Q & A with Writer-Director Noah Buschel
The star of “The Missing Person” Michael Shannon.
“The Missing Person”, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, is a contemporary film noir where there isn’t necessarily a bad guy or good guy, but more of an internal fight between good and evil. What Buschel says he explores film is, What happens when your world has been blown up, in one way or another?
The film stars Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon (a best supporting actor nominee in 2009 for “Revolutionary Road”) and co-stars Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan (a best supporting actress nominee in 2008 for “Gone Baby Gone”). Its supporting cast includes Margaret Colin, Linda Emond, Yul Vazquez and John Ventimiglia. Written and directed by Noah Buschel, it was produced by Jesse Scolaro, Allen Bain, Lois Drabkin and Alex Estes and executive produced by Jason Orans and Amy Ryan.
The Story in brief (spoiler alert): John Rosow (Michael Shannon), a private detective, has been hired to tail a man, Harold Fullmer (Frank Wood), on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Persuaded by a large reward, Rosow uncovers Harold’s mysterious identity as a missing person — one of the thousands presumed dead after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center — and is charged with bringing him back to his wife in New York City against his will. Ultimately Rosow must decide whether the decision to return Harold is truly the right one.
Director’s Statement: I grew up in New York’s Greenwich Village and was living there on 9/11. At the time I happened to be reading a lot of Raymond Chandler. That’s pretty much how “The Missing Person” came to be.
After I wrote the script, I started to study noir a little bit. I found out that noir had a long history with war, was very much tied-up in war. Hard boiled detective stories were often written as subversive meditations on home front distresses. After America “won” the war, the genre became even more cynical, dark, and uneasy.
If “The Missing Person” is about anything, it’s about Post Traumatic Stress. It’s about what happens when your world has been blown up, in one way or another. Scattered movie theaters, train yards, apartments with no lights on. Everyone, rich or poor, becomes vagrant and rootless. Cast away into separate worlds on the same street by a bad dream shared by too many people.
John Rosow is the hero of the movie. He’s not the greatest detective of all time, and his intentions are sometimes murky. But he’s the hero nonetheless. The case he’s gotten is a very hard one. Villains and evil-doers are the least of his concerns. What he really has to deal with is his own trauma. That he takes on this difficult case at all makes him the hero.
Noah Buschel was born in Philadelphia in 1978 and grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He made his feature film debut with “Bringing Rain”, starring Adrian Grenier and Paz de la Huerta. “Bringing Rain”, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003 and was released by Plexifilm. His second feature, “Neal Cassady”, starred Tate Donovan and Amy Ryan, and was released by IFC Films in 2008. His upcoming film “Mu” stars Jena Malone and is based on Maura O’Halloran’s “Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Life and Letters of an Irish Zen Saint”.
After enjoying an early look at “The Missing Person”, I was happy to be able to focus with Noah Buschel on the making of the movie.
- Q: How did “The Missing Person” come about?
- A: I wrote it not long after 9/11. It took a while although I made another movie in-between. It didn’t seem like a marathon to get it made. Mainly it was two producers that I think had the most to do with getting it made — Lois Drabkin, in terms of just getting it together, and then Amy Ryan, who was in my second movie “Neal Cassady”. She brought Mike Shannon by the editing room to see “Cassady” and he liked it. She suggested him as Rosow. I didn’t think of him when I met him although I was interested in working with him for a long time.
- Q: So you sent the screenplay to Amy?
- A: Amy was probably the first actor to read it. She became a producer because she brought both Mike and Frank on.
“The Missing Person” stars Margaret Colin (left) and Michael Shannon (right).
- Q: You’ve written something that clearly recalls the film noir genre. Were you a fan of film noir?
- A: I’m a huge fan of the Fox film noir (DVD) series that Eddie Muller does the commentaries for. He’s the preeminent film noir historian. Those are fascinating just in terms of watching the noir and then hearing about all the terrible things that befell these poor people (while making the films). For me, noir’s always been something great to go to sleep to, to be honest, except for maybe about 20 of them. “In a Lonely Place” (Nicolas Ray’s 1950 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame) is just a masterpiece. There are some that just stand out a lot as being more than a genre.
- Q: You’re quoted in the film’s press notes about the relationship between film noir and war, observing that “hard boiled detective stories were often written as subversive meditations on home front distresses.” Would you enlarge on that?
- A: A lot of them were B movies. They weren’t movies that were receiving a lot of funding from the studios. From my understanding, a lot of writers sort of said what they wanted to say through noir a lot more than through the mainstream movies that were going on. They were the indies of their day, I think, in a lot of ways. They were dark and pretty nasty. I think it gave a lot of writers (a way in which) to express themselves about war a lot more freely. There was just something more honest about them.
- Q: Was it easy to get the money together to make “The Missing Person”?
- A: Relatively. We made it right before the indie world crashed. I don’t think actually we’d get the movie made at this point — maybe we would because of Mike’s success (in “Revolutionary Road”). A lot of people said, “Boy, you just got that one in.” We made it for a little under $2 million. That kind of middle ground budget is almost extinct at this point. It’s like $500,000 or $10 million at this point.
We weren’t at the Toronto Film Festival, but from everyone I’ve heard from it was kind of a massacre. I think one film sold at Toronto. It’s been happening for a long time now where the $5 million movie became extinct, which I think is the true mid-range indie. Like $2 million’s still on the lower end. It’s good in the sense that it’s anyone’s ballgame at this point because people can just go out and shoot stuff for $50,000 or $100,000 because the equipment’s so great. But I like to make movies with actors and not with friends.
- Q: How did Strand Releasing get involved?
- A: They picked it up after we played at Sundance (in January ’09). A couple months later we got a deal with Strand.
- Q: So many of the specialized distributors have disappeared or have been cut way back in terms of what they’re doing these days. Is that a depressing thing for independent filmmakers?
- A: I think it is if you’re interested in making cinematic things. It’s very hard to make something for $100,000 that’s cinematic. It’s easy to make something where people are talking in a room, but to make something like “The Missing Person” (is challenging). I mean, to my mind “The Missing Person” is an art film even though the producers probably wouldn’t want me to say it.
But if you set it up in a familiar way, I suppose it’s possible to still make something like “The Missing Person” — (maybe) if you make your art film into a boxing movie. Robert Altman, I heard, said something like if you give everyone something familiar then you can do something new. I suppose that will always be the case, but I don’t know who would be out there that would want to invest in the indie film world right now. I mean, I wouldn’t. It’s not going to make any money because there’s no theaters to play in.
- Q: But for $2 million you’ve got a lot on the screen and a good cast. What’s the trick to doing that?
- A: Well, the trade off was that it was rushed. Like when we were shooting on the train (when Rosow’s tailing a man on a train from Chicago to L.A.). When you see the train stop that was really the train stopping. We really had to hustle. We just barely got a lot of stuff. I think the trade off is that instead of maybe four or five takes there were two takes a lot of the time. Luckily, we were working with a lot of really solid theater actors where you can’t really feel the performances being limited. I guess the trick is to cast theater people when you don’t have time.
- Q: In shooting noir where everything on the screen is always so dark, does it take extra work with the lighting?
- A: We went out of our way not to use shadows and contrast so I don’t know how much we really shot it noir. I don’t think we see a lot of Super 16 (photography) any more and it’s Super 16.
Michael Shannon in “The Missing Person” — opening via Strand Releasing in New York (Nov. 20) and L.A. (Nov. 27).
- Q: So many people today are shooting digitally. Why did you feel Super 16 was a better way to go?
- A: Every DP I’ve worked with has always wanted to shoot on film. I guess now there’s the (digital) Red Camera and a lot of people want to use (that) to see what it’s like. Supposedly it’s like 70mm level visuals. But I think most DPs still want to shoot on film. We didn’t have the budget to shoot 35, but we ended up preferring Super 16 anyway because it gave a kind of gritty look. It really went well with Rosow’s hangover. And then we took the color out of it, which is also something you see a lot, but I can’t think of a lot of movies where it’s Super 16 without the color — de-saturated Super 16. I think it’s kind of a unique look.
- Q: It is. That look and the cigarette smoke and the jazz club scene at the end of the film all give “The Missing Person” a very noir kind of feel. There haven’t been a lot of noir films made lately. It’s quite a while, in fact, since noir was really popular.
- A: The ’40s and probably the early ’50s. Nicholas Ray was making great noirs right up until “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955). I think noirs stopped in “On the Waterfront” (1954). Kazan made a bunch of noirs and then in “On the Waterfront” you sort of see noir turn into the new acting style.
- Q: What would you say some of the key characteristics of noir are?
- A: There’s a big debate about that. I don’t know if we really hold up the standard of noir in terms of just having a totally dark ending. Maybe we’re a little more ambivalent in our ending. It’s not a hopeful ending, but it’s not a completely nightmare ending either.
- Q: There’s a scene near the end of your film when Rosow is walking in the street and I thought you might be ending it there and leaving it up to the audience to decide for itself what happens to him. Would that have been more of a classic noir ending?
- A: Even then it might have been a little more ambivalent than like Richard Widmark’s dead. It might have been a little more hopeful. In that sense, probably the purists would say this isn’t quite noir. It has a lot of the surface elements of noir, but perhaps that ending doesn’t quite hold us up to a pure noir. I think the noir parts come, like you said, with the jazz and the smoke and also just the paranoia so many people have, which is to me the most noir thing.
- Q: In noir there always seems to be a girl in a bar.
- A: Yeah. We tried to subvert it a little and give it a new wrinkle where everything was (different). Like Margaret Colin played the femme fatale, but we see that (her character) doesn’t really even have the energy to play her part completely. To me in noir there was always a little bit of depression and we just took that maybe to its logical conclusion. It was always a little hard for me to understand how these detectives drink so much. Like (Philip) Marlowe is drinking all the time and he’s always so sharp, you know.
- Q: Yes, but we see that in “Mad Men” on TV now. These guys drink all day in the office and still come up with brilliant ad campaigns.
- A: That’s true, but they’re all getting ulcers. There’s a little bit more realism (than in the noirs). Or maybe it’s true that they were more manly then and they could just drink more. I don’t know.
- Q: Coming back to making your film, did you rehearse with your actors?
- A: We rehearsed some key scenes, but it was a pretty large cast so a lot of the rehearsal was on set when we were setting up camera. Pretty minimum rehearsals.
- Q: Did you storyboard?
- A: We shot listed — something in between storyboarding and not storyboarding. But a lot of the locations we would get to for the first time shooting. After a certain point we sort of opted to make it really simple visually. It got less and less flashy as we went along and with not so many camera moves. But with all these people being from the theater, everyone knew their lines which is like a big deal. It’s a really well trained group of actors. I was particularly amazed by how well Mike Shannon knew his lines. It sounds like a little thing, but time and time again he saved us so much time just with these long monologues, which he would just be able to run off and hit his mark.
- Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in production?
- A: Everything on the train was the most difficult stuff because the train was an old fashioned train. We took it from Union Station (in L.A.) to San Diego and then we took it back. That’s all the time we had to get whatever train stuff we needed while it was moving. We had a huge crew for an indie anyway just stuffed in little rooms trying to get out of the way.
- Q: Where did you shoot other than on the train?
- A: We never went to Chicago. We shot some in Brooklyn for Chicago. We shot in Manhattan and we shot in Santa Monica. And then we went out to the desert (in California).
- Q: Did the weather cooperate?
- A: The weather was fine. One time we had some rain, but we just put it in the story. When we shot on the Promenade in Santa Monica it was raining, but that fits noir pretty well. We kind of got lucky with that, actually.