Stumbling out of the premiere of “Don’t Leave Home” at South By Southwest this past spring, I was at a loss for how to describe it, an issue I would come to discover that continues to bewilder its writer/director Michael Tully as well.
“Gothic horror…sort of horror? I think even to use the word horror sells this movie a little wrong,” Tully said recently, unprompted while answering a question about something else. “Creeper, maybe, is a little more accurate?”
Transporting would be the adjective I’d use, but that doesn’t really describe exactly what Tully is up to with the Irish-set film, which true to the rest of the filmmaker’s career is a clear departure from what he’s done before. While one could argue it’s cut from the same cloth as Hammer Horror, psychedelic gothic thrillers of the ‘70s, and even Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s elusive “Cure,” “Don’t Leave Home” may be even more personal to Tully than his last, “Ping-Pong Summer,” the fun, nostalgic look back at growing up in the ‘80s as a paddle-wielding, hip-hop devotee in Ocean City, Maryland, though you can’t ask him how as it seems like a product of the subconscious that works its way into yours, telling of an American diorama artist named Melanie Thomas (Anna Margaret Hollyman), invited across the Atlantic to work on a commission.
The invitation comes at a low point for Melanie, whose upcoming gallery show is cancelled shortly before it opens thanks to a withering review, but her work, based on real Irish mysteries, finds an appreciator in Alistair Burke (Lalor Roddy), a painter-turned-priest whose painting of a young girl that disappeared the morning after he committed her to canvas becomes an inspiration for Melanie’s art. Even knowing the girl hadn’t been seen since – and evaporating from the painting as well, Melanie is willing to tempt fate by booking a trip to Burke’s idyllic countryside estate, not entirely sure why she’s there and thrown further off-kilter by Alistair’s officious right-hand woman Shelly (Helena Bereen) and his mysteriously quiet driver Padraig (David McSavage) and while she has all the space in the world to pursue her craft, being largely left alone with her thoughts may well be the path to madness.
Every time you think you have “Don’t Leave Home” pinned down, it flits away as if carried by the crisp breeze, due in no small part to Tully and his crew’s ability to subvert certain tropes towards their own wicked ends, but also the originality the writer/director shows in channeling the torture of the creative process, watching artists incapable of fully understanding what their work means and continuing to chase after something that they may not have a clear idea of. Naturally, even 40 drafts and a finished film later, Tully still can’t be sure about what he’s unleashed, but on the eve of its release in theaters, he spoke about setting up a production overseas, bringing along a crew willing to do something completely different with him, and how the film became livelier the shorter it got.
How’d this come about?
I finished my last film, “Ping Pong Summer,” which is very different form this one, and my main producer George Rush was like, “We had a really good experience on that. I think we can get the gang back together. What ideas do you have?” So I gave him a list of 15 different movies, some of which I had full scripts, some of which I had nothing, and this was one of the more nothing ones – I just said, “‘Don’t Leave Home,’ a creepy movie in Ireland.” That was all I had, but it took off from there. We got some development money, so I was able to write the script and I knew what I wanted it to feel like, the kind of texture and the mood and the atmosphere, but I didn’t really know what it was about, which made the writing process really tough for me. It took about four years and I never want to work that way again. Usually, I think ideas should drive all of this, but it wasn’t even until about the 15th draft that we actually came up with the hook of the vanishing painting, which is now so crucial to the movie. It was a really organic, challenging process, but ultimately when said and done, it was meant to be the way it was meant to be.
Was at the least core idea of having an artist part of this from the start?
No, that came out [later]. I always describe [the film] as a mix of head and stomach. Like I want it to be thoughtful, but I also want the movies to work almost like music, so initially, it was this haunted painting/art and from there, a lot of themes grew out of it. I remember when I sent the draft that was much more attuned to this finished version to my composer Michael Montes, he was like, “Oh dude, this is a metaphor for the filmmaking process. Like Shelly’s the agent, the well-dressed men are the investors and the artist is just flagellating himself, beating himself up in a dark room somewhere.” And it’s kind of the mystery and magic of filmmaking. You need to have a reason for doing what you’re doing, but I also love that there are things from the world coming at you as you’re putting the idea out there and [the final film is] meeting in the middle somewhere.
Since you do have a little bit of Irish background yourself, was that part of your inspiration?
It wasn’t really anything personal personal. My dad is from there and I have citizenship, but it was more just wanting to make a movie [in this genre]. Robert Altman is a guiding light, [with] his work from “M*A*S*H” to “A Wedding” in the ‘70s, checking off a genre, and [this is] kind of a hybrid of “Images” and “3 Women.” I love the gothic, euro horror vibe that’s more psychological thriller than it is overt horror and Ireland just seemed like the right place for it. There was a point where [we wondered], are we going to get enough money to make this? [And if it would be] impossible [to shoot in Ireland], do we just make this movie in the United States and would the hook of the movie apply anywhere else? And you [think], “Yeah, the idea of a vanishing painting you could put anywhere – upstate New York, West Texas — but ultimately we all decided there’s a history and a sad beauty to Ireland that as long as we could get over there and get enough money to make this, the production value would really take over and take it to another level.
Is it true you didn’t find the central location until close to filming?
Yeah, when you see the movie, you’re like why wouldn’t I even conceive of making this movie if we weren’t at this perfect location? Initially I wanted a location shoot in Sligo, but like in L.A. or New York, if you’re an hour outside of that zone, you have to pay people per diem and put them up. You can’t have them driving however many hours. So we had this spot that we really loved in Sligo and then of course, that went away when it was like, “Okay, we have this much money. It’s got to be in the Dublin zone.” It was about six weeks before we started shooting when I flew over last March, right after SXSW, and we thought we had a location and then it turned out the producers in Ireland mentioned, “Oh, they’re having a music festival that first week when we want to be shooting,” and I was just imagining this old, quaint [festival with] bagpipes and 50 people. Then it turns out it was like an 8000-person EDM festival. So that fell through.
We just lucked out. It turned out we had scouted this location about four years before, but I had fallen in love with the other one, so it was just one of those things where once the momentum gets rolling, [it felt like] the movie gods actually do want your movie to happen, even though it seems like they don’t. Then it’s just a matter of trying to be a responsible filmmaker and not sticking the script, [thinking], “Well, I wrote this, so it has to be this.” I thought [instead], “What do we have here? It has two separate hallways that look the same, so we could apply that to the nightmare,” or in the case of [the] crash zoom into Shelly looking through a window from outside [when Melanie arrives], that wasn’t something I had written in the script specifically, but when we saw that, both Wyatt Garfield, the DP and I, we were like, “We’re idiots. We should be fired if we don’t use the house somehow in the movie.” When you’re making a low budget film, the responsible thing is [to ask], “What is the world giving us that maybe we hadn’t written or conceived of?” And try to use that to the best of your ability.
What’s it like taking the same collaborators like Wyatt and employing their skills in a completely different context?
It’s probably why I’m struggling to get a career going. [laughs] I spoke to someone the other day and they [asked], “Which genre do you want to put your foot in?” and I was like, “All of them.” I very consciously do not want to put my foot in one genre. I love all kinds of movies and I think all of the people that I like working with do as well, so that’s the challenge. When it comes to the collaborators like Wyatt Garfield and Bart Mangrum, my production designer, or our composer Michael Montes, he didn’t really understand old school hip-hop or know it [when we first started on “Ping Pong Summer”], and he had to do [many] different things for that score – he’s doing Amblin Entertainment, the John Hughes pop and then doing Def Jam era hip-hop, and then I said, “Let’s make something with a gothic horror dream logic vibe,” so trusting these collaborators to not want to do the same thing over and over again are the people I want to work with. But I’ll tell you, it is not the path to having a successful career in the industry, to jump from one polar opposite genre to another.
It keeps people like me interested.
I appreciate that. I think on my deathbed, when I think back to the movies that I made, I’ll be proud of it, but I think what you’re supposed to do is what you did [last] on a bigger scale. After “Ping Pong Summer,” scripts I was reading were just like a black kid and a white kid and in school and it’s a romcom, and I’m [thinking], “I just did that. I don’t want to do that [again].” [Then again] with “Don’t Leave Home,” I feel like all of our team [were thinking,] “We’re not done with this yet. There’s still maybe a little more to explore” because we all really had a blast working in this world. So I would love to get some material [in a similar vein] where I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting, but apply [what I learned on this] – that to me wouldn’t feel like that sense of selling out or being redundant. But it also gets back to loving all sorts of movies.
You clearly love the films in this particular genre – was it fun leaning into some of those tropes? For instance, the gratuitous exposition in the beginning is quite charming.
Yeah, some people are breaking formal ground and I feel like my voice might be to take a familiar genre and then try to do something original or unique within that. The movie is [called] “Don’t Leave Home” and the whole genre is like, “Hey, white lady. Don’t go in the garage. You’re an idiot.” So I thought the whole hook was pushing that to an extreme and that’s where it’s a really thin line. Some people [think], “This is so over the top” and then some people [say], “Well, the filmmakers understand the history and what they’re doing here.” I don’t want to make stuff that you have to be cinema-literate to watch. I really don’t want it to be that intellectual, but it’s impossible to avoid if you’re making a film like this. There’s such a legacy, so [it was a challenge of] trying to be aware of it and also make it fun. I don’t want to make a movie that has no sense of humor, even if it’s about something very dark, so that was another trick for us [of] winking to the viewer, saying, “Yes, we know the genre we’re in, but we’re having fun here and you should just go along on the ride.” Then it’s certainly up to the viewer.
I’ve heard the tone changed a lot in the edit and actually, the longer it played, the more dramatic it was, which surprised me. How’d you find the right balance for it?
Zach Clark who is a great director in his own right [who] directed Anna Margaret Hollyman in “White Reindeer” years ago, is just a really smart filmmaker, so having him edit was great and typically I like to give the editor the script, but present it [more as], “Here’s what we shot. Put that all together.” So Zach’s first cut of the movie was 129 minutes and watching that felt like watching “Shoah.” It was two hours going on 10 and it just didn’t have humor and it didn’t have life. And to get these movies made, the scripts need to be pretty spelled out, more explicit than implicit even in dialogue, so once I get in the edit and I start showing it to people, it just feels like “Scooby Doo.” Everything’s spelled out and that’s when I tend to check out of movies. So I found in the edit that the more we pulled back and left it a little bit spacious [as far as the plot], the more interesting it was. It felt more respectful for me as a viewer to do that and then magically, the more we cut out, the humor started rising. Again, it’s not laugh out loud humor, but the idea of Shelly’s performance [in particular], someone might find it funny. Someone might actually find it creepy the whole time, and that’s fine too, but I didn’t want to make things so explicit and the more we tucked things down, the more that sense of fun and humor came out.
I hadn’t even thought about it, but was it interesting working with an editor in Zach who had worked with your lead actress as a director?
It was really important to have an actor in Anna Margaret, someone [where] anything that she’s in, I just believe her. This role is really hard and the whole movie is predicated upon why is she going over there. She’s making decisions that a certain viewer would be like, “I wouldn’t do that. Of course, that’s going to happen.” She has an unteachable grounding as a presence and she underplays in the best way possible. She’s just so good I think any editor would’ve been able to make it work very easily, but Zach, having worked with her in footage, I’m sure it helped him move a lot quicker in the edit.
Did Michael Montes start working pretty early on the score?
We’re very good friends now, so he reads these scripts from a very early stage. He had a theme or two [early]. With “Ping Pong Summer,” I actually remember being in Ocean City, driving around and he had what became [the lead character] Rad’s theme written and recorded in a raw sense. But with this one, I don’t think there was as much. It wasn’t a case where I was playing his score on set, and I think it pisses off a lot of editors, but I don’t like to use temp music because you fall in love with it and then it becomes a clearance issue, so I’d rather watch a cut without anything. That said, for that first pass that Zach did, Michael had submitted a chunk of cues whether it was sound design or score, so Zack was able to place stuff so it was like, “This is the direction we’re going in.” It wasn’t like “Septien,” my first film, [where] Michael didn’t come on until it had been effectively edited without any music. But here, knowing your collaborators beforehand and not really scrambling after the fact just makes things smoother and Michael is just so, so good that I can give him a few adjectives and he’ll come up with something that’s better than I could’ve ever dreamed.
Who actually made Melanie’s dioramas?
Maeve Clancy, an Irish artist that George [Rush], my producer, [found], just looking around online. She does lots of different kinds of work – music videos [as well], and we reached out to her. There’s so many directions that you can go, but I think just in the way of critical or negative reviews that [the character of Melanie] gets – “This isn’t art. This is arts and crafts” – the beautiful thing about these dioramas is that from afar, if you step back, they look [slightly] elementary and there’s no there there, but then when you get up closer to them, they take on this deep life of their own. That’s exemplified by the opening credits sequence where when we shot those and Wyatt put the really long lenses on. These faces just came to life in a way that I’d look in the viewfinder and they just looked like these haunted sad people and then you’d pull away and step back in real life and you’re like, “Oh, that’s just a quaint little diorama.” One of the themes in the film is that too often when we make this stuff, we think it’s the most important thing and it means something greater than just us putzing around on a Tuesday. Maeve Clancy really nails that. And then the paintings were also important. That was a filmmaker based in Dublin named Rory Breslin and some of those paintings [were done] in a short amount of time, so it was really, really important.
What’s it been like traveling with this? I imagine after a crowdpleaser like “Ping Pong Summer,” you’re getting a few more WTF reactions to this.
I get into this zen state because then you finish this stuff and you’re proud of it, but also having worked in this industry for so long, I realize that [on] this scale that we’re working on, you’re inherently going to be boxed into a corner, so I’ve just learned to go where there’s positive energy. You try to make a movie that feels like three times the budget you actually had and then the distribution [part of the process] wants to give you about one-tenth of that and it feels like an unsustainable imbalance. But the fact that all of these other festivals have responded to it and then to have a distributor like Good Deed and their new label Cranked Up Films [release it] — I’ve never had a movie where we’re the first release of a label and I feel the stakes for them are pretty high in that way – you definitely want that first film to do really well – so the amount of enthusiasm, where there are more outlets than ever for this stuff, [is encouraging].
I’m just really grateful that I got to make a movie out of my own strange brain with new and old friends that had a really good time. A lot of crew drove across the country from Dublin to Galway for our Irish premiere last week. Helena [Bereen, one of our actresses who was there], said “I can’t believe how much of the crew is here to see the film” and I think that’s a testament to the good energy and atmosphere that’s the most important thing. That’s really all you can control is have the best experience possible and really have no regrets. The fact that South By responded to it I just got back from South Korea where they responded to the film and showed it at a festival, that was a dream. So I feel like we made the movie and who knows how it’s going to land in the world. There’s a lot of shots in this movie that repeat and it’s really arrogant to even assume people are even going to want to watch your movie once, [let alone a second time] but I just imagine it being in the world, sitting there, and someone revisiting it and [thinking], “Oh wait, that shot is like that shot later in the movie and every time Melanie’s asleep, her head’s down with her hand on her left hand. Does that mean anything?” You’re hoping viewers will put in the work and connect with the material, [but] it’s out of my hands at this stage, and for [there to be] folks like you, who seem to tune into this strange wavelength, that is as much of a miracle and a victory as I could ever hope for.
“Don’t Leave Home” will open on September 14th in select theaters, including Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge, New York at the Alamo Drafthouse and Austin at the Marchesa. A full list of theaters is here.