Eric Schaeffer did not plan to make a sequel to his 1997 film Fall but fourteen years later, he wrote, directed, produced and starred in After Fall, Winter, now out on DVD. The film continues the story of Michael Shiver (Schaeffer), an author who is deeply in debt. He heads to Paris and meets Sophie (an excellent Lizzie Brochere), a younger woman who works as a caregiver to the terminally ill but also has a secret life as a dominatrix. Their romance addresses issues of truth and trust as the lead characters navigate their sudden relationship.
After Fall, Winter is not the first time Schaeffer resurrected a character he created. He and coconspirator Donal Lardner Ward’s 2011 film They’re Out of the Business was a sequel to their 1993 hit My Life’s in Turnaround.
In a recent Skype interview from Vermont, Schaeffer talked about his films, his characters, and his penchant for BDSM.
Gary Kramer: What prompted you to revisit Michael Shiver?
Eric Schaeffer: I didn’t realize I was going to do it when I made Fall but there was such love for that film, I started playing with the idea of checking back in with this character 15 years later. The seasons beg for a quartet, so why not follow one guy’s journey over his entire lifetime as it relates to love? So it’s a 45-year expedition. People have done [similar projects] Michael Apted’s Up series, Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, and A Man and a Woman/20 Years Later. But always with the same characters. There’s a different female protagonists in [my] films.
GK: Your character is someone who once had success but is now very down on his luck. How did you shape this character and how close are you to him?
ES: My experience is heartbreak—which is born out of a relationship I had in real life. In After Fall, Winter, when Sophie says something demeaning about Michael’s body, that was said to me. I talk about stuff I feel more than most people and I put it into my movies. Write what you know. I hope my truth will resonate with others—identification through art. I think characters that are complex emotionally are the best representation of most of our accurate human experience. And that is the point of life and work. At the core in this ever fractioning world, unifying it is our only chance of survival.
GK: Michael goes through abuse and masochism. Why expose yourself in this way? Is it cathartic? Are you an exhibitionist?
ES: I not an exhibitionist at all in any way. I write what I know. My experience of my sexuality is fluid and evolving. As I’ve gotten older my life sexuality and spirituality has exploded. It opens up over an introspective life. Things I thought about sexually when I was 15, 20 and 30 are the same now, and some thoughts I’ve had in my 30s and 40s are new and one is an exploration into BDSM. I have a normal healthy landscape of sexual experience. I may go farther than some, but not as far as everyone. I want to leave it all in the court. I don’t want to succumb to my fear.
GK: Given how much Michael discusses his insecurities, what can you say about issues of shame and being afraid and about admitting thing to/about one’s self? What are you afraid of or ashamed of?
ES: It goes back to my thesis statement about unification. We as a society are headed down a dark path, born out of lack of consideration for ourselves and other people. The way to gain empathy is to admit how we feel about our experience.
GK: Let’s talk about Sophie, who is in many ways the opposite of Michael, but also his match.
ES: The foundation is that she’s fashioned a life of emotional reclusivity. On the surface, it’s tremendously intimate—taking someone through their dying days. The other is choking someone to the point where you might kill them. She has these highly intense relationships with built in artifice. One has a time constraint (the person dies) the other is that she’s paid for a service (role play). So that’s clearly a character who is emotionally crippled, but desperate for love. The communication issue—this whole idea of unifying us—through language, but also actions. If unification is vital to us, than good communication will lead to unification. But everyone is terrified of being honest for fear of shame. These two characters are terrified to tell each other of their fundamental experiences for fear of being rejected.
GK: Yet the characters in After Fall, Winter are kind of fearless, participating in BDSM and putting their hearts on the line. How did you approach depicting kink respectfully? People may not want to participate in it, but your film gets them thinking about it.
ES: It’s all about [creating] the ability to not feel threatened… A straight man talks about being penetrated with his lover. It’s about finding something you don’t understand thought provoking and not threatening—having an openness to your own humanity. You may decide its not for me, but do not condemn it. How do we change that attitude, especially in someone who is judgmental? We slowly chip away.
GK: Yes! It’s disingenuous to question other people’s pleasure! OK, lightning round: Are you superstitious/believe in curses?
ES: Great question! I am superstitious. But there’s a line in the film that speaks to whether I believe in curses. Michael says, “God Beats curses every time.” Basically, if demons exist, God does too—and he will protect me.
GK: Michael and Sophie meet at a yoga studio. Are you a real yogi?
ES: I started doing yoga as a way to help get over my last breakup 13 years ago. My ex said I’d love yoga before we broke up. I was a dancer in college and a basketball player, and she was right. And I was devastated and I needed to find a bigger spirituality. I do love it. It’s been a massive part of my life.
GK: The characters also have a cheese feast. What is your favorite [French] cheese?
ES: I love bleu cheese. It’s my absolute favorite. In a salad with apples, and walnuts…
GK: Last question: In After Fall, Winter you balance romance and tragedy, love and death, as well as religion, superstition and philosophy. What prompted you to explore these heady themes in one film?
ES: Because I never tried to start out with a style, but I have always had one. I lead with humor, but midway through my movies and shows become much darker, deeper—not that humor is lost, but I lead with humor to get people to trust [me] and so I can take them on the film’s journey. So I balance tragedy with the sublime because I’m a realist, and isn’t that how life is? You get the job of your dreams, but then you hang up the phone and twenty eight year old kids are killed in school. Tears of joy, than tears of horror. It’s an extreme example, but not really. People who buy film [e.g., distributors] do audiences a disservice by thinking they can’t handle more than one point at a time. I fold all these things in because they are the most important things to me—spirituality and love. There are different offshoots of love: a woman in a sexual way, friends and family, animals. So the exploration of all of these themes is very important to me and they dovetail in my films.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.