Onur Tukel must’ve set some kind of record when he premiered Applesauce at Tribeca Film Festival just weeks before premiering his other new film at the Brooklyn Film Festival. So how the hell did he do it? It all came to light last night during the premiere of his very latest, Abby Singer/Songwriter, at Windmill Studios in Greenpoint.
It turns out that, in contrast to Tukel’s previous films like Bushwick vampire comedy Summer of Blood, which were shot over the course of a month or so, Abby Singer/Songwriter has been about three years in the making. In the film, Tukel essentially plays himself – a disheveled, fast-talking aspiring director who convinces singer-songwriter Jamie Block, who also plays a version of himself, to cut a series of music videos for his album Whitecaps on the Hudson.
All of that actually happened, starting with a meeting on the Bowery. “I was going to do one video,” Block recalled during last night’s q&a. “By the time we left that meeting we were going to do a video for every song for the whole record, which seemed absurd, like folly.”
Among others, they came up with a video in which Block, playing a pizza delivery man, is devoured by hipster vampires (it was shot shortly before Summer of Blood) and the video below, in which Tukel gets a beard trim.
Then they decided to string the music videos together with some promotional material. “It ended up being so funny,” Tukel said, “we kept shooting more and more and we thought, ‘Well, let’s make a 30-minute short, let’s make it a 45-minute short — we just kept adding more and more content and then we decided to go for it and make a film out of it.”
Tukel weaved together clips from the videos, behind-the-scenes footage, and fresh, scripted material into a fictional narrative about the making of the music videos. “We made this movie backwards,” is how Block put it.
“It’s very experimental and very strange,” Tukel said of the film. “Not to compare it to Birdman, but when Birdman came out I kind of felt like, ‘Oh, wow, we’ve got a no-budget, poor man’s version.”
That drew laughter from last night’s crowd, but it’s an apt comparison. Like Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman, Block plays an aging artist trying to stay relevant but coming apart at the seams as he simultaneously struggles to get the respect of his jaded daughter and clashes with a collaborator who’s hitting on her. And just like Birdman, the lead character’s performances are woven into the film’s narrative, which becomes increasingly discombobulated and fantastical as he loses his grip.
The real-life Block is a onetime fixture of the anti-folk scene who opened for acts like They Might Be Giants and Bob Mould and was briefly signed to an imprint of Capitol Records. Like the character he plays in the film, he took up a career as a financial advisor and now moonlights at places like Rockwood Music Hall (the film features some live footage from those gigs, as well).
Though Abby Singer-Songwriter hews so close to reality that Block and Tukel go by their real names, it isn’t a documentary. As in previous efforts, Tukel plays an underachieving, Woody Allen-esque bundle of nerves who doesn’t take anything seriously: when he interviews at a production company looking for directors with a “unique vision,” he shoots himself in the foot with a lame joke: “I totally have a unique vision – I’m colorblind in one eye and slightly dyslexic in the other eye.” He doesn’t have a sizzle reel to show because the car-dealer commercial he directed back home in North Carolina was destroyed in a methane explosion (the dealership was beside a hog-waste treatment plant).
All of this – plus the inevitable romantic foibles – seems true to Tukel’s personality (at least, as it was revealed to us during our interview with him). At the age of 38, Tukel did in fact move from North Carolina to New York, to make Richard’s Wedding. But certain things are – at least, we hope – embellishments. It doesn’t take long for the fictional Tukel and his editor (played by Stephen Gurewitz, who directed Alex Karpovsky of Girls in Marvin Seth and Stanley) to start hitting on Block’s young daughters (played by his actual daughters Sophie and Johanna). Which does nothing to ease the mounting creative tension between the filmmakers and the musician.
Needless to say, Block soon loses patience, chewing Tukel out in the middle of Tompkins Square Park.
If the fight scenes seem genuine, it’s because the two actually did clash during production. “We would argue with each other,” Tukel confessed during last night’s q&a. “Then we would say, ‘Look, let’s put that in the movie.’”
“There’s a couple of arguments that I thought were really going to be in the movie but apparently they were too scary,” Block said, adding, ‘There was some where I was screaming on the street.’” (In a clown costume, Johanna added.)
The film’s climactic fight scene finds Tukel ogling Johanna from behind a Super 8 camera and trying to assure her father that he’s doing “something actually really existential and experimental,” a la Andy Warhol and Velvet Underground.
“Don’t pull that Lou Reed comparison bullshit with me,” Block fumes. The line is bound to amuse anyone who’s been listening to the Long Island native’s music throughout the film and marveling at how similar he can sound to Lou. Whitecaps on the Hudson is worth checking out, and you’ll have another chance to see the film that sprung from it at 11pm tonight at Nitehawk, and also next Wednesday, June 10, when it’ll be part of Northside Film Festival.