How do you explain death to a kid? Mark Webber on fantasy and reality in "The Place of No Words"

Salon talks to actor-director Mark Webber about "reality cinema," working with his own 3-year-old son and more

Published April 27, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

Mark Webber and Bodhi Palmer in "The Place of No Words" (Courtesy of Wide Awake Cinema)
Mark Webber and Bodhi Palmer in "The Place of No Words" (Courtesy of Wide Awake Cinema)

Actor-turned-director Mark Webber mines his personal life for the films he makes. He calls his approach “reality cinema.” Webber often showcases members of his own family in his features—from his son Isaac in his sophomore effort, “The End of Love,” to his wife Teresa Palmer in “The Ever After,” and his biological parents and real-life brother in “Flesh and Blood.” For his latest project, “The Place of No Words,” Webber cast himself, Palmer, and their 3-year-old son Bodhi, in a story that toggles back and forth between reality and fantasy.

Throughout “The Place of No Words,” Mark is Viking Dad and Bodhi is his Viking Son, and the pair are seen traveling across a difficult landscape that includes a farting swamp, fizzleberries (that create colorful dust when eaten), creatures called Grumblers, and other magical elements. The world is light years away from the reality of a hospital bed where Mark’s character is being treated for a terminal illness, or their home, where Mark, his wife Teresa, and their son Bodhi play games indoors or out.

Webber’s impressionistic drama is both an emotional and fanciful father/son story. It is never overly sentimental as it depicts Bodhi’s curiosity about life (and death), Mark’s effort to create memories for his son, and the pair following the quest of finding one’s path in life. Webber’s relationship with Bodhi feels genuine throughout; viewers eavesdrop on their shared moments, experiencing real emotions in the process.

“The Place with No Words” is a film that will make viewers think about how to process adult things through the eyes of a child and approach the world with childlike wonder. In advance of the film’s World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Webber talked with Salon about his provocative new film.

This is your third film after “The End of Love” and “Flesh and Blood” where you make a fictionalized film starring members of your family. We talked before about your “reality cinema” and how it is healing. But what are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach? It may be cathartic, but it can also be seen as too personal.

For me, I don’t think it can be too personal. It’s where I’m at with my life and work. I wear my heart on my sleeve and having deep, meaningful conversations and connections with people. I like being vulnerable. This work is designed to open people up. It’s a vessel for me — it opens you up and causes you to reflect on your own life and the stories we tell ourselves. I wanted to create work that starts a conversation. In this day and age, I think we can all benefit from being open and personal and honest. That is what moves me right now.

This is a father/son film, but viewers who saw “Flesh and Blood” know that you did not have a relationship with your father. Do you think you are a better dad because you are so close to your sons?

I’d like to think so. I feel like I am. I tell my dad now that “Flesh and Blood” was the beginning of us starting to have a relationship. In a way, I got parenting advice from him not being around. I’m always going to show up for my children. That’s life. You have the good and the bad. You need to be open to the process of how that happens—find the silver lining in things. Teresa and I are so lucky to spend time with our children. It’s not “take my child to work,” it’s making a work of art with my three-year-old son. That is something I’ll cherish forever. We got so much out of having this experience together. It was such a challenge for both of us, but so much fun too. We really had swords and climbed mountaintops, and we were really on a mission at times. It was the greatest play we could ever have.

You create a wondrous, imaginative world in “The Place of No Words,” with the poop swamp (that turns into something else), or magic hands that project light. How did you come up with the fantastical elements in the story?

What is funny is that my attempt was—how could the fantasy feel like reality? So much of the fantasy elements are grounded in the reality of my son. Mention the fart swamp, and that’s the language of a child. These elements came from my own imagination and being inspired by films like “Willy Wonka,” “Labyrinth,” “Stand by Me,” and “The Goonies.” They are in the recesses of my brain, so it’s drawing upon those feelings I had as a child. But so much of it is from Bodhi and the stories we tell each other. My boys are off playing and they are shooting magic out of their hands. The main thrust of the film is seeing through the eyes of how a 3-year-old thinks, and how their mind dances from here and there.

“The Place of No Words” tackles the issue of having to talk with a child about death. There are discussions of the possible afterlife, and the importance and appropriateness of explaining difficult things to a child. What were your goals in exploring these topics in this film?

I describe the film as a positive meditation on death through various consciousnesses — Teresa’s, Bodhi’s, and mine, as well as a collective consciousness. The writing process for me was tapping into my own personal childlike wonder. When I think about death and dying, I find myself feeling like a child or having a child-like sense of wonder: Where do we really go and what does this really mean? When I think of Bodhi processing dying and death, there’s almost a beauty to it. If they are extreme, it is because of their innocence. These are all these things swirling around in my mind in the film.

I believe that there is no human on the planet who knows how we got here or where we go. I find such beauty in that — that great unknown connects me to every single person in the world. It gives me joy and hope and gives me serenity and allows me to connect more with everyone no matter who you are or where you are in the world. I love thinking about these great big questions. It makes me feel more alive. There’s a point and meaning to making art and sharing things in this cultural experience we get to have. I find myself musing and pondering these things with my friends and family and folks I meet. Especially now that I have children, conversations tend to go deep. On the way to school, I’m waking up and having coffee, and my son is ready to talk about the meaning of life. It’s fun to have this moment. I don’t know — none of us know — but that’s what connects us all. When I feel disconnected, I’m in trouble.

The film shows your talents as a storyteller, not only as a director, or actor, but as a father engaging his son in a fantasy. Can you talk about why you tell stories, and the stories you tell?

Storytelling for me, when I was younger, became a way to transport myself somewhere and there was a good feeling in that. Behind imagination for me is faith and hope. Behind those things are confidence and drive. I found it to be a coping mechanism — the active connection between my imagination and dreaming. My imagination was instilling belief in myself that anything is possible and that I can accomplish anything. It really started in that way, and as I’ve gotten older, it has blossomed into my art, my craft. So, I set out to make a film that goes in and out of reality and fantasy in a way that feels organic and is unique and that we haven’t quite seen before. I love doing that as an artist—put a piece of work out that engages you in a different way. There are a lot of layers and symbols. There is magic in the monumental effort of putting vérité on screen with narrative elements. That’s all in the storytelling. When I watch the film now, I get more out of it each time. That was the intention—to allow you to really put yourself and your experiences on to what you are watching and tap into your own imagination and hardships and childlike wonder.

There is a line in the film, “We all have a little bit of bad in us.” What are your thoughts about good and evil, and how we fight within ourselves—which I think is the purpose of your film—and how we are flawed and have to learn how to behave during extreme circumstances?

Part of the writing behind that is how I talk to my children. There’s no sugarcoating in talking about real things that impact the quality of life. Having age-appropriate discussions but also being real and reminding them that there are external forces that you may be up against in life. But at the end of the day, it is your own mind and thoughts that you have to reckon with the most. What is so true and important for me is that I see the beauty in the flaws of being a human being. We’re all flawed. I’m more attracted to the unpolished stone, not the shiny attractive thing. I relate and connected to that. So much of my life is processing all the shit I’ve been through and how to extract lessons from that and have a moral compass. So, it was important to get those two big things across in the film in a way that is true to me and universal for everyone. 

Likewise, I love the scene with the Witch (Mary Benn) who talks about how fear takes shape and tells Bodhi to ask questions. You have experienced painful things—poverty and homelessness, addiction, and a broken family, but you seem to keep getting stronger. Can you talk about battling real demons and imaginary dragons?

It’s storytelling — my life as an artist and filmmaker. It’s everything. That I can do that with my family and draw on our real life experiences, and I’m constantly in this reflective state. I have a newborn baby girl. I can tap into that feeling of looking at a little person and everything is new. I have a 2-year-old, and I can be 2 with him. Bodhi is now 5 and Isaac is 10. I can dip in and out of these reflective states and looking back at my childhood and what I was like at those ages. My day-to-day being a dad is inspiring me. Being able to express myself artistically saved my life and enriched my life and excites me to look at the future. Everything I do in my life is investigative work, and if I do that in a way that is pure to me, it is always healing.

There are light sabers in the film that remind me of “Star Wars,” and Grumbles that are designed by Jim Henson’s company. Do you think “The Place of No Words” is suitable for children?

I think the same thing! I read that Frank Oz once said, “We weren’t making kids movies.” What’s a kids’ movie? That struck me. In particular in the '80s, I remember watching “Stand by Me” and being rocked by that— kids seeing a dead body. There were things I was exposed to in films as a child. This is a PG-rated film, but it’s so emotionally complex that if I was a studio executive, I don’t know if kids could sit through this. But I know a lot of kids who could. If I saw this film at the right time with my parents, I would ask them, “What do you guys think?” It might be too advanced or scary in ways that are real for some kids, but I think that’s OK. What I’m weary of is people thinking its “Finding Nemo” — rolling in, laughing, and have candy. I don’t want to be misleading, but on a technical, pure rating level, you could bring your kids to this. But if you do, be prepared to have a really interesting conversation after — or not! That’s OK, too. I never liked playing it safe. I love exposing my children to things that create dialogue and discussion.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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