For her latest film, Buster’s Mal Heart, filmmaker Sarah Smith infuses an existential thriller with a bit of dark humor and then throws an intriguing mystery into the mix for good measure. Starring Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), DJ Qualls (Z Nation, The Man in the High Castle), Kate Lyn Sheil (You’re Next, The Sacrament), and genre favorite Lin Shaye, Buster’s Mal Heart is quite simply one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen so far in 2017, and I implore anyone looking for a cinematic story that isn’t afraid to be both bold and audacious to check out the latest from Smith, which is currently playing in both New York and Los Angeles courtesy of Well Go USA.
Daily Dead recently had the chance to speak with Smith about the project, and she discussed her creative process and approach to the unorthodox story of Buster’s Mal Heart, as well as her experiences collaborating with her talented cast and crew.
Great job on this film, Sarah. The way that you approached this story is so unconventional and it really left an impact on me. I'd love to hear about how this project came together and were there any differences for you, in terms of trying to translate some of these bigger ideas on the page versus how you had to then do it visually?
Sarah Smith: You know, it sounds weird, but I wasn't setting out to do anything unconventional. I was really just being myself when I wrote this. When I'm making movies, I'm trying to make a movie that I would want to watch, and I know you're supposed to think about your audience as a filmmaker, but oftentimes, I don't do that until much later. I try to just let myself be as free as possible during the writing and production process and just use myself and the artists who I respect, who are helping me make the movie, which is all a very collaborative process. For me, it's all about listening and seeing what this movie wants to be, and letting the movie have a life of its own, and letting it dictate where it wants to go, and being less controlling about the process.
So I don't know that I was ever trying to break the rules for the sake of being different or anything like that. It was more just about trying to be really honest about the process of making this film and really open, and letting it tell us what it wanted to be.
That approach is something that I really appreciate. As somebody who watches hundreds of movies a year for her job, whenever something steps out of that box and presents you with something that challenges me as a viewer, that immediately will get my respect as a movie fan.
Sarah Smith: Yeah, the reason I make movies is not simply because I'm interested in making movies. I make movies because it was the most expressive art form I could find to ask questions that kept me up at night. Perhaps that means my process is a little bit different than other filmmakers, in that I'm not necessarily trying to just entertain, I'm just really trying to ask questions as deeply and honestly as possible.
So, at the same time, in this movie, I was also doing my best not to take myself too seriously. I think that's why the movie is funny. I like to think of it as a comedy, really, because we all try to make sense of the world and do our best to get at some sort of truth, but most of life is us awkwardly stumbling around in the dark, and it usually is never as graceful as we want it to be. So, I wanted to capture that feeling of the absurdism of being alive, too.
Plus, I think that America is going through a spiritual crisis, and I was interested in exploring a character that reflected that. Because, for so many people, they're not making something every day—they're in a service job and it feels thankless and they're treated miserably and in turn, they are miserable, and there's this sense of disrespect and disconnect with what they're doing with their lives every day. So, there's a sense of real depression and soullessness for so many Americans now, and I just wanted to be true to that feeling. All of us want our lives to have dignity and have some sense of purpose and meaning, so I think the landscape feels lonelier and lonelier in this country now. I just wanted to explore that feeling of isolation and that longing to be free again.
I'm curious what it was that you saw in Rami for the role of Buster. Obviously, Rami's experienced a lot of well-earned success on Mr. Robot over the last couple of years, but what was it that you initially saw in him to become this character, where you knew it was the right fit?
Sarah Smith: Actually, I had seem him in Short Term 12, which is a really tremendous movie, and he really stuck out to me in that movie as someone who I would have wanted to see in a whole other movie about his character. He's naturally a leading man, and I hadn't seen him fully used in that way yet in a movie, so I was really interested in him for that reason. Also, there's just a lot going on in Rami Malek, the person's, head. He is a really deep, thinking artist, and so I really wanted someone who was going to go on this spiritual adventure with me and be willing to walk out on the ledge and take these risks with me. I just had a feeling about him, and I am definitely getting more superstitious in my old age because I often will check my intuition with tarot cards, so I had a feeling about Rami and then I pulled the tarot card, and it was like, the cards don't lie, he is the guy.
I think Rami took this because he was interested in asking similar questions to those on Mr. Robot, but on a different level. Mr. Robot seems to be about this guy who is rebelling against the mechanism of society, and the machine, and the socio-political realm, and in this movie, Jonah is rebelling against the machine of the cosmos, and he is really yelling up into the void, like he’s calling out God. I think Rami was just interested in asking those questions on this more personal, spiritual plane. And I hope this means that Mr. Robot fans will find something very appealing in this movie, too, because this movie is just scratching a little deeper into the dirt and poking out at the sky a little bit more when it comes to these types of questions.
One other thing I really appreciated about Buster’s Mal Heart was getting to see DJ Qualls in this, because I know he’s a guy known by fans more for a lot of his comedic work, and I still think one of his best things ever is Hustle & Flow, so I'm always really grateful when I see him in these types of dramatic roles. He does a great job here in making this small part feel almost bigger than life.
Sarah Smith: Yeah, I really loved the idea of DJ Qualls in this movie and casting him against type. Because “The Last Free Man,” his character, is just so full of swagger and overflowing with confidence, and I think DJ before this would get typecast as someone who was the "nerd" or lacking in confidence. So I just liked this notion of DJ Qualls as the most confident man in the world. And he was such a champ, too. I think we cast him two days before we shot with him, because it was such a crazy, last-minute casting situation, and he had quite the mountain of text he had to smash into his brain at the last minute. He did great, and I think we shot only like two or three days with him for this film.
Oh, and a lot of credit goes to our genius costume designer, Emily Batson, who I have collaborated with before. She's just such a smart storytelling costume designer, and she had this inspiration for his costume that really pulled the character together for all of us. Her inspiration for DJ’s look was “early Steve Jobs,” and we were like, “Oh, fuck yeah, that's perfect!” Once we got that costume on him, we were all like, "Holy shit, that's the character!" It was great.
*Editor's note: Above photo courtesy of the official Buster's Mal Heart Facebook page.