Matt S. Gets to Know GravyTrain
Something strange was in the air. It was dark, dreary day in Los Angeles, and as April Mullen, director, writer, producer and star of “GravyTrain”, described the beautiful, sunny Toronto skyline she was staring out at, I knew I had entered a world not until the world of her film. It’s a place where things seem normal, but are off just enough to make them unfamiliar, strange, and a bit whacked out. After gloating a little about how their weather was better than mine, I talked with Mullen and Tim Doiron (who co-wrote, co-produced and co-stars in the film) about the art of clowns, trying to clone yourself, and invading the US.
What is GravyTrain about?
Tim Doiron: Simply put, the main character in the film is Charles Gravytrain, and he is trying to avenge his father’s death. His father was killed by this mysterious crook by the name of Jimmy Fish Eyes. So (Charles) ends up getting partnered up with this new partner, Miss Uma Booma, and they try and find Jimmy Fish Eyes. Along the way, this weird snuff filmmaker shows up and gets involved in the plot. It’s just a wacky who-done-it in the weird town of Gypsy Creek that’s sort of removed from the rest of society. In the end, it’s just a revenge story.
April Mullen: Some people say it’s like early Coen Brothers, sort of a “Raising Arizona”, mixed with “Starsky and Hutch” and David Lynch “Twin Peaks” sense of humor.
Where the heck did the idea for this movie come from?
TD: The idea for the movie actually came from a dream, even before we did our first movie, “Rock, Paper, Scissors: The Way of the Tosser.” It was a very simple dream about this snuff filmmaker guy in this 70s sort of genre thing…I was talking to April the next day, and I said, “I have this idea for this movie. I think it would be really good,” and it just sort of grew from there.
Tell me about your history together and the obviously strange sensibility you seem to share.
AM: We were both in theater school training for our acting degree. It was a very small class, so you get to know everyone really well. And in third year, we took clown.
Wait a minute. Clown!?
AM: Yes, clown as in red nose clown. We did clown training.
TD: Clown is like a comedic art form that goes way back. It’s very popular in France.
AM: So, Tim’s clown was really rambunctious. He was absolutely hilarious but could not partner up with anyone else. And for the showcase we had to have partners, so the teacher put my clown with his clown. When you have the clown nose on, you have a different personality, and it just so happened that when we did our clown skit, we both had the exact same sense of comedic timing, and really, our clowns worked well together and sort of bounced off each other. My clown, for some reason, could handle Tim’s clown, and Tim’s clown at least would let me be on the stage with him. From then on, that’s when we started working together. We sort of partnered up for other creative pieces at (school), and then we did “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, and now “GravyTrain”.
You both wore a bunch of hats on this movie. April, you directed, and both of you produced, wrote and starred in the film. When did you have time to sleep?
TD: In a lot of respects, it’s fantastic, and in some other respects, you wish you had two of you at all times.
TD: For the creative process, it’s great to be there from beginning to end. And I think getting to wear lots of hats and having a real hand in the creativity, that’s something that April and I really like to have. When we were on set, yeah…there were days when you wake up at five in the morning and you’re running until three in the morning the next day. But in the end it’s worth it.
AM: Both of us love the creative stuff. The producing end of things would always be the more challenging thing to deal with on set, but then we could always get revitalized by acting. In terms of directing and acting…I had playback. If a scene was off or the comedic beat was off, I could use the playback to really see what was going on, if I had the time. Other than that, after rehearsing and setting up the shot, I would stay on my mark and direct the actors (from there).
April the director, how difficult is it to direct April the actress?
AM: It IS difficult. There comes a point in time when, like, we were testing the film this morning, and you don’t really realize that you’re in the film. You just sort of look at the film as a whole production, and you don’t really single yourself out or your performance. I couldn’t really care less about cutting my scenes or anybodies for that matter. You just try and get the best film possible.
So you’re not yelling and screaming at the actors?
AM: If I am yelling or screaming, it’s out of excitement or laughter.
TD: April is excellent at working with actors. I think if you asked any actor that worked on this film, it’s probably one of her biggest gifts as a director. Being able to understand what an actor needs to hear, what the actor can bring, and giving a lot of freedom to the actor.
AM: I think the atmosphere on the set, especially on a comedy, has to be light and fun. Otherwise you can see it on the screen.
You have some great improvisational actors in the film, including Tim Meadows and Colin Mochrie. How much is improv a part of your filmmaking?
AM: It’s a huge part of it, although, because we were shooting over 15 days, the schedule was so tight we had to make sure to always shoot the scenes and get the film down first, and then once we had a few takes we were happy with, I’d always keep the cameras rolling for a few beats at the end of the scene. In the middle of a scene, if it seemed like something else could happen I would sort of throw it out there and say, “Let’s go back and try and have some fun and play.” In the future (on other projects), I foresee a lot more, when time isn’t staring us in the face.
TD: Even though we did have to move fast, the making of “GravyTrain” was very organic. There was tons of room to play, and room for people to come up with stuff on the fly, which was great.
What was it like working with your cast, especially Meadows and Mochrie?
TD: The entire cast is extremely talented. The movie takes place in a zany town with over the top characters and an odd tone, so for both of us it was important to get really fantastic actors who could bring truth into the performance. Otherwise, the film would just fall on its face. And every single actor we got just hit their mark unbelievably. As far as Colin and Tim Meadows, both of those characters were written specifically for them. So, we were lucky…that they loved the roles and loved the script and they took them on. It was really nice being in the presence of improvisational kings. You learn a lot very fast.
AM: A great memory of when Colin first showed up on set…we gave him his 70s outfit, and then we were looking at his hair. I was thinking, “Let’s do something really fun with your hair.” And he said, “Oh yeah, let’s go for it!” His hairstyle was completely ridiculous and he loved it. From that moment on, you just knew that he was in it to have fun and was completely enthusiastic. He was up for any risks. As for Tim Meadows, I worked with him when I was 16 in “The Ladies Man”, and I always had these great memories of him on set. He’s really grounded and a serious, professional actor. As soon as he comes on set and starts playing in the scene, he just lights up the whole set and everybody starts laughing. There were so many moments where we just couldn’t take it and we broke down.
What were your influences when making GravyTrain?
AM: We watched “Dirty Harry”, “Switchblade Sisters”, “Starsky and Hutch”, “Police Woman”. We watched a whole bunch of 70s flavored films and took a lot of the pans and zooms. The zoom was almost bigger than the camera one day. We had a lot of fun with that sort of stuff. But, of course, our film is edited a lot quicker than those films. You’d be amazed at how slow the editing is in those 70s movies.
Though you got a lot of influences from the 70s, the movie doesn’t seem to take place in any particular time period or any real location.
AM: That’s exactly it. It’s not of a time or a place in particular. It’s just Gypsy Creek. We’re both really big into creating a world that lives in its own bubble. So basically, it has a Mullin/Doiron twist. It’s not really anything or anyone in particular. It’s our own sort of flair.
The movie comes out on Friday. Since this is your second movie, this isn’t a big deal. You’ll be relaxing at home, watching TV, right?
AM: (laughing) We haven’t stopped. We are working our butts off.
TD: We’re just excited to get this one out there and share it with people. We open in Toronto on Friday, then follow that up with Montreal and Ottawa, and we’ll probably do more places in Canada. Then we’ll seep down into the States.
AM: Yeah, we’re headed your way very soon.
Should we be afraid?
BOTH: Very afraid!
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