Writer and filmmaker Mackie Mallison is in the middle of pursuing a film degree at Pratt Institute in New York, and the young artist has already had his work screened by the Obama White House and Adobe, and placed in festivals throughout the country. Adobe content manager Charles Purdy caught up with Mallison by phone from Oregon, where he has been sheltering in place with his family.
Charles Purdy: I’d love to start off by having you tell me a little bit about who you are as an artist and your approach to filmmaking. I know that’s a big question.
Mackie Mallison: It is. And it’s hard for me to answer right now…. Maybe a year ago if you had asked me that question, I would have said, “I’m a filmmaker who does X, Y, and Z movies, and I make mini-documentaries about artists doing social justice work.” But since I’ve been stuck inside, and I don’t have access to equipment, because I had been using the equipment from my school, I’ve been…finding joy in doing things other than making films…. I just haven’t answered that question in a long time. So yeah, I’m just a person at the moment.
CP: It sounds as though the pandemic has changed your point of view as an artist, as well as how you’re looking at the future. Is that fair to say?
MM: It has changed my point of view on things…and I’ve heard stories of people who have an attitude like “I’m finding myself, I’m re-grounding, and blah blah blah.” But I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of people aren’t able to do that. I think it would be wrong to say that this pandemic is a chance for artists to reground themselves. Because that’s an immense privilege to be able to say that. Thankfully, I have a loving mother who is letting me back into her home, but if I was living at my school, things would be different. Obviously, it’s hard to find work right now.
CP: You mentioned that, without access to filmmaking equipment, you are rethinking your attachment to film — is it just that you just don’t have the equipment? Or are you considering a shift away from filmmaking as medium?
MM: I think I’m always going to want to work with film. But I’m thinking of it more in a physical way now. I always thought of film as this flat thing that you put it online — it’s digital. That’s the world that I grew up in. If you have a phone, you just make something and then it’s out there for everybody to see. These days I’m thinking of film much more like a physical thing that can be treated more delicately when the artist wants and can be ripped to shreds when the artist wants.
CP: I might not understand what you mean — can you clarify?
MM: Think of a blank piece of paper on a table. There’s just looking at that piece of paper, and that’s it. Then there’s changing my perspective on the piece of paper, by swiveling it around, crunching it, twisting it, breaking it, taping it back together, burning it, and doing something with those ashes…. The ways in which film is consumed, that’s half of the creation. It’s the different aspects of the piece of paper and how it can be presented to the audience.
CP: So you’re talking about ways to get an audience more involved in the consumption of the art than just passively sitting in front of a screen. Is that right?
MM: Right. It can be so much more of an active medium. And I think tampering with the form in that way is important because, especially right now, our attention spans are growing shorter every single day — we have no choice but to have short attention spans. I want to find ways to take the audience’s hand and to bring them on some sort of journey or to have them experience something in some new way…rather than just sitting in bed tapping on a phone.
CP: That sounds like quite a challenge — audiences are, by and large, accustomed to enjoying passive consumption: I’m just lying in bed, and tap, tap, tap: entertainment!
MM: And I am so guilty of that myself. And I’ve seen plenty of things that are great and are adapted to our time and the way media is commonly consumed. But I also think it’s important for artists to stand their ground be like, “No, I’m going to make something that is five hours long, that you have to sit in a room with while you smell this aroma and hear these sounds and so on.”
CP: That’s interesting, and I can see glimpses of that in the pieces of yours that I’ve watched — in that they are challenging, and don’t unfold in a typical narrative way: they require active attention. Do you feel that’s a fair assessment? Do you feel like you are approaching that in some of your work?
MM: I have no idea. But I’ll go back and say that I think it’s important to have the media that you can turn your mind off with…. If it was all difficult to consume, the consumer would not want that either.
CP: Sure, there’s a place for both in video or really any sort of visual or lively art. Maybe “challenging” was a poorly chosen word on my part. What I meant to say is more “contemplative.” I’m thinking specifically of Rubber Side I & II. I wonder if we can talk a little bit about that piece — its genesis, what it’s about, and so on.
MM: My time with my dad when I was growing up was very limited. But the time that I did spend with him on the weekends, most of it would be spent with him caring for his bike or him interacting with his bike in some way. And sometimes I felt jealous of the bike — sometimes I felt like he was putting more care into it than he was into me. I would just sit in front of the TV and he would be outside cleaning his bike or riding his bike or watching the Tour de France…. So I think subconsciously there has always been this weird, delicate, personal, intimate relationship with bikes in my head. And it’s weird because humans put so much care into mechanics and into these physical things that aren’t living, but we don’t take care of ourselves, we don’t have compassion for others, we don’t have compassion for this earth, and so on. I’m going off on a tangent, and I don’t want to explain it too much because the purpose of the film is to feel something and take what you will from it. Are you familiar with the Silence = Death posters?
MM: That slogan came about when a group of queer artists, in a group called Grand Fury, said, “If we remain silent about our sexuality, we will have a much harder time demanding medical research and treatment, and people will continue to die.” Then I saw another poster that was in response to that poster, called Silence = Sex. And the point of that poster was the stigma around having HIV. So the work is also about the conversation you have to have when you are HIV-positive and you’re about to have sex with somebody. It’s still a criminalized thing if you have HIV and you don’t tell somebody you have sex with — that is still sexual assault and you can go to jail for that. Many people avoid the conversation altogether, which makes things even worse. Or don’t get tested at all, to avoid even having to know, so the conversation never happens…. It’s horrible that people who are HIV positive have to feel that way. And I’m not HIV-positive, but it’s important that people care about stuff that’s outside of themselves…. So this is a film for everybody. It’s a film about frustration. Does that make sense?
CP: It does. Because we’re talking about that film, maybe we could move on to the practical part of making it. Making a film like that — do you have storyboards and a shot list, or is shooting more improvisational? And how many decisions are made in the edit suite once you see the footage?
MM: The film is really meant to be viewed as part of an installation, I should say. Side One is going to be projected on one wall, while Side Two is going to be projected on the opposite wall; they will both play in a loop. Then there will be some bikes on the floor that are in a position that looks like they are having an orgy. It looks stupid on video because it’s all stretched out, and they are next to each other. But I have to get past that and be comfortable with the fact that not everything is meant for digital.
As for how I approach a film…for every project, it depends. With any project, with any artist, there’s always thought about how to approach it. Since this was such a feelings-based project and a feelings-based film, I wanted the filming to be kind of grab-and-go and not get caught up in the bureaucracy of what happens when you’re on set. Which I hate! I’ve been on too many sets where it takes three hours to just get one shot. And often the feeling, the emotion, just completely goes away when that happens…. We were just going shot by shot and figuring it out. We had a very raw shot list and ended up scrapping most of it when we got there and just going by a wondering or a feeling.
And then I edited it myself. It took so long to edit — it was a completely different thing when I finished.
CP: Another film project, How We're Gonna Make it Through Till the Morning Sun, recently premiered online. How was the making of that short?
MM: That was also a process of building, breaking, looking at things from a different angle, rebuilding…it took an entire year to edit that film, and it was a very frustrating process. I had so many nights of locking myself in a room, looking at what I’d done and being like, “This is just a piece of shit!” And then completely destroying it and seeing if I could do something else with it. But I’m very grateful for that process. I look back on it fondly, even though when I was doing it, I was like, “What the hell am I doing with my life?”
That was my first time writing something and then directing it. I had never taken that long with a script and then taken that long with the actors and taken my time with directing and crew and makeup and sound effects and visual effects and all these different things that sometimes get in the way of the film itself. So I learned how that can happen, how stuff can get slowed down. I had to have those experiences to gain understanding.
CP: On your portfolio site, it says that you’re currently working on a documentary next, Separated Together. Is that still in the works or have you refocused?
MM: That could come out in ten years. That’s always on the stove. It’s just slowly simmering. It’s a documentary about public school segregation in New York. It’s such a huge topic—we’re doing interviews and whatnot, but it’s going to take a while.
Watch more of Mackie Mallison’s work on his portfolio site.