Karl Mueller and Jon Foster Head Into the Woods

Published April 22, 2013

ABOVE: SARAH JONES AND JON FOSTER IN MR. JONES

There are multiple films within Mr. Jones, the directorial debut of screenwriter Karl Mueller. Set in the Californian countryside, Mr. Jones begins like a classic slasher film: an attractive young married couple, Penny and Scott, quit their jobs and go on a road trip to a remote cabin in the woods to make a documentary and take photos. The nearest road is 10 miles away. While the sun shines and the couple immerse themselves in their art and each other, there is a shrouded figure creeping around in the corner of the shot—Mr. Jones. When it turns out this hunched-over mystery figure is a reclusive “outsider” artist, however, the feeling that this is just a simple slasher film begins to slip away.

“They don’t know that they’re in a horror movie. That’s what you have to remember,” Mueller explained when we met him the day after the film’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Because you’re already saying, ‘Don’t go into the woods!’ ” Mueller’s three-person cast consists of Jon Foster, the younger brother of actor Ben Foster (Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma) as Scott; Sarah Jones as Penny; and Marc Steger as the mute Mr. Jones.

EMMA BROWN: Do you think that what Mr. Jones does is art? Is it only art because he’s such an eccentric personality?

KARL MUELLER: Absolutely I think it’s art. It’s pure art—it’s not known what his motives are, but he’s certainly not making it for the marketplace. He’s not making it as something that will gain him money or fame or anything like that. It’s just pure expression coming from his own subconscious. That’s a great definition of art, what art can be. One definition of it.

BROWN: Do you think that’s why people are so interested in Outsider art?

MUELLER: Yeah, I definitely am. A lot of my inspiration for Mr. Jones came from this guy, Henry Darger, an Outsider artist who died at age 81. He was a janitor in Chicago. They opened up his apartment, and he had like this 15,000-page novel and hundreds of paintings that depicted this bizarre battle between these fairies—cherubic angels—and these men and nobody knew that the guy was doing them in his apartment. The guy was very much like Mr. Jones; he would make them like for no other reason than because he was driven to do it. I find it a very beautiful thing. It felt very mysterious—what is driving that guy? He was a shut-in and he didn’t know anybody, so [when he died] the landlord just went up there and they found all this stuff. There are some amazing books just of photographs of the apartment. They knew instantly that this was something out of the ordinary. They preserved it for a while. Pretty cool story.

BROWN: Would you call Mr. Jones a horror film?

JON FOSTER: Um… [to Mueller in a mock whisper] What do you want me to say?

MUELLER: Yeah, we’d definitely call it a horror film. It’s a film for people who like horror but they want something even more, something different, they want people doing stuff with the genre that hopefully hasn’t been tried before. Whether it’s successful or not is up to them, but at least we’re trying to sort of take it in different directions. But the bones of the movie are certainly horror.

FOSTER: Definitely the bones. [laughs]

BROWN: You’re not afraid to say that? I feel like horror is quite marginalized as a genre.

MUELLER: To me, genre is just a jumping-off point. So many of my favorite movies could just be any kind of genre. You look at Stanley Kubrick’s career, he worked almost exclusively in genre, but with a different one each time, he had the classic period piece, he had war films, sci-fi movies, which I guess was a very marginalized genre, especially at the time. And obviously The Shining was a horror movie, but it just depends on where you go with it. One of the great American traditions of filmmaking is taking genre, which is one of our great art forms, and using that to express something else. Using that as your vehicle, the same way the Beatles would use pop song format—the sort of four-minute verse-chorus, verse-chorus that could be anything from a trifle to a great work of art. Not to compare myself to The Beatles… but, yes, I am comparing myself to The Beatles. [laughs]

BROWN: Do you remember the first film that scared you?

MUELLER: For me, it was even the film; it was the notoriety around Silence of the Lambs. I just remember a friend’s older brother coming back and describing the plot for it. It just sounded like the most terrifying—not just movie, but thing that had ever existed. It made the movie seem so much bigger than a movie, that I saw it, I was already scared before the opening credits. I think that was the first for me.

FOSTER: I cried every time I saw Alice in Wonderland. It was the scariest freaking movie I’ve ever seen.

MUELLER: What part?

FOSTER: The whole thing. It was just so trippy and weird. And then I’d say the one after that was Thinner. Thinner really creeped me out. It’s really freaky. Believe me, you should rent it. Scary.

BROWN: I saw that your parents were at the premiere last night, Jon. Did they like the film?

FOSTER: Yeah, my mom had to leave. She left halfway through, because she said she couldn’t bear to have images in her mind of her son being harmed. I was like, [whispers] “Nothing happens.”

MUELLER: Don’t tell her that!

FOSTER: A lot happens. But I was comparing it to Saw. I was like, “This isn’t a Saw film.” But she really gets scared. But my dad was very happy. They’re very supportive people. I’m lucky to have them.

BROWN: Do they watch all of your movies?

FOSTER: They do. The weirdest is when there are lovemaking scenes—if you want to call it that. I’ve been in films where they weren’t so “lovely” and I have to sit between my parents every time when they’re seeing that kind of thing happen. Which is an interesting dynamic to share with your parents.

BROWN: At least it wasn’t them watching Alpha Dog with your brother.

FOSTER: Definitely. There is no comparison. But they’re equally as proud in those moments. They’re very brave.

BROWN: And have your parents seen it, Karl?

MUELLER: They were there last night! I think my mom watched most of it with her hands over her eyes. They had a great time. But they’re a very forgiving audience. Don’t go by their word. [laughs]

BROWN: When you’re watching the film for the first time in the cinema like that, are you watching the audience? Or are you watching yourself on screen?

FOSTER: It was my first time watching the movie, so I’m critiquing my own performances to better my own ability. But then I get really caught up with the audience, especially in a movie that lies within this genre. It really is important to look at the audience and feel the audience and when do they sync up with the film. I felt like that was happening quite a bit. People were really freaked out.

MUELLER: It’s hard to judge, when you’re sitting with an audience, how engaged they are with it. When I go to movies I’m not involved with, I’ll look around to see what is the face of a person watching a movie who is engaged or not. Generally, it’s all happening in their heads. They’re slack-jawed, or they’re slumping down, and then they loved the movie. The body language—because you don’t feel like you’re being watched when you watch a movie, so you’re not putting up social cues, like “I’m enjoying this,” or “I am scared,” it’s all a very internal kind of thing. I find it very difficult to read an audience. If they’re walking out, then you know they’re not into it. [laughs] I don’t think we had anybody walk out. Very few. Just put no walk-outs.

BROWN: Do you ever get taken in by the tension of your own movies?

MUELLER: [laughs] Not me. Having timed every cut, every sound effect of a doorknob you’re obsessing over. It’s very, very technical. You watch it a hundred times; it loses its power over you. When you’re watching it, you’re just like, “Oh, I remember how long that took to shoot. That was a real bitch.”

FOSTER: I relate it to looking at your yearbook at the end of the year. Every moment that comes on, you’re just thinking about something that happened that day or night. It’s very hard to lose yourself in it. Very hard.

BROWN: I know you shot some of the film down a mineshaft, which sounds rather stressful. What’s the worst job you ever had?

MUELLER: Whoa. When I went to college, I had to go back home and work in the summer in a cement plant. Making prestressed concrete for 12 hours a day, pouring it in a hot metal bed with cables and rusty lattice-work inside. Definitely, no matter how long a day is on a film shoot, it’s still a walk in the park. [laughs]

FOSTER: I bartended for a while, but, as annoying as that is, I really enjoyed it. I probably enjoyed it because I didn’t do it for too long. It was at that point in your life when you really want a job. I had been acting since I was so little that bartending seemed more legitimate to me than acting did. I was like, “I want a real job!” I did that for a year, and there’s definitely pros and cons to it, but I have nothing else to compare it to. Just bartending, acting, and music. And I did construction work, but I love construction work, too. I can’t really pick one that I hated.

MUELLER: Jon loves to get his hands dirty. There was a scene we were shooting in the movie out in the woods, and someone thought they heard a rattlesnake nearby. The camera crew immediately ran away. It was very hard as a director; you don’t want to order people back to an area where there might be a rattlesnake, even though it may have just been a figment of their imagination. So Jon just went in there with a stick, beating around the bush, saying, “Look, it’s okay! It’s okay! Let’s just shoot! There’s no rattlesnake here!” The first AD and the producer were just going nuts, Jon is the most non-expendable person on the set, because if he gets killed by a rattlesnake—

FOSTER: You could just prop me up.

MUELLER: Yeah, what are we going to do? A Weekend at Bernie’s?

BROWN: What projects do you have lined up next?

FOSTER: I am pursuing a music project pretty heavily right now. I’m sure I will find myself in film when the time is right. But I’m really focusing on that at the moment.

MUELLER: Jon’s one of those guys who’s good at everything. He’s a great musician, and exciting things are happening.

FOSTER: It’s called BadBad. [My girlfriend] Chelsea Tyler, is the vocalist and I produce all of the music. It’s a very heavy mixture of blues and jazz and dance music.

BROWN: When did you start making music?

FOSTER: I started producing music probably about 15 years ago. I started making beats on my computer when they came out with this program called Free-Loops, which I don’t use it anymore. I started making songs and over that period of time, I started focusing on it a lot. Two years ago, when I met Chelsea, I had about 300 songs and just showed her some.

MUELLER: [laughs] 300 songs? Whoa. Bob Dylan basement takes.

FOSTER: She’s a very talented jazz, blues vocalist and I really like dance music, so we were like, “Let’s try to put those two together.” We’re on Soundcloud and we should have an LP coming out in a couple months.

BROWN: And what about you, Karl?

MUELLER: I have a ukulele solo album. [laughs] Yeah, this is my thing, is filmmaking. Well, I have other secret art pursuits, but those are private. A film I wrote called Devil’s Rapture [is] coming out, I think, in October. It’s a sort of Amish horror movie—a very closed theocracy. It should be fun. But I just wrote that, I didn’t direct it. Once you write it, you hand it off and show up when it’s finished. I just finished a script that I’m hoping to get going soon. That’s a sort of a crazy crime thriller with strange chronological structure. That one I definitely want to hold onto for myself to direct.

MR. JONES IS CURRENTLY SHOWING AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN NEW YORK.