Today is the day! 14th of July is celebrated worldwide not only because of Bastille Day and Ingmar Bergman, but also because our friend and the author of DLʼs all-time favourite “Uso Justo” was born on this day. Some month ago we had a skype interview with him. And here it is in both video and text. Happy birthday, Coleman!
Letʼs start with an easy one. How did you conceive “Uso Justo”?
I always had it in my mind that I want to do a film where the characters were aware that they were in a film of some kind.
And then I was making jokes with my friends — Iʼve told them I wanted to make a foreign film. But nobody makes a foreign film. They just make a film from whatever country they are from. And then when it gets shown somewhere else then itʼs a foreign film. So the concept of a foreign film was sort of intriguing to me… Anyway I wanted to find a film that did not have subtitles and was in another language. So I was in a mall south of Minneapolis, Minnesota and there was a video store. They had a little foreign section with VHS tapes there. The first one I grabbed I gave it to the counter guy and said: “Could you pop this in?”. So he put it in and I watched 5 minutes and there wasnʼt subtitles and it looked like it was decent quality and I said: “Iʼll take it”. ʻCause it did not matter to we what it was as long as they were speaking another language. So I took it home and watched it a few times and kept some notes. I wasnʼt exactly sure where it was going to go or how it all will come together. I did not really had a plan, I just started writing scenes. And not even writing — putting subtitles in there which seemed easier to me then writing.
The other important thing — it was not a comedy. I did not want to make comedy if the actors were playing it for laughs. Luckily, as I got in, the film was very melodramatic with very serious scenes which really makes the comedy work so much better.
What was the first scene written?
The first scene I wrote was an operating room scene. The doctor in the operating room just looks at his nurse and says: “The filmʼs just started and this guy is already dead. We already got a corpse”. And that was the opening line. It did not make the final cut.
It almost looks like these people could be saying these things just by their expressions. Because Iʼd realize this guy is making this face, but heʼs saying this and I can either play it for laughs or if I am telling a story it helps if it almost looks like the guy could be saying it. And then it sort of wrote itself once I started getting in there. Thereʼs one scene I donʼt really like in the film, but the rest of them Iʼm all happy with.
Thereʼs the scene near the end when the nurse and Larry are in the room and sheʼs telling Larry that Make-A-Hope Norma is the key to the whole film: “When she goes… we all go”.
ʻCause I wanted to make Make-A-Hope Norma the embodiment of the film — when she dies the film is over. I also wanted it not to freak people out… ʻCause everybody goes: “Oh, somebody dies, a little girl dies. Death, oh, itʼs terrible”. Itʼs fucking perfectly natural, thereʼs nothing to be so weirded out about. The girl dies, itʼs a young girl and she dies. We all die so thereʼs nothing to be scared of. A little girl dies and itʼs still a happy ending ʻcause we all had a good time and she got to see her butterflies in the end. So itʼs not all found footage – I shot some butterflies and put that in there.
Weʼve heard that Bruce Conner was a fan of the film?
Yeah, Bruce Conner… itʼs a great story. Because he was my hero, he was the reason I got into making found footage. He was getting some stuff transferred in San Francisco at a film lab that I used to work at. So Iʼd shown this to some people at the lab and one of them was John Carlson who was the guy who was transferring all of Bruce Connerʼs films for him. He just said: “You mind if I show this to Bruce Conner?”. I was like: “Fuck no, please, show it to him”.
I had no idea what would happen, but I thought itʼd be cool if Bruce Conner was watching my film. So a week later I get a call and itʼs from Bruce Conner. I pick up the phone and he says heʼs Bruce Conner and Iʼm like: “Who is this?”. We ended up talking for quite a while. He loved “Uso Justo”, he thought it was great. He was constantly showing it to people that would come by his place. I know that his health was not so good either so there were a lot of people coming by his house where he was taking it very easy. So he showed it to a lot of people and I would get e-mails from other people thatʼd been by his place. And Bruce actually sent me a check at one point and gave me a list of a bunch of his friends that was like an A-list of artists, actors and writers. So I mailed out about 40 of these DVDs to all of his friends and heard back from some of them.
On your website thereʼs a quote by Isabella Rossellini: “Coleman Miller is destined for admiration and great poverty”. Is it real?
Yeah, thatʼs real. A friend of mine was dating Isabella for a while. They were in Chicago, so a few of us went out for dinner. I was just finishing up “Uso Justo” so I gave them a copy that was 90% done. I guess they were back at the hotel and Isabella told the concierge that they needed a DVD player up in the room, they watched it. And then she left 2 messages on my phone when I got home to Minnesota. One of them had that line.
The best compliment an artist might have.
I think so. And she was comparing me to her father in that message. She said: “I grew up with a bunch of people who were doing something new and if you do so you are destined for admiration and great poverty”. And then she started laughing. I took it as compliment, definitely.
It looks that there are a lot of inside jokes in the film. Like thereʼs a line: “Baldwin, get those trousers back on!”. Is it Craig Baldwin ?
There are so many inside jokes in there. I figure as long as somebody say their name you might as well use your friends. Phil thatʼs my buddy Phil Johnson, Make-A-Hope Norma is Norma Perez this girl that I went to school with and I would cheat of her in Spanish tests. Thereʼs a bunch of… Nelson and Pookie. All this stuff itʼs all my friends in there. And itʼs definitely Craig Baldwin.
“Baldwin, get those trousers back on!” — I tried to get the word “trousers” back into the language. Everybody says “pants” now and Iʼve been trying to get the word “trousers” back into the vernacular. My friends always give me shit ʻcause Iʼm always using the word “trousers”.
“Uso Justo” feels like a perfect film for film festivals. Was it your intention?
Yeah, itʼs definitely for film festivals and people that go to film festivals. Itʼs kind of made for that really. When I first submitted it to festivals they tell you to check a box: fiction, documentary, experimental. And I check experimental ʻcause I always checked experimental. And itʼs not really… itʼs more of a fiction than it is experimental. Sure they are always talking about it, being in an experimental film, or they are talking about experimental films, but itʼs kind of a straight up comedy. My friend Beth give me some shit, ʻcause she said: “This was just your excuse to tell jokes”. And it is, but I just couched it in this story of filmmaking and experimental film in particular.
There are tons of great lines in there. “Thatʼs a lot of stairs”, for example. Do you know any people that use them in real life?
My friends use that if they come down from a bunch of stairs they always say: “Thatʼs a lot of stairs”. Or “sometimes wishes are on their own schedule” thatʼs a good one.
Our favourite is: “You just get busy dying”.
Exactly. You know I got into a big argument with my sister and her husband on that scene when I was writing it ʻcause I would show them some stuff and they saw the scene where the nurse says to the little girl: “You just get busy dying”. And they were just: “Oh, my god you canʼt use that”. We got into a huge argument. I remember we were barbecuing and discussing it for quite a bit but I was: “You know, Iʼm gonna keep it cause itʼs funny”. Itʼs dark humor and it comes out of nowhere, but it always gets a laugh. Yeah, there are some good lines in there. You know I would still watch that thing sometimes and laugh at my own jokes. And during screenings I am cracking up. So sick…
Wait, we have another favourite line: “I cut them into little ovals myself”.
Iʼll tell you a little story about that. Once I wrote that I wanted to make that cop be totally into arts and crafts. Like he would always be mentioning something he was working on like a mosaic, but really cheesy. I was trying to think of the cheesiest art things like macaroni art. I did not have enough scenes with that cop but I wanted him to be the one always working on his little crafty projects.
How was the film received by Spanish speaking people?
Thatʼs a good question. Because when I made it I wasnʼt even going to submit it to festivals in Spanish speaking countries ʻcause itʼd just be retarded. Theyʼd know what they are saying, but theyʼll try to be reading stuff — itʼd would be too difficult. But then some Spanish speaking people saw it at a couple of screenings I was at and they came up to me and they loved it. And then I explained to them that I wasnʼt going to send it to Mexico or Spanish speaking countries and they were like: “Oh, no you should send it because we have a very self-deprecating sense of humor”. And then not long after that a couple from Mexico, from Juarez saw it up in Canada. And they were like: “Oh, man we gotta invite this guy to our festival”. So I was a guest filmmaker at their first Juarez Film Festival. So they dig it. Which was total a surprise to me. It turned out that I made a film that I donʼt know about. Thereʼs another film in there for people who speak Spanish. Thatʼs a totally different experience that I will ever get from the film that Iʼve made.
Weʼve read on your blog that you make stencils. How did you get into it?
The stencils started about a year and a half ago. I never was a huge stencil guy, but then I saw this thing online and there was a very artsy-craftsy lady who was saying: “Iʼll teach you how to make a stencil. Just grab a photo of yourself, put it into Photoshop, Iʼll show you what to do, do a self-portrait”. I thought: “OK, Iʼll give that a shot”. Grabbed the photo, did all the stuff. It only took me 10 minutes to cut the thing and when I sprayed it I was amazed. It was quite good. So I thought: “Well if I spend some time on these stencils I can make them even better”. So Iʼve been doing those ever since. Everything from Herman Munster to Nicola Tesla.
Youʼve mentioned that you wanted to do films like Monty Python. Do you have any favourite skit by them?
Oh, shit. Well, there is the reenactment of Pearl Harbor by some women just in the field . Somebody blows a whistle and then they just beating the shit out of each other. And there was… I donʼt remember the name, but there was a soccer game… It was philosophers against Germany .
Those guys are just totally absurd. Even in “Uso Justo” thereʼs a little reference. Thereʼs a scene where the other doctor just says “Well, weʼll just end this scene right now”.
Letʼs digress a little bit to ask you the main Director Lounge question… Do you like cats?
I would put them second to dogs. I was not a cat fan. I grew up in a dog household. And when I moved out to the West Coast everybody had a cat. I mean, I fought it tooth and nail. But now I like cats.
OK, good. Any new projects?
Well I am always writing down ideas… I was making all these short films that Iʼd show to 30-50 people here and there and play at festivals once in a while. And this thing shot me up the ladder of experimental filmmakers for a little bit and it sort of freaked me out. I wasnʼt sure what to do next… So I haven’t really written anything big yet. Iʼve been making a bunch of tiny little short ones just for my own… I make a lot of films and a lot of them I donʼt really screen. I just make them for myself basically. I make films that I want to see. I just make them and if I think they are good enough then I send them off to festivals. But now when this thing has won so many awards and played so well, Iʼm afraid to send out anything to festivals that isnʼt as good as or beyond.
Iʼve been getting into the kinetic sculpture more and stencils and doing other stuff. But I think in some way kinetic sculpture and the film is gonna be incorporated somehow whether itʼs a film about kinetic sculpture or I put cameras on sculptures which Iʼve already started. But I need to make another comedy too. For a long time I was just doing these visual films, very abstract visual film and this was the first time with “Uso Justo” where I was telling a story. I think I was OK at doing those, so I should probably get back to doing that instead of just doing abstract stuff.