Dustin Guy Defa’s Fever Dreams

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Published March 30, 2011

 

ELÉONORE HENDRICKS AND KENTUCKER AUDLEY IN BAD FEVER.

Something funny is going on in Dustin Guy Defa’s debut feature, Bad Fever. As if reluctant to tell its own story, the film opens bit by bit and without a great deal of detail. And yet, even with the absence of narrative conventions—backstory, for example, or a clinical take on a character’s social malaise—Bad Fever emerges as a singular portrait of solitude, the need for companionship, and “one man’s broken American Dream.”

Eddie, played by Kentucker Audley, is a shy, reclusive young man who ambles through an empty town—idle streets, passing trains, vacant lots—practicing his solemn and scrappy stand-up routine in a handheld recorder. At night he dips further into boyishness, idealizing cowboy chivalry as he watches old movies with his mom. 

Eternally romantic, he courts the only girl who speaks to him: an aggressive drifter named Irene (Eléonore Hendricks) who walks with an offish mien. All we know about Irene is that she records herself doing everyday things on VHS tapes that she later mails to “this guy [she] met on the Internet. He lives in Idaho Falls.” Despite her bullying, Irene’s loneliness is achingly palpable, too. In one scene (in which Hendricks bears an uncanny resemblance to Scout Finch) we watch her on grainy video as she eats a bowl of cereal, drinks the leftover milk like Heidi, and wipes her face with both hands. Briefly, she’s a child, much like Eddie.

Defa’s kinship with his characters (and his actors) is a rare and intimate joy to watch. While happiness in this film is short-lived, Eddie’s tenderness—both odd and urgent, and formally phrased—has an enduring quality. In one especially great scene he complements Irene’s new dress: “Wow. Irene, that looks tremendous!” Though one expects a more fitting “terrific!,” somehow, Eddie’s take seems far closer to the truth.

We talked to director Defa, as well as Hendricks and Audley, about the movie’s dark honesty—and the transformation Audley had to undergo to embrace it.

DURGA CHEW-BOSE: What was your inspiration for Eddie and Irene?

DUSTIN GUY DEFA:  I had an idea about doing a comedian a long time ago, and it was a very unfunny comedian. I’m always juggling characters and then trying to find a place for them, and so he had been around for a while. I don’t know who these characters are until I start writing. It just came so fast—I actually had a fever, I was really sick when I started writing, and that’s where the title came from initially. Right before I started writing, I had watched Badlands, which is one of my favorite movies, I watched that and I also watched Welcome do the Dollhouse…ELÉONORE HENDRICKS: Oh, you did watch Welcome to the Dollhouse?

DEFA: Yeah, yeah. I feel like Dawn Wiener and then Kit in Badlands were a huge inspiration for Eddie. My uncle is also a huge inspiration.

HENDRICKS: And yourself, too, right?

DEFA: Yeah, and definitely myself. Definitely myself in high school.

CHEW-BOSE: And Irene?

DEFA: Irene comes from me also. Another part of myself that always wants to run away, and I didn’t look at any cinematic characters. In the writing she was always a very mysterious character. I don’t think her motivations specifically are spelled out in the film. There’s just a feeling of what she might be doing.

HENDRICKS: Yeah, we had talked about that.

DEFA: We were avoiding it the whole time.

CHEW-BOSE: Why were you avoiding making those motivations clear?

HENDRICKS: I mean it just seemed more interesting that there was a, you know, a girl who makes these videotapes—presumably to make a living—and she’s on her own. She can’t really hold down a job, and she can’t go back home. You see her situation in the school and you just kind of gather what the circumstances are, without really having a clear trajectory. And I think it’s better not to.

DEFA: Well, I think the people that will like the movie will feel like the movie is whole and won’t have those questions. When I see a movie that’s really interesting that I really like, I don’t even feel like there’s something before and usually after. There are people who naturally have trouble in life, and I find that to be okay. Wondering if Eddie’s going to be okay, that’s the question of the movie. The answer is making the movie.

CHEW-BOSE: The story unfolds in its own leisurely way.

DEFA: Yeah, that became very intentional in the editing process with David Lowery. We had a lot of scenes that we shot for the first half, but we got rid of them, to have that feeling of information slowly leaking out.

KENTUCKER AUDLEY: It’s an exciting transition. You don’t buy into it for a while, or it’s not immediately flashy or exciting, I think it’s exciting when you do start, when the ball starts really rolling.

CHEW-BOSE: Eléonore, what do you think of your character, Irene? Are you fond of her?

HENDRICKS: I’m not that fond of her, no. I mean, I sympathize with her story, for sure. I don’t think she’s a terrible person, and I don’t think she’s going to be malicious her entire life, but I think it’s a stage that she’s in.

CHEW-BOSE: What do you think draws her to Eddie then?

HENDRICKS: The company is part of it, and also a person who seems weak enough to manipulate and sort of beat down.

CHEW-BOSE: The beginning of the movie feels a bit strange, like things could go bad really fast. It’s dark. I mean in terms of lighting too, it’s dark. But the tone is almost ominous somehow.

AUDLEY: It’s a dark movie. Physically too, yeah.

CHEW-BOSE: And everyone feels very desperate. Even Mama’s bright green eye shadow looks desperate—but also funny, like she’s out of a John Waters movie. Was that something you wanted to portray, people who can’t really reach others or make the connection that they wish they could make?

AUDLEY: That’s the main thing [Dustin’s] fascinated with.

DEFA: Yeah, I’m very fascinated with that. Thankfully, I’ve become more and more connected to people and able to talk to people, but I’ve also in my life had a very big struggle connecting to people and talking to people.

AUDLEY: Yeah, you’re terrible at it. I’m just kidding.

CHEW-BOSE: How did you reach out to Eléonore and Kentucker?

DEFA: Well, I saw Kentucker’s movie, Team Picture, and I emailed him the next day, and he was in New York for some reason and so we went to lunch.

CHEW-BOSE: And Kentucker, what got you excited about Bad Fever?

AUDLEY: I acted in my own films and I wouldn’t say I’m disinterested in the idea of exploring acting, you know, so I met up with him, and I initially read the script and didn’t think I could do it because it was like a movie…

HENDRICKS: Getting to know [Kentucker] was weird, because I was just so curious by his disinterest in movies and like…

CHEW-BOSE: What do you mean by movies?

AUDLEY: Anything that’s fabricated or fake, or people not playing themselves. You know, that’s the only thing I was interested in for several years—my in-point to film—that there was no question that everyone’s playing themselves. And if you weren’t playing yourself, then there was no room for you in any of the films that I directed. And you know I was on soapbox about that, and I kind still am, but…

CHEW-BOSE: I want to understand this a little more. So you’re not interested in acting?

AUDLEY: I wasn’t until I made Bad Fever. It’s the first time that I played a character, and it turned out that it was incredibly interesting and fulfilling, and exciting…

CHEW-BOSE: Why?

AUDLEY: I come from a non-expressive background; you know, I’m sort of closed off. And it’s been a process of me trying to be more expressive and understanding the value of expressing and being sort of creative about how I express myself rather than staying really low-key, and really stone-faced and shy. When I could make up something completely different—that refreshed everything.

HENDRICKS: That’s what’s so beautiful about your transition, your interest in acting, or your new perspective on movies or characters or that sort of thing, is that you had to learn it through the experience of it. You had to come to it yourself and it wasn’t imposed on you through watching movies and being influenced by them. I don’t know, it’s just very unique and very different from other people’s reasons for wanting to act.

DEFA: But you still don’t like fake. You had to believe in Eddie and being Eddie, he had to be very honest the entire time with himself and with the character.

AUDLEY: Yeah, and once I knew you, trusted you, and liked you, and knew that you were a generous, sensitive, and honest person, I was willing to go anywhere. I love all the movies of people I know. As soon as I love and trust somebody, I give [their movie] my complete support. And I don’t think I can like art outside of…

CHEW-BOSE: Friends?

AUDLEY: Friends. Yeah, friends. I mean I don’t think I can have a complete relationship to a piece of art that… Well, I guess it’s just I could have a relationship, but it’s a completely different level.

CHEW-BOSE: So if Eléonore played some character in a big blockbuster movie that was so separate from her? I don’t mean to drill you, I’ve just never heard anything like this.

DEFA: You mean if she went and did like Men in Black III or something?

AUDLEY: I would love it! Whatever she does, whatever these guys do their whole life, they have a free pass.

DEFA: I feel like unless—though I doubt this would happen—these two get dishonest with their work, our friendship might change. Or we’d need to have a talk about it.

AUDLEY: [laughs] “We need to talk.”

HENDRICKS: And I would like to add that the whole process of making Bad Fever was a lot of fun for us. It was so small and such an intimate group of people, and we didn’t really know one another very well at first. We had the freedom to discuss what we were doing, and we had the freedom to move things around. We worked diligently, but we would also go on these wonderful and beautiful hikes up the mountain surrounding Salt Lake City.

DEFA: Yeah, we took lots of breaks.

AUDLEY: In setting this all up and making this bigger than the movie, I mean, the movie can’t be more important than the time we made it?

HENDRICKS: Yeah, the time during which we made the movie was almost…

DEFA: I think it’s the same.

AUDLEY: The same? But it can’t be as good. [laughs]