“I wish I had a few beers in me. I’d be way more…” He trails off for a moment. “There’s a self consciousness that creeps in when you’re being interviewed.”
This is surprising coming from a guy who sports a beard growing in every direction, thick rimmed glasses and a shirt with at least three buttons undone at all times, but Tukel isn’t used to the spotlight. A native North Carolinian, Tukel flew under the radar for most of his life, painting, dabbling as a musician, directing four films and failing to publish his children’s books, until he moved to New York in 2010 at the age of 38. This April, I found him standing in front of a screen covered in Heineken logos at the Tribeca Film Festival, surrounded by reporters with microphones and lit up by their camera flashes. His film Summer of Blood — Woody Allen meets Curb Your Enthusiasm with vampires — had just premiered in front of a packed house.
Bushwick, 10:18 p.m.
At long last a table on the patio opens up, and we sit under the awning out of the wet, talking and enjoying the heat of the May night. Southern fried chicken, biscuits and fries clutter the table — well, actually, just Tukel’s side of the table. I’ve already cleared my plate, but Tukel hasn’t touched his food yet. He’s too busy speeding through a scattered story of his life, gesticulating with the occasional french fry and telling me about his first dip into creative expression.
“My mother would throw these dinner parties with all of her Turkish friends. In my youngest memories I would draw two things. I was obsessed with the movie Jaws — I saw it in theaters when I was 5 or 6 — so I drew a shark eating someone or a cartoon man running around because of that really popular song hitting the radio waves by Ray Stevens called “The Streak,” he says, referencing a 1974 single from the pop country album Boogity Boogity. “It’s stupid and spoken word ridiculousness, but everyone at dinner laughed like crazy and would give me 50 cents for a drawing. So from the beginning I was getting validation.”
After growing up in Taylorsville, North Carolina, Tukel moved to Chapel Hill and studied journalism and film at the University of North Carolina. Like his films, his studying focused less on class time and craft and more on social interaction.
“It’s not the monogamy, it’s the family dinners.”
“What I went through informs everything I’ve done. Everything [in college] was an exercise in absurdity,” he says with a laugh. “Not only to meet girls, but to see who could make a fool of themselves at a bar. Who could get a drink spilled in his face. It was anything for a laugh and constantly about trying to amuse the other person.”
Even today, he brings a naive curiosity to his encounters. When he first moved from the neighborly South to the comparatively cold NYC, he wanted to conduct a social experiment of sorts. He waved and said hello to as many people as he could for the first year to see who’d respond. “The younger women never responded”, he says.
Even in an interview about himself, Tukel can’t stop his drive to be social, to learn more about everyone around him and discover how they might look at things differently. We talk about 9/11, my generation — raised on fatalism and Louis C.K. — and waiting to get married. He dodges compliments and shrugs off his accomplishments with social grace, asking me as many questions as I ask him. It isn’t an interview, it’s a conversation, and it’s neurotic.
His ability to step back and view accepted social convention with his own eyes, not through the eyes of the past or his neighbors, pervades his films. Summer of Blood opens with the girlfriend of Tukel’s character proposing to him after three years together, a proposition which he denies, quickly putting the ring back in the box and effectively putting an end to the relationship. This is a page directly out of Tukel’s book. The real Tukel, who is currently sipping a beer and grilling our photographer about his life goals, is the eternal bachelor.
“If I got married it’d have to be fast and reckless. I just don’t see it any other way”, he says. After a minute he adds, “It’s not the monogamy, it’s the family dinners.”
Even his children’s books aren’t immune to Tukel’s world view. For his second children’s book Rainstack!, which he wrote and illustrated, Tukel asked to shoot his own promotional video. Reasoning that parents are buying the book, not their kids, he shot an ad aimed at adults, in which he hides in a child’s closet and emerges when the child’s mother is trying to pick out a bedtime story, scaring them both and launching into a pitch for his book. (“It’s a really terrific story, and I think your kid will really enjoy it”, he says as the mother tries to fend him off with a wooden toy plane.) It goes without saying, but the advertisement never aired.
As we wait for the check to arrive, Tukel admits that the vampire aspect of his latest movie was just a ploy to make a little more money than he normally would have (he’s already sold the rights to MPI Media Group). Tukel didn’t mind jumping on the bandwagon; the vampires, which play a relatively minor role in the movie, don’t get in the way of his characteristic style. In fact, after Tukel’s character is bitten, his life remains ostensibly the same; he neurotically checks to make sure his victims are disease-free, fears newly minted levels of commitment (after he does finally get married, he won’t bite his new wife, reasoning that this would ruin the “death” aspect of “til death do us part”) and constantly pesters others with one too many questions about famous vampires and the rules of religion. In short, the bloodsucking doesn’t cloud his vision.
“I would rather watch something that looks like terrible with good acting and dialogue that has something to say than watch a blockbuster”, he says, referencing the works of Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, Neil Labute and Richard Linklater. “Craft is important. I love watching beautiful movies, but I love words.”
Tukel doesn’t seem to be after fame and fortune, although he would never turn them down. He simply has a need for self expression, working as a freelance graphic designer just enough to support his creative projects, the next of which is a music video of epic proportions. He was drawn to film especially for the opportunity to work with a cast and crew, as opposed to the isolation that comes with writing or painting. His films are produced with everyone’s input and play like the product of a great party, with the energy of actors having fun, unconcerned about the finished product and excited to hear Tukel’s script come alive. What results is art without pretension, a phrase that’s virtually an oxymoron.
It’s getting to be midnight and the waitress ushers us out of the patio. The interview is over, but it’s still early in Tukel’s book. After I turn off my recorder he invites me to grab another drink at the bar before last call. We move inside and order two whiskeys.