On special assignment for Dreams and sitting on a park bench in suburban Los Angeles, Tideland author Mitch Cullin chats with himself about visiting Regina last year, buying contraband cigarettes, the joy of gift baskets, twisted gospel hymns, and a couple of other meaningless issues.
Mitch Cullin and Peter Chang staying warm
M.C.: Well, Mitch, the reason I invited you here was because Phil Stubbs has asked if you could describe your observations on visiting the set of the Tideland movie in Regina. Do you mind?
MITCH: Not at all. Proceed… with caution.
M.C. Okay…so…what were your observations on visiting the set of the Tideland movie in Regina?
MITCH: That’s an interesting question, Mitch. The first thing that comes to mind is how cold it was in Regina. It was last November, and even though Peter & I had arrived during what we were told was a warm spell prior to the frosty onslaught… it just felt cold to us.
M.C.: How cold? Colder than an iron toilet mounted on the shadowy side of an iceberg?
MITCH: Or colder than a witch‘s tit, something like that. Anyway, November was already strange enough before we arrived there. The big election was done with here in the States, and that sort of took the wind out of a lot of us. Then there was my mother’s long wrestle with cancer which had taken a sudden turn for the worse. So a lot was on my mind when I stepped off that lawn-mower of a plane that had buzzed us from Calgary to Regina.
M.C.: And you had brought illegal substances with you from the US, didn’t you? Answer the question.
MITCH: Guilty as charged. Upon receiving an impassioned and fervent request from certain questionable characters among the camera crew… most of whom were Nicola Pecorini, mind you… I managed to smuggle two cartons of cigarettes with me… Marlboros and Camels… neither of which are sold in Canada. I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason why I was invited to the set.
M.C.: But you also wrote the book that the film is based on, correct?
MITCH: Oh, yeah, well, that too, I suppose.
M.C.: Tell us how were you treated by everyone? Any nasty glares? Give us some dirt, come on.
MITCH: To be honest, they were all lovely people. They were mostly Canadian, and, yes, it’s true… Canadians are so nice and affable that it can be a bit disconcerting at first. Even the bums on the street who hit us up for spare change were amazingly understanding when we explained we didn’t have any Canadian currency on us… and then, realizing we were Americans, they engaged us in rational conversations about our recent presidential election. The other impressive thing was that Regina is proudly socialist, from young to old, and it was interesting to see that perspective without the taint of American hoopla. Over here the negative stigma attached to socialism has been force-fed to us, so to be around people who live it and breathe it happily was insightful. As for the crew, they were all great. The whole production seemed to be moving along very smoothly. By that point, they had starting shooting in the Regina Studio soundstages, and Peter & I were allowed to roam freely all over the place, like a pair of troublesome kids… through Dell’s house, the wigwam, the kitchen of What Rocks. We were even allowed to offer suggestions for some of the vile graffiti that was scrawled on the walls of the farmhouse set. I think my input was “Mike Sucks Donkey Dick”, or something like that… which isn’t in the book, by the way. There aren’t any donkey dicks in the book, unfortunately. Maybe it was donkey dink. I can’t remember.
M.C.: Had many of the cast and crew read the book?
MITCH: Actually, I was surprised that many of them had read it. I’d just assumed everyone would’ve just stuck with the screenplay and gone no further. And that was gratifying, especially because it was the first and only time that I’ve spoken with a lot of people about the book. In fact, most of the crew and cast knew the story in much better detail than I do. After walking through the sets and seeing Jodelle and Jeff act out their parts, I was continually being asked, “Is this how you imagined it when you wrote the book?” A fair question. However, it’s hard these days for me to remember exactly what I was imagining when I wrote the book. Perhaps if it were the only novel I’d ever written, my recall would be more perfectly defined in my head… but four other of my books have come and gone since Tideland was published… and I’m knee-deep into the next one, so I could only answer them by saying, “Well, if it’s not what I imagined, it will be.”
Outside the Studios, as snapped by Peter
M.C.: Rumor has it that Phil Stubbs successfully dodged Vincenzo Natali’s razor-sharp documentary camera, despite the filmmaker’s daring attempts to digitally snag him. Were you lucky enough to escape Vincenzo’s roving cinematic eye?
MITCH: Alas, I did not escape, nor did I escape Terry’s wide-angled stare. That said, it could all end up in the digital trashcan, and the world might be a better place for it. Come to think of it, I didn’t escape Jeff Bridges’s camera either. Jeff shoots these amazing black-and-white images with an old Widelux, one of those cameras with a panning lens, the type that was used back in the day to take formal photographs of large groups. If you’re fast enough you can appear on both sides of a single shot. Oh, yeah, and I’m in the short film that Peter made in our hotel room…just because we were wimps and it was too cold to go outside and film around Regina… so when we weren’t on the set, we were either eating out with people, or drinking in the hotel bar, or making a short film about the gift basket that was waiting for us in the room when we first arrived. I’ve never had a gift basket before, and it was a grand sight to behold. Too grand, actually, for the likes of me. We only managed to munch our way through half of it by the time we had to leave…so on the day we left Regina we ceremoniously presented the rest of the gift basket to the very sweet woman who had tended our room. She seemed mystified, but pleased nevertheless, sort of.
M.C.: I see. Where is Peter anyway? You two are usually inseparable.
MITCH: He’s hiding behind that tree over there, feeding squirrels or something.
M.C.: Oh, right, there he is. I see him now. Okay, where were we?
MITCH: You were about to ask me if this jacket I’m wearing is yours.
Documentary makers Vincenzo Natali
and Robin Crumley, producer
Gabriella Martinelli, with Mitch and Peter
M.C.: No, I was about to ask you if it was exciting watching Terry Gilliam direct a film. Was it?
MITCH: Uh, duh! Dumb question. It’s Terry Gilliam, you ass. But, yeah, it was exciting to watch him at work. Contrary to what I suspect a lot of people want to assume about him, there didn’t seem to be any overarching madness to his method… his abilities struck me as extremely controlled and well envisioned, and, too, he tended to troubleshoot rather effortlessly… but I was only there for a little over a week or so, so what do I know about what he does anyway? To be honest, I was torn though. There was a part of me that wanted to watch and experience every aspect of what Terry was doing… and he allowed me to do that while I was there if I wished to… but at the same time, I didn’t want his process to become too demystified… because I wanted to buy a ticket someday and sit down in a dark theater and simply watch the film without knowing too much about how it was filmed. So I vacillated with that in mind, sometimes sneaking away during filming to explore the sets that weren’t being used, or wandering around and talking to Vincenzo’s enjoyable crew or the cast members who weren‘t needed on the set at that moment. Peter, on the other hand, watched as much as he could from the sidelines, and that was important for him, especially as someone who is starting to find his feet as a filmmaker… it was truly a rare opportunity for him, and he took it all in like a sponge. However, one thing that I should relate… and I can’t remember exactly who told me this… maybe either Jeff or Nicola, not sure… but the wide angle lens that Terry often uses is now known in the industry as The Gilliam.
M.C.: How interesting. I didn’t know that. Anyway, you were given a part as an extra in the film. So I’m assuming you got to see a lot of Terry directing up close and from a different vantage point than what you had seen when you were just loitering around the set like a useless cockroach.
MITCH: That’s true. We all climbed into an old bus with a broken toilet that none of us were supposed to use. The bus took off into the vast wilds of Saskatchewan at dawn, driving through a landscape that really did look like West Texas to me…ten percent earth, ninety percent sky… and we didn’t return until after dusk. Peter & I were assigned the roles of disgruntled passengers, and we were seated at the back of the bus with the other extras, all of us doing our best to act upset or miserable as Jeff‘s character behaved obnoxiously. Jeff and Jodelle were about two seats in front of us, with Terry and the crew all crammed into the front of the bus. Both Nicola and Terry were amazing to watch, but Nicola in particular caught my attention, because he’s a giant of a man, and everything he shot that day was with a camera mounted on his shoulder or hung from a rope that dangled above the aisle…this large Italian genius holding and filming with this heavy camera for eight or nine hours, incredible. Jeff, too… despite having some serious back pain… was in fine form, and before the bus set off he went out of his way to shake hands, asking the names of every single person in that mismatched group of housewives, college kids, elderly men and women from the Regina area… those extras who had arrived at the studio at dawn in hopes of getting a bit role in the film. Later on, lunch was served on the shoulder of the highway, where we sat on a slope in the chilly countryside… behind us, people were pissing sleet in the fields. Then we were back on the bus and headed again toward nowhere. It was a long haul, and I had a toothache for some reason. Near dusk I drifted off to sleep, only to be awakened by Terry’s voice at close range shouting something like, “You’re bothered, you’re disgusted,” and my eyes shot open and I found myself about a foot from Nicola and the camera, with Terry looming behind him, shouting at me and Peter, “Look scared, you’re upset…!” The funny thing is that someone had ended up using the broken toilet during the lunch break, and so now the back of the bus was ripe with the stench of human waste… and it was too cold outside to open the bus windows… so it wasn’t that hard to look bothered or disturbed for the camera. Soon thereafter it started to grow too dark to film anymore, and I have this nice memory of Terry settling down into a bus seat and slowly falling asleep while the soundman recorded the ambient noise of the bus rumbling down the highway, returning us all to Regina.
M.C.: But you screwed it all up, didn’t you? They needed you again… you and Peter… but you bailed on them. Isn’t that true, Mitch? Isn’t it?
MITCH: Yes, it’s true. There was more filming to be done on the bus, not nearly a full day’s worth, but still more to be done. But I had to get back to the States.
M.C.: And you lied. You said you had to get back because you hadn’t left enough food out for your cats.
MITCH: That wasn’t a lie. That was true! I was only supposed to be in Regina for a week… and I’d left my cats alone in the apartment with just a little more than a week’s worth of food. I mean, we’d already stayed there longer than was planned anyway. You think I wanted to return home?
M.C.: You bastard! Have you forgiven yourself?
MITCH: No. I never will. Especially when I was introduced to the doppelgangers that were filling our places on the bus. But my cats were really happy to see me when I got home. They’ve forgiven me, and so has the baby Jesus.
M.C.: You’re pathetic. At least tell me that you got to spend some time with Terry off the set.
MITCH: Yeah, I did. On most mornings Terry and his daughter Amy picked us up at our hotel and let us ride with them over to the studio, and we returned that way in the evening. And then Jeff’s room was directly above ours, so we could hear him creaking around up there from time to time. We also had dinner out with various folks. On our first night there, Terry and Jeremy Thomas took us to a rather lengthy wine and dine, where the alcohol poured so freely that I don’t remember what we ate or talked about… except Michael Chabon… and My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe, a song by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band… ever heard of it?
M.C.: Isn’t that a Kinks’ song?
M.C.: Are you sure?
MITCH: Yep, I’m pretty sure.
M.C.: Speaking of music, wasn’t there a period when you were shamelessly plying Terry with the recordings of your friends, artists like Howe Gelb, Giant Sand, and Neko Case.
MITCH: I have been horribly guilty of that, yes.
M.C.: Why would you do something like that?
MITCH: Well, they are brilliant songwriters and musicians, and as Howe’s music in particular was especially important to me during the writing of Tideland, it felt like a natural extension of the book in a way. But I’m always sending music to people, not just Terry. It’s something that I like to do. I can’t help myself. I’m weak along those lines. But I’m a giver, Mitch. I give.
M.C.: And yet you…not your musician friends… are the one who ends up getting a song recorded for the film,
and you’re not even a so-called musician let alone a talented songwriter… I’d argue not even a talented writer! How do you explain yourself out of that one, you pig?
MITCH: Look, it’s a simple little gospel hymn, that’s all. Nothing special… just something for Janet McTeer’s character to sing, I think. I’m not even sure it’ll be in the film. I mean, I didn’t even write the music for it, okay? I don’t even sing it. I didn’t even write the first verse, if you must know. You’re judging me unfairly. You know what, I’m done with this interview. I don’t like how you’re acting. You’re being rude.
M.C.: No, wait, I’m sorry. Please don’t go yet. You’re right, I was being rude. Please, I want to ask about the current status of the Tideland novel.
MITCH: Make it quick. You’re really starting to piss me off.
M.C.: I just want to know why it’s so hard to find a copy of the book in the States? And when can we expect a tie-in edition for the film?
MITCH: I have no idea. It’s needlessly complicated at the moment, and I don’t have an easy answer for you. The main problem is that there’s one or two too many chefs in the kitchen on this one, and I’m just the short-order cook, apparently. The other problem is that while several larger publishers are interested in putting it out as a tie-in edition, none of them are willing to jump on it because the film doesn’t yet have U.S. distribution. It’s a bit dumb, because there is some concern that if the film isn’t released in the States then they’ll get stuck with the novel. And, of course, they aren’t far-sighted enough to realize that any Terry Gilliam film is bound to get released over here. I mean, Christ, even a movie about Terry not getting a film made got released in the States. It’s a very bothersome situation, and very frustrating in many ways, not the least of which is that Dufour might just end up putting the tie-in out as a paperback edition, but if that happens I seriously doubt it will get marketed on the scale that a larger publishing house would do it…and Dufour has also said they might not use any images or artwork from the film if they do put it out, which I personally just don’t think is a very good idea for a tie-in edition. As for why the novel is so hard to find these days, I can’t say for sure, although it might have something to do with Dufour having a dwindling stock at hand to ship out. So Dufour is waiting to see, other publishers are waiting to see, and I’m waiting to see. So we’ll see.
M.C.: I see. But there will be a tie-in edition with the film at some point, right?
MITCH: At some point. But I might be the last to know about it.
M.C.: Your publisher these days is Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday. How are they treating you so far?
MITCH: Like a prince. I love everyone there, every single one of them. Another big lesson for me… not all corporate concerns are corrupt or amoral. Who knew? I mean, they’ve allowed me to bring the creative
freedom that I had with smaller presses up into their world, while also making it possible for me to pay the
rent without starving. In that regard, I feel very, very lucky.
MC: Wow, that’s really great, Mitch. I’m happy for you.
MITCH: Thanks, Mitch. I appreciate it. Aside from being a bit of jerk sometimes, you’re mostly a good man. Any other questions?
MC: Just a couple more. Are you aware that there’s been some debate on the Dreams messageboard suggesting that you might have homosexual transvestite tendencies worthy of Freudian interpretation?
MITCH: It was recently brought to my attention, yes.
MC: How do you feel about that?
MITCH: Well, it’s a bunch of rubbish, isn’t it? Complete and utter nonsense! Whoever started that debate obviously has no insight into me or my private life. Frankly, Mitch, I’m a little disappointed you even brought it up here. I thought this was going to be a friendly exchange, and you keep ruining it with idiotic comments. Next question.
MC: I apologize. I just thought you might want to clear the issue up for everyone.
MITCH: There’s nothing to clear up. Next question, please.
MC: I’m sorry. Can I at least say that I think that mini-skirt looks great on you.
MITCH: Oh, stop it!
MC: No, I mean it.
MITCH: Really? You think so?
MC: I do. It’s hard to make orange polka dots work anymore, but you’ve done it. And your glitter lipstick is an inspired touch, very alluring.
MITCH: Now you’re flattering me.
MC: I’m just being honest, Mitch.
MITCH: Well, I guess I should confess that I’m wearing a Freudian slip beneath all of this.
M.C.: Fuck, that’s so hot! I’m actually aroused by the thought of it.
MITCH: God, when is this Q & A foreplay going to end? Kiss me!
M.C.: Oh, Mitch…!
MITCH: Yes, Mitch, yes! Oh, yes…!
M.C.: I love you!
MITCH: I love you, too! Oh…oh…