With the proliferation of e-commerce and everyone and their mom’s move to the web, 2014 seems like a strange time to make a mall film. But for director Joe Hahn, his debut feature film Mall is focused more on the emptiness of the people inside. “Very early on, I saw the mall as a cage, a zoo,” says Hahn. “…The only difference with people is that they have a choice whether to put themselves there or not.” The film, adapted from the Bogosian novel of the same name, represents a meeting point between a handful of seemingly unconnected people at an Any-Town USA mall. Co-written, produced by, and starring Vincent D’Onofrio, Mall initially had D’Onofrio at the helm of the project before he connected with Joe through a mutual friend and passed the reins.
Known primarily for his role as DJ of Linkin Park, Hahn also co-owns the now-closed Melrose streetwear/toy store Suru, and has recently been exploring more filmmaking endeavors. We caught up with Joe earlier this week in Santa Monica at his studio to talk about the sound design and casting of Mall, and the film’s motifs of emptiness and honesty.
Words by Alina Nguyen.
ALINA: What kind of aspects did you take from music and musicality and put into your filmmaking from a visual standpoint?
JOE HAHN: I guess the steps in the film might be more A-B-C-D, but I think in general with art – for instance, drawing being fundamental to being a painter – it was more about screwing around until something triggers in your head, then building around that until it becomes something that is meaningful and something that you think could be meaningful to someone else. Because I drew up drawing first – a lonely kid doodling all the time. Those are, I guess, instinctual tendencies that kind of come up in different aspects of things… collecting ideas in your head.
The script was the blueprint. Traditionally, you don’t want to be too abstract with that, because you want to get the fundamentals, you want to get the essences of characters, put them in a dramatic setting to explain the story through the situation instead of telling people what the situation is. So that, at least, for writing, has a certain level of objectivity, which for me is good because I can write it or have someone else write it. In this case, the script was already written when I got it, so I could then look between the lines to see how things can connect. There were three writers for this script. The source material was the novel Mall by Eric Bogosian.
Had you read the novel Mall prior to working on the film?
No, I read the script first and I intentionally didn’t read the novel for a while because I loved the script so much and wanted to align myself with the intention of what that is. After a certain point, I read the book, which was cool, and I said, “Okay, cool, now I’m seeing this version of it and how the interpretation of that became a more modern way of telling the story.”
Did you feel like you appreciated even more the way the script was written after you read the book?
When they wrote the script, the core essence of everything – of the story and the characters in it – the big fundamental difference was the POV of the story, [which] changed from more of a flat perspective of five people to the main character Jeff being the protagonist, in a journey in the story. You see the lives through his eyes and how they’re all connected to him. He’s almost like the rock in the story.
For a debut feature like Mall with such an ensemble cast, was it a challenge for you as a new filmmaker?
It was quite a feat, but it was fun for me because I got to meet a lot of really talented people along the way, even people that weren’t in the film. Especially for the main character Jeff, before we decided to work with Cameron [Monaghan], we actually met him last. Everyone we met with was awesome, because we’re in LA. And especially for a young actor, this is the type of film that could be a springboard, so we met with the best of the best. [James Frecheville] who plays the methhead, I saw him in Animal Kingdom and I said, let’s bring that guy in. I loved his performance in [Animal Kingdom], he’s the main character and plays a kind of naïve, innocent guy. I set up a meeting with him, but it’d been 2 years since he’d done the other movie, and in those 2 years, he [aged] and looked like a 30 year old man [laughs], so he didn’t quite fit perfectly [for the Jeff character]. He said, “I really want to be involved in the project, but I really gravitated towards Mal.” After that, he self-recorded a reading and we thought, “Wow, this guy’s awesome.” And we casted him to be Mal.
It’s interesting to me that a film like this is coming out now, because I feel like now that our culture is proliferated with the internet, malls have a different type of relevance.
Yeah, they’re a dying institution for sure.
Do you wanna talk a little about that?
Well, for the story, the mall represents – almost like the town hall of a city, in the traditional sense. That’s where people just congregate. And I think the reasons why people come – in different ways, [it’s because] it makes them feel good, whether it’s shopping, it makes them look pretty, or they want sugar, or a way to escape in some kind of way. But this shows the people that go to the mall to do whatever they’re doing, but it shows the emptiness of their souls. It’s an analogy of them trying to fill their emptiness with even more emptiness. So that’s what the mall really represents.
I think early on, for me, I like to come up with ways to track ideas, create meanings – even if it’s all in my head. Imagery that’s really subtextual, but for me it helps. Very early on, I saw the mall as a cage, a zoo. There’s a sequence where Jeff’s talking to this girl he has a crush on and says how stupid the mall is, and he’s saying, “I’m not a caged animal”... the way I saw it was like the way you look at animals in a zoo and they’re all caged and they can’t go anywhere, that’s what a mall’s like – the only difference with people is that they have a choice whether to put themselves there or not. So it’s like a self-induced imprisonment. That was my thing. And then from there, it turned into all the animal things and how to spin that off into the wolf, the snake, and all that stuff.
These days, do you personally find malls therapeutic? I have some friends who aren’t really mall people, who will walk through the Americana regularly because it’s kind of funny to them.
`I think there’s a psychology to the development of malls, from [the moment] you come in, to the experience, the spectacle that you see. The colors that they choose are very similar to the way they design casinos. You know, you go into a casino – the carpet is always crazy, so your eye level is looking up to the games instead of the floor. There’s certain noise-levels that attract people to certain areas to play slots. There’s no clocks, because they don’t want you to know what time it is. They’re pumping oxygen to keep you more vibrant, getting you free drinks and spend more money ultimately.
Do you spend time at any particular malls in LA?
These days, not so much. I think there’s a new form of mall, which is kind of like The Grove–
Where it’s basically Disneyland.
Yeah, it’s more of an entertainment thing. When I was a kid, I used to go to Glendale Galleria. I remember getting kicked out because I used to skateboard in the parking lot. The security guard used to say, “okay, you’re suspended,” for however long. And I’d just come back. When I was really young, I remember going to the mall and seeing them film a music video that ended up being Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
No way. How young were you? She was on a mall tour. She played only at malls.
I think I was like in third or fourth grade. Now, they have the Americana across from the Galleria, which pretty much put the Galleria out of business. It’s a changing of the guard-kind of thing. But it’s indicative of what malls are now. It’s a dying institution.
For [Linkin Park], especially when we were on tour in our early years, we’d travel to different cities and travel by bus. There was nothing to do, we’d get out of the hotel room and there was nowhere to go, so we’d just go to the mall. Hang out there, buy something at The Gap that we don’t need. Get some Cinnabon [laughs].
Were there any films or works of art that you’d say influenced this movie?
There’s a technique called datamoshing that is basically when the digital signal is interrupted. Pixels wipe away other pixels and it creates this weird dimensional shift that looks 3d and fucked up. But to me, it’s very beautiful, and looks very painterly, as much as digital can kind of suggest that. To me, the idea of the image coming through another image conveys a soulfulness, a purging through an image. So I thought that’d parallel really well with the acid [trip scenes] especially.
Were you planning on having your band involved with the film from its inception?
I really wanted to involve the band as well. Give them an opportunity to be a part of it. To me, it just makes sense to share in the success and try to get to where we’re going. We’re pretty much producers on the film as well.
Scali and I noticed in the opening credits that toy box motif you mentioned is connected with that character. Did you design songs around characters?
Well, for that one, we had that song, it was an instrumental. For [that scene], I designed the opening credits around the song and actually shot it that way. Everything rhythmically would just fall into place. We did the vocals after.
What percentage of the film would you say was designed visually matched to audio [versus] audio matched to visuals?
I guess it was 50/50. There;s a couple other songs that are full songs that are very important parts because they speak directly to the character, like this song. There’s one for Jeff at the end, and one for the security guy. They’re two guys Jeff has never met in his life, but he’s on this path [puts hands up] – the three characters are parallel through time, but there’s something sticky, something that happens between them that connects everything. That’s something that I tried to suggest through the music and visually. It gives you a sense that these people are connected.
Is there a statement or motif you think you’re making with this film?
For me, it’s more about the people. I thought there was a raw honesty to the way the characters were written. And that was refreshing to me because I think if I saw things that had this kind of frankness, I might be annoyed by it [laughs], but I especially like it today because of what we see now through social media is like the best of everyone. With girls, you see the same angle of their face all the time, you see their hand on their hip, and people reinvent themselves. It’s their greatest hits. That’s what you’re seeing all the time. I have friends that have tens of thousands of followers because they’re projecting a certain image – which is cool, but I’m just saying that because that’s what everything is now – at least, it’s what I see when I consume. So this script was really refreshing to break down that barrier. To show what people are trying to be, but also seeing right through it. Seeing who they are, and especially the emptiness that they’re feeling, because it causes all these other things in their lives to exist. On one level, I like that aspect of it, but also to see how people are connecting. How that emptiness can lead to behavior and how that behavior can affect other people. In this film, you see people dealt with a certain circumstance in life, whether they were born that way or put into that situation because of demands of society – then on the other hand, a sociopath.
For me, I loved the whole spectrum of what’s being presented. Human connectivity… For me, it presented itself more as an open book rather than a moral or statement.
You can watch Mall now on iTunes. The film stars Vincent D’Onofrio, Cameron Monaghan, James Frecheville, Peter Stormare, Gina Gershon, and Gbenga Akinnagbe.