Weekender: Director Niels Mueller discusses new film, time at Tufts, love for cinema

Cooper J. Friedman (left) and Niels Mueller (right) are pictured while filming “Small Town Wisconsin” (2020).
Cooper J. Friedman (left) and Niels Mueller (right) are pictured while filming “Small Town Wisconsin” (2020). Courtesy Clark Blomquist

It’s a Saturday night. You and your friend who lives a few doors down mosey on over to Curtis Hall to film a pilot episode for a TV show that the two of you spitballed into existence. Neither of you have any experience directing actors nor filming them. That’s fine. You’re not under too much pressure. After all, you’re working with non-professional Tufts actors who answered an ad you put out for the roles. It may seem inconsequential to you now but, down the road, this fun experiment leads to five careers in Hollywood

A pleasant pipe dream to aspiring film and media studies majors, this is director Niels Mueller’s (LA’83) real origin story. 

The Daily got the chance to speak to Mueller about everything cinema — from his childhood memories of watching international films in a local theater to his new project, “Small Town Wisconsin” (2020).

Recalling his beginnings at Tufts, Mueller spoke fondly. 

“I didn’t realize how spoiled I was having the tremendous actors that we had at Tufts until I came to [the University of California, Los Angeles] film school and the actors weren’t as fantastic,” he said. “These were the first actors I actually worked with and I didn’t know how to direct and they were teaching me and Gary [Winick] when we shot a TV series at TUTV called ‘Tracks Inn.’ It was a hotel along the railroad track … that runs right past campus and we thought, ‘Okay, well that will explain the sound we will hear when trains go rushing by.’ Oliver Platt was behind the desk of the hotel, Hank Azaria played a guest twice … there’s another wonderful actor, [Andrew] Polk, who played the bellhop, and then Kayla Black — another excellent actor at Tufts — played a permanent resident of the hotel but we were all kind of teaching each other, really. I have a very strong [memory] … the first time we shot an episode of the series, Gary and I thought we could do it all with three cameras … we were calling out directions … and it was a disaster, you know. We had never done it. We didn’t rehearse the camera moves, we didn’t know how! So, Gary and I just looked at each other and we just started laughing. We knew we were gonna have to re-do the whole thing but that was how you learn — you fail.”

Since the “Tracks Inn” days, Hank Azaria has gone on to win four Emmys for his work on “The Simpsons” (1989–), Oliver Platt has been nominated for a Golden Globe, a Tony and multiple Emmys, Andrew Polk has appeared in hit shows like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (2017–) and “House of Cards” (2013–18), Gary Winick directed “Tadpole” (2002) and “13 Going on 30” (2004) and Niels Mueller has directed the Cannes-screened “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” (2004) and “Small Town Wisconsin.” A whole stable of talent, to say the least. 

“Small Town Wisconsin” recently had its U.S. premiere at the 36th Annual Boston Film Festival.

The film follows Wayne Stobierski (David Sullivan), a Wisconsinite and divorced father from a small town, working part-time jobs to care for himself and Tyler (Cooper J. Friedman) — his son he rarely sees. Due to Wayne’s alcoholism and lifestyle, his ex-wife Deidra (Tanya Fischer) wins full custody of their son. After finding out that Deidra has imminent plans to move to Arizona with her new husband and Tyler, Wayne takes his son into big-city Milwaukee for one last adventure for Tyler to remember his father.

Layered into the story is a meditation on addiction, desperation and misguided nostalgia — the Cerberus-like foe that haunts America’s Heartland. 

Discussing these ailments plaguing the Midwest, Mueller said, “There’s this misguided longing for an America that once was … on a couple of levels. One, because you just can’t go back. The past is the past. We’re always evolving and moving forward. But also, I think there’s often this idea that the past was perfect. No, the past was filled with problems, and we’ve moved forward as a society and made, I think, strides on many fronts … But that said, within the context of this film … and the social and economic struggles at the center of this, hopefully, very entertaining piece with a lot of humor and heart… there is an underpinning of desperation. I am asking the question, what exactly is going wrong in America’s Heartland? Why is there a rural addiction crisis? What lies behind that? Things were already starting to come apart in the ‘70s … certainly by the ‘80s. So you’d almost have to harken way back. And again, if you actually do harken back, there are all kinds of other problems that are part of that [past] society. So again, it’s that yearning for something that, on some level, is completely impossible and that you don’t truly want. We need to move forward.”

In terms of the film’s style, “Small Town Wisconsin” shares some similarities to the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and early 1950s. 

One scene in particular exudes the essence of this era. As the emotional buildup of the film reaches its peak, we see Wayne, Tyler and their cousin Matt (Braden Andersen) at a professional baseball stadium, making their way to the front of the line. The success of the trip feels like it comes down to how this one father-son experience goes. This turns every moment leading up to the beginning of the game from mundane to dread-inducing. So many things could go wrong and we know that Wayne often can’t stop himself from making crucial mistakes. 

“[My] film is not … overtly political … but it does have that layer of social commentary to it and that’s what the neorealists did so well. [They just told] these stories of common people and looking at their everyday lives but you understood the whole situation they were living in within that time period and that country and that context, and I kind of felt like we’ve succeeded at that with ‘Small Town Wisconsin.’”

Many of Mueller’s memories of youth revolve around film. 

“My father would take my older brother and me to go see films at UWM — University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. They put up films from abroad and that was really what started really sucking me into films, watching some of these foreign films that I really didn’t understand but they had me leaning in and [thinking,] ‘wow, this is using film in a very different way’.” 

One story that still manages to get a laugh out of Mueller features his parents and their differing taste in film.

“My parents would go to the movies a lot,” he said. “I remember being at home when they went out to see ‘A Clockwork Orange’ — the Kubrick film — and they came home and my mother was not in a good mood because she had walked out very quickly. It was too violent for her and my father said, ‘Okay, I’ll be right out,’ but he was so engrossed [that] my mother just sat out in the lobby eating popcorn until the film was over. Usually, they enjoyed the films together but that one was too much for my mother.”

Stanley Kubrick is one of the three all-time directors that Mueller said he would want to share a meal with. The other two are Werner Herzog and Yasujirō Ozu. While Mueller was in the process of making his first feature film, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” he had the pleasure of meeting Herzog.

“[Herzog] had me over to his house,” he said. “He had the same agent that I had right before I was going to shoot ‘The Assassination of Richard Nixon’ and I asked my agent, ‘Would you ask Werner Herzog if he’d read my script? I would love to talk to him and get advice before I shoot.’ It was a tremendous moment for me when my agent called me up and said, ‘Werner read the script, and he is inviting you over for lunch.’ That was tremendous. And he actually came to set; he came while we were filming a sequence that was very involved with squibs [and] gunshots on a jetliner. He was looking at the monitor and that’s a moment I’ll always remember because Sean Penn’s first take was just unbelievable, everything about it. You could see the excitement on Werner Herzog’s face, too, as we finished that first take. It was just so perfect.” 

Speaking on the experience of directing actors like Sean Penn, Don Cheadle and Naomi Watts in his directorial debut, Mueller remembered the nervous excitement he had. 

“With ‘The Assassination of Richard Nixon,’ I was really given a Cadillac to drive the first time out. I feel nervous anytime I’m gonna take on a big project. I hadn’t done it before… and I was going to be working with Sean [Penn] and Don Cheadle, who had far more experience than I did with making films. But that said, I had the great benefit, on ‘The Assassination of Richard Nixon,’ of the financing falling apart for four years straight, after I met Sean. So I had four years to get to know Sean. We’d get together periodically and talk about the film and sometimes [read] scenes out loud. We got comfortable with each other. And I will quickly say as an aside … Sean is a very rare actor in Hollywood … I had financing behind me when I met him, and he said, within the first hour or so of us meeting, ‘I want to make this film with you.’ And he shook my hand, and then the financing fell apart. 9/11 happened, which, as you can imagine…”

The film tells the story of a man planning and then attempting to hijack a plane.

“Financing became more difficult after 9/11, as did the practicality of shooting at an airport. I called Sean and I asked him if he still wanted to make the film with me. And he said, ‘I shook your hand.’ … ‘I will make this film with you.’ Just very rare.”

“On [the] first day of shooting ‘The Assassination of Richard Nixon’ the first shot was Don and Sean walking … and it’s … a tracking shot as they’re walking toward [a] garage. And, you know, one of your jobs as a director is call ‘action’ and ‘cut’. Well, I kept forgetting to call ‘cut’ because I was walking alongside the cameras. Here’s, you know, Sean Penn and Don Cheadle … saying these words that I’d written with Kevin Kennedy, my writing partner, and it’s just kind of overwhelming … I’m a big fan of both of their work. They’re just such tremendous actors, but then I said, ‘Okay. All right. You’re a part of this process. Remember to call ‘cut.’”

Remembering to call “cut” nears the top of the list of best pieces of advice an aspiring director could get. However, the first piece of advice Mueller would give is to take advantage of the many filmmaking resources that are available to everyone in a way that they weren’t back when he was starting out. 

 “[Write] a script. If you’re really passionate about something, it’s going to choose you to do it. [It’s not like,] ‘As much I would like to just go to medical school right now, I really feel like I have to do this’ … Beyond writing a script, which is exactly what I’d do if I wanted to be a writer or director … you guys have technology available to you that I did not have coming out of Tufts. With digital technology, we can make really good-looking films that are technically very high quality. You can do it and do it on a budget, so I also say, ‘Go out and make the films.’ Youth is a plus in this business. If you come out and you’ve got a great script, you’ll get a job … If you have a great script that speaks to a demographic that networks are interested in, you can leapfrog past everybody with all their experience out here. So think about that but then really go for it.”

As for what the future holds, Mueller said his career path is often filled with uncertainty. Still, he embraces this unknown. 

“What I like about filmmaking is that it’s project-to-project, so it’s not like you’re putting 40, 50 years doing the same thing over and over again. I’m always interested and curious to explore something new. But you have to be prepared for uncertainty, so my future has always been uncertain. But I’m okay with that. Like I mentioned I’m putting together a pitch of a TV show based on a very successful novel. I won’t mention the title. I have hopes for that. I’m writing something of my own, that I hope to make at some point, not in too long.”

Mueller concluded by offering a final bit of wisdom:

“When I first started writing after film school … I was writing to get to the next scene as opposed to letting the characters start to just live … it’s almost the same thing I said about directing — be ready to throw out all that preparation you’ve done. Because the great thing is … when you can actually start hearing [your characters], they may take you in a different direction than you imagine and then you adjust. To me, [writing is] always a mysterious process. You have to kind of follow your muse or your own instinct on that.”