Film

To Kill the Sunflower: An Interview with Cory McAbee

Justin Dimos

So Reno inspired Stingray Sam then?

In a way. I started to realize that this would be the new format that people would view things on. YouTube, for example. More people watch YouTube videos these days than ever before, and in fact, these viewers are posting and sharing clips of The American Astronaut already. Though it was obviously made for the big screen, I could see the parts that looked good on smaller screens, what worked well and what didn't work at all. So I started thinking in those terms, and thought it would be nice to make a feature or at least a film that's over an hour, but construct one that's in sections like an old serial. In the case of Stingray Sam, there are these 10 to 11 minute episodes that all link together to make a complete piece, but at the same time, they're each freestanding pieces as well.

Which will eventually, inevitably be posted on YouTube?

My hope is that the movie will be released in many different formats because yeah, it's formatted for large screens and television viewing, but it's also designed to hold up on small screens, which tend to be screens that people watch in transit while traveling. The information of the film is put together in a way that holds your attention as well, since the video will be something you'll own and store on your device, whether a computer or even a phone. That way it'll be something you can watch a few times and always get something new from it.

I'll have to watch it twice. Once on my television and once on my phone.

It's so much fun, this film. One thing that inspired Stingray Sam actually happened a few years ago when a woman from Denmark interviewed me in 2003. She had been part of a film festival that had shown The American Astronaut, and she gave me an enormous compliment. She told me that Europeans were very angry at America, mostly because of what our government was doing. But then she said that Europeans like to love certain things about America, and The American Astronaut had all the things that Europeans still enjoy loving about America.

Really? So your film brings out the best of us?

Yeah, it was a huge compliment. I started traveling a great deal around that time, and then I began to understand what she was talking about. So when I started making Stingray Sam, I wanted to embrace the American culture, but criticize us at the same time. As you would suspect, some of the themes in Stingray Sam are almost similar to political parodies that deal with issues like privatized prison systems and pharmaceuticals, among others, all of which inform the plot as well.

Does each episode tackle a new parody then, or are they all interwoven?

Each episode tends to introduce a new one, but they're all interwoven, too. It's a modern film, so Stingray Sam is definitely informed by what's going on in American today, but it also includes the features that American cinema are known for, like musicals and singing cowboy westerns and curly haired little girls who have been separated from their parents, all of which are interwoven through this little parody of our modern western society.

So are those the elements that you like about this genre? Because it seems to me that The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam are situated in similar genres that are both shot in that garage style, black and white aesthetic.

First of all, I think black and white is one of the greatest special effects I have at my access. Black and white separates you from reality, and I believe it's extremely helpful with these two films. But The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam are like cousins. I've always considered The American Astronaut that musical space western that wasn't actually a musical space western at all. Making Stingray Sam though, I wanted to take all the things that The American Astronaut was known for, like being a western and the way the music was treated, and make something where you actually get to watch cowboys and see spaceships on planet surfaces. At the same time, I also used different still imagery in both. In The American Astronaut, for instance, we used paintings to show outer space, and in Stingray Sam, we used collage and graphic design to tell the story in between the actions.

One of the other things I was curious about is how you incorporated the music into the film, and what kind of influence the film had on the music and vice versa ...

The songs of Stingray Sam were written with each episode, which is to say that each episode being distinctly different from the one before it has a featured track all its own. That said, I wrote the majority of the songs for Stingray Sam, and of course the band and I performed and created the musical arrangements together, but there's one episode where one of the actors performs his own song. Crugie plays the Quasar Kid in the movie, but as a musician he's also written his own songs, so I chose one of his songs that fit the Quasar Kid better, musically performed by us as the band. Funny story is that I was going to have the little girl in the movie, who happens to be my daughter Willa Vy McAbee as well, sing a song that she had written -- she's always coming up with very interesting songs -- but I eventually decided I didn't want a little kid singing in the movie.

No? Why not?

That just always makes my skin crawl.

So your daughter is in this movie, too?

Yeah, she was great. She's been acting out scenes from movies since before she could talk. Play acting has just been something she's always done on her own. She would stand and very earnestly try to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. And we always knew the song was Somewhere Over the Rainbow because she could somehow say bluebirds fly. But she would go through all the motions, and it was always delightful. If you watch Reno, the short film mobile phone project I made for Sundance, you'll see Willa in there too, doing her little dance.

Yeah, I saw her last name in the credits and I wondered about that.

Yeah, that's her all right, and she did an amazing job in Stingray Sam as well. I was a little worried she might become shy or freak out with all the cameras and the people around -- she's only five after all -- and she did for maybe a minute, but then she awed everyone with her performance. She just remembered everything and nailed all her marks. Even if we moved her mark two feet over and told her to turn a little bit, she would hit it perfectly. She really had a great time, and she probably had more fun doing that than anything else she's ever done before.

So is she going to become an actress?

You know, I asked her if she wanted to be an actor, and she said, well I don't want to be a kid actor. Then she said, but can I act in your movies? And I said, yeah, sometimes, sure, I would love that. Afterwards the casting director for Stingray Sam told me about his friend who was making a movie with a role for a five-year-old girl that Willa could do. So like a good dad, I asked what happens to the girl in the movie? And he said, oh she gets drowned, it's about a murderer. All I told them was that Willa doesn't like to get her face wet. I don't want her to be in other people's movies. Last thing I want is my daughter getting drowned by a murderer after all.

On that note, how did you go about the casting of Stingray Sam?

It's all people I've known from the band or my family. A lot of them are stage actors who have been friends of mine for years, too.

Do you write with them in mind?

Yeah, I wrote characters for my band and Willa's part with all of them exactly in mind. Like I said, I used Crugie's song to be his for the movie, and to help Willa, I used phrases that she had said before. For Bobby, I chose things that he had never done before, but knew he could do, and for Frank, I gave him a part that I thought fit him very well.

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