Monday, March 09, 2015

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #47 – Tusk (2014)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details. Visit the new Johnny Kitties page for a full list of Johnny Depp's filmography and links to all previous Johnny Kitties blog posts.]

I pushed whimsy all the way into making a movie, one of my favorite movies I've ever made....a movie that absolutely changed my life....Push whimsy; that's all I'm gonna say.

Never mind what the marketplace demands. Nobody's looking for a movie about a guy who turns another guy into a walrus except you. Make it the ultimate movie that you wanna watch.

Let's see how weird we can take this.

– Writer/Director Kevin Smith on making Tusk

What kind of movie is this?
In Tusk, a horror movie written and directed by Kevin Smith, controversial podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) gets into a bad situation while looking for a story for next week's episode. He meets old seafaring adventurer Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who has a story to tell and a hidden agenda. Eventually, Mr. Howe reveals that, while trapped on an island, he formed a life-changing connection to a walrus and, since then, intends to find someone to replace his long-lost friend. Wallace's podcast partner (Haley Joel Osment) and girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) become alarmed by phone messages from Wallace, saying that he's in the backwoods of Canada, trapped in a creepy house with a crazy guy who wants to turn him into a walrus. So, they set off to rescue him with the help of a special investigator who's already on the trail. 

Why does Johnny have to be in this movie?
I've never been so freaked out about seeing a movie. You might remember that, these days, scary movies really scare me. I must have watched An American Werewolf in London and Poltergeist too many times as a kid. 

When Tusk arrived in D.C., I planned to see it in the middle of the afternoon so that I'd be able to go home in broad daylight and have the rest of the day to shake it off. As it happened, however, I was out of town over opening weekend and realized the following Thursday that Tusk wasn't going to last in theaters. I had to go that night, if at all. I texted my dilemma to a friend, who always helps me reason these things out:
Me: I think Tusk is leaving local theaters today. I might have to see it tonight, in the dark. 
Her: Don't do it! For your own sake!
Me: Really? Is it THAT bad?
Her: It depends on your tolerance, but the trailers are not encouraging.
Me: I know, yet I'm hoping for some Kevin Smith humor to diffuse things...I'm reading moviegoer reviews... 
Me, a little later: Reviews are not helping to make up my mind.

I made it across the street from my apartment before I realized that my friend is right: there is no shame in waiting for the DVD so that I could be freaked out in the comfort of my own apartment with my cat for company. Netflix delivered Tusk to me in January, and I texted my friend the news:
Me: I just watched Tusk and survived.
Her: Ewww!
I can't believe I'm saying this, but I really like this movie! I started out peeking through my fingers to watch it, waiting for something sudden, awful, and disgusting to happen. I was cozy under a blanket with my cat by my side and found myself entertained, intrigued, and impressed. 

See where creativity can lead?
Kevin Smith and SModcast
partner in crime, Scott Moiser
I think most people know Kevin Smith from his popular films Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma. As his popularity grew, so did his studio offers. One of the best things about Kevin Smith's work, though, is that he fully immerses himself in it by writing the story and script and filming it as he sees it. When he started getting hired as a director for movies he had nothing to do with developing, he didn't see the point and became disenchanted by the movie business. So, he walked away from Hollywood, content to make a decent living doing other things, like making live appearances about his work and podcasting.

Since 2007, Kevin Smith has been broadcasting podcasts (or SModcasts, as he calls them) through his company, SModCo. During his SModcast, called "The Walrus and The Carpenter," he mentioned an ad that he saw in a British newspaper: someone has a room to rent, and all you have to do to live there is dress up like a walrus for 2 hours every day. "The line that really captured my imagination was, 'I have for some time been constructing a realistic walrus costume.'" The story was a hoax, but by the end of the podcast, Kevin Smith had worked out a horror flick based on the story. He called for the opinions of his listeners: if they want to see this movie, tell him through Twitter by using #WalrusYes. If not, use #WalrusNo. More people responded positively, so he got started on a script. "I could've been stopped any step of the way," he says. "I could've been stopped easily, but I just pushed whimsy every day. I said, 'let me see how far I can take this.'" Along the way, many people encouraged him because they just wanted to see if he could pull off this crazy idea. 

Why didn't this horror movie traumatize me as expected? 
Apparently, Kevin Smith and I love movies for the same reasons. 
Good acting gets us every time; it beats car chases and explosions, hands down. "The movie magic to me is always performance. Acting is the real magic trick of movies to me – that goes beyond even movies, into theater and stuff like that – telling a lie that tells the truth. So for me, the idea of Tusk was a movie about acting. It's an acting movie. It's actor porn. It's like watching people delve so deeply into their character that you forget."

Michael Parks is in some things I've seen, like the Twin Peaks TV series, Kill Bill Volume 1, and Argo, but I don't remember him in those. In Tusk, he's amazing as a calm, creepy psycho. I was hooked very early on by his lengthy conversations with Justin Long, which slowly reveal that he's off his rocker. As Kevin Smith says, this is Michael Parks's movie. 

Kevin Smith takes the best approach to horror. 
Because this movie is so focused on the actors' performances, you only get suggestions of something disgusting. I appreciate that! This movie only shows a few glimpses of blood and gore and let's your imagination do the rest. Your imagination can probably create something scarier than anything anyone could physically show you. The gross factor is not overplayed in Tusk. It's on film purposefully, though the premise of Tusk does call for a little shock value: after all, this crazy guy has a hostage whom he plans to turn into a walrus. Be prepared: you will see some making of a walrus costume out of disgusting materials. You will see the walrus costume itself, which is disgusting (especially when you think about how it was made and with what). 

But don't worry; it's movie magic! Makeup and special effects expert Robert Kurtzman created the walrus costume lovingly, thoughtfully, and with skilled detail. "Where I think Bob really earns his money is in the eyes, Production Designer John D. Kretschmer says. "He created these wonderful imaginary creatures for the show, and for several weeks, we saw the creatures on the worktable, but what really surprised me is how elegantly and seamlessly he can join the actor to the creature. The money's in the eyes – the expression, the emotion, stuff that prevailed in the walrus suit is amazing, and that's truly where I see his genius." I can handle it when you put it that way. 

Kevin Smith is a clever writer and makes me laugh. 
As I had hoped, Kevin Smith did for Tusk's script what he does for all his scripts. Tusk is infused with smart dialogue and his sense of humor. What you get is a great mix of creepiness and horror with a wink to the over-the-top ridiculousness of this situation. "Tusk is best viewed through a comedic lens," he says. Some lines in this movie made me laugh out loud. One of my favorite conversations follows, courtesy of Hayley Joel Osment as Wallace's best friend Teddy and Johnny Depp as investigator Guy LaPointe:
Guy: "These are guns."
Teddy: "I don't want one."
Guy: "You don't want a gun? What kind of American are you?"
Teddy: "The kind that's never used a gun before!"

Can you believe I haven't mentioned Johnny until now? 
Johnny's involvement in Tusk was kept pretty well under wraps. The credits even say that "Guy LaPointe" is played by Guy LaPointe. I found out about his secret role through other fans and eagerly awaited this collaboration with Kevin Smith, despite my reservations about the genre. Guy LaPointe is a character from one of Kevin Smith's older SModcasts. Originally, Quentin Tarantino was approached to play the part but turned it down to focus on non-acting pursuits. I'm glad because I immediately fell in love with Johnny's  performance – the accent, mannerisms, and humor. I should disclose that I was also very relieved to see him and that he offered some laughs after all the stress that Michael Parks was inflicting on me. Some reviewers think that Johnny's performance in Tusk is out of place but most were just surprised by it and his unrecognizable look. Entertainment Weekly's synopsis of Tusk recommended, "Wait until an uncredited A-lister (we won't say who) turns up two-thirds of the way through to hand in his most berserk performance to date (and that's saying something)." I won't ruin it for you, but I agree.  

Buddies, Harley Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, in character
The Kitties are in Canada. 
The most exciting thing about this movie for me is that Johnny's daughter Lily-Rose makes her screen debut. Kevin Smith's daughter Harley is always in his movies somehow, but Tusk offers her first speaking role as a  teenage store clerk. I think Kevin Smith and Johnny have been good friends since their daughters met in kindergarten, and the day Harley shot her scenes, Lily-Rose came to the set. Kevin asked Johnny if he thought she'd want to be in the scenes with Harley, they asked, and stars were born! 

Aside from these girls' convincing performances as teens tied to their cell phones and bored by their after-school jobs, I love the store's Canadian decor with a bunch of flags of all sizes, tourist traps, and a wall of maple syrup. I also love that when Guy LaPointe does his trick with the pad of paper, Teddy (Comet) explains to Wallace's girlfriend (Ashes) that it was done in The Big Lebowski (because that's the first thing I thought of when he started scratching away with that pencil). 

47. Tusk (2013) [January 21, 2015]

Tusk is among Kevin Smith's favorite film experiences for many reasons: 
  • It gave him the opportunity to share the creative process with his fans from start to finish. The moment of inspiration and brainstorming phase are captured on that infamous SModcast episode. His followers encouraged him from the beginning to move his idea forward, and they watched it grow from there to silver screen. 
  • The experience of making Tusk was similar to that of Clerks: he was making a movie because he wanted to see it, and he did whatever he could to take his inspiration as far as it could go. The experience reawakened his love for filmmaking. 
  • He worked with his daughter and witnessed how she and Lily-Rose discovered how much they liked acting. Their few scenes in this movie led him to write another movie, called Yoga Hosers, in which they are central characters. (Guy LaPointe returns in that movie too!) In fact, Kevin Smith was so inspired by Tusk that he turned it into The True North Trilogy. Can you guess what the third installment, Moose Jaws, is about? 
  • Because of Tusk, he has the money to finance Clerks 3, a sequel that continues Kevin Smith's cult classic. 
See what can happen when you get the silliest of ideas and a little encouragement? Kevin Smith is a believer and he hopes we all are too: "It costs you nothing to pat an artist on the back, man, and the potential yield from it: maybe you get your favorite movie, a song that saves your life, or an idea where you get to express yourself through art. Keep doing that! People who are really profoundly affected by the movie, they're going to make some art, and that to me is one of the many reasons the whole journey was worth it, man. That's a cool thing! Art begets art, even weird art." I'm a little late to the party, but #WalrusYes!

Johnny seems more like himself here. 
In 2013, Johnny made a quick appearance in a film called Lucky Them. In this movie, a music journalist (Toni Colette), whose musician boyfriend released a spectacular and hugely popular debut album and soon after disappeared, is tasked with trying to find him 10 years later. As I watched this movie, at first, I was unsympathetic toward Toni Collette's unlikeable character until I realized that, if I were traumatized by my boyfriend's disappearance and possible suicide, I'd probably be pretty messed up too. Then, the ending credits turned me into a fan of this movie. It is sweetly dedicated to one of my heros, Paul Newman, and produced by his wife Joanne Woodward! Here's the scoop:

Lucky Them is written by Emily Wachtel, who is great friends with one of Paul Newman's daughters. He read drafts of her script, gave her some advice about it, and even  planned to be in the movie. Years went by, he got sick and died, and his wife helped out once the project started to gain momentum. Johnny was the first choice for his role, and I see why the character appeals to him. Besides that, a couple of his old friends are in this movie: Thomas Hayden Church, whom he first met on the set of 21 Jump Street, and Oliver Platt, with whom he costarred in Benny and Joon). For me, Lucky Them is as close as I'm going to get to my dream of having Johnny and Paul Newman work together. I'll take it, even if one of them is only helping out in eternal spirit.

And I think Johnny did this too. 
Johnny and Amber
at the Texas Film Awards, May 2014
Though they haven't confirmed it, evidence is out that Johnny and Amber Heard, his costar in The Rum Diary, got married last month in a private ceremony at home in Los Angeles on February 3. They followed that with a fancier ceremony and party the following weekend on Johnny's private island in the Caribbean. Congratulations to the happy couple. I'd share photos, but they're not. 

What's next? 
Let's go Into the Woods, but beware the Big, Bad Wolf! This DVD is set for release on March 24, 2015. A Johnny Kitties tribute to it will soon follow. 

To read more film reviews and artwork celebrating Johnny Depp's work, visit the new Johnny Kitties page

Credits: All Tusk images: © Demarest Films/SModcast Pictures; Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier photo © unknown; Lucky Them DVD cover © IFC Films; Johnny Depp and Amber Heard photo © Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

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