The Passion of Neil Breen: Madness in the Art of Filmmaking

Reading about directors, cinematographers, and screenwriters can be a humbling experience for people interested in breaking into the film industry. These artists don’t just rely on their talent and luck to be successful; they need to learn how to deal with the pressure and deadlines as well. Not many people can handle it. You’d have to be crazy to make a film in the first place.

This is especially true with directors embarking on their journey to direct their first film. The Coen brothers relate to this in an interview anthologized in Stephen Lowenstein’s My First Movie: 20 Celebrated Directors Talk About Their First Film:

Do you think first-time filmmakers have to have a kind of crazy faith in what they’re doing because if they looked rationally at the odds they’d never try?

Joel Cohen: That’s definitely true. All the things we didn’t know are what enabled us to do it and be successful. If we knew what we know now or even what we knew when we finished the process we probably wouldn’t have attempted to do it or at least attempted it that way. The odds of succeeding at it are very slim and the process is very difficult. That’s why it’s kind of hard to recommend it to people.

Ethan Cohen: Right. There is something a little unhealthy about the monomaniacal frame of mind you have to put yourself in. Right after we got it done we kidded that the reason we got it done was because we got ourselves so deeply in debt that the only way to pay back the money was to make the movie.

JC: We ended up getting dangerously in debt just to live and to keep the operation going. There was absolutely no way we could have made good on that money without actually making the movie and have the movie make money and pay off. So it’s all a little crazy. It’s all something that’s a lot easier for people who were in our position than it is for people who are a little bit older or have financial responsibilities. We didn’t have kids. We were just kids. We didn’t have any commitments so we could gamble that way. People who are making a lot of money doing commercials or videos or that sort of thing, a year or a year and a half into the process that we went through, they’re factoring in all the income they’ve lost, thinking ‘Jesus!’ We weren’t doing that.

All the first-time directors had at their disposal were their wit, the little amount of knowledge they have acquired from making shorts and watching films, and the even fewer wads of bills they have to call their budget. These are all artifacts of faith. Faith in their belief they can make a damn good film without facing the problems everyone else faces.

There are plenty of books about filmmaking that can prepare the amateur director — Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies is a classic for example — but they can only offer as much insight as people are able to write.

Once you are on the field, everything changes. The weather is shit, the actors are missing, the camera is faulty, the shot is faulty, and the production assistant begs you to move on. That snowballing effect is what Ethan Coen calls “the uniform pressure of having to make the day”. You don’t have time and you can only make do with what you have.

“And when you’re doing that for the first time,” Joel says, “you’re often psychologically unprepared for what it really means. That’s why you see a lot of directors on their first features looking really shell-shocked.”

That isn’t an exaggeration. Steve Buscemi locked himself in a toilet when his anxiety got to him after he thought he lost the confidence of his crew. Tom Dicillo didn’t sleep at all before the shooting ever began:

“I drank half a bottle of vodka and I still couldn’t sleep. Then I woke up in the morning, drunk. My experience on some of my own student films had been so horrific that I knew that if that little ball of luck rolled the wrong way it could be brutal.”

These candid interviews don’t just show the suffering and angst in the art of filmmaking. It shows the leap of faith these creators have to take in order to make something tangible and real. Every one of us likes to imagine we’re writing the next novel or filming the greatest movie, but transforming that to reality requires myriad sacrifices. Only blind faith can make those dreams come true.

Faith requires a passion. A passion not that many people have. It is a madness from the outsider’s point of view, but it is also what drives these people to create something beautiful.

Neil Breen is one of those people who has that passion. He is however a realist and says in an Influx magazine interview that “Hollywood was a million miles away and it was literally a dream”. He knew then that he needed a job that would be a compromise between his dreams to create and the reality of money, so he pursued an architecture degree. Once he got a “real job” as an architect, he thought of returning to that dream of becoming a filmmaker. Since he was never part of the “Hollywood insider’s group”, he needed to self-finance his films.

His first film, Double Down (2005), stars himself as Aaron Brand, the “brilliant computer loner” who seems to be living in a car with a laptop hooked to every network in the world and a portable satellite in the car’s trunk. He was a man who “lived between two worlds”. Brand aced his computer science classes and his piloting skills in the army were recognized with medals of achievements.

“But now,” he narrates in the beginning of the film, “I am a covert agent. A mercenary for any nation who wants to control of another.”

Why did he break off his patriotic ties to the United States after serving in the “Secret Strategic Support Branch of the Defense Intelligence Agency” for so long? Because his country betrayed him. He thought he was “doing the right thing in preparing for life”. He thought he was serving his country. But no, the United States government was afraid of Brand.

They were scared of his powers.

Brand had found a way to “control any computer or satellite the government had.” No one could stop him. “The fact that I became so digitally, electronically powerful scared my government as well as others,” he says in the still ongoing narration, “[and] it was that power that caused them to assassinate my fiancée, and break my heart forever.”

He had met his love of his life at seven and stuck with her since. Now, she had been shot by a sniper sent by the government. It caused Brand to despair, “to re-evaluate what [he] was doing for [his] country.” He had turned traitor by offering his services to other countries because his access to the “National Geospatial Intelligence Agency” was valuable. This was his sweet revenge against the United States.

Now, he wants to do good for the world:

“I work as a freelance agent now for many countries, making millions of dollars on many various covert assignments. I’ve been giving away the money to children’s support charities all over the world. Orphanages, hospitals and schools and to support the evacuees of natural catastrophes all over the world like hurricanes. Like Katrina. I can do better for them than most mismanaged and dishonest governments can.”

Throughout this long narration, Brand is climbing down a mountain and going to prepare for something big. There are moments when he looks out into the distance contemplating about his future actions. He types on his non-functioning laptop and smashes the buttons of two dead cellphones. The tension rises. What is he planning to do in the outbacks of Las Vegas?

He finally reveals what his objective is:

“My orders from another country are to shut down the Las Vegas strip. For two months.”

This is the premise of Double Down: A terrorist takeover of Las Vegas for two months planned by a man who has been living his life off canned tuna.

In an interview with Cinedelphia‘s Robert Skvaria, Neil Breen knew Double Down was “obviously a low-budget feature, but a feature [he] had wanted to do with as much professionalism and high-quality standards [he] could afford.” He paid all his actors and rented equipment without going into debt. It was just a film he was proud of making.

But the fanfare took him by surprise. He had submitted this film to film festivals around the United States and people loved it. It became, in his words, “this crazy cult thing”.

It isn’t as hilarious as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room nor as compelling as a Cynthia Rothrock film like Undefeatable, but it is a bit more compassionate and grounded. Double Down is more like a student film that somehow got onto the silver screen. There aren’t that many props available in one Breen film; he for example loves using a buffalo skull in his opening shots. He also uses stock footage for exposition to pad out the length of the film. It is also not uncommon to watch scenes that won’t be cut to another shot for a long time as if to provoke sensory deprivation. Repetitive scenes never seem to end. And the script is borderline incomprehensible: there are themes of a wounded patriotism, but there are also antiauthoritarian leftist politics scribbled all over the dialog that don’t feel cohesive with the other ideas.

So it’s a mess. A beautiful mess.

It isn’t just a “bad” film — it is a passion project that anyone who loves films can enjoy. No one else could have made this but Neil Breen and he did it because he wanted to make a film. Skvaria introduces Breen in the Cinedelphia interview as

“just some guy who wanted to make movies, another avatar for that irrational American ideal of chasing your dream, everything else be damned. That’s what makes Breen’s films so interesting. A lesser filmmaker would’ve encountered the obstacles Neil did and gave up, but Neil didn’t. He’s soldiering on, moving forward in pursuit of that strange creative vision.”

Neil Breen is proud of making, writing, and acting in Double Down. He is as mad as any well-loved director and this thus invites ridicule from many internet critics and reviewers because he doesn’t have any “talent”. Breen is a narcissist and a delusional maniac.

But his passion, I think, is worth commending. It is the reason why I enjoy his films, badly written as they may be, and reminds me why I fell in love with the art of filmmaking years ago.

Four years later, Neil Breen returned to the film festivals with a new film called I Am Here…. Now (2009). This time, he is The Being who has landed on the Earth like an asteroid crashing onto the planet. He is disappointed in His creation, humanity, for falling into vices and corruption. Good people have succumbed to the drug trade and prostitution. Environmentalism and renewable energy have been defeated by evil corporations and power hungry politicians.

The Being decides to go to Sin City as he ponders about destroying the world once and for all. Flashbacks to the past and the future — wooden crosses on the ground, decapitated plastic baby doll heads, and The Being in his true form embracing the woman of his dreams — disorient the viewers as we take the point of view of this all-encompassing figure.

As one can tell, this is a very different film from Double Down. His themes aren’t any different, though Breen does claim that his films do not share “common themes” and “social commentary” that is judgmental — claims that are not true at all. But I Am Here…. Now is a step into what he believes “is a sense of entertainment [and] a sense of paranormal or mystical elements”. Breen dives into the realm of fantasy in our reality as he explores the responsibility of humanity’s roles in the world. That’s the idea anyway.

In practice, that means the film will show gangsters shooting at people indiscriminately and a woman who had lost her environmental activist job(?) prostituting to the capitalist who ruined her life in the first place. The Being suffers from these paradoxes. He is fortunately bestowed with magical powers that can alleviate the suffering from the victims.

He perceives an old man waking up in the ruins of a destroyed house and dragging himself to a wheelchair. The old man moves himself to the most important tourist destination in Las Vegas, the sign that says “Welcome to Las Vegas”. He has a terminal illness and it is in his bucket list to someday visit the sign. That is why he has traveled all the way here to Sin City. However, crowds of tourist block him from achieving his dream. The Being, empathetic to the dying man, uses his powers to persuade the tourists to leave the sign. The terminally ill man cries tears of joy as he finally reaches the sign. He can now rest happily and live the rest of his days out.

This is the compassion of The Being. He still finds good in humanity and wants to change the world. Humanity can only solve its own problems if they remember what it means to love…

It was with this film that Breen was beginning to strike gold. He had amassed a cult following bewildered by his films. Both Double Down and I Am Here…. Now were peculiarly charming films that didn’t really put themselves into a “genre” nor even a “market”. Breen himself said that he never intended to make cult films. He just wanted to do his own thing and that’s what makes his films special.

I watch a lot of bad films, but I find myself coming back to his films the most. Maybe it’s because I am reminded I could have made these films when I was younger. Back in my high school Singapore American School, I made a bunch of crappy films with friends and classmates. We wanted to create art. We just didn’t know how.

First off, we had to figure out how to make compelling scripts with our limited recourses. The cameras weren’t good, but we did have access to Final Cut Pro and Celtx. So we experimented and tried our hands at sound design and special effects to cover up our mistakes.

A friend for example didn’t like the idea of using ketchup or chili sauce to make fake blood for his gangster films. Instead, he put his camera on a tripod, wore a fedora and a tie, strutted around before he got shot off-screen, and fell to the ground. There, he revealed his secret technique: he spilled a can of Coke onto the ground and we thus get the thick blackness of blood on the screen. The only problem was that the “blood” was fizzy and you could see that my friend was spewing out the bubbliest of blood.

I, on the other hand, saw myself as a director-cum-screenwriter-cum-cinematographer. I penned down the worst scripts in the world (“The plot twist is that he’s a serial killer — only on his birthday!!!”) and tried to emulate Kubrick’s cinematography except you could always see a tripod lingering in the distance. None of my films made any sense.

But there was a magic of seeing the film on a huge silver screen with everyone around us. People were munching popcorn as they saw my “masterful” editing of the Evil Dead-inspired horror film my class thought up one lazy afternoon.

I still think about these moments of picking up a camcorder and pressing the record button. I had dreams of becoming the next Welles. I wanted to sneak into the cinema and sit between my adoring fans as we watch the newest film I made on the screen. It’s narcissistic and egoistic, yes, but I wanted to create and share art with everyone.

Watching Neil Breen’s films brings back that joy. His films are fucking weird, but they are so imbued with the passion of filmmaking that it’s hard to take my eyes off them.

Unlike most of us aspiring filmmakers, Breen never stopped and he eventually found success with Fateful Findings (2013). It is his most accessible film to date — both literally and figuratively — because it is available under mainstream US distribution (you can watch it on Amazon Prime) and there are no dull moments in it at all.

Breen reprises his role as a computer scientist extraordinaire hacker, though his name is Dylan now. He is also a talented writer whose books are piled up on his desk for some reason. Happily dating a woman who is addicted to painkillers, Dylan thinks about his childhood friend who has hidden a magical stone with him or something in the past — it’s hard to tell with Breen’s films. But he gets into a fatal car accident and he would have died, but his magical powers from childhood revive him — and it is in the hospital where he meets his childhood friend, the doctor in charge of him. You could say that Fateful Findings is a story of a love triangle of a mystically powered superman, his childhood friend, and his drug-addicted girlfriend based on this premise.

There’s more though: Dylan’s best friend is way too into his new sports car to the point he ignores his whole family and his daughter wants to sleep with Dylan. Dylan has an extreme case of writer’s block and gets crazy over his research on government files. He decides to release these classified files into the public to show how corrupt our elected representatives are.

This mishmash of old and new Breen ideas is madness and passion filmed in 100 minutes. It is nonsense at its highest degree and is just nonstop fun. If there is one Neil Breen film everyone has to watch, it has to be Fateful Findings.

The film was also his most professional then. While he did pay his actors and staff since the beginning, there were more actors and special effects on the screen than ever. There are actual production values now, even if they are comically low. His script was a bit more focused and there weren’t as many boring shots that detract from the pacing of the film. Breen was learning the art of the filmmaking. And while he was still writing in his eccentric style, it was far polished than the script in Double Down.

That’s how unstoppable Neil Breen was. He had achieved his dreams of making the films he had always wanted to make. His adoring fanbase had developed a very small but tightly composed subculture all around his films since there’s nothing like his works. It’s the dream every aspiring filmmaker wanted and he succeeded.

But do these achievements count if his films are bad? Bad as in they’re not actually good? It would be disrespectful to those who have made actually good films and are remembered for doing so. Is it really a passionate activity if it is caused by delusions of grandeur?

A passion without talent is often delegated to the lowest of arts. It is something you only take a peek at quickly before moving off as if you have other business to do. At most, it is a form of outsider art — misunderstood genius hidden beneath layers of controversy and secrecy. But Breen’s films, while technically classified as outsider art, aren’t exactly good even if you take that into account. His plotting is incomprehensible and the acting has never gone beyond the confines of theater class. Cinematography and editing wise, Fateful Findings pretends every gaffe is not just acceptable but the only good take.

One can write endlessly about the problems Breen’s films face every day and how he ignores them out of sheer reluctance. The accusation that he is a megalomaniac follows when in every film, we see his naked figure sleep with a beautiful blonde woman and how he always writes himself as a hero, a figure who can judge others for their poor behavior.

We can turn the other cheek with directors like Alfred Hitchcock who have proven they are able to direct a good thriller, but that isn’t possible with Breen. He is just a bad director.

It might be better for us to call his successes “failures” because he isn’t contributing anything to the history of art.

In fact, he may have jumped the shark with Pass Thru (2016) because he tries to solve the complicated issue of the refugee crisis in 90 minutes.

Breen is an artificial intelligence something who has taken the pseudonym of Thgil, “light” reversed and inspired by a cup of “plain and light” yoghurt. Pronounced “Till”, he once again is disappointed in humanity like The Being in I Am Here…. Now.

People are fleeing from corruption, abusive authority figures, and so on. They illegally migrate to America through vans and tunnels; but instead of escaping from hell, they bring their hells with them. This is how the drug trade works. But they can’t return: their homes are gone and they are gambling it all on making through border control. These people are running away from bad people, but that means they are weak and letting themselves be exploited by others. It is a perpetual cycle of misery and anguish. Thgil despises that. This all happened because of the politicians, the CEOs, the news media, “political correctness”, and everything greedy and exploitative. If they weren’t around, people would be able to live in a better place. We need to fight back. Revolt against the elite. Bring down the bad and recreate with the good.

It is a daunting task, but Thgil’s solution is simple: he will access the multidimensional planes of the time-space continuum (“… the theory of relativity,” he mutters, “string theory”) and remove all the bad people hurting others. Nobody can hurt him. Bullets do not faze him. Only the good will rise. Thgil will eliminate everybody evil for the evolution of humanity.

This is how humanity will be saved. Like a 21st century Moses who separated the sea, he will be passing through walls of 300 million dead “bad” people. This genocide is a “cleansing” of evil.

Breen’s foray into speculative fiction is his “fourth legitimate film”, but it was the first film funded partially by crowdfunding on Indiegogo. While he is still self-financing the film for the most part, he is asking his “fans and audience” for “additional financing through the crowdfunding page to give me more money to spend on the film”. Breen seems sincere when he says in the pitch video that “the more money you have the film within reason, the more you can do to make a better film”.

He maintains that Pass Thru is “mainstream full-length feature film”, not a “midnight film”. It is meant to be “thought-provoking”, “controversial”, and “somewhat rebellious”. Earlier in the video, Breen talks about how the film deals “with the conflicts, challenges, contradictions between advanced artificial intelligence and humanity as we ever know it.” He goes further and expounds on the “controversy of social responsibility and personal values amongst other things”.

But nobody watches his films for the “thought-provoking” content. No matter how many times he says “thought-provoking” in the pitch video or quotes from the Buddha (“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path”) in the film, we’re in it to watch and have a laugh about how Breen’s character miraculously cured PTSD out of someone. Even the most fervent subculture writers have to admit that so bad it’s good entertainment comes first before passion. All Breen wanted to do was to create art. This is the opposite of art. He seemed wary of his reputation as a cult filmmaker according to kacman11’s Letterboxd review of the film:

Neil Breen directly reached out to [the Frida Cinema] to show this film tonight… But he provided some guidelines. 1.) No mention of this film or of himself as “cult” or a “midnight movie”, 2.) No mention of “Tommy Wisseau”, 3.) No trailers to be shown before the film, 4.) No student discounts for tickets.

Breen might be aware that his film success is actually a disaster. It is another failure story, but it became successful because we are in a culture of derision. He has put his savings and funding from his architecture job into four films considered cult classic. What were his thoughts when he had finished Twisted, his fifth film? Even self-absorbed people have to realize others are laughing at their work.

Passion already has a tinge of madness inside it, but it can only go so far before it falls into pure madness.

When the Coen Brothers were asked about what they think of their first film in My First Movie, they said,

Ethan: It’s crude. There’s no getting around it.

Joel: On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual processes of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience. You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad! (big laughs)

Most directors see their first films as being like that. Tom Dicillo compared Johnny Suede to “watching paint dry”, but he was “very proud of it” and felt “that I put on film some things that I had never seen before”. Kevin Smith was “very deflated” after the first screening of Clerks and, while impressed by the reception of the work, admitted that it was due to “timing” that saved it and put him onto the path of making more films. It is a wonder sometimes how these directors kept on making films after films, even if these films were pretty awful to watch.

I thought directors only made good films when I was in film class. Bad films were only made by bad directors. That’s why it was fine to laugh at a film like Plan 9 From Outer Space, the “worst film of all time”. After all, Ed Wood was notorious for his crappy filmmaking. He was not a good director. My film teacher (whose books I stole and am referencing now) appeared behind me as I laughed through the film on my laptop.

“Ah, you’re watching Plan 9 From Outer Space,” he said, “that takes me back. I used to be scared by the jeepers from the film.”

“You’re kidding me?”

“Back in the day, I used to believe the things happening on film were real. Ed Wood’s effects were just as real to me then as Ridley Scott’s Alien is today. It’s actually a good budget horror film for what it is if you’re in the mood.”

“But Ed Wood’s a horrible director!”

I turned back to stare at my teacher. Bad acting that could make anyone laugh echoed around the room, but nobody was laughing. My teacher frowned and sighed.

“You don’t love films, do you?”

“I … do. I don’t know what you mean.”

“If you do, why are you laughing at people’s hard work to make a film?”

I was laughing at Ed Wood’s passion project. I wasn’t anyone better than him. We were both dreamers on making the best films we could, but I had the audacity to laugh at his films for being bad and passionless without a sense of self-awareness.

I looked back at my laptop. Plan 9 was still playing, but there was something different. It was the first time I ever saw films not made by directors but by people. It wasn’t art I was watching but blood and sweat on the screen. People invested money and time into this. Even if it was a bad film, no one can deny the staff worked hard and put their faith into it.

I never laughed at a film for being bad again.

There are bad films out there that are plain unwatchable. No one knows who directed Fun in Balloonland, but it is a film about a kid who dreamed she entered into the fantastic(?) world of Balloonland. And then, for the rest of the film (all 40 minutes or so), we watch a slowly moving balloon parade commented on by someone who seems a bit too interested into balloons.  They aren’t fun.

But when they are fun, we call them “cult films”. We obsess over these films because someone actually has made this and we think it’s great. Not great as in Blackhawk Down great but great entertainment. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of the most famous cult films that serve as a homage to science fiction films then and it is still hilarious today. People could have made this not because they wanted money and fame but because they wanted to.

Who is to say that Neil Breen and others aren’t creating their own kinds of art? They may be making the worst films of all time, but they have that blind faith that Ed Wood believed in too. In Tim Burton’s biopic of Ed Wood, the director cries out at the premiere of Plan 9,

This is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.

We should be celebrating passion when it happens. Films like Who Killed Captain Alex? are community projects that show the indie spirit of filmmaking. They are bad, but they are fun. Encouraging fun films to be made when we all know how crazy it is to produce a film in the first place is what makes sitting in the cinema all worth it.

People love fun films, not just good films. Everyone loves having fun and seeing people invest in so much of their life into it. It is worth applauding when we see a fun work.

When we share our works of hard labor with the world, we all want to let people have a good time. But it is insanity when we have no discernible talent on the work we do. There may never be a chance that we can make anything good.

But our delusions — our faith — makes us create.

That is the passion of Neil Breen. He creates not to make money but to make his own vision of art. It is madness we all appreciate and want to partake in. We may not be able to call it pure artistry, but his work is an act of pure faith.


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