Tom Cullen spoke with Solzy at the Movies over the phone about the recently released Pink Wall, which premiered in March at SXSW.
The film marks Cullen’s directing debut and stars both Tatiana Maslany and Jay Duplass. 1091 Media released the film on Digital and VOD on November 12, 2019.
How honored were you to premiere Pink Wall at SXSW in March?
Tom Cullen: Oh my G-d. Such an honor. It’s a festival that’s really close to my heart because my first-ever job as an actor was a film called Weekend and that premiered there in 2011 and won the Audience Award. I recently had another film that was really close to my heart there called The Other Half, which is directed by Joey Klein, and so to be back there at that festival meant a lot to me. I really love this festival. I love the programming and it’s such a great atmosphere.
Can you talk about the idea for the film?
Tom Cullen: It’s a relationship drama, which of course is a well-traveled path. When I first started writing it, it was a film that was kind of set over a weekend and it was about a couple. They’re six years in relationship and they’re kind at the crossroads in their relationship. It was a three-act structure of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Friday, they’re ignoring their present. Saturday, they relive the past and then Sunday, they investigate their future. That was the kind of idea. As I was writing, I realized that I’ve seen this film before and done really well. It kind of reminded me a lot of Linklater’s Before Midnight. And I had to step away and really rethink what I wanted to film to be. I think that there are many pitfalls with relationship dramas but it’s been done so many times and been done so, so well. So I wanted to really think about what I wanted to say and what I wanted the audience to feel.
I found this really great quote—which is actually a favorite of mine for a long time—from Harold Pinter. He talks about, this isn’t verbatim, not wanting to hand everything over to the audience. He thinks questions are much more interesting than answers and I agree with him. He doesn’t want to kind of wrap up his plays in a big bow and hand it over to the audience and be like, This is exactly how you’re supposed to feel. I really agree with that. I kind of used that as a launching point and started to think a lot about what I wanted the film do and I kind of hit upon this idea that the film should be experiential. I wanted the audience to leave feeling that they felt a relationship rather than kind of be dictated to. It was a bit of an experiment and so, I came up with this idea of designing a film like memory because memory I don’t think is linear. I think that it is expansive. We cross-reference in reflection in relationship and memory. We kind of juxtapose moments, cross-reference moments, in order to build our emotional landscape. That’s kind of what I wanted to do. As the characters are building their emotional landscape, I wanted the audience to build up their own emotional landscape for the characters. I want it kind of foster discussion rather than me tell the audience anything. I wanted a balanced argument between the two characters and that was kind of the launching point for this film.
What led you to make your feature directing debut?
Tom Cullen: It was actually kind of an accident. I was offered a job as an actor by a producer. I couldn’t do it because of a scheduling conflict. He was trying to convince me to do it. The Duplass brothers came up in the conversation. I was like, “Oh man, I love Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass.” I kind of accidentally pitched him a movie idea that I had, which was a film with Jay Duplass and Tatiana Maslany. He said, “Oh, that sounds quite good. Will you write me a one-pager?” So I went away a one-pager that night, which I’ve never done before, and sent it off that evening. The next day or the following day, I got a call saying that he got me budget—a small budget—but I’d have to shoot it in three months’ time. I have to frankly go away and write it. Luckily, I was in between seasons of the TV show so I had time to do it. So yeah, I just went away and made the film. Directing is something that I’ve always wanted to do. In many ways, I became an actor because I wanted to understand the psychology of acting so that I could be a better director and then I kind of studied my part with acting and that kind of took off. That’s how it came about—by complete accident.
What were you looking from Tatiana Maslany and Jay Duplass with regards to their performances?
Tom Cullen: The film I knew was gonna live and die on the authenticity of the performances. I wanted a real emotional rawness and authenticity and realness in their performances. We worked and created a process in which I felt it best get that real authenticity. We used the kind of a process that I developed myself, which is semi-improvised, semi-scripted process where the actors were allowed to say the lines in their own voice. So I have a structured scene but the words kind of came from them. That was great and I got it. Both of them are such extraordinary actors, and they’re both so raw and real. They’re so playful. I really think the best thing about the film is those two.
If I recall correctly, you got to direct some of your own family members in the film.
Tom Cullen: That’s right. Because the budget was so low, I had to cast—apart from Jay and Tat—everyone else with my friends and my family. My mom is in it. My step-dad, my brother, my sister. My two cousins, who never acted before in their life. My key grip is in it. Yeah, it was a really fun process to get my family in there and they all did really well, I think.
My favorite short film from last year was Souls of Totality. What was it like to be in probably the only film with a live shot of an eclipse?
Tom Cullen: Oh, man. I really loved that film, too, and really proud of it. That was a similar thing to Pink Wall—it was made by a group of friends and families. I’m very proud of that film and it was so much fun to shoot. Let me tell you—that sequence with where we shoot through the entire solar eclipse was one of the most nerve-racking, nail-biting filming experiences of my life that I will never forget.