The films of Noah Buschel take damaged souls as their subjects, then create drama from the potential for repair. Perhaps none moreso than the writer/director’s sixth and most recent feature, The Phenom (2016), which seems to take therapeutic counseling as its structural guiding light. It opens on the face of a major league pitcher, the preternaturally talented Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), who’s about to throw five wild pitches in a single inning. The next shot introduces a second face, Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), the sports counselor who’s been assigned to help him reclaim control over his own body. The film orchestrates a flow that moves in and out of the past, as we seem to experience Hopper’s memories from inside the mind, with each one potentially warped by the unreliable perspective of the present tense. His time in high school, the majors, and the minors are all represented, as are relationships with his father (Ethan Hawke), his mother (Alison Elliott), a trusted coach (Yul Vazquez), and his high-school girlfriend (Sophie Kennedy Clark). The most threatening character in Buschel’s oeuvre once said, “See how the past is not yet finished.” The Phenom dramatizes the introspection required to confront that past, and the reckoning that’s needed to make those repairs. It’s a miraculous sort of thing, one that therapy—or movies—can sometimes allow for.
“I did a workshop with a brilliant zen teacher named Barbara O’Hara,” recalls Buschel, who’s calling from a car in Santa Monica. We’re speaking for the first time, and our conversation veers between various poles over the course of a few hours—shifting between each of his six features, between the business and the art of film production, between the technical side and the spiritual side of movies themselves. “She said, ‘I want you to picture a judge inside of your mind. I want you to picture the person inside of you that’s always second-guessing you, that’s always telling you that you’re not good, that’s always beating you up.’ And the person that I pictured looked a lot like Ethan Hawke’s character. It was some dude with a flat-top, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, all tatted up, sitting on the couch when I got home, telling me that I wasn’t all that great. People say it’s a father-son movie, but to me it’s not. Ethan is playing the judge inside of Hopper. When that internal judge is being really harsh to us—I don’t mean to get too abstract, but—the judge can sometimes appear in our life physically. But it is coming from the internal mind state, and it’s just externalized. For me, it’s not about a father and a son. It’s about the judge.”
The Phenom is the sixth film in a career that began with Bringing Rain (2003), and those thirteen years have seen the director patiently establish himself as one of the few mavericks remaining on the narrative-fiction end of American independent filmmaking. Buschel, who is 38, was born in Philadelphia, raised in Greenwich Village, and currently resides in California, having moved after years of back-and-forth between the coasts. “The eccentricity and the characters have really been stolen from New York City,” he muses. To his ears, there’s no longer a difference between the conversations happening in the cafes of New York and the ones happening in the cafes of California. “At a certain point I was living in this tiny studio apartment, and I didn’t know what I was doing there anymore. I don’t know if L.A. is the answer, but it’s good to be near the ocean sometimes.” The most oft-reported elements of his biography, aside from the location of his upbringing, are that he dropped out of high school, and that he was ordained as a zen priest by Sensei Pat Enkyo O’Hara in 2002. He is a Gemini (which means talking to him is “like talking to two different people,”) and a fraternal twin (“so it’s actually like talking to four.”) He is a studied moviegoer who works from a diverse range of influences—the stillness of Ozu, the staging patterns of mid-20th century Hollywood, the directness of Demme—and at times has been a prolific writer of criticism about films and film culture. And though his movies are most often praised for their casts—Buschel says that his aesthetic has been crafted to emphasize performances—they also suggest the work of a rigorous formalist, both in the frame and on the page. The Phenom has a structure that borders on the literary. It’s built on an associative rhythm that’s attuned to the spiritual health of Hopper, rather than one attuned to the athletic drama other sports films have conditioned you to expect. Buschel’s actors give life to the characters, but his techniques give those lives interiority.
“That speaks to Ethan being an element of Johnny’s mind,” he notes, talking about the structure. “We are in flashbacks inside someone’s mind, and so it’s close to an unreliable narrator. Having someone like Elizabeth Marvel as the teacher who walks toward the camera … things like that are gears that are trying to shift us as much as possible toward being in Hopper’s mind. That’s what the movies I love usually are: You have the main character, and then everybody else you meet is an aspect of the main character’s mind. If you think about a lot of great plays, like Hamlet, you can see that. I am not the first person to say that maybe Hamlet is just a dream that Hamlet is having.”
If you’ll indulge an admittedly broad generality, such inner lives are no longer the primary concern of the American independent cinema, and precise technique is no longer its primary language, either. The scene has transitioned into a state that’s most notable for the surface concerns of its screenplays, and for the relative formlessness of its filmmaking. Buschel, meanwhile, writes screenplays as opposed to outlines, works from extremely detailed storyboards, utilizes limited camera movement, composes frames that allow for spatial awareness on the part of the viewer, prefers master shots over coverage, makes extensive use of blocking to advance his narratives and characterizations, maintains exacting color palettes, and edits at a metered pace. In each of his recent films, there is at least one moment where his aesthetic choices become explicitly unreal, in a way that further illustrates the mindset of whatever character we’re inhabiting. During The Phenom, it happens mid-game, while Hopper’s father is arrested in the stands—the stadium lights make a cosmic shift to abrasive reds, and the whole experience throws the young pitcher’s balance into a blackout. It ties Hopper’s jarred psychological state to the formal nature of the movie itself, the director unifying two of the elements that our cinema too often leaves behind.
“When I started working with Noah, independent movies were getting more improvised and naturalistic,” Marin Ireland observes, speaking on the same subject. She first starred for Buschel in Sparrows Dance (2012); in The Phenom, she plays a reporter on Hopper’s tail. “It was moving toward that kind of world. In Noah’s scripts, the words are so precise. The rhythm is not naturalistic, the characters don’t talk like we talk. And you have to just surrender, as an actor, to whatever is in his mind. He builds parallel worlds.” Liza Weil, another member of the director’s recurring troupe—she stars in The Situation is Liquid, an as-yet-unreleased Buschel movie, which she calls “the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever been apart of”—mentions that his films are like “strange little poems.” Ireland reached the same conclusion, saying that the director is “like a poet”—and it’s the specter of poets that hang over his work, as clearly as his cinematic influences. Sparrows Dance is named after a phrase in a Hanshan poem, and a second one is quoted to Ireland in Buschel’s Glass Chin (2015); later in that same picture, the actress is quoting W.S. Merwin herself: “as long as you / are only yourself / with whom as you / recall you were / never happy / to be left alone for long”, lines which loom past Glass Chin and cast over The Phenom. “It’s like a poem in that if you dig too hard for the meaning, you risk getting lost in it somehow,” Ireland says, speaking about the films. “There’s no one meaning. It means what it means to you. Like looking at a painting, there’s no one way to make sense of it. The hope is just that it resonates.”
Buschel’s six movies beguile and elude on the matter of “meaning,” but his body of work circles around recurring damages, looking for new perspectives on repeating traumas. The Phenom essentially shares a protagonist with Bringing Rain, which also dramatizes the spiritual experience of a scarred baseball player (Adrian Grenier) who displays an incorrigible lack of what parents might call “communication skills” (a trait that Hopper exudes in kind). The director’s second film, Neal Cassady (2007), kickstarted an enduring interest in the creeping dread of unsuccessfulness: It uses the eponymous figure to move between the 50s and the 60s, between black-and-white and color, between Kerouac and Kesey, between Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967), but most of all between promise and decline. That’s adjacent to the gulf that Hopper stares down, and also to the one that’s eyed in Glass Chin, where a former boxer (Corey Stoll) makes moves to restore his status as a “select champion.”
Stoll’s domesticated pugilist defines himself by unfulfilled promise, a disease that might be shared with Marin Ireland’s former actress in Sparrows Dance, who saw her passion for that profession wither and dissolve, then transitioned into what is essentially the life of a hikikomori. She refuses to reveal herself throughout the film. The Missing Person (2009) uses a detective plot (more guarded revelations) centered around individuals lost on September 11 (the PI is played by Michael Shannon) to stage conversations and sequences that revolve around the psychological aftereffects of separation and abandonment (another one of the artist’s recurring traumas). You can consider it Buschel’s first genre film—the opening credits play over a boiling pot—but it’s characteristic of his disinterest in the schematics of genres themselves. What he’s really searching for, he says, are the moments where people are at their most unguarded; his director’s statement for Sparrows Dance speaks of wanting to make a movie where vulnerability itself was the sole concern. Bringing Rain, which established that interest, climaxes with a series of shots that move inward on the wounds of its characters—and now The Phenom charts the visceral path required to close them. Weil summed it up succinctly while describing the experience of performing for the director: “You’re going to have to expose yourself.”
“At this point, more than ever, it’s become a community of fear.” Buschel is talking about the state of non-studio narrative filmmaking in the United States—which is to say that he’s talking about a different kind of exposure. “I’ve been very fortunate with the casts that I’ve worked with, when none of them are getting paid much,” he starts. “But I have not been quite as lucky with the producers and the distributors. It makes everything a little more difficult. But you just make the movie, and you can’t think too much about how it lands.” As some of his recurring themes might suggest, Buschel has a fraught relationship with the concept of success. He relates a favored line from Barfly (1987), the one where Mickey Rourke’s Bukowski stand-in muses that he always expected to be discovered after he was dead. But contrary to not-thinking-too-much-about-how-it-lands, the filmmaker is studied when speaking about marketing decisions, as much as he is when speaking about the movies themselves. What he sees in the poster for The Phenom, he volunteers, is the same thing he saw in the various notes he received during the production itself: A desire to cash in on a financially-safe form of sameness.
“I’ve been working with distributors who only see [the] elements of a popular movie—that (The Phenom) has movie stars and baseball, or that Glass Chin has some boxing and some crime,” he says. We were talking about the relative obscurity of his films—the Barfly quote came up around this time—and I had said that neither of his last two movies struck me as being particularly inaccessible, at least not to the degree that would disqualify their success on the art-house circuit. “The Phenom and Glass Chin were so horribly misadvertised that it’s hard for me to gauge if they do have any commercial value,” he continued, “The Phenom, particularly. They advertised it as Good Will Hunting (1997) or Whiplash (2014). There’s cheesy music in the trailer, and the poster pretends it’s a baseball movie. They advertised to false crowds. And for a week, that worked. Incredible sales for a week. But misadvertising a movie doesn’t work for long, especially in the age of the internet. Because people are literally watching the movie on their computer, and putting their user comments up before the movie is over. So if you’re advertising your movie to the wrong crowd, it’s going to nip you in the bud real fast. And it’s not healthy for the movie, because the people who would really like The Phenom don’t know that it exists. I honestly know that if I saw that poster and I saw that trailer, then I wouldn’t see The Phenom. They have none of the flow of the actual movie I made.”
“I’m tired of the indie battle,” he continues, a statement borne out by his collaborators, who uniformly note that the director finds himself burned out by the industry at the completion of each new film. But Buschel is not a studio filmmaker, could not be a studio filmmaker, so it’s this game or no game, at least with regards to the scope of his most recent writing. He considers his latest script, The Man in the Woods, to be his finest, but even in a minimized state it would require a sizable budget, and he remains unsure of whether or not he wants to withstand the compromises and fights such a price tag would likely necessitate. Pushbacks were constant throughout the production of The Phenom, with Buschel receiving notes on the framing, the coverage, the structure, the rhythm, and the ending—all requesting the same brand of sameness later worn by the marketing, which is indeed as bland as week-old bread.
“It’s true that in independent film today, you get notes from the same people who work on the blockbusters,” he continues. “There are a lot of people trying to get to the ‘major leagues’ through independent film, but to me independent film is not the minor leagues. That’s part of the problem. If a producer thinks of independent film as the minor leagues, and then [a talent agency] is giving that producer notes, then you best believe they’re going to take those notes, because they want to make it to the major leagues. But independent film is not the minor leagues, and it never was. Maya Deren was not the minor leagues. Robert Frank was not the minor leagues. With The Phenom, I had 15 producers giving me notes for months, and they basically said ‘make it more generic, any way that you can.’ A lot of those notes were coming from talent agencies. And at a certain point I had to say that this movie will be completely worthless if it isn’t at least true to itself. If we’re just going to cut it like a Law & Order episode, then all we’ll have at the end is a Law & Order episode that was shot on a low budget. And what’s the point of that?
“There were so many producers, and apparently they didn’t look at the storyboards, because I was just doing what I had said I was going to do [with the film]. You get notes because people are getting scared that it’s too arty, or because they’re trying to exert some kind of power over it. There were a lot of notes like, ‘When a character is speaking, the camera should be on them, and when they stop speaking, you should cut to the other character.’ And I’d say, ‘There’s a term for that, it’s called Dragnet cutting, that’s TV editing, and we’re making a movie, so I can’t really do that.’ Or it would say, ‘Don’t stay so long on a wide-shot, cut-in instead.’ Anything to make it feel more like American network television. You get a note, ‘We’d like the piano player over the opening credits to be more dynamic.’ Then you say, ‘The piano player is Glenn Gould.’ And then you don’t hear anything back for three weeks, because no one knows what to say. The piano player that you’re saying isn’t dynamic is Glenn Gould. And that pretty much sums it up.”
A typical Noah Buschel sequence features one or two people talking to one or two others, usually in a bar or a diner or a bedroom. And they’re propelled by the force of his dialogue, which has the exceedingly rare quality of being organic to the characters themselves—they talk toward their own needs, not toward those of the screenplay. The Phenom has an opening sequence that concisely illustrates the director’s own form of dynamism: It begins with both Simmons and Giamatti facing the frame, captured in a split-focus shot, recounting his bad day on the mound (the cinematographer is Ryan Samul, who has worked with Buschel since The Missing Person). Hopper seems to have an abiding love for the sport, but struggles to articulate that, and does worse with other topics. Mobley is looking for a way into his patient’s mind, “maybe that was exasperating for you,” and Hopper is suffering through his attempts. We see them in paired medium-shots, each spied from the other’s point-of-view, and Simmons is constantly turning his head away from the frame, leaving us to look at the back of his baseball cap, rejecting those attempts with his gestures. Simmons communicates the kid’s cloistered emotions with frayed physicality throughout, displaying a striking range of bodily reactions over the course of the movie, most of which suggest a resolute stance against cultivating a sincere connection with anybody the character speaks to. Eventually we cut to a more distanced composition to look at the space between the two, and then we move into close-up’s, to fully enter Hopper’s memory (“Some things I remember very clearly, but some things I don’t.”) Even then, Simmons’ head is cast downward. Buschel is the sort of filmmaker who earns his close-ups, but he’s not the sort to make them beautiful.
“The Phenom was a little bit of a breakthrough, in [that] I ended up using a lot of takes where people flubbed their lines,” he says. “Johnny would maybe stumble over something—and it’d be perfect for Hopper. That was really neat. It was nice sometimes to have takes where the actors weren’t as precise with my dialogue. And I think that might have added to the feeling of ‘struggling to communicate.’ Johnny’s great at memorizing, but there might be a take where he would do a hand movement instead of saying a line … and they could become wonderful gifts. It was nice when the lines didn’t come too cleanly.”
“He’s very concise, and he’s very specific, but he leaves you alone,” Weil tells me. Vazquez and Ireland make the same point: that Buschel is a precision artist, one who prefers building sets to location shooting, and exact blocking to loose marks—but within the margins he sets, their performances are free to find new angles. All three relate stories where Buschel listened to a take without looking at it while on the set, trusting that his actors have enlivened whatever he’s hearing. It’s the experience of creating those “parallel worlds” that the director seems to cherish most—building the sets from the ground up, then letting his performers expand the corners—perhaps more than the films themselves. In an interview with FSHN Magazine meant to promote Glass Chin, he talked about the then-uncertain state of The Phenom’s final cut: “I have to remind myself that even if I don’t get to finish it, and there’s no evidence of what we made, it was still a real beautiful time,” he said. “So… It is what it is. Even if it isn’t.”
“Actors love working with him, because it’s an interesting set,” attests Vazquez, who has performed in three Buschel films to date. “It’s very calm, no screaming or anything like that. And he doesn’t shoot anything extra. Sometimes a scene will play out with no coverage. Or sometimes he’s only shooting one side of a conversation. He knows all this because everything’s storyboarded. He’s got the whole movie in his head, and it unfolds on the set in a very calm way. He rarely even looks at the monitor. He listens to the takes more often than he looks at the monitor. He’ll line up the shot, but once you’re shooting it, he’s listening more than looking … There’s a scene in The Phenom where I’m in the office with Johnnie, and there’s a goldfish in a bowl in the frame,” Yul remembers. “We’re shooting the scene, and at one point he directed me to talk about the goldfish, and I went off on a whole riff. He’s after something else, something only he knows.”
The case of the goldfish is another one of those illustrative examples. It’s an instance where elements of Buschel’s craftsmanship—in this case, his dense set design and his sense for allowing actors to expand his dialogue—coalesce right in the center of the frame. To watch his films is to see formal contradictions batter against each other, like waves colliding in a wake: his choreographed staging and expressive lighting are explicitly cinematic, but the literary texts reject the form’s traditions, all while the instinctual performances move beyond both the page and the stage. The beauty of these movies is seeing those contradictions resolved, and unified, by a shared connection with the given subject. In The Phenom, it’s self-judgment—a trait worn by the divisive blocking, by the jaggedly selfish dialogue, and by the guttural physicality of the acting.
When Ireland called him a poet, she continued: “In that same way that poets have very exacting compositional rules, but then the work itself is abstract.” Buschel has grown into a thoroughly refined filmmaker—the early works are paced by the rawness of the performances, but his rigorous formal rhythm maintains control in the later films—yet those abstractions remain unsolved, as they should be. Buschel defers the credit for that, citing actors as the center of cinema’s spiritual prowess. We talk about the way that the most unguarded performances can infect your body, and he thinks back to seeing Brokeback Mountain (2005) for the first time. “Heath Ledger was in my jaw for the next month.” More damage.