Interview with the Cast and Filmmaker of ‘Rebirth” (Tribeca Film Festival)

Interviewed by Lesley Coffin

This year multiple independent films have been arriving for audiences via Netflix straight from festivals, such as The Fundamentals of Caring and the upcoming Tallulah. One of these original films premiering on the streaming service is Rebirth, written and directed by Karl Mueller’s as his follow up to his divisive horror film Mr. Jones. Like his previous film, Rebirth premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Midnight Madness section. Described as a thriller-satire the movie is about a man brought to a weekend retreat promising self-actualization…but becomes a “fun house” with ever new room inspired by different cult methods. During the Tribeca Film Festival I spoke with Mueller and stars Adam Goldberg, Harry Hamlin, and Fran Katz about their film (which also features actors Steve Agee, Nicky Whelan, Pat Healy, and Fabianne Therese).

As the lead in the film, Kyle, Kranz is no stranger to making genre films. The young actor is best known for his work with genre auter Joss Whedon, having starred in Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods, and the low-budget version of Much Adu About Nothing. To anchor the film, Mueller felt Kranz was an ideal choice because “Fran is a great reactor to things and he’s great at living in the moment. He’s a really good actor, who also happens to be naturally funny. Because the movie is basically from his point of view, he’s the audience’s avatar, you have to be able track his emotions every step of the way. And Fran has the ability to play his emotions in this transparent way, without seeming broad or over the top. He just has this natural charisma that doesn’t feel forced, but can feel funny when it needs to. But he is a serious actor and when things happen in the movie that called for it, he took things seriously. And he’s willing to go to pretty dark places emotionally.”

As for the casting of Adam Goldberg, who plays Kyle’s closest but long absent college friend Zack, Mueller needed someone who could make an instant and lasting impression on viewers, “someone with a really, really strong presence that would really light up the screen whenever he appeared,” because Zack has considerably less screen time than Kyle.  For what could have been a difficult role, Mueller went to Goldberg, who agreed to audition for the role, because “he (Mueller) needed to see that I could do it, but I also needed to know that I could do it.”

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Goldberg, a big character in real-life as well as on-screen, admits that he can be difficult on set at times because “if find a hole in the plot, I call directors on it. And there were a few holes I found when filming, and when Karl would say “it’s subject to interpretation,” I would say “it can be subject to interpretation for the audience, but it can’t be subject to interpretation for me.” But he’s this extremely collaborative, amenable guy. He hired his actors for what they could bring to the roles, and he would let them do their thing. If we had a question he was there, and we would often really challenge him on set. We would say, we need to know more and have these little huddles to discuss the bigger picture. But he’s been pretty forthcoming about really relying on the casting to get this movie where he needed it to be.”

The movie, which pulls inspiration from movies like David Fincher’s The Game, was intended to be a thriller feels like an emotional that quickly shifts tones. Even the actors were uncertain which categories the movie would fit into until they saw it at the premiere. Harry Hamlin, whose one scene is the purest example of broad comedy, believed the entire film would be in the same style. But after seeing it said he was “delighted to see that it wasn’t that. If it had been more comedic, then the audience wouldn’t have gone on as dangerous a ride and there needed to be an element of danger so the audience would identify with Fran’s character through the entire journey.”

Kranz was more aware of the dramatic moments throughout, and glad that Mueller embraced the comedic style the film took on during production. “I think there are more conspicuously funny moments, which is good. If it had been just a straight drama, people would have been internalizing their reactions throughout. I think that is harder to do when the tone is kind of ambiguous. As an actor, I definitely had my moments of insecurity, fearing we might have lost them, when the audience gets quieter. But they seemed to be with it till the end. We had such different opinions about the script going into it. I thought it was hilarious and Adam did not.”

Goldberg elaborated that “I think I thought it was a more serious film, with some comic elements. But I was quite surprised by how funny I thought it was. In no small part because of Franz layers of insecurity were a constant source of entertainment. Had it been someone else in the part I think that could have worn thin, but so much of it relied upon his acting. I found his performance nothing but compelling, whether funny or suspenseful or dramatic. As much as it’s couched as a thriller, it becomes a character piece.”

While the cast was never certain how much of the film would be comic or dramatic, Mueller had an idea of what he wanted and needed from the actors to accomplish what he needed to give the movie the effect he wanted. “Hearing about everyone’s interpretations of the script,” said Mueller. “It seems everyone had a bit of Rorschach reaction to it. Everyone saw it as something different. As the writer and director, I had a vibe in my head that I didn’t let anyone else in on…but I wanted it to be the way it ultimately turned out. I wanted it to feel like a ride that had room for all of it. So Harry’s stuff is very silly, but some of the other stuff in it about therapy, self-help, and cults, I just find interesting and wanted to explore it. I didn’t want it to seem like Rebirth (the program name for the weekend retreat) is just a silly or outlandish group. I wanted their pitch to resonate and tempt Kyle, before it gets ridiculous and then scary, because cults are no joke.”

Even after seeing the final cut, Kranz claims he “still doesn’t what the right choice would be for my character to have made. If it had been played all for laughs or serious and not commenting or being rhetorical, I think the audience would have felt themselves being led to the right choice for him to have made. We tried different things and there’s a whole different version of the movie on the cutting room floor. I know I tended to go for jokes more often than what ultimately made it into the movie, but there’s still a lot of humor on screen and it is supposed to be funny. But I think having that range is provocative. Through to the end, you’re never sure if my character’s on board or being blackmailed.”

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While Goldberg occasionally hammered Mueller for answers about his character of Zack, Kranz uncertainty about the film ultimately fit his character. Even when he would ask for confirmation that the take was what he wanted, “Karl was always kind of non-committal with his opinion” said Kranz, “And ordinarily that is not good to hear from a director, but for my character it’s what I needed. I needed to keep trying and the experience something similar to what the character’s going through, which is so weird. So why should I have an answer about how to play reactions to what’s going on around him. As a character, I shouldn’t know the right response, so as an actor I shouldn’t know the right choice either.”

Ultimately, even with that sense of uncertainty, limited rehearsal time, and a heavy work load (Kranz appears in every scene), the acting experience turned out to be immensely satisfying for him, explaining “I was really satisfied every day. It was a really hard shoot and physically demanding. But I always came home pretty proud of what we were doing.” The only thing to ease his schedule turned out to be the fact that they could shot almost the entire film in one location; an abandoned building Goldberg said was “on the verge of being condemned” and filthy (although Hamlin claims he was relatively comfortable the one day he filmed). Because they were in one location, Kranz could film a majority of his scenes in sequence. The other benefit of filming in one building, was the subconscious feeling that the organic space of the building had trapped Kyle. Mueller explained that “If we had filmed at multiple locations, we would have been dealing with different architecture styles and different state of deterioration.”

It also inspired his composer, Jonathan Snipes to use the building by, Karl says, “playing the building” and recording the percussion by having musicians come in one night to play on the pipes, walls and floors of the building. The building being abandoned and old provided an echo that made the sound uniquely its own. Karl explained that Snipes ideas was “to put the audience even more into the environment subconsciously by hearing sounds that are native to that building he’s walking around in.”

Sound was a major component for Mueller, including how he cast the role of the motivational speaker Ray, played in the movie by comedian Steve Agee. Karl took notice of his work on The Sarah Silverman Program and said “I felt like I saw something in him that would be fun to have in this role. A lot of what I’m attracted to in actors are their voices and the way they speak, maybe even more than how they look. And Steve has this very interesting, resonate voice that I thought would fit this big motivational speaker. And then there’s the fact that he’s like 6’8. When you first see him in the movie, he looks like he’s standing on the stage. But then he walks through the crowd and it turns out he’s just a really tall man, taller than Fran. And he has the ability to go from being the gentle giant to that big, vociferous motivational speaker character in a few seconds. And then there’s the fact that he’s this funny guy can’t seem to help but make things seem funny. His character gets right up in Kyle’s face, which is a very intimidating act, but it’s Steve Agee so it seems kind of funny. It creates a kind of tension…I think Fran even smiles a little out of nervousness when Steve gets in his face.”

While Agee and Hamlin’s scenes are broadly comedic, there are vignettes in which things feel far more sinister, as far more threatening forms of control and brainwashing emerge. And the film ends with a Kyle asked to make a decision Kranz describes as “so awful I had to break in a profound way we didn’t realize was there before. It had to be more menacing than anything we knew possible.” At the root of the idea, the control Rebirth wants over Kyle comes through touching on insecurities. In this case, Zach gets the upper hand by telling Kyle he’s unsatisfied with his average life, as Mueller states. “If you were to tell someone, you’re your own worst enemy, that’s kind of just fortune cookie wisdom but it’s applicable to literally everyone. We can all always be happier, so telling someone they aren’t happy or they’re dissatisfied with their life taps into something. It makes them feel like you’re seeing something inside them, which gives you power over them.”

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In the case of Zach and Kyle, Zach teasing and calling him a zombie is enough to motivate him to try Rebirth, because as Kranz explains, it is such a simple and juvenile thing to call someone. “I always read zombie as kind of a silly word, so it catches you off guard, and you’re like, are you kidding me? So in a weird way, it sort of pumps my character up because he doesn’t take it seriously, at least at first. I think that behavior is really sort of calculated and creepy, because you know Kyle’s feelings won’t be hurt being called that, but at the same time it’s really aggravating. He starts thinking “you can’t do better than that? Zombie?” but he doesn’t realize the bigger scheme. Kyle’s not depressed in his current life, he isn’t a loser. He has a decent, happy life. I’ve heard it said that he’s this emasculated male, but he’s only emasculating by Zach. And I think modern males are emasculate when we compare ourselves to hunters and farmers, so there is this primal instinct we all still have, and I think Rebirth is trying to use that insecurity about being emasculated against him. When I first read the term zombie I thought, I don’t know about that, but it worked because it seemed silly at first, even to Kyle.”

In the film, the question of how much is tied back to masculinity is an underlined theme throughout the movie. Mueller describes the group as having “a macho, male rage aspect to the group, asking if they’re man enough to do this, to be emotional.” While far from the cults and group think presented here, Hamlin said he understood that idea, recounting that his only experience with group therapy had been attending a men’s group for about 5 years, which he described as having “some pillow pounding and tears.” Goldberg identified strongly with that theme in the film, readily describing himself as an alpha male. “Whenever I felt that there was someone more alpha than myself, specifically in the masculinity department, if really cut to something so primal in me. It’s hard to put a finger on what that is. On Dazed and Confused, there was so much male energy on that set, and we’d be up all night and drinking all night, and then at 6am someone’s says “let’s go to the shooting range” and I’d say yes. And there was just something about that masculine energy, no matter how progressive we are. And conversely, being alpha myself, I know I’ve found myself preying on those instincts in others. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s this thing that is just so primordial.”

It was that aspect of his own personality Goldberg pointed out as being something he shared with the character of Zach, describing him as “a kind of a hipster alpha male. Karl described him as Keruuacian. The kind of guy who was just a traveler and coalesced all these different influences into this new belief system. And then goes up to guys and says don’t be a zombie. Goldberg feels that the film skirts a fine by not condemning the idea of self-help or group therapy but questioning it. “Self-help is based around this idea that going through all this you’ll learn to make your own decisions and lead your own life. And that can work. But if you’re already a happy person who happens to go to bed at 7pm because you like to go to bed early and you have a wife and kid you love, when someone calls you a zombie that can throw you off a good course. It taps into that insecurity we all have about there being a road not taken.”

Mueller agreed that even though the film is meant to be a satire “I don’t think we’re satirizing the idea of seeking self-actualization or self-help or encounter therapy. Those things can be very valuable, but there are those that go too far some times. We’re all terrified of being brainwashed, I know I am. But at the same time, we all are who we are because of our influences. It’s not as if we can just make everything up, there are rules in society. And we might not have been born into the best environments, so it is positive to question what those influences were and if we can change them.”

Mueller’s interest in cults allowed him to research a multitude that have existed over the last century while writing the script. Kranz describes his interest as limited because “indicative of the bad student I am in my everyday life, I’d say “oh, that’s really fascinating” but then I’d be too lazy to read about it.” But Goldberg shared his director’s fascination so “there was a lot of swapping of cult porn between Karl and myself. I’ve always been fascinating by cults and group think. I took him to meet my in-laws because while they weren’t in cults, they had a storied life in the 60s which included interactions with gurus and cult leaders. That world is kind of an onion, where you can continually peel back the layers, which is always fascinating to me.”

Of all the cults he’s read about, Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre remains especially fascinating to Goldberg who explained how that tragedy inspired one of his songs. “I’m a musician and one of my songs is called “Mother Please” calling quotes from Jim Jones, those famous recordings where he’s talking everyone to their death. And I took a lot of my lyrics from those recordings, including “mother, mother, mother, mother, please, please, please.” Telling all these mothers to deal with their kids and get them to stop crying. And I recorded it and my wife sang with a choir of kids a call and response to the song. And most people think I kind of sound like John Lennon, so a lot of people think it’s inspired by his song “Mother.” But it’s not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the Jonestown documentary.”

Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)

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