David Zellner in Ghostbox Cowboy
Ghostbox Cowboy was an under-the-radar late-2018 release. It had runs in LA, SF, and NYC. It’s been available to rent VOD since Christmas. But outside the rave from Glenn Kenny in the New York Times, its profile has been limited to festival blurbs (mostly positive) from Tribeca, where it premiered last May, an example of how hard it is to get people to watch a movie. And this movie is a tough sell, sure, with its indie names (David Zellner and Robert Longstreet) barely recognizable in wigs and dentures half the time; with its hyper-digital look (no Alexa here); with its anxiety-inducing sound design and low rumbling score. But it’s one of the best American films about the precarious state of capitalism–specifically, its influence on modern China and the pie-eyed gringos intent on wringing free some riches for themselves. I sat down with director, writer, editor, and producer John Maringouin for some coffee to talk through some of the film’s genesis and to capture some of his ideas on what cinema is for.
NOTEBOOK: Ghostbox Cowboy doesn’t seem like a cinephile movie at all. It definitely is a movie that's needs to be a movie—it's told in images—but it seems to have like a lot of literary inspiration.
JOHN MARINGOUIN: Depends on how you define cinephile. If it’s someone looking for nostalgic associations to familiar film languages, then it’s probably not for them. But if you’re into cinema really taking new approaches, or looking for something that’s not afraid to be ugly, then I think it’s a cinephile’s film in a big way.
I’m not sure it’s inspired by literature as much as personal feelings about current events—general world endarkenment, occult geopolitics, creepy macroeconomics. In a world like that I think it’s imperative for cinema to kind of subvert or shed light on these things in as unfiltered a way as possible. I’m a situationist. I’m into the mechanics of how situations define people. There’s a lot of truth or authenticity in how a person reacts to a particular situation.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think Ghostbox is more authentic than other films?
MARINGOUIN: No. But Ghostbox is about authenticity. Jimmy’s story is about being forced to reveal himself. And formally, in its execution, it’s authentic to itself. It doesn’t follow any rules but its own.
As a kid, I was always really into Evel Knievel. He did feats that he definitely knew in advance were gonna fuck him up severely, if not kill him. And he probably definitely did not get any real pleasure out of jumping 25 buses and breaking his back. He did it because one, he needed the money; and two, People wanted to see it. That’s it. The obstacle was the point. But a lot is revealed in that display. I feel like my films have a little of that in common. They have extreme obstacles built in. Running Stumbled was a verité Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but with me as the invisible son behind the camera. The challenge of Big River Man was “make a film about a guy who does nothing but float down the Amazon.” The challenge of Ghostbox Cowboy, and maybe the reason I got into it, was I knew it was next to impossible to make. I’d have no time, no resources, working with mostly newcomers in a world that was both off limits and out of my control. So it had this steep logistical and formal filmmaking obstacle built into it, which felt familiar, and challenging at the same time.
NOTEBOOK: How many trips to China did it take?
MARINGOUIN: It took four trips.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a strange underworld in the film of tech knock-off pirates… Did you have an idea of this little subculture going in or was Spesh (short for Specialist, whose identity is cloaked for professional reasons) your main entry the same as he is, in the film, for Jimmy the protagonist?
MARINGOUIN: I had the idea for the film in 2011. Specialist, who I’d met in Joshua Tree years before, called me from China out of the blue saying he was knocking off iPhones in Shenzhen. Which I immediately thought was a nuts story in itself.…But I didn’t want to make a doc about it and I definitely wasn’t interested in a “China’s crazy” doc. I’d heard stories of these older middle-aged guys going to China and flailing in this dog-eat-dog world and ending up as “fake businessmen” who show up for ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Which Specialist confirmed was not just an urban myth. So these ideas started to take a shape. But there was no way I could go over there at that time. I was very, very sick. Something had been wrong with my lung for a long time. I could barely get out of bed in the morning and knew I wouldn’t survive a day in China with the pollution. I ended up having to get this major surgery that resulted in me having 2/3 of a lung cut out, and it was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Before the surgery, they said I would be fine in three weeks. And it ended up being almost two years before I could really do anything at all. I couldn’t sleep, because my lungs were mismatched and my body kept thinking it was drowning. I was totally depressed and adrift. I felt like my life was over. You’ve heard of disassociation?
NOTEBOOK: Oh yeah.
MARINGOUIN: Since my life had been spared by of the generosity of this Kickstarter campaign, I felt pressure to bounce back and show that the money had gone to good use. But when I expressed how bad I felt? People got pissed off. So I just sunk into this deep melancholic state, which lasted two years. And it was during that time that I picked up the pieces of the idea about Spesh and went on a scout to China. The original idea that I had in 2011 remained in place, but the rest of the film evolved into a different and more melancholy tone that was coming from my recovering from this lung surgery and learning to breathe again, but also from Spesh, who’d now been in China for years and developed a far more hardened and misanthropic point of view.
NOTEBOOK: How long were the trips?
MARINGOUIN: Principal photography with [lead actors] Dave [Zellner] and Bob [Longstreet] was 13 days total in 2015. They had to be shot in and out as fast as possible. We created the world around them on separate b-roll shoots in China from 2016–17. I’d written a treatment and we were going to shoot it from that. The idea was built around Jimmy arriving in China and doing a series of escalating “guanxi” parties schmoozing with these super young rich kids. He’d pull away and be overwhelmed by it and have to catch his breath. I wanted to get the sense that he was drowning. It was a situation that that had a ton of momentum in the concept and could be set up as an authentic situation. Also it had never been done—making a fictional feature set in a world of Chinese manufacturing.
NOTEBOOK: Was the story arc determined by the time you went with cameras?
MARINGOUIN: Which one?
NOTEBOOK: That you were moving from a city to Mongolia?
MARINGOUIN: Yeah, the idea of Jimmy going in and being chewed up and shat out to the nether regions in Inner Mongolia was always the idea and in the original treatment.
NOTEBOOK: Were there unplanned elements?
MARINGOUIN: Not as much as you’d think, but the treatment did include things that we might be able to shoot unplanned, like the “communist wedding.”
On paper, it was: “Jimmy performs poorly at an event with Communist party members in Ordos.” We were in Ordos shooting and there happened to be a wedding happening in our hotel, so we crashed it with Zellner (in costume) and they gladly had us as the entertainment. And of course there happened to be at least one Communist Party member there. So we took it as a sign that we were on the right track. Things like that appeared out of nowhere to continue to move the film along the whole time. Well into post and beyond.
NOTEBOOK: You definitely seem to be a process filmmaker rather than results driven. Would you say that's fair?
NOTEBOOK: Because, like you're saying, the film isn’t classically composed and things like that.
MARINGOUIN: I wanted it to feel immersive in a way that feels seamless. But the limitations imposed by the process made that extremely difficult. Also the definition of seamless is very subjective. To me—and to my editor Sean Gillane—it is.
NOTEBOOK: It's also a wild way to open a movie, with no dialogue for 10 minutes. It definitely seems like there are no concessions throughout, but even more so at the start. Like you want to drop somebody in media res.
MARINGOUIN: I wanted to open the movie as if it were found on the street. You find the character out in the world. He’s a ghost, surveillance footage fodder. And then the camera gets closer and closer. And you’re with him. That first scene was just me and Zellner in a Dollar Store in some bleak suburb in Texas. Us just reacting to the situation— he in character, me as shooter. My whole thing with movies, even the best ones, as soon as you see a certain framing you know you’re safe and so’s everybody else. I'm safe as the audience, director, actors—everybody’s safe. But with Ghostbox, I wanted it to feel like at no point is anyone safe. You’re on the same high wire the film is on, grappling with what’s real and isn't. At least for me as the audience, that’s the most rewarding experience.