2016 Slamdance Interview: Robert G. Putka (‘Mad’)


A matriarch past the point of a nervous breakdown, her two daughters that don’t give a damn, and the heat-seeking missiles of resentment they toss at each other.

After a late-in-life divorce, and compounded by bi-polar disorder, Mel finds herself in a psych ward. Her two daughters, facing varying problems of their own, would rather dodge the responsibility than care for her. Personal grievances bubble to the surface.

‘Mad’ screens at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival on Friday, January 22 & Tuesday, January 26 in Park City, Utah.


What was the very first element of what would ultimately become ‘MAD’ that came to you? Was it a particular character? Theme? Or, something else entirely?
My mother has been in an out of psych wards throughout my life, and the last time she went into one it pushed me to finally confront a lot of my varied and complicated feelings on our relationship – from bizarre to brutal, and back. I decided that in order to make a palatable film, I’d have to split my surrogate into two characters, being the two daughters, Casey and Connie. I knew I wanted to work with both Eilis Cahill and Jennifer Lafleur on a feature project (as they both both worked on shorts of mine), and it all fell into focus for me.

Describe your approach the visual aesthetic for ‘MAD’? How did your original conversations with your DP go? How did those conversations evolve through production?
I’ve always let my shooting style and directorial process dictate what the DP does. It’s very actor-focused, with a serious commitment to capturing spontaneity by the cast and myself (as I’d feed lines from off camera during a take). I told our DP Jay Keitel, that one of my only requirements was that we shot with 2 cameras a majority of the time in order to facilitate the spontaneity… I wanted to be able to capture everything. This also allowed us to move incredibly quickly as needed on a film of this budget, where we were able to cover upwards of 7 to 9 pages a day, if not more. As an extension of that, we lit the space, and not the actors, in an attempt to de-clutter the production process and make the actors feel a little more comfortable.

The film was shot using the BlackMagic Cinema camera. Why did you go with this? Did you ever consider another camera to shoot with?
As noted above, it was imperative that we roll with 2 cameras. Because of their size, we were able to fit two BMCC’s in places we couldn’t fit another, bulkier camera. Also, obviously, it was incredibly cost effective. We bought our BMCC’s for what it would have cost to rent another camera package. Shooting digitally, on a camera such as the BMCC allowed us to really build each scene’s momentum organically, as we shot long, unbroken takes. One take ran for an hour straight. I imagine if we would have shot that scene on a larger camera, it would have broken our camera operators’ shoulders. Thanks to Jay and Michael Wilson for sticking it out with me! And not slitting my throat while I slept comfortably that night, shoulder-pain free.

The film also marks the first time you have been accepted to Slamdance, following multiple short film rejections. For all those out there who may experience a rejection here or there, how did you take those? How did you build on them? What did you do differently (if anything) with this feature?
Yeah, the rejection really sucks. I think I would have stopped making films if all I had seen was rejection, but luckily, after a while, SXSW and places like Florida, Calgary and Boston Underground and deadCENTER picked up a couple of my shorts, which gave me confidence to continue to make films the way I knew I wanted to. The festival circuit is an odd, fickle beast, and every programmer out there, God bless them, has different tastes. It really comes down to who watches your film on what day, and it’s a crapshoot. I’m being earnest when I say God bless film festival programmers, as being a (then) twenty-one year old filmmaker from Cleveland, Ohio, I had no outlet or network – I owe every opportunity I’ve since received to them. And I’m so proud that I’m able to finally premiere a film with Slamdance, as I’ve always been a huge admirer of their scrappiness, and their commitment to discovery. Because that’s all we really want as independent filmmakers, is to be discovered and to be validated, right? Or is that just me? That’s probably just me and my need for love and attention acting out. Sorry. Oh, also it’s really smart to just lower your head and blindly plow on when you face rejection. Ignorance is bliss (even when it hurts).

You mention Judd Apatow, Alexander Payne, and Noah Baumbach as primary influences? What is it about these filmmakers that has influenced you? Which are your favorite films from them?
I think the one thing that sticks out about these guys, is that they all really value character, even if in different ways. I’ve always believed that a shortcut to connecting with an audience starts with interesting, relatable characters, and them placing them in interesting, relatable situations. And if I can say one thing about Judd Apatow, is that his films are GENUINELY funny. Not funny in just a smirk-nod-that’s-clever kind of way, but funny in a belly-laugh-snort way, while also staying grounded and honest… I think that’s a lofty goal to shoot for, because so many people botch it (or won’t even attempt it), and not enough people give him the credit he deserves. I love Knocked Up, and think it’s THE BEST, most perfect comedy I’ve ever seen. Also great are The Descendants (Payne), and Margot At The Wedding (Baumbach). They’re so humane and incisive all at once.

After Slamdance, where to next with ’MAD’?
We’ve got a couple nice regional fests already lined up, which I hope I can attend… but unfortunately I’m still slugging it away here in Cleveland, trying to buy a new car, so we’ll see how that goes….


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