I Can't Sleep will be screening at the Straight Jacket Guerrilla Film Festival
*How did you get into making films?
I’ve been trailing behind the movies my entire life. It's mom’s fault. Back in the late fifties, she took me on her arm to see Disney and Jerry Lewis pics. All through high school I reviewed movies with a byline for the Evansville Press, our local paper — Evansville, Indiana, where I grew up; a medium sized city at the southern tip of Indiana, the middle of the US midwest.
Before that, around eleven years old, I rode my bike to the University of Evansville every Friday night to attend their foreign film series. My parents thought, since it was the university, why not? By this point in my development, I’d read all the cinema books at the library. HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT, over and over (probably because it had a lot of photos), and a big book by Parker Tyler on foreign films and sex in the cinema, also with photos!
So, eleven, twelve, thirteen, I was viewing Truffaut, Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard, Rossellini, among others; along with the usual: Elvis movies, William Castle, Corman’s Poe series, musicals, roadshow epics, older Hitchcock pics and other classics when I could catch then on TV: everything, really. Loved Tarzan movies - actually, I loved the almost completely naked Boy a lot, even before I understood why. Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE; THE SEARCHERS, and all sorts of John Wayne war movies were constantly played on television. Mom would not, for some reason, let me watch horror movies on TV. Later, though, I happened upon CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA in a double feature down town, and that as they say was that.
Back then, a movie was a movie; I didn’t make a distinction between what I saw at the university and elsewhere: LA DOLCE VITA or KISSIN COUSINS, they were images with sound on the big or little screen. Can’t remember what I thought LA NOTTE was all about at twelve, but I don’t think it really mattered. The images carried me away, hypnotized me.
By high school, some basic ideas about the movies had formed inside my head. The reviewing gig happened because - late 60s now - so called “youth films” had emerged and the older movie critics in town were at a loss. They couldn’t see any difference between THE WILD ANGLES and EASY RIDER. I loved both and could, in a very elemental way, discuss the difference. So fate made it possible for me to represent the “youth” of Evansville at the movies.
Today, one can get a film degree in college, but in 1972 a theatre degree was a more practical option for someone like me. Making movies meant buying film, developing costs, equipment. The desire was there, but actually making a movie was not as easy as it is now. Consequently, I received a BFA in Theatre: Acting and Directing at Webster University, and an MFA in Directing at Tulane. Following that, I was a professional theatre director working all over the United States, and have been for nearly forty years.
Throughout my career, I collaborated with a lot of writers - playwrights. Over time, these playwrights started working on screenplays. I worked with them.
So years after mom carried me into the Grand Theatre in Evansville, Indiana to see Disney and Jerry Lewis, I was finally able to apply a lifetime of film knowledge and theatre experience to the movies; the work of others, and eventually my own.
*What inspired you to make your movie?
I CAN’T SLEEP came out of a period when I owned Video Alternatives, a video club on Magazine Street in New Orleans. I had acted in a number of short films made by others, and had been writing with a playwright, screen treatments for a producer of exploitation movies in Hollywood. This producer would send us ideas for different types of violent murders that she thought would sell. No story or characters. Just lists of atrocities. One that made quite an impact was - I kid you not - “What about a killer baby? Audiences love stuff like that. Just don’t make it funny.” Sharing this with the people who worked at Video Alternatives, we began to make up our own list of atrocities, as a sort of joke. When the lists became more and more extravagant, the idea to actually make a movie that was somehow based on this process came about. I conceived the main storyline: a severely depressed screenwriter facing an impossible deadline, unable to work because his wife had left him for another man. Josh Nagel, an employee and friend, and I composed different episodes, then later played around with their order. I got hold of two Canon XL1s, plus other equipment and in a flurry of creative energy shot the film in about six days.
We shot mainly in my house and around my neighborhood. A few scenes necessitated space bigger than my living room, so I rented a warehouse for two nights. This was August in New Orleans. The warehouse was not air conditioned and we shot there one night for an uninterrupted ten hours. But somehow that contributed to the film’s overall effect.
*How has your style evolved?
On stage I developed a style that draws mainly from Peter Brook’s THE EMPTY SPACE, where the immediacy of a theatrical event, within the context of particular material, dictates staging and theatrical conventions. Brook warns against choices that follow the excepted way of doing things merely because that's how it’s done. Style, therefore, does not conform to any external rules of craft or tradition. Craft exists to serve our particular need at any given moment. The sky’s the limit. Use the rules to break the rules.
So any description of style - an overall signature style - becomes difficult because there are so many other factors that go into it.
Frankly, I don’t think about style as much as I think about what it is I’m trying to do, and how I want to hold an audience’s attention.
The kinetic effect of montage seems to be a fairly consistent element in what I’ve done so far. But this is not really by design.
Have always figured, since I’m shooting digital or HD and don’t have to worry about film and its expense, once I start shooting actors in a specific location, a shot list is merely a point of departure. With a specific idea for the scene locked in my head, it makes sense - to me - that I let inspiration motivate what and how I cover a scene. If anything at all hits my eye as unexpected, interesting, unusual, or just odd, I photograph it. Why the fuck not? Actors tend to relax the more they go through a scene; most enjoy the chance to play things more than just a few times. Instead of waiting around, everyone is up and working. We’re all exploring the material.
I never concern myself if the unplanned footage will cut together. That’s a problem to be solved later. Besides, with a little effort and ingenuity, one is always able to connect the best bits.
I can end up with a lot of footage to sift through, that’s true. But as far as choices are concerned, I’d rather have more to choose from than not enough.
What happens, then, is the editing process really does become the final rewrite of my script. I rediscover what it is I was trying to make or do. From my imagination to the page; words focused and refocused into a script; pages broken down into shots that are photographed. From infinite possibilities in my mind’s eye, to the finite reality of the footage, my ideas evolve and become more focused. This takes time, certainly. But time is often a good thing. Over time, what’s in your head gives way to what’s on the screen in front of your eyes: you begin to see what you meant in the first place.
This is no doubt why montage appeals to me more than anything else. I write with images; each visual progression, like a sentence, has a subject, verb, and predicate. The montage is a train of thought that, I hope, the viewer is able to follow, from beginning to end.
Of course, in I CAN’T SLEEP, there’s one long monologue shot from a single angle, continuous, even though I cut to reactions a few times. I shot the monologue this way because there really didn’t seem to be any reason to cut out of that particular point of view. Story-wise, the locked down camera creates a feeling of “real time” that corresponds with the character’s desire at the moment to be taken seriously. So I plant the camera and let the actor do his thing. And I really like that actor and what he does.
My point is, one does what seems right in the moment. A predetermined concept would not stop me from braking my own conceptual rules if that’s what could better communicate the essence of something to the audience. I want to reach out to the viewer, and sometimes that means disrupting the rhythmic flow so the viewer doesn’t become complacent.
The editing rhythms of a film carries the viewer’s interest over and above content. Watch any movie directed by Terence Fisher, and you see what I mean.
Am I answering the question?
*Tell us any strange or funny stories while making the film?
There’s a scene in the movie where a bunch of guys carry a screaming girl into the bushes to rape her, I suppose. We shot that just outside my house, late at night. The actress didn’t actually scream, for obvious reasons.
Well, it was during this scene when the police drove by. They stopped to watch the guys carry the girl into the bushes, and finally, before I could say “cut," with a mixture of confusion and concern, they stopped the shot to ask what was going on? We told them we were shooting a student short. They laughed and drove off. Never once asking the actress if that was true!
The night we shot the lengthy scene in the warehouse, it was insanely hot and humid. Actors and crew were edgy, to put it mildly. I shot the scene in sequence, with two cameras; I let the actor with all the physical action figure out his business on camera, without rehearsal. No matter what, we kept rolling. With the two cameras - changing position for each dramatic beat - I wasn’t worried about cutting. What I got was, within the context of shooting, genuine.
The actor taped to the chair, Scott, is someone I’d worked with before. I knew he would be adventurous and not in any way prudish over what happens. He’s a terrific actor.
So we’ve been shooting for hours and have finally reached a middle point in the scene. The taped up actor is alone, his fate has finally becomes evident; hysteria mounting. Coaching from off camera, I pushed and pushed Scott, yelling, “do it again … AGAIN” and so forth, over and other. Scott’s performance became more and more urgent, gut wrenching, horrifying. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the crew horrified - by me. They clearly thought I was torturing Scott to get good footage. Scott’s cries as he twisted and turned, nearly naked on the chair, was all the evidence they needed. I figured at any moment they would stop what was going on!
Finally, I let Scott’s character exhaust himself. As the scene came to a moment of silence I said, “cut.”
There was a long pause.
Then Scott looked up, without missing a beat, a smile on his face, “hey, that was pretty neat, wasn’t it? Can I take a break now? I have to piss.”
It was the smile of a good actor pleased with the work we’d done. The crew spontaneously broke into applause. It was a funny moment, also rather moving. Scott was surprised by the emotional warmth that came through the physical heat that night. Which was good luck for me because after the break, his real trial by fire was to be shot.
They still thought I was a sadist. But, hey, what the fuck …..it’s a sadistic scene … !
*The Misrule Film Movement & Pink8 manifesto bring what to mind?
The Misrule Film Movement and Pink8 Manifesto help to sweep away all those preconceptions that get in the way when it comes to making a movie. Just point the camera at the object of interest and shoot. What else is there?
Well, a lot, actually, but within the context of these liberating guidelines, the basic elements rule. That seems to be the point.
Besides, Fabrizio’s movies, particularly, are so good and so confidently conceived and composed — and so personal without announcing it to the world — watching them and speaking with him gives me the confidence to go out with my camera and just fucking do it. Stop thinking about it, stop planning to do it; just fucking make something.
I CAN’T SLEEP was shot and edited a while ago, but I kept it on file because it seemed to upset people who watched it. What started as a horror movie morphed into something else entirely: a crazy, crude meditation on the creative process; an artist’s imagination pushed into the darkest corner of creation. A lot of people that I showed the film to expected a straight on horror romp, I guess. When it became clear it was not that, they either thought it was terrible or immoral.
Now, I share it with you, hoping of course that someone likes it, but not afraid if that doesn’t happen. That shift of attitude is a direct result of Fabrizio’s Pink8.
Since, I’ve been working on other pieces. THE CONQUEROR WORM and MEDICATED MONTAGE, both shorts (which does not correspond with Pink8, I know), have been like work outs, preparing for the next big one.
*What can we expect from your next film?
I act as well as direct. Over the last decade I’ve been in a number of movies produced by Big Biting Pig Productions here in Kentucky, where I now live, and have done voice overs for others.
This coming July and August, I’m going to be playing two different roles, written specifically for me, in Matthew Rivera and Evan Sennett’s new film, not yet named, which is part of their LUCKY LUCIFER series. We’re shooting in Toledo, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky. They continue to work on the script, so I haven’t seen it yet. But I’ve got some idea of the two roles. Amusing and perverse. Both, my middle names.
Have also acted in Thorkell Ottarsson’s feature, SUICIDE SERVICE, shot in Norway over a year ago, soon to be distributed in Europe. Thorkell has another feature film planned, with me playing a mad - as in, insane - theatre director. He told me, “this will be the bastard Nick.” Okay!
In the meantime, I’m writing what will probably be a short about an older man - surprisingly like myself - thinking back on a sexual encounter he had in Quebec, Canada, with an older man, when he was fifteen years old. DEATH IN VENICE - book and movie - play into it somehow. The sexual memory will be explicit, arousing, and not in the least bit tragic. In fact, it’s a happy memory as far as the old guy is concerned, which so far, is the point of the film.
I’m going to play the old guy, myself, and I’ve cast the older (younger) actor who will be the erotic memory man. Am talking my daughter, Erin Evie, into being the director of photography.