Interview: Onur Tukel on Finding Catharsis in a Crisis in “Scenes from an Empty Church”

Around this time last year, Onur Tukel was at his place of worship — yes, he was in a church, but that wasn’t it. After months in quarantine, a unique opportunity presented itself for the writer/director to make a new film if only he was safe about it, recalling the experience he had making “The Misogynists” a few years prior when the 2016 presidential election inspired him to book a hotel room and fill it with some of his favorite actors to exorcise emotions in a moment of great despair. One can feel that same energy in “Scenes from an Empty Church,” in which a pair of priests — Father James (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Father Andrew (Kevin Corrigan) — are trudging through the early days of the COVID-19 crisis with irritated parishioners who can only come by one at a time and grieving the recent passage of their colleague Father Brooks. While the two knew they were signing up for a life of solitude, neither could’ve anticipated this level of isolation, with Father Andrew’s previous life coming back to haunt him in the form of Paul (Max Casella), a friend he hasn’t seen for over a decade and seeks out enlightenment at he is reeling from divorce and hanging onto his sobriety by a thread.

The trio have little in common besides their shared sense of isolation and in that way, Tukel is able to consider faith and the trust to place it in others both onscreen and off as he was able to bring together strangers for something bigger than themselves in the heart of the pandemic, reflecting on the rituals that developed such as applauding medical workers from their way home from work and the recognition of neglecting relationships that meant more to them than they may have realized once bereft of physical interaction. As the filmmaker imagines the disparate reactions to the world shutting down from a variety of perspectives, bringing in the likes of Craig Bierko, Paul Reiser, Natalie Carter and Eva Dorrepaal to sit on the church pews or at least beam in for a confessional, “Scenes from an Empty Church” radiates the power of community as talking through things with someone willing to lend a sympathetic ear can have a meaningful impact that the person listening might not even be aware of and in spite of an event that everyone is experiencing, the response to it can be radically different based on one’s personal background.

Recently making its world premiere at the Chattanooga Film Festival, “Scenes from an Empty Church” is making itself available far and wide in time for Independence Day, appropriate for a film in which its makers found freedom in creating art and Tukel was kind enough to talk about how a sudden availability of all the right ingredients for a great film came together, being inspired by the zeitgeist and transforming anxiety into fuel for creativity.

How did this come about?

I get an e-mail from my friend Andrew Shemin in December of 2019, and he’s a member of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in New York and he lives besides the church. He’s also a [cinematographer], and he said, “Onur, let’s make a movie in the church one day.” And I kept trying to think of ideas that we could shoot there and when the pandemic happened, I just got super-inspired, so I reached out to Andrew and said, “Andrew, is the church open now? Could we shoot there?” No parishioners were coming in and he was like, “Yeah, it’s open. Let’s do something.”

So [I thought] “Let me write something for some really good actors in New York because they’re probably not working and I reached out to Kevin [Corrigan] first of all to see if he’d be interested in acting in it and he said that he was, depending on the quality of the script and for Kevin to say yes was enough of an inspiration for me. I went off and wrote a first draft. It took me three weeks and then he read the script and liked it. Then after he was attached, I went to Max Casella and Thomas Jay Ryan and I kept rewriting the script up until the time we shot in July, so it was a matter of opportunity. The church was available. It was a matter of Kevin and Max and Thomas Jay Ryan saying yes and having those actors attached, I was able to go to MPI Media Group and say, “Look, we’ve got a good script and we’ve got a great cast” and they funded the movie and we shot it. It came together pretty quickly and we were very fortunate that everything worked out. No one got sick and everyone was into doing it.

This reminded me of “The Misogynists” in how it engages with the moment – besides mobilizing quickly, I imagine you don’t have much time to rethink things. Is that a way of working you enjoy?

Yeah, because these movies are chamber pieces that take place in real time. This was 10 or 11 scenes that are drawn out, and I get very inspired by what’s happening around me. I tend to take what I’m feeling and I write from a place of stress. Film and art is therapeutic for me, so I’m usually pretty neurotic and I’m usually pretty anxious and I take that anxiety and weave it into my work. With “The Misogynists,” it was the anxiety of the 2016 election and the overall collective pulse of the nation and how everybody was at odds with each other, and in this, I was just taking the anxiety of the pandemic and the uncertainty of the future and weaving that into the script [because] I feel like if I don’t have some kind of outlet to express my anxieties, I’ll bottle it up and it’ll eat me up alive, so I’m always just trying to harness the things around me, the emotions that I’m feeling and weave it into something timely.

I don’t consider myself a very smart person, but I surround myself with smart people like Andrew Shemin, who wrote the story with me and he’s a very devout Catholic and a polymath. He knows so much about Catholicism and about history, and I tend to ask a lot of questions to try to augment the writing. The character of Paul in the movie, played by Max Casella, he’s the agnostic, uncertain guy who’s looking for meaning in all this and he’s in kind of a dark place and I feel like I’m that character — I’m more walking around observing, asking questions, I don’t know a whole lot, but I’m curious.

Did you start out with the three character dynamic?

The first iteration of the script I wrote was not three — it was actually about 10 priests living in the rectory beside the church and what happens is there’s a nunnery that’s connected to the church several miles away in Northern New York that burns down. All the nuns needed to come live with the priests during the pandemic, so it was about nuns and priests living together, but it was a lot of characters and [I thought], “This is not a smart thing to do during the pandemic. We’re not going to be able to utilize that many people and that many resources,” so I really, really just pared it down considerably. We thought, “Let’s just focus on three core actors and it’ll make things much easier and more streamlined,” and some of my favorite scenes are just those dinner scenes between Tom, Kevin and Max. Their performances are so great and just listening to those three guys talk over dinner, I could watch that all day or night.

Did the actors have much input on their roles?

Yeah, I always allow and want feedback. It just makes the script better and for example, Max Casella, a lot of what he’s going through in the movie came from us having conversations and that first conversation that he and Kevin have [in the film] where Paul tells Father Andrew, “My life’s a mess, I was married and things were bad for a long time” and then he confesses to how he screwed up his marriage later on in the film, that was what Max was actually going through. I’d change the dialogue after we had conversations. I’d get his permission and say, “Max, this is what you’re going through right now. This is what Paul’s going through – do I have permission to change some of the dialogue?” And he’d say, “Of course,” so we’d go back and forth and he’d say, “Can I add a line here or this line here? Let’s take this away.” I always want [the actors] feeling comfortable to say the dialogue and to believe in what they’re saying. I want them to be inspired.

With Paul Reiser, he’s a writer himself and he and I did 11 drafts of his scene back and forth. He would do a draft, then I would do a draft, and I think the scene’s great — there’s a few things that I didn’t quite agree with that he was very steadfast on when it came to the dialogue, but when he ended up performing it, I could see how brilliant it was. I didn’t understand that he knew on the page how it would be acted. So it’s always a tag team thing where we’re all working together to try to make a great film. I get to put my name on it as a writer, but I get a lot of help from everybody to make the script better and looser and tighter and [have] more truth to it.

Kevin wanted to change dialogue here and there and he was allowed to and there’s that confessional scene later in the movie where Father James confesses to be in love with Father Brooks. That arose because Tom [Jay Ryan] had told me in his head he and Brooks were in love with each other, which I had never thought about until he told me that, and I said, “Let me write a confession scene where you confess that [to Father Andrew] because I just think that’s so beautiful and it also gives Father Brooks’ death a lot more meaning, so as we were going through preproduction and rehearsing, the script was completely malleable. I love working that way.

As I get older, the value of rewrites becomes clearer and clearer and I try to rewrite as much as possible without annoying the actors too much. Sometimes you have a scene you’re shooting on a Friday and if you change the script on a Wednesday, two days before, it might annoy some of the actors. But a couple little lines here or there do help. Another example is the Craig Bierko baptism scene, which is one of my favorite scenes of the movie. I had originally written that scene [with] way more jokes and a lot of crazy things, but as we rehearsed it one day, everyone agreed it played so much stronger if it was more dramatic and not so desperate for the laughs, so I stripped out all the jokes and it’s still a very, very funny scene, but it’s disturbing and the actors’ input helped strengthen everything so much.

It really is incredible – it’s not like he looks different, but I didn’t know that was actually Craig Bierko until midway through the scene, he had so much conviction.

Yeah, Bierko is an underrated actor, and I just feel so lucky. Without this cast, this movie is fine, but with this cast, I think it transcends the script, and I really do just hope people get a chance to see it to see how amazing they are in it. I don’t think anybody wanted to be the weak link. Everybody really showed up and everybody’s on the same level of brilliance in the movie and I’m just so proud to call myself the director.

As you should be. What was it like having this oasis of community in July when I imagine you’re in isolation beforehand writing it and isolation after in editing it?

We were all a little nervous going into it, but by the time we were done shooting, we were all so grateful to the universe, to the film gods, to MPI for funding the movie — whoever you want to call — to have something to focus on during that stressful time. Everybody was looking for meaning, there was a feeling of uncertainty. We didn’t know what was going to happen and the ability to make art was in question. Tom comes from Broadway and he had a show that was shut down and the other actors had projects that were happening that fell through. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but for artists like that and myself, a lot of our joy and meaning is derived from the creative process. Whether or not it makes a difference, it makes a difference for us, so to be able to make something during that time, we just felt extremely lucky and for me to go from shooting it to editing, the pandemic wasn’t much different from the normal post-production process. I was going to be sitting at the desk editing for three months anyway, so in that sense, everything felt pretty normal, but when I was able to share cuts of the movie, just if people wanted to see them, just to again get them excited about what we had done and what we were doing, I think all that helped. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. [laughs] It was a mix of everything.

“Scenes from an Empty Church” will be available on digital and VOD and open theatrically at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio, the FilmBar in Phoenix, Arizona, the Screenland Cinemas in Kansas City and Charlotte Film Society on July 2nd.