Frank Mosley: Actor, Director, Adventurer
Chances are, if you closely follow the American independent filmmaking scene, you’ve seen Frank Mosley. Since his breakout performance as a misfit ex-con in the 2009 crime comedy-drama The Other Side of Paradise, Mosley has appeared in countless indie films, short and feature-length, in roles big and small, and with directors ranging from Shane Carruth (Upstream Color) and David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) to legendary experimental narrative filmmaker Jon Jost (They Had It Coming). Thanks to streaming services, you can see two of his best performances right now: in a lead role as a laconic man-of-the-earth type in Cameron Bruce Nelson’s 2015 film Some Beasts on Amazon Prime, and as a motormouth sidekick in Cody Stokes’s recent crime thriller The Ghost Who Walks on Netflix.
But while Mosley has amassed a considerable body of work as an actor, he is also a filmmaker, one whose directorial work evinces the same restless adventurousness that dictates his choice of roles as an onscreen performer. Though his two features, Hold (2009) and Her Wilderness (2014), and short films like “I Could Live in Hope” (2010), “Two Story” (2013), “Spider Veins” (2016), “Casa de Mi Madre” (2017), and “Parthenon” (2017) vary wildly in subject matter and style, they all display an artist who is constantly testing himself, willing to try new things, often attempting to reach for effects and emotions that are not easy to describe or pin down.
On the occasion of Kinoscope’s retrospective of his work as a director, Mosley sat down with us to discuss his films: how they came about, and what drives him as a filmmaker, thematically and stylistically.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I read that your earlier shorts “I Could Live in Hope” and “Two Story” were both conceived as installations.
For me, the experience is so much stronger for those pieces as installations than as standalone shorts. “Two Story,” for example, runs on a loop: It’s almost like these two people are in purgatory, constantly circling each other, and so there are no credits at the end. So when you see me at the end by the door, and then I leave the door, it immediately starts back at the front where she comes around the corner inside the house.
That played at the Dallas Museum of Art, and then it played the Edinburgh Art Festival. But actually, the most fun I had with it was when it played at the Safe Room Gallery in Dallas, Texas. I had a solo show for a month, and basically I had a room that I projected “Two Story” on loop on the wall, but all around the room were moving supplies and boxes strewn around that you walk through. And then you have these two people: One’s trying to sell the house, maybe one’s trying to move into the house. The whole movie’s about being in a period of transition and not being able to get out of it.
“I Could Live in Hope” was similar. As soon as our hands separate from one another, from the last shot of the film on the railing, it goes to our hands each sharing that bagel at the start of the film.
Hearing about all those boxes in the Safe Room Gallery for “Two Story” makes me think of immersive theater, which is all the rage in the New York theater scene right now.
Actually, Her Wilderness started as a play before becoming a feature. And the last stage of it was supposed to be an interactive installation in an art gallery big enough to be able to have a labyrinth built within its walls. I tried for years to get an art gallery to take it over. But one, I didn’t have enough money; and two, because I’m more from the film world and I don’t have enough art world cred, I got a lot of nos. So I decided to put the experience online at herwilderness.com. And actually, the news that I wanted to share with this interview and with the Kinoscope retrospective was that the website is going to finally be done within the next month, and people are going to experience the film as a feature, or they can go to the website.
Your 2016 short “Spider Veins” also has something of a theatrical aspect to it, because it starts out with a scene in which a crew prepares a stage for a performance. Then there’s a bit of a fake out as we see two women get into a heated argument until we discover they’re performing in front of a small group of friends. But then you see, in an ensuing dinner scene, that their “performance” masks deeper tensions, especially regarding the divergent ways their lives turned out. How did the idea for “Spider Veins” come about?
I was about to make “Spider Veins” right before I turned 30. So a lot of things were in my head at the time: the idea of getting older and growing apart from friends, and then this idea of some people continuing on with the dream of acting or film, and other people who give that up.
Also, I’d come off making Her Wilderness, which had taken me years to complete. I made “Spider Veins” as a way to come back to directing after having been stuck with this one film for so long.
One of the things that really struck me about Her Wilderness was the sound design, specifically the way dialogue that the characters speak sounds and feels so disembodied. Was the sound post-synched?
It was. This film was heavily influenced by a lot of the European old masters like Antonioni. And for a lot of those great films, the dialogue was dubbed in later. And it gives it this kind of alien, dreamlike quality. All these characters are such archetypes that I really tried to do everything I could to put you at a distance from what was happening, which was the opposite of what I was trying to do with films like “Parthenon” or “Casa de Mi Madre.”
Regarding “Casa de Mi Madre,” I noticed in the end credits that you thank the one and only Abbas Kiarostami. How was he involved?
There were these two incredible women that ran this organization called Black Factory Cinema based out of Barcelona. They started using this film school in Cuba to host their weeklong, 10-day workshop with a master filmmaker. That year, the filmmaker was Abbas Kiarostami. At the end of the 10 days, you would have had to have created your own short film. And so my friend Cameron Bruce Nelson, he and I both applied. So you’re in Cuba with 50 people from around the world. I don’t know Spanish, so it was going to be a wild time if we got in.
Well, we both got in. And for 10 days, we listened to Abbas lecture, got to spend time with him, and then he gave us a theme at the very start of the workshop and we had to pitch him our ideas alone, and he had to approve it. So he had given us this prompt about family, and we had to come up with a story. That’s how the idea for “Casa de Mi Madre” came about.
It’s interesting that, for the theme of family, you came up with a film about a mother reminiscing about her dead son, Alejandro, to a boy who is not her son at all. But then at the end, the boy tells his real mother to call him Alejandro.
Yeah. It was like, what effect does that have on making a kid be a stand-in for your dead son? Because that’s a really terrible thing to do to this poor kid, using him as an outlet for your catharsis. And one of the things I wanted to hint at was, how do we even know this is the first time they’d done that?
While there’s a lot of dialogue in “Casa de Mi Madre,” there’s very little of it in “Parthenon.” That approach, correct me if I’m wrong, is tied in part to the star of the movie, Lily Baldwin, who is a dancer and choreographer…?
She’s a dancer and filmmaker herself, but she stars in her films. They’re all dance-based narratives.
That makes sense especially with the first half of “Parthenon,” which features a marital power struggle enacted mostly through physical movements. But then in the second half of the movie, she doesn’t move because she’s posing for an art class. And as she’s doing this, she forges an unexpected connection with one of the artists drawing her. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of that whole concept?
After “Spider Veins” and “Casa,” I wanted to do something that not only didn’t have any dialogue in it, but also, compared to my other films, felt like an action film, one that moved more and was looser and maybe even a little more playful in tone. They say there’s always a level of performance when we’re talking to someone. But I think in this case, it was about how somebody tries to connect through a performance to this guy she’s with, and he doesn’t see her the way she wants to be seen. And so, in the next scene where she’s not moving at all, it takes a total stranger to see who you truly are.
One thing that struck me about both Her Wilderness and your 2009 debut feature Hold is the spiritual side I saw in them. The main couple in Hold are Christian and go to church. And I felt a spiritual side to some of the images in Her Wilderness. For instance, when the girl falls in the woods and gets up and there’s blood on her hand, I thought of stigmata with that image. Are you yourself a religious person?
I consider myself a spiritual person. However, I was raised by a Catholic mother and I went to Sunday school. I went through a lot of the rites growing up as a kid. My dad, though, is agnostic, and so they made this deal with me that I would go through the rites of Catholicism up to a point, and then, before getting confirmed, I could make a decision for myself. I didn’t get confirmed because I didn’t want to. But I would say that the rites of Catholicism, some of the thematic elements of Catholicism, and these ideas of repression that people tie to Catholicism, for sure, they’re connected to my films.
Top image: Her Wilderness
Frank Mosley’s Her Wilderness is available to stream on Kinoscope.