The raw, unsettling independent film Bad Fever premieres at SXSW on Friday, March 11. Directed by Dustin Guy Defa, the film follows Eddie, a rambling, schizophrenic-sounding twentysomething loner who may be the world's worst aspiring stand-up comedian, and his courtship of Irene, a drifter with an unseemly means of making a living. Part The King of Comedy, part Taxi Driver, Bad Fever showcases nuanced acting from Kentucker Audley (Open Five, Holy Land, Team Picture), a veteran director and actor in the mumblecore scene, and Eleonore Hendricks, a photographer and accomplished actress (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Go Get Some Rosemary). I spoke with them both about improvisation, how their other artistic roles inform their acting, and the inevitability of a 3-D mumblecore film.
Unlike most mumblecore films, this one actually contains a tremendous amount of real mumbling on the part of Kentucker's character Eddie, who rambles and repeats phrases and speaks to himself as much as to anyone else, even when performing stand-up comedy. First, was there any explicit discussion of what Eddie's pathology is? And second, how much improvisation did each of you bring to your characters?
KENTUCKER: Dustin and I talked about this quite a bit initially. I don't think either of us ever wanted to give Eddie a specific social disorder. For me, because I wanted to be instinctual and creative, and not tie myself to pathology.
We had long discussions about what was wrong with this guy and the furthest we wanted to go was he was questionably socialized. There's an old-fashioned way he speaks that he must have picked up from old movies or only being around weirdo adults, with very little peer interaction.
Yes, he does stammer and mumble, but his speech is often formal. He says things like: "Unfortunately, I will not be able to take a no from you at this time," and "Mother, I have prepared your Diet Coke on the bedside and there are pork chops in the fridge should you want them."
But like I said, I was working primarily from instinct, which probably means I was using a lot of myself in the character -- some dark, sad, isolated part of myself.
The way I came to the character was through the stand-up routine -- all his real-life interactions are basically an extension of the way he practices his act into his tape recorder.
Most of the dialogue was improvised, but there was a script and we went by it in regards to structure and plotting.
Eleonore, did you establish what Irene's background was, or did you leave it ambiguous in your own mind?
ELEONORE: I wanted to get familiar with who Irene was before playing her, sure! But her background wasn't as important to me as her character, her nature, the kind of gal she was. In the script she's a girl who stays alone in an abandoned school, hangs out at gas stations, and makes VHS recordings of herself for men for money. Given her circumstances one could make her out to have some tragic history -- I wasn't into that idea, nor was Dustin. She reminded me of an old high school friend of mine. This friend had been in my life for about two years before taking off and leaving the school and leaving a deep impression on me. I can still hear her voice, and see her mannerisms; I remember her clothes, and her impact on other students. She was more mature than the rest of us, more solitary. In private she would share her poetry and wild stories of the boys and men she'd been with, she would often miss school, or come in telling me about these bouts she'd had with her mother. The memory of this friend was a good foundation for my understanding of Irene.
I can't become that girl, but I thought about her while shooting, it made the character make sense to me, and then I brought along myself.
There were certainly times when I lost track of Irene's voice. Times where I felt too much of my own instinct in a scene or where I was confused about how Irene would act or react, and that's frustrating. When this happened, Dustin and I would wrassle with it, Kentucker and I would mull it over, and I often conferred with the other ladies on that small crew. We were, at times, all in on making that character come alive.
Overall, I think Kentucker brought more improvisation to Eddie than I did with Irene, but I felt very free to use my own language with the written script.
You've both acted before, but you've also both filled in other roles on movies, and Eleonore is a photographer. How does your directing influence your acting, Kentucker, and does your photography have an effect on your acting, Eleonore?
KENTUCKER: I don't think it did. Even though I have technically "directed" films, I don't feel much like a director. I don't engulf my films with a vision; I let them unfold. And everyone is playing themselves so nothing's a stretch -- the only technique is to figure how to forget the camera and act like you would. But with this film, I had to change my speaking pattern, create new mannerisms and language. I had to make creative decisions that I would never have to make in the world of my films.
Honestly, I didn't want to do this film because I didn't think I could pull it off. There were believability issues with the script -- the first draft had my character rob a bank and kill a man --and I was fundamentally opposed to using unbelievable elements. I initially told Dustin to keep looking. (I wanted him to cast Tim Morton, who played my roommate in Team Picture.)
The biggest factor in changing my mind was my interest in stand-up comedy. Motivation to write jokes and come up with a stage persona was an exciting idea. So I made sure I could write my own jokes, and then said yes to the part.
I'm glad I did, and I know acting in this film will change my approach to directing. I'm more sympathetic to the actor's plight. It's a volatile job. And, also, I think I'll make different types of films now. I've always made hyper-realistic movies because I could never suspend disbelief, but having played a character like Eddie, I understand on a new level the artistry of make-believe.
ELEONORE: I think my photography and my acting are closely linked. I'm curious about the beauty of the human condition; a full spectrum, its vastness and subtly. I'm always trying to deepen my understanding. These art forms allow me explore and share my discoveries. I'm more comfortable and practiced as a photographer. Acting is so bizarre because you're using yourself as a tool and I know I have a lot more to learn about my mechanics. In a way, portrait-making and looking at life has been a great resource for learning to act.
For many years I had a job as a street scout where I would stop a stranger with a particular look and ask to take a photograph them. In my new work I'm exploring womanhood by photographing my friends and other girls and women in my life. I also consistently photograph my day-to-day.
The personalities I meet and photograph stay with me; they affect me. I don't think I try to act as my subjects, but the personalities rub off and influence me, with or without my knowing. Acting, like my portraiture, is a means of expressing a human story, in full color.
What's next for both of you?
KENTUCKER: I've acted in a couple things recently: one of Joe Swanberg's new art sex films, as well as a short by Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die), and several other acting parts are supposed to happen this year. Also, I'm editing Open Five 2, the sequel to my last film, Open Five, and planning for the last two films in the series, one a murder-mystery-inspired cheating movie, and the finale, Open Five 4 in 3-D, for the throng of fans waiting for a 3-D mumblecore movie.
I'm also starting to get interested in the internet. I'm working on a Tumblr site that releases/compiles free no-budget movies called No Budge. And I started this site Address4Anybody, which anyone can log in to and post anything.
ELEONORE: After going to SXSW for Bad Fever, I'll be working on a new slasher film by Adam Wingard. I'm excited about the rest of the cast on this one too, some really good people involved. The other film I'm looking forward to sharing with an audience is an experimental fiction/dream/docu-drama by Maiko Endo, Kuichisan, shot in November 2009 in Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan. I'm also currently casting my friend Adam Leon's first feature film, Gimme the Loot, to be shot this summer in NYC.
And, as always, I continue to make portraits and other photographs, and I'm working on a collaborative Photobook project with a friend of mine based in Berlin.