Fans of the darker side of cinema may recognize Mark Webber from last year’s excellent Green Room where Mark played a Nazi trying (and failing) to defect from a gnarly order of backwoods skinheads but his roots in the film world run deeper than you’d think at first glance. A seasoned actor and filmmaker both, Webber has not followed a traditional path but has found success nonetheless. With his latest feature, a documentary-cum-drama, Webber has pioneered something unclassifiable, a powerfully pure art piece where the lines of reality and fiction become blur and indistinguishable.
A soul-thumping exercise in cinema verite, Flesh and Blood explores family relations in the context of Mark’s own family. He excises demons both literal and metaphorical and the dissolution between the barrier of the two makes for some unchartered and often challenging cinema. We meet his activist mother, his socially awkward brother and a pair of deadbeat father figures, each losing a lifelong battle to addiction, and all help contextualize this man and the troubled life he’s lived. The film’s unassuming rawness is infectious, as is Webber’s soul-bearing central performance.
I had the opportunity to discuss this innovative feature with Mark Webber and he spoke candidly about his homeless past, recruiting his family as performers, what he’s learned from working with great directors, and the necessity to shuck off the ego in the artist process.
‘Flesh and Blood’ is described as kind of part drama, part documentary and you use your family in the casting. Can you just bring me back how you brought this forward to your mom and your brother and got them involved? And how you decided to make this such a family effort?
MW: Yeah, I think for me as an actor and having an opportunity to work with a lot of really great filmmakers throughout my career, it sent me through this kind of obsessive journey of realism and how to achieve that in a traditional working environment on the film set. I have always have found it quite challenging to not be aware that there’s a whole group of people standing around watching me and try and look like I’m really a person who is really experiencing the things that I’m supposed to be experiencing. So, when I started my work as a filmmaker, really around the time of my second film, I found this process of what I like to call ‘reality cinema’. It’s just using real life relationships to achieve this added level of realism. My mom knows the type of artist that I am and I think that thankfully we’ve had a really interesting life together. My mom has never shied away from taking risks and she really supports me as an artist and the same with my brother. I told her, “Hey, I want to make a movie about family using our real life as a way to put a portrait on the screen of real motherhood, real brotherhood, real trauma and how that impacts people.” My mom was like, “Alright.” My brother was like, “Okay. As long as I get to see you.”
There any elements in this which are so raw and so real. I imagine reliving any of that can be really painful so were there any elements that really gave you pause? That you were like I don’t know if this being too honest here?
MW: No, I’m at this point in my life where I’m a little bit bored by just actors acting. You know? For me personally, it’s harder for me to engage in that way now. I’ve kind of crossed a certain line already with myself as a performer. When I go and make traditional films, I need to bring some of what I bring as a filmmaker to the table in order to make it interesting. I really, really am trying to strive for something different. I think that vulnerability– real vulnerability– and really being open, honest, and truthful is what we need to see. It’s kind of what I always connect with and resonate, even with traditional movies as well. When those moments of improv kind of stick out in movies, it felt really real. They’re these little nuggets that help you connect even more to the audience member and you reflect on your own experiences. That’s the stuff that I’m interested in. I like letting it all out in the open. I think that it inspires me. Thus far, I think seeing how people to respond to that work has continued to push me to do that.
I know that a lot of this is autobiographical but is there anything that is not?
MW: Yeah, yeah, one-hundred percent. I think the only thing that isn’t one-hundred percent based on some aspect of my own reality is that I haven’t served any time in prison.
Okay, yeah, I was wondering about that because I couldn’t find any info on that
MW: He’s briefly on the phone. He’s in the background of the party scene, but a friend of mine, Charles, spent seven years locked up for something that he didn’t do.
MW: And so, yeah, it’s just a long story. But there’s a lot of people that I’ve known in particular growing up. Unfortunately, a lot of young black men have just been incarcerated for trying to have the drive to provide for their families. My experience with people being in prison is close enough to home, but I’ve never done any time.
That being the case, why did you take that as a narrative launching point for this otherwise autobiographical story?
MW: Because so many people in the neighborhood, that’s part of their story. As a storyteller, it wouldn’t be reaching for me to say that for me metaphorically that the conflict of imprisonment and even in your mind and your thoughts and the kind of narratives that you tell yourself based on the trauma you’ve experienced in your life. It was really kind of where it started for me was when I started to write this treatment. It’s where I was coming from with this concept of being imprisoned. Just not literally.
I’ve read a little bit about your early life growing up and how you and your mother spent time without a home. That’s been a big part of your mother’s political career. Can you give a little more context to that transition for you? From going from someone who is living on the streets to then being a part of Hollywood? Of “living the dream”?
MW: Yeah. I mean how can I distill it down to… well, basically what happened was I was homeless for almost two years with my mom. And that’s really where my mom’s life as an activist started to take shape. She just kind of snapped. She realized that with the country, the world, and so much around, there’s no reason why people should be going without. She began to begin her journey with wanting to help other people and other poor women, children, and men who are experiencing the same things as us. She met another organizer, who became my stepdad, and he had a home. That’s literally how we got out of homelessness is that we went with him. I had always had this dream of being an actor. It was just initially started with wanting to escape, you know, the situation that I was in. The idea of being a movie star was ideal. It was better than being a kid who didn’t have a place to sleep.
And it was also a coping mechanism, too. I created characters and did things at the time that I didn’t realize at the time was self-soothing essentially. It’s always been a dream. When I was in Philadelphia in a new environment, I tried out for a performing arts high school and I got in to it. I kind of started a little bit more of formal training there, but unfortunately I was kicked out at the end of my sophomore year and that also turned into a blessing. Because it sent me on a journey into New York to find an agent while all my other friends were in school. I was like, “Okay, well I know I’m going to be an actor, so let me get started early. I’ve got an extra two years to figure this out while they’re still in class.” I got an agent. I literally just booked the first thing she sent me out on. It was a Footlocker commercial. It was a combination of being a little naive but also this tenaciousness that was instilled in me from my environment growing up. I just believed that I was going to be doing it and I had a right to be doing it. I didn’t know about certain protocols. I told the agent, “Look, that’s great, but I don’t want to do commercials. I want to do movies, so can you send me out on movies?” She was just kind of like, “Who’s this kid?” She sent me some scripts and sent me my first independent film when I was seventeen, eighteen years old, and I just kept working.
So far, I would say that your career hasn’t followed a traditional path. You’ve been in bigger features, family-friendly fare, and a range of indie stuff. You’re writing. You’re directing. How would you describe the arc of your career so far both as a filmmaker and an actor? Were do you hope to see yourself five years from now?
MW: Well, you know I feel incredibly blessed, man. I pretty much have only done things that I’ve wanted to do, because I liked them. There’s only one thing that I’ve done that I’ve did because I was broke and I needed money. It was a Hallmark movie but even that it’s great because I’ve really been holding on to this strong sense of integrity. I completely took a big shit on that by doing that. But in turn, it was really liberating and kind of funny to go all these years. I was like the guy who was turning down guest spots on Law and Order in New York, but I was like, “I’m going to be a film actor.”
And then I end up making a fucking Hallmark movie, which was a total riot. But the cool thing working with someone like Edgar Wright, Woody Allen, Jeremy Saulnier, Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton. These are directors who make the types of things they want to make and they make it on their terms. That’s all I really connect with. I have a really hard time being a part of things that feel like a big corporate thing with a lot of executives and people. It doesn’t feel like art to me. It feels like a product.
MW: And so, yeah, that informed me. It was a natural extension of working with those people. I was like I want to tell stories. I have stories to tell. I want to do things that are really independent and that are really pieces of art. I’ve been incredibly blessed to work with people who have kind of modeled what that looks like and the right way to go about that. So, yeah, it’s been pretty awesome, man.
So, what would you describe as some of the most important lessons that you’ve learned as a director from working with this stable of truly phenomenal artists?
MW: Yeah, I like that you said that. The biggest thing that I’ve learned throughout the years– and not just from directors, just in life in general– is to be kind and to be loving, compassionate, and open. I think those qualities help take the edge off of ego, vanity, and a need to be right. When you do that, and when you’re in this raw, open, vulnerable place, you create little magical moments to let things in. And that’s what I try to do. I really go into the movie that I want to make with a really strong purpose and intention. I’m really clear on my point of view, what my themes are, and what I’m trying to explore. I’m also not attached to getting things right and having to prove to other people that I’m a know-it-all or I’m perfect or really great at what I do. I think that’s something I’ve picked up with all the great people I’ve worked with. It’s a combination of being incredibly skilled and prepared, but also willing to explore, be wrong, and take risks. I think that risk taking is where you can really find work that’s unique. It’s pretty tough to be unique as an artist. That’s what I’m interested in doing. Just trying to be unique.
In finality, where do you go from here? What’s the next project you’re going to work on Are you going to try to do something else behind the camera or do you think you’ll be acting for the next couple of years?
MW: Well, immediately right after SXSW, I will be super honored to work with Gus Van Sant. It’s biopic on this artist John Callahan.
“Don’t Worry, We Won’t Far on Foot?”
MW: Yeah, and working with Jonah Hill, Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara– they’re amazing. Joaquin, I think that guy’s incredible. He’s made some movies that have really impacted my work. So, to go premiere my film at SXSW and to go work with a group of artists like that? It’s rad.And so there’s that. But I make little indies and it’s really kind of challenging to make a living. I think that people don’t fully realize that. It’s like TV, TV, TV, and TV is like amazing now. I’m a little bit obsessed with how that elongates the process of how you tell stories, so I’m really exploring that. Also, the writer/director as in just kind of thinking what’s my show? But I have two features that I want to make immediately that I’ve already kind of started to put together. That’s it. It’s kind of like you nurture a bunch of things all at the same time, and the one that starts to grow a little bit faster you start to nurture a bit more and that’s the one you do. So, I’m trying to make a show and then having two features. I’m always open for other acting work. I’m really curious to see where it goes.