Last January the film Scumbag premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. It is a bizarre spectacle, filled with many strange characters and crazy shenanigans. One of those films that you don't just watch, but experience. Director Mars Roberge shows he has a unique style that might not be to everybody's liking, but if you surrender yourself to the madness you are in for a treat. I spoke to Roberge and actresses Camille Waldorf and Debra Haden after the screening, and they provided a peek behind the curtains of the coming together of this film.
Pedophiles, drug dealers and murderers'The story is ludicrous', as Maude Lebowski would say. That certainly goes for Scumbag as well, although no cables get fixed. The protagonist is Phil (played by Princess Frank), a loser dj who realizes that he finally needs to get an actual dayjob to earn a living. Clearly unfamiliar with this concept, he delves headfirst into office life, which is filled with a myriad of shady characters who don't really seem to know what it is they are actually doing at their job. 'Pedophiles, drug dealers and murderers' -Roberge paints a flattering figure of these slaves of drudgery. "When I came out of film school, I started hanging out in clubs", Roberge explains. "I ended up becoming a dj myself, and eventually a drunken mess. After many years I realized I needed to get my shit together and get back to making film. I remembered coming home so often after hours and bumping into these people filing up to disappear into these large buildings, in which they stayed all day doing... what? Nobody could ever explain to me clearly what it is they were doing in these offices. I started thinking it was all a facade. Why is nobody asking the question what really happens in those buildings?"
WretchednessThe first half of the film we discover what Roberge thinks is happening in there. A gloomy collection of misfits who look like they are doing time, instead of enjoying a fruitful career. Phil soon gets caught in their incessant stream of misanthropy and depressing conversations, pretty much staying very confused the whole film. Working at the office is only a lead up to what comes after -drinking, doing drugs, fighting in bars, and having weirded out philosophical questions. Phil starts to see his girlfriend Christine (played by Debra Haden) less and less, because he comes home in the middle of night wasted as fuck -if he comes home at all. Christine despairs both for their relationship and for Phil himself, seeing him slowly go down the drain. There are many laughing moments in this first half of the film, but it is difficult to shake the raw wretchedness of it all. But then a key scene half way through the film turns things around.
|Mars Roberge on set|
Homeless crackheadIn a strange dream like scene, Phil and Christine start singing and dancing on their car in the middle of the street. Then they are joined by many other singing and dancing people coming from all directions, in a wonderful choreography, while annoyed people in cars behind them hunk their horns. The scene goes on for quite some time, and indicates a shift in the relationship between Phil and Christine, and in the way Phil takes control over his own life. It functions as a hinge, after which many things fall into place and a sudden happiness enters the film. Roberge is very happy with how this all played out. "I woke up one morning and realized: nobody does musicals anymore. This was before La La Land and all. I thought: you know what, this movie, god forbid, could be a failure, and I might never do another film after this. So why wait for the next movie to incorporate a musical scene? My producer said I couldn't do it, but I can be rather stubborn. We arranged everything within a very short time. We got in touch with a choreographer we knew, who knew dancers as well. Princess Frank and Debra Haden wrote the song in like a day. And then during filming the police came with sirens and all to shut us down. It was crazy but so worth it. What you don't see in the film is that when we were filming, and everybody was singing and dancing on top of a car, a homeless crackhead came walking on the set and he just goes 'shut up! shut up!' -he thought it was all in his head. We didn't know what would happen, if he had a gun or not, but finally he walked away. He never saw the cameras, so it must have been quite a weird experience for him! But this scene was important in the sense that Phil comes off as quite a dick in the first half of the film. I wanted to show why he and Christine are together at all, and I didn't want to do it through a corny, obvious love story line."
French New WaveThe scene is somewhat reminiscent of the carnavalesque that is so prevalent in the work of the Italian director Federico Fellini. Roberge though sees himself as being influenced more by French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave. As someone who has ADD, he is very intrigued by the way they use not just narrative, but mise-en-scène and seemingly random events to affect the viewer. "Sometimes I couldn't follow the story completely, because that could be a bit boring here and there, not understanding the French, especially for someone with ADD. But there is so much happening on the background. Like in this film where in the middle of a serious conversation, a guy walks to the window and shoots a toy dog in the street, then returns to the conversation, and no one mentions what just happened. For me, there always have to be subliminal things happening in the background." There are definitely many moments in this film you would want to pause it, or rewind it, to see what's all going on. There is an undertow of unease pulsating underneath this movie.
|Mars Roberge on set|
PerseveranceRoberge didn't follow the easy road in making Scumbag. Several setbacks (a failed crowdfunding campaign, actors pulling out, police shutting down filming) did not discourage the born Canadian. Perseverance and a rock hard faith in his own abilities led him to where he his now, with his film screening at many international film festivals. Listening to the origin story of Scumbag sometimes sounds like a journey through rock and roll mayhem. Alexis Arquette agreed to be in the film, but eventually declined to participate due to 'medical situations'. Moby was going to be in the film, but suddenly could not be reached anymore and was never heard from again. Bauhaus legend Peter Murphy was excited to be part of the project, until he heard that porn star Ron Jeremy was also going to be in the film. Still Roberge kept going, making the most of the situations he encountered.
RocktopiaRecruiting people left and right, many of them through accidental encounters, he managed to convince people of the promise of the film and get a crew together. In a way, that is how Roberge likes it. He created a manifesto for making a film that can be labeled a 'rocktopia', based on eight rules that would drive most people mad. "Most filmmakers are influenced by other films, I am mostly influenced by music. I started out making music videos too. I wanted music to be an integral part of this film. So, in a rocktopia, music plays an important role. The story has to deal with a battle against an utopian society, in which the only way out is to rock and roll. An actor has to perform a song in the film that they have written themselves. Furthermore, actual musicians have to play a role that is far removed from their musical persona. And magic is important. Not black magic, but the magic of serendipity. People or locations that I encounter the night before have to play a role in the film."
There is a script?!Being dependent on random encounters also means that it is impossible to have a script one hundred procent ready before filming. This sometimes leads to difficulties when you want to sell your story to producers. "I can't completely let people understand what I see in my head. I like experimental film, for example, and when making that you can't write everything down before you start filming. It happened during the filming of Scumbag that someone came to me to tell that they didn't understand what was in the script, but when performing all the pieces came together and they realized what I wanted to achieve. It is great to see that happening on set. A script is an important starting point, but never the definitive film. I loved it when Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks, who I contacted like the day before through Facebook to ask if he wanted to be in my film, showed up at my door. I asked him if he memorized the script I sent him, and he just said: 'what?! There is a script?!' But he nailed it. I love to go with the momentum and see where I end up."
MusicBoth Camille Waldorf and Debra Haden fulfill the role of performing their own song in the film. Waldorf (who performs as an artist under the name of Queen Astoria) sings her song 'Delicate Boy' in a beautifully unusual scene in which a drinking party turns into a music video. She also became part of the movie through a random encounter. "I met Mars at a party where he was DJ-ing", she explains. "I had done a project with Quentin Tarantino before, but wasn't planning on doing any more acting, to be honest. I was focusing on my music and visual art, and tried to stay away from the sometimes poisonous world of acting. But Mars convinced me to be part of his project, I believed in his ideas. Filming with Mars is so different from many other directors. He gives you a certain freedom to really put elements of yourself into the character. And to have a song of mine be in the film is amazing." Debra Haden already was a friend of Mars, and discussed many dialogues with him. "Many quotes from the film are based in real life," Haden reveals. "It was great to keep working on them, shaping them so they fitted the story well. And singing and dancing in the film was so much fun, especially since I co-wrote that song with Princess Frank. It had always been a dream of me to record my own music. I had lived for too long in the wrong places, and I came to Los Angeles to make this dream come true. For that to actually happen, and to be part of such an inspiring project, is really wonderful."
FutureWith Scumbag now being shown at film festivals around the world, Roberge is already looking forward again. "I have somewhat of a sequel planned, and also would like to do a tv-series based on Scumbag. And I am already working on writing three totally different movies. An urban drama, kind of Spike Lee inspired, based on this rough neighborhood I grew up in, in Canada. And a romantic comedy and a horror film. I never really was a fan of horror, but in a way I am drawn to making one. On the one hand because I don't want to be pigeonholed as a filmmaker, but also because I kept having these nightmares before the premiere of Scumbag at Rotterdam. It was almost as if a script was being written in my dreams. But if I make a horror, I want it to be a film in which you feel for the characters. Characters and originality -that is what is important in making movies."
Something to look forward to. For now, Scumbag warrants a viewing. The next screening will be at the Art is Alive Film Festival in Brooklyn, on July 23. Hopefully a DVD-release won't be too far away.