Thursday, February 11, 2010

Interview with Jeremiah Kipp, writer/director of "Contact"

Over the last few years, say... the last ten years, there's been a massive explosion of feature length, micro-budget films. The Dead Harvey crew were definitely caught up in the act, too, which resulted in such classics as "The Van", "The Blood Stained Bride", "Evil Ever After" and a few others. The idea that you could pick up a camera at Best Buy, edit on your home computer and pump out a film that's broadcast quality, ready to be distributed and to do it for next to nothing, got every indie filmmaker in the act. The result? A lot of films got made and a lot of filmmakers didn't make a lot of money. That boom did spawn this very site and a lot of great relationships, but very few big success stories. Now, as audiences and media consumption habits change, I think we're starting to see people get away from the micro-budget feature and concentrate on short form film... and I think it's a good decision.

Really, when you're an indie filmmaker and you've just made a film, what's your goal? First and foremost, find an audience. Then, you get into awards, accolades and using that film to make another film. Make something, then leverage that to make something else. Right? Short film is cheaper, easier and takes less time. Not only that, there's WAY more opportunities to get your film out there. Most festivals have a short form competitions, they're easy to get people to watch and, most importantly, there's the web. Trust me when I say, if you can upload a video and get millions of views, the right people will notice. Now, short form films go by a different set of rules. They're a different animal, all together. Lucky for you, there's lots of example out there to check out, including "Contact" from Jeremiah Kipp.

"Contact" is a festival short and a very good one at that. It's shot in glorious black and white and has next to no dialogue. Very tough to pull off for a short, near impossible for a feature... however, it's pulled off perfectly here and it instantly drags the viewer into the characters and the story. The film is both ambiguous and precise and is really a great example of how well short form can work, especially when using techniques that are rarely utilized. Not only do we talk with Jeremiah about "Contact", we offer up a link, so you can check it out for yourself...

First off, tell us a bit about your film, “Contact”

We follow the adventures of a young woman who scores an underground drug with her lover—and anyone who takes hallucinogens can tell you that while the entire world can transform into a strange and beautiful place, it can also careen down dark corners; the ground can fall out from under you. It all depends on the individual. What starts out as a sensual adventure for this woman starts to corrode, and her mind starts to go over the edge, leading into a wild night of gore, psychedelic madness and body horror…

If you don’t mind us asking, what was the budget and where did you secure the financing from?

The budget was miniscule—I believe it came to around $600. Most of the films I’ve worked on, including my own, have more money. But I am fortunate to be part of the east coast independent film community, where one good turn deserves another and we roll up our sleeves to help one another out. “Contact” had fantastic producers in Alan Rowe Kelly (director of “I’ll Bury You Tomorrow” and “The Blood Shed”), who was heavily involved in casting, location scouting and managing the set, and Bart Mastronardi (director of “Vindication”), who took great care of the crew and helped keep things running smooth. Their contributions eased the financial pressure of making “Contact”, but more important they were the backbone of this production. I can’t speak enough about the value of strong producers, especially on an ultra low budget picture.

What struck me most about the film was how you had next to no dialogue. I found that it almost forces you into the emotions and horror felt by the characters. Interesting choice… talk about making that decision

I’m not opposed to dialogue in films, but it can become a crutch. Some movies feel like they should be radio plays. My director of photography Dominick Sivilli and I want to make movies, returning to the idea of film as a visual medium. The plot, characters and dialogue were pared down to the essential and we told the story through the visuals. When you start that art of reduction, it puts the spectator into a state of anticipation; you find yourself drawn into the underlying tension of the movie because you are literally watching events unfold, and if it is constructed dramatically, you wonder what will happen next.

We see a middle aged couple setting a table, and yet there is a mood in the room as if a bomb will be dropped. They set a third plate, and we come to believe they are expecting someone, and then we cut to a young man and woman running through an abandoned, burned out building. These are pictures—the audience will interpret them and start making associations between these two sets of characters, wondering how they are connected. If we spelled out the situation with expository dialogue, you might not be suspended in this sense of wonder. What is happening here, why, and how will it all unfold? Why do I feel so tense, and will there be a release of that tension? These are cinematic questions—and how we see those actions gradually build is the essence of visual storytelling.

What did you shoot on and talk about the decision to shoot in black and white

Black and white is beautiful, don’t you think? It pulls us out of naturalistic reality, the way we perceive the world, and into something closer to our dreams. Our camera was the Panasonic HPX, but more important was the cinematographer Dominick Sivilli, who was a very close collaborator throughout the shoot. It was the best kind of creative exchange, where one couldn’t tell where my ideas ended and his began. It was great to be working with someone similarly passionate about the visual possibilities, using widescreen and timing out shots to maximize the best possible light and pushing the high contrast look, using the slow creeping dolly to maximize a sense of dread.

I really liked the fact that part of the story was sort of undefined… and I’m talking about the opening and closing. You don’t really establish who those people are or what’s going on with them, although you do get a pretty good idea. Was that ambiguity on purpose?

When you make a film as spare as “Contact”, the audience tends to project their own feelings onto the screen, their own associations. But I don’t feel like that works when the filmmaker tries to build from ideas that are abstract or ambiguous. It has to be very concrete and specific for the actors, so they know exactly what they want, who they are, where they came from—we were very exact in what we wanted these scenes to be about. The audience feels that electric charge; but they are free to make their own interpretations, which may be different than my own. Once you finish a film and screen it for people, the movie no longer belongs to you—it belongs to them.

Okay, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you into indie horror?

I grew up in the rural woodlands of Rhode Island on an isolated road, which may have had some contribution—I would often find myself playing alone in our dense yard, and something about the silence among the pine trees opened up possibilities in the imagination. I wound up assembling my friends and making zombie movies in the backyard and westerns around burnt out construction sites. The movies I remember best as a child were horror films, ranging from the Universal monster movies to the 1970s and 80s classics by Romero, Carpenter, Cronenberg, David Lynch. Indie horror seems like the place nowadays for cutting edge genre films, and there are some fantastic directors out there right now that I find hugely inspiring. Lately, I’ve been less interested in drawing inspiration from other movies, and more from responding to the immediacy of what is happening on the set, or from life.

Film school: Yes or No?

It depends on the filmmaker. I’ve seen great movies by directors who learned entirely by process of being on a great number of sets and gaining practical experience, while others such as myself needed the opportunities film schools present. I went to NYU, which was all about having you take to the streets with your camera and making as many films as possible. You learn just as much working with other directors and crews as you do making your own films, and one should never stop the learning process. I also think on every film, you should do at least one thing that scares you; take at least one major risk.

You were the 1st AD on “I Sell The Dead”, which was a great film. Talk about splitting time between bigger budget films like that and doing indie shorts. What do you learn from bigger budget films that you take over to the short films and vice versa?

Working on “I Sell the Dead” was a banner experience for me, since the production company Glass Eye Pix is an independent production company run by an innovative filmmaker Larry Fessenden. I’ve worked on a few pictures for them, and each time it yielded great rewards. But it has little to do with budget. While “I Sell the Dead” might be considered a bigger budget film, since it had massive sets including a twenty foot guillotine in the middle of a town square, hundreds of extras in period costumes, name actors like Dominic Monaghan and Ron Perlman, and even a scene set on a boat at sea, once all of the money was spent on these lavish trappings, we still had to struggle, just like any other movie, to get all of our shots done before the sun went down, to meet the rigorous demands of our tight production schedule. Fessenden, as executive producer, emerged from the low budget world, so he is brilliant at finding ways to cut economic corners while maintaining the production value of the movie. He gave director Glenn McQuaid a golden opportunity with “I Sell the Dead”. Watching Larry at work, his passion and integrity, his standards of excellence and his support for the crew was he greater lesson from that picture.

When you set out to make “Contact”, what was your goal? Was it to get accolades at festivals? Was it to open doors? Was it financial? And did you accomplish those goals?

Our goal was to make the best damn picture we could. If you go into making a movie thinking about how the festivals and critics are waiting to greet you and hug you, you’re entering the project for the wrong reasons. Once the movie is completed, we can use it as a calling card to generate more work for ourselves, submit to film festivals and critics, and give interviews such as this one are a way to get the word out. But the festival and press experience also yields rewards, because the film is reflected back at you, giving insights into the movie that you might not have recognized while you were making it. We feel incredibly proud of “Contact” and want people to see it.

If you could only give one piece of advice to a budding filmmaker, what would that be?

There is so much to learn about making movies, from keeping up with the latest technology to figuring out how to use the camera and speak with actors. Experience is a great teacher—so be humble when you begin, and absorb the knowledge of the actors and crew you have assembled. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, because you will learn from them. Stop talking about the movies you are going to make; we want to see deeds, not words. Spend a little time every morning writing your script; once that’s done figure out a way to make your film, even if you have to steal a camera.

Did you enter the film into any festivals and, if so, how did it do? Talk about the festival scene, is it something that every filmmaker should get involved with?

“Contact” was specifically made for the annual Sinister Six horror film festival, which was run every Halloween in downtown New York. It felt great watching the strong response from audiences. That encouraged us to start the process of circulating the movie among critics and along the festival circuit. We have received some interest, acceptance and enthusiasm already—though let’s wait for the festivals to announce their programming for 2010. As for festivals, it is a useful way to get the product out there, but the fees add up, so have a clear strategy about what fests might be the right fit for your little movie.

Talk about the indie horror scene. Where do you think it is now and where do you see it going?

There are filmmakers whose work I enjoy, and there are others that I feel are hacks. It has always been that way, and I see no reason for it to not continue in the same fashion. We live in the digital age, which has made it a lot easier for people to pick up cameras and make movies—and it remains very easy to see the difference between someone with genuine passion and a story to tell versus someone who wants their ego stroked. I will say that the east coast independent horror community is enormously supportive. Many of us know each other and take an interest in each other’s work.

I think Graham Reznick (“I Can See You”), James Felix McKenney (“Automatons”), Ti West (“The Roost”) and Jim Mickle (“Mulberry Street”) all have something to say, and it’s been great to see them garnering the support of Larry Fessenden, who seems to have moved on from indie horror into bigger budget pictures. I wish Dante Tomaselli (“Satan’s Playground”), Douglas Buck (“Prologue”) up in Canada and west coast director Jim Van Bebber (“The Manson Family”) had an easier time getting their next picture off the ground, but it all comes down to dollars. I really want to see some of the films by Anthony Sumner out in Chicago. But yeah, this is a representative handful of the independent filmmakers who inspire me.

Where can people find out more about “Contact” and/or check it out?

We posted the film online at the IndieRoar Short Film Competition ( because it seems the Internet is a great way to get the word out to a mass audience, and enables the film to be seen and generate an immediate response, which has been positive and wonderfully diverse.

The film can be seen by clicking HERE

What’s next for you?

It’s imprudent to predict the future; I’ve had projects in gestation periods for years and then had surprises like “Contact”—where we only knew a month before our shooting dates what we were doing. Right now, I’m planning a segment in an anthology created by Bart Mastronardi based on the work of an American Gothic writer, as well as another anthology segment from a creature feature for executive producer Marv Blauvelt. I also have a feature length monster movie I would love to get off the ground, and it would be fantastic to work once again with my team from “Contact” as soon as possible. Let’s see what the future brings.

1 comment:

Jason said...

You know, this article came along at a time when I am really evaluating the script I have. Is it tight enough to justify 90 minutes, or would it be better served being pared down?

The eternal question...