Having returned from the Moorish and Amazonian horrors to enter the multiplex – the home of the celluloid dream that has dispatched many a willing viewer to their homes to be terrified by creaking floorboards, so this week we find ourselves returning home.
In part four of our FrightFest special feature ‘Unwanted Guests’, HeyUGuys interrogated director Ate de Jong and producer Elisar Cabrera about contributing an invasive descent into human nature – spiralling into the depths of repression and emotional and physical abuse for their independent home invasion drama Deadly Virtues.
Elisar Cabrera: Well as a Londoner it is quite thrilling, and although I have been to FrightFest before as a sales agent and I have represented films here, this is my first time as a producer.
Ate de Jong: It is actually a very strange experience. I’ve lived in London for fourteen years, and I have always wanted to be a part of the British film industry, though it never worked out. Whilst I knew everyone, I never really made a film here, and so I left. But lo and behold six years later I’m back, and I’m here at FrightFest. It’s marvellous and so it feels like a sort of justification or homecoming for me. It’s Leicester Square and it’s in the centre of town, which is a place I always see films with my sons. So it is delightful.
Storytelling is an intriguing process and interaction. We tell and consume stories about subjects or events that are the negative chapters in people’s lives – adultery, divorce, the angst of life etc. Why has cinema become a means to explore these subjects?
Ate de Jong: It is intriguing why Aaron [Edward Akrout] chooses to invade this couple’s home, and very quickly you sense that he has a philosophy – he’s not just doing it to terrorise people; he wants to achieve something. So that is the first point of intrigue, and the second is when Allison [Megan Maczko] starts to fight back. She’s been a victim and so she knows that the only way to survive is to not be a victim.
So that starts to trigger interest or at least that’s what you hope, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to identify with her or the intruder. You can just watch the film and ask if you were in this situation then how would you react, and are you interested in seeing how someone else reacts?
Can it be traced back to that survival instinct? As dreadful as what we see happening to these people onscreen, is there a point of intrigue about watching people find a way to survive, the philosophy of knowing when to fight back, picking the battles you can win along with how complicated the emotions between captor and captive can be?
Ate de Jong: There is an existential truth in the film that is intended – how can you survive and what is it worth to you to survive? You notice that suddenly people discover strength because there is something in them that wants to survive.
Elisar Cabrera: You wonder what it would have been like with different actors, because what these guys put into these characters… Edward as the invader; his performance was just fantastic, and as a viewer when I saw the film for the first time it was amazing how your opinion changes, though not because of what I’ve read in the script, but how he plays it onscreen.
Discussing The Brood David Cronenberg asserted to Chris Rodley, “Everything you do is autobiographical in the sense that it’s filtered through your experiences and sensibilities, especially if you write your own stuff.” He went on to explain, “The Brood ended up nowhere near autobiography in strict terms, because I refuse to have invention taken away from me.”
Ate de Jong: It’s strange, and for every director it is different, but I certainly know that for me Deadly Virtues has very personal elements within it. There was a woman who I recently had a relationship with who was insanely jealous about things that happened fifteen, twenty years ago when we weren’t even in one another’s lives – she was jealous about relationships that she couldn’t have even influenced; when I didn’t even know of her existence. So that sort of weird jealousy was a driving force for me to insert into the film through the character of the husband, who is an insanely insecure and jealous person. But at the same time you find elements with all of the three characters that you can bring back to your own experiences, and which colours the film.
What genre cinema has always done is exploited fear of isolation, and whether not alone because of the presence of the human or non-human predator to the group of characters susceptible to paranoia, the ambition is to deprive the protagonists of any sense of security.
Ate de Jong: Absolutely, and the magic of film has always been that you are somehow transposed into another world. It sounds so cliché when I say it, but it is true. You have a communal experience with the rest of audience in this dark place, and so it is important that you are not watching the film alone. There will be a mood that is emitted from the audience as you are sucked into another world, and that’s the beauty of cinema.
Elisar Cabrera: You can have two completely different experiences with the same film from watching it in a cinema with an audience to then watching it at home on your own – you’ll also react differently to it.
Ate de Jong: You could use the analogy, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” It doesn’t make a sound in the sense that no one hears it, but if you see a film totally alone then it is like the film is not really bring screened. There has to be an audience there for you to experience it with, as it is an absolute essential element of experiencing a film.
Deadly Virtues and Drop Dead Fred are threaded together as both play on the theme of invasion – the invasion of the imagination to the invasion of the physical space.
Ate de Jong: There is also a second analogy that in both Drop Dead Fred and Deadly Virtues, it is a woman that has to liberate herself from the oppression of being in a traditional relationship.
In moments Deadly Virtues opens the door for the audience to interpret momentary events independently that allows a pleasant opportunity for interaction between film and spectator.
Ate de Jong: There is a certain moment when an interpretation goes beyond what you do as a director, and there were for instance people who think Aaron has been sent by somebody else to do this. I didn’t necessarily think that was true, but whatever the interpretation is, and how they come to that point doesn’t matter. If that works for them – if it works throughout the whole film then it’s true. There was somebody else who said the secretary actually had a relationship with the intruder. Now I never saw that in any way, but it is remarkable how people can see things in a film that you never even thought about.
Elisar Cabrera: I think my interpretation is that he’s done this before – maybe enough times that he knows every trick in the book, and so by now he’s perfected it.
Is he eventually going try to pull this off once too often that he’ll run the risk of being outsmarted? The downfall of the villain is frequently their ego. Is Aaron’s destiny a pretty grim demise?
Ate de Jong: What you are saying now is a good set-up for a sequel. That’s what Elisar was saying – he’s perfected it or at least he thinks he has. But does he eventually invade a home in whoever he meets sees what he’s doing and blows him away. So there are sequel possibilities.
Do you think there will be a sequel?
Ate de Jong: We’ve never spoken about it to be honest, but if you said to the writer Mark Rogers that there was a sequel from this starting point then he’s the kind of writer who could probably write that sequel.
It’s been said that once a director has made the film and it’s been seen by an audience it’s no longer your film. Would you agree?
Ate de Jong: Yes and no. It’s a very intellectual and theoretical concept. The films I have made I’m proud of, and it’s purely coincidence that a film I made thirty years ago is now happening to have a re-released in Holland – the book is being re-printed and so they are therefore re-releasing the film. So I look at that film with a certain nostalgia, but the film is its own film or entity. I am thirty years old and I would probably do it differently now and it is what it is, and in that sense the film is for the audience.
Talking to actors they say that there is little rehearsal time now in films, but this was not the case for Deadly Virtues.
Ate de Jong: The strange thing is if you have no money then you have to be extremely well prepared. When you have a big budget Hollywood film you can discover what works on the set – you let the actors try it out and you can do it twenty-twenty five times. But here we didn’t have that luxury, and if something doesn’t work well, then at a certain point that’s what you have to stick with. So the more rehearsals we could do allowed the actors to not only know their characters, but to feel that this is their house.
Elisar Cabrera: This is a film about three characters, and so it is all about the performances and how they interact with one another. So the more time you can give those actors the better. If you were doing a green screen sci-fi epic your shots, how you shoot them and how many times will be determined by the CGI people.
It is a physical and emotionally demanding role for the lead actress. How difficult is it to ask a performer to bare themselves emotionally and physically, and to put so much of themselves on screen?
Ate de Jong: As a director this is different from person to person, but I am always very upfront about it. Sexuality and nudity is not a big issue for me with my background. But I know it is for a lot of people, and especially American’s. Megan the lead actress was originally American, and so first of all we discussed the script, and then I told her the kind of nudity I wanted to see. Then we made a storyboard for those scenes, and the storyboard became a part of the contract – a reference for us. But you never know what will happen in a shoot, and after we made the film she saw the scenes again, and saw that we had stuck to the storyboards. If we stuck to the storyboards she couldn’t change it, but if there was anything that had happened to be accidentally different, then she could have said, “Oh I don’t want that” or “It’s okay.” That takes the fear away, and it’s the same thing with the guys, because Megan she had no problem – she did it all. She was very nervous about the nudity, but we showed her it all, and because we had this contract she agreed with it. But with Edward for instance there was one shot where he comes into the bathroom, and originally that shot was a little bit wider. It meant you saw his penis, and after he saw the film we had to zoom in so that it’s just out of frame.
From before to after, how has the experience of Deadly Virtues shaped you professionally?
Elisar Cabrera: I work for the Raindance Film Festival, and obviously Raindance does a lot of education for filmmakers who aspire to make their first features. One of the things within the courses is that you make your first low budget movie by picking a single location with a handful of actors and just going off to do it. We were living our own advice essentially, and it works. If you plan it properly and if you’ve got the right script that determines that is where you should be rather than where you are out of necessity.
Ate de Jong: It has shaped me enormously. I have to admit that it has partially to do with my position in film, and also my age. But as I said in the Q&A just before Deadly Virtues, I’d done a high budget film, my first film in Holland as a director, and it wasn’t well received. It did very well commercially, but it wasn’t well received.
The reality for me is that to make a high budget film it is going to take me years to get it done. This low budget with Deadly Virtues is a freedom that I have known for twenty five to thirty years, and so if I want to make a number of films I am better to do it this way, as the other way, the traditional Hollywood way is not by any means impossible, but it will take a lot more time. So in a strange way Deadly Virtues has liberated me enormously.