Friday, June 16

COYOTE Interview

Every year when they roll-out the Phoenix Film Festival schedule, I look through every film being offered and create a master list of what I’d like to see. And every year, there is always one film that I’ve haven’t heard about yet in the press that grabs my attention. This year it was COYOTE.

The idea of a future with teleportation, but with a very polarized society on immigration (like today), had me wanting to see how this story could play out and if it could offer any tips for us in the present so our future doesn’t feel as divided as today.

Did the film hold up to my expectations? Absolutely, and even more so with a climax and ending that came at just the right time and with an unexpected twist.

COYOTE was my most anticipated film, the first film I watched, and incidentally, the one I talked up the most with fellow filmgoers. So to have the opportunity to talk to the writer/director, Dustin Curtis Murphy, was a cherry on top for this film experience.

And I hope you too will have a memorable experience with this film after reading this Q&A and catching it on VOD/Digital release Tuesday, June 20, 2023.

Our society may just become a better place thanks to your viewing.

Theresa Dillon (TD): You started your career very young. At 13, you were acting and then at 15 you were already behind the scenes doing film work. So, were you that kid in elementary school that knew in kindergarten, you were going to make it to Hollywood? 

Dustin Curtis Murphy (DCM): Yeah, pretty much. I started off my first acting debut on stage when I was five years old and then I was doing a lot of regional theater. But I really focused on filmmaking when I was about 13. I think I made my first film at 11. You know, with mom’s video camera in the backyard. It was a Western with paper mustaches taped on. 

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in Southern California where my school taught video and film production classes. I remember those classes were very popular and I had to beg to be let in because it was full at the time. But I made my way into it. Then became the teacher's pet, did their full course and became the teacher's aide as well. 

But yeah, the only things I ever wanted to be before I wanted to be a filmmaker were things based on movies. Like I watched Indiana Jones and I was like, "Oh, I'm gonna be an archaeologist." And then I'd watch a lot of space movies and sci-fi. "Oh, yeah, I want to be an astronaut." And then I realized, well, the common thread here is they're all based around movies. So if I pick movies, I can do anything.

TD: Yeah, exactly. You're well known for short films and you're the festival director for the Kino London Short Film Festival. What made you decide that COYOTE was the story you wanted to tell in your first full length feature?

DCM: It's been a long journey to my first feature. So I've written several screenplays and if you want to take it all the way back, my senior project for high school was a feature screenplay. Most of my 20s was kind of stuck in this development space, coming up with a lot of ideas, developing them, but nothing fully making it all the way through to production. 

Meanwhile, I kind of honed my craft as a short filmmaker which is probably a good thing because I think it made my debut features better. 

There was a lot of things that could have been my debut feature that I'd say I'm really passionate about but with COYOTE, specifically, I had gotten to a point where I was making enough short films, and I found the medium a bit restrictive, because you always have to go to tropes and the quickest way to tell your story. And I absolutely love character development and exploring new ones. I love layering complex psychology into the characters, which is very difficult or sometimes impossible to do in the short form. 

My most successful short film was called SAMARITAN, which was a very grounded sci-fi film. And based on the success of that, we were able to pitch it around to places and I'd written the feature script of it, but it was a bigger budget and something that was a bit too challenging to pull off for a debut feature. So I wrote COYOTE in mind saying, “Okay, how can I pull back things?” 

For example, in the opening scene, it's a really powerful scene, and probably one of my favorite scenes I've ever shot between two characters. We could have easily gotten it with a group of 20, 30, 40 refugees, and then, a lot of military on the other side, and blown up the budget.

But with COYOTE, it was "Okay, how can I tell the story I want to tell at the most budget effective as possible?" That when in those pitching rooms, you're more likely to get a yes than a no. 

All of the ideas that I tend to develop are around that social angle going into them but I love playing with genre. So in a way, I'm extremely happy that COYOTE is the first project to get off the ground because I'm very proud of the themes of the messages I was able to explore in it. 

But sometimes it feels like it chose me, rather than me choosing it.

TD: That's awesome. And speaking of the blending of genres, one of your first big projects was a sketch comedy series. Was moving from comedy into dramatic, genre bending, social themes difficult?

DCM: Yeah, it is. I really respect comedy. Where it's interesting is that sometimes it doesn't get as good of a rep. You know, comedy films are less likely to win awards, things like that. I think comedy is infinitely harder to pull off - to make people consistently laugh. When you choose a more dramatic route, you kind of just lean into the reality of situations and it's not always about, oh, how quickly can I get to the next joke. So I do really respect that about comedy. 

But comedy is also difficult because people find different things funny. And the things that I found funny, oftentimes, were a bit more niche than what was really popular in the online sketch comedy world. And a lot of times I was even starting to lean into social commentary but using a little bit of a comedic lens for it. So I almost feel like it was something I just naturally grew out of. 

TD: How did the idea for COYOTE come about?

DCM: Yeah, it was interesting, because I've tried to trace it down to its origin and I always write notes on my phone and so we found the original note, and it was, "How would teleportation logistically affect issues like immigration?" So that was always the source.

I tend to think that a lot of sci-fi/fantasy tends to lean a bit more utopian. My style as an artist is a little bit more dystopian. I tend to think of new technologies opening up a can of worms that people don't realize they're opening until it's too late. You can go back to examples, like the atom bomb or social media, you know, things that people thought would be great tools for humanity. But then suddenly, they're being used in ways that nobody ever thought or the creators themselves thought it wouldn't be used. 

I was just thinking more logistically around, imagine anybody can teleport anywhere, how would that work? How would national security work? How could this technology be abused, which led me toward the human trafficking angle. 

I'm always a big fan of underdog characters and people that have really big challenges ahead of them. My heart goes out to real life refugees, and I wanted to have a real positive on-screen portrayal of refugees, making them heroes of the story, especially with a lot of political demagoguery around all those people across the border are the problem. They're coming to steal your jobs. And, you know, they're not the problem. One of the big catalysts was during the presidential election hearing Trump say, oh, you know, those, those Mexicans are rapists, and they're not sending their best people juxtaposed with a situation like Jeffrey Epstein, who was rubbing elbows with all of the world's elite people who was actually a human trafficker. 

So I wanted to show how the people at the very top are often times protected to continue their cycles of abuse. While stirring people up at the bottom to in-fight with each other and point to the least of these as the source of their problems, the elite get the heat off themselves, which is where my villains come from. From concept, I wrote it as a short film and having done about three short films a year prior to writing this, I was like, I don't really need to do another short film, I really want to expose this feature. 

TD: It was very well done, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now, you've stated that you create films "in the middle," and you obviously hit social commentary points very well in COYOTE. So for such a divided time in our history, how do you make your films feel balanced? 

DCM: I think it'll be interesting to see how different people take in different things. I think if someone gets caught up in the rhetoric of messages that are trying to pull us apart, I'd be curious how somebody like that takes my film.

I like audiences to make up their own minds a lot of the time. I want to make characters fully flushed, real human beings rather than cartoon heroes and villains. I always try to go toward the truth of it, to have characters that end up being bad guys that at some point along the journey you actually like and have characters who were heroes, but they have really rough edges and things that you might not like. Just kind of be faced with that humanity. 

And the hope is, if you ever meet somebody like that, in real life, that you'll have a little bit more empathy for their situation. I think the perfect analogy for this is one of my favorite scenes in the film, the scene that opens the film, which is when this father has, unfortunately, lost his daughter to a unlicensed motorist who's an illegal immigrant. He is absolutely primed to be angry at illegal immigrants, which is, you know, very understandable with his background. 

And, he's listening to this host on the radio telling him who the problem is, and how the problem is these illegal immigrants, and he's mourning, and he's trying, and he has all this frustration and anger inside of him. He's trying to find some form of justice in the world. So he goes out to get him some illegal immigrants. And inadvertently, he ends up being becoming guilty of essentially the very thing that happened to him. So the cycle continues. 

I guess that's really my goal with the piece is hopefully, people can see the humanity of both sides of it, which I know can be very difficult to do. And not everybody's interested in. But at least there'll be a good conversation starter. And I think that's kind of the goal of art is, art can ask very, very interesting questions, to hopefully spawn people to come up with solutions and answers. Art isn't the answer in itself, but it's the conversation starter.

TD: In my personal opinion, COYOTE is also very feminist film. Did you do any research or get feedback from women when making this film? 

DCM: The script was written relatively quickly with not too much time for feedback, but I did work with a lot of the actresses because it's a female led cast. If I'm perfectly honest, it wasn't like an agenda like "Oh, I have to have strong female characters."

I treat my male and female characters the same when I'm writing - I just really want interesting, compelling people.

And I think a lot of the times, if you look at a lot of strong female-led films, it also maybe has too much of a positive of a spin to where, with my characters, I wanted to have those positive female characters, and then ultimately, some negative female characters and some parts that isn't very many positive male. But there are some characters that surprise you.

I think life is complex and I'm really just after that reality. I'm fascinated by psychology and the reasons why people do the things that they do. 

I think there's a lot of amazing, strong women out there. And I think if you're paying attention, you’ll understand how to write them if you're in tune psychologically.

TD: Did you purposely decide to make the setting such a juxtaposition? To be in this vintage, well-kept, proper house in the UK, during a time of great advances in technology felt comforting yet unnerving.

DCM: Yeah, we scouted several locations and I found this place, Lake House, which is a historic house here in the UK. It was just a great location. It was 50 bedrooms so we could come there as a cast and the crew took over the top floor as our sleeping quarters, and then shot out of the other bedrooms. 

And for me, it was a big juxtaposition to what we were trying to do in the first part of the film, which was that dystopian war zone, grunge and that was really what I was after the pristine, opulent wealth juxtaposed with the squalor.

****SPOILER ALERT!!!****
Skip this question to avoid spoiler

TD: Let's talk about the ending. I don't want to give it away to viewers but my jaw dropped. You could have easily gone a different route. Why did you choose that ending and did you have an alternate? 

DCM: So we did try a couple of things. The shots were always there so the ending wasn't too different. But one of the last additions was Anya's voice at the end of it. We played it without her voice, and it left a more open interpretation of what that was.

To me, that ending was always there, it was always that the characters were reunited. But not everybody got that from some of the test screenings that we did. And I just felt that the film goes to some really dark, heavy places so in order to make that more palatable, people needed a slight lift at the end, rather than just being a sucker punch. 

But to me, I always have difficulty trying to find the balance between happy endings and tragic endings. And you know, a lot of times we don't get happy endings in real life. So if you're going for realism, sometimes forcing a happy ending feels a bit false. But sometimes the justice that you can get from seeing it in a film kind of replaces the lack of justice in life sometimes. 

I think that this film in particular, quite frankly, is the darkest film I've ever done, I wanted that little bit of hope at the end and to not make the audience hate me.

TD: Obviously your films focus on issues around health care, women's rights, police brutality, climate crisis, and immigration, but what is the one issue you feel the most passionately about that you would like to see solved in your lifetime?

DCM: I mean, for me, I guess it would be climate change and climate crisis. I mean, there's so many important issues to focus on. But I feel like if we don't get that one right, none of the other one's matter. 

They all matter now in the short term but in the long term, if we can get that massive goal of figuring out how our species will survive during this cataclysmic time, then we can have the space to focus on racial justice and gender equality and all those things.

TD: Do you have a favorite genre since you have played in so many?

Writer/director - Dustin Curtis Murphy
DCM: I adore sci-fi, I really do. It's so fun to work in that space and I'm still developing several projects. But whatever the project is, whatever the genre is, the projects relate to real life in some clever way.

So it can be a drama, it can be a comedy, it can be a horror, but it's not just about entertaining. It's about saying something about modern society. But I love all genres. I mean, one of my absolute favorite films of the past decade was TRIANGLE OF SADNESS, because it's satire and brilliant social commentary. That makes audiences uncomfortable. 

And at the same time, films like INTERSTELLAR totally blew me away, and smaller films, like FIRST REFORMED by Paul Schrader. 

I like seeing every genre if it's done really well.

TD: Last question, I read that you love a good twist. In your opinion, what is the best twist in film history?

DCM: I mean, it's tough, because you have to look at it from a historical perspective, as well. Some of the best twists have obviously been spoiled because it comes from so long ago. I doubt anybody new watching STAR WARS films isn't going to get the twist. They'll be like, "Yeah, of course, that's done. I already know that." It's so built into the lore of society at this point. 

One of my absolute favorite model films of all time is PSYCHO by Alfred Hitchcock. What's so brilliant about it to me, is not just the twist at the end, but the twist throughout it and how there were twists, even in how the film was marketed, to where the film was marketed with Janet Leigh being the lead of the film. 

So imagine walking into that cinema in 1960, saying, "Oh, I'm gonna watch a film about this character," and then that character gets killed off 30 minutes into the film. The rest of the film, you're going, "Okay, what am I watching? You just killed off your lead character with your star actor, and you have an hour of your movie yet."

I really love things like that. And there's obviously the great twist at the end. I would say PSYCHO takes the award for the best twist of all time.

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