Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nat Christian's MONDAY MORNING: an odd & dark look at the "haves" & the homeless -- plus an interview with the filmmaker

What a strange film is MONDAY MORNING, the new genre mash-up (maybe unintentional) combining politics, fantasy and gritty documentary technique from writer/director/producer/editor Nat Christian. Mr. Christian even plays -- and very well -- one of the more interesting of the homeless characters who dot the film and give it its lasting resonance and meaning. Before you take this post as yet another rave from TrustMovies, let me first say that, on a certain level, Monday Morning seems a rather silly movie, in that it uses a fantasy gimmick (a slightly bizarre homeless woman with near-magical powers) to get its hero/non-hero -- a popular right-wing radio personality named Thomas Bach -- to experience life as one of the have-nots, rather than the "have" to whose cushy existence he feels entitled. (Well, as Stephen Sondheim once lyricized, "You gotta have a gimmick.")

Thomas' mantra, which he voices consistently in the beginning of the movie, seems to be that unrestrained capitalism guarantees competition, which leads to a healthier society. Instead, of course, we're seeing capitalism, as practiced in America, leading to a monopolistic society that is turning us all into wage-slaves. The filmmaker, shown at left, sees to it that Thomas (very well-played by a handsome, four-square, mostly-television actor named Victor Browne, below), whose only perceived negative (other than his attitude) is his diabetes, wakes up after that whack from the homeless woman with his memory impaired, his wallet and ID gone, and his diabetic symptoms beginning to kick in. But, ah, he gets to discover -- in fact, join -- the American underbelly.

In its spirit and, well, its naïveté, the movie may remind you of some of the Capra-corn from the 1930s and 40s: It reminded me of It's a Wonderful Life turned inside-out, while my companion saw it more as an updated Sullivan's Travels but without the crack casts, budget, and, yes, a certain gee-whiz sentimentality that those films possess. Instead, Christian manages to give us certain scenes that are surprisingly powerful, often upsetting, that involve his homeless. And we must deal with these as best we can -- including an ending that is more complicated than feel-good.

The movie is un-rated, and when you see it, you'll understand why. There's a literal shit being taken by a homeless woman, as we (and the camera) look on; later, another of the homeless must give a blow-job in order to earn enough money to get something to eat, and we catch a glimpse of what's being sucked. These people look like the real homeless, too -- the filmmaker gets their teeth right -- rather than merely one step away from it. They're addicts and crazies and more, but they are also human and are definitely, at the remove of the motion picture experience, worth spending time with. This is the achievement of Christian's movie: We actually grow to care about these homeless, and even about Thomas, who for a time becomes one of them.

The idea of a right-wing talk show host discovering what the director calls "his better nature" (see interview below) and doing right by more than just the "haves" of our nation is a subject that merits all the time, money and art that could be lavished upon it. And if Christian manages only about half of the job, still, his movie is worth a shout-out. Those of my readers in the Los Angeles area, try to see Monday Morning during its week's theatrical run, beginning Friday, March 2, at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 (in Beverly Hills, yet! That's really rubbing it in). Depending on attendance, the film just might make it to theaters in other parts of the country. Let's hope. Note: There will be a Q&A with Nat Christian taking place on Monday, March 5, right after the 7:30 PM show.


TrustMovies had not planned on doing an interview with the filmmaker of Monday Morning, but when he asked the film's excellent publicist for some art work, he was asked in return if he'd like to speak to Nat Christian. As TM had only just watched the movie the evening prior, it was still rolling around in his head, so sure! he answered and later that day found himself knee-deep in some really delightful conversation -- which, of course, he couldn't begin to type fast enough to catch all of. What remains is below -- in which TM appears in boldface, while Nat Christian (shown again, below) speaks in standard type.

The first thing I have to say is just about how impressed I was that, despite what seems like a silly fantasy element in the film -- where the bag lady whacks your hero and knocks him out -- you still manage to...

You got that?! I'm really impressed, because subliminally she is a very symbolic character, and the symbolism was not meant to be so clear. It was subliminal sort of like the "atmosphere" in a room can become a character.

Really? Because it seemed pretty obvious to me.

Good. And I understand that the beginning might seem silly. Yes, I wanted the beginning to come off like some kind of soft romantic comedy: So we have this guy who is basically a horn dog having a great time and then, bam! -- he is hit by the bag lady. But so is the audience. What was my little secret, and no one is supposed to really get, but it helped me direct, was that the bag lady was waiting for the birth of Thomas's true nature. But no one is supposed to get this. It was much more of an intriguing question mark: a coincidence that comes around later. After that, with the lady that takes a poop, I was hoping that the viewer would say "Okay, this story is going somewhere"

Is that the same bag lady that we see at the beginning of the film?

No. The bag lady who is in Minnesota, who asks for money, is another character. She sort of looks like the bag lady who whacks Thomas. They have a certain similar look in their eyes. But that bag lady who whacks Thomas does appears again in the movie.

Right --

And when she hits him, it's really the best thing that happens to this guy. By getting hit, Thomas finds his true nature.

Yes, but can he hold on to it? How you handle that is, well, interesting.... And how you handle the homeless sure is, too!

I wanted to make a movie about homelessness that took the subject seriously. The homeless in my movie are the hard-core homeless. Not the ones who were one paycheck away from being homeless, but the hard core. Those who can't do. Who can't bag groceries. I've heard people say "Well they could work or bag groceries..." They can't. There is something going on in their minds. I feel that it would have been hypocritical for me to have a soft cushy ending while making this movie about them. I mean, I feel funny sometimes, just when I wear some nice shoes....

Oh, honey -- so do we all! Well, some of us, anyway. 

 The reason I made Monday Morning is out of guilt. I don't know why. I don't know, but that is why I made it.

You show some awfully real-looking stuff in your movie: the shit, the cock.

Yes, there are explicit scenes in the movie, but that is what is going on. I've seen it. I saw a woman on 57th St in New York stop and go to the bathroom and then just move on. I 've seen deals going down between people in back alleys. So I show it. I mean you can go to a museum and see explicit work. Mainstream directors have done this years ago. Just the other day I was watching Paul Verhoeven's Spetters, and there are a lot of explicit scenes in that. Great movie. And he made that in the eighties.

God, Spetters was a wonderful film! I haven't thought of that movie in quite awhile.

Yes, and I think you need to show things as close to "as they are" as you can. This all goes on, and it's only the half of it. I did my research.

You sure did.

I am amazed that you got all this -- you understood it -- and even the dream sequence....

Well, when you see enough movies, you tend to catch stuff like that.

I tried to bring a little magic into the reality. Let's call it "real magic" That was the idea behind the bag lady.

What did this film cost to make?

The total budget for the movie was under $74,000.

Whew -- that is very little, considering your fine cast and the look of the film. You really got a good cast, together -- from the leading man, right down to the smaller roles.

Yes, wasn't Victor Brown phenomenal. But everyone was terrific and so willing, and it wasn't always easy for them. Molly Kidder, Jessica Spotts - the whole cast and crew, just wonderful. With the cast, locations and vendors, I've found just being honest with people about what you want and expect can really help you make your movie. The whole cast and crew worked so hard. Victor dove into that dumpster. He jumped into any situation, and for a good-looking guy like that to be able to access all the emotions that he does, it's just wonderful.

I was also pleased (Editor's note: maybe a spoiler ahead) that you didn't feel it necessary to provide a happy ending where everybody wins.

My point of view is that I'm a guy with a flashlight shining into a dark corner of a huge warehouse and I am saying "Look: this is what I see," knowing that many have seen that exact same corner and still see it their way, while I'm presenting it in mine. Look, if you're middle class, you have to have the homeless in order to be middle class. It's all relative. If everyone had ten million dollars then there would be no "rich." So we are middle class or rich because there are many who are poor. They define us.

I don't have the answers to how to solve the homeless situation. I mean, it would take some major changes. I'm not a politician. I can only show what I feel. This is how I feel. Hopefully, we can all come to a place where we a little more grace towards these people and each other. Grace. Let's just have some grace -- instead of all the vitriol that's out there. (There's a pause)  I don't mean to go on like this.

No, no, its great. It's good. You should go on: That's what an interview like this is all about. And it lets me understand how you feel as person and as a film director.

It's funny, because when I got this money, I had the opportunity to do a movie about girls on motorcycles with machine guns....

I'm glad to opted for this one.

Before I forget, I want to share something with you. About digital techology. When you see these old movies - some of those directors were great. They couldn't go back to the film a year later and replace a tree for a chair. The film was cut (I mean it would take an awful lot of money and labor to do that). Well, with Digital Technology, you can. Everything is file-based: cutting and pasting (in the most basic terms). Movie makers nowadays can keep working on their movies far longer than they used to. There is a saying, I can't remember who said it - Coppola? Truffaut? Who? - and I'm paraphrasing - "You never finish a project, you abandon it." Well, moviemakers are taking a lot more time before abandoning their projects. I was up till 5 this morning with my editor fixing some technical problems, and watching the movie again to make sure everything is fine. If a moviemaker so desires, he/she can work with everything in the digital world. Now here's a theory: we're into digital technology. They even have digital billboards now. And with digital cinema, if everything is projected digitally, then theoretically, if a studio head decides he wants to change a movie that he owns, he could even change the ending of that movie from wherever he is over cable or Wifi.  He may have an alternative ending shot and ready. Digital is just amazing, and it's scary, too.

I think your film is coming to us at a good time, what with Occupy Wall Street, and all its incarnations around the country and the globe. And speaking of the better nature that your character seems to get in touch with -- for awhile anyway -- isn't that part of what Occupy is all about?

Yes, because the Occupy Wall Street people were and are sacrificing without with any reward in sight.

That 's right -- that is what they are doing. And that is certainly an element of a person's better nature. One little thing in the movie that I liked that shows Thomas indeed has a better nature happens when he saves that ant. But then when he's faced with a whole bunch of ants, he just can't deal with it and so gets out the water and just drowns them. We all have a better nature, I guess, but just don't ask too much from it.

This'll sound funny, but in my mind I can see a musical production of this work. Maybe someday. What I wanted to do with the movie was to entertain people while depicting a very dark arena -- to start with something light and goofy like the feeling you get from Wedding Crashers at the beginning. Then hit them when we get to the poop, and.... You know, there are real statistics about the homeless, particularly the women, and why they let themselves get so horrible and smelly. Can you guess why?

I would think maybe to keep men away from then, from raping them.


Before we end this conversation, I should tell you how good I thought you were in the role of "Damn." You were an actor first, right, and then went into the rest of it, and now you do a little bit of everything? In what job are you happiest?

For me, the most satisfying of the processes would be when I finish the final draft of a screenplay, because I have used my imagination in directing it or acting in it. And no amount of locations or equipment can compete with your imagination. You asked me if I was happy. Well, I don't think I can understand true happiness - I mean, I think it was Tennessee Williams who said: Happiness is insensitivity. Maybe I can feel content at times. Digital Technology has allowed a lot of us in this business today to be multi-hyphenates. Everybody does everything. What is beautiful is that a kid from some small town anywhere can make a great movie. I guess I just like to tell stories, and to share experiences. Where I would like to see movies go, is where music is now. I aspire to be where you can make a movie and get that same powerful experience the hundredth time you see it. Just like you can do with a great song or a great symphony. I aspire to be able to make a movie that will do that.

Maybe music doesn't demand as much from you as a novel or a film? Music is more immediate and on a single level. You just listen and experience.

Yes. Maybe it's the manipulation going on in the movies, the twists, the surprise elements in stories, and music doesn't have as much of that manipulation, I think.

I know Monday Morning is only opening for now in L.A. But would you bring it to NYC?

I would love to. If it does well in L.A. then maybe. You know, at the end of our shoot, we had four hours of movie to deal with, to cut down. I told all the extras that we would list them in the credits. I wanted to personally go to every actor and tell all the ones who were cut out of the film how good they were, even so. But really, you can't do that because, by that time, they've gone on to other jobs -- unless you did it by email.

Oh, yes: one more question, I'm from L.A. I grew up there, but I don't ever remember as much rain as I saw in your movie.

(He laughs) Yes, they're sure is a lot of rain in this movie -- and that's because we shot it in the rainiest season in all of L.A.'s recorded history!

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