“The Carnivores” Interview | Writer, director Caleb Michael Johnson (Written Interview)

The new comedy/thriller The Carnivores follows Alice (Tallie Medel) and Bret (Lindsay Burdge) as their dog, Harvie, is dying and is ruining everything, as there’s a sense for Alice that Bret cares more about the dog than her. These clouds of self-doubt start to cloud this dynamic, in a strange dark comedy where words won’t adequately describe the experience of the film. And of course, there’s a lot of ground beef…

I was able to speak with the writer and director of the film, Caleb Michael Johnson, through an e-mail exchange. You can find our conversation directly below for The Carnivores, which has some viewing options available here. 

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest.com: Okay, this first one is either easy or a loaded question. Are you a dog person or a cat person, and have any of your pets run away before?

Caleb Michael Johnson: Ha! Cats. There was a point when I was a kid when we had no less than 14 cats. All were vaguely related in some colossal failure to spay/neuter that I still don’t fully understand. They were much loved and all but two died tragic road deaths or went missing. One of them, Bird, lived into his 20s.

DP: The mood feels very measured, so what was it like trying to create that sense of anxiety with the ASMR of chopping veggies and then the heavy dog breathing?

Caleb Michael Johnson: I love this mention of ASMR. I actually would’ve had to look that term up if you’d asked me while I was doing the sound design. The fantastic film composer Curtis Heath later introduced me to it and we briefly tried building an entire score from an ASMR angle, but it ended up feeling too self-aware.

I think when ASMR is working, it’s because the line between your interior state and physical self has been lost, blurred, or fried. That’s what I always wanted the film to feel like but I didn’t have a name for it. Bleeding those audio elements out into places they don’t belong emerged organically from my want to put the audience in Alice’s head.

Writer and director Caleb Michael Johnson. (Courtesy of Caleb Michael Johnson.)

DP: How would you define your style, and do you think The Carnivores helped you discover your voice and style as a filmmaker in your second feature?

CMJ: Oh man, if I try to name this for myself I will sound like a doofus and also just be wrong. I once heard a writer say that trying to describe your own artistic approach is like trying to do an impression of yourself, which is always the worst and most obnoxious kind of impression.

Tonally, I can say we talked a lot at the very beginning about wanting the film to feel like Fargo if made by David Lynch. We didn’t hold tightly to that but some roots of it are in there. One of the things I’m most proud of with this film is that it’s both impossible to categorize and yet very much a distinct thing.

It exists in its own bizarrely true space. I feel like that’s consistently true of my work even as it evolves film to film. My previous feature, Joy Kevin (which also starts Tallie Medel), is very different in story and tone and yet there’s still a visual thread that connects them.

DP: Ah, Fargo as directed by David Lynch, I can totally see it. Was it neat reuniting with Tallie about six years later?

CMJ: I actually wrote this part with her in mind. Having a clear sense for what she could do and things might go was a rare treat during the writing phase. But even so she surprised me with how much more than that she brought to the scenes. Same with Lindsay, though we hadn’t worked together before I’d seen all her other films and thought I knew what to expect. I was delightfully wrong, she has so many dimensions beyond what’s already on record.

DP: Is Harvie your dog in real life? If not, I’ve always been curious about the casting process of a dog in a film that plays such an integral role in the story.

CMJ: Our production designer Scott Colquitt is the proud owner of Harvie. That was a godsend and, stupidly, not the original plan. We started shooting camera tests with other dogs that were appealing for various reasons and it became painfully clear that the only thing that mattered was maximum time and access to the dog given how hard it is to get the shot you need with an actor who’s equally interested in eating flowers and sniffing turds. It was just blind, dumb luck that Scott has one of the sweetest, most patient dogs ever (real name Aiden) and that he was game to come hang out with us on set so often. Without Scott and Aiden we would have been sunk.

Aiden as Harvie
Aiden as Harvie in The Carnivores. (Courtesy of The Carnivores.)

DP: Logistical question, here. It’s spelled Harvey on IMDb but I saw it spelled ‘Harvie’ on the missing dog poster…

CMJ: Good eyes, it’s “Harvie.” IMDb is the magic eight ball of internet accuracy.

DP: This is such a unique film. How did you and co-writer Jeff Bay Smith get the idea for this project?

CMJ: It really began as this collection of personal fixations that felt connected to me but in a way I couldn’t quite grasp. There are these things your body demands — sleep, food, sex – and your body will find a way to take them whether you like it or not. There’s a profoundly disturbing loss of control there.

An animal is inside you and the leash is flimsy. I’m very interested in what happens when the leash breaks and those breakdowns in control between what we want and what we need. It’s also true that my wife is a dedicated sleepwalker and sleep-talker, so that strange, body/soul separation is something that’s long been intriguing for me.

DP: What was the coolest thing you learned while researching the sleepwalking side of things?

CMJ: Ha, well I learned that sleepwalking can be genetic and inherited, though it’s not clear how or why that works. I believe the technical term is “Spooky As Shit.” I also learned that if I wake up and find Heather on the bedroom floor in the middle of the night, and she says she’s washing the dishes, I should just go with it and hope those dishes don’t include any knives, real or imagined.

Tallie Medel as Alice in The Carnivores. (Courtesy of The Carnivores.)

DP: That’s great… Also, how much ground beef was used for this film, and what was it like exploring that as an obsession?

CMJ: 40 pounds, most of which was cooked and eaten later. I spent a lot of time going around to different stores and looking at meat and how it’s cut and packaged and displayed. I’d never fully appreciated how much subtle effort goes into making meat appear festive and not just like butchered limbs wrapped up in cellophane.

Beyond the labels and stickers obscuring the full flesh, the investment in lighting alone has to be greater than in any other part of the store. Many places use these colorful plastic decorations under and between the meats cut out in frilly shapes, I guess to give the impression that the steak grew itself there in an inspired burst of pageantry for your dinner.

It took quite a bit of care and production design to break through all of that and capture the direct, visceral shots we wanted. Finding the store with the glorious display case of unpackaged meat stacked avalanche-style was a wonder and a relief.

DP: Vincent James Prendergast as Roland (Bank Guy) was surely one of the highlights of your film. Can you talk a bit about him, what it was like casting him and how fun it was writing his scenes and figuring out what he’d say?

CMJ: I’ve wanted to work with Vincent on a film since the first day I met him. He’s just such a vivid person and fun to be around. We met at SXSW in 2013 where I had a short film, Root, and he was in a feature called Zero Charisma. I had just moved to Austin and the makers of that film were really cool and all became friends of mine here in Austin (including, incidentally, Thomas Fernandes who produced on The Carnivores).

Vincent originally was going to be in one small scene. His part wasn’t even scripted out and by the time we got to shoot it we were way behind on time at the very end of a hard day. All I had time to tell him was something like “your co-worker’s dog just went missing and you have a ton of advice for her – all of your advice is really bad.”

He was so naturally deadpan funny on the first take that I had to leave the room to avoid ruining the sound. Once we saw that (co-writer) Jeff Smith and I wrote in the two additional scenes to make sure that levity and dimension remained as a core aspect of the film. His three scenes actually mark the transition of each of the three acts. That original, improvised scene he did is the middle one in the film.

Tallie Medel as Alice in The Carnivores. (Courtesy of The Carnivores.)

DP: In the writing credits on IMDb, about every core actor has an “additional dialogue written by” credit. Does that just imply the improv for this film was much on the heavier side? If so, did you have to keep improv skills in mind when casting your characters, especially with stars Lindsay Burdge and Tallie Medel?

CMJ: Yeah, we had two shoots a year apart. The first portion was just outlined by scene and heavily improvised. We took that first footage, edited it together, then took our time scripting out the full story for year two, playing to the best elements that emerged from the initial shoot and discarding some ideas that didn’t work fully. A couple of those discarded scenes were great but didn’t fit, they’re on the DVD as extras.

Tallie and Lindsey were cast very much as collaborators. Our casting principle from the beginning was “who are the most talented actors we know, not just as performers but as people we want to work with in shaping this thing?”

Even in year two the scripted dialogue was a starting point and they would shape it differently in the moment. It’s the nature of the story that their characters have to spend so much time apart, but the scenes where they’re together are just so charged. I wish we could have had more of them.

Lindsay Burdge as Bret in The Carnivores. (Courtesy of The Carnivores.)

DP: What was it like shooting that way? What were some challenges and is it something you would do again?

CMJ: It was a wonderful and absolutely, terrible way to shoot. The great thing is you have that span of time in the middle to edit, revise, and dial in… you get another draft which never ever happens in the normal mode of production. The terrible thing is the nearly infinite number of things that can drop out in that middle period leaving you completely, hopelessly, shamefully sunk. The stress of that — the absolutely lack of control or recourse had something essential dropped out in between — that’s an insane gamble and we just got stupid lucky that the pieces held together. It’s also very much a testament to the perseverance of all involved, but I wouldn’t work that way again unless I had a ton of resources to eliminate some of that risk.

DP: Alice has to look like she’s disoriented at times, likely because of the sleepwalking, so in the scenes where she looks totally wiped, was that partly makeup or did Tallie get method and lose sleep for the project?

CMJ: We didn’t have a make-up person on set so that was all performance and lighting. Tallie is exceptionally good at taking control of how she manifests. In several instances I was editing one of the scenes in which she’s exhausted and grim and on-edge, and then there would be some post-roll footage where cut is called and she suddenly transforms back into her bright and happy self. I don’t actually know how she does it.

The Carnivores is now available On Demand and can be found here.

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