Cash Only is the third feature length motion picture from director Malik Bader, whose past work on the 2006 mock-documentary Street Thief cemented his status as a contemporary auteur of metropolitan crime. Violence and depravity wend their way throughout both forceful efforts on the big screen, but with Cash Only Bader has moved from the streets of Chicago to the dilapidated infrastructure of the dangerous Albanian underworld in Detroit. Featuring a screenplay written by lead actor Nickola Shreli, Cash Only combines taut spiritual revelation with a harrowing drama, and we were more than honored to speak with Bader about his latest directorial effort in the following conversation.
Sean K. Cureton, Audiences Everywhere (AE): After your last feature film Street Thief in 2006, how did you go about approaching city life and underground crime in Detroit in a way that was different from how you shot Chicago?
Malik Bader: In some ways it wasn’t so different, and then in some ways it was. We wanted to just give kind of an honest picture. One of the big challenges was we were filming in the dead of winter, and it’s kind of something to get human beings out and about when it’s twenty below zero in January. But because of the budget of the film and [other] constraints, that’s when the crew was available. So it was, you know, how do we create [Detroit], whereas in Street Thief, which was kind of a doc-style film, it was how do we capture it. But I think those were kind of, I guess, the two different approaches.
In both we kind of keep very honest portrayals of the worlds. But in one we had to do a little more in terms of putting it there and creating it. [In Cash Only], we had dog fighting rings, and we had weed grow rooms, and we had Albanian social clubs where people that were part of the crime world would hang out in. So it was how do we show that stuff in kind of more of a real way as opposed to kind of a Hollywood way, so to speak. And so that was one of the challenges in that we had to create it all, and again, you covering films know that you have constraints when you’re trying to do it and also honestly show it. One of things we didn’t get so lucky in was, again, you’re doing a weed grow room and you can’t go into an operating place and you have to create it. That was one of the big things, just trying to stay true to life and honest to what we were showing people.
AE: Working in service to the screenwriter and lead actor in Cash Only, was there anything in particular that you wanted to accomplish in telling Nickola Shreli’s personal account of the Albanian immigrant experience in America?
MB: Just in looking at it of course have your own ideas formed by prior things you’ve seen, [including] pop culture, photos, research that I did. And then we went out into this world and kind of took a look at it. But a lot of what he wrote was based on things that he had experienced, and Hamtramck, which is also where we shot, he wrote the script set there, so he had firsthand knowledge. We didn’t know each other prior to us working on the film together. Our relationship and friendship started with him being a fan of Street Thief, sending me his script, and then over a period of about a year and kind of going back and forth on the script, it came to a point where I said, “If you get together a budget to shoot this thing in Detroit, regardless of whether it’s two dollars and a bottle of booze or forty million dollars, I’ll come through and we’ll shoot it.” And sure enough I put my damn foot in my mouth and he said, “Hey, I’ve got two bucks and a bottle of booze. Let’s shoot this.”
And I went to Detroit and we started to put it together with very, very little pre-production time. The window that popped up kind of just came out of nowhere; it was just before Christmas and we ended up shooting in late January. You have all this holiday stuff going on, and everything’s shut down; it’s super cold, there’s snow on the ground, and there’s no budget that’s going to fly you a half dozen times to Detroit to do what you’ve got to do. A big thing was we do want this to be that world that he envisioned in the script and wanted to bring it to life. I think all the challenges that got in our way that made it impossible to do the bad version kind of helped make sure we do the good version. What I mean by that is we didn’t find one apartment that was already dressed that we could get away with shooting, so we had to create an apartment. We didn’t have a cool weed room that was there. We didn’t have a social club. It all had to be built. We didn’t have a dog-fighting warehouse. We had to build one. When you have that kind of creative freedom you can make sure that it’s done in a way that sells it honestly. I think [Shreli] was happy ultimately with the world that we created, and I think part of the fun of filmmaking is creating that stuff.
AE: Street Thief and Cash Only take place in urban environments. What is it about inner city living that is so fascinating to you? Do you think metropolitan areas are more susceptible to the kind of violent crime and depravity that these films depict?
MB: I think it’s part of where I know, and I think you see that a lot with filmmakers, or even novel writers… but I think it kind of informs a person’s sensibilities. I grew up in Chicago, I’m a South side of Chicagoer. My neighbors on the one hand were cops and mailmen, and on the same block were thieves and burglars, which is kind of what led me to the first film Street Thief. But even [in Cash Only] I’m very attracted to that grittiness, and people, and religion, and different walks of life. I guess the whole gamut in terms of culture and what that means. You see that happen more often than not in just those contrasting kind of things in urban environments than you do out in rural areas, even though in different parts of the country they tend to be different. [Different locations] feel and work better with certain types of stories, and I think when you’re telling gangster stories it’s less about, “Hmm, I want this to be in a city,” than where does this really happen and take place? A film like Blood Simple I think could have happened in Brooklyn. But it wouldn’t have been Blood Simple. I think for me it’s just starting with those characters and that world and seeing where it fits. But you hit the nail on the head. It’s not accidental, I’m super attracted to that world, and I think just being from it, and seeing everything that I’ve seen, and having all these stories that I love to tell, it just naturally happens to more times than not fall in urban environments.
AE: Elvis Martini is an emotionally compelling and spiritually conflicted protagonist. What role do you think the Christian God plays in his life? Do you think there’s any hope of a sense of personal redemption for him at the end of the movie?
MB: I think at the center of it I wish we had more time to play with that question in the film… It’s there underneath, and people really had to read between the lines to kind of get it. I think my biggest fear in approaching it was: Are people going to watch this and just look at this character in way where he is not redeemable, he deserves what he has coming, and not f find that sympathetic side, that father who’s just trying to take care of his family, the guy who doesn’t learn from mistake number one? It’s kind of a survival instinct that he has to take care of his daughter, take care of his family, put food on the table, and I think it’s sort of the way it is. A lot of the times in films it’s over simplified with the plot. And religion is a very big part of the Albanian world, as it is in say the Mob world and their rituals and where they come from. But Catholic religion is a big part of the Albanian world, it’s also a big part of Nickola’s life. [Shreli] is a practicing Catholic, and holds his religion in high regard, and I think a lot of these guys can be murderers, or arsonists, or adulterers on the one hand, but then also feel as if they’re very dedicated to God and their family on other.
It’s kind of like, can a man live and say he’s dedicated to that part of his life when he’s doing those darker deeds, and going through that darker turmoil of what these guys have to go through to provide. He doesn’t have the option of a 9-to-5 to make ends meet, he’s got to figure it out and so in his mind he’s justified what he has to do. An there’s also some parts of it [where there’s] this guy who has his daughter in Catholic school and is paying tuition, but has a guy growing marijuana in his basement that has a blow-up doll as his cohort. There’s these really crazy contrasts in the character and in what he does. He has a call girl/prostitute in another unit that of course he’s trying to get out from, but still this is a woman who’s living in the building where his daughter is. And he heads out in the middle of the night to go gambling and leaves his daughter with a neighbor that doesn’t want to take care of her. Is he redeemable? Absolutely. That’s what real people are made of, and I think people that have those big heavy burdens of religion and right and wrong tend to be people that are at the two extremes, so to speak. In my book he totally is a redeemable guy.
He’s a good guy that’s just got really shitty luck and has had a really bad streak in terms of trying to make a go of it. I do think that he learns a lesson in the story. I don’t see him going back to [everything] that started our story after the ordeal that he went through in the story. I think he really, really realizes what a big shithead, for lack of a better word, he is by the end of the story, and seeing his daughter in a cage and this entire situation brought on by a very stupid, stupid, stupid thing, and kind of a mean thing. Like,he stole money from this tenant, first of all, and went way above and beyond what she owed, and put her life in danger, which I think would have happened regardless, but he still cost somebody their life. So there’s got to be some baggage with that. I think we’re pissed at the character, but I do kind of see him as being somebody who could turn a new leaf, who just needs a little bit of luck to set him on the right path. Or at least I hope so, I mean. Some people have their own ideas.
AE: Where did you get the idea of using artist H.R. Giger’s work as an influence on the film’s spiritual fabric? Why do you think it disturbs Elvis so much?
MB: It was just the image. It wasn’t very deliberate. It was an image that captured the feeling that Kush had, which is in this fucked-up-ass world, God ain’t doing that great of a job. I’m kind of going for the underdog, which is not God. It’s the bad guy in the situation. [Kush] was kind of like the guy who was calling it like it is in terms of his view of Elvis with his daughter living on both sides. The entire situation of this guy [who] just comes into this cesspool of a basement and cleans it up and makes the building a better place, and here comes Elvis saying, “Hey, I need more rent.” Kush was the guy who was going to call it like it is, like when says to Elvis, “Bad things happen to bad people.”
Again, Elvis does not want to fucking hear that because that means bad things must and will happen to him. I think that deep down he gives Kush [the license to call] him a hypocrite in some ways and be very cynical ofreligion. A lot of those conversations aren’t there in the film, but how is Elvis sending his daughter to Catholic school, and then getting a blowjob from [a guy’s] wife across the hall, who he happens to be collecting rent from? It’s just this crock of shit in terms of all of his beliefs and everything. We just tried to have a little bit of fun with it, and put something there that kind of captured this guy’s feelings.
AE: There is an interesting series of moments between Elvis and his tenants throughout the film. At one point when dealing with a relatively affluent, homosexual resident who has sought out a new life in the city, Elvis asks why anyone would flee the suburbs. What stance do you think the film takes on this issue, particularly as it relates to gentrification?
MB: It’s one of those things that are happening in those kinds of areas, and we wanted to bring up a little social issue just as background. I mean, here you have this guy who’s clueless as to what’s going on in this area, or sees it as kind of color. Elvis loves it, this grit, this color, this realness, the food, the restaurants, but then when you come to a lot of these areas fifteen years forward, there are very few remnants of that color. You see it happen in Chicago, in neighborhoods like Wicker Park, and Bucktown, and Mount Tilson. So back in the day in the East Village, or the Village, or even Williamsburg, if you go down to New York you just see it happen. It’s cool on the one hand because it gives people a place to go, and great restaurants, and a great culture, and art, but then on the other hand sooner or later this culture leaves the city, it goes out to the suburbs, because people want to put their kids in good schools. I think it’s to the detriment of these really cool cultural enclaves in places.
And I think [gentrification] is for the same reason. Here you have a guy who owns a building that’s getting twice the rent from Chad as he is from all these other tenants, and in addition to that, Chad’s place looks amazing. It’s kind like, “Wow! Dude, you’re the quietest guy here, the cleanest guy here, you’re paying twice the rent, and you put all this elbow grease into the spot. Like, I can’t believe it.” And it’s that contrast and that struggle. I mean, what do you do, lease to your Albanian cousin for four hundred a month or rent it to Chad’s buddy for seven-fifty a month and call it a day? Again, we just wanted to have a little fun with it, and a little social commentary there.
AE: Kush, the character that you play in Cash Only, is perhaps the chief source of comic relief in the whole movie. How did you go about creating Kush in the film as an actor and the director?
MB: It was based on an amalgamation of a few different characters. I guess we wanted a lighter character, in addition to what I mentioned earlier about calling it like it is. Really in some ways, if you take a step back and look at the film, I don’t really see Elvis relating in a friend-friend way with anyone else in the film. Everybody else kind of serves a purpose, whether it’s fixing things around the building, borrowing money, watching his daughter, sexual fulfillment… Kush is the guy Elvis is smoking weed with, talking to, shooting the shit with. I think if [Elvis] was hungry and wanted to just go grab a bite to eat, Kush would be the guy, so I think he is needed to feel like an honest character and not be cartoonish at the same time. Again, it was just trying to make an interesting character that felt like the guys that I knew that did what he’s doing, who were sometime weird, or sometimes in their own world in some ways, but also have a little bit of character.
Another guy that came to mind was Action Bronson who is Albanian, is from that world, is a bit psycho, and is larger than life. But these guys are out there in the world, like I have buddies like that that back in the day, when I was in my younger years and used to hang with. Usually the ones bringing the fun stuff to the party, whether it was weed, or liquor, or the music. They were kind of guys that were in that feel and that vibe, and we just tried to do something fun with it. Like, I don’t know if you felt this too, but there was just a little bit of you weren’t sure [with Kush]. Like, is this going to be the bad guy? Is this going to be trouble? Is something going to happen? We didn’t have as much of that in there as we wanted to. Like in the earlier scene there was supposed to be a few guns in addition to the money laying around the weed room. But just in coverage and in editing that scene, which was really challenging, there wasn’t a way to kind of let it happen naturally. It would be this really stupid cut-away where there’d be a gun there, and you’d be like, “What the fuck was that?” So some of that kind of got away from us, but we did want a little bit of the unknown to be there as well, like maybe he could just go nuts and bring harm to Elvis, and some of the veiled threat of, “I don’t want to see you downstairs,” as well when they have their final discussion I think was intended to do that.
AE: Cash Only saw its premiere at the 2015 Fantasia Film Festival where it was met with great acclaim and took home the Best Director award. What has been the overall response to the film from your perspective?
MB: Way above and beyond what we anticipated. For us we had no expectations, and I know everyone kind of says that, but with this, for us at least, it was a creative endeavor more than anything. We had very limited means, we weren’t busy with big projects, and we just said fuck it, let’s get together and make as good of a film as we can with what we have to work with. So to have that and be able to pull it off and then be at a festival as cool as Fantasia is, competing against much, much larger multi-million dollar budget films, and be recognized with the Best Director award. Even more importantly than that– the Best Director award was an amazing thing to walk away with– but when the film screened for the first time, when Dino (Stivi Paskoski) is stabbed in the neck in the finale, the entire theater explodes in applause, and we’re just like, “Holy fuck, it worked! They got it!” And right prior to that point you could have heard a needle drop because people had no fucking idea what was going to happen to this guy, and then from that to applause was just an amazing thing. Humbled is an understatement in terms of the feedback and reaction that we’ve gotten. And it’s emboldened us to take more risks and to say, “Fuck it.” I mean, if we’re in that same spot again where some of our bigger projects don’t get off the ground, it gives you the confidence to say, “Fuck it. Let’s go out and have fun, and make another one.”
AE: Following on the heels of directing Cash Only, Street Thief, and the horror-thriller Crush from 2013, what kind of movie would you most want to work on next?
MB: There are a few things in the works. There’s a few more urban thrillers that are kind of in the vein of Street Thief and Cash Only, just on a bigger scale. I have a sci-fi film that’s kind of in the works right now. There are a few horror ideas. Crush, for me at least in terms of my sensibilities, is the farthest from [my sensibilities]. I think when you approach things sometimes you think you could make things what they are not, and I think one of the biggest hang ups I have is things in kind of the PG-13 [area], especially dealing with teenagers and high school. I know teenagers and I know high school, and back when I was in high school, and even more so today, I don’t think the world is a PG-13 world, and I think you can’t honestly tell a story, unless your story doesn’t happen to have to deal with that, [but] if you’re dealing with sexuality, and crushes, and high school, and that world, and with me wanting to tell honest, visceral, raw stories, I’d love to do some really cool, smart horror films, but not in the vein of Crush. There’s ideas in a few different genre places for us right now.
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All images courtesy Filmbuff.