Friday, April 23, 2010
Interview: Elisabeth Fies, Writer/Director 'The Commune'
As you may recall from a few weeks back, we posted a review for the cultish terror known as The Commune. The film is remarkable in creating both tension and a startling atmosphere as our unsuspecting teenage female protagonist not only comes of age while amongst a group of unorthodox people, but also as she meets a terrible fate at the hands of her crazed father and his clan of anything goes followers.
Its a film that's unnerving in both the conceptual aspect of the pseudo religious cult as well as the otherworldly father who completely oversteps and eventually, destroys the familial bond which is oftentimes so strong between a father and daughter. The film works on so many levels and I likened it in some regards to both The Wicker Man and Rosemary's Baby. But that's not to say that filmmaker Elisabeth Fies' picture isn't original or unique, it truly is. To invoke the spirit of both of those films while having your own exceptional tale to tell is definitely a fine accomplishment.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Elisabeth. Here is what she had to say about her idea for the film, its themes, as well as her disdain for the current run of unoriginality in the filmmaking world as well as the crippling effects of internet piracy on the indie filmmaker.
Cortez the Killer: You had mentioned to me that you lived in Northern California for awhile and you got the idea for the film based on the culture you experienced there. Tell me a little bit more about it and how it served as the basis for your film.
Elisabeth Fies: I grew up near Marin County at the height of the Me Generation's narcissistic exploration of themselves through the cult-like self-help movement and the invention of New Age religions. My entire childhood was steeped in it. Some people view The Commune: A New Cult Classic and think the culture and characters are far-fetched. Not northern Californian viewers. They love it and think it's dead on. These aren't stereotypes. You can't swing a black cat in NorCal without smacking someone like each character.
CTK: I grew up in San Diego so I've never experienced anything quite like that. We had loads of hippie stoners and meth addicts though.
The imagery used throughout and some of the scenes themselves were certainly of a shocking and unnerving nature. But for me, it was the whole concept of the cult being open to people of all beliefs and this idea of a spiritual free-for-all which ultimately creeped me out. Coming from a pretty conservative Catholic upbringing and seeing, overall, how religion can be manipulated and melded for self-serving gain, the concept really struck a nerve with me. I don’t know if this was intentional or not. I guess my question is, was it intentional and was it meant to strike a chord with people who come from some sort of spiritual background?
EF: It was totally intentional to make the theme about the Me Generation's invention of New Age religion. But the movie is absolutely not about any specific group or religion, just about the concept of people who make up their own rules and how dangerous that is in the hands of unbalanced people with questionable boundaries. It's a huge, unnerving fear of mine having met people who fit this description in northern California at the height of the self-help movement in the 80's and 90's. My spiritual background is I was born Jewish, went to Catholic grade school, was Wiccan in high school, and I am now agnostic. But I've studied a ton of religions and participated in the majority of them out of intellectual curiousity. What I find with The Commune is that it's an ink blot test for people. You view it through your spiritual filter, and because it's so confronting and personal, it feels like it's about your belief system. But it isn't.
We've had some interesting Q & A's after screenings with people whose feathers were ruffled, but they quickly realize it's a fictionalized world examining the power structure of new religions and cults, not your religion or cult. I literally drew mythology and symbols from every culture, from ancient Sumeria to Native Americans to the Japanese. The funniest story I have about this aspect is after an early personal screening for an investor, he turned to me during the credits and said 'So what do you have against Buddhists? I'm Buddhist.' I was speechless. I went back through the movie and there is one let me say it again ONE Buddha in the entire movie, and it's there for two seconds. That was the first inkling of what we'd created in this movie, and how it strikes a nerve in audiences.
CTK: Commenters on the blog mentioned the relative lack of films within the religious communal/cultish sub-genre of horror. Why do you think this is and do you think it has anything to do with society’s inclination to stray from anything that could potentially offend the moral majority?
EF: Certainly the studios have steered clear of it recently, but there's no reason why indie filmmakers couldn't be tackling the subject more. But this brings me to a frequent complaint of mine, which is the holocaust of creativity in modern indie films. With the exception of Lars Von Trier, Crispin Glover and The Short Bus guys, people aren't using the digital revolution to express themselves and push artistic boundaries. Instead they're copying Hollywood films and trying to break into an industry that's already died. Maybe it's a good thing there's no money left in filmmaking and we're all splintering off into niche distribution sources. The sooner the Gold Rush myths burst, the sooner the poseurs will go back to buying lottery tickets and leave the creating to people who actually have a thought or emotion to express.
CTK: You are the first filmmaker that I've interviewed that's out and out said this without sugar coating anything. I appreciate your honesty.
Shifting focus, who are your main writing and filmmaking influences?
EF: Twin Peaks is the single biggest influence on me. After it, my two favorites are a tie: Sex, Lies, And Videotape and Terminator 2. Sex was when I realized I could make a movie too, and I could make it very personal and embarrassing and confessional. T2 was when I realized the best way to get a message out into the world was hidden in amazing entertainment value. So my first film The Commune is my SL&V, and my sophomore film Pistoleras is a high-budget spaghetti western actioner T2-style with a message of empowering women to learn self-defense and team with men to defeat the sex slave trade.
CTK: Sounds fun and Charlie's Angels-ish but way more badass.
Multiple mentions have been made about your film bringing to mind The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. This is a likening which I mentioned myself, with even the ending having that same sort of vibe as Rosemary’s Baby. Did those films influence you and to what extent?
EF: Structurally the most influential sources were The Wicker Man, Chinatown, and the book Mists of Avalon. Then I borrowed film techniques from Don't Look Now and The Howling. I think there were only two moments I took from Rosemary's Baby, and they were both at the end. There were many more nods to Repulsion and The Tenant. For the vibe, Twin Peaks was the largest influence. I had a whole production folder of stills and notes as far as which movies I was riffing on in which scene, and many of them weren't horror. My favorite is from Bergman's Through A Glass Darkly. It's a postural reference to incest. My character is laying on Loki in the same way that Karin lounged on her brother Minus. I don't know. It's tough that we're compared to Rosemary's Baby because it's such a cliche blurb that way too many thrillers and horrors claim or are saddled with, to the point that it's meaningless and embarrassing. It's like all the frat boys in the 90's and aughts calling themselves the next Tarantino. Let's put it this way: our crew t-shirts referenced The Wicker Man: 'I sacrificed on Summerisle and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.' Pretty effing funny, right?
CTK: Indeed. I can see how it could be frustrating when your film is compared to one that has been referenced a lot in comparison with others. But the spirit of it, I felt, was there. And that's a good thing for me personally as I feel that Rosemary's Baby is one of the most atmospherically driven films ever, horror or not. To be honest, I've never seen Repulsion or The Tenant and now I want to seek them out.
OK, to remake or not to remake? That is the question.
EF: Not to remake. 'Nuff said.
CTK: I don’t like to over generalize things but this is a movie that works effectively on multiple levels with using a female lead rather than a male. The movie has to hit harder for a female viewer, particularly with the themes of young innocence lost and the breaking of father-daughter bonds. Why is the film ultimately more effective in using a female lead vs. a male?
EF: Because women are more vulnerable as the subjugated sex in our society. It's always more effective in thrillers and horrors to use a female lead because the balance of power is more uneven between her and the antagonist.
How The Commune is different than other horror movies is that my female protagonist is made for a female audience, not objectified for a male audience. The only reason the subject matter hits harder for women is because men in our culture are not trained to see through the eyes of a female protagonist. Only 8% of movies have a female protagonist, and even the majority of those films are made by men for men and aren't a true opportunity to see and experience the world through a woman's eyes. Men always bitch that women are impossible to understand, but then they ghetto-ize the female-centric movies and music that would let them know us. Men need practice at trying on a female heroes' skin instead of objectifying it. Those who are willing to have a whole universe of stories and feelings awaiting them that they could never imagine.
CTK: In your comments before the movie rolled, you lightheartedly acknowledged that someone could be viewing a copy of your movie that they had downloaded from the interwebs. I thought it was an interesting spin in that you didn’t get angry but rather encouraged them to make a donation. What is your overall take on internet piracy and does it help or hurt the indie filmmaker?
EF: There's no 'help' about it. D.A. Sebastian's Hot Rod Girls (check out a recent, interesting post about the filmmaker's experiences here), Jaman Winan's Ink have been crippled by piracy, and received not even a pittance back from the community. You try to work with piraters and find out what they want, you give it to them, and they still won't even pay a dollar. All they really want is to steal. More than any other factor, piraters have single-handedly destroyed indie filmmakers.
CTK: I liked the way this question was posed by our friend Stacie Ponder over at Final Girl so I’m going to ask it of you: What's the one- ONE- horror movie you love so much you want to stick it down your pants?
EF: The Wicker Man. But I'd rather have a fourgy with The Wicker Man, Halloween, and The Shining.
CTK: Fourgy? I'm stealing that one.
Any upcoming projects or fellow indie filmmaker projects that we should be on the lookout for?
EF: Yes, I'm halfway done producing I Hate LA. It's an all female horror anthology riffing on Paris, Je T'Aime. Each filmmaker got a different neighborhood in LA to write and direct a Twilight Zone-esque story about the specific horrible aspects of that burrough. We've had a ton of fun, and the shorts are great. Three have already played individually in festivals and won awards, so you're definitely going to watch it when we tie all the stories together with our female view of Hollywood (check out http://www.ihatelamovie.com/) And I'm raising money to make Pistoleras, which is going to change the world. Check it out and help us at http://www.pistolerasmovie.com/
And of course you can view The Commune: A New Cult Classic at Indieflix streamed for $4.99 or buy the DVD for $9.99 http://www.indieflix.com/film/the-commune-a-new-cult-classic-30584/
You can get the Special Edition DVD with two commentary tracks, extras, and a behind the scenes doc directly from me at http://www.thecommunemovie.com/. I'll even autograph it, send you a personal note, and talk to you about the movie afterwards to get your feedback.
CTK: Greatness! Thanks for sharing. I think that's awesome that you are a filmmaker who genuinely appreciates feedback regarding your work. Well I really appreciate your time and your thoughtful and candid responses. Truly truly best of luck to you in the future.
EF: Thanks so much for all your help, and for providing such great questions! Huge appreciation. Thanks for being a hero!
Ed. note: Recently, Elisabeth was nominated for a Golden Cob Award which recognizes only the best in B-Movies. She was nominated in the Best Emerging Director Category. Show some support and vote for her here: http://www.goldencobawards.com/index.php?sid=47479&lang=en
Thanks again to our friend BJ-C over at Day of The Woman for alerting us to this incredible filmmaker and amazing person.