20100525-funeralsingers-250.jpg The musicians in the band Califone aren’t dead, but they play ghosts in “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers,” the richly eccentric, surprisingly effective directorial debut of frontman Tim Rutili.

Part of a large group of spirits living in an old house with a fortune teller, they are dressed in white and remain eerily silent. None of the band members have speaking lines, but they pluck, strum and pound out a soundtrack on an array of decrepit and makeshift instruments, including an ancient thumb piano, a worn violin and lengths of pipe and sticks.

In other words, the members of Califone play themselves.

The band has been in the soundtrack business for more than a decade. In addition to working with contemporary directors on new movies, Califone routinely plays live scores to silent films. “Funeral Singers,” however, represents the first time Rutili, who formed Califone as a solo project in 1997, has ventured into filmmaking. “We’ve been doing it on and off for 10 years, but always to other people’s films,” he says. “It seemed like a logical thing to make one on our own, and it seemed like something our audience would enjoy.”

The film shares a title with Califone’s 2009 album, and while those songs and this film were written at the same time, they have a complex relationship: The movie is more than merely a video for the album, and the album is more than merely a soundtrack to the film. “A lot of the songs are inner dialogue for the peripheral characters,” Rutili explains, “so when I was writing this thing, the songs fed the script and the script fed the songs. I didn’t want to make it too obvious or direct. I wanted the music to be the fragmented thoughts of these ghosts who couldn’t really let go. But we wanted to do a story and not just abstract, experimental images.”

The story in “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers” centers on Zel (played by Angela Bettis), the young fortune teller who lives in a big, empty house in a small town. She learned the trade from her grandmother, and still lives in her grandmother’s rambling house, which still contains all her old furniture and all her old ghosts. Literally. The house is haunted by a passel of spirits, all dressed in white and spouting mixed anachronisms from the times they lived. Rather than scary or antagonistic, they are Zel’s business partners, retrieving messages from the afterlife and passing them on to Zel to pass on to her clients.

20100525-funeralsingers-dvd-250.jpg As the lead, Bettis is an earthy presence in an otherworldly film, but initially, Rutili wasn’t even sure he could get the actress, who has a sizable cult following. “I saw this film called ‘May,’ and that’s why I wanted her to do this,” he recalls. “But I thought there was no was she would do it. We had very little money and none of us had ever done a movie before.” Encouraged by the director Christian Sivertson, who worked with Bettis in “The Toolbox Murders” and with Rutili in “The Lost,” “I got up the courage to call Angela and send her the script. We talked about it, and finally she said she’d do it. We were definitely lucky to get her.”

Especially in the final scenes, when she conveys loss and uncertainty without descending into melodrama, Bettis brings a gravity to the role — what Rutili calls “fragility” — that was not what he originally envisioned. He wrote the character as much meaner than she appears on screen: “I had her picking on the ghosts, ridiculing them and laughing at them. But Angela brought a sweetness to it that I never expected. I guess when you write something, it’s a reflection of yourself, and I’m kind of a mean, sarcastic smartass. But once she got a hold of it, we threw all of that away.”

Zel’s house, which she inherited from her grandmother, also plays a crucial role in the movie, which only rarely ventures out the door and down the driveway. The old brick house, located in northern Indiana near Lake Michigan, belongs to a friend of Rutili’s, who let him stay there between Califone tours. It made an ideal set. “We had a great set designer named Joe Bristol, and his people just found great stuff. We were scouring thrift stores for junk that a fortuneteller would have. We had to bring in my grandmother’s furniture. It was pretty fun.”

Rutili wanted the house to look like it hadn’t changed in ages. “A lot of it is character based,” he says. “Ghosts are people who can’t let go, and Zel doesn’t like change very much, even if it’s going to be good in the long run. All those ideas went into putting that house together and seeing what she would have on the walls. She mostly would have left it as it was and let things just gather dust.”

Rutili knows that sort of emotional inertia personally: “I was finding myself in situations where I was having a hard time letting go of people and initiating change in my life. It was causing me some pain and strife. So when this story popped up, it hit me that it’s ultimately about being OK with leaving this world.”

»EXPRESS: Was it difficult writing in narrative- or character-based format?
»RUTILI: It was different for me, but it wasn’t so difficult. It seemed to flow pretty easily. With music, logic goes out the window. It’s all instinct; it’s all feel. We wanted the film to have a story that would allow an audience in. We didn’t want to make it abstract, but we wanted to make the music based on thought patterns instead of logic. In that regard, it was new working with narrative.

»EXPRESS: Do you take much inspiration from visual art and films?
»RUTILI: Even with lyrics, I’m a really visual writer. I don’t really write about how I feel so much as what I see. Everything is visual to me. When you’re working with pictures, it makes you come up with ideas you would never come up with. That’s always really interesting, especially when you’re improvising. When you’re looking at something and you’re playing something, it takes your brain out of the equation and makes it less personal. Making it less personal leaves more room for real creativity. Even before this project, I would sit down when I had to write songs when we were working on albums, I would put on Herzog documentaries and turn the sound down. That’s how I would write songs.

»EXPRESS: There’s a very specific visual style in the movie that emphasizes the handcrafted, like Zel’s grandmother’s notebook.
»RUTILI: A lot of it was just necessity because we didn’t have much of a budget. But we worked with what we had. A lot of the way the movie looks to me is the way the music sounds, if that makes sense. There’s a junk shop aesthetic to it, and we tried to have that come through in the production design. There’s a collage aesthetic and we tried to have that come out in the grandmothers’ book. And we tried to make that house a character.

»EXPRESS: Can you tell me about this vision of the afterlife? Did it originate in the music?
»RUTILI: I don’t know what the afterlife is, but the way we framed this story is, these ghosts are people who can’t let go. There’s still so much that they’re holding on to, even as their memories are fading. When this door opens up and they can, they really want to leave and don’t know why. I did some research with some people who claim to be psychics and all of them have spirit guides, which I think is funny that they’re getting their info from a different world. They all have invisible friends. I thought that was a really funny way to approach the idea of change.

»EXPRESS: Do you feel differently about this movie getting a release that you do about an album release?
»RUTILI: The way I feel about this is the way I felt about the first couple of albums I made when I was a kid. I can’t wait to make another film, because I learned so much while making it. I want to try to do it differently. I really am excited for more people to see it. Some people seem to really understand it and like it, and some people don’t. I’m really interested to see once this gets out into the world, how people respond to it to see if people are moved by it or not. I think the people who already have the album but don’t know about the film are going to really understand the music more on a real primal level once they see the film.

»EXPRESS: Do you have plans for another film?
»RUTILI: I’m working on a script now. I just finished a studio job and I’m going to try to take as much time off in the next few months and finish this script. I’m excited about it. It’s just a matter of taking the time to do it. I need to take the summer off and write.

Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner