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Charles Mudede: Zoo Story
By Andy Spletzer
January 19, 2007 - 8:21 PM PST

"All sorts of crazy stuff. It was really off the charts."

Okay, four years. So since before the motorcycle accident, back when he was still in good times.

You know, actually, it was right about... maybe it was five years before because... because, because Happy Horseman talked about it happening, about meeting him when he was already in bad condition. So there was this whole other part of his life that involved a medical history and could have been connected quite easily with the death in the barn. We couldn't say he was into more than just horse sex, he was into a lot of crazy stuff. We couldn't verify this, so we didn't bring it in. We just decided to leave it as, "What could we be confident about in his life?" And another thing we could not be confident about was that he abused himself really badly.

I'm assuming that is more than just the metaphor for masturbation. Self-flagellation?

All sorts of crazy stuff. It was really off the charts. It really was. The guy had nerve damage and all this stuff.

And abused himself with drugs also?

Yes, according to the interviews. That's what they said. But again, that's something we couldn't verify, so we didn't want to deal with that. What we could say was we knew where he worked, and we could verify that. We knew who he worked for, and we could verify that. We knew he had horses that he kept, and we could verify that. We knew he had family, we could go into the birth and death certificates and verify that.

If you look at the film, it takes a very fictional mode and so we had to never, ever speculate because we're already doing this crazy thing to begin with. Everything that happens, everything that we shot had to be exactly what they said, and then we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted on top of that.

Were you able to see any of the medical reports?

There's a great sense if you go through a lot of the material, and we had a great research team for this film, I think that what you find is that the official bodies like the King County Medical Examiner, the Enumclaw hospital, and others, all they wanted [was] for this person to get out of their system. The minute he was in it they had to deal with it. The only thing they wanted to do was move him to the next department. Get him out of there.

Take the most basic notes possible.

Absolutely, because once they figured out how he died, the last thing they wanted to do was to sit around in their office and think about the media attention that was bound to follow this case. When you go to the reports you get the sense of brevity and not much detail taken as to what happened to him. It was like, "It's conclusive. It's a ruptured colon. He was fucking a horse. What more do you want to know about this? Get it out of my office!" That was sort of the attitude from place to place, so when you see the reports, you'd be shocked because it's just a couple of lines, or just two words.

What time was he dropped off at the hospital?

Early in the morning.

Early in the morning like 5 a.m.? Or was it more like 2 a.m.?

According to the interview, it was somewhere around 5 a.m. when he said he had to go to the hospital.

How many people dropped him off?

One. Happy Horseman dropped him off.

Were you able to see that footage from the security camera?

No, they confiscated all their tapes. All that stuff is gone.

It seems like what I remember from the newspaper article differs a little bit from what is shown in the movie.

Ours is accurate. We know exactly what happened that night.

Is that from Happy Horseman?

Three perspectives. The issue was, the paper said he was dumped off at the hospital by a guy who split. He was dumped, but Happy Horseman argues that he brought in his wallet and he left it there with them to figure out who he is. The newspaper said he didn't do that. He says he did do that and that's how they found out. The newspaper said that they found out through the camera, and that's also true.

Who all was involved? Was it just the fatally injured man and the trucker, or was there a third man?

No, the other guy was asleep in the barn. [Laughing] He has that wonderful line: "That was my downfall. I had some beer, I had some food, and I went to the barn and fell asleep. That was my downfall."

So there were those two guys, and Mr. Hands eventually announces that he has to go to the hospital. So Happy Horseman drives him.

But he was walking around, he had put his clothes back on, etc. So they were sitting there for a while?

The way we shot it is that they were watching a movie. I think the way it might have happened was, there were two things. He was just doing shit and nobody was paying very much attention to what he was doing because he was doing his own thing. Mr. Hands called out to Happy Horseman. When audiences watch it they'll realize that there was a panic. There were several possibilities as to what happened. Everything might have been done wrong, but nobody was in the wrong.

Another major character in the film is the horse rescuer. What exactly is a "horse rescuer"?

Yes, it's weird, but Andy, this is absolutely amazing. She and her husband, whose name is John Edwards [laughs], they're both a wonderful couple. They run a non-profit that has sponsorship from guys like [football player] Warren Moon. What they do is they go out and find neglected horses and they adopt them. No, they take control of them and they put them up for adoption, for people to adopt. Some of these horses are badly damaged. We tell the story of one who was blinded by blackberry thorns.

They could just as well be Hollywood stunt horses or horses that were led to have sex with men.

The problem was that there was no infrastructure to deal with this. The cops were like, "Where do we turn to deal with these bloody horses that were part of this sex ring?" And somebody suggested that this horse rescuer would be the best fit. They called her up and asked her if she dealt with abused horses. "Yes." So they said, "Well, we have a sexually abused horse. Can you come and take care of him?" That's how she got dragged in.

They were desperate to have someone take over the mess. Society had no equipment, no mechanism, no institution, no laws, no instruments to deal with a problem of that kind, so they had to make it up.

That's interesting. If there were no laws then ranch hand didn't own the horse, it was owned by somebody else. Why were they able to take it away?

Everybody there was so devastated by the death that when an authority appeared they just, in a way, maybe in their own situation, were happy to have somebody show up and say, "I'm bringing sense to here." And she had to play that role.

And part of that could have been, "I'm going to take away the bad memories by taking the horse away."

Yes, and besides, she was working with the family and it was their property. It was their estate. Rather, it was their son's estate. She was authorized by the family to do this. It wasn't completely out of her realm. Only in working with the family was it legitimate.

Tell me more about the choice to use actors and reenactments, and are you worried that that might lead to some confusion?

No, that was a very early choice. That was a very early decision about how we didn't want to make a documentary in the traditional sense. We approached the participants with this very idea, like we said to Jenny Edwards, "You're going to play yourself in this film. You're going to reenact rescuing the horse yourself, and recounting it to the audience as you're acting with actors about how you got there." Would she accept this? Or would she say, "This is mocking me! This is mocking my efforts as a horse rescuer!" But not only did she do it, but her husband played a role.

What did he play?

He played himself, John Edwards. We had another person, an actual member of the group, Coyote, reenacting leaving his mother. He says, "This is how I left my mother," so we got an actor to play the scene out. That was sort of fun. That was the element that was coming closest to Iranian cinema. That's what I told THINKFilms when they were looking at it. I was like, "This is going to be a lot like Iranian filmmaking back in the 90s."

Before Kiarostami discovered video.

Yes, before that, when there was fluidity between fiction and fact. Everybody loved them, but nobody ever took the way they were moving between fictional mode and documentary mode so easily. What was the one where the director finds the guy who was arrested for pretending to be him and makes him play the role of his own impostor in a film version of the crime?

I think that was Makhmalbaf.

Yes, it was Makhmalbaf, but Kiarostami directed the film.

Right. It was Close-Up. [A similar strategy was used in Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence - Marlow]

Yes. Those strategies and those kinds of games... I mean, in a sense, it's kind of shameless that we're doing this. And when Jenny Edwards goes on and plays herself, that's Iranian right there. All I have got to say is that we're late. It's a decade later that we're actually employing Iranian film strategies for documentary purposes. Is it a mockumentary? No, it's not. It's not mocking.

It brings up the question of the spirit of the truth.

It is about the spirit of the truth. It is. Because the spirit of the truth is that there was a moment that the Internet allowed them to have a kind of paradise of freedom. The eye of God was not there, they could run around and do whatever they want. Every weekend there was a sense of happiness. Then this hit and it was all gone. So the spirit was Paradise Lost, right? That to me was the spirit of it that we tried to capture. Instead of the documentary truth, we tried to capture the spirit of the truth, precisely.

With that theme, it becomes a necessity to be non-judgmental, or even to be on the side of the group.

It's too easy to be judgmental. And they were, according to the law, doing nothing wrong, so the cops went in there looking for other animals. The law in the state of Washington said that you couldn't abuse an animal that was smaller than you, so you couldn't abuse a cat or a chicken. Then they could throw you in jail. A horse? That's fine. And so they went on the farm to try to find other animals that might have been abused. They almost had this idea that they might have had to kill chickens if they found out they were abused. But they didn't abuse chickens. They were only interested in large animals, in bulls and horses, and so they weren't breaking the law.

One of the funniest reports I've read recently was the press release THINKFilm put out saying that they picked up Zoo after watching only five minutes of footage. It's really interesting because it almost gives them an out in terms of the subject matter. But that didn't stop people from criticizing them for picking up the movie that nobody really had seen.

I thought it was funny that they said that, too. But it's true, they only saw five minutes of it! [Laughing] They're not lying. It's quite true. They saw a teaser trailer, five minutes, and they bought it. We had about 30 minutes of the film in rough form at the time.

How long ago was it that THINKFilm came in?

THINKFilm came in... in October. Which is insane, because basically they came in and then we shot the film in October, just three months ago.

After having worked on it already and shot some stuff.

Yes, we did preliminary stuff in September. They saw that preliminary work in September and they bought it. And then we shot in October. And then we got it to Sundance by November 5th. [Laughing] Sorry, it's insane. I just realized that this stuff is not old. This stuff is still fresh. All these people were just recently being shot. The advantage was that the script had been, all the stuff, the recording, all that had been developed and done. That was the real advantage. We knew exactly what we were going to do, so when we went into October we were not full of questions and uncertainty.

So you had the spine already.

Oh yeah. All of that was done.

Do you think THINKFilm will give Zoo a theatrical run?

I don't know what they're exactly planning and I don't want to speak for them. They've been so good. To be honest, they took this film from a very rough stage and they were interested in the ideas. They really were, from the start.

What are your expectations for Sundance with this movie?

I think when people see it, they're going to be surprised. When I think of the work that Joe [Shapiro] put in, and that Sean [Kirby] put in, I think people will be very impressed with the quality. I'm confident about that.

Do you have a sense about what people are expecting? Or what they think it might be?

No, I don't know, but as a film critic, I think about the critics, oddly enough. I want to see what they're going to say. This is so bizarre. I know I write to an audience, but like I was with Police Beat, I'm going to be thinking about the critics!

The printed record of the movie.

It's like what the sound engineer at Bad Animals was saying, is that you start taking interest in the characters and the incident itself takes a backseat. If that happens then that would be a victory, and I think that is going to happen. If it doesn't, then we failed.

back to articles >>>

"The Internet made it possible."
"We do have some theories about his death."
"All sorts of crazy stuff. It was really off the charts."

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Andy Spletzer
A film critic, filmmaker, and now a film programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival, Andy Spletzer has recently joined the "blogosphere" with Spletz-O-Rama. In his spare time he studies hobos, robots, pirates and Vikings.

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January 26, 2007. Include Me Out: Interview with Farley Granger by Jonathan Marlow

January 25, 2007. Grindhouse: Chapter Four - The 1960's by Eddie Muller

January 19, 2007. Charles Mudede: Zoo Story by Andy Spletzer

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January 19, 2007. Micha X. Peled: The Lives of the Sweatshop Youth by Hannah Eaves

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