THIS HOUS IS NOT A HOME (but is sure keeps finding them)

So the little film that could THIS HOUSE IS NOT A HOME  that I directed late last year has magically developed a second wind. It was screened briefly  then shelved away and fondly thought of from time to time but now is wandering around the festival circuit so to commemorate that event I'm reposting  an old interview I did with Julie Mae Madsen for the Oregon Literary Review after winning the Audience Choice Award at the Visuals Film Fest. Yes this is aggrandizing and shameless self promotion but damn it sometimes ya gotta!

(Interview by Julie Mae Madsen.)


Tell us about the Audience Award you recently received.


            It was a really lovely, slightly surreal surprise. First off I hadn’t realized the film was showing in competition so that was a surprise and as the night’s screening progressed Crystal MacTaggart, who played Margot, and I kept joking which films we were going to lose to. 


Where did you go to school?


 My education has been really strange. I left high school early to attend Savannah College of Art and Design. Then I traveled for a bit, moved to North Carolina for a while then to Oregon . I ended up getting a job a personal assistant to a film maker, and then a job on his next feature which was really a crash course film school experience. It was like 4 years of NYU in two months of on location training. I studied screenwriting under Charles Deemer at Portland StateUniversity as well. Formal education and I are still strange bed fellows. I’m really self-educated when it comes to film history and theory.


How does collaboration enhance your films and the way you make them?


            Films are no matter what anyone says 100% collaboration. I can‘t make a film alone. If I did manage to wear all the hats it’s still collaboration because it’s made to be experienced by the audience. They collaborate with you subconsciously. A positive reaction is permission to try harder, to take the material further.  A good collaborator makes long hours and harsh conditions easier to bear. I’ve worked with my partner Taylor vineyard in some capacity on every film I’ve done. Crystal MacTaggart has been in two shorts and will be in my upcoming feature as well as other shorts. It’s a great relationship. They know you, your intentions. Trust is important, especially when you asking someone to bare themselves for the world. In the case of this film because I had collaborated with Crystalpreviously we were able to work hard and fast just the two of us, no crew. She was instrumental in the film’s success; it’s not a glamorous role. Though I’ve never cast her in one, so these days she’s informed me I have to write her a part where absolutely nothing unpleasant happens to her character. It’s a family affair really we all have our places and sometimes those change but a crew should stick together.


Is there anyone in particular you would like to thank?


            I’ve always tried really hard to thank people who have inspired or encouraged me, my family and friends.  I always joke I want to thank those who have discouraged me because it gave me the drive to prove them wrong.  I had a teacher in high school named Rebecca Bevacqua who came to my house and taught me one on one during a really difficult time in my life. I’ve never thanked her but to be honest I owe her my life.

            I should also thank Holly Andres for encouraging me. And MUST thank Heidi Snellman without whom I’m never have broken out of the nine-to-five rut (actually the 3 to 1 am)


Talk about your use of music in this film.


            Music is a real true love. I’ve played in various bands and I usually compose some sound component to my films. With each short starting with The Human Remains I’ve gotten more comfortable scoring my own work. This film especially being a silent film it requires an attention to sound.  With the exception of two songs taken from the album Haunted by Poe I scored the film as homage to silent era films. I also was aware that I wanted the music to be pervasive and real presence in the film. I hope that comes across to the viewer. I love the way the score by Goblin for Dario Argento’s Susperia is so maddeningly oppressive through the film.  Or Howard Shore’s minimalist score for Cronenberg’s film Crash adds to the unease. So with that in mind I tried to make the music be classically symphonic and at the same time bombastic and threatening. I wanted it to feel like a lullaby. In some ways this film functions as a fairy tale to me, part Alice in Wonderland part Bluebeard part The House of Leaves. The idea of hallways growing and houses being alive is brilliant in that novel. It was great too that Hauntedis a soundtrack of sorts to that book so I was able to pay tribute to that with the song over the credits.


Why did you choose to caption the film instead of using audio dialog?


            I had just made two serious dramas that utilized a voice over narrator. I had done a video instillation with no dialog. I had done an erotica for the HUMP!Festival in Seattle. So the choice to caption, like the choice to be black and white was a chance to do something different. I tend to create in a bubble so I don’t follow trends. I don’t intentionally subvert them; I just tend to make the art as if it’s for me as the viewer.


The subtitles reminded me of some silent film directors in the use of font size to dramatize the action. How intentional was this? What were your influences with regards to captioning?


            Oh It was entirely intentional. I wanted to convey the mounting calamity with the font. Her disorientation, her fear.  I knew I’d have a black screen with white text like a standard silent film. My fear was it would become either too monotonous if it stayed the same size or too chaotic. I tried to engage the viewer, but was aware from my own experience as someone with incredibly poor eyesight that the title cards had to be easy to read. I don’t think I can pin point a single film I wanted to emulate with regards to playing with the text but I can say the Russian film Night Watch was an amazing reminder that subtitles are part of the film and don’t have to be an afterthought thrown on. That film is so gorgeous with its subtitles on.


Talk about the narrator in general. Did you have a vision of someone narrating?


            I envisioned it being read, so to be it’s a storybook. A tragic, scary, messy fairytale.


There is no back story. Why?


            It’s so easy to explain things away. Or to bog down a narrative with exposition I thought what was really essential-everything else goes. Originally I did plan to have a scene with Margot at her office, going about her day, introduce her a little sooner but really the lack of explanation makes it more tragic to me. She was just a hapless innocent victim. Also I wanted the experience to feel immediate, back story would have taken you out of the pressing need to get out, get away. It doesn’t really matter why it’s happening if you are in the moment. All you care is that it is happening.



Who is Margot and why is she in the house?


Margot is a well meaning social worker. She’s just doing her job. She’s just an ordinary woman who happens upon some extraordinary circumstances. And she’s there because Crystal, Taylor and I had some free time.



How can plot get in the way of a good scare?


            Oh too much exposition ruins a horror film. The more left unsaid or unseen the better in my opinion. Look at Alienthe discover an alien spacecraft that has been decimated, which leads to the discovery of the aliens, but the beings whose ship they found? No one mentions them again. It’s a mystery. Neil Marshal’s filmthe Descent is brilliant because his characters don’t stop to investigate the history of creatures stalking them, you know why? They don’t care. Who cares where it came from , ask that after you get away from the monsters.  I hate when a film tries to explain away the elements and make sense of every minute detail. Gothika is perfect example of plot getting in the way of a good scare. Don’t give me a Scooby –Doo ending, that’s not to say I don’t want resolution. I’m just more of a fan of wanting more than wishing there had been less.


How do you make the audience part of the scary experience?


            Don’t treat them like they are stupid. Don’t go against human nature. Show them someone they can relate to. Take your time and leave something to the imagination. Gore isn’t necessarily scary. I’m not opposed to gore, but gore for gore’s sake isn’t scary it’s just gory. Also the dark is always scary. Turn out the lights; you’ll scare yourself every time.


The slow, plodding ever-present evil is reminiscent of older horror films. Who are your greatest influences particular to this horror genre?


            This is my first true horror film so I thought a lot about what I liked and didn’t like in a horror film ( and in silent films as well). Hitchcock of course comes to mind, David Cronenberg definitely, David Lynch, while not a horror director still gets under my skin. Films like The Haunting (1954) and Susperia both played into this film in someway. As did Asian horror films like Ju-On and to some extent silent era films like The Golem. I’m a big fan of slower paced horror. The Brood, Rosemary’s Baby. I love all the Universal Monster movies.


How do you think you’ve added to the genre?


            I’m not sure I have. I’d like to add a touch of  artiness back to horror films. And scares. There is a wave of torture as horror films, that are not the same as scary.


How do you hope to add to the genre in future?


            I’d like to do feature length horror. I think I have a few more in me. I like the genre, not that its all I want to do. But I definitely have al love for it. I blame growing up in the south, all ghosts and voodoo and the atmosphere in general. It’s spooky in a good way-sometimes.


Did you intentionally flip the bruises on Margot’s face?


            I’m glad someone noticed that. I did I wanted it to further the disorientation, the through the Looking Glass quality. I felt it played well with the ever growing hallways and stairs, doors that open into and out of spaces that seem unconnected. I hope people get that it was intentional and not sloppy editing.


What were the limitations you overcame while filming inside a house?


            Spatial issues were the only real challenges with this film. Since we basically shot the short for no money, and I really mean we spent next to nothing on it, just utilized resources we had, we had no crew. So I operated the camera, crawled along side Crystal through the dark, ect. I also tried to shoot it in such a manner as to only show the smallest amount of the house as possible focusing on my actress’ performance.


Was there a particular piece of equipment that you enjoyed using or that made the film better?


I think the sets/locations we key to this film. I mean the house is pretty key to a haunted house film. The underground location was a lot of fun. We shot that guerilla-style. I’m really happy too with the brilliant job of make-up and prosthetics that Taylor Vineyard made for the film. It’s pretty handy having a make-up artist/storyboard artist for a husband if you’re working low budget.


What kind(s) of camera do you use? Are you partial to digital video or film stock? Go ahead and get geeky-technical.


            I love film. It’s gorgeous but you pay for that beauty. My short films are all privately funded or have been completely out of pocket, so I shoot DV. That said I must say once I embraced the harshness of video I grew to love it. It’s so economical and my cameras are so small usually I can shoot off the cuff much easier. I’ve used a variety of cameras, the cannon Xl-1 and XL-2, as well as the GL2. THIS HOUSE IS NOT A HOME was actually shot with a Canon ZR-100, which is a small hand held. But I have gotten amazing results from the camera, tinkering with the settings. A producer at Wyden + Kennedy asked me where I got my 16 mm footage processed for my last film Lazarus, which was in fact DV that I shot with the ZR-100  down in Louisiana and Georgia  and then processed in Final Cut and used some plug-ins on. I’m pretty self-taught so I’m still learning what works for me and how to with the tech aspects.


Your lighting is subtle through the film. Can you talk about how you used lighting in This House Is Not A Home?


            Well budgetary restraints definitely discouraged a full lighting kit. Also the locations did as well. On the other hand I really wanted a sense of place so we chose to go for as natural sources of lighting as possible. Nothing too garish or even too filmic. I wanted it kind of  dingy and grey. But I had to be mindful that we were shooting for black and white and I didn’t want to loose too much detail.  I liked that we had the flickering fluorescent on location and only the flashlight in the dark. To me that adds a sense of realism to an otherwise artificial film experience.


The film is episodic in that half way through the film takes a turn to a more stylized and selective view point, then again the last third changes to a tone of resignation and finality. Please discuss the editorial choices you made.


I chose to be very deliberate in the pacing to start, almost real time. I wanted to build a sense of dread, it happens so abstractly that I wanted the viewer as confused as Margot at first, but at the turn I chose to show the viewer the ghost in the hallway and play with the style and make it very unnatural and hopefully unnerving. I personally find the long shots of the florescent bulbs near-nauseating. I tried to make sure that the repeated shots were all fresh, slightly different . I didn’t want the cheap way out. I wanted frustration to mount, not  a here we go again. jokingly called those shots my evil Groundhog Day sequence. The finality at the end was just the only way I saw the story unfolding as I edited. It seemed natural. Slow things back down. Make moments linger a bit. You know it’s coming for you it’s just a matter of when and how.


Where is the voice over segment from? Talk about how you made the voice over feel seamless.


The voice over was taken from the album Haunted by Poe which is based loosely on her brother’s book The House of Leaves which was an influence on some of the choices I made shooting this. It’s a really unsettling sound bite.  I tried to marry it to my score as best I could it was really a case of trial and error, but I was happy with it and it went fairly well I think.


If you were to change anything in this film, what would it be? 


  Part of me would actually be interested in revisiting the concept of the film at some point as a longer project perhaps. I’m sure my investors would balk at a feature length silent film but I think it’s a possibility at some point. Over all I am extremely happy with this film and it was a really pleasure to make, and trust me some of my films were definitely not a pleasure to make. 


What is your next project(s)?


            I’m in negotiation for the financing on my feature film debut at the moment, which is unbelievably exciting.  It’s an ensemble drama about love and intimacy in Post 9-11 America.   I also have two shorts in the works one is a environmental horror film called SnowBlind  I plan on shooting in December.  The other is actually a tongue in cheek musical comedy love story set to lip-synched pop songs. Think Faust meets Moulin Rouge.  I’m also in the middle of a record with my band A is for Accident, with the wonderful Julie Baird. After that… Taylor and I and the incredibly sexy Dr. Garth Meckler are planning on taking a trip to Italy. Maybe I can get some sleep there.


Where can we expect to see your work next?


            Hopefully in theatres near you soon. And always on my blog Digging to China.

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