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Interview: Scott Honea and Frank Mosley

On Tax Day, April 15th, Drunk Monkeys will host the world premiere of the short film Panhandle Jim, written and directed by Texas filmmaker Scott Honea. Honea’s previous work, Believe You Me, was featured at several film festivals and has received distribution through Hulu. For his follow-up production, Honea chose a stripped-down story and format. Panhandle Jim, which was shot on Super 8 film, follows one character as he skirts the edges of a breakdown. That character is played with daring intensity by Frank Mosley (Upstream Color).

Matthew Guerruckey spoke with Scott and Frank about the challenges of the production, the themes of the film, and what lies ahead.

DRUNK MONKEYS: How did the experience of shooting Believe You Me affect the way you approached this short?

SCOTT HONEA: The experiences couldn’t have been more different, but one definitely informed the other. Believe You Me was a 15-day shoot with basically limitless hard drive space at our disposal. I came into Panhandle Jim with only 30 minutes of Super 8 film stock with the intent on getting what I needed in two takes or less. So I guess I gained some confidence in knowing what I want and being able to get it quickly. I also felt more at ease around the actors and being able to direct them, having done it before on a larger scale.

DM: How did you settle on this as your next project?

SCOTT: In between Believe You Me and this I composed the score for a film called The Rambler, produced a web series and wrote a few screenplays. One of those scripts, a feature called WINNERS, got optioned by a producer last year and we have been working to get financing for it with the hopes of shooting this summer or fall. The decision to make Panhandle Jim was more cathartic than anything — just a way to keep my chops fresh, stay creative and have some fun.

DM: Where does this story come from?

SCOTT: I live in Austin currently, and here they have no laws against begging or panhandling. So if you take the same route to work every day, you often see the same people panhandling. Amongst the real homeless and desperate people are professional panhandlers. They’ve been doing it for years. Some of them have really expensive shoes. So I was sitting at a red light one morning and getting propositioned by a guy with a really nice backpack who was holding a sign that simply said “25 cents.” I thought, the nerve of this guy, to demand exactly how much money he wants from me. The idea for Panhandle Jim came pretty quickly as I was sitting there. I have no idea where the masturbation aspect came from other than my somewhat offbeat sense of humor.

DM: What do you think the Super 8 adds to the film that would be missing if it was shot on digital video?

SCOTT: There’s nothing else that looks like Super 8 grain. We could have shot on digital for much cheaper and made it look crystal clear with perfect lighting, but I didn’t think Jim deserved that.
So after I wrote this dirty little 6-page script I thought it would be appropriate to shoot it on a dirty format. I went on eBay and bought the cheapest Super 8 camera I could find that shoots at 24 frames per second, the Elmo 1012S-XL. My $73 bid was good enough. It’s a good thing the camera was cheap, because half of the budget went to buying film stock, processing and HD transfer. Like I said before, I bought 30 minutes worth with the intentions of shooting a 10-minute short, which left very little room for error. It kept me honest on set knowing I could shoot absolutely no more than three takes of something. I liked the limitations that the format forced upon me to compose properly and shoot efficiently.

FRANK MOSLEY: It most certainly adds a grain and texture that harkens back to gritty, more experimental cinema of a bygone era. Makes me think of what Ronnie Bronstein did withFrownland.  It instantly makes the movie even more of a “document” (rather than a fictionalized account) of this unemployed, distraught man. Like some kind of forgotten, dirty home movie. The grime, I think, heightens the plight of the narrative, too. Digitally, it would’ve been too clean and approachable. This movie dares you to watch it. And the film stock is acts as a crown on that jest.

DM: Scott, Do you prefer working with film or video?

SCOTT: I don’t know that I have a preference. I think it varies project to project. I think the tone of what you are shooting, in addition to how much money you have, ultimately determines what you shoot on. I have a feature script that I’m planning to shoot on either Super 16 or 35mm if I can raise enough money, and I have another that I’d like to shoot on something digital like the Arri Alexa. So for me, it just comes down to the needs of the project.

DM: The short has an unsettling intensity—did you approach the editing differently than your past projects?

SCOTT: Yes in that this was the first of my projects that I didn’t edit myself. Peter Ostebo was the editor on Panhandle Jim, and he brought something completely new and refreshing to it—an outside perspective. I’m kind of an idiot in the editing room when it comes to pushing the right buttons, but I know how I want it to look as a finished product, so it was very cool to have someone else helping me accomplish that.

DM: Where in Texas was the film shot?

We shot almost all of it in the Dallas area over two days. We did pick up driving shots and the shots of the homeless people in Austin on a separate day.

DM: Did you have any difficulty filming those scenes?

FRANK: Not particularly, though Scott shot most of those scenes as B-roll later. He might have gotten some odd looks shooting so guerilla style. But they weren’t shot while I was on set. Which made it more interesting on my end…where I had to imagine who I was seeing when masturbating to various homeless people. It actually made it safer for me as an actor to go all out with moments like those, rather than worrying that a person nearby would actually see us and call the cops. The only homeless people I interact with were played by crew and cast. I thank Scott for that, so I could give all my focus to those moments by myself without having to worry about the dangerous circumstances.

SCOTT: That was kind of an interesting morning. It was Memorial Day and a couple of the producers and I drove around Austin trying to secretly film these homeless people. I had two rolls of Super 8 left, so basically five minutes of stock to get those shots in addition to the driving shots, so it was a bit maddening. We lucked out and found some pretty gnarly looking folks. I think I ended up giving one of them $1 because he saw my camera.

DM: Where did you find the actors?

SCOTT: The cast came together somewhat serendipitously. I like working with friends and I’m not a fan of the audition process, so if I like someone’s work and I think they fit a part, I’ll often approach them. That’s what happened with Frank, who I had seen in a short film called “Cork’s Cattlebaron” and also in “Upstream Color,” both of which impressed me. One of the producers on the project, P.J. McGuire, had a connection to him and introduced us. Frank’s based in Dallas, so we ultimately decided to shoot the bulk of the film there. Austin (now New-York based) actor Jenny Keto sent me a blind submission through a casting website. I liked her reel quite a bit, so she was in. Olivia Stem is another Dallas actor who P.J. recommended from prior short films of his own, so that’s how she got on board. Briana McKeague is an Austin-based actor /screenwriter who is a member of a writers group that I’m in—as is Bears Fonte, another cast member and producer on the film. It all came together quite quickly and easily, and everyone really nailed it.

DM: Frank, this role requires you to go to some pretty dark places (not to mention masturbating on camera) how did you approach those moments?

FRANK: You know, for me, it’s all about capturing a reality of the character.  I never try and judge the characters I play. The minute you do that, you’re not being honest. You can’t let your feelings affect the truth of that role.  I’m always looking for roles that are unlike anything I’ve done before. For parts that challenge me to go to places I had never explored. The script immediately reminded me of an opportunity to play a character from the world of Todd Solondz. But the tricky part is the team behind the film. If you don’t feel safe to explore the character and world and don’t believe in the team, then your interest in the character and the film could be in vain….and doomed to fail. To really put yourself out there, you need people who are on the same page. With a script as stripped down as this one was, it was open to so much interpretation about who this guy was….not only on the surface of the character physically, but why he was doing what he was doing. I actually was on the fence about accepting the role for quite a while and held off until I could be sure that Scott wasn’t going for camp. He wanted it portrayed truthfully. We both didn’t want it to be John Waters. I wanted this guy to hurt. And I felt there could be a great showcase in here to show a range of a man over the course of a single day…that, depending on who he’s with, that he’s a different person. His vulnerability levels change, which was important, too, about the casting of my co-stars. The lovely actresses in the film, Olivia, Brianna, and Jenny, were so brave. Especially Jenny, who was brilliant and fearless in our confrontation. For being shot so quickly, she got to some dark places in a really surprising way. As soon as we’d cut every take, I’d apologize for the awful things I was saying to her in the scene. But it was great to have such a great duet partner who understood it HAD to be that brutal. As for the actual masturbation scenes, you just had to go for broke. The movie hinges on those moments. If I’m not convincing, then his conflict doesn’t work, and then the movie doesn’t work. Haha, no pressure, eh? Jenny and I had actually assumed I was going to be naked in the motel scene before Scott told me before the scene that I wasn’t. But I was ready to go.  Ha!

DM: Have you ever played a character like this before?

FRANK: I’ve never played a character like this before, no. Hah, hopefully now this won’t mean being typecast.  I do, however, play more than my fair share of “bad guys” in movies….pornographers, dirty cops, and the like. Playing villains are not only fun, but they foot the bill. Put dinner on the table. I’ve just now started getting more roles this past year as nicer guys, more heroic types, which is great and refreshing. As I said earlier, with each of the darker roles, though, I try to make each different and play with just how much humanity exists in them. What are their strengths and weaknesses? They all have secrets. Even the secrets we’ll never see or hear about in the movie. But knowing those helps me play the scenes.

DM: What drew you to the script?

FRANK: The duality of this man. He’s a hypocrite, a walking contradiction. There’s this great reveal at the end of this movie that he’s living a double life, in a way. He probably had everything he wanted: a job, a wife, a house, etc. But now that he loses his job, his unemployment is gnawing at him. So he takes out his self-loathing with masturbation, taking out his anger on unsuspecting people who are at the next stage that he could be….if he doesn’t find a job. So he’s using sex as both a weapon and release for his own self-hate. He feels like a failure, and, by the closing scene of movie, might even be on the brink of losing his wife if he doesn’t get his act together. But he certainly has a dark, sexual appetite that, whether it’s just started for the first time this day, or if he’s been doing this for years, that it’s one that is “alternative” and looked at as “wrong”. And who’s to say it’s wrong? That’s where all sorts of questions come into play. And that’s what makes me want to do it.

DM: From the very first shot the movie deals with themes of entrapment and suffocation – what is Jim rebelling against?

SCOTT: I’m not really sure. I think maybe Jim is rebelling against himself and some of the choices he’s made in his life. If Jim is truly trying to rebel, I think he’s failing. He’s acting out more than anything, and he’s not very good at that either. Jim’s got some problems.

FRANK: He’s rebelling against normalcy. His securities with his own life goals—and reaching them—are on the brink of collapse. He becomes insecure and hateful at the “other”. The poor, the homeless, the unemployed. He doesn’t want to be “the other”. He suddenly lashes out at everything threatening to destroy his perfect life…which is, himself. His own pain comes to the surface. People use all sorts of different methods to cope with their crises in life. Jim uses sex. He hate-fucks himself in order to have escape from actually being proactive, and dealing with his issue. For all his talk of finding a job and moving on with his life, he’s using masturbation like others use drugs to grieve after losing a spouse or loved one. He’s becoming addicted to the coping mechanism, rather than confronting the real issue.

DM: Throughout the film, we see Jim using his tenuous hold on money as a way to bolster himself, to put himself above the beggars he sees. Where do you think Jim ends up after this?

FRANK: I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s ambiguous enough that it could go many different ways, which is what makes a great story. I personally think Jim will get a job, but his life will always be on the brink of collapse, because I think he’s at heart, a lazy person who took his good fortune—life, job, wife—all for granted. I think a person with such deep insecurities will never quite escape those. He may simply learn how to control that part of him better….to maintain it. But it won’t go away.

SCOTT: Hopefully in some form of therapy, probably living in his mom’s basement after his girlfriend kicks him out. That’s the best case scenario. Worst case? Dead under a bridge with his pants around his ankles.

DM: There are many themes in the film, primarily the power of money and sex, and their effect on personal identity – what do you hope viewers take away from watching it?

FRANK: I think Jim’s using his white collar tools—money—to control others. Like a lot of people, they think money takes care of everything. Hopefully people will see that he’s using sex as a weapon because of money. I think all this is because of his focus on money. All the people he hurts. Money’s important to survive, but it’s not the end all. He takes out his shame of possibly no longer being white collar by using sex as a weapon. Everyone has a dark side. Know it, embrace it, and learn how to not let it hurt others.

SCOTT: I didn’t intend on taking any kind of stance about money or sex or personal identity. Those themes are definitely there, but I think they come out naturally through the character. I hope they don’t feel forced, because I never intended that. There’s certainly no message intended in the film, I just wanted to tell a story about one day in the life of this dude who was spiraling. I suppose you can take whatever you want from it.

DM: What projects do you both have coming up?

FRANK: I just got off Robbie Barnett’s experimental horror film called Tears of God starring Kate Sheil. I played a small role of a violent, religious propaganda filmmaker. Shot up in the snowy mountains of North Carolina. I’m currently playing a conflicted resident doctor of a sanitarium in Anthony Brownrigg’s ID: Don’t Look in the Basement 2, a horror sequel to the 70s cult classic film made by his father. And I’m about to be in a dark comedy called Feast of Man in August, a film by Dylan Pasture and Caroline Golum.  It’s like if Paul Bartel made The Big Chill. Should be a blast. I think it’s gonna be a good summer.

SCOTT: I’ve got two features in development, the one I mentioned above called Winners, a comedy about a middle class family of underachievers, and If I Needed You, a rural drama set in Texas. I hope to shoot one by the end of 2014 and the other in 2015.

Panhandle Jim will premiere on Drunk Monkeys on April 15, 2014.