Solmund MacPherson is a filmmaker who you can always rely on to deliver work that catches you off guard. DN last spoke to him for his incredible film A Short Documentary About People Fighting which looked at a group study where violence between individuals was entirely consensual. The result was a short that was uncomfortable to watch yet deeply compelling in its deconstruction of violent habits. The same can be said for his latest film, a narrative short entitled Wolf in Dude’s Clothing. MacPherson casts his eye onto more comedic territory this time around but still maintains an explorative eye towards the absurdity of human interactions, a staple theme throughout MacPherson’s work. The film follows, as the title suggests, a wolf who finds the skin of a person in a forest that he decides to inhabit to get a taste of the human condition. DN first caught Wolf in Dude’s Clothing as part of the proceedings at NFFTY this year and is delighted to be premiering the film now for online audiences to enjoy alongside a conversation with MacPherson where he unpicks his fascination with the peculiarities of human life.
Much like your documentary about people fighting, Wolf in Dude’s Clothing has such a bizarre initial concept, where did the idea for this film come from?
I get asked a lot where the initial idea came from. It’s kind of hard to say. To be fair it’s not a very unique concept, there are lots of stories of animals disguising themselves as other animals in folklore. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like a wild animal but I certainly have. I’ve gone long, long stretches without encountering another person and when you finally meet someone even just trying to say hello makes you feel like a liar, like being a human being is some big song and dance we do to put each other at ease that we are ‘trustworthy’ and ‘friendly’ and ‘not a threat’. We are just animals and we’ve built these bizarre lives for ourselves that no other animal in history has ever experienced. It’s completely nuts that something as arcane and opaque as the stock market can ruin your life. The 2008 housing market crash destroyed families and for what? I guess I was trying to communicate how absurd I think our modern human lives are. Oh, and I also love my dog very much.
You opted for a tangible, practical design for the wolf too. Was that something you had set out for yourself from the get-go?
Another reason I wanted to make this movie is because I wanted to try and build a cool puppet. For references I was looking at Fantastic Mr. Fox, An American Werewolf in London, and stageplay puppetry. The idea was that we will never achieve photorealism with the resources we have, so let’s make it stylized. The wolf has a certain charm to him that I’ve come to appreciate, but I do think it was too elaborate of a build for me at the time and I should have found someone who knew what they were doing to help out, especially when I broke my arm in the final crunch and had to finish him with my one good hand. My girlfriend describes the wolf puppet as “grunky” and I think that’s the perfect word for him. His theatrical, kind of stylized grunkiness bleeds into the rest of the film and gives it a flavour somewhere between lowbrow camp and highbrow art.
The film is also your first narrative short in quite some time, what was it that made you want to divert into that form of filmmaking?
This was my first time directing a narrative short since shooting stuff with a DSLR as a teenager, so I’m glad to hear from audiences that the voice was distinct. I try to be deliberate and precise when possible, but I think that you really need to do your best to embrace the chaos of many artists working together with grace and understanding or you’ll go insane. Even though I’ve known Kitty Kerr, the designer, for a million years and Matt Schween, the cinematographer, and I have shot a few non-narrative things together, it was kind of luck of the draw that our stylistic sensibilities were as copacetic as they were.
I was trying to communicate how absurd I think our modern human lives are.
How did you collaborate with Matt to achieve the visual feel of the film? And similarly, what was your process when working with Kitty?
Matt and I storyboarded the hell out of the film, printing up all the boards around his basement walls, then Kitty and I would dress only the specific frames that we knew we’d be shooting. Dressing so little saves resources but also contributes to the film’s style, because it adds a theatricality to it. Like the entire universe of the film exists only within the frame.
And how does editing a narrative short differ from your experience editing documentary footage?
Editing was the longest part of the process. There were a few scenes that took me weeks because I’d sit down to edit, get riled up about some stupid mistake I’d made on set that’s “ruining the entire movie and my career and I’ll never make another movie again” then I’d go for a walk or make a coffee to cool off and think about it and repeat the process ad nauseam. I spent more time getting mad at myself than actually editing. I think I could save a lot of torment by working with an editor, maybe next time.
The theatricality of the film is also backed by an epic score. Again, was that another aspect of the film you had locked down going in?
For the music, my guiding principle was that a short film doesn’t have enough time to properly establish a musical theme so you need something distinct and memorable to build that connection immediately, and for this film specifically it also needed to be public domain because we had no money for licensing or a composer. There’s a great performance of The Four Seasons by John Harrison and the Wichita State University Chamber Orchestra that’s public domain so I knew even as early as storyboarding that I’d be using that piece, but while editing I found a pipe organ arrangement/performance by Xaver Varnus on YouTube that suited the film better, and he graciously let us use it free of charge. My goal with the Vivaldi is that the first time you hear it you think “ah, I know this song, cute scene!” and the second time you hear it you are reminded of his true form and it gives the last few minutes a sense of inevitability, or doom, as to what is to come.
You mentioned earlier about the effects in the film being stylised over photorealistic, did that ideology extend to working with Erik Athavale on his performance as the wolf? He perfectly rides the line between a kind of innocent observer and an impulsive feral animal.
Working with Erik was a breeze because he’s just really really good. I think what you’re picking up on mostly comes from discussions we had about the wolf not being sinister, that he’s lost and afraid in a strange place and desperately trying to stay under the radar. He knows enough about being human to feel remorse but isn’t able to control himself. There was an original conception of the wolf as more of a Patrick Bateman type, like very high status, but I don’t know, it felt wrong and I’m glad we went in the other direction. A wolf is not an in-control badass when it gets discovered in an urban environment, it’s on the run. Even the cat scene, sure he’s kind of scary and doing something ‘bad’ but it’s really just damage control, he’s trying to find an outlet, he doesn’t want to be a wild animal but he has no choice, it’s what he was bred to do and he cannot escape that.
The idea was that we will never achieve photorealism with the resources we have, so let’s make it stylized.
How did your experience making documentaries inform your approach to making Wolf in Dude’s Clothing, if at all?
To be totally honest the doc had so little forethought that it didn’t really inform much. I am way too neurotic to approach filmmaking with any significant degree of improvisation on set, behind or in front of the camera, so the amount of planning and stylistic choices for this film in particular kind of destroys any of that doc-feel that some filmmakers bring into their work. Obviously there is discovery on the day, the scene with the wolf looking at the deer photo was a last minute substitution for two scenes that we had to abandon due to time, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Bizarrely, Siyee found that deer photo on location, and now I can’t imagine the movie without it.
Will you be returning to docs next or making another narrative short?
Right now I’m primarily focused on writing, Drew and I are working on a few things together, and my skills and interests are more suited to narrative filmmaking than documentary filmmaking, but at a festival I attended a few years ago I saw a film that was essentially a beat-for-beat remake of a well-known documentary but with a different, and worse, ending. There’s no excuse for your fictional story to be a slightly crappier version of a true story! So despite the fact that I’m mostly just pursuing narrative films, I am ultimately a lot more concerned with telling a good story than I am with the format with which I tell that story.