Cory Cataldo and I went to the same high school. Although they were two different buildings, hundreds or thousands of miles apart, the school he describes sounds exactly like the one I went to. His film, Mad World, is an exploration on film of teenagers who get no respect from their parents, their classmates or their teachers. Sometimes they have not earned that respect. Sometimes they have.
I spoke with Cory for a while on Wednesday, May 11, 2011 about his film, which really touched me in a personal way. I was not a troublemaker per se, and I was never into drugs, but I knew that the teachers and administration had students they liked and those they didn’t. As Cory says, one group might get a slap on the wrist and another group receives a punch in the face — for doing the exact same things.
If you were in high school during Columbine or have ever felt outcast, “Mad World” is a film for you. And I further encourage you to read this interview, as it explores the feelings we all went through in those tense years of adolescence.
GS: Was there an overall message you were going for with “Mad World”?
CC: Yeah, the biggest thing I wanted to say… that film was shot when I was 23, I’m 28 now. I ended up being bedridden for about three years after I shot the movie. The film comes from a place where, well, I was in high school when the Columbine shooting happened.
GS: Same here.
CC: Our initial reaction was — and don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s okay to kill people or what they did was good — but at the time, being in high school, we were like “good”. We were happy that someone did something like that and we totally understood it. When I got a little bit older I thought how scary it must be for high school kids if other kids went in to the school and shot it up. I wanted to explore a little bit why I thought something like that would happen in the first place. So, there’s definitely a message.
I was asked to leave my high school and go to one that wasn’t an upper middle class school. I started there, and I feel like these places are breeding grounds of hatred. Kids are always mean to other kids. But I don’t feel like that’s the real problem. Regardless of what clique you’re in, kids in general can be mean to other groups. I don’t think it’s the kids’ responsibility to be good. I find that teachers or authority figures want to be with certain kids — if one group of kids does something it’s a slap on the wrist and if another group does it, it’s a punch in the face. And you have this one group of kids getting into trouble with another group, and it’s almost like the teachers and authority figures are helping one group pick on the other. Then you add to that, that these kids have trouble at home and in their family life, stuff they have no control over, they all have one thing in common they dislike — school. It might be misplaced anger, but if you can’t do anything about your dad being a complete cocksucker, you can still do something about the fact you hate school. My parents are actually quite nice, my father is even a producer on this film. But anyway, it’s this common ground where everyone is angry, at a time when hormones are raging… so I really want the message of the film to be that there are a lot of things to look at. I don’t actually know anything about Columbine, I just know how we felt growing up.
I didn’t feel like we were complete outcasts, or that I had trouble making friends. The four people in the movie are a mix of eight people I knew. And other than shooting people up, most of what you see in there actually happened. The Cory character was based on my friend Matt, who passed away two years ago. The film is dedicated to him, and luckily he was able to see a print of it.
GS: And your main characters are not “heroes”, they’re not even really trying to make people like them…
CC: Yeah, they’re not heroes. I’m glad you said that. I really wanted it to be complex. I know a filmmaker is supposed to stay away from that, but I really wanted to be real. I thought if I came out and said these were bad kids but you should like them, that would be a complete misrepresentation. They are trouble-makers and they do things that are not likeable. There are things I did because of the age I was when I shot it that I might not try now… I actually tried to lower expectations. I wanted the beginning to be like a teen comedy, entertaining enough for you to keep watching, but purposely a little bit bad, so that when things went wrong you were intrigued. To an extent I did that to annoy the audience for the first 10-15 minutes. They do just cause trouble, they do just say things.
Look at Will — he is just loud. You feel bad for them, but at the same time… It’s basic psychology. Someone who is loud and basically saying “look at me, look at me”… it doesn’t take a genius to figure out there’s something wrong with them. And the biggest problem with our school system is that it’s run by a bunch of fucking morons, to be perfectly honest. And I can be on record saying that all day.
Public school in America is one of the most worthless systems there is. Look at things like No Child Left Behind. So, basically you teach the class to the dumbest kid in the class and nobody learns anything. I remember one teacher I hated who wouldn’t let me pass a media class. He messed up my final and then made fun of me. I told people he was a bad guy, and the response was, “Listen to your teacher. You’re being disrespectful.” I found out years later that he got fired for sexual harassment, and they thought I was the bad person. I really do feel that most of the teachers are bad. Not all, but most. There are just a lot of bad people in general. You see teen bullying stuff in the news and they say you should tell a teacher. No. Don’t tell “a” teacher, tell the right teacher.
GS: I know exactly what you’re talking about. Sounds like my school ten years ago.
CC: It was weird for me, after I got asked to leave school. I went to a school in Atlanta, I was a minority as a white student. That school was run brilliantly, everyone was nice and I never got in trouble. If you got in trouble there, the punishment made sense. If you got in trouble in class, you had to leave class. If you missed class too many times, you don’t pass the class. And that’s it — get in trouble, you don’t graduate. I was very disheartened growing up, but then saw what other schools could be like. And that neighborhood had its own problem, very different problems…
GS: What can you say about the incest scene? It stands out as the most outrageous moment…
CC: Like I said before, except shooting people up, everything in the film happened. With this big caveat… I don’t want to get into who I was talking about with that. And I definitely over-dramatized the situation. And I took liberties with it, but it was rooted in a situation with someone I remember. That actual account came from something I read on an Internet message board. There were things I wanted to shoot, but I figured it would be too much. It takes a lot to haunt me, but even now, saying it, it’s like “God!” They say it’s worse to hear something than to see something, but I wanted it to be worse to see something. You can tell me about getting hit with a hammer, and I’m like “that sucks”. But I wanted to really show it, to share the disgust.
I can give you an odd story about the rehearsal. I didn’t want anyone to rehearse it, because I thought it would kill the scene. But it was very important that I got the blocking right, so we did a rehearsal where each character was a Disney character. The dad was Mickey Mouse, the mom was Minnie Mouse and the kid was Donald Duck. So we had this weird Disney rape scene, which actually got everyone laughing. It was almost comical for the actors when we shot the real scene…
GS: Let’s do one sort of generic question…
CC: Well, wait, can I tell you something?
GS: Yeah, please do.
CC: I just wanted to tell you that your review had me cracking up. You brought up the Willie Nelson song, the Willie reference. Originally there was a James Taylor song there, “Carolina in my Mind”, but I couldn’t get the rights to the song. We had them particularly speaking about the James Taylor song. The thing was, Will had no idea about music whatsoever. He was like, “What’s this Willie Nelson shit?” And he was so far off — James Taylor sounds nothing like Willie Nelson. And then we ended up just having to use some generic, folksy song we had created. So the reference completely changed. It was completely on accident. We don’t think Willie Nelson has great merit. (laughs) I totally don’t think of Willie Nelson as a great lyricist, and I’m not even a big fan. I just thought it was funny to have someone mistake him for James Taylor. But weird things happened… They Might Be Giants let me have a song, which was from a kids album.
GS: Ready for the generic question?
CC: Go for it.
GS: You touched on this briefly, but if you made the film now rather than 5 years ago, what would you change or keep the same?
CC: I guess I can say I would raise more money. There were decisions made based on not having enough stuff. We made the film have a consistently “nothing” look, and we had to. We shot the film five years ago for $40,000 on 17 locations, over 13 days with 25 actors. Which is insane. I would find myself more money and more time.
GS: But you did it right. On my end, I see a lot of lower budget films that aimed for something they couldn’t achieve. You knew your limits and that makes it look bigger than it was.
CC: One thing I was really happy with was everyone’s willingness to be on board. Everyone was willing to get my back. I feel like the biggest problem is that people who try to shoot on miniDVD try to make it look like film. But when you try to make something look like something it’s not, especially if you don’t have the resources, it looks stupid. Our cinematographer, Brandon Trost, has actually become a very big cinematographer. I don’t know if you looked into that…
GS: No, I had no idea.
CC: He shot “Crank 2: High Voltage”, some stuff with Rob Zombie, “MacGruber”. He just got back from Romania shooting the new “Ghost Rider” with Nic Cage. He’s in Austin doing an Adam Sandler movie. And he’s a great guy. Originally we had a different cinematographer who quit three days before the shoot. He was trying to get me to pay him all this money, hold the picture hostage. But I couldn’t pay him. He told me we couldn’t shoot without him, but I said, “Yeah, we fucking can. Get out of here.” So I contacted Brandon Trost, who I didn’t know, and told him we had this script. He said, “I would have to love the script to shoot in three days.” I asked if he would look at the script. “Yeah, but I’m probably not gonna…” I sent him the script, he called me three hours later and asked, “What time do you want to meet tomorrow?”
And he was really cool about the style. I pointed out to him that we don’t have any close-ups until the third act. Most cinematographers would probably be, “What? I don’t get to shoot any close-ups? You gotta be kidding me.” When I told him that, he was all for it. Also, the way we shot adults. Anytime there’s an adult and a kid in the room, the adult is imposing in the frame. Will’s father can be in a frame by himself, but if Will is in the shot, his father is, too. So it has a claustrophobic vibe. I brought that up to him, and he suggested, “Why don’t we frame everything just a little bit improperly. Off center, make it look like everything is wrong.” When you’re working with a DP who tells you he wants to shoot the scenes wrong, you couldn’t be happier, because it shows he cares about the story. He didn’t ask for a dolly, he wanted it to look weird on purpose.
I look to people like David Cronenberg for inspiration, because I always feel like he is good at achieving his goals without needing a lot, let the story tell itself. We tried to go for the opposite of Soderbergh. The first close-up we had was of Cory, where he’s yelling in the principal’s office when Jevon gets expelled. Everyone in the audience gets involved all of a sudden, and their feelings turn on a dime — they’re feeling for this guy now. We do that with sound design, too.
GS: Well, that was all I got for you, Cory. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and I love the film.
CC: Oh, absolutely. “Mad World” has done well for me. When I first made it, I didn’t know how to strategically put it in festivals, and just did any one possible. I’m learning as I go.
GS: I think it’s paying off.
CC: It was great meeting you.
GS: You, too, man.