It might take you awhile to figure out what’s going on in “Milk Punch,” the first indie feature written, directed, and produced by Erik Gunneson. We start out with two twenty-something guys shooting down a black-top strip late one night. Boot and Curly are nervous about something, but we don’t exactly know what, though it seems to be related to the enormous black Oldsmobile Delta 88 that Boot is driving. Then we start cutting away. We see the same guys in what is clearly a different time and a different place, hanging out and making the scene around town. We see two older guys, brothers named Buddy and Carl, playfully picking at each other much as Boot and Curly do. We see a young woman named Verona working away at a telephone research job that she clearly loathes; gradually she stops asking the questions she is supposed to and just talks to the people she calls.
But soon enough, like the enigmatic title itself, the narrative makes sense, and pleasurably at that. Through a tangle of scenes involving fish bait stolen from a convenience store, borrowed lawn mowers, and leaking milk jugs, we realize that the Boot and Curly in the car exist somewhere in a future toward which all the other scenes are progressing. And, sure enough, the car Boot is driving was stolen from the older guys. Verona is a friend of Boot and Curly, one who provides some intelligence and charm to these flat-footed dudes who could have walked straight out of Two-Lane Blacktop. All this is revealed with delightful imagination, slightly absurd humor, and a precisely cluttered style.
But just as you’ve made narrative sense of the film, you begin to struggle to make moral sense of it, which is perhaps a more complicated challenge. How wrong were these guys to steal the car? Wouldn’t Buddy and Carl have done the same thing in their situation? Should they return the car? These issues arise most forcefully when Boot and Carl react against another crime they see being committed.
Gunneson is on the staff at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison, the school from which he graduated about a decade ago. The director of numerous short “experimental documentaries,” Milk Punch is the first feature fiction film that he has written and directed. Milk Punch premieres as the closing night film at the Wisconsin Film Festival on April 2, 2000.
[ Where did you find that car? ] ^ Bill Brehm, who was my assistant director, had some friends who lived in Appleton who owned that car. When I was writing, I owned a 1972 Chrysler Newport, which was a slightly bigger car than the Delta 88 that is in the film. It was painted canary yellow with a green interior. It was a real Green Bay Packers car. That was the inspiration for centering the story around the car – owning one like that, trying to park it, trying to drive it in an era when most cars were as long as this one was wide, and having everyone always looking at you. Eventually the Newport frame cracked, and I sold it to some people who wanted to weld it back together. I went to look at it again, thinking about trying to use it for the film. The people who bought the car were fishermen, and they used it to tow their boats, and had put massive fishhooks in the dashboard. When I had owned the car I kept it in very nice shape. They had really beat on it. I thought, oh no, I’ve written this film that is about a boatsize-car from the early 70s, and I don’t have access to one.
Then Bill remembered that his friends owned the Delta 88, so we went to take a look at it and fell in love with it. It looked so nice and black, with reflections you could see yourself in. Bill’s friends gave us permission to use it. But it didn’t run; it leaked fuel. We had to have it dragged back to Madison where we could have the fuel line fixed. John Sarris, who plays Boot in the film, now owns the Delta. It would be a great experience for people in Madison to see him drive this car in the film, and then see him driving it around town.
We wanted to emphasize its size and difference. We used the shots off the top of the hood to contrast it with what is out on the road today, because you see those little cars in the background and you see this massive black thing in the foreground. There are a few shots where the camera is as far back on the roof as it can go, with a wide angle, so you get this extremely long version of the car. Another characteristic we play up is the motor, which is a Rocket 350. I’m not a big car person, but after we got the car to the set, John opened the hood up, and said: “Oh, of course, it’s got the Rocket 350!” a scene that we reproduced for the film. I recognized the name, because it’s a motor that has been canonized in Rockabilly music. One of the first Rockabilly songs is called “Rocket 88.” It’s about an Oldsmobile 88 with a Rocket 350 in it, so they call the car a “Rocket 88.”
[ Did you use that song in the film? There is a lot of music. ] ^ No, we didn’t. But, yes, we did use a lot of music. I’m interested in a wide variety of music, and we tried to use as many different kinds as we could, from hard-core punk rock to dub reggæ to techno to old-time country. There’s a song recorded in 1930 that is a very old country song. So we ran the gamut, and that was there from the beginning.
[ It assists in the tapestry-effect of the film, which is something you also see in the places the characters go, and in the narrative style. ] ^ We started with that approach, with the music and throughout, laying things out in a tapestry or banquet that you pick and choose from as you put it together. While we were editing, Gretta Miller and I had a large tack board with cards for all the scenes in the film. They were color-coded according to who was in the scene and when it was taking place. And every few weeks, as we saw how things were going, we would sit down and rearrange those cards. That rearranging determined the ultimate structure of the film.
It’s not a plot-driven film, but most of the events in the film happened to people I know, and we stitched them together, kind of guiding it as a reaction against stuff like the television program Cops. In three minutes of Cops, you see someone on the street getting arrested, and all you see is that event. You don’t know who is getting arrested, you don’t know know where they’ve been, you don’t know who is arresting them. I was interested in everything else behind a crime like this. I tried to lay all that other stuff out through this intercutting that makes people gradually realize what these people did, but after you get to know about them and everyone else.
While I was brainstorming for the film, my father actually had his car stolen under somewhat similar circumstances, I called the police on some kids who were robbing a convenience store across the street from where I was living, and Cops was a very popular show. I had all these things to work with. And I was trying to think of ways for people to get involved. In the beginning, you see these guys who are nervous, and you don’t know why. By taking the last scene chronologically and spreading it through the film, I hoped to encourage people to think about how it fits together. On a purely narrative level, it provided an enigma that you have to figure out, which hopefully encourages you to think about larger issues about what crime is and how and why people commit crimes.
There is a sense in which the film is fun-loving, but I don’t mean to downplay serious crimes. This crime is serious to an extent, but we do play it somewhat comically. But hopefully people will still question how you judge crime and criminals. I think people make a lot of assumptions based on shows like Cops, which would play up these guys as hard-core carjacking freaks, but in fact these are just guys who couldn’t get a ride home, and they had an opportunity and they took it.
[ Within this larger scale crime, you have these petty crimes like stealing bait for fishing – which is a strange, terrific sequence – and kids stealing stuff from a convenience store. These crimes have both narrative and moral implications on how we perceive the larger crime. ] ^ With the scene with the kids robbing the store, again I tried to raise the issue of what a criminal is. Criminals have morals, too, and would turn other people in if they thought the situation warranted it. I was somewhat inspired in this by an Ice-T album called O.G. – Original Gangsta. There’s a lot of anti-cop stuff on it. But then there’s one point where he sings about his neighbors who are beating on their kids. Then he asks why someone doesn’t call a cop. This guy who says “f**k the police” also thinks there is a time when it is appropriate to call the police. That’s a contradiction I tried to work with.
In the first part of the film, we see these little character portraits that hopefully pile up, so that when we get to the more plot-driven parts you know who you are dealing with and are able to address what they are doing morally. I think this structure has a history, but it’s not all that common, just to let so much other stuff take up the first half of the film. There’s a dissolve from the car during the night to it during the day after which the car scenes become more pointed in terms of their relation to the flashbacks. Before that they are counting green lights and they get in an argument and you don’t know why, but after that hopefully you can understand this and everything else.
I’ve always been interested in films that play with temporal arrangement. To have the end of the story at the beginning and then interspersed throughout seemed very natural to me. From the beginning, somehow I knew that playing with narrative would be part of how the film works, and that’s part of my other filmmaking, too.
[ How have you worked with this in other films? ] ^ All the films I’ve completed before this, films that I produced, are experimental documentaries. They are generally shot outside during the day, and they’re usually about a sense of place. I was interested in documenting some natural spaces in an emotional sense. I made a film called Cherokee, which deals with a nature preserve in Madison that is surrounded by encroaching development on all sides. It was a sort of paranoid nature / fall film. The images start out as longer, still shots of nature: fall color, leaves, and things like that. Then the camera starts moving, and you go from moving images to superimpositions, optical printing, and matting. Eventually you get to a point that is completely abstract and there are no more images of the park. Meanwhile the sounds go from very natural sounds to things that are increasingly processed, so that by the end you are hearing sounds that seem completely abstract by the end. It is sort of apocalyptic. Everything just falls apart. By the end everything has completely deteriorated, and I thought of this as paralleling this sense of doom that I felt whenever I went there. It was this beautiful place, but it was being destroyed, and it was hard to see it existing into the future. It’s quite different than Milk Punch.
[ Why did you decide to move from these films to a feature film? ] ^ There were a couple of reasons. It has become increasingly difficult for me to imagine experimental / avant-garde cinema as a place that exists anymore. It seemed to be becoming a place about history, and so much about the past that it wasn’t part of something that I could imagine being involved in. That’s sort of harsh I guess, but I gave up on avant-garde film culture. There didn’t seem to be venues. There didn’t seem to be a culture of it. It seemed like what had so clearly been part of the avant-garde had been so thoroughly co-opted by television and all other forms that it seemed like it wasn’t happening in the way it once did. If I was a video artist I might have a different feeling about it. And there’s still great experimental film stuff going on, and I admire the people who do it. I support it however I can, but I left because it was very hard for me to imagine a future for it for myself. I wonder about my decision sometimes. I may go back. We’ll see.
[ Yet Milk Punch remains a sort of experimental film, in the traditional rather than the generic sense of the word. You are experimenting with narrative style, and with locations, and you do have some bizarre time-lapse shots. ] ^ I was interested in the difference between suburban and more urban neighborhoods, in the landscape of the Beltline around Madison, spaces like parking garages and convenience stores that just don’t seem to exist in most films. They seem to evaporate whenever Hollywood goes into these spaces. They take everything out and put their own back in. When you see it onscreen, it doesn’t seem right, it seems removed. A convenience store doesn’t seem like a convenience store. Well, sometimes they do, but more than not they don’t. You go to someone’s office and everyone has leather chairs, and everything is so nice – you think, wow, that’s a nice office. But go to my office, now that’s an office! A lot of offices are like that, with crap piled everywhere. We tried to show that in Milk Punch when you go to Verona’s office, and you go by all these ugly cubicles. So the issue of architecture and urban sprawl I guess is there in both of these films, and I tried to get that in a pictorial sense. One of my favorite shots in Milk Punch is the bus shot where you just look out the window of a bus and the bus pulls up and the doors open and you see that whole vista outside.
[ The contrast between the neighborhoods where the main characters live and where they go on the bus to the garage sale, which is around where the two older guys live, is pretty sharp. ] ^ We drove around a lot trying to find the intersection where the guys get off the bus. We were happy that the people who lived there were nice to work with, allowing us to set up fake garage sales in their driveways, and on one hot day even allowing us to come in and use the air-conditioning as we ate lunch. That juxtaposition was something I tried to draw out throughout, and it’s something you have in the two sets of characters as well.
Then there were other places like the ice cream shop and diner called MiltyWilty’s, and the skate park, which I thought it was important to show as unique American spaces. Places like MiltyWilty’s are vanishing. We drove extensively to get there, and in a small production, going out of town is a big deal. Twice we drove up to Wautoma, which is about an hour and a half from Madison, just for those scenes. But I thought it was important. This was a place that both sets of characters go to, so it had to be very identifiable, a place whose importance would stand out for both of them. When I first drove by it, I thought, wow, that’s very unique. It stuck out visually, and I though it was perfect.
[ It’s like the RR diner in Twin Peaks, and it also reminded me of spaces in films directed by Monte Hellman, with their mass-produced familiarity and grotesqueness. That, the underplayed acting by most of the performers, and the culture of cars especially reminded me of Two-Lane Black Top. ] ^ I had never seen any films directed by him until after this one was finished, but I would now say they are an influence.
The place also had a lot of shiny surfaces, and that was useful because we always kept going back to this idea of reflection, in there, and in the cars, and with the milk truck at the beginning. Throughout it was something we were playing with. I think that in terms of the cinematography, Eric Nelson brought a good degree of narrative sense to the film. If I had shot the film myself, it would be much more flat and less dynamic. He brought a sense of motivation to the cinematography that didn’t come to me naturally. He taught me a lot. I was lucky with him and with the other people I worked with on the film. Liz Avery, who plays Verona, also did art direction and worked as a grip. Jay Antani, who did the storyboards, also brought a lot, contributing scene ideas and so forth.
[ The title is unusual. It’s an enigma through much of the film, and then the moment comes when you get it. ] ^ I like that when you hear it, the title doesn’t make sense. There is a drink called milk punch, which is scotch and milk. But I used to tell people who weren’t from Wisconsin that people in Wisconsin make a drink called “milk punch” by mixing whole milk, skim milk, 1%, 2%, and creamer. And of course Wisconsin is “America’s Dairy Land,” so they figured people around so many cows might do something like that. So I like to leave it as an enigma. I like people seeing the film without knowing what the title means, and hopefully when the moment comes they smile.
[ Are you going to make another film here? ] ^ I’d like to. I’m working on two different ideas.
One is called Picker, Packer, Grower. It’s a three-part story. You assume it’s about three parts of the farming process, but that’s not what it would be. “Picker” is a slang term for people who go to Goodwill and buy clothes that they can resell to vintage clothing stores; it’s a sort of job. “Packer” would be a member of the Green Bay Packers. And “Grower” would be an indoor marijuana grower. Parts of the grower part would probably have to be shot in Europe. Somehow we’d work the three together, though how exactly I don’t know.
The other is a film about pornography. There have been a lot of films about pornography lately that aren’t pornographic, and I think that is completely wrong. The People vs. Larry Flynt isn’t willing to show what pornography is, and then holds up Larry Flynt as a model of free speech. That they’re not willing to show the free speech that gets Larry Flynt into court is completely ludicrous. Someone needs to make a film about pornography that is pornographic. And I think there needs to be a film about people who are in porn films, and what their lives are like beyond pornography.
[ You don’t think Boogie Nights succeeded at that? ] ^ No, I don’t. First of all it wasn’t pornographic. And I think it was very romanticized. It was all party and wildlife. He lives with his parents, and there is a scene where he has sex in his bed there. But it’s not like he’s helping his mom plant begonias or something, which people who work in porn films do. It’s more like a porn film in its support of the myth of pornography. What is it like when a porn star has to get new contacts? I think there has to be a film about that. I don’t know if I’m the person to make it or not, but maybe I am. It would be pornographic and pro-sex; I wouldn’t want it to be like Not A Love Story, which is a film I respect, but which I think is kind of puritanical.
To get more information on “Milk Punch” and writer, director, producer Erik Gunneson go to: http://www.milk-punch.com
Check out FILMTHREAT.com’s INTERVIEW ARCHIVES and read hundreds of fascinating in-depth interviews with directors, filmmakers, actors and celebrities from the world of film!