Director April Mullen on Independent Film & 'Wander'
December 17, 2020
Aaron Eckhart, Tommy Lee Jones, and Heather Graham star in April Mullen's new edge-of-your-seat thriller, Wander, in which a paranoid private investigator with a troubled past is hired to investigate a suspicious death in the town of Wander. He soon becomes convinced the case is linked to the same 'conspiracy cover-up' that caused the death of his daughter.
The film fully sits in the conspiracy/psycho thriller genre. "It's such an amazing and ideal place for a director to start. Instantly, we are dealing with someone who is melding reality and imagination in front of us," Mullen says of the film's lead character, Arthur Bretnik, played by Eckhart. "Aaron was the first actor we approached — he is Arthur — we couldn't have asked for a better creative, intelligent being. He invested so much of his heart and soul into developing Arthur."
Set in the Southwest, the twists and turns of the conspiracy genre are center-stage in Wander. "Directing in this genre allows you to take some big swings. You need to establish the real world from what's going on in Arthur's mind — you can either take big swings with a heavy hand, or small, subtle tilts or pans — to be able to try new things, technically. To tell his story is such a gift for a director and this story had such a solid blueprint to explore."
From script to screen, Mullen worked closely with her long-time producing and writing partner, Tim Doiron, to develop Arthur's journey. The film's concept is rooted in Tim's personal experiences, who at the time was dealing with mental health issues including paranoia, anxiety and conspiracy theories of government surveillance. "We developed Arthur from a place of Tim's truth. The character comes from an honest place. Scripts themselves evolve every day," says Mullen. "But we embraced the changes; as actors hop on board, ideas develop — you're constantly rearranging things, but the no matter what, the core of the film stays the same."
On how collaboration alters the original screenplay, Mullen praised screenwriters saying, "I recognize that every single word in a script is connected to everything else in the film. It's my job to keep track of that. All the hard work [writers] have done, the time it takes to create, and then someone comes up behind you and scratches everything out and changes things... [I'm thankful to writers] for being open-minded and willing to collaborate."
Mullen has worked in a number of different filmmaking facets as a director, a producer, and as a writer. "It's a blessing and a curse," she says, discussing working in the independent film world. "You have absolutely nothing; a 7 person crew, but maybe a great script," she laughs, "And now you have to shoot it and shoot it so that the film makes money so that you, personally, can make another film. It's trial by fire; jumping off a diving board and being forced to swim."
Mullen began producing at a young age, hellbent on creating great original content. "You really have to believe in your own work which can be very challenging. People want products that are going to sell. Everyone wants a big blockbuster."
Developing her craft in the indie world, Mullen says she was forced to learn every aspect in the filmmaking process. "I wonder where twenty years have disappeared, but I realize it was me having a love affair with learning the craft; I've given my whole spirit to the industry, which takes longer than just focusing on one specific talent." Knowing so much about so many crew roles, Mullen says, "I can effectively communicate with every person on my crew. I know how hard each of their roles are."
The understanding has given Mullen a heightened appreciation. "It allow me to take big swings and big risks as a director. I'll throw the dice on a shot, because if there's a mistake, I have a great crew and we'll fix it, together. I've been developing my craft for 10,000 hours plus," she says. "I keep looking for a bigger sandbox."
Mullen's sandbox includes directing for television, as well. "When I transitioned, I did so easily because of TV's tight time frames. It takes 7-14 days to shoot an episode, with 12-14 hour days. You have to know exactly what you need, make all your days, and keep your eye on the clock," she says. "It's really no different than shooting an indie." Mullen appreciates working in television; "they're open to my ideas... and you can create a wish list with all the equipment you need or want. It's always a 'Yes', which is refreshing. Making an indie means making sacrifices. You want to be innovative and define your new voice as an indie director, but you're constantly handcuffed by budgetary constraints."
"TV is like summer camp," says Mullen, on the other hand. "It's always hot and summer and shiny and fun. You always have the same camp counselors, and yes, there are rules, but you respect the rules because everyone has fun. But film... film is like the Wild West! You're just parachuted in and dropped into an abyss."
Mullen's advice to screenwriters? "Network! There shouldn't be rules. If you believe in your script or project, break every rule. You can't let your ego stand in the way of a project," she says. "Sure, sometimes you have to take no for an answer, but always take that swing because if you don't believe in your project enough, nobody else will, either."
"The world is so fast and there's so much content and so many brilliant scripts floating in an industry that is working at a lightening pace. Big risks are scary, but take them."
WANDER is in Theaters, On Demand and Digital now!
Written by: Vanessa KingVanessa King is an NYC-based producer, screenwriter, and professor who has worked in development with top-level industry talent for nearly two decades. Her work as a writer has received numerous awards, having earned her recognition from industry bodies including AMPAS/Oscar’s Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship (feature) and Sony Worldwide Entertainment’s Emerging Filmmaker Program (TV Series). In 2005, she co-founded the New York Screenwriters Co-Op, New York’s only free-to-the-public screenwriting workshop with over 2000 active members. Vanessa is faculty at Gotham Writer’s Workshop (NYC) and Staffordshire University (UK), where she teaches both television and screenwriting to students, beginner to post-graduate. She recently was Showrunner of the TV pilot “Two Roads”, a concept she co-created and co-wrote for Sony’s VUE Network. Vanessa is passionate about diversity and inclusion within the industry and was a consultant on Final Draft Screenwriting Software’s Diversity and Inclusion product build. She’s a board member of the Diversity List, amplifying top scripts written by female-identifying and BIPOC writers. She is a judge for the Hip Hop Film Festival, The UCLA Graduate Screenwriter’s Showcase and The 24 Hour Film Festival. She was named one of The Huffington Post’s 13 Women To Watch and for three consecutive years, has been named to Vanity Fair’s “Downtown 100”, a list that recognizing New York’s top networkers in the entertainment industry. Originally from Canada, she lives in New York City.