“Let’s just go and see what happens…”
The independent film Sea To Shining Sea offered up a curious road trip movie that managed to be funny, dramatic and at times thought-provoking.
Produced by Bricolagista!, a production company founded by Maximón Monihan & Sheena Matheiken, Sea To Shining Sea is a project that captures the duo’s aims to create films that transcend borders, genre and industry convention. It’s a film that includes drama, hilarity and commentary on America as both a country and a culture.
Featuring Monihan and Robert Boerleider as the lead characters, Sea To Shining Sea was partly funded by a successful crowd-funding campaign. Presented as a documentary, the film managed to blur the lines enough resulting in an intriguing film experience.
In a statement promoting the film, Monihan summed the premise up: “Could Boerleider and I, with our vastly differing opinions on damn near everything, survive each other’s company burnin’ rubber over endless hours of blacktop in my mother’s dilapidated Subaru? If we could in fact make it from coast to coast, still on speaking terms, then perhaps there’s hope for everyone else in our increasingly polarized and ossified world”.
When Sea To Shining Sea premiered in London in November 2018, Wavegirl were invited to attend the screening (see our review here) and a special Q&A after the film at the Prince Charles cinema. The film’s team of Maximón Monihan, Robert Boerleider & Sheena Matheiken were on hand to discuss the inspiration behind the film, fielding questions from the host Ben R Nicholson.
Please note that this Q&A features spoilers and plot points from the film.
BRN: How did the project come about?
Maximón Monihan: You make a movie and then you always think, “Who’s going to like this movie?” and you get really stressed – maybe everybody hates it. But I have this theory that the only person that needs to like it is someone who’s going to pay for the next one! (laughs)
My mother said she was going to give me her car – and he [Boerleider] said he has time off work – and I was like “Maybe he and I could do this other thing?” And our friend Jonathan Marlow at Fandor, which is a streaming service, [said] “I can give you some money, if you send me a treatment”.
So, I sent him a treatment very fast and he was like “Oh by the way, you know you have to start a Kickstarter to raise the rest of the money?” That was the worst because you’re begging your friends for money and I’m horrible at that. But we raised the money. Our friends came through and we got a little nugget, enough to shoot it and pay for food and gas – and we actually got enough to rent an extra car.
It was just an experiment, We filmed what really happened and I just really felt like… just hanging out with Boerleider every time, something crazy happens. He’s just a magnet for humour and disaster and good luck/bad luck, you know, everything. So, we were like “Let’s just go and see what happens”. Whether that would turn into a movie or not, that’s the challenge. But try to make something out of nothing.
Robert Boerleider: But the big surprise was I was actually going to visit him in New York. Then he said, “Could you maybe fly to Santa Cruz? I’ve got this new feature film”. “Oh, can I get a bit part in it?”
Sheena Matheiken: He had no idea what he was getting into. He complained the whole time, all two weeks, like: “This is supposed to be my vacation!”. “Nope! We’re shooting a film, get back in the car!”
RB: It was thirteen hours a day.
SM: It was brutal.
MM: It’s America – the land of slavery! (laughs)
BRN: How did it live up, after 25 years, to see America, the American dream?
RB: It was amazing. Most people, if they think about America, they always think of it for holidays, as a fantastic place to be. I’ve seen sixteen states in three weeks.
MM: Sixteen, pretty good going. We zig-zagged. He said he didn’t want to go to the south and in some ways I don’t blame him! (laughs) But we had to sneak down there because he really wanted to see Elvis, so we got to do that.
BRN: How structured were you able to make it? Obviously, you had crew that had to be around, so I guess you needed to give them something. You have landmarks that you’re ticking off as you go through, or at least certain ones. Was it just a case of plotting the route or did you know you wanted to hit certain points?
SM: The rules were that you could only shoot what happened. But we did sort of have a loose script in the areas and locations that we were going to go and the locations were picked on the basis of “Ooh there’s a free couch we can crash on.” I mean we really picked places where we knew someone, because we didn’t have a budget for hotels for every state and every location we shot in.
We mapped out the venues and locations. Our DP, this was his first feature film, was incredible and he did an amazing job on cinematography. He was really hungry and he worked for really, really cheap on this film because he was hungry.
So, we found him and we found the sound person and a second camera and it was just six of us. In terms of script, I think the most important thing about this film was we were playing with blurring genres a little bit. This is truly a documentary, but we wanted to make it feel like a narrative film. So, the sort of artifice was, even though everything’s happening, we’ll never look at the camera, never acknowledge the camera. But if something happens that was funny, we’ll re-enact it and shoot it. But we really wanted to have that sense of feeling very real. So, it really technically is a documentary, we didn’t really have a script. It’s all improvised. There were themes, because these guys have been like friends forever and every time they get together they giggle like little girls. So, we were like “Let’s tap into all that!” But other than that, we didn’t really have any script.
“The rules were that you could only shoot what happened…”
MM: And the other important thing is that out of six people that were filming this and were making this, only three knew how to drive! So, I had to drive the entire time!
BRN: So, the haunted house for instance…
MM: Well that’s fake. I did not pee my pants! If you look closely, you realise it’s the person who lives there and she just came back to get something out of her basement and the lights were broken down there. So, she was using her iPhone to search for the stuff and we actually went down there and saw her and freaked out.
BRN: So, given that you didn’t film anything that wasn’t really happening, there are some things, like the themes that recur, you’ll have a scene where you deal with political issues. You deal with it seriously and then ten or fifteen minutes later, there’ll be a little recurrence of a motif, but it’s funny and it kind of deflates any tension there was from before. This is happening all the way through and you get these kinds of peaks and troughs of these different themes. What was that like in terms of putting that together, trying to keep the narrative flow – and obviously the geographical narrative…?
SM: I didn’t plan to edit the film at first. Typically, we liked to edit our own films. But, this one Monihan was like “There’s no way I’m looking at my face for hours and hours, I can’t do it…”
MM: I can’t even look in a mirror!
SM: I was like “I’ve never edited a feature before, this is kind of a massive undertaking”. So, we had an editor. It was his first film too, but he was really excited about it. We talked about the ideas and the sort of tone that we wanted to hit. Then he gives a rough cut and it played like an Anthony Bourdian travel show! But that wasn’t the intent of our film at all, so he didn’t understand the tone or the relationship, like this chemistry here? He kind of missed that completely, so we were like “Shit, we have to do this ourselves!”. It was kind of a daunting undertaking. I edited it, but Monihan was breathing down my neck the whole time. We work very closely together so I can’t take full credit.
MM: She did most of it.
RB: And I was calling.
SM: He was directing from Amsterdam! “Can we please finish a trailer?” And we were like: “We’re not making a trailer before we finish the film!” (laughs) So, long story short, I think the key thing in the edit was the music, which was Monihan’s wheelhouse. Just having the music and really setting the tone really, really helped. I think editing to music, it helps you to build a narrative in a certain way. We knew we had mapped out the core themes of friendship, the political aspects of it and from there we just went back and forth. It was just a lot of Tetris.
MM: I knew she was going to kill me if I picked a song, or a couple of songs, that I knew she was going to hate. So, I really, really thought hard. I mean I’m a huge Sun Ra fan and I picked those Sun Ra songs because I knew she would be able to edit and never get sick of those songs. We’ve heard those couple of cues so many times, but we still love it.
” if a film’s going to be truthful, you have to show sort of boring stuff too, But it still can be entertaining too”
The other thing I was going to say about the political thing, really quick. There’s the American Dream, the American Nightmare and we can all make films about both of those things, but the truth is we really wanted to make sure the tone was about the mundanity of America? You know like, there’s great points and really horrible points. They happen, but they happen fleetingly and just so long as it was subtle and all of the politics or whatever was settled, that just feels way more truthful. Because most of the time, I mean now there’s crazy stuff every day, but most of the time there’s only crazy stuff once in a while and if a film’s going to be truthful, you have to show sort of boring stuff too, But it still can be entertaining too.
BRN: Were there any great scenes, like moments that you desperately wished were in the film but didn’t make it in?
RB: We’re still talking about that! (laughs)
SM: We are! Even this morning: “Why don’t you put the sneakers scene in?”
RB: You know the whole world is ruled by sneakers. I was in this expensive boutique somewhere in New York and bought these really fancy Nikes for $300. But I can’t wear them in Amsterdam because everyone’s looking at me there.
MM: So, there was a huge scene with him explaining the importance of sneakers.
BRN: And it’s gone.
MM: Well it’s a bonus feature.
At this stage, the team also fielded questions from the screening audience.
Was the police scene on the dam real?
RB: The thing was, the guy said if you arrive and you have two options. Either you get out of the car and you walk across. Or you stay in the car and you follow the whole red line. I said “OK, whatever.” Halfway, I just said “Hey, that’s a nice spot” and Moni said, “Oh no, don’t get out of the car, that’s a red line.” So, I get out and suddenly I heard “Hey you! Get in the car!”
The policeman was holding his gun out: “You stand there!” and he was talking to Moni, “What’s up with your friend?” “He’s from Amsterdam, he doesn’t understand these things!” (laughs)
MM: It was pretty hairy, but I mean we were stopped a few times. We didn’t want to be repetitive, but we got stopped by a couple of other cops. By the third one, he was like “If we get stopped by another cop I quit! I’m not getting killed for your stupid movie!” (laughs)
RB: We had those scenes with another car and the camera was constructed on the car and the policeman was “Well, the driver can’t see anything because of this obstruction, so why are you driving on the highway?”
MM: Yeah there’s all sorts of reasons. It’s America. We didn’t die.
SM: …or get shot.
MM: But there was a scene that I love about his underwear after that! (laughs) We’ll have to keep that for a bonus feature too.
Did your Dad actually get sick while you were filming?
MM: Yes. All of that happened.
How was it, like half-performing the way you were feeling?
MM: I mean we just did it. Like we said, we just wanted to be completely honest but yeah it was something that happened. We weren’t expecting to happen. We were expecting to go stay with him and we were expecting to go ride horses with this rich lady.
He got sick and that’s part of growing up. I mean I guess the film in a lot of ways is about getting older and realising that all your dreams are not necessarily going to come true, but friendship is what’s really important. As you get older, people get sick and they pass away. Yeah, it was sort of heavy, but it wasn’t like we were going to not show it. We just didn’t want to go film him while he was going through that. So, I talked to him about it and I actually got to show him the film and he was very happy to see it before he passed away. He was very much a sentimental kind of person. He was like bawling when he got to see the thing, so it was nice to have that last gift for him.
BRN: Were you really in the skatepark when you had that conversation with him?
BRN: That’s crazy. Like the first scene with you skating, the last scene explains the backstory of your friendship, but that’s a lovely moment between the two of you.
SM: That was a tough decision. I mean we talked a lot about “Do we just skip Denver now and just keep going?” We talked a lot about whether we should put it in the film and Moni was “Yeah, I’m just going to sit down and talk to Robert.”
MM: But it didn’t feel exploitative, because it was us. It wasn’t like “Hey Pops, can we film you at your worst moment” or whatever! (laughs)
RB: His Dad had a really cool car. Actually, I was like “Hey Moni, why don’t you trade in your Mom’s car and we’ll take your Dad’s car!” (laughs)
MM: They got along great. When my Dad was sick, he called every day. He was always asking “How’s he doing?”, keeping in touch and everything. When my Dad did finally pass away, the only thing he had to offer, he didn’t really have much, but he had the car to give. And he was so excited “Oh that’s your Dad’s, he’s the best!”
RB: Let’s do the trip again!
SM: In a great American car! Not a Japanese car!
MM: I drove out of Seattle, with my sister, after just going through this totally surreal life-changing experience of losing a parent. And we drive out of Seattle and the second we got out of the city limit I heard this [simulates knocking sound] and the engine just exploded! (laughs) So that car that you wanted to drive man? You’ve got to respect the Subaru!
You spent a great deal of your life travelling and that’s how you know a lot of people in this room. Is this the movie you’ve been waiting to make or is this like a burning desire to get the road trip on film?
MM: In some way yes because I think nothing’s better as an antidote to close-mindedness than travel. But you have to show it truthfully and you have to experience it truthfully and really it was about making it so one of my all-time best friends could have this experience.
“I think nothing’s better as an antidote to close-mindedness than travel”
I wanted to ask about the title, because I’m always interested in the process of when you’re writing or you’re making a film, did you start off with that title? And also, you had that lovely motif of the sea at the beginning and it was there again at the end. Did you know that was going to be the end of the film or is it something that just came up?
MM: Well the first title was Backside Of A Big High Wall, which doesn’t make any sense at all! (laughs) But it’s from a Woody Guthrie song, you know ‘This Land Is Your Land’, which is another great Americana song. But it’s the verse they always leave out because it’s the communist verse, which is like him saying – and he was always a hardcore anti-capitalist – So that whole verse is like “I came up across a big high wall/and it said, ‘No trespassing’ I jumped over the wall where it had no sign and I kept going because this land is your land and this land is my land”. I thought that was so brilliant, but it was so esoteric and like only some music nerds would be like “Oh yeah, that’s from that Woody Guthrie song. He must be a Joe Strummer fan!” (laughs) I don’t know, so that wasn’t really going to work.
But Sea To Shining Sea is this crazy, also patriotic American song. So, we just thought that’s the most commercial title for it and why keep shooting ourselves in the foot? Why keep making uncommercial things? This is probably the most commercial thing we’ll probably ever make and it’s a good title, it works and we did touch the ocean because Boerleider was like “I gotta touch the ocean!” And then when we got to New York, he wanted to touch that ocean, which is really, really filthy! So yeah, we touched both seas. Sea To Shining Sea – It made sense.
Sea To Shining Sea is available to view via Mubi.
The Wavegirl review of the film is here.
Q&A photos: Mike John.