Bumblefuck USA Interview
Kerrie interviews the director and the star for Gaelick.
Bumblefuck, USA is an American film, which was released on DVD in Ireland this week (January 28th). Read our review here. It tells the story of a young Dutch documentary maker, who travels to a small US town to explore the gay community, after the suicide of her gay friend. While there, she gets close to a woman, and learns a lot about herself. It is directed by Aaron Douglas Johnston, who also co wrote the screenplay with actress Cat Smits, and also stars Heidi M Sallows. I spoke to the Director Aaron Douglas Johnston and stars Cat Smits and Heidi M Sallows about the film, their inspiration, the process, what it was like to interview real people for the film and future plans.
>Hey, thanks for doing the interview!
What was the inspiration of the film?
Aaron Douglas Johnson: My cousin Matt and I grew up together in our hometown of Muscatine, Iowa, and he was like a brother to me. While I was away at college, Matt came out of the closet and shortly afterwards he committed suicide. I wish I had been there for him, and I kept wondering what it was he went through. Years later, I decided to make a film in my hometown to explore what it’s like to be gay in our small American town. Matt’s death became the starting point for our story. It is thanks to the LGBT community in Iowa that we were able to make ‘Bumblefuck, USA’.
Heidi M Sallows: For myself… I was interested in screen testing for a variety of reasons… the first being opportunities like this, working with a crew from Amsterdam especially, doesn’t come by my neck of the river often… And I’ve always wanted to try my hand at film acting. The story behind the film hit close to home as I’ve known far to many people that have committed suicide or have been hospitalized for it… I hoped that by being apart of this film I could somehow pay homage to these people and the loved ones left behind.
Why was this story so important to tell?
ADJ: Personally, I wanted to tell this story to deal with Matt’s death. My hope is that the film can, at least in some small way, help those in small town America in similar situations to Matt. Learning to love oneself and others is a crucial part of the film.
Cat Smitts: the story is important to tell because it’s about the right to love and learning to love oneself.
The film was co-written by both of you – what was that writing process like?
CS: Aaron and me started writing in Amsterdam together with documentary director Sam de Jong. After that we went to Aaron’s home town and interviewed a lot of people from the gay scene there. These stories lead us to write the scenario.
ADJ: Cat and I wrote the film’s treatment, meaning we focused on characters, their relationships, their actions, and their development in each scene. For some scenes, Cat and I wrote out the dialogue, but for others I gave the actors assignments during the scene to allow them to improvise the dialogue. I wanted to have a treatment to provide structure for each scene and the overall story, but I also wanted to allow for chaos and flexibility to give the film a realistic and authentic feeling. To achieve that, the final part of the writing process took place on set while I built the scenes with the actors.
The film has a sense of realism and some scenes in particular feel very natural and improvised – the scrap yard scene with Alexa and Jennifer comes to mind. The two seem to converse and move around very organically – was the film strictly scripted or was improvisation used?
ADJ: The film was definitely not strictly scripted, which is what I really like about it. Cat (Alexa) is a gifted professional actress and is particularly talented at improvisation. As a director, I love working with her because she always surprises me, and I’m able to use many of those surprises to bring each scene to life. Heidi (Jennifer) had never acted before, but she obviously has a talent for acting and for improvisation. Allowing these two actresses to improvise with certain goals in mind produced some of the film’s best scenes. The junkyard is an example of that.
CS: for quite some scenes we chose to write ‘core scenes’ and improvise around them. So that the actors in the film who weren’t trained actors and played characters close to their own personality, could use their own experiences in dialogues.
HS: a lot of what you hear jennifer say was somewhat scripted… Meaning Aaron would set the intent of the scene… A frame for us to move around in and then allow for us to inject our own dialogs … We discussed what we would say desperately from one another with Aaron so when our characters interacted there was a bit more sincerity behind our reactions… Often Jennifer’s stories are blends of a series of real stories of mine, in with a bit of fiction… Hinging the fiction and documentary by toeing that line between.
Jennifer’s (Heidi M Sallows) interview to camera is another scene which feels very natural – how much of this, if any, is real?
ADJ: All interviews are real. The interview you refer to is actually with Heidi as Heidi, but I use it in the film to bring the two parts of the film together — the fiction with the documentary. Heidi/Jennifer is the person/character that unites the two parts of the film and helps us understand Alexa’s journey.
HS: Oh the interview was very real… So much that at first I didn’t want to do it. I had some reservations for various reasons… One being I had let so much of my own reality seep into Jennifer’s that I thought by doing the interview it might confuse people… Depending upon what they used… Some very personal stuff came out in that interview. A photographer from the Frameline Festival, Ana Grillo, said something to the effect of it was nice to see an actor be a bit vulnerable…and she opened that scene up for me… often we see actors on screen and they seem like, a bit unreal like you can’t fathom them getting depressed or something… then when someone does its shocking! Or sadly people can’t understand why someone with grand stature in the acting world could possibly be depressed… But it happens … We are all human after all… Silly enough, I still cry myself when I see that part of the film… And remember how I felt, what I was talking about… Those seemingly unbearable moments in life… But I’m still trudging along… Flying sometimes… Having to remind myself of those words I said… I’m up for this challenge … I can do this.
How important was it to maintain a sense of realism – to blend in the narrative with the documentary interview segments?
ADJ: This was crucial, and something I spent a lot of time on in the edit. We had to find the right balance so that the fictional story wouldn’t be interrupted too much by the documentary interviews but rather invigorated with new information garnered from these real interviews. They needed to be part of Alexa’s journey. The use of the documentary interviews also meant that the acting style in the fictional story had to be very realistic in order to equal the authenticity of the documentary interviewees. The combination of the two was the film’s biggest challenge.
CS: We played with realism all the time. It’s a style that Aaron uses a lot. He often works with ‘real people’ and bases the story and characters on their own stories. With Bumblefuck, USA he had the same approach.
How did you select the interviewees?
ADJ: It was quite difficult to find Iowans who were willing to talk about being gay in front of the camera. Documentary director Sam, Cat, and I spent considerable time in the LGBT community in Iowa, and we met so many wonderful people. Many of the interviewees we met through Connections, the LGBT nightclub in Davenport (and also the nightclub featured in the film). Others we met through the LGBT center at the University of Iowa. These interviewees all had something special to tell about their experience being gay in small town America. I wish we could have used more of this material, actually, but we only used segments that somehow communicated with Alexa’s journey.
CS: It was hard enough to find people brave enough to tell their stories and be openly gay on film. We interviewed everybody who was willing to share their story. The parts that matched the film best ended up being used.
Part of the realistic elements seem to be a result of real people, rather than solely professional actors, can you talk a bit about your casting for the film, and your decisions made for both the acting and interview portions of the film?
ADJ: My goal, in this film and others, is to combine the authenticity of documentary with the control of fiction to tell a story worth telling. Cat (Alexa) and John (Lucas) are professionally trained actors, and Ryan had a lot of acting experience. For the role of Jennifer, though, I wanted to find a ‘non-professional’ actress – someone from the LGBT community in Iowa – to give the film a more realistic and authentic feeling. After many auditions, we found Heidi through a friend at Connections nightclub in Davenport. Heidi has a charismatic personality in real life, and the amazing thing is that she still has it in front of the camera! She could take my direction, but she also preserved her own impulses, which created many of the film’s beautiful moments. As for the interviews, it was important to me that this story feel urgent, real, and connected to small town America and the experiences of gays and lesbians living there. The authenticity of the people, and hence the film, injects the story with more emotion and power.
CS: the intention was to work as much as possible with real people who were to play themselves. And we were very lucky to find wonderful people in the gay scene there that were willing to cooporate. John Watkins (Lucas) is a trained actor as am I, and Ryan Gourley had acted before. They all come from the same area in the USA though.
For the character Jennifer we really looked for a real person who could also act. And we found her in Heidi after a lot of interviews with other women. Criteria were that she had to come from there, she had to be gay, she had to be able to act and there had to be a click with me. Not easy to find, but we did!
The reason that we wanted to work with real people (actors/interviews) and actors is that we found it really important to tell a real story, close to reallity, with the feel of small town USA.
Is there any style of filming that influenced you when you set out to make this movie?
ADJ: I’m an American trained as a filmmaker in the Netherlands. My main influences are small European art house films that focus on character development and relationships.
Alexa’s sexuality is never outwardly stated in the film; she has sexual encounters with both a man and a woman (although each of these experiences is conveyed very differently) – how conscious a decision was it not to verbally label her sexual orientation?
CS: Alexa starts the film as a character who doesn’t love herself and therefore is not able to love another. The most important thing for us is that whe learns to love, no matter who. That’s why we didn’t chose to make her outspoken gay or straight. We made her happy.
What do you think of the state of LGBT cinema now? Are you noticing any changes? What LGBT films, if any, do you think were important landmarks of the past ten years?
CS:I think a lot of wonderful LGBT films are made. And more LGBT subjects are present in mainstream film and tv nowadays. That’s a good development.
To me the greatest landmark film is Aimee and Jaguar.
HS: I think there’s a lot of great films being made… That have been made. My collection is small but i have some goid ones… Go Fish, Water Lillie’s, Bound and some girl shorts… I really like the short film format… i like teading short stories too… and I’m noticing the topic of being gay or a lesbian or transgendered more and more being a secondary topic to the over all story being told or idea… I like it all but I like that too… I really liked the film August at Frameline and Romeos at Outfest… Spork was fantastically funny… I really enjoyed Asexual too… There’s so many wonderful actors and directors and writers producing great work in this genre right now… It’s quite exciting!
‘Bumblefuck, USA’ is a really striking name-why the title?
HS: At times, the story didn’t necessarily feel like it was strictly attached to America- but as though it could have been almost any small town, in any number of countries, was this a factor when filming- to give the story a universal feel?
At times, the story didn’t necessarily feel like it was strictly attached to America- but as though it could have been almost any small town, in any number of countries, was this a factor when filming- to give the story a universal feel?
CS: I think that has mostly to do that people aren’t so different and we encounter the same basic problems in any part of the world.
There’s a particularly harrowing scene in the film involving Alexa and Lucas – which may be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet – but was this difficult to film? Was it always going to be so raw or graphic, because it seemed largely to be filmed in one take?
CS: As we used a lot of interviews to build the story, this became also part of it. People don’t like to see it in the film. What was important to us when we made the film was hearing from a lot of people that they had a period in which they sent out unclear signals to others because they didn’t listen to themselves or because they didn’t dare to be who they were. That leaded to misunderstandings and sometimes to irritations and anger.
Alexa doesn’t know how to react to Lucas. It leads to a very unpleasant encounter. We decided to put it in because it’s also part of the stories we heard, and because we used it for Alexa as a turning point: this will never happen to her again. And she becomes less careless with herself and others.
You filmed a lot on location- how did the town or the people of the filming locations respond to the film?
CS: Everybody was super supportive. We couldn’t have made the film without the help of all the people from the town.
Did any films in particular influence your process?
ADJ: No, not really. I would say that this film was the beginning of my own process that I’ve since developed more. I loved working with Heidi (Jennifer) on ‘Bumblefuck, USA’ and afterwards I decided to develop more films around non-professional actors in order to tell more original and authentic stories in narrative films. My Sundance-selected short film ‘Today and Tomorrow’ was made entirely with non-professional actors. For three months, I trained Iranian and Afghani political refugees living in Holland to make that film. Afterwards, I returned to Iowa to make a second feature, ‘My Sister’s Quinceañera’, which premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January 2013. This feature I made with Mexican-American residents of Iowa with no prior acting experience. The film again tells an authentic (though fictional) story. So in many ways, ‘Bumblefuck, USA’ was the beginning for me – the way I found my voice as a filmmaker and a way to tell authentic stories with real people in narrative films.
Lastly, do you have any plans for the future? Hopefully we can see more from you both in the future, because I’d love to see any more films you may have planned!
CS: Aaron Douglas Johnston just made a new film in the same town, it’s called: My Sister’s Quincenera. And it will be screened at Rotterdam International Film Festival.Cat is touring in Holland and internationally with the Ulrike Quade Company and is seen in several new Dutch film productions.
Bumblefuck is available through Peccadillo Pictures.