Friday, September 29, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #13. "Tusk" (2014)

Justin Long in Tusk
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Released: September 19, 2014
Release Number: 13
Directed By: Kevin Smith
Written By: Kevin Smith
Starring: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment
Plot: A brash and arrogant podcaster gets more than he bargained for when he travels to Canada to interview a mysterious recluse... who has a rather disturbing fondness for walruses.

With the year almost over, one must wonder how A24 was to rebound from a year that produced masterpieces with Under the Skin, but also saw tepid films that didn't capture the zeitgeist in quite the same way, such as with The Captive and Life After Beth. It only made sense that the choice to stick with established filmmakers would be a good call, and nowhere was that more interesting than with director Kevin Smith and his film Tusk. Widely regarded as the first "podcast film," it was a horror comedy that saw the filmmaker create a film for his target audience while managing to isolate everyone else. The story behind the film that would start his True North trilogy is arguably more interesting than what it actually came to be.

Throughout the years, Smith changed as a filmmaker. In the 90's, he was known as an independent comedy filmmaker, creating films that focused around characters talking. Following a traumatic experience as a studio hand with Cop Out, he chose to go independent with his own company SModcast Pictures, named for his podcast that he co-hosted with producer Scott Mosier. The first film, Red State, was a departure into a religious panic horror movie that succeeded as an indie film financed and promoted almost solely through podcasting methods to the point that the film was "in the black" before it transitioned from stage show releases around the United States to its limited one. It's safe to say that this would be the route he would continue to take, finding more reliance on his fans instead of the other financiers that once made him feel like he should retire from film making altogether.

Unlike most movies, the very existence of Tusk can be traced back to a single day: June 25, 2013. Smith and Mosier released an episode of SModcast called "The Walrus and the Carpenter," which chronicled this ad on Gumtree (a Canadian version of Craigslist) about a man wanting someone to come over dressed as a walrus. This lead to extensive riffing and construction of a rough draft that would be Tusk. Smith chose to place the fate of this riffing in the hands of his listeners, suggesting that they Tweet "Walrus Yes" if they want to see the movie, and "Walrus No" if otherwise. The answer was overwhelmingly yes. The Gumtree ad was later revealed to be a prank by Chris Parkinson, who would later go on to be an executive producer. The film ended up being made when Bob Weinstein took too long to provide financing for Smith's other film Clerks III, at which point Smith began to seek financing (originally through Blumhouse) for Tusk.

Much like Red State, the film was chronicled through podcasts as it was being made. Of course, the film itself was in a lot of ways indebted to Smith's newfound legacy. Justin Long played the lead role, who is a podcaster who goes to interview Michael Parks. Such elements as a ringtone of Ralph Garman's imitation of Al Pacino and role as Fred Garmin were ideas pulled directly from Smith's other show Hollywood Babble-On. Smith admitted that part of the goal behind the movie was to get Parks to quote "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in a sadistic fashion. He was also curious to get Quentin Tarantino into the movie as an actor after seeing Django Unchained. When Tarantino mistook his involvement as playing Parks' role, Smith ended up casting Johnny Depp in that role. Adding another layer, Smith cast his daughter Harley Quinn Smith as well as Depp's daughter Lily-Rose Depp as clerks (of whom would get their own movie in the True North sequel Yoga Hosers). The film was set to shoot in Canada, but was delayed to shoot in North Carolina. It was completed over 15 days, with some reports suggesting that most of the budget was to get the rights to the Fleetwood Mac song "Tusk."

The True North trilogy was suggested to be a love letter to Canada, and thus featured a ridiculous amount of puns. The third and upcoming film, Moose Jaws, is supposed to be the movie Jaws... but with a moose. The franchise is connected with characters, but is so far tonally different with Yoga Hosers being more of an upbeat 90's comedy. Still, the franchise is largely indebted to Smith's fans, of whom he constantly thanked for making "Walrus Yes" happen. The podcast that made it all happen even appears over the closing credits. With the promise of a "realistic walrus" outfit in third act of the film, Tusk was considered even more of a departure for Smith than Red State was. When it premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, it received runner up at Midnight Madness. However, its later wide release (his first since Cop Out) proved to be a failure, earning $1.8 million on a $3 million budget. 

It didn't help that the reviews were some of Smith's worst. The film earned a 41% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes (which was among the higher A24 releases of the time). Mark Jenkins of NPR wrote that, "Tusk is an overextended, tonally incoherent joke that would make viewers squirm even if it didn't involve a bloody and demented medical experiment." Ty Burr of the Boston Globe also claimed that "Smith seems to have been more charged up by the (profoundly ridiculous) ideas behind his movie than in making them work." Among the more positive reviews was Richard Roeper, who wrote that, "I'm recommending Kevin Smith’s uniquely twisted Tusk, but there's a part of me that wishes I could un-see it." Still,it wasn't the greatest outing for Smith, who claims that part of Yoga Hosers is an apology to critics that he made fun of in the past. Ironically, that film's Rotten Tomatoes score was far lower at 19%.

Even if Tusk didn't do much to pull A24 out of its tailspin of mediocre and unmemorable titles, it proved to be one of their more interesting ventures. If nothing else, they would hold the honor of releasing the first ever "podcast film" that was made a reality thanks to social media. It was a film that was willed into existence by fans, and that deserves some credit. However, it wasn't as memorable otherwise as A24's class of 2013. However, it was a bigger success than the next movie that A24 would release, which saw the studio go into even odder directions beyond American independent cinema. For the next entry, A24 returned to Australia for an Ewan McGregor jailbreak movie that sees the characters turn on each other. It's more of the same from the studio, or is it, with Son of a Gun.

Up Next: Son of a Gun (2014)

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