It’s probably safe to say that one of the quietest yet most inspiring success stories of the past few years has been that of April Mullen. Her star quickly rose with the release of 2016’s Below Her Mouth, an erotic drama praised by critics for its’ sensitive handling of a lesbian love story and for the employment of the female gaze in its visual exploration of the romance at the heart of the story. Audiences ignorant of the indy film world could be forgiven for thinking that ’16 was the year Mullen exploded onto the scene, but that simply wasn’t the case—the Niagara Falls, Canada native has been quietly making a name for herself since the early 2000's as both an actress and director, churning out multiple films in a variety of genres from comedy (Rock, Paper, Scissors: The Way of the Tosser) to exploitation (88) to horror (Dead Before Dawn 3D). With her name now firmly enshrined as one of the premier indy directors of the 2010's, it’ll hopefully lead audiences to not only check out her earlier body of work but to keep their eyes peeled for her upcoming projects as well.
Case in point: Badsville, out now on VOD from Epic Pictures. Set in the titular hellhole-out-of-time, the film tells the story of the Badsville Kings, the sort of gang that springs up in small towns when there are no prospects for the future and getting drunk and beating someone up on a Friday night is a viable form of entertainment. As the audience comes into their lives, though, the Kings find the fabric of their gang unraveling at the same time Badsville seems to be taking its last breaths, with family deaths, clandestine romances, and increasing tensions with other gangs all coalescing to form a sort of dirge for their way of life as they’ve known it.
Employing the same sensitivity with which she explored feminine identity and crises in Below Her Mouth, Mullen uses Badsville to engage in a very pertinent discussion of masculine identity. Rather than writing off maleness as inherently destructive the way a lesser director might have, Mullen instead engages in a far more complex exploration of positive vs. negative modes of masculinity, the environment and sociological factors that creature and nurture toxic masculinity, and the ways in which society can hit the reset button and begin redefining what it means to be a good man. Relevant material, indeed, but rather than a bland Feminism 101 lecture, Mullen has instead wrapped it up in an aesthetically pleasing and propulsive package, with plenty of beatdowns, sequences of gang warfare, and some truly stunning cinematography. It’s a master class in engaging an audience in an intelligent discussion while keeping them entertained at the same time.
It was CineDump’s pleasure to have the chance to sit down with Mullen and discuss Badsville, the trajectory of her career, and what factors came together to make the film the unqualified success it is.
Jessie Hobson: What attracted you to Badsville? Did the success of Below Her Mouth and the resultant publicity and dialogue around it influence your choice of next film at all, or was it a project you think you’d have been attracted to regardless?
April Mullen: We shot Badsville before Below Her Mouth. It traveled the festival circuit for an extra year, and as a result, it is now available to audiences. The unique world, characters, and voices found in the script attracted me to Badsville. I found the contrast between the harsh violence and vulnerable love story to be vital. The script is full of passion and I responded to the rockabilly/greaser gangster world as well.
JH: Badsville has a unique, sort of out-of-time aesthetic that recalls a mashup of the 1950's and the present day the way that certain films like It Follows evoke a combination of the 60's and the modern era. What was the idea behind that decision?
AM: This town is forgotten, broken and lost: it exists only within our film and was based on the writers’ hometown of El Monte, nicknamed “Badsville”.
The film is timeless. The style and old-time feel is part of the entire world which is Badsville. It’s about a dreamer who is reaching for more, about loyalties, family, and violence, which are all heightened in Badsville. As a director, I love creating a unique micro-universe as a stage for characters to experience things on one that allows for large creative choices, such locations, costumes, dialogue, props, music and shooting styles, etc.
There is a lost feeling in this town, no cell phones, money, technology or cops. This way, the audience can focus on our characters and nothing pulls us away from the story. I love this innocence Badsville retains throughout its violence and heartbreak, it feels real to me, like a place we all remember somehow.
JH: Much was made in the media about how you brought the female gaze to the love scenes in Below Her Mouth, as opposed to the traditional male gaze usually reserved for woman-with-woman sex in cinema. How does the female gaze effect the filming of a heterosexual sex scene, or, does it at all?
AM: Everything I create, I do so with my entire body and spirit. It’s simply as truthful to the moment and characters as possible. I attempt to bring the spark of connection to every frame in a film, and even more so in intimacy scenes. Every film and character is so different. The goal with Below Her Mouth was to deliver a female perspective, so it was designed and heightened in that way. With Badsville, the connection between Wink and Suzie is one of being found, and amongst their empty lives, they find a potential future and hope within each other... the intimacy reflects that.
JH: There’s some really beautiful location shooting in Badsville. Talk to us about the filming location?
AM: The locations in Badsville are essential to building our world, and it’s a large character in the film, as our hero is trying to escape this place. It’s beautiful, yet isolated and empty. We shot the film in Los Angeles, which included El Monte, Piru, Atwater and Santa Clarita. I’ve always dreamed of shooting a film in LA: one that showcased the mountains, a desert feel and blazing hot sun. We started location scouting very early on in prep because we wanted to find perfect locations that were timeless and very cinematic. Ben, Ian, Dave and myself started hunting months before official prep. I loved creating this universe early on, being able to visualize how it would all come together as a team was special.
JH: While Below Her Mouth was this sort of exploration of feminine identity, Badsville came across, at least to me, as an exploration of masculine identity. Specifically, negative vs. positive modes of masculinity, being a protector vs. being an aggressor, etc. Talk to us a little about that? Was that something really present in the script, something you wanted to draw out? It’s certainly a pertinent topic.
AM: It’s true the film is very “male” in a lot of ways in terms of its violence and gang the Badsville Kings. However, the script showed this vulnerable and fragile side to our gang members as they exposed their love to one another and for life. There are deep through-lines within the film of what it means to be a protector as a male and what is expected. What I appreciate is we expose the heartache that comes from being an aggressor and trying to sustain an image and reputation.
A huge part of what drew me to the script was how exposed these violent yet tender heroes were in the film. The audience is let in on the inner struggle of Wink and Benny as they discover a desire to break free of their roles and the constant expectations others and society have on them. I feel the film pushes boundaries on the stereotypical ideas we might have when it comes to gangs and male violence, where it comes from and why it exists.
JH: You’ve directed comedies, violent revenge dramas, love stories, and even documentaries. Do you see yourself as a particular type of filmmaker? Is there a narrative or thematic thread linking the projects you’re interested in, or, it just a matter of “hey, this sounds interesting?”
AM: I love film and creating in all aspects.Human behavior and connection is intriguing to me, moments and memories that jump out and strike a chord within us... the ones that awaken us and our imagination... the genre is just a cardboard box really. I love storytelling and impacting an audience with a feeling that transcends them to a new feeling, thought, and perspective.
JH: Anything else you just want to add or talk about? What’re you working on next?
AM: Badsville is truly independent cinema at its best. If you are looking for a refreshing story, new actors and a strong unique film, this is it. The film is made with pure passion, was shot in 18 days by a crew of less than 20. The film is about dreams coming true and two incredibly talented artists’ –Ben & Ian— dreams DID come true, and the audience gets to watch it come to life on the screen!
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting what my next feature would be, I’m thrilled to say I’m going back to my roots with my own Production company WANGO and shooting one of our original screenplays by Tim Doiron. We’ve made five features together and it will be nice to team up again.