“Ask yourself this terrible question – are we normal men?” Beautiful Bill (Carson Mell) dares say to his friend Andy (Al Di) in “Some of Our Stallions,” a question that has come up time and again in the weird and wonderful work of writer/director Mell and often is complicated to answer. After observing strangers work out connections that may not evident at first in his wickedly funny directorial debut “Another Evil” and his collaboration with Hannah Fidell on “The Long Dumb Road,” sparking inspired comic pairings between Steve Zissis and Mark Proksch and Jason Mantzoukas and Tony Revolori, respectively, the filmmaker throws himself into the mix to a greater degree than usual in his second feature as a director, starring alongside Al Di as a mentally fragile pair recently dispatched from the psychiatric care facility they checked into and find their way back into society and the idea of “normal” becomes relative.
Both behind the camera and in front of it as the convincing Beautiful Bill, Mell comes up with the brilliant idea that rather than seek out stable partners that could give himself and Andy some terra firma, they should try to look for someone as unbalanced as they are to find equilibrium, leading them back to Sterling Springs to pick up Bonnie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), who needs a home after her recent stint at the institution. For as unusual a place to start a love story as that is, “Some of Our Stallions” subverts expectations even further when Beautiful Bill finds himself on the outside looking in as Andy and Bonnie actually strike up a romance and their relationship tests the friendship that the two men have cultivated, becoming this decades-long consideration of how connections change over time depending on circumstance. Infused with Mell’s distinctive sensibilities and fearless brand of humor, thrusting himself through a restaurant’s takeout window in its opening minutes and parading shirtless down the street carrying a spear of donuts in fits of frustration, the film has the same level of imagination as his beloved animated series “Tarantula” and sneaks up on you with its poignance.
With the film now arriving on VOD, Mell spoke about how he couldn’t shake a pair of supporting characters from another idea and ended up giving himself and Di their first roles as leading men as well as surviving some of the film’s more audacious stunts and finding its beautifully melancholy soundtrack.
How did this come about?
Originally these characters were antagonists in another script I’d written, which almost actually came together as a big budget movie and then it ended up being too similar to “Silver Linings Playbook” [where] you’d have to imagine as the characters tried to achieve their goals, the Beautiful Bill character and Andy characters were attacking [the Bradley Cooper character] relentlessly, so after that fell apart, I just still really wanted to do something with these two characters and wrote a movie starring them. It took a decade to get the financing for it and find the right people to play the characters, but it was a long labor of love.
Between this, “The Long Dumb Road,” “Another Evil” and your work on “Silicon Valley,” it seems like the complexities of male friendship is something you keep coming back to…
I don’t know if it’s the maleness of it at all. I think if I was female, it’d be the same stories from a female perspective, but I do think if someone told me they broke up with their girlfriend, I would of course lend an ear, but I wouldn’t be as fascinated as if they said, “I broke up with my best friend.” I’d say, “What happened?!?” That’s not supposed to happen, right? That’s why I’m interested in friendships, especially that fall apart and putting yourself out there for friendship can be even more vulnerable than romantic love in some ways. People expect rejection and turmoil in romance, but in friendship, it’s not as expected, so maybe it’s more unusual.
How did you find Al for this?
I was first introduced to him by my manager as a financier of projects and we were working on another bigger project together, and movies that require millions and millions and millions of dollars are a very long process and very dependent on finding a star that financiers can consider bankable. They have some equation in the shadows and I don’t know what it is. Maybe they just go on IMDb and look at their Starmeter. [laughs] But I’ve never connected with any of those actors yet who will unlock these treasure troves of money, like the Safdies got with “Uncut Gems” and the relationship they developed with Adam Sandler, so while we were waiting for that, Al Di started to get an interest in acting.
My gut reaction was you’re a financier/producer, not an actor. But I thought about how charismatic he is and the effect he has on people. Charisma is really the bedrock of if someone can fill the screen, more than cheekbones or giant pecs. Al has that, so ultimately, I did a weeklong rehearsal process where I was also seeing if he had the chops to really act and he did. He was able to cobble together the budget we needed and we went and shot it. I also found a bunch of amazing actors along the way like Olivia Taylor-Dudley and David Zellner and other great folks.
Was it much a decision to star in this yourself?
I don’t even remember how I decided that. [laughs] I honestly don’t. But I’ve always enjoyed performing, especially after doing my cartoon show [“Tarantula”] and playing some of the main characters in that, so it just felt like it fit and I knew how I wanted it to be performed and I just went for it.
Something I appreciated was the respect there was for mental illness and how it manifests itself in the characters’ behavior. Was it a challenge to navigate either in your performance or in the tone as a director?
A long time ago, I made this decision and I call it eye-level writing where you never are above a character, looking at them and mocking them. You’re always down on the ground with them and looking at them in the eyes. I just have so much respect for characters when I write and I make it almost a rule not to write about characters that I don’t like. I just really liked all these characters, and even though I do think they’re very flawed and often foolish and I don’t agree with all their points of view, I knew that if I gave them that sort of eye-level respect that you’d give a friend or a family member, I was hoping that it’d come across in the [final] product.
Was there anything that you might not have anticipated over the course of the shoot, but you could embrace it and it’s in the film now?
It took a while for me to embrace it, but tit’s not supposed to snow in Vancouver and it snowed on us a lot. We really lucked out because that snow could so easily thrown a monkey wrench into the middle of a sequence, like, “Why is there snow at that moment, but not the next?” There are a few scenes where we had to blow out the windows because the exteriors had snow and [from] the interiors, the snow had melted, so my DP and I just made the choice so you couldn’t see outside, but strategizing around that was really difficult. I [ended up] loving the way the characters were constantly blowing steam [because] there’s a very animalistic side to the characters and to see them constantly exhaling that smoke I think helped with that.
It’s a really ambitious film when there is this epic scope to the friendship you have over time as the film’s central story and there’s so many locations – was it difficult to structure?
Yeah, you’re supposed to not shoot this many locations. It’s a big stressor, but we just got really creative with how we’d use one location for several. For instance, the place where we shot a lot of the mental institution scenes, the caretaker of that place just had an apartment there, so we were able to use that for the flashback as Beautiful Bill’s apartment, and it was just figuring out how do we juice these locations for the most on-screen locations.
It also looked like you just threw yourself into a mall and started interacting with people who were there. Was that a crazy day?
Yeah, I’m glad you picked up on that because I really wanted that sequence to be shot like a prank show and feel like we went to the mall and actually did that, but those were all very good actors I cast based on how real they seemed in the audition and were able to feel off the cuff.
Since I live around the corner from the Doughnut Hut in Burbank, I know parading around there shirtless with a spear of donuts might’ve attracted some attention.
That day was rough. [laughs] The process of shooting that was very quickly, and your sweat mixes with the frosting and gets in your eyes, so any pain on my character’s face was very real. I was very, very uncomfortable.
Any more so than filming the opening scene at the restaurant where somehow you slide through the order window? That looked difficult to pull off.
Yeah, that was. We weren’t shooting a million pages that day — those are the hardest, but even when you don’t physically hurt part of your body, the force of falling through a thing like that six or seven times, it rattles you, so it was just finishing the day, rattled up from having done that stunt was a challenge.
On a lighter note, you have some quite lovely music in this. What was it like to get the right melancholy tone?
Yeah, with classical, there’s just something that felt so right for this movie and then I had my friend Jack Long, who’s a composer and along with Alex Johnstone, he scored “Tarantula” and “Another Evil,” so we have a process we’ve been using for a while. He did great work and we found some great music for it as well, like the Jerry Jeff Walker song [“I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight”]. I have this rule that to put a song in a movie, it can’t be a song you grew to love. It has to be a song you loved the first time you hear it because that’s going to be the audience’s experience, so the first time I ever heard that song, which is when we were in preproduction, I’m like this has to be the end. This song is so lovely.