Determining who to cast in your film, particularly one with such a singular personal vision as Buster’s Mal Heart, is always a tricky proposition. Sarah Adina Smith, writer/director of this unusual psychothriller (playing the Tribeca Film Festival this week and opening tomorrow in select theaters), takes an equally atypical approach to populating her productions.
“Since [her much-praised debut feature] A Midnight Swim and continuing with this one,” she reveals, “I sometimes will consult Tarot cards. I’ll take out the deck and be like, ‘What about this actor? Is he or she the right person for the job?’ And the cards don’t lie; they haven’t failed me yet!”
That spiritual process helped lead Smith to cast Mr. Robot Emmy winner Rami Malek in Buster’s Mal Heart, in which he makes a galvanizing impression playing a multifaceted role. The movie opens with Malek as “Buster,” a crazy-haired conspiracy theorist on the lam who’s been holing up in vacant houses when not running through forests from pursuing cops. The timeline then jumps backwards to where he’s the clean-shaven Jonah, who works the night shift at a rural hotel and lives with his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) and little daughter Roxy (Sukha Belle Potter) in the home of Marty’s hyper-religious mother Pauline (Lin Shaye)—which he’s anxious to escape. Jonah’s life takes a turn for the weird when a stranger (DJ Qualls in a type-busting turn) arrives at the hotel and attempts to convince him that the impending Y2K will bring about an event he calls “the great inversion.” This is just part of the oddness that suffuses Buster, which becomes a surreal portrait of Jonah’s growing mental imbalance.
There are ambitious themes bubbling under the surface that make this more than a tale of ordinary madness, as Smith explains: “Buster’s Mal Heart is essentially about whether freedom is actually possible. It’s about a man struggling against an indeterminate universe, and trying to find freedom in an otherwise relentless machine of causality. I was interested in the question of, if we don’t have free will, and we don’t get to choose to be born, then what are we responsible for? And I thought it would be interesting to explore a man who turns against fate.”
Part of the key to Jonah’s characterization was Smith’s choice to have him speak both English and Spanish, home-teaching Roxy the latter language. “When you’re bilingual,” Smith notes, “you actually are two people, in some ways; a lot of people have told me it’s like you have two sections of your brain. It can be a different experience, and language can definitely shape you. That was important to me for Jonah, who is very much a man in two worlds.”
As such, it’s a role that seems well-suited for Malek, whose Mr. Robot protagonist Elliot Alderson is afflicted with dissociative identity disorder. Finding the right actor of Buster’s lead was “definitely a challenge,” Smith says, “because it’s not something that everybody would necessarily want to do. I needed an actor who was willing to scratch at the very depths of his soul for this one, and Rami Malek was definitely the right guy to do that.”
Smith wrote Marty, who grounds the movie and Jonah, for House of Cards’ Sheil, and landing a little actress for Roxy proved surprisingly easy. “[Casting director] Samy Burch and I were fully prepared to see hundreds of kids,” Smith recalls, “and Sukha was the very first one we met. We got incredibly lucky. Her parents are both artists and performers, and they didn’t want to be stage parents. But I think they responded to the material and saw that we were trying to create something artful, and trusted us because of that. Obviously, this film deals with dark themes and tragedy, and you could say, ‘Well, wouldn’t that be frightening for a parent?’ But in some ways, if we had been a light romcom, I believe that would have been of less interest to them. They were interested in supporting our art, and willing to take that risk with their daughter as a result.”
Potter not only made it through the shoot emotionally unscathed, but had an especially good time when it fell on Halloween. “We were all staying in the hotel where we were filming, and decided that we didn’t want her to miss out on being able to go trick-or-treating. So the entire cast and crew all dressed up and formed this parade, going with her from hotel room to hotel room. Hopefully, we gave her one of the best Halloweens of her life!”
Should she grow up wanting to watch horror movies on All Hallows’ Eve, she’ll find that Smith’s work (which also includes a segment of the fright anthology Holidays) expands the borders of the form. As the filmmaker points out, “I never actually set out to make genre films, they just end up turning out that way. I don’t even know why that happens; it’s just how I like to make movies. Is it weird that that’s sort of my go-to gesture? I guess I find life to be both endlessly terrifying and endlessly hilarious, and I think there are a lot of funny moments in Buster; it deals with the absurd nature of our existence.”
Smith, who has also helmed an episode of Jay and Mark Duplass’ upcoming HBO series Room 104, has an equally contradictory feature project in mind for the future. “I have a weird craving to make a Christmas movie—which makes no sense as I’m sort of an atheist Jew,” she says. “But doing the Christmas scenes in Heart just made me want to try my hand at an odd film set at that time. There’s something about that feeling, the spirit of Christmas in the air, that I’m interested in. I feel like there’s a strange movie in that.”