Monday 7 October 2019

Interview with Michael J. Epstein By David Kempf

When did you first become interested in filmmaking?

I have had a lifelong interest in film and filmmaking, but only really started making films once digital technology made it feel cheap and accessible enough. I had played in bands for many years and had some success with music videos. We worked with other directors to make a few videos that opened some doors for us, including: 2008’s The Motion Sick’s “30 Lives” video, which was played on a number of TV networks including some secondary MTV channels and ended up in several Dance Dance Revolution games and 2011’s Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’s “Episode 1 - Arrival” video, which ended up on Time Magazine’s most creative videos list. 

After those videos, it made sense that in order to be sustainable, we’d have to make our own videos. So, my partner, Sophia Cacciola and I started buying gear and creating our own videos for almost  no money, which were also pretty successful.

How did you get involved in fantasy/horror?

I have always loved horror. As a kid, my best friend and I would go almost every day to the video store and look for the weirdest, most outlandish bizzaro movies we could find. We loved browsing the horror section looking for the goriest or more compelling box art and images. 
It was just natural that when Sophia and I started making films, we both wanted to work in the genres that we loved most - horror and sci-fi. But I would also argue that genre is a misdirected concept. I sort of like the “fantastique” concept more than I like specific genres like horror or fantasy or sci-fi. I would say that we love and make films that are not based in realism. Nothing is more boring to us than watching something similar to what we already see in real life. 
I know a lot of people consider horror to be a “lesser” genre, but to me, true drama is the least elevated genre. By not transcending realism, there is little space for subtext or any content that actually drills deeper into the audience’s brain, leaving a lasting impression. Now, that said, a lot of stuff that gets called “drama” is really actually fantastique to me. Bergman, Fassbinder, Cassavetes, Altman, and a lot of other creators transcend reality in their presentation of “realistic” situations. 

I just saw Altman’s The Long Goodbye the other day, and on the surface, it’s sort of a realistic film, but its entire subtext is built around how Marlowe can’t fool his cat. It’s a fantasy film pretending to be a crime drama. I don’t think there is any meaningful difference between the presentation of that film and a good horror film. People considering genre are usually using arbitrary metrics that I do not really agree with as capturing important elements of film. In short, I don’t like realism unless I’m watching a documentary. 

Do you have any personal beliefs in the paranormal or supernatural?

Not at all. I follow the absolute rules of logic and science in which we must assume something to be untrue or non-existent until we have sufficient evidence to reject that it’s possible that something does not exist. I do not think paranormal or supernatural phenomena of any kind meet that criteria. 

That said, I grew up obsessed with the paranormal and supernatural. I read every book I could find in the library about ESP, UFOs, unexplained phenomena, etc. I always found the stuff super compelling, despite that, even at a very early age, I didn’t really believe in any of it. 

Maybe it was just the age and timing, but when I saw Children of the Stones, it really freaked me out and left me with a lasting impression about those sorts of powers and phenomena. When I visited Avebury in the mid-2000s, I still didn’t want to touch the stones!

So, I guess even as logical and skeptical as one can be, it’s still possible to be freaked out by the suggestion of the supernatural. 

Which of your movies is your favorite and why?

It’s so hard to pick a favorite. I like things about them all and hate things about them all. It’s too easy to remember the challenges and compromises when you look at your work. We approach each film with a different purpose and a different need for exploration, so it’s never really easy to compare them to each other in terms of our goals.

I guess if I have to look for external validation, Blood of the Tribades, which originally came out in 2016, has been picking up new reviews and coverage, even in 2019. The sustained interest means a lot to us, and it’s even more amazing that we have been included in a number of comprehensive articles on the history of lesbian vampire films. It was such a specific, niche film with the specific goal of exploring that genre through a flipped lens, and getting some recognition for that is really quite moving. One of the newer reviews from this year actually made me cry because of how much the movie spoke to the writer and for them, filled the exact contextual hole in the history of that narrow film niche that we wanted to fill. 

Why do you think horror and fantasy movies remain so popular?

Because they are not constrained by realism, fantastique films can use fun, compelling, challenging content to reach well below our surface perceptual understanding of the world. They have the opportunity to recontextualize everything in our lives and to change the way we see our realities. More broadly, to me, this is the specific role of art, and the abstraction of fine and high art is well accepted throughout the world and throughout history. With film, we are really only beginning to see that wider understanding of the break from reality amongst critics and scholars. Fans have known since the beginning! Even as a little kid, I knew horror was different and reached deeper than realistic drama. 

What inspires your stories?

We always try to bring something surprising to people who follow our work. We make sure that each project has a purpose and a different goal while ensuring that our DNA is still clearly expressed. We are big fans of theme-driven filmmaking and so far, the constant interwoven thematic threads present in our work seem to be the most relatable element to our audience. We want to start conversations and get people thinking while they have fun watching our movies. 

They always start with a kind of existential question. We want to explore who we are and why we do the things we do. A lot of our films are about performative identity and questions about the existence or non-existence of a true self. We love stories testing how the same person sent on deviating paths can find commonality. Sometimes, like in our first film, TEN, this is about how performance shapes the self. When does a performance start to become your reality? For Magnetic, we actually have the same character replicated many times, each embracing a kind of classical path like art, science, or religion. In Blood of the Tribades, we explore the degradation of memory and tradition. And most recently, Clickbait is the manifestation of all of these themes in internet popularity culture. All of these ideas and controversies about social media and the internet really date back to the beginning of human consciousness. And if there are other lifeforms in the universe, these are probably universal questions for all forms of sentience. 

Essentially, all great stories are about fears and insecurities and the comforts we might find to address them. We just hope that people can find something useful for navigating their own lives in our work, even if that is just a momentary escape from reality.

What do you think the difference between American horror and British horror movies are?

I am not sure how much of a difference exists anymore, but I grew up watching tons of Hammer and Amicus films, and I think being in an environment that once lived a certain history makes it more compelling to include. American cultural history is so relatively short that we have very little to draw from. There is a lot of American horror about the safety of the suburbs being a lie, for example. That is the greatest American fear from my generation. British horror often explores class subtext or other types of societal structuring that is not as pronounced in the US. 

There is probably also a strange history of film dictated by the imposed censorship in each country. I love 1970s Italian films, and a lot of the content was cut for both British and American releases. Filmmakers can only make the movies they can sell, so that historical censorship has certainly led to within-safety-zone boundary pushing, which differs in each country.         

What are your favorite horror books?

I am a bit embarrassed to say that I’ve read very little of what is widely considered horror. I have never been a big Stephen King or Lovecraft fan, for example. Even with modern writers, I don’t tend to be drawn to horror, which works better for me in visual metaphor. These days, I don’t get to read as much as I’d like. I find myself watching 400+ movies a year and constantly reading scripts and writing, so my fiction reading tends to be limited to a handful of books a year, sadly. This is quite a turn, as I was an avid reader as a younger person.

When I read, I tend to love more dystopian, sarcastic science fiction or speculative fiction. Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author. Philip K. Dick is probably second. I also love the humor of Douglas Adams and the imagination of Neal Stephenson.         

What are some of your favorite horror movies?

 My all-time favorite horror film is probably Phantasm, and I love the entire series. It’s just such a great subtextual exploration of how we cope with and come to understand death across our lifespan. It has so much wonderful imagery and storytelling that I keep coming back to it. 

I’m also a huge fan of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, which is probably the most fun movie ever made. Beyond that, I love 1970s Italian films like Deep Red, Short Night of Glass Dolls, Lisa and the Devil, and many, many more. 

If we blur genres, I usually describe The City of Lost Children as my favorite film ever. I could probably also watch Barbarella or Death Race 2000 on repeat for the rest of my days. 

In very recent years, the new Suspiria is probably my favorite modern horror film. 

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker?

Everything about filmmaking is surreal to me. The fact that I sometimes sit in a packed movie theater watching something I was involved with making still feels like a fantasy every time. Not everyone will like everything, but those moments where you hit someone with something that sticks deep inside of them cannot be surpassed. That is everything I always wanted to do with creating, and when it happens, it means the world to me.  

Do you have any advice for new filmmakers?

Everyone is going to try and stop you and tell you that you should not be making films. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. Just be ready for a lot of rejection and a lot of mistakes and failures. If you can cope with that, just keep creating and working hard to get better and achieve something closer to what you envision. 
Celebrate your successes, but not for too long. Keep going forward!

I have also solemnly sworn to always answer this question by saying to make sure to shoot your movie with 180-degree shutter angle. I keep seeing indie films at festivals shot unintentionally with shutter-speed technical problems. Don’t do that.

What are your current projects?

We have four micro-budget feature film projects that seem to be going forward. A lot of the timelines on these will just depend on money, and projects collapse all the time, so it’s hard to say too much about them yet. The only one we can talk about is a documentary currently in post-production about women’s experiences in rock music, as part of the Women of Rock Oral History Project, for which we’ve been shooting video interviews for years. 

Please in your own words, write a paragraph about yourself & your work.

Sophia Cacciola and I run the production company, Launch Over, with a primary mission of creating socially conscious narrative and documentary films, especially in the horror and science-fiction genres. We’ve release four features so far: social satire horror, Clickbait (2019); vampire throwback, Blood of the Tribades (2016); cerebral time-loop trance, Magnetic (2015); and deconstructed murder mystery, TEN (2014).  
We hope to see you at the theater!