MUBI is hosting the exclusive global premiere of Gary Walkow's Radio Mary (2017), which will be showing November 28 - December 28, 2017.
Gary Walkow’s filmmaking career has a peculiar shape. For a while he looked like a low-key American indie success story waiting for his breakthrough. His first feature The Trouble With Dick shared the Grand Prize at the 1987 US Film Festival, which was renamed to Sundance a few years later. Notes From Underground (1995), a modern-day Dostoyevsky adaptation, premiered at Toronto and got good reviews and a modest bit of distribution; but Beat (2000), with Kiefer Sutherland and Courtney Love as Bill and Joan Burroughs, had a rocky reception at Sundance and seemed to mark the end of Indiewood’s flirtation with Walkow. After a hiatus that included an unfinished film, Walkow’s career began a second, more clandestine phase with Crashing (2007), a very low-budget comedy that eventually received DVD distribution, boosted by a cast that included Campbell Scott and Lizzy Caplan. Since then, Walkow has operated almost invisibly, making a series of inexpensive features that have rarely screened at festivals and never been acquired for distribution.
On the bright side: Walkow started good and got better, and his obscure filmography is as impressive as that of any American director of his time. As his budgets and crew sizes have diminished, the careful framing of the early films has yielded to a somewhat more spontaneous visual style; but his instinct for composition in depth never falters. He generally develops his story ideas through repetition, doubling, and other tricks with mirrors that seem like the signs of writerly excess, but that in Walkow’s hands create shifting layers of reflexivity that are the heart of the movies rather than an adornment of them.
I’ve been Gary’s friend and sounding board for almost 35 years, and generally feel as if I know his artistic strengths and inclinations. But I have no idea where Radio Mary came from or where he’s been keeping that side of his creative self, even though I watched the movie take shape. Based on a novel that was based on one of Walkow’s dreams, the movie quietly dissolves the conventions that keep most horror movies in our comfort zone. We meet Mary (the brilliant Kate Lyn Sheil) as she prepares to go to her Century City office job, using a tea bag retrieved from her garbage can for her morning tea. We know this Everywoman must go through some changes to earn her titular status, but greatness is never thrust upon her. Instead, she is almost immediately reduced to the plaything of Hayward (Eric Gorlow), a malevolent supernatural figure who casts Mary into a shadow world between dream and reality, where she becomes a helpless accomplice to his serial killings. (The film’s title is literal: Hayward uses Mary as a receiver to play music, thus commandeering the soundtrack at will.) The question posed by Mary’s victimhood is not whether she will free herself—resistance seems impossible—but rather to what extent Hayward can co-opt her emotions as well as her actions.
The protracted section in which Mary tries to grasp whether Hayward is real or a figment of her unconscious gives Walkow the opportunity to indulge his sense of narrative play. He cycles through variations on is-it-a-dream trickery until the ludic excess comes out the other side and the film arrives at a state of abstraction where the dream/reality opposition has no importance. Our confusion as we pass through this hall of mirrors is also a trap for our identification. As Mary is drawn into Hayward’s sphere of power, the possibility that none of what she experiences is real makes her obedience seem natural and inconsequential, as it is in dreams. The trap is fully sprung in the extraordinary scene in which Mary, in her nightdress, stands on the edge of the room as Hayward plays cat-and-mouse with the screenwriter Tony (Matthew Brenher), whose house he has invaded. To the accompaniment of pulsing dance music that Hayward channels through Mary, Hayward demands that the hesitating Mary abandon her spectator’s posture and join the killer and victim on the sofa. “If I don’t move, maybe I’m not here,” thinks Mary on the soundtrack, clinging to the role of audience to this genre movie. But finally Mary obeys her dream, leaving the rest of us spectators behind and very slowly assuming her supporting role.
Mary’s submission and Hayward’s dominance are charged with sexuality, and Walkow chooses to make the connection explicit. He gives the sadistic Hayward the answer to every question and the cool to dominate every situation, and uses Hayward’s control of the music track to give us direct pleasure from our identification with the killer. No less focused on the flip side of the psychosexual coin, Walkow cements the natural link between Mary’s passive role and the audience’s passivity by means of Mary’s omnipresent inner monologue, which evokes our compliant relationship with horror movies. The voluptuousness of Mary’s masochism is so akin to eroticism that the film barely has to break its stride when Hayward actually has sex with Mary. Tormented by a sense of her complicity, Mary is no more able to disclaim responsibility for the sex than for the killings in which she participates: “He takes me, and I let him.” But any pleasure she might feel within her nightmare is just bait on the hook, and cannot transform the horror film into a fantasy: the film’s trance-like ecstatic vision of sex and violence is wedded to its disturbing subjective depiction of Mary’s Hayward-induced insanity. One scene in particular, in which Mary spirals into paralyzing self-consciousness during a session with her therapist (Ilka Urbach), puts Walkow’s cyclical verbal and visual riffing in the service of a persuasive vision of hell.
In the film’s second half, a broken Mary is ejected from Hayward’s dream world and left in the hands of the police, implicated in the murder of her sometime boyfriend Rand (the appealing Daniel Kaufman, also the cinematographer). Here the film pivots to suggest an old-fashioned damsel-in-distress narrative, as Mary attracts the personal and professional interest of the sympathetic detective Tom Reese (Dylan McCormick). Mary’s resignation to her fate gives her an almost Hawksian detachment that enhances the appeal of her victimhood. With no hope of rescue, she acquires a degree of wit and control that can be interpreted either as identification with Hayward’s power or as her having nothing left to lose. Describing her relationship with Hayward to Tom, she says with bemused understatement, “He’s taken a certain interest in me, and I’ve found it very difficult to dissuade him.” No longer much concerned with her welfare, she gives herself the consolation prize of rejecting the protection of her sister (Sherill Turner) and brother-in-law (Napoleon Ryan), shooing them away from her apartment with an exaggerated hand gesture; spotting the cop who is staking her out, she walks up to his car and waves hello. For Mary, the movie has ended unhappily before its actual conclusion: her poignant goodbye to Tom after their nighttime conversation in his car is already a missive from the next world.
Without giving away the action climax (a showcase for Walkow’s skill at articulating spatial relationships), suffice it to say that the business of rescuing the damsel from the dragon doesn’t work out quite the way the film’s second half led us to hope, and that its heretofore traditional structuring of gender and power breaks down surprisingly.
The following interview with Walkow was conducted via email.
NOTEBOOK: What do you remember about the dream that gave birth to Radio Mary?
GARYWALKOW: The initial impetus was a dream of a woman in prison, who was in great jeopardy. I felt responsible in some way. Perhaps I was a detective. The dream left me with a great feeling of unease and guilt. I started writing, very episodically, with no plan in mind.
As the writing coalesced into a novel, there were three major strands: 1. Tom Reese, a homicide detective, who gained fame from capturing a serial killer nicknamed the Monkey Man. 2. Hayward, the Monkey Man's nephew, who wanted to avenge his uncle by killing all those associated with capturing or profiting from his uncle. 3. Mary, a legal secretary, who crosses paths with Hayward and Tom Reese.
I tried writing a script from the novel and it just didn't work. Then, much later, I had another dream. This one was about the novel. The insight I got from the dream was that, instead of making Detective Reese an anchor for the story, if the story was from Mary's POV it would be unmoored, floaty, mysterious. At that point I hadn’t thought of the book in years. I lay in bed and played this alternate version in my head. Then, at my computer, I excised all of the Reese chapters in ten minutes. Suddenly it seemed like a movie.
So there were two dreams. One that started the novel. And a second dream that was a vision of how the book could be a movie.
NOTEBOOK: I know that you've been interested in the Charles Manson mythology for a long time, and Hayward seems like the realization of that interest.
WALKOW: Yes. After I wrote the Radio Mary novel, I wrote a screenplay about Charlie Manson. The story was structured as found footage of a UCLA MFA student who set out to make what he hoped would be a California version of A Hard Day's Night, centering on an up and coming charismatic singer-songwriter, Charles Manson. As the documentary proceeds, things get weirder and scarier. Eventually feeling his life threatened, the filmmaker abandons the project. Years later, the filmmaker's daughter assembles the footage. This structure made ellipsis quite natural. No footage of the Tate killings -- it's a ticking bomb and it's entirely offscreen. The only violent act in the script is Charlie punching someone on the nose.
The sixties are a period that fascinate me, and Manson is the guy who pulled the curtain down on the era. Maybe he's a channel for or to or from my id. If there is such a thing as an id. Or my inner sociopath. I'm not the best one to try and explain it (self-knowledge only goes so far) but it's a voice that I can do.
So, yes, Hayward is an incarnation of a Mansonesque character.
In the novel, Mary is committed to a mental hospital, and Hayward is an orderly working in the hospital. Hayward has a crew of mental patients that he takes out with him at night to do bad things. Very much in the mold and mood of the Manson family. But all that got stripped away for the movie.
NOTEBOOK: The threat to Mary within the movie seems to emerge from her dream world, and you get a lot of mileage out of blurring the line between dreams and reality. Was this part of the novel as well? Did the dream origin of the project make you think of using dreams as a structural element?
WALKOW: Yes, dreams and blurred lines are an important part of the novel. Dreaming as a structural element wasn't given a lot of thought -- it was part of the book's DNA. Dreams, interior landscapes, fantasies have often been elements of my work. In Radio Mary they are at the core.
NOTEBOOK. You've been working with a very small crew for a while now. How hard was it to adjust to that?
WALKOW: The adjustment came pretty easily -- from Beat, which was $2.2 million, 35mm, and shot at a distant location in Mexico, to Crashing, which was under $10K, digital, and shot primarily in my apartment in Santa Monica with a four-person crew. I bounced up to a bigger budget again with Callers. But my two recent documentaries, Chasing Flavor and Existential Risk, have taken the transition to small crews as far as it can go. I shot these films myself, sometimes with a sound recordist, but more often completely alone. There's a real intimacy when I am the only person in the room doing the filming. Joe Swanberg was the impetus and inspiration for this mode of filmmaking. Filmmaking now seems relatively easy when I have a crew. A five to eight-person crew works beautifully. Once the crew gets over ten then you need a support staff, so things start spiralling bigger.
The advantage of a small crew is the great mobility and the ability to quickly adjust to opportunities presented by location, light, and the luck of being in the right place at the right time.
One aspect of Radio Mary, which was shot with a core crew of five, was that the lead actors were available for the run of the shoot so there was great flexibility as to what we could shoot on any given day.
The downside of working with small crews is getting typecast as a low-budget filmmaker. I believe it was David Thomson who said, of Edgar Ulmer, that once you demonstrate the ability to make low budget movies you get locked into doing just that. As if I would have a problem making a one or two or five million dollar movie.
NOTEBOOK: Kate Lyn Sheil gives a beautiful performance as Mary. Did you have any particular directions for her, or did you give her her head?
WALKOW: Kate had a complete conception of the character and was giving a full performance from the first scene on the first day. We began production with the first scene in the movie (Mary waking, making a cup of tea). Things went so well that we shot the final scene with Hayward in Mary's apartment on the first day, which I had scheduled for much later in the shoot. Eric Gorlow was performing at the same level on the first day. I've never had a first day where extra scenes, and crucial ones at that, were filmed.
Six months earlier I began shooting the film with a different cast, and was so unhappy with the result that I stopped production. It was wonderful to begin production again with Kate. It felt right from the very first frame we filmed.
Sometimes I would make small adjustments, but mostly I felt blessed with the great good fortune of having Kate in front of the camera. You really do need the casting gods to smile down upon you, and this time they did. For me it was a perfect fit of actor and role.
NOTEBOOK: A lot of good actors would have tried to project strength to balance out the role, but Kate works within the uncomfortable sexual dynamic. The bare bones of the plot suggest a damsel-in-distress thriller.
WALKOW: The distress is shape-shifting and complex. The boundary between what is inside of Mary's head and what is outside of it is permeable and uncertain. Mary is complicit. Her surrender to the distress is at the heart of the story. "He takes me and I let him."
NOTEBOOK: The Tom Reese character seems to be trying to resolve the simpler damsel-in-distress movie rather than the film of complicity. And casting Dylan McCormick, who projects decency and stability so well, reinforces the audience’s hope for a clean genre conclusion. Does Tom Reese do any better a job of stabilizing the novel than he does the movie?
WALKOW: Tom definitely stabilized the novel as it was originally conceived. In the novel, Hayward is intent on killing Reese as part of the elaborate payback for the incarceration of his uncle (a notorious serial killer). When Tom Reese crosses paths with Mary in the Century City lunch court, Hayward observes their interaction and shifts his interest to Mary. From that point on, the three points of view (Tom Reese, Mary, Hayward) triangulate.
NOTEBOOK: What projects have you worked on since Mary?
WALKOW: I've made four features since, two narrative (Caffiend, Be My Baby), two documentary (Chasing Flavor, Existential Risk). All four films connect.
A big project has been to become a competent shooter. I filmed Chasing Flavor and Existential Risk. I'm now shooting a new film. It's been the most productive period of my career in terms of getting films made.