With the release of his feature debut THE SADIST (featuring Tom Savini!) just around the corner, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with a collection of short films by the extremely talented Jeremiah Kipp. For more than a decade, Kipp has been working regularly; honing his craft on visually striking, often lurid short films while working as an assistant director on larger projects like THE BIG BAD and I SELL THE DEAD. In this article I look at three of his most recent works: 2011’s CRESTFALLEN, 2013’s BAGGAGE and 2013’s THE DAYS GOD SLEPT.
A sullen meditation on suicide, CRESTFALLEN could easily have become overwhelmingly depressing by focusing too heavily on the intense sadness that envelops its main character. Instead, the director draws our attention to intensely beautiful – if emotionally disturbing – imagery as we’re made witness to snippets of the protagonists’ life crashing down around her. As the pieces fall into place, we both gain a better understanding of what has led to this young woman choosing this desperate escape, as well as finding sympathy for her self-destruction. In the end, she chooses life. A pleasingly optimistic way to end a very impressive short film.
While running a brief six-minutes, CRESTFALLEN features an extraordinary lead performance by Deneen Melody, who bares herself both physically and emotionally to realistically bring her distraught character to life. It’s a beautiful, devastating short featuring some gorgeous cinematography (and expert editing) from Dominick Sivilli, and guided by Jeremiah Kipp’s sure hand. Outstanding work.
It was seeing CRESTFALLEN that prompted director/actor/writer Rob Dimension to approach Kipp about directing his latest darkly comical short which features a very different sort of emotionally disturbed individual. BAGGAGE melds intensely dark humor with a B&W 1950s aesthetic, and succeeds largely thanks to Dimension’s quietly restrained lead performance. He plays a sort of suburban Travis Bickle, whose psychosis seems to be rapidly rising to the surface as he goes through the motions of a typical work day – culminating in a violent confrontation with two thugs. The character’s only relief seems to come from his relationship with an unseen girlfriend, though it should come as little surprise that we discover there’s a good reason she remains unseen until the final moments.
Surprisingly, BAGGAGE actually covers some of the same thematic ground as CRESTFALLEN, though obviously comes at the material from a very different direction. Both films focus entirely on a protagonist who has been crushed by the weight of the modern world, and culminate in attempted suicide attempts. The major differences are in both the tone, and the fact that the character here is much less sympathetic – at least once we discover the secret he’s been hiding in his “baggage”. While not quite as visually stunning as CRESTFALLEN, the stark black and white photography looks excellent and there’s some excellent gore effects for those who are into that sort of thing.
THE DAYS GOD SLEPT (2013)
I won’t even try to summarize the plot of THE DAYS GOD SLEPT, which is both the most impenetrable and most fascinating of the three shorts on display. It embraces a wonderfully dreamlike atmosphere, and treads into latter-day David Lynch territory as reality and time start to get increasingly twisted. Once again we are trapped with characters who seem to have been traumatized (or deadened) by a cold and unfeeling world, but it’s also a reflection on secrets and acceptance, and somehow maintains an echo of hope despite a collection of disturbing images. Once again gorgeously photographed by Dominick Sivilli, it also has an intriguingly ethereal script by Joseph Fiorillo. A real winner, and proof of Kipp’s flexibility as a director.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jeremiah Kipp about THE SADIST, his approach to directing and his experiences making these three films.
Sweetback (SB): Thanks for taking the time to speak with Daily Grindhouse, Jeremiah.
You took an active role in writing some of your earlier shorts, but since then much of your work has been commissioned by others – and you’ve collaborated with a variety of writers. What are some of the biggest challenges in this sort of commission work? Do you ever find your personal style stifled by someone else’s vision?
Jeremiah Kipp (JK): I’ve been very fortunate to mostly work with people are collaborative and open to ideas. When you find someone you connect with, it’s a joy. Joe Fiorillo is a New York playwright who passionately wanted to bring THE DAYS GOD SLEPT to the screen, and we had such a remarkable creative exchange that we’ve continued on a series of projects, most recently just completing principal photography on THE MINIONS, another dark and disturbing tale of madness and witchcraft. We worked with the same producer both times, Lauren Rayner, who is the backbone of many of my films; it makes a huge difference having the support of someone you trust.
Rob Dimension hired me for BAGGAGE based on his enthusiasm for my other projects and was generous and supportive in every way; I liked his script very much and wanted to direct him as an actor. Once we felt we were on the same page, it was smooth sailing. You can often tell in pre-production if you’re in alignment or not, and when you aren’t it is a brutal nightmare. When that happens, you just get through it as gracefully as you can. You really ought to just walk away from a project in trouble. Mark Romanek left THE WOLF MAN remake when he felt it was going in the wrong direction; I don’t blame him. On the rare occasion, I have stayed on board a project that was cursed; sometimes the film turns out very good anyway and the audience never feels the pain behind the scenes.
SB: Of the three shorts being featured: BAGGAGE, CRESTFALLEN and THE DAYS GOD SLEPT, it’s BAGGAGE that is perhaps the most immediately palatable to genre fans, with its sad-sack protagonist and a wicked twist at the end. Did Rob Dimension approach you with the idea for the short? Was the intention to always shoot in B&W?
JK: Rob Dimension was deeply moved by the anti-suicide movie CRESTFALLEN. He grapples with depression, and that project spoke to him in an immediate way. He also wanted BAGGAGE to be aesthetically beautiful as well as macabre, completely different in tone to his previous film NO CLOWNING AROUND, which was like a gritty, wonderfully sleazy video nasty. Black and white was an early decision that allowed us to tell the story in an early 1960s retro style reminiscent of episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and the haunting score by our composer Barbara J. Weber tips its hat to Bernard Hermann’s voluptuous orchestral scores for The Master of Suspense.
SB: All three shorts feature protagonists who are in some way damaged, or have been twisted emotionally by the harsh realities of their individual worlds. Do you find yourself attracted to works featuring these sorts of complex, conflicted characters? Are these the sort of characters you’re drawn to in the films you watch?
JK: I hadn’t made the connection before, but you’re right. There’s something inherently fascinating about characters teetering on the verge of breakdown; I have tremendous empathy for them. Life can be incredibly harsh and frightening, and all three of them are grasping for some sort of solace through love. BAGGAGE is, for me, a romance in disguise, albeit a very twisted one, and that’s what holds the movie together more than the twist ending. In THE DAYS GOD SLEPT, our main character Kristy (played by Lauren Fox) says, “It’s love that I want, but it’s the pain that I trust.” In their own ways, these characters grapple with reality by pushing themselves into extreme life-threatening conditions. I remember I felt the most awake and alive just after I’d been mugged and beaten up a block from my house; there’s a heightened awareness through suffering. I wish it wasn’t so, and maybe movies are a safer way to explore this idea.
SB: CRESTFALLEN is a striking work, and relies very heavily on your visuals to communicate the story to the audience. Were many of those visual moments – and the jumping around in time – specified in Russ Penning’s screenplay? Did it require extensive story-boarding, or did you piece much of it together afterward?
JK: The collage structure was inherent in the script, where Russ Penning deliberately used a flood of memories as a way for the victim to achieve catharsis. It was based on his real life experience (we changed the protagonist’s gender for the movie), and I feel like Russ was accurately reflecting where his mind was going throughout that pain. In the edit, we were intuitive and treated the flow of images like a rich kaleidoscope. My wonderful editor and cinematographer on CRESTFALLEN and THE DAYS GOD SLEPT was Dominick Sivilli, one of my closest friends and collaborators. We didn’t shot list or storyboard anything; we’d just go into scenes, watch the actors and take our emotional cues from them.
SB: Deneen Melody gives a startling, emotionally (and physically) revealing performance in CRESTFALLEN. How important was it to cast an actress who could display that level of emotion with such limited dialogue? Was it a difficult part to cast?
JK: Deneen Melody was the first and only choice. I loved her work with super-talented genre filmmaker Anthony G. Sumner, particularly LEWIS (from the PSYCHO STREET anthology). She’s an actress who is not afraid to dig deep; utterly fearless and emotionally complex. Her performance was based on a friend of hers who committed suicide, so she looked at the project as a meaningful tribute so someone she had lost. I’d welcome the chance to work with her again; she has a gift.
SB: While I enjoyed BAGGAGE and CRESTFALLEN, I was blown away by THE DAYS GOD SLEPT. While in some ways experimental, the film still feels very approachable in no small part due to its visuals. Talk about collaborating with (cinematographer) Dominick Sivilli on both CRESTFALLEN and THE DAYS GOD SLEPT.
JK: We had a kind of architecture with THE DAYS GOD SLEPT that we gleaned from Joe Fiorillo’s powerful script. It’s a very abstract and expressionistic piece, very poetic, so we had to ground ourselves in a clear visual style. The strip club sequences were like Heaven, where we shot in cool blue light mostly on wide-angle lenses to take in the space. The red room where our main character gets gang-banged was determined as Hell, filmed on long lenses to compress and cramp the action and put us right up against the horror. And the park bench where John (Malcolm Madera) attempts to draw out the story from Kristy was Purgatory, shot on mid-range lenses, mostly the 50mm which is the closest approximation of the human eye. Now, Joe never intended it to be literally about angels and devils; the audience can interpret the movie however they like. It could be as simple as a man getting to know a woman, realizing she has a shattered past and wondering, “How much do I really want to know?” The more we learn about someone, the more mysterious they become.
SB: Both CRESTFALLEN and THE DAYS GOD SLEPT also benefit greatly from a score by the legendary Henry Manfredini. What led to him getting involved with your films, and what does his music bring to these shorts?
JK: I met Harry through the superb genre filmmaker Patrick Rea. He’s a wonderful, incredibly talented guy with a rich vocabulary of films and music, but also literature. On CRESTFALLEN, we talked as much about Beowulf as we did about Bernard Herrmann. Harry loves to talk at great length about the movie before he scores anything; on CRESTFALLEN he may have even talked through each shot and what we were trying to say with it. We both love the composer John Adams too, and have vowed to do something in that minimalist classical style sometime. “If you don’t call me to score your next feature,” he vowed, “I am going to track you down and break your legs!” He is, after all, from Chicago.
SB: You’ve worked with some iconic actors in both a directing a producing capacity; from horror icons like Michael Berryman, Angus Scrimm and Tom Savini, to Hollywood actors like John Turturro and Melissa Leo. When you first start a project is there still an intimidation factor there? Does it always take a period of adjustment moving from seeing these iconic faces on the screen to actually instructing them on a set?
JK: You can’t show fear. If they smell fear on you, they’ll eat you alive. You have to treat them as what they are: an actor doing a job, and you earn their respect as much as they earn yours. Savini and I had never met before working on THE SADIST together, but I made phone calls to people who knew him. Those who only knew him from the convention circuit said he was a cantankerous bastard, but filmmakers said he came to the set with great enthusiasm and loved playing villains. That was the Tom I worked with. He is nobody’s fool, though, and was prepared to walk all over us until we screened the footage we had shot so far. Once he saw that, he felt trust, covered himself in dirt and said, “Let’s shoot.” He even did his own stunts for us, riding on the hood of a speeding truck during the climactic sequence, and later invited me to the set of a film he was directing. He’s a lovely guy; most of them are. I just directed a great actor, Chris Sarandon, in a music video and it felt like driving a precision car; you enjoyed the journey.
I recently saw a YouTube video of Sarandon and Savini having a “rubber band war” at one of the conventions; they take their work seriously, but don’t take themselves seriously. I haven’t had a bad experience with any of the people you named, though there are some actors with substance abuse problems or who have gone batshit crazy. You hear stories about famous (or once-famous) actors who have gone off the deep end. “He came on set and started screaming at everyone because there were no seedless lemons to go with his bottled water,” or “he started licking people’s faces and couldn’t remember any of his lines” (true story). That’s why it is so important to reach out to people who might know them, so you can avoid working with someone who could seriously derail a production.
SB: Tell us a little bit about THE SADIST. What made you decide to tackle this material for your first feature?
JK: You want to climb the higher mountains of feature filmmaking, and two producers in Connecticut had the money and wanted to make a “slasher in the woods” movie. I made THE SADIST before CRESTFALLEN and the other films we’ve been talking about. We shot the film back in 2010, and it has been languishing in post-production ever since. The producers re-cut the film, so your guess is as good as mine how it turned out. We’ll hopefully find out soon since they say there’s a distribution deal brewing.
SB: For readers who are interested in checking out more information about you and your work, what’s the best way to do so?
SB: Anything else to plug?
JK: Work begets work, and BAGGAGE led me to work on a science fiction/body horror short called PAINKILLER written and produced by Jerry Janda (who was the main financier on BAGGAGE). That was made with many of the same team members, so it was a kind of reunion. THE DAYS GOD SLEPT led to me being hired to direct a documentary about the great American playwright Edward Albee, which was the greatest commission I’ve had to date. Albee, in his own way, writes distinct “horror plays” and originally he wanted to call WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF “The Exorcism” (Act 2 is still called “Witch’s Night”). Next up is an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s BERENICE for an anthology film called CREEPERS, executive produced by Mike Lyddon. Making films is the great love of my life; I’m a self-professed work junkie. My fiancée tells me I need to stop and smell the flowers more often. The imaginary dream world is addictive, and it has nothing to do with reality.
SB: Finally – and this seems particularly apropos considering your own experience – what advice would you have for young or inexperienced directors who are looking to tackle their first feature?
JK: There’s a great Nike commercial directed by Mark Romanek where Michael Jordan says he has missed more than 9,000 shots in his career, has lost almost 300 games, 26 times has been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed, and he failed over and over again in his life. “And that is why,” he says, “I succeed.”
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