Interview with MARS ROBERGE

December 2016

Mars Roberge

Once in a while a motion picture comes out which is more than just that, and you feel it without watching it. This is how one may feel about “Scumbag”: a new movie directed, written and co-produced by Mars Roberge, originally a Torontonian and now a Los Angeleno with a musically rich past and cinematic present, who’s never really dabbled with a narrative feature film before and is set to make a good splash with such a debut. Its sonic aspect seems to be as interesting as its story, hence the start of our conversation.

– Mars, how important is music for this movie?

Well, I call this movie “a rocktopia”: a new genre which is a cross between MTV music videos, John Osbourne’s social realism movement, Dogma and French New Wave Cinema. There is a musical element, and some people say this is a musical, but it’s not; (quotes his own “Rocktopia Manifesto”) it’s about an individual’s struggle against the ideals of a utopian society where the only form of escape is to rock out. Sometimes actors break into songs to heighten the protagonist’s stress; there are a few people that do sing on-screen – those who wrote songs for the movie and perform them – but it doesn’t happen constantly.

– Has all the music been written especially for “Scumbag”?

Some of it has but most of the rest are rare songs that have never really been available. For example, Steve Strange from VISAGE wrote a song [“Not Enough”] along with a friend of mine, Philip Gable, for London Club Kid to sing named Alejandro GoCast, but it never got released, and then Steve died recently. That song is now having it’s world debut in “Scumbag.” There’s also a techno piece that I wrote with Nomi Ruiz from HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR, which also features Jim Sclavunos who plays with Nick Cave And The BAD SEEDS, among other things, as well as songs from the movie’s cast on the soundtrack. I plan to put it out as a double album, with the punk stuff on one disc and electronic stuff mixed by me on the other disc -see, I’ve been a DJ for the last 25 years – 40 cuts in total for the soundtrack.

– Do you still DJ?

I do, just not as much! I’ve lived in L.A. for the last five years, and I’ve done a few parties here and there, but in my heyday DJing used to be my life, my entire identity; I worked in every club in New York and Toronto, where I was pretty popular in the underground scenes. “Scumbag” is somewhat autobiographical – it’s about a DJ, loosely based on Toronto, who worked in clubs like “Catch 22” – and most of it is taking place during the ’90s, so there’s a lot of ’90s influences: we have DJ Keoki, we have the singer from FISHBONE [Angelo Moore] in the movie and the singer from CIRCLE JERKS [Keith Morris] – the bands that everyone was listening to back then.

– Was it difficult to evoke this atmosphere?

It was hard. It’s based on the ’90s, but there are some little points here and there that a perfectionist might notice and say, “That wasn’t there!” Still, it wasn’t so hard for me because I remember that whole time period pretty well, as it was a fun time for me and I still have some of those clothes and stuff. So yeah, it was hard but not too hard. It was a challenge, but it was a fun challenge that the whole cast and crew excited about because nobody has been in a ’90s-type film, whereas today there are retro-ish style movies based on the ’80s like “Stranger Things” and I was doing it before the bandwagon jumped on.

– Did going down memory lane bring a lot of recollections?

Oh yeah, because it also was a dark time in my life when I almost got suicidal, because there was no getaway, no escape from people and places and things, and everything was going wrong; that was my whole existence for at least seven years. And now I kind of put myself back in those years and remembered how seriously miserable I felt at that time: that’s not a good headspace to be in for too long. I actually reached out to some of the characters that the movie was based on – loosely, not 100% – and they’re all a bit of an unfortunate mess… One guy had killed himself last year while I was making the film; other people are in jail; some are wanted by the police or fled the country. It’s scary, but when you’re standing away from it and looking at it, it’s almost comical because you can’t believe how hard that life is. I wanted a career in film as a video editor but I used to hang out in clubs too much to really pursue it, yet I needed day jobs so I purposely took what I thought were the worst ones. I would just collect my minimum wage cheques, sit at my desk and do nothing. But what happened was, I was around a lot of crazy people that would eventually keep me crazy, too, and it was hard to come back from that. For me, it was like “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” where Jack Nicholson’s character doesn’t want to go to jail and checks himself into a mental institution where he eventually goes crazy. That’s what my take on a whole telemarketing world; I thought, “Hey! I’ll just do this for a little bit,” but it totally sucked out my life.

– But what you ended with is basically a comedy, right?

"Scumbag" poster

Yeah, because I was getting in trouble all the time, which was funny, as was being around all these colorful characters that I knew I was going to have to make a film about one day. So here you got this “stud” guy who would hit on everybody, anybody all the time in a kind of weird, non-stop contest; and this other guy who looks like a cross between a Goth kid, Snidely Whiplash, and Thurston Howell III from “Gilligan’s Island” – a deranged pedophile that’s wanted by the police who’d eat his co-workers if it was legal and take life insurances and policies out of them for a hundred bucks hoping they die so that he could make money. We also had this progressive rocker boss that would make us go to concerts, although we had nothing to do with that music but we were interested in booze – we were alcoholics and addicts. It was interesting being around those crazy people, but I got depressed and I did a lot of crazy things like getting into bar fights or playing hockey with them. Those were fun moments, looking back, so there is a fun element in the movie. Unfortunately, there are still jobs like this.

– How strong is your connection to Toronto these days?

Very slim, because a lot of things that I knew have changed. I used to go down Queen Street for two hours and run into fifty people I grew up with, and now I’ll be lucky to find one person I know walking around that area for a week. It looks like everybody’s gone or changed their lives and have kids, like everything has faded away over sixteen years I’ve been living in New York and L.A. My parents moved from [TO district] Scarborough to the area of Cobourg, so when I get to Toronto I take a two-hour bus there where no one knows me. It’s weird. If I have stuff to do in Toronto when I’m there, I think, “Whose house can I crash at?” and there’s, like, only four people left out of everyone I used to know.

– But you have a new social circle now.

Yes. These days mainly actors and film people who are also my friends but in New York it was a ton of nightclub people. See, over the ten years I lived in New York City, I was playing in bands, working for the “Sex And The City” stylist Patricia Field and making experimental movies. From working at the Patricia Field store, I made a documentary called “The Little House That Could” about that.

– That was a serious work – unlike this one.

The store was kind of meeting place for those who took part in New York’s night club culture and fashion scene, very much like Andy Warhol’s “Factory” – there’s live music that came out of there, visual artists and fashion designers. There was so much history that was never covered, and I made that film on no budget, on a home movie camera, which has now played in 14 film festivals, 25 times around the world since 2012 and is still going! You can also stream it on Mainstream Media Unplugged in Toronto and Queer Culture TV out of Australia. It is really big in the LGBT world, because of the gay iconic people involved in the movie. It won a few awards such as The Audience Choice Award for Best 2015 Film at NewFilmmakers Los Angeles as well as Best Documentary at 2016 Philadelphia Independent Film Festival. This all made it possible for me to make a comedy now – it allowed the actors and other people take things more seriously with “Scumbag.”

– From the dark times that the film is about to it being a comedy: was making it a cathartic process for you?

Yeah, yeah, totally. It made me feel like I got my escape: my life’s changed and I have a different career path now.

– If it’s successful, where do you think you’ll go from here?

I’d like to make “Scumbag Part 2” – I’ve already started writing the script – and do a TV series as well, because this film is 114 minutes long but originally it was about 4 hours. I summarized two weeks into the movie, whereas I had seven crazy years, so I feel like I could go on for years writing about the fun stories that happened there. I’m also writing an urban drama about the time I grew up in Scarborough, a kind of Spike Lee autobiographical thing.

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