By Paul Risker.
Anarchy Parlor (2015) is the directorial debut for Kenny Gage and Devon Downs, who along with co-directing this Lithuanian-set horror, together co-wrote the picture. Whether Anarchy Parlor will follow in the footsteps of Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) and hurt the Lithuanian tourist trade, for what would certainly add irony to the real life story of this directorial feature debut, is one twist yet to be written.
In conversation with Film International, Gage and Downs’ reflections on the filmmaking process went beyond the traditionally perceived arc of a filmmaker’s journey that ends with the completion of the film. They looked beyond the collaborative encounter with the film’s audience that marks the transfer of ownership to share their thoughts on the landscape of contemporary filmmaking and the increased demands that are placed on today’s filmmakers.
Why a career in film? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Kenny Gage (KG): We have been interested in film since we were kids, whether it being shooting our own home videos in Super 8 or just messing around with film in high school. We are drawn to the horror and action side of it, and we just grew up knowing that this is what we wanted to do.
Growing up were there any films that leapt out at you and helped to cement the passion for filmmaking?
KG: My first horror film was Friday the 13th (1980), and to try and make a long story short, my now brother in law who was dating my sister was watching us as kids, and to shut us up he threw on Friday the 13th. This was my first foray into enjoying horror and it was at a very young age.
From adolescence to adulthood, as we become less impressionable our relationship with horror inevitably changes. How do you view the way in which this relationship with the genre evolves?
KG: As we get older the type of horror that is sometimes scarier than a monster, a ghost or the paranormal is just a human being. Some of the craziest stories come out of what real people are doing, and these can sometimes be scarier than a fictional monster. A lot of the foreign horror specifically played on the realism of horror and it did it well. It drew us into enjoying that kind of genre: can this really happen? There are some crazy people out there and there are dangerous situations that a lot of people are naive to, and what occurred to us was that in some cases there is something scarier than certain monsters.
Anarchy Parlor is your directorial feature debut. How did the expectations compare to the realities?
Devon Downs (DD): It was one of those scenarios where we flew seventeen hours around the world from where we live. We had never been to Lithuania before, and I don’t know that we had a set list of expectations. It was more about adjusting to the environment once we got there, seeing what they had and making a thousand decisions on the fly in what was a completely foreign environment to us. We were working with a crew who largely didn’t speak English, and our AD was a tremendous asset and translator. We went over there with our producer Thomas Mahoney and our DP Edd Lukas who is actually British. So the four of us went out there first for pre-production, and that was really where the bonding came with the Lithuanian production services company. We met some phenomenal crew members and people with a tremendous wealth of experience and talent who were able to show us the lay of the land, and help us find what we were looking for – the types of locations and environments that we wanted to shoot in. So we feel that we were able to capture a lot of the city and pull that out and into the movie to become a secondary character, if you will.
The way in which you were removed from your comfort zone echoes the plot whose characters are out of their comfort zones, and it becomes art imitating the behind the scenes experience.
DD: Yeah, absolutely! First of all you have to talk about Robert LaSardo who plays The Artist. The construct for his character was that we wanted to go away from a traditional villain to do a kind of character study. Here is a guy who was born into this, and although he’s doing stuff that to the rest of the world is branded insane or disgusting, he was born into it and so it is him going about his daily life and business. At the end of it we wanted the audience to come out of it and say: I kind of liked that guy. He was doing all this bad stuff, but I kind of relate to him. And this has been a lot of the feedback that we’ve received. He’s not an archetypal villain that you see in a lot of these films; he’s actually something much deeper. Then if you juxtapose this with the naive tourist, and we actually played-off stereotypes or foreign film archetypes in which the audience knows the kids are in the horror film, but the kids don’t know they are in the horror film. So we used the kids to add satire to the film, and we then juxtaposed them with The Artist character.
Picking up on your point about your awareness of the audience, once you release the film the audience create the experience in collaboration with the filmmaker, during which there is an inevitable transfer of ownership. How important is it to embrace not just creating something for them, but something for them to interact with through which emerges a collaboration?
DD: Absolutely, and I could not agree more with that statement. Part of our thing is that we both like and urge audience participation. We debuted the film at Screamfest in Hollywood. It was a sellout of 437 people, and to hear the audience laughing and cringing in unison meant we had a super strong audience participation.
The audience knows what it is that they are watching, and you have constructed the film with that in mind. So that’s why there is the satire, and that’s why we pushed the limits in certain sequences because we know that it is the audience who are ultimately reacting to it. So I absolutely agree with what you said. But listen, we can’t control what anybody thinks about anything or what the perception is. But having played in live theaters and seeing the crowd participation we know for the most part that they get what we were attempting to do – to take them on an entertaining ride.
When you first sat down with an audience, was that the moment you felt you had reached the end of your journey?
DD: Absolutely, and you can show little pre-screenings or test screenings, but until you are actually sitting in a full theater with people who don’t know you, and are just taking it in, then you never know what the reaction is going to be. So when we made Anarchy Parlor we played with these horror tropes as well as satire and humour. We were laughing in the edit bay and we thought it was going to transfer, and to see it actually do so was a fulfilling moment.
Speaking with Leigh Whannell for Insidious 3 (2015) he discussed how he uses himself as a gauge, and how if he finds it terrifying or funny then there is someone else out there in the world who will. Is it inevitable that you have to use yourself as a gauge and trust your instincts when making a film?
KG: You do have to trust your instincts because again, as Devon was saying, you can’t control how everyone is going to think about it. You have to hope, and it is nerve wracking when you have a vision that you are trying to relay to an audience. Just thinking about it makes you nervous, but then actually seeing the reaction from the crowd and how they were participating at the right time was super gratifying.
DD: And you never do know until you show it in front of people. In a lot of cases you are isolated in the edit bay. You are making these cuts and you are doing what you think is right. But at the end of the day is the message conveyed? The aspects of the horror genre are not for everybody either, and you have to recognise that. You have to build this for the people who have to pay to see it, and if other people like it then that’s great, but if they don’t then that’s great too. For lack of better word, you have to go with your gut.
KG: I would like to add that we are from the school where we don’t mind opinions of our work, meaning that some might criticise it and some might love it. But people criticising or loving it are people talking about it, and that’s what we appreciate… We appreciate both sides.
It is the horror of the deathly silence versus a reaction.
DD: Absolutely, and that is what entertainment is. It is an impact on the psyche, and so if we’ve made that impact then we have done our jobs.
To outsiders who lack appreciation for the genre they tend to dismiss it and see it as fitting into a single bracket. But for the horror community it is a tree full of branches. What is interesting is that you find polarising reactions within the horror community – of a preference for certain branches – that creates a willingness to debate through the variety of taste.
DD: Absolutely, and also the great thing about the horror genre is that there is actually so much room for creative expression. In our opinion as a filmmaker there is no better genre to be in. There is so much room for creativity and to really push where you want to push. This to me is what is exciting and refreshing about horror, as well as the fact that as you said there are so many little different branches, and certain people who like this might not like this, while other people they only want a ghost story for instance. This is the great thing – the amount of diversity in it where people who are not naturally drawn to horror as you say see it as one thing: it’s black or white. But what is exciting to me is that within the horror community and the horror genre there is so much creativity. There are so many filmmakers out there who are pushing the boundaries and the limits on what is possible, and who are having fun and are expressing themselves within the platform.
I have been told that the best route into the business for young filmmakers is to make a genre picture because with it comes a guaranteed target audience. As young filmmakers how do you perceive the landscape for your fellow filmmakers working within horror?
DD: First of all, it is never easy to get a film made and distributed. As far as the landscape of distribution, we are fortunate to have a great distribution partner out here in the U.S that is behind the film, and have been heavily promoting it. A Team Entertainment, the production company who owns the film, is working with the foreign sales, and so we are still waiting to know what the foreign sales dates for the film are.
Ultimately a lot of people look at the filmmaking process and see it as concluding once the film is completed. But in some respects this is only the beginning, as once you have made it you then have to get the film in front of an audience. Would I be correct to say that filmmakers have to do more across the process now than they have ever had to do before?
DD: Oh, without question. From start to finish, and you are right when you say that it is not over because it is just the beginning. The next stage is actually going out and selling it. Then the next stage is going out to promote it to try to draw attention to it.
KG: Sure, and nowadays more than ever it is a lot more acceptable to make a film, and there are a lot of different ways you can make a film. So a lot of people are making films and there is so much content out there. I would say there are various means of distribution, but the main distribution routes are being flooded with content. So it does make it difficult on that side as well.
How has writing and directing and editing Anarchy Parlor informed you moving forward, and how invaluable will the experience be in helping you to hone your craft?
DD: It actually gives you a great perspective because you get to see first hand scenes you like or how things you try don’t always work out. We have written several scripts since we shot Anarchy Parlor, and I feel that with everything you do you make progress and you get better. So it has definitely given us a great insight into different things visually that we want to try, and for lack of a better word, it opens up your whole world on the writing side.
We storyboard all of our films before we shoot them. But then when you get to the location you are going to revise them again based on the location. You are constantly adapting and constantly learning what is working and what is not working. You are revising and editing your process down to distill it; to try to be the best you can be.
Do you have to embrace the creation of a film as an evolution that emerges through the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process, wherein the film you start with is not necessarily the film you end up with?
DD: We try to do a tonne of preparation so that we are as prepared as possible, having thought out all the different shots and contingencies with storyboards in the pre-production game. What it does is when you get on set and you are under the gun or on the clock, it allows you to improvise more quickly because you are prepared. So it allowed us to get our shots in if we encountered an obstacle by being able to quickly come up with an alternate scenario. That is the best advice I’d give to anybody. The more prepared you are and the better you know the film then the easier it will be to improvise. And you will have to improvise because that’s just the nature of it.
KG: I will also add collaboration with your crew, because without the crew, without everyone knowing and believing in your vision, the film cannot happen. They are the ones making the film with you, and as Devon was saying, everyone sees the storyboards, everyone knows what the shot lists are and if there are tweaks and changes we make sure that everyone is aware of it. So it is a true collaborative effort that makes it run smoothly when obstacles are thrown in your way.
Looking back on Anarchy Parlor, how do you remember the experience?
DD: It was definitely one of the biggest events in my life. I am from Los Angeles and so to fly half way around the world, to live somewhere for two months and meet a whole new different group of people, was a transformative experience personally in life, and not just in regards to making movies.
One thing I would like to add is that we had a heavy influence from our British cast and British DP, and it was a genuine pleasure working with everyone from England on the film.
KG: I feel the same way, and also just encountering a lot of the obstacles that we faced out there. We didn’t have a big budget and there were the short hours – not being allowed to work a minute over the allotted twelve hours and sometimes less. There were a lot of obstacles and challenges that prepare us now for anything that comes up. You can never really say: oh this was the craziest situation, and now we know everything, because you are constantly learning. But this was a giant step in our learning process.
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.