Matt Austin Sadowski’s done it all. From playing the green Power Ranger, to directing the John Hughes documentary Don’t You Forget About Me, to composing music. Matt’s original, moving short film The Tape stars Julian Richings as a man with a mysterious, extremely important VHS cassette. The Tape is playing at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as part of the Short Cuts Canada: Programme #5. Criticize This! caught up with the multi-talented family man, to talk writing, Richings, and the real Toronto.
From playing a Power Ranger, to writing an adult-film industry spoof (The Right Hand), you’re doing a bit of everything…
MAS: I know, it’s a problem!
It’s not a problem!
MAS: (laughs) My father thinks it’s a problem!
Are you just interested in everything? Do you feel like there just isn’t enough time in the world to do everything you’re interested in?
MAS: My problem is that I have too much of a busy creative brain, and not every idea I have is good for a film, or a song, or a poem, or whatever. So I need to find outlets for it. And the more outlets I find for it, and this is true, the easier I sleep. Because when I have an electrical idea, for something that I think is great or new, or I just want to follow through with it because I’m passionate about it, and I don’t get to do that, I’m very restless. But my focus now is writing and directing.
Do you find that in the public eye, the role of the writer seems under-appreciated? That it’s all about the director and the stars?
MAS: In the public eye, the writer’s really under-appreciated. There are some superstar writers, like Aaron Sorkin. People watch his stuff and are like “Wow, the writing!”. And Diablo Cody, who wrote Juno, people know her name now. But any other writer now, that people can mention, is probably a writer-director. But in the industry, writers are the most vital role. Directors are… (chuckles)… A dime a dozen. But a good writer, or a hot writer, they are way more sought after than a filmmaker that flashes some sort of brilliance or does well. People are scavenging for good writers. Which is also very cool, because more so then for directors, it’s like the American dream. Anyone can write a good novel. And there’s tons of scripts where that writer has maybe never written anything before, and never wrote anything after, but that particular film was great. There’s something very cool about that.
In The Tape, there’s this really soft side to Julian (Richings) as an actor. And he’s been in so many Canadian things. Did you deliberately want to cast him to play against type? Or do you just love him as an actor, and you just said “I want him”?
MAS: I’d be foolish to say that I wasn’t aware of casting against type, but it was only brought to the surface once it was finished. With Julian, it was kind of like I really want to work with him, I think he’s great. It was just this image I had, and it’s the kind of image of him holding up that tape. And I only could see Julian. It’s only afterwards, when people have seen the trailer, or seen the postcard, and said “Oh, I thought I was watching a horror movie”. And that’s because everything Julian is in is totally weird and creepy and bizarre and off-centre. And I was like “Oh, I like that!”. I like messing with people’s expectations. But I don’t pretend I was masterfully trying to conduct that.
Not only because Julian was the actor chosen, but in the opening scene… It’s this dark attic scene. It could have had lights on, it could have been a cozy attic feeling, with grandma’s pictures and that sort of thing. But instead, it does feel spooky. Was it deliberate, to create some sort of suspense, of “What is this tape about?”
MAS: THAT was purposeful! I have my heart set on being really versatile in the films I want to make, but the one thing I know that is important to me is creating some sort of suspense. Real suspense. Looking back at all my work… I really want to build this kind of suspense, of “What am I watching?”. I like to engage the audience to be like “Oh! It’s not what I thought”. I think all my things have that play on suspense.
What was your budget?
MAS: My budget was a rental car and an extra large pizza… (laughs)… I called up my D.P. and said “I have this short film I want to do, and I want to do it on Friday. I think we can do it in just a day, in my attic”. And I called up my sound guy and said “I’ve got another gig for you, but I’m not going to be able to pay you, but it’s a fun script and Julian Richings is going to be in it”, and they were like “Yeah, let’s do it”. And that was my crew. I had already written it a few years ago, and tried to get it made through some grant things, and it didn’t work out. I had all the locations picked out. It completely just came together because planets and stars aligned… (chuckles again)… And people’s availabilities… and we didn’t try to make it bigger.
So Julian did this for free?
MAS: Julian just did this for fun. He really liked it. We got together and talked about it, and how much do we reveal. Julian was, I can’t say this enough, but not only is he an extremely talented, giving actor…. There are a lot of talented, giving actors who are just… A-holes. And he was just the nicest guy ever. It was a pretty bare bones production, and he wouldn’t even let me take care of him. He wanted to take care of me. For someone who’s been in the industry so long… I didn’t expect him to be jaded or guarded, but for him to turn out to be a pseudo-family member by the end of it! (laughs) Sometimes that happens at the end of features, where everyone’s like “We’re a family now!”, but this was a one-day shoot! I think any role he’s ever gotten has been specific to what a great actor he is, but I think he’s gotten all of these opportunities at the same time, and all this interest, because he’s just the nicest guy ever. And he’ll probably do 20 shorts this year, plus features. And I asked him “Why do you do all these things?”. And he said: “I just love what I do”.
You seem to really feature Toronto. Honest Ed’s, the Little House and the Kensington market sign… I know you love Toronto…
MAS: It happened for two reasons. There was a Toronto project, done by this group called the YEAA, they were looking for submissions for short stories that are Toronto-centric. And I had this script I wrote a few years ago. And because I love the city. And I like the city in a way that… For Woody Allen, who, a bounty of his work is in New York, he doesn’t show the city in a way that screams it. You know it’s New York without having to see a shot of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State building. I specifically told them I don’t want to show the CN Tower. I want to show smaller things, like a specific corner that locals would know. We’ll see what they think of it, but I’m putting together a pitch video for my feature film, that’s also a bit of a love letter to Toronto. It’s more about neighbourhoods and small areas, and Toronto can play Toronto as a character, not as the mask it wears to the rest of the world.
And what if someone asked you, “Why should I go see this film?”
MAS: (draws in a deep breath) Ooh. I don’t know, because I made it for people to see… Because it’s important to me. It’s kind of like the short film that was never supposed to be. Another short film that I made (S is For Bird), which I hadn’t finished making, is in the festival submission process now. That was a film I made as more of a calling card. That was the film I was like “I’m going to submit it here, and here, and I made it for this kind of audience”… And (The Tape) the film I snuck in there, and made on a quarter, is the one that is picking up track. That was a really valuable lesson, to “just make it to make it”. I don’t think you can adopt the same philosophy in a feature, because there’s just too much money involved. But in a short, make it because you love it, and hope for the best.
The Tape is playing as part of the Short Cuts Canada: Programme #5 at TIFF 2012 on Wednesday, September 12 at 6:00 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Thursday, September 13 at 2:00 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Follow all of our TIFF 2012 coverage at criticizethis.ca/tiff.
Top image: A scene from The Tape. Courtesy TIFF.