Even though writer/director Preston Miller is part of the thriving American microbudget film scene, his similarities with most filmmakers in the “movement” begin and end with the economics. A husband, father of two, and full-time employee at a law firm, Miller is somewhat older than most of his peers, and his two ambitious features were made in fits and starts – on nights, weekends, and whenever he could steal away for a few hours. Unlike the typical lo-fi films screened at SXSW, Slamdance or other regional fests, Miller’s films are neither genre exercises nor portraits of 20- or 30-somethings in the midst of relationship problems.
His first feature, Jones, from 2005, is a gritty and seedy study of a southern businessman who becomes obsessed with Asian prostitutes while on a trip to New York City. 2010 saw the release of God’s Land, a nearly 3-hour drama, based on a true story about a religious group from Taiwan who relocate to Texas in order to follow the teachings of a prophet who claims the end is nigh.
I recently had the pleasure of hosting the German premiere of God’s Land at the legendary Babylon Cinema in Berlin, and took the opportunity to sit down with Preston the day after the screening.
Andrew Grant: Preston, when one thinks about microbudget cinema in the US, it’s invariably the Mumblecore-type of film that springs to mind. There are only a handful of filmmakers I can think of at your age that are making films at this budgetary level. (You’re the oldest I’ve ever met.) Your films are also thematically more ambitious. How do you see yourself in this regard?
Preston Miller: Unlike a lot of younger filmmakers, who understandably just want to get out there and make their films, I’m not microbudget by choice. I just don’t have any money, nor have I been able to find investors, so I try to come up with economical ways to tell my stories via creative camera work, editing, and narrative devices. I’m a huge fan of cinema, and I aspire to the masters. Yeah, I aim that high. Besides fulfilling a need within me, I became a filmmaker because there were stories floating around in my head that I wanted to see on the screen.
AG: Was it film that brought you to New York City from North Carolina?
PM: Yes, I studied first at Appalachian State. This was about two or three years before the film explosion at North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. At that time there weren’t many choices, outside of some film courses at University of North Carolina. After 3 years, I moved to NYC and transferred to City College, where I earned my BFA. I learned on rudimentary equipment – CCNY is no NYU – but I realized you don’t need to be greedy in order to make a film. It’s the stories that matter more than the equipment.
AG: What’s your approach to filmmaking, given your budgetary limitations?
PM: When I write a script, I don’t think about budget at all, at least not during the first few drafts. Once I have a sense of how much production money I have, I’ll begin paring things down, while taking an inventory of what I have available, and what’s actually doable. I try not to let money dictate, but of course there are limits to what one can achieve without it. That said, I am trying to find funding for future projects. I would love to have that weight off my shoulders. However, I’ll never let the lack of money stop me from making films.
AG: Turning to your two features, Jones and God’s Land, both deal (at some level) with Asians in America. Is this by design?
PM: I’m no secret that I’m a big fan of Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese cinema, but it’s pure coincidence that both films feature Asian characters. God’s Land is based on a true story of a religious cult made up of Taiwanese nationals. Jones is more a psychological study of the lead character – his obsession could have well been with Russian women, Eastern European, etc. It was just a choice.
AG: Your films are far removed from your own personal background, or situation. You take chances in that your character portraits – be it of a NY prostitute, or Taiwanese mother suddenly finding herself in a Texas-based cult – leave you open to criticism for things such as cultural insensitivity. Does that concern you?
PM: Not particularly. The ethnicity is merely a wrapper for the story I want to tell.
AG: But did you do any research while writing?
PM: I’m a voracious reader, and my research for God’s Land extended beyond the cult itself, and I would up learning as much as I could about Taiwan – little details such as what the weather is like. It’s these sort of things help inform me when I’m writing a character. I also draw from personal experience, obviously.
AG: Such as in Jones? I mean, Jones works as videographer, filming depositions – a job you held for several years.
PM: Yeah, I did that in the ’90s. I travelled all across the country, recording these locked-down single shots of people being questioned by attorneys. The job ended each day at five o’clock sharp, which gave me time to explore the cities and towns I was in. I thought that would be an interesting doorway for getting Jones to NYC from his southern town.
AG: And the rest of the story? Is it autobiographical?
PM: (Laughs.) No…the story actually came from a conversation I overheard in a bar. Two well-to-do businessmen were basically comparing notes on the local prostitutes, and complaining about them! Things like, “Yeah, this one chick I was with the other night was pregnant! Can you believe it?” It was an alarming thing. At that time I was trying to raise money for God’s Land by doing staged readings for investors, but nothing was coming of it. Frustrated, I went and wrote Jones, which was just 12 pages. I thought I could make the film, and use that as a showpiece for what God’s Land would look like. Yet based on improvisations with the actors, and longer takes than I had planned, we quickly realized this was not going to be a short, but a 75-minute feature. Similarly, God’s Land was a 66 page script, and that turned into nearly 3 hours.
AG: It’s interesting, yet also a bit troubling, that Jones is entirely from the title character’s perspective. Jones is entirely naïve about the world he ventures into, and why these women are working as prostitutes in the first place. Can you talk about that decision?
PM: The decision not to address any of the larger issues was absolutely intentional. I wanted to capture his experience, step by step – from his first night with a prostitute in his hotel room, which absolutely fulfilled his fantasy, to his visiting a sleazy brothel in Queens, which offers him a peek behind the curtains, as it were, and begins to shatter his dream. When he meets the woman who has just had a child…well that shatters it even further. Yet the final scene of the film sees Jones semi-leering at a Japanese woman on the AirTrain. Has he learned anything? Is he cured, or isn’t he?
AG: Shattered illusions is also at the core of God’s Land, which follows a group of people who give up their homeland, their jobs, and in some cases their families to follow this spiritual leader. It’s similar to Jones, in that both films feature characters who are, perhaps, seeking solace and comfort in the wrong places.
PM: Some of my favorite books and films are those that are detailed character studies. Mike Leigh’s Naked is a perfect example. The entire film is a psychological portrait of Johnny, and it explores all facets of his personality. That both my films feature characters chasing dreams is coincidental, but then again aren’t we all chasing some sort of dream?
AG: Yes, wish fulfillment is a common cinema trope, yet your themes are sex and religion – trickier subjects for sure. And much like Mike Leigh did with Johnny in Naked, you remain nonjudgmental towards your characters.
PM: I could be judgmental towards them, and am so in real life, but my goal is to take a “warts-and-all” approach – focusing not on the obvious good or the bad, but the complicated grey area in between.
AG: You’re clearly a fan of the long take. Can you talk a bit about that?
PM: When I was writing God’s Land, I was very much under the spell of the new Taiwanese cinema of the 1990s – Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and Edward Yang – filmmakers who all make use of the long take. Given that my characters are from Taiwan, I thought it might be interesting to shoot the film in the style of those filmmakers. Jim Jarmusch was also an influence. I’ve always been drawn to the long take because I enjoy watching a wide frame and all the action that goes on within it. As a director I like working with my actors on how to use the space, and operate within it, for I feel their relationship with the space helps define their characters – how they move, interact with objects, etc.
AG: And there’s a lot of attention paid to both foreground and background composition and movement.
PM: Yes, I love meditating on an image, and taking it all in, which is why my editing isn’t terribly fast. A perfect example is a scene in Jones that in fact was a a happy accident – Jones is falling asleep at his camera because he drank too much the night before, and in the window next door, there’s a woman doing a spazz-out dance. I caught it in the frame, but it wasn’t planned at all. I love the end result.
AG: So where do you go from here? What comes after a nearly 3-hour exploration of faith?
PM: I wrote a script that I’m hoping to raise funding for – a romantic comedy, but shot in the same style as God’s Land. Oh, and it’s set in the Indian-American milieu.
Andrew Grant film critic, distributor, festival programer, and producer of the upcoming documentary Cause of Death: Unknown.