When John Magary decided to make his feature film debut as a writer-director, he wanted to make it on the cheap and film the majority in his very own apartment. Fortunately, his partner Myna Joseph (a filmmaker herself) wasn’t only willing to give up all privacy to get the movie made but took on the role of producer and co-wrote the story.
Along with their then-roommate Russell Harbaugh, the partners ended up with their movie The Mend (which premiered at the 2014 SXSW Festival), about two combative brothers spending a week together (often in a literal blackout) in a one bedroom apartment in Harlem. Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett play brothers Mat and Alan, opposite Mickey Sumner and Lucy Owen as Farrah and Andrea. We spoke with the partnership of Magary and Joseph about producing the film and benefits living and filming in your own home.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): How did the process of writing the story come about? Were you three piecing ideas together and realized you had an idea for a movie, or were you working on the movie and asked for Myna’s input?
John Magary: I think it was a process of piecing the story together initially. We had pretty elemental ideas and it probably started with me, but the ideas were super general at the beginning. I knew I wanted to make a movie about brothers, with a triangular formation of relationships. And I wanted to set the movie primarily in an apartment. I also had ideas for certain shots. But from there, Myna and I, with our friend Russell, hashed out the actual story. We went to the Catskills with index cards and a bulletin board, and just hashed out the story and conceived the character’s backstories.
TMS: Did all three of you write the character’s dialogue or was it just the overall story?
Myna Joseph: Russ and I were just involved in the story development. We were very involved in the outline that John went ahead and wrote. So it is accurate to call John the film’s writer-director. But john worked religiously from the outline we developed together. He writes films in a very linear process. And when he hit a snag, we would sit down together to discuss.
Magary: I think I have a malfunction in my brain, because I work best when things are going very linearly. I’m not great at jumping around in the initial writing of the script or the revisions. So it was nice to have that solid outline. And in terms of writing dialogue, I would just write and re-write scenes over and over again, and when I’m finalizing a scene, I’ll read them out loud to myself to make sure they have some kind of flow.
Joseph: John’s writing often involves him talking to himself more than actually writing.
TMS: Had you worked on productions together before, or was this a first time collaboration?
Joseph: We’ve worked together a lot. We went to film school together and have lived and worked together for years. In our day jobs, we work on commercials, so we’ve worked on a lot of those productions together. But when we set out, we wanted to each be working on our own projects, which is something we hope to continue doing. In the case of The Mend, we just could not get anyone to give us the permission to get it made. So that is how I ended up producing it. We thought the movie would be made faster. We developed it to be fast and cheap. But fast is relative in film world.
Magary: So is cheap.
Joseph: Yeah, when you write something for $200,000, people are like “can you make it for $50,000?”
TMS: When did you decide to film in your apartment?
Joseph: We developed the movie for the apartment. We designed the movie to utilize things we already had.
Magary: A big consideration on tight budgets is to limit locations. You can spend a little time in a lot of locations, but you probably won’t be able to perfect anything. You’ll have so little time on location that things will always feel rushed. So we knew, that by shooting in our apartment, we could settle into a rhythm and create an atmosphere of almost being on a set. We were comfortable moving things around and we didn’t care if someone knocks a picture off the wall or breaks something. So it was cost effective, but it also added a layer of comfort. The aspect I didn’t anticipate is that it can be weirdly exhausting to shoot in your own apartment because you just never get to leave set. The shoot would end at 10 and then I’d have a beer with the cinematographer, and there would still be people on set cleaning up. There is just no way to escape. And then, in the morning, you’ll have someone walk into your room while you’re getting ready and apologize and you’re like “no, you’re doing your job.”
Joseph: We had crew apologizing all the time, and we were like “no, we choose to do this.” Everyone knows where my underwear drawer is now, and I had to make people okay with that and say “we invited you here to do this.”
TMS: Did you start to feel like the characters of Farrah and Alan, like there was just no privacy or place to escape within your own home?
Magary: I don’t know how Myna feels, but privacy when you’re making movie is sort of non-existent for a producer or director. You just can’t have a private life at all during a shoot. You just always have to be on. But when you have nowhere to escape to, that can be hard.
Joseph: There were things we did in the apartment that made it feel less like our apartment. We changed our furniture and painted the apartment for camera. So those changes transformed the apartment into a set. Surprisingly, hardest part was in post, when editing for festivals and looking at the film over 12 hours. You’re starring at this apartment and then going home to the same apartment where there is no more party and you have to deal with the mess and you just miss everybody. The residue was more difficult than I could have ever anticipated.
TMS: One of the things Mickey and I spoke about was how refreshing it was to see the “girlfriend characters” of Farrah and Andrea written so well with such well-developed personalities, even though they aren’t the leads. Did you make a concerted effort to avoid them becoming just “the girlfriends?”
Magary: I don’t think so. The representation of women in film is an important issue right now, as it always has been, and an issue Myna and I are concerned about. But we tried to round out every character and creating a backstory for everyone.
Joseph: But definitely shaping Mickey and Lucy’s character was important, and I had very clear ideas of characters we were sort of modeling them after. They are definitely composite characters, but their world views was something I really wanted to represent and get right. And that was something we talked about, especially Lucy’s reactions. In some ways, Lucy’s character is as troubling as Josh’s character, but also as lovely and entertaining. Everybody is really living with flaws, and we talked a lot about that.
TMS: Did you base Josh’s character on anyone specifically?
Magary: The cinematic reference point, the film I was most influenced by, is the Mike Leigh film Naked, and David Thewlis’s character in that film. A kind of hyper sarcastic person who doesn’t pull any punches. But also, and this is through narrative tricks in the script, he is somehow not completely odious.
Joseph: And partly because there is a more evil character in that film.
Magary: And because he’s funny and watching him say things you wish you could say sometimes, or all the time. He’s acting out the Id impulse we all have, and in some ways has a freer existence than everyone, even though everyone around him is reflecting him. So the spirit of the character was an inspiration for Mat. And beyond that, I have an older brother, Russ has a twin brother, Myna has an older brother. So we were just drawing on family relationships, but in a very uneven way. I wouldn’t say Mat is anything like my older brother, but he might have little impulses and anxieties.
Joseph: Mat echoes both of you in some ways, he’s just an exaggerated version to make him cinematically interesting.
TMS: How did you go about casting the film?
Joseph: there is no way this film could exist, unless we found actors that were excited about it. It was the one thing we had. People look at something on the page, and it didn’t read the way a lot of movie read, but actors responded to it. It was difficult because it was super low budget, so it was a challenge to find a person who was both right for the part but also fit a very specific set of criteria. We wanted a New York actor.
Magary: He had to be a specific age.
Joseph: So our casting directors, Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee, were really some of our most important collaborators, who lived with us for a long time, while funding fell through. And Allison Estrin just brought the world of New York actors to us. And she was so excited to cast the party. So our casting director was a huge help, but there were also people we just knew. I’ve known Louisa Krause for a long time. We met Mickey at the Sundance Lab. Sarah Steele was in my short thesis film at Columbia, and has remained a close friend. So we were able to draw from a lot of close friends.
Magary: And then were able to take advantage of New York. The quality of actors we saw that we didn’t cast was astounding. It was awesome to see what was out there.
Joseph: And that was also specific to how we wrote of the film. The way to make a small movie feel big is in the casting. How do you populate the world? Instead of using a lot of locations, we brought New York into this smaller contained space and in punctuated, specific ways went out. So much of the film relied on the casting.
TMS: You mentioned the age being so important and it is true because the movie would feel very different if the main characters were different ages. What was it about having the brothers be in their early 40s and late 30s that added to the story?
Magary: Well, I’m basically Alan’s age in real life, and my brother is six years older, which is about the difference between Josh and Stephen. And that is an important thing to consider during casting, because you can’t always find someone who is the perfect age.
Joseph: If we wrote Mat for a 30-something, we would have had an easier casting process.
Magary: And the question then becomes, how important is their age. Can you make them closer in age or make one of them in their 20s. But it was important that the actors have a quality that feels like the shine is off and past that period in their life when a total lack of responsibility is accepted.
Joseph: Or expected.
Magary: And they are in the early, middle of their lives, when you start asking yourselves these questions, “if I’m alone, will I always be alone” and “how many relationships can you have?” Friends start getting married and having kids, and you aren’t making as much money as you could be or want to be. It isn’t about people trying to define themselves or figure out who they are. Mat knows who he is, but the question is how he manages himself around others. And that is a different concern if he were 25 and riding the rails in Europe or something.
Joseph: His lack of potential is important for the character.
TMS: There have been a lot of films about friends being bad influences on each other, but the brotherly relationship seems especially important in this film. What is it about the brotherly relationship which made it different than if Mat and Alan had been friends?
Magary: If you continue to talk to your family, you are continuingly throwing yourself in with people you might not have much in common with or be friends. And you are often obliged by a sense of responsibility to fix relationship which have been broken. Friends can more easily move on from and find new friends and clear the air. Brothers, or sisters or any family, you relay on them in a way, even if it is obligatory reliance. You lean on them because you know you can and because they are kind of all you have because it is kind of their responsibility in their life to look after you. Even if that relationship can be exhausting or unbearable. To me, the nature of a brother relationship is more cyclical. You come together, you fight, lick your wounds, and come back together again. And that is what the movie is, this is just a cycle in their relationship, and there have been cycles before and there will be cycles after.
Magary: I’m a fan of the punk band LiLiPut who open the movie with their song Split, and it is an unexpected way to kick start your movie. What made you think of using that song?
Magary: I love them and have been listening to them for years. I first heard about them through the Kill Rock Stars label about 15 years ago, and I loved them. Myna’s thesis film has a song by them in the closing credits, so we know they’re cool to work with.
Joseph: They are really indie film friendly.
And that song is essentially rebellious nonsense. And it said mess to me, but an angry mess and escaping. And it starts the movie off with a punk gesture. And there is so much machismo in the movie and so much masculinity, I liked that it was an all-female band.
TMS: The move has a lot of machismo in it and talk about masculinity. What were you trying to say about guys and men in film?
Magary: There is a legacy with Austin Pendelton’s character, their uncle, which raises the issue that there is a legacy in that in their family of overlearning masculinity. They are two men who take the women in their lives for granted, just as their father took the woman in his life for granted, and the men having to come to terms with that. And it’s about how these women react to that. React to being taking advantage of. Do they yell? Do the leave? Do they leave and comeback? So the movie expresses a divide between men and women which was important to express. Not because I think it will exist forever in the world, but because it is important to touch on, because it can sometimes be overlooked.
Joseph: I feel like emasculation hangs in the air more than anything. These failed assertions of masculinity.
TMS: In Lucy’s scene with her son, telling him that he’s at the age of lying and that he’ll eventually get to the age when lying is too hard. Do you consider that a bigger comment on her relationship with Mat and why they keep breaking up and getting back together.
Joseph: I think the spirit of that scene was just specific to adults in general, but also what she is willing to tolerate from people and what she needs from Mat if they are going to have a relationship. When she’s talking about what it really means to be an adult, what she’s talking about is how to keep secrets and who to share them with, and how we navigating everyone differently. There’s you, your secrets, and then the people around you.
Magary: To enter adulthood, you have to decide to bury certain things and decide when and if you want to dig them up. And with who.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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