Interview by Byron Bixler
Tyler Macri is a junior Cinema & Photography major at Ithaca College and Filmic contributor whose Advanced Cinema Production project is a surreal drama called “What Comes from a Swamp.” Two weeks ago, for the latest installment of an interview series by the Cinephile Delinquents (the official podcast of Filmic Magazine), Tyler joined me to talk about his film, his literary influences, early childhood experiences with filmmaking and much more!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Byron Bixler: So, this film — can you start out by telling us what it’s about?
Tyler Macri: The film is about a guy — Jan — who has this carnivorous being living behind a wall in his attic. In the beginning of the film, we see him during his childhood finding it in this dark, swampy area and bringing it into this house and not letting anyone see it. And then we flash forward and we’re given a look into this person’s life — trying to keep this thing alive and being dedicated wholly to its maintenance.
When we spoke earlier, you referred to it as a surreal film. Surreal storytelling can mean different things to different people. How do you personally go about expressing the surreal in your film?
To me, the best kind of surrealism is very subtle. I am a big fan of David Lynch and Jan Švankmajer, but… a really big influence on me was André Breton, who is a French literary figure. He did a book called Nadja, which I read a lot over the summer when I was writing the screenplay. And he did The Surrealist Manifesto. And his stuff, for me, defines a lot of surrealism, which is: seeing things [that] seem totally out of the ordinary for brief moments in our everyday lives.
The premise reminded me a little bit of something like Pan’s Labyrinth, where there’s a world beyond ours. And I think about that child perspective. There’s something about the perspective of a child and how it lends itself to the surreal. Do you have anything to say on that particular dynamic or why you chose it for this film?
Yeah, well, it’s funny you bring up Pan’s Labyrinth, because Guillermo del Toro was influenced a lot and has gone on record I’m quite certain [saying] that Pan’s Labyrinth was inspired by this short [story] written by Arthur Machen, who was a champion of weird fiction. I’m sure most people don’t know Arthur Machen, but [do know] H.P. Lovecraft. [These are] two different figures who started reaching into the these weird territories. And the work that Arthur Machen did was called The White People, and it was about a child who… is in an oppressive atmosphere and is going out into the woods and finding all these little slivers of truth that are also kind of dark.
And childhood, for me, is magical because it is incredibly surreal and there is this beautiful darkness to it because you’re emerging into adulthood, which is fraught with violence and downfall and there are many arguments to be made that you are at your peak, as far as observing reality, when you are a child. So I guess childhood is a big thing for me, and I chose to represent it with surrealism in this film because… there are so many weird stories that I think are at the base of your aesthetic, or your voice or whatever you want to call it, that are rooted in childhood.
I think everybody has a dead bird story. It’s this joke I have with my friends — that we all have traumatic memories with birds. I grew up in this generic, cookie-cutter suburbia and we had a deck in our backyard and birds liked to build nests underneath it. I used to watch the birds grow after they hatched and they looked disgusting. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a chick, but the way the feathers protrude from their flesh — it’s horrifying. And the two chicks, one of them ended up flying and disappearing, which was weird to me — that one of the siblings would abandon the other one. And then the other chick fell out of his nest and was wobbling around in my backyard. My cousin [and I] were trying to help it, and he accidentally stepped on it and snapped its neck.
So I guess this story is a dead bird story about a traumatic moment. You redefine memory the more you think of a story in your head, you totally change it because things that happen, the way they happen in reality, it’s very plain and black and white, but it’s your voice that makes it magical.It’s a very interesting combination of taking trauma and pulling something more fanciful or imaginative out of it. It sounds like you didn’t so much draw from an exact experience as much as the feeling of that experience. So, what feeling are you trying to convey, or get out of the audience?
I think we’re definitely trying to convey a sense of loss. Going into it, I wanted to explore the ways that we carry that child with us, and how some people have really shitty things happen in their childhood and some people not so much, but no matter what, everybody was traumatized at some point as a child. It’s inevitable, you’re going to be traumatized. That tiny fracture totally changes the way you grow and I have always been fascinated with, “What does that look like?” And when you go into surreal storytelling, you just have a blast because you think of a specific instance you say, “How do I represent that with otherworldly photography?”
This idea of going to the surreal — I am personally a big fan of surreal filmmaking, because I think it opens the box completely to all of these possibilities, and you can tackle concepts that are rooted in reality in really unconventional, strange ways. And it also goes to this thing about metaphor and metaphorical monsters — perhaps in the form of this creature. I’m not sure what the nature of it is. Can you talk about that a little?
Making a student film, you don’t have a huge budget… I would love to make a strange, Kafka-esque creature, but it’s humanoid. When we first see it, it’s fetal — this slimy, goopy little pink fetus thing. And as it grows, we never do see much of it because it’s behind this door. But its hand is completely covered in sludge and mud — like the swamp where it came from. And it’s got long nails and it’s always bloody because it’s feasting upon flesh behind this door all the time.
I think the idea for it came from the basis of all good surrealism: dreams… In the dream, I was going down into a flooded basement… and I was going down into this basement with the knowledge that there were fish to be had. I had a fishing pole, and I was trying to catch something in the water. And this man was standing in the corner, completely covered in mud, staring at me, and I didn’t notice he was there at first, but I’m down in this basement, fishing, and it’s completely dark, and I see these two eyes. And then it’s like, “Okay, do I run, or do I just keep doing this, hoping that he won’t come at me because I’m not afraid?” I was very afraid, but the dream just ended.
You talked about Lynch earlier as an influence and not del Toro, but an influence of del Toro’s. I recall when we first talked about this over messaging, I brought up Tarkovsky because you showed me a couple stills [from your film,] which reminded me of The Mirror and Ivan’s Childhood. Is there any of his influence in here, at least visually speaking?
I would say visually, yeah. I’ve only see two Tarkovsky films, but you go into his work and it just changes cinema for you… Stalker is a big [influence] for me. I love the way that he uses landscape in it. And the landscape becomes this emotional place which doesn’t even feel realistic in any way… I think that in this film, there’s a lot of imagery which you could compare to some of those abandoned areas in Stalker for sure.
Let’s get into that topic of landscape. Where did you film exactly?
We filmed in West Danby [New York]. There’s this nature preserve — I don’t [remember] the name of it right now. Zach — there are a lot of shenanigans behind the making of this film — I sent the poor guy out. I knew exactly what I wanted, which was a swampy area with trees growing up out of the water. It needed to have that. So, it was two o’clock on a Tuesday and I said, “Come on, man. Just go look for us.” So he’s driving around, and apparently his dad is a biologist — he used to work at Cornell and has all this knowledge of different swampy areas and sends his son on this goose chase through New York.
Zach ends up in West Danby and is walking into this wooded area. His dad tells him there’s a pond in the woods out there somewhere. Zach’s walking around for an hour and basically gets lost, but finds the swamp. So he sends me a picture and we’re freaking out — it’s beautiful. And then his phone dies. And he tells me later that he didn’t bring his water bottle — Zach carries a water bottle with him everywhere — and had no phone service and was convinced that he was going to die. He starts running through the woods and then stumbles across two people and is really embarrassed, tries to play it cool, but finds the road eventually.
So we filmed there. We got up at six in the morning and we had actors wading out into the water, hoping that they wouldn’t have their toes snapped off by turtles. Then we also filmed in Connecticut in an abandoned [mill] on the side of the Farmington River. There are these two turrets that go down into the ground where the turbines were for the mill. And I believe it hasn’t been used probably for close to 100 years, so it’s just this brick foundation. Bringing a very expensive camera down into that was crazy. And then we also filmed in an abandoned foundry in Elmira Heights… and that’s used in the butcher shop sequence in the film. So, a lot of weird places.Before we started recording, you were telling me that you were looking for music to use. What role does music play in this film, or in the feeling you’re trying to get across?
I think by the time it’s finished, hopefully the music will convey that underlying sense of a lost childhood — something that’s beautiful, that is coming to the character in times of distress because he is so obsessed with his childhood indirectly… I think the music will be very soft. We’re looking for some ambient pieces. I told you we were going to try to use an Erik Satie piece — [Satie] is this minimalist composer. I think it’ll be minorly unsettling, but just like whispers in the background. And that’s how I think I like using music and pieces for the most part — not doing too much work, but also giving you a real sense of what’s going on inside this person’s mind and the way they feel.
When did you start making movies, or when did you first get that impulse to want to make films? Has it always been there or was it just a few years back?
It’s been there for a very long time. I got [ahold] of this Hi8 camcorder that we had in my basement and I was probably eight years old. And I had my best friend at the time, Gavin McCray, over at the house and we were in the basement and I had always been fascinated by claymations. But, you have to do all in-camera editing with the tape, so we lined up Play-Doh on the floor and made a video of a snake, and then the snake gets eaten by a bigger snake. And we’re just hitting stop and record on the camcorder — it looked absolutely horrible. So, I used to goof off and make videos with my friends all the time and there’s a lot on Youtube of that.
My favorite thing… is that one of these stop-motion videos I made on Youtube — I used my Jurassic Park action figures and it got over a million views somehow. So there’s this video I made on there called “Jurassic Park Rumble in the Jungle.” [laughs]
So I used to do stop-motions and then every middle school-era film student can say they did the Jackass videos at some point, which I used to do. And I used to do a lot with my dad, too. So it was always a way for me to express myself, privately sometimes, or to hang out with my friends and goof off, and then a lot to bond with my dad — he and I used to do that together to have things to do during the summertime.
What’s the ideal for you going forward? If you could choose what kinds of films you want to make, what would you choose?
That’s a really good question, and a conversation that I find myself having more and more with friends is: “How is it that we’re so content at this point in our lives with not knowing what the hell we’re going to do with ourselves?” And I guess maybe that begins to answer the question right there. I like to try to make films that I want to see, and so moving forward, I would love to be able to make films that make use of surrealism that aren’t so conventional always. I would love to be able to have time and freedom and money to explore what filmmaking means to me.
Right now, I’m still utilizing narrative, but I think that a lot of what we have to explore as filmmakers is going away from that and defining it for ourselves, which of course is experimental. I like to tell stories, but I also sometimes feel limited by the expectations that people have of me being a filmmaker. And I think that we have a lot to catch up on. You don’t go into a gallery expecting Marvel comic book strips to be up on the wall. You’re totally okay with [Salvador] Dalí. You’re totally okay with [Odilon] Redon. And I would love to go to the future and see the cineplex theaters playing movies like that.You clearly give a lot of thought to the nature of film as an art form… What, in your mind, is the greatest value that cinema has to offer to the individual or society as a whole?
I think that it, for me at least, has given me such a big chunk of spirituality because it is showing you raw life, unless it’s a CGI-fest [like] Avatar. You can point a camera up at the sky and catch seagulls in just the right way and it makes you realize everything you see is all emotion. And I think that images, especially moving images, have this ability to convey, “Wow, everything I see is almost a projection of what’s going on on the inside.”
You know what’s a perfect example? Two years ago, I know Filmic [screened] Koyaanisqatsi, and the movie changed me forever. That night was incredible. I left and I wandered around campus, I stared into a mirror and cried for 10 minutes, and then went downtown and lost myself… All those images, they were real — there’s nothing fabricated. All that we did was put a frame on reality and when you just put a frame on reality, you realize [that] reality is art, everything around you. And now we’re going into Dadaism or whatever, but I guess that’s what cinema does for me that nothing else does — it forces me to confront this notion that, “Wow, everything is absolutely meaningful and there is no excuse not to love life.” It doesn’t always feel that way. I’m a miserable fuck just like everybody else [laughs], but when cinema gets me really going, it makes me feel like that.
I’d like to end on a question that is probably going to become a regular question in this interview series: What is your Mount Rushmore of cinema? You’ve got four spots on the mountain to fill up. Four people, or you could say films, that have made a special impact on your life and the way that you see cinema. It doesn’t have to be filmmakers. It can be an actor, a composer, a cinematographer, etc.
Well, the first one, without a doubt: Werner Herzog. I never shut up about Werner Herzog. He’s great. I can’t even begin… So much about Werner Herzog is the mythology of Werner Herzog and this idea that the making of a film can be as much a part of the art as the film itself. So, he’s definitely one.
Someone else who I’ve been very fascinated by is Philip Glass. I can’t speak so much about him as a person because I’m weird with music. I tend to stay away from the musician as a person, and [instead] just get blown away by their work. I’ve listened to so much Philip Glass. He’s impacted my writing and everything just with his sound.
Who else? John Cassavetes. Last year, I saw A Woman Under the Influence. It’s such a beautiful film — the way that he approaches actors and the way that he has this signature storytelling that feels so raw. I really like this idea that we can think about how the making of a film is an incredibly valuable process. And I love John Cassavetes because I can almost see that a film is being made — not in a distracting sense, and of course it’s never self-referential. There’s never a moment where you see the crew or anything, but you feel that a movie is being made in some kind of way that is really special to me.
And the fourth… Possession by Andrzej Żuławski is insane. The camera whips all over the place — that work definitely has had a big influence on this piece… It goes over the top in pretty much every way — and not in the Troma kind of way. I was always used to “over-the-top” meaning B-quality, and when I saw Possession, I was blown away, because I thought, “Wow, that was hyperbolic in every single sense, but it was also incredibly meaningful.” And also, [Żuławski is] incredibly political, but you don’t sense it. He teaches me that the political can be really personal, and you don’t have to feel burdened by approaching political things as an artist. You don’t have to feel like it’s some duty, you just have to find yourself in these issues, because we’re all affected by politics.
Those would be the four right now. Of course, for me, Mount Rushmore is always melting and being built up again. But today, maybe that’s the four.
Note: At the time the interview was originally recorded and posted, the film was under a different working title.