In early 2017, director Saad Qureshi called his friend Donald Monroe and confessed he was feeling suicidal. “Donald,” he pleaded, “if we don’t make a film right now, I’m going to kill myself.” Donald, a cinematographer, agreed on the spot.
Two years later we have that film, a black-and-white, 76 minute whatchamacallit made with less than ten thousand bucks entitled A Great Lamp. Channeling the 16mm movies of the early American indie movement of the late 80s and early 90s, Qureshi’s film is a meditative, melancholy spasm of despair which somehow twists back around into a triumphant declaration of hope and survival. It focuses on three nobodies in a small North Carolina town. The first, Max (Max Wilde), is a homeless crossdresser whose bubbly attitude masks an unhealed grief towards his grandmother’s recent passing. Traipsing through alleyways in a long dress, he wheat pastes pictures of her on walls like he was a sticker bombing street artist, hoping they’ll keep her alive in the town’s collective memory. He eventually meets Howie (Spencer Bang), a well-dressed young man in a dress shirt and tie who’s traveled from Arkansas to see a rocket presumedly scheduled to fly over the town in a few day’s time. It doesn’t take long for Max to figure out that there is no rocket and that Howie left Arkansas under very different circumstances. And elsewhere, there’s Gene (Steven Maier), a sad-eyed drop-out living with his parents who pretends to get up and go to work every day at a job he secretly quit months ago. Terrified of confessing to his father who got him the job, he spends his “work hours” bumming around town, sniffing old books in bookstores, and trying to figure out how it all went south.
Much like Richard Linklater’s DIY masterpiece Slacker (1990), there’s no real story, just a procession of short vignettes surrounding a group of eccentrics as the camera travels through their community. But as these vignettes keep circling back around specifically between Max, Howie, and Gene, their hurts and scars get peeled back and they talk and heal and move on. Maybe making this movie saved Qureshi’s life. If it did, I have a feeling it’s hard-won, hard-earned optimism might save a few more, too.
We sat down with Qureshi, Monroe, and Wilde recently to ask them about the making of the film and how their own lives and melancholy worldview inspired it.
TYF: What inspired you to make a film about grief? And why a film as opposed to, say, a poem or novel?
Saad: It started when I was at the lowest point ever and called Donald that I desperately needed to make a movie, and I would drive 4 hours to his house every weekend to spend time with him, and of course while I was with him we would talk about the movie and over time we had an outline for something. Eventually I got the whole gang together and we were all going through really rough time—
Max: Man, my grandma just died, I was feeling shit.
Saad: —so making a movie was just a vehicle to be happy, as a big excuse to hang out with each other. Naturally as we made the movie, it became about hanging out with your friends as a way to survive day to day. The movie’s about grieving people because the movie is about people and if you’re a living person then your day to day is filled with grief. But Lamp is more about letting go of defining moments as the way to get rid of grief, and acknowledging that life’s just gonna be that way and the best thing you can do is to go outside and hang out with your friends, like we did. I’m hoping people will find A Great Lamp as they do that unhealthy thing we do of watching movies to cope with loneliness, but after finishing Lamp it ends up being the last movie they ever watch because they spend the rest of their lives going outside and hanging out with their friends. Oh, and it’s a movie because books and poems are lonely to make and movies aren’t.
TYF: The three main characters are all so unique and well-defined. What were their inspirations?
Saad: Going into this we all knew thematically what we were trying to achieve and the personal feelings we wanted, but the movie really is just all of us on screen. Max [Wilde] is Max—the whole film and everything they say is actually Max and they’re never lying.
Max: Everything I do and say in this movie is true to the point that I pretty much can’t let my family see it. They don’t know. It’s so uncomfortable. Lol.
Saad: Steven’s character of Gene is loosely based on my own life but heavily based on my emotional state and feelings, and Spencer’s character of Howie started from my view of myself during a really bad fallout I was currently going through with a good friend of mine as I was struggling with life shit, so that’s where Howie’s hesitation to tell people what they’re running from comes from, as well as their fear that people will leave them when they find out. But Spencer really made that character his own as we went along. I mean, everyone did.
TFY: One of the most striking things about the film is its spontaneity. How planned out was it when you began shooting? How much did you improvise?
Saad: We didn’t really write anything in this movie aside from some very specific dialogue, like when that thing talks to Max at night on the bench, or Max’s first line of dialogue and a couple other things. But the majority of this movie was framed within a very sparse outline, where we’d know like three things we had to do a day to make sure the film made sense and the rest would just be us filling time and doing whatever and most of it is heavily improvised, and if it’s not improvised then the dialogue is something we come up with literally as we arrive to the location to shoot and we just figure it out in like 2 minutes and we never did rehearsals. It’s actually a really easy and fun way to do something, I recommend it to anyone. It’s like filming movies in high school with your friends, you might have someone with the camera and someone who’s an actor and whatever but no one really cares about anyone’s roles and you’re all just throwing ideas into the ring and having a good time, and there’s no boss and no employees stressing over the boss’s vision. Movies should be fun to make so you should make them with your friends.
Max: Also everybody on this movie is a friend of mine. It’s easy to talk to my friends so improvising was just talking and hanging out with the people I love. Easy.
TYF: What were some of your other cinematic influences?
Saad: We actually didn’t ever really talk too much about other movies during this, but we all love the same movies. I mean I guess every day I would walk into my living room where all of us were sleeping and wake them up by putting on Chungking Express. Wong Kar-wai is my favorite director so I’d be surprised if some of those influences didn’t sneak in. And Donald and I did mention Godard a little before we started Lamp. But really we were all just inspired by each other. I like to tell people that my secret to doing cool things is video games and anime.
TYF: Not just movies?
Saad: Yeah. There’s a great line of dialogue in this movie stolen right from the game Demon’s Souls and the performance of that line was directed by just sending them a video of a Dark Souls character saying something and they emulated that style of speaking in the film. And anime is everywhere in here, like the opening. I mean movies too, but, you know. Movies are boring.
Max: Man, movies suck.
Saad: The best part of most movie-watching experiences is when the lights go down. As soon as the movie starts you’re usually disappointed. My goal is to keep that lights going down feeling alive as long as possible once the movie starts.
TFY: Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of the film’s production. What kind of equipment did you use? What was your total budget and production time?
Saad: We shot for 10 days. No budget. Like everyone says that and they mean like $50,000 or $100,000 but I’m being honest. We had no money. We still have no money.
Donald: I didn’t have like anything. Just a Sony FS5, one 1×1 led light, and a punk attitude.
Max: Don’t listen to Donald, we shot this movie with a potato and a rubber band.
Saad: I had a can of Glade air freshener cause we fucking needed it in that apartment. I actually brought it to Slamdance cause we still need it.
TYF: Throughout the film there are brief animated interludes, the most prominent one being the opening scene where a fish transforms into Max’s character. But there are also little micro-animations that pop up on the edges of the frame during moments of particularly strained emotion and isolation. Where did these come from?
Saad: We never discussed animation during the filming of the movie, but Max and I share similar ideas about how movies should open and the importance of how openings are handled. Honestly, I had just re-watched Pokémon: The First Movie and it starts with the villain Mewtwo floating in this void and water bubbles and stuff as he’s being created and it’s incredibly intense and beautiful. I called Max and said let’s do something like that, with Max floating in a void under water. And then Max being Max took it a lot farther. That was so much fun that we just kept doing it to accent certain moments and emphasize others that we wanted to make sure were communicated clearly to whoever is watching. Max and Donald also made a feature right after Lamp called Kill Your Landlord that requires Max to animate a lot, so it was good practice for that feature that’s still in post now.
TYF: One of the most unexpectedly powerful scenes in the movie is when Max and Howie visit a wishing fountain and discover they can literally hear people’s wishes if they spin their thrown coins three times and hold them up to their ears. How did this scene come to be?
Saad: We were thinking of a good way to get Max and Howie to go places and it just seemed like a really fun way to do it. One night Spencer suggested Howie being this guy that just goes around trying to grant wishes he finds in pennies, and it snowballed from there.
TYF: And why such a fantastical flourish in a film that prides itself on a realistic, almost documentary-like style
Saad: I mean, the movie starts with a fish transforming into a person. And either way, we don’t really care about film logic in that way. You can do literally anything in a movie. Movies are boring because the industry thinks you can’t.