Buster’s Mal Heart shows the emotional extremes of Rami Malek
Director Sarah Adina Smith discusses her intense collaboration with her actor and her new feature’s timely vision of the American Dream
If only one image could sum up Buster’s Mal Heart, it’s of Rami Malek, skimming out a piece of pizza floating in a drab motel pool. In Sarah Adina Smith’s wildly inventive second feature (now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox, following its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival), Malek (of Mr. Robot fame) plays Jonas, a family man and ex-convict living in Middle America with a deadening job working the night shift at an airport motel — or, is he a longhaired vagrant, warning a phone-sex operator about the End of Days as she fakes her way to orgasm? While the film’s existential mystery leaves the very question of identity open-ended, it does find room for Y2K conspiracy theories and an inspired cameo by DJ Qualls. Without giving too much away, Buster’s Mal Heart centres on a certain kind of existential crisis plaguing America (and perhaps, Trump voters), which makes it a psychedelic fable for the current moment. As Jonas’ desire for freedom and his own land collides with the mounting pressures of a poorly paid job without benefits — or inspiration — he loses it in a spectacular fashion, retreating into his own mind. We spoke to Smith via email about her collaboration with Malek, the search for the American Dream, and why her film is for “psychonauts and tightrope walkers.”
You’ve described Rami Malek as an "emotional extremist,” and his performance in Buster’s Mal Heart certainly makes that clear. Was there a moment that particularly stands out as a way forward for your collaboration?
Rami’s the kind of actor who’s willing to take himself all the way to the edge. But he's a careful craftsman — an exceptionally professional, very intelligent, very intuitive storyteller. It’s rare to find all of those qualities in one actor.
I work with every actor a little bit differently. I try to find out what the actor needs to feel tapped-in, free, and supported, and I do my best to give it to them. The most important thing in any director–actor relationship is establishing trust. Rami and I connected the very first time we met and began establishing our language right away. It has been an ongoing, deep conversation ever since.
This strange thing happened last night. We screened the film at the [Pennsylvania] Erie Art Museum, and during the Q&A one of the audience members said the movie reminded him of this Cherokee legend of “Two Wolves.” I hadn’t heard of that legend before, but the weird thing was, one of the first images I gave Rami for inspiration about his character was this image of two wolves.
The shooting of Buster’s Mal Heart took you out on the waters of Mexico and the mountains of Montana, despite the film’s low budget. Are there certain rules, when it comes to independent filmmaking, that are meant to be broken?
We were working with a very small budget on a very tight schedule and we certainly broke all the rules. (Animals, kids, night shoots, weather, water shoots, etc.) I live by the Jacques Cousteau quote "The impossible missions are the only ones that succeed." I think if you’re not pushing yourself and your art to the limit, there’s really no point.
What was your experience like screening Buster's Mal Heart at TIFF? Now that your movie is finishing the festival circuit, do you have any advice for filmmakers navigating their first film festivals?
TIFF is the ultimate film-lover’s festival. There are so many movies playing and you can actually go see a lot of them; it’s really accessible. Screening at the Festival was kind of a blur for me because we were in such a mad rush to finish our film in time. We had a terrible experience with our sound designer, who had a meltdown on us and went AWOL, so we had to rebuild the entire sound of the movie from scratch in four days. I was so nervous at TIFF because we really didn’t have time to properly mix the movie, so the sound just wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Of course, I was the only one who noticed, but I was sweating the entire time.
Film festivals are such an important platform for filmmakers trying to break through and get their work noticed. It made a huge difference for us to premiere at TIFF, particularly in the Vanguard section where Colin Geddes and the team curated films pushing the boundaries of the medium and exploring the outer limits of the human spirit. It helps to frame the movie for audiences and buyers that we’re a different kind of movie.
Not every film is for everyone and I think the festival experience helps you find your audience. The best advice I can give any filmmaker entering the festival experience is to pay attention to who loves your movie most and why. That’s your audience. I’ve realized that Buster’s Mal Heart is for psychonauts and tightrope walkers.
There's a certain kind of existential crisis that Jonah experiences over the course of the film. His need for freedom and isolation relates to his desire to find comfort in nature, landscape, and the elements. You’ve said that "America is going through a spiritual crisis." What do you think films can do to help us find the way out?
So many people in America are dissatisfied and burnt out in their jobs, and so many of these jobs are in the service industry these days. People feel like they’re clocking in, clocking out, and giving their whole lives to this soulless existence… and what do they have to show for it? They’re struggling to pay the bills, can’t afford to buy a home, and can’t get the health care they need. They’re essentially stuck on this never-ending treadmill that’s pushing them to the brink. Jonah is a guy who is barely keeping it all together. He’s got a wife and a kid he loves more than anything. He’s got a job, the best job he could get, and it’s the night-shift concierge at an airport hotel. It’s the kind of place where souls go to die. It’s not even that it’s horrible — because at least horrible would be interesting — it’s just totally lifeless, drab, and boring in the worst way. Like, even the air inside the hotel has just enough staleness to make you want to break all the windows and run for the fucking hills.
So he’s working this night shift and it’s just beginning to crack him... but the one thing he has to keep him going is this dream of one day owning a piece of land, putting a stake in the ground, and finally finding some freedom and dignity in his life. Just the idea of that keeps him going, but that dream is always out of reach. It’s sad because, for me, I think that’s what the American Dream means. It’s not about material gain or anything like that, it’s just about dignity, self-respect, and a little bit of freedom from feeling like a slave in a merciless system. It’s about having hope for a better future.
The loss of hope is something that feels very much in the air right now, and things can get really scary when that happens. I think Buster’s Mal Heart can be viewed as a warning in some ways, but it’s pretty optimistic in the end. After all, even one small heart has the power to confront the cosmos. I don’t know that any film holds the key to the way out of the current crisis. But I think all Good art — capital G “Good” — is nurturing for the soul because it’s asking questions as honestly as possible. It takes strong souls to stand up to power and demand change.