Struggling to make a respectable living in a corporate society and raise a happy family is a respectable goal many people strive to achieve as they settle into adulthood. But if their career begins to force them to embark on assignments that goes against their moral and ethical beliefs, they can soon descend into a damaging professional and personal existential crisis. That’s certainly the case with the protagonist, Kyle, in the new independent psychological thriller, ‘Rebirth.’ He starts to resent the hypocritical nature of his luxury bank job that nicely supports him and his family, but is too afraid to leave the financial security that goes with it.
With ‘Rebirth,’ writer-director Karl Mueller crafted a relatable drama that isn’t afraid to also rely on moments of comedy to showcase the desperate measures people wish they can take when they start to hate their job and feel trapped by their family. But despite his determination to change his life, Kyle is a prime example of people becoming too afraid of confrontation. He has grown scared of conflict to a certain degree, as he has become trapped in modern society’s continuous process of rewarding people who always follow the examples that are set for them.
‘Rebirth’ follows college friends Kyle and Zack (Fran Kranz and Adam Goldberg) as they reunite during a weekend getaway for spiritual rejuvenation. As the duo reconvenes, they initially have fun together as they embark on a playful treasure hunt that leads the way to the retreat. But from the moment Kyle board the bus that’s set to take him to the seemingly peaceful refuge, his safety is comprised. What’s meant to be a serene retreat immediately morphs into a terrifying tour through an unescapable compound that’s filled with brainwashed Re-birthers, who are led by Gabe and Jesse (Harry Hamlin and Pat Healy).
Mueller and Hamlin generously took the time to sit down in New York City to talk about ‘Rebirth’ during an exclusive interview a couple of days after it had its World Premiere in the Midnight section of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how the thriller’s story was created after he decided to translate his interest of exploring the world of self-actualization groups into a feature film script. While Hamlin is a supporting actor in the drama, he revealed that he was actually instantly drawn to the filmmaker’s entire story, particularly its overall comedic moments, and appreciated Gabe’s dialogue throughout his moments on screen. The filmmaker and performer both also expressed their appreciation of all the hard work that casts and crews put into making independent movies, including ‘Rebirth.’
Mueller began the conversation by chronicling what inspired him to pen the screenplay for the film, and the experience of crafting the plot during the writing process. “The story grew out of my interest of exploring the world of self-actualization and self-realization groups, self-motivational seminars and cults, which I think are all tied into this same impulse that a lot of people have to better their lives. People often want to find answers, or a better way to live. I’m fascinated by that world,” the scribe revealed. “I’m interested in exploring our assumptions about what a mainstream life is. So this movie is about a character, who like myself, is a very conventional person, and his experience of coming face-to-face with that world and that kind of thinking.”
Hamlin then divulged what interested him in playing Gabe in ‘Rebirth,’ and how he became involved in the drama. “I was offered the movie, so I was sent the script. When I then read it, I actually laughed out loud, particularly around the scene that I was supposed to do,” the Golden Globe-nominated actor admitted. “There was one line in the scene that I have that after I read it, I said, “I have to say those words. No one is going to be able to say those words the way that I’m going to say them.’
“You probably know which line I’m talking about,” Hamlin said as he then turned to Mueller, who laughed as he answered, “I can only imagine. We probably can’t say that line now, because it may ruin the movie.” The actor agreed by adding, “Yes, you have to see the movie. But I said, ‘I’m not going to let anyone else say that line.”
The film creatively mixes psychological horror and biting satire on such topics as new age health trends and male bonding culture, particularly through the compelling dialogue the actors offer throughout the story. Hamlin added that he thinks it was essential to incorporate that wit and humor into a thriller that’s meant to explore such a dramatic subject as a self-actualization Rebirth retreat. “The tone of the film can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. When I read a script, I often times imagine the tone, and often times find a way into the tone of the movie, usually through the first act. By the end of the first act, I’ll usually know where the tone is going,” the actor revealed.
“But then an editor, director and actor can get together and manipulate the tone. When I first read the script, the movie had one tone in my head. But when I later saw the finished movie, the tone had been construed differently. The tone was yours all the way through,” Hamlin said to Mueller. “Do you think the tone in the finished film is the same as the tone you went in with?”
“I think they were pretty close,” the writer-director answered. “I wanted it to be funny, but I also wanted the stakes to be real. So I didn’t want to make a comedy with a capital C, where you know you’re in a safe environment. In that sense, nothing is actually happening to the character, as you know it’s all a big joke. I think that would pull you out of the movie a little bit. So I didn’t want to have any big funny moments. But at the same time, a lot of the stuff that people are talking about, and the way they talk about it, is ridiculous, especially when there’s an outsider there.” Mueller pointed out that the thriller’s main character, Kyle, “is an outsider in this world of self-actualization. So inevitably, someone who is an insider of that world wouldn’t think the way these people talk is funny. But to someone like Kyle, who’s hearing this way of thinking for the first time, thinks this world is ridiculous.”
The filmmaker added that “I wanted to thread this intensity and comedy through both sides, and let people have their own experience as they watch the film. Hopefully some people will find it funny, and others will just take it as a thriller. They’re both valid ways to watch the movie.”
Hamlin then revealed that he thinks “there’s a lot of irony in the movie. The humor is ironic, particularly when you get to the end.” Mueller laughed as he agreed, saying “Yes, we had to go over the top, and go out with a bang.”
The scribe-helmer then divulged what his research process was like when he began formulating the title self-actualization program that the thriller’s protagonist visited. “My research was living in California for 11 years, and keeping my ears open. Obviously, California and the entire West Coast has been massively influential on our country, as well as the world, in a lot of different ways,” Mueller pointed out. “It started with the hippies, and continued with the self-actualization and natural food movements. A lot of things that we would initially sneer at as New Age thinking eventually become mainstream.”
Mueller added that he’s “drawn to that kind of lifestyle, as I’m interested in trying, and learning about, new things, as well as the underlying assumptions about how we live, and how that affects on on a day-to-day basis. But at the same time, I’m a straitlaced, conventional wall flower-kind of guy. So I’ve kept my ears open while I’ve been there, and observed how these things can go. I have also studied the way people think and speak in this world.”
The filmmaker then began discussing his directorial approach on the thriller, and cited the cast as one of the main reasons why he was able to effectively helm the film. “We got a really amazing cast of really talented and intelligent actors. Since this script is a bit left of center, and has a lot of tricky dialogue, you need a lot of smart people who can read it and take their own spin on it,” Mueller explained. “My job as a director is to put these actors together, and figure out how their chemistry is going to work, and then record the results.”
The helmer added that he didn’t “write the script with any actors specifically in mind. You just write it and start looking around at who you think could fit in the roles. It’s interesting that Harry said he read it as a comedy, because I think some of the producers read it, and I sold it a little bit, as a thriller. It is a thriller in a lot of ways, as it’s this intense, (David) Fincher-inspired story. So the producers may have expected me to cast a certain type of actor,” Mueller revealed.
“But once I started casting, I wanted to get a lot of people who had experience in comedy. I didn’t need big comedians, necessarily, but people who could find something strange and funny within their roles,” the director explained.
Mueller then specifically noted that “Fran Kranz, who plays the main character, has done a lot of funny stuff. He worked with Joss Whedon on ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ and ‘Dollhouse.’ But at the same time, he’s also a serious actor, and has done a lot of productions on Broadway. Adam Goldberg is also a very funny guy, as both a person and an actor. But at the same time, he’s not a comedian, so he can play both sides of this type of role.”
Hamlin then divulged that once the filmmaker cast him and his co-stars in ‘Rebirth,’ he had breakfast with Mueller to discuss the character of Gabe, as well as the overall story. “We really discussed the character and the overall tone,” the Emmy Award-nominated actor noted. The director then jumped in and added that they also spoke about “our overall experiences.”
“The day that we shot my part wasn’t really hectic,” Hamlin also revealed. “But it was really hot that day, and we were in a room. There wasn’t any improvisation in my scenes, if I recall. We shot them pretty much word-for-word from the script.” The actor added that “everything went pretty smoothly. It was directed pretty well. For a day that you’re working in a building that didn’t have any services-I don’t even know if there was any electricity in the building-it was still a very smooth shoot that was well orchestrated.”
Mueller then chimed in, adding that “It helps that all of the actors were sitting down a lot, and weren’t really moving around. Like Harry mentioned, the building was pretty hot, as there wasn’t any air conditioning. We shot the film in October, but it was still pretty hot then, and we also had big lights in the room.”
The director added that he and the film’s crew found “an abandoned complex. It was built in the 1920s as a charity house to rescue women who had fallen on tough times. But it was eventually abandoned and went back to nature, and a lot of homeless people were living inside of it.
“When we arrived at the building, it was just opened up, so it was perfect for the idea of the movie. My idea for the retreat is that it’s this weekend seminar that’s operated almost like a rave,” Mueller explained. “The leaders would show up in a city, go to the industrial part of town, hunker down in an abandoned building for the weekend and do their workshop. They won’t get any legal permission to be there, and leave before anyone finds out and go to the next city.”
The filmmaker then discussed the process of working with the performers to define and plan their characters’ looks. “Once the actors are cast and arrive at the set, you talk about how their character may dress. We also discuss how the character sees themselves, and how that reflects in the way they dress. I think that’s as much of the actors’ work as the director’s work, because it’s their interpretation of the character,” Mueller revealed.
The director then mentioned the process of filming this type of thriller independently. “You have to be very well planned. You have to have a good First AD (Assistant Director) and DP (Director of Photography), who’s good at estimating how long things are going to take, which is some of the unsung heroic stuff that goes on on any movie. It’s a linguistical problem as much as it is an artistic one,” Mueller explained. “The more you have people supporting you, and can take care of that stuff, the more room the director and actors have to do what they’re there to do, which is to explore and find the truth in the scenes. I had a really good crew that delivered on this.”
Hamlin then asked Mueller how many days he had to film ‘Rebirth,’ which the director then revealed the overall shoot was 20 days. The actor then stated that he thinks having approximately three weeks to film this type of movie “is manageable. I’ve actually made films in less time. But I like working on a schedule like that. Having about 19 or 20 days for a feature film is good,” the actor revealed.
“A lot of features take about 40 or 50 days to shoot, and the bigger budget movies take even longer. I find that when I’m working on those movies that so much time is wasted. It makes me crazy the amount of time that gets wasted on those movies,” Hamlin also divulged. “They start off really slow in the morning, and then they can’t make their day. They get crazy because they’re losing the light. They also spend a lot of time talking about how you should shoot scenes. Then the camera time is so short, compared to the amount of time that’s spent talking about the scenes.
“So I love these tight schedules, because everyone’s constantly working, instead of just talking,” the actor also noted. “You have to quickly make decisions, and always be on your game. So I think that’s a better artistic experience in the long run.”
Once the shorter shooting schedule and editing was completed on ‘Rebirth,’ and the thriller was ready to be shown to audiences, Mueller began to embrace the experience of promoting the project. Speaking of having the movie’s World Premiere during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the writer-director revealed that the experience “has been very exhilarating, but also very nerve-racking for me at the same time. I’ve seen the movie hundreds of times, which is the opposite of the actors.” Hamlin then chimed in and agreed, revealing that he had only seen the film once at that point in the festival.
Mueller then added that “You’re finally showing something that you’ve spent so long on, and put so much hard work into, and all you want is for the world to like and embrace it. If that happens, it’s a great feeling. But if the world’s indifferent to it, you just have to swallow that and move on to the next project, and learn how to manage your emotions.”
The filmmaker ended the conversation by discussing the psychological drama’s distribution deal after it premiered at the New York-based festival in April. The Netflix original film is set to be distributed day and date on the internet streaming service and in theaters later this year, with an expected release in July.
“We made the film with Netflix, so they were the people we brought the script to, and they said they liked it. They also said, ‘Let’s keep talking,’ which eventually led to us making the movie. I think that’s the only way I could have gotten this movie made,” Mueller revealed. “It definitely has genre elements, and it’s a thriller. Hopefully it’s exciting and scary, and it’s also about another world that you don’t really see in movies. Netflix allowed us to do that, because they’re interested in making unique projects that are going to stand out. So they’ve been an incredible partner.”
Written by: Karen Benardello