Thursday 12 July 2012

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is an independent horror movie director from my native Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It was fun to discuss the creative process of low budget filmmaking with him. Inspiration, talent and hard work motivate this young man to do what he loves most. He is already very prolific having made ten feature films. Scout also has lots of plans and ideas for future films.

What inspired you to make movies?
I don't know that there was a moment or an incident; it's just always been that way. As far back as I can remember, I've known that I was going to make films. The first thing I remember, as far back as memory goes, is watching Aliens with my parents. From there it was onto Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Birds, Hard Boiled and Them! By the time it occurred to me I could be anything I wanted to, there was just no chance I was going to be an architect or a politician. Everywhere I looked I saw stories I wanted to tell. Everytime I looked out a window, I was daydreaming screenplay ideas. I just didn't know how to express this yet.

First Clip from Eyam

What are some of your favorite films?
I could give you pages and pages per choice, so I'll try it keep it a relatively simple list. There are perfect films: Alien, L'avventura, Sweet Movie, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Long Day Closes, Let The Right One In, Pandora & The Flying Dutchman, The Last Picture Show, Apocalypse Now Redux, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blue Velvet, 13 Assassins, White Material, A Lake, Who Can Kill A Child?, The Thing, 8 1/2, The Beaches of Agnes, Onibaba, Betty Blue, The Devils, There Will Be Blood, The Pianist, Water Lilies, Hunger, The Wild Bunch, If...., I Fidanzati, L'Argent, The Exorcist, Le Cercle Rouge, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Murderous Maids. And then there films that are dear to my heart that occupy stranger places in history and maybe aren't 100% perfect: Lancelot Du Lac, Blow-Up, Ride Lonesome, The Train, Vampire Circus, Hundra, The Big Bird Cage, The Mansion of Madness, Razorback, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Caravaggio, Bronson, Vampir Cuadecuc, Time of the Wolf, Bad Lieutenant, Vincere, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, Mr. Freedom, Sorcerer, etc. etc. etc.

Second Clip From Eyam

Do you think low budget movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are game changers for aspiring filmmakers?
No. In the wake of Blair Witch, I don't remember a flood of modestly budgeted horror films with novel ideas coming from major studios. I remember Lance Weiler and Eduardo Sanchez making their next films for even less money and releasing them straight to DVD while major studios made sequels to Friday the 13th and Halloween, started remaking asian horror and old slasher films, adapting video games and pitching tent-poles under anything mildly successful. When Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows came out, the party was pretty much over. As for Paranormal, all I've noticed in the wake of that is a lot of found footage-y movies, which completely misses the point. If studios saw that you could make more films for that kind of money and started spreading it around, that'd be great, but they're not.

They're putting Oren Peli's name on Chernobyl Diaries, which was just Paranormal with CGI and more people. Look at a list of the best horror films last year; no real evidence that Paranormal's had any kind of effect. There's really only Paranormal 3 (of course directed by other found footage guys) and Insidious (which was essentially a bigger budget remake and not worth the time it takes to watch it) to speak of.

People everywhere are making found footage movies but it's not like they're spending any less than they would have on some other kind of movie, nor does it guarantee them a release. Look at Atrocious - that was a micro-budget Spanish film given a token VOD/DVD release and I think I was one of fifteen people in this country who saw it. It could be that it's Spanish and had subtitles, but it wasn't granted as large a release as Paranormal, Chernobyl or much else.

Something interesting comes out and makes a pile of money they'll just remake it or give it a sequel because it's easier than trusting another new idea. A low budget film succeeding never means that other little guys will get to make their dream projects. It just means that studios will go looking for people to direct their version of Paranormal or Saw or whatever else makes a truckload of money first. If Paranormal had the desired effect then The Innkeepers would have been bought by a major and given a real release because it's a better film made for a pittance. Or instead of remaking The Silent House, they would have just released it.

Why horror films as opposed to another genre?
There are few experiences I love more than watching a film and having the hell scared out of me. I've always loved it, I'll always love it. I don't fight it, either, I love being scared. When The Woman in Black came out, I was psyched to see Hammer Films returning to its gothic roots - that it was so delightfully terrifying was icing on the cake. I love a film like that because I can see the gears turning. I know something terrifying is coming and I'm frightened in anticipation and then when it happens I'm even more scared. I love it! I grew up looking for the next terrifying thing. The Thing was a childhood favourite. My dad and I would watch films like Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Beast Within, Dawn of the Dead, Pumpkinhead and Razorback so by the time I was in the seventh grade, I thought I'd seen it all; I went looking for new and terrifying things because normal genre fare wasn't cutting it. When I started making films I wasn't confident I knew how to scare people. I was pretty sure I could disorient, but I didn't want to rely on just what I'd already seen. I didn't want to put kids in a cabin and hope for the best. I want to make films that would have haunted me as a kid, or at the very least, I want to make horror films that feel like nothing else in the genre. In a way it's an unavoidable challenge. It's one thing to scare people; it's another to stay with them. Make something they can't forget. They don't want to forget. Alien is still terrifying and a perfect movie; I'd be an idiot to think I could make a film that good, but that's where I'm aiming.

What was your first feature length movie?
I made a film called The Riverbed in late 2009/2010 with my closest friends but it took me too long to edit; I'd shot it all wrong and didn't realize it until it was too late. I just re-edited it into a silent film to cover up my mistakes and tell the story better. Because that took so long, the first feature film of mine that people got to see was called To All My Friends On Their Birthdays, which was a kind of Godardian film essay I made after seeing his later video work, especially Film Socialisme - I must have started editing the day after I saw it. I had fucked up my first dramatic feature, so I just did what I was pretty sure I was good at; filming trees, abandoned buildings, movie theatres, and my friends while I talk about film. In a way it's the perfect primer to my work because it's magnificently pretentious. Though I've never made another film like it, so it's also maybe not the best place to start. Somewhere in that same time period I made an hour long documentary called - No Fourth Wall about a disco-based Shakespeare production called The Donkey Show, which I'm still very fond of.

Third Clip from Eyam

How many movies have you made?
Counting documentaries, I've made ten feature films, though only eight of them I'd call done. I'm filming my eleventh and twelfth right now and Fundraising For The Thirteenth

Your father Dennis Tafoya is a successful novelist. Did he influence your decision to pursue the arts?
In every way. I didn't read any of his fiction until about three or four years ago, but if I watched films as a kid it was because of my parents. My mom and dad both had favourites and I memorized them. It was because they loved films so much that I watched what I did, loved what I did and they started me on my way to writing and directing. My dad and I would talk for hours (we still do) about what we'd do differently than the people making whatever big film was released that week.

There seems to be many talented writers and independent filmmakers and artists of all sorts in Bucks County. Why do think that is?
Part of it is that in the 60s and 70s this place become a hideout for artists and great thinkers and their kids are now creating great art. Speaking for myself and a few of my friends, we're poor and a little damaged and creating is what we know how to do. And we're all in the same boat. I love seeing what my friends do. I love seeing their fingerprints all over their art. My friend and creative partner Tucker Johnson sent me 3 minutes of a film he just started shooting and they were so obviously and wonderfully his. His personality was etched into every second of those three minutes. I can't wait to see more. If I had money, I'd give ten grand and a camera to everyone of my friends, even the ones who don't want to make films, and then just screen the resulting work back to back. That would be the absolute coolest thing to me. Even if I never 'make it' I hope my films do my collaborators some good, because they've all been so supportive and they're all talented in a hundred different ways.

Your feature film Eyam was very unique. Like certain big budget films like 1979’s Alien or this year’s The Dark Knight Rises (ending), sometimes the actors were not in on the joke. The joke was rather on them. What is it about keeping actors in the dark that makes for a better movie?
Well I don't know that it translates to everything, but in the case of Eyam, I knew these guys would be committed to their characters and I had a feeling that most of them would relish the opportunity to get as scared as I like to get. You can point a camera at someone and say "get scared" but I just wanted to see what would happen if everyone was sure that their reactions were genuine. That these guys were really frightened. If they were, I thought the audience might feel twice as scared and twice as unsafe. I figured if I could scare the actors, that'd be a good start. But also what I was after more than anything was a record of real human behavior. Alex Heim, who's been in several of my films including Eyam, says she thinks of the film as an observational documentary more than a fiction film. Which was the nicest thing she could have said.

What I absolutely wanted was to record how these people interacted with each other in this tiny microcosm of community. Tucker, who was assistant director and cinematographer/only other crew member on Eyam, and I had our work cut out for us just following these guys and stumbling upon beautiful moments I could never have planned. Obviously the circumstances are dire (the world may have ended), but they have to wake up, shower and greet the day. I wanted to show the nuances of their lives and interactions as much as I wanted to make a horror film. It was about how they live as much as what happens next.

Music seems to play a very important part of the plot of your films. How do you select an appropriate soundtrack?
Music comes from two places for me. I think that knowing about film history is one of the most important things you can do as a director. You have to know what's come before you so that you know what ground has been tread and where you can go now. I fill my films with references to the movies that have impacted me and film music is a very important tool. The right song can fill a scene with meaning it may never have had; I love digging through history to find strange and bewitching songs from long forgotten films. It's a tiny love letter as well as a way to tonally focus a scene. The other side is that I know too many excellent composers to not use their work. My friend Cooper McKim is a pianist and songwriter who has done amazing work for me and continues to do so.

My good friend Laura Jorgensen's music has been a pretty huge part of my work. I've been playing music with Theo Blasko for years and it just made sense to put her voice in my movies. A good example of both sides of this equation is in my film Tron Wayne Gacy. I had precious few opportunities for music because the film was under presentational restrictions and any music had to make sense in the context of the way I was telling the story.

Cooper was busy and so pointed me to his good friend Julian Moehring who was able to give me piano pieces that captured the mindset of the lead character, who's supposed to be practicing to drown out reality. Another scene was designed as a tribute to fourth wall breaking dance sequences in films like Bande à part and Picnic. So I searched through music of that era and came across something that sounded like it might have been in a Godard or Bellocchio film of the era, by Joe Rumoro and a bunch of unknown sidemen called The Tazmen that as far as I can tell never had much of a release. The idea was to hint at those films while doing something a little bit different. As much as possible I want my musical choices to tell their own stories and highlight talented people who've inspired me.

How did you come up with your ideas?
Most of my ideas come to me on long trips. I used to do most of my scriptwriting on train and bus rides. I'd just stare out the window and let the ideas take shape and then start writing. My film I Need You was born out brainstorming while staring out the window on a bus ride to Maine while listening to J. Tillman's beautiful "No Occassion." A lot of them come from wanting to pay tribute to people (The Riverbed is an homage to Larisa Shepitko, one of the most amazing artists who ever lived; Tron Wayne Gacy is subtitled For Chantal Akerman because of how much I owe her as a storyteller) and some of them come from my cast. My latest film Damnesia happened simply because of Theo Blasko.

I knew I wanted to make a film in a certain way and that she'd be perfect to play this very troubled but very loving character and she'd love the challenge. My horror films come from very specific ideas: The Last Flesh & Blood Show came from an idea I've had for years to make a fairly ordinary and honest romantic film that then becomes a horror film unexpectedly.

Eyam was born out of the idea to make a film about a closed off community in the vein of Lukas Moodysson's excellent film Together, but to go in a completely separate direction. So, as with selecting music, it's a cross between wanting to make films that engage with film history and having exceptionally talented friends. It's often as easy as looking at a headline or sitting alone. The other day two things got me writing. The first, and this happens all the time, I was listening to a song, in this case Radiohead's "The Daily Mail" and there's a line in there about the inmates running the asylum. The arrangement and those words put an image in my head, that turned into a story. I'm twenty pages into a script that was born from that image. The other thing is far more troubling. I was horrified beyond words to hear about that poor couple in Texas who were shot, one of them to death, probably because they were two young women in love with each other.

All of a sudden the only thing in the world I wanted to do was make a film about those two girls going to prom, having a great time, and then going home, knowing tomorrow they'd wake up just as in love as when they went to sleep. The world's cruel, especially to women. I made a decision about a week ago: if I could help it, I'd only write and direct films about women. Hundreds of films every year, many of them about the same fucking things, and how many of them are from uniquely female perspectives? Not enough. If I can help it, my movies are going to be about women.

Do you enjoy the obscure films as much as the big budget blockbusters?
Well, I like them both when they're done right. I'm a little more forgiving if some micro budget romantic dramedy isn't everything I'd hoped it be than if Quentin Tarantino's latest is self-indulgent trash. It comes down to loyalty most of the time. Great example: Prometheus. I love Ridley Scott. Loved his work before I knew who he was. So having grown up with Alien I was naturally excited for Prometheus. And I'm also much more willing to overlook its flawed screenplay because it was something he felt passionately about and as usual the filmmaking is first rate. It's a movie about curiousity, which makes it a rarity among trillion dollar studio films.

So long as the passion and ideas are there, it doesn't matter how much money went into it. That said my list of the best films of all time has far more tiny Italian arthouse hits than your average American actioner. I'll give anything a chance but I admit that I'm a little more at ease watching ambient psychodrama than big budget spectacle; if you can combine them as in Apocalypse Now Redux or The New World, all the better! By and large, my favourite films are in languages I don't speak. What's interesting is the languages the films themselves speak.

Lance Hammer's Ballast has very similar handwriting to Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero and Cristiann Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, even if they're all in different languages and there are of course huge differences in each film's craft and style. I just find so much more to like and understand about an unbroken take of two people discussing something uncomfortable, than in your average car chase, no matter how visceral or well-edited. The break-up in Tuesday, After Christmas is far more harrowing and terrifying than anything in the Saw or Final Destination films. And Radu Muntean, the director, just sits there, observing it. He understands that just taking in life changing events with the same patient eye that witnesses passionate moments and mundane shopping trips. In a handful of moments, lives are made, ruined, changed. That's the language those films speak, and it's one I've been trying to learn. With every film, I enunciate a little clearer and hopefully my accent will become pronounced enough that people know it's me speaking right away.

Who does your editing?
I do, mostly. Tucker will sometimes do the legwork (my film A Knock at the Door was largely his doing) and he always tells me where I'm running long. I rely on my friends to tell me when something's not working and why.

You are on a limited budget. How do you get so many people to act in your films?
I really don't know. I've put my actors through so many outrageous things. It's criminal that I'm not paying them (not that I could). And yet they continue to come out and do insane, incredible work. Maybe it's my enthusiasm or the way I see things; I don't pretend to know, but I'm beyond lucky to have them by my side. The performances in my movies are electrifying and I'm perfectly content knowing I can only take partial credit for how good they are. I believe in my actors and give them room, but they're brilliant without me, I promise. So many of the people who show up in my films only act for me, which first of all is one of the best feelings a director can have, secondly, I think this is also why they're of such rare quality. I'm catching them at very particular moments in their lives. These are intoxicating people with unique energies and presences and I know that they'll make fascinating people out of the characters I give them. I'm incredibly fortunate that I get to create and collaborate with them.

Why do outdoor scenes of nature play such a large part of your films?
I'm something of a contradiction: I love nature and yet I'm terrified of it. We were filming the other day and I noticed a giant spider (it was bigger than a child's hand) hiding out in the corner of our location which sent me into a hysterical screaming fit. I could barely concentrate enough to get the shot just thinking about the goddamn thing existing near me. In a way, going out into the woods and shooting is my way of coming to terms with how terrifying it all is and trying to appreciate it up close rather than just from afar. I know it's beautiful and I wish I were a little more at home out there, but the truth is my world is fixed to computers. I edit on them, I communicate with them, I find and watch films on them, I need them. I wish I didn't. The way most of us interact with them is boring and they bring out the worst in us. So by going out into the woods and filming all these gorgeous things that existed long before us, continue to thrive in spite of our destructive relationship to the world, and will be here long after we're gone, I'm trying to be less afraid, but I'm also trying to show what little of it's been untouched. I worry we're killing more than we can re-grow. So I just want to find what I can so that people realize what's out there and why we need to treat it with respect. I'm terrified of that fucking spider, but I get why he's important, and that the world wouldn't be as beautiful without him.

What's the difference in your opinion from a short film and a music video?
The idea has to fit the music or your dead. Also, rhythm. You need the edit to match what you're seeing or have a damn good reason why you haven't. A short film for me is an excuse to tell a story or explore an idea without conventional dialogue or editing. The video work I've done comes from a song telling me a story. It's my job to tell that story to everyone else. Also, I think I'm slightly better at music videos.

What's next for you?
Eyam has its world premiere on July 21st at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art. Most of the cast and I will be there for a post-screening reception and Q and A/fundraiser for the next film.

I'm in the middle of a longer project about reincarnation that'll take me most of this year to finish. Damnesia, about a girl's life flashing before her eyes, wraps up very soon and I'll start editing that early July. I have one last scene to film which I'll do when one of my actors gets back from a tour on the 1st of July. It's intended as a kind of gift for people who donate to my next project, House of Little Deaths, a movie that, like Eyam, will be entirely improvised. House is about prostitution and objectification and I have an insanely talented group of actors and designers lined up. We're 20% of the way to our $6000 goal, which we need to meet by mid-July. I cross my fingers with every film I make that it will be the one that gets someone's attention and starts playing festivals seriously, but I do sincerely believe this film will be something special. The subject matter is very important to me; a national conversation should be open about prostitution and men's very harmful relationship to women and it's just being ignored. Society owes women this dialogue.

The sex trade exists because there's a demand for it but men are scarcely blamed. It's easier to say that these women are beyond consideration, which is disgusting and unacceptable. We've all had a hand in creating a world where this happens and yet do nothing to ensure the health and safety of sex workers. The film won't change the world, but if anyone walks out thinking about how they can make this debate a little louder than it is now, I'll be happy. Once I wrap House and the reincarnation film, I'm certain something else will have come along. My dream is to go make films for Why Not or Wild Bunch in Romania or France. The film I'm writing now is set in Estonia in World War II. A man can dream.

If you had an unlimited multi-million dollar budge, what would be your dream project?
I've said before I want to make the ultimate Women-in-Prison film (The Most Sensuous Game), but I'll change my answer here. I've been fine-tuning a script for a horror film with elements of a western since the 10th grade. I think I'm close to there. A friend recently read it and said it made her cry, so I felt like all those years sculpting this piece paid off. I'd need a huge budget for sets and costumes but also largely to pay for my dream cast which includes Evanna Lynch, Radha Mitchell, Paul Schneider and Pat Healy. I'd also been dreaming about Michael Nyman on the score, Jack Fisk doing production design and Harris Savides behind the camera.

Another thing I've been contemplating is a series of films or a TV series based on a great little B-movie called Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory. It'd be set in the late 50s, I'd build a private, all-girl's school set, staff it with incredibly capable actors like Sylvie Testud, Sean Bean, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Jeremy Northam, Kelly McDonald, Julie Sokolowski, Edward Hogg, Miranda Otto and Ian Hart, get a whole bunch of new, unknown actors to play students and have a mystery play out over the course of a year. Or a semester if that's too much time taken out of everyone's life. Let the actors make all their own decisions about who to trust and how to survive when bad things start happening. So on the one hand it's a horror story but on the other you're watching the growth of a whole host of people whose lives would be difficult enough without the stress brought on by the generic elements. And for once the full moon part of the werewolf mythology could be used properly/sparingly.

Please in your own words write a paragraph about yourself & your work.
At the risk of being pretentious: At the end of his documentary Chung Kuo, Michelangelo Antonioni says that there's an old proverb that says you can paint a tiger, but you can't paint its bones. In this way, he says you can film the people of China but not their hearts. Granted this was in the early 70s and he was making a political point, but it still stuck with me. Someone once asked me if I do anything particularly well and the thing that came immediately to mind was secrecy. I make movies about people who have a lot on their mind but can't express themselves. There are a lot of reasons why - they're not sure how, they don't fully understand everything they're feeling, they don't want to hurt the people closest to them, they don't want to come off as anything but polite - but the point is they all keep secrets. We all do. So I put these people and their faces in the spotlight, trying to capture inner turmoil as it manifests itself in imperceptible twitches, changes, smiles, glances and raised brows. I want to film the tiger and its bones.

And in celebrating every corner of the medium's history, paying homage to everything from Ken Russell to Germaine Dulac, Joshua Logan to Takashi Miike, David Lean to Jack Hill, Bruce LaBruce to Byron Haskin, Joe Swanberg to Edgar G. Ulmer, Djibril Diop Mambety to Russ Meyer, Tsai Ming-Liang to Clare Denis, I want to do the same thing to film. Every movie has a lesson to impart and I'm still learning all the time so that I can keep making my films richer.

Fundraising site for the next film is here:

Trailer for Last Flesh & Blood Show is here:

Trailer for Eyam is here: