UNC graduate and filmmaker Onur Tukel has gone from living in the Triangle to showing his work at Sundance. The writer, artist and director, who lived in Durham and shot a short film in Cary, received rave reviews at the film festival earlier this year for Septien, an oddball comedy about a trio of impoverished Southern brothers. Septien was recently released in New York City and on video-on-demand. The Indy spoke with Tukel to discuss his success with the film and his roots in the Triangle.
Independent Weekly: How did you become involved with Septien?
Onur Tukel: I met the director, Michael Tully, about 10 years ago when I was in New York screening my feature film Ding-a-ling-Less. We connected right away and kept in touch over the years. The story goes that Tully and director David Gordon Green (Your Highness, Pineapple Express) were killing time at Sundance several years ago, trying to one-up each other with eccentric film ideas. David supposedly came up with the one-line synopsis for Septien. “Michael Tully and Onur Tukel play brothers on a farm. Chaos ensues.”
When Tully saw my short film The Wallet, made in Cary at the Champion Learning Academy and starring a dozen of the cutest kids you’ve ever seen, he asked me if I was interested in collaborating on a film.
What did you do for the film?
I was involved with expanding David’s one-sentence synopsis into a workable story/ outline. For about two and a half months Michael Tully, actor Robert Longstreet and myself exchanged emails about Septien. We wrote characters sketches, ideas and random scenes that we wanted to see in the film. It was almost a daily exercise. Slowly, more characters would work their way into the story: more subplots, more odd themes and symbols. We were all bringing our influences to the table, from Flannery O’Connor to German Expressionist George Grosz to an obscure 1980s made-for-television film called Bad Ronald.
The movie centers on three brothers. I play the middle brother, Amos, who is an outsider artist. So in addition to co-writing the story, I created 65 pieces of art for the film. I also directed and edited the short behind-the-scenes documentary of Septien, called Land of Bad Ideas. It’ll be on the DVD, which is coming out in October.
What was the biggest challenge acting in the film?
The first day of shooting, my legs wouldn’t stop shaking, I was so nervous. I’ve made low-budget 16 mm films before, but I was always on the other side of the camera. I was also terrified because I was working with really talented performers. Robert Longstreet, who plays Ezra, the oldest brother, was in four films at Sundance this year. Mark Robinson, a wonderful actor from Wilmington, is so raw and real in everything he does. And Rachel Korine, Harmony Korine’s wife, just has a huge movie-star quality. But I settled in and found myself getting more comfortable every day.
Tell us about some of the pieces you created for the film: the biggest challenges, what you’re most happy with, etc.
The images are vulgar and depraved, but the colors are bright, lots of pinks and yellows. Tully was so generous in giving the art a lot of screen time in the film, especially in the opening credits. One of the things that many people have told me about the art (especially this week in New York) is that each picture tells a story. I liked that a lot.
How long did you live in the Triangle, and what new opportunities have you found in NYC?
I have a house in Durham and I hope I never sell it. I love the Triangle. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995, then lived in Wilmington for six years to make movies, then returned to the Triangle to work for WUNC-TV, where I worked for seven years.
I’ve been in New York (for a while) now, and I’ve been introduced to people in the film and art scene here, and the only difference I can tell between the Triangle and New York is the locale. It’s a bigger city, so there are more connections to be made. If people have a passion for creativity, I prefer to be around those people, be it the Triangle, New York City or Taylorsville.
What opportunities has the film opened up for you, either as an artist or an actor?
After Sundance, I got cast in a low-budget feature film written and directed by Alex Karpovsky (The Hole Story, Woodpecker). It’s a mumblecore road movie, completely different than Septien. A gallery in New York is showing my artwork from Septien this week to coincide with the screenings at the IFC Center. I’m trying to get a new feature film off the ground for the fall. It’s a very slice-of-life movie, takes place in one day, very dialogue driven. My first children’s book, a 64-page comic novel for kids, comes out next spring. The artwork in Septien is so graphic, there is a chance I’ll be using a pen name. I’m inspired, having fun, meeting lots of new people. It’s quite an adventure after living in North Carolina for 38 years.