Interview with Case Esparros, independent filmmaker and director of "The Absence of Milk in the Mouths of the Lost"

I had the pleasure of interviewing Case Esparros, an independent filmmaker from Los Angeles, about his sophomore feature, The Absence of Milk in the Mouths of the Lost. It's an experimental narrative featuring Gary Wilson, outsider pop music extraordinaire with an original score by Aaron Dilloway. The only way to watch it is with a good ole fashioned Blu Ray player, which you can buy here. Every sale goes to fund Esparros' next film!

Maria St. John is a ghost of her former self. Ever since her daughter went missing, Maria has forgotten how to eat, how to sleep, how to exist at all. No matter where she goes, there are reminders of her missing daughter, Jessica. On the one year anniversay of Jessica's disappearance, Maria encounters a mysterious milkman who has a strong connection with her lost child, and he may be the only person who can reunite them.

The Absence of Milk in the Mouths of the Lost is the second feature film from bold, young director Case Esparros. His first feature film, King Baby, garnered praise from beloved cult icons John Waters and Jon Moritsugu.

Vinegar Syndrome

Case Esparros: Should I put a tie on for this?

Natalie Dressed: Yes. Where'd the idea for this film first come from?

CS: Well, it was something that I'd been toying with for a long time that I didn't feel confident enough at the time to make. It was a ten year thing that I was sitting on, about a milkman that comes to neighborhoods

ND: Did that come from a particular image, like in Henry Darger's imagery?

CE: A lot of that stuff came after, the original bare bones script was about a lonely woman whose children weren't considered missing yet. She would talk to her neighborhood milkman who would come to town and reconcile with her. The initial story didn't have as many of the spiritual elements as the film ended up having. I always like the idea of the milkman, but for years, I couldn't pin down why I felt that character was a connector or a metaphor. It was a short story I wrote that I didn't think anything of it and then I started doing a lot of research on missing kids in 2020 and it all tied together. I don't even think I knew who Henry Darger was when I had written the first draft. But eventually, you know, you build the aesthetic of something and think about it  and it's only with longevity that that happens.

ND: Was this ten year gap partially because you wanted to wait to make the film until you were a better filmmaker or had the ability to make a feature?

CE: Oh yeah, that's always a part of it, I'm sitting on ideas all the time, it's just about when I'm actually able to pull that off. My first film, King Baby, was more of a training camp, I was retelling a story that's already been told, but in my own way.

ND: Like when you copy a painting to try to get better at painting

CE: Yeah, I was trying to get my craft up for this more original idea.

ND: Which parts of the film is most important to you? Story, imagery, cinematography…

CE: Oh, the story is completely on the backburner, it's like the last thing I'm interested in. Imagery is more interesting, like each frame to me is really important and I try to think of it like a painting or a photograph. I try to assemble a bunch of paintings in my head and then try to find connective tissue to weave them together to make a feature. The story is an excuse.

ND: So, when you're considering a particular image to get a cross, do you think a lot about a particular composition or the elements of the image or the overall feeling of a room?

CS: More of like an unexplainable feeling. It's more emotive than anything. With this story, because it's dealing with missing children, the word "missing" ties the plot together, these missing parts of the plot intertwine with the mystery of these kids. I'm interested in things that the audience is able to fill in, I think that's rewarding. In a lot of photography books, I like the way that the story comes from flipping through these pictures. You can't help but make a story out of the images, like you're reading a normal book. That's how I feel about each frame.

ND: Do you feel like a viewer needs any background on what they're watching?

CE: No. I don't think art should have that. I think context can always enrich but the most successful work, you can go in without any context. Everything should be for the people! It's not some intellectual standoff. That stuff's cool though. I like the audience going to the screening and knowing the references in there, y'know, but it's not needed.

ND: Do you think it's a nice easter egg, then, that you get these outsider musicians to be in your movies?

CE: I mean totally, it adds another layer. I'm showing these movies to people who might not even be aware of who they are, but it's exciting to me if someone researches Gary Wilson's music because of my movie. But also he could just be the milkman character, Gary and the milkman can exist in the same world. Gary has such his own aesthetic that's so rich and there's already his own world to pull from, it adds a lot.

ND: The previous movie had Superstar (Of Superstar and Star) in it, who's another, more obscure, cult figure in the weirdo music circuit, why the consistent use of musicians and not another filmmaker or a visual artist?

CE: I'm not opposed at all! I'm just a huge music fan, I'm a sucker for putting a record on and getting lost in that record. Gary and Superstar have crafted their records to be super cinematic.

ND: This movie matches pretty well with the strange and lonely feeling of Gary Wilson's music even though his stuff is super poppy, thematically at least.

CE: Yeah, there's a Gary track called "loneliness" on his first record where he just pees in a bucket. It's pretty good.

ND: Does Superstar, as the Christ figure in King Baby, have kind of a, well, I think "God complex" is too severe of a way to put it, but—

CE: Naw, he has one. He thinks he's god.

ND: So the casting there is accurate, too.

CE: Yeah, and it is with the other castings of the film, too. I mean, every demon in the film is super, y'know, intentional.

ND: It's honest casting

CE: Yeah, it's all love, sometimes. It's intentional because it's honest… it's how I'm feeling them. If there's some visceral feeling from them in real life, then I'm interested to see how they can perform on screen. It's an experiment.

ND: Hannah, your lead, you met her via Instagram?

CE: Yeah, originally it was more of a gray-haired older woman, like Laura Palmer's mom in the third season of Twin Peaks as a placeholder. But then Hannah reached out to me after I put the script up. I didn't know her and to be honest, to this day, I still don't know how she found the script. She wanted to do the film and I said "oh, yeah, maybe" but then we ended up talking about the character for a year pretty consistently without ever meeting. I think when you're doing something super low-budget, the biggest thing you could ever have is someone who's super stoked. If you're stoked, it means a lot, cuz, y'know, I'm not able to pay that much. Also, if you talk to someone that long, they sort of become the character and you can't separate them anymore. She was that character.

ND: Coming back to musicians and outsider musicians, Wolf Eyes' own Aaron Dilloway! How did the score work, you had the raw film and then had it scored?

CE: Yeah actually, on the Blu Ray, I interview Aaron Dilloway where he talks about his the process of the score. I bought "The Gag File" from Poo-Bah, this Pasadena record store because of the album cover, it has a ventriloquist dummy on it, I didn't know anything about it. I was mind-blown. It sounded super paranormal and super in tune with my short films, so I felt a kinship with him as an artist. I realized that he had never scored a movie before even though his records are soundtracks of their own. I filmed the whole film without reaching out to Aaron about doing the score but after it was wrapped, I asked him. A lot of people asked me why I didn't use Gary Wilson, which yeah, that's a legitimate question, why would I get a musical prodigy as the star, but just use him to act? But Dilloway's stuff was super mindblowing and he agreed to do it.

ND: I mean the score and movie compliment each other really well, they're a perfect blend.

CE: I wanted to do something with these artists that have never had any foot working in  film at all and a lot of these films, they sound the same, like every film score sounds the same, so I thought, I'll try to do something special. Aaron works with these tape loops that get stuck and they go back and forth. The mental state of the people in the film was akin to the way that he's making music, too, in this repetitive loop of loneliness. You can get that cassette right now!

The Blu Ray release is a remastered version of the film. Because I had to make theater dates, premiere dates for the movie, I had less time to work on some of this stuff. I worked making the picture and audio crisper. The definitive way to watch the movie will be on the Blu Ray, for sure. We have features, interviews, behind-the-scenes, we have a drunk director's commentary, it's pretty good, I got pretty shitfaced. I don't remember anything I said. It was kind of interesting to record myself watching the film kind of blacked out, not knowing what I said and then having it published. It's just me in a dark basement. It's a tribute to Jamie Stewart's "I'll Fly Away" cover, the closing track of the film, he used to do drunk commentary over his records. This adds a sense of excitement.  

A lot of people ask me how to watch the movie online, it's not online, it's purposely only on physical media, which is super important. This is the only way to watch the film. Every Blu Ray purchase helps me make the next film!