This interview was conducted at the Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors in Chicago, back on Feb. 24th, 2008, by Aaron Christensen.
Kitley’s Krypt: How did you two know each other?
Douglas Buck: I started going to film school in the early 90’s. I was an electrical engineer at the time, but I loved film. I was kind of blasé about engineering, and I was moving up in this career path of being an engineer. And at some point I realized that this isn’t really what I want to do in life. I wanted to make films. So I started to play around and take some various film courses, and screenwriting courses, and film making courses. I went to the New School For Social Research in New York. It’s a really good school, very supportive school. Like an indie school with not a lot of money, but very supportive of the filmmakers there. A lot of the staff there were supportive as well, including John Freitas. He was my professor in a number of classes, both in my first filmmaking class (where I made my first short film, After All, We’re Only Animals) and also a couple film theory classes that John taught.
I was always interested in horror and very interested in the themes and ideas. I was always instinctively aware and attracted to the themes of feminist, psychoanalytical, theoretical themes that they write about and all exist in horror films. I knew it intuitively, but I wasn’t really aware of it on a concrete sense where I was able to talk about them. One of the things that John did was introduce me to the writings of Robin Wood, Laura Mulvey, and all these great thematic writers. So John was pretty important to my development as a filmmaker and making horror films.
So that was about 14-15 years ago. Along the way, because we both love horror and we both love those things, we started becoming better friends. Then we started writing a screenplay together, and then Sisters came along. John had taught some classes on Sisters that I was in at the time. Once I heard about it, I thought it was a perfect project for us to work together on.
John Freitas: I remember the class: “Developing Ideas,” in ‘94, and one thing that was interesting was that we’d had always joked about was that Douglas had always predilection for darker stories, obviously, as in the short Prologue in Family Portraits. So one of the things that we joked about was that he gave me the story ideas but he didn’t get a response like “What are you doing?” It was more like, “How can we make it more graphic?” So it was more, “Let’s focus on this scene here,” as opposed to “What kind of crazy story is this?” So we kind of clicked on the story, and in the interests, we found out that we liked the same types of films.And, like Doug was saying before, what university can do is help inform and expand your vocabulary, to see there’s a whole bunch of other people. He mentioned Robin Wood, but there’s also Tanya Modleski, Vivian Sobchack, Creed, Clover, so many great writers that specifically talk about a lot of themes that we both found really interesting. So we just started taking a bunch of classes and stuff and got more and more into it. We did one script, then another. But it was always kind of ironic or coincidental that we did a class called “Progressive American Horror,” which I usually set in the 70s, and one of the films that we talked a lot about and lecture on is Sisters. So, we started talking about it, because we had both found it really fascinating and a great film, and then see which aspects we wanted to later explore.
KK: For those people not familiar with Family Portraits: An American Trilogy, the first short film, Cutting Moments, came out when?
KK: And you were filming when to when?
DB: Probably less than a year. The kernel for the idea, from the initial gestation to the final go-through was a year. But it was a quick process, and that was in ’96. So the whole venture was more like a four-month or five-month kind of thing. I shot it, edited it, and was done with it. Very quick and easy, even the writing of it. All three of the short films, Cutting Moments, Home, and Prologue, were all actually quite quick and easy processes. I wrote them, I storyboarded them, I shot them, and I put them together the way I had envisioned them right from the beginning. I have to say that those three films, far more than Sisters, which is a different animal altogether the way it was created and everything, but those three short films came very fast out of me. I saw them and made them, and they are pretty much exactly the way I intended them, almost one hundred percent. There’s really nothing in there that I didn’t mean to do.
KK: Cutting Moments was in ’96, what about the dates for the other two shorts?
DB: Cutting Moments was ’96. I followed it right up with Home in ’97, and then Prologue was shot in early 2002.
KK: When did Family Portraits come together as a collection?
DB: I did Cutting Moments and Home, then John and I wrote a screenplay, but nothing happened with that. It was frustrating in this period of time of trying to get projects off the ground. I was working with a couple of French producers, but nothing was happening. I was getting really frustrated and wanted to shoot something, so I came up with the story for Prologue. Again, it came out of me very quickly. It was late 2001, right after 9/11, actually. Right after that, I started writing the story, which is an interesting thing because as I was writing it, originally at the end of Prologue, I had the woman shoot the serial rapist character. Then I thought, to me, it then gives that sort of catharsis at the end, the death of the bad guy – almost an argument for capital punishment, which I don’t believe in. Also on top of it, right after 9/11, we became this very revenge-minded perception of the American way of looking at the world. Immediately I knew that I didn’t want to go that way – I wanted to leave it much more open-ended, in sort of a response to that. In a way, you could say that Prologue is my anti-war film.
So, as I was about halfway through making Prologue, I suddenly thought… I had always thought that Cutting Moments and Home as sort of companion pieces that fit together very well. But because of these thoughts about violence that I was thinking about when I was making Prologue, I realized that this was more like a later looking back/reflection upon those two short films, which really are about violence. Cutting Moments is about a very physically assaultive look at violence, while Home is about everything around the violence. Then I started thinking that Prologue is like the aftermath of the violence – about what happens afterwards, and picking up the pieces. So I thought that maybe they could fit together. I wasn’t sure if it would work. Prologue is somewhat of a different style. Five years had gone by, and I was a different filmmaker [as a result of] the years that had gone by. So, I edited them together. I have to say that I’m never sure that they completely worked together, because of the difference of Prologue so much. But I thought it might work. Then I started screening them at festivals and received interest in them.
KK: Let’s talk about those festivals, because Cutting Moments made a huge splash wherever it went. Was there any feeling of intimidation that you had to follow this up, like you have to go bigger or bolder or something since you made such a strong statement with Cutting Moments?
DB: No, it didn’t intimate me. But it did have an effect at a certain point. I know when I was making Home, in the final scene where he had slaughtered his wife and daughter, where he walks past the kitchen and you never actually see them, just a blurry shot or image of them in the background. I had actually shot close-up images of the woman with her tongue cut off. We actually went into the kitchen and showed various graphic images of the fingers cut off, the ears, and such. And they looked great. But something in me… I always knew that the reason I was doing that was to appease the people who were going to expect that from Cutting Moments. But it felt wrong for this story. Because it’s literally about this guy who can’t see anything realistically and the way things really are. Which is why when he stands outside the room, he never looks in at them, and we see them kind of blurry, like sort of replicating the way he would see them. He never really sees what he’s done. He has this made-up perception of what he’s done.
JF: You get trapped in this sort trying to do it bigger; where each film you have to do it bigger, and it becomes almost imprisoning, as opposed to something that you’re exploring.
DB: I knew that fans where going to be disappointed by taking those images out. But I had to make that choice, to do what was more important to me. And what was more important was being honest with the story.
KK: I do think it’s truer to the film. With regard to the effects, you have Tom Savini listed as a makeup advisor on Cutting Moments. What was his role in that respect?
DB: Basically Tom agreed to do it and brought his guys on board, Tom Vukmanic and Brett Moore, and they really did all the work. And they did an amazing job. They’ve both kind of fallen out of the makeup effects field, which is too bad because I’d love to bring them on again, because they went way above the call of duty.
But Tom’s involvement was that we went down to his shop in Pittsburgh. I had brought my lead actress Nica Ray. We went through a lot of stuff, like cutting and mock-ups; we tested out the blood tubing on the garden shears and did a lot of the tests. And Tom oversaw it and gave some advice, but he pretty much let his guys do it. So when it came time to shoot it in Long Island, his guys came to do it, but he didn’t. But it worked out great.
KK: They are really impressive makeup effects.
DB: I always say that the two major successes of Cutting Moments is the performance of Nica Ray, and how great the effects look. That’s what it comes down to. Those two things are amazing in the film.
KK: There are common themes in all three shorts, which is why I think they do work together, but there also seems to be a theme of self-imposed punishment. In Cutting Moments, it’s very clear, with the incidents of self-mutilation. In Home, the main character basically creates his own hell based on the trauma of his childhood, and then destroys it again. And I think the ending of Prologue is astonishing, with the one character’s self-imposed, private hell. It’s wonderful. Do you find that somehow more horrifying, more powerful, the idea of a self-imposed punishment as oppose to the “final girl” killing the villain?
DB: For me, in particular with Family Portraits, I think it’s about these characters’ desperate attempt to connect. To connect to others, to connect to the world, and their inability to do so causing these sorts of outbursts, which then creates guilt and all these other things, then a self-imposed type of pain and punishment. I think that’s very interesting.
KK: Do you feel like your characters are reflecting the audiences in that they’ve become kind of dulled – perhaps horror audiences in particular – that we have become so dulled to the images that we see that it takes something this strong?
DB: The reason I called it A Trilogy of America is because we’ve all become desensitized and so dulled to everything around us because of this constant influx of imagery that we’re experiencing all the time. The distinction between reality, what’s real and what isn’t real, is completely blurred. I think it’s kind of frightening. The kids are not taught to differentiate between what is a violent image that they’re supposed to recognize as false and sort of even celebrate – and I don’t think there is anything wrong with celebrating it as a way of dealing with it – and what is actually a real, violent and terrible image, one filled with people really suffering and real pain. It’s really a strange time. And I think people are disconnected. I think that’s why you see more and more [violent] incidents at colleges occurring. Because of people’s desperate attempt to connect.
JF: There’s a disassociating. There’s a lot of stuff going on. I would argue that there is a “final girl” in Prologue. She is a final girl at the end, but she’s transcending the traditional sense of what that is. She’s gone beyond the violence because she’s carrying it, literally and physically, and she’s able to process it. And you even have hints of hopefulness at the end with the little girl that comes by.
But also it doesn’t come out of nowhere. I think in both Home and Prologue, and of course in Cutting Moments, you certainly feel an almost active environmental influence. It’s very literal in Home. You have the father and the sequencing there. So it doesn’t come from nowhere. Sometimes it becomes literal, when it’s connected to the father or the patriarch, but also the environment itself. America, or the suburbs, or whatever you want to call it.
DB: Which is why there are the constant scenes around the dinner table; there’s always a presence of the television and radio, and all these sort of influences in the American life that are constantly around them, but none of them bringing that sense of connectedness.
KK: Let’s switch gears a little, much like you did in going from these three independent films that you had complete creative control over…then Sisters comes along. First off, how did Sisters come to you?
DB: Larry Fessenden, is a filmmaker who made The Last Winter, Habit, Wendigo…a great filmmaker. He had a meeting with Ed Pressman, who pitched the Sisters remake to him, and Larry wasn’t interested. I spoke to Larry in a bar down in the East Village, and he mentioned it. I had known that Ed wanted to do it for a while. So Larry told me and I said I’d love to get in there and get a chance to do that remake. Larry passed on my short films, Ed really liked them, and away we went.
KK: This was while you were working on Prologue?
DB: Right before Prologue.
KK: How did you and Larry Fessenden meet?
DB: Larry and I met in Toronto, at the Fantasia Film Festival, where Home played before Habit. I always joked with him about how I basically destroyed his audience, because Home is already a slow-moving 29 minutes, then you have another two-hour slow-moving [film], Habit. So if they weren’t already bored by Home, then they couldn’t make it through the end of Habit. I destroyed his screening. (laughs) So we became friends at that time. We really hit it off, both politically and philosophically; we’re on the same page on just about everything. We’ve always been interested in working together. I got him to be in Prologue. I recently did behind-the-scenes in Iceland for his film The Last Winter for him.
Then it came time when I wanted to do a theatrical release and put together a 35mm print of everything. At that time, I only had two 16mm prints of Cutting Moments and Home and a super 16mm print of Prologue, so they weren’t even really compatible. So a lot of work needed to be done if I wanted to do a theatrical release. There were some French companies very interested, but no one was willing to finance the putting of it all together. At that point, thankfully, Larry stepped in and financed the French and New York theatrical release, which visibly raised the awareness of those films. So I’m indebted to Larry for that.
KK: We’re thrilled that it happened. Before, there was a lot of buzz about Cutting Moments within the community – Rue Morgue had it listed on their “100 Alternative Horror Films” list, – but it was hard to find. The release of Family Portraits made it easier for fans to have access to Cutting Moments.
DB: Rue Morgue has been a big supporter of my work from the beginning.
KK: So back to Sisters: Ed Pressman finally catches up with you about doing the film…
DB: It was a really quick meeting. The first meeting was before Prologue, around 2002. I went into Ed’s office and he’d already decided for me to do it since he had already seen my short films. So it was an easy pitch meeting. He just asked me which way would you want to do it. I said you could either do it the Hitchcock way or the Polanski way, and I’d be more interested going more of the Polanski, like Replusion, kind of going into the psychology of the characters – present those internal landscapes, but do it physically and literally in the film, like Polanski was doing. He said that was a good idea, and when can I start? So, after Prologue, we signed the deal. John and I started writing the script.
KK: Did you write it together, or did one take a shot and then go back and forth?
DB: In this case, John did the initial writing then it went to me, which I think worked. We originally wrote a six-page gothic treatment, which was completely different than what we ended up doing. It was something much more surreal, almost David Lynch style.
JF: We definitely wanted to try and see how far we could push it, and try different types of things.
DB: It was our first go, and we were putting our feet in the water. We had characters shifting identities, but in a very interesting way. Basically the idea was that when the character of Grace [played by Chloe Sevigny] witnesses the murder like she does, she sees it on a TV monitor, but by the end of the film, she’s not sure if she is the one in the monitor. Really playing with audience. So we sent that over to Ed Pressman and they came back with “What???” So, for a while, I thought that this wasn’t going to work. I was kind of down about it.
JF: We tried a lot of different things. We did lots of drafts, and lots of different types of scenes. We had a carnival scene that I always loved, but it was incredibly long. It was a twenty-some-odd page scene…that was unheard of.
DB: Yeah, as production got closer and closer, all that got cut…cut…cut…cut, to the point now where now that scene no longer exists, except on some paper somewhere.
JF: It’s in my mind somewhere. But there were multiple characters in those early drafts. There were the kids, and the mother was a major character in a bunch of the drafts. But we tried a bunch of different things. I kept saying, “We’ll figure it out. We’ll find a way.”
DB: Finally they said, “How about just following the structure of the original film, and seeing if you can do something with that.” So that’s what we finally did. But we went sort of our own way. It’s funny because some of the people that have seen it complain that we made it so much like the other one.
JF: And others complain, “How come it’s so different?” But that’s just how reviewers go.
DB: If there’s one thing about Sisters that I regret, it’s what we’ve been talking about, that we had a lot more elements in our original drafts that gave a little more psychological understanding of some of the characters. I think now we have hints in there.
JF: It’s tight. We probably would have wanted to explore that more.
DB: Not probably…we would have. There just wasn’t time. Things just had to be cut.
KK: Now, was that the studio or producer that imposed that idea, that “this is how the film needs to be,” as opposed to the kind of creative freedom you had in the past?
DB: We were pretty free, with certain constraints.
JF: But it still couldn’t be like when he did Home or Prologue or Cutting Moments where we had absolute freedom to go any way we wanted. But there’s always economics and other types of things that are always in consideration.
DB: At a certain point, I would say the economics became more and more difficult, which, from my understanding of independent film, it’s become difficult to get a shooting schedule any longer than twenty days, which is what we had. We eventually had to go back for two days for inserts and pickups. So it turned out to be twenty-two days total. But it’s a very complex film – there are scenes within scenes. So we’d have to shoot something, reset and shoot it again. Like the murder scene is shot on a video camera and also within the perspective of the film. So the reality of that made us realize very quickly that we weren’t going to be able to shoot all the stuff that we wanted. We brought John in a week before and said, “We need to cut the script from a 92-page script to an 81-page script.” We cut 11 pages about a week before production.
JF: I remember you calling me on a Thursday morning, “John, you’re going to have drop everything and come to Vancouver!” It was stressful. There were also the casting issues too.
DR: Even production was a very difficult. However, I will say that post-production was a breeze. I was definitely left to my devices in post-production. You’re always within the conceits that you have to explain all of your actions to people, which is always a drag. But as long as they made sense, everyone was okay with that. There was very little interference.
I was always bitching and moaning about any of these kinds of things that I had to explain anything to anybody. An editor came on board, Howard Smith, to be like a consult on the editing. He became sort of the go-between between the producers and myself on any of the disagreements that we might have had, editing-wise. Howard Smith was the editor on Near Dark, River’s Edge, and Glengarry Glen Ross, so I was more than pleased to have him. But he explained to me is that this is nothing. You’re dealing with just having to explain to guys that are fairly creative film guys, and it’s a limited number, like five guys and not twenty people who are not film people at all. So he told me that I should be happy about this, which kind of opened my eyes. But I still found it painful, and it still makes me want to go back to my next film being a lower budgeted film in which I can have more control and don’t have to go through all of that.
KK: Brian De Palma had such a strong stylistic stamp on his film. Did you feel that you wanted to retreat cinematically and focus more on the characters and the emotions as opposed to the cinematography?
DB: I still wanted to play around.
JF: Right, in his way that he wanted to do it. Not just try and mimic or outdo De Palma, or something like that.
KK: In your short films, you’re not a flashy filmmaker.
DB: Exactly. Which in a way, as I’m realizing now, can work against something like Sisters, which is a remake of a very flashy type of film. I think people go in with sort of expectations to see the flash, and when it’s not there, they say it’s kind of a boring version of it. They’re not seeing it as a film on its own. I think if it wasn’t a remake, in many ways, I think it probably would be appreciated more.
JF: I think it would certainly expand on the responses. You go into with such expectations, even people who haven’t seen the film kind of know or have an idea of what they think Brian De Palma’s style is, the spinning cameras, the long tracking shots, and all these bells-and-whistles kind of things. So they go into it with that kind of idea.
DB: The same thing with Home. When you go into the film, what is the baggage you’re taking with you? And how do you react to that? But at some point, you’re just making your own film. I’m not even thinking about comparisons with De Palma. I’m thinking about how I want to create this moment in this scene, how I want them to walk across the room. It no longer becomes a reflection, except just organically what I’ve taken from those films I’ve seen before that I love, that most filmmakers do. That little book of knowledge you have of what you’ve loved in other films and the references.
KK: Would you do another remake again?
DB: Yes, of course I would. It might be a stupid career movie, but I have gone and pitched for a couple of remakes of certain films, which I didn’t get. But there’s one in particular that I don’t even want to name because it’s being made right now and it breaks my heart because I think I had a great take on it.
My agent always says, “Are you sure you want to do this, since you might be known as the remake guy?” Honestly, I just want to do films that interest me and that make sense for me to do, ones that have elements that I have an interest in exploring. I don’t care. I’ll do a remake if it seems to make sense. I would never remake Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I would never go near the hollowed ground of that. Or Dawn of the Dead, anything like those kinds of films. But I’d maybe be interested in films that are flawed, or less idolized films. Like Sisters.
JF: Also ones where you find that you have a real avenue by which you can explore it in a different way or expand on it.
KK: You’re not retreading it for gore and/or for namesake.
JF: They get a bad name, and for good reason many times. Most remakes tend to be pretty empty.
DB: It’s also because of the genesis of them. A lot of remakes are producer-driven vehicles.
JF: Marketing driven. Because they have a title that makes money, so they don’t really care what goes into it.
DB: Then they try and find a director that they can attach to it, rather than starting with a director burning to do this. Which, in the case of Sisters, I really was once I heard about it. I don’t think Ed was actively pursuing getting this film made. He just always had it. Ed waited until somebody came along that really wanted to make it. Ed really is a filmmaker-driven producer. He wants to attach people that he believes in. He believes in film. I think that’s one of the things that he enjoyed about me, was my fairly extensive knowledge of the film.
KK: So what do you have coming up next?
DB: I’m working with a company now called Metaluna Pictures, a French company. I’ve just been commissioned to write a screenplay, an original idea of my own, with myself attached as writer and director. It’s an elite boarding school on a remote island, where the rest of the world has wiped out by a virus. Then the virus slowly attacks the school, killing the adults, but it doesn’t kill the children. It starts to transform them into something else. Sort of like David Cronenberg doing Lord of the Flies. It’s called The Broken Imago. We’re hoping to shoot that in Argentina. If I can write the script and everything goes well – we have half the financing in place – we’re hoping to shoot it at the end of the year, maybe early next year.
JF: I’ve got nothing specific. I have a couple of ideas for scripts I’m working on for a while, but I’m doing a lot of teaching, a lot of academic work. So I’m moving in that direction too, going back and forth. I’ve been teaching for a long time about the history of British and Italian horror, both within literature and in film, and the history in both. So, maybe in the direction of a book on that.
KK: We look forward to all of it. Thank you so much for taking time with us.
DB: No problem.
JF: Thank you.