“I was really interested in asking the question of whether free will is possible in a universe governed by causality,” begins director Sarah Adina Smith. “Specifically, we don’t get to choose to be born, and we certainly don’t get to choose the circumstances of our birth. So whose fault is it if you’re born with a bad heart?”
That’s the central philosophical question of her newest film, “Buster’s Mal Heart,” which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. The puzzle film is structured in a nonlinear format, and the plot is open to interpretation.
“I wanted to tell the story of a man who was born with a bad heart. Fate would decree that he would go on to be this bad man,” Smith continues. “But in fact, all he wants is to be good. And he’s defying fate, and going against the machine of the universe.”
She found a match for the project’s quirky premise with Rami Malek, who stars as a character with multiple — real or imagined — dimensions. In some ways, it is a miracle that Malek agreed to the project; Smith sent him an offer for the role right before he became a widely recognizable name through TV drama “Mr. Robot.”
“The day that we sent our offer out, all of a sudden all of these billboards were popping up all around town with ‘Mr. Robot’ and I thought, ‘Ugh, we’re too late. He’s going to be this gigantic star, and there’s just no way we’re going to get him to read our weird script,” Smith recalls. “He was getting bombarded with offers from fancy directors and certainly much more money and glamour than this little low-budget film could offer, so it’s to his credit that he stuck with this project.”
Fortunately, he did — Malek’s distinct features are well-suited for the strange role, and he largely carries the experimental film, which also features DJ Qualls.
“He’s an emotional extremist in the best way,” Smith describes, explaining why she chose Malek for the part. “Rami is this guy who — I think he knew that we were going to have to really go to the edge and back together, and we’re doing this really sort of spiritually dangerous thing in some ways with this movie.”
Appropriately enough, Smith confirmed her casting choice by challenging the concept of free will.
“I’m a little superstitious, so I like to pull a tarot card before I officially send an offer out,” she says. “And the card just kind of confirmed my instincts that this is definitely the guy.”
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