Despite following a broken-down boxer’s tense foray into Manhattan’s seedy underworld as his work as a trainer inadvertently leads to criminal activity, the only gun to be found in Noah Buschel’s “Glass Chin” resides on a bedside table as the base of a lamp. For the washed-up prizefighter Bud Gordon (Corey Stoll), the sparkly glock atrocity is a gaudy reminder that he’s probably out of his depth when in a Manhattan apartment far away from his apartment in the sticks. For Buschel, it’s a chance to remind audiences that a film can convey something more dangerous in simply establishing a certain aura than if that gun were somehow able to go off.
“[There’s] definitely this feeling of wanting art to slow down the mind, the cut, cut, cut [of editing] and the loudness,” Buschel said of his desire to go against the grain of contemporary cinema. “Certainly, I’m tired of guns and blood and explosions, because those things aren’t scary anymore, they’re just numbing. Maybe what’s scary now is just an iPod playing in the car.”
With “Glass Chin,” Buschel doesn’t only draw upon a plot that could be pulled from a 1940s noir, but patience as well, allowing one to soak up every nuance of the extraordinarily rich characters he’s created as portrayed by a gifted cast that includes Billy Crudup, Marin Ireland, Yul Vasquez and David Johansen. They circle Stoll’s Bud as if doing the rope-a-dope, with the pugilist’s money woes leading him to get involved with Crudup’s JJ, a gangster clad in silver from his finely tailored suits to his tongue. As things go south, Buschel doesn’t skimp on the good old fashioned thrills of seeing desperate men get in over their heads, however, his measured approach to filmmaking — full of long takes, deliberate cameras pans and intricately structured dialogue — has led to something equally electrifying in how formally audacious it feels now.
Partially inspired by Buschel’s own desire to keep calm amidst the ever-treacherous waters of the movie business, “Glass Chin” is both slick on the surface and pugnacious underneath, another evolutionary step for the filmmaker who’s established himself as one of the most exciting to watch in recent years with such films as the Michael Shannon-Amy Ryan PI adventure “The Missing Person” and the tender romance “Sparrows Dance.” Shortly before his latest film bows at the Tribeca Film Festival, Buschel spoke about how he got in the ring for “Glass Chin,” how great actors need less editing and the film’s unique color scheme.
Since I felt the story could be interpreted in a number of ways, was boxing always your way into it?
Strangely enough, it started as a boxing movie, but I don’t really remember why he was a boxer. He could have been anything, couldn’t he? I think I wanted to play with the old movie iconography of boxing.
In your last three films, it’s been interesting to see the profession of your main male protagonists since it seems like there’s a bit of a wish fulfillment going on. A private investigator in “The Missing Person,” a jazzman in “Sparrows Dance” — is that a way you connect to the material?
I hate to quote great filmmakers, but I’ve heard Robert Altman say [that] he would do a western like “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” or a detective movie like “The Long Goodbye,” but it was like nothing you ever recognized. His whole trick was taking old genres, things you’ve seen, and then he could do whatever he wanted. If you give people something they know, then you can do something new.
When creating your characters, do you actually start with the details, such as Billy Crudup’s JJ’s obsession with silver, or do you build those in later?
When I started, I just wanted to do something about silver and gold because it’s just a way to see things, then I started seeing how certain art has played with silver before. I saw “Ace in the Hole” and there were a lot of references to silver. The city is silver and Kirk Douglas is working at the Albuquerque Sun, so that’s gold, but he’s trying to get back to the silver city and he’s talking about Rockefeller Center. [In “Glass Chin,”] everything in New York is silver, so Billy represents Manhattan. We tried to make him look like a skyscraper and he was really excited because when we were shooting that he went into a Starbucks and [people would stare at him] and he’s like “It’s working, it’s working.” He’s like some Andy Warhol robot.
In general, the colors are so pronounced. Do you do a lot of that lighting work on the set or do you save it for a colorist in post-production?
We shot it knowing that we were going to desaturate the hell out of everything in New York and make it really cool, blue and spooky. Then we shot Jersey in warmer browns and reds and golds and yellows. That was our storyboard and we did a pretty good job of sticking to the storyboard I must say for a low budget film.
You seem to have gotten more comfortable with shooting in long, unbroken takes. There’s one truly amazing sequence in this film set in Bud’s apartment near the end of the film. Have they become easier to prep for?
That definitely has to do with confidence. [Cinematographer] Ryan Samul and I have now made three movies together, so there’s stuff we find together. He’s [also] done a few movies now with that really good horror director Jim Mickle and they’re getting more specific into their kind of dreamy, rainy, spooky tone. Likewise, me and Ryan are just getting closer and closer to something unique to us. We reference Ozu a lot — since we’re stupid Americans, it comes out differently — but watching Ozu, you definitely start to feel like “Oh yeah, I don’t have to do a bunch of dolly moves.”
When we’re going to do a dolly move, it’s going to be one and it’s going to be in the right place. Then the other stuff, it’s like “Let’s just shoot that in one shot.” If you have the actors like Corey [Stoll] and Marin [Ireland] at a diner, you don’t need to do a lot of coverage. A lot of times coverage is just trying to cover for the actors, but with these actors, they can actually do it better if you let them work out the rhythms and then don’t have to have an editor cut it up. I’m all into their musicality and their dialogue. That wouldn’t be there if we have to cut it up.
Is that why you seem to place a premium on casting actors with a theater background? I realize it also could be because they’re based in New York.
It’s just something that helps. First of all, they know their lines. [laughs] There’s a reason certain actors are in New York because they have nothing to hide. If you’ve been on stage in New York, it still means something. It will always mean something. It means you’re about the work. A lot of these people could be in L.A. Billy [Crudup] could have gone to L.A. a long time ago, but he didn’t. He’s very serious about the theater and it shows. He’s kept very sharp. All these guys are very sharp. And when you only have two hours to get the scene right, it really matters. That’s not to say that there aren’t actors outside the theater who aren’t great. Of course, there are. But it’s always nice to know that they have a New York theater background because you know you don’t have to worry about a lot of things.
Both in this film and “Sparrows Dance,” you also seem to be working more with direct address to the camera. Is there something beyond the visual element of having an actor speak directly to the audience, perhaps the way it can change their performance, that you like?
[In “Glass Chin”], there was something about what Billy was doing that started to feel like it might be a little spookier if he just simply addresses us. It also puts us further in Bud’s shoes, which is nice because you’ll hear that silly stuff people say about “Is this character sympathetic?” Which I never really understand, but Bud may be a tough guy to sympathize with at some points — he’s just checking his cellphone and bitching all the time about everything. If you have this person looking straight at us, we become Bud a little more, which might help. [But we were] just really digging his stuff and thought what he was doing was so big and strange and funny that we might as well just have him look right in front the camera. It was already weird.
I’ve heard you’ve discovered a few things like that on the set. For instance, having the camera pull out to show the entire set on “Sparrows Dance” or deciding “The Missing Person” was a comedy halfway through shooting. Do you just roll with those things when the feeling’s right?
“Glass Chin” was a drama in my mind, then you get these people in their outfits and the situations are a bit absurd. When Corey says to Marin at the diner, right after he drops that a guy has been murdered [after reading the local paper] and that it was a school teacher, she’s crying and then he says “Well, don’t worry, he was also a cokehead.” People laugh at that, and I didn’t know that was funny, but it is funny. Those are just little things that you find, then especially with actors like Yul Vazquez [who plays one of JJ’s henchmen], he just has an innate absurdity and funniness to him, even when he’s holding up the cat [which he threatens to kill], that’s both scary and funny to me, which is great.
There’s a scene in an empty movie theater, which I didn’t want to read too much into, especially since it’s Christmas morning. But given your periodical columns for Hammer to Nail, it sounds like you haven’t been too high lately on the moviegoing experience. Has it changed the way you approach making your own films?
My Hammer to Nail rants, I have to cut those down. I have to stop myself. [laughs] The whole [idea to] keep it simple and [use] long shots is probably to some degree reactionary in terms of the ADD culture and even just trying to soothe and heal and slow down my own mind because I don’t really want to add to the white noise.
“Glass Chin” will be released on June 26th by Entertainment One in theaters and VOD.