With cinematographer and 2nd unit director credits already under his belt, Adam Rehmeier burst onto the indie film scene with his feature film directorial debut, The Bunny Game (2012), in which Rodleen Getsic plays a desperate prostitute who ends up fighting for her life after hooking up with a maniacal trucker. The critically-acclaimed black and white film is somber, gritty, and saturated with panic and dread.
Rehmeier's follow-up feature is something of a companion piece: Jonas (2013) is a brooding, sinister, and intelligent film that's as fascinating as the director's methods in creating it. Gregg Gilmore plays Jonas, who mysteriously washes up on a beach, then proceeds to gather an audience for "God's BIG Message." Jonas will be released September 11th, and you can watch it in its entirety, absolutely free, at jonasmovie.com.
Rehmeier generously took some time to discuss with FEARnet his unique films and his intriguing filmmaking tactics.
FEARnet: Tell us about the film work you did before you embarked on The Bunny Game. How did that experience prepare you for directing your first feature film?
REHMEIER: I went to film school in Chicago, and during my time there in the late 90s, I shot several gritty, low-budget features between semester breaks. I was on that cusp where shooting 16mm and 35mm was still common, so my production mentality has always been rather conservative and specific. Execution, critical focus were always top priority. It was just too fucking expensive to make a mistake then, so I didn’t. Today, it seems a lot more common for filmmakers to shoot coverage, really shoot the shit out of a scene. You have to be careful, it’s very delicate, you run the risk of losing momentum and burning out your actors if you overshoot your scenes.
At some point, some producer friends hired me to document some massive event shows for the band Phish. It was drug central, spaced out campers on mile long tarmacs, beautiful, beautiful shit, really. I mean, the music was horrible, but the scene was wonderful to shoot. I was always hired to get the pretty shit, tripped out B-roll shots, things that the other operators wouldn’t notice. It was great work; I could literally wander around just grabbing shots, moments, improvising in real time.
In late 2000, I moved out to L.A., shot a short film called Henry & Marvin and used it as a calling card to get work around town. I fell into some work as a 2nd Unit Director for the Polish Bros. on their film Northfork (2002), and was able to get some more 2nd Unit work after that. Somewhere in there, shit dried up, and I took a job as a staff cinematographer for a documentary production company and worked on a couple hundred projects, mostly shooting interviews, B-roll, BTS kind of stuff. Really long hours, a ton of travel all over the country. For a while I was kind of living out of a backpack. I left that job in 2008, did a couple more features back-to-back with the Polish Bros., and shortly thereafter, began putting The Bunny Game together with Rodleen Getsic.
My background prior to The Bunny Game was pretty much traditional filmmaking. Large crews, chain of command, everyone knows their place kind of experiences. With The Bunny Game, I wanted to step outside of that structure, see what I could do all by myself as a filmmaker, be accountable for every piece of the puzzle. I wanted the experience to be intimate; I wanted to feel vulnerable during the production.
What inspired the story of The Bunny Game?
The Bunny Game, in its genesis, was a combination of some horror film ideas that I had mixed with an abduction experience of Rodleen’s several years prior. The film was not a retelling of her abduction, though her experience was an emotional reference point for her as an actor, and she viewed the production as a catharsis, working through the trauma with the mentality of an extreme sport athlete.
Describe the casting process of The Bunny Game. How did actors Jeff Renfro and Rodleen Getsic land in their parts?
I met Rodleen through a mutual friend in 2000. She was well established in the L.A. music scene and I would frequently catch her shows. I was really blown away by her playing style and voice. We’d see each other at parties and shit, eventually we started hanging out and recording music together. At some point, we started including photography with our recording sessions. What can I say? She’s really photogenic. I have taken thousands and thousands of photos of her. Our sessions covered some pretty dark terrain, her character slowly emerged, the horror film formed itself organically after years of shooting photos together.
The casting of Jeff Renfro was quite strange. I met him on the set of Northfork on the 6th day of production. We had a big company move the day before, the entire crew and all the trucks drove 300 miles across Montana to the base of Glacier National Forest... so at 6 A.M., in the middle of a fucking snowstorm, in the middle of nowhere, I had the misfortune of looking out of the window of a passenger van and making eye contact with Renfro, a teamster truck driver, who at that point in time, was ankle-deep in muck and ice and hell attempting to set up base camp... for reasons unknown, the eye contact set him off, and he attacked me as I stepped out of the van. It was a really fucking intense experience; I was caught off guard, literally had no reference point as to why he was shaking the shit out of me, screaming in my face. It was embarrassing, happening in the middle of a near-whiteout blizzard, cast and crew gawking as they passed by.
Right before shit really went south, the fight was broken up and we were forced to shake hands. That intense moment was really important to me, something that I would replay in my head for years, just because it was so random and truly terrifying. I offered Renfro the part because I couldn’t imagine working with an actor on The Bunny Game; it just didn’t feel right. Renfro is so fucking raw, tough as nails, the real deal. I drove Rodleen out to his house in Simi Valley to meet him and there was a sickening chemistry. Renfro called me a few days after our visit and was like “Man, I don’t know if I can do this film. I’m a teamster, not an actor.” I told him he didn’t have to do it if he didn’t want to, but I asked if I could come back out to his house, shoot a little in-home demonstration (like a fucking old-school vacuum cleaner salesman or something), and he agreed. I went out with my camera and said “I’m gonna shoot you for ten minutes, then we’re gonna review the tape and if you don’t like what you see you don’t have to do the film.” I shot... we reviewed... he just smiled after it finished.
Describe the unique way The Bunny Game was made. How much of the film was ad-libbed, and how much was scripted? How much of the shooting was pre-planned, and how often were you catching opportunities as they presented themselves?
The Bunny Game was a series of bullet points on a yellow legal pad. It wasn’t a script, just kind of a vague list, almost a prop, something I could hold on to when we would take our silent breaks during production. None of the shooting was planned, we only did one take of any moment in the film. The film was completely improvised, happening in real time, each moment only occurring once, so it was up to me to subjectively cherry-pick what would end up on the screen. You have to make each shot count if you’re not going to repeat action, but since we had removed ourselves from a traditional film setting (crew, trucks, lights), we were all very hyper-focused and present for each other creatively. Our shoot days were super short, typically between 4-6 hours, with isolated rest periods between each scene. I enjoy working this way, not planning things out or rehearsing, feeling inspired in the moment. For a lot of filmmakers, it’s not feasible because there are no guarantees. For me, it’s a very healthy and challenging way to work. Clock-punch filmmaking just isn’t my thing.
What inspired the story of Jonas? How does this film connect to The Bunny Game?
Prior to The Bunny Game, Gregg Gilmore and I had been collaborating for a few years, shooting some test footage and developing a story around a character named Jonas who drove around in a nondescript white van and tended to a pseudo-family of puppets, life-sized dummies, and mannequins. I introduced Gregg to Rodleen in 2006 and we came up with a film concept based on a combination of several ideas that we had: Rodleen’s real-life abduction story, plus the Jonas scenario Gregg and I had been working on. The original concept was that Rodleen’s character, unconscious and broken, was given to Jonas by a truck driver, and she became part of the pseudo-family in the white van. The types of scenarios we planned to execute were truly horrific, eventually causing Gregg to back out last-minute, which put the project in to limbo for 2 years.
So after I shot The Bunny Game, and was deep in editorial, I got a random text message from Gregg. It was November 2009, and I hadn’t seen him since the fallout from the 2006 version of The Bunny Game (with the exception of the brief appearance he made at the end of Bunny, reprising his Jonas role). He said, “I’m walking on Ventura Blvd.” I texted him back “We should make a film.” We met up to discuss concepts. Gregg didn’t want to revisit the dark terrain we had been exploring in The Bunny Game, so jokingly I suggested something squeaky clean: a bible salesman scenario. He loved it, thought it would be a great challenge, and dared me to shoot something outside of my comfort zone that incorporated religion with zero violence, sex, language. We read the bible for inspiration, eventually settling on the story of "Jonah and the Whale" to act as the narrative spine of the film. I shifted from the bible salesman scenario to something a little more mysterious: a broken man having a profound religious experience and then going to the great city (Los Angeles substituted for Nineveh) to preach God’s teachings.
Jonas was designed as a companion piece for The Bunny Game, clearly on the other end of the horror spectrum. Whereas The Bunny Game is very abrasive and loud, Jonas is much more unnerving and subtle. It was an exercise in sustaining dread and anticipation in each frame. Since it follows a character you see briefly at the end of The Bunny Game, I think there’s always an uncomfortable feeling about Jonas as a character; your brain tries to piece together what must have happened in the 18-month gap between The Bunny Game and where we pick up in Jonas.
Few films in the history of cinema have been brought to life via the techniques you employed to make Jonas. The results on screen are transfixing. Please describe your very unique methods in making this film - using non-actors opposite Gilmore, deliberately denying them rehearsal or any form of preparation at all, ad-libbing the dialog, combining narrative filmmaking with documentary disciplines, etc.
Much like The Bunny Game, the process of executing Jonas was very intuitive, fully improvised, everything stripped down to the bare essentials of filmmaking: camera, microphone, humans. I like working this way. It’s fun, full of surprises. When you work with non-actors, you can’t have the same expectations as you would working with seasoned actors, but they can offer a level of realism and magic that many trained actors have long since forgotten.
The majority of the Jonas cast were non-actors, but mixed in are a few strong character actors who I felt had the capacity to keep things real. I cast the film primarily via Craigslist, posting absurd listings for "Elderly Shut-Ins," "Female Christian Rappers," "Lonely Souls." The listings also specifically stated that it would be required that we shoot in their homes, either in their kitchens or living rooms. Sometimes I’m just really amazed how this whole shoot went down; it’s really asking a lot to come into a stranger’s house and shoot in their kitchen... and it’s kind of creepy.
Regarding my techniques for working with the cast: the people Jonas visits never knew what to expect; no seeds had been planted in their heads prior to our arrival other than the specific time we would be there. I would get my camera dialed, get everything set up in their kitchens or living rooms, and Gregg would be in Jonas mode, waiting patiently in the car. When I was ready, I would fetch Gregg and just shoot the scene with the people, never explaining anything about the process. The scenes were fully improvised. They would just start conversing and I would start shooting it, moving around them to get the various shots I needed, listening carefully to their conversations, editing things in my head as I went along. All of the sessions with the people were very short, perhaps 30-45 minutes max, and then we were back in the car, driving to our next appointment.
Jonas is a true hybrid, somewhere between a documentary and a fictional narrative. It has elements of both... the first two verses are almost completely pure cinema, void of dialogue and interaction with other humans, and then it sort of shifts into an entirely different experience once Jonas begins to go door-to-door and visit with the people. We break the foutth wall several times; the viewer essentially becoming the face of God as Jonas prays and asks for guidance in his journey.
Jonas is shot almost entirely with available light. It's a gorgeous looking movie. How did you scout your locations to best plan ahead for your lighting?
Thank you for the compliment. Available light has always been my thing. Even back in film school, my classmates would always fight over the 10Ks [10,000-watt lights], soundstages, and huge camera packages. I was always much more of a minimalist, preferring lightweight cameras and shooting my films with available light on the streets of Chicago.
Since I cast the film via Craigslist and we weren’t meeting any of the people prior to the production, I had no idea what to expect when we walked into their homes. That was a very exciting element, something I embraced rather than stressed over. When I was setting up times with each participant, I would ask them which direction their windows faced in their kitchen or living room. I got a lot of strange reactions to that question... many of them were not sure, and ended up having to use aerial views of their homes via Google Maps to find out. Once I knew for sure, I scheduled the visits to each person’s home based on where the sun would roughly be at that time of day. For kitchens or living rooms with windows facing East, I would schedule them in the A.M. to make the most of the morning light. For rooms with West-facing windows, I would schedule them in the afternoon.
Describe the editing process, and the roadblocks you worked through, that finally created the version of Jonas we'll see on September 11th.
The main roadblock I worked through on Jonas was the decision to break it up into six "verses" rather than have it play as a feature film. My original cut was 82 minutes. I was happy with my original cut, but I had to kill a lot of darlings in order to keep it within the boundaries of a proper runtime. Ultimately, it didn’t sit well with me, and it prevented me from passing it along to festival programmers or releasing the film in some manner.
Once I dropped the concept of editing it as a feature film, and embraced the idea of making it a serial, it freed me up creatively. A feature film didn’t best serve the story and content that I shot. By breaking it up into six verses, I suddenly felt inspired again, and ended up bringing the total runtime up to 111 minutes... nearly 30 minutes longer than my original version. Coincidentally, both versions still contain six minutes of taco consumption by Jonas. That was one darling I could never kill.
Why give Jonas away for free?
Something else that didn’t sit well with me, in the two years where I had finished my feature cut and was undecided on how to proceed with Jonas, was the concept of charging people to view it. The film was made for very little money, but it was a labor of love regarding my time and effort in post-production, and of course, you want to be compensated for your hard work... but there was so much truth in Jonas, the people were so honest and revealing about their personal lives, that the thought of charging for the film bordered on exploitation for me. Thematically, it made more sense just to give it away for free, much like Jonas does in the film with the bibles (and BIG message) he delivers to the chosen people.
What are some of your favorite films? Which directors inspired you to take up the craft yourself?
Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon; David Lynch's Eraserhead; Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker; Bruno Dumont's Humanité; Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small; Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher and Gaspar Noé's Enter The Void. The biggest influence for me was probably seeing a print of Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon when I was 19 years old. I grew up in the Midwest; I didn’t have any exposure to experimental cinema, and when I saw Meshes, it kind of opened me up to a whole new language and deconstructed the rules that traditional films obeyed.
What inspires you, and what disappoints you, about the current independent film landscape?
The independent film landscape is thriving right now. I don’t have any complaints or disappointments. I am inspired by new filmmakers picking up cameras and telling stories that need to be told, from their own unique perspective. I am inspired by filmmakers from the old school that have had to reinvent themselves as celluloid dissolved and the game changed. It’s a fantastic time to be a filmmaker. Technology is finally in a place where filmmakers can express themselves on a limited budget without a compromise in quality.
Compared to The Bunny Game and Jonas, what will be different about the tactics you use to make your next film?
The biggest difference with my next three features is that they will all be scripted. I have been super-busy writing this year, and now have three scripts (of various budgets) to shoot. One is a completely brutal survival film that I am planning to shoot in Canada in the spring; the other two are dark comedies, one written specifically for Saginaw, Michigan (which I am hoping to shoot this winter). You can expect complete departures from my previous films, I’m only interested in exploring new terrain with each project.