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‘Mutt’ Couldn’t Be Set Anywhere but New York

Director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz talks about making a "classic" New York movie.

(Strand Releasing)

"Mutt," playing now at Film Forum, is a slice-of-life drama following 24 hours in New York with Feña, a young half-Latino trans man whose father is coming from Chile to visit him.

While out with friends at night and floating around the Bushwick/Bed-Stuy gray zone, Feña, a soulful and bruised fuck-up played by Lío Mehiel, runs into his ex-boyfriend John, who he dated before his transition and is back in town to care for an unseen mother in Queens with an unspecified illness. The turbulence beneath John's surliness is drawn out immediately by Cole Doman, who displays fathoms of mysterious hurt. The characters, eventually including Feña's dad (played by Chilean actor Alejandro Goic) and his estranged half-sister Zoe, show each other their wounds and scrabble for reconciliation.

"Mutt" is the debut feature from director and writer Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, a filmmaker who told me Feña is a version of him (a "photographic negative"). Feña belongs, Lungulov-Klotz told me, "everywhere and nowhere," and inhabits crevices between identities that, despite their specificity, can resonate with a lot of people, especially New Yorkers. In the screening I saw, when Feña's dad started to weep melodramatically about Feña's transition that, "this is my fault," it elicited the loudest crowd reaction of the movie's 87 minutes, somewhere between knowing laughter and knowing groaning.

These contradictions permeate all of the film—at once both contemporary and nostalgic, "Mutt" pulls sparkling pathos from apartment lockouts and borrowing cars to pick parents up at Newark airport. In an interview, I asked Lungulov-Klotz about his decision to set the film in New York, making the movie glow, and why Feña didn't just take an Uber.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hell Gate: I wanted to start by asking about where you're from—our background, and how it relates to the movie.

Lungulov-Koltz: It's going to be a complicated answer, but I'll give it to you. It's very New York. I have a Chilean mom and a Serbian dad, and they both got to New York in the '90s. They had me and my twin. So I was born in New York. But then my mom went back to Chile when I was two, so I grew up in Chile, coming back and forth to see my dad before he moved back to Serbia. And then, when I graduated high school, I moved back to the states to go to film school. So kind of all over, but I usually say I'm like a New Yorker that was raised in Chile.

This probably leads from what you were just saying, but why is this movie set in New York?

I don't know if I could set it anywhere else in the states. I actually tried to set it in Chile in the beginning when I was writing it. But I realized that I myself couldn't even talk about what it was like to be a trans man in Chile, that had been post-op with top surgery. Because it's such a symbol of an economic status that in New York, it's not—you get it through your health insurance. So there's an accessibility to being that type of person that would be very different anywhere else. Eighteen [years-old] onward, I was in New York. And that's an experience that I knew, but I also just think New York is the only place that can hold a story like this. And I love the idea of 24 hours and how much ground you can cover in New York. And it's like, I don't know, it's a dream city. Right? People go there to be who they want to be.

Where do these characters come from? Are there people around you that you drew them from?

Feña is kind of like a photographic negative version of me. I speak better Spanish than English, and am much whiter-looking than they are, they speak worse Spanish than I do, they're more brown and are a different type of diaspora. But it's still the sense of belonging and kind of being a mutt, that kind of fits everywhere and fits nowhere.

Can you talk a little bit about the filming process? Part of the reason that I was so curious about the decision to set it in New York is, you know, there are easier places to film. 

Yeah, there are easier places to film for sure. Well, it's a few things. I'm a key grip for money. I myself have been part of 14 feature films that take place in New York. And I've worked on commercials and different short films. So I actually have shot so much in New York that I knew how to approach it. But it is hard. At the same time, it's easier than Los Angeles for some things. For this budget level, in New York, you get a permit for the entire city and you can shoot in the streets. In Los Angeles, you would have to get a permit for every single corner that you're shooting. Like in that sense, I think New York lends itself to more of a guerilla DIY kind of filmmaking. 

And it's beautiful. Anywhere you point, it's just so filled with history. But we had 37 locations and 24 shooting days, it was a marathon. And the days that we could walk away from set and leave our stuff somewhere were amazing. The laundromat is a laundromat across from my house. That's where I do my laundry. The bar is my friend Mitch's bar, All Night Skate in Bed-Stuy. So, I think it's also a portrait of my New York that I hope doesn't fade, but might one day not be there. 

Lío Mehiel as Feña. (Strand Releasing)

I remember having the sense of like, is this movie set this year? Like, it felt like a little bit—

'90s?

Yeah.

You're not the first person to say that.

Sometimes I was like, why don't you just call an Uber? 

An Uber to Newark, are you kidding?

No, I mean when he was trying to figure out how to get around with his sister, or got locked out of one apartment.

Right. I don't know. Other people have told me it's kind of naive. He loses his phone and like, then they're in that super '90s car. Yeah, it is very, like retro in that sense. I think when you're drowning, or you're overwhelmed, you kind of forget that there are easier things to do.

The movie is so beautiful. The lighting seems very romantic. There is a certain amount of grit but it is very—kind of glowy.

I think when you think of a New York, 24-hour movie, you think handheld, super gritty. And I think Matthew Pothier, the director of photography (who I adore and is a genius), and I, we chose sticks. Everything's on a tripod. We put ourselves in a corner to force ourselves to shoot New York in a different light. And none of the lighting was that arduous of a process. It's just a very classic New York movie in a sense, and why not make it beautiful? I think I just trusted Matt to do what he does best, which is just create beautiful photographs.

Even when Feña, John, and Zoe are just driving in the car, it's so idyllic.

That was sunset, so very golden hour. When you don't have much money to make something, you just have to choose the right times to shoot things. Like the scene where Feña picks her dad up at the airport. We just gave ourselves 45 minutes to shoot that and catch magic hour because we knew that not only was it going to look beautiful, but it was gonna give a sense of time passing in this 24 hour movie. We needed a scene that was while the sun was setting, but it also looks great. And it's the best way to shoot a car scene in New York. There's so much light pollution. I think also the amount of light pollution in New York City allows for lighting to be a little more magical and kind of out there, and still look naturalistic.

I really think the cast is just fantastic. How did you find these actors? 

Lío was a big search, you know, very specific casting. Mixed, half-Latino, trans, post-top surgery, all these specificities. So that took like two years. I just reached out to colleges and acting classes and lots of Instagram blasts and compiled a list of actors and a lot of non-actors. But we found Lío through that. When I found them, I was like, great, I can make this movie. Because I was getting scared, I was like, wow, I think I might have to change the character to maybe not be mixed, but then the whole movie would have collapsed in itself. And then the dad, Alejandro Goic, is just literally my favorite Chilean actor. Chile is so small that I was able to reach him within talking to like two people, which was incredible, and he said yes, just kind of right away. Cole Doman, I saw in "Henry Gamble's Birthday Party" a few years back, and I adored it. And I just reached out to him on Instagram. And he said yes. MiMi Ryder comes from Broadway. But Mimi and Lío are both New Yorkers, which is also really cool to have them kind of represent the city.

Mutt is playing now at Film Forum until August 31. 

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