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Interview: Lucas Heyne on “Mope”


Movies are meant to capture reality in any form whether we find it too cheesy, romantic, emotional, violent, gruesome, graphic, and so on. We simply can’t ask the film to please us as all that’s required from us is to join the world that’s being captured and become a part of its pace. “Mope” is not one of those films that you can easily watch till the end. In fact, you may leave after the first ten minutes, and that’s totally fine. Because you won’t be the first or the last one who will walk out of the screening. But the biggest reward you will get towards the end, once you get to the conclusion, will totally be worth it.

As I always say, there’s no easy story to tell. Especially when that story revolves around porn industry or two friends that dream big to become the most famous adult film actors.

What happens to that dream is a sad reality that many people had to live with. During the Sundance Film Festival, the film co-written and directed by Lucas Heyne talks about the despair, fear, desire, determination that eventually leads to nowhere. But more importantly, let’s never forget, the film is about mental illness. Because no matter how hard it is, at some point, you may find “Mope” funny. But the joyful part quickly goes away to be replaced by the horror of unfulfilled life that, in most cases, is not just or fair.

This is why having Lucas Heyne in Toronto as part of the Toronto True Crime Film Festival, I could not afford missing an opportunity to talk to the filmmaker who created the most intriguing, radiant, and terrifyingly real film about real life, real people, and what happens to them afterwards when the American Dream goes wrong.

MOVIEMOVESME: “Mope” reveals that people lie sometimes for a healthier state of mind. Why did you decide to do exactly the same thing by telling the story of Steve and Tom?

Lucas Heyne: I have sympathy for people who dream about doing something but lack the talent or the work ethic to succeed. And so people tell lies to themselves to allow them to continue pursuing a difficult field.

So living in LA, there are so many people trying to be actors, trying to be filmmakers, and 99.9% of them lack some basic quality that will allow them to succeed, yet they prefer to live in delusion. And I think it’s very very sad, it’s sort of like an artists’ existential fear that you’re bad at what you do.

And so that’s where these characters are. They had to essentially tell these lies to themselves to wake up every day and keep doing what they’re doing. If they faced reality, they would know that they would never make it.

I mean it’s tragic, really.

MOVIEMOVESME: It is, but how did you even end up knowing the story, getting into this development? Because it’s not easy.

Lucas Heyne: Yeah. So there was an LA weekly article I read and then I met the writer of the article who linked me up with the main character’s family, and that gave me access to a lot of material. He wrote an 18 page handwritten suicide note that basically outlined his entire worldview. A lot of the dialogue in the movie is taken directly from anecdotes. A lot of the dialogue is from message forums he posted. I essentially scoured every bit of information I could to understand these guys, even whether it’s talking to people who knew them or reading the suicide letter. I got thousands of emails from his dad, between him and his dad.

And over a period of a year or two, just picking all this information, I just put as much as I could into the film. It’s almost every single thing that is said in the movie is based out of something that Steve said or something that happened. Even the crazier stuff and probably… and I also cast a lot of people that knew him. So like in the opening scene, all those people knew the real Steve and Tom, and the director of the opening scene shot they’re first scene in the exact same way.

And so a lot of them, they aren’t even actors, they’re just playing versions of themselves.

MOVIEMOVESME: So it’s safe to say that what you have captured in the film, or you tried to show, is actually what has been written in the 18 pages of their suicide note. And you try to pretty much recreate it?

Lucas Heyne: As much as I could. With the movie, there’s obviously certain things you have to combine. But with this, I had such a like… like the weird things like him yelling, “driven, monster hands”, that’s all the stuff I didn’t have to make up. The challenge was actually filtering it out because there was so much information and his character, maybe in the movie, is a little bit more likable than in real life. Sometimes you make compromises when you cast an actor. I thought the actor in Mope was probably better looking than the real Steve, but I liked Nathan’s performance. I thought that he captured what Steve was all about.

And that, to the point, Steve’s dad was at Sundance and he saw the movie, he thought that it was exactly like him. Even though they look a little different, it was exactly like his son. But that was really just because I just tried to take as much time as I could meeting people and listening to them and just kind of getting as much information as I could.

MOVIEMOVESME: As I was watching the first half an hour of the film, I was trying to process what it was. But I knew that the story is not simple. I was in a way happy that I am watching it, but it was so uncomfortable. And especially for the male audience, it questioned their manhood, even though in my opinion it’s about mental illness. But it all comes to whether the individual is able to satisfy himself or herself, or to satisfy the partner partner.

For you, as a director, and also as a male, how did you take this after watching the final result?

Lucas Heyne: When people say it’s uncomfortable, absolutely. It has disgusting stuff in it. It’s uncomfortable. It delves into very dark stuff. And that was, I was essentially trying to recreate what I, myself, experienced when I got deeper into the story because I would go to these sets and I would meet these people. I’d become friendly with them. And so I kind of crossed over this threshold into this world and I was essentially trying to recreate the exact same feeling I had.

And I also, it is important, it’s interesting because the film is almost entirely from a male point of view and I chose that because part of these guys’ problems were they really had no meaningful female relationships. All their ideas of women were based upon porn scenes and these like fantasies that were just completely unrealistic.

And so it warped their thinking, and I feel like that’s, there’s a lot of… the reason why I was interested in that is there’s a lot of, you see, incels or people like that, it’s actually a much bigger problem in society, I think. There was an incel that committed a mass murder in Canada actually like a year ago, like he rammed a… it was a year or two, he rammed a van, and it was essentially, it comes from an entitlement, these guys who feel entitled to female companionship and they don’t understand why women don’t like them. And they think they’re good guys. So it creates this rage.

Maybe the first manifestation of this character would be Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, one of the best films. And Steve Driver, that’s why Steve Driver loved taxi drivers. That’s one of the reasons why he gave his name, Steve Driver. He thought Travis Bickle was a hero. So he misinterpreted the film completely.

And so his whole life was just a misinterpretation. If you read his suicide note, he believed like… this is a completely serious belief, that he could finally get a girlfriend if a girl would see him in a porn scene and assigned some sort of value to him like he has self worth. And so he thought it was gonna get him a girlfriend.

That was pretty much like his main dream in life was just having a real relationship, and because of his mental illness, he was unable to read social cues. And so that obviously caused great issues with him having a meaningful relationship. He just didn’t like his body odor and all these things. He couldn’t recognize what other people were feeling like in a situation.

MOVIEMOVESME: The performances of Kelly Sry (e.g., as Tom), Tonya Cornelisse (e.g., as Tampa) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (e.g., as Steve Driver) blew my mind away. How did you find them? How did they even agree to get into this? It’s remarkable. There were no boundaries, no limits. It is what we expect from actors and they totally delivered it.

Lucas Heyne: Basically her (e.g., Tonya Cornelisse`s Tampa) character is based on a composite of two people and the great news I can tell you is that the real life version of her is actually completely out of the drug lifestyle. She’s living a good life now, a very happy life now but you would never think from the scene in Mope. But she actually came out of the story and is doing well now.

But getting the cast was very challenging because we had a fairly big casting directors that they do big movies. Kelly Sry and Morgan Robbins. They cast “The Conjuring”, they cast “Aquaman”. So this is a tiny little project they were doing because they liked the script and it was a challenge. I had to convince these people to trust me and that I wouldn’t betray them. I would portray in the right way. And that was a challenge because people, especially the first time feature director, they don’t quite know what they’re gonna get. But I definitely think, Tanya who plays Tampa, she was extremely brave. That entire scene was really shot with closeups. And so shooting the scene was, it’s much more disturbing than it was really to shoot it, because it was all done through closeups and it was really just acting, like there was nothing really happening at all.

But she brought stuff to the performance that wasn’t even really in the script. Kind of what she goes through at the end of the scene, that really wasn’t written in the script. Originally, I was going to have it where she starts insulting Steve herself, like she starts just yelling at Steven and insulting him too. But Tanya just kinda… she used improv that I thought it worked way better, because I could feel the pain, kind of like, “How did I get into this situation?”. And like, “How am I here?”.

And it happened very fast for her. And that’s what happens to a lot of people, they kind of just don’t know what they got themselves into.

And so I think she’s great. I mean, she’s fearless, fearless actress, and she brought a lot to that role. It’s a small role, but I mean she just brought so much, she could do any type of role too because she’s good with comedy and she, when you first see her, there’s kind of a little bit of humor to her and then it kind of surprises you when it gets very serious in that scene. But she’s amazing.

And the rest of the actors, it was the same normal casting process. Read them, and see if they’re want to do the content. But it was all simulated, but it’s still really tough stuff to do.

MOVIEMOVESME: Wasn’t it risky for you, as a man, especially with the American audience? It’s a small and independent film and it brought up a very important subject matter that must be seen by many, but it’s not like you can go and tell everyone you go and watch it. It’s not like a family movie. I just wonder as a first time feature director, where did you get the courage from?

Lucas Heyne: You know, I’ve always liked provocative ideas. Like, even I went to USC film school and even there I would always gravitate towards like, you know, peripheral like edgy concepts. And I heard a director talk, this director named Ty West who does a bunch of horror films, but he’s a really talented guy. And he said, he gave me a piece of advice I thought was very interesting. He said, “Don’t pick a movie topic that you’re not prepared to work three to five years on”, that you have to be kind of obsessed with the idea. And there has to be depth to it.

And so once I heard that, I was like, “Oh, I need to find something that has characters that I am interested in the story”. So from there I realized that the only way to tell the story was to go tell it in an honest way and not sanitize it. And I knew that I would get tons of hate from that, which I have definitely. Like American audiences are very, we’ve our puritanical roots. And when they see something that’s disturbing or actually challenges you and some people have just a very negative reaction and that’s, and so I think, I think I just had no choice to express myself in the way that I wanted to. I just, you know, I wanted to make something appear and I think that’s probably why I got into Sundance is that, you know, they, what they respect are just people that, you just do what you do, like you do, you follow your vision for better or worse. And if you’re, and if it works out then it can work. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

But that’s why it’s like, you know, this is a film I had no connections into Sundance. It was apply and submission off the website and, and I knew that also making it provocative would get it further along. Like if I held back in the movie, I didn’t show it stuff, it also, you know, it wouldn’t be as interesting of a film, because you know, it’s like you’re showing things that you’ve never seen before. Like the opening sequence, I had never seen anything like that. I found it, I couldn’t even believe it was the real thing and I, and even now I’m curious as to like who watches it? Like why did they want, you know, and like, and all the stuff in it. Like it’s like I’ve never seen this stuff. I was vaguely familiar with the term, but I had never really, I didn’t really know like this is something that people make all the time and stuff. Yeah.

MOVIEMOVESME: Is there anything I should ask but did not?

Lucas Heyne: No, no, I mean, you’re asking me great questions. I think this story is so, there’s so much to the story that the meaning of the movie doesn’t even go into that there is no, you can talk about this movie for hours. Like just because there’s so much I didn’t put it in the movie. I just think that the things that are important to me about the movie are just that these, that it’s a story about these guys who had these bad dreams. They were, they were rotten dreams. And I think it’s a lot of like in America, you know, we sell people cheap dreams to people. And what happens when certain people can’t accept these cheap false dreams don’t happen, they lash out violently. I think that explains a lot of really like violent episodes you’ve seen in America. And that’s why.

MOVIEMOVESME:          Like shootings.

Lucas Heyne: Yeah, because I think it’s the same thing. Like someone believes that either, it’s complex because in many cases if someone believes they’re entitled to something and they want everyone to feel their pain and the only way they know is to lash out in some way, and then in their view they’re a martyr. And like, in Steve’s suicide note, you know, part of the, like I didn’t include the suicide note in the movie, but when he calls Tom at the end, that’s kind of, that’s the suicide note basically.

I’m using lines from the suicide note in that call and it’s a story that, that you would never otherwise hear. That’s the good thing. It’s like you’re not gonna, you’re not gonna see anything like this. You know, there’s so many challenges to make a film like this, and you know, for tiny little movies, it was probably the smallest film at Sundance in terms of budget. And so it’s, you know, and going through all the sensors and all that stuff, it’s a battle.

MOVIEMOVESME:What was most profound in the entire story is Tom and Steve Driver. I mean you are seeing that Steve, at some point, is going to give up. Something may happen to him, but Tom seems more sane, more logical, yet he sticks with him as if he is wanting to get into trouble or because he also believed in the same dream.

 So there’s an interesting parallel between sanity and insanity when you share the same world. Did you find it interesting?

Lucas Heyne: Well, basically it’s Tom… have you ever heard something that you want to be true? Like when someone tells you something, you really wish it’s true, but you know it’s not?

Except Tom kind of knew that it wasn’t true, but it felt he had a, you know, he needed to hear that. And so he got infected by Steve’s ideas. I used the word infected because I think that’s, that’s what it was. He got, like that happens all the time with cult leaders and stuff. They take otherwise rational people and they somehow infect them with these beliefs that they just accept them because it feels great to follow someone, you know, who seems like they have the answers and they’re telling you things you want to hear.

So Tom, he wanted to hear that he could be a star. It felt good. I think it’s as simple as that. A lot of times people do stuff over emotions, over logic, right? It’s really easy. Like I’ve done all kinds of stuff. Like just, it’s very easy to let a situation that makes you feel good, overwhelm what the right thing to do or what the smart thing to do.

MOVIEMOVESME: What would be the main takeaway from those 18 pages of suicide note written by Steve and then having him in your film seeing two versions of the same person?

Lucas Heyne: The main thing that I thought was sad was that he, I just thought it was baffling, that he thought that becoming a porn star would be a good way to get a girlfriend. I thought, he thought that, he thought that women would see that they would go watch all this porn scenes and they would become fascinated. They would see him and he thought that was a key to get like a wife and have everything that he felt he was denied.

And I thought that was very sad because I just think it betrayed a complete, the delusional, naive state of mind. And so then once I recognized that I, it was easier for me to sympathize with the character. So, you know, people do bad things, but it’s easier to sympathize with them if they don’t have necessarily have bad intentions.

The industry they were involved in, it’s not an example of the entire porn industry. It’s just the dark corner of the porn industry. And you know, it’s a toxic environment. And instead of, you know, getting the guy help, they embraced all of his, like all the negative traits got embraced.

And so, you know, it could have turned out differently, but you know, he could have been, in his dialysis too. He could have been working in an office, you know, and done the same thing. If you read his letter, you know, he had thought, he had violent thoughts all throughout his life. So just LA and the porn industry, it’s a nexus for these kinds of people and you put, you know, put someone who’s potentially violent of this type of powder cake situation, then you know, something bad like what happened, happened.

So it’s, I mean he was, there’s so much more. He almost did a school shooting in the University of North Ridge years before the Mope starts, and he was kind of narrowly apprehended and he was put on a 51-50 hold in LA, which is like, they’ll involuntarily commit you for two days, and then they just let him out, and there was no, there was no mental health system to assist him.

And so he just went on the street. Then a couple of years later he killed Tom. So that’s another thing I found interesting that how many people like this are there that they possibly could be helped and this violence can be prevented? But, you know, we let these people who are mentally ill, we don’t help them. And for some reason in America, mental illness is not treated as serious as physical illness. It’s just weird.  I can only imagine what it’s like to not lose your mind. It’d be terrible. Especially narcissistic personality disorder. It’s, I mean that really creates a barrier. Like some people, like let’s say Donald Trump, who would probably be on the spectrum of that, it helps them, but some people it doesn’t. It helps someone like Donald Trump amass power because there’s a narcissism in what he’s doing and he doesn’t care about other people.

But for someone like Steve Driver it causes his downfall. Maybe if he was properly helped, his parents tried to help him, but the courts won’t allow you to help someone if they’re kind of in the middle ground. If they’re not crazy enough just to be committed, but they’re also potentially dangerous. So I thought it was very, you know, because his parents tried to help him and many people tried to help.

And it’s unfortunate, there are lots of guys like him.

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