Exclusive Interview With Michael Tully On Septien
Septiene written, directed, and staring Michael Tully opens in limited release this week. It’s world premiere was earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and it can currently be seen on video on demand. I’ve seen this film described as quirky, bizarre, mysterious, and odd. I’ve head it referred to as a comedy, a drama, a sports movie, and a character study. Above all else though, I keep reading one thing about the film, and that’s how good it is.
In Septien, Tully portrays Cornelius, a former star athlete who suddenly returns to the family farm after vanishing from high school 18 years earlier. And how would a former star athlete spend his days in a small town after such an absence? By hustling the locals in a variety of sports of course.
I had the chance to ask the triple threat filmmaker a few questions about his new film. Check them out below.
We Got This Covered – All the athletic feats you did in the film were done by yourself, have you always had an interest in sports?
Michael Tully – Here’s a story that might put things in perspective, which my mom reminded me of recently: When I was a five-year-old kindergartner, I apparently wandered up to my teacher’s desk where she was reading the paper and asked her if I could check out the sports section. So, yes, I’ve always had an interest in sports. Early in life, it was all consuming. Currently, the only sports I still really care about are college basketball and tennis.
I find it hard to muster up any enthusiasm for the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB anymore (I wish I had the time and energy to know more about world soccer but that ain’t happening anytime soon). I used to cry really hard and get genuinely depressed whenever the San Diego Chargers lost (Wes Chandler was my hero), so I feel like I’ve wasted enough time and energy watching rich dudes bump into one other. College basketball takes up enough of my love and devotion.
WGTC – Were you able to perform all the sports in relatively few takes?
MT – As we were shooting on film as opposed to video and were knocking out all of the sports hustling scenes on the first day of the shoot, we had to capture them in as few takes as possible. For the tennis scene, I came up with a checklist of shots that I thought would show Cornelius to be an all-court dynamo (in real life, I can hit a tennis ball fine and dandy, but once I have to start keeping score, my brain shuts down and things get embarrassing and pathetic, like, immediately).
I was actually expecting to not be able to hit an actual tweener (between-the-legs) winner but I thought that if we cut once I’d made actual contact, that would convey enough athleticism. But on the third take (out of five I think), I hit a winner that the actor confessed to actually not being able to get his racket on. (Further clarity: Both this tennis fellow and the basketball dudes would have destroyed me had we played for real.)
As for the basketball trick shot, I announced to the crew that I would only be giving myself five chances to make this miracle happen. We were losing sunlight and were slightly behind schedule so this was how it had to be. Since the whole power of the shot was going to be my walking off without bothering to watch the ball go through the hoop, I told our AD Drew Bourdet to call cut as soon as the ball clanged off the rim or backboard.
Yet on the first take, when I sensed that the ball had reached the hoop, Drew didn’t speak up. The park was filled with silence. For a second I thought, “Did nobody just listen to me?” but that’s when Drew called cut and I turned around only to be met by shocked smiles. It went in on the first take! The funniest part is that our DP Jeremy Saulnier, who wasn’t smiling, walked up to me with a look of disappointment and said, “I didn’t get it,” at which point my stomach dropped.
What he meant was that since the ball had rolled around the rim and taken its time going through, he had panned down too late to capture my hand snatching the 50 dollar bill out of the other actor’s hand in the same shot. We had imagined it as a perfectly choreographed take. At that point, I DID NOT CARE. As long as we didn’t cut during the shot itself, an insert to the hand/money snatch was just fine by me. Jeremy wanted to try a few more takes to see if we could drill it perfectly, and I decided to humor him, knowing there was no way in scorching hell I would make that shot again. I didn’t.
WGTC – Have you always wanted to do a sports movie?
MT – ***A warning to you, as well as whoever is reading this: If you go into Septien thinking it’s a “sports movie,” you are going to be sadly disappointed!*** If I can rephrase that question with my answer, it’s more accurate to say that I have always wanted to include sports in a movie. To this day, I find it surprising whenever a filmmaker seems to not care about presenting an accurate representation of actual sports being played in a motion picture.
Especially when we’re talking about an outright sports movie, but even when there is a peripheral inclusion of sports. As my next film (knock on wood) is called Ping-Pong Summer, I guess I’m not through with this sports thing just yet. But after that one, I might take a break from the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
WGTC – You wrote, directed and starred in Septien, of the three, which did you find to be the most challenging?
MT – Writing the script was fun! Directing and acting at the same time was by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as a filmmaker, especially when I’ve never done any serious acting before (calling this “serious acting” is perhaps stretching things). Late in the shoot, after so many days of directing while wearing my Cornelius Rawlings uniform (it was around 98 degrees consistently throughout the shoot), it became an absolute blessing whenever I had a whole day in which I only had to direct.
WCTG – I’ve seen Septien described as a darker Napoleon Dynamite type film, do you say that’s a fair description?
MT – Man, I’m the wrong person to respond to that type of question. I will say this, though. One of the most rewarding things about getting reactions to Septien is that it has proven itself to be one of those films where every viewer compares it to something different based on their own movie-watching history. Fortunately, so far, just about all of those references have been pretty cool (just the other day a friend said, “It’s like Texas Chainsaw Massacre but without the killing!”). Though this has nothing to do with a Napoleon Dynamite comparison necessarily (a movie that I like a whole lot, by the way), one thing I do hope ultimately makes itself clear by the end of Septien is that there is genuine pain and sadness underneath the film’s bizarre, humorous surface.
WGTC – Whom would you compare your storytelling style to?
MT – Another impossible question for me to answer. Instead, I think I’ll just list some direct sources of inspiration for Septien and leave it at that (obviously, I’m not putting myself on the same pedestal as these awesome influences): The Spirit of the Beehive, The Night of the Hunter, Bad Ronald, Stroszek, NFL Films, Blue Velvet, Flannery O’Connor, Brother’s Keeper, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, James Agee, Buffalo ’66, Seventeen, Halloween, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, Robert Altman (especially in the 1970s), William Faulkner, etc.
WGTC – What came first, your interest in writing about movies (Tully is an editor/writer for HammerToNail.com) or your interest in making movies?
MT – I guess an interest in making them came first. The reviewing/championing or whatever it is I do at HammerToNail.com came after I had made my first two films (Cocaine Angel, Silver Jew). For me, everything I do is a hopefully positive expression that reflects my overriding love of cinema. Basically, I’m a nerd.
Thanks to Michael Tully for his time, and be sure to look for Septien in select theaters and also on video on demand right now.