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Wisconsin Film Festival 2013: Writer-director Michael Wellenreiter discusses the films and foods that inspired La méduse rouge
Wellenreiter: "Creating a distinctive mood for a film is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking."
Credit:Adam Carrigan/Severne Pictures

The organizers of this year's Wisconsin Film Festival have dubbed La méduse rouge, which screens Saturday, April 13 (UW Chazen Museum, 9:15 p.m.), the "most out-there" movie of the eight-day event, so a typical synopsis seems a little off-base. Consider, then, the following images: a man wearing a business suit walking out of a dark ocean, a briefcase in one arm and a surfboard in the other; a young billionaire with a possible supernatural heritage, using his fortune to purchase a glowing red jellyfish for his father; a secret dinner party where a tray of bruschetta becomes the sheath for a deadly weapon; and a blinding red solar flare that turns the world's population into murderers and kung fu masters.

Think I've given too much away? That's just the first 20 minutes.

I spoke with director, co-screenwriter and UW grad Michael Wellenreiter about the making of the movie, its cinematic influences and the dangers of surfing in a business suit.

The Daily Page: Tell me about the origins of the film and its narrative style.
Wellenreiter: My film partner Adam Carrigan and I were on Martha's Vineyard, where we'd always hang out with our friends Jeremy Mayhew and Thomas Bena at their festival. They'd screened one of our music videos in 2008, and we knew we definitely wanted to film something there. In March, Martha's Vineyard is pretty desolate, so we decided to riff off of that lonely feeling.

We woke up one morning and had Adam take the lead acting role and our friend Matthew Lyons serve as director of photography. Then we went out on the beach and started shooting it. There was never any full script in advance. We shot the opening two scenes on Martha's Vineyard, and then Adam and I would hang out at coffee shops back home in Philadelphia to write new scenes from time to time. We wrote the whole thing as we went.

Did you have some sort of overarching structure in mind for the story?
We had an overall structure in mind, though the details often changed, and we knew that we were addressing certain things that were going on in 2009-2010. For example, the economic meltdown that happened and how there were a bunch of untouchable people related to that whole situation. So the film is kind of about entitled, big-business right-wingers throughout. Adam's character of Carl Jorstad is definitely one. In fact, most of the characters are right-wingers of varying sorts in the film, so the trick is how do we learn to love these characters, even while finding their motivations and desires to be absurd?

The film as a whole could be considered "experimental," but there are numerous subgenres present throughout. Who are some of the filmmakers that inspired you, and were there any works you referenced while making the film?
I like Hitchcock's Vertigo, so there's a lot of that in there in terms of style. I like an early Buñuel film, L'Age d'Or, which jumps around to a bunch of different places. I think both Adam and I draw writing inspiration from films like Lars Von Trier's Dogville and Seven Beauties by Lina Wertmüller. There's also the influence of 1970s revenge flicks in general, and Hammer films or Bruce Lee films. Actually, Roger Moore's James Bond films were also a huge influence. The Spy Who Loved Me is in there quite a bit. [Laughs]

I felt the ominous soundtrack throughout the film was integral to setting the mood of the film. It reminded me of something out of Mulholland Drive or Valhalla Rising.
Well, we also love David Lynch, so I can see that. Particularly Wild at Heart.

How did you go about recording the music and matching it to the script? The score was written by Julian Grefe and Thomas Roland, two amazing experimental composers and musicians in Philadelphia. I'd often receive tracks from them in advance of actual filming, so I could listen to their work and devise the shot structure to seamlessly flow from their music. In that way, both of them had a huge impact on the style of the finished film, in addition to scoring many scenes after the edit was completed. Creating a distinctive mood for a film is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking, and the right music is a key contributor to that.

Another Lynchian detail that stood out to me was during the first dinner scene, where Carl is introduced to the Amalgamation, a secret organization. It's a very tense scene, but at one point a caterer walks among these powerful, evil men in business suits and begins distributing bruschetta. For some reason, of all the strange moments in the film, that one seemed the strangest.
[Laughs] So the idea behind the bruschetta went with the inspiration of the film, which was to mix highbrow with low. So in the middle of this very serious scene where the Amalgamation is discussing Carl's fate, we thought it'd be nice if they also served this bright red plate that was just shoved in the audience's face, and for the audience to then be forced to reflect on it a little bit. (Matthew was actually the one who made the bruschetta on set.) For me, the bruschetta also carried the idea that even though the Amalgamation think of themselves as these very important people, they are still basically animals and crass despite the way in which they'd like to see themselves.

Do you have any funny stories from shooting that people could keep in the back of their mind while watching the film?
On the first day of filming, we figured that Matt should set down the camera for a bit and go surfing in a full business suit to play a key role. As sort of a prank, we also convinced him to shave his beard down to what's known as a Van Dyke, saying that it was extremely necessary for the character. His wife later hated the Van Dyke and came up with a horrible nickname for it. But he was forced to keep the thing for whenever we'd come up with new scenes for his character.

In the end, we should've cast someone else, because it turns out that surfing in a waterlogged business suit is an easy path to drowning. After a half hour, we were so concerned that he was going to drown that we had to cut it from the movie. We have a lot of footage of him trying to get on the surfboard and being dragged off into the ocean. Matt's character plays a big part in the whole film, but there's a version of this movie where on the first day of shooting he drowned on set.

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