Mumblecore, the nascent film genre made by, about, and for navel-gazing, semi-articulate urban twenty-somethings, has gotten a bad rap for being about, well, navel-gazing, semi-articulate urban twenty-somethings. Memphis-based Kentucker Audley is one of the few mumblecore directors from the South, and in just a few years has already written, directed, and acted in a trio of features: the rambling, idiosyncratic character studies Team Picture (2007), Holy Land (forthcoming Internet release), and Open Five (screening in April). He also finds time to act in others' movies, including Passenger Pigeons, which premieres at the SXSW Film Festival on March 13. He recently discussed the cinematic movement he's associated with, his filmmaking technique, and how to break out of the genre's insular tendencies.
Do you mind being lumped in the with mumblecore movement? Do you see your films as very different from Andrew Bujalski's, Joe Swanberg's, et al., and how much of this is attributable to geography (Bujalski's films are set in the northeast, Swanberg's in Chicago, yours in the south)?
I don't mind being lumped in, no. I'm fine to be lumped in anywhere, available for it, it's no concern of mine. I certainly see myself going different places than Bujalski, Swanberg, Frank V. Ross, et al., because I have a different life and a different brain. I think I have looser ambitions than most mumblecore films. Basically, I just follow the leads of the people I want to work with, with little notion of where we're headed. I wouldn't argue if someone wanted to call these films documentaries.
How much of your films do you write, and how much do you improvise?
My first film, Team Picture, was fully scripted. From then on, I'm going further and further away from the script, any form of preparation, really. The one we're about to shoot, the fourth one, wasn't even a seed a month ago, and we're three days into production as we speak.
Do you have an outline for the movie in mind, or for individual scenes? How does it compare with the processes of, say, Mike Leigh, who rehearses with his actors for months as they figure out the characters, then they go from there, or Larry David, who knows what he wants in each scene but lets the actors improvise?
Yeah, there's a brief outline, two or three pages, you know, like a sentence for each scene. But I have very little idea of what I want out of a given scene and even less out of the film as a whole. Hopefully they become cohesive in some way without having a simple subject.
I certainly am not very excited about preparation. For better or worse, I need the heat of production to stay excited. I like the idea of violently throwing myself into stress and inevitable miscommunication by starting a film before anyone knows what's happening.
I don't think I could ever rehearse for months, like Leigh. Maybe I just can't now because I'm young and impatient. I draw on the fervor of doing; preparing to do cannot spark the same heat. But, not rehearsing only works because all the characters are playing themselves, more or less.
How much do your films cost to make, and how do you keep budgets down?
They cost pennies. Open Five was made for $17,000, all raised by donations through the Web site ChipIn.com. The new one, tentatively titled Family Plan, costs less, $12,000.
We keep the costs down everywhere. People get paid the smallest amount imaginable. We use cheap equipment and don't have a crew. All we have is one or two DPs and one sound person, no art department, no locations scouts, no PAs. This works because everything is so close to reality that we don't need to decorate the set, for instance, or pay someone to find an interesting building or street corner. It's very documentary-like, no fake sets, no casting per se.
It doesn't make sense to make them for more money because I'm making noncommercial work. I don't expect these films to have "legitimate" DVD releases, much less theatrical releases. They should just be available to stream on the Internet, at least the last two, Holy Land and Open Five.
The lo-fi aesthetic of mumblecore lends itself well to the misadventures of desultory youth. Where do you see this kind of filmmaking going when the directors are in their thirties and forties--ages when their characters are most likely not just drinking beer on couches with the girl they met in a dive bar?
I think I'll get sick of focusing on my life and the life of my peers, but maybe not. If my films stay as personal, I think that'll be an incredible process to watch all of us get older and deal with other issues. Marriage, family, health; getting to the age of marriage and family and not having them; to put my 35-year-old self under the microscope, my 45-year-old self.
Do you have any desire to work on big-budget films?
I think it would be interesting. I certainly have the desire to try whatever I have the opportunity to try. And you'll probably find me looking for the opportunity to direct a big film at some point. But the films I've wanted to make thus far are embedded fully in the cheapness of making them.
How do you respond to the criticisms some people levy against this generation's movies--namely, that they're visually tame, have similarly twee indie-rock soundtracks, and are populated by underachieving postgraduate hipsters who care about little else beyond their relationship issues? And have you seen "The Dirty Garage"?
I try to be visually tame. I steer clear of flashy or even dynamic imagery. Actually, this isn't true on the new film because I'm working with new people. They are trying to spark some visual interest in me. But I'm basically of the opinion that style is the easy part, and I always resist doing the easy thing. Or, put another way, I stay out of the style discussion because I don't want the style of the film to speak for it. Of course, it's all heavily intertwined.
As far as the music issue, I've never put any indie-rock in any of my films, no music whatsoever for the most part. That's what takes me out of movies most often.
The idea that these films are insular is an interesting question. I feel most comfortable scrutinizing my own subculture. I struggle with how to use the same personal approach on a wider swath of society. I worry about not giving a full picture or not having the same blessing to "go anywhere."
Also, I feel a responsibility to represent the time and place and attitudes closest to me. I think the key for me to escape the insularity is to have the "postgraduate hipsters" in my films interact with the outside world in some way.
Yes, I have seen that "Dirty Garage" video. If I thought parodies were funny, I'd think that was funny.