Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Interview: James Spanos, Writer/Director Maidenhead

A few weeks ago, I reviewed an incredible indie horror film that defies genre conventions (clicky here). The tale is about a son taking care of an invalid father who has a life consuming disease: vampirism. Conceptually, using the sub-genre of film as an allegory to one's own physical or mental health is nothing new. But what writer and director James Spanos does is bring things down to a much more human and emotional level, evoking the strain and wear of taking care of a family member who is afflicted with a life threatening illness. Our central character is taking care of a father who's grown tiresome of being confined to a bed and who's increasingly becoming more and more unappreciative of the sacricifices that his son has made. The son's chosen role in life comes into question when he falls for a girl and has to make a choice between his father and his new found love. This decision becomes easier for him to make after his father commits a particularly gruesome act.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with James. We talked about why he chose vampirism as the main vehicle for his film, the emotional connection it reaches out and makes with the viewer, as well as his thoughts on film remakes.

Cortez the Killer: We had talked via email about our mutual (at least for the most part) dislike of the vampire sub-genre of film. Why did you ultimately choose it as the vehicle for yours?

James Spanos: Partially, I had always wanted to make a vampire movie specifically because I don't find them scary. I sometimes like them, but that's usually when it has a metaphoric value. Almost never because they're frightening. I always liked Romero's Martin because it was so much like a real movie. It was a real creation of the 1970's. Like many of the great genre works of that decade, it attacked a genre standard from a sort of deconstructionist art-film point of view. It's genuinely unsettling, but it's also about horror and about the idea of vampires. I also love it when 'genre' and 'literature' blur. Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is not, strictly speaking, a book about superheroes. But it's so steeped in a love of comic books that you almost forget you're reading literary fiction. I love blur. I hate classification. Anyway, I figured if I ever made a vampire picture it would be really un-vampire-picture-like. But Maidenhead sort of chose its own genre. About five years ago I was attending church because a friend had invited me, and I felt guilty because I was treating church as a meat market (Ed. note: our lead in the film uses church as a means to get close to a potential 'victim'). Then I thought about how funny the expression 'meat market' was in that context. Then I thought, 'A fella with bad intentions could really do some damage in a place where people are encouraged to be sheep.' Not that all Christians are sheep, but you know what I mean. Anyway, from that point I just followed my nose. About a year later I had a script.

CTK: Parallels can definitely be seen in the film, and are subsequently allegorical in a sense, to people who are afflicted with some sort of terminal disease. Without getting too personal, did you draw on any real life experiences in the process of writing and filming this story?

James: Yes. My Grandmother got very sick and spiraled rapidly. My Dad took care of her for a year before she passed away, and toward the end, she just wasn't herself anymore. And it took a horrible toll on my Dad. It was horrible. That situation provided the heart of the movie.

CTK: The relationship between Martin and his father was extremely realistic in part due to the writing but mainly due to the phenomenal acting onscreen. In their performances (again without getting too personal), did they also draw on real life experiences? I know for myself, their interactions and battles back and forth resembled that of my Grandmother and Grandfather when he was dying of kidney failure. The love, hate-hate, love dynamic was so realistic that it really hit home with me.

James: I honestly don't know what Mr. Parks (Michael) and A.J. (Bowen) drew on for their performances, but they are awesome, aren't they? They must have related to the script, otherwise they would never have agreed to do the picture. I mean, this is my first. I had no right to expect such great actors. By the way, my Grandma's death was kidney related too.

CTK: Truly amazing performances. They were so realistic that I thought that they had to have drawn on some sort of real life experiences. Shifting gears out of the doom and gloom for a bit, tell me about your filmmaking inspirations. What are some of your favorite films and filmmakers, past and present?

James: Wow. So many. I love Hitchcock, The Third Man, Seconds, Night of the Hunter, Alien, lots of Woody Allen especially Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Mr. Kubrick, John Landis, Hal Ashby, Roman Polanski. The Conversation, Unforgiven, Citizen Kane, Wizard of Oz. A lot of John Ford, especially The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and My Darling Clementine. The first 15 years of Mr. Spielberg's oeuvre are just gold. Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies director Robert Clampett. Bridge on the River Kwai. The first James Whale Frankenstein picture. I said The Conversation before, but I really should have said all four of Mr. C's 1970's output. They're so good it's a cliche. Max and Dave Fleischer. Miyazaki. Wow. Kurosawa, especially Throne of Blood, Sanjuro and Ran. The Exorcist was a huge influence. Star Wars, American Grafitti, and THX1138. And gosh, the Coens are so good I just watch their pictures over and over. Taxi Driver. The Contender. Rocky. I'm missing so many. I love them all like friends. Oh, I've seen Wrath of Khan about two million times.

CTK: A lot of talk lately has been made about remakes. What is your stance on remakes (horror films or not) and do you think they have anything new or different to add to the genre of film they are ultimately attempting to contribute to?

James: I don't like to make blanket statements, but I guess it depends on how interesting it is. I mean, the Coens are remaking True Grit with Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn! How can I not get behind that? Of course they're not remaking the Wayne picture really, but are going back to Portis's novel, and I dig Portis. I mean, Ben-Hur was a remake. It just depends what they do with it. But, yeah, it does seem like originality is being sacrificed for the illusion of safety found in repetition. And, of course, no risk, no gain.

CTK: The relationship between Martin and Meredith is so touchingly done. Martin’s trying to live as normal a life as possible and would give anything to get out of his cycle of seduction and using bodies as a food supply for his father. Here comes along unassuming and charming Meredith who completely turns him on his head. She’s not like every other girl and Martin knows this. There is an awkwardness there but it grows into a genuine care for each other that is done in such a way that isn’t too overly gushy or hammy. Talk a little bit about the chemistry between the two actors and how you got them to interact in such a real and believable way.

James: Again, Lorri Wilson, who plays Meredith, is just a cracker-jack actor. Either I got lucky or I have a nose for casting. She's wonderful and she, Bowen and Parks were great together. Casting is just the most important thing after the script. If you get the right great actors, they will search until they find that magic. There's no replacing great actors.

CTK: When the climax hits, it ultimately is a gut wrenching but at the same time, somewhat of a redeeming experience. Without giving too much away to our readers who may have not seen the film, in your mind, does Martin ultimately get the girl or is he thrust back into another cycle? In other words, has he accepted his lot in life?

James: Hmmm. I think it's probably two steps forward, one step back. I mean, he grows up a bit, but maybe not enough. Most people don't really change, you know?

CTK: Any upcoming screenings of this phenomenal film that you’d like to alert our readers to?

James: No big fests on the horizon right now. Genre is tough to program at non-genre festivals, and Maidenhead is not a very horrifying horror picture, so the horror festivals haven't really embraced it. But the movie is its own man, and I take its long road to getting seen as a testament to its difficulty to swallow. I think it's sort of a compliment, in a way. Little by little, it'll get seen. Everything works out the way it's supposed to.

CTK: I completely agree. Nothing but the best of wishes to you in getting this film out there. I have no doubt it will get the recognition it deserves.

James: Thanks. I appreciate your kind words.

CTK: Thank you for your time and again, best of luck.

For more information regarding Maidenhead, visit the film's website.

To contact James directly, he can be reached at the following email address: spanosjim@hotmail.com

Cortez the Killer

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1 comment:

Carl (ILHM) said...

Excellent interview and I am really looking forward to seeing the film James, thanks for taking the time to stop by the Planet!