5 Questions: ‘jazzy@32’s’ Kara Mulrooney

The Golden Badger winner kicks off our “5 Questions” series with this year’s Wisconsin’s Own filmmakers

What led Kara Mulrooney to produce jazz@32 might be up for debate. Was the Wisconsin Film Festival jury-winning short film borne out of finding some truth in its creator’s dreams? By an interest in experimenting with storytelling mechanics? Or was Mulrooney’s frequenting psychic chatrooms, as one medium proclaims, preordained “by a spirit?”

Whatever the case, the Milwaukee-based director has produced a vibrant follow-up to An Evening at Angelo’s, diving headfirst into recorded sessions with internet mediums who interpret Mulrooney’s nagging anxieties about fertility. The end result is a quirky assortment of personalities, placed front-and-center in an engaging and personal send-up of traditional documentary conventions.

Anxious for some answers, I reached out to Mulrooney for a private reading of my own:

1. A lot of people have weird dreams, but I was glad you took the conventional route with online psychics. What made you turn to that community?

I had been observing online psychic communities for a long time before trying to make a piece about them. And I could think of many earnest and direct questions for the psychics, but that didn’t seem very interesting – why not just shake a Magic 8 Ball®? My dreams are reliably vivid, and around this time I had several on the theme of fertility. It was important to me that my questions be honest, and what subject is more honest than one’s dreams? It’s raw stuff! Plus “dream interpretation” seemed like it would yield richer material from the psychics than simple questions could.

2. You’re working in an equilateral aspect ratio. Was that simply because we’re considering laptop screens and web cams? Or were you consciously playing with form?

This film is made entirely with screen recordings, but I did change “shots” based on what material I was trying to mine. So sometimes you see the full frame – including the ads, group conversations, and live images of other psychics – which gives context. But other times I recorded only the squarish image from the psychic’s webcam, which was more intimate and sometimes even intense. Even though I “just recorded my computer screen,” I was thinking like a shooter/editor throughout.

3. jazzy@32 features a number of big personalities. Did you need to resist having fun with some of the mediums?

I wasn’t tempted to make fun of any of the psychics because I don’t think that plays well in documentary. Plus it’s mean! Even though these gals are often exploiting emotionally vulnerable people for $1-$2/min., I accept that they’re doing what they need to do to make a living.

I am extremely interested in performance, and on [the site I went to] and others like it, you see men and women appearing to perform what it is to be a commercial psychic in this culture. I have a background in wardrobe and production design so I was especially interested in how they dressed themselves and [what was in the] background. You see lots of hand-dyed and printed tapestries, fairy statuettes, and “exotic” clothing, and that’s them selling their particular brand. I decided to limit the psychics to women, due to the main theme being fertility, but also because there were simply way too many delicious and delightful options to choose from. Perhaps I’ll do a follow-up “investigation” on the gentlemen.

4. Did you have any weird encounters that aren’t featured?

I considered including excerpts from some of the psychics’ self-made profile videos, many of which are wonderfully weird. One woman’s video centers on a magical black mirror from which she divines the answers to your deepest life questions. Another featured multiple costume changes and locations; gotta respect that commitment to production value.

Other encounters were weird because they were so boring. You don’t have to pay to be in the chat rooms, only for private readings, so one psychic was dispassionately talking about her trip to Target that day and how she’d saved money on Kashi microwave dinners with a coupon. The specificity combined with her unemotional delivery just tickled me, but I couldn’t get it to land right. One of my favorite psychics brought out her acoustic guitar and gave a very tender performance of a Beatles song. She fetches $1.99/min.

5. Apart from the Golden Badger Award, which is nice, did you find any personal solace from this experience?

I must say that winning a Golden Badger Award is extremely nice, especially from a festival and field of filmmakers that I love and respect. Strangely, and a bit embarrassingly, having one of the psychics tell me “You will get pregnant,” and within a fairly specific timeframe, was heartening. Friends and family know to be encouraging without speaking so decisively, but sometimes believing in a positive outcome, however unfounded or irrational, is a real relief.

When I first started in these chatrooms, I wondered “Who are these people?,” meaning the users. But if I gained any insight from the experience it’s that they all want someone of “authority” to tell them “You will get that job.” “He will discover he loves you.” “The stray cat you took in is the reincarnation of your recently deceased father.” It’s not rational, but it’s nice.