BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM talks cough medicine and making movies for thousands with Adam Wingard, the resourceful, sure-to-be-prolific director of Pop Skull.


“WE KNEW we only had one chance, we’re getting older, any day now we’re probably going to accidentally get somebody pregnant and everything’s going to come to a stop.” It’s not very common to hear a twenty-five year old speak like this, especially a twenty-five year old with two feature films and a number of short films already to his credit. Especially given that film directors are generally typified by their advanced state of age. However, Adam Wingard is a filmmaker in a hurry: he’s just released his second feature Pop Skull, made for the minuscule sum of $3,000, and he’s keen to turn his overwhelming passion into something bigger. And Pop Skull is a film made by a filmmaker with no inhibitions: psychedelic visuals, dissonant soundtracks and frequent tonal shifts. It’s the type of film that will win over indie and horror fans, and Wingard in co-writing, co-producing, shooting, lighting, directing and editing the film, seems to typify the possibility that digital filmmaking has allowed.

Film for Wingard was an escape from small-town Alabama. “Film in general to me has always just been my main focus in life. I’ve always loved watching movies, growing up in Alabama was so far removed from everyone else. I always felt like I couldn’t really relate with people in the town. We lived in a town of about a thousand people. There weren’t a lot of people into the geeky stuff. I never really had anybody I could relate to on a personal level. Movies were always something I could consistently depend on, turn to and enjoy. It just became an obvious choice.”

Wingard jumped onto filmmaking as soon as he possibly could. He couldn’t really be bothered waiting. “Even with film school, I went to the quickest film school I could find and it was a thirteen month course. I dropped out of high school to go there.” Part of this comes from a drive to release as much as possible as quickly as possible. “I kinda envy musicians and painters, those kind of artforms where you have a little bit more of an immediate release. My way of dealing with that is that I do forty-eight hour film festival shorts and just shorts in general, I love to be working in the medium. The crappy thing about [being a] filmmaker is how long it takes to get a film going, and set up and everything.”

Pop Skull came from initially working with Lane Hughes (plus E.L. Katz who he met at Film School), who was writing for a ‘zine and interviewed Wingard about his debut feature Home Sick. “He would call me occasionally just asking filmmaking questions, because he was interested in doing some short films himself. Somehow we ended up, started talking about some of his problems he was having with his ex-girlfriend, he’d just broken up, they’d been together a bunch of years, high-school sweethearts, and I realised he was dealing with it really badly. In the same way my long-term first girlfriend thing fell through, and I dealt with it similarly. We had a lot in common. Just like him, we both had supernatural encounters that we’d had in our houses and then he started telling me about this thing he was into right when his girlfriend broke up with him which was getting into over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Things like robotripping, taking too much cough medicine. In America that sort of thing is very popular, especially among younger kids.”

The fact that neither of them had too much to do proved highly beneficial. “Lane had all the time in the world on his hands, and that’s really what you need when you don’t have any money, you need somebody else who doesn’t have a job and can put in that time. I just told Lane, this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to use your life as the structure and we’re going to go off with the three main elements: supernatural haunting of your house, trying to get over a break-up and not being able to, and doing drugs while this going on, specifically over the counter pharmaceuticals. That was the framework going into it. We probably couldn’t have done an outline movie if we didn’t have that framework.”

This meant the script wasn’t written beforehand, and it was predominantly improvised. “I was trying to write a feature and nothing was coming together, I was never going to get anything done on my own if I didn’t force myself, so what I decided on was I going to take the Wong Kar Wai approach, so just do something immediately without a script and jump head first into it. We had these general scene outlines that we’d come up with, and it was really day-to-day on the set.” He also had the time to shoot exactly where and when he wanted – sunsets and sunrises, a particular patch of road that was particularly foggy. However digital technology played a huge role in assisting this. “Filmmaking is really at the point where you don’t really need a crew, you may need someone to hold your microphone but beyond that, you don’t need a lot of people running around. My biggest advice to other filmmakers out there, is to just pick up a camera, learn how to shoot the film, edit the film, learn how to do everything and be self-sufficient. Hopefully we’re at a point right now, we’re going to get a lot of movies like Pop Skull, because why not? It’s definitely something that can be done.”

The lack of a budget also meant that Wingard didn’t have to be worried about restraining his visual or aural construction. “That was what was great about it because we didn’t have anyone telling us what we could or couldn’t do. I knew that this could be a one in a lifetime opportunity, so we decided to pull out all of the stops. That’s why we have things like these tripping sequences, that you don’t normally see in American films, especially American narrative films. It was important to get into that world while I still could and make my name for myself, so the next one, I have a lot of room to scale back if I want to.”

“To me reality has this sinister side to it at all times. If you acknowledge that you’re showing more of the truth. Just like a Francis Bacon painting. Everybody calls his paintings dark and violent, but as Francis Bacon says, he’s just showing reality as it is. So horror really touches on those aspects of reality that I really like.”


This also meant Wingard was able to rely on some, er, unorthodox editing techniques. “I did about a twenty minute rough cut, and I realised the film wasn’t working as a whole. I’d never done any type of drugs, and I never experienced in drugs before, so what I decided to do was roll the dice a little bit and I experimented with a bit of cough medicine, the drugs that the lead character are taking in the film. So I got a first hand point of view doing the specific drug, which is quite a crazy trip and I adapted that for the film. That changed the whole visual styling and probably my whole outlook on reality. It definitely created that new point of view for the film. The film is such that it follows the protagonist around in every scene, so the film’s definitely from his state of mind.” This also meant that Wingard completely altered the visuals in the editing and experimented more and the end result was the distinctive visual style. “It made me whenever I watched that footage back, I could see all the problems for the first time and I realised a lot of it was pacing and there wasn’t a lot of ingenuity in terms of my editing. Every-time I would edit more of the film I would a take a bunch of cough medicine, watch the movie, and be able to judge at that point and judge where I was going. While we were experimenting with the cough medicines, we realised that we wanted something to watch when we were doing it. I realised the strobbing effects were something that would really set you off if you were robotripping. The pills he was taking in the film, specifically DXM, if you’re on DXM while watching the film, DXM sort of becomes the 3-d glasses for the movie and you get more of an interactive experience. ” He jokingly responds to a question of whether drugs therefore assist in the Pop Skull-watching experience. “Legally I probably can’t recommend that, but if you’re already doing it, then you should put on our film and you’ll definitely enjoy yourself that much more. If you already enjoy the film, then you don’t need to be inebriated at all to enjoy the film.”

Another key component of the film is music, and the film is full of noise, classical music and also includes music from the likes of the Liars, and Xiu Xiu. Japanese noise provocateur Merzbow was particular influential in shaping Wingard’s outlook. “Noise is music, just because something may on the surface sound unpleasant, doesn’t mean you can’t find some way to listen to it. I remember when I was in film school and I first found out about Merzbow. I was confused at first, it was just piercing static, I didn’t know what to make of it. ‘Maybe if I keep listen to it, I’ll discover there’s a rhythm or something’. While I was doing that, I’d put it as loud as possible, the attack the sound had on your frontal lobes was the pleasure of listening to it, that opened a lot of doors to me, there’s no such thing as an ugly noise. What could be screeching and unbearable to one person could be something someone listens to like it’s The Beach Boys.” As a result, Pop Skull understands the sheer corrosive power of noise and effect it can have on tone and mood. “The point of view that we’re showing is one of harsh landscapes, and noises and piercing sounds and so forth.” Wingard is keen to credit Justin Leigh, Kyle McKinnon, and DCLXVI for designing this soundscape.

You do have to wonder if the whole three thousand dollar thing tends to overshadow the film itself. “I grew up reading Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew – in that sense I knew that it would be a publicity tool. It never bothered me, because the more people pushed that, the more it captures attention on a certain level that other elements of the film might not.” He also cannily chose horror, a genre which has made many a big name from small beginnings. “Horror has more of a definite fanbase. Doing Pop Skull, I knew I wanted to do something deeply personal but I knew if it was just about a kid moping around and doing drugs it wouldn’t have its initial audience. I’m completely fascinated with the supernatural and ghosts, for me it was simple throwing that in, but in the back of my head that horror side of it was going help sell the film.” However there were aesthetic choices in horror too. “I just love the darkness of what a horror film is. To me reality has this sinister side to it at all times. If you acknowledge that you’re showing more of the truth. Just like a Francis Bacon painting. Everybody calls his paintings dark and violent, but as Francis Bacon says, he’s just showing reality as it is. So horror really touches on those aspects of reality that I really like.”

It’s no surprise that Wingard comes with a lot of ambition. And filmmaking is definitely something that will drive his future artistic output. “I don’t want to be one of those kind of guys where filmmaking is a hobby for them. To me it’s all I want to do. So in a sense I have to figure a way to make a living but at the same time I would rather be doing low budget films. My ideal budget would be literally three hundred to five hundred thousand dollars doing lower key cinema which for me, five hundred thousand, I could make a epic for that. Obviously I couldn’t do a war epic, but a small scale epic, more like a Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. I’m always disappointed when a filmmaker hits the scene, and they do something for a modest size and even the movie itself was modest, and then they graduate to the Hollywood thing and they start doing big budget movies, instead of making their money and then going back and doing their passion projects.” And he’s clearly drawn the line with Pop Skull, a dizzying, hallucinogenic trip of a film, that’s suggests a filmmaker who’s set himself a hard act to follow, but also sets himself up as a filmmaker of a lot of promise.