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Windmills and Bloodless Veins: A Conversation with Christian Otjen

By Eric Beltmann

Thought that I was young
Now I have freezing hands and bloodless veins
As numb as I've become
I'm so tired
I wish I was the moon tonight

--Neko Case, "I Wish I Was the Moon"

The hero of Christian Otjen's Reeseville might be Reeseville itself. Set in rural Wisconsin, the murder mystery doesn't have a conventional protagonist -- the most heroic figure, a skeptical coroner played by Mark Hamill, merely supports the story -- but it does evoke a Midwestern sensibility that feels indivisible from its environment, especially in terms of how old sins can infect multiple generations. The volatile David Meyers (Brad Hunt) returns to Reeseville to confront his bitter past, but when his father, John Meyers (Cotter Smith), is found dead, the buried skeletons of the peaceful town are gradually exhumed. Meanwhile, the windmills stoically spin above the rot, each slow pass a kind of judgment.

Christian Otjen lives in Milwaukee, and as he ambles into Ma Fischer's on Farwell Avenue for a chat over lunch, he wears his hometown loyalty on his sleeve -- his sweatshirt proudly advertises Badger football. After hesitantly ordering a single egg, bacon, and toast, Otjen pushes the plates aside and spends most of the interview nervously ripping his placemat into tiny paper shrapnel. What's stressing out this otherwise confident, capable director? For starters, Reeseville is scheduled for Milwaukee release in two weeks, on July 9, and only the local AMC multiplex has guaranteed a screen. Distribution hiccups aren't the only obstacles facing Otjen as a regional filmmaker, yet his enthusiasm for Reeseville -- accessorized by a "No Tomorrow" baseball cap -- is unmistakable, and he seems eager to talk about shooting his whodunit, making movies in Wisconsin, and almost working with Rod Steiger.

How did you arrive at filmmaking?

I always wanted to make movies. I went to Illinois Wesleyan for two years, and I had a really good still photography teacher, Kevin Strandberg. He let me do a little film project as a Photography 4 class, which wasn't a real class. We made it up. Then I went to USC for a year, and I didn't get in the film program. I was going to take a bunch of film prerequisites and re-apply, but USC is very political. A lot of head games, and very expensive. So I wanted to get out of USC and make a film from scratch. I thought, I might make more mistakes, but the best way to learn anything is to figure it out for yourself. If your car isn't working, fix it yourself, or at least look over the mechanic's shoulder. That's a good way to learn. So I came back to Wisconsin and made a horror film called Frightened to Death. My folks had a cabin up north, and it was a murder mystery with a psycho killer involved! I had access to the cabin. It's like, What do I have? And can I make anything out of it? For Lady in the Box, I had a boat slip on the KK River, and so I had the idea, What if somebody came up to me and said, "I'll pay you 500 bucks to take this trunk out in the middle of the night and dump it out by the buoy"? I strung off from there. I try not to budget myself, but also try to keep it reasonable to do.

You're based in Milwaukee. How does that work?

Basically, you run into crew problems. A lot of the crew that's capable of doing feature work do a lot of commercial work in town. I found that they're interested in doing features, but either they don't want to take the time, or you don't pay enough. What we pay for a week they'll make in a couple days on a commercial. But Milwaukee is just starting to get a lot less conservative. I think it's good that there's a film festival here, and people are starting to come out of the woodwork and support stuff. It's still tough, though. We're booking theaters for Milwaukee right now, and it's just slow. We've got one theater confirmed, and in another week we might have three more.

There are snafus with working in the Midwest, but most of them can be overcome. One of the things that I'm trying to do is skywrite "Evil," which is in the word Reeseville, across the sky the second last day of Summerfest [Milwaukee's 11-day music festival]. My idea is to tip the media off right afterwards and give us a bunch of promo right before the movie's opening the next week. But the thing is, there's not a lot of skywriting in the Midwest. We're trying to bring in a pilot from either New York or L.A.

I grew up in Shorewood [a Milwaukee suburb] and now live not too far from my original home, which is kind of scary. The reason I set a lot of stuff here in the Midwest is because it's where I am, and where I like. If I had been born and raised in Venice, I'd probably be shooting in Venice.

The movie looks like the Midwest. Most movies set here look suspiciously like Canada.

I really liked filming on location. Reeseville is a real town between Milwaukee and Madison, about halfway. I wanted that small-town feel, and we looked at maybe 20-30 different towns throughout the state. Not only do you need the right size of the town, you also need support areas throughout the town for a crew of 50 that you're feeding every day. If they're going to be around for a month and a half, you've got to have something for them to do, or at least a bed to crash on. The script to me is a character study about hidden secrets and their causes, and I thought a Midwest town's got a lot of them, because everybody knows everything and nobody talks.

The story peels back the sordid underside of quiet American life. The buried ugliness includes a family feud, adultery, unwanted pregnancy, voyeurism, beatings, and murder.

I try to use that as a vehicle to say, if you're not open, if you're not conversing, if you're not getting out stuff that's made you who you are... well, there are usually two or three incidents in our past that have some influence on what we're doing right now. I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing to have a bunch of buried secrets. But whenever you try to hide something, that's when stuff starts coming out.

Although the threat of violence is always running in the background, at times the movie feels like a miniature domestic drama.

I like writing about people that are meaningful to me. I like to take real people and then put them in screwed-up situations and see how they react. I tried to look at it as a character study, but then shoot it as a creepy horror movie.

That threat of violence usually emanates from the character of David, played by Brad Hunt. His presence as an outsider in this quiet town is intimidating. He seems to represent violation, whether it is social, physical, or sexual.

I thought so too. To me, he's just kind of a hateful person in general, and maybe more so because he was lied to. To direct Brad, we came up with a number system. There's a scene where he's tying up rope and he's kind of got a Kubrick look -- that's definitely stolen -- and I said, that's your four. If you're going to kill anybody, or do something drastic, or at your most moody, that's your four. Happy go-lucky you is a one, and you're probably never gonna hit that. And Brad would just do it, and hit the number with his body language. My costume designer put him in a lot of shirts that were just a little bit tight, so he looks like he's just about to bust out.

I noticed that your framing is very deliberate. You frequently place items in the foreground, such as knick-knacks, the ceiling fan, or the crucifix.

I think that goes back to my still photography background. I'm always trying to look for a well-balanced or imbalanced picture, depending on what I'm trying to say. I like moving the camera. The times when the movie drags are when I'm not moving the camera.

The original score is by Kevin Saunders Hayes.

Kevin Hayes is a really nice composer I met in L.A. I worked with him on Lady in a Box and thought he did a really great job. I let him run with many of his own ideas, and I love a lot of the score.

Reeseville's opening is a slow, unbroken shot that travels through a tranquil farmhouse, escorted by a Brenda Lee tune. Eventually the camera arrives at the dead body of John Meyers. Much later, the same song plays as a character is being clubbed with a bowling pin. The twin use of "Heart In Hand" seems a hint about the identity of John's killer.

That's good. Not a lot of people catch that. That was one thing that I wanted to do, even though no one would pick up on it. It's sort of a tip-off. "Lollipop" would have worked well, too. Source songs like Brenda Lee's are tough to get, and they're really expensive, and the process of locking them up takes two months, three months. The one I would have really liked to get was a tune by Kasey Chambers called "We're All Gonna Die Someday." The Brenda Lee tune, we wanted it basically three times. It fades out during the bowling alley beating scene and comes back, which is called interrupted use, which is like a double use that we have to pay for twice. Licensers always want to know where it's being used: "Well, this girl's kinda, almost getting raped, and this guy's getting beat to death, and oh, we also want to use it when this guy's hanging."

My favorite scene is scored by Neko Case's "I Wish I Was the Moon." The song really captures the innocent yet discouraged longing of Athee, a cashier trying to romantically connect with the sheriff. I also think the best performance in the movie belongs to Missy Crider, who plays Athee.

She did a good job with it. I'm glad you like that scene. They're playing off each other in a non-communicative way. She's strong all the way through the movie.

Mark Hamill is Zeek, the town coroner who suspects that the death of John Meyers may not have been suicide. Originally Rod Steiger was set for the part.

My casting guy said, "What do you think of Rod Steiger? He wants to have a meeting. He's really interested." At that time one of my producers and my DP were with me, so we had a noon meeting with Rod at his house in the Malibu area. It was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. The only way I can visually describe it is, it was sort of like seeing Brando in Apocalypse Now -- you're expecting to go meet this old guy, and he ends up having huge Popeye forearms and a shaved head, and he's wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and a big gold bracelet that says "Rod." And he's like, "Who the fuck are these guys? I just wanted to talk to you! Arrgh!" Anyway, he led us down this little hallway, and he was at this small desk, and he said, "I hope you've got some time." He pulled out the script, and started to go through each page, giving me corrections. Almost every other page was cornered off. Some of his insight was really good -- some didn't make much sense -- but most of it was down to really small differences in dialogue. It was kind of rough at first, so I started giving him some shit. And he warmed up a little bit.

My casting agent then said, "I noticed that all of your comments were about all the other characters, and you didn't mention Zeek." His only comment on Zeek was that he didn't get the name Zeek. On the script, every time it said Zeek he had crossed it out and written "Tom."

I was sort of looking over his shoulder. "Sit down! You're making me nervous!" He kind of pushed me back and said, "This line here, 'Everything's big in a small town'?" He did this pause. "That's a good line." I started laughing and he said, "Yeah, I'll give ya credit where credit's due."

When I heard Rod died, that kind of shook me up. I was very taken aback, because right up to production, he would call me. The first time it was about a week or so after I came back to Milwaukee, and he said, "You come over tomorrow, and don't bring all those people with you. We need to talk about this." "Rod, I can't come over tomorrow, I'm in Milwaukee." He said, "Milwaukee! Where the hell's Milwaukee?" He'd call me about every three days to make sure I was getting enough sleep. I would have really enjoyed working with him.

His death was actually one of the stumbling blocks in the production, because the reason one of our investors was involved was because he's a big Rod Steiger fan, too.

Mark Hamill certainly offers a very different kind of interpretation. His Zeek is very unassuming and soft-spoken.

Very different, but I think he did a great job, too. He's extremely talented. I would give him any kind of role to do, and he could do it in a heartbeat. He was amazing at taking real subtle direction and then nailing it. I was really glad he showed up with a beard. He needed it for something in New York, and offered to shave it off. I told him it was great, because it aged him a little bit.

I haven't seen your previous picture, Lady in the Box, but I understand it's a suspense thriller inspired by Hitchcock. That influence seems present in Reeseville, too, especially when the sheriff Jason peeps in on his sister taking a shower.

I should have done it a little better. I watched Psycho again, and the stuff he got when Anthony Perkins was looking at Janet Leigh was just amazing.

Throughout the movie, both Jason and David are often photographed leaning against doorframes, a stance that telegraphs their comparable passive-aggressive personalities.

I can go with that. When Jason's trying to get David to let him in so he can find the shotgun, it's like a nice little pissing match that Jason kind of backs off of, because he is who he is. His authority is much more in his uniform. My thought on Jason is that maybe he's impotent, and maybe he doesn't want to be involved with women. So he picks someone like Iris, his sister that he knows he can't have a sexual relationship with but wants to somehow set up a platonic marriage with.

Overall, are you satisfied with Reeseville?

Yeah. But when Iris is in the trunk, I wanted to make the trunk like a womb. She's scratching with the keys to get out, like David, as a baby, was scratching to get out. But the scene missed the boat. It's not really clear. There are parts of this film I really enjoy watching, and there are two or three scenes when I cringe a little bit, and am glad when they're over. But that'll probably be the case with everything. That gives you the ability to be more aware, to think about why it didn't come out and learn from it.

What's next?

If I can get this script done, I'm gonna jump into this thing tentatively called Dirty Laundry. Right now I'm struggling with its outline. I'm trying to do a really strong outline, because you can see where you have flaws before it's in the script or on the screen. It's important to come up with the best outline you can. You gotta just keep plugging away at it, I guess. It's gonna be simpler than Reeseville. There will be fewer characters, a female protagonist, and will probably be set around here somewhere.

Article published 06.27.2004.

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