INTERVIEW: Onur Tukel
– By @TheBlueTook
A few months back, I stumbled across a mysterious, indie, blackest-of-black comedy vampire film called SUMMER OF BLOOD, written/directed by and starring a small, hairy, disheveled Turkish dude called Onur Tukel. Even though I’d never spoken to him at that point, I somehow felt S.O.B. was an 86-minute, voyeuristic peek at the man himself, plus fangs – I was nearly right too.
Fast-forward to now, I can proudly say I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Onur on several occasions – turns out, he’s even more wacky and off-the-wall than I thought… and he bites people’s heads!
In a completely heterosexual, married-to-a-woman, macho way, I love him. He may honestly be one of the GREATEST people I’ve ever spoken to.
Strap yourselves in, folks…
Mr Tukel! Thank you for your precious time, sir. How the devil are you?
My pleasure. I’m well. I feel very lucky. I’m humbled by my lack of success. I’m grateful for having a job at the moment that pays the bills. I’m a little sad that my girlfriend recently broke up with me. And I’m struggling with my habit of over-sharing.
Director, composer, editor, producer, storyboard artist, painter, illustrator, beardkeeper, et al – what do you get up to in your SPARE time?!
Man, I’ve got a real problem just relaxing. I suffer from guilt if I’m not working on creative things in my spare time. Like most filmmakers, I have to work a job to pay the bills. That takes up a lot of time. New York is expensive. But I have to stay busy creatively or what’s the point of even being here. I mean, that’s why I came to New York. To join the fray. Scream my ideas through my work to anyone who will listen.
Before we continue, I need to know: if I get stuck for somewhere to go in New York, can I bring prostitutes to your house?
It depends… a sensible prostitute probably wouldn’t go anywhere near my apartment. It’s pretty gross. At this point, it’s like I have a dirt floor.
So, tell our readers a bit about yourself, my friend.
Well, there’s something I keep learning as I get older. Failing is a beautiful thing. Because it’s absolutely essential. Plus, pain and sadness is a good thing for an artist if you can learn to channel that into work. I keep that with me all the time, but then I always forget it. But I have trouble with the idea of success in the first place. It’s not something you can really measure. Okay, so a movie makes a billion dollars. If it sucks, does that make it successful? So a movie fucking flops, but it’s brilliant. Is it a failure? So all the critics hate a movie. Does that mean it sucks? The critics love a movie. Does that mean it’s brilliant? I watched a beautiful movie last year called Hateship Loveship, directed by Liza Johnson. It’s so poetic and sweet. So many critics ripped it apart because they felt it was boring. Kristen Wiig is the star of the movie and they wanted her to be wacky. She’s wonderful in the movie. Brilliant actress.
Although you’re of Turkish descent, I’ve read somewhere that you trying to speak Turkish is like listening to Borat trying to speak English. We need to fashion some kind of soundbite for our readers to hear, this is too good an opportunity to miss!
I think that means, “Fuck you.”
I’m kidding. But yeah, my Turkish is atrocious. I almost got arrested speaking Turkey in Izmir for insulting the language. That’s a lie. I love Turkey. It’s embarrassing not being able to communicate in the native language. But I really really hope to make a low-budget movie there (in Turkish) at some point. I briefly took Turkish language courses my first year in New York. I was the worst student in the class. True story. And I was the only full-blooded Turk in the class. It was mostly spouses who were married to Turks. Another humbling experience. Still, I wish I would have stuck with it… but I am just not good with languages.
AND you’ve been described as “The Turkish Woody Allen” – discuss…
I think there’s a beautiful desperation in lots of Woody Allen movies. A desperation to understand the world around them. To find meaning. To accept or reject that maybe nothing matters. That nothing remains. He seems so trapped inside his own head sometimes. He’s a neurotic madman. Wrestling with these questions, yet mocking it all. One of my favorite endings in a Woody Allen movie is from the film Scoop. Now, it’s not one of his best, in fact, I didn’t like it very much. But the last scene is ridiculous. Woody Allen’s character has died and is on a barge of human souls floating along a dark foggy river. He decides to entertain a few people with a card trick. Even as I write this, it makes me laugh. He’s stumbling through his dialogue, it’s ludicrous, but somehow it makes perfect sense. We’re all on that barge, floating towards or inevitable deaths. What the fuck are we supposed to do? Wither with anticipatory fear? Better not to think about that, how about a card trick instead. It makes sense that we would want to be distracted from thinking about death. For Woody Allen, it may be why he’s so prolific. You know, keep creating. If you’re idle, like a shark, you might die. Or worse, you might actually start “thinking” about death. Better to work, keep moving. Plus, your work grants you immortality in some way. I don’t know. I admire the man. There’s a moment in Sweet & LowDown, where Sean Penn’s character faints when he meets Django Reinhardt. I’d probably do the same thing if I met Woody Allen.
Granted, I’d assume there isn’t too many Turkish-American, filmmaking, Woody Allen fans in the New York area, so it’d be easy for you to be all humble and say THAT’S why, but be honest, the way you tackle big subjects with sharp, almost improvisational dialogue is the REAL reason you’re both comparable. Either that or you’re married to your ex-girlfriend’s adopted daughter?
The acting in Woody Allen’s movies is so inspiring. Those are real actors. I’m not an actor and will never call myself one. When I find myself complaining about my life, I think about those that have it worse. It helps me recognize how lucky I am. When I find myself being proud of my acting chops, I think about real actors. Kristen Wiig. Steve Coogan. Jeffrey Tambour. Joaquin Phoenix. I realize I’m no fucking actor. I think about real writers – Neil Labute, Rebecca Solnit, Charles Bukowski. I’m no fucking writer. I’m in a constant state of beating myself down. It’s a good exercise. It’s not like I’m feeling sorry for myself. It makes me want to do better work. I totally didn’t answer the question. Just another diatribe of self-indulgence.
I’m used to it now, man. I likes ’em! Continue to self-indulge.
Your latest film, Summer Of Blood (S.O.B.) – the reason we initially got talking – premiered at Tribeca 2014 no less. What was that like? (In my head, I’m hoping you just wandered around, sweating profusely, shirt untucked, telling random, beautiful women to go easy on the bread, Sparrow-style! — if you don’t understand this, WATCH THE DAMN FILM!)
A few days before the festival, my mom was in town and I was fretting about the festival. My mom reminded me that I have no children and that premiering a film was low on the list of things to be stressed about. And she was right. It’s not a big deal. However, I had a fucking blast! I drank too much. I got rowdy and rambunctious on stage and made a complete asshole of myself (a few times). I slogged from one party and screening to the next and left a puddle of sweat, tears and coke-laced snot in my wake. This year’s festival was much more mellow for me. I only did one Q&A drunk. I think I’m growing up a little?
Hahaha! Too rapidly for my liking.
Sexism, sexuality, social elitism, money, religion, loneliness, unemployment, commitment, mortality, mid-life catastrophes and of course relationships are just some of the issues S.O.B. throws at us – hard-hitting indeed – but you still manage to cram jokes in there about maternal liposuction diets and dick size. Is the script entirely your own handiwork?
We went into the movie with a very tight script. But as I’m making a movie, I really let it breathe. The actors can say the dialogue however they like, as long as the joke isn’t lost or the context is changed. I only want to direct an actor as a last resort and I encourage actors, producers, and crew to suggest ways to make the scenes better, as long as they’re helping and not fucking up my shit. I’m making the decisions. We shoot quickly and I’m constantly asking for ideas. I want the movie charged with energy. There’s not a lot of time to be indecisive. It’s a lot of fun when it works. But it can be chaotic. Your list of issues is impressive. At some point, I hope to tackle hypochondriacy. I used to be a huge hypochondriac. As I get older, I can feel the fear creeping back in. Fear is a great springboard for ideas.
On a serious note, with your immediate family being Turkish, did you have a tougher upbringing in a ‘foreign’ country, hence your films covering a lot of socially awkward subjects?
Man, I had it easy. I grew up in the foothills, somewhere between mountains and flatlands, in a beautiful, picturesque county. It’s a conservative area, but friendly and nonjudgmental. I had loving parents and two big brothers looking out for me growing up. My dad was a lovely man, but he was an oddball. My mom was brilliant and ridiculous, goofy and loved to laugh. And they had no agendas for any of their children. We had a Bible and a Koran in the house and I never saw my parents reading either. My dad greatly admired Ataturk, who envisioned Turkey to be Westernized and Secular. My mom was a social machine who loved having guests and serving tea. Dad was a reclusive doctor with a gambling problem and a community garden. My parents never put pressure on us to pursue a certain vocation or field. They encouraged all my stupid creative schemes. There was madness in my house. Screaming. Yelling. Anxiety. But there was lots of love. And lots of laughter. Plus, there are all sorts of David Lynchian elements that come with a small, Baptist town. There are so many characters and personalities. The football coach is a celebrity. You know the sheriff by name. You also grow up believing that the devil is real because your friends tell you so. And when the devil is real, the woods are alive in the darkest way. I avoided them most of the time. They could swallow you up. Shit, I could go on and on. I love thinking about my time growing up in the South. Every experience was electric back then. The mundane was poetic.
As mentioned, as well as directing S.O.B., you play our lead, Eric. As he goes from being terrified to commit to his girlfriend, to being thrown into an even more terrifying situation of being alone, with a strange dating strategy and an even worse fuck-technique, is there anything autobiographical about all this? If so, a word of advice: avoid using any of these words on dating website bios.
I’ve resigned myself to the sad fact that I’m not mentally healthy enough to be in a committed relationship. Summer of Blood was like a question I posed to myself. “Can you do it? Can you get married one day? Can you truly share a majority of your life with someone?” At the time I made it, I thought I could. But for now, I think the answer is “no.” I’m a sequestered sort of person. My father was the same way. He used to spend most of his free time in a garden, away from the family. But then again, I can be incredibly social. The life of the party. My mom has the gift of gab. It all depends on how much work I’ve gotten done that day. If I feel like I can break away from my solitude, it’s wonderful to be around people. And the greatest thing on earth is to lie in bed all day with a lover, acting silly and getting cozy. But the obligation that goes with marriage is way more terrifying than being alone… I think. I don’t know. I’ve been terribly lonely before. It’s horrible. Look, it’s me. I’m a mess. I’m not good for anyone. It’s irresponsible to ask a woman to put up with me. I’m selfish.
That’s brutally honest and beautifully put, and I can identify with an alarming amount of it. More than my new wife is currently aware of.
Is it true the shoot was only 9 days?
Yes, 9 days with two cameras. Thinking about it now, I don’t know how we did it. Lots of luck and actors who were able to embrace the chaos.
Fred Vogel* created the latex and blood effects. He’s a very tall, husky fella. He looks like he could be an American football linebacker and is covered in tattoos. He’s very intimidating in appearance. He looks like he could lift you up and break you over his knee, but he’s a real sweetheart. He knew our limitations with time and budget but was very enthusiastic about everything we wanted to do. He never said, “No, it can’t be done.” That’s my favorite thing in the world, where someone says, “Nothing is impossible.” And Fred’s attitude was always positive and reassuring. It gave me great confidence. I was initially nervous that the effects would take a lot of time to achieve, but it all went so smoothly. Again, it was a matter of luck. Luck that Vogel was available. Luck that he was willing to work within our budget. Luck that he’s so talented and generous. When you make a movie in 9 days, every minute counts. Every dollar. One crew member or actor with a shitty attitude can bring everyone down. But when everyone’s cool and committed to making something interesting, it’s so freakin’ inspiring.
The biting also seemed to fast-track your conquests to orgasm – would you suggest I try to incorporate this into my/the wife’s bi-annual 4-minutes of pure bedroom-based magic?
It just depends on where you bite, Chris. A small tug on the neck, earlobe or inner thigh can be effective, I think. I like to bite people on the top of the head, seriously. Try it sometime. Not too hard. But it’s funny, somewhat affectionate, but more ridiculous than anything else.
I’ll be honest, I got just as much Kevin Smith from your script as I did Woody Allen. He’s also got a beard like yours, so I’m gonna call you “The Turkish Kevin Smith”. On second thoughts, S.O.B. is better than Tusk, so maybe we should call him “The American Onur Tukel”?
I respect Kevin Smith. I’m not a huge fan of his films but he’s always had a confident voice and man, he’s always been a wizard with words. I’m a man who loves dialogue, so it’s easy to appreciate him. Clerks was a big inspiration for me in the mid-nineties. My first feature House of Pancakes was 16mm black and white and had text cards to introduce the characters, similar to the text cards in Clerks. I even have a short homage to Clerks in the middle of House of Pancakes. He’s got millions of fans for a reason. He’s a fanboy’s wet dream. Smart, funny, and so knowledgeable about pop culture.
You also looked like Tom Savini’s ‘Sex Machine’ in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn when you were all vamped up. Is there NO END to your imitation skills?!
Robert Rodriguez, another influence. El Mariachi, made for $7000 on 16mm. It was a revelation. I read his book Rebel Without a Crew around the same time I read Sydney Lumet’s Making Movies and Roget Corman’s How I Made 100 Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. You have to be fearless to make movies. Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith have built mini-empires on their attitudes. Again, I’ve grown disinterested in their work, but I admire them greatly.
House Of Pancakes, Drawing Blood and now S.O.B. all deal with different issues, but are all wrapped in lovely, lovely horror – why the dark backdrop?
As far as I can tell, seeing Jaws in the movie theater at the age of 5 may have something to do with it. Staying up late when I was around the same age watching Universal horror films on television maybe? There’s a subplot in House of Pancakes about a man who is obsessed with horror films, particularly by a series called Decapitator. By the end of the movie, he’s become possessed by the violent imagery he’s absorbed and attempts to kill a visitor in his home. I have a real fear of pretty much everything and I remember horror was always a fun way to laugh at the things that scare me. I have a fascination with terrible things happening for some reason. I was just in a book store today and as I was walking down the stairs I thought, “I wonder how many customers have fallen down these stairs?” On the subway, a middle-eastern man stood near me with a small suitcase and I instantly thought of the Boston Marathon Bombings. This fear is addressed in S.O.B. and is a real source of dread for me. When’s the next 9/11? If I ever get stopped by a police officer who wants to check my bag in the subway, I’m going to smile and say, “I was wondering when you were going to ask.” Fear is a terrible thing. It brings out the worst in us. It’s funny. While answering this question, I’m reminded of that cliche in 80s horror films where someone fleeing a masked killer runs into a house and hides under the bed, or in a closet, guaranteeing their demise. Everyone mocks that. “Why do they run into the house? It’s so stupid!” But of course it is. We do dumb things when we’re scared!
From a horror perspective, what are your influences?
It’s the 80s. Reagan is president. I’m watching Michael Myers slash up Haddonfield. I’m watching Jason Voorhees carve up Crystal Lake. That’s high art for an uncultured teenager. But the pinnacle of everything I ever watched was American Werewolf in London. It wasn’t just scary, but fucking funny, not just cool, but effortlessly cool, and that final shot is so shocking and sad.
As well as being a filmmaker, you’re also a very accomplished and prolific illustrator/painter – tell us a bit about your work, Mr T.
I use art as therapy when I’m anxious. This all started at about 5 years ago when I got cast in a movie called Septien. I play an artist in that movie and I created about 60 pieces of demented art for the film. I found that the more demented the piece, the less anxious I felt. I showed that art to my mother and it scared her. Her immediate words were, “You should see a psychiatrist.” I laughed and she looked back and me, stone-faced. “I’m serious. You’re insane.” The art helped me purge all these dark shit inside of me. At least it felt like it. The theme of Septien is very similar, “Smother the demons.” So after the movie, I just kept drawing strange pictures and it’s helped me relax over the years. There was a horrible tragedy in America years ago. A man shot up a school of children in Connecticut. That rattled me in a profound way. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I ended up painting about 60 pictures in two weeks just to channel my anger into something. It’s hard to enjoy anything knowing that people are suffering that kind of grief out there. And of course, it’s everywhere. I read a great book years ago called Against Happiness. The writer asks how anyone can be happy in a world so filled with sorrow. It’s a good question. The answer, I guess, is to just not think about it. So drawing helps me. It’s like medication and meditation. It’s like noodling on the guitar. It’s something to do. It keeps me occupied. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a few children’s books published. I’ve had a few art shows in Brooklyn. Whether or not I’m good or I think I’m good is irrelevant. I paint with confidence. My art is charged, energetic… at least, I hope it is. You don’t have to have a great voice to be a great singer. If the words are coming from a truthful, soulful place, then you’ll have my respect. Painting is the same. Sometimes you can see a piece of art and it feels tentative, unsure. But some art just grabs you. It’s rock n’ roll. Film is the same way. I like that. I like art that is fucking alive!
I love your artwork, sir. Your doodles share a sinister undertone with your films – stomachs with teeth, kids with tails, misshapen beings in masks. What the fuck is WRONG with you, man?!
(Check out Onur’s work here: simiannation.com)
I can’t remember who said it. “Our worst fears lie in anticipation.” But I’ve been very lucky in my life and I think my fears come from a realization that luck always runs out. What’s it going to be like if/when the shit hits the fan. I’m scared, man. So I’m channeling that shit into the work. I don’t have a therapist and I probably need one. But again, my medication is the paintbrush, attacking the paper with effusive desperation. “Quit thinking about it,” I may be telling myself. “For the moment, everything’s okay.”
That’s some profound shit, man. I hear you.
How satisfying was it bringing your creations to life in animated short The Tozer Show: Bombs & Blueballs?
We actually did two shorts together. Bombs and Blueballs and The Urine Bomber. A producer named Gill Holland brought us together. Tozer is a stand-up comedian with a unique voice and at the time, I was an animator for a public tv station in NC. We made two pieces together in the years right after 9/11. I was feeling very anxious about the war in Iraq and had taken to reading every liberal text I could get my hand on. Every issue of Mother Jones, The Progressive, The Nation. I devoured books by Howard Zinn, Michael Moore, Arianna Huffington, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Greg Palast, Barbara Ehrenreich. I was obsessed with liberal politics at the time. Tozer would tell these funny stories onstage. How she got stuck in her apartment and peed in a bag. How she liked to go out with men but never have sex with them and thus, gave them blue balls. All very funny. I helped weave in these odd, anti-war themes into these stories and then I’d animate her telling the story. They were pretty audacious shorts, pretty funny. They never went anywhere but had we continued, I think they would have gotten very interesting. We couldn’t come to an agreement on the third short. I wanted more control of the script. She wanted to tell the stories in her own way, which meant less politics. By that time, I was so furious about the war in Iraq that I didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t incredibly angry. I’m still incredibly bitter about the war. I still have incredible disdain for corporate media in America. I have an incredible distrust of the American public’s ability to gauge between right and wrong. Sarah Palin almost became our vice-president. It’s mind-numbing to think of such a thing. I might tap back into animation again in the future. I hope I’m not done with that yet…. it’s just a matter of finding time to work on a new project.
Your new project’s currently in post-production I believe. Can you tell us a bit about it?
We finished shooting Applesauce on December 31st, 2014 and we premiered the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival four months later. It’s a comedy, noir, horror, mystery… fuck, I don’t know what it is… but I love it. The fucking cast is so good. I tell you. If you can write a decent script and surround yourself with badass talent to bring your words to life, all you have to do as a director is get the fuck out of the way. That’s what I’ve done with my last few movies.
It stars Max Casella and Dylan Baker, 2 very recognisable mainstream actors who’ve been in a lot of cool shit. How did you manage to nab them?
I had a great casting agent who got them the script. They liked it and agree to do it. It was that simple. Casella read the script in one sitting and we met for lunch the next day to discuss it. He was so enthusiastic that he lifted the entire production to another level. In the last few years, he’s worked with The Cohen Brothers, Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese. He knew more about the script going into production than I did. I learned so much from him. He’s a brilliant actor and human being. I love him. I had limited time with Mr. Baker but he was just as impressive. Just a passionate, giving actor. Bigger than life, yet so respectful to all of us.
When can we expect Applesauce, and where can our readers track your other films down?
Applesauce will be out later this year. My first film House of Pancakes is on VHS. A small label in Jersey released it years ago when I was 25. I tell you, there was nothing more thrilling than for a guy, three years out of college, to get a box of VHS copies of his first feature film. This was the mid-nineties and we shot this movie on an ancient Frezzolini 16mm camera. It was so loud we had to muffle the magazine with a beach towel. My producer fashioned a dolly out of plywood and skateboard wheels. Man, it was a thrill. My second movie Sergio Lapel’s Drawing Blood was released by Troma in 1998. Lloyd Kaufman has always been a huge influence on me. He’s trashy and funny and fearless and insane. When S.O.B. was played for one week in Brooklyn last November, Kaufman himself came out and did a Q&A with me after one of the screenings. It was a joy and a thrill. His wife Pat Kaufman, the film commissioner of New York for almost twenty years, joined us. They’re both so charming. Anyway, Drawing Blood is on DVD. My third movie Ding-a-ling-LESS is on DVD. This was my only movie ever shot on 35mm. Shawn Lewellen did a great job as cinematography and it’s a miracle what producer Les Franck accomplished with the budget, but this movie broke my heart in a million ways. It was my first experience with real delusion. I thought my life was going to change after that movie was made. “This is the one that’s going to put me on the map,” I thought. It wasn’t to be. My fourth film The Pigs is out there on DVD and I shudder at the thought of someone watching it. And now, I’ve been lucky to complete 4 other films since those first four. Richard’s Wedding, Summer of Blood (S.O.B.), Applesauce and an experimental movie I’ve been working on for a few years called Abby Singer/Songwriter. I never imagined being so prolific in New York. It gets me excited for the future…. but again, this is all coupled with dread.
Will you help spread The Slaughtered Bird word around amongst your ever-increasing, cool circle of filmmaking buddies?
It’s been an absolute pleasure, Mr Tukel. Seriously. You’re a super smart dude and I’m honoured to have heard your melancholic, poetic views first-hand.
*Incidentally, it wasn’t until after speaking to Onur I realised this is the same Fred Vogel responsible for the August Underground films – DAMN IT! I woulda asked you more about that dude, dude! Apologies to any AU fans out there… To be continued(?)