Tough Case is a stupid movie. First of all, that title! You're supposed to say it with force, sticking your nose in the air and adjusting your monocle, guffawing with pride. After we made Tough Case, we couldn't see the word 'tough' the same. It's short and ends on an anticlimactic 'F' sound. The only right way to use 'tough' is for a piece of overcooked food that's stretchy and inedible.
Tough Case is ultimately a spoof on student films and their disillusioned filmmakers, which as a side effect makes Tough Case a spoof on the noir detective genre itself. We've wanted to make a student film parody for several years, first attempting the short Deep (Please, please don't watch it), and then reading terrible books, dreadful screenplays, and I-can't-believe-this-exists movies. Tough Case is narcissistic, cliche, and darn stupid.
If you watched it only once, then you don't realize just how stupid Tough Case is. Sparing you another re-watch and 12 minutes of your life, you can skim this blog where I reveal all:
1. The Briefcase
Oh God -- the case! What's in the case? Why does everybody want it? What does it have to do with the plot when Murdock is after a serial killer, purposely misnamed the shoe string slasher who strangles people with a shoestring (yet he doesn't strangle Herring, Suzy, or Russell, curiously)?
The tiny briefcase (which in real life holds a hair dryer) is in the movie for two stupid reasons: first, it gives the title a double meaning, and second, there's always a briefcase in gangster student films. A case with money, with revealing documents, a bomb or whatever. In Tough Case, the case holds simultaneously all three or nothing at all. Notice the mixed messages in the Mexican standoff:
- Veronica says, "Let's split the briefcase." (Money)
- O'Malley says, "Gimme the briefcase so we can all go on with our lives." (Documents)
- Vice Mayor Gonzales says, "Gimme the briefcase so I can kill you all." (Bomb)
Each of them suggest the three possibilities, so the case's mystery, which is the grand finale of the film, ends as the last of hundreds of loose ends.
2. The Wine Bottle
The wine bottle makes no sense from the beginning. When Detective Dick Murdock analyses the body, it was an instant autopsy: strangled by shoe string. And like the Adam West Batman, Murdock and Chief O'Malley identify the culprit right then. Mystery solved! Yet Murdock goes on to act like there's still a mystery. He pulls out a giant magnifying glass (which was a prop when Stefan dressed up as Sherlock Holmes in the 4th grade) and discovers a clue in plain sight: a wine bottle covered in blood.
So here's what's stupid: The victim was strangled, yet the bottle suggests he was bludgeoned to death by a wine bottle.
Murdock sends the victim's hand (yes, his hand!) to be analyzed, yet he does nothing with the blood on the bottle nor with the finger prints. Instead, after hming and hahing at a collage of newspaper ads ('clues'), he pinpoints the wine brand and decides to go to the winery. The winery! Which somehow actually leads him to the killer. That goes to show detectives don't need hard evidence. Just a hunch.
3. The Time Period
Tough Case is anachronistic. Like the TV show Archer, it takes place in ambiguous time. The characters dress in 40s-ish attire on a black-and-white screen, yet Murdock uses a cell phone, drives a beat-up 1993 Plimouth Sundance, is a Vietnam veteran, and chases after the slasher wearing a Nixon mask. The music is mostly period with its moody piano and brass, but we had to mess it up with electric keyboard. This is another "but why" moment. We could have stuck to the period, but we had to say Vietnam.
Student filmmakers often strive to make period films, and I've never seen it pulled off. It requires extensive research, a budget, and intense commitment to historical accuracy. Flat Quack Films is guilty of this terrible error. Dow Jones is supposed to take place in the 1970s, yet one of the locations (the front of a liquor store) shows modern-day prices and Pepsi logos. A major plot point involves a product called Super Crack. We didn't know until after the film that crack wasn't a thing in the 70s.
Ambiguous time is a godsend for filmmakers. Its a cosmetic fix for our lacking budget and resources. But for Tough Case, we used it to amplify the absurdity of the world. Nothing is real. Don't trust anything.
4. The Smoking
Everybody smokes in Tough Case. Were we able, we would have put a cigarette in Russell the dog's mouth too. All of the cigarettes are unlit, which made Tough Case easier to film. We didn't worry about lighting new cigarettes or editing together shots of cigarettes burned at various levels. Throughout the film, we used only two or three cigs, which came from a pack Stefan found on a park bench.
Though smoking is losing favor in real life, movies still love smoke slivering on screen. Since the world inhabits more nonsmokers, we see actors smoke their first cigarettes on screen, and it's embarrassing. I think of Skyfall, when Bond speaks to some femme fatale. Please don't ask me what they were talking about. I watched her cigarette as it burned to her thumb, all of the ash towering and threatening to fall.
Smoking is a mess to have on screen. It makes the actors sick and the editors suicidal. Also, cigarettes are expensive. Yet somehow smoking is a necessity on screen. Nonsmoking student filmmakers make their nonsmoking actors smoke. Which explains why Stefan, a nonsmoker, pretended to smoke on screen for Tough Case. I mean, it's a noir!
5. The Same Actor
Stefan's name is in all of the opening credits. He wrote the script, directed the film, and played every part. But don't be fooled. The one-man crew is also part of the gag.
At one of Tough Case's film festival Q&As, an audience member asked "why do everything?" It's a good question to ask. Why be so narcissistic and not give his killer cinematographer and amazing editor the credit they deserve? At his expense, Stefan answered the question honestly:
In student films, even more prominent than nonsmoking smokers and historical inaccuracies, we have the over-documented credits. A short film with only three crew members spread the credits to twenty roles, repeating those same three names down the screen. Especially when filmmakers are starting out, they want to be writer-director. And editor. And lighting technician. And cinematographer. Maybe star in it too. And then they feel that credits are inadequate when they're too short.
We don't blame the filmmakers for this unintended narcissism. There's two reasons student filmmakers write, direct, shoot, and edit their own films. Firstly, those who want to make films are hellbent on their own vision while fearing that other nonprofessionals might mess it up, and secondly, those filmmakers are the ones who finish projects. Student filmmakers, particularly high schoolers, recruit only their nonfilmmaker friends to help with the project. As a result, only one person on the crew cares about getting it done, and that person will inevitably play every role in the process.
When Stefan explained this to the crowd, he stood next to a self-conscious director, a girl who wrote, shot, and edited her own film. One Q&A question ago, an audience member asked her what it was like to do it all. She talked about how rewarding the process was.
I am guilty for that, for making fun of people who we are inevitably going to showcase with. But I keep telling myself that we are student filmmakers too. We are also guilty of the tropes, and we're all focused on improving.
Tough Case: a stupid film that is also smart
Tough Case has dozens more silly contradictions than the ones I've listed, and I keep finding new ones. We like to ask our viewers to find just one cause and effect -- one degree of logic. But it's tough. Tough Case makes so little sense that every entry point doesn't have an exit. I've heard viewers argue that the film makes perfect sense, that I'm silly for trying to dissect simple entertainment. But I'm flattered when they say that. It meant they followed along, even in the madness. They piggybacked on the plot cliches from scene to scene: the crime, the witness, the investigation, the showdown.
The film is not just a commentary but it succeeds at entertainment. As filmmakers, we ultimately want people to enjoy our films. But in the process, we always find that more details make a better film, and while our intended meaning may not be explicitly apparent to the audience, they can feel that insane energy we started with.
Last night Tough Case played at the SRJC's Associated Students Film Festival, and the film won the honor of playing at the Petaluma International Film Festival this May. The audience reaction was one of the most rewarding we ever witnessed. It reignited all of our passion for the film. Each showing makes me re-remember why I loved working on Tough Case, and I hope this shows you a little bit of the "but why?!"