The 16th annual Tacoma Film Festival will wrap up on Thursday, Oct. 14, with “Thin Skin,” the hilarious comedy that earned Seattle filmmaker Charles Mudede this year’s award for Best Direction, Narrative Feature.
The film will start at 7:30 p.m. and be followed by a question-and-answer session with Mudede and the movie’s star, Seattle musician Ahamefule Oluo. Recently, TFF caught up with the film’s director to talk about the project’s origins, escaping “development hell,” and finally getting to showcase his funny side.
Tacoma Film Festival: I guess the story of "Thin Skin" starts with your lead actor, Aham. What was your relationship before this project, and what made you want to collaborate with him?
Charles Mudede: Back in 2012, he had a work in progress at Town Hall. It was "Now I'm Fine.”
TFF: That was the stage production of this story, right?
Mudede: Yeah, it was a work in progress at the time, and then it became a stage show that went to the Public Theater in New York City, and it received a lot of attention there. Then a pilot showed up on (the NPR radio show) “This American Life.”
At the time, I was doing a lot of work in what's called “development hell.” (He chuckles) A lot of the projects I was working on were paying well, but they weren’t going into production. I was really frustrated with that situation. So, I started looking for a project that I thought would fit a small budget and have a powerful impact. We worked on the project together from about 2017 or so, and his wife, Lindy West, came on board as a writer. We made a major change in the script, and then, two years later, it was filmed. That's how it came about.
TFF: The film is hilarious, but in listening to "The Wedding Crashers" segment from NPR, there's a lot of sadness in the story. How did you approach that material and really find the humor in the situation?
Mudede: Aham's story has a lot of difficult subjects to deal with, such as abandonment and so forth. But comedy, to me, is the ability to laugh at things that are difficult. It's often laughing at a job that is eating your soul. It's laughing (because) your mother's kind of nuts. The humor, to me, didn't avoid the difficult questions.
Also, I found myself writing a lot of serious material. I did Police Beat and I did Zoo, but I wasn't writing funny things, and I was the class clown. (He laughs.) I wasn't living up to my high school potential in my films. I needed a funny film. Aham was a stand-up comedian, and so it was in that way that we came together.
TFF: You alluded to making a major change to the story. What was that?
Mudede: We just said let's just get rid of the romantic subject and just focus on the family. There’re enough films about lovers and romance. I'm really happy with Police Beat, which is about a broken heart, essentially. So, I'd already done that. Instead, let's make a film about facing your ghosts, which are predominantly in the family.
TFF: Music is a big part of this film, especially the finale. Where did you film that? And tell me about the musicians that you worked with.
Mudede: Aham composed all of the music in this film. Aham is such a great composer, and he was able to really exercise his talent. It was just a relief not to have to focus on the music so much as on other projects. As a filmmaker, you’re always looking for people who just take care of things. (He laughs.)
We shot the grand finale scene at Meany Hall at the University of Washington. It was Aham who brought together the musicians. He's worked with a bunch of them before, and he's a part of the music community here in Seattle. When he pushed the idea of a 10-minute music sequence (I thought) we shouldn't really hold that back.
TFF: It was kind of cathartic having a long passage in the film like that.
Mudede: Yeah, and it also made me focus on the imagery. In your work, you're usually focused on performance and all these other aspects. So, I loved the musical break because I was able to focus on what it looked like, completely, and not on what people were saying.
TFF: Once upon a time, back when there were video stores, I actually rented "Police Beat," and I remember watching the credits and saying, "Oh, the guy from The Stranger." Are there things you learned from that project that made this one easier?
Mudede: Yeah, I owe a lot to Rob Devor, who is the director. I learned a lot about the whole production side of film, writing, and all of those things. … I used the same cinematographer. So, it’s Sean Kirby who shot Police Beat. (Producer) Michael Seiwerath worked on Police Beat, and so there was some continuity between those works.
TFF: How did you get involved with Zoo? (The documentary explores an infamous Enumclaw bestiality case that made national headlines in 2005 after a man was killed.)
Mudede: Rob Devor also directed “Zoo.” He saw me working on a story in The Stranger about what happened. The thing that interested me as a writer was that they had formed a group, a community, through the technology of the internet. You can't really go to a bar and, like, find … (He trails off.) You know what I mean?
TFF: Yes, that’s very specific.
Mudede: So, they found each other because there was a whole new territory opened -- a social territory opened by the Internet. And so, what happened was I went to look at the place, the horse farm where it happened, with Rob. I think, “Oh my god, it's beautiful. Mount Rainier is right there. It's just gorgeous.” We sat down and said, "We should just make the most beautiful film about horse (sex) ever made." (He laughs.)
TFF: That was such a weird incident.
Mudede: Yeah, it's crazy. But it got a lot of attention, and it went to Sundance and Cannes. I make a story about human love, nobody invites me anywhere. (He cracks up.)
TFF: You used to teach at Pacific Lutheran University. Do you still get down here much, aside from festival time?
Mudede: Yeah, because I have friends in town; a lot of people from my neighborhood moved to Tacoma. I've noticed an uptick in the past four years. First of all, there's just a lot of more interesting developments in what's going on with housing in Tacoma. There's a strong push for large-scale affordable apartments and things like that. Also, my gang has noticed that it's attracting artists. A lot of people I know from the artist community in Seattle live there.
TFF: You've been coming to TFF for several years. What has your experience been with the festival in the past, and what do you think stands out about this festival versus others?
Mudede: First of all, you have a great programmer at that festival (TFF Director David Dinnell.) He has a great reputation nationwide, and he's really well connected. I mean, this is a festival that attracts top talent in the indie world at the moment, and it's recognized as such nationally. And two, The Grand Cinema. It's beautiful. It's a great joint, it really is. It reminds me a little bit of the one that used to be here at the end of Broadway (the Harvard Exit Theatre.) That was torn down and turned into an office. We just don't have a cinema like that anymore.