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An Interview with Tim McCann

Conducted by Mark Schofield

As a moviemaker, Tim McCann is a wildcat. He writes and directs, shoots and edits, and attends to the stark financial exigencies of the entertainment business—and he’s got opinions. McCann and I talked recently about the hard work and disappointments of finding space for independent art in an industry bloated with formula and obeisant to profit.

Fiction Forum: As a kid, I wondered if Paul McCartney sang ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in the shower, but artists, of course, often avoid immersion in their finished work. How do you relate to the films now behind you?

Tim McCann: I don’t look back. It’s difficult for me to watch even a minute of a past film of mine. I’m just too critical and over-sensitive about it, obsessing over what I could have done better. One goes through such emotional highs and lows when cutting the film, and showing rough cuts to people, that by the time it’s done, it’s really the end of the relationship with the project. Then it’s just this thing that you have to find distribution for.

FF: You write and direct your films. Are you one of these cats who have more energy than everyone else?

TM: I write, direct, shoot, edit and co-produce my stuff. I love the process. But I don’t have much energy unless I’m working on something. believe me, I spend plenty of time sitting around in my underwear watching Monday Night Football and scratching my balls.

FF: Desolation Angels and Revolution No. 9 are small and character driven. With Spielberg’s backing, could you tell a proper story about terrorism or the Peloponnesian War?

TM: All stories, no matter how broad and sprawling, essentially come down to the characters, their motivations and conflicts. If the audience is not taken in by that, then forget about it. That’s one complaint I hear about Gangs of New York. (I thought it was great, but I’ve gotten into arguments with my friends about it because of the lack of corkscrew conflict within the central set of characters.)

FF: For you, what share of the storytelling is done when the script is written? Is the text just the starting point for a case that you hope to make with images?

TM: I have such a subjective take on my own scripts that it’s hard to imagine where the screenwriting part stops, and the director’s interpretation takes over. I will say that I wait until most of my friends “get” the script before proceeding. I think that problems in the script, especially today, usually pop up again in the finished film. Audiences are less adventurous, less willing to go with the film as a sensual experience in today’s culture, and have more of a knee-jerk reaction against films that don’t satisfy their expectations. And that’s because they’ve been nurtured to react like that, by being bombarded by a generation of the least sincere and most grotesquely crass films this country has ever seen. So, making films that are suggestive, or emotionally or intellectually evocative, are not an option. It all has to be answered, in the film, and therefore in the script (i.e. Kubrick’s 2001 would tank today.)

FF: Revolution No. 9 gives a taut portrayal of schizophrenia and terrified loyalty. What’s the key to getting astonishing performances like those Michael Risley and Adrienne Shelly gave?

TM: Casting appropriately, which is intuitive. You also need to have actors who are there to give it their all as much as you are. You can’t put in the effort for them.

FF: The narrative streams along without a limp moment or flabby image. Tell me about your process of editing through drafts.

TM: My greatest fear is of boring the audience. I’m sure in today’s environment, my greatest fear should be of offending or confusing them, but it’s not. Thus the high level of tension in my films. In editing, as in scriptwriting, I bounce the various cuts off friends of mine. I prefer friends because I know them and I have some context for their opinions. testing the film with my friends, and the occasionally more objective, though often less articulate, stranger, has often been helpful. but broader testing, like the idea of having some loose canon 13 year old decide the ending of an 80 million dollar film is fucking ridiculous and retarded business-wise.

FF: Spalding Gray is always terrific, but who knew the man behind Monster in a Box was really a minimalist?

TM: I worked with Quentin Crisp in my last film, and Spalding in this one. Both were extremely cooperative, talented and professional. I was a little surprised by how little they contributed content wise, knowing their work as writers. I had much more re-phrasings and ad libs from some of the other actors.

FF: You did save the best for last, averting our eyes from the tragic finale to raise the credits with ‘Do You Believe in Magic.’ It’s the creepiest use of popular music I can recall in a film—yet I can somehow imagine your claiming it was a goof or a throwaway.

TM: Irony is interesting. or at least to me. I love that song at the end. It won’t be on the final release version of the film because the rights are too expensive. A year ago I would have been hurt by the loss, now I don’t give a shit.

FF: Will Revolution No. 9 turn a profit? What and when will be your next big screen release?

TM: It may eventually turn a profit, but it’ll be a long row to hoe. I expect to have some profits just about the time that hell is freezing over. My next film, which I am currently editing, is called Nowhere Man. I shot it last summer. It’s a comedy-noir. It’s about as disturbing, controversial and hilarious a film as you’ll see this side of Happiness.

Copyright 2003, Mark Schofield. All Rights Reserved.

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