Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to see a powerful short film entitled CHINESE BOX, a work from Los Angeles based filmmaker Nicholas McCarthy starring Samuel Ball and Petra Wright. I was extremely taken with the film and am thrilled to present here an exclusive Q&A with Nicholas on it and his career in general.
Moon in the Gutter: Nicholas, thanks so much for taking time out of your schedule to do this for Moon in the Gutter. I found your short film, CHINESE BOX, to be extremely well done, intelligent and really quite moving so I am excited to hear your thoughts on it.
To start off, can you tell us a little about your background?
Nicholas McCarthy: I started making films on my uncle's Super 8mm when I was about 10 years old. I went to film school at SUNY Purchase College in New York, lived in Brooklyn for a while after that working as a grip, then moved to Los Angeles where I've directed a series of shorts that have played at festivals. Later this year I'll be directing a feature.
MITG: You mentioned to me that you had worked for awhile with Hal Hartley during the mid nineties. Can you talk a bit about this? How did that come about, what were your duties and what are your memories of the experience?
NM: Hal was a SUNY Purchase alumnus and he came in to work with film students on their thesis projects when I was there. I ended up interning for Hal's production company and at the post house where he cut all his films after that.
Hal's approach to filmmaking is extremely particular and it was fascinating to watch him work. This was during the time of AMATEUR and HENRY FOOL, and I had the chance to sit and watch him edit, as well as hang around on set a little. He was working in a sort of golden era of indie film in New York then and was the perfect person to thrive in it. He never seemed to have any illusions about going to Hollywood, preferring to make films his own way.
Hal has an aesthetic sense you can trace directly back to the same classes I also had taken at SUNY Purchase. A professor named Tom Gunning taught a seminar on Bresson and Godard there that changed the life of everybody who took it. Hal's films contain references to many of the movies shown in that class. So it was very cool to come out of film school and see there was a guy with some of the same influences who was such a successful filmmaker.
MITG: I know we share a lot of similar tastes film wise. Can you go into some of your influences and are there particular filmmakers you continue to follow?
NM: I try not to discriminate between movies, and like to think I can find something to enjoy in everything. But I've always been attracted to what might be called low art. The films that struck me the most when I was a kid were usually disturbing, repulsive, or troubling in some way. Horror movies, or anything that explored some sort of negative state of mind, like film noir. I saved up money to buy a VCR when I was 13, and watching things like ERASERHEAD, PINK FLAMINGOS, and those foggy, cropped tapes of 70s horror movies that were around really turned my head around. Simultaneously there was this incredible revival film scene where I grew up in Boston and I was able to see classic films in 35mm, so I also got to see and love Hitchcock, Antonioni, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN...
Today I continue to watch a lot of older films, but there also always seem to be terrific new movies every year, from all over. And because of technology we are in this new age of filmmaking where directors can do incredible things they never could've before. I think it's an exciting time. My favorite film of the last decade probably was CHILDREN OF MEN.
MITG: On to CHINESE BOX. Can you kind of lead us through the process of making a short film like this from the early stages, to writing, casting, shooting, editing and finally getting it screened?
NM: I'd made a number of shorts previously and had taken them to festivals, but CHINESE BOX was an unusual case because essentially it was a commission. My friend Mike Plante, who is a film festival programmer, started doing this thing called "Lunch Films," where he took filmmakers he liked out to lunch and in exchange you made him a movie. Mike travels around and shows these at different festivals and film societies. All the lunch films I've seen have a more offhand sense than you might get from another film from the same director, because they are sort of these side projects. And there are some really great directors who've done them -- Martha Colburn, George Kuchar, Bobcat Goldthwait did one that's hilarious.
So after Mike asked me to do one, I did what anyone not getting paid to make something would do -- I sat around not making anything. I used the excuse that I was too busy trying to get my first feature film made. Then Mike told me the next place that the Lunch Films collection would show at would be Sundance, so that forced me to sit down and write a script. I had been to Sundance with another short back in 2005 and wanted any excuse to go back.
In the end I ended up conceiving the movie pretty far outside how I usually go about making films. I had been working for a couple of years writing screenplays and working on these bigger projects I wanted to get made, and my mind had been filled with notions of what would attract money to what I had written. But with CHINESE BOX I wanted to just make a film with a couple of actors that captured a simple idea.
After I wrote it I was introduced to my actors Sam Ball and Petra Wright through a mutual friend who thought they might be good. It was obvious when I met them that they were perfect. We had an afternoon of rehearsal and a day of shooting. From the moment I sat down to write the idea to when we finished was only seven weeks. I had no idea how the movie would play until I watched it at Sundance with a crowd, but it turned out to be an adventure worth going on.
MITG: CHINESE BOX is essentially a dialogue piece between two characters and yet you make it extremely cinematic, something that really impressed me. Was it difficult keeping it from feeling at all stagy or play like?
NM: When my friend Sam Zuckerman, who produced it for me, first read the script, he confessed he had no idea how any of it would be interesting. And hell, maybe it's not to some people. The script is just dialogue, with almost no stage direction. I felt it was all going to be how we shot these actors that would save it from being a stage play. In the end I settled on trying to disarm the viewer with the camera and cutting, to be deliberate but not intrusive. There's also a careful little special effects shot we did. The idea was to try to imbue it all with a sense of purpose, and that would push the mystery of what's happening between these characters.
I talked with my DP Bridger Nielson about going for this really bright, shallow focus look to emphasize the actor's faces, and to find a way to shoot them that played with how much we identified with them. Unfortunately there was one image we never got that we wanted, the camera staring at the back of the actor's head. But we did get these great profile shots that went a ways to sell the feeling that something unusual is going on between these two.
MITG: I'm particularly impressed with the closing of the film as it is more than a bit ambiguous if I am reading it correctly. Did you ever experience any pressure in regards to perhaps ending it a bit more traditionally? I find the final shot extremely resonate but I can imagine some might want things resolved a bit more, so did you ever consider a different resolution?
NM: The movie was always a sort of conceptual piece in the sense that we are never given information in a traditional expositional way about what's going on with these people, it's all inference. So really there was no other choice but to end as we began -- ambiguously.
What's odd about this as a director is you have to be very specific with your actors and your editor about what's going on with the characters. It's just that the audience is never told, directly. So the film in that way is like this tiny conspiracy. That said, most people I talk to seem to completely understand what the story with these two is, though other people have had some other surprising interpretations. It's all cool to hear.
MITG: What are up to these days and what are your hopes for the future?
NM: I'm directing a feature later this year called THE HIVE. We're shooting it in the Caribbean. The film is a sort of slow burn horror story that's about a group of people on a tiny island who end up having to deal with one of their friends as she gets sicker and sicker and ends up threatening their lives. Some of the people I worked with on CHINESE BOX will be making it with me. Hopefully you will write about it at MOON and hopefully you will like it!
MITG: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions and congratulations on CHINESE BOX. It's a wonderfully evocative work that I have watched several times now. I wish you much luck on your future projects and I hope we can do this again.