Mark Mann: Generation Um - A homage to the audible pause
by Tatiana Kart
(With thanks to the Keanu Russian Club)
Tatiana Kart: Despite the seeming simplicity of the plot the film can't be called simple. It's so multilayered, it's about feelings that usually disturb you silently inside. Can we call Generation Um your personal story? Or is it more of an observation of life rather than of your own torment?
Mark Mann: I'm a longtime fan of simplicity- and suffering from a longtime addiction to complexity.
I think “generation Um...” is a mood, it's a feeling about yourself, about the world around you- a feeling that makes you feel scared or weak or paralyzed or alone, and yet strangely optimistic (but only in ways that no one but you understands)- a feeling that makes you appreciate the love in your life, though only after the feeling of wanting to push it away passes- and while the velour-covered mood lingers around you, there is no forgiveness for yourself, for others, for anything. There is only the soft muted hum of powerlessness and emotional isolation vibrating behind your eyes. It's not that you've been forgotten- you are just not remembered by anyone you'd choose to be remembered by. The layers in the film are thick and mysterious, predictably unpredictable, the way life in New York City is, especially after you've become so used to waiting for things to finally work out that you've forgotten how to do anything except wait- I was trying to see how much information I could jam into each frame, to mirror the complicated feeling of “just being” in downtown Manhattan- I was trying to see how little context I could provide for what you were taking in, and still keep the viewer knowing they were watching an intentional movie, and not just a collection of random moments. I wanted the structure of the film to mirror the experience of wandering with the characters through their lives. Until it almost drives you crazy- The long silent shots that are anything but silent, the stubborn positioning of the camera, the false suspense created by truncated moments, open for interpretation, every moment in the film is a decision, and you are watching characters, who have difficult times making decisions, experience these moments- it's an exercise in stagnant overstimulation- from the emotional layering of the actors' performances to the unspoken “plot” clues along the way, to the visual layering of the production design, to the way the film was edited to create arcs of false suspense, to the hypnotic musical underscore of many of the scenes- the whole film was designed to evoke in the viewer a feeling of being overwhelmed with uncertainty to the point of stuck silence, to make them actually feel like something was about to happen, to make them feel the discomfort of waiting waiting waiting and still just being there, still waiting, knowing only how to wait, not knowing how to stop waiting, because something might be just about to happen, though it never quite does- Or did it? And you just missed it- because you were waiting for something else to happen. I wanted to play with making the viewer actually feel this type of unanchored uncertainty as they watched, as opposed to just sitting in a seat and identifying with how the character on the screen is feeling it- the movie is somewhat of a mirror, in my opinion- it puts a giant megaphone up to the anxious whispering inside of your head- and lets you experience what it feels like to be told to stop making so much noise even though you haven't made a sound.
It's rare to be afforded the opportunity to explore these types of moments in such a raw way, and to be allowed the time and space to consider them fully. So I guess you could call “generation Um...” both a personal story and an observation of life. Um... it's my homage to the audible pause.
Tatiana Kart: In one of your interviews you said that you wanted to show a specific feature of life in NY ... Would you describe New York using only five or six words?
Mark Mann: The thing about New York City is that the words you use to describe it change from moment to moment- depending on how you feel about yourself and your life here- New York is an exercise in having a fluid emotional vocabulary at your disposal- and having the courage to use it. The only thing that stays constant in NYC is the city itself. Forever, or until further notice.
Tatiana Kart: Your characters are social outsiders, they are unhappy, depressed ... Do you think in real life it's necessary for a person to experience similar feelings in order to be able to climb a little higher and see a little further? Or at least get a bonus in the form of a change for the better?
Mark Mann: I think it's important to value feelings of safety and happiness in general- I think that once you've experienced the fear and isolation that come from situations that work in opposition to these things, you gain a perspective on how necessary they really are and how easily they can all just slip, or be taken, away. I'm not sure if you have to feel the darkness of emotional damage to be able to achieve true clarity in your life, but I think that once you've stared into your own cold self-destructive abyss and survived it, you will certainly be motivated to keep those lights turned on, as they say, anyway you can, so you can always find your way back to someplace warm when the temperature drops too low.
Tatiana Kart: The fact that the characters live on the bottom of society is clear from the first minutes of the film ... However, we don't know what they actually are, it does not matter until we see the final scene in the hotel when everything becomes clear. It's a key scene. What is the philosophy of the final scene? "Life will screw you anyway?"
Mark Mann: When I think of the philosophy of the final scene, I think of the philosophy behind those old blindfolded taste tests they used to do in American TV commercials with different kinds of soda, etc— I wanted to make a film that allowed the viewer to simply pass time in the characters' lives without being weighted down by “judgements” or “expectations” based on “context”— "Life will screw you anyway" is one way to encapsulate the message of the final scene- another might be “No matter how hard you try, you can't ever get away from yourself.” And another might be “You never really know who people are or why they do what they do.” I think they are all valid. But just to point out- the final scene you are describing in your question is not actually the final scene of the film- after the hotel scene, we watch one of the longest and most powerful scenes in the movie: the dark drive home. This scene bookends the opening daylight driving home scene and completes the circle, as they say. Just another day. And then we watch all the characters hanging out, celebrating, singing and filming each other in John's apartment, as the credits roll. It was fun to play with withholding the power of the hotel scene until the last possible moment and then making it so concise- people cling to this scene in their descriptions of my film, it seems to give most an easy way to categorize what they've just seen. I find that ironic- To me, it's the rest of the film that is the climactic moment.
Tatiana Kart: Tell about the love line in the story. Why there is no such line? Why John while keeping his arms around, figuratively speaking, never hugged Violet? Did you discuss this moment with the actors? What John's and V's actions were supposed to be like? And what are their feelings for each other?
Mark Mann: Actually, I think the whole film is a love story of sorts- it's just a different sort of love story than what we are used to seeing in films- it's about love between abandoned people who are damaged and who have become separated from their capacity to trust- It's an intimate diary page shared between people who are fractured and not able to just simply love, but still they come up with their own ways to express care for each other in spite of their issues- I think each character allows their boundaries to be tested and softened by the others- they are all part of a delicate web of impatient acceptance and chaotic consistency, a web they created themselves. When I first described the relationship of the Three in New York to the actors, I likened their family of circumstance to that of 3 lost kittens in a cardboard box who are, each in their own way, huddling together for warmth- The hug. Strangely, this was the most difficult scene in the entire film to shoot and edit- it's such a long beautifully honest and conflicted moment, the culmination of John and Violet's complicated connection, which Keanu and Bojana allowed to grow organically between their characters throughout the process of making “generation Um...”- I think the hug scene (along with Mia's behaviors in the kitchen while John and Violet are in the hall) came out of the three actors' complete immersion into the mindsets of their characters- Throughout the rehearsal process we discussed how each character handled feelings of intimacy, and things like how they deal with personal space and eye contact and there was experimentation with different ways of expressing complex emotional reactions with simple straight forward physicality. So much of the film revolves around gestures and silence- the way the characters carry themselves physically is extremely important to the underlying context of the words they speak and how they handle the situations of their day and night- each actor developed physical moves and behaviors that reappear throughout the film to help define who they are. In terms of how we all worked together, I was the guide, while Keanu, Bojana and Adelaide were the heroes, dodging, bumping against and conquering obstacles floating in the intersecting emotional landscapes they created around the relationships their characters developed with each other.
I wonder if you were to ask John if he actually hugged Violet, what would he say. I wonder if you were to ask Violet if John really hugged her, what would she say. If you were to ask me what happened as the camera continued to run for a few more minutes and why I chose to cut the scene at the point I did, I wonder what I would say... I like the way that every viewer sees something different in many of the scenes, something that gives us a better idea of who that viewer is. The film allows for many interpretations, and they are all valid. They might even all be correct. Or not.
Tatiana Kart: You mentioned earlier that in the process you were sending the actors to their own life experiences. I'm wondering in what dialogues or which episodes we see not John, Mia and Violet, but Keanu, Adelaide and Bojana?
Mark Mann: I'm hesitant to discuss private details of the actors' emotional investment in their characters- but I will forever appreciate Bojana, Adelaide and Keanu's dedication and complete commitment to the vulnerability and honesty necessary for the achievement of such intimate portrayals.
Tatiana Kart: The cat's name, then date of birth and name on the check... What other hidden messages Keanu Reeves has put in your film? Did he mean it or the signs just came out spontaneously? Was it something like: "What do we name the cat? Midnight like in "Constantine?" Was that it or was it different?
Mark Mann: I think you could watch “generation Um...” 100 times and still find new things to consider and contemplate- Keanu's performance is so layered and complex that it's impossible to fully take in the subtlety of it all during a single screening- it's the type of actor he is, he finds a kernel of truth in the moment he is experiencing and builds and builds emotionally on it until that moment encompasses the entire universe of his character, and then the moment passes and he's on to the next one- it was fascinating to let the camera roll on his performance and capture the slow-motion rollercoaster of emotional phrases that he rode in his breathing of life into the character of John Wall. As far as the hidden messages that I and/or the actors put into the film- I mean, well, like, yeah- they really, um... They're fun to figure out. Um... You know? There's way too many to list- But what they all are, and what they all mean, well, um...
Tatiana Kart: I like the canvas of your film, it wraps and draws you. There are many details that are just background, secondary, but they create the atmosphere like in stories of Brautigan, Murakami or Lou ... And I want to talk about it. A woman who speaks loudly on the street, Mia, who is touching the flower, V who is standing next to a bubbling coffee machine, John, looking through the lens at the objects around him ... How big is the role of elements like this in your picture? That do they carry and how important are they to you?
Mark Mann: I love Richard Brautigan's works. Trout Fishing in America was one of those gamechangers in how I thought about storytelling, and writing in general-— maybe even life. What we see or hear or smell or taste or touch is who we are. What we feel is how we explain who we are to ourselves. And the words we choose to describe what we feel define how we want to be perceived by others...
When I wrote the script, I was thinking about how when you live in NYC you are completely overstimulated and overloaded by the world of New York all the time- there is always noise and movement and there is not one moment of one day that you are not confronted with several dozen things happening all at once all around you. What draws your attention is very significant, because ultimately you are making a choice every time you focus your attention on a single thing instead of the bunch of other things you could, or should, be paying attention to at any given moment- Part of what I am considering in “generation Um...” is the idea that if you were to catalog all the things that draw a person's attention in a day, then you would be able to paint a very intimate portrait of who that person is, and what place that person occupies, or feels they occupy, in the world they live in-
Tatiana Kart: When John holds his camera everything changes for him and the girls. John asks questions, he listens, the girls talk. And while shy John is closed from us using just few words, - through his questions - he starts opening to us no less than explicit Mia and V. I wonder what other questions could John ask if his camera was still on today?
Mark Mann: I think those other questions would depend on who is stubborn enough to stand in front of John until he feels comfortable enough to speak.