guess what anyone else is going to be into anyway and there'd be nothing worse than to dilute what you are trying to do or make imaginary concessions to other people. No one even gives a fuck about it anyway. Just make stuff. If there is a reason that you want to make stuff (because you want to say certain things in a certain way), then you should do it. And if you just want to make things because you want to be the center of attention, then you are really annoying.
Wike: Also, in order to stick with a project, you have to you have to really, really, really, well...it's going to test you. You have to believe in it. If it's somewhat ephemeral, the investment, then it's going to show up in the end somehow. You will also change as a person. Some of the things you were deeply passionate about and believed in wholeheartedly may eventually grow less interesting or funny to you. That's part of the growing process. But at least you cared that much when you did the first one. Just keep doing that.
NFS: Does that happen in the middle of a project for you? Would you say that you are falling in and out of love with the project multiple times?
Wike: I wouldn't say that.
Hosking: Every five minutes you can feel like that sometimes. It's very up and down emotionally, yes.
NFS: Jemaine, you are a prolific creator. What is your best piece of advice to anyone who is trying to make something that is their own?
Clement: I say, get used to writing. Learn how to write (and practice writing) and then you can always make something. I started off as a writer and that's how I got into acting. I noticed when I was writing sketches that if I wrote certain kinds of characters, then they would cast me even if I had no experience. The acting was more fun, but writing is a real battle. I've kept doing that. Writing can be quite exciting when you get things right, but a lot of it is a real slog.
NFS: What happens when you get into that slog? What do you do?
Clement: Ask if I can get any acting jobs?
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.