Interview with Onur Tukel

Onur Tukel is perhaps one of the most prolific names in American independent cinema. At 45, the acclaimed actor, artist, author, and filmmaker has made one humorously irreverent film after another, including Richard’s Wedding, Summer of Blood, Applesauce, and Catfight.

He has directed such noteworthy stars as Tituss Burgess, Josephine Decker, Peter Jacobson, Amy Hill, Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, and Alicia Silverstone. His collaborations have also included the celebrated independent filmmakers Michael Tully, Alex Karpovsky, and Bob Byington, for whom Tukel recently wrote the screenplay Infinity Baby.

Tukel himself, who often stars in his own films, frequently portrays what has been aptly described as “the broke, post-9/11 version of an early Woody Allen character.”

His most recent film The Misogynists, starring his frequent collaborator Dylan Baker along with Ivana Miličević, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Jamie Block, and Nana Mensah, follows two scoundrels celebrating the victory of Donald Trump in a hotel room on the night of the 2016 Presidential election (I myself make a brief appearance in the film as a Trump-supporting patron in the hotel bar).

I reached out to Tukel (pictured above, to the right of Dylan Baker) to discuss The Misogynists, some of his past work, children’s literature, and other elements of his decidedly bizarre career.  His responses, unsurprisingly, did not disappoint.

Your work seems to contain a degree of nihilism, or perhaps weariness, regarding the modern era. What would you say is the driving philosophical or thematic intent of your artwork and films?

Some of it stems from a disdain for materialism, capitalism and the never-ending pursuit of profit. Some of it comes from an overall distrust of the mass media because it preys on our fear. Some of it stems from how a lot of information I read is cringe-worthy. A lot of films I see are overrated. I just seem to hate everything. I’m aware that nihilism is bit of a cop-out. It allows you to shrug off everything and say, “humanity is doomed, people are stupid, let it all burn.” Well, sure, people are stupid, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that Americans are in denial. They’re not aware of their own stupidity. And this is dangerous, because it allows you to criticize others without considering a long list of factors (a person’s beliefs, upbringing, environment, past experiences, sexual status, employment, criminal record, etc.). If you consider this fact, that most information is superficial, it’s hard not to roll your eyes. Conservatives screams that liberals are elitist. Liberals claim the conservatives are backwards. The lack of awareness coming from both sides is dangerous. When Trump mentioned other countries as “shitholes,” there’s nothing wrong with this comment, as long as you consider that America is the biggest shithole on earth. The country that blew up Vietnam and Iraq has the gall to lecture anyone about anything? I like holding up a mirror up so that we can see ourselves in my movies. I want to show us how fucking ugly we are, how selfish, backwards, ignorant. I’m the right guy for this job. My work is about me. I am a hypocrite. I am materialistic. I am pursuing the capitalistic dream of making and selling a movie for a ton of money. I criticize the world without offering solutions. I am petty, bitter, judgmental, racist, misogynistic. I have nothing to say yet I talk louder than anyone. I am trash. I make trash. And thus, my films are quintessentially American.

 You’ve spoken in the past about your influences from directors like Woody Allen, Richard Linklater, and Spike Lee. What specific films or other works of art have left the biggest impression on you as a filmmaker and as a person?

Movies with angry men always drew me in. Tape, Glengarry Glen Ross, Crimes & Misdemeanors, In the Company of Men, Deconstructing Harry, Halloween, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, Jaws. The liberal culture now refers to male anger as “toxic masculinity.” Yet, passivity is as toxic if not more. I’d rather be the man in the street screaming about real injustice (anyone remember the War in Iraq) than the passive person who does nothing. Anger is necessary. But it has to come from an authentic place. There has to be real passion behind it. Now you have hashtag movements masquerading as anger. Everyone’s got an opinion about the “big issues” but very few people put it in their art. They don’t have the courage or the stamina. Plus, it’s not profitable. How could anyone sensible person who lives in this diseased country not be angry? Everyone’s in the information game, vying for your attention. It’s eating away at people’s brains, all in preparation for the big VR vortex. The mind is digital, it’s like electricity. They’re tapping into it. And they’re going to fry the lot of us with one press of the button. Original, independent thought is dead. Information upon information upon information, so much of it wrong, so much of it bound by certitude, empty, articles everywhere, written with the haste of a term paper; journalists getting $200 a pop. This is where we are. People talk about the environmental tipping point. At some point, if we haven’t already, we’ll break the planet beyond repair. Can the culture have a tipping point as well? Because it feels like something is very wrong here. It’s nobody’s fault. Human beings are extremely stupid. Just look around, people staring at their cell phones like dopes. Looking at nothing. Thinking about nothing. And I do it every day and I hate myself for it. You know why I do it? Because I’m fucking stupid.

The Misogynists now marks your third collaboration with the actor Dylan Baker, who had previously appeared in Applesauce and Catfight. What is it about Baker and other frequent collaborators that draws you back to them?

Dylan Baker’s just a great actor and an incredibly sweet guy. But I’ve been a fan of him since watching Todd Solondz’s Happiness in the 90s. He takes risks. He understands that in art, film, theater, you can’t shy away from controversial subject matter. With The Misogynists, he learned over 100 pages of dialogue in about six days. We shot late late hours in a pretty cramped hotel room and he never got grumpy or combative. He’s just an absolute joy to work with, like a ray of light, just brightens the entire room. I feel lucky that he’s been so generous with his instrument. It really is a beautifully honed tool. But he’s got something else, you know. He can go so incredibly dark. So fucking dark. And I like that. That excites me. I know people respect him as an actor, they know his work, but I feel like he’s so under appreciated.

You made a handful of films between 1997 and 2005—House of Pancakes, Drawing Blood, Ding-a-ling-Less, and The Pigs—that are now fairly difficult to come by (with the exception of Ding-a-ling-Less, which was released on DVD in 2004). Is there any chance of these early works being made more widely available in the future?

House of Pancakes was released on VHS in 1996 by a small label in New Jersey called EI Cinema. The movie has a lot of lousy sound and the 16mm reels weren’t supervised when they were transferred, so the composition is off in a lot of the framing. I do hope to rescan the negatives and remix the audio one of these days. For now, the only way to see it is to track down a VHS on Ebay or Amazon if you can find it.

Sergio Lapel’s Drawing Blood (not Drawing Blood) is pretty easy to find, I think. It’s streaming for free on YouTube I think. This was a 16mm vampire film I directed when I was 26. It was released by Troma on VHS and DVD. I’ll never forget driving up to New York to meet Loyd Kaufman and Michael Herz in Hell’s Kitchen after they saw it. Sitting in their office, it felt like, “Oh yeah, this is it, I’m on my way now.” That was very inspiring for a kid from North Carolina who was in love with New York.

Ding-a-ling-LESS is not so easy to find but it’s one of my favorite movies. I felt like a king making a movie on 35mm as a 28-year-old. We got it in the can for $50K. Total cost of the movie was $75K. I made a lot of bad decisions on that film, much to the chagrin of the producer, Les Franck, who really believed in it. A small label called Go-Kart Film released it on DVD in 2004 or so. There was no money up front and no one really saw it. It was sad. There are DVDs out there somewhere (Ebay, Amazon) but it’s a lousy transfer (4:3 letterboxed). If I ever hit the jackpot, I’ll have all the 35mm reels scanned at high definition and re-release the film on VOD through a distributor.

Go-Kart was so impressed with Ding-a-ling-LESS that they released a DVD of my follow-up The Pigs, without even seeing it. Big mistake. It’s pretty bad. One of the worst experiences of my life. I used the same pen-name Sergio Lapel that I’d used previously on Drawing Blood. This one is tougher to track down. I suppose I’ll release all of these earlier films online at some point.

After House of Pancakes and before Sergio Lapel’s Drawing Blood, I made an experimental feature film called The Puppet Show. Now this one is really obscure; it’s two movies intercut to make one feature. Half of it is a documentary about the Chicago painter Paul Rubenstein, shot on 16mm and super 8. The other half is a fictional story about a group of friends who plan to kill their friend Gary, before he kills himself. They do this to save his soul from burning in Hell. This was shot with digital video, super 8, VHS, you name it. Fuck, it’s weird, and funny. I edited it on a VHS flatbed. I think maybe 4 or 5 VHS copies existed at one time but I have no idea where that movie is. I remember it being pretty bizarre and really funny at times. I really need to track it down.

In addition to filmmaking, you’ve also the published author and illustrator of two delightfully wacky children’s books: Little Friends in 2012 and Rainstack! the following year (which has probably the funniest promotional video of any children’s book). What drew you to the world of children’s literature and do you have any plans to return to this genre later?

I thought I was done with making movies after I made The Pigs. The experience left me with no confidence at all. A friend of mine had raised the money to make it ($35K) and the final movie we delivered was pretty embarrassing. It was a low point for me. So I wanted to start telling stories in different ways, mainly cheaper ways. I’d always been an okay illustrator. I use to storyboard my movies in their entirety. A few years after The Pigs, I had an art show in Durham, NC, called Pictures for the Baby Room, which showcased all these weird animals doing weird things. Frogs eating human legs. A chicken driving a car. An operation where the animals dissect a human being. The show went over pretty well; I sold a bunch of pieces. All the while, people kept saying, “You should do children’s books.” So I took a crack at it. I probably wrote six books before I got published. I did just what you were supposed to do. I sent out manuscript after manuscript to dozens of publishers. One rejection. Two rejections. Three became four. Four became twenty. Then forty. It was kind of like film in a lot of ways. I was used to the rejection. Eventually I found a publisher for my book Barry & the Tire Swing, which would eventually become Little Friends. I made so many books that were never published. I’d love to return to it at some point, but it’s tough finding a publisher.

You’ve worked across many genres now—literature, illustration, film. Is there one in particular that you find more rewarding than the others or do you enjoy them all equally?

I love doing all of it but I can’t say I love them all equally. Film still wins. It’s the most punishing, grueling, stress-inducing form, but also the most rewarding. I’d like to take a break from making movies but I can’t. I’m just too addicted to it. The process is so layered. There’s the magic of writing it. The stress of raising money. The stress of pre-production. Then you shoot it and it’s exhilarating to watch it come to life. And then when you start editing it, fuck, it just blossoms into something new. You add the music and sound FX and it’s like a fucking miracle has taken place. I was making films like a madman in my 20s then I lost my nerve after The Pigs and I didn’t make anything for ten years. I think I’m scared that might happen again. I don’t know why, but the thought of not making films is really scary. Still, if I could trade it in to be a musician, I probably would. I wrote and recorded a lot of songs when I stopped making movies in my thirties. It was so rewarding. But I never did anything with the music. And part of me would like to jump back into writing songs again. I feel like I might be happier if I could express myself on stage, strumming a guitar and screaming into a microphone. But I love painting and drawing as well. It’s an actual stress reliever and a fast way to purge my anger. It takes at least a year to make a movie. It takes two hours to paint a picture. Writing and illustrating children’s books was fun while I did it and getting a box of published books in the mail was thrilling. I felt sophisticated as a writer of books.

Where’s the next place one can go to see The Misogynists? And what projects do you have lined up after that?

The Misogynists plays the Montclair Film Festival the last weekend of April. And it’ll hopefully continue playing festivals until it’s released in late 2018 or early 2019! Later this year, I’m going to finish a project I started called Black Magic for White Boys. We made it as a feature, then repackaged it as a TV show. That got nowhere, so I’m going to shoot some new stuff, re-edit it and get it out in the world (I hope). I’m also trying to raise funding for a number of projects, but we’ll see if they get made!

(Photo credit: Susan Stava)

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