In Buster’s Mal Heart, Rami Maleck plays a man at war. Struggling to overcome bad wiring, Rami’s “Buster” (or Jonah as he’s called in earlier memories) is a fractured individual in the throes of a crisis of faith and self. Writer and director Sarah Adina Smith cleverly skirts objectivity, opting for storytelling that operates in moody abstracts, whose core is more about emotionally resonance than narrative distractions. Her surreal deconstruction of a man mentally and spiritually fractured defies easy answers which had us all the more excited to chat with her about her work.
This being only her second motion picture, Sarah identified some critical themes running throughout her work, most notably the perceived futility of humanity’s search for grace in a world characterized by the awkwardness of chaos. Sarah talked about working with star Rami Maleck and why he was the only man for the job, not wanting to “diagnose” her characters as a means to not judge them, her process as a filmmaker and feeling your way rather than being over-analytical, her once terror at the thought of Y2K and why she can’t stop writing about the cosmos.
What was the impetus behind Buster’s Mal Heart’s narrative?
Sarah Adina Smith: My first movie, The Midnight Plan, was about women and water and I think had a gut instinct that I wanted to turn the other side of the coin and make a movie about a man and a mountain. But I didn’t know much more beyond that. I was just researching and looking at different ideas and came across these stories of hermits who would break into empty vacation homes and that really was charming to me – this notion that in the modern era, we want to be free but maybe we’re not even capable of it anymore. Mountain men who are not that good at surviving and need to keep coming inside, I just thought there was something sweet and sad about that. And then at the same time, there was a big news story about a Mexican fisherman who had been lost at sea for a thousand days. It was this really odd mystery because people were like, “How the fuck did he survive that long?” and also he had gone missing with someone else in his boat and people wondered, “Uh, did he eat that guy?” He claimed that no, that that guy got depressed and jumped overboard. He found faith in God and He sent frogs from the sky and he survived by drinking their blood. So I wanted to get to know that guy. As I was reading these articles, it occurred to me that what if that was one person. I like the sensibility of one man staking out on his own to have a reckoning with his maker and like climbing up to the top of the hill and shouting into the void and getting no answer and then on the other hand, a man who is swept out to sea and forced to have this conversation with his maker and forced to confront the god he wants to avoid. Perhaps in all of my work I’m trying to have a conversation with a god that I’m not sure is there and pull the soul to these two extremes.
This is a film that deals with mental illness is a psycho-spiritual way – how much did you want to remain true to the actual textbook definition of something like paranoid schizophrenia versus imparting some higher, more ethereal meaning while you’re telling Buster/Jonah’s story?
SAS: That’s a really good question. I’m always interested in making movie where from the outside you can easily diagnose a person or call them crazy but once you get inside their skin and see it from their point of view that maybe they’re getting something right about the nature of the universe. For me, it was really important to not judge this character or label him or diagnose him in any way. I wanted to tell it from his heart and his point of view as much as possible.
Rami Malek is just superb in the role, unsurprisingly, and combined with his turn as Elliot on Mr. Robot, he seems to be the go to guy for man suffering a mental breakdown. Was he always your number one choice?
SAS: He was meant for this role. I think that he, as a person, is somewhat who holds himself to the fire on his own spiritual journey on a personal level and he asks these questions very earnestly. It’s what drew him to this material and probably what draws him to Mr. Robot. I think that Mr. Robot feels like this show about a character who is rebelling against the machine of society whereas this movie feels like a character who is rebelling against the machine of the cosmos in some way. I think Rami was drawn to it because he wanted to go a little more personal and spiritual while still asking those deep and relevant questions.
You play with some familiar twists and turns but in really unexpected ways. I found myself caught really off-guard by some of the more harrowing reveals. What storytelling pitfalls did you want to avoid so that this didn’t fall into cliché territory?
SAS: I have to be honest, my process doesn’t really work that way in that when I wrote this thing, my only rule for myself was to let things come to me. While of course I’m still using my analytical storytelling brain, for the most part I just really tried to take my ego and conscious mind out of it and really let things flow through me to tell the story that this character wanted to tell. I know that sounds very gushy and New Age-y and weird but it’s what I tried to do. I certainly wasn’t ever setting out to be oblique or even surprising, quite frankly because I don’t think there’s really any “new” stories, so I wasn’t trying to rock the boat. I just wanted to tell a story of a heart that was at war with itself. I think that in that kind of story there are no easy answers and so for me, in terms of plot twists and stuff, it’s less important that the audience is shocked or surprised and more to just be with him in the fallout of all that. Really to Rami’s credit as an actor, I think he keeps us with that character the whole way through, which is really the most important thing. At the end of the day, you can summarize the film by saying it’s a story about one man’s heart.
That’s interesting because the film’s title – while hinting at his cross-cultural background – suggests that Buster has a bad heart but I wonder if it is his brain that is more “mal” than his heart.
SAS: That’s interesting. For me, it was a conflict in the heart rather than the brain but I think there is a legitimate interpretation to be had about this being the story of a man having a mental unraveling so I don’t think it’s off-base to see it that way. Maybe making the distinction between heart and brain isn’t that useful in this case anyways because really I’m talking about the soul. I think the idea being – in a universe governed by causality and we are simply getting to experience the miracle of the unfolding of events which are churning forward as they would by cause and effect, in that scenario, who’s fault is it if you’re born with a bad heart? I wanted to tell the story of a man born with a bad heart who is trying desperately to be good and go against his fate. I think in some ways the antagonist in this movie is not him but it is God, or a god, or whoever came up with this fucked up game.
Throughout the film, we see these three versions of Buster – the raving mountain man on the run, the man quite literally out to sea and the family man having his brain mushed by too many late-night shifts. Each version of his world and his reality has its own totally different color palette, tone and even Buster is very different. How did you want these three versions to interconnect and harmonize with each other and what is the central nexus shared between them.
SAS: Calling him Jonah is no accident. This is basically a retelling of Jonah and the Whale. The central nexus for each of those characters is that they are all in the belly of the whale in some ways. It’s really about a man’s alienation and solitude in the world. Visually they all feel so different because what we were going for, especially in the young Jonah story line, he’s almost a man in a cage. He wants to just be free.
It’s so beige.
SAS: Yes! Beige was our key work. You nailed it. We wanted it to look like what nature would look like if you took a filter and took all the love and laughter and sex and joy out of it. Basically sucked it dry. He’s under these merciless, florescent lights in this taupe, beige hell. When we got out under the real sky, we wanted the audience to feel like they’re getting a breathe of fresh air as well.
I think you totally achieved that. One of the things I liked seeing crop up in this film is you using Y2K as a scare tactic. It feels like it’s been a while since we’ve heard Y2K posed as a serious threat. What inspired its inclusion?
SAS: I guess I thought it was really funny. As much as this movie asks a lot of serious questions, I do think of it as a kind of dark comedy. I guess the way I view our predicament as humans here on this earth in a very dark and lonely universe is that there is something sweetly and absurdly funny and awkward about our existence. We want it so badly to be graceful and full of meaning and we want our narrative to just unfold perfectly and more often than not it’s full of finalities and just stumbling around and trying our best. So I liked Y2K because it encapsulates the tone of the movie which is both earnest and also absurd. The very first image that came to me when I was writing this movie was the mountain man charging up this mountain and trying to have this earnest moment but just falling down over and over again. For me that kind of describes what I was going for and why I chose Y2K because I really thought the world was going to end. I really did. I took it so seriously and then nothing happened. I think I wanted to be able to both ask questions earnestly but also laugh at myself at the same time.
I can imagine that for a movie this ostensibly grim and heady, I imagine that the set could be pretty serious most of the time. Did you make an effort to lighten things up along the way or was this just taken as a very serious affair from start to finish?
SAS: I think the day would always reflect the tone of what we were shooting. Maybe I’m a method director but I like to get in the headspace of what that scene is and set that tone for people. There’s a lot of fun, more comedic scenes and I think we had fun on those days but then there’s stuff that’s really intense and we wanted to be as respectful as possible of all the character’s pain. I think it’s important to be able to create that working environment for everybody too. We wanted the process to fit the goal.
I will say Sarah that this is a very impressive second feature and certainly marks you as someone we’ll be keeping a close eye on. What’s next from here?
SAS: I have a couple different projects but it’s always hard to say what is gonna be next. I just got back from India where I scouted a movie with Jonako Donley, my producer, and we’re gonna be working on that. That one is an adaption of a short story that’s been haunting me for years and we’ve adapted it as a parable about economic inequality but it’s also very much the story of one person’s heart and struggle with the cosmos.
Seems like you’ve got a theme.
SAS: It’s something I can’t stop writing. Apparently I’m going to have to keep asking this question because it’s just not feeling answered.