The term “genre film” has become widely used recently to cover everything from serial killer flicks to art house horror. I’m deeply supportive of the “genre” label because it gives filmmakers the chance to explore a wide variety of topics with a limitless amount of freedom.
Jeremiah Kipp, a New York based filmmaker, has worked within the “genre” world for over a decade now. Take a look at his IMDB and you’ll see a very impressive list of credits (he’s directed several short films of note and recently completed a feature). The more important issue is that he is using potentially horrific material and “genre” constructs to explore real human issues.
His short film Crestfallen for instance: A young woman steps into a tub and inflicts harm upon herself (clearly hoping to end it all). As she starts to bleed out, Kipp assembles a remarkable montage which is more much complex and rewarding than the old “life flashes before your eyes” trope. By the end, the audience has established a level of empathy that is rare in the common filmgoing experience.
Kipp’s film Contact works along similar lines: The story is deceptively constructed to make the audience feel like they are watching a young woman being led through a transformative drug experience. By the end, the film has revealed itself to be about healing old wounds and reconciling with family.
In both works, Kipp shows a highly developed sense of visual storytelling. The technical credits are vastly superior to many of the short films I’ve seen at most festivals. I also look forward to Kipp’s feature film debut The Sadist starring Tom Savini.
Kipp was very kind to answer some interview questions for us as well.
Here’s the interview:
1. Jeremiah, I find that the easiest way to start an interview is by saying: “Tell us about yourself.” So, please, let’s open the interview by having you introduce yourself. What you would like someone who is new to your work to know?
I'm a film director who specializes in genre films. If I had to put a label on the work I do, I'd call it "beautiful macabre" since I like making pieces that are aesthetically strong while at the same time cranked up with tension. My goal is to create a body of work that is strong, daring and sincere. I've directed more short films than I can count, and one feature entitled THE SADIST starring Tom Savini, which I'm sure we'll talk about in a minute.
2. Here’s the “formative experiences with film” question. Did you always want to be a filmmaker? What inspired you to chase after a career as a director?
When I was a child, I had a natural inclination towards drawing pictures. My grandparents would read stories to me, and thus I started writing my own. I suspect my love of movies led to an interest in acting. But when I was twelve years old, my folks purchased a VHS camcorder. I immediately started gathering my friends together to film zombie movies in the backyard and war films out in the woods. Making movies combined the visual aspect of drawing, the performance aspect of acting and the narrative/storytelling of writing. It opened my eyes to a world of possibilities, and I never looked back. I must have made hundreds of terrible movies as a teenager, but that allowed me to cut a reel of footage together to submit to NYU film school, which may have helped me get in.
3. You have had quite a career as a second unit director. Would you tell me a bit about that?
Being an assistant director has been mainly a way to make a living. I have been a full-time freelance filmmaker since 2005, and while I had been directing short films and commercials on the side, I didn't have enough credits to pay the rent as a director. But the assistant director gig proved useful in many ways, not least of which was getting paid to be on set, learning in great detail what all of the different production departments do, and figuring out how to communicate effectively with crew members. I learned the stamina of the twelve hour work day, union regulations, how good directors and bad directors operate, and the needs of actors. I can say I've learned a great deal from the producers and directors I've worked for, and have had several mentors and friends along the way. Every director is different, and they have a unique take on the world and means of expressing themselves. The best ones know what they want, yet remain open to collaboration because they're in tune with the people they've hired, both actors and crew.
4. Quick! Name three favorite movies...and talk a bit about what they mean to you.
Right off the top of my head, I love Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION, the story of a marital breakdown starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani. It's a European art-horror film that starts out feeling as if it were a surreal fever dream version of a John Cassavetes film, with a couple plummeting into raging despair. But then a monster shows up. I'm reminded that the horror film is ultimately a metaphor, it allows us to tap into something beyond ourselves. David Cronenberg's THE FLY also taps into that highly emotional, dramatically charged, almost operatic horror film; it's about a relationship crisis, only the crisis is the man is transforming into a giant insect! That, in a way, is far easier for us to grasp than watching a naturalistic drama of someone rotting away from cancer. And yet we relate to it in a very human way. And finally I'm very into Steven Spielberg, and have always loved E.T. The child is struggling with trying to understand the divorce of his parents and badly needs a friend. He finds this otherworldly creature who helps him to cope. Imagine if Travis Bickle were able to find such a friend, maybe then he wouldn't blow everyone away at the end of Martin Scorsese's urban gothic masterpiece TAXI DRIVER.
5. You’ve directed everything from TV episodes to short films and a full length feature. What is your approach to sitting in the director’s chair?
My approach is to respect the material, to understand what the story is that we are trying to tell, and to share that tale from my point of view. The short film is a very rapid sprint to a singular peak moment, whereas a feature film is like climbing a series of small hills each with its own struggle to get to the high point where there is no turning back. That's very general, but only because to get specific one would have to address each individual film and what it meant. CONTACT was about the feeling of getting too close to another person and wanting to tear one's self away; it's a melancholy tale built around the image of a couple fused together. That image was inspired by a painting by Edvard Munch called "The Kiss". And CRESTFALLEN is a barrage of thoughts, feelings and memories swirling around the head of a suicide victim, with the final image being a child's hand wrapping itself around the mother's finger. It's an affirmation of life in a story about death. What more can I say, other than that I love actors and they help me to reach these emotional places, and having a cinematographer who is like your brother and a crew who is behind you are all essentials. You have to be able to get them to follow you up the mountain under difficult circumstances, since making movies can be unrelenting.
6. You seem to be very open to working with a writer on your directorial projects. How do you select scripts, and how involved are you with rewrites? How do you know when you have a script that’s ready to shoot?
My selection of scripts is based on personal taste, or where I'm at when I'm about to embark on a new project. Most of my experiences working with writers have been fantastic. Incidentally, Russ Penning was both writer and producer on CRESTFALLEN and New York playwright Joe Fiorillo was writer and co-producer on THE DAYS GOD SLEPT. Those were incredibly satisfying collaborations, because we were in tune with each other, working under conditions of total respect and good will. Rewrites were inevitable but painless. Joe was always on set with us, every step of the way, and we compared notes on every cut of the picture. Russ couldn't be on set, but we stayed in touch with him via phone and then he saw the edit and was nothing but supportive and generous. On the work-for-hire feature film THE SADIST I was working with producers who had also written the script, and that was not such an amazing experience. The actors and I all went to town on revising and improving that script (and one of the producers was the lead actor, so he was complicit in these changes). But in post, the producers wanted to seize control over the project and it got into an ugly and unpleasant work relationship that I'd prefer not to get into any further. in the long run, you have to work with writers you trust. It all comes down to trust.
7. I was very taken with “Crestfallen.” Would you tell us about how that movie came to be?
My film CONTACT was making its way through the blog-o-sphere, and Russ Penning (who was reviewing films at the time) was taken with it. He shared some of his scripts with me and we discussed the possibility of making CRESTFALLEN. I was terribly moved by the story. It felt so raw, personal and honest, and Russ was candid about the fact that it was very much based on his own life and experiences. We changed the gender of the main character to a woman, based on our mutual enthusiasm for the actress Deneen Melody. My cinematographer Dominick Sivilli and I flew out to the Midwest and worked with a remarkable group of people to bring this project to life. It was a very moving experience. And in post, we were fortunate to have the chance to work with composer Harry Manfredini (of FRIDAY THE 13th and SWAMP THING fame). Harry has been tremendously supportive of Dom and I, and we're all working together in post again on THE DAYS GOD SLEPT. Harry is handing in his latest draft of the score this week, and once again it is haunting and ethereal.
8. You have two credits on IMDB as “Actor.” How was the experience of being in front of the camera?
I'll answer this question by way of example, since I am not an actor. On Bryan Enk's gritty werewolf movie THE BIG BAD, they needed someone to fill the frame at a certain moment and asked me to do it. I said, "Sure, I'll do it as long as I have a gas mask on my head and am smoking a fresh cigar!" To my astonishment, they procured the gasmask and cigar, and I did the scene. My acting experiences are pretty much always like that. If they ask me to do it, I will do it, amazed that they did not in fact hire a professional to do the scene instead. Such is the nature of low budget filmmaking.
9. I want to know about your first feature as a director: The Sadist.
The producers had, once again, seen my short film CONTACT and interviewed me for the job. I'm grateful to have made CONTACT, since it has led to other projects. They hired me to direct what was, on the page, a routine killer in the woods movie. Through the kindness of actress Debbie Rochon, who I've worked with on set a few times as assistant director, we got in touch with Tom Savini to play the title character. It's about a war veteran suffering from extreme post traumatic stress disorder who goes on a mad killing spree, so in effect it's RAMBO on acid. But we hand picked the cast members our producers would allow us to use, and they turned out to be many loyal friends from New York who were equally interested in treating this genre project as if it were a Robert Altman film. We went as deep as we could with the characters, and I hope that shows up onscreen. And of course, more important, we were going for a tough, aggressive, lean and mean B-movie aesthetic. I'm as curious as anyone else how it will all turn out, since the project is in the hands of the producers now. They recut the film and shot some additional 2nd Unit Photography, so we'll see how it all shakes out.
10. How was working with Tom Savini? This (to my knowledge at least) is his first leading role.
Once we had the possibility of working with Tom Savini, I did some due diligence and called directors who had worked with him before. People who knew him only from the convention circuit sometimes labeled him aloof or difficult, but each of the directors said he was enthusiastic, supportive, loved playing villains and was there for the project. That was the Tom Savini I met. When he arrived, you could tell immediately that if you didn't earn his trust he would walk all over you. So Dom (our cinematographer) and I cut together some footage from the film (Tom arrived towards the end of principal photography). We showed him the work and he nodded his head in approval, saying, "Thanks for showing me this. I'm going to go get ready." From then on, he was an ally and friend. He stood up for the crew when he felt like the producers were feeding us badly -- salad and rice is not a proper meal for a 15-hour work day where we're humping truckloads of gear into the forest! As a crew guy himself, Tom understood.
He was collaborative and open to sharing his ideas, was terrific in helping with stunt coordination, and even generously offered to do his own stunts. "Tom," I said, "you're over 60 years old! No way am I gonna allow you to jump on board that speeding truck head first!" But Tom showed us how he could safely navigate the stunt, and we safely shot it many times. He was a pure joy, and I'd love to work with him again anytime. He invited me to visit the set of his short film in the anthology THEATER BIZARRE and I found him to be a fun director as well, with a dark sense of humor and an impish pride in pulling off tough gore gags on a low budget. But he's the kind of guy where you don't wonder if he likes you or not. If he doesn't like you, he'll trample you underfoot. If he does like you, he'll give you 150%. I have nothing but good memories of him.
11. What's next?
I'm finishing up post on THE DAYS GOD SLEPT, which is set in an otherworldly strip club. A girl tells her story to the boy, and as the tale grows increasingly disturbing, he has to ask himself how much he really wants to know. The film is an intense fever dream. I'm excited to see how it plays along the festival circuit, since it is described as "a cinematic prayer" but if it's about the concept of Grace, it's definitely more in the realm of Flannery O'Connor where grace is brutally hard-won. The writer-producer Joe Fiorillo and I are looking at making another project together, which goes even further into the world of horror and phantasmagoria. I've also done some episodes for Scott W. Perry's IN FEAR OF Web series, which just started Season Two, and have a few other projects on the horizon. There's a monster movie feature that I am ready to sink my teeth into. I'm excited about what's coming next, so let the future come.
Jeremiah’s Homepage (bio and links to his films) can be found at: http://kippfilms.com