How Vuk Lungulov-Klotz Made One of Sundance's Best Dramas with a Small Crew and Limited Time

'Mutt'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Vuk Lungulov-Klotz takes audiences through a whirlwind day-in-the-life story of a trans character in this debut feature.

You should always endeavor to put your character through the wringer. That's the essence of storytelling, right? Sometimes the best way to accomplish this is just to follow them through one helluva pressure-cooker of a day.

In what he calls a kind of response to the Safdies and Uncut Gems, writer/director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz does just that in Mutt, a film following lead character Feña during a particularly stressful 24 hours. He runs into an ex, cares for a runaway half-sister, and has to prepare for his estranged father's visit. And he does it all with the added complication of having recently transitioned and changing his name—so all these characters are effectually "meeting" Feña for the first time in his new identity. 

It's a gorgeously naturalistic and complicated story about gender, sexuality, and relationships. It's painful to hear Feña deadnamed, to witness people's invasive questions, to have him face apparent rejection from those he cares for. But it's also invigorating for a film to explore such complex love, and to see how this strong-willed character perseveres. With some gorgeous, pulsating New York locations and amazing performances from the entire cast, Mutt is definitely one viewers should seek out.

Just after the film's Sundance premiere, Lungulov-Klotz spoke with NFS via Zoom. Dive into his advice below.

'Mutt'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: So, can you talk us through how you developed the story in your writing process?

Vuk Lungulov-Klotz: Full disclosure, I actually wrote the first pages of this script in my senior year of college, which is bad for No Film School. But yeah, I started writing. I was really interested in the relationship between a brother and a younger sister. I kind of left my house a little bit earlier than necessary and left my country. I'm from Chile, so I really wanted to explore what it was to be a mentor or being queer and kind of break down the barriers of if I'm queer, I have nothing to offer you if you're not, which is absolutely not true. There's so much wisdom that we have to give.

And that grew to include everything else that I was kind of afraid of. Will I be loved? Will I be accepted by my family, by the world? So I tried to position these very intimate, important relationships, like a father and ex-boyfriend and a sister, to really place myself in their shoes and try to see things through their eyes. Why were they so afraid that I was trans? Right? And kind of give these characters around me the empathy that I wish I would've gotten from the world when I was coming out.

NFS: Were there specific things that you always knew that you wanted to hit? Because I think a lot of what you explore in the film are things that people should familiarize themselves with, things like questions not to ask. Did you always have those in mind as you went in?

Lungulov-Klotz: Not at all, no. I think it's funny, some people ... It's mainly not cis people that think it's a little expository sometimes. There's so much mention of being trans and explaining things, but that is kind of the way it goes. You just kind of find yourself talking about it every day. What I knew I wanted to do was explore a day in the life of a trans person that's ... Thus far, I have still been cursed to writing continuous time. I can't get away from it, but I just really wanted a portrait and I really wanted to explore love and also having an international family. That was very important to me.

NFS: Can you tell us about your time in the Sundance Labs too, and what that was like?

Lungulov-Klotz: I went pretty young. I think I was 23 and it was incredible. It really helped shape the script and I was so young that it was so useful for me to be treated as an equal in a room full of really incredible filmmakers. Liz Hannah, John August, Barry Jenkins, these were my mentors and they really gave me the courage to keep going for five more years and let me know that it was worth all this energy that I've put into it.

I mean, Sundance is just a safe haven. It's such a unique place and they're so nurturing and they're always open to answer your questions and guide you in the right direction. Yeah. I wish everybody could go.



NFS: Your actors in this are also just so amazing. Lío [Mehiel], their performance is just incredible. So as a director, how do you go about developing those performances?

Lungulov-Klotz: This was Lío's first feature as well as mine. So there was a lot of learning in the first week of how to treat each other, how to talk to each other. But by the end of the film, I felt like before we were doing five takes and by the end of it we were doing two or one. It was amazing. We really were very in sync.

I think for me, I tried to provide a lot of love and support and space just to let them know that I have their back, I'm watching every image they're doing, and that they can really explore and give themselves into the project. I think I also come from [grip and electric] myself. I've done seven years of G&E in my life. I've finished 14 features, so I've watched a lot of different directors talk to actors and I think, I don't know, just really want to create a conversation. But that's just a hard question. I feel like directing an actor is kind of what we are trying to hone our entire career.

NFS: How did you land on the look of the film? Because it was also just really beautiful. The colors were so rich.

Lungulov-Klotz: I adore my DP, Matthew Pothier, and really having come from lighting myself, I really wanted to make him feel like he was my co-captain, that he had the lead in terms of the visual and I have the lead in terms of directing everything else. We landed on 4:3 pretty quickly. I think we're both kind of a little bit nerdy about stuff and kept being like, "Why not? Why not? Why do we have to think about it so much?" But we really love the idea of placing Feña within a portrait frame, a kind of old-school portrait 4:3. And I think that really helps to encapsulate him throughout this day and really places the body in a very central way. Zoe's [MiMi Ryder] getting her period, Feña is being seen for the first time by these very important people in this new expression. There's the ex-boyfriend character. So I think 4:3 also just lends itself to really center the body.

And I wanted handheld. I really wanted handheld, but through talking to my DP, we would shot-list, and then we would finish a scene, and then we would be like, "Okay, so that's a stick scene and that's a stick scene and now that's sticks." And at the end of it, it was all sticks. But I think that because it is 24 hours, because it is a little bit hectic at times, I think having it on sticks helps you ground yourself and is less disorienting and just a choice that I think people weren't expecting with a movie like this.

I love the Safdie brothers, but I think this is the counter-reaction to that in terms of a male lead, a trans-male lead, and also the way it's shot in New York.



No Film School: What were some of the biggest challenges on the film, and how did you overcome them?

Lungulov-Klotz: We were not a very big crew. My producer's right here. He's laughing at the question. And my DP just walked in.

One of the biggest challenges I think was locations. Having 37 locations in 24 shooting days was too much, and a lot of it fell on me to find them or me and my DP. We biked around with Citi Bikes, trying to find locations last minute, something fell through. So I think that was really challenging and something that I would absolutely have a location manager next time. But the crew really pulled through.

NFS: Again, kind of a large question, but what are the biggest lessons that you're coming away with on this film?

Lungulov-Klotz: The biggest lessons? We re-shot the first day that we shot. After finishing principal photography, I started editing and I freaked out, panicked. Everybody was in different parts of the country and I figured out if we could do re-shoots and that was pretty ... I don't know if it's a lesson. It's something that I want to try and do every time because it's so hard to navigate how to ease yourself into a movie, especially a movie like this. My lead actor made fun of me after we finished because every time a day would start, I would come up to him and be like, "Big day, big day today." But that was like every day was a huge day.

Having the privilege to go back and rethink some stuff and have the actors and the crew really ease into each other was really great. That I think is a really big lesson.

Any plot holes that you thought you had in the script, you will have on screen. So really try and iron those out.

I wish I would've had a little more rehearsal time, not because my actors didn't do an incredible job, but just more time. I wish I had time for everything. I think sometimes I got frustrated because I wanted to provide a more exploratory set with them, and we just had to get through pages very quickly.



No Film School: Finally, just any other advice that you have for someone just starting? What would you tell them?

Lungulov-Klotz: I said this before ... but I'm going to repeat it because I think it's important and it's something I would've loved to hear when I was starting out is to not scoff at shorts. Shorts are really, really important. They're the only tool you have to show the world that you can be trusted, that you have a vision, that you know how to do this. So focus on your shorts if you're trying to make a feature. I know it might seem like a waste of time and no, I just want to get to that feature, but it's not, it's really, really helpful. And also the festival circuit, that's something that I wish I was told a little younger. You made your short to be seen and you are going to meet so many people at festivals. That is what we go for.

We are filmmakers, we write scripts for years and then we do these crazy things and we shoot. But in festivals, everybody's so open and so eager to talk to each other. So go network. Don't shut up about your work.

My movie really started to take shape in the last two years when I was so frustrated with everything, that I just started talking to everybody on set. And a lot of the people that really made it happen were people that I met on set, producers, my lead producers, executive producers, my key grip, my AD. These were all people that I had met through working in film. So yeah, if you want to, I would say, work in the industry, you don't have to go straight to directing and it's actually quite useful to understand different parts of what it is to be on set because I think it really makes you more patient and understanding and you really understand what you're asking for when you say you want the moon pushing through the window and your G&E team has to take two hours to set that up.

No Film School: Amazing advice. To know what you're asking for I think is a big one. Is there anything that you wanted to bring up that I didn't ask?

Lungulov-Klotz: I don't know. I've been at Sundance for, like ...

NFS: I know. I'm sure you're exhausted.

Lungulov-Klotz: I think editing, maybe something about editing, because it was ...

NFS: Something about editing!

Lungulov-Klotz: We shot this movie in September and I had two weeks to put the rough cut together with my editor. I guess creating a language with your editor so that you are on the same page was really, really helpful in just having similar intuitions and overall goals as to what emotionally we were getting at because it just became such an intuitive process. Was that ...

No Film School: Yes. Amazing.

Lungulov-Klotz: Yeah. Adam Dicterow, my editor, was just an angel. I was truly blessed to find the people that were my co-creators. My DP and my editor were just amazing and cannot stress how important it is to ... They have to be like your husbands, for example, or the dads. We are birthing this movie together. It is very important to have a strong relationship with your actors, but it's my DP that I would turn to when I was stressed. That's who I would tell my fears to, not my actors.     

No Film School's coverage of Sundance 2023 is brought to you by Adobe.

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