Ghostbox Cowboy might be John Maringouin‘s first foray into the narrative form, but there is a lineage to his previous docu features; best known for his 2009 documentary Big River Man, about a man’s attempt to swim the entirety of the Amazon river. Ghostbox Cowboy stars David Zellner as Jimmy Van Horn, half of the Zellner brothers duo that directed the indie hit Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and more recently Damsel which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Ghostbox is a satire about an idealistic entrepreneur who travels to China seeking investment for his product that allows one to speak with ghosts, though it becomes clear that he’s in way over his head. I sat down with the filmmaker and lead actor to discuss the film’s hybrid style and the challenges of shooting guerilla in modern China.
John Maringouin & David Zellner
Matt Delman: There’s a nice juxtaposition of the first investor meeting, with legitimate investors, and the next one with Robert Longstreet. Upon first watch, it feels like they are scamming the Chinese guy, but in fact Jimmy is the one being scammed.
John Maringouin: That was the original idea. The scammer is being scammed. Con men in China. Just a revolving door of betrayal. Lies and innuendo. I love those kind of bad guy characters and situations.
Maringouin: To me that’s more interesting than a setup. That’s more the way real life is. Just sort of hovering around. One thing leads to another and the next thing you know you’re all-in on a product you don’t necessarily understand.
Delman: Have you read Tim Ferris’s 4-Hour Work Week?
Maringouin: I made them listen to it in the van a lot in China.
Delman: Are you interested in this new wave of entrepreneurs? Do you watch Shark Tank?
Maringouin: I don’t think we were interested so much in the business aspect of it, so much as what it revealed in other ways. For me, I wanted to do a crime film. I didn’t want to do something on the surface that looked like it was about tech entrepreneurs. I was way more interested in the deep backside. I wanted to depict something closer to the center of hell where these guys were living—in a trashy magical place. That’s what was intriguing to me about it. I have a hard time with suspension of disbelief in films. When things are too clean or too safe I check out completely. I wanted a sense of danger, a sense of the unknown. Doing something on the other side of the world, in a field that you don’t relate to in an emotional way, or even want to, those are all intriguing obstacles that kept me engaged and made it challenging for me.
Maringouin: There was a sense of the unexpected, but I had a pretty clear idea of what the treatment would look like. We set up situations—all the scenes in the film—but Dave and Bob hadn’t seen any of the locations.
David Zellner: Sometimes nobody would see the locations til we got there. We were supposed to shoot in a factory, but they got spooked when we brought the camera. So we shot in this ghost mall instead, a partially abandoned mall.
John: We also shot through jetlag. Dave’s window of availability was short, we only had Bob for 9 days. There were very intense conditions around the shooting, but a lot of them were self-imposed.
Delman: How did you find all the Chinese actors? Did you hold auditions?
Maringouin: We definitely auditioned some of the Chinese actors. I met some scouting the year before. Some I had known for a much longer time, like Specialist. There were folks that we met there while shooting that ended up in the film.
Delman: Is Specialist an actor?
Maringouin: Specialist is an actor now. (laughs) I’ve been wanting to make a movie with Specialist for a long time.
Delman: Can you tell me what he does over there in China?
Maringouin: Uhhh, I can’t. I can’t discuss his actual business.
Delman: What about the lead Chinese investor, is he a non-actor?
Delman: Can you tell me what he does?
Maringouin: I can’t. But it’s very close to what he does in the movie.
Delman: I loved when Longstreet uses the word “a double jouster.” Are there any other tech buzzwords you really like?
Zellner: So many. Too many to list.
Maringouin: I like, “Open the kimono and boil the ocean.”
Delman: What does that mean?
Maringouin: I have no idea.
Zellner: Longstreet’s character was the one who had most of those. He kept rattling them off.
Delman: Some were made up?
Zellner: Some were legit that people told us. And then he would mix in fake ones.
Delman: Towards the end there’s a guy driving around with a loudspeaker blasting Orwellian propaganda. Did you write that or come across it?
Maringouin: That was something that we did see in Ordos, the ghost city, but weren’t able to film it. We added it to the film later. We shot it in another place with an actor. We added a reasonable facsimile of what it could have been. It really was some propaganda about personal hygiene.
Delman: When John approached you about this project, did you know it would be guerilla style from the get-go?
Zellner: Yes. That was what was exciting about it for me. It couldn’t be more different than making a film like Kumiko which was much more formal, where we had to get permits and used steadycams, etcetera. When John approached me about Ghostbox Cowboy, I liked the adventure of it, and the unexpected-ness of it. It was so much fun.
Ghostbox Cowboy premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.