“[My film] is stylized and theatrical because the story is so telescoped we have a life-and-death outcome played out over 20 actual minutes.”
I found one of my favorite films of 2008 in the best way: by accident. Excited to see a print of Blast of Silence at the ’08 Philadelphia Film Festival, I was let down when the film turned out to be a video projection. This offbeat noir, as nihilistic as it is off-center, was filtered through large, distracting pixels. I sighed, hung out, and reminded myself to seek the film on DVD.1 I know I shouldn’t criticize the Philadelphia Film Society’s attempts at programming rediscovered classics. Their other celluloid presentations made the noir series a treat.
My surprise came after Blast, when a festival programmer announced the feature would be followed by a short called The Grand Inquisitor. I was intrigued, as the title recalled the lightning bolt of a parable in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I had just listened to David Fishelton’s excellent audio play adaptation of the novel, which does justice to the “Inquisitor” interlude. Yet, in this film, we get far from a literary adaptation. This narrative film debut from novelist/noir historian Eddie Muller (whose previous directing effort is the documentary Mau Mau, Sex Sex) blends various cultural and literary sources to realize a tale as minimalistic as they come: a one-set, two-person drama. Most impressive is the film’s tightening suspense created out of real-time conversation, as one character presents another with evidence of serial killings (attributed to the Zodiac). The film’s pairing with Blast and Muller’s noir association notwithstanding, in my original review of the film I described it as “a brilliant exercise in American gothic.” Muller seems intent on subverting crime conventions; my 2009 discussion with him, transcribed below with recent updates, reflects his wider interest in this aim. Yet Muller’s film never falters from casting a pall, and his bravura climax solidifies the sense of doom.
Drawing from various perspectives — as film critic, historian, programmer, and storyteller in various genres — Muller offers insights on films of the past and present.
As a noir historian and crime novelist, you’ve now made your entry into narrative filmmaking with The Grand Inquisitor. With all you have going on, it’s great to see you so involved in programming.
Noir is my métier and I’m known for it, but as a programmer my real passion is to get people to go to the movies, to see films with other people. I love it when a group gathers in-between screenings at one of our noir festivals, chatting passionately about what they just saw.
Has programming influenced your criticism at all? It must offer different perspectives.
One thing I’ve learned from programming is that films aren’t museum pieces. My truck with film criticism overturns every once in a while, and here it goes: The attempts by supposed scholars to utterly define a movie — to establish what the intentions of the filmmaker are, and explain how the film is to be interpreted — are sometimes very misguided. Watching movies in a theater, with a crowd, reveals that. It can be like a live performance. A film can play differently depending on the situation.
I once showed this film goofy B film called Cry of the Hunted, with Barry Sullivan and William Conrad — it’s swamp noir. In Los Angeles, the audience adored it. They howled, especially at the over-the-top gay subtext between the two lead actors. They fight, and when it’s obvious the fight is over, they’re still wrestling around the floor. Then they lie against the wall and smoke cigarettes. The L.A. audience ate it up. When I showed it, of all places, in San Francisco — not a laugh in the house. Whatever made it catch fire in L.A. didn’t happen in San Francisco. Sometimes, when I show The Lady from Shanghai, people walk out high, as if it was the greatest film ever. Other times people come out wondering why the film has such a good reputation.
You sound critical of film criticism. Do you see it as too agenda driven?
I’m all for film criticism. Its real value is in searching out special films, or perhaps offering a contrary opinion of something. There are certain critics who make me shake my head, wondering why they think their opinion is definitive. If you’re going to write about a film, give an intriguing, sensible take on it. Don’t resort to comments like, “This guy is bad, he’s always been bad.” These days it seems like opinionated posturing is pushing out rigorous thought.
Take a picture like Eastwood’s Gran Torino. You could write so much about it, on both sides. You could argue that it’s cheap and easy, Eastwood pandering to his audience. Or exactly the opposite — that it’s a work of genius, one that only Eastwood could make, because he’s playing off decades of his own mythmaking. There’s something to both arguments, and to me that makes for true film criticism. Critics, more than ever, need to focus on films that would be otherwise overlooked. That’s the essential job right now, especially on the internet, where you can find reviews so fast. An intelligent review of a film I would have otherwise missed is what I’m looking for.
As a critic and a filmmaker, I enjoy films that have a certain density, a depth to the material. They should be entertaining, but hook you to go further and really think about it, as with Gran Torino. It keeps you entertained, if that’s all you want. But you can keep going with it, talk about it, analyze it. Eastwood respects the average moviegoer, but always aims his films at an above-average level.
It seems like The Grand Inquisitor operates the same way — enjoyable, but thematically rich. When you write and direct a story like that, do your allusions [literary, cinematic, and cultural] come naturally, or do you piece them in?
It’s both. A lot of it is already there, and maybe you don’t know it. That material has been of interest to me for a while. Lulu’s books [allegedly having belonged to the Zodiac] actually exist. I don’t generally subscribe to the auteur theory, but in this case, I wrote and directed the thing. But honestly, I’m not always aware of the underlying meaning of what I might be doing. For me, it’s about working on an intuitive level, even with collaborators. Especially when they contribute good things. As for Marsha [Hunt], forget about it. She was a brilliant collaborator.
I’m curious — if you didn’t have Marsha, would the film have worked? Could you have still made it?
I might have made it, but probably not with the same degree of enthusiasm. I sent Marsha a copy of my short story [the original form of The Grand Inquisitor], and she said she’d do it, but had to see a script first. That lit a fire under everybody. I wrote the shooting script in a matter of days, changed things here and there. Some things were risks for Marsha. I couldn’t give her a blind eye, like in the story. Something like a blind eye can be effective on the page — every time it’s referenced, readers put the image in their minds. But the contact lens would have handicapped Marsha, who’s so expressive with her face. She didn’t need a horror-film gimmick. Not that her eye doctor would have approved it.
On the other hand, her character was a chain smoker and that was essential to the story. She needed to seem entrapped in the house, surrounded by those mountains of cigarette butts, the smoke in the air, all the oppressiveness. Marsha had been a smoker her whole life, but she’d quit. She was afraid that over the course of the filming she’d pick up the habit again. I told her it was a no-compromise situation. The character would be weaker without the cigarettes. I told her we’d use herbal cigarettes, so she wouldn’t get re-addicted. The night before shooting began, she took a pack of the herbal cigarettes back to her hotel, to try them out. But I noticed she snuck off with a pack of real cigarettes as well. [Laughs] The next day she shows up on the set and declares that she’ll smoke the real ones. She said she smoked both and that the herbal cigarettes burned too fast. She didn’t want me having a hard time matching cuts, the continuity might get screwed up. That was her story, at least. She’s a total professional — and she did not get hooked again, I’m relieved to say.
She had a few qualms with the material. She could see what I was going for at the end, but wanted to see in advance how I intended to block it and shoot it. She didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. She was attracted to my style of not explicitly showing things, that it’s much more powerful to leave things to the imagination and not fully explain. It sticks with the audience longer. Marsha is a big proponent of that, not because she’s skittish or prudish, but because her experience has proven it to be the more effective approach.
In some respects, I think the movie of The Grand Inquisitor is better than the short story, largely because of what Marsha Hunt brought in front of the camera, by inhabiting that character and making her more human. The short story might seem to some just a clever trick. The film is a deeper experience thanks largely to Marsha’s performance.
From watching The Grand Inquisitor, I noticed you seem very comfortable using minimalism. Has this been an aim in your fiction?
It’s something I’ve grown into, shall we say. For a lot of storytellers, as they get older, there’s the realization that less is more. Frankly, what excites me when reading a great book or watching a great film is the thrill of seeing an artist make a decision. When a filmmaker decides, “I’m putting the camera right here — this is my choice.” This is contrary to a growing trend in modern filmmaking that suggests we can view things from any angle. [Many filmmakers] put the camera anywhere and everywhere — now I’m overhead, now I’m cutting to a low angle, now I’m moving around the actors. A lot of younger filmmakers are so freakin’ enamored with just making a film. They’re indecisive because they can technically pretty much do anything they want now. Whatever happened to the idea of finding the one way of shooting a scene that perfectly expresses its meaning? Oh, right — first there has to be a meaning.
It’s almost like clarity being sacrificed for style.
Yes — there you go.
And that films are more about their style than the story.
Absolutely. All I’m seeing in a lot of films is the director’s ego being flexed. I see things in movies that I suspect are there because the director got off on controlling a big crew. But what did it add to the story? Not much. I don’t mean to lionize the guy, but back to Eastwood, when you watch Gran Torino, you see a movie pared down to the bare essentials. Here’s the story. I think this approach is even more vital in an environment as confused as contemporary filmmaking — and the contemporary world. Artists can bring a little more clarity to things.
In my film, the big challenge was that it’s 20 real-time minutes of two women talking, who on the surface seem to be completely harmless. Is it possible to turn that into something suspenseful? That was the daunting task I enjoyed facing.
I think you establish a tone of dread right away.
I’m happy that people have a reaction. I’ve seen people on the edge of their seats watching the film, which is gratifying. My favorite screening was for a high school class in Seattle. Typically unruly teenagers. But they were totally silent halfway in and gasping at the end.
When writing the story, when did you stumble across the Dostoevsky connection?
It was there from the beginning. Sometimes these things find you. I was going through the [notated Zodiac] books, wondering what Lulu would use, what she’d make connections to. And there it was — “The Grand Inquisitor.” It was obvious and it really works. But I didn’t want to belabor it. The way it’s displayed in the film, under the end credits, is the only time I hold on the page. The characters discuss what’s in the books, but I don’t show the fevered words of “The Grand Inquisitor” ’til the end. [The books] are only seen at the opening and the end. Sometimes when the film is digitally projected, the audience can’t read the text, which is very disappointing. I’m learning about how volatile digital exhibition can be.
When I showed the film in Baltimore, it had the worst projection ever. So bad [the film] looked like a washed-out print of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The strangeness of the house became totally overstated.
Your film is shot with a white glow over everything, which makes for a surreal touch in the cinematography.[Laughs] We let off a smoke machine before every take, and then waited for just the right haze. It was something subtle we were trying to convey. Because of my connection to film noir, some people have asked, “Why didn’t you shoot it in black and white?” or “Why didn’t you set it at night?” Well, those folks aren’t getting it at all.
I’d say the daytime setting highlights the confinement of the house.
It’s intended to start with the least dreadful vibe you can imagine. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, you can hear church bells on the soundtrack. We wanted the brightness outside to contrast with the confinement of the house. Whenever we could, we showed a bright light coming in through a curtain. There are many shots of Marsha in front of glowing windows covered by tattered curtains stained with cigarette smoke. The world is out there, but she’s trapped inside.[My film] is stylized and theatrical because the story is so telescoped — we have a life-and-death outcome played out over 20 actual minutes, starting with a young girl ringing a doorbell. Marsha even said, “Except for the ending, which we never could have done, this might have been an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” It’s a mix of the old-fashioned and the transgressive. The ending is not what anyone expects. I don’t know if that particular scene has been done before.
It’s great that you channel Dostoevsky’s parable into the minds of viewers. I’m thinking of the part in the parable when the inquisitor calls out Christ for bringing hope to a hopeless world, telling him, “You did this! This is all your fault,” pardon the misquote.
A lot of that goes right past the audience. The connection to Dostoevsky, I mean. It’s great when people get it, but like I say, I didn’t want to belabor it. It’s there, if you want it. Movie-watching has as much to do with what people bring to the experience as what the film brings to them. You hear people talk about movies: one guy says this, another says that, and the first guy turns and says, “What movie were you watching?” It has so much to do with the viewers themselves.
I long ago gave up “judging” films. A film’s interpretation differs from person to person. It’s gratifying that you gave five stars to my film. But someone else is going to watch it and say, “I don’t get it. Why did she do this? It was cheesy, that was low class.”
I caught The Grand Inquisitor by chance. It screened after Blast of Silence at the Philadelphia FF ’08, and I first thought your film would be an adaptation of Dostoevsky. As I watched and heard the talk of the Zodiac, the connection blew me away.
I lived in the Bay area when the Zodiac thing was happening. I’m not going to say that it haunted me, ’cause that would be unfair to those people it truly has haunted. But it’s never been out of my imagination. It affected my youth — that fear of going out of the house. And Zodiac was a sick genius of sorts, with his ability to capture the public’s imagination and imposing his strange codes and symbols into the public consciousness, which was amazing.
Like mass paranoia. What did you think of Fincher’s film [Zodiac]?
I loved it. Particularly because he removed all the sensational aspects, and made it a serial killer story about the victims instead of the victimizer. He was true to the story and didn’t depict anything that wasn’t verifiable by witnesses, which was a brave decision. It was courageous to use three protagonists in succession, capturing their obsession, which was the film’s theme. When it burns out one guy, he passes the baton to the next one. But it destroys them in the end. Frankly, I’m amazed the film got made. The financial backers probably thought they were getting a different movie. [Laughs] I applaud Fincher for subverting all notions of what a serial killer movie is supposed to be. He avoided all those cliché shots that give the audience the killer’s point of view looking at the car from the bushes, the tracking shot as he creeps closer. Fincher didn’t want the audience identifying with the killer. He wanted them to identify with the victims.
All those slasher movies, what are they trying to say? Now you share the perspective of the killer, now you feel the victim’s terror — no, now you’re the killer again. It desensitizes viewers. It’s not really about anything, it’s just a bloody thrill ride. I applaud Fincher for moving away from that. Of course, by industry standards, the film was a failure. The investors probably wish it had been more sensational.
My pal [novelist] James Ellroy loves that Fincher’s film has compassion for the victims and was about the obsessiveness of trying to uncover the killer. The theme resonated with James because his mother was murdered and the killer was never caught. Fincher was originally going to direct The Black Dahlia, but he had too many conditions, including doing it in black and white and remaining faithful to the book. Eventually, Universal got rid of him. They got [Brian] De Palma, and unfortunately the movie is a freakin’ disaster.
I noticed that Ellroy was behind the film, which, I agree, was a wreck.
James was very enthusiastic while it was in production. He watched the rushes and got excited, but it wasn’t cut yet. And he promoted the film, even praising De Palma. [Ellroy’s] a real team player, doing what [the studio] asked him to do. My wife and I went to the premiere with James, and that was painful. The movie is just so godawful. We went to dinner with his cronies afterward, and James toasted that the novel was number 6 on the New York Times bestseller list that week, that he would continue to earn money from it, and that even though [the movie] was one of the worst ever made it would have no bearing on the rest of his life.
Your writing about film noir is so distinctive and influential. Did you always aspire to write about film, or did you always dream of writing fiction?
I always wanted to write fiction. That was my goal, throughout all the nonfiction. It was a process of learning how to do it. To me, it’s a series of levels: first, you discover what excites you and inspires you; then you learn to write criticism of that, so you understand why it excites you. In my case that developed into writing nonfiction. I had been a journalist, which taught me the rudiments of good storytelling. You become conscious that someone will actually read what you write. My responsibility is to get them to the end. The quality of journalism in this country is now so poor people barely ever finish reading an in-depth news article. It’s not necessarily the reader’s fault — it’s that the articles are so often badly written. They’re not interesting for the common reader. After all that combined experience, I knew I could write a novel. And it worked out pretty well. [Note: Muller’s The Distance was named “Best First Novel” by the Private Eye Writers of America.]
If you read my first and second [Shadow Boxer] novels back-to-back, you’ll see a subtle change. The voice is the same, but I start to cut things out, pare things down, get more minimalist. The style of “The Grand Inquisitor” [short story] is where I’m at right now. It’s down to the bone. There’s not a single word in there that’s not essential to its impact. This is what I enjoy and will continue to do.
Do you plan to make more films in the future?
I hope so. Finding, and spending, money is difficult. I weigh my personal expectations against what is economically feasible and responsible. I consider myself a storyteller, and I believe every story has its best and truest form of expression. An idea might work best as a novel, or a short story, or perhaps even better as a stage- or screenplay. I have a new novel in the works, and some scripts, one of which is definitely noir. I’m also working on a feature-length screenplay based on The Grand Inquisitor. The short would be the first 20 minutes of the feature, although I’d probably have to reshoot it.
I’ve recently had some amusing creative interaction with Guy Maddin regarding his latest project, but I’m not really at liberty to delve into it too much. As Guy puts it, my DNA has found its way into his project — which makes it seem criminal. [Laughs] All this grew out of my ongoing work with the Film Noir Foundation, which I founded to rescue and restore “lost” noir films. “Rescue,” of course, can take many intriguing forms. That’s all I’ll say at the moment.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking of turning another short story of mine, “The Kid’s Last Fight,” into a short film, provided I can assemble the right collaborators. I think the internet is definitely changing the ingrained notion that there isn’t a market for short films.
The good news is that all this new technology has made it cost-effective enough to do just about everything I can imagine, whether it’s literary or cinematic. The issue for me these days isn’t so much “Where will I get the money to do all this?,” it’s “Where will I get the time to do all this?”