“If I make a movie, I’m going to keep the action offscreen,” Mort (Robert Longstreet) boldly declares in the opening minutes of “The Missing Girl,” though he’s not a filmmaker, but rather a comic book store purveyor and like many of his ilk, has far more opinions than he knows what to do with. Listening to motivational tapes and surrounded by immaculately curated action figures that he’s relatively loathe to sell, Mort would seem to have all the action going on offscreen in his own movie until the arrival of Ellen (Alexia Rasmussen), a new employee who draws comics herself and brings some pizazz to the shop with notions that Brad Pitt might’ve stopped by as a customer. When she suddenly stops showing up to work, it’s as if Mort is plunged into one of the pulp paperbacks he likely read in his formative years, drawing upon his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps as a detective to try and figure out what’s going on.
While “The Missing Girl” pushes Mort out of his comfort zone, it had the same effect for the film’s writer/director A.D. Calvo, who spent the last decade in horror films and ably transitions to conveying the existential dread of a middle-aged man suddenly grappling with if he’ll ever accomplish anything in life. Using the techniques he perfected in genre fare, Calvo frames Mort’s search for purpose as a mystery every bit as compelling as whether he’ll ever find Ellen. Bursting with resplendent colors, provided both by cinematographer Ava Berkofsky’s evocative lighting and a stellar cast including Sonja Sohn, Shirley Knight, Eric Ladin and Kevin Corrigan that fill each role with vivid life, “The Missing Girl” was one of the major discoveries of last fall’s festival circuit, flying slightly under the radar after bows at Toronto and Fantastic Fest, perhaps due to the same hard-to-describe nature that makes it so special. Arriving on VOD this week, the film is a gem well worth uncovering and on the eve of its release, Calvo shared via e-mail the personal inspiration for the story, the desire to do something different and letting the story tell him where it was going as opposed to the other way around.
I needed to step away from plot-driven storytelling and move towards character-driven material, [so this] was an effort to move towards minimalism, realism, and hence more believability. Many horror films today are focused too much on plot and lead to situations where you inadvertently manipulate your characters — and your audience — in an effort to connect the dots. I looked back on my own feelings towards my dad, who I lost at a young age, and that helped bring more life to the main character Mort.
How did Robert Longstreet come about as the lead?
I worked closely with Mike S. Ryan, my co-producer, and Nina Day, our casting director. Robert read the script and liked it. I remember Robert telling me he really liked it because he didn’t know how to explain it to friends. It wasn’t predictable.
You also said that the film grew out of the opening scene – did you have much of a story or was it purely these characters that led you to figure out what this was?
[There] was no plotting, so [there was] no real upfront story plan. I just tried to let the characters guide the way and this may sound weird, but it’s a mysterious process. Stephen King’s book “On Writing” explains it as “digging up a dinosaur.” It’s already there, beneath the earth, and you just need to dig and sometimes use a small brush, here and there, to unearth it. I tried to make all the characters as real as possible, creating amalgams of different personalities, some from favorite films of mine, and some from people I’ve met along the way. [The visuals also] grew from the opening scene — in the comic book shop, with Alexia’s character Ellen drawing, I knew right away comic-style visuals would play a key role in the telling the story.
What was it like working with Ava Berkofsky? I can recall her telling me how, for example, she was working with someone in 2nd unit who traditionally shot Hasbro commercials for those scenes in the comic book store and asked him to shoot the figurines in a different style than he was used to – I wondered if there were any other kind of tweaks like that throughout filming that either you or she came up with to set this film apart stylistically.
Ava and I were very much in sync, visually — I wanted the film to look like a graphic novel [colorwise] and she was very involved in the color grade process. I’m very much in awe of her talent and generosity. Joe Lavallee handled our 2nd Unit cinematography and I actually just used Joey again on my most recent film [“Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl”], so that’s four films that I’ve worked with him in that capacity. To me, it’s important to run a 2nd unit when you have a limited number of shooting days. You’ll always be grateful in editorial. And as you point out, Joe had experience shooting figurines for Hasbro, and he is humble and can adapt to various styles. Many of his still-life shots ended up in the final cut and some — [like] Mort’s refrigerator magnets — we didn’t even know he was filming.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Oh, for sure. The highway underpass day was the most stressful. [I wanted that shot because] I find them very haunting and forgotten as life whirls by constantly above them. And we had a few kids, from a nearby housing complex, throwing rocks at us from a distance, from behind a fence, so we had to call the police. We had [Eric Ladin’s character] Skippy’s BMW [on set that day] — which we borrowed, of course — and were worried that a rock might hit it, or even worse injure someone. Also, the sun was setting quickly so our day was slipping fast.
You’ve actually shot another film since “The Missing Girl” — “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl.” Did making this one in a character-driven style actually change your approach to that, which I understand is a more traditional genre film?
Absolutely. I couldn’t have made “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl” without first having made “The Missing Girl.” I needed to reboot my writing. It had slipped down in a plot-driven manner and plot-driven films never inspired me. It was always the character-driven films I remembered. They’re about honesty and emotion, not about jump scares and gore. And sadly, there’s very few character-driven horror films.
Was it nice to see audiences to respond positively after doing something different?
Very much so. As a filmmaker who previously hadn’t received a whole lot of love you take anything you get with humility and gratitude. I’m thankful.
“The Missing Girl” is now available everywhere on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Xbox and Vudu. It will also be shown theatrically on July 19th in New Haven, Connecticut at 7 pm at the Whitney Humanities Center and on July 21st in Wallingford, Connecticut at 7 pm at the Holiday Cinemas.