Interview: Director Geoff Marslett and Neko Case talk about new movie ‘Quantum Cowboys’

Neko Case makes her acting debut in Geoff Marslett’s ‘Quantum Cowboys’

Jul 18, 2022

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Psychedelic cacti and locomotives in the sky are but a few of the Western-upending notions Geoff Marslett puts forth in Quantum Cowboys. The physics-student-turned-director/animator’s new movie jumbles timelines and multiverses, shifts from live action to rotoscope, and gives its Indigenous heroes free range to hogtie cowboy and Indian cliches.

Challenging as it can be, Quantum Cowboys won the audience choice award at the Champs Elysees Film Festival in Paris earlier this summer. Its tone and humor are thankfully as warped as its timelines, which will win over even the most befuddled viewers in the same way it beckoned legends to its cast. Among the latter: French new wave icon Anna Karina in her final role, Gary Farmer (Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man), Lily Gladstone (Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon), and musicians like John Doe (of X) and Neko Case (in her acting debut). There’s also songwriter and producer Howe Gelb (of Giant Sands), who co-wrote Quantum Cowboys with Marslett and cameos as a country singer who dies at the hands of protagonist Frank (Twilight and Dark Winds’ Kiowa Godron), after which the latter spirals into a trippy odyssey through time, live action and animation, and vast swaths of the 1870s Arizona desert.

Over Zoom, Marslett told us about working with both veterans like Karina and emerging actresses like Gladstone and Case; arthouse cinema’s current hurdles; and how Marvel gets multiverses all wrong. He also shared lively banter with Case, who also logged on and not only described how it felt to begin acting on such an ambitious project, but also which dynamic directing duo once asked her to audition for a would-be Best Picture winner, before arguing why it’s high time to spur the Western toward new, more inclusive plains.

Under the Radar (Kyle Mullin): Neko, what was it like to make your acting debut with this film?

Neko Case: I felt really supported. But terrified I was going to ruin it. Kiowa and John [Way, who plays Bruno in the film] were so gracious. We did it so many times, or seemed to. And everyone was freezing, and exhausted. But everybody was so present, and it was so much fun. I almost wouldn’t act again, though. Because you don’t want to ruin that, when it happens that wonderfully. This film, to me, was a really big deal. Some of my favorite actors are in it.

Geoff Marslett: I was lucky to get a great cast. One that endured cold nights. There’s no way this film is going to make any of us rich, so we were making it because we loved it. Lily and John just tramped around Europe with me for two weeks, so they must not have hated it too much.

UTR: How was the Euro-tour?

GM: At a festival in Paris we were part of an American indie competition. They give this amazing platform to small American films— with screenings at historic theatres, and a great cinephile audience. The festival in Munich is Germany’s second largest, after Berlinale. There were a few American films there, but they were different festivals with different crowds.

UTR: It must be interesting to learn about foreign markets while the American box office is in such a downturn.

GM: I think the issue of people not going to theatres is global, but worse in the U.S. When COVID first hit, and large-scale production became so hard, part of me hoped it would be like a return to the 90s. That indie movies would regain a big foothold. But many champions of smaller films collapsed. SXSW used to play all kinds of challenging stuff. This year, they had 12 A24 films. Which is great, but many of those movies are going to play in small town Mississippi later. So it’s nice to see major European festivals not caving so much. I’m not sure how sustainable that will be, but I’m happy to go and have a few hundred people at each of my movie’s screenings. People stuck around for the Q&A’s and everything! [Laughs].

UTR: Did those audiences ask you anything interesting?

GM: There were some PhD physics students at one screening. They invited us to come speak to their class. That’s not the usual audience you’re going to get. And because this was Anna Karina’s final film, we met some of her friends while we were in Paris. There were quite a few older French cinema folks asking questions about her.

UTR: Not many directors get to field questions about working with Anna Karina.

GM: Yeah, I was lucky to work with some of my heroes on this really strange film. Some people will want to see it just because of the cast. I wrote the Linde character for Lily Gladstone. And I’m glad I got her when I did, because she’s a lead in the new Scorsese movie. It’s her, DiCaprio and De Niro— and once that’s out, it’d be much harder for a film of our size to get her. We went through Gary’s management and got a yes, which we weren’t expecting. Then once you get a few names like that it becomes an anchor, and others will be more willing to come on. I wrote the Anna Karina role for her, but she passed away partway through.

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UTR: Were you a big fan?

GM: It’s hard to think of a bigger star, at least for cinephiles and in the French new wave. Howe and I, who have been friends for a long time, co-wrote this together. I used to study physics. And we wanted to write about multiworlds – this is going to be a long answer to a simple question [laughs]. But there are a lot of movies about multiworlds, that only use it to have five Spider-Men. That’s not how multiworlds work so much. I wanted to write about how every time a person experiences anything, they create their own individual universe, which is competing with anyone else’s who shared the experience.

So I wanted a character who makes sense of all these universes. Anna came to mind, because you see her in these weird scenes in Alphaville [Karina plays the programmer of a sentient computer in that Jean-Luc Godard 1965 sci-fi noir classic]. She gave that role such gravity and grace. So I wrote the character of Memory for her. But she had cancer and passed away. It was wonderful to work with her a bit, but sad to not see that character through. But we were happy to put her on the screen one last time.

UTR: It must have been amazing to take the film on the festival circuit, and pay tribute to such an icon.

NC: I know! I was so jealous while you showed the film and I was grinding as a touring musician.

GM: It was super fun. But it was also three weeks of not going to bed before the sun came up. Nobody in Europe air conditions their theatres and there was a heat wave. It was great though.

NC: Was there somebody forcing you to not go to bed before the sun came up, Geoff?

GM: Sort of! John and I shared a room, and the few nights I tried to go to bed early there’d be eight people there.

UTR: Do you guys see any parallels between being a touring musician and what you just described, Geoff?

NC: It’s totally familiar. For most of my touring life, I had to share a hotel room with the entire band. That can be really rough if you’re not excited to be with everybody.

GM: There are absolutely so many similarities. It’s a miracle any tour works, and it’s a miracle that a filmmaker actually gets a movie made with a group of people who quixotically share that vision. And if you want to be jealous Neko— the best part about Europe was catching up with John and with Lily before all her time is gone.

NC: Yeah you’re on this space ship together, which is the tour van or hotel room, and you really learn things about each other. It’s such a wonderful kind of companionship. I’m glad you had that time with Lily and John. Watching them, and Kiowa and Gary go on to be in these high-profile projects since the movie wrapped has been so rewarding. Because I’ve been rooting for them for so long. I mean, every single thing Gary’s ever in, he’s so electric. In Dead Man he made me think: “Why did they never hire Indigenous people to play Indigenous characters?” Then I saw him in Smoke Signals, and Heater, an independent film made in Canada. And to see him now on Reservation Dogs—

GM: Yeah, Gary should’ve gotten an Emmy for that. He’s a force of nature. He was the first actor to sign on, and he gets the lines that explain the movie. In a way, this movie couldn’t exist without him. Sometimes you forget he’s even acting. I’ll go down to Sant Fe to see him, and think “This is a great performance,” but it’s just Gary, having lunch across from me [laughs].

UTR: When you’re trying to act for the first time, Neko, do you try to be as natural as Gary?

NC: I’ve never even had an acting class. So I just wanted to deliver the lines. But if someone believed that I’m saying them, as a saltine cracker of a person, then I’d be okay. Then Geoff told me he initially wanted Holly Hunter to do it, and that ruined it for me [smiles mischievously].

GM: It was a Sissy Spacek meets Neko Case type, when I wrote it. Then we just went all the way to the Neko side.

UTR: How did you guys collaborate on the character?

GM: This is a movie about how our own internal memories create universes, and how they compete for reality. All of us find a way to make our internal universes communicable to those around us. That’s how Clint Eastwood, from California, can be directed by an Italian for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and signify the American West.

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I communicate universes through film. Howe does it through music. And music was always a giant part of the movie. I felt safe that at the very least, Neko Case could be a character who was singing. From there, my approach with actors is to just take as much time as needed for them to feel natural and become that character. Sometimes it’s what you imagined, and sometimes it’s totally different. But you’re better off with that real, totally different character than trying to force someone into something. And Neko’s humble about it, but you have a good presence. You were able to come out there and present this tough woman, who may not take up much of the runtime, but who sets up film’s conclusion. We didn’t cut you out, after all.

NC: And you could have! Which was super kind. Since I know John Doe and have spent a lot of time with him, I thought “Oh, I can pretend to be married to him. Even if we’re not in a scene together, I can pretend he’s some guy I didn’t want to be married to anymore.” We’ve joked like that on tour before: “Oh I don’t like when you…” [says with a rootin, tootin twang].

UTR: I also bet your Quantum Cowboys character would be a fan of your song “I’m A Man.” Was this an opportunity to explore those female-empowering themes in a new medium?

NC: I was mostly thinking about shitting my pants. But I did think “Oh, I’m a woman who lives in the middle of nowhere. And is my own boss. And my job is weird. Sure, I can do that.” I still haven’t gotten to see the movie, because I’ve been on tour this whole time. What I remember of the film is watching Lily, John and Kiowa do their scenes. I just got off tour yesterday, then I saw the news about Roe v. Wade. It’s been a shit show. In a clown car. So working on the movie was the last magic thing to happen, before COVID hit. And I still have it in that bubble in my heart. Just watching these people, and feeling so excited for their successes.

GM: It’s going to be great for you to see it. All filmmakers say this, but this movie is better in a theatre. There’s something about watching this on a big screen, without distractions. It’s like you’ve taken peyote with Kiowa and you’re on that adventure for 96 minutes. So if you do wait, Neko, that’s the best way to see it.

I hope there are people who share my sensibilities. But I’m the guy who’ll like a brand of cereal, and it’ll go out of business. So I get scared once in a while. Going to Europe was really nice. It sounds terrible, but I sometimes think European audiences are more open minded to see something new. I’ll tell people: “When you watch this meet me halfway. It will reward you.” But not if you’ve done too many things today and turn the movie off after 20 minutes thinking “this is just random.” It’s not. It was insanely and meticulously thought out. The reasons why people say things, or the types of animation used—if you cut all the scenes with the same types of animation together, it makes sense.

UTR: Tell us more about conveying meaning with those different animation types.

GM: Rather than time not being a clear variable, I tried to give you a feeling that time doesn’t matter, and like you’re in a totally different world. Each technique represents a different character’s memory. For the rotoscoped scenes, we shared some of the same animators as Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Adventure. And I wanted the hand drawn scenes to look like [1977’s] The Hobbit and Heavy Metal. Sometimes I mixed oil paintings and acrylic backgrounds. Sometimes I cut out photos and reassembled them as moving collages.

It was a challenge. Especially because I wanted to bring all the animators to one place for eight months, and walk around the room and solve problems immediately. But COVID hit, and I ended up having animators from all over the world send animations to me. And I did revisions myself. It took two and a half years rather than one. It meant I could work with animators that I might not have had access to otherwise. But I wouldn’t want to do it that way again, and will wait for the pandemic to end to do a sequel.

NC: I can’t wait to see all of that. Because your script and cast alone reminded me of this golden independent movie age of the 80s. Which made me fall in love with movies.

GM: Exactly! I make movies because Alex Cox made Straight to Hell. I wanted to give the world one of those. [Cox plays a priest in Quantum Cowboys]. I think we did it.

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UTR: Neko, did you get that “80’s golden age” vibe when you stuck around to watch your castmates act?

NC: I remember it being cold, but I didn’t notice because they were so amazing. It’s something I don’t see much of, at least not anymore. Earlier in my career I had been offered chances to audition. No one would even call me back to say I didn’t get the part. I guess that’s par for the course, but I’d then think I was obviously not hot enough to be cast.

I auditioned for No Country for Old Men, at the behest of the Coen brothers. And I’d think “Why am I fucking doing this?” But they were so nice to me! I auditioned for the part of the wife, who was played by Kelly Macdonald, and of course they went for her. I would have too. It didn’t feel bad. They were so giving, and made me feel good for showing up. That was one of the steps that led me to take this risk [with Quantum Cowboys]. I knew a lot of you. I did my scenes, and it was a relief. And I wanted to see Lily Gladstone bring it. And of course, she and John were fantastic.

GM: I was just like Neko— I would watch Kiowa move, or Lily perform, and it would be everything I wanted and this much more [holds hands shoulder width apart].

UTR: How does it feel to see those burgeoning Indigenous actors do such meaningful work?

GM: Lily’s frankly one of the best actresses in the business. She is a very intuitive actor. She made the character more than what I wrote. So it feels like there isn’t just one voice telling the story. It’s great to see her recent rise. But it’s also completely unsurprising to me.

NC: I wasn’t surprised either. I went: “of course she fucking got the Scorsese movie!”

GM: And she wouldn’t say it, but she’s going to teach Dicaprio and De Niro a thing or two. I was thankful to work with her every single day. And if we’re lucky to sell this film and get distribution, Lily and I are excited to do the sequels. And we’ll call Neko and say “I know you don’t want to act again. But your character needs to come back.”

NC: If I get to ride a horse, okay.

UTR: How about a high noon shootout?

NC: I’d learn to do it!

GM: We’ve got some amazing things planned. You never count on doing sequels in the movie business. But if we get to make them, we’ll take everything people think they have figured out in the first one, and turn it on its head. That’s part of what the movie is about too— that there are many perspectives, that there isn’t one voice. Decolonizing knowledge, to an extent. And I think we’ve given the world a very different take on what the West was. An anti-colonial film.

UTR: How exciting is it to decolonize the Western genre?

NC: I felt completely uninvited to Westerns as a kid. All the female characters seemed to be prostitutes. And there was always a scene — my boyfriend and I would call it “the Eastwood” — where Clint would be laying back on the bed, and the woman would be laying on his chest, like some little supplicant. Even Two Mules for Sister Sara – you’re just mean to her the whole time!

I also always thought it was weird that Indigenous people weren’t more involved in Westerns. I grew up on a reservation in eastern Washington, around people who weren’t white. It made me wonder: “Why don’t you trust them? What is it that they’re going to blow open that you’re so afraid of?”

Geoff’s movie had places for women and people who aren’t white. And I’ve been following this ongoing Indigenous film and TV renaissance. I remember when Rhymes for Young Ghouls, the Jeff Barnaby movie, came out and made me feel: “Finally!” People getting to tell their own stories is so much more fucking cool than Quentin Tarantino making revenge porn. It’s like the door has been kicked open, and beautiful air is coming in.

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