The Maidstone. East Hampton, NY.
Interview: Rob DeStefano & Dan Esposito

After Dan and I saw the trailer for The Taiwan Oyster, we couldn’t resist grabbing tickets to its early festival showcase. Screened at both SXSW and HIFF, this is low-budget storytelling at its absolute best. A night of drinking and an excessive display of masculinity lead to the untimely death of Jedidiah, friend of Simon (Billy Harvey) and Darin (Jeff Palmiotti). Following his death, these two Americans leave behind their Taiwanese kindergarten teaching jobs and embark on a coastal quest to bury their fellow countryman. They are joined by Nikita (Leonora Moore), a spunky and adorable local, who provides a few detours, both introspective and cultural. The film follows a buddy road trip template, not missing out on the frustration counterbalanced by affection, but director Mark Jarrett takes full mastery of his material, layering his characters with sadness and anxiety amidst a disaffected existence.

The moviegoing experience was further enriched by discussing the creative and logistical process with Writer/Director Mark Jarrett, brotherly Co-writer/Production Designer/Producer Mitchell Jarrett, and actor Jeff Palmiotti. Down to earth is an understatement to describe this trio. The brothers originate from Columbus, Georgia, but have both lived in Taiwan. The two knew exactly how to bring their story to life using the Taiwanese setting; Mark is well versed in location management and recently worked on The Tree of Life. Jeff, in his first acting role, served up a performance that was equal parts humorous and sincere as the spirited Darin. Check out the interview below and be sure to catch The Taiwan Oyster.

Writer/Director/Producer: Mark Jarrett
Co-Writer/Production Designer/Producer: Mitchell Jarrett
Actor: Jeff Palmiotti

IF: What events led up to the creation of this film?

Mark: While in Taiwan, I started a film festival with a couple other guys; it was actually called The Taiwan Oyster. I then moved to Austin and got into the production side of the film business. I’ve been doing location scouting in Austin for ten years now. I made one documentary about seven or eight years ago. Then we [Mark, Jordan Heimer, & Mitchell] started hatching an idea, which developed into the film.

IF: What is it like for you to work together professionally as brothers? And Jeff, how did you hook up with these guys?

Mitchell: On set, we’re almost never together.

Jeff: (laughs) It was like Clark Kent and Superman!

Mitchell: We were such a small crew. Mark was always on the film set, and I was quite frequently getting the next set ready.

Jeff: I knew Mitchell from working together in a restaurant. He worked in the kitchen, and I was the bartender. So I knew Mitchell coming into it, but I hadn’t met Mark yet. They’re very different. Mark is like the papa bear and Mitchell’s my buddy. Working with Mark was great. It was my first time working with a director. You’re working fifteen or sixteen hour days. Some guys are tired, but I felt like, “We’re making a movie. This is so cool! We’re in Taiwan!”

Mark: Jeff was kind of the heartbeat or the pulse on set.

Jeff: The Redbull of the trip!

IF: What was the pre-production phase like for this project?

Mark: We started writing four years before we shot.

IF: Is that difficult developing a script and writing scenes that all exist in a foreign country?

Mark: The script totally changes. There were three writing partners. My writing partner [Jordan Heimer] and I had written an early script, and I would consult with Mitchell because he had been to Taiwan also. He and I then took the script and went over to Taiwan to do a scouting trip. We realized we needed to change the whole thing.

Mitchell: A lot of it changed.

Mark: Mitch then came on as a fulltime co-writer at that point. There were a lot of new observations. It had been eight years since we were originally there. Those scouting trips really helped. It breathed realistic life into it.

Mitchell: In 2009 and 2010, we both went there for two week stints. Both times we did the trip that the guys do in the film. One time we had a friend’s borrowed car and another time we rented a blue truck, to do it just like they did in the film.

Jeff: I think what kind of helped our movie is that we actually did do a road trip throughout Taiwan on these twenty to thirty days of filming. We were in the blue truck.

Mitchell: A lot of fighting and drinking.

Jeff: (laughs) We did a lot of drinking! There were a lot of elements there, in which we were living this.

IF: How long did filming last in Taiwan?

Mitchell: Nineteen days of shooting.

Mark: We edited for about a year after.

IF: There are a lot of spontaneous moments you capture, for example, interactions with Taiwanese locals and the movements of animals through the background of scenes. Were these planned?

Mark: Some of it we planned. A lot of it had to do with the actors just knowing the script so well. [As stated in the post-screening Q&A, Jeff memorized the script.] For example, we would say, “We’re going to do the ‘Red Lantern’ scene at this party. Go in there and do it.” And then for the “uncle” scene, those guys [the Taiwanese cast] didn’t even speak English, but they knew what we wanted to get out of the scene. Our guys [Jeff & Billy] just got fucked up with those guys!

Jeff: Mark would say, “Here are three of the most important lines we want to get out of this scene.” After about twenty minutes of filming, he would remind us that we need those lines. So you ask a question, and you get them [the Taiwanese cast] to say the line, and it works out. And that liquor that they broke out was the real deal. We just thought, “Should we do this? Don’t even question it.” We just did it. I loved all that stuff. The stuff is called kaoliang, which is their firewater; it’s the clear liquor that they drink throughout the movie. I think basically they then use a kaoliang sort of moonshine to put the wasps in. I thought, “I’m here, when in Rome, I’m doing like the Romans do, and I’m drinking whatever the stuff is that they drink.”

Mitchell: This wasp liquor was in the script, but at the same time, we weren’t able to really know if they had that at the location of the uncle character’s house, but it was such a standard thing to have, we were just hoping they would. And so when we got there, we hadn’t really discussed it, but it was able to just happen.

Mark: And then the animal thing was really an editorial choice by our editor Ron Dulin. Whenever we couldn’t decide between takes, the one we chose was usually the one with the animal somewhere.

Mitchell: The cats have been mentioned before. I didn’t even know what they [the viewers] were talking about at first.

Jeff: Oh, the cat right by the boombox in the bar?

Mark: Yeah. Then there’s also the scene where he’s walking backwards in the alley in that first shot, and there’s a cat that runs behind him.

Jeff: And then we were walking down the alley and Billy spontaneously goes “Meow!” because the cat meowed at him.

Mark: There are animals all over the place. Billy waves at a dog in the beginning of that day market scene. And for the fight scene at the end, we would use all the takes that had the dragonflies in it.

Mitchell: One of them literally came right into the camera.

IF: Was it confusing coordinating with the locals there? Do you speak Taiwanese well?

Mark: We speak a little bit, but not enough to really work with the locals. Especially when we were on the road, once you get out of Taipei, you’re in the country. If you’re not in the big city, you are in the country. A lot of those people don’t speak Chinese very well; they speak mostly Taiwanese. So it was a little difficult.

Jeff: We had Puck.

Mitchell: But Puck couldn’t even speak Taiwanese that well. We did have some PAs who could translate.

IF: Did you guys find these PAs in Taiwan?

Mitchell: We had a Taiwan line producer that arranged that.

IF: So how did you overcome this language barrier?

Mitchell: We kind of had to pick people that we felt like we could work with.

Mark: Yeah, we cast some.

Mitchell: If they had a real speaking line, we would cast.

IF: Was the guy who played Nikita’s (Leonora Moore) father an actor?

Mark: He, Fu-Kuei Huang, was cast. We had cast him I think three days before we got there.

Mitchell: But we were looking for him the whole time. He was one of the top roles we were looking for.

Mark: That was the hardest one to cast.

IF: And the scene at the Red Lantern? Was that group all cast?

Mark: That was cast. Well, just the bald guy.

Jeff: The character Moulder.

Mark: We’re friends with this Australian adventure tour guide, and the night before the scene, we still hadn’t cast the two thugs. We were drinking on this big rock near where some of the people were staying. And he goes (in a heavy Australian accent), “I know two guys. I’ll get you two guys for tomorrow!”

Mitchell: We asked, “Will they be okay to film from one until six in the morning?” And he responded, “Oh yeah, that’s probably good!”

Mark: We had no idea if they were even going to show.

Mitchell: They did it.

Jeff: They were so cool about it. We encountered a decent amount of uncertainty. For location, for instance, Mitchell said, “You have to have three.” I guess maybe how it works in America is you get one location, and you get it signed that that’s the location you’re going to use. In Taiwan, no one’s signing anything. So they’ll say that we can use it, but then you find that when you go there, they say that they changed their minds, and they’re not so sure anymore. So we had three potential locations for every scene since it’s not formally contracted.

Mark: Nobody wanted to give us permission for the morgue scene. The one we used was about forty-five minutes outside of Taipei. And there were actual bodies in that scene. Anything that had a number on it, there was a body in it.

Mitchell: We were in a live morgue.

IF: So when you are looking in at your friend’s body, is that a real corpse in the chamber?

Jeff: No, that one was an empty one. We put a fake body in.

Mitchell: We had to wait for the mortician to finish before we could get in there.

IF: The film opens with a William Faulkner quote. Was the theme of “home vs. physical place” one that you wanted to explore?

Mark: It’s a huge part. That’s the Faulkner tie-in [As I Lay Dying]. I was a lit major in college. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of home vs. place and also the idea of blood in the ground.

IF: I loved that line “blessed ground vs. bloody ground.”

Mark: Right. What does that mean? Some people connect with people, some people connect to land. And I just think it’s an interesting theme to sort of set free. I don’t know that we tried to define it in anyway, but it’s a contemplative part of the story.

IF: The cinematography was excellent. This was shot using the Cannon 5D?

Mitchell: I had a film professor from UGA that was like your typical “I’m never going to do anything but film” guy – an older guy. Jim Herbert. And he at the very end of his film career – he paints and such now but doesn’t make films anymore – went digital. I forget what camera he went to, but he just hated it! He hated it so much he pretty much ended making movies because film was too difficult, and he wasn’t happy with anything digital. Anyway, he actually recommended the 5D; this was maybe in 2008. It was way before the 5D is what the 5D is now. And so we looked into it. We were able to see some takes; I think somebody had shot a Blackberry commercial on it. We really liked the look, and the more we heard about it, the more we liked it.

Mark: And then we realized we didn’t have a choice.

Mitchell: We found a DP. The DP had worked with it and had a camera for himself. It was great.

IF: Did you artificially light scenes? I assume this would be difficult since some of the shooting was “run and gun.” Did your experience working on locations with Terrence Malick inspire the use of natural light?

Mark: It’s been educational. I started to appreciate the aesthetic. We tried to do a lot of backlighting. The DP and I got in quite a few arguments about that.

IF: Did you bring any lights with you to Taiwan?

Mark: We had a little bit. He would try and light at night, and we would just feel like it was taking too long. We would jump under a source. Mike [the DP] would try and throw in a fill, but it was like –

Mitchell: We didn’t have an official lighting guy, so Mike had to do it himself. He did a good job, but at the same time, it wasn’t his expertise. He needed to be focusing on other things, so eventually we had to just push through. “Step a little bit to the left, it’s going to be OK!”

IF: What was the size of the crew?

Mitchell: Twenty, I think, for the city stuff. When we hit the road we were slimmed down to about eleven or twelve because we couldn’t travel with as many people.

IF: Where do you all see yourselves heading next?

Mark: I’m finishing up doing locations on a project in Austin right now, and hopefully we’ll start writing. All of my money had been put into this, so this job in Austin is refilling the coffer. Then I’ll start putting all my money back into another project. I’ll probably start writing in December and bring it to the writing mill once we get an idea. Hopefully by this time next year or the following year we’ll be busting out another film.

Jeff: I wanted to see if I didn’t hate the way I looked and sounded on screen first.

IF: What was that like for you?

Jeff: It was cool. I’ve seen the film six times now. There are moments where I can detach myself and not feel like, “Hey, that’s me.” I didn’t cringe enough to prevent me from going on auditions and trying out acting.

IF: What did you do before acting?

Jeff: I tend bar. I’ve been a musician for many, many years. I’m working on opening my own bar in New York City right now.

Mitchell: I hope to be working on something else with Mark next year.

Jeff: (interjection) Me too!

IF: What type of story do you think you’ll work on next?

Mark: I’m not sure. I don’t want to limit it in anyway. I have a fleshed out idea that we’ve talked a bunch about. It’s kind of old now, so I’m not really sure if I want to do that. What’s nice is, as a result of this [The Taiwan Oyster], I got signed with WME. I think next time we go out, we’ll have some soldiers behind us.

IF: There were a lot of personal touches in this movie such as the character’s bird watching and the location itself. Do you think you’ll continue to use your own life as inspiration, or go to something that is more out there?

Mark: I think I’ll go back.

Mitchell: Everything will always have a personal touch.

Mark: Even if it’s a detective story from the turn of the century, the observations will be personal. Because that’s what you know.


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