Sean Astin’s newest film The Surface is out now and he recently spoke with us regarding the picture. During our talk he discussed making the film and what it took to shoot far out in the open waters of Lake Michigan. He spoke about some of the fun he had working with the great character actor Chris Mulkey, and he elaborated on what went into his performance as the tragic character of Mitch Lowe. We were very privileged to get this kind of insight from such a great and profound actor. Check out the interview and our review of The Surface HERE.
How did you get involved in this film?
My friend Gil Cates Jr. the director, who I played little league with when we were kids, called me up and said, “Sean, we’re doing a new character piece. We’re filming the entire thing on Lake Michigan.” And I thought, “Sold.”
SA: The idea of working with a friend is always important to me. The challenge of shooting an independent film on the water, I felt absolutely drawn to. I love the idea of that sort of challenge, and then I heard the story and read the script and then realized it’s really what I thought the purpose of art is supposed to be. It’s a story about a guy who is in despair, he’s just come to a decision in his life and he’d rather not be alive. And through the course of this movie he discovers that he cares about other people in a way he didn’t realize and it gives him a sense of purpose, and you realize that there is stuff worth living for. And to me that’s the point of art, it’s to help inspire that kind of feeling for people.
AH: Yeah, and you’re character of Mitch is just like you say, he’s a tragic character. He seems down on his luck and taking loss after loss and all these hits. Did you draw from anything internally to make that come across?
SA: Um, my father-in-law committed suicide, and the reality of that and the experience and the aftermath of that I think was definitely in my mind. But really he, to me in doing that character of Mitch and playing the part, to really become invested in the details is so; y’know his suicide plan is, it’s not an emotional reaction. He doesn’t fly off the handle. He’s not drinking and doing drugs, it’s not an impulse and it’s not irrational which is maybe even scarier. He plans everything very meticulously, he’s arrived at a place where he doesn’t feel he can reach his mother anymore because of alzheimer’s. His dad was killed tragically in an accident, he doesn’t even have any friends.
The logic to him, his logical concept is that he should end his life and so he fills up the bird feeder before he goes. He’s so careful, he’s meticulous; and really trying to focus on those details first of all, it’s the kind of thing I love about independent films. Y’know in a summer blockbuster you’re not gonna see somebody take the time to open the garage door and hitch up the boat to tow it out. It’s that great independent film where you can actually slow time down a little bit and it makes you think a little bit. And so for me to get to do that, getting to perform this naturalistically if you will, that was where the heartbreak was going to come up.
AH: Well it’s a very focused and detailed performance and it is very genuine and sincere. You’re work with Chris Mulkey on screen working through all of these issues and both of your character’s tragedies comes across as great dialogue between you two. How was working with him and how was everything off screen?
SA: I love Chris and the one thing I said to Gil before we started shooting was that we gotta make sure that the two guys in the boat for a month connect. And I saw a picture of Chris, just a picture of him and I was like, “I got it. That guy’s right, I get who that guy is.” Chris is, you could not possibly be more full of life than Chris Mulkey. He’s got a rock band, he just is passionate, he’s smart, he’s a great instinctive actor. And we just had a ball entertaining each other the whole time.
Probably the most useful time was spent after work each day after 10 or 12 hours on the lake which doesn’t sound like much, but in the summer the glare off the water, you feel like you’re eyes are burned and you’re skin is peeling and it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting and dehydrating and it’s hard. It doesn’t sound like it but imagine going on a skiing trip, but instead of being out there for 3 or 4 hours, you stay out there for 10 or 12 hours and then you do it everyday for a month.
So we would get back after a day on the water and we would go right to the second floor of the hotel. We called it the ‘War Room’ and we would spread all our pages out, Chris and myself, Gil Cates Jr. and Jeff Gendelman the writer and producer; and we would just start doing the dialogue. It was a weird hybrid of rehearsing and creating because there were things that happened on the boat where you just logistically couldn’t use, you were more confined than you realized; or something you had written in a really beautiful way on the page. It’s like, “Yeah, but that didn’t happen. How are we gonna make it credible.” So we would just sit there for 90 minutes it seemed like every night, and sometimes we’d get room-service.
Once, Chris and I actually went down to the bar and we spread all the pages out on the bar and we had some good Milwaukee beer (laughs) and were like trying to figure out how one thought connected to the next. Y’know if this were a play, you’d spend weeks preparing it but the nature of independent film schedules are such that you don’t get that. You’re not afforded that kind of time and we didn’t know about it. We only knew about it right before we started shooting, so that says a lot about people like Chris that the two of us could could spend 10 hours, 12 hours on a boat and then come home and eat together and spend the next hour and a half, and then get up the next morning and do it again and again and never get tired of each other.
We never got tired of each other. There’s such a mutual affinity and respect for each other, and there were times when there were low moments on the shoot when energy is sagging and technical things are getting in the way. And through no fault of anyone else, you’re just certain that the universe must have been able to do this better than we’re doing at this moment, we would just look at each other and laugh and just be like, “You know what? We are so privileged to have this moment.”
Independent film is such a cool thing. You have so much more freedom, you have so much more relative time; meaning it never seems like there’s enough time to do what you want to do, but you’re not setting up the whole time for a stunt, you’re spending your time talking about ideas and language. So y’know the water is so massive, it’s really, really hard to overstate. I don’t think people really appreciate or respect what the Great Lakes are, but when you get out in there it’s the ocean. It’s got tides, it’s got weather patterns it generates; it can be very, very scary.
And we were out there and we would always talk about Lawrence of Arabia, and yeah wouldn’t it be great to go to the Sahara Desert and shoot in that where in any direction you shoot there’s just sand. And then we’d look around and in any direction we looked there’s just water, y’know (laughs). So, for a low budget independent film we were part of a great adventure and we did it and we loved it.
AH: Well you guys definitely put your hearts into it and knocked it out of the park. Thank you so much for talking to us about The Surface. It’s been a pleasure.
SA: Thank you so much. I appreciate your complements about it, thank you.