No Trickery, No Pretense: Director Michael Peterson on 'Knuckleball'
Michael Peterson reflects on knowing the places one can bend and twist the tropes of genre to bring something new to the crowded space of horror film.
Amp Films / Freestyle Digital Media
In Knuckleball (2018), 12-year-old Henry (Luca Villacis) finds himself the target of ill-intent after his grandfather Jacob (Michael Ironside) dies suddenly in the night. Alone on an isolated farm, as he fights for his survival he uncovers secrets that expose his dark family legacy.
"I have been fairly promiscuous in the types of projects that I've made," says director and co-writer Michael Peterson, which is evident in his third feature in its contrast to his previous films: Eddies: The Documentary (2010) and Lloyd the Conquerer (2011). These two comedies themselves support Peterson's claim of being a promiscuous storytelle,r because while both are comedies, Eddies centres around a behind the scenes look at an amateur beer commercial competition, while the latter sees three college students battle a dark wizard. Yet moments of Knuckleball's humorous tone, albeit family comedy mixed with darker shades of humour, sees a continuation in the director's body of work, and Henry's confrontation and struggle is not so far removed from Lloyd the Conquerer's plot, either.
In conversation with PopMatters, Peterson reflects on the reason he's compelled to make films and on embracing the possibility of failure. He also discusses how the intent of the filmmaker plays into film as a permanent and impermanent object, and his skepticism towards originality.
Luca Villacis as Henry in Knuckleball (2018) (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
There's probably a lot, but in general when I grew up my dad didn't like television – we didn't have a television and there were five of us kids. But he loved movies and he would take us all of the time. One weekend he would take me to see Eraserhead (1977) and the next we would be watching The Three Stooges. So it was always a part of growing up. But where I came from it never seemed like it would be a possibility that could be a job, a profession, or a thing to do because there weren't any examples of people who did that. So it was something that I always wanted to do and it always had that magic, but it just took me a while to figure out how to actually do it.
How true is it that filmmaking is a constant learning curve, and does each film have the capacity to teach you something individual and specific to that experience?
It's absolutely true, and especially on the directing side. There's always something that you come up against that you either haven't thought about, or thought through, and you haven't had to deal with before. So you have to come up with solutions to problem solve them in a way that you can maintain whatever your intent is. It's constant, and I can't imagine if it ended that you would do it. What would be the point if you just walked in and said, "I've got this"? I can't see that happening, and if it did, I can't see the reason for doing it.
Is one of the motivational forces the negotiation to make the film as perfect, or as close to the image of your intent as is reasonably possible?
[Laughs] There is that yeah, and making sure you're working with the right partners. It's never ending and I have been fairly promiscuous in the types of projects that I've made. I don't like to remake the same thing. If it feels too much the same I'm not as often interested, just because then I don't see the inherent challenges that I'm setting up for myself to hopefully grow and become a better filmmaker.
The last film I directed was more like a broad nerd comedy that had some really cool challenges in it, but the challenges here are worlds apart from what I had to resolve and reckon with in that one. And then there's the next one I am looking to direct… They are still all genre films, and they are all films I would want to see if I was just watching movies. But they all have something in them that might scare me a little bit, or I'm not sure about, that feels like it's a risk of failure.
Michael Peterson on the set of Knuckleball (2018) (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)
What was the seed of the idea for Knuckleball and to speak about theme, are you attentive to specific themes from the outset, or do the thematic interests of the film gradually emerge?
The seed of the idea was straightforward. It largely came from the anxiety of being a parent, and the worst concern you have of not being able to protect your kid. So it grew from that idea and then I went and sat with my co-writer, and we hashed something out from there. Thematically, the deeper you can relate to it and for myself, whether other people pick up on those things or not is another question, but they're in there for me. Sometimes you know that it is in there, and you might not be phrasing it in the best way to get it across to other people on your team if they're asking. But I find those things also help in terms of the designing of the film and working with the other departments, so that everyone is essentially working from the same basket of metaphors, or thematic base.
I think that's important and should come through in things as subtle as colour palette, or what types of things this person would have in their house, even in a shot that you might just breeze past. But you want all of this depth and layers of meaning, or that's your hope anyway.
Picking up on your point about the contrast between what you see versus what the audience will see, this speaks to the contradiction of a film being both permanent and impermanent. Even in the way we experience a film, not only does it differ to the experience of others, but changes from one viewing to the next.
Well to me that would be successful, if you can make something that can be read in more than one way, or if it has the capacity to hold that much mystery or magic. It's a funny thing because you want it to feel fixed to a certain degree, but you also want a lot of room around that fixed spot, and that's what my intention is. You want people to hopefully land somewhere near by, but if they don't land exactly there and they get taken along for the journey, if their experiences and whatever their references are can add something even better, more interesting or just different than what I intended, the intention is what allows them to travel there. And hopefully the image and the story have enough depth that they can also be thought about that way for whoever is watching it, if they choose to take it in that way.
Image and sound is highly suggestive of the ominous feeling within the film, and while the music is crucial to communicating such a feeling, the image is also vital – the placement of the camera and the framing of the landscape and the house. How important is it to go into the edit with a foresight in mind so that image and sound can work together?
You usually go in with most of your ideas in place, but that doesn't mean they can't change, and that better ideas can't come along. The editor on this film [Rob Grant] is also a director, and so we would have really rich conversations around that. There would be something we would be talking about and he'd say: "Hey, this is what you say you wanted to do, did you mean..? Do you mind if I just try swapping these shots?" I'd say: "Yeah, lets try that," because you want to wring out the best edit of whatever footage you have, and what you shoot isn't always exactly how it ends up, or what you end up with.
Sometimes there's a better version of that and you can only cut what you have, and there are sometimes slight nuances, twists and tricks. That to me is the collaborative part of the filmmaking that I really enjoy, because there's a whole bunch of partners who help make your film better. But at the end of the day, I decide what is going to move forward or not.
There was a temp score we were using, part of it was from… I'm totally blanking on it. But we used a couple of different films as temp tracks, and those ended up flavouring where we landed with the composers. I'm not a musician, so I can't speak about the compositions in musical terms, but I can speak about them in terms of emotion, and I can speak about them in terms of the types and number of instrumentation.
When I spoke to the composers at the very beginning, I was very clear that even if the sound ended up being filtered or programmed through synthesisers, I wanted it to have an organic base because there was an organic feeling to the film that I wanted to preserve. I wanted all of these things to add up to some psychological whole when the person is watching it, and so I wanted a very limited humber of instruments. With some of those bits of guidance, the composers went: "Okay cool, what about this?" It's a lot of back and forth that way.
Munro Chambers as Dixon in Knuckleball (2018) (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)
You spoke about not wanting to make the same film time and again, and while the film is playful, is there an inevitable breaking point that you can't push beyond in the playfulness?
Hopefully all of these films have become something of a personal vehicle to express what I want to say about life to some degree. The genre stuff that I grew up with I still often watch, again and again, and I show to my kids. So to me that's the stuff that sticks around, and some of it seems to have a longer shelf life, or has a longer place in your relationship with movies.
By dealing with a lot of big tropes within genres and sub-genres, you hopefully know the places that you can bend and twist them to add new interesting elements, within sort of a space that is already inhabited. It's kind of like writing a killer pop song, and a lot of people look down on pop songs, but to actually write a really good one is difficult.
Could we sum the film up as revelling in familiarity that is then heightened by the playfulness of the directions you take the story in?
Yeah, we're not tricking anyone into the kind of movie it is. If you are going to this movie I expect that you know what you are going into, so I don't need to hide the fact that the neighbour [Munro Chambers' Dixon] could be an issue. We don't necessarily know how that thing might become a bit of danger, but we can sense something early on and I don't need to feather that in. And the music is all well within the genre that the film is trying to belong, so I'm not trying to pretend it's a drama and then move into genre. Are we saying the same thing?
To me it is sometimes a case of being honest, and I always recall the advice of a creative writing tutor and publisher to just tell a familiar story well. It's not always about creating game-changers and there is a wisdom to such advice because as you say it is about creating connections and emotion, which this approach is able to produce.
When I was a young filmmaker, I used to think that I was trying to do something new all the time, and then as I made a bunch more films and became less immature, I realised that I didn't feel that was the purpose at all. As a goal, I'm not even sure that it's worthwhile to make something completely new that has never been seen before, but rather to sit within these stories that are part of the history of humankind and storytelling, however you define these; Is it Joseph Campbell or is it Jungian archetypes? However you define or create a taxonomy for that. You are sitting within stuff that has all been done, so just try to do the best version of the story you are trying to tell; that's very much what I want to do.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: "You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience? Is this a means to measure the merit of a piece of filmmaking?
[Laughs] I don't know, maybe. It probably depends on the film and I don't know if that's necessary. But hopefully it makes them think and the images are sticking, and the next day or two weeks later it pops up in a random thought, and comes back to haunt them in a good way -- or a bad way. The idea of stickiness -- I like a lot -- and in terms of transformative -- yeah man, every film features that. Then you get out, you recover and if you are a glutton for punishment, you want to go back and do it again, which is exactly what I want to do.