BY ANDREW WYATT
|Photo Source: Kevin A. Roberta|
The script for your upcoming film, A Fall from Grace, was co-written by you and one of the film's producers and performers, Eric Wilkinson. How did you originally get involved?
The script that Eric gave me was inspired by the creepy feeling he got while he was standing on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. He only later found out about the Kerry sisters [the 1991 murder of Julie and Robin Kerry at the bridge]. Eric's script was not about the sisters at all, but it was certainly inspired by the mood on that bridge, and the fact that something dark had happened there. I know that's a very potent case for St. Louis. I think that at some point in the future, Eric wants to focus on that case in a different film, if he can get the family's permission, because he wants to do it respectfully. Initially, I said “No” to the project three times. Eric is the kind of writer and producer who is very receptive to the fact that I said, “Look, there are just some things in this script that I don't gravitate towards.” I can't say specifically if there were things I just felt I had seen before, or things that didn't hit that part of me that wanted to bring them to fruition. I told him that I loved the idea of the bridges and a killer, but I'd like to explore some different things, and he was very all about that. I did a big re-write and a re-configuration of things, changing some of the story and the characters. And Eric was very happy with the result, and so was I. And at that point it was a story that I wanted to tell, very deeply. That was all brought about because Eric told me, “You've got to come see St. Louis.” I'd never been there, but the moment I was there, I fell in love with it. The city is not just visually arresting, it's the mood and a quality of life, and a type of people that just breeds amazing stories. I was totally inspired, and I went back into the script with that new juice. So the project was born partly of the challenge of making something that didn't necessarily spark me. Eric and David [producer David Michaels] are both people I wanted to work with—I had worked with David before on Surveillance—and I felt that it was certainly worth giving this a shot and trying to thrill them and me. And then once I was in St. Louis, it was all a bit of magic, and the script came out.
So the visit to St. Louis was when the project pivoted from more of a work-for-hire to something you could sink your teeth into?
Absolutely. It was the city that brought me, in the very best of ways, to my knees, as far as that creative passion. Around every corner there's new look and a new type of air, and my brain was just going crazy with stories. I think that's what I needed. I am such a fan of the Mississippi River, so that was just a bonus. But you guys have everything: the bridges, the farmland, the city, the wealth, the poverty, the old, the new. I was awestruck. There's something about the vastness of the sky and the potency of the weather that I think really humbles people and makes them authentic in a way that helped me fall in love with characters. I want to showcase St. Louis as a beautiful place with tremendous history, and both an innocence and a creepiness.
Historically, there are only a handful of films shot predominantly on location in St. Louis that are also explicitly set here.
Right! And I want to be the first in this decade, certainly, to really make St. Louis a character in our film.
The last one that I can recall is Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill.
Yes, I think that's right. There is a whole trial and tribulations we're going through, as far as the St. Louis Film Commission and having a tax incentive brought back there. It just seems to me that there is so much more to see and bring to the screen in St. Louis. Right now Louisiana is getting all of it, and I don't get that. I think the economy in St. Louis could benefit so greatly from having that tax incentive. I would love to be a part of bringing some money back into the city. And, in a selfish way, I would love to have this great place to shoot that people haven't seen, the way I intend I shoot it.
The Chain of Rocks Bridge certainly is a spooky kind of bridge. Apart from the length, it has that odd bend in the center, and those water intake islands.
Yes, the trees and the intake towers and then the Chain of Rocks itself, which is so visually arresting. It's like this nature-made halt in the river. It's where you can really see how powerful the water is, where nature has given evidence and reminded us of how quickly that water is moving. Otherwise, it can just sort of look like silk out there. I wanted to get into those intake towers like you wouldn't believe, but apparently you can't access them anymore, because the stairs that lead up to them are completely rotted away.
I've always wondered if the Army Corps of Engineers ever lets anyone in those towers.
Apparently the won't. [Laughs]. I tried. If I had my way, I would love to go in there and re-build those stairs, and be able to get inside one of those. It's the most isolated, terrifying, Rapunzel-esque image I've seen in a long time.
If you're out there on the bridge at dusk, the whole place definitely has a weird voodoo about it.
It really does have, for lack of a better word, a vibe. It's got a mood. From the construction of it, that strange bend, as you say, which I'm sure was there for a necessary reason. But it's so strange a bend to have, and then to have it go into the woods the way it does. It's very much like a child would have made it in a dollhouse environment. It's a little too long and it's not quite straight and it's so narrow. And the fact that it used to be Route 66. It's just got all these super-cool things about it. When we were shooting the teaser there, I just can't tell you how eerie and magical it was. It really is a beautifully constructed bridge.
In all of your films, you've been either the sole screenwriter, or a co-writer. Do you feel like you need to have a hand in a script to make it your own?
I do feel better knowing that I have something in it. For me, directing starts in the writing, because I I believe you make a film three times: you write it, you direct it, and then you edit it. Each of those times, it becomes a different thing. You conceive of it in the script, and you bring it to life as you're shooting it. However, it's changed from the script, because you have real human beings stepping into the skins you've created, and they have things to say about it. So there's an evolution there. And ultimately when you get into post-production, you have to listen to the footage, because it's not necessarily what you set out to get. Hopefully, it's better, but it's always a little bit different. I think for me, being involved in the script is a necessity, not because I need to say something about it, so much as it's the best way for me to start the communication. That doesn't mean there aren't scripts I wouldn't kill to direct as they are.
\A couple of years ago, you directed a supernatural horror film, Hisss, on location in India. The storied tale tale of shooting that film is the subject of a new documentary, Despite the Gods, from a first-time director Penny Vozniak. I understand that Hisss was an instance where what you set out to do versus the end product wasn't at all what you imagined it was going to be.
Well, ultimately, I didn't get to make that film. I put my director's cut together, and the producers decided it was not what they wanted. They took it back to India. I never did any scoring or cutting or color-timing or any of the things you do to make the movie. They took the footage and changed it into what they wanted it to be. So it's not my film. I went to India and shot some footage, but I have nothing to do with the movie they made.
That's an instance where you were able to complete the first two steps of writing and directing, but were not able to complete the third step of cutting.
Exactly. It's like being really nauseous and hoping you can throw up, but not being able to. [Laughs] I went through several years of sorrow over that. It was one of the most significant losses I've had in my life.
The loss of control over the film at the end.
Yeah, it was just really sad for me. I think it was a mistake for them to do it. I would rather make a film and fail at making it and yet still complete it, as opposed to not being able to finish something. I'm deeply resentful that they decided to keep my name on it as writer and director. I think it's terribly unfair and very bad business.
So the Bollywood experience did not pan out as you would have preferred.
Well, that film specifically did not. The Bollywood adventure itself was magical and insane and absurd and joyous and nine months long. It was a significant part of my life. I would return to any time. I would go back in a heartbeat.
Despite the fate of Hisss, you can see yourself returning to do another film in the Bollywood mode?
Absolutely. I would love to. I would just work with different producers.
Your films have all been shot on location outside Hollywood, going back to Boxing Helena in the Atlanta area. How does selecting a locale for filming come about?
It's mainly a decision of the producers, because of tax incentives, and a way to save money. It's just too expensive for most people to shoot in Los Angeles. Because I'm rarely doing a film that's over one or two million dollars, producers are always looking to save money. I'd love to shoot locally, but it's best to shoot on a sound stage when in L.A., because you've just seen everything here.
Your 2008 thriller, Surveillance, which was shot in Canada, benefits from not being obviously set in Los Angeles.
Well, the interiors, such as the police station, were shot on stage, but with all the exteriors, I was just dying to say it was Anywhere, Middle America.
Certainly, the film's environment is very non-specific. It could be the plains of Nebraska or the desert outside Los Angeles. It's pointedly never specified where we are.
Well God bless you for saying that, because that was the idea! I did that on purpose. Every license plate said something vague. I tried to never focus on that. I tend to feel that the more universal a place feels, the more we, as audience members, feel we could be there. If we give it a specific name, sometimes it will feel safe, knowing we don't live there. I kind of wanted to erase that line of safety.
In contrast, A Fall From Grace is going to be explicitly set in St. Louis, correct?
It's named as a St. Louis film, definitely. The protagonist, he works for St. Louis P.D., he's a homicide detective. It's important to note that although within the story there are beautiful moments and intensely dark moments, none of this is blamed on St. Louis. St. Louis is representative to me of anywhere in America. Or for that matter, anywhere in the world, as far as how people live together, and what the human condition is. These particular incidents in the story take place in St. Louis, but it's not because it's St. Louis.
You were involved in a car accident in 1988 that has subsequently resulted in significant pain issues for you. Is it fair to say that living with pain is an element of your artistic life at his point?
It certainly hasn't been of no effect on my artistic life. I think I was interested in the ways that pain affects humans even prior to that. Certainly, the sense of isolation and entrapment in one's own body or a space became more specific after the accident. Most of my artistic interests are in the darker areas of life. I'm incredibly interested in comedy too, people just haven't seen me do it yet. [Laughs] I'm interested in the dark stuff, because that's not what my life is. I gravitate towards things I'm curious about, or things I've had tastes of. I never want to go to prison and I never want to be arrested, but I tend to show a lot of people being arrested, and I'm sure someday I'll show people going to prison. That's a way to have that experience without ever really having it. But certainly there is my own experience in everything I do. I can't deny that. It's as much my own experience as my own curiosity. I tend to be curious about things that terrify me in the right way, so I go towards them.
That does seem to be a theme of captivity in your films, whether it's explicit physical confinement or a more indirect kind. It goes back to Boxing Helena and extends to the film you just completed, Chained. On of the things I enjoy about Surveillance is the sort of blackly comical way that the corrupt patrolmen detain the motorists out on the road with their bizarre, menacing behavior. Their victims seem uncertain about whether they can just leave.
That element of physical restraint seems to crop up again and again in your work. Chained is no exception. It's about a boy trapped in a house for ten years with a very dangerous man. That's not a conscious decision I'm making, but I'm pleased by the different things that come out of people when they're forced to sit still. Those are the reactions I'm fascinated by. If everybody can just come and go as they please, it's not nearly as interesting to me as people having to keep their wits about them and redefine themselves in order to stay alive. I think that's a universal touchstone for everyone, because ultimately when we're reduced to one being in one place, we all really only have certain choices to make. I really get a kick out of watching people make those choices, and how well or poorly they can go.
Your early writing efforts include the Twin Peaks tie-in book The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. However, another, less well-known project of yours was scripting an episode of the cult horror show Friday the 13th: The Series.
Hell, yeah! [Laughs] I used to write a lot of television. I got involved in that when Paramount called me. They knew I was writing scripts, and brought me in one day. The funny story about that is, I had two meetings that day, one at Paramount for Friday the 13th: The Series, and another at another studio for another show. And I went to Paramount thinking it was for this other show. As I walked up the stairs following the guy into the office, he turned around to lead me up, and he was wearing a Friday the 13th: The Series jacket. And I went, “Oh, f***, I'm not ready for this meeting.” I sat down and by the grace of whatever creative angels there are out there, an idea came to me, and I pitched it to them, and they bought it that day.
I still enjoy that series immensely as a great, old-school supernatural horror story. The episodic nature of it worked very well.
I know! And I'm about to leave shortly to do an episode of Warehouse 13, which reminds me very much of Friday the 13th: The Series.
Your episode, “Repetition,” reminds me a bit of a gambler's tale: a person who gambles to pay off debts, and then just creates new debts, establishing this endless cycle. Only with the addition of murder and the supernatural.
Yes, and the idea that you have to choose who's worthy to die. The question of who doesn't matter is a fascinating thing to me. What a curse that would be! In order to save yourself, you'd probably go for it.
I understand that you were educated at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.
Yes, for the last two years of high school.
I attended college in Michigan, and had several classmates who spoke very glowingly of their experiences at Interlochen's Arts Camp. Was attending school there full-time a positive experience for you as well?
It was incredibly pivotal for me. Transformative in just about every way. It was where I think I developed my voice, separate from my parents. There was a particular writing teacher there, with whom I'm still in touch, and he changed my life. He made me embrace the idea that there is really no way to write anything other than your own way. Certainly, there are changes in structure and things that can make something more palatable to a reader. But the very best way to tell a story is the same way you would tell a best friend or a lover or a child. You recount it. That what a great voice is. It's like great joke-telling. You tell it yourself, and that's what makes the joke great. It's the kind of thing I would wish for everybody. That's what education should be. It should be one if not more teachers that really bring you into yourself. They don't teach you to be themselves, they teach you to be you. I can't stand teachers who want me to be them. [Laughs] That's not only boring, it's irritating.
Jennifer, thank you so much for speaking with me today, particularly at this early stage in the production of A Fall From Grace.
I really appreciate it. There are always things to talk about with the film, and the beauty of it is that it's always changing.