Interview: ‘The Snare’ Writer/Director C.A. Cooper on the Screenwriting Process, Building Dread, and Alternate Endings

January 7th just saw the theatrical and On Demand release of  C.A. Cooper’s psychological horror/thriller The Snare, which we praised as “90 minutes of disorienting dread.”

Starring Eaoifa Forward, Dan Paton, Rachel Warren, The Snare follows, “three friends headed to the seafront for a drunken weekend, only to be imprisoned on the top floor of their holiday apartment by a malevolent paranormal force.”

To celebrate the film’s introduction to American audiences, we spoke with screenwriter/director C.A. Cooper about storytelling, his writing process, and the darlings he had to kill for the sake of the narrative. Check it all out below.

 

C.A. Cooper Dan Paton Rachel Warren The Snare Horror Film 2017
Director C.A. Cooper onset with Rachel Warren and Dan Paton

 

The Snare is your first full-length feature film, and you’ve written, directed and produced it. But you’re no stranger to storytelling, you’ve been making films since you were 14 with a camcorder. What kind of stories are you drawn to?

I’m drawn to content whereby, once you’ve experienced it, it makes you see the world in a different way. Stuff that affects you long after it’s over, and makes you feel changed by it in some way or another.

When watching the movie, I caught vibes of everything from Alice in Wonderland to The Shining to Japanese horror films like Ringu running throughout. What was the inspiration for The Snare? Did it start with a setting, a character and grow from there?

It absolutely began with the setting. The apartment that’s seen in the film and the area where the film takes place, by the coast, all of that, it’s all a real place. So yeah, I’ve been there a few times, and I’d always have a funny feeling about the apartment. And I’d kind of start thinking, you know, it’d be interesting if it really was haunted. It was just a weird place, and it kind of reminded me of The Shining, so it got me thinking about it.

In terms of Alice, that kind of developed over time. When developing her character, I knew that something happened to Alice, there was something very wrong deep down. Something that was making her feel the way she does in the film. It was a process of discovery, really. I remember that there was a point about three-quarters of the way through the process of writing the first draft where everything came together: “Oh my God, she’s been sexually abused!” That became the core of it, and then I started to notice things dotted all over the story elsewhere that pointed towards that. I’d think, “Oh, okay, here’s why she has such anxiety when she’s around other men and why she’s so awkward around Carl.” It just all sort of clicked into place at that point and I then rewrote the screenplay with that in mind, after I discovered what it was really about.

Absolutely, I noticed that every interaction Alice had with men in the film was unsettling.

Yeah, exactly, that’s what I noticed too as I was developing the story, and I literally got to a point where I thought, “Ah, THAT’S why she’s behaving that way and that’s why she’s so funny around men.” Writing has always been like that for me. There’ll be an aspect of a character which I don’t fully understand yet and I know there will be something there, an experience they’ve had, something that makes them tick, a trigger that defines their intricacies and is connected with all the anxieties that they have. With Alice, it was the same thing: knowing that there’s something there, something wrong but not knowing exactly what it was until I’d reached a certain point in the development where everything connected. I kind of like that, going into a story and not having all of the answers to begin with. Exploring things about your characters as you develop it, looking at how those characters might respond to certain situations and exploring it.

The claustrophobic nature of this story demands great characters, which it does very well. Those of us watching The Snare come to know Alice, Carl, and Liz very, very intimately. What do you feel is the most important aspect of building a character?

When it comes down to it, when you’re writing a story, you want conflict. So, Alice came first. I thought, who would be someone that Alice wouldn’t want to be trapped in an apartment with for an extended period of time? That’s where Carl came from. I tried to ensure that each character, at their core, had some sort of defining major flaw. Something that would trigger conflict with the others. Carl, for instance, is a really slimy sort of womanizer. He gets off on the idea of going on the trip with the two women so he can get high and fool around with the both of them, regardless of his relationship status. Lizzy’s flaw is superficiality. She just wants to have a good time and show off. They don’t have a signal or network in the film, but you know she’s just someone who’d be busy on social media, tapping away (on her phone) broadcasting her social life to all her friends. There were actually a few scenes cut from the film that went into that a bit more, like scenes showing Lizzy’s image deteriorating and how that affected her mentally. She’s a very vain person. For me, that realism was important. They’re all a group of people who you’d see in a social scenario, people who might be okay in small doses to go for a drink with, but you know if they were confined together for an extended period they would definitely clash. Their personality flaws would be magnified to an extreme. 

The main character in The Snare, Alice, is dealing with some serious issues from her past. The film itself seemed to be a meditation on the effects of trauma on the psyche. Was there any research on your part when creating that character?

The short answer is yes. It came in phases, I knew from the beginning that she was depressed and there were a lot of complex things going on with her, but I didn’t know what there were at the time. So it was an ongoing process and once I realized that it was the sexual abuse that triggered her trauma, I spoke with people who I knew had been similarly abused and got their perspective, in an effort to bring some authenticity to Alice and her development as a character. A friend of mine is also a psychiatrist and so I talked to him about Alice and what happened to her, so he advised me on how her state of mind might be and what she might suppress and how she might suppress it. Myself and Stuart Nurse, the actor who plays the father and Eaoifa Forward (Alice) created this whole extensive backstory for Alice: when did the abuse begin? How old was Alice when it started? Does it still go on now? How frequent is it? What does Alice do now if he tries to initiate the abuse?  We spent quite a lot of time on that because it was important to us because, like you said earlier, the story is a kind of meditation on that topic.

Speaking of the cast, you’ve been described by the actors and crew as a bit of a perfectionist, doing take after take until the result is to your satisfaction. Is there anything that didn’t make it into the script/film? Were there any darlings you had to kill?

Yeah, we actually shot various different versions of the ending to see what felt right. So (SPOILER ALERT) when Alice returns home at the end of the film, most audience members thus far have assumed that things go back to the way they were and that the abuse from her father continued. But the original ending of the film actually had Alice murdering her father.

Now that’s what I thought she was going to do, as she trudged back to her home! It could still be speculated that she does that eventually, it’s just not shown onscreen.

Exactly. The (discarded) ending was intended to show that she had grown and changed as a result of her experiences in the apartment. Ultimately we pulled away from that in an effort to be more ambiguous. So now, when that door closes in the final moment of the film, it can be read a number of ways, as we don’t see what happens once the door is closed. Things may have gone back to the way they were with no real change, or perhaps Alice decides to fight back one day like she did with Carl in the apartment.

There were lots of scenes that were also pulled because they didn’t sit right with the, mood, tone and atmosphere we were trying to create and maintain throughout the film. We’d often ask, “Would you see a scene like this in The Shining or The Exorcist?” If the answer was no, then the scene was usually cut. There was an extended sequence where they try to lower each other down the balconies so they can climb down the side of the building to escape. It played out like a sort of fun action sequence, but ultimately felt off-tone. We’d been building this atmosphere of dread, and we got to this scene, and the whole thing suddenly slipped into an action movie. We felt the audience would dial out and both the atmosphere and sense of dread would be compromised. The scene stayed in the edit for a really long time but was literally cut days before finishing the film as we knew that it would ultimately have to go.

It sounds like you made a good choice, difficult as it might have been. What are the worst and best parts of the screenwriting process for you?

I find the initial development of ideas to be the most challenging part for me. What I tend to do is I try to clash things together until I find something that excites me. When I find something that excites me I’ll start toying with it until it works within a short paragraph, and I try to discipline myself to the point where if it doesn’t work as a single sentence, it won’t work as a film. I have a fear that I’ll miss a fatal flaw in an idea that was apparent from the beginning and will end up hitting problems much further down the line that could have been addressed much more easily at the beginning of the process. I try to be disciplined in the early stages to make sure that something is really working in a basic form before I develop it further. Once I feel I’ve got a strong idea, the rest of the process for me is then mostly problem solving, which is something that comes more naturally for me. The hardest part is always trying to walk that fine line. Trying to come up with something that’s original, but not inaccessible. But once I’ve got something that works in its most basic form, then I’ll feel much more comfortable exploring it in greater depth and sinking much more time into it.

When telling a scary story, what’s the most important part of building dread?

What I did was try to explore that myself, by repeatedly re-watching The Shining and The Exorcist during the early stages of writing. Really. I found that EVERYTHING has to work: the core idea, the execution of that idea through the screenplay, the performances, the lighting, the makeup, all of it. If you compromise any bit of it, it won’t work. Every compromise you make chips away at the overall impact. In The Shining, the atmosphere was what made it work so well for me, and I tried to do a similar thing with atmosphere in The Snare. Photographic composition is very important for me and contributes largely to the overall atmosphere so should never be compromised. It all had to feel consistent, which brings me back to those scenes that ultimately didn’t make it to the final film. Anything inconsistent with the tone, the atmosphere, it was cut.

You seem to be quite comfortable within the genre, will you be staying with horror in your future films? What are you working on now?

Yes, I think so. Not exclusively, though. Moving forward, I’m working on several projects, two of which are horror. The other is more of a psychological thriller, but has a dark tone with and a few horror elements and influences in places. All three are still in the writing stage, but I’m collaborating with screenwriters on all of them this time. Moving forward, I’d like to be slightly more removed from the writing process. I find it becomes so difficult to remain objective when writing, directing and producing at the same time. I also find it to be a faster and more efficient process when collaborating with others as opposed to working alone.

Alright, I’m gonna wrap this up by asking a question that divides writers everywhere. Outlining before writing: yay or nay?

Ah, that’s tough. For me, it depends on the project. Sometimes when I’m developing something, I’ll plan out every moment on index cards and will write up a story treatment in a very structured way, and I’ll delay the actual screenwriting process for as long as possible until everything is outlined. But sometimes, other projects manifest rapidly and I can visualize the entire film beat by beat, and I just have to write to get it out. I tend to find this happens a lot less often, and I typically lean towards planning more often than not. I’m not too strict about it though, sometimes I’ll come up with a scene halfway through a pre-planned screenplay which takes the story off in a completely different direction and this is something I usually like to explore. I wouldn’t recommend being absolute about it; pre-planning can give you structure, but it can be fun to just explore and see where the story takes you.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk horror and writing. Looking forward to the release over here in January!

Thanks for having me, this was great.

 

 

The Snare is out nationwide in select theaters and On Demand now.

Interview with Anthony Petrie

Anthony Petrie is a New York City based artist who works in multiple mediums. His pop art style has attracted clients like Marvel, Paramount, Sony, Bad Robot, Hasbro, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, to name a few. He creates striking images that are far more than a riposte of their subject. His work shows reverence and admiration that resonates deeply with a pop culture obsessed geek like me.

How are you today? 

Peachy!

Where are you from? 

Born: Queens, NY——> For a while: Pawtucket, RI——-> Currently: New York City, NY

How did you discover art?

When I was a kid I had these Super Mario Bros. scratch-off trading cards. One day for whatever reason, I decided I wanted to draw them while I was watching cartoons. I haven’t stopped since.

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Some of your work reminds me of Roy Lichtenstein or the pop-art music posters that have had a resurgence in recent years. What, if any, specific artists continue to inspire your work?

I don’t think I’ve ever been compared to Roy Lichtenstein’s, but I’ll take it. I think just being immersed in the pop art scene, and seeing contemporary artist’s work is inspiring. When you see fellow artists in the same circle progress and try new techniques it drives you to do better yourself. Some of my all-time favorite artists are Robert McGinnis, JC Leyendecker, Mike Mignola, Chris Cooper, Sergio Toppi, and the list goes on and on forever.

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The Sharknado prints you did were great. I loved the play on the Coppertone ad. What gave you the idea of combining those two elements? 

It was a product of a last-minute brainstorm between the folks at Gallery 1988 and I. The idea was just the right balance of campiness and sophistication for Sharknado, tied together by an element that resonated with a lot of people. Those two posters were drawn and magically printed 3 days before San Diego Comic Con last year, where they premiered. I got a text from G1988 at 9pm on the Saturday before Comic Con while I was in the movie theater watching Pacific Rim. They said they needed 2 posters for Sharknado designed and printed before I left for San Diego on Wednesday, which gave me roughly 3 days to get everything done, including printing and shipping. While I was at the movie I started sketching ideas on a napkin, and then stayed awake for the next 24 straight hours drawing those two posters in order to get the separation files to the printer with enough time to print and ship them for the first day of Comic Con. In the end it was really great to have my work be a part of SDCC. As silly as Sharknado was, it had quite a presence that year, and we did a signing with the producer, director, and one of the actors of the movie.

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Do you listen to music while you paint? If so what? For some reason I imagine you listening to Goblin while you did the Shaun of the Dead print.

If I’m working on a poster for a movie, I’ll have the movie on in the background while I work, or movies in that genre. If I’m working on a gig poster, I’ll have the band’s music on. For the most part though, when I’m working, I’ll have a movie on. If I’m on a really tight deadline and I need to stay up and work fast, it’s Deftones or Rise Against. If I’m just sketching, or have some time on a project, it’s Marvin Gaye, Oldies and Country. I don’t have cable, so music is always on in my apartment. I listen to everything. I have Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 from Guardians of the Galaxy, Bruce Springsteen, Zac Brown Band, Deftones, Alice in Chains, and the Country music station on full rotation right now. I don’t know Goblin, but I’ll check them out.

On your blog you mention that you have an unhealthy obsession with zombies. What is the most underrated zombie film?

I’ll be honest and say that while I love the idea of zombies, I am also not a zombie purist. I really love when movies take the concept of “zombie” and do something different or original with it. The slow-walking, crawling-up-from-the-grave, deteriorating zombies from the old George A. Romero movies are awesome, but they aren’t my favorite. There’s something about fast moving and adaptable zombies that just terrifies me. I might lose some credibility for this, but I really love Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later are probably my favorite zombie movies, as I think they really revolutionized this idea that zombies can be created via an “infection” and be fast moving. I think it’s the added realism that really drives that terror home for me. And speaking of slow-moving zombies, Shaun of the Dead is one of my all-time favorite films, not just in the zombie genre. To answer your question though about ‘underrated’ zombie movies: I don’t think anyone ever thinks of Rob Rodriguez’s Planet Terror as a zombie film, but it totally is, and it’s amazing. Fido is a retro-inspired zombie movie that has a Shaun of the Dead kind of humor vibe to it. It’s a movie about a boy and his dog. But instead of a dog, it’s a zombie. Incredible. For all intents and purposes, Return of the Living Dead is simultaneously awful and awesome, but regardless, it has one of the most iconic zombies in it: Tar-Man. And lets of course not forget Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, which really got me started on all things horror and zombie related.

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The Propaganda style used for the Rocky IV print is pitch perfect considering it is one the most jingoistic films I’ve ever seen. Despite my lefty leanings I unabashedly love that silly movie. With that being said you chose a moment when Rocky is being punched for the piece. Is that in anyway a commentary on the film itself or the United States?

Ha. There was no intentional political commentary on that poster, but if that is how you choose to interpret the image, I’m totally cool with that! I think as long as people have some sort of emotional reaction to my art, good or bad, I’ll consider it successful. That particular poster was for a show at Gallery 1988 called “Say Hi to the Bad Guy,” about cult movie villains. To me, the bad guys are always more interesting, so I thought creating art that “celebrates” them was a great concept. Even though the poster is in the style of constructivist propaganda, I do think it has a very Rocky IV sentiment to it. Most of the movie is Apollo and Rocky getting their asses kicked by Drago, who seemed super-human, so making a poster that portrays Drago as larger than life made a lot of sense.

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The Beetlejuice – or Betlegeuse – print is one of my favorites of your film posters. The way you captured the essence of the film without showing any of the main characters is a testament to your ability as an artist. How do you chose a character or a moment to focus on for your posters?

Thanks. For the Beetlejuice poster, I knew from the start that I didn’t want to do something obvious. There are so many other iconic elements from that movie, I thought a bolder statement would be to leave the title character off altogether. I went back and forth on this a lot, especially considering this was only my second officially licensed poster, and I worried this would deter fans. The movie is named Beetlejuice, but I really felt that the story was about Barbara and Adam Maitland, so I wanted to showcase an iconic moment about them. In the end, I did feel like something was missing, so I ended up doing a transparent glow-in-the-dark layer of Beetlejuice which I think really tied the concept together. I try to choose content that best conveys the overall themes or mood of a movie. Sometimes that means the main character, sometimes that means the supporting characters, and often times that means no characters at all. My favorite posters are the ones that “feel” like the movie, but don’t have the characters plastered all over the page. The ones that you have to spend some time in front of that make you think a little bit. Usually this means stripping down all of the most obvious elements, and focusing on more iconic details.

How much freedom are you given when you are commissioned for a piece?

For the most part I’ll have total creative freedom. For some commercial work, licensed work, and “official” projects, there are some caveats that may include: not using likenesses, needing to use specific photo references, or a brief with general art direction. For pretty much everything else, such as gallery work, I’m free to direct my own pieces. If a project comes up that I feel will be too heavily art directed by someone else, I will decline it. It’s tough to do that sometimes, especially if it’s a good opportunity, but I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I’m finally able to say “no” if I need to.

Anthony Petrie can be found all over the internet and prints of his work are for sale through his website. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram or stop by his website and purchase a print. It would make a great gift for that movie geek in your life.

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Twitter and Instagram: @zombiebacons

Site: anthonypetrie.com

Blog: zombiebacons.tumblr.com

Facebook: facebook.com/anthonypetriedesign

Behance: behance.net/anthonypetrie

Interview with Jack Thomas Smith

Infliction - Publicity Photo #1

Interview conducted by Christopher Maynard

From the Infliction press release

Jack Thomas Smith made his feature film-directing debut with the psychological thriller “Disorder.” He was also the writer and producer of that film. “Disorder” was released on DVD by Universal/Vivendi and New Light Entertainment. It was released on Pay-Per-View and Video-On-Demand by Warner Brothers. Overseas, it screened at the Cannes Film Festival and the Raindance Film Festival in London. Curb Entertainment represented “Disorder” for foreign sales and secured distribution deals around the world.

Jack Thomas Smith’s most recent project, Infliction, is found footage horror film centered on two North Carolina brothers who go on a murder spree.

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Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Sparta, New Jersey. It’s a middle-class suburban town about 45 minutes outside of NYC. A great place to live. All roads seem to lead back to Sparta. Most of the investors on Infliction are friends I know in Sparta, or friends I grew up with.

What did your parents do? 

My dad has always worked in the corporate field in sales. He worked for years at BASF before starting his own corporation called S&S Industries. He’s very successful and has always been driven.

My mom has worked in the corporate field as well. She’s primarily done accounts/receivable work. My mom’s about as aggressive as they come. [Laughs]

My parents went the traditional route of finding corporate jobs and they provided a great life for my younger brother and I. But they also really loved movies. They had a passion for movies that rubbed off on me. When I was a teenager, my father and I would watch movies together and we’d break them down. We’d talk about what the films meant, what the director was trying to say, the imagery and symbolism in certain scenes. I’ve never been able to mindlessly watch movies, which is a good thing, because I feel this has helped me in my career.

Where did you go to school?

To be honest, I never went to college. I started writing when I was really young…it was just something I loved to do. And then when I was in my late-teens I went to the library and took out a book, “How to Write Screenplays”.  [Laughs] And I followed the instructions. I learned how to structure a screenplay…the plot points, etc. I also learned the mechanics of formatting a screenplay. Once I had that down, I was able to apply the actual story to the proper screenplay layout. And it also helped that I had spent years before that studying films in my living room with my dad and breaking them down as I mentioned earlier… I wouldn’t recommend this route to everyone. But this is what worked for me.

When did you get your first camera and what kind was it?

It was a Super 8mm movie camera and I got it when I was 13. It was awesome. I shot a bunch of horror shorts and comedy shorts with my brother and friends in the neighborhood. It was a great learning experience. I learned the process of getting coverage…and shooting one actor’s lines at a time and cutting it together. In other words, I didn’t shoot an entire scene in one take with the camera swinging back and forth from one actor to the next. I isolated each actor’s performance and cut it together…at least I tried to as best as I could. [Laughs] It was a lot of fun and we still have those old films. Every here and there we watch them for a laugh.

As a writer director you are a storyteller. What made you chose to tell your stories on film?

I’ve always loved movies. It goes back to the first time I saw Star Wars. I was 8 years old when it came out and I was absolutely blown away. I wanted to know how they did everything…from the casting to shooting to the special effects. I wasn’t just a fan of that movie…I wanted to learn how they did everything so I could do it. So I read every magazine or book I could get my hands on about the making of Star Wars (that was long before the internet [Laughs]). Shortly after that, I read “The Shining” by Stephen King and that changed my life as well. I started writing horror stories obsessively. So, essentially, I married my love for writing with my love for films. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to write and make films. I’ve done this ever since…whenever I write a screenplay, I plan to shoot it myself. I never go in thinking that I’ll sell it or that someone else will direct it…I want to have complete control over my vision. So if you watch the two films that I wrote and directed – Disorder and Infliction – that’s my vision 100%.

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Is there a specific film that made you think you could do what you saw on screen?

Definitely Star Wars. That was the first film that hit me as a kid. After that, there were a number of other films that influenced me: Dawn of the Dead (the original); Night of the Living Dead; Rocky; The Shining; The Crow; Goodfellas; Carrie; Scarface; Taxi Driver; Jaws; Halloween; The Fog; The Thing; Apocalypse Now, etc. As you can see, I’m a huge fan of Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, and George Romero…I love films that make you think.

Your latest film, Infliction, was released on July 1st.  How would you describe it?

Infliction is a disturbing assembled footage film that documents a murder spree committed by two brothers in North Carolina, and the horrific truth behind their actions. It’s brutal and gritty. Very dark. But as you watch Infliction, you’ll find yourself asking who are the true victims here and who are the true criminals.

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Why did you choose to tell your story using the found footage format over conventional narrative?

I shot Infliction as found footage because the story dictated that. In other words, I didn’t set out to shoot a “found footage” film. In the film, the brothers are filming their actions for a reason. The cameras play an important part as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. There are some other “found footage” films where you’ll see people running from a monster and you’re yelling at the screen for them to put down the damn camera and run. I didn’t want to do that with Infliction.  I wanted it to make sense why they’re shooting everything.  And as the film plays out, you’ll see why the cameras are so important to them.

As a writer/director are you protective of your work as a writer?

Absolutely! You have to be. Anytime I write a screenplay, I get a copyright before I send it anywhere. Unfortunately, there’s bad people out there that want to steal other peoples’ ideas and/or screenplays and claim it as their own. I couldn’t imagine doing that. Every screenplay that I write means something to me. That’s why I’m doing it. It’s my passion and it’s what I love to do. But there are people out there that want quick success and they want to take shortcuts instead of putting in the hard work that it takes to get there. Yeah, I’m very protective of my work.

What attracts you to the horror genre?

I’ve always been a fan of the genre. Dawn of the Dead is my all-time favorite horror film. I’ve always loved that rush when watching a horror film…you’re on the edge of your seat…you don’t know what’s around the corner…your heart’s racing because you don’t know what to expect next. It’s a lot of fun. No different than going on a rollercoaster. From a filmmaking standpoint, horror movies are a blast to make. It’s cool watching the effects on set…creating the mood with the lighting and locations.  Plus, you don’t need A-list actors when making a horror film. If you look at some of the greatest horror films ever made – Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre – they were low-budget films without known actors. Horror is the one genre where you can make a quality, marketable film on a small budget.

Your first feature, Disorder, was released in 2006. Is it harder to get your film noticed now than it was 8 years ago?

It is. Back when I did Disorder, most movies were shot on film. So you had to have a certain amount of money to make a movie. There weren’t as many indies being made. Disorder was shot on Super 16mm, which gave it the gritty look I was going for. But today with digital cameras, anyone can make a movie. And the market is flooded with indies. With so many indies out there now, it’s getting harder and harder to get your movie noticed. I was fortunate that [I was able to go back to] my sales rep, Jeff Cooper of Cut Entertainment Group, who handled Disorder and negotiated the deal with Universal/Vivendi, and he was able to secure distribution for Infliction with Virgil Films & Entertainment.

 

Infliction will be available on Netflix, Walmart.com, iTunes, Amazon, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, CD Universe, Google Play, Vudu, Cinema Now, Vimeo OnDemand, and other online retailers.

Interview with Phil Mossman

Interview conducted by Christopher Maynard

Phil Mossman is a composer who has worked with artists like U2 and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and he worked on Stephen Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight and Oceans 11. He was also a member of LCD Soundsystem and took part in the band’s legendary final performance that was captured for the film Shut Up and Play the Hits.  Mr. Mossman is a very busy man and was kind enough to take part in this interview. I contacted him to discuss his work on the film We Are What Are.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. How are you today?

I am building a new studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn and have been waiting for the telephone guy.  I hope it starts ringing once he plugs it in.

Where are you from?

London, England.  

When did you discover music?

Before I was born my Mum was a mod and she got a job with Motown when they did a UK review.  One of her jobs was to lead Stevie Wonder onstage.  When I was 4 or 5 she got me one of those suitcase record players and gave me all her 45s.  Later I got a reel-to-reel and started recording stuff.  I think it all grew out of that.  

When did you start creating your own music and what style was it?

I wasn’t until the UK post acid house scene came along when I thought wow, music is in the hands of the people again.  I was too young when punk exploded and the 80s were all about big studios and record labels which seemed impossible to aspire to.  When Primal Scream’s Screamadelica came out my head exploded.  It had elements of everything that I loved about music; psychedelic, punk, soul, dub, and rock.  My mate Jagz Kooner and I started making tracks in his parent’s garage and later we joined The Sabres of Paradise, which was Andrew Weatherall’s band.  Andrew was responsible for much of Screamadelica so I’ve always been quite in awe of him.  He still makes amazing records.

What film composers, if any, would you consider to be an influence on your work?

I’m going to go with the artist who has had the most direct influence on my life and development as a musician, who is David Holmes.  We worked together for about five years and did our first film together, Out of Sight, directed by Stephen Soderbergh.  David is a force of nature and I miss him a lot.  I would work with him again in a heartbeat; he can whip a session into frenzy like no other.  I also admire Cliff Martinez; his scores have a lot of depth, soul and imagination.

How were you brought on to do the score for We Are What We Are?

The producer of the film, Nick Shumaker, brought me on very late in the game and there was a Sundance deadline so there was a lot of late nights.

The score is a collaboration between yourself and Darren Morris with Jeff Grace. What was it like to work with two other composers on this project?

It worked out great.  As I mentioned, it was an insane deadline so I was happy to share the load with some great talent.  Some of Jeff’s cues had been on the cut for some time, I believe that some scenes were actually filmed with his music playing on set.  I never met Jeff but his work is outstanding.  Darren is an old friend and possibly the most gifted musician I have ever met.  I knew there was going to be a big role for piano so it was a no brainer for me to get him involved.  I frequently cry when he sits at the piano.

The music you wrote for the film, much like the film itself, is both beautiful and unnerving. The opening theme perfectly sets up the tone of the film. The solo piano, while quite pretty, hints that something is deeply wrong with what we are about to see. Did you have a specific emotional reaction you were looking for with that piece?

I love that cue.  Case in point, that’s Darren working his magic at the piano.  The temp music was actually quite ominous.  I suggested to Jim Mickle that perhaps we shouldn’t blow our cover at the top of the film so we focused on scoring the coming of the storm.  The storm plays such an important role in the movie and the way Darren’s playing comes out of the raindrops gives me shivers.

“The Drive to Tire Iron” is an incredibly ominous piece of music that could completely stand alone, but when placed against the scene its truly unsettling. It has this low-pitched drone juxtaposed with a high pitched squeal that feels like a siren. How did you create it? What instruments were used to make it?

That scene is a turning point in the film, where you’re starting to realize that there is something seriously wrong with this guy.  Nothing really happens but there is an incredible amount of tension.  It starts with an eerie whir that is one of those kid’s toys that you spin around your head and it changes pitch how fast you spin it.  The low drone is the OB8 in the DFA studio, which still has character even at such low frequencies.  The metallic squeals are a Waterphone which you bow and the water bends the pitch.

“Frank Chases the Kids” had an almost Tangerine Dream or John Carpenter quality that I didn’t notice until I listened to the soundtrack on its own. While I was watching the film it fit the scene perfectly and it in no way called attention to itself but it really was quite different from anything else in the score. Was this by design? 

I was definitely channeling Assault on Precinct 13 and Tangerine Dream on that cue.  Jim said go big so the challenge was to do that in an interesting way.  I was using a lot of analog synths throughout so I used the power of the MKS80 and a real TR909 to shake some seats.

I love the music in that film. Not the best Carpenter film but goddamn it has great music. The Death Waltz reissue of it is beautiful. What are you working on now?

I worked on Mike Cahill’s movie I Origins this year but right now I’m finishing up the sound treatment for the new studio.  I need to finish it this week.

 

You can purchase the We Are What We Are soundtrack here and you can currently stream the film on Netflix.

Interview with Itay Gross

Itay Gross

Interview conducted by Christopher Maynard

Itay Gross is a cinematographer who has worked on films like Excision and Europa. While his films are varied in genre and style, they are always stunning to look at. Itay has an approach that never feels overpowering. He creates memorable images that service the story in profound ways.

Itay lives in Israel and (if you don’t keep up with current events) he has far more important things to think about than my silly questions. It was truly an honor for him to take time for this interview. He is a generous man who is an incredibly gifted artist.

Where are you from?

I am originally from Israel, born and raised in Tel Aviv.

What did your parents do for a living?

My parents are both dentists.  In fact, no one in my family is in the arts. It’s a voyage I took on by myself.

How did you discover film?

Narratives and stories have always intrigued me and seemed like the most fascinating method of depicting desires, visions and fantasies. When I was 16, I saw Blade Runner for the first time. Looking back, I realize that film introduced me to the art of cinematography and the world of visual storytelling. I was staring at the images, mesmerized by the way Ridley Scott and the Director of Photography, Jordan Cronenweth, had managed to depict this futuristic and postmodern world in such a real and vivid way. I could smell the acidic rain flooding the streets of the mutant city of Los Angeles through the colors projected from the old CRT television set. This significant experience made me see the power and influence of films, and the role of cinematography within the process of visual storytelling. I wanted to be able to bring these kinds of images to life myself, to be able to depict a story in such a vivid and unique way that people would be able to smell it, to feel warm or cold, to feel they were practically there themselves. When I look back at this now, I realize it was a defining moment in my life.

What cinematographers inspired you to pick up a camera?

Jordan Cronenweth
Blade Runner might be Cronenweth’s only film that I like, or love I should say. It changed my life. I saw the images and was mesmerized. All I wanted was to be able, one day, to create such images.

Sacha Vierni
Vierni, who shot most of Peter Greenaway’s films, always amazed me by managing to depict colors in such a vivid and convincing way. The color red in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the reddest red I’ve ever seen.

Dick Pope
Pope, who shot all of Mike Leigh’s films, has always inspired me with his innovative ways of moving the camera and lighting night exteriors. Naked is, in my opinion, a whole film school of night exterior lighting.

Harris Sevides
Elephant, shot by Sevides, was one of the films that visually influenced me the most. The way he depicted loneliness, solitude, and sadness in that film is like nothing else, and I’m still studying it. His approach to the use of available light is something I’ll always take with me in my career.

Janus Kaminsky
A Hollywood icon. Beyond the unforgettable images he keeps on creating, shooting a film like Schindler’s List at the age of 34 and working with a director like Steven Spielberg ever since, is a career path I’ll always look up to.

Blade Runner is probably the first movie that got me to notice the camera; that shot composition and lighting can be as critical to storytelling as a script. Kaminsky is one of my favorites as well. He has been doing beautiful work for years. One film of his that I think people overlook of his is Funny People. I assume people don’t notice how stunning a film is when it stars Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen but the film is simply gorgeous. What was your first camera?

At the age of 13 I got my first super 8 Sony home video camera. I was fascinated with it and its endless capabilities (at the time). I started shooting everything with it, and discovering the meaning of a “frame” without any guidance or agenda, just a kid experiencing the magic created by colors, light and optics.

I had one of those Sony High 8 cameras. Me and my friends made dozens of unwatchable zombie/post apocalypse films in my parents back yard. I have a feeling the stuff you were shooting looked much better. Where did you go to school?

Undergrad: NYU Tisch School of the arts – BFA, Major: Film & TV, Minor: Art & Public Policy.
Graduated in 2006.
Grad: AFI – MFA in Cinematography.
Graduated in 2011.

Now I’d like to ask you a few questions about Excision. The look of the film is truly stunning. How much input did you have into the visual style and what did you shoot it on?

First, thank you.
We shot the film on 2 RED MX cameras, and a RED Epic for the high speed and steadicam shots. Richard Bates Jr. (the director) and I worked for nearly a year on the visual language and the style of the film. We watched many reference films together, within the genre and beyond, including paintings and photographs. We categorized the reference films by the visual elements – framing, color, camera movement, blood look/color. I’m a big believer in prep and preproduction, and so we worked closely together on a very precise shot list for a few months, trying to depict the film’s narrative in the most colorful, efficient and radical way and making sure we were telling the story properly. We built the language of the film together. It was a wonderful, efficient and thorough process of teamwork. Richard always came in with his initial ideas for every scene, and we took it together from there. The main theme of the film was to illustrate this vast contrast within this troubled teenager, who yearns for her mother’s approval and love.

We had rules for framing – we wanted to create a world of alienation and solitude for our main character Pauline. For this reason, most of our close ups are center punched with a 50mm lens. Very rarely, we would do an over-the-shoulder type of dialogue scene. We wanted the viewers to feel how disconnected from the world Pauline is.

We had rules for colors – Pauline’s real world is a bit de-saturated and muted, just like her life, faded and lonely. This is completely set apart from her dark fantasies and everything that goes on in her mind. We decided to go with a very unique and radical color pallet for the dream  sequences. The contrast between the turquoise of the set and the redness of the blood created a very different world from Pauline’s real world; this is where she is free.

The fantasy sequences in the film are beautiful and seem to be played for comedic effect early on but grow darker as the film continues. Was this the intended effect of the sequences?

Every dream sequence scene was shot and designed in order to create some form of surprise and elicit a measure of terror from the audience. We really wanted these scenes to be very different in every aspect from the rest of the film. The evolution of the dream sequences relies mainly on the narrative progress in Pauline’s life and mind. The intention was to pull the audience out of Pauline’s real world visually, so the look of these sequences is somewhat unified, but the content of these scenes reflects the progression within the story. I think they all have elements of dark comedy mixed with terror, but as the story progresses, and the audience is exposed more and more to Pauline’s personality, the atmosphere grows a bit more grim as we understand what Pauline is capable of.

It feels to me like the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality in the film give us insight to our protagonist’s mind, but also makes the viewer somewhat complicit with her actions. Because the viewer is made to feel sympathy for her, we ignore her thoughts and possible tendencies just like everyone else in the film. Did you have specific viewer reactions in mind
when you were shooting this film?

We definitely wanted to involve the audience in Pauline’s point of view, and thus, to earn the audience’s sympathy and trust for her, in spite of her troubled thoughts and actions. From the get go, we knew we weren’t making a “horror film” per se. I personally define the film as a “coming of age” story, with dark comedy and horror elements. When we shot the film, we had an idea of when people would laugh or be scared, and we definitely tried to be specific and clear with the feelings we wanted to stimulate in the audience in different scenes. For instance, in the final scene, we knew we wanted the audience to be horrified; it was intended as a climax, and so we worked carefully on every detail in the scene in order to provoke these emotions beyond a doubt.

The scene where Pauline is praying is simple but incredibly effective. How was that shot pulled off?

This shot was quite simple, actually, as you said. We shot it on location in her bedroom. The camera was high up on sticks, at a high angle, and AnnaLynne [McCord] was on her knees on the floor. We wanted to give the notion that this is an intimate moment between Pauline and her “God”. We decided on a somewhat God-like POV angle, and had Pauline looking straight to the camera. This, combined with her very sincere acting, created the authenticity and effectiveness of the shot, I think. In terms of colors, we wanted to create the feeling of a “home”, illustrated by a dimmed warm and soft bedside lamp, juxtaposed with a bit harsher and maybe even scarier blue moonlight coming from the window. Even though it’s not “realistic”, I think this contrast of color is a visualization of the conflicted morals in Pauline’s mind.

Do you prefer to work with digital or film?

I was part of the last generation of film students who shot mostly on film. In my undergrad studies at NYU, we shot most of our films on super 16mm. We even had 16mm Steenbeck editing suits where we cut films, literally, just like they used to. It’s a whole different world, learning the basics of filmmaking and cinematography using these tools. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to be able to explore, examine, and understand its superiority and fall in love with film, just before it started to vanish. In terms of colors, latitude and contrast I think film is still superior to digital. In that sense I’m a bit of an “old school” cinematographer. Yes, of course digital will get to the level of film in every aspect, but it’s not the same. There’s something in the grain of film that is just not the same in digital. I know it might sound very romantic and cheesy, but I think there’s nothing like getting film dailies back and screening them at the end of the day.

You shot a music video for Irit Dekel & Eldad Zitrin that was simply beautiful. The use of reflected light on glass was gorgeous it gave the video a simple but elegant quality that was very impressive. Did you know the group or the director beforehand?

Thank you very much.
I did not know the group beforehand, but the director, Roy Eventov, is a good friend of mine with whom I’ve worked on many projects.
It was a very interesting and challenging project. We shot 10 music videos in 5 days – meaning 2 videos a day (!). It was all based on simplicity – that was our agenda. We tried to extract the essence of every song and depict it in the most visual and efficient way. I learned a lot on this project about the power of simplicity in the art of visual storytelling. Sometimes less is much more.

You’ve shot science fiction, horror, commercials and music videos.  Do you have a specific genre of film that you would prefer to work in?

I just love telling stories using the visual language. No matter the genre, if the story appeals to me, I’d want to tell it using colors and light.

With Secular and Europa you were dealing with special effects heavy films. What is the difference between shooting practical and digital effects for a cinematographer? Are you involved with the design of the CGI elements?

Shooting real effects (special effects or SFX) on set is very different than shooting for CGI (visual effects or VFX). SFX means dealing with the effects from A to Z. In Excision, for instance, we had many scenes that involved blood and blood effects. The director, the SFX team and I worked together on creating these effects, in terms of blood color, blood shape and thickness and amount. We did a number of tests in order to understand what we wanted the blood to look like, as it plays an important role in the movie. Then, on set, you get to the real show, where everything has to fall in place together very precisely in order for the scene and the effect to work together. It’s a very “analog” work method, almost like film vs. digital, and I love it. Another film that relied mostly on effects on set is a new feature I shot that just came out in Israel, called Marzipan Flowers. In this film we did a very unique thing – the film is written as an ordinary narrative location film, but we shot all locations on a digital high end stills camera and then printed them out on huge Xerox papers (30ft by 9ft), in real scale to the actors, and thus created all the locations on black and white backgrounds, whether they were interiors or exteriors, day or night. The sets were built in front of the locations backgrounds, all in in one studio. It became a “one location production”, featuring about 20-30 locations. It came out wonderfully. Now those were some “real” on set effects.

The VFX elements like the ones we did in Europa or Sequlr Quarter #3 were all completely different undertakings. In these films it was all about the pre-production, The director, David Gidali (who directed and supervised the VFX for both films), the production designer and I had “pre-visualization” (pre vis) for every effect and element we wanted to bring in later on, meaning that we visually illustrated the scene with all of its elements, including the actors and set elements. We had to understand all of the effect’s features in order to fit it correctly within the scene, and/or on a modified green screen or green element it was going to appear on or replace.

It’s very delicate and precise work, as any mistake can affect an entire scene on set. It’s fascinating to see all the elements come together at the end and become a magical image on the screen.

Again I want to thank Itay for doing this interview. Please check out his work at ITAY GROSS | CINEMATOGRAPHER