Bored to death with Hollywood’s cookie-cutter love stories? We’re right there with you. And, more importantly, we’re here to inform all those who can’t stand modern-day romance films about the fire-spewing, blood-dripping, and unpredictably nihilistic antithesis: Bellflower, the feature film debut from writer/director/actor/handyman Evan Glodell.
Opening today in limited theatrical release, Bellflower is a homemade, truly independent depiction of one man’s catastrophic break-up; more of a psychological drama than an emo mope-fest, Glodell’s film conveys its emotional pain through a tricked-out muscle car named Medusa (which Glodell built himself) and an enormous flamethrower (also contrasted with Glodell’s own hands).
For a first-time filmmaker, Glodell an immense amount ingenuity, confidently weaving Mad Max imagery and a post-apocalyptic veneer (captured via Glodell’s self-made Coatwolf Model II optical system) into an everyman, we’ve-all-been-there situation. The California resident, by way of Wisconsin, also earns fine performances from an unknown cast of big screen virgins; Bellflower is as naturalistic as it is lo-fi.
If Bellflower isn’t the best cinematic love story of the year, it’s definitely the most inventive, not to mention the darkest. To better understand the madness, Complex caught up with Glodell to discuss the production’s do-it-yourself, permit-free shoot, the film’s long road to a self-afforded green light, and the dangers of walking down suburban streets while holding a gigantic flamethrower.
Complex: The idea for Bellflower first hit you way back in 2003. At that time, what was the inspiration?
Evan Glodell: I had just gone through a really brutal relationship and a break-up,. I was having a very hard time dealing with it, and, at a certain point, I started to come out of that fog, and I thought, “Holy crap! That was a whole journey—it’d make a pretty great movie.” I’d been writing short films and stuff, but once I started to heal a bit from that break-up, it dawned on me that I needed to write about it, just because it felt like I’d never seen a movie like it, one that really shows firsthand what it’s like to go through something like that.
What separates Bellflower from other films that deal with relationships, however, is the final act’s incredibly dark tone, which incorporates psychological horror and Mad Max influences. But it remains about the relationship, and that seems like a tricky balancing act to pull off.
That’s cool to hear, because that’s what I was trying to do with the story. Even at its darkest and craziest, I wanted it to feel as connected to the earlier, happier romance stuff as possible.
At first, it’s a calm, naturalistic, and even sweet little romance, but then, out of nowhere, Bellflower takes a hard left turn, with suicide, sex with a knife, and some other rather unsettling imagery. Was it difficult to find that tonal balance?
That was one of the main things in my mind years before we even started shooting. I needed to make sure that people could stay with the story and the characters no matter how insane things became—I didn’t want anyone to fall out of the movie once it gets really dark.
How much of the stressful, no-budget, guerrilla-style shooting process worked its way into the performances once the violence and darkness kicked in?
I haven’t really thought about that before, actually. That’s an interesting question. I’m pretty sure some of that played a part. I remember the day we were shooting the crazy kitchen scene, with that knife bit, we lost a crew member that day—the first time that ever happened. It was a result of the tension on set; everybody was just burnt out, and we were running out of time. We shot that in our friends' house, and they let us know that we had to be done with the scene in five minutes or else the neighbors were going to call the cops. I imagine that all of that helped us raise the intensity in our performances.
It took five years for you go from the screenwriting stage to actually shooting the movie. What led to such a lengthy road to production?
I started doing some work-for-hire stuff for a web company, making web commercials and stuff like that. And I worked on a web series for a little while, too. It was all stuff for-hire, though. From the time I’d written the script, I kept telling myself, “I’m going to make this movie,” and I actually tried a few times to get it together. I started casting, planning locations, and figuring out how I was going to make it back in 2003, with basically just a camcorder, and on a much different level than I ended up making it.
It didn’t come together, though, because I didn’t have the resources. It came to a point where I had to tell myself, “I can’t make this happen.” But as I was working for-hire, I’d constantly meet people and be like, “Hey, I’ve got this really cool script I’ve been working on.” I was hoping that at some point I’d meet someone who’d be willing to help out. It didn’t happen, though.
Life was going by, and I remember that I just looked around one day and thought, “Shit, five years have gone by.” And that wasn’t cool. After five years of meeting people who weren’t interested in helping, I just decided to do it myself, at all costs.
Was the plan from the beginning for you to build the car and the flamethrower yourself, or did that come out of budget restrictions?
I think that was always just the plan. The idea of hiring someone else to do those things was never really an option because we didn’t have any money. I’ve always been good at building stuff, and I knew that an ability to build those things was something unique I could bring to the production. I could build these props that’d make the movie a lot more interesting, and a lot cooler.
The cameras are a separate thing—that’s a hobby that I’ve had for a long time. Everything I shoot, I shoot on cameras that I’ve built, but I stepped them to do this movie. And I knew I could figure out how to build a flamethrower, and I knew that I could take a car and turn it into some kind apocalypse machine.
When I was a kid, I thought I was going to go to school for engineering, because I was always good at building stuff and I always played around, built stuff, and messed around. But I didn’t learn anything in college, because I was only there for, like, ten days. [Laughs.] Right away, I got to school for engineering and I had this idea of what my life would be like as an engineer, and then I left. I was like, “I don’t want to do this,” and that’s when I decided to move out to L.A. to try and become a filmmaker.
Most of the press surrounding Bellflower has focused largely on how you built the major props yourself, which is definitely an interesting hook. But, in your mind, has all of that taken attention away from the actual film’s merits at all?
Yeah, a little, but I honestly just want people to like the movie. [Laughs.] That’s the main thing for me. Some people have asked me, “What came first: the car and the flamethrower, or the idea for the movie?” And I guess that question is the closest thing I’ve been asked to an offensive question, just because the story in the movie is so unbelievably important to me, and the car and the flamethrower were just some things I thought would help the story along.
As far as it being gratifying to hear all of this talk about what I built? I guess it’s nice. It also makes me feel uncomfortable when people start talking more about that than what they think of the actual movie. It seems like an easy way for people who don’t like the movie to still be friendly with me. [Laughs.] Like, “Hey, that car is really damn cool!” Then, me, “Thanks. So what’d you think of the movie itself?” And them, “And that flamethrower is awesome!”
As strong and unique as Bellflower itself is, it’s hard to ignore the film’s gritty, self-made quality, though. Was there ever a point where you thought nobody would ever see it? That it’d just be this little movie you and some friends made that lives in your bedroom closet?
Oh, absolutely! [Laughs.] Yes. I just hoped that it’d get seen at some point for the actors’ sake. They all put in so much work. I’d been sort of pseudo-casting since I first wrote the script, so I always had my eyes out for the main characters. So whenever I’d meet someone who felt right for a specific part, I’d stay in touch. When the time came for us to actually start the production, and we were finally telling everybody that it was actually going to happen, the main four or five actors had already been close to the project; I’d already been talking to them for years.
Everyone in the cast, myself included, is in the beginning stage of their career, which made the shoot really exciting, and also pretty nerve-racking. Becca [Brandes, who plays “Courtney”] is the only person who’d ever worked before; if you to the local DVD store, you can probably find a few things that she’s been in. [Laughs.] It’s a blurred line thing, because I met all of these people as “actors,” but now, having gone through this intense and really intimate Bellflower experience, they’re more my friends than just colleagues.
Once you started shooting, did you have to adjust any parts of the script to fit within your miniscule budget, or did you write from day one with those restrictions in mind? Because you pull off some really intricate shots and elaborate sequences on what appears to be a major studio director’s lunch stipend.
[Laughs.] It never really changed. I always assumed that there was a chance I’d be making it on my own, but I don’t think I wrote it too much with that on my mind. We convinced ourselves early on that we’d bust our asses to find ways to make everything work, somehow.
The optical system that you built, Coatwolf Model II, gives the film a really lo-fi, gritty, and sort of dreamlike feel. What was it about the story that lent itself to such a singular visual style?
I’ve been modifying cameras and optics for a long time now, and building cameras. When it came time to make the movie, I knew what different kinds of looks I could get from all of the cameras that were already available to me and my budget, and then I also knew what I could execute on my own if I built the cameras.
It was frustrating at times, too, because those cameras did break a lot. They required a lot of maintenance, which, on top of having nothing already and working with tiny resources, a camera breaks and it eats up five hours. Everybody’s there trying to shoot a scene and it’s a big hassle. Everybody involved needed a hell of a lot of patience.
You shot the entire movie without any city permits, right? How difficult was that?
I was shooting while watching over my shoulder the whole time. [Laughs.] Any time there was danger of hurting a bystander, with the flamethrower or the fire shooting out of the car, we’d try to bring friends around to stand around the area and keep watch. People walking by probably thought they were official production assistants, or some kind of hired muscle, but they were just our friends helping out. But then, all of the sudden, there’d be police coming, so we’d have to wrap up, head out, and figure out a way to continue shooting as quickly as possible.
At some point, I’d imagine, you were walking around otherwise quiet neighborhoods armed with a huge flamethrower. Were people walking along the street freaking out
Surprisingly, no, but I had that in the back of my head the entire time we shot that flamethrower scene. That was one of those days that I thought the cops would at least come and see what we were doing, but they never showed up. So fucking lucky. [Laughs.]
The cars must have turned heads, at least. What inspired the designs for those?
A lot more thought went into the planning of the car than it did the flamethrower. The sketch artist and I were drawing all sorts of mock-ups of different modifications we could do, and we ended up settling on the idea of having the iconic look of tailpipes coming up through the trunk—I’d never seen that before.
The car with the whiskey dispenser inside of it wasn’t nearly as difficult to build. That was only a two-day project; we just ripped out the dashboard, painted the inside and outside, and just turned it into the ultimate road trip mobile. [Laughs.]
Do you still have those cars?
The one with the whiskey dispenser got impounded, actually. It was towards the end of the shoot; we had run out of money, and it got towed because I left it parked illegally for too long. [Laughs.] We couldn’t afford to get it out, so they ended up selling it at an auction or something. The Medusa car, though, I still have—it’s actually the only car I own. It’s parked right outside of my house. I’m actually a little bit worried about it now, though, with the movie coming out. I really don’t want to have get another car.
Last week, in fact, someone actually followed me to my house; I’d gotten out of it with a bag of groceries, and there was this car idling in the street. This guy gets out and yells, “Hey, what’s going on? I just saw this car in a movie trailer!” They followed me home just to ask me about the car. I’m really hoping that doesn’t start happening more now.