A Talk with Mark Freiburger
Good Art, Happy Accidents
Micro-budget independent films marketed to the Christian audience are not the most fertile field for highly-rewarding experiences. It’s an odd thing, too, because when expectations are low, artistic and emotional payoffs seem richer than they might otherwise. Every once in a while, though, the tone of a small film catches me so off guard that issues of budget, marketing, and audience targeting just go right out the window.
One such recent experience for me was a screening of Mark Freiburger’s Dog Days of Summer. From the publicity materials, it just had the look and feel of a low-rent production capitalizing on a Big Name in the cast, the type of film in which, as with such recent examples as Way of War or Matchmaker Mary, the star is about the only thing interesting.
In this case, the Big Name is Will Patton—and I’m happy to report that, although Patton is as good as he ever is, he is far from the most interesting thing about the film.
When I reviewed the film two weeks ago, I remarked that Freiburger has
cribbed from his own short film of the same name, infused it with the period spookiness of Something Wicked This Way Comes, and upped the ante with macabre touches hinting of Tennessee Williams… and the lighter moments of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. When young Jackson Patch leads into a ghost story with “It’s one of the scariest things ever,” his pal Phillip replies, “Tell me.” And that’s our response to Freiburger’s tale precisely.
Upon publication of my review, Freiburger contacted me and thanked me for my comments. We subsequently talked over the phone for an hour or so. What follows is a transcript of half an hour or so from that discussion.
A lot of Christian filmmakers really aren’t so much interested in the art—which is a problem, because film really has to succeed as art, on some level, before it’s effective.
Mark Freiburger: Oh, yeah, believe me. I have a friend who has made four or five movies that have all been released and they’re just really awful. They’re the epitome of terrible Christian cheese—like 1970s-type end-times crap. I had to stop going out to dinner with him because every single time he’d say, “Mark, it doesn’t matter if your film is good! I know my films are bad: they just need to be the most evangelical things ever. Paul wrote on stone tablets! And your films can be stone tablets. They don’t need to look good. They don’t need to sound good.” And I’m just looking at him like, “You are nuts!” Nobody is going to respond to this, if they can’t get past the fact that the film is hilarious because it’s so bad. He doesn’t get it. He finally asked me, “Do you think my films are effective evangelical tools?” And I said, “I don’t know; maybe—but not for my generation.” We’re just on a different wavelength. He thinks that the world is going to end by 2017, so if every film you make is not the most evangelical thing, even more evangelical than the last, then there’s no point in making it. So I just had to stop having dinner with him, because he’s gone nuts with it, thinking that there doesn’t have to be any art with film. But I fell in love with film for film’s sake, and went to a regular liberal arts conservatory to study film for four years. And it didn’t dawn on me until making Dog Days—when I started meeting all these other Christian filmmakers who were thinking of movies as evangelical tool—that film could be used for something else: that I could be making films that make a difference.
Whether you apply the idea of “evangelical tool” to film or any other medium, the idea is problematic because even the Bible itself doesn’t view itself as a tool. The Bible doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of being the means of accomplishing something for men. It is what it is because it’s the Word of God, and the Word of God is going to do what it’s going to do—so whether we think something is an effective tool or not is completely immaterial. The Holy Spirit is what operates on people’s hearts, and our responsibility is to do our part, not the Holy Spirit’s.
MF: Make what you’re being called to make.
MF: Whether that’s on an individual basis, a project-by-project basis, or building your company in a certain way. How do you truly know? With my friend, it’s truly strange. He counts his films by the number of souls they win. He goes to his screenings and has an altar call, and if five people come up to be saved, he feels his film was worth five people. And he doesn’t actually like making films. He just likes marketing them and showing them. But as I’m sure you’ve seen at Christian film conferences, there’s the whole gamut, from my friend’s approach on the one hand to the Ralph Winters of the world on the other, who are just out there making films as Christians within the industry. So this is a conversation I’m sure you’ve had before, and we’re not adding anything new to it.
Well, maybe not. But I am in very interested in the genesis of Dog Days of Summer. Earlier, you made a short film that had some of the same elements.
MF: Yes, the title is the same because I thought it worked, but it’s not actually the same story. It appears to be more of an adaptation than it actually is. The short film was a ten-minute piece about two boys, done when I was a sophomore at North Carolina School of the Arts, where I was kind of a quiet kid—you know, not one of the “star directors” in the program. But then I made this five-minute piece and screened it, and when it was over everyone gave it a standing ovation—which kind of put me on the map, so to speak. And then I made a longer version of it, which was the Dog Days short. It was simple, just these two boys sitting in a field talking, discussing very serious issues. And one of the boys is just kind of acting strange the whole time, the majority of the framing in side-shots. And at the end, the camera pulls back to reveal that the boys have been hunting and one of them has accidentally shot the other one, and he’s dying, and it’s their last conversation together.
MF: Yeah. And the one boy didn’t want the other to leave him alone because they both knew he was going to die in that field. So that was the short film, just a very intense little piece. So a couple of years before that, I had visited the little town of Edenton, North Carolina, just on a fluke. My sister was dating a baseball player at UNC Chapel Hill and I went out there to see a game; and I really fell in love with the town, the town that time forgot: a true Norman Rockwell place. I said, “Someday I’m going to come back here and make my first movie. I don’t know what it’s going to be about, but maybe when I’m done with a four-year film school I’ll know.” So after making that short, I started developing a feature script around it, about those two boys and their experiences in that town; but it wasn’t until I got the two screenwriters on the project, Travis Beacham and Chris Waild, that we sat down and hammered a real story out—and decided we wanted to tell kind of a dark, modern-day Garden of Eden kind of story: a modern-day Fall of Man from the Garden, set in the American rural South. If we were to tell that story, what would it look like? And so we settled on the story from the serpent entering the garden all the way through the biblical flood. In screenings of the film, we’ve had people ask questions about that; but your review was the first one I read where anyone’s hit that point. And I was so surprised; I don’t really like explaining too much. But we had some Christian reviewers—even the guy who’s writing our Bible study!—who missed that, and even one who said everyone should avoid the film because it’s a pastor-bashing movie. He destroyed me. They called me a Hollywood liberal Southern-hating conservative-Christian-hater. Just nasty things. If they only knew I was Christian from the South who usually votes conservative!
Did they just not see the last ten minutes of the film? One of my big problems with criticism is that reviewers really aren’t analyzing the meaning of a film based on the structure of the film itself; they’re analyzing their own emotional response. So from that standpoint—
MF: Yes, an emotional response. I’ve heard that some reviewers had gotten to the point where it was revealed that a pastor had sinned, and then had just turned the movie off.
Exactly, exactly. The setup line for the movie’s meaning is: “It was the summer I learned to hate.” So that sets up the conflict. So when you’re analyzing what’s going on in the film, you should be thinking: Where’s that headed? What’s the direction, and what’s the resolution to that conflict? And the resolution does not come from revealing the cause of the hate; it comes from the narrative structure that wraps that story, and the reconciliation that happens at the end. The narrator tells the story of how he learned to hate; but the meaning of the film is how he comes full circle at the end.
MF: Yes. He returns to the town the day before a flood comes.
To wipe it all away.
MF: How do you erase that hate, figure out how to reconnect to that child-like faith before it’s too late?
MF: So I appreciate you keeping the film on!
Well, you know the tone was absolutely gripping. My wife, Jenn, was doing some other work off in the kitchen while I was screening the film, and even from there the soundtrack—the production design, sound design, everything—was so evocative for her. I cannot imagine someone not sticking with it just for the sake of that alone. I mentioned in my review that it felt like a cross between Something Wicked This Way Comes and Stand By Me, but the Norman Rockwell angle hadn’t really occurred to me—still, that’s really it. The Americana on the one level, but the evil that lurks on the other.
MF: It’s funny, but several people have mentioned Something Wicked, but I had never read it until after we’d made the film. And oh, my gosh! Yes, there are similarities; but we were all big fans of Bradbury to begin with.
You really ought to see the film version, too, with Jonathan Pryce and Jason Robards. It never got much traction, but it has a real sense of creepiness. And what it shares with your film is a sense of genuine innocence. It’s interesting to compare your film with both David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Pleasantville—both made by much older filmmakers—which come off as very juvenile by comparison. And yet you were only 21 years old when you made Dog Days. How do you account for your more mature perspective on innocence, its loss, and its recovery?
MF: Maybe, partially, it’s one thing we talked about with both the writers and the boys who played the leads: because I was just out of school and had not yet lived the adult life, as I was making this film I wanted to take one last chance to experience that child-like innocence with those characters. Those two actors were Jackson and Phillip, you know—to the core. They hadn’t yet been jaded and knocked around enough: so maybe what you saw in the film was natural. Does that make sense?
Yes, I think so. Basically what you’re saying is that you don’t have the cynicism of a David Lynch. One of the things that floored me when he did interviews for The Straight Story, which was a G-rated film, was that he defended the shift in tone by explaining that he’d moved to rural Wisconsin and discovered that the whole Norman Rockwell experience actually does exist!
So, yes—the Norman Rockwell vision is, to an extent, an illusion; and there is, yes, a darker side. And yet there is, still, a real innocence that really exists that you can’t dismiss, as in Pleasantville, by rather sophomorically concluding that “enlightenment” is where it’s at.
MF: Yes. Those films are not structured on the notion that it’s possible to reclaim that innocence. In Dog Days, Phil realizes that this is something that he actually lost, and if he doesn’t find it again, it will be something that he misses for the rest of his life.
It’s the difference between deconstruction and regeneration. If you don’t have a hope in something greater than yourself, in the face of corruption all you can do is destroy it or rebel. Whereas in the Christian vision, you can, like the murderer Saul, be reborn as the Apostle Paul.
MF: Right. And the flood in our story is not a destructive element; it’s a washing away of the old and a beginning of the new. One reviewer said, “And at the end of the film it’s all destroyed by a flood.” And he doesn’t even get what the flood means! You know, we originally shot a sequence of the flood waters rising and flowing over the model in the church; but I didn’t like the way it looked and cut it. Maybe if that had worked better, technically, and I had left it in, things would have been clearer.
But maybe then the statement would have been too strong.
MF: Maybe. Maybe it was a good mistake! A happy accident.