One of the greatest moments of my life was getting to pitch a story idea to Abbas Kiarostami.
This past summer, Frank Mosley took Anthem on a pictorial journey into Qingdao, China, as part of our on-going travel photography series, THACT (These Here Are Crazy Times), while he was on location filming Han Niu’s A Sweet Life. Now we deep dive into a 1:1—an indie film 101.
The Austin-based actor first blipped on our radar last year with Zachary Shedd’s paranoid-thriller Americana, where he plays a grieving husband whose starlet wife (Kelli Garner) is gunned down by a crazy loon at her movie premiere afterparty. His robust on-screen presence gave us pause and we delved deeper into his past acting work, including several Sundance titles—David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013)—and Cameron Bruce Nelson’s back-to-the-land drama Some Beasts (2015). As writer/director, Mosley has two features under his belt—Hold (2009), Her Wilderness (2014)—and a formidable strand of short film work.
There’s someone like Mosley in every professional network: a prolific Energizer Bunny of outwardly untamed ambitions. His output is sprawling. And if he weren’t such a stand-up guy, we’d wager it might be annoying—our exacerbated insecurities spawning a multitude of questions like, “Why don’t I beat my drum with that kind of aspiration?” Or worse, “Where is my drum?”
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
You’re originally from Texas and now live in Austin. Whereabouts in Texas did you grow up?
I’m from Dallas-Fort Worth originally. That’s where I was born.
And what were you like as a kid?
I was raised by a Catholic mother and a Pentecostal father in Arlington, which is right between Dallas and Fort Worth. Growing up, I was a pretty gregarious kid. Since I was an only child without any siblings, I looked to a lot of my cousins and friends to help me make my films.
Did you get turned onto cinema early on, in a way that was really transformative to you?
I started making movies probably around the time I was 6 or 7, and pretty much barely able to operate a little Sony Hi8 camera. I really owe all of that to my parents. They cultivated in me, thankfully, a great sense of art and the appreciation of art. My dad at one time had a little home video camera on loan from my uncle and he was bored one day, so he made The Wizard of Oz starring me when I was 4. I played all the parts. I think that kind of thing put the bug in me. When you’re a little kid, you make believe all the time. Acting as adults, really, we’re simply kids that never stopped playing make believe. My dad encouraged me that it’s okay to tell stories and perform, and you can borrow this little camera and then hook it up to the TV and watch it and show it to all of your friends. So I really owe a lot of my upbringing to my folks.
What kind of stuff did you grow up watching in your household?
My parents were always very different when it came to movies, and they showed me a lot of movies growing up. My dad showed me silent films. He showed me martial arts films. It runs the gamut, right? My mom had issues with sex in films but she had no problem with violence, and my dad was the complete opposite. I always knew which parent to see what movies with so I could see all the movies that I could. [Laughs] My dad was a landlord and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. We lived in a middle- to lower-class neighborhood. They’re just wonderful people. To this day, I couldn’t do what I do without their support and encouragement. Because it’s a crazy thing to choose to do! I think they always encouraged me to keep one foot on the ground of reality but keep looking up at the stars, too. If you keep reaching, you’ll eventually grab a hold of something.
It sounds like your parents were hugely influential. What kind of stuff did you like?
I got into horror films, like a lot of kids do because it’s the forbidden thing. It’s what scares you. I wanted to be a horror film director for the longest time. I would say for the majority of my youth, I was obsessed with horror films and thrillers, especially Romero, John Carpenter, Hitchcock and stuff like that. You can see traces of those things in my films because the movies you make as a kid aren’t necessarily original. It’s basically you loving movies so much that you want to copy what you see and see if you can do it, too. It’s like you can see the roots—you see all the films I was watching in the movies I tried to make with my friends. This is a good example, especially since he just passed away: There was this movie that Romero made called Martin. Have you seen it?
No, I haven’t.
You should definitely check it out. It’s really special and I think it’s one of Romero’s best. It’s certainly my favorite. And what was so special about that movie is that it’s really a drama. It’s a coming-of-age story about this teenager who’s obsessed with monsters, vampires specifically. He ends up becoming this serial killer of women, thinking he’s a vampire. He kills them and drinks their blood. But it’s really this coming-of-age story about hormones and teen angst.
When did this come out?
I don’t remember the year. It’s like between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead in Romero’s filmography. What’s interesting is that Martin was the perfect middle ground for me, in my love of monster movies and then growing up and realizing these monsters don’t exist. The real monsters live next door to you. They might think they’re vampires, but they’re really people.
Did your love of filmmaking spill over into school?
I got really big into theater. In high school, I was the president of the theater troupe. I would write and direct my own plays, which I was able to get away with somehow. I got really into playwrights like Beckett and Pincher and De Mesco and Albee and Mamet and Shepard—all of those guys. So I’m 16 years old and trying to get away with doing my version of that stuff at a high school level, which you can’t do. Although, I was able to get away with adapting Dr. Strangelove. We would try to push boundaries, even in high school. We were able to raise a lot of money and build the sets. It was highly interactive, where we would have soldiers running down the aisles with guns and strobe lights and fog machines. I think we scared the hell out of the teachers. [Laughs] That’s probably why I wasn’t able to do my production of Quills my senior year, and I tried. You live and you learn.
As you know, you came on my radar with Zachary Shedd’s Americana. I love that film.
I’m so glad to hear that. Yeah, Zach’s amazing. It’s a really special movie, for a lot of reasons.
How did you get involved?
I’d seen Hide Your Smiling Faces by Daniel Carbone, who’s part of the trio of filmmakers at Flies Collective along with Matt Petock and Zach. I was a huge fan of that and saw that they were raising money for Americana on Kickstarter. It sounded right up my alley because it’s a noir and I loved those films growing up. So I reached out and just hoped that I could have the opportunity to be in the movie. And Zach had remembered me from Upstream Color. I sent in a tape and they liked it. It was one of those things where it happened so quickly. It was gratifying to jump into a really “big” movie. It’s an intimate story, but the scope is big. Meeting Zach and Dan and Matt and Lisa Kjerulff and Charlotte Royer and Jami Villers—the whole team of people was just extraordinary. Honestly, why that film is more special to me than anything else is that they’ve all become very, very close friends of mine. I care about those guys a lot. I had been a fan of David Call for a long time, from Two Gates of Sleep and Tiny Furniture. It’s just a lot of fun, man. Living in San Francisco for a month to play with your friends? That ain’t bad. I was really thankful.
What were the big lessons for you in making your two feature-length films?
I used to have this mindset for a really long time that things have to be just right and all the stars have to be aligned to make my first feature. My first feature fell into my lap as I was planning to make a different New York-set comedy for years and years. It was happenstance because my dear friend Robby Story had written a short called Hold and asked me to direct it. We ended up with 45 minutes of footage cut together that we were both really, really pleased with. I said, “Oh man, this is not good,” because we’re in no man’s land. It’s longer than a short, but it’s not a feature. So we shot a whole second wave of footage with the opportunity to really iron out the characters and to actually make it stronger. That’s how the first feature came together. So the lesson I learned is: Sometimes you’ll never make a feature if you have this idea in your head that it’s going to happen a certain way. You need to listen to your gut and listen to your heart, and respond to the things in the environment that are happening. My second feature, Her Wilderness, was originally a short as well, called Hot Cold. In terms of the lessons I would also say, other than trusting your gut and heart, don’t worry so much about what you can’t do when making a movie. Worry about what you can do. And with the things you can do, make them as good as you possibly can.
I want to ask you about your experience making your short film Casa de mi Madre in Cuba. This was at the Black Factory Cinema’s Workshop for Auteurs with Abbas Kiarostami.
Man, he’s a master. Everybody knows that. It was one of the few times in my life that I’ve been intimidated by what someone would call a “celebrity.” It was one of those things where you see this master who you’d been a fan of for so long. Just spending time with him was really singular and an experience. Without hyperbole, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. To me, relationships are so important. At this workshop, there were 50 people from all over the world thrown into film bootcamp. You basically have this little commune for 10 days where all 50 people make their short films and help one another. Talk about going outside of your comfort zone.
Did you go purely for the experience?
Well, I was actually worried that my work was getting stale, that I was having too much access to things and things were coming out a little too smoothly where its losing that unpredictable force. So part of my application to the workshop was in telling them, “Look, I don’t know Spanish,” and I told them I’d like to make something that I would have to think up on the fly, which is exactly what this entailed. It was like a 48-hour film exercise, but with Abbas Kiarostami shepherding us. When I got in, I couldn’t believe it. It was a total dream to be there. Meeting Abbas was crazy because the man—I mean, he floated. He genuinely floated, like he didn’t walk. He was constantly asking questions about you or, “How was your day? What are you thinking? What’s your idea about?” He was always talking to the children he’d meet on the street. He always had his camera on him.
He told us that short films were honestly some of his favorite things to make and that he made features just for money. He loved making short films to constantly experiment, be it 30 seconds long or it could be 10 minutes to tell these stories. In the workshop, he gave you a pitch and you had to come back to him with a story based on that pitch or theme that he gave you. One of the greatest moments of my life was getting to pitch a story idea to Abbas. It was just the two of us outside the school in a little garden while he was drinking coffee. Just getting to tell him a story that you came up with and him saying, “I approve of it. Go forward and make it,” was huge. The biggest thing he taught me was to listen to the environment. Don’t dictate what should happen.
You were in China over the summer to act in Han Niu’s film. You guys met at the workshop?
We did. He was one of the 50 applicants. He and I actually arrived late because of weather, and we were nervous and scrambling to try and catch up that first day. So he and I connected in the office and we shared some jokes. Over the course of those 10 days, he found out that I was also an actor. He said, “I have this idea about an American tourist filmmaker who’s trying to make a movie in Cuba.” I’m like, “Han, that’s pretty much what we’re doing right now.” So I agreed to be in his short film, Warm Smell of Coriander. He had his dear friend Yuki [Ôtake] from Tokyo come to be the actress and we shot that for several days in Havana. That movie was essentially improvised. That friendship is a really special one because we had such a good time. Han was like, “If I make a film soon, would you be interested in being in it?” and I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And I thought it was going to be something small. Little did I know that he would write me six months later: “I have this romantic comedy feature set in China and I want you to be the romantic lead. Can you come to China?” That came as a huge surprise to me and it was an amazing experience as well.
Do you have a dream role in mind? What do you find you’re most excited about these days?
It’s always about trying to find the role that I haven’t done before as an actor. And if there are roles that are similar to another role I’ve done, how do I put a spin on it to make it different? That could be my voice or my weight or my hair or my whatever. I always want to try and give myself completely to the character—to the work. I used to have this fear about being pigeonholed when I was a kid playing these supporting characters. I was always asked to play these old men in school plays, like an alcoholic uncle. I went on this one audition when I was a senior, for the lead of a Oscar Wilde play. It was this very young, romantic character. I got the role and my teachers were really surprised. I had asked to audition for that role because they normally wouldn’t have thought of me for that part. So I think I’ve always had a kind of vulnerable spot in me: The fear of getting typecast or pigeonholed. Now with every role I try to do, it’s different from the one before, if I can help it. I mean, my favorite actors are chameleons. They shapeshift. Shapeshifting is attractive to me because there are so many roles you don’t even know about yet. There are so many parts you haven’t played yet. You haven’t met that person who will have a role for you that will connect the two of you and make you learn something in the process. That’s what keeps me going. You have a lot of stories you could tell. I’m about to turn 34 and it finally hit me the other day that—
Oh I didn’t even know how old you are. That’s not old at all. Also, you seem very youthful.
Well, thanks man. But I was just thinking that when I was 8 or 9, I had a billion ideas every week: “I’m going to make this movie and that movie.” It finally hit me that you don’t have all the time in the world. It’s dawned on me that you have to stay hungry and keep pushing forward because you don’t have a lot of time. I’ll be lucky if before I’m an old man I make five features. And that’s me being realistic with where I’m at right now in my life or financially or whatever else I have going on. There are other filmmakers like [Joe] Swanberg that are incredibly prolific and that’s an incredible thing, but I also know how I work. I’m really picky and hard on myself about the stories I want to tell. Considering how my first two films were made, I’m really looking forward to actually writing feature-length scripts from start to finish, which is what I’m doing at the moment. I’m hoping to make one of them in the next year or two. Hopefully I’ll keep using that philosophy of pushing forward and try to make something that’s different than the last.