Lost in the Movies: The Killer, the Filmmaker, and Their Modus Operandi: A Conversation with Mitch Rouse, director of "M.O."

The Killer, the Filmmaker, and Their Modus Operandi: A Conversation with Mitch Rouse, director of "M.O."


What does a serial killer do when he's not killing? In M.O., first-time feature director Mitch Rouse hopes to answer that question, taking a neorealist/documentary approach to the daily life of a killer. His influences include the work of the Dardennes, traditional neorealism, and the new crop of young filmmakers shooting in the neorealist tradition. His subject, however, will be quite different from theirs. The following conversation (as you'll see, not all of my questions were short!) focuses on the themes Mitch hopes to explore and the stylistic approaches he plans to employ; it also addresses some of the practical aspects of this venture. M.O. will be financed via a Kickstarter campaign, which is going on right now (Kickstarter is a website set up to promote funding through multiple donors).
Hi Mitch, hope all is well. I know you were out this afternoon - were you working on anything related to M.O.? How much time does this project take up for you these days?

I was actually working at my full-time job today. I edit for a living, so all of the work I do for M.O. is done in my free time. I usually spend a least two or three hours a night working on the film, whether I'm revising the script, coordinating schedules with actors, or otherwise getting things ready for production. We're scheduled to start principal photography in six weeks, so we're right in the middle of pre-production and we have a lot to do before that can happen.

In a few words, how would you introduce people to this film, your intent behind, and the process for creating it?

It's tough to be concise! But I'll give it a try:

M.O. is a realistic look at the life of a serial killer. The main character in the film is a seemingly average, ordinary guy. He's married, he has a daughter, and he has a job and a house like any middle-class family. But in secret, he's a pathological killer. The intent behind this film is to treat this subject matter without sensation and to leave viewers asking more questions than they came into the film with. On my end, I wanted to make a film that addresses questions I've never seen answered in a film before. Questions such as: What does a serial killer do before and after a murder? How does he plan a murder and then live as if everything is normal, and that he hasn't committed a terrible crime? How does the family of a serial killer not know what he's up to?

The process for creating this film so far has been for me to put myself into this character's shoes. So I've had to imagine what I would do if I had just committed a murder, and then driven home and had dinner with my family as if it were just a regular day. Rather than simply studying the psychology of serial killers, I asked myself what they do when they aren't killing and what their everyday habits are. Do they watch TV like everyone else? Do they spend time with their families? In the main character of M.O.'s case, what is his relationship with his wife like? How does he treat his daughter? So I wanted to know how this character attempts to live like a regular person, and not simply what he does when he's in the process of committing a murder.

What specifically does the serial killer DO when he’s not killing? Obviously some of his activities are mundane, but in everyone’s life, mundane details have a specificity that makes them memorable or immersive - can you give us a sense of a few of the details you will be using to bring out the particular in the universal? What do his activities tell us about him, as a person, and as a killer?

Here's the thing about serial killers: even when they aren't killing, they're often thinking about killing, or about a murder they've previously committed. They're experiencing whatever "emotions" those thoughts and memories conjure up for them. And those thoughts often inform whatever they're doing at that particular moment. For example, there's a scene in M.O. where the main character is playing basketball with his daughter at a park, and he sees a woman jogging by herself in the distance. He takes a break from their game at that exact moment to get a drink of water and just watch the woman as she exercises. His daughter doesn't think anything of it because she's busy taking her own water break, but it's obvious that the guy having a disturbing thoughts about this woman. So those thoughts never leave him, even when he's with his family.

The other thing this guy does, specifically, when he isn't killing, is the actual stalking of a new person. The title of the film refers to this character's modus operandi (method of operation), which is how he goes about accomplishing a murder. He stalks a woman and learns her habits, her routine, her schedule. I don't want to give too much away, but this is how we learn about how his mind works and what he wants.

Which particular films informed your vision and approach on this? You've mentioned the Dardennes - as far as the everyday/documentary serial killer aspect goes, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Man Bites Dog come to mind (I think the latter is probably more comedic than what you're going for).

For sure the films of the Dardenne brothers are an influence. Keane by Lodge Kerrigan is another, which is a great film that focuses heavily on its main character, who is mentally ill and searching for his lost daughter. I'm a big Ramin Bahrani fan, especially of Chop Shop. I also looked at the films of Bresson and some of the Italian Neorealist films, like Bicycle Thief. I also watched Gerry and Elephant by Gus Van Sant.

Were there any particular films that influenced you by contrast - i.e. you don't want to do "this"?

As far as what I don't want to do, even Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer shows more violence than I want to, although it is an interesting film and very good at what it does. But I don't want M.O. to focus on violence or a police investigation ( in fact, there are no cops in M.O.) like Silence Of The Lambs or Seven. Right away you know this guy is a killer, so there's no "mystery." It's a character study, through and through.

So the character will be revealed as a killer in one of the first few scenes? This was something I was wondering about - as you mentioned The Son in which the situation is kept purposefully unclear for quite a while. In that film, there's an ambivalence between whether we're "watching" the character or "seeing" with him; for your part, are you more interested in foregrounding the character's thought process, or purposefully maintaining a distance between the viewer and the character - allowing us to observe, but keeping us on the outside?

Yes, you find out quickly that he's a killer. I went back and forth on that point for a while, but I think it fits the story better to reveal it right away than to keep it a secret. It forces you to identify with the character, even though you probably don't like him.

There is going to be a purposeful distance between the audience and the character to the extent that you never really know what he's thinking. Instead, you have to observe his body language and behavior and draw your conclusions from that. In that way it's similar to The Son, but it's also different because we have a better idea of this character's purpose, where in The Son you don't know what he's doing or why.

Without revealing too much, can you say whether or not we're confronted, on a visceral level, with his violence right away? Or do we "know" he's a serial killer without having to experience all the bloody details at first? Quite simply: do we see him kill at the start of the film?

That's a very good question. There is a murder at the beginning of the film...but it's implied, rather than shown. That's another point I've gone back and forth on, and it's possible that I'll change my mind, but as it stands, you do not see the actual murder.

Will we eventually see him at his "worst", after we've gotten to know him primarily as a normal guy (even if we do know he's a serial killer)? Or is that a card you're holding up your sleeve...

That's a question that can only be answered by watching the film...

Ha, fair enough. Now as far as the influences go - you've mentioned neorealism and what might be called neo-neorealism: the films of Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt and others (and obviously the Dardennes who are a major influence on the movement). Where will the film come down aesthetically? In traditional neorealism, it seems to me, the camera gives the subjects more space - it observes without intruding - whereas in the more recent movies, there is a heavy emphasis on detail, on subjective camera strategies (handheld, close-up), and a tendency to identify visually - if not necessarily in other ways - with the subject. 

When you say the film will have a "documentary" approach, are you leaning more towards the latter or will there be more of a, for lack of a better word, "classical" restraint (such as Bresson, even with his emphasis on close-ups, had)? Why will you be taking the particular approach you do (how does it relate to the character, or the vision you're expressing)? 

That's a good point about traditional neorealism having a more restrained, less intrusive feel. I think the reason those films were made in that style is that those directors wanted to regard the characters and the story and simply watch them live their lives. It's a more objective style than what many filmmakers are doing nowadays, which is to use the camera more actively and take a more intimate point of view.

For M.O., I considered these different styles and I decided that the best one to use is a more subjective, active camera. What it really comes down to is that M.O. is a film about "looking." A good portion of the film is spent following the main character as he stalks a new victim and learns her habits and her routine.

He's watching her and we are right there with him. If I were to use a more passive, more objective camera style for this film, then the film would lose some of its power because we wouldn't be forced to "identify" with the main character's point of view. We would be seeing an event rather than a character. I want to get up close and show what it looks and feels like for someone like him to follow a stranger around and watch her live her life, which he is obviously planning to become a part of, whether she likes it or not.

The main character's modus operandi...is basically how he goes about planning and executing his plan to murder someone. And obviously that requires action on his part. I want to be right there with him as he goes through this process, so the camera has to move and has to be in his point of view in order to keep up with him. And hopefully, this style will bring new images into the world.

What devices and techniques - aside from shooting handheld and close-ups - will you use to convey not just what the character is seeing, but "how" he's seeing? And will you employ similar strategies for the domestic scenes as the stalking scenes? In other words, will your emphasis be on contrast or continuity between the two aspects of his life?

Good question. Sound will be key to "how" the main character sees in the film, which sounds paradoxical, but in fact it's one of the most effective ways to add layers to a film. What the viewer hears and does not hear is as important as what he or she sees and does not see. There's a great deal of silence in the film, which can be incredibly effective, as can simple sounds like breathing, or even the sound of an idle car engine. There are also sounds that viewers don't expect that can jolt them or surprise them, and that will add to the film as well.

There will also be no music in the film, so we won't be underlining important scenes or shots with the normal cues that music provides. In some ways, that levels the playing field on what is important visually and in an auditory sense. You'll have to really pay attention to know what's important, because we aren't going to gift-wrap it for you. There will be a mixture of contrast and continuity between this character's domestic life and his stalking behavior. I don't think it's realistic for these aspects to be totally different or completely similar. It's more of a gray area than that. Realistically, his behavior doesn't completely change from one part of his life to the next.

One of the challenges I've noticed with some films in this vein - that some filmmakers negotiate better than others - is the way the documentary style can actually highlight the fiction; in other words, we are "observing" behavior as if it were unfolding before us, but in fact it has been created and planned. So unlike in a documentary, where the filmmaker really can take a backseat to the material, in a film like this you will both be realizing and establishing what we see, and trying to let it unfold in a "natural," "unforced" way. 

There's a question in here, I promise: what techniques or approaches, in writing, visual direction, and performance, do you use or plan on using to shoot a documentary on a fictional world you have created? This can go both for execution (what would you speak about to the actors, how would you pivot from dressing the set, say, to filming freely, perhaps even impusively within it) and preparation (what do you personally do to create a world that you can then "let loose" and allow to survive on its own terms)?

The first thing we're doing is establishing and creating complex characters with the actors. We want every character in the movie to be three-dimensional and real, so we're allowing our actors to incorporate their own ideas about their characters into the script and improvise parts of scenes, and then combining that material with what I've written to really create these people. We want our actors to really "know" these characters and their backgrounds before we start filming so that when they walk onto set, they can literally "be" that character and not feel like they are acting.

In terms of the writing, the script is full of little details that might seem insignificant, such as how a character walks a certain way or says a certain word, or how a lamp in a certain room looks, but really those details are what differentiate one character and one setting from another. I tried to put as many specific details as I could into the script so that each character and each scene is as "real" as I could make it. Combine a specific place with a specific, well-thought out character, and it's much easier to create a unforced documentary feel.

I'm also going to improvise on set when we're actually filming. I might tell one actor to perform a specific action and not inform the other actor in the scene, just to see what happens. It's always good to surprise and challenge your actors with new situations, because they are forced to react in much the same way they would in real life when unexpected things happen. So we'll have very specific instructions going into a scene that I might change completely at the last second just to add a new element to the scene.

This makes a good segue into my next question - watching the promo video for the Kickstarter campaign, obviously you can have a light touch when needed and do something with a more slick, viewer-friendly approach. You've also mentioned doing editing and photography work, freelance, presumably (at least somewhat) in the commercial realm. 

From the sound of it, your film will be quite different in its aesthetic - but do you feel that you'll take some of what you've learned in other working environments and apply it here? Will differing sensibilities (aside from the Dardenne/neo-neorealist influence) inform the movie; will there be a mixture of art and entertainment in your storytelling style? Or will there be a fairly strict divide between work you've done for hire, and what you're doing here?

I'll definitely be able to apply different sensibilities to this film. The aesthetic is different than most of the things I usually edit or photograph, but I think all of those skills and ideas will help me make a better film simply because my knowledge is greater than it would be if I had a narrow focus.

It's hard to judge whether the film will be more art or entertainment; I think that's a question for the viewer to answer. I do know that this is not a film that everyone will enjoy, because it requires more than simply sitting back and letting it happen to you. You'll have to get involved and you'll have to think in order to get something out of it. But that actually excites me as a filmmaker and as an audience member. Why watch a movie that requires no thought? Sure, it can be a nice escape, but I'd rather feel as if I've experienced something new and important when I leave the theater. I'm not saying my film will necessarily touch people in a deep way, but I am trying to provide a window into a character and a situation that we don't often see. If I accomplish that, then I've done something.

How big is your crew? How did you meet the people involved?

Our crew will probably be 8 people, including me, so it's small. We don't have the budget for much else. Brittany Lynne Jones is our producer. She's been my creative partner for a 3 or 4 years and she's the rock I can lean on when I need something. She'll be managing the production and getting everything in place so I can focus on directing. I cold-called David Rodriguez, our Director of Photography, after seeing his reel online and we met for coffee a few months ago. It turned out that he was looking to shoot a feature and he owned his own RED camera (which we wouldn't be able to afford otherwise), so it ended up being a perfect fit. He read the script and loved it, and got on board when we met up the second time. Most of the rest of our crew I knew before I started the project.

How is the Kickstarter campaign going? What is the goal? What are you doing to try to reach that goal?

The Kickstarter campaign is going well! We're trying to raise $20,000 by December 17th. We've done a lot of marketing and PR so far to get the word out about the campaign, and we've also sent out a number of emails to people we know and to people we don't know to try to get them involved. The key to Kickstarter is persistence!

How is the budget to be distributed?

The budget will be distributed like it would be on any film. We've got pay our cast and crew, we need to pay for lodging, food, props, a few locations, and we also have post-production expenses like our sound mix and color correction. I'm not paying myself...in fact I'm putting a lot of my own money into the project. We're also putting some of the money aside to send out rewards to people that contribute to our Kickstarter campaign....DVDs, leather-bound scripts...the essentials!

Where did your love of film come from, and at what point did you consider direction as a career? What choices did you make to facilitate this?

I've always loved movies. When I was in high school I did a lot of video projects and it just made sense to take the leap to movies. I knew that one day I'd make a movie, just to prove to myself that I COULD make one if for no other reason. I watch, study and dissect movies and books because I want to learn how to tell a story.

Where would you like to go from here? Do you plan to continue independent filmmaking, or are you hoping for a career within the industry?

I've already got another idea for a film I'd like to make (another low-budget indie), and I've always wanted to make a noir film. I don't know if I want to stay independent or try to make it in the industry. Wherever I can make the movies I want to make, that's where I'll go (so probably independently..haha).

What advice do you have for other filmmakers looking to make something outside of the current system? About preparation? About execution?

It's an obvious piece of advice, but JUST DO IT. I can't tell you how important perseverance and being pro-active are. If you want to make a film, make a film. Don't dwell on what you can't do and can't control. If I did that with M.O., I wouldn't have stuck with it. You just have to keep moving forward no matter what.

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this interview was originally published.

If you would like to support M.O., please visit the Kickstarter page to find out more.
Mitch will be stopping by this post later today to answer further questions from readers. Please feel free to address him in the comments section below.

This is an extract of a much longer interview. I cut it down for this main post; however, I have put up the entire transcript here.

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