Sun Choke (Ben Cresciman, 2015)
Sun Choke (Ben Cresciman, 2015)

By Paul Risker.

Looking back to You’re Next (2012) Barbara Crampton explains how: “It was with that movie that this spark for the love of acting was reignited in me.” If You’re Next marked her return to the screen after a hiatus, then appearing in four films (Sun Choke (2015), We Are Still Here (2015), Road Games (2015) and Tales of Halloween (2015)) of this year’s sixteenth edition of FILM4 FrightFest affirms that her rediscovery of the spark has without a shadow of a doubt been reignited.

Collaborating in the eighties with Master of Horror Stuart Gordon, she played in both Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), two films that have served to establish Gordon as a long time champion of the adaptation of H.P Lovecraft to the screen. Three decades on Crampton’s acknowledgement that We Are Still Here is a love letter to both Fulci and Lovecraft see past and present connect through Lovecraft or in the least through the enduring influence of the writer. But in as much as past and present collide, Sun Choke represents for the actress an opportunity for a fresh encounter, which brought with it a dilemma. As she explained: “One of the reasons I did that part and also one of the reasons why I almost didn’t is because she is quite different than anything I have ever played before.” And equally: “Both of these other movies [We Are Still Here and Road Games] I am in are completely different. Road Games is like a comedy, thriller, mystery, love story and Ted’s movie is a love letter to Fulci and Lovecraft, and it encompasses so many things in the period of one movie, from a slow languid sad tale to a balls-out horror bloody fest.” So at FrightFest 2015 the audience received an opportunity to witness Crampton rediscover a familiar path and to also bloom as an actress through a willingness to explore less familiar characters.

In conversation with Film International Crampton reflected upon how she perceives her career in contrast to the audience’s perspective of her, the ontology of the audience living in the artist’s past and the way in which individual filmmaker’s influence and shape the creative process. She also discussed her own process and the importance of performing independently of the audience and took the time to reflect upon her break from and return to acting.

I have to make sure I ask you about Emily DiPrimo’s Carver (2015) that opened the Reel East Film Festival and of which the interview editor of Film International is a co-director. He mentioned that you were very supportive of the film during its Kickstarter campaign?

Barbara 01Oh, I was just moved by her need for a small amount of money to make the movie. She was just so young and she’s an up and coming young female director I thought: you know what, this girl wants to make a movie and she needs a little money; I’ll give it to her. I haven’t seen the film; have you seen it yet?

Not as yet.

She’s in the New Jersey or New York area and I know her father is very helpful to her. He sort of mentors her and he can also do some of the production side of things. So he’s done that and I think Elijah Wood gave money to her campaign as well. So there were a lot of people that were very moved by her wanting to make a movie and her idea was really cute.

I think the Kickstarter thing was quite big a year or two ago, but it is waning slightly because people are just having Kickstarter for tea and so people are not giving as much money. But every once in a while if I see an interesting project and someone asks me I’ll throw in a few dollars here and there.

The collaboration between the filmmaker and the audience is a vital one and this new level of interaction that now exists through the audience’s active participation to help make the films has brought us to a fascinating place. Filmmakers and their audience are becoming more intricate collaborators, but as you say the exploitation of Kickstarter threatens and compromises this interaction.

Maybe we’ll come up with another way to fund movies, but the interesting thing is that you can make a movie so cheaply now, and that is both a blessing and a curse because there are so many more movies being made. But there are only so many that can find distribution or even make it into a film festival and there are only so many people that are going to be able to rise to the top to make a career out of it, and to ultimately make any money. But a lot of people are doing it for the love and the art of it and so it’s actually a really exciting time to be in filmmaking. It’s so much different than when I was doing it in the eighties where you had a certain budget. At that point a low budget movie was a million dollars and our distribution was in place. There were just a handful of filmmakers making genre movies and now there are just so many.

What always intrigues me is the way we as an audience perceive you in contrast to how you perceive yourself through the individual experiences that comprise your acting career. Have the memories of these experiences changed and when you look back to the early days and to your collaborations with Stuart Gordon, how do you look back?

Re-Animator (1985)
Re-Animator (1985)

Well, when I was first acting in the eighties I think I was playing the good girl and the heroine for the most part; somebody that you could count on and root for. And that’s sort of endemic of the female in a lot of horror movies, especially when I was first working. That being said, in coming back to acting as I did after You’re Next (2011), or with You’re Next really and then subsequently after that with a number of films, most of my parts have been somebody you could root for or someone you like or you can identify with as the ‘every girl.’

But in Sun Choke (2015), which is one of the movies playing at FrightFest, I played a caretaker of this young girl who is mentally unstable. And one of the reasons I did that part and also one of the reasons why I almost didn’t is because she is quite different than anything I have ever played before. She’s not quite as benevolent as you would think she is. She’s a caretaker and she’s been dedicated to this young woman’s life for a very long time. But there is a sense of loneliness and isolation built into both characters that has made my character slightly off, and maybe not as nice as she could be. So when I look back I think people have rooted for me in the past and it was kind of a risk for me to jump into another kind of role where nobody sees me like that. But it was a challenge and it was another side of myself or another side of telling a story that I wanted to investigate.

It was interesting working with Ben Cresciman on this movie because I said to him: “Am I a good character or a bad character?” I am clearly taking care of this woman and I am seeing to her daily needs, but some of the techniques that I use to help her through her mental instability, or the way that I approach taking care of her doesn’t seem very kind. We both discussed it and he said: “It’s both.” So it was a really fun role for me to play… Something quite different.

Watching Sun Choke I was struck by how you act with your eyes or how as a spectator I am drawn to your eyes. There is the old expression of the eyes being the windows to the soul and so much of your character seems to emerge from here. Are you conscious of acting with your eyes or is it more of a physical presence you focus on?

Well it’s funny that you say that because no, it’s not something that I think about on purpose. I don’t think I should use my eyes in a certain way, but just to be truthful in the moment with the feeling of what’s going on. Then it’s really up to them to capture what part of your body or your face is going to tell the story. So I leave that up to them.

I spoke with an actress recently about how if a horror film is to genuinely terrify an audience then does the director have to create a real sense of fear and terror for the actors on set? In response she explained: “Well I believe that what the audience experiences, which in horror movies for example is the extreme, the feeling of horror doesn’t necessarily come from a scared looking actor. The actor doesn’t necessarily play the emotion that the director of the story seeks from the audience, but rather the hope that the character needs to play.” It is interesting the way there are all these different emotional layers that the actor might need, which may be used by the director as well as felt by the audience. They can all be a different set of feelings.

From Beyond (1986)
From Beyond (1986)

Oh, it can all be different feelings and film is art and it is very subjective. So I may play a scene and you might feel differently about that scene than somebody else. And I may be trying to elicit a certain reaction not from the audience because my job is to elicit a response from the other player I am working with in the scene. So if I do that effectively enough and can draw something out of them or make a connection with them, then the audience gets to have whatever experience they have through their own way of looking at things.

Very early on I had a wonderful teacher that said: “The energy between the two players on stage or on the screen is almost like its own character.” So if I am talking to you right now, whatever is being passed between us is something. And it’s like two other people playing the same scene from the same movie – there would be something different between them. So what you are watching is not always completely my performance or the other player’s performance. You are watching the energy that is being passed between us and I think that’s the exciting thing to try to get in get touch with as a performer – what’s happening between us. Like right now you are shaking your head and you are agreeing with me and so we are finding some common ground together. But if we are having an argument then that creates a different dynamic between us. So you are watching that dynamic and depending on who you are and what you want from a movie or a scene then it is going to be completely different given the players, the characters or the way the director has chosen to tell the story.

How do you compare and contrast the experiences of working with the directors of the different films screening at FrightFest? They are an interesting collection of filmmakers and I wonder how the process varied from director to director?

Completely… They are all so completely different. Some directors are a little more heavy-handed than others on the day and in the moment during the scene before and after retaking the scene a few times. Some people talk to you before you even start filming and they have a great dialogue with you so that you understand your character and the story – where your character is coming from, what they want, what they love, what interests them and what they are trying to accomplish. When I was working with Stuart Gordon he was a very… I don’t want to say heavy-handed. I am using the term heavy-handed and that sounds negative, but it isn’t. It just means he really wants to inform you in the moment about the scene and how he wants it to be played. So Stuart was a very hands-on director and before the scene he would talk to you about it. He would talk to you about how you were going to move and the blocking of the scene was important. He had come from a stage background and so he was influenced a lot by that. We had a lot of rehearsal for most of the movies I did with him and I found that even though he was so new – this is only his second movie – Ben was a very hands-on director. But in every moment he had a clear vision of how he wanted you to play the scene and what he wanted to achieve in the moment so that you really get the sense of tone, and the feeling in the movie is completely similar through all of our characters. It really was telling a story through his eyes. And then other directors are maybe a little bit more collaborative and allow you to go with your own instincts in the moment. I found that to probably be true of Ted Geoghegan and Abner Pastoll.

Both of these other movies [We Are Still Here and Road Games] I am in are completely different. Road Games is like a comedy, thriller, mystery, love story and Ted’s movie is a love letter to Fulci and Lovecraft. It encompasses so many things in the period of one movie, from a slow languid sad tale to a balls out horror bloody fest. And both of those gentlemen I spoke to at length many times about my character and how they wanted to tell the story – what each character wanted, needed and what was potentially painful about the different issues they had to go through. But on the day both of those directors were a little bit more giving, handing the reigns over to us on a day to day basis by letting us explore the scene and then maybe talking about it a little bit, and then doing the scene again. But I found that they sort of let things happen a little bit more naturally, while Ben was a little bit more specific in how he wanted to get his ideas across to us. Everyone is different and everyone likes to work differently. I feel a great affinity for all of the gentlemen. They all wrote and directed their own movies and that doesn’t always happen either. So I think their vision is complete in the movies. They each have their own certain flavor and they are supported by everything. But there is just a different way of achieving the end result.

Is one of the aspects that you find rewarding in the filmmaking process the encounters with different filmmakers and actors? With the different approaches to the process for actors and filmmakers is a film like a journey of discovery in which you are trying to find a way to…

Chopping Mall (originally titled Killbots, 1986)
Chopping Mall (originally titled Killbots, 1986)

Connect. You have to find a way to connect and everyone has a different way of communicating. So where is our common ground and how can we connect? In a way it would have been hard for Ted Geoghegan to say to me: “Okay, you need to react in this scene like this or you need to do it like this” because my character in We Are Still Here was a little bit lost. She was alone and felt very sad and despairing. So he left me alone a lot of the time and then if something wasn’t quite right he would tweak it a little bit and give me a note or two. And even one of our producers Travis Stevens who is an amazing producer and is very hands-on was a wonderful addition to the team of Ted and Karim Hussain, our cinematographer. The three of them worked closely together and Travis would even give me a note here and there to say: “Why don’t you try this or try that?” It was only once in a while, but he was very present on the set. But with my character in that movie feeling despair and very much lost, it was good that they let me find that in my own time.

Hopefully I’m not going to be overly philosophical here, but the spectatorial experience of a film in one sense could be perceived as being located in the artists past in which the spectator is always in pursuit of the artist. So we are living in the artists past and this strikes me as an intriguing dynamic in our relationship to you in which the past, present and future collapse in on themselves.

It’s funny that you say that because I was thinking about this the other day; about how making a movie is so much like life. So to understand your character and what happened in a movie you almost have to get beyond it. You have to go forward and that’s the same thing as in life. How have I lived my life? Have I done a good job? Have I been nice to the people who I love and who love me? Where have my shortcomings come up? I don’t sometimes know that in the moment. I know that after a certain amount of time where I can look back and say: okay, here is where I did okay. Here is where I could have used a little bit more creativity or I could have been nicer to my mother, my daughter, my husband or my friend. And when you are doing a movie you can sometimes look back and say: okay, that’s who that character was. Now I get it. In fact when we shot We Are Still Here the last night of filming I was really overcome and I said to Travis Stevens in the hotel: “Can we please do the movie all over again? I finally understand her… I can do it now. I can actually play her now that I have gone through it.” When you are going through your own life you don’t know who you are then, and you don’t sometimes understand those little moments that are really meaningful and are going to touch somebody then or later on. How many times in life have we had the experience where somebody will say to you: “Remember when you said this thing to me a couple of years ago? Do you remember when you did this for me? It was very meaningful for me and I don’t know if you actually got that and I just want to let you know.” We have all had those moments in our life where we have actually done something that was meaningful for others and not really known it in the moment. So thank you for bringing this up. It’s a clever point because it really is like you’ll go back and look at our work and say: “Oh, they shot that movie a year ago or two years ago and we are now seeing it released even a year later.” And sometimes like with You’re Next it was three years after we made the movie that you got to see it and were able to comment on it. Movies are so representative of life and being able to look back and say: “That’s what I was doing in this role; that’s what I was doing in this moment of life, playing this character in this time.”

As an actress, do your experiences influence the way in which you watch films as a spectator?

You're Next (Adam Wingard, 2013);
You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2013)

I try to keep myself very open to experiencing what is front of me and just like when I am an actor in the movie, even though I understand the nuts and bolts of what’s happening, I try to disregard that in the moment because what is important to me and what we were talking about earlier was the dynamic of energy that’s between the players. So I can’t really think about what the cameraman is doing, and I can’t really think about why the lighting guy is adjusting the lights for our faces or the prop person is coming in to hand me a fork under the table so that I can use it to stab someone’s eye out! You just have to concentrate on your aspect of the filmmaking. But that being said sometimes because I am more interested in the acting part of a movie I will look at a performance and say: oh, I really like how that person built their performance, or I can see how somebody moves in a scene and I can understand that they are moving in this way for a certain reason. Maybe I can tell that it is a camera move or something is being choreographed for a certain reason and in the back of mind I can think: oh, those people are doing a dolly shot. I’ll have that in my mind, but it doesn’t take me out of the story at all and I do feel that because I’m an actress I concentrate on the players maybe more so than the story. Some people concentrate on the story and what the filmmaker is trying to say… Probably most people do. But I have to say that I look at the actors and potentially their technique. But it’s important to me to also try to be like you and to just enjoy whatever the filmmaker is trying to tell us.

One of the things I appreciate about film is how on one level it is emotional and yet on another level it is intellectual, and also how we can appreciate or be equally frustrated by different elements. But it returns to what you were saying about how film is like a jigsaw puzzle and I always remember one of the lessons I took away from reading Roger Ebert’s reviews was how he’d give a good review to a film that might not be anything particularly special, but he’d highlight moments; he’d emphasise the importance of appreciating a film for its moments.

Sure, because there is really something about every movie that has value and that’s my mantra for life. I have that on my Twitter profile: “There is something to admire about everyone… Look deeper.” And I feel that way about people and about movies. There is a gem in every movie; there is something whether it is a performance, moment, idea or a feeling. If someone has made it onto our TV screen or made it into the theatre, then someone saw some value in that. So I am going to look for whatever value the collective consciousness of whoever picked that film is trying to get across. I want to see what that is and I completely agree with you that there is something good in every piece of art and movie. It kind of saddens me when I see there are particular reviewers that really like to tear things apart and trash them. I don’t like it when people give terrible reviews because someone is going to like a movie you didn’t like. Tell us about the movie, but don’t say this movie is garbage, it’s horrible and I’ve never seen a worst performance from so and so…. I try to look for the best in the movies and I think Scott Weinberg is one of my favourite reviewers because he does that. He never trashes any movie and ever says it’s garbage. He always finds something – some little jewel or little nugget. So I appreciate reading his reviews more than a lot of other people’s.

Looking back to your break from and return to acting, how important do you think it was to take a break? Did you need it to reignite the spark?

Well I didn’t mean to take a break; it sort of happened on its own. But I think it was the right thing for me to do. I moved to Hollywood when I was twenty-one and I very much concentrated on my career for a long time. I did have one brief marriage early on, but I was always more concerned with my career and working than having a partner and children. But then at a certain point in my life I realised: wow, it has really been a struggle to keep this artistic life going and to sustain it. It takes a lot of energy and I really wanted to be married and to have children because that was something I felt was missing in my life. So I found someone later in life – I was thirty-eight when I met my husband. We got married just before my fortieth birthday and I got pregnant right away with my first child, and then after I had him I got pregnant again. In that time that we were getting married and having our first child we decided to move up to San Francisco because my husband was transferred with his job, and I felt at that moment that I’d done enough with my career – I’d had a life in soap operas and I’d done some independent horror movies that had kind of stood the test of time. I thought if I don’t work again it’s okay. I felt that I wanted to concentrate on my family and my husband; just having a life together. So I did that for the better part of eight years or so, maybe even longer until I got the call to be in You’re Next, which came completely out of the blue. I wasn’t looking for it and I didn’t even want it. When I read the script I thought it was really clever and it would be a nice diversion from my life now as a mother. And little did I know that it would go onto to be bought by Lionsgate, to be critically acclaimed and to be the wonderful movie that it is. And it was with that movie that this spark for the love of acting was reignited in me. My kids were old enough then that I felt I could have the confidence to dip back into the acting world again and to not feel like I was sacrificing anything that I wasn’t giving to them. So right now I feel like I have the perfect life. I have a great family, I am working a little bit again and it’s a really nice balance. I am now grateful that I feel like I have been successful in both areas.

Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.

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