THE MULE: Angus Sampson On Making The Audience Squirm

MV5BMTY3NDUyOTY4MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDc1MzY0Mg@@._V1__SX1874_SY840_Angus Sampson is best known to American audiences as Tucker, one half of the paranormal analyst duo in the Insidious films. He co-wrote with Leigh Whannell, directed and stars in The Mule as Ray, a first time drug mule who gets caught with balloons of heroin in his bowels. He tries to wait out the authorities without expelling his bowels in the darkly comic thriller.

I got to speak with Sampson when he was in Los Angeles. You can see The Mule in theaters or on VOD. Come December 6, Sampson and his filmmaker friends will be tweeting along with The Mule at midnight ET/9PM PT. So you can watch The Mule on VOD and follow @themulemovie and #TheMuleLive.

Nuke the Fridge: Are you calling me from back home or are you in the States?

Angus Sampson: I’m in sunny Los Angeles. I’m flying back to Australia for the Australian/New Zealand leg of the release if that makes sense. We’ve got one more preview in Los Angeles and then I had my first little bit of sleep yesterday for the first time since Sunday. I woke up at 1AM Monday morning and didn’t go to bed until yesterday. These are the problems when you’re inexperienced and weary, writing, producing, directing, acting and releasing your film in four different territories simultaneously. There’s no time for sleep.

Nuke: If you get to sit through the screenings, do you enjoy the reaction every time Ray re-swallows the balloons?

Angus Sampson: We watched it last night. The last few weeks I’ve been around the world a few times with the film and it just occurred to me that I should start recording the audience’s response. Maybe I could put them up on social media at some stage. “Oh, here’s Korea. Here’s the Brits.” Actually play the audience’s response to that scene, which I started so I’ve got a nice little collection happening at the moment. It’s quite a strange experience, A, writing that, B, acting it, C, editing it and then D, watching it repeatedly. Watching a film with an audience, even if you didn’t make it, is one of the most joyous experiences in my life. I love watching a film with a packed cinema. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in it or I know someone in it. I go by myself at random times and there’s only ever usually four other people at the cinema, so I’m thrilled to be able to watch the film with groups of people. The experience changes every time.

Nuke: Is that a particularly gratifying moment when they squirm?

Angus Sampson: It’s one of those things where when we wrote it, you’re like, “Man, of course. Of course he has to do this.” What do you do? You go to the toilet. Everyone you know in the world goes to the toilet, or moves their bowels. I don’t know if they use the toilet. So it’s a pretty hard thing to go, “All right, what would you do, Fred? You have something lethal in you that if you don’t get it out, you will die. There’s acid bile eating at the outsides of it.” “Well, I’d just go to the toilet.” “No, you can’t go to the toilet.” “Why not?” “Because you’re under constant supervision from police and surveillance 24-7 and they’ve taped up the toilet, they’ve taken off the taps, they’ve locked the windows. The air conditioning turns up and if you do move your bowels, then you’re going to jail for a very, very long time.”

We love that perverse premise. Dare I suggest it’s perverse? But the reality is, that’s the only option, to reingest them or to put them back in your bum I guess, hoping that no one sees you do it before you do it. When we wrote it, we’re like “Yeah, man, it’s going to be awesome.” I guess being close to the film, I’ve never ever really had that perspective where people squirm and go, “Oh my God, he’s eating poo” because it’s never been poo to me, if that makes sense. I don’t want to rob the experience from you but it’s incredible to see the people twist themselves into knots in the cinema.

I remember in the edit suite. When we shot it, we did two takes and I swallowed three pellets in each. Take one, three pellets, I was like, “Cool, we’ve done it, one take, we’re not going again.” And then they were like, “Well, of course you’ve got to go again.” I was so angry, because it’s hard to swallow things without chewing. It’s actually very distressing. Anyway, sure enough, we did a second take and it was a little quicker the second time. The shot was conceived that it would just be one shot so the audience would know that the actor didn’t spit it out, he actually swallowed them. That was a big hurdle mentally. I was like, “No, we can’t cut, we can’t cut.” But I couldn’t swallow three of them quickly enough to make it entertaining. We also had to cut to the police officer to show he’s still asleep. It’s incredible. It used to be really tense for me. Now it’s really funny for me.

Nuke: People may laugh, but were you playing The Mule as a straight thriller?

Angus Sampson: 100%. With all due respect to comedy I guess, on top of pop cultural things being disposable, I find that comedy can be even more disposable if you know what I mean. Because you laugh at it, it’s almost throwaway. Even Bill Hicks stuff. You laugh, as upsetting as it is, you go, “Actually, he makes a good point.” The way you deal with it or dismiss it or process it is you move on. You laugh at it and move on. For us, what we wanted to be able to do, like with fart and poo jokes, they all have their place in Van Wilder and what have you, but for us we were really, really, really hungry to I guess see if we could tell a story about a guy not going to the toilet. Can you make that suspenseful? How do you make a film suspenseful about somebody not going to the bathroom. Is that even possible? Is that even possible?

I don’t know if we have achieved that but that was our end goal, to go, you know what? Let’s really apply some tropes here to films that we love. Fargo. If I was to say to you, “What do you love about Fargo?” You might say them disposing of the body in the plant mulcher. You have to laugh at it because you go yeah, that’s what you’d do. That’s exactly what you’d do, isn’t it? Otherwise, I don’t think you can justify asking the audience to watch a movie if it doesn’t have levity and it doesn’t have some lightness about someone not going to the bathroom. Then you’re just watching a science video about constipation.

Nuke: I love that your reference for a raunchy comedy was Van Wilder.

Angus Sampson: It is. We love Van Wilder. I love Van Wilder. I shouldn’t bring it up. I was going to talk about the large testicles. But that said, I guess working with Leigh and I, he’s an incredibly smart guy. You have a look at a lot of his films, certainly Saw, he sat down and wrote a film because he missed out on an Alex Proyas film called Garage Days as an acting gig. He’s playing with expectations here, the presumptions that we have and that’s what we really wanted to do with this film. You go all right, I know who you are, I know who you are. You’re that girl, you’re that lady. Then go, “Yeah, but that’s boring. Let’s really prescribe to this thing that William Goldman said.” He said, “All you have to do is get people to say, ‘What happens next?’”

That is what I learned from working with Leigh. It’s such an enjoyable experience being friends, acting together. He’d be on the keyboard, I’d be on my feet acting the scene out and he’s writing it down. Then he’d jump up and I’d start typing. We were basically trying to, dare I say, entertain and engage one another, being film fans and knowing the tropes that they use in cinema. We were really hungry to put our mark on the cinema landscape because there’s no reason to do it fiscally, to tell a small independent film out of Australia. But if I was to ask you now what genre of film is Blood Simple or No Country for Old Men or Fargo, what would you say?

Nuke: Blood Simple and No Country are definitely thrillers, but I get your point. The Coen Brothers make their own genre.

Angus Sampson: That’s the point. I say to people, “This is a thriller” and I’m having discussions with people around the world that you’re doing business with. A thriller generally has someone being chased. Something goes wrong, they’re being chased, there’s set pieces and sequences. Yeah, we’ve got that, just our versions of it. Whilst we’re not driving through Paris reversing at 80 miles an hour into oncoming traffic, thriller for me suggests that you’re going, “What happens next?” I guess we really wanted to, as you say, be in that area where people go, “I don’t know what is it? I don’t know what you call it.”

Of course commercially, nobody wants that. Nobody commercially wants you to say, “We’ve got a film that’s not arthouse and it’s not mainstream, and it’s not a comedy but it’s not a drama. It’s a bit of a thriller, but it’s also neonoir.” It’s just confusing. We would never ever suggest that we’ve made a film that’s anywhere near the Coen Brothers, especially given that every film student says, “Yeah, man, I’m making a film like The Sopranos and Coen Brothers.” For us we loved the film Chopper by Andrew Dominik. The producer of that, Michele Bennett, came on board as our EP on this. So that was a film that we hold up as being able to combine that brutality that you get when you’re not a fully resourced criminal gang a la Heat. You just have to use whatever is within arm’s reach. A pole, a stick, a tire iron. These really visceral domestic situations and objects that are around us all the time, so in our film, I said to Leigh, “All right, here’s a challenge for us. Let’s make a crime film where there’s no guns. Can we do it?” At one stage we did have a handgun in there. I was like, “No, we’ve got to take it out, we’ve got to take it out.” We replaced it with a shard of mirror right at the end.

There’s something really satisfying about being able to do that with the incredible cast we have: John Noble, Ewan Leslie. Noni Hazlehurst is like acting royalty in Australia. She was on this kids show. For 25 years she basically taught kids how to speak. It was called Play School. Georgina Haig is Queen Elsa on Once Upon a Time this season. It was fantastic having Hugo and John. Curiously, they only ever had one scene together and that scene, one of them’s dead and you never see them in the same shot. It was the best experience of my life, and that’s the dream, isn’t it? Telling stories that you love with people you love.