Septien, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, is the story of Cornelius Rawlings—played by the film’s writer-director Michael Tully—a man who returns home to Tennessee after disappearing 18 years earlier. The film explores the dynamic between Cornelius and his brothers—Amos (Onur Tukel) and Ezra (Robert Longstreet)—and the roles (caretaker, artist and athlete) that each brother plays in their dysfunctional little family. As the story unfolds we learn why Cornelius left home and how his brothers and a mysterious drifter help him overcome the pain of his past.
MovieMaker spoke with Michael Tully about his inspiration for this southern Gothic drama and his pre-production and on-set experiences.
Samantha Husik (MM): Septien almost feels like several films in one, there are so many different elements: Sports, religion, art, etc. How did you come up with the idea for this film?
Michael Tully (MT): Septien was born as a reaction to having seen so many movies on the film festival circuit over the past few years in my role as head editor/writer at HammerToNail.com. On broad terms—and while it might not sound like the most worthwhile reason—more than anything I really, really wanted to make a movie that would only get rejected from a festival because the programmer hated it, not because there was another movie like it in the submission pile. I also wanted to create a story that couldn’t have been more different from my own personal upbringing. As for the many-films-in-one approach, there are two primary reasons for that: 1) I thought that the most interesting and challenging thing I could do as a filmmaker would be to see what would happen if we combined so many disparate influences into one story and injected it with as much personal sincerity as possible; and 2) I honestly told myself that I was never going to make another movie after this one, so I figured I’d better cram it with as much crazy stuff as I could.
MM: Can you explain the title?
MT: The word “Septien” reminds me of playing with football cards growing up as an adolescent in the 1980s. I thought that by giving the film an unconventional word for a title, we might help viewers to better understand that they were about to watch something just a little bit different. Getting more pretentious about it, the tone of the film is so difficult to pin down that I figured we should come up with a new adjective to describe it.
MM:The artwork in the film reflects the events in the story. Onur Tukel, who plays Amos, created those works. How did you work with Onur to produce the art elements? Why did you decide to make artwork such an integral part of the film?
MT: According to the shooting script, here is how those paintings are described: “A CHILDLIKE MELODY plays as we see a series of haunting paintings and drawings in CLOSE-UP. These images are tenderly innocent and grotesquely corrupt at the same time. They appear to be the work of an extremely talented, but deeply scarred, child.” Onur Tukel brought that text to life in an infinitely more disturbing, exciting and exhilarating way than I could have ever dreamed. I didn’t do anything except get out of the way and let him tap into his twisted subconscious (my only note early on was, “Uh… Maybe use different colors.”). Without question, the fact that Onur played a crucial role in developing his character of Amos, as well as helping to flesh out the story in general, is what made this process work so well. Farming this task out to the most talented artist in the world wouldn’t have resulted in an artwork nearly as perfect. Judging from these 60-plus drawings and paintings, Onur might actually be the most talented artist in the world.
MM: In addition to writing and directing this film you played the role of Cornelius. How difficult was it for you to switch back and forth between your role as a director and your role as an actor?
MT: I was advised by many not to do what I did, and while they’re probably right, for this particular project, it simply had to be done. One thing is that I made sure to write a role in which I did less, [not] more. If I’d had to deliver pages of dialogue and really give an expressive performance as opposed to the more stripped down approach that I took, I don’t know what would have happened. More than anything, credit here goes to our awesome cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier, who is an excellent director in his own right (Murder Party). Jeremy helped me immensely by providing feedback on my performance, as well as finding beautiful frames and shots that brought a naturalistic artistry to the overall production.
MM: Onur Tukel is also a director. Did you feel self-conscious having other directors on set, or was it comforting having someone to bounce ideas off of?
MT: Onur isn’t the only director who was on that set. As I just mentioned, Jeremy is a director too. As is John Maringouin, who played the role of Preacher and has made two great documentaries that everybody should see (Running Stumbled, Big River Man). Our AD Drew Bourdet and our 2nd AC Daniel Henry are directors as well. To me, good directing is when you have the humility to surround yourself with individuals who are smarter, more talented and more creative than you will ever be. My job as director is to create an atmosphere where everyone feels like his or her job is as important as the next person’s—because it is. The crew we assembled respected my position as director and let me call the shots when they needed to be called, but I also opened up the floor as often as possible, which is when most of the film’s very best ideas were born.
MM: What was the biggest challenge you faced in the making of this film? How did you resolve it?
MT: I could list many little production/post-production issues that arose, but to be honest, the biggest challenge faced in making this film was actually committing to making it. Thankfully, I had support from the very beginning from Onur Tukel and Robert Longstreet, whose enthusiasm kept things moving forward. Then, when it came time to shoot the actual script, aligning ourselves with Brooke Bernard and Ryan Zacarias of Nashville’s Nomadic Independence Pictures set the real wheels in motion. It’s so difficult to block out the voices that are constantly screaming at you from every angle to give up and not plunge forward. When it actually manages to happen, it’s a genuine miracle.
Septien is now playing in select theaters. Visit http://www.sundanceselects.com/films/septien to learn more about the film or to view the trailer.