What if a sports movie met Spirit of the Beehive? What if Flannery O’Connor wrote Bad Ronald and filled it with repressed homosexuals? What if you consider deus ex machina as a sensible plot device? Then you might be in the land of Michael Tully, whose latest film, Septien, is simultaneously personal and a mash-up of what-if scenarios—which makes sense. That’s exactly how he wrote it.
Late in 2009 Tully, Onur Tukel and Robert Longstreet, all multitalented indie cinema veterans, started outlining a movie through email. Tulley and Tukel were directors who between them had shot six movies: Cocaine Angel, Silver Jew, The Pigs, Ding-a-Ling-Less. Longstreet was an accomplished actor and also had production experience (Pineapple Express; The Catechism Catacylism). But all three had interests beyond what they had managed to fit into film. Tulley’s smalltown upbringing gave him an affinity for sports and ensured that part of him would always relate better to jocks than film nerds. Tukel was a visual artist who drew children’s books. And Longstreet had always wanted to write an outlandish character and play him completely straight. Was this enough for a movie, they wondered.
"For a while we weren’t sure," says Tulley. "I took all the emails and just tried to bang out a script incorporating everything with some semblance of coherence, and then we just shot what I wrote. It was scary. The whole time we were like, ‘What are we doing? Are we actually doing this?’ but I wanted to treat this movie as if we might never make another and had to fit in everything."
Septien (pronounced sep-tea-EN) was shot on the largesse of an investor "entirely comfortable with never seeing his money again." And Tulley held the coveted Orson Welles spot: writer, director, actor. Watching his film is a bit like watching inventive children play Cowboys and Indians, only now it’s Space Invaders. Each of Tully’s imaginative shifts is a change in genre, a cinematic allusion rapidly established then rapidly disassembled. Without set rules, the movie should have shared the same problem as those childhood games, an appeal extending only to its participants. But magically it seems to have found a way to remain universally engaging. Reviews at Sundance were mostly positive and its run at the IFC Center begins this Friday.
"I try not to think about criticism and use my instincts and stay unconscious," Tully says about making the film. "It informed me only to the extent that I knew there wouldn’t be another movie like this on the film circuit in 2011. So if someone rejects it it’s because it’s terrible and not because, ‘Oh, there are two documentaries about badminton and we can only choose one.’ And I suppose it was a reaction to the indie film world [and] those panels, ‘You’ve got to know your audience. If you don’t know your audience don’t even bother making your movie.’ I still can’t imagine its ideal audience."
It’s fun to try, though. An imprisoned southern belle? A pornographer with a fear of high school sports? A gay William Faulkner? It certainly doesn’t court the big rapist plumber contingency. But these jokes do a disservice to Septien’s real audience: anyone who appreciates independence in indie cinema.
The story ostensibly follows the impact of Cornelius Rawling’s return on his two brothers (Tukel and Longstreet) after an unexplained 18-year absence. But this makes its plot sound overly pedestrian. There is a group exorcism and a mentally stunted farmhand who lives in a tire. An art show and athletic hustles provide some laughs, but only when a toliet spontaneously erupts shit does the film really take off.
These strange stylings were the result of a highly collaborative environment that for 16 days existed in autonomy under a mid-July Southern sun. When Longstreet showed up wearing a frilly denim shirt from Kmart, Tully decided the actor had independently stumbled on the perfect costume. He gave Tukel free reign over the movie’s art and allowed actors who came from other professions (John Maringouin, documentary filmmaker; Jim Willingham, musician) to play their characters as if they had theatrical training. He even encouraged PAs to contribute.
"Everyone who showed up to bust their ass in a 100-degree heat wanted to be there and was talented. There’s no reason not to use that. I believe creative people can shift between gifts," says Tully. "I think that’s why I’m happy with Septien. That and luck. There were moments—a spontaneous rain storm, hitting a trick basketball shot—where the plan was we’ll try to get this but if not, it wasn’t meant to be. And we always did. It felt miraculous.
"I’m a big fan of putting everything in a pot and attacking the strange gumbo with as much sincerity as possible. Who knows? Maybe my next project will be the one that fails, but I think that’s the way to leave with no regrets."