It’s a brutally hot Monday morning in lower Manhattan. I’m at the offices of Oscilloscope Labs, the indie distributor releasing Evan Glodell‘s beautiful and batshit crazy new film “Bellflower.” When I first lay eyes on Glodell, standing in Oscillopscope’s corner conference room, he’s shaking water from his hands onto a drenched coffee table. Apparently, just before I arrived, Glodell had an explosive altercation with a water jug during a photo shoot.
Things have a tendency to explode around Evan Glodell. Later during our conversation, Glodell will tell me about the time the engine of Medusa, the intensely badass car fixated upon by the heroes of his movie, blew up during a particularly taxing stunt. And then there’s “Bellflower” itself, which explodes off the screen with incendiary imagery and fiery performances. (Hopefully very) loosely inspired by events in Glodell’s own life, “Bellflower” follows Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), two lifelong buds and “Mad Max” enthusiasts, who spend their days preparing for the apocalypse by building flamethrowers and assorted other deadly weapons (like the Medusa car) and falling in love with all the wrong women. The flamethrower in the movie is real, by the way, and Glodell built that himself, though to the best of my knowledge that was one prop that didn’t blow up (thankfully).
I spoke with Glodell, the mad scientist director of the most exciting debut film of the year, about his background in engineering, his obsession with realism, and his first job selling electrocution devices.
What was the origin of this particular story?
It’s always hard for me to answer that because it’s a really dark answer and if you’re not in a really dark mood you feel funny talking about it. I went through a relationship; one part of it was the best thing ever and the other part of it completely crushed me in a way that I didn’t even know was possible. It was extremely difficult to deal with; I didn’t know how to make sense of what had happened to me, and why the world was all of a sudden so cruel. I had my heart broken, and things didn’t work out with this girl when I so badly wanted them to. I think in trying to make sense of that and also just how intense the experience was I realized I had to write a script about it.
Would you describe yourself as a pyromaniac?
Um, what does that mean?
I would take it to mean you’re obsessed with or enjoy fire.
I think that’s close. I would be scared to call myself that just because we don’t know what the definition is. Does it mean you get sexual gratification from fire?
I don’t think there’s a sexual component to it. [Ed. note: there isn’t.] So you wouldn’t label yourself as a pyro.
I guess I would assume that I must be something like that. I’ve always really liked fire a little bit more than is usual since I was a kid.
As a kid, did you play with fire a lot?
Yeah, yeah I would burn things and stuff.
How do you maximize a flamethrower for peak performance on camera?
You’re just trying to make the flame as big as you possibly can. Flamethrowers are designed to work on gel fuel. Then when you spray it, it shoots very far in a little skinny line. I was just reading up on military flamethrowers and what the specs are, and it seems like they’re almost identical to ours. With just gasoline in them, they’ll shoot between 30 and 80 feet. But if you have gel fuel they’ll shoot between 120 to 200 feet. I think it’s really easy to gel fuel, you just find something and make it jelly-like. Even though that would have been the most effective way to use it as a weapon, we never even experimented with that because our flamethrower was way cooler when it shot that cone of death fireballs.
For one of the last big shots of the flamethrower, that nighttime shot where you see it make that giant fireball, we had built it with all these parts that looked pretty, like these brass fittings and stuff, both on the gun and the nozzle. We played with it a little bit, and realized [the fittings] were restricting in that area, so we took all the brass stuff off and replaced them with really big pipes with diffusion screens. Was that too elaborate of an answer? [laughs]
No, not at all. So what exactly did you build for the movie?
We built the flamethrower, the Medusa car, um…
You built the camera, right?
Yeah, there’s three different cameras we built. Some of the special effects stuff, like there’s a pretty large blood cannon we used for one scene. I think those would be the main things.
What is your background in engineering? Is it all self-taught?
I’m just a lifelong tinkerer, I guess. When I was a kid I first started experimenting with electronics. I built Tesla coils and high-voltage machines and shocking devices that I’d sell to kids at school.
[laughs] You’d sell shocking devices to kids at school?
Yes! I did. I had a business selling electrocuting devices.
How much did one cost?
Between $5 and $20 depending on how elaborate it was.
Depending on badly you wanted to electrocute someone.
Yeah, yeah, and how many batteries it had on it.
OK. Why build a camera — or three cameras — instead of just using one of the many cameras that are available? What’s your cameras give you that someone using an off-the-shelf camera doesn’t have?
It gives you a lot more control and a look that is basically designed by me because I built the camera, and when I was building it I kept swapping out parts until I found the ones that looked the way I wanted things to look. So I already have a look that I’m happier with than the clinical look that comes out of — that has to come out of — a commercial camera, because it’s a duplication device basically, right? If you want to modify it, you’re going to have figure out how to do that afterwards in post-production. But because I got so into this hobby of playing with this stuff, I’ve learned how to manipulate it and get the looks I want.
I also get open access to an entire, giant array of optics that are made for everything but cameras. I can use, like weird X-ray lenses, lenses that are made for surveillance spy planes from World War II, and also industrial stuff that doesn’t have focusing mechanisms in it. My cameras have the focusing mechanism built into them, it’s not built into the lens. They have tilt shift functionality. And they’re all built by me. I would never not want to use some version of these.
Building all of this stuff for the film, was there anything that was out of your grasp that you had to farm out to outside help? Did you at least have someone else stunt driving the Medusa when it’s spinning out and stuff?
That’s usually me. We did hire a stunt driver for one day, Tony Snegoff, who we found on Craigslist. And he worked basically for gas money.
A Craigslist stunt driver?
Everyone says that, but it’s funny because this guy has almost 200 credits on IMDb as a stunt driver. We asked him, “How come we can get you for $50?” And he said “Because no one does car stunts anymore. And for all the guys who do car stunts, it’s our favorite thing. I work tons as a stunt coordinator, doing other stuff, but car stunts are the best.”
It’s for love of the game, basically.
Yeah. Two of his shots did end up in the movie, which were the more difficult stunts, but not the more spectacular ones. The engine blew up when he was doing one of the first ones, and we didn’t get the superlong slow-motion shot of the car spinning out. But the wide shot of the car coming fast around the corner? That’s him in the car. Cut to the close-up: that’s me.
In the press notes, it says that in the scene where your character gets punched in the face, you demanded to actually get punched in the face.
So the larger question for me is: building these real things: a real car, a real flamethrower, wanting to get really punched in the face. Is it easier to do it things that way?
No! Oh God no.
So why are you so focused on that sort of verisimilitude?
There’s probably slightly different answers for the different aspects. But it all comes down to the same thing. Obviously in order to get a project like this done with no money I’m obsessed in a way that if it wasn’t normal in society people would probably be worried about me. So any skills I have, or any idea that ever comes to me that I think even has the smallest chance of making the movie better I’m going to do.
And getting punched in the face is a part of that?
It’s definitely a part of that. There was a huge list of stuff that we wanted to make as real as possible because we thought it would make the movie better. It would make it easier to connect, and it would sell it more. That was just one of them.
Where did your interest in filmmaking come from? You can be interested in building cameras and not in making films.
I’ve always had these really intense images that played through my head. When I was younger, I would draw to try to get these intense emotional ideas out of my head but I’d never even entertained the idea of being a filmmaker. I was going to be an engineer and I went to engineering school, but I was only there for a week. Once I saw what my life was going to be like as an engineer, I was like “This is not my life. I need to get out of here right now.” So I dropped out and for some reason the same moment that I dropped out the idea popped into my head: I’m going to move to Hollywood and be a filmmaker. I don’t even really know where it came from, though I guess it makes sense because I write a lot and I have these ideas that come to me and feel important enough that I’m willing to work on them tirelessly for years.
In addition to everything else you did in the film, I thought you were a really good actor. Would you be interested in acting in other people’s movies?
I really don’t want to act again in my own movies and I don’t have any ambitions as an actor. [I played this part] because I thought I was the best choice considering my skill level as a director and how much I intuitively understood the script. I thought if I could pull it off, I could do the best job playing this part because it’s so personal and so direct. Even the script I’m writing right now, even though it’s all based on personal experiences, it’s abstracted. I’m not going to put myself out there as an actor, but if someone sees my movie and they think they need me and could convince me, I’d entertain the idea of acting for someone else. But we’ll see.
The chronology of the movie is so intricate. Was that how it was originally scripted or was that a product of the editing room?
I’d say it was about half and half. The ending was always pretty insane in the script, but in order to get it to really work because it was such an odd thing, I spent a big part of the two-and-a-half years I spent editing tweaking little tiny things in the last third of the movie to get them all to flow properly. It would get too confusing and I’d have to back it off, and then it started to get too clear, and I’d go back. I think I found the middle point now.
Do people want you to explain the ending to them after they see the movie?
A lot of people want to know.
Do you tell them what you think it all means?
I’m still up in the air about how I feel about all this. I have a way that I want people to take the movie. I don’t worry about it; if someone takes it a different way, and they’re happy with that, I’m happy with that. Everyone keeps telling me, “Don’t tell people,” because you want people to go on their own journey or whatever. My experience has been with the Q & As because I’ve done like fifty of them now. And in the Q & As, someone always asks. And I’m like, “I’m not going to tell you.” But anybody that cares enough that they come track me down afterwards, I just tell them.
But there is, in your mind, one interpretation of the film that you prefer?
That is one of the most complicated questions that could be asked about the entire film. And it’s one that frustrates me; in my heart somewhere, I want to write a thesis about it, and I want everyone that watches the movie to have to read it. But that’s not the way it works.
Sometimes it can. Richard Kelly basically did that with his director’s cut of “Donnie Darko.” He made another version and he explained exactly what he thinks the movie is about. For a lot of people —
It ruined it, yeah. I never saw that cut but I always heard from people that you shouldn’t watch it.
The mystery is part of what makes it special.
I will never make that mistake. I made a cut of this movie that is so clear that you’d have to be disabled to not get it. And that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not about telling the story, it’s about the experience.
“Bellflower” opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday; for a full list of playdates go to Oscilloscope.net. If you see it, we want to hear your thoughts. Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.