McKinley Carlin’s hilarious comedy short Noodles Forever, featured in our Best of Fest of NFFTY 2023 selection, pictures the hideous reality of turning up at a birthday party where not only do you discover your ex is getting remarried but you have just unwittingly murdered your daughter’s beloved wiener-dog who happens to be the guest of honour. Just one of those situations is enough to ruin your day and filmmaker Carlin shrewdly frames our unfortunate protagonist’s descent into panic as he navigates each with the clumsy awkward ineptitude of someone completely at sea in their circumstances. Carlin slides through a multitude of carefully constructed plot points with ease, mounting one mishap upon another in an uncomfortable escalation of hilarity that you can’t help but curl your toes at as the hapless father’s afternoon just gets worse and worse. With Noodles Forever premiering on DN today, in tandem with its in-person premiere at the mighty NFFTY, we spoke to Carlin about being able to get through 25+ shots in a day, dragging the audience right into the face of his characters to increase the comedic discomfort and really making his protagonist’s life as tough as possible.
Where did you find the inspiration for this tale of a beloved sausage dog’s apparent demise?
The idea for Noodles Forever started a few years back, in the driver’s seat of the same exact car that’s featured in the film. I was driving home when a goldendoodle sprinted across the road in front of me. After I slammed on the brakes, I realized that it was my sister’s dog, and what would have happened if I had annihilated him in the street, right in front of my entire family. I wrote the first draft as soon as I got home.
A lot of this film is me (lovingly) torturing the audience, hoping that the depraved ones will laugh through it all.
For a few months, the script was structurally at a place where I felt comfortable making it, but there wasn’t a solid emotional core, something one of my producers, Evan O’Brien, re-iterated time and time again. Then, the emotional core came when I went through a particularly bad break up, and went to a party where I faced a similar collision of characters that my main character in the short faces. From there, the importance of vulnerability started to show. I found that the more embarrassing the script was for me personally, the better (and funnier) it got. So I kept pushing it to 11.
Your cinematography is bright, loud and saturated, how did you settle on that look for Noodles Forever?
I knew I wanted two things: 1. For the film to feel like a dream, and 2. Have the freedom to get a ton of shots on the day. Luckily, letting the sun do most of the legwork for us lighting-wise achieved both. It also didn’t hurt that my DP, Tre’len Johnston, has an insane eye and was able to frame up stunning shots quickly. Principal photography lasted three days, each lasting at most 10 hours due to sunlight. The limited lighting set ups allowed us to fly through 25+ shots each day. Tre’len worked for a camera rental house and had a super generous boss that rented us out a Sony Venice for a discounted rate. The last few shorts I’ve made have all taken place outside, only because I think it just looks so much better on a budget than inside. Huge productions will always outmatch you lighting-wise, but using the sun evens the playing field.
I love the way your close up shots right into the actors’ faces really drive us into the story. Is this how you normally work or was this particular to Noodles Forever?
This is how I usually work – I love getting right up there. But, there is a balance to be struck, or the audience grows weary. I like to keep the viewer as close as possible to the main character’s experience, so I love using close ups, POVS, anything that gets us right up to or in his eyes. Additionally, I find that it just makes things a lot funnier (and uncomfortable) when you drag the audience RIGHT up to somebody’s face. We need to see and hear everything that he’s feeling, or else the story won’t hit. Even in the script, a lot of things are described with “EXTREME CLOSE UP” and “UNCOMFORTABLE”. A lot of this film is me (lovingly) torturing the audience, hoping that the depraved ones will laugh through it all.
I like to keep the viewer as close as possible to the main character’s experience, so I love using close ups, POVS, anything that gets us right up to or in his eyes.
There are several different narrative streams running through this tragic afternoon. Tell us about pulling off that confluence of events all whilst keeping up the brisk pace of the story.
One film that really inspired me during the writing phase was Delicatessen. In particular, the setups and payoffs of that film are absolutely perfect. So in writing Noodles Forever, I wanted every single action to have a reaction, everything you see on screen is paid off eventually, and if several plot lines are paid off at once, even better. Evan, Connor Williams (our other producer) and I view stories like engines. We’d say to each other during the making of this film, “Is the engine running?” As in, are people on board? Does the audience know what’s happening, and know that they can laugh? If not, there was a problem story-wise and we’d have to tinker around with it until it fired up again. I wanted the audience to have complete trust from the first second that they could relax and enjoy the film – the engine was running and wasn’t going to sputter out.
It was a lot of me asking the producers, “Okay, how can we make it even worse for this guy?” It took many many drafts to get to a place where it all felt streamlined and honestly, the edit served as the last draft. One of the big things I really really want to talk about in this is the use of symbols. Evan and I are huge devotees of Carl Jung, specifically his ideas regarding dream symbolism. From the start I wanted the film to feel like a dream, one that had pretty identifiable symbolism, (almost absurdly in your face). I don’t have to spell out the wiener iconography, the meaning of that goes without saying…but I think a dream is successful to the dreamer if its meaning is subtle yet known in your gut. In this case, if you dreamt Noodles Forever you would know that you probably had a problem with jealousy and definitely should not text your ex.
How did you work with your cast so they all hit the right beats tonally, which they succeeded in enormously?
I got extremely, extremely lucky with our cast, and they did most of the heavy lifting for me. I was just there to make sure they understood the tone, and once they did, let them play. The grill scene was what we shot first, and I think that really helped everyone understand what kind of film we were making. From there, I just made small adjustments and made sure we hit all the necessary emotional beats. I don’t usually like to rehearse, only because I think there’s a great energy on set when actors are interacting for the first time. Especially in this film, where our main character is desperately trying to keep it together, that energy plays well for the comedy. I may change my strategy for future projects, but I felt like it worked here.
If you dreamt Noodles Forever, you would know that you probably had a problem with jealousy, and definitely should not text your ex.
I want to focus in on the score and sound design, the sheer scale of which are key components of pulling us into the story.
One of our producers (and sound designer, composer editor), Evan O’Brien, spent hours upon hours perfecting both the score and sound design. From the start we wanted it to feel huge, almost unreasonably so. It’s a film about a wiener-dog getting hit in the street, but it sounds like a religious ceremony in ancient times. It’s absurd, but that’s what makes it funny – at least to us. Watching him develop the score was wild. He tried a bunch of different things for months, and then one day it all clicked and he made the majority of the music in a day. I guess it was brewing in his subconscious.
What is next for you?
I love the team we have established for this one and have 4-5 scripts ready to go for this exact team to tackle. What’s next is seeking funding for the next one, or if we’re lucky enough, a feature. There’s one script, in particular, I want to make a dark comedy set on the Oregon Trail called Sip the Broth. But we’ll need an ox – a lot harder to acquire than a dachshund.