“To understand my work,” David Lynch once told a bewildered moviegoer in Chicago, “you must follow the emotion. Because if you follow the buttermilk, you’ll end up going to the dairy.” The same rule of thumb could be applied to writer/director Wendy McColm’s sophomore feature effort, “Fuzzy Head,” the first thoroughly captivating cinematic work I’ve seen in 2023. In the wake of her mother’s sudden death, guilt-ridden Marla (McColm) embarks on an impressionistic journey through childhood memories fraught with trauma to make sense of the tragedy.
The dreamscape visualized here is wonderfully crafted and not without humor, thanks in part to the film’s splendid ensemble. Alicia Witt delivers perhaps the most galvanizing performance of her career as Marla’s mother, while screen veterans such as Fred Melamed, Numa Perrier and Richard Riehle are each given moments to shine. A hypnotic sequence featuring theremin music performed by Rain Phoenix is alone worth the price of admission. Yet it is the film’s achingly raw emotional truth that resonates above all else, cementing McColm’s status as a major visionary talent.
Prior to the premiere of “Fuzzy Head” this weekend at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival, McColm spoke with Cinema Femme in their first interview since completing the picture. It was an immensely enjoyable conversation that made me eager to see the film again soon—this time on the big screen.
To what extent would you say your first feature, 2018’s “Birds without Feathers,” prepared you for tackling “Fuzzy Head”?
I feel like that first film was very different in terms of its scale and the crew, so with “Fuzzy Head,” I wanted to go in a new direction. People would keep telling me, “You can’t do it the same as you did before,” and I listened to them. Weirdly enough, in the end, I did have to do everything in the same way that I did on “Birds without Feathers.” That formula had worked, so I decided to go back to using a smaller crew that champions art.
Does having a smaller crew make it easier to have everyone on the same page?
Yeah. It’s also really important that you’re surrounded by people who have imagination and just want to explore. They’re not confined into a box and are ready to go on the journey with you in order to see what happens versus clinging to preconceived notions of how to make a movie and get it done. I direct commercials, so I’m not incapable of doing it how it’s “supposed” to be done. I love doing it that way when I have a ton of money. When you don’t, you have to kind of make some stuff up to make it happen.
When I posted on Instagram about Alicia Witt’s great work with David Lynch a while back, I mentioned how excited I was to see her performance in “Fuzzy Head,” having already admired the audacity of your previous feature. Alicia thanked me in the comments and called you “utterly brilliant.”
Oh wow! The funny thing is after “Birds” came out and everyone kept comparing it to Lynch, I honestly had not seen a David Lynch film. So I went to see one of his movies at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and was like, “I’m going to have to see what’s going on here.” And yeah, once I saw his work, I was like, “Oh, okay, I get it.” What’s odd is that, although I hadn’t seen his work before “Birds”, we are both so into that subconscious, healing aspect of life, and that’s what would connect you on certain ways of seeing things. I see things a certain way, and that informs how I live my life.
Every time I think I’m making something normal, someone’s always like, “This isn’t normal,” and I’m like, “What?! This is how I live my life! What are you talking about?” My work just illustrates how I see things and I think Lynch kind of goes with what he feels and sees too. That’s me assuming that. I don’t know him personally, though I would love to. It’s not like there is a certain genre or topic that is drawing me to this material. What is within me is just coming out in the work, and I’m kind of surprised by it too. In the end, I look at it and go, “Oh, that’s what I’m saying, that’s what I’m feeling.” I do like all types of genres, and I’m kind of hoping the next one is a very straightforward comedy, but we’ll see.
There were absurdist moments in both of your features that made me laugh out loud. I feel that both you and Lynch draw upon your intuition to link seemingly disparate elements in your work, resulting in a cumulative emotional impact.
What a compliment! Thank you so much. I think that feeling is a huge aspect of my work, whether it’s a comedy or even in commercials I do. I just think that feeling is removed from our society and viewed as wrong. We should be able to feel what we want in life and feel safe to do so, but oftentimes we don’t. That’s what I have felt, and I’ve always been able to feel freely through film. I would just hope that anybody watching it could either feel this release or have an opportunity to feel, to let go for a moment—even if it’s the weirdest feeling they’ve ever had in their life.
They may feel confused or angry that they’re confused or feel sad because the movie is reminding them of their own life. I would hope that they would be able to let go of conformity and allow themselves to feel for just a bit without any judgement. I wish we could all freely live life that way. It is such a healing, freeing way to live, but it’s hard to live like that in society. Hopefully when you go to the movies, you’re allowed to sit in that theater and let go. I’m kind of trusting the audience to allow that for this film.
The moment that moved me to tears was an encounter between you and Alicia on a rooftop in which she essentially tells you that her behavior is not your fault.
I really appreciate you telling me that. Alicia Witt is obviously very talented. I think that everybody who came on this movie had a piece of the story that they connected with pretty deeply, which was beautiful. Alicia told me that she related to her character through own her mother, and my mother was this way too. When someone tells you something like that, whether it’s you feeling that strong moment on the roof or Alicia telling me that onset, it makes you as an artist and as a person feel like maybe some people can get something from this. Maybe some people will relate.
When you go through something traumatic that involves family dynamics or abuse or anything like that, you do feel alone, so to have people say these things, little by little you start to feel like, “Wow, everybody is going through these things,” and it’s a beautiful thing. Having Alicia come with her experience and totally transform into this mother character was enthralling to watch. She is the nicest person on the planet, and to see her morph into this lovely version of the character was absolutely stunning. What an honor it was to work with someone who throws themselves into something like that.
How involved were you in the editing process to get the pacing exactly right?
Oh god, thanks! I was watching the film last night and thinking, “What have you done?” [laughs] Maybe other people can relate who have made a movie and had to watch it 10,000 times. There was one time I watched it and thought, “Yes, this is the movie I wanted to make!” You’ve just got to remember that in the back of your head, or else you’re just going to watch it again and go, “Ooo, why did I do that?” There were a lot of assistant editors coming and going throughout. The pandemic stopped us, and there was a big lull, but I ultimately edited the film. Our executive producer, Frank Oz, gave me a lot of notes and helped me in sculpting the final picture.
There was a moment involving a bloody hand, and he sent me several emails about why he doesn’t like those kinds of shots in movies. As a result, those shots ultimately got cut out. Having an EP that really cares is important. Frank is a skilled filmmaker and a great mentor. He’ll say he doesn’t like things, but if you’re like, “No no no, this has gotta stay,” he’ll let it go—unless he really, really hates something. Then he’ll let you know. There were a few things in the movie that he definitely convinced me to cut out. I’m still 50/50 about the bloody hand, but there was actually a different ending to the movie, and he convinced me not to end the movie that way. Now that I am kind of out of the whole era of my life that informed “Fuzzy Head”, I watched the film and was like, “Thank god he told me to do that. It was the right move.”
There was enough intrigue beat by beat to keep me engrossed while carrying me toward the climactic payoff.
Thank god! I have been just trying to get it there. The film was supposed to be ready last year but I needed to take a break from it, and with these smaller films, you get that luxury. With commercials or any project with a bigger budget, you don’t. It is a luxury to get to sit with your art, and I just let it go for six months. I knew that it wasn’t finished and that something was missing. What was missing was that little glue to carry the viewer from one moment to the next, which is a crucial part of the journey toward the payoff. It’s like the journey one takes toward an awakening. If you quit halfway, you won’t get the payoff of a cathartic release. The journey of life is not all easy peasy.
I decided I wanted to finish the movie in New Orleans, which is where I originally wanted to film it, so I drew from inspiration there. I initially wanted the movie to have more classic oldies on the soundtrack, and I happened to be working with one of my friends who does a lot of synth music under the name Current Pathways. He and I had recorded some stuff and were messing around a year prior. Speaking of intuition, I looked back in our files while selecting music for the film and found that it was a perfect fit. We also ended up cutting six more minutes out of the film, which made it more tight, so that’s how it kind of came to be. It was a process, for sure. The scenes were definitely all ordered in line with the script, with only one exception. But the original tones and musical score from Current Pathways is basically what I think glued it all together.
The soundtrack is endlessly fascinating, from its excerpts of Penderecki—a favorite composer of Lynch—to a haunting cover of Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough’s “Toyland,” which I first heard in the Laurel and Hardy classic, “March of the Wooden Soldiers.”
When I’m editing, I occasionally need something to keep me going, so I’ll just put a song in and see how it makes me feel. Sometimes they stay in the movie. When I need music for an indie-type project, I look for royalty-free music, so a lot of the songs you hear in “Fuzzy Head” are royalty-free, which makes it easier in the end. I wish I could be like, “That song was from my childhood,” but it was, in fact, Frank who suggested “Toyland.” If the film was all about me, that would suck. There are pieces from my life and my experiences in the film, but I love listening to other people and hearing what drives their emotions.
Your film’s executive producer Rhianon Jones and co-star Numa Perrier were both previously interviewed at Cinema Femme about their own essential work. What would you like to say about your collaborations with them?
Numa and I met at the Tribeca Film Festival many years ago, and I guess from there, she was a fan. This was back in the day before she made “Jezebel,” which blew her up. She is just soaring through the sky right now and is such a creative force. Numa decided that she wanted to come see “Birds without Feathers” when it premiered at the ArcLight. She was so cute and said that she was so inspired by the film. After she made “Jezebel,” I told her, “Hey, I think I would love if you played my sister in this film I’m making,” she was just like, “Yes!” There are so many great things about Numa. She is such a unique human being, and such a pleasure to be around and be inspired by. She has been championing me as a friend and as a creative, and I can’t thank her enough for doing that. We exchange messages back and forth while we’re on projects, and I try to give her inspiration. I feel like it’s good to have friends who inspire you, keep you going and keep you honest in your work.
Rhianon Jones of Neon Heart Productions is one of the only people who jumped on this project. I asked so many people to help me start this film. So many people who read the script were like, “Unless you have a billion dollars, I really doubt seeing how you’ll make it happen.” It was a very big script, and there was a lot of stuff in it that’s not in the movie. It was such a big vision, and I’m happy where it got, especially for the budget that we had. I’ve never liked making a movie and being like, “…but the budget!” I try to make a billion dollar movie even if I don’t have a billion dollars, that’s kind of the goal. So Rhianon jumped right onboard. We had a mutual friend that I held a Q&A for in LA, and luckily, he talked me up and she said she wanted to meet with me. When I met her outside the screening, she was so cool and simply said, “Yeah, I’ve heard of you, we’ll meet.” Honestly, I love a blunt person, I really do. I love that sort of straightforward attitude. Rhianon uplifts many femme-presenting directors, and I have been blessed enough to be one of them.
Not only did she come on to produce, help me financially and basically help me make the movie, she’s also creative. She’s written several scripts and is a creative force as well. To be surrounded by these people is so inspiring. Rhianon also had me come to upstate New York and there was a little talk about the glue that was needed for the film, not just in terms of its soundtrack. Afterward, she was like, “I don’t know why I made you come out to stay for a few days while we looked at the film. Nothing really changed!”, but it actually proved to be very important. There were moments where she was like, “Why are you doing this in the film?”, and I’d be like, “Just give me the gist of what you’re feeling and I’ll put it in a voice-over.” It’s so beautiful to have someone be able to articulate their feelings about what they’re needing when it’s not in a film. I am hugely grateful to her for contributing that creativity and honesty as well.
It must’ve been great to have both Rhianon and Frank not mincing words with you in their feedback.
Oh absolutely. I’m also glad that they weren’t just silent. No thanks. I’m like, “Hey, please contribute!” I love being around strong people.
I’d also love to hear about your collaboration with Cooper Oznowicz, who was so effective onscreen in “Birds without Feathers,” and here served as a producer in addition to acting in the film.
He’s like my brother now. He’s the go-to guy. Numa has seen him jump out of an Uber before. I’ll be like, “We forgot this!”, and he’s like, “I’ve got it!” Cooper is the only one who is literally going through all the crap with me, and that’s a producer you want by your side at all times. He came on “Birds without Feathers” as a PA or something. He didn’t even have a part in the movie, actually, and I wrote the part for him. When he wasn’t onset, he was getting everything we needed to make the movie happen.
You’re a fool if you think you can make a feature on your own. You need that family who believes in the vision, and he’s one of those people. After “Birds without Feathers,” we’ve written a few TV series scripts and he’s working on his own feature now. He’s a great screenwriter. So when it came time to make “Fuzzy Head,” of course the first person I called is the first person I called for the last movie: Cooper. He has turned into a great producer and we have all come up so much since the first film. It’s really only the beginning.
My wife, Cinema Femme founder Rebecca Martin Fagerholm, always loves to end her interviews by asking one of Ava DuVernay’s favorite questions, “What do you hope people see in your film?”
Themselves, that’s all. I just want the audience to be inspired or feel like they can keep going, to feel their fire, to feel their healing—to feel, to feel anything that they need. That’s it, that’s all I hope. My wish is for them to be able to feel something more than they have felt before they’ve seen the movie. I just want that so badly for people.
“Fuzzy Head” screens at 10pm MT on Sunday, January 22nd, and at 3:15pm MT on Tuesday, January 24th at the Treasure Mountain Inn as part of the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival. For tickets, click here.