Some films come through the DN letterbox which are instant hits. As soon as I watched the opening sequence of Zach Bandler’s Torn I knew we had to programme it. It’s slick, hilarious and most importantly, like nothing I’ve seen before. It takes risks to write and showcase stories that are about comedically uncomfortable issues but, as I said, Bandler and his crew had the confidence to go from shot one, and the film doesn’t let up, all the way to its finale. DN is very excited to be presenting the Online Premiere of Torn today and spoke with Bandler about the comfort in the uncomfortable.
What initially inspired you to make a film about this medical condition?
At the risk of Screenwriter Max Spitulnik never speaking to me again, the inspiration for the film is autobiographical, and we had both experienced similar health…situations. So, we knew about the other’s figurative and literal pain. Too much information, but you asked. I’m also a pretty anxious person, a hypochondriac, and love dark comedy, all of which Max knew I’d respond to in a script. We’ve been screenwriting collaborators for the better part of a decade and started as actors together in New York City before that, so there’s a symbiosis in our relationship that carried over naturally into writer and director. Thus, when Ryan Watkinson, who plays the protagonist in the film, came to Max and asked him to write a film they could make, Max replied, “Sure, but I want Zach to direct”. I’m honestly not sure what Ryan was expecting, but he gave us free rein to showcase him as an actor. I guess the lesson is if you don’t want your butt onscreen in close-up for the world to see, then maybe don’t trust any writers.
Max is very experiential and he’s not afraid to get personal in his stories. We workshopped a different script idea first, but it wasn’t really resonating with all of us. Then one night, he sent me the script for Torn. As soon as I finished it, I pictured in vivid detail the horror on the faces of all my loved ones as they looked up at the screen in the theater. I texted Max “This is the one”.
It feels like a strange question to ask given the comedic nature of the film but, at its core, are you hoping that when audiences watch Torn they’ll feel more comfortable to talk about this issue?
This film is ridiculous and nothing brings me more joy than to hear audiences laughing at the pitiful fragility of the protagonist. However, I really do hope this uncomfortable story makes people more comfortable opening up about health and bodies. We all suffer something in silence because the thought of admitting it causes us a tidal wave of fear, shame, and humiliation. But trust me that it’s actually pretty liberating to be able to take a risk and say, “Yep, this happened to me,” only to be met by someone else’s, “Oh my god, that happened to me, too!” It’s such a relief to not be alone that the embarrassment literally vanishes. And after making the movie, I swear I’ve become go-to therapist for all my friends with their Number Two misadventures. Not exactly what I had in mind but…
I really do hope this uncomfortable story makes people more comfortable opening up about health and bodies.
I also think laughing about our fear of death is an important medicine for life. The news and social media thrive on our terror, whether it’s brain-eating amoebas in lakes, great white sharks, or Romaine lettuce. It turns out pretty much everything will kill you, so let’s just chill out and enjoy our time here a little bit. I come from a family that embraces gallows humor. My 92 year old grandfather should seriously have his own HBO special, and I’ve always found that type of joking makes my own mortality just a little less horrifying. I mean, we might as well give death the middle finger every so often, because it’s going to get the last laugh over us all some day.
Have you had any memorable audience responses?
People tend to have strong responses to this film, which makes me feel like I’ve done my job. If you love it or hate it, I’m happy. I want visceral feelings, it’s mediocrity that is death to me. Don’t get me wrong, I always hope people are going to laugh. The first sequence can get some audible gasps in the theater, but at one particular screening right after the surgeons first appear, someone said very loudly in the silence of the next scene, “this is f***ed up,” and the whole audience laughed. I love spontaneous outbursts from live audiences.
Right before the film started playing festivals, I did get a little nervous about how women and anyone who wasn’t a straight cisgender man would feel watching it. The surface layer of the plot pokes quite a bit at the masculine fear of ‘butt stuff’, and I didn’t want anyone to feel alienated. Then during a post-screening Q&A, someone of the female persuasion raised her hand and said quite matter-of-factly, “I’ve literally said to my husband exactly what that wife said to him in bed.” The whole room cracked up. I was relieved, because a huge part of the movie deals with the loss of objectivity we suffer as our anxiety takes over. When Tess’ character says that line, it’s reality knocking to be let back in. Also, I’m pretty sure that dialogue was taken verbatim from Max’s wife. Clearly she’s not the only woman who has voiced it.
That first scene is hilarious, did you always envision the film starting out like that?
Thank you, and yes. There was a point in pre-production where we inserted an establishing scene into the script first, with Ryan and Tess’ characters in bed watching TV. Just to get more context on their relationship and the world. But I honestly just shot it as back-up, in the event the exposition became necessary during the edit. For me, thrusting the audience right into the shock and stress of the conflict was way more crucial. This is a short film, there’s no time to mess around with the exception of a few uneasy beats that foreshadow something bad is about to happen.
Similarly, did the whole structure of the film remain pretty similar to when Max first wrote it?
Yes and no. The overarching events of the story were left relatively untouched from the script, but the content, its arrangement and the absurdist tone went through quite a journey in production and post-production. I didn’t have much fear about major changes throughout the whole process though, I’ve worked repeatedly over a few films with the same talented team, namely my Producer Victor Mazzone, DP Jon Keng, Editor James Stiegelbauer, and Sound Designer Peter Bawiec. So, I trusted that we’d find the movie one way or another.
The ‘anxiety fantasies’, as I’ve fondly taken to calling them, were completely crafted on-set and in the edit. On set, Jon and I have a tendency to get into a fit of passion and throw out the shot list, so we filmed a variation of fun moments in the climactic exam room montage. In the editing room, James and I must’ve gone through four or five versions of those fantasy sequences before we finally found what felt right. We had some crazy ideas, at one point there was actually temp footage of a supernova exploding in space. Yeah… all I know is that we took our sweet time and didn’t give up. Then one day James, in a moment of deep thought, said quietly, “I’ve think I’ve got it”. When he gets like that, I know it’s time for me to leave the room, take a walk, and let him cut, and when I came back, sure enough there it was. I then proceeded to thrust the picture-lock at Peter and pretty much said, “We couldn’t get the rights to Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn for the movie, so… figure something out”. He came up with these snarling sci-fi Michael Bay Transformers sounding effects that literally shook the room during those sequences. It was utterly perfect and utterly not in the original vision.
If you love it or hate it, I’m happy. I want visceral feelings, it’s mediocrity that is death to me.
Finally, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who might be reading this before watching, but let’s just say when you find yourself with two toilets in one bathroom… you can’t not do something with that.
I’m curious to know whether Ryan took much convincing to play the lead role, given the subject matter? And, in general, did anyone involved in the film find it awkward at all?
Oh, Ryan. I can’t say I have much sympathy for Ryan since it’s basically his fault that any of us made this thing to begin with. But in all seriousness, I have a lot gratitude and admiration for him. He put a lot of trust in me as a director with regard to the demands on his physical vulnerability. It’s not an easy task to put yourself in that position, literally, and then have people laugh at you. He’s a pro, and a really talented actor who brought a lot of specificity to that role.
Meera, who plays the physician, was actually the only person in the cast and crew I didn’t know or hadn’t worked with before this film. I saw her reel and loved her work, so we sent her the script and asked her to do the role sight unseen. I met her for the first time during the one day of rehearsal we had before filming that exam scene. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous on set, not about her talent at all, she’s amazing, but about her feeling safe with the actions. I was in there after practically every take, asking her if she was okay and begging her to tell me if she was uncomfortable with anything. In hindsight, I was such a helicopter that I’m surprised she didn’t just tell me to get out of her way. Thankfully, as she told me later, she actually enjoyed doing the film and doesn’t scare off easily. I hope she meant it, because I’d love to work with her again.
What is your next project?
I’m working on my first feature, actually. It’s a drama set in the pop music recording industry, to be shot on-location at a very historic studio in Los Angeles. Our team has been working on it for a little over a year now, including getting music written and a demo track produced for the film’s original score. I’m very, very excited about it. I’ve also started directing music videos, which is something I’ve always wanted to integrate, and I’m adapting a drama short I made in 2017 called The Lightkeeper into a full-length feature, though I’ve been taking my time with that one and doing a ton of research on the medical subject matter of the story, thanks to help from the University of California, San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center.