Thursday, January 15, 2015

MFM Interview: Onur Tukel

During the past year, the horror comedy that impressed me the most was, without any doubt, Summer of Blood. I found this film insanely funny and engaging, while it was also totally offbeat, which is for me a great combo. Recently, I had a chance to talk with its creator Onur Tukel and got to learn more about how Summer of Blood got made, but also more about his take on horror comedies in general and his future plans. Read on for more!

Image courtesy Onur Tukel
Movies, Films and Movies (MFM): Summer of Blood is one of the most impressive horror comedies in recent years. You wrote, directed and starred in it. What was your initial goal when you started writing it?

Onur Tukel: The goal was to make a cheap horror film with an expensive sense of humor! When it comes to action films, no-budget independent films can’t compete with Hollywood. You need money to create something spectacular. But comedies are a different story. It doesn't take money to write a joke. And if you can find actors who have great timing, then, you can compete with Hollywood in that regard. But the initial goal was always to make something that could sell in the marketplace. I'm not motivated by money at all and frankly, money kind of disgusts me but at this point in my career, if I don’t start making money in this game, I’m finished. So, vampires seemed like a good way to go. 

I've been making movies for 17 years, the only time I've ever recouped my investor's money was on a horror film. I was reared on horror films growing up. Cinematic blood was like breastmilk to me. But once I started writing Summer of Blood, the goal became more specific. I thought to myself, "How can I make something really unique? How can I make a New York horror comedy that explores emotions and relationships through dialogue? How can I channel the filmmakers I love - Woody Allen, Roger Corman, Neil Labute, Nicole Holofconer, Richard Linklater, Whit Stillman, Llyod Kaufman - yet still make something that genre fans appreciate? How can I do something different with the genre?" In the end, I just wanted to make something with a unique point-of-view.   

MFM: In the film, the main character Erik is a complete jerk in practically every aspect of his life and also a newly formed vampire. Yet, he still continues to be weirdly lovable throughout the film. Who or what were your role models when you wrote Erik and performed as him?

Image courtesy Onur Tukel
Onur Tukel: People who know me say, "Oh, Onur... you are Erik. Watching the movie just reminds me of you." That's probably true. Erik is afraid of death, and would be immobilized by it were it not for his sense of humor. Sarcasm shields him from the realization that he's going to die. That's a trait I share. I make fun of things to help me deal. Plus, I've always loved wise-asses. Bugs Bunny comes to mind. He was such a piece of shit in a lot of ways, chomping on his carrot and mocking everything in his path. Groucho Marx was fucking brilliant, taking nothing seriously and lampooning the world around him. Growing up, I loved how droll Bill Murray could be. Some reviewers have ripped apart Summer of Blood because the main character isn't likable, but I think they're missing something pretty key here. 

Erik may be a narcissist, but he's generally not mean-spirited. He’s not sanctimonious; he’s sarcastic. He makes fun of himself as much as he makes fun of others. I love the character. He’s a provocateur. He’s miserable living in a system that encourages you to work, consume, and create offspring (that grow up to work and consume). So he mocks it. In the basest sense, though, I just find rude characters funny. To this day, Alec Baldwin's performance in the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross makes me laugh my ass off. My favorite film characters are assholes. Crash Davis (Kevin Cosner) in Bull Durham. Nicolas Cage's character in Vampire's Kiss. Chris Eigeman's character in Barcelona. Jason Patric's character in Your Friends and Neighbors. Martha and George (Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) in Look Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf. I don't know why, but I identify with misanthropes. I’m a bitter artist. I’m selfish. We live in a selfish world. And okay, there's so much to be thankful for, happy about. The world is a good place. "Don't worry, be happy," you hear the self-help gurus preach. And they're right. 

But the world's also a cesspool and it's hard to be happy when you know that at some point, there’s going to be another big war to further America’s “self-interests!” Sometimes you have to embrace the darkness. And in the case of Summer of Blood, I’m doing it with snark. I’m not always cynical. It depends on the week. But for me, making movies, drawing pictures, playing music, I do this shit on a regular basis to remind myself that things do not suck. Even if my work is horrible, the process of creation lifts my spirits. And my role models are all the creators, all the fuckers who are going for it, making art, music, film, books, expressing themselves and saying “no,” to a system that tries to squeeze the inspiration out of you. 

MFM: The entire Summer of Blood is hilarious from the first moment and remains this way till the very end. Still, its approach to humor is very distinctive. Where did you find inspiration for your brand of humor and who do you personally like, both in films and in other media?

Image courtesy Onur Tukel
Onur Tukel: I was on a comedy panel in August moderated by the brilliant Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Borat, Bruno The Dictator), and for much of the panel, he delved into everyone's backgrounds. He wanted to know how everyone's upbringing contributed to their sense of humor. And until that point, I'd never really thought how my family and friends and environment shaped my sense of humor. But they did indeed. My parents are Turkish. They immigrated to America a few years before I was born. They moved to North Carolina and brought up three sons in a very conservative town in the 70s and 80s. North Carolina is a wonderful state, with its own distinct brand of humor, but growing up in a Baptist Christian town in a Turkish household probably shaped my comedic sensibilities in a unique way. My dad was extremely eccentric, my mom was wonderful and ridiculous and both my older brothers and friends are good-natured and witty. There was a lot of laughing in my home. 

I remember watching Benny Hill with my mother late at night, screaming with laughter at his absurdity. I remember seeing the movie Porky's in a movie theater when I was in middle-school. I was brought up on vapid sit-coms and horror films during the Reagan years and when I got to college in the early nineties, I discovered independent movies and Woody Allen. My childhood friends Paul Choong and Kirk Wilson were insanely creative, and we spent our Summers in middle-school making vhs-movies. Like any writer who creates from his/her own life, my work is an amalgamation of the culture I've consumed, the conversations I've had, the fears that I've manifested and an unconscious desire for a life that I don't have.  So it all shaped my work. From Charles Schultz (Peanuts) to John Landis (American Werewolf in London), to playing backyard football with my friends, I'm the sum of everything I've done.  Now, I feel lucky to be in New York. The last four years here have tuned me on to new ideas, and has informed my new work, including Summer of Blood. 

MFM: Although Summer of Blood was excellent, I have a feeling it didn’t receive the attention it deserved. Am I wrong in this regard and how are you satisfied with the quality and quantity of the feedback you got?

Onur Tukel: That's nice of you to say.  Look, the humbled artist in me, who has never had much success, would say, "Oh, I'm very pleased with the attention it got. We premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. We played festivals all over the country and the world. We played Stiges (Spain), and the American Film Festival (Poland) and Champs Elysees Film Festival in Paris, which was wonderful! We got distributed by Dark Sky Films (in U.S.) and Monster Pictures in the U.K. I was on a comedy panel with Larry Charles. I hung out with Michael Moore. I was on a rooftop in the middle of Paris, standing in the same buffet line with Keanu Reeves. I had a vampire art show and a one-week theatrical release in Brooklyn. 

I got reviewed in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice! It was an amazing year!  I feel very lucky!" But the wounded, embittered, angry artist in me might say, "I fucking wrote, directed, edited and starred in this movie, and the acting and writing are on par with bigger comedies out there. Why didn't more people review my movie? Why didn't it get in Sundance? Why did the Hollywood Reporter trash it? Summer of Blood has a unique perspective on selfishness, belief, existentialism. This is bullshit!" But that's self-important claptrap. I'm as deluded as the next person. And I often think my work is more important than it is. You can see by these lengthy answers I’m giving that I’m fucking full of myself! But I know that there are better filmmakers out there than I'll ever be, and many of their films have been ignored. There are so many brilliant movies that don't find an audience. Can’t you see what you've done by asking this question?  You brought out the bitter, pissed-off artist in me that feels unappreciated. I'm such a cliche! Still, you're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't. 

If I come across as self-effacing, someone will say, "This dude's got no confidence. Fuck his films." If I come across as cocky, someone says, "This guy's a pompous ass.  Fuck him!" I waver between feeling great about my work and bad about my work.  I waver between caring or not caring. At the end of the day, all that matters is being creative. Making art. I have no control over the attention. I love the question, though, because it unleashes a wave of feelings and thoughts. The artist expresses her/himself to be heard. A great review is vindicating. It says, "I'm not alone. Someone gets me." A bad review might hurt a little, but it's better than being ignored. When you're ignored, your work doesn't exist. 

MFM: Horror comedies were very popular in the 80’s, but after that, the genre sort of disintegrated. Now, it mostly pops out as neo-splatter horrors which focus on the gore jokes. What is your take on horror comedies and where do you think the genre will go in the coming years?

Onur Tukel: I don't know how to answer this question. The 80s was where it was at for me in terms of horror. I have so many memories of sitting around with my friends watching Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger tear shit up. These movies provided a thrill or two, but they mainly made us laugh and entertained the hell out of us. I mean, I've always wanted to see the horror genre merge with other genres. Here's a cool idea for a slasher film. Take a series like Halloween. Make a new sequel that has three acts, but each act is a play on a different genre. The first act is a typical horror film, with Michael Myers doing typical Michael Myers shit. He's reeking havoc in Haddonfield on Halloween night. He kills a bunch of teenagers, but then he gets caught by the authorities. This is in the first 40 minutes or so. 

Then the second act, becomes a courtroom drama of sorts.   Michael Myers gets a lawyer, who argues that Myers is a product of his environmental upbringing. While in court, Myers goes on a rampage and kills almost everyone in a bloody courtroom frenzy. He kills the corrupt judge, the corrupt prosecutor, the preaching politician using Myers case as a way to promote his own campaign. Myers slaughters them all! At around the 80 minute mark, we go into the third act, that finds Michael Myers in a cruel for-profit prison.  Now, we have a prison film, and Myers gets to apply some violent justice to the corrupt bureaucrats who run it. Or maybe it becomes a prison break film. Or shit, maybe in the third act, Myers goes and lives in a wooden cabin on a hill somewhere and tends to a garden. He reflects on all the horrible shit he’s done and makes an effort to redeem himself. But you see my point? You're taking a Halloween movie where it's never been before. 

They tried to do something like this with Jason X, but it didn't work at all. It just became an Alien rip-off, and a horrible one at that. Get clever! Be witty! Find writers who have something to say and stop making movies by commitment! The horror genre needs to reinvent itself by mashing it up with other genres. I've always like the idea of mixing up genres. My first film House of Pancakes had elements of romantic comedy, horror, drama, mystery. My new movie Applesauce, is a mix of noir, dark comedy, mystery, melodrama. I think mainstream horror has to be more inventive and experimental. There's an infinite number of new things you can explore as the world continues surging towards the supposed singularity that will unleash (or enslave) us all! And even if that happens, who cares! There’s going to be an opposite end as well, which will be completely agrarian and analog. There is no finish line. There is no reality. There is only art!

MFM: You are currently working on a project called Applesauce. Can you tell us more about it and what are your upcoming plans?

Onur Tukel: I was in a bar a few nights ago and my friend Dan Schechter (Life of Crime, Supporting Characters) asked me where I wanted to see myself in 10 years. I told him that I hoped to be alive in 10 years, because you just never know! And in case I am, it would be cool to have another 5-6 films under my belt by then. One in the Turkish language, shot in Izmir. One in Mandarin, shot in New York with a full Asian cast. One on black and white16mm film, designed with 60-75 shots, the way Stranger Than Paradise was made. A movie in the most beautiful city in the world, Paris. A movie in Poland! A female fight film!  An animated movie! A few sequels to Summer of Blood! A movie about drunks in a bar, channeling the ghosts of Bukowski. 

Fuck, you can make a movie so cheaply now, the possibilities are endless! And I know it's foolish to make plans, but still, to have passion for something is a gift. When I get going about filmmaking, I get excited. I become a child again. And that’s what makes it so beautiful. We’re all just playing make believe!   And I'm proud of the new movie Applesauce. I don't want to talk it up too much, but it's a New York story mixing several genres. It's a step up from Summer of Blood. Bigger story. More assured filmmaking. And hopefully, it'll find an audience. If not, so what. There's always the next one. 

MFM: Onur Tukel, thank you very much!

Onur Tukel: Thank you, sir!