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Interview with Ray McKinnon, writer-director of The Accountant and Chrystal, by Roxanne Bogucka

RB: I’m with Ray McKinnon, writer and director of The Accountant and Chrystal. Welcome.

RM: Thank you.

RB: I kind of get the feeling that you think that there’s an audience out there that equates a Southern accent with a low IQ and possibly generations of inbreeding and you’re on a sort of a mission to change that.

RM: I don’t intend for it to be a mission. It’s… because this movie’s been so difficult to distribute, it’s become more of a mission. I would like to distribute this film and make another film. And not necessarily just make films about the South, but partly because of the difficulty in getting people in position of power behind this film—and they’re the ones who have the keys to the distribution angle—I’ve had to further investigate this mission and my place in the mission. So. It’s partly out of that, just a pragmatic way. But certainly I was motivated to start making movies partly in response to what I saw as very inauthentic and artificial views of that culture.

RB: Can you tell me about some movies that have passed your test, movies about the South that you think weren’t artificial, weren’t inauthentic?

RM: The Last Picture Show, which was done in Texas but—

RB: Texas is not really the South. [A woman down the table has been listening. Here, her head jerks up like it’s on a string. Later, she will leave McKinnon a note, declaring emphatically that Texas is, in fact, The South.]

RM: Well, it is and it isn’t. I mean it’s a small town, it’s, depending on what part of Texas you’re talking about—and that’s the whole thing, I mean when people say “it’s about [the South],” well would you say that about The North? Saying that in itself is a kind of a stereotypical statement because you’re saying a whole half of a continent has, is alike. There’s differences between south Georgia and east Mississippi. You know, it’s a huge area. So certainly there’s a difference between the Ozark Mountains and the Delta. If somebody watched one of my movies, and watched Chrystal and went, “Okay, that’s a place I’ve never been to before.” You know it is different, it is like the difference between Chicago and New York. There are differences. And they can be subtle. I think one thing that film has done—it’s made “The South” seem like it’s all the same. And what I view is that there are differences and there are subtleties and let’s explore those. The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry wrote it, and I think that’s why it had a feeling of authenticity of place. Slingblade certainly had that. Rambling Rose, which was a lovely—

RB: Laura Dern.

RM: Yeah, and (Robert) Duvall, and her mother, Diane Ladd. They were complex people. It was based upon a book that was written by someone from that area I believe, and that’s why they were able to find the complexity. And in some ways, you know, Steel Magnolias had a complexity of character. And I guess that’s what I’m more interested in, which is, human beings of any place and culture are complex people. And if we can view other cultures in their complexity and not see them as just this because they talk with this accent or they’re this color, then we’ve expanded our view of humanity.

RB: Steel Magnolias, that was written by a boy from New Orleans?

RM: I think so.

RB: Those things you’re mentioning here, the things that have sprung to your mind are by people who are from the place. Which, I know you’re not saying that someone can’t make a movie that has an authentic feel if you’re not from the place, but it’s interesting that these are the examples that you…

RM: I think it’s more difficult, if you’re an artist and you’re exploring a culture that’s not your own, then you’re going to have to do your homework. And I think some directors and filmmakers take the easy way out and don’t do their homework and don’t get into the depth of the culture and they just go for the easy call.

RB: Have you had any opportunity—for example there’s a good documentary here that I saw the other day, called Tobacco Money Feeds My Family

RM: Oh I want to see that! No!

RB: --didn’t get a chance?

RM: No!

RB: Well if you do get a chance, it’s very interesting indeed. It’s not the presentation that you normally get about this topic.

RM: It’s funny because that’s the one thing that I looked at that I thought “I’d love to see that one!”

RB: When you were thinking of this story, when the story first came into your head, did you know it was a feature story and not a short, or maybe a collection of shorts like, like The Wilgus Stories? Did you ever see that? No? It’s set in Kentucky, it’s about a young man, three parts—

RM: Right. Right. I did see some of that. It was on PBS.

RB: Yeah, like an ITVS.

RM: Right, yeah. It was nice.

RB: But you knew this story was a feature story?

RM: Chrystal? I’m a big… I’ve been heavily influenced also by independent film. Independent filmmakers. Two to note: David Cronenberg and Jim Jarmusch. These aren’t Southern filmmakers. They really aren’t. There’s only one Southern filmmaker anyway, so… but there were parts of their aesthetic that I really dug. The Coen Brothers is another—in fact there was a time they were truly independent filmmakers. I think their first movie, they made for less than a million dollars, so

RB: And it was made in these parts [Austin Texas], Blood Simple.

RM: That’s right. Wonderful film. And I’ve always been attracted to films that didn’t quite fit into the current three-act paradigm that, things went this way and that way, so when I thought about Chrystal I said, “You know I’m going to really make an independent. I’m going to write and independent script, so independent that nobody will ever want to make it. And I’m going to have very little dialogue in the first 10 minutes of the movie. And it’s going to be set in the Ozark Mountains, like whoever does a movie about anything set in the Ozark… This is probably my point. I don’t think there’s been a movie made about the Ozark Mountains in… I can’t remember the last one. If ever. And this is a big part of our country, right in the middle of America. So I did all of these things that I thought were a sure-fire way of never making this movie. So that was part of my interest in doing it. And there were character reasons. But it was always intended to be a feature.

RB: It’s funny, and it’s serious, and it’s got a fight scene that’s just, hands over the eyes. How are you going to sell this?

RM: You know, part of… I just have to go back to what I seek out in film. There are times that I seek out film where I know kind of what’s going to happen. A big-budget film where you kind of feel comfortable knowing the regiment’s going to go in, and it has its own satisfying resolution. But I’m also interested in films that take me to a place that I’ve never been before and introduce me to people that I’ve never seen before. One of the reasons why I thought Whale Rider worked so well is, we were introduced to a culture that we’ve never seen, I mean we really got a sense of that culture, at least it seemed to me. And so…

RB: I’m still thinking about that movie.

RM: Right.

RB: Even long after having seen it, because, it could’ve been, when you’re sitting there, watching this movie with this adorable, intelligent child that you, you could’ve been sitting there thinking, “Oh I’m being played.” And you kind of are being played, but it’s okay by me, you know?

RM: Sure. Right. But you also, on top of that, and through the fabric of that, you got a sense of a culture. And went to a place you’d never been before. And that, to me, is the strength of my movie, not the weakness, but distributor-types go, “We don’t do movies like this. We don’t know how to market it because we don’t do movies like this.” And I’m like, “Well, because there aren’t movies like this.” That should be the reason to do this. The reason to embrace this movie, because I think we all as sophisticated human beings, want to get outside of our box from time to time. And that’s how I would say, “Come see something you’ve never seen before.”

RB: I’m curious about… her [Chrystal’s] backstory, because I watched the movie and I’m trying to figure out, why did she marry this guy? This low-life guy, why did she run around with this fellow in the first place? How did Chrystal come to be as a character?

RM: I guess it’s difficult to put our own principles and morals and references into who she is. She grew up in a poor place, it’s a different experience for her. I don’t see Joe (Thornton) as a low-life. I see him as a guy who’s trying to make a… there’s a lot of people in this country who grow marijuana to live, on their land. Because there’s taxes, the bigger classes coming in and taking over that land—how do they keep paying, how do they hold onto their land? A lot of people grow pot. Marijuana is the largest cash crop in the United States. So—now if Joe was making crystal meth, I’d say he’s a bad, bad dude, but I don’t put that judgement on him as really a bad guy. I think he’s a guy who made mistakes, and there’s a goodness to him deep down, and I think that’s what Chrystal responds to. And in the end, you know, he, though somewhat in a strange way, he proves his goodness.

RB: It’s interesting that, in this area, in this neighborhood—drugs are pretty readily available—it seems interesting that Chrystal would be a grocery whore, and not like a crack whore or something. She’s, there’s drugs all over the place, she’s in constant pain for many years, it’s surprising that she’s not succumbing to the obvious enticement of drugs. Did you think about that, and decide against it because…

RM: You know, we talked about it, Lisa (Blount) and I, and at one point, she was, in the backstory of the character she had gotten addicted to pain pills—legal, prescribed—and because of how they made her feel, emotionally and spiritually, she let those go and found other ways to disassociate herself from her pain. One of those ways was to go meditate. Part of her being up in the tree, doing what she’s doing, was a way of disassociating herself from her pain. It’s her painkiller.

RB: The Chrystal character seems to me really “out of time” compared to the other characters in the area. She seems much more old-timey. It was meant that way? Okay, why?

RM: In my mind, when this event, this accident happened, she never got past it. She never really dealt with it. So for almost two decades she kind of stayed in a time, in a… I won’t say she was resident of the past, but she went and bought up old clothes, she stayed in a house with no television, no Internet, so she became more of an old-time person. She wouldn’t have been that if this accident had not happened, and her husband been with her and her child, so.

RB: It seemed to me that Joe made kind of an odd choice. He seems like, he’s returned from his 16 years of incarceration and… then he goes and hangs out with Larry, who seems like a man that’s just got no do-right in him at all. And it didn’t seem like the wisest association to make. So, explain that.

RM: I don’t know, I don’t know that my job is… one reason I made the film is to express myself through film and through fiction and in some ways not being quite so literal. And I think one thing that we tend to want in a reality-based, literal world that we seem to be wanting more and more of is, explain this, explain this, explain this. Tell me, tell me, tell me, and I want to know literally why… Sometimes you just have to, yeah, people don’t do things that always make sense. People don’t always do things that, in a logical, realistic way, that you think they should do. People are not always consistent. People are paradoxical and I would say that [they’re] conflicted. And if I think of the psychology of Joe, he’s a man who’s lost. He didn’t seek out to hang out with Larry, Larry just kind of kept asking him and one day he went off with him. And he’s just kind of hanging out there. And he’s not really paying attention to Larry or not. He didn’t really make a conscious decision. He’s lost. And the whole movie for him, for his arc, is, he’s trying to find his purpose again. And I think what he doesn’t know about his purpose, is to help Chrystal get over the tragedy. So he can leave this earth and so she can go on with her life. And in a subconscious sense, that’s why he’s here. He’s almost like a ghost when he shows up. He’s not quite of this place. And that’s because he’ll never be of this place.

RB: I’m curious about how one writes a screenplay, in the sense that, when you’re making your story, and it’s kind of about what you just said about it being literal and explain this, explain that—does one sit and try to imagine what the audience might ask and then try to answer those questions? Or are there some questions, you thought, “I’m just not going to answer that,”

RM: You mean answer it in the screenplay?

RB: Yeah, in your story.

RM: There were stories before screenplays. And they were told orally and stories have been around for a long time. Lots of stories, lots of fables have mystery. And did not have everything explained out in a logical way. And there was still wonder and it made you think. And I like movies, I’m drawn to movies where everything is not explained out. However, I am also, I don’t like movies that make me go, “What? Why did he…”

RB: That WTF moment.

RM: Right. And that feel false and manipulative or I don’t buy it. So we did question whether or not, when something was, somebody did something that was unexpected or unexplained, that it felt like it came out of nowhere. We wanted it to feel like, even though you weren’t expecting it and it didn’t quite make logical sense, you bought it on some other level. So whether or not we succeeded with all audience members…

RB: Okay. The fight scene. I don’t know. I saw that there were some people who watched it, who were able to watch the Fight Club scene. But tell me about choreographing this nasty fight.

RM: It’s funny, you know. This movie is kind of a left-brain, right-brain movie. Because it has moments that are, well not left-brain, right-brain but feminine and masculine. You know, it has very intimate moments; it also has very masculine moments. We’ve heard from a lot of guys that they so dig the fight scene. They just think it’s bad, and we’ve heard from women too that say it’s the best, blah blah blah…

RB: Well the trash-talking was great.

RM: But they loved the whole fight scene, and I suppose that’s part of the way it was filmed. For some people, I’ve heard, “Oh it was too much. I can’t even watch it.”

RB: That’s kind of okay because really, should you be watching a fight? Should you all be gathering out there watching a fight like this is the Saturday night entertainment?

RM: And that’s part of what I wanted to accomplish, was, okay, I want you to see what a real fistfight looks like. When people hit each other with their fists it is not pretty. And we’ve kind of made it cartoonish now and we’re detached from what it really is like, so if you covered your eyes that speaks more to your humanity and lack of desensitization to violence. But we wanted it to be very raw and also, partly because of budget constraints, it really was wild and woolly two nights out there at the Catfish House. It was wild and I think some of that wildness turns up in the scene.

RB: How long did it take to practice that?

RM: For a studio picture it would take maybe a week. We had about a couple hours. I actually did get hit a few times, so there’s a shot in the movie where Billy [Bob Thorton] just out and out slaps me, open-handed, full-speed. And I saw stars. And that’s in the movie.

RB: That was great, that he was slapping you.

RM: Humiliation.

RB: Tell me about the Kalid subplot. I didn’t, I enjoyed but it did seem a bit out of nowhere to me. Out of nowhere, a musicologist shows up! It’s not as bad as, like, out of nowhere, three stewardesses show up! But out of nowhere, a musicologist shows up and we got to hear some really great music, which, I’m all about that, but…

RM: I don’t know what out of nowhere means, though. He certainly had the ability to get to this place because there’s roads and cars…

RB: Yeah, but I mean what does he do for the story? What was he meant to do for the story?

RM: For me, he was somebody who wasn’t attached to all the history of not only the place, but of Chrystal. It’s been my observation in life, often times we confess most freely to someone who doesn’t have all the baggage attached to that confession. And she needed somebody in her life that she could begin expressing her pain, that it was a safe place. It wasn’t a part of that pain. To confess that to Joe was just too loaded. And this person showed up and presented a safety net that allowed her the beginnings of her expression of this pain. And that really was, that was his first reason for being there. The second reason was, allowing her to see through a new pair of glasses, some of the beauty of where she’s from. And to begin to re-explore that beauty as opposed to just the pain and the ugliness of that place. Also, Harry Lennix, who plays [Kalid], he’s unbelievable! He’s a brilliant guy, as a human being, as a man and what I wanted Kalid to be was a brilliant guy, so you need to get a brilliant guy to play a brilliant guy. And we were very lucky to have him. I told him, I said “Harry. Do not take the cop show. They’re going to offer you the cop show but you’re too damn good.” He’s an amazing actor. He has a problem because he gets, he goes up for these stereotypical roles and he’s, they have a hard time putting him in roles because he’s… (drifts off)

RB: Okay. Killing the dog.

RM: Yeah.

RB: That’s just, that ain’t right.

RM: You know, I’ve used this movie as a tragedy in a lot of ways. And we have a long history of storytelling of comedy. We also have a long history of tragedy and I think in film, certainly in studio films, we don’t want to offend anybody or make anybody feel uncomfortable. So we’ve gone so far away from a lot of the more tragic storytelling structure. I personally am drawn to, at times, movies that are tragic, that make me feel things that… the tragedy of humanity and the sadness of being human. I’ll tell you another favorite is the movie Frances, with Jessica Lange, I love that movie. It tore me up. And The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, it just slayed me but it made me feel human. Makes me get in touch with, it’s not always bad to feel those things in a movie. And one of my reasons for doing this movie was to make, I wanted to feel that sadness and I guess the dog dying is a part of that grief. And it ain’t right, I agree.

RB: Would you ever direct another’s story or are you pretty much committed to the director-screenwriter…

RM: Yeah I would, yeah. I’m intrigued by it. I’ve read a few scripts that I thought, I could really get into that. It would take something that I would really feel strongly about.

RB: This is just an odd technical question but, in the end, the little girl is up on the metal sculpture—looks like a great toy—but I’m looking up and when the camera draws back and she’s way up there, I was like, [gasps] “She could fall.” A little kid way up high like that. Were there like working-with-kids issues about her being up high?

RM: Yes. When we designed that we put these railings around it, so she could… it wasn’t rickety. All done before we shot that shot we had done a number of shots with us right around there, making sure she was comfortable and then we got closer shots where she was up there. And it wasn’t until we were sure that she was really comfortable that went out and did that one bike shot. But we were very aware of…

RB: Kind of nerve-racking?

RM: No, no, we didn’t feel like she was in any danger.

RB: She didn’t look worried.

RM: Her parents were there.

RB: I have to ask about writing and directing sex and nudity for one’s own spouse. It’s difficult to write and direct sex and nudity, I should imagine for anyone, but did it, is it being your spouse made it easier because there was trust, or it’s just hard, or…

RM: Yes. Harder.

RB: Harder?

RM: It’s harder. I’ve never done it before, but yeah, very difficult. I guess, again you have to… I had to… Look when I wrote this, I wrote it from a place of, a place that wasn’t an egotistical place. And I think where you get into danger is when the ego gets too involved in “That’s my spouse!” or the nudity or, if you’re serving the story, and the story’s that, it’s what’s important, then it’s, you don’t get so concerned with matters of the ego. So when the ego came up, difficult. It was a difficult movie all around, a difficult movie to make and tell, and it’s a difficult movie to watch today. But I have to believe that, part of the emotional satisfaction of what it gives you is because of the difficult nature of the movie. Sometimes you can’t have the kinds of feelings that I had when I wrote it, when I made it, without having some of these difficult issues happen throughout it.

RB: That’s the bulk of what I wanted to ask you. Anything you’d like to say about Chrystal or The Accountant?

RM: Well there’s certainly that it’s a privilege to be able to make films and it’s not forever…

RB: Will there be a soundtrack?

RM: I hope so.

RB: Because it was great stuff.

RM: That’s another thing—some great old-time musicians, Clarence Ashley and Russell Holman. And that’s one thing we talked about too—with the musicologist, we had a whole other story. Even these mountain guys were pretty much, this music is also African-influenced. The mountain music, some of it came up from the Delta and was taken to the mountains so these dudes, one reason we had so blues-oriented, blues elements to that. The other is the modern element of rural music that The Drive-By Truckers, two of their songs, they really speak to modern rural issues that you don’t hear on the radio. They’re very political band. Jay Farrar’s another, seminal songwriter—he’s from Uncle Tupelo, which helped to spawn this whole roots-driven music…

RB: That’s great. Who was the actress who played Lisa’s mom?

RM: Grace Zabriskie. And she was in some things, a bunch of movies. She’s an old friend of Lisa’s, also mine. She’s from New Orleans.

RB: Was she in The Big Easy?

RM: Yeah.

RB: She was the mother there, wasn’t she?

RM: Yeah. She’s a wonderful actress. And Harry Dean Stanton, who, you have to put in the context that he’s a World War II decorated veteran. World War II, almost 60 years ago, from that era.

RB: Yeah. My daddy’s a World War II veteran.

RM: So that’s a, for him to, 60 years later, to be doing an independent film, that was a real treat for us. And a testament to his internal character.

RB: Thank you very much.

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