Sunday, February 28, 2010

5 Questions for “Contact” director Jeremiah Kipp

Two young lovers. One mysterious drug. A close encounter of the “Twilight Zone” kind. Jeremiah Kipp’s “Contact” premiered here in NYC at last year’s final incarnation of annual Halloween horror film fest Sinister Six. Luckily for those who missed that screening the short film can be viewed online here. And luckily for me Jeremiah was gracious enough to discuss Lars von Trier, the horror genre, collaborating with actors, lessons learned and short-form filmmaking.

Lauren Wissot: I know you look up to envelope-pushers like Lars von Trier. I’m a big fan of his films – especially “Antichrist” – as well. What do you admire about the director? You said you wished you’d taken “Contact” even further in transgression. How so?

Jeremiah Kipp: Seeing a film like “Antichrist” reminds me of the possibilities of what movies can do. It shakes us somehow, breaks through barriers, and gets to the heart of the matter. A so-called provocateur like von Trier is, actually, being incredibly naked, honest, sincere and direct in his confrontation of primal fears and needs. The fact that a film like this exists makes me feel less alone. The movie might be his most personal; I wonder how close he is to the Charlotte Gainsbourg character. It’s funny, because the lead actress in “Contact” absolutely loathes von Trier, particularly “Breaking the Waves”, which I consider one of the most important films of the 1990s.

I love filmmakers who go for that kind of extreme cinema: Harmony Korine, Bruno Dumont, Andrzej Zulawski, Abel Ferrara. Their best movies go beyond what is polite, into a raw nerve. In comparison, “Contact” is more of a romantic film; like a Joy Division song about love that aches. But a part of me would rather have gone for the guts and innards of the human condition like von Trier does rather than into matters of the heart. Cinema can push further in terms of sexuality, horror, pain; I wonder if “Contact” could be remade as 60 seconds of pure uncensored physicality, like an emotional hand grenade.

LW: What attracts you to the horror genre? I remember asking the same thing of Larry Fessenden – who you’ve worked with – when I interviewed him for Filmmaker, and he responded that for him the genre itself is really secondary. For whatever reasons the stories he wants to tell end up taking that particular form.

JK: Larry Fessenden is one of the most important New York filmmakers working today, beyond even the scope of the horror genre. But what attracts him to this place, I think, is the way horror movies take something we are afraid of in real life and pushes it towards the metaphorical. Hansel and Gretel would be a tale of social realism documenting starvation, poverty and child abuse were it not for the imaginative leap it takes into the magical: a gingerbread house, a witch who cooks and eats little kids, and so on. Naturalism only gets us so far; horror delves further, and creates images for feelings we have a difficult time expressing literally. In “Contact”, two lovers kiss, their faces melt together, and suddenly we have an image fraught with possible meaning. Horror movies are like poetry in this way. If Larry were to remake his vampire film “Habit” now as a mid-life crisis movie, it might be incredibly powerful, since I think he is fed on by parasites, including myself, who pull his time away from what he should be doing, which is what he was born to do, which is to direct films.

LW: What I found particularly fascinating about Sheila’s interview with your lead actress Zoë Daelman Chlanda at The House Next Door was the window it opened onto your method of working with actors. What Zoë seemed to appreciate most was that for you it’s a collaborative effort that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. You build the characters together. How did you come to take this approach?

JK: I get excited about working with actors and crew who have a tenacious quality, or a charisma. There has to be something alive about them, something to respond to. And I believe in the rehearsal process with actors. You want to explore all the possibilities. It makes the picture feel more alive, and by going through this process the audience feels some kind of depth, something under the surface, because we’ve done the work. It can be as simple as that an actor and actress are playing characters in a relationship, and the time spent working in rehearsal affords them the opportunity to get to know one another, to get a frame of reference for how they relate to one another. And when you work with good actors like Zoë, they’re able to build from that direct experience. You push them, or stimulate their ideas somehow, and you love them, and they respond and push and inspire you right back. In fact, (DP and editor) Dominick Sivilli doesn’t even like to call it acting; he calls them filmmakers because their presence contribute so much to the movie, which ultimately is the vision we are all trying to serve.

LW: What did you learn from creating “Contact”? What was the best lesson and what would you have done differently?

JK: So many movies are filled with wall-to-wall dialogue; they might as well be filmed plays. We wanted to dare ourselves to strip away all the constitutive elements, to reduce the plot, the characters and dialogue, to pare down to the very essential until all that was left was pure cinema. It pleased me to see that the more we reduced the film, the more it heightened a sense of anticipation in the audience. There’s a great tension to be found in silence; it is like an ambush. That was a wonderful lesson. As for what might have been done differently, perhaps we could have gone even further with the graphic elements -- by that I don’t necessarily mean the nudity and gore, but the visual technique as an expression of feeling. I recently saw the films of Philippe Grandrieux and how daring he was with shots willfully out of focus, or stretched, or plunged into shadow, or relentlessly pursuing the actors to the point where they were rendered abstract; and his unnerving use of sound as a way for the viewer to comprehend these pulsating, amorphous images. If we aggressively chase our impulses this way, the possibilities of cinema expand, and new forms emerge, which is exciting.

LW: You’ve been directing critically acclaimed shorts for quite some time now (as well as producing features). Do you find there’s more freedom in the short form, more of an opportunity to take risks without that bigger budget hanging over your head?

JK: I wish there were more of an outlet with the short form. Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Carver could build entire careers based on their short stories (well, maybe not Poe, who is a starving artist like myself). Robert Frost and Ezra Pound were short form poets. But sadly, one cannot make a true living on short form filmmaking. However, the short film is financially less strenuous than a feature if you make films like “Contact”, which cost almost nothing and turned out far better than other movies I made that cost twenty times as much. I wonder if sometimes music videos and commercials can be more expressionistic than features -- if they’re made as true artistic offerings. Mark Romanek’s music video for Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” is more resonant than almost all of the films I saw last year. Again, think of the haiku, which is pure imagery. Short form cinema can operate very powerfully on the same level. Larry Fessenden made an animated Christmas short last year that tapped into magical feelings of childhood wonder and horror. But I do feel ready to move on to feature filmmaking, as long as it retains the qualities of being well crafted, honest and daring.

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