Film

To Kill the Sunflower: An Interview with Cory McAbee

Justin Dimos

How was directing Stingray Sam, and how did it compare to directing The American Astronaut?

The American Astronaut was huge, comparatively speaking. For that one, we had bigger sets, and I brought in a friend to do all the art direction, but we had the time for it as well. Stingray Sam was on a much smaller budget, working with a much smaller crew, and we had much less time to finish production. Making both of them was still tons of fun. On a huge level, The American Astronaut was a blast, but it was much more intense. Stingray Sam felt much more like a personal project, almost family-oriented.

Family-oriented?

Because of the smaller crew, I would say. You're all huddled together in one room, editing, playing music, whatever. Everyone's not so spread out working on different projects at the same time. Little things would happen that brought us closer together, too. Like for my daughter's character we needed someone to play her father, but she's a little shy, so you can't just ask her to run into a stranger's arms and let him hug her. Eventually, we ended up using our director of photography, because they became friends, and I asked her, you mind if Scottie picks you up, and she said no, that's alright. There were other times when we were editing in one room while the music was being recorded and mixed in the other room, and we would bring in the director of photography who just happened to stop by that day and the editor to sing back up tracks. Long story short, making Stingray Sam was very personal, and all of us worked together as a little family.

So how is Stingray Sam the character different from Samuel Curtis in The American Astronaut?

Samuel Curtis is much more serious and definitely much more intense. Stingray Sam is a little bit more naïve, and even though the character has a checkered past, he's one of those guys who remains an eternal optimist no matter what happens. I think we all know people like that, people who no matter what happens to them they come through it with a bit of optimism still intact and perhaps more trusting than they should be.

Did some of the cast think you would be more like Samuel Curtis in real life?

Actually, three people told me separately that the only thing they knew about me was The American Astronaut. They each watched the film a handful of times, and they said they were intimidated when it came time to meet me, thinking that I would be like Samuel Curtis. After they worked with me for a while though, they told me that I was nothing like Samuel Curtis.

Sounds like a compliment to your acting, right?

Yeah, but as far as it is for being cool, it's kind of a bum wrap. I told my wife about how they thought I was nothing like Samuel Curtis, and she even said, oh yeah, you're nothing like Samuel Curtis, emphasis on the nothing. I guess that makes me a good actor, but not such a cool character.

So did you try anything different or experiment with any different effects that you didn't already attempt in The American Astronaut?

I did more dancing in Stingray Sam. I figured out one of the dances the night before, drinking beer and listening to music in my bathroom, but I needed a dance for the deadline the next day, so I came up with this dance that night. If you watch the trailer, you'll see me doing this jerky dance like I'm being electrocuted while wearing this science outfit. One of the camera assistants even tried to do the dance and ended up popping his knee out, which need surgery then.

That's one complicated dance.

Very complicated. We also did the narration with the collage illustrations, which is something I've dabbled in before, but we took much further with Stingray Sam. In fact, David Hyde Pierce did the narration this time, and he did such an amazing job that I'm certain people will love it.

So what ever happened to Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest?

Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest is also a musical, but it's very different than these two. The musical elements are much more embedded into the dreams of the werewolf character, but the film itself is more about the hunters. Hopefully I'll be able to make that this year.

You just don't see that many werewolf movies these days, and I don't think there's been a werewolf musical release to date.

Personally, I love the story for Werewolf Hunters. The film is about a type of hero that lives in a society that doesn't appreciate this particular type of hero. So there's an underground, and the werewolf moves beneath the radar, if you can wrap your mind around that.

How do you feel about your early films?

I've already mentioned my first film, the animated short. After that, the next one I did was Man on the Moon, which was something I shot as an experiment while just goofing around with this pixel camera someone gave to me. I had it transferred to 16 millimeter and played it a couple time in theaters. I really enjoyed the audience response to Man on the Moon -- people were actually singing along to the Santa Claus song. Then, there's The Ketchup and Mustard Man, which was a live performance that we decided to make into a kind of psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness film.

How did you get your ideas for these films? What inspired the American Astronaut, Stingray Sam, and Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest? What brought on those ideas?

Werewolf Hunters has been a story I've been rewriting in my head ever since I started writing music and decided that I wanted to make films. It's always been rewritten based on what's going on in my life. Actually, it's not being rewritten anymore, but it was being reworked mentally for years. As for The American Astronaut, there was about three years when I wasn't living anywhere. I just stuffed all my stuff in a friend's carport and moved around, worked security in bars, and I was still performing, so I wrote The American Astronaut based on that experience.

This is probably a trick question, but what do you enjoy most about filmmaking?

Probably working with people, and seeing how things come alive in the hands of others. When you write a part for a movie, you're always hearing your own voice say the lines, and even though you might imagine someone else in the role, it's always you somehow. But when you actually see someone acting the part out, especially at the point where you're filming the scenes, the script takes on new dimension and becomes alive, and that's really amazing to experience. Working with Crugie and Willa in Stingray Sam was great, too. Neither of them had acted or done anything like this before, and both of them did the most amazing job. Nobody on set could imagine these two hadn't acted before. Thing was, when I first started working with Curgie, he didn't really know how to act, so he acted like he was acting at first. By just rehearsing constantly, which was great for me because I got to work on my character and play around with some shots, I got to develop tons for the actual movie while I was working with him to act like he normally acts. Now he just pops off the screen, and people are just going to love him. With my daughter, it was actually difficult to go back to being a dad after working with her as just a couple of actors. Watching her step up to the plate was amazing.

Another thing I love working on is storyboarding. I storyboard everything quite intensively. When we were making Stingray Sam, people actually stopped looking at the screenplay altogether and started referring to the storyboard for how the film would be shot.

Do you storyboard the locations, too?

I draw out what I'm guessing the set will look like, and then we try to find a location that will match. But if we can't find a location that matches or we find a location that has its own merit and might work better, we just re-choreograph the scene to fit the physical dimensions wherever we choose.

So what do you foresee for the future? For the band? For the movies?

We're sitting on some great material right now. We've got about an album and a half worth the music recorded. We've got two feature length screenplays that are storyboarded. We also shot a live performance in a recording studio, so we have that to edit together. We've definitely got a lot of things ready to go. But there's just so much work to do that we're going to take off some time from being a performing band and concentrate on taking advantage of things we have. Hopefully, I'll continue making films as well.

So what are you hoping for at Sundance with Stingray Sam, especially because you've worked so closely with Sundance before?

Sundance has always been extremely nice to me. They accepted my first animated short before I even knew what the Sundance Film Festival was, but somebody who worked there saw my short at this little local festive where I lived and submitted it to Sundance for me. A couple years later, we did The Billy Nayer Chronicles, where we performed between films and interwove them all together. I didn't realize this until recently, but it was their first multimedia event. Then, they brought me to the Sundance lab later with The American Astronaut screenplay, which was 50 percent storyboards as well, and then let me premier the film there when it was finished. Not long after that, they contacted me about doing Reno and even accepted Stingray Sam, too. A lot of people say, oh they're into commercial stuff. They might be into that as well, for different reasons. I mean they might like some of the stuff that's happening, but Little Miss Sunshine was actually an independent film, which just became a commercial film because of its success. The fact that they keep calling me up to do stuff means they're pretty cool to me, because I'm definitely not a Hollywood guy at all, and they've always been in my corner, supporting my films, trying to help me out whenever they can.

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