American Hypocrisy Revealed in The Misogynists
"Self-righteous, smug and wicked." Onur Tukel pulls no punches in this extended Q&A
Onur Tukel isn't pulling any punches. In the results of the 2016 election, he said, "We got the president we deserved."
That's the core of the writer/director's 2017 film The Misogynists, which screens at AFS Cinema as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of Brooklyn's Factory 25 distribution house. Similar to his earlier works like Applesauce and Summer of Blood, on the surface it's an unflattering portrait of Tukel's favorite subject: weak men. A couple of New York businessmen, Baxter (Lou Jay Taylor) and Cameron (a firing-on-all-cylinders Dylan Baker) check in to a Manhattan hotel on election night, 2016, to celebrate "their" victory. It's a night when they feel they can cut loose, because the patriarchy has won, so it's coke, booze, slurs, and prostitutes all-round. In that way, it's closest to the uncomfortable shifting sympathies of Catfight. For Tukel, spending the night with them is like staring the Trump phenomenon square in the face. "It's like someone with acrophobia who sky-dives to conquer their fear. I wanted to face him so I could stop being afraid."
But vile as the duo are, Tukel isn't exactly lenient with the people with whom they cross paths. Tukel said, "One of my producers was at a picnic last year. A friend of his walked up to him and said, 'I'm sorry, but you're not allowed to make a film called The Misogynists, not today, not tomorrow. Not ever.' What a presumptuous thing to tell someone, like they're in middle school. But we are allowed to do that, of course, and that's exactly what we did. But the movie at its core isn't about misogyny at all. It's about language."
Moreover, The Misogynists may be set against the election of Trump, but Tukel suggests that it could take place during any election in which friends find themselves at odds. What makes it contemporary is the modern wave of neo-puritanism that led to that picnic confrontation. "It's a reaction to this 'watch what you say' culture. I find it all very off-putting. It just makes me want to revolt against the people setting the rules."
The script was written in a blur, the first draft completed in about a week after election day, but that's part of its immediacy – and potentially its longevity. "I'm looking forward to see how this movie plays three or 10 years from now," Tukel said. "I think it captures the spirit of the times. There seems to be a general lack of self-awareness in the culture today. Hypocrisy pervades everything." Take a key scene in which one of Cameron's hotel room neighbors bangs on his door and screams at him for being loud. "I used to feel like she was being heroic, the marginalized female standing up to the tyrannically corporate bully. But I don't know anymore. Is bullying another bully an act of heroism? Is screaming at someone so loudly that they can't even respond exceptional behavior?"
It's one of multiple gasp-out-loud moments of confrontation but, Tukel said, "My goal was not to shock. The goal was to hold up a mirror up to all Americans, to show the ugly side, the hypocrisy. I wanted to out all of us as self-righteous, smug and wicked." Yet it still provides something like an off-ramp for those that voted for Trump in 2016 and now have buyer's remorse. Tukel said, "I learned to appreciate the lunatics who voted for him to shake up the system. It was kind of brave. But then again, maybe some of them woke up and thought, 'Oh no. What have I done?' Like someone who wakes up from a bad night of drinking.
Austin Chronicle: Right from the title, The Misogynists feels deeply provocative (for me, very reminiscent of Dario Fo). There's a sense of what people will say when they think no one is looking, and that's a tough mirror to hold up to society. When feelings are already raw, were you aware of trying not to pull any punches?
Onur Tukel: In my ridiculous life, I've gotten into many screaming matches with dozens of people because of something I've said. Whether it was insulting, offensive, contrarian or just plain stupid, my words have triggered a lot of people. Women have thrown drinks in my face, spit on me. I've gotten into bar brawls with tattooed ruffians. I've been thrown out of film festivals for disrespecting volunteers. I've been thrown off podcasts. And I've had college professors scream for me to get the hell out of their classrooms.
I have a very laissez faire attitude about speech. People should be able to say whatever they want, (and mostly) whenever they want. That doesn't mean someone should be able to scream at the top of their lungs in a coffee shop, but in the pursuit of truth, free speech rules (or should, at least).
Especially in art. And for someone like me, who enjoys the devilish attention that comes with provocation, writing Cameron was a lot of fun.
AC: You've mentioned in prior interviews that the first draft came out like lightning, in six days. Was that draft profoundly different from the final script, or did rewrites simply sharpen - or potentially soften - that first furious version?
OT: I wrote multiple drafts of the script over eight months and continued revising even as we were shooting. It did grow a bit softer as I rewrote, how did you know? I think I was in shock when I wrote the first draft. It came out much angrier than the final version, so angry in fact, that at the end of the script, Cameron shoots the hotel manager (a black man, representing Obama), then pulls down his pants and proceeds to sodomize his corpse. Just as he's about to orgasm, Cameron holds up his arm triumphantly and screams, "Trump!!!!" Roll closing credits. I'm not exaggerating here. This was the ending. When we had our first reading with the (potential) cast, it was pretty obvious this would change.
In another version, the Arab taxi driver gets pummeled by a group of racist Trump supporters. Another version has Cameron jumping off the hotel roof. All that stuff was unnecessarily violent.
The ending we almost shot had Cameron apologizing to everyone in the hallway for being such a disruptive prick. He's escorted out of the hotel, then gets in a cab and returns home to his wife. The movie ends with a close-up on his face in the back of the taxi as he listens to Trump's victory speech, which I found oddly endearing on the night of the election.
As those first few months of his presidency played out, I got the sense that if he'd been treated with just a modicum of respect, he might have softened his touch a little bit. I still like the ending of Cameron asking for forgiveness. I kind of got talked out of shooting that version of the film. The thought was that Cameron didn't deserve forgiveness. I think that's very typical of our current culture. This idea of forgiving people for their past indiscretions is anathema.
AC: As this was a very immediate response to the 2016 election – only debuting nine months later, which is nothing in film terms – did you ever consider what a version a year, or two years, later would have looked like? I wonder, because so many of the what is of the time – the wall, the sabre-rattling – have become realities.
OT: In a lot of ways, this movie could have been made any year, with two people from any party celebrating the election of any President. If feels like the political arguments are the same every year. One side wants gun regulation, the other doesn't. One is pro-choice. The other pro-life. I stopped paying attention to politics after we finished the film. The only thing I remotely pay attention to now is whether or not Trump's is willing to go to war. I feel like if that happens, things could get scary. That's what the end of the The Misogynists reflects, everyone's ultimate fear. We gave this man the nuclear codes.
But Trump's Presidency, economy is king. And luckily, going to war is very bad for the markets. And I judge Trump the way Miguel, the Mexican waiter in the film, judges him. Not by what he does but what he doesn't do. And if he doesn't start a war like George W., I'm kind of cool with whatever he does domestically. He can build a wall, imprison illegal immigrants, rollback regulations, cut taxes on the rich, etc. I know that sounds awful, but it's a deliberate choice. I'm trying to protect myself from re-experiencing the emotional trauma I felt when we invaded Iraq. That fucked me up. During that time, I hated this country and everyone who supported that war. When I compare America now to America then, the collective denunciation of Trump seems unfair. Trump is not as bad as everyone says. But isn't everything exaggerated now? Movies are either severely overrated or underrated. Someone says something out of context and they're a seething racist. Trump throws illegal immigrants into detention centers and gets falsely compared to Hitler. Hyperbole wins big.
AC: Your protagonists are often passive figures (even in Black Magic for White Boys, they use the powers of sorcery as the path of least resistance) or feel they are victims but superficially, at least, Cameron has a bragging swagger to him. How was it writing a figure so different to many of your leads - a winner, even if the audience despises him.
So writing the movie may have been a way out of the nightmare? I needed to pull myself out of this pit of despair, maybe writing from the POV of the winner would distract me in some way. I was totally confused, angry as fuck, and feeling intense anti-Americanism. In my bones I knew a new Middle-Eastern war was imminent. I wasn't ready to go through all that again. The script was my way of beating myself up. I mean, at that moment, days after the election I hated America for electing Trump. But I didn't have the energy to revisit my anger from the War in Iraq. I needed a new approach. Going after the things I loved seemed like the right choice. Better to criticize my own party. I found ways to rationalize Trump's victory. At the end of the day, Hillary did vote for the war in Iraq. Did anyone who voted for such a terrible war deserve to be President? And hadn't Democrats and all the left-leaning pundits not been disgustedly smug during the entire campaign? I found a way inside of Cameron's head. And writing the script was kind of a therapeutic exercise, a way to gain some kind of control over my spinning, unhealthy thoughts. Paranoia. Disgust. Dread. Better to flip it, make it about the other guy, find a way to empathize with him. I mean, it helped. As I worked on the script, Cameron felt more like a guy in pain. He feels betrayed. He's not a winner at all. His marriage is falling apart. He's terrified of being alone. He uses Trump's victory to imagine himself the hero, but inside, he knows he's a loser.
AC: Having seen it, it's hard to imagine Cameron's lines coming out of anyone other than Dylan. He sums up a particular kind of aggressive bombast. I know you worked very close to the script (it feels very Mamet, like the breaths are marked) but how much was the part shaped around him?
OT: Thanks for mentioning Mamet. I get comparisons to Woody Allen all the time but with this, I was trying to channel some of the dialogue-driven misanthropic movies that I loved from the Eighties and Nineties. Glengarry Glen Ross, Hurly Burly, The Fisher King, Talk Radio. There's an energy to these movies that is quite different from Allen's movies. The men are cruel and egocentric, angry and self-righteous. They also entertain the hell out of me. Or they used to at least.
I love Dylan Baker and I couldn't imagine anyone else in the role, but the truth is, I didn't write the part for him. In fact, I had cast a much younger actor in the role. We were two weeks away from shooting when the actor bowed out. When we found out Dylan Baker was available, we auditioned him. I think three seconds into the audition, I knew he was Cameron. We hired him, then he went off learned all the dialogue in about seven days. He nailed it. His performance is so tragic and funny. Just brilliant.
AC: One of the most fascinating components is the inclusion of the prostitutes, and their complicity in the night's events. What was the creative process and decision behind their depiction and involvement?
OT: Yeah. This was a fun challenge. I wanted to find a way to implicate women in enabling so-called toxic masculinity. My favorite line in the movie is when the prostitutes are about to enter Cameron's hotel room. One says to the other, "Okay, if they objectify us, I'm leaving." The other responds, "But isn't that the point? We're LITERALLY sex objects."
I remember when the "grab 'em by the pussies" tape was leaked. I thought it was over for Trump. But women surprised the hell out of me. A large percentage just didn't care. Because locker room talk is a real thing. And women do it as much as men do. And for me, the prostitutes allowed me to throw some contradictions to the audience. What happens when a prostitute consents to something "physically degrading" but not "verbally degrading?" What kind of thoughts would a liberal prostitute have about servicing a Trump supporter on election night? What gives a Muslim cab driver the right to lecture two highly successful call girls? I got a lot of feedback from Ivana Milecevic and Trieste Kelly Dunn about their characters. We wanted them to be plucky and headstrong. One would be conflicted and neurotic. The other, more conservative and unapologetic. One is sensible about investing. The other is materialistic and unwise in her purchases. The fact that one buys a couch for $40,000 is my jab at wealthy liberals. You do something like that, you can't call yourself a liberal, not in my book, at least.
The Misogynists @AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35, Sat. Jan. 25, 4:30pm. Tickets and info at www.austinfilm.org.