In Mr. Jones, Scott (Jon Foster) is desperate to make a great documentary. That’s why he moved himself and his other half, Penny (Sarah Jones), to a cabin in the secluded wild. They thought they were alone, but they discover a legendary reclusive artist known only as “Mr. Jones” living nearby. It looks like Scott’s found the subject of his documentary. Too bad it could cost his and Penny’s lives…and more.
With Anchor Bay set to release Mr. Jones to Blu-ray and DVD next week, we recently chatted with Mr. Jones writer/director Karl Mueller (co-writer of The Divide) about his directorial debut.
Karl, thank you for taking the time to talk about your directorial debut, Mr. Jones, which you also wrote. To start things off, can you tell our readers what inspired you to write this story and why you chose to direct it as well?
Karl Mueller: I’m a person who’s always wondered about their neighbors. I grew up in rural Minnesota, spent a lot of time up north in the cabin country. There’s a fair amount of strange people up there, kind of living off the grid and when you’re a kid you make up stories about them. So I’ve always had a fascination with Mr. Jones-like hermit guys.
I also had the idea from outsider artists, people who aren’t really connected with the art world, but who still make really cool, interesting, strange, bizarre sculptures and paintings— Henry Darger is one of the more famous ones, from Chicago—which just opens up this world of people who are making things completely uninfluenced by anything else in human culture, which brings the question of what it is influenced by.
Are there any directors, writers, or actors within the horror genre who influence the way you approach horror when writing screenplays and directing?
Karl Mueller: I like directors who try to push the boundaries of sound design and cinematography a fair amount to give a subjective view about what’s going on with the characters. David Lynch is the king of that in my mind, at least. He’s not completely horror, but there’s definitely a lot of elements to that in his sound carpets that he lays underneath his movies. They tell you so much without actually telling you anything. It puts you in this strange emotional state of mind that we don’t really have access to otherwise. It’s something that you can’t really explain in language, it almost works like music. He’s a huge influence, and then people that push stuff like that.
Another really strange influence on this was Danny Boyle’s movie Sunshine, which sort of evolved into a horror movie at the end of it. In my movie everything becomes this strange nightmare towards the end, and the way that Danny Boyle used all these tricks to try to put you in that visual and aural mindset in the movie was a huge influence on it because a lot of the stuff that he did was not using high-tech tricks. A lot of it was somewhat affordable low-fi stuff, which was important for us. We’re making a pretty low-budget horror movie, we don’t have access to all the tricks the studios have, but you can take a diopter, which is a piece of glass that kind of bends light as it comes right in front of the lens, and you get some pretty strange, cool effects.
I found Mr. Jones to be a really inventive entry to the found footage horror sub-genre. From the two-way cameras Scott and Penny use that capture their up-close reactions to all the horrific things they witness, to them being filmed by versions of themselves from the nightmare world, there is plenty of ingenuity with the camerawork. How important was it to you as the writer/director to take a unique angle on the well traveled found footage path?
Karl Mueller: I didn’t want to do it if we were just gonna do what had been done a million times before. We’re trying to figure out ways to push that forward and to almost deconstruct it by the end. Like you said, the cameras kind of end up turned around on them by some unseen, H. P. Lovecraft-like force. It’s exploring what that might look like from a mind that human beings can’t conceive, this kind of horror-like construct. That was a lot of fun in the movie in building that out.
As far as the two-way camera goes, that was just a practical device that I’m surprised I hadn’t seen in a lot of places before. I don’t know if I’ve seen it anywhere. I’m sure it’s been done. So when a character is holding a camera, you obviously can’t see that character, but with this thing you can still keep them in the movie and see their reactions. We thought it was justified because Scott is a filmmaker himself, and we were trying to come up with a found footage style that came from the mind of someone who’s actually a decent filmmaker, who actually knows documentaries and the genre, and he would come up with clever things, rather than just an amateur who grabs an iPhone and is just waving it around. And that was one of the other things that we thought we could bring to the genre that would be a little bit different.
You co-wrote The Divide (one of my favorite films), a movie that, like Mr. Jones, has a lot of effective psychological horror throughout. In The Divide we see bunker mentality at its nastiest in the aftermath of a nuclear blast, and in Mr. Jones Scott and Penny face their own mental breakdowns when their world merges with the nightmare world. In both films you do a great job of focusing on how people react to dire situations. What interests you the most about this type of psychological/reactionary horror? How do you approach writing and directing it at its most effective level?
Karl Mueller: I’m interested obviously in how people actually react under these stressful conditions. With The Divide in particular, something that I’ve always found fascinating and the source of something that’s needed to create drama out of and to find stories around is what happens when people are on their own and have to make their own rules, have to create their own little culture and society and decision-making structure. Instead of the world that we have where we kind of take everything for granted and everything is safe and everything is kind of decided for us. It’s something very interesting to explore: what if we didn’t take that for granted? What if we actually had to do that? I don’t think every scenario like that is going to end up like The Divide, which is pretty much the worst case scenario possible.
As a storyteller it’s a way to create instant drama and get people interested in the movie. So many genre films do it, like what happens when you can’t just call the police, that you’re on your own. But there’s a reason we see it over and over. And I think people like to see that because our lives are, at least in America these days for lucky people, so safe and kind of predictable, but we still crave feeling like we’re in control of our own fate, where if we don’t go out there every day and get it done, we’re not gonna survive. Those kinds of stories have a lot of resonance for people. They’re a nice escapism. They’re a nice wish fulfillment on some level. Although nobody really wishes to get in that bunker in The Divide, I wouldn’t think.
Much of Mr. Jones was filmed in the secluded countryside, as well as some exterior shooting in New York City. In addition to beautifully capturing the outdoors in close-ups and long shots, you also take viewers into creepy interiors like Mr. Jones’ cabin and the maze of earthen tunnels beneath his house. Can you share with our readers where you shot the film and what it was like shooting in these contrasting environments?
Karl Mueller: This movie was pretty low-budget and it was catch-as-catch-can as far as how we were getting footage. We had principal photography, where we were shooting on an ALEXA. But a lot of that stuff, like the New York stuff, there’s many shots in the film that are just shot on an iPhone, where we’re just kind of stealing as much as we can. There’s those interviews with experts on Mr. Jones, and those are just shot on an XLR camera, and they were done a couple months after principal photography where we couldn’t afford to sit down and do those things. That was a bit of an organizational headache, but it was really fun to do.
And again, the idea of the style of this movie, I always think of it as like ‘method directing’. You’re not actually directing the movie how you would do it. You have this character, Scott, who’s a filmmaker himself. He’s not just shooting a found footage movie where he’s just pointing the camera and happens to catch things as they happen. He’s a filmmaker himself, so you have to imagine, ‘What is his style, how would he portray this? How would he want to try to make this exciting?’ Sometimes he makes choices that you wouldn’t necessarily make, but you just have to go along with that to stay true to the characters.
Absolutely. I think that justifies their dogged pursuit of Mr. Jones, because they need it for the film. That’s why you would go down that ladder, pursuing the story.
Karl Mueller: Right. The characters don’t know they’re in a horror film, either. We all know. We buy the ticket or we rent the movie, like, ‘Well, you know, there’s some pretty scary stuff that’s gonna happen and people are gonna try to kill them or whatever, so don’t go down there.’ But in their world where they think they’re making a documentary, they would maybe not quite have their guard up like that.
And they could come away with a pretty big paycheck if it all pans out for them, too.
Karl Mueller: Exactly. Scott’s a little desperate when the movie begins. Life hasn’t worked out the way he expected it to, so he’s more willing to take risks.
Mr. Jones has an ominous presence in the film, even when he’s not on camera. He haunts the film when people discuss his scarecrows (which were amazingly designed by Pumpkinrot), when Scott and Penny trespass into his home, and when he’s heard but not seen on camera. How did you go about maximizing the fear of Mr. Jones in the film?
Karl Mueller: It kind of goes back to sound design. You can tell the audience subconsciously that they should be feeling certain things without ever showing them or without really having the characters be talking about that or even realize that something’s going on. One of the tricks of horror movies or monster movies—especially when you don’t have a budget—is that the less you show them, the better. Because in the end it’s just a guy in a Godzilla suit. It’s a trick that comes very quickly. You realize your first couple days on set, ‘If I just point the camera at this guy, it’s gonna look like a Roger Corman movie.’ That’s his mark over there. It’s not scary, right?
So everything becomes about, ‘Well, how do we barely see him and only get glimpses through things and how do we keep a sense of mystery about this?’ That’s one of the really big challenges of these kinds of films.
The ‘less is more’ approach.
Karl Mueller: Yeah. ‘Less is more’ is something that’s thrust upon you when you’re working with the size of the movie. But within those limitations, sometimes they’re a good thing because they force you to be more adventurous than you would if you could just dump a bunch of money at creating a CGI monster.
In the case of a movie like The Divide, the monster is just regular people showing what they’re capable of, so you don’t need to do any big CGI work, you just kind of let that situation slowly evolve. You kind of know where it’s gonna go and you know it’s not gonna end well, and the horror of that is waiting for that to happen. And then it goes probably beyond what you expected.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Not even Michael Biehn is safe.
Karl Mueller: Exactly. [Laughs] Not even Kyle Reese can keep you safe here.
With Mr. Jones playing in select theaters on May 2nd and set for a Blu-ray and DVD release from Anchor Bay on May 6th, what are you working on next that you can share with our readers?
Karl Mueller: I can’t really talk about specifics, but I’ve got a couple projects brewing that I’m in the stages of securing funding for. One of them involves a cult. I’ve always been very, very fascinated with cults. Ever since I was a kid. I think it’s time to make my cult movie. That’s one thing I’m working on.
Interesting. Could we see a Minnesota cult?
Karl Mueller: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s kind of one of the ideas of it. It sort of really hides in plain sight. So maybe there will be a Minnesota element to it, right where you would least expect a super-creepy powerful cult to exist, is right in your backyard there in Brainerd.