When a name appears in the credits of a film as often as Mickey Reece’s does in his own, your first impulse as a writer is to call him a “one-man band.” But he’s not—at least, not anymore. Before he was a self-taught filmmaker on the rise, this Oklahoma native was a touring musician, performing under the moniker El Paso Hot Button. Watching old YouTube clips of him playing a tambourine with one hand and his guitar with the other, left foot on a snare drum and right foot on the bass, it feels like a tidy visual metaphor for the life of a DIY artist. But the longer you talk to him, the more you realize that Mickey Reece resists neat classifications.
That goes for his films, too, of which there are dozens—though, according to Reece, a lot of them don’t really count. The first 20 or so were “practice, basically,” as he tells The A.V. Club. Climate Of The Hunter (2019), his first film to be elevated to the status of “limited theatrical release,” places him in the regional horror tradition, which has produced such timeless frights as The Evil Dead and Night Of The Living Dead. Climate Of The Hunter is a moody vampire film inspired by—or, as Reece puts it with characteristic bluntness, “ripped off from”—the 1971 Euro-horror classic Daughters Of Darkness. The film moves the action from a grand hotel to a Midwestern cottage, where two middle-aged sisters fall under the spell of a mystery man who may or may not be undead.
The film smells like the joints one sister is constantly puffing, and tastes like the lime-green Jell-O with which Reece’s camera is so infatuated. Climate Of The Hunter makes ample use of star wipes, soft focus, and other kitschy visual flourishes, all of which creates an idiosyncratic treat of a film. As we wrote in our review from last year’s Fantasia Film Festival, “Everything from the casting to the pacing to the dialogue and cinematography contributes to the film’s strange, somnambulant tone, which manages to re-create the knife’s-edge sexiness of a good giallo while still obviously being shot at someone’s lake house. The atmosphere is so dense and hypnotic, you just want to take a big whiff and get high on the psychosexual fumes.”
But although he’s really good at it, ’70s-style psychological horror isn’t necessarily Reece’s bag. His homegrown slacker dramedy Suedehead (2015) is more of a Linklater-type deal, albeit one made 400 miles north of Austin. Revolving around an embittered musician fresh out of jail who gets a job as a mall cop, it’s a keenly observed satire of the local music scene that veers into jaw-dropping absurdity in its final act—something that happens a lot in Mickey Reece movies. Similarly, his Elvis movie, 2017’s Mickey Reece’s Alien, starts off as a talky biopic focused on a specific moment in the rockabilly king’s life, and ends up as a metaphysical experimental film. As one Elvis tells another Elvis during their conversation in a bathtub (yes, that is a literal description), “Nothing is real. Nothing at all. Except for basketball.”
Reece has an ear for dialogue, whether it’s good old boys in polo shirts talking about football, pretentious intellectuals pontificating about jazz, or scenesters bitching about their favorite bands from the bemused distance of a lifelong outsider. His sense of humor is absurd—the “Game Night” sketch from I Think You Should Leave could be a scene from ones of his movies—and surprisingly cutting at times. The 2019 film Arrows Of Outrageous Fortune, easily Reece’s most mean-spirited comedy, makes great merriment out of a misogynist douchebag hanging around the story’s edges. At one point, coming upon a teenage girl trying to self-induce an abortion in a bathroom, he says that he knows what she’s going through because his ex has had several abortions, and “I was there.”
The through-lines are these: a style Reece rather self-depreciatingly refers to “people talking in rooms,” and a guarantee that, no matter where you think a scene is going, it will go somewhere else. The first one has earned him the nickname “Flyover Fassbender,” though, as long as we’re name-checking European arthouse icons, “Backwoods Bergman” might be more astute. “The Soderbergh of the Sticks” is another popular one, thanks to Reece’s ingenuity and prolific output; the filmmaker doesn’t seem to mind that one so much, though Soderbergh’s work rarely veers into the high strangeness that’s de rigueur in a Mickey Reece project.
Mickey Reece is the real deal, a unique combination of singular artist and enthusiastic collaborator who approaches his work with the stubborn practicality of someone whose opportunities in life have been limited, but who decided to push on anyway. If you did any time in any sort of DIY scene—music, filmmaking, art—you know a guy like Reece: someone who doesn’t bother asking for permission, because he already knows what the answer’s going to be. “When I was a musician, I got a lot of smoke blown up my ass,” he says. “And so I approached filmmaking in the same way. Anybody who’s talking to me about anything has got to be full of shit, so I’m just gonna continue doing what I do.”
Reece is fine with the novelty-act label of “outsider artist”—to a point. He recognizes that some sort of narrative is necessary to get people to buy what he’s selling. That’s why he agreed to the creation of a half-hour documentary short, “Belle Isle,” that lays out the familiar beats of his story: prolific self-taught filmmaker who grew up making movies in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma. (Back in 2010, in an article about his mockumentary Country Singer, he laid out his philosophy thusly: “I feel the more (bad) movies you make, eventually you’ll make a good one.”) Still, the novelty has since worn off. “Whenever someone is like, ‘Man, how do you make all those movies?’ How do I answer that? I don’t know. We just did,” he says.
Reece was born in 1982 and grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, where like many young people with imaginations that are bigger than their environment, he made movies on the family camcorder with the help of his friends and his grandmother—many of whom are still part of the Reece company of players. This is the period of Reece’s life most susceptible to a rose-colored view: a bunch of kids who haven’t yet been beaten down by life exploring their creativity in a backyard. It doesn’t hurt that his grandmother Jean Keef, who appears in 16 of his films, has the kind of warm presence that, if Reece were just a smidge more famous, would be worshipped on Film Twitter.
But life happens. Early parenthood, at age 20, kept Reece in Oklahoma while two of his best friends moved to L.A. to go to film school. It was around this time that Reece got burned out and abandoned filmmaking for a time, before slowly making his way back to it in his late twenties. Using the technical know-how and access to expensive lighting equipment his buddies had picked up in college—not to mention his son, who stands in pretty much every time a kid is needed in one of his projects—Reece dusted off his camera and returned to his first love. “I could never tell you in a million years why I kept doing it. I just thought it was fun, and I wanted to keep making them better,” he says. “Those movies I made when I was a kid almost didn’t help, because I forgot everything.”
This second, halting go-around at filmmaking got a major boost in 2010 when a woman in Hot Springs, Arkansas with a reputation for investing in young artists from the region gave Reece an unheard-of investment of $5,000. “I’m telling you this because I couldn’t even believe it myself,” Reece says. “She didn’t know what she was doing. She created a monster,” he jokes. Reece took the money and flew his buddies in from L.A. to work on his film, a war drama called Airmen. The remainder of the budget went to uniforms bought at an Army-Navy store, the DSLR camera and microphone Reece would use to shoot his next dozen or so projects, and a secret expense: a couple hundred bucks’ worth of used DVDs.
“It wasn’t, but at the time it seemed like an irresponsible use of the money,” he says. “I wanted to watch everything that I could, so I bought all the Terrence Malick movies. I bought all the Sam Peckinpah movies. I bought everything that was ever nominated for an Oscar, essentially, for $3 or $4 each… I’m looking at my collection right now thinking about all the money I spent on it. But I watched everything, because I wanted to make sure that I was hitting every mark that I wanted to.” He adds with a laugh, “And then the movie was just okay. We premiered it once, and that was that.”
Reece is far from the first person to attend the school of DVD and Blu-ray. A video-store education is an essential part of the mythology behind Quentin Tarantino’s rise to fame in the early ’90s, and Reece exhibits a similarly freewheeling philosophy when it comes to incorporating those influences into his work. “Sometimes I don’t even know where some of it comes from until later on,” he says. “I’ll be watching a movie and be like, ‘Oh, that’s where I got that line.’”
That being said, the way Reece’s cinematic influences surface in his films is far more intuitive–even mystical—than Tarantino’s self-aware riffing. Just as he doesn’t see the point in getting hung up on technical limitations, Reece also sees agonizing over every word of his scripts as a barrier to creativity. “If I don’t write them fast—if they don’t write themselves fast—then they’re not worth doing,” he tells us. In “Belle Isle,” he tells an offscreen interviewer, “I’m trying to do something that no one has ever seen before. If you’re not, is it really even creating?”
Perhaps that’s why what comes out the other end is so strange. Although—reviewers take note—he hates being compared to David Lynch, it’s hard to deny that the bizarre dream logic of Reece’s films comes from a similarly intuitive place. Toward the end of our hour-long phone conversation, Reece mentions that friends and family members often tell him how bizarre his work is; these comments used to irk him, but he’s at peace with them now. “I’ve tried to do things [differently], and it’s just like, ‘Why is it still weird?’ Because that’s what it is. I can’t get around it.”
Every artist has to field criticism from people who just don’t get it. But when you’re plugging away on no-budget weirdo movies in rural Oklahoma, those voices are often louder than if you’re ensconced in big-city bohemia. Many people in Reece’s hometown don’t really have a frame of reference for movies as art, which has always puzzled the director. He doesn’t understand why film should be considered a lesser form of creativity than music or painting. “Musicians all consider themselves artists,” he says. “But filmmakers are just like, ‘Did you get that gig?’” There’s the money aspect, of course; considering yourself an artist can keep you warm at night when your work isn’t getting you paid. But Reece isn’t looking to sell out anytime soon, if only because “my sensibilities don’t work that way.”
Just as much of his musical output is missing from Spotify, most of Reece’s films have never played in a movie theater. Instead, they’ve followed a trajectory familiar to anyone who spent their youth hanging from the rafters of a dank basement watching punk bands. First he screened them at his house. Then at a DIY space. After that, an art museum in Oklahoma City, where he now lives. Each of these were one-time-only events, attended mostly by his cast and crew. A review of Suedehead in The Oklahoman notes, “This is likely going to be the only screening, and free beer will be served.”
Of the 37 directorial efforts listed on Reece’s IMDb page, the 30th—2018’s stylized and surreal Strike, Dear Mistress, And Cure His Heart—was the first to play at an international film festival. That was at Fantastic Fest in Austin, a haven for micro-budget productions and bizarre genre exercises that attracts open-minded and adventurous viewers—in other words, an audience hand-picked for a Mickey Reece vehicle. The film did find fellow travelers at the festival, who compared its deliberately stilted dialogue and bizarre visual language to Hal Hartley and Reece’s beloved Ingmar Bergman. Leigh Monson was paying Reece a compliment when they wrote for Birth.Movies.Death, “there is also the distinct impression that Reece, at best, doesn’t care what you think of his film, and at worst, is actively hostile to outside interpretation of his personal vision.”
Reece now makes movies “the right way,” meaning shooting for several weeks straight instead of here and there when the cast is available and in a good mood. (In a revelation that left The A.V. Club speechless, Reece says Mickey Reece’s Alien and Arrows Of Outrageous Fortune were both filmed in a week, including insert shots.) His upcoming nunsploitation riff, Agnes, is the first project where he had the luxury of location scouting; his previous films all started with an available location and some willing co-conspirators, with the story engineered backwards from there. It sounds like hardship, but Reece says it made him a more confident and efficient filmmaker: “I’m pulling favors every time. ‘I know you have to work in a couple hours, but can we just get this real quick?’”
His persistent efforts have attracted a devoted coterie of actors and crew members who have all chosen to invest in a shared sense of purpose and artistic vision. Reece directs, but the process is collaborative—which, as he points out, it almost has to be if you’re paying your actors and crew in the experience of being there. “You can’t have them decide they don’t want to work with you anymore halfway through,” he says. When he’s making a movie with a budget of $3,000 or $4,000 (no zeroes are missing there, that’s a typical pre-Climate Mickey Reece budget), he says that he’s very upfront with the cast about where that money is going, because “they feel like they have more ownership over it” that way.
“I only had trouble when it was time to cast, like, real actors who took it seriously,” he adds with a laugh. Sometimes it works out, though, as it has with Mary Buss, a formally trained theater actor who’s been in four of Reece’s films to date. Reece met the actor at a rare encore screening of his 2014 film T-Rex, an Altman-style ensemble piece about the aftermath of a family man’s shocking suicide that the director shot in striking black-and-white. After the show, Reece introduced himself to Buss. “We were talking and I was trying to be charming,” as he puts it, “saying, ‘You know, some people think it doesn’t make any sense.’ And then Mary said to me, ‘It’s the only thing I’ve seen in this town that makes sense.’ And boom, we’ve been working together ever since.”
T-Rex was a fateful project in more ways than one, as it also cemented the creative partnership between Reece and his co-writer John Selvidge. In the two months since we talked to Reece, he and Selvidge have already gone into production on their fifth project together, Country Gold. The film’s official logline starts conventionally enough—“George Jones invites an up and coming country star out on the town in Nashville”—before taking a hard left turn—“the night before he is to be cryogenically frozen in 1994.” Reece himself will play the up-and-coming singer, and all the regulars will be there, with Ben Hall, who played Climate Of The Hunter’s aging lothario, Wesley, starring as George.
It’s a continuation of a surprisingly contented 2020 for Reece. He spent the year doing what he’s always done, editing footage (for Agnes), before stay-at-home orders were put in place. While he thinks it’s too easy to say that he needs to create to be happy, “I just feel like, ‘What are we doing? We’re wasting time here,’” when he’s not. There’s a sense of inevitability when Reece talks about the trajectory of his career, which, step by step, is making him into a “real” filmmaker: first festivals, then distribution. Now he’s making films that attract actors from outside his circle: The Craft’s Rachel True co-stars in Agnes, alongside The Vast Of Night’s Jake Horowitz and Castle’s Molly Quinn. And if he ever does go Hollywood, there’s no doubt he’ll do it on his own terms.
But while going your own way has its benefits, it can be lonely, too. If there are other filmmakers out there doing the same thing he’s doing, Reece doesn’t know about them. “I’ve been alone all my life. I’m in a small town. I’m in Newcastle, Oklahoma. Who am I going to talk to about this?” he asks. (Seriously, get in touch. He wants to call you when he’s drunk and talk shop.) Asked if filmmaking is inherent in his character, he replies simply, “It has to be.” Nothing else would make sense.
Climate Of The Hunter is out on VOD now, and T-Rex, Mickey Reece’s Alien, Suedehead, Belle Isle, Strike, Dear Mistress, And Cure His Heart and Arrows Of Outrageous Fortune are available for rental or purchase through Alamo On Demand’s Mickey Reece Six-Pack.