September 12, 2008
Around the World of Weird
Fantastic Fest is coming. Get some sleep while you can.
Eight days and nights of fear, loathing, love, lust, cannibalism, and carnage (plus, thanks to this year's Australian-exploitation film overload, postapocalyptic vehicular car-nage via the ever-mad Max Rockatansky), this year's Fantastic Fest will turn the Alamo's South Lamar locale into a genre-film-geek paradise that will prove, as if proof were needed, that the geeks have inherited the earth out from under Hollywood and gone viral on a global scale never before seen. It's nothing personal, Hollywood; we just roll like that, with zombie-skull-crushing, adamantium-belted supertreads smoking the macadam beneath our heavily modded, flat-black MFP Police Interceptors.
Among the 120-plus feature-length and short films is a roster of non-American-made masterpieces from every corner of the planet: Iceland to Australia, everywhere in Asia to almost the entire EU, as well as Russia (but not, sadly, Georgia), Canada, and Fantastic Fest 2007's grand-prize winner, Nacho Vigalondo, who is technically not a sovereign nation but should be.
Memo to Hollywood: When we said we wanted a revolution, we didn't mean Revolution Studios.
"I like Hollywood movies as much as anyone," Alamo founder Tim League is telling me over the phone, from the Timberline Lodge in Oregon (aka the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining), "but there are other factors that are driving the industry now. As far as the globalization of genre filmmaking, France, of all places, in the past five years has just exploded off of the map. I was so charmed by La Créme, which is one of those films where clearly no budget is involved but it has great performances and a really funny construct."
When I mention that the ratio of Yank-made genre films to rest-of-the-world output in the lineup is tipping toward the latter's favor, League agrees:
"There are nerds everywhere, but I do think it's also part of now being able to have everything at your fingertips no matter where you are on the globe. You can be a completely obsessive horror nerd, and you don't have to be in the United States anymore. You can have access to the entire history [of film] everywhere, whenever you want. A good six months of my year is taken up by traveling to other festivals – Sitges in Spain, Fantasia in Toronto – to find new films for Fantastic Fest, and one thing I've noticed is that genre-film scenes that are vibrant and vital but technically still pretty crude are emerging from the most unlikely of places."
"Nigeria. Seriously, Nigeria. They're not competition-ready yet, but they're going to be, eventually. Same thing with Turkey. We've screened a couple of Turkish films at the Alamo in the past, but the stuff that's getting into production there now is ..."
Much more stylistically assured than Kunt Tulgar's 1979 Turkish Superman?
"Much more. You'd be surprised."
Nine years ago, the Sundance Film Festival played host to a lower-than-low-budget, DIY horror film like nothing before it (except maybe Ruggero Deodato's 1980 gut buster Cannibal Holocaust, from which was borrowed the conceit of faux "found footage"). The Blair Witch Project demolished box-office records for independent cinema, making directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez and their production company, Haxan Films, instant genre celebrities along the lines of El Mariachi-era Robert Rodriguez. Their film still retains its primal creepiness, even as "independent filmmaking" has been co-opted for the most part by the Hollywood machine, and while Myrick moved to Los Angeles to pursue his own projects, Sánchez stayed put in Haxan's original home base of Florida, before moving to Maryland and returning to the filmmaking fold two years ago with Altered.
Sánchez arrives at Fantastic Fest with a genuinely creepy follow-up, Seventh Moon, which stars Amy Smart and Tim Chiou as newlyweds who run afoul of the netherworld while honeymooning in rural China.
Austin Chronicle: The Blair Witch Project was a landmark film which forever changed the way microbudgeted, independent genre films were and are perceived. And then ... radio silence, except for your 2006 alien-abduction/revenge flick, Altered, which went straight to DVD. What happened with that?
Eduardo Sánchez: The company that bought it, Rogue Pictures, did so before we shot the film, and I guess they were expecting a different kind of film and just let it die on the shelf.
AC: What's the backstory, productionwise, on Seventh Moon? You shot it in rural China with a mostly Chinese crew, right?
ES: Right. I had the idea for a film that takes place over one night, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. In the beginning, I was thinking rural America, but I couldn't come up with anyone who would be chasing the characters other than rednecks or escaped mental patients. I ended up putting it on the shelf until one of the co-producers on the film, Anne Lu, who is a Chinese-American filmmaker, came to me with the idea of doing some films in China, which sounded cool and which then led me to rethinking the project in terms of a Chinese setting. I did a little research on the Chinese "hungry ghost" mythology and read up on the Ghost Festival and how Buddha supposedly opens up the gates of hell on the seventh lunar month and all these things come out. People put out offerings of food to appease the ghosts, who then vanish at dawn.I rewrote the script to set it in China, added some of my own ideas to the established Chinese myths – such as the full moon – and went about developing the look of the ghosts.
AC: Without a doubt, it's the most unsettling aspect of Seventh Moon.
ES: Even back in the Blair Witch days, when Dan and I were brainstorming, one of the things we came up with that we really wanted to use was this white figure running through the woods, glimpsed very briefly, maybe one frame or so, but it never worked out. That's where the idea of these ghostly white figures originated. Another huge influence was that demonic face you catch a flash of in The Exorcist. That still freaks me out to this day. Spectral Motion, who did all the effects for Altered, took my notes, which were along the lines of, "Imagine these naked white ghosts flitting around a darkened woods, and make it freaky, like, 'What the hell was that?'" And then we refined it from there.
AC: You took awhile off after Blair Witch. Is it fair to say that you're fully back in the game now?
ES: Absolutely. We at Haxan are in full production mode now. My partner, Gregg Hale, is also a pretty talented director, and he's going to direct a film that I co-wrote, very low budget, very cool, very experimental, and it's something that we think is going to be really great.
AC: Do you think the phenomenon that was The Blair Witch Project could ever happen again?
ES: No, absolutely not. I was looking at the box office for Tropic Thunder this morning, and it's getting great reviews. I saw it, and it's a very funny film, but it's only up to $86 million in its third week. It's not even going to do anywhere [near] what Blair Witch did, which cost us roughly $60,000 all told and proceeded, against all odds, to rake in $30 million on its opening weekend alone. And Tropic Thunder is a $100 million studio film with positive reviews, strong word of mouth, and rated R, just like Blair Witch was, and it's just very strange to me, from a box-office perspective. Ticket prices were a lot lower, too, 10 years ago. You know, really, I don't even know how to explain what happened with Blair Witch. It was like the planets aligned.
If you've never heard of Eric Shapiro, that's okay. But rest assured, you'll know the name before long, and you'll probably be associating it with a number of hyphens, along the lines of author-director-essayist, but for now you need only concern yourself with the "director" hyphenate, which has resulted in Rule of Three, a doomy little neo-noir, motel murder piece that's as tightly wound and wounding as a barbed-wire tourniquet around an innocent heart.
The heart in question belongs to Jon Morrow (The West Wing's Ben Siegler, thrumming like a too-tight E string), whose teenage daughter Lo (screenwriter Rhoda Jordan, Shapiro's real-world spouse) has gone missing, along with her boyfriend, from a shady motel. Shot almost entirely within the confines of the drab, generic nowheresville of that lone motel room, Shapiro's feature debut digs deep into the nastier bits of the human heart and finds it wanting. What it wants is rarely, however, what it receives, and Rule of Three's sucker-punch ending literally makes you gasp.
It's a DIY day-for-nightmare done on a shoestring budget – which plays to the film's grimy advantage, actually – and one helluva impressive, gritty debut.
Austin Chronicle: You're in a fairly unique creative position in that you both write award-winning dark fiction and direct intense, genre hybrids like Rule of Three, which is unlike anything else playing at Fantastic Fest this year. Trying to describe your film to someone who hasn't seen it is tough; I keep falling back on "Rashomon at the Bates Motel if it were bell-clerked by Jim Thompson and co-managed by Sartre and David Mamet." It's a horror film, but the horror is more spiritual and emotional than it is physical. How do you describe it?
Eric Shapiro: We've started calling it "an arthouse grind-house movie." It was shot on the cheap, and it shows that in every frame, but on the other hand, we were aiming to transcend that cheapness with the camera compositions, the acting, and, of course, the writing. It's a weird hybrid in that it's dirt-cheap and shows it but takes itself very seriously.
AC: Just to be clear, Rhoda Jordan wrote the script, and you directed, right? Was there overlap there?
ES: Not really. We had the idea of doing a film in one location because that was the most feasible to shoot. The original story involved a girl who was withdrawing from heroin, and we did multiple drafts of it, but we couldn't get anyone excited about it; we couldn't get it to that next level. During the frustration of trying to get that done, one day I went to get dinner for us, and on the way home [I came up with] the Rule of Three concept, which was to make a single location interesting by handling it within multiple time frames and points of view. And once I had that idea, I realized setting it in a motel was very appealing because it's a very noir-ish sort of place. And then within 48 hours after that, we had pretty much the whole scenario.
AC: The concept of plotting out the movements and motivations of trios of characters who move through the film's fragmented timeline via this anxious sort of ménage à trois is remarkable in its seamlessness, and that's tough to do well, if at all.
ES: Thanks. In our perception of it, one of the great appeals of the story is that we really felt it was an endless story, like a triangle that keeps turning.
AC: A triangle with razored edges. Rusty ones. Actually, I kept thinking of novelist Jack Ketchum's work – Gregory Wilson's adaptation of Ketchum's The Girl Next Door played Fantastic Fest 2007, and Lucky McKee just directed his novel Red.
ES: Seriously? You're fucking kidding me! I literally just yesterday bought the option to Jack Ketchum's book Right to Life. I love his work because it's dangerous; there's perversity; he's willing to go anywhere. As soon as we get back from Austin, we'll begin work on the Ketchum.
Every year at Fantastic Fest there's one film that stands out from the others by sheer virtue of heart and soul. Last year it was Chilean director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza's comic superhero fable, Mirageman, and our prefest pick this year is the endearingly goofy Santos, which, oddly enough, is from another Santiago native, Nicolás López, whose debut feature, Promedio Rojo, was one of the surprise finds of South by Southwest 05.
Set in cosmopolitan Santiago, Santos is by turns comic, heartbreaking, and geek all over, with enough in-jokes (including the best Jar Jar Binks flip-off I've ever come across) to gag Jabba the Hutt. "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of dreams," says failed comic-book artist Salvador Santos (Javier Gutiérrez), who, in a twisty, witty plot filled with flashbacks, double crosses, revelations, and rivalries, discovers that the comic-book world he has created in his head may actually exist in reality, and, worse, his childhood friend and onetime publisher, Arturo Antares (Leonardo Sbaraglia), may be more than an evil jerk: He may be the evil jerk who destroys the universe.
Co-produced by Troublemaker Studios' Elizabeth Avellán and winningly nerd-centric, Santos is the best thing to come out of Chile since, well, Mirageman. But don't worry – there are more where these came from.
Austin Chronicle: Santos is an amazing film, and it's even more amazing that Santiago, Chile, has – seemingly overnight – become this hotbed of geek-centric genre filmmaking.
Nicolás López: We worked between Spain and Chile and the U.S., in Austin, with Troublemaker Studios, so it's truly an international film.
AC: How did you get hooked up with co-producer Elizabeth Avellán and Troublemaker?
NL: Elizabeth Avellán was at the first South by Southwest screening of Promedio Rojo and really liked the movie. She asked me what I was planning to do next, and I told her I had this really ambitious idea that was really hard to finance, and after I returned to Chile and began shooting Santos, we kept in touch with e-mail. Then, when we were supposed to start the postproduction on Santos, the Spanish company we had hired went bankrupt. That was a disaster! So I called Elizabeth and told her, "You know, I have my movie, but it's all green, because we shot so much of it with green screen, and I don't know what to do." She very nicely offered to look at it and to see if they could help me in any way, which she did. She watched the first cut, which was, like, two hours and 30 minutes, and said, "Well, it's a little long, but I really like it, and we'd love to be involved in the movie." It was a blessing from the skies, because we didn't have any money at all to complete the effects that make up the big action scene at the end of the film. And that's how our involvement with Troublemaker came about.
AC: That's pretty amazing.
NL: Absolutely, yeah, because here's the thing: In Chile we live in the end of the world, literally. When you are in Chile and you say you want to be a filmmaker, it's like if you live in Korea and, I don't know, you want to be an astronaut! It's something that doesn't make sense at all. And what's happening right now in Chile is that a lot of people and actors from Promedio Rojo are making their own genre movies, like Mirageman, and trying to do different things, and that's really interesting. We're making more movies than Mexico!
AC: Genre filmmaking is exploding across the entire planet right now, completely.
NL: Oh yeah, it's worldwide. In the case of Santos, look at the credits: We shoot here in Chile for two months, but all the actors are big stars from Spain; the funding came from Spain; then we go to Tokyo for a week, without any permits at all; and then we did the postproduction between Chile, Spain, and the U.S. So, you know, where is this movie coming from? Is it Spanish? Is it Chilean? Is it U.S.? We have no idea.
AC: That's incredible. And inspiring.
NL: In a way, that's the idea behind Santos, which happens in a city that is called Capital City, which has a huge mix of cultures and languages, because, in the mentality of the movie, we say that Europe and Asia don't exist anymore, and everyone now lives in Latin America. So you hear people talking in Japanese, English, Spanish, and that's what you hear when you go out of your home country. Everybody speaks all different kinds of languages all mixed up, right? The mix of cultures makes stuff that is really amazing, you know? I can enjoy Oldboy, which is a South Korean movie, and I can enjoy Ghostbusters and also a Chilean movie. And that's something that didn't happen or was very difficult to make happen just 10 years ago. You didn't have the information to know where all the weird movies were, you know? Now you have my friend Harry Knowles telling everyone in the whole world what's coming and where to find it and all of that. This was unimaginable to us just 10 years ago.
AC: One of the things I really, really love about Santos and Promedio Rojo is how sweet they are, in a very geek-specific, genre-knowledgeable way. They have so much heart, but they're not afraid to poke fun of themselves or their audience.
NL: My movies are really personal. It's a weird mix trying to make a personal movie that has a lot of effects and that looks a lot like a Hollywood blockbuster, but it's not.
AC: Genre trappings aside, Santos is universal in its themes: love, friendship, romantic rivalry, giant talking interdimensional housefly senseis – all the things that make life worth living, really.
NL: That's because at the end of the day, we all talk in the same language, and that is the language of human relationships. Even if you're doing a fight movie or a gore movie or whatever, you know? That's what pisses me off about all the big blockbuster movies from the States, you know? They don't spend time on the character development, and it ends up being all about the visual effects. If you don't care about the characters, you don't care about the movie. My movies, I want you to care about the characters, even if, you know, one of them happens to be a giant fly with an addiction to snorting shit.
At the end of the movie and at the end of the day, it's all about the characters. But, you know, explosions and geeking out are cool, too.
Final word goes to the the Alamo's Weird Wednesday and Fantastic Fest programmer and all-around carnage receptor, Lars Nilsen:
"You know how if you get popped for drunk driving, and they make you take an alcohol awareness course? Or if you get caught smashing a pool cue over some guy's head in a bar and then glassing the bar-back in the face 'just because,' and you have to take mandated anger management therapy? Well,
Fantastic Fest is sort of like the class that Hollywood – if there was any justice in the world – would be sentenced to attend. Hollywood's cinematic output has gotten so bad that the judge would sentence them to not only attend Fantastic Fest but, more importantly, to learn from it."
'Nuff said, true believers. Go, learn, make, do, crush, kill, love ... and get it on film.