Interview/Review by Bears Fonte
“It’s described as a Mal Heart because it’s violating the law of space/time,” says writer/director Sarah Adina Smith about her new genre-defying and Rami Malik starring drama BUSTER’S MAL HEART, “It’s not playing by the rules. The heart is a bug in the system.” World Premiering at TIFF last year, Smith’s film, which also stars Kate Lyn Sheil and DJ Qualls, embraces its own absurdity and puts chaos (and maybe chaos theory) on screen.
Malek plays both Jonah, a hard-working hotel night clerk, and Buster, a recluse mountain man on the run from authorities who regularly calls in to rant on radio talk shows. He also plays a man trapped on a rowboat which is either Jonah or Buster or both… One personality seems to be a memory of the other, or a nightmare of the other. It is the kind of difficult story-telling that we rarely witness in the big-box megaplex world where galaxies have guardians and Tom Hanks challenges himself by wearing a sweater. BUSTER’S MAL HEART is the kind of film that gives back to its audience, offering questions and possibilities and leaving itself open to rewatching. Kate Lyn Sheil, who is always good, gives the film its emotional center, something for Malek’s Jonah to tie himself to. DJ Qualls, who I’ve loved since ROAD TRIP, delivers a nuanced turn as a conspiracy theory hustler who makes Jonah question everything he knows.
Smith’s film captures the viewer in a web of mystery, where they struggle to figure out how all the personalities are related, and what that means to their own life. It is an enigmatic journey the rewards the watcher at every turn, filled with confident direction and beautiful imagery. I had a chance to discuss BUSTER’S MAL HEART after it made its US Premiere last year at Fantastic Fest.
Bears: I’ve noticed water plays such a large role in your work. Obviously with this film but also with THE MIDNIGHT SWIM and the one you did the screenplay GOODBYE WORLD with Adrian Grenier, where they fighting over water.
Sarah Adina Smith: Yeah, I didn’t even think about that one. In my childhood, water was always a place of magic for me. The feeling of suspension and floating and just letting go completely was this feeling of peace but it was also, danger in that. Water is supposed to be this warm embrace but also can kill you. It’s always been so fascinating for me for some reason. And mystical. The way sound travels through water. It’s like a state of mind that I like to mimic.
Bears: And it also looks so gorgeous because the way you can film below and above it, and have characters disappear in it.
Smith: Yeah. It is the source of all life, and one of the most mysterious things on this planet, honestly. I’m very drawn to water. My next movie actually also involves a water crisis. So clearly, I can’t stop talking about it.
Bears: So was there any particular one of Buster’s existences that came to you first and then you built around that?
Smith: What a good question. I think it’s called BUSTER’S MAL HEART because the mountain man character came to me first. And in some ways, if you had to pick one, his storyline is the protagonist. But I had been reading different stories about various hermits who would live off the land but with this new, weird relationship with nature, where he couldn’t quite survive off the land. So they’re breaking into people’s houses for food and supplies. And I thought there was something really sweet and fascinating about wanting to be free, but also wanting to be back in the cage at the same time. I thought that character was a broken heart I wanted to explore. How did he come to be where he was? He came first and then I read that story. There was a big news item about this Mexican fisherman who was lost at sea for some impossibly long time, like over a thousand days or something. I also thought that was really fascinating. He claimed that he survived by God sending him the blood of turtles to drink . . . and that’s how he survived. I was just like, “ah, this is really interesting. What if these two people were the same person and wanted to tell the story of how they became that way?”
Bears: So obviously a lot of conversation about the film right now is about the central character, the actor, Rami Malek. You’ve put him in this unique situation where he gets to have this fantastic role.
Smith: He definitely flexes his acting muscles for sure.
Bears: Yeah, that’s like a dream role for an actor. I don’t know what the timeline was because he’s gigantic. Did you luck into him before that happened or what?
Smith: It was this interesting thing where we went to him just like a week before the first episode of Mr. Robot was going to drop. There were already billboards everywhere. I was having anxiety, feeling like, ‘okay, he’s already going to be too famous. There’s no way we’re going to get him.’ But I was fortunate that he read the script and really responded to the material. We met. We really connected. He was getting gigantic offers at the time. So I was like, “how are we going to convince him to do this small strange movie?” But I think he just really responded to the material. I think people’s knee-jerk reactions when they first hear about the movie are, “Oh, that sounds like Mr. Robot!” But Rami is someone who is genuinely interested in these big questions. I think what Mr. Robot does so well is it is about a man’s relationship to society, and the machine of society. BUSTER’S about a man’s relationship to the universe, like the mechanisms of the universe. The merciless, causal mechanisms that drive our universe.
Bears: I love the cosmic, psychobabble he’s watching on television. Was there a lot of research put into that? Where did you come up with that kind of stuff?
Smith: Well, I’m really always interested— it was in THE MIDNIGHT SWIM too— but I like TV’s as these windows to other worlds, or windows to truths in some way. Even though there’s a lot of humor in that, it kind of sounds like psychobabble as you put it. I think there are revelations happening there and it’s really up to the viewer whether they want to decide if this a reflection of what’s going on in his mind or this is the other side, the Forces that Be are really speaking to him through different programs.
Smith: There are! There were some beautiful things I had to cut that had even more triangles. But the toenail triangle was actually a mix of my fingernails and my husband’s. We mingled nail clippings.
Bears: You didn’t want to ask your props person to do that.
Smith: We collected them in a little Altoid tin. This is just kind of the hands-on filmmakers we are.
Bears: That’s great. I love the credits at the end as they went by and you could see the triangle.
Smith: I wanted to leave the audience with a feeling of peace. I think that’s what the movie’s after, is to give the audience a brief respite from the madness of eternal occurrence, if you will. From the merciless machine that wanted to give the audience a moment of peace at the end, even if it’s a brief moment of peace.
Bears: It’s interesting because everyone talks about triangles as being the most stable geometrical shape. You think of a stool, like three legs is more stable than four no matter what. And yet, you’re talking about a film where you’ve got three points of reference, and the entire film is about being unstable, essentially. Trying to find that stability.
Smith: The triangle thing, I don’t even know I fully understand. It’s just something that felt really intuitively right about the movie, which is why I kept being drawn to that. Like you said, even the opening shot of the movie is a triangle. I think we could have a longer conversation about what that probably means. But I think triangles can have directionality, which is interesting. Like it can be pointing somewhere. But I think they can also spin. I think this is a movie about if freedom is truly possible, in a universe governed by causality. This is a movie about free will. I like to dream if there’s anything that can divide the laws of physics and the laws of nature, maybe it is love. As corny and as romantic as that may sound. But I think that’s at the heart of the movie for me. We’re on this earth and we don’t get to choose to be born and we don’t get to choose when we die. We don’t get to choose the circumstances of our fate, but we are given consequences, which is a strange phenomenon. A strange and somewhat mysterious phenomenon. It seems what makes existence truly special is these relationships with love that we have that seem to transcend death even. So I wanted to make a film— God, isn’t that cheesy— I want to make a story about the power of love. But I think that’s why it ended up being called BUSTER’S MAL HEART. It is a movie about a heart, at the end of the day.
Bears: So THE MIDNIGHT SWIM, it’s about sisters and has a very strong female sensibility in terms of the mother passing things down. I was really surprised that this film is really a man’s story and the main relationship that we see isn’t really between Buster and his wife, although that is a lovely relationship. But it’s between Buster and this crazy guy telling him about the end of the world.
Smith: And Buster and himself, really.
Bears: So tell me a little bit about that choice and how different that was for you.
Smith: I think I had an urge to make a movie about a man, and a movie about manhood. Even though this applies to women’s stories as well— it’s not exclusively about manhood. But traditionally, there is this conflict between love and freedom for men, of wanting both but inevitably the two cancel each other out. So I wanted to show a man struggling with that paradox. But that is really universal. It’s not necessarily exclusive to men, but it was something I wanted to explore. Our traditional ideas about manhood. And then this notion— which I think is universal for so many of us right now— about not being able to get traction and what that can do to a person. How that can really bring a person to their edge. Feeling, essentially, like you’re a hamster on a never-ending wheel and I thought that was a nice parallel to his life, his practical day-to-day life. Then… paralleling that to feeling like a hamster on a wheel, like a universal, cosmological structure. THE MIDNIGHT SWIM is very much about reincarnation and discovering the past through reincarnation, and becoming conscious of the past through reincarnation. Buster’s Mal Heart is about rebelling against that past, about not wanting to be stuck in the cycle of eternal reincarnation, eternal occurrences. It’s a heart that cries, “foul,” and rebels against that past.
Sarah Adina Smith’s BUSTER’S MAL HEART is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle, and opens in Denver, Houston, Kansisas City, Portland, Toronto and many other cities on May 12th.