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February 20, 2007

Tarnished Angel

Brooklyn filmmaker Tully brings sordid festival hit Cocaine Angel to NYC audience

Scott (Damian Lahey) and Mary (Kelly Forester): The doomed duo of Michael Tully's feature debut Cocaine Angel (Photo: Michael Tully)

There are drug movies, and then there are drug movies -- the cinema of addiction, a cottage subgenre of independent film that capitalizes on its no-budget squalor and leans on every convention from sci-fi levels of suspension of disbelief to heady irony to unmitigated tragedy. Looking back, in fact, 2006 was not a bad year for addiction-cinema revisionism, in fact, with crack-smoking teachers (Half Nelson) running up against resolutely alcoholic goners (Factotum) and speed freaks (A Scanner Darkly, Factory Girl), crushing stoner memories of '05 and the soft psychedelia of The Fountain under their coarse, filthy thumbs.

But few of last year's addicts had it quite as bad as Scott, the coke/heroin/booze abuser who squints and staggers through Michael Tully's debut feature Cocaine Angel (opening Wednesday at the Pioneer Theater). Fucked literally from the start, with a mysterious gash on his foot and bereft of even such civilized provisions as toilet paper, Scott (Damian Lahey, also the film's screenwriter) shoots up and flees his Jacksonville, Fla., hovel in search of his companion Mary (Kelly Forester), a few bucks in severance pay and whatever dirt he can get his hands on. Three days, two dealers, one estranged family and an overdose later, what devastated party there was attenuates to a whisper and a wake. Limping on a roadside in the film's final shot, Scott could be going anywhere, but Cocaine Angel's almost allergic aversion to ambiguity endorses the likelihood that a hearse -- not a wagon -- is waiting for him just outside the frame.

"That was my challenge," Tully told The Reeler in an interview Monday. "To make something human -- not hopeless and degrading." And key to the film's humanity -- what there is of it in the scorched sprawl of J-ville -- is Lahey's turn as Scott. Part bumbling drunk, part imploded family man, all lost cause, the character rambles in tangents as desperate as his rubbed eyes and rumpled black suit; Lahey attacks his own script with a fierceness that teeters between one-note megalomania and certain death. "Maybe," Scott seems to think, "these broken promises will be the last I ever make. This defensive posturing will be the last thing I ever do." That portent lends Cocaine Angel its sympathy, of which Scott himself is virtually incapable and few -- if any -- of the film's surrounding characters are deserving.

Tully and Lahey first met in the late '90s, when each was living in the South and was part of a social circle that included filmmaker David Gordon Green and his colleagues Tim Orr, Craig Zobel, Paul Schneider and Jane Rizzo among others. "Damian would come in in these bursts --these sort of whirlwinds," Tully said of their friendship, which developed into this decade and stayed close after the filmmaker moved to New York. "Not as dark as Cocaine Angel, but he would come into town and we would have these crazy all-nighters. And we would talk about making movies, but years went by, and then we were nearing the end of our 20s and we hadn't made anything. And it was right when I had hit a wall with New York; I was temping and I was drinking a lot because I didn't want to wake up and go to the temp job. I finally hit my breaking point."

Tully called the Cocaine Angel script Lahey's "Christmas present" to him in 2004. The two debated and discussed the project. Tully had recently purchased a mini-DV camera he was looking for a reason to use; the timing seemed right professionally and emotionally. "I needed someone to believe in me, he needed someone to believe in him. And we came together," he said. The two spent early spring 2005 scouting Jacksonville, where Lahey had lived and gotten to know many of the people and stories that thread the film. Much of the cast was drawn from the Starlight Café in the city's Five Points neighborhood, from a former pizza delivery man disfigured in a gun attack to the remaining chorus of pushers and tramps who orbit Scott's slouching frame.

Lahey himself, however, was the final actor to be cast. Tully said his friend wouldn't budge in his reluctance to play the lead, but the Jacksonville crew backed the director until he was forced to confront Lahey with an ultimatum: He was not directing the project unless Lahey starred. The writer relented, and the savvy casting paid off as a vote of confidence both he and crew could take to heart on a set under constant budget and deadline pressure.

(L-R) Cocaine Angel star/writer Damian Lahey and director Michael Tully (Photo: Josh Levine)

"We didn't do a ton of talking," Tully said. "This is all specific to actors; you deal with someone who needs a lot of cajoling. I know Damian is a pretty sensitive person, and if we tried to overdo the talking, I really think it would have backfired. I was like, 'You wrote this, you know it.' It was just a matter of me maybe trying to rein him in a little bit. But a lot of those actorly tics -- or what look like actorly tics, with him touching his face, or with that slight stammering -- that's really Damian. That was a personality thing that I wanted to be preserved for the character. It was all pretty organic -- me staying out of the way and trying to let him know that he was there for a reason."

Six months later, that confidence had ebbed. Sundance and Slamdance had both turned Cocaine Angel down; Tully had cut and re-cut the film, first at two hours, then 93 minutes, then even shorter. He was too close to it, he said, considering letting it go and returning to live at home, get a job and possibly pursue music. That's when the e-mail came from Rotterdam, where the city's film festival programmers said they were slating Cocaine Angel. South by Southwest came next in March 2006, followed by stints in Boston, Barcelona and London's Raindance Festival. "Not to be too hippie-fied, but I feel like once I made this complete and total break -- and accepted it; it wasn't like I was suicidal or depressed or anything; I'd just accepted the fact that it was what it was -- it was just this flood of great things. Rotterdam happened, South by Southwest. The Filmmaker Magazine notice and having screenings and getting all these festivals -- everything snowballed from there."

In two weeks, Tully returns to Austin with the world premiere of his sophomore feature Silver Jew, a documentary tracking the reclusive indie musician David Berman and his band, the Silver Jews, on their first-ever tour. The project landed Tully on the road in Jerusalem -- a clean break from his narcotic debut and the wasteland cinema of addiction. "It totally fell into my lap," he said. "I told the producer who asked me to do it, 'No.' ... I didn't have the money; I hadn't paid off Cocaine Angel. I actively turned him down. Then I talked to some friends, and they said, 'Dude -- what are you doing? You have to do this.' "

A smile creeps into his voice, trailed by a disbelieving stammer too brief to be anything but genuine. "I'm a lucky, lucky person."



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» COCAINE ANGEL: New York Theatrical Run Begins Tonight!!! from "Boredom at Its Boredest" by Michael Tully
It's been a long time coming, but the time has finally come. Tonight at 9pm, the never-before-seen final version of COCAINE ANGEL will be unleashed upon the masses of New York City. It's screening at the Two Boots Pioneer... [Read More]

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