Onur Tukel [Interview]

Today we have a very special interview for you fine folks with a truly eccentric man of film, and one of the finest visionaries in independent cinema today. Onur Tukel a NYC based filmmaker who put out what could be arguably considered one of the finest films of the year entitled Catfight. It is a delightfully dark and twisted comedy that is as poignant as it is intense. Which is basically a description of any Onur Tukel project.

Mr. Tukel has been writing and directing amazing independent cinema for over 20 years now, and has a lot to tell us about the business he found himself engrossed in at a very young age. He is a very prolific gentleman with a style all of his own, and we are so happy that he was willing to share a few words with us here today. I feel it to be only respectful if I just cut my babbling out right now in order to get to these amazing words from one of the finest folks working in the world of film today. So ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Onur Tukel!

Where did your passion for filmmaking stem from? Was it an early aspiration, or did you just fall into this world?

It probably all started in the 6th grade, when I made a movie with a bunch of my friends called Campout with Death. We spent the Summer of 1984 running through the foothills of North Carolina with a VHS camcorder making a goofy slasher film. I’d say after that, I was hooked. We kept making VHS movies, copying the stuff that was out at the time. We were inspired by horror films (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street). We were also inspired by the ridiculous Golan Globus films. We made ninja movies, fantasy, break-dancing movies, you name it. They were all ridiculous and a fun way of bonding through puberty. None of the movies featured women. We were terrified of girls. We were homophobic as well, due to growing up in the South in the 80s. We were just morons with a camera. We had no idea who we were, what we stood for, and we barely had pubic hair.

Years later, I majored in film in college but didn’t make movies. Most of my classes were theory-based. I wish I could remember the theories. In 1995, I moved to Wilmington, NC, which had a fertile film community back then. That’s when I started taking it seriously. I shot silent shorts on Super-8. Then 16mm shorts with sound. Eventually, I saved up enough money to make a feature on black and white 16mm. Years later, we shot color 16mm. Then I eventually made a feature on 35mm. From 1995 – 2000, I’d say that’s when I really figured out that this is what I wanted to do with my life. But people change careers all the time, and film has never been a career for me. I’ve never been able to pay the bills making movies.

One of your latest films, Catfight, is one of my favorite films to be released in the last few years. It is a brilliant story, and is brilliantly casted, if I might add. I am always curious about where these truly unique ideas (which are sadly too rare these days) come from. So what part of your psyche did Catfight come from? And what are your thoughts on the final product that was put to screen?

Ron, you’re a beautiful man. Thanks for the kind words. I think it’s a brave movie and I think Sandra Oh and Anne Heche are fearless for making it. I still can’t believe the movie exists. Weeks before we started shooting, I kept assuming it was going to fall apart. I just wanted to make a powerhouse action comedy about war and loss. Wars are started by men, fought be men, analyzed and planned by men. I wanted to switch the script a little bit. I wanted women to be the focus of the story. Men would take a backseat for a change. You mention the cast, and I agree, it’s brilliant (thanks to Stephanie Holbrook), but it’s also just so beautifully balanced, in terms of age and race. Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Amy Hill, Ariel Kavoussi. It runs the spectrum; it’s so diverse. And the actors all nail it.

There are so many themes in the film – solipsism derived from wealth, narcissism derived from art, self-importance derived from having children. But the crux of Catfight is centered around the war in Iraq that America started 14 years ago. I’m still, to this day, bitter about the war. I needed to make a movie about it. It’s about American entitlement and hypocrisy. I wanted to punish the audience in a way; thus, the violence is unsettling. Still, I wasn’t sure if the final product was going to be so violent. If Sandra and Anne had wanted to pull back the violence, we would have. I think they were trying to make a statement as well. These are two of the most talented actors in the business. At the time, they weren’t being offered the kind of scripts they wanted. They were frustrated. They wanted to make something angry, perhaps to reflect that frustration. I know that I’m angry. I’ve been angry for 14 years. I love the movie. I think its cathartic. I think it resonates with other people who are angry.

As a person who is very removed from the world of screenwriting, I am very curious about what it feels like to have a script in your proverbial back pocket for MANY years, and then you finally get the chance to see it become a visual reality. What sort of emotions do you go through when it finally does happen. Does it create further anxiety and fear or does it create a heroin-like rush of joy? Possibly somewhere in between?

When I was making movies in my twenties, making films was so exciting. I don’t know if it was because I was shooting on film then, but the real rush came when you got the film dailies back. You’d watch what you had shot days before and it was magic in a lot of ways. And that was just the first step. When you married those dailies with audio, it was another rush! The image speaks. “It’s alive,” as Dr. Frankenstein screamed, right? Just seeing your movie start to exist was better than sex. Then you edit that synched clip with another, and then, wow…the miracle of film starts to take shape. I think it’s hard to remove yourself from what you’re watching when you make your first movie. It’s just so thrilling to see it come to life. I remember thinking my first movie was quite brilliant as I was making it. I couldn’t see the flaws because it was just all so ridiculously exciting. I’m watching the film come together and I’m thinking, “I’m doing it. I’m actually making a movie.” I’m still enamored by the process, but not captivated like I once was. There’s a feeling of dread that creeps in now when making a movie, especially in the early stages. In some ways, it’s Sisyphean.

When I try to get a film made now, I just assume it’s not going to happen, that the actors attached are going to drop out, that the funding is going to fall through. This used to make me nervous but not so much anymore. I’m trying to accept things that are not in my control. If a movie is meant to get made, so be it. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to make a handful of movies. When the time comes that I can’t do it anymore, hopefully, I’ll switch to painting or music.

I was encouraged to create at a young age. I’m very fortunate in that regard. I never bought into the idea that I couldn’t make a movie. No one should buy into that idea. Still, you need money. And that’s the exhausting part. Finding it. The money has to travel from the investors hands into the bank, and it has to stay there. I’ve been part of projects where the money was supposed to come and it never came. I’ve been part of projects where bad checks were written. It’s part of it. When I was younger, fuck, it was a nightmare. Now, you know, I’m a little more laid back about it.

When the money does come through, and we start shooting, the objective is to be focused. My movies are low-budget, so the schedules are so tight, there’s a lot of stuff to shoot every day. The shoot may be fun and inspiring, but there’s not a lot of time to celebrate or experience joy. We shoot a scene until we get it right, and then we move on. Sometimes, something magical happens and it is like a drug-rush. It’s an amazing feeling. But there’s not a lot of time to revel in it, you know? You just keep moving, like a shark, or the momentum dies.
I love being on-set. And I’m always a bit stressed out when we’re shooting. I’m usually not completely relaxed until I can watch a rough cut of the movie. That’s why I try to do the first cut as quickly as possible, to make sure we shot everything we need. Once I see that the story makes sense in the edit, the anxiety wanes a bit. I’m not looking for good performances or good camera work at this point. The rough cut is thrown together just for peace of mind.

The editing process is fun. Rewarding. Waiting to hear back from film festivals is nerve-racking. Getting rejected is soul-crushing. Selling the movie is probably the most horrible aspect of the whole affair. Because making money in this game is tough when you have no business acumen, which I don’t. Still, overall, it is like being addicted to a drug, Ron. And I have found myself trying to quit this business, like quitting a drug. Filmmaking is too tough. It’s too punishing. It’s killing me in many ways. But I just can’t stop doing it because the high is so good. When you watch the finished movie in a theater with an audience and everything’s clicking, people are laughing and the room is alive, energized. Fuck. It’s the best.

Also as a person far removed from it all….the ever-trusting site Wikipedia boasts that you are a “notable figure in the NYC independent film community”. And simple based off the brilliant work I have seen from you, I have to imagine this is very accurate. So with that, what exactly is the NYC independent film community? What is it like to live in this world? What makes it unique from other factions of the world of filmmaking?

Ha. I don’t feel notable. But I feel lucky to be have lived in New York the last seven years. I feel lucky that I have had so many cool people who wanted to work on my movies, for very little money. I’m probably not as active in the film scene as I should be. But in my opinion, the New York Independent film community is pretty vast and passionate. Off the top of my head, I could name drop dozens of filmmakers, producers, film festival programmers and curators who live in and around New York. I think having a thriving community of filmmakers here keeps me on my toes. It inspires me to work a little harder, I think.

When I discovered Woody Allen in college, his movies had a profound affect on me. I fell in love with New York through his movies. I identified with his neurosis, his rambling dialogue, his love-affair with existence, his hypochondria. New York is magic. It’s tragic. It’s beautiful. It’s disgusting. It’s everything. And it does exist in black and white, in a lot of ways, just like he describes it in Manhattan. I get down on the city sometimes. It’s so expensive that it feels like the city doesn’t value its artists. It seems like the city continues to cater to the rich. Many people are leaving. They’re going to LA. There’s more room. It’s cheaper.

What makes New York unique? The people, maybe? When you decide to live here, you’re making a deal with yourself. You’ve come to one of the most competitive cities in the world. You have to be a little nuts to live here. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to stay here. But I can say that I stuck it out for seven years. I can say that I was a New York filmmaker for a little while. But New York is very insular as well. There’s a smugness here. Like living in New York automatically gives someone legitimacy. It doesn’t.

You have covered just about every gig there is in the world of film. From being on screen to writing, editing, directing, and on and on. How do you decide where you need to be, and what you want to take part of? And if hard pressed to label your actual profession, what would you want to consider yourself to be labeled?

I wrote a science fiction comedy a few years ago called Infinity Baby, about babies that don’t age. I wrote several drafts and had planned on making it, with me in the lead, and after some time passed, I just moved on to other projects. I eventually gave it to my friend Bob Byington to direct and I think he really nailed it. Seeing what he did allowed me rethink my role in films. I think I could step away from directing in the future, concentrate more on writing, I suppose. I’d also like to direct something I didn’t write at some point. This would be a great exercise. I’d focus more on designing shots that tell the story. It would be an exercise in aesthetics, craft. I suppose it depends on the script. I’d want to honor the screenwriter, understand his/her intentions.

It’s all up in the air. If an opportunity presents itself, and I feel inspired by the opportunity, and I trust those people involved, hell, I’ll do it. It’s all just an exercise, right? We’re all just passing the time before our hearts stop beating. But there are a ton of factors to consider. It depends on the budget. If I’m making a movie with a larger budget, I’m not going to act in it. That would be a bit irresponsible. I need to give the movie a fighting chance to recoup its budget. Casting a recognizable actor is a more fiscally responsible decision. I’ve never had enough money to hire a professional editor for 3-4 months. That’s something I’d really like to do in the future. I’ve got a shark attack script that I may not direct. If the right producer comes along, coupled with the right director, I’d be happy to step aside, let them make it.

For a long time, I thought I might play the lead of The Misogynists, until I had a reading with a group of actors. I realized I need someone older and whiter. Whether or not I write, direct, act, etc. it’s all a matter of timing, necessity, budget. For me, the ideal would be to have big enough budgets where I can just write and direct. Someone else would edit and I would never step in front of the camera. But I do enjoy acting and I’ll probably continue doing it.

When you take a step back and look at your wonderful career thus far, what would you say you are most proud of?

When I was 35 or so, I made a horrible movie called The Pigs. It was a disaster from the first day of shooting to the last day of editing. I was an emotional wreck when I made it and the film was an unwatchable mess when I finished it. It still is. It crippled my confidence. I swore I’d never make a movie again. So from 2000 – 2010, I made one movie and it held me hostage. I regret that in a lot of ways. But if you don’t have confidence, it’s difficult making movies, or any art for that matter.

So I guess I’m most proud of getting back into it. It started with a short movie called The Wallet. I wrote and directed this with a bunch of adorable children in Durham, NC. It’s very raw and funny and the kids are incredible. After that, I got cast in a couple of independent feature films, Septien and Red Flag. Being on a film set again was an absolute blast. I’d forgot how much fun it was. I started getting that itch again. I wanted to get back into this crazy world.

When the Canon 7Ds came out, it was really exciting for me, because it was the first digital camera that really replicated 16mm to me. When I went to Sundance in 2011 with Septien, I saw several movies shot on the 7D. It was a revelation. I knew that this is what I was going to shoot my new movie on. Not only that, it allowed me to take advantage of the camera’s low-price and mobility, you could take them anywhere. And we could use multiple cameras. This is when I started making movies in New York, with tiny crews. The focus was more on performance and less on the aesthetics. It was like starting from scratch. And it was electrifying.

Two cameras opened up everything for me. I could shoot twice as quickly. I like my performances to be a bit caffeinated and multiple cameras just gave the scenes more energy. It allowed me to edit faster. And between 2012 – 2017, I made several movies in New York. Richard’s Wedding, Summer of Blood, Applesauce, Abby Singer/Songwriter, Catfight and The Misogynists. I feel like I’ve been given a chance to catch up on all the movies I failed to make in my thirties.

What does the future hold for you? Anything in the works you can share with our readers?

My movie The Misogynists, about two Trump supporters celebrating in a hotel room on election night, is making the festival rounds and will hopefully be released in 2018.

I’m going to finish shooting a project I began in 2016 called Black Magic for White Boys. If all goes well, I’ll finish that up in 2018.
I have several films that I’m trying to get made – a science fiction comedy, A shark attack comedy and an existential roadtrip movie (from a script I didn’t write). Maybe none of these movies will get made. Maybe all of them will. Who knows? You have to plant a lot of seeds when you’re making movies. Some will sprout. Some won’t. Maybe there’s going to be a drought and my film career will end. It’s not a big deal. I’ll move on to other art forms – painting, music, stand-up comedy. The thing about this, whatever it is, the need to create – it’s about the self worth you get from making something. I hate myself most of the time. When I’m making something, I hate myself a little less. I get the same fulfillment from other art forms. It’s all therapy.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

Two things. The “Million Matzo Balls” song in the movie Lemon didn’t just make me smile, it made me laugh my ass off. And a specific scene in Mike Ott’s California Dreams. This made me laugh like a child as well.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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