The 2016 comedy/drama Mad is an auspicious, uncommonly sharp debut feature from the young Cleveland-based writer and director Robert Putka. The independently produced film, which centers on a mentally ill mother's relationship with her two adult daughters, traveled far and wide on the festival circuit last year and was picked up for distribution by the Orchard. Although it only screened once theatrically in Chicago, as part of the Midwest Independent Film Festival, Mad has had the kind of strong word-of-mouth buzz that virtually ensures a healthy home viewership: I was able to stream it at home just in time for it to make my list of my Top 50 Films of 2016. I recently interviewed Putka about the film via e-mail.
Mad handles mental illness in a way that feels refreshingly honest and very different from how that topic is usually portrayed in American cinema (i.e., it's not presented in a sensationalistic or romanticized way). You've discussed your own mother's bouts with mental illness in interviews. Was it a cathartic experience for you to tackle this particular subject in your first feature and to what extent did you feel a responsibility to "get it right?"
It's been bizarrely enlightening and life changing for me, and not in the way you'd probably expect. Listening to, and seeing people's reactions to the film was something of a wake-up call to me. People seem to think it's horrifically dark and even "sociopathic" at times, but this is a film that contains none of the brutality we usually associate with film. No blood, no physical violence. I always felt it was actually tame... maybe too tame, and even a bit sanitized compared to my actual experience. I wrote from the gut and tried my hardest to tell this story in an entertaining way; so what you're seeing is an honest, if not necessarily always flattering look at my own struggles as a child to a mother with emotional problems. Seeing how people processed that relative to their own experience made me realize that maybe I had some work to do of my own—to be more understanding, more accepting... less of a raw nerve. I'm still nowhere close to having "mended" my relationship, nor have I been able to completely let go of some of my own personal hangups, but I'm more aware of it now than ever. If I felt any responsibility at all, it was to the ragged emotional core of these characters, and less about the circumstances that surround them. I didn't want the emotional beats to feel false.
I noticed in your Letterboxd review of Knocked Up that you described it as "walking a tonal tightrope," which is a phrase one could easily apply to Mad as well. What is it about combining comedy and drama that appeals to you as a filmmaker, especially considering we live in a world where audiences expect their comedies to be funny and their dramas to be serious?
OK, I love this question, and I love that you dug up my Letterboxd review of Knocked Up. I think maybe more than anything, I'm one of those people that always has to "do it the hard way" and take the road less traveled. Easy success be damned, because I am full of self-loathing, I guess (and cliches, apparently). Finding comedy in drama, or drama in comedy is, I believe, such a feat, and it makes me sad when that goes unnoticed by cinephiles. Dramedy is the tone closest to that of life, right? And if you can reflect life in an entertaining way, then you've captured something special, I think. My near-militant championing of the dramedies of Apatow, Payne and Baumbach is a reaction to that. I think some of my favorite films are the ones where they earn that emotional gravity, so I'm desperately chasing that in my own work. My hope is that earnestness in film will come back into style before people stop taking my calls, because my movies aren't sexy-looking or sexy-feeling. OK, climbing down from my high horse now.
Another aspect of Mad that a lot of critics have focused on is the absolute viciousness with which the sisters, Connie and Casey, insult each other. Movie characters aren't usually quite so verbally nasty but this is, of course, how siblings often really interact. As a writer, where does your particular brand of acidic banter come from?
I've noticed that people say a lot of nastily bizarre, mean stuff in the heat of the moment. Me included, obviously. When the emotions are amped up, people so readily bring out the knives, because it's about "winning that moment" and hurting the other person as much as you've felt they've hurt you. It's certainly not healthy, and I'd equate it to getting a quick fix that doesn't do you any good in the long run. But I believe it's human. I feel that with family, there's a bit of elasticity there. Like, you can let loose and tear into them because they're bonded to you for life—you're in a cage match to the death with them, and even if you win, you still lose because you're stuck right there with their rotting corpse, or vice versa. I'm not a misanthrope, though, I promise! It's a loving, knowing kind of friction born out of familial closeness.
I once read that the Seinfeld writers had a rule that they wouldn't allow their characters to hug each other or apologize. Did you have any similar strategies in place in order to avoid sentimentality?
I'm terrified of sentimentality. Emotion is good, but being over-sentimental is bad. I'm always afraid of dipping into schmaltz since the line between the two is very, very thin, and if you're not careful you can lose a handle on it. I try to feel it out by staying true to the moment, and I rely a lot on my actors to know when something is too much or not enough. My actors helped me out a lot by holding themselves to a standard of honesty and naturalism. If anything, they really encouraged me to be comfortable with a certain level of warmth, that while in the script, was something that my directorial instincts were trying to bury out of fear of doing a hack job.
Both of your lead actresses do an incredible job. I noticed that you've worked with Eilis Cahill extensively in your previous short films but that you were working with Jennifer Lafleur for the first time. Was it a challenge to work closely with two collaborators with whom you have differing degrees of familiarity, especially considering your methods involve improvisation?
I actually worked with both prior! Eilis to a lengthier degree, but Jen knew how I worked and was game. All the actors were game, and I'm so thankful they made this movie with me. My directorial inclination is to find a balance between making sure the actors are comfortable and feel inspired, but also retaining the dialogue that I fall in love with writing (for better and worse). I find that a lot of the emotional beats are more open to interpretation by the actors—those really need to be "felt," so I'm OK being a bit looser with those moments, and I was rewarded with raw performances that I probably couldn't pull if we went verbatim, which has a lot to do with my relative inexperience still as a writer/director. Luckily my actors, all of them, were able to roll with what I was asking of them. I'm sure it was frustrating at times, but we're all really just searching for some form of "the truth," whatever that felt like in the moment.
What can you tell me about any future projects you may have on the horizon?
I've got a pet project that I've been putting together slowly for the last year now, trying to cast and find the money. It's a step up in budget, and in my wildest dreams it's the "breakout" film that every writer/director is in search of. I've also been really lucky to have a door open to me at a pretty cool TV network—now, actually capitalizing on that amazing opportunity by selling something has proven difficult. But I've always been in a sort-of "war of attrition" with this industry as a whole. This considering I shouldn't even be where I am as a kid from Cleveland who never went to film school or had any sort of connections to speak of, so I'll keep plugging away at it and hopefully something will materialize... eventually. I'm also starting to write and direct for hire, which like most things in my life, I've stumble-bumbled into like the dope I've proven to be time and time again. But send care packages if you're reading this, because I'm still very near-broke.
Mad is currently available to stream on Netflix and various On Demand platforms.