With a score of otherworldly electronica repeatedly tipping the audience off kilter, every scene pulsating with an unsettling undercurrent, and a central character so flawed he’s almost impossible to care about, Sickboy is not exactly a breezy watch. But there is an acrid authenticity to this portrait of a fragile, self-destructive and heartachingly human New Yorker, and an immense amount of style (though never romanticised), that seeps skin-deep into the viewer and lingers long after the credits roll. Grounded by an exhilarating performance by Antonio Magro, the fourteen minute drama utilises its themes of homelessness and addiction as a context, rather than an exposé, making Sickboy an intimate, character-driven piece of district cinematic brilliance as dark as it is compelling. DN caught up with Director Julian Muller to chat about stylistic gravitas, faux activism and humanising homelessness.
Can you tell us about what inspired Sickboy?
The initial seed came from a desire to tell a story about the issue of homelessness in New York City; there’s a statistic that 50% of all New Yorkers are just one paycheck away from being homeless, and I wanted to create something that was in conversation with that vulnerability. Sickboy was definitely a collaboration between myself, the writer, Conor Champley, and Antonio Magro, the actor who played Jeff, and we knew of a story about a guy who survived on the streets by meeting women and going home with them every night. I was interested in building on that to show a more personal, intimate journey of what that life might look like.
Why did you choose to shoot it on film and did that create any challenges on set, and later in the edit suite?
I chose to shoot on film because I felt the material warranted a grittier, more immersive feeling than what I thought could be achieved digitally. I felt that the viewer would be able to fall into the world we were creating more easily with film, and in my opinion, film feels a little more timeless. The cinematographer, John Kopec, and his team were amazing and I am so grateful to them for being game to take on this challenge with me and be so patient during the process.
I felt the material warranted a grittier, more immersive feeling than what I thought could be achieved digitally.
On set, we did a lot of rehearsals before shooting and had to be very efficient with our coverage. If I could have had another day or two to shoot that would have been great, but we had to work with the limited resources available to us. The edit process was pretty similar to my usual workflow since I edited the film digitally, but the biggest challenge there was having to wait to get the film back to see what we had shot. Challenges aside, if I had the option to shoot every project on film I would!
Initially, the score seems a bit out of place, like it’s better suited to an 80s sci-fi. But it soon becomes clear that the unsettling synths reflect the character’s inner turmoil and the effect is quite staggering. How did you and composer Justin Hood achieve this?
Justin Hood’s style is very textural and ambient, but he also conveys a spirituality in his music that I knew would humanize Jeff and his story. For us, creating the right score was such an important part of the process. The writer, Conor Champley, and I both felt the piece needed a score that was otherworldly, to really transport us into Jeff’s head so we could feel the emptiness and despair that he was experiencing. Justin really ran with the concept and created a theme that we fell in love with – then it was just a matter of working with him to create moods and variations that could run throughout the film to elevate each particular moment.
Jeff is undoubtedly flawed, but he is also kind, witty and generous. Why did you create these contrasting nuances in his character?
It was extremely important to me that Jeff not be purely good or purely bad, so I am grateful that this aspect of his character comes across in the film. I felt a responsibility since we were portraying someone who is homeless to make sure we were portraying him not as a villain or monster, but as a human with his own strengths and weaknesses. Antonio did an incredible job of understanding and conveying the nuance of this character, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for taking on the challenging work of inhabiting Jeff so fully and compassionately and delivering a great performance under pressure. The goal here was to humanize homelessness – a circumstance that many of us are always on the edge of becoming. We were interested in depicting the nuance, rather than making it one way or the other.
Jeff goes to some lengths to convince complete strangers that he is living a better, happier life – a seemingly futile exercise. But in reality, society is obsessed with doing the exact same thing through social media. Why was drawing this parallel important for the film?
Drawing the parallel to social media in particular wasn’t at the top of my mind, but I do think you’ve tapped into the pressure that it creates for all of us to put up a facade of a perfect, happy life instead of acknowledging our own blind spots. Even in our current moment, as we’ve seen an outpouring of faux activism and virtue signalling across social media in response to the brutal police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, we must look deeper to see what actions are behind what people say or appear to present on social media. Bringing it back to Jeff, I think showing how he is able to use his power and social capital as a straight white male to outwardly present a person that isn’t real can remind us how we may do this in our own contexts.
Sickboy is pretty bleak. Is this a reflection on how you see the world and if so, is there any hope for us or are we all doomed just like Jeff – forever making the wrong choices and succumbing to our weaknesses?
My personal outlook on life is generally optimistic, and I believe that people who are in tough spots can and do turn their lives around. That’s how I see Jeff – someone on a path, but still growing and learning. In this film, I was interested in showing his “bottom” so that viewers could walk a mile in the shoes of someone experiencing a particularly dark time in his life. Some feedback I’ve gotten for the film is that Jeff isn’t a very sympathetic or likeable character, which is one perspective, but we have to consider his potential for personal growth.
I don’t think every story has to be triumphant or hopeful to be important.
I also believe film is a way to shine light on the areas of society we tend to ignore or try to keep in the dark. I don’t think every story has to be triumphant or hopeful to be important. Sometimes, we just need to spend some time with someone who is not ourselves, to start to expand our understanding of the spectrum of humanity. We like to label things as good or bad, but there is so much in between, so much life and honesty to be illuminated.
Were you influenced by any particular films or filmmakers?
I was definitely influenced by the Safdie Brothers’ films like Heaven Knows What, Good Time, and The Pleasure of Being Robbed (I think you can definitely hear a little Good Time in our soundtrack). I love the raw emotion and grittiness of their films and wanted to emulate that, especially in portraying darker subject matter and characters who are lost or struggling with addiction or depression. I was also influenced by filmmakers who embrace realism, like John Cassavetes, Frederick Wiseman, Sean Baker, and Josh Mond.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m developing a documentary idea, and am also staying busy with a steady stream of commercial and branded content work. I know Conor is continuing to write shorts and feature scripts, so hopefully another collaboration is on the horizon for us!
Sickboy is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.