The paranoia that accompanied Y2K may now seem like a quaint relic of a recent vintage, but at the time, the threat was unforeseen and the fear genuine. The technological society in which Americans are currently immersed to the point of codependence was merely a glimmer in a future we could not yet imagine; AOL, for all its free CDs and populist aspirations, had not managed to democratize or normalize the internet the way its successors Yahoo and Google would, and the first tech bubble was only just beginning to self-inflate. We were still calling it the Information Superhighway.
So it is not surprising that a cottage industry cropped up around fears of Y2K—the notion that, due to a programming glitch that would result in a calendar malfunction the moment the clock struck midnight on 1/1/2000, the world’s computers would self-destruct, resulting in a cataclysmic and immediate destruction of the technological society. In the most paranoid and fringe books meant to instruct the public about the coming mini-apocalypse and how to prepare for it, the worst of these fears tended to be A) that a nuclear bomb would accidentally be deployed, B) that we would all finally be Raptured or C), the most mainstream fear, that the entire power grid would implode, leaving us in a pre-industrial natural wasteland of the sorts where our ancestors did fine, but which we were all too soft to survive.
Ultimately, Y2K did not destroy the internet, and now we are living in a world so connected that back then it probably would have seemed like science fiction to most of us. Two decades later, the outsized fears accompanying Y2K seem antiquated, even funny, but in retrospect there’s something to be learned from it. In an age where the internet has helped proliferate rampant paranoia, actual fake news, and the extremely real threat of international cyberwars, the turn-of-the-century apprehension about an information society controlling too much of our lives was wise, if not just a little bit prophetic.
These are some of the questions provoked by Buster’s Mal Heart, an intelligent, moving, and objectively strange film written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith. Set in Montana in 1999, the film follows Jonah (Rami Malek), a struggling father who works the night shift at a small hotel to support his wife and young daughter. Spurred on by his love for his family and the hope that one day they can purchase a parcel of land and live off food they grow—off the grid, in essence—he works hard, but soon Jonah begins to succumb to the sleep deprivation and isolation that characterize his schedule, and he fills his nights with television that soon fixates him on the oncoming threat of Y2K. When a homeless drifter named Brown (DJ Qualls) begins showing up to the hotel, talking to him about “The Inversion” that would soon manifest, Jonah is caught between his empathy for the man and his susceptibility to his message.
Interweaving this prosaic portrait is the question of Buster (Rami Malek), a mountain man who survives by breaking into a wealthy enclave of Montana summer cabins, where he sleeps and apparently makes excellent gourmet meals. Buster’s Mal Heart is a mystery—whether Buster is Jonah, and whether Buster and Jonah are also another character (Rami Malek) floating in a small canoe on the open sea, and if so, how did it all come to be? Was it The Inversion?
Piecing elements of science fiction, too-weird reality, philosophy and dramedy, Buster’s Mal Heart is one of the most creative independent films I’ve seen this year. It’s also one of the most beautiful, taking in the scenery of Montana and Mexico, where it was filmed, as a sort of rejoinder to its theses, analogizing its vast landscapes to the very core of human will.
Jezebel spoke with Sarah Adina Smith about her film after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: I have a confession to make: I couldn’t make any of the Tribeca screenings, so I watched Buster’s Mal Heart on my computer. But it’s such a big and beautiful film, I want to go see it again in the theaters.
SARAH ADINA SMITH: It’s a movie that requires a certain kind of attention already, so I always hope that people will go into the quiet dark box of the movie theater where they will all get frowned at if they use their phones, you know? [laughs]
Yes! So it takes place in Montana; did you actually film it there?
Yeah! The movie was so ambitious in terms of scope for us, because we were crazy low budget, but we wanted to push it to the limit. We we went as far north as filming up near Glacier National Park in Montana and as far south as filming on the open ocean off the coast of Mexico. We really tried put as much onto the screen as we could given our small resources. But filming in Montana was so epic, you definitely understand why they call it Big Sky Country; the sky actually looks so much bigger. And I wanted to go there because it’s this place where where archetypical weirdos and wackos go to find solitude and have a conversation with their maker.
The story is unique, and all these elements came together culturally and viscerally and made so much sense to me, but they weren’t obvious; what was the germ of the idea?
Obviously artists work in different ways but I think when you’re trying to make yourself more of like a vessel for things to come through you, it’s weird how you can be tapping into the zeitgeist and thinking about certain things at the same time as other people. I know it sounds sort of loose and gushy and New Age or whatever, but I did really try to turn off my conscious brain as much as possible.
I think it’s because so I got selected for this crazy amazing organization called the Screenwriter’s Colony and they plucked me from a day to day life full of so much stress all the time. I’ve always had to work really hard to make a living in order to do this crazy hobby of independent film, and it’s just such a hustle paying rent every month and trying to scrape by but also trying to make art. When they brought me to this residency for a month, it was the first time in my life where my only responsibility was to be a writer, they really afforded me the luxury of that time. And so the only rule I made for myself was that I wasn’t going to force anything. I wanted to patient and take care of myself and take long walks and really let the story come to me rather than force my way through the story. The movie is a reflection of that; anyone who’s into meditation or anything like that, I think they can understand what you’re trying to do is almost remove yourself from the process. I sometimes say I’d rather be a doula more than a director. And I think for my writing, directing and in practice I try to be like, okay there’s this thing that needs to be born, how can I help it?
Is that the most like, dorky LA response you’ve ever heard?
No, I love that!
It’s really about the real power of receiving. There’s this long history of people thinking of receiving as passive, and I think as soon as we get to the point of thinking of it as active, then we’ll be much more empowered... I do really feel like filmmaking is truly a collaborative medium, and there are there were so many amazing artists on this movie and it is all of our film. I feel like its my job to be the doula, or be the person who is helping this thing get born, but it’s everybody’s baby.
Is the idea of truth the core of this film? I was thinking a lot about truth through it, especially because the viewer doesn’t necessarily always know what is happening or what Jonah’s values are. What was the gist of what you wanted to communicate?
This movie just represents questions I’ve been asking myself as deeply as I can. I was raised Jewish and I used to really believe in God growing up. I lost that belief when I was a teenager, I would say, and then I think part of me always has longed for for that relationship again, even if I can’t have it on an intellectual level. And so in some ways I think this movie is like an atheist prayer. It’s a way of communicating with the cosmos or the powers that be and even if I don’t get any answers out of it it’s still my way of asking those questions with my full heart.
In terms of what I want people to get out of it, I think sometimes there’s a full expectation that the audience is supposed to have some sort of intellectual orgasm by the end of the movie and it’s not that, I’m not trying to answer everything for people or give people some big idea. And I wish I could but I don’t have that for myself, it wouldn’t be truthful, so instead what I’m trying to give people is the closest thing I’ve come to divine feeling, if you will, is just a fleeting and temporary peace in the heart. Without giving too much away, the final scene of the movie is for me is just the possibility that there is a brief respite, where we all rest for a moment.
There’s a line at the very beginning of the film where Buster says something to the effect of, “we’re just a cosmic mistake that’s gone on too long.” It really resonated, particularly with this creeping sense of unease in the world, but there are still points of hope.
I do think there is there is hope to be had. I’m also not naive about it, either, and so it isn’t without reason. I think it’s a necessarily complex movie, because I think life is like that. I wanted to make a movie that was true to my experience in the world.
I wanted to ask you about the pacing of it, because it could have gone a certain way that was more heavy-handed; there was a sense of paranoia and disorientation, but it was very subtle and unexpected.
I experimented with that to be honest, but in the end I landed on something that just feels more unique to his character. One thing that informed that feeling was the juxtaposition of very real and very cutting tragedy with absurdist humor. I knew I was taking a risk by doing that—you know, having these dry, absurdist, dark moments right up against moments that are disturbing.
For me, one of the earliest visions I had when I was writing the story was of this mountain man who was charging up the mountain trying to get to the highest point and scream into the sky—call God to task, basically. But before he could reach the peak as he was charging up the hillside, he just kept slipping and falling, over and over again. And that really felt so true to me, as a picture of what life feels like, you know? Like in our most trying and tragic moment we’re all hoping that it’s all going to work out with dignity and grace but 99 percent of the time we trip and fall, or it’s awkward, or it’s stumbling. For me, there are moments of true grace in life, but so much of that is accident and banality and getting it wrong and saying it wrong. I think that I wanted to reflect that in the movie, that notion that it’s never quite as picture-perfect or dignified as we want it to be—in particular in the face of tragedy.
You have said that you specifically wanted to cast an actor of color in the lead role, and Rami Malek is speaking Spanish throughout the film. How did that added depth factor into the film and the character?
It was really important to me because I wanted to tell a story about a man apart, and he is a brown man in a very white world. For me, that contributed to his fractured identity; it’s implied in the movie that his Spanish-speaking friend and mom call him Jonah [Spanish pronunciation] and that used to be his name, but maybe as he got clean and married this Mormon woman he changed his name to Jonah [English pronunciation], trying to repress or push back this other part of himself. Yet when you see him speak Spanish with other people, he is almost like the most relaxed version of himself.
I just wanted to use that as an element of someone who had this war going on in his heart, and also the kind of bifurcation—as if the split in his heart had already started.
There’s also a character who has dementia. Is that bifurcation something you were speaking to with him, as well?
Maybe, in terms of getting to see a man on screen who has really sort of lost himself in space-time; he’s there, but not there, and he has a very slippery sense of identity.
I think [the scene with the character who has dementia] in some ways encapsulates the tone of the movie for me; it reflects that there’s a tension about the way we feel about Buster. Is he bad, or is he good? And if I’m doing my job right, you’re asking yourself that question so way through.
The idea of setting this film in ‘99, was that idea of Y2K as this definitive moment, this apocalyptic moment? I chose 1999 for personal reasons, I think. Because I really believed we were all going to die because of Y2K.
On Y2K, I was a senior in high school. I got together with my sibling because I more than anyone really thought the world was going to end. Which is so hilarious and naive, because I thought it was going to end, like, midnight Colorado time, as if the entire world revolved around Mountain Time. I feel like we did some sort of ritual dance and threw something into a fire and each screamed one word at the stroke of midnight, the thing we cared most about.
I thought for sure it was the end, like I was staring death in the face; now that I look back to it, it’s so funny! So I wanted to poke fun a little bit at myself, but also I was earnest and serious and maybe a little bit nutty at the time. So for those reasons it was a good time to set the story. I think more than anything I thought it was funny.
I was afraid, too. I bought a bunch of books about how to survive and I filled my bathtub with water. Then it was fine.
It was so fine! It was so anticlimactic! It was building up for a long time, and then literally nothing happened.
But it’s so funny, because a lot of Buster’s Mal Heart looked at how susceptible we can be to these overblown notions, and it felt so relevant to today.
It’s so hard to know at any given time, when you’re dealing with the present moment. Like how upset you should be, how apocalyptic are things really. And yet you know. speaking about our present day, it’s like do we panic now? Should we have already been panicking? There’s this feeling of not even quite knowing the alarm level. If you sound the alarm too often, does it not really mean anything? It’s hard to know.