Beginning in the last week of October, Audiences Everywhere will be continuing its Horrortown series of interviews with renowned horror directors in which we will discuss current and upcoming films, and also get the artists’ take on the contemporary horror.
When we decided to reboot our Horrortown interview series, I wanted to make sure we added a little flavor to the perspective within our ongoing conversation. So naturally, Rodney Ascher is a name I immediately circled in blood red. Somehow, my plans panned out as I recently had the honor of speaking with Mr. Ascher about his films Room 237 and The Nightmare, his inspirations, and his opinion about the current state of horror films. You can read the entire conversation below.
David Shreve (AE): This interview series attempts to measure modern filmmaking culture through the perspective of its best current filmmakers. You’re something of an exceptional entry here, not just in that you work in documentary film, but your recent films include a deconstruction of what many think of as the great horror film and a film which explores a real life phenomena using deconstructed horror principles (the second of which is one of the most immediately terrifying movies I’ve seen this decade). Was deconstructionalism your original ambition as a filmmaker?
Rodney Ascher: My original ambition? The first kind of filmmaking I thought I might be able to do for a living would’ve been music videos, especially semi-experimental ones. I was really into ‘120 minutes’ back in the day. My dream was to do music videos for Skinny Puppy and Sonic Youth.
But I’ve always been interested in horror and genre, and sure deconstruction too in different ways. I was drawn to anything that broke the fourth wall (going back to ‘Duck Amuck’), and I also especially always liked ‘movies about movies’ from The Stuntman through The Player and even Fade to Black or F For Fake. It was always kind of fascinating seeing something sort of give away the trick but still make it work. Penn and Teller do it in their magic shows.
In school I saw work by people like Bruce Conner or Kenneth Anger who were using film in a different way than I’d ever seen. And I’d read Film Threat magazine and get curious about underground film at the same time I was seeking unusual horror or sci-fi movies, checking off lists of rarities from ‘Re/Search: Incredibly Strange Films’. In San Francisco I was exposed to a pretty mind-blowing world of indie films at Craig Balwin’s Other Cinema.
I guess that’s a long roundabout way of saying that 237/Nightmare are culminations of a lot of interests I’ve had over the years.
AE: I’ve spoken with many people who, while watching Room 237, began to believe some of the more fringe theories presented. I’ve also spoken with many people who watched The Nightmare who were afraid of developing or re-developing sleep paralysis. Did approaching these films allow you dissonance or did you have lapses in which you were entrenched in belief?
RA: I have to be, I think. To make each film, I had to fully immerse myself in the world that these people were exploring. You have to try to be an advocate for their point of view.
AE: Do you think Room 237 speaks more to obsessive fan culture, the rabbit holes of film academics, or Kubrick’s power as a filmmaker to mystify and baffle?
RA: I couldn’t easily pick one over another. I do think, though, if you made a similar film about another filmmaker, the balance would be different. Kubrick’s reputation colors a lot of it.
A big part of the project was asking, “Who decides what something is about? Is it the creator? Is it the audience? Critics? Academics? Does any one person’s perception mean any more than someone else’s?” I can see that movies’ meanings change over the years, no matter the original intent. Starship Troopers was made in 1999 but it sure looks like its saying something about the War on Terror.
Which is not to say that Kubrick didn’t have very specific ideas in mind when making The Shining . . .
AE: So you mentioned it for a moment, but any chance you’ll use your filmmaking to help us all make sense of this election cycle?
RA: [Laughs] A lot of people are already doing that in real time. My process wouldn’t be done for two years, and by then people will be desperately trying to forget it. But I am taking particular interest in the way different people are watching it. After that first debate, I saw videos from people suspecting that Hillary was wearing a wire, that she was being coached through it. They were looking at outlines of her clothes for evidence of hidden electronics. It couldn’t help but remind me of the ways in which people I talked to were watching The Shining, sure, but it more closely evokes the Rodney King trial and the assassination of JFK.
AE: A sort of reverse engineering of reality to fit an abstract concept?
RA: Yeah, and the funny thing is it doesn’t matter if you’re watching a narrative film or something recorded at a crime scene on a bodycam – either way you’ve got this snippet of film as evidence to pour over – – -boy, we’re really getting off the topic of contemporary horror [laughs]. But . . . there’s something fascinating I saw about trials of police officers and whether they were using excessive force; when they would show the jury a video, where, for instance, someone was struggling with the cops in slow motion, the jury would think that every movement of his body was deliberate. When you watch the same video in real time, things look more spontaneous, just a matter of reflexes, and so the speed in which they showed the video could color how the jury interpreted what they were seeing.
AE: Now you also submitted Q is for Questionnaire in the ABCs of Death series. Which is a nice little narrative building to a punchline. Do you have any desire to apply some of these experiments in more strict narrative forms?
RA: The short answer is “yes, I’d love to.” My biggest obstacle is that I’m not a traditional writer but I’m trying to find the perfect thing.
AE: Based on this conversation, we can assume you’re both involved and paying attention to the current landscape of the horror genre?
RA: Yes, but not as obsessively as I was before. I got a kid!
AE: Do you have your eye on any new or up-and-coming filmmakers?
RA: Green Room was pretty outstanding so Jeremy Saulnier for sure. I’m very curious to see The Bad Batch by Ana Lily Amirpour and The Love Witch [from Anna Biller]. Robert Eggers blew me away with The Witch so I’ll be anxious to see his Nosferatu. I don’t know if Jonathan Glazer counts as a ‘new’ filmmaker, but Under the Skin was an amazing movie. Ditto with Refn but I enjoyed The Neon Demon.
AE: Do you remember the first horror film that made you say “This is the genre I love.”
RA: If Giant Monster movies count. It might have been Godzilla vs. Megalon but the first movie that really struck a chord with me in my teenage years, almost like a tuning fork, would’ve been Videodrome.
AE: Oh, that’s a good answer. That’s a question we ask everyone in this series and that’s as accurate a pairing of subject and answer we’ve had. Is there a well-known classic that you will admit you don’t understand or enjoy?
RA: Oh, I bet there is. [laughs]. I never got into The Goonies, even when I was 12. Or E.T., but those aren’t exactly horror movies.
AE: You’re a unique ‘80s rebel.
RA: I love Spielberg’s Night Gallery episodes [laughs].
AE: Let’s say we carve a horror movie Mt. Rushmore. Who are your four faces?
RA: That’s interesting. My favorite horror films aren’t necessarily from people who exclusively do horror movies. Firewalk With Me is one of the greatest horror films, but Lynch isn’t exclusively a horror filmmaker. Still, the Winkies’ scene in Mulholland is like the most perfectly distilled 5 minute horror movie. Charles Laughton for Night of the Hunter. Kubrick for The Shining, obviously, and Cronenberg’s got a couple classics but again, he does a lot of other stuff too. Is that four?
AE: That’s an interesting point. Are there any directors who haven’t done a strict horror exercise that you’d like to see give a try?
RA: I’d love to see Todd Haynes do another – Safe and Superstar are classics though they don’t often find themselves on horror top 10 lists. Paul Verhoeven? The Fourth Man might be the closest he’s gotten though it’s got a foot in ‘erotic thriller’ so I’d love to see him do one in earnest.
AE: Oh I’d love that. Now, we’re at a moment in which there’s a burst of new forms of media influencing horror—streaming devices, documentary avenues, and independent distributors as you mentioned with The Witch. At this moment of transition, is there anything new you hope comes out of this?
RA: I’d like to see more kids’ horror movies, like Something Wicked This Way Comes. To be fair, I haven’t seen Goosebumps, but it looks more like sci-fi/comedy stuff. But I’d like to see some light-PG movie that’s sort of a brainbuster – the way Land of the Lost used to trip me out as kid. Those pylons with the dimension-altering crystals. My son and I watch a lot of Adventure Time. It’s nothing explicit but it gets very scary in a fantastical, almost existential sort of way. I’d love to see that attitude live action, feature length.
AE: It is strange that no one’s ever run with that market, given the popularity of Goosebumps and other literary series.
RA: Yeah, a lot of horror movies are too skeezy to watch with your family. There’s a lot I like about that, or did when I was single [laughs]. A lot of people complain about PG horror movies as if they are censored versions of R-Rated horror movies and I guess a lot of them are, but there’s an untapped potential there too . . . Like Pete’s Dragon. That’s a good example.
AE: I haven’t seen that yet.
RA: Pete’s Dragon was great. The grown-up talk was simplified enough for kids to get, without them being completely phony, sanitized characters. It was beautifully shot, really emotional. I guess I’d like to see more horror equivalents of Pete’s Dragon too.
AE: Is there any staple in horror or a horror trope that we can do away with?
RA: I try not to complain too much but I think sometimes, characters are just cast too beautiful. Without trying to be too much of a nostalgist, there’s something about films from the ’70s with less glamorous, perfectly toned casts with totally ripped abs that I miss sometimes.
AE: Is there any event, topic, person that you want to make a film about?
RA: Sure – its a pretty long list of course. I’ve long-considered doing something about Doris Wishman, in fact I created a couple fragments but don’t really screen them much. There was a doc I wanted to do about Disco Demolition Day where we’d re-enact the whole event with thousands and thousands of extras. Comic book artists and writers, especially folks like Dave Sim and Steve Ditko whose political beliefs really began seeping into their art in complicated ways. I’m always fascinated with ways that different levels of reality and fiction can clash.
AE: What is your response to folks who continue to say “there aren’t any good horror movies any more?”
RA: They’re probably just not looking hard enough.
Here in LA we just had the Beyond Fest and there were a ton of new movies I was very curious to see. The Void, The Girl with All the Gifts, Arrival, Raw, The Bad Batch, Colossal. People are making stuff. They remastered Phantasm and made a new one simultaneously!
If you don’t live in a major city it might be harder to find it in a theater but its always been a lot of work to find the good stuff. You need to make it a little bit of a job.
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