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Filmmaker rolls with unusual idea

'Rubber' puts new spin on schlock with killer tire

“From the first line of the script that I wrote, ‘Rubber’ was supposed to be funny,’’ says director Quentin Dupieux of his film about a tire with telekinetic powers. He shot the movie with a Canon 5D single-lens-reflex still image and video hybrid camera. “From the first line of the script that I wrote, ‘Rubber’ was supposed to be funny,’’ says director Quentin Dupieux of his film about a tire with telekinetic powers. He shot the movie with a Canon 5D single-lens-reflex still image and video hybrid camera. (Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / April 24, 2011

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NEW YORK — The history of schlocky horror cinema is littered with inanimate killer objects — from cars and dolls to laundry machines, tomatoes, even evergreen trees. Now you can add to that pile “the killer tire movie,’’ “Rubber,’’ courtesy of the warped mind of French writer-director Quentin Dupieux, also known in electro-house music circles by his DJ/producer pseudonym, Mr. Oizo. The film, which opens in the Boston area on Friday, may sound like a discarded concept rummaged from the bad-idea dustbin of the Roger Corman or Troma archives. But there’s more to it than just B-movie trappings.

In Dupieux’s film, an abandoned, inanimate rubber tire inexplicably comes to life in the desert and discovers a psycho-kinetic power to blow things up, then begins to do just that — in an increasingly diabolical manner. But when Dupieux set out to make the movie, he had no interest in creating a straightforward horror movie or a stereotypical gross-out schlock film.

“After writing 20 pages of just the tire, I realized, like, OK, this is bad. I thought, I’m just trying to make a ‘Halloween’-type movie or like a B-movie, and that’s not really exciting to me. If you do a real killer-tire movie, you have to be serious about it,’’ says Dupieux, 37, during a recent interview at the Manhattan offices of Magnolia Pictures, the film’s distributor.

“You have to dive into a horrible world, and I don’t want to do that. I hate violence. I don’t like horrible stuff,’’ he continues. “So from the first line of the script that I wrote, ‘Rubber’ was supposed to be funny.’’

Set in a bright desert landscape, the film follows the awakening of the telekinetic tire (named Robert, according to end credits) as it wobbles into action, grasps its special powers, and begins preying on small creatures and discarded detritus. Before long, it’s turning its attention to humans, becoming smitten with an alluring woman who crosses its path at a desolate motel, and leaving a bloody trail of exploded heads in its wake. While “Rubber’’ is ostensibly a B-grade horror movie, it operates on another level — as an existential-absurdist meta movie that self-consciously bursts open the fourth wall, while jabbing a finger in its own eye and skewering Hollywood conventions.

“I knew that the basic idea for the film was stupid, and I love that,’’ says Dupieux, with a mischievous gleam in his eye. “But I also knew that it was not enough to have only one layer of reality. I knew I had to create some kind of a surprise or a twist on what was happening in the first layer of the film.’’

Indeed, as “Rubber’’ begins, a police officer (Stephen Spinella) climbs out of the trunk of a car on a dirt road in the middle of the desert and joins a bespectacled accountant (Jack Plotnick) who’s holding a dozen binoculars. The cop then directly addresses the camera, spouting a deadpan monologue about a so-called concept of “no reason,’’ the arbitrary occurrences or details in movies that seem to have no basis in rationality.

The camera then shifts back to reveal a group of people, “the audience,’’ standing in the desert. The cop tells the accountant to hand out the binoculars and directs the onlookers to a far-off point in the desert. After a few moments, a young boy says to his father, “It’s already boring.’’ The father responds, “Don’t be so negative. It’s just the beginning. It’s going to pick up,’’ to which the boy replies, “I hope it’s not some old silent film.’’ To reveal more would ruin the surprises that Dupieux springs along the way.

“It’s sort of a Pirandellian, existential monster comedy,’’ says Spinella. “It’s kind of like an art house joke, but it smartly plays on all these different levels. And I love that stuff, so I thought it was terrific.’’

Apparently, so did the selection committee for the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, where “Rubber’’ played as an official selection and earned critical kudos for its gonzo premise and self-referential smarts.

Tall and bearded, with stylishly unkempt hair, Dupieux displays the same kind of sly wit and easy irreverence that are hallmarks of “Rubber.’’ He’s game when a photographer shows up with a used car tire as a prop, remarking that it looks very similar to the one from the film, which now rests in the basement of his home in Los Angeles.

“He’s not a mysterious guy. He likes to have fun and he’s very laid-back, but also very serious when he needs to be,’’ says Spinella. “He was always easy to talk to when I had questions about the logic of some of the things in the script. I would have my interpretation. And his answer was always just boldly more simple.’’

The inspiration for making the audience part of the film was partially drawn from Dupieux’s experience sneaking into movie houses where his first feature, “Steak,’’ opened in France in 2006. In one, he found a completely empty theater.

“The movie was rolling, and nobody was watching it,’’ he recalls with a laugh. “I wasn’t like, ‘Oh [expletive], nobody is watching my movie.’ It was more like, ‘That’s strange! A movie that’s all alone!’ If there is no one in the movie theater, even if the film is screening, it’s like it doesn’t exist. We need at least one guy to watch the film [for it to exist]. I liked that idea.’’

Before penning “Rubber,’’ Dupieux had written a script called “Day of the Cubes,’’ which involved an invasion of floating alien cubes descending from outer space to Earth. But he didn’t like the idea of shooting empty spaces and then creating the cubes later through CGI. “That was not exciting to me,’’ Dupieux says. “The film would be quite fun to watch, but the process to do it seemed boring.’’

He wanted a more utilitarian approach geared for a tiny budget. Hence, the tire. “I had to find something organic, something we could touch, something I could shoot. For example, to make a movie about this,’’ he says, picking up his cup from the table, “this is not supposed to move. But with the tire, there is something cool about it because it’s supposed to roll; it already has motion. And I quite liked the idea of taking the car and removing everything, and we keep just one empty tire.’’

While John Carpenter’s 1983 killer-car movie, “Christine,’’ (adapted from the novel by Stephen King) seems an obvious point of inspiration, Dupieux actually cites Steven Spielberg’s 1971 low-budget thriller, “Duel,’’ as his biggest influence. “He created this huge fear with just a truck,’’ says Dupieux of the film about a terrified motorist being stalked by an enormous tanker truck and its unseen driver. “The guy driving the car goes crazy because the truck is always there. The editing creates the magic, and it’s beautiful.’’

“Rubber’’ was filmed in just 14 days in the Mojave Desert in October 2009 and fully produced in less than a year. Remarkably, Dupieux shot the film himself using a Canon 5D single-lens-reflex camera that takes both video and still images. It’s reportedly among the first theatrical releases shot entirely with a still-camera hybrid. He used no cinematographer, and there were no lighting setups (he shot only during the day). The director and his crew rigged the tire with a remote-control device that could move it and make it vibrate (for when it’s doing its telekinetic killing). A puppeteer was employed to manipulate the tire’s other movements.

When they landed on set, Dupieux says the big challenge was to locate the personality of his star. “It was like, OK, I’m supposed to give life to a tire? There’s no face, there’s no signs of life; it’s just an empty piece of rubber. So that was a good challenge, to make this piece of [expletive] come alive. And so the personality came from the object itself during the shoot — the way it moved, the way it behaved on the field. It was like already alive.’’

“The tire,’’ says Spinella, “seemed like a sentient being.’’

But one ostensibly free of any diva behavior.

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

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