Your new movie Ten - in a
few words, what is it about?
often like to simply describe it as a weirdo art film pretending to be a
order to be a great actor, you need to become what you're pretending to
be. It is not something that just vanishes when someone calls
"cut!" But this isn’t just a part of filmmaking, we are all
always acting. We are writing our parts and deciding who we should become
every single day. Is any of it real?
is an exploration of this idea within the context of a film following a
somewhat traditional thriller structure. The characters are performing
their characters. There are arbitrary alliances and arbitrary beliefs.
It's an unusual, metaphorical movie, with unusual actions, behaviors, and
ideas. It’s not meant to be a film with literal characters living in a
is a surrealistic, post-exploitation exploration of identity
starring ten women. It examines the arbitrary fluidity of identity and the
way in which we as observers contextualize and stereotype women based on
superficial characteristics including their appearance and demeanor. The
narrative is structured to parallel the commentary on characterization
with breakneck genre, style, and tone shifts, repeatedly seeking to
recontextualize all that has been previously been presented.
is now out on DVD and VOD via BrinkVision:
As far as I know, you made a short of the same name with roughly
the same plot only a couple of years ago - so how do the two films
compare, and what inspired you to expand the short to feature length?
started off as a trailer for a competition held by our local independent
Our friend Sarah Wait Zaranek saw the call for entries and asked if we had
any interest in doing something for it with her. The structure of the Smackdown
which is a fun annual event, is that everyone is assigned the same film
title, which happened to be
Ten, and selects a series of characteristics
from pulldown menus. The assignment is to then make a fake film trailer
using all of those items. We chose to make a thriller set in a castle with
a ghost hunter and a slap in it. We then set off to writing the script for
the trailer. We decided to have ten characters, all women, and a series of
ten scenes, each mentioning numbers from one to ten. Sarah was really
interested in using pig imagery and we came up with the idea of a killer
called The Butcher killing off the characters and putting them in pig
masks to strip them of their identities once they died. The trailers were
screened at the Brattle, which was a lot of fun, and we ended up getting
selected as the
Curator's Choice (http://blog.michaeljepstein.com/2012/07/ten-movie-trailer-for-brattle-theatre.html).
We had a lot of fun doing it, but kind of set the whole thing aside and
didn't plan to do anything else with it.
the course of the next month or so, some of the people involved in the
trailer hinted at the idea of turning it into a real movie, so we started
thinking about it and decided that if we were able to fund it partially on
we would give it a go. We did the Kickstarter campaign in August, started
writing in September, doing in pre-production in October-November and then
shot it December 2012 (http://blog.michaeljepstein.com/search/label/tenprincipalphotog).
It was definitely a whirlwind!
were your sources of inspiration when dreaming up Ten?
really wanted to expand typical characterization themes of using shortcuts
and stereotypes to touch on the broader narrative of the film. Because the
film is about the arbitrary meaninglessness of identity, we wanted to
recontextualize the film itself repeatedly by shifting tone and genre. So,
we incorporated ideas from many of our favorite types of films and our
favorite filmmakers. The movie opens with what we would consider an homage
to Friday the 13th-style slasher chases, but with a little bit of an
off-pacing. Off-pacing was one of the tricks we used throughout to hint
that genres were thin gilds.
most obvious source of inspiration is the And Then There Were None /
Little Indians mystery trope setup, which we hoped would lead people to
expect that the movie had a whodunit twist. It’s such a common trope and
story setup that many people probably don’t even realize that it most
markedly comes from the Agatha Christie story. We start there and spend
just long enough to make people think that’s what we’re doing before
we jump off into another realm. Using that trope as a setup shortcut, we
could easily establish all of our ideas and set up expectations in a
certain way. We also really love the 1945 version of
And Then There Were None.
that, we wanted to capture the feel of our favorite late-60s to early-80s
low-budget films. We tried to color and wardrobe and have characters
interact to fit into that era’s B-movie aesthetic. We thought that
particular feel and tone fit best with the genre shifts as well. Without
spoiling anything, the early 1970s time period was ideal for the story we
wanted to tell about the arbitrariness of persona, nationality,
because the movie is really about how we all wear performative identities,
we wanted to stage as much of it as possible like theater. We use a lot of
long wide shots and very rarely move the camera more than 90 degrees in a
scene. It was an unusual and somewhat restrictive way of thinking about
cinematography, but we thought other films like Equus and Rope had nailed
a theatrical aesthetic without losing their way with the content, so we
gave it a go.
then for our story, we wanted to make everything about the characters and
the film itself as symmetric as we could. We wanted the characters to be
unsure of who they were just as the film’s narrative form is unsure of
what it is.
can you tell us about your co-writers Sarah Wait Zaranek and Jade Sylvan,
and what was your collaboration like?
had actually originally approached us about the trailer idea, so she was
really the one who set this whole thing into motion. She originally
developed the pig theme and some of the other ideas in the trailer. For
the feature screenplay, she worked through a lot of script and story
revision after Michael wrote a first draft and worked with Sophia to focus
the story and ensure that the off-screen events could be happening while
on-screen events were going on. We brought in Jade at the end to work on
character dialogue. Jade was already slated to be in the film and, as Jade
had some of the writing experience we lacked, we relied on Jade to help
work from the original draft dialogue to make each of the characters
better talk with a distinct voice and tone.
What can you tell us about your directorial approach to
your story at hand?
we were shooting a very long script in a very short time (the whole movie
was shot in 10 days), we had very extensive interactions with the actors
in advance. We met with each performer several times, discussed how we
wanted them to handle each scene, and then sent them off to rehearse
before meeting with them again. There is a lot of detail in how the
performances change from scene to scene. We have an extensive scene in the
beginning where all of the characters first meet, and we purposely forced
a sort of awkwardness with the dialogue, cinematography, and editing. We
wanted to convey a dishonesty and artificiality in what the characters
are. They are not committed to their identities at that point. As the film
progresses, we pushed gradually toward a more real, comfortable
performance and dialogue style as much as possible.
it was a very difficult set of demands on the actors. They were not just
portraying a character, but actually portraying a character portraying a
character, and depending on the character, getting more or less committed
to it as time goes by. It means varying the apparent skill with which the
acting is delivered. We also shot out of order, which made that extremely
difficult to track and manage.
we worked out performance intentions with each individual, we held a half
dozen or so full readthroughs and rehearsals with most or all of the cast.
By the time we got to location, we were doing very little to adjust
performance. The actors knew what they were doing, and despite shooting
20-hour days, they would spend every minute they weren’t on screen
rehearsing and blocking their upcoming scenes.
From what I know,
Ten is the first movie you
shared directorial duties on - so what was your collaboration like, and along
what lines did you share responsibilities?
Sophia acted in the film, Michael did more of the organizational direction
on location so that there was no worry about juggling performance and
direction. We did everything together prior to the actual shoot portion of
the film. Sophia was also very focused on shot composition and trying to
make sure no superfluous things were ever cluttering up a shot.
terms of general collaboration, we are always together and always working,
with all significant creative decisions made together. Sophia often ends
up doing more pre-production, and Michael more post, but all decisions
about the storylines, look and feel of the films, and other content and
conceptual planning, are all done totally collaboratively.
Sophia, you also
play one of the leads in Ten - so what did you draw
upon to bring your character to life, and was the role written with you in
mind from the get-go?
several of the roles were written to the performer (Jade Sylvan -
- as the Renegade, Karin Webb - http://www.unamerikassweetheart.com
- as the Medium, Rachel Leah - http://www.rachelblumenthal.net
- as the Historian), and many of the other roles were adjusted as we cast to
fit the actors. So, yes the folk singer was written for me. Fun fact:
Michael and I actually met because we would both perform at the same open
mic at a folk club. My first guitar was even in the film! My first few
years in Boston were spent trying to perform solo, singer-songwriter style
until I realized that I was more suited to being in loud rock bands.
I had some experience there. I also have been in a ton of music videos, so
the scene during the party was very familiar to shoot. That scene was also
an homage to a lot of old movies (like And Then There Were None) that
always seem to have someone playing a sort of fourth-wall breaking song at
a piano. To prepare, I listened to Joan Baez and watched videos of Joni
Mitchell talking, but I don’t think any of that rubbed off on me.
What can you tell us about the rest of
your cast, and why exactly these people?
(historian) were all on board from the trailer shoot. Jade is a writer and
spoken word artist among other things, Karin is one of the most amazing
and electric performance artists I have ever seen, and Rachel is a
science/food writer and musician, so they all had plenty to draw on for
their roles. Another bandmate of ours, Susannah Plaster - https://susannahkplaster.wordpress.com
expressed interest in the doctor role and we cast her right away. We had
worked with Porcelain
Dalya - http://porcelaindalya.com
- many other times on music videos, so we knew she would be perfect for the
co-ed. Leah Principe (model) was suggested by a friend of a friend and she just
blew us away. The Mollys (zealot [Carlisle], real-estate investor [DeVon]) and Kerri
Lynch (actress) all came from doing a round of open casting, and we really
lucked out on all of them, as by the time we were casting those roles,
they were more solidified than some of the ones that we were able to write
more to the people we had cast.
really felt lucky, as everyone in the cast did such an amazing job at
every stage of production. It was a complete joy working with and creating
with each of them. We also all lived together for a week, worked 20 hours
a day, and we’re all still friends!
also been posting current
interviews with our cast (http://blog.michaeljepstein.com/search/label/TEN%20interviews)
to check in with them.
terms of casting women, there are so many movies in which there are
ensemble casts of men or ensemble casts with a sort of token women or two,
but there are almost no movies with ensemble casts of women, unless the
women are doing "womany" things. So, a movie like Bridesmaids
might be a cast primarily composed of women, but it's not really about
women as regular humans, it's about women in the context of a women-only
event. We've actually searched and searched to find films that have
all-female casts that are not just about the "girls getting
together" and have come up almost totally empty. The Women (both
versions) might qualify. According to this interview, the modern version
took 14 years to find financing: http://www.makers.com/moments/all-female-cast
IMDb, very few movies are tagged as "all female cast" as well:
was to create a cast of women participating in action that
really has nothing to do with being a woman (or being women defined by
their relationships with men). In fact, with the exception of one
character, the script would hardly need rewriting if it were all men. That
doesn't mean that an all-male cast would result in the same movie, but
rather that the women in the film are characters first and women second in
some sense. The movie is not really about ten women, so much as it is
about ten characters who happen to be women. And with the exception of
that one intentional character, there are no conversations about men,
women's issues, gender, etc.
enough, we fail some variants of the Bechdel Test on a technicality
because none of the characters have names.
I think the
location is one of the key factors of Ten - so do talk about it
for a bit, and what was it like filming there?
went a little insane finding and getting access to the location. A lot of
older houses are fully renovated with stainless-steel everything and white
carpets, and modern tiles. So, she got really excited to find Beach
in Barrington RI. It took a little bit of negotiation to get permission to
film there, but the location really is a main character in the film. We
lived and shot there for 8 days, mostly shooting overnights, starting
around noon and wrapping each day around 8 AM. We all went a little insane
because of that schedule. The house also had neat, hidden scary elements.
There was a creepy broken dollhouse in the basement and a child’s
handprint on a back staircase. The entire back of the house was the
“servant's quarters” and was a little plainer and eerier than the rest
of the house.
all somehow survived!
What can you
tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?
was wonderful being on location at the Beach Mansion. There were seventeen
of us living there and working those 20-hour days. On set, everyone was so
supportive of each other. We ate all of our meals together when possible,
and everyone took turns cooking and cleaning up. Every morning, when we
wrapped for the day, everyone would convene in the kitchen for a hot toddy
to decompress, even though we had to be up in another four hours. It
really was a bonding experience like no other. We actually miss it quite a
also made a behind-the-scenes feature called A Trip to Spektor
Island, showing what it was like to shoot the film. We hope to release
that sometime soon.
few words about critical and audience reception of your movie?
had a better response than we ever could have hoped for for our first
feature. We screened at ten festivals, had an interview in Fangoria, and
got distribution via BrinkVision. Audience-wise, we’ve done best with
people who have a similar love of macabre 70s films, and people willing to
go on the breakneck genre-shifting journey of the movie.
also fascinating to make something that is so strange and off-kilter, and
then to see if people get it. When we get negative reviews, they are most
often because the reviewers are watching the movie expecting a
horror/mystery with a literal narrative and with literal acting, and they
are missing the actual point of the movie.
we didn’t make it clear enough, but also, people are tending to watch
all movies without looking for a thesis and without examining the
underlying ideas, which we find disappointing. If you’ve got nothing to
say with your film, why bother making it? We actually ended up writing in
a few moments that explain what the movie is about because we got too
scared that people wouldn’t get it at all.
also interesting to get unsolicited feedback telling us that the twist was
too hard to figure out because we didn’t hint at it, or that the editing
wasn’t right in the opening meeting scene, etc. It’s fun to hear
people picking up and being bothered by those intentional choices, as they
are intended to feel wrong in the traditional film structure sense! The
point of the movie isn’t figuring out the twist. The point is that
we’ve recontextualized the whole movie in an instant. People are not
necessarily used to that sort of experience, which felt like all the more
reason for us to experiment with it. And we’re quite happy with how that
experience has varied for viewers, regardless of whether they like it.
future projects you'd like to share?
second feature, a cerebral sci-fi film called Magnetic (http://magneticthemovie.com)
is out on the festival circuit now. It stars only one actor, Allix
who plays a failing artist who moves back to their hometown only to get a
really weird, depressing job underneath a sheep farm, and soon realizes
that they are caught in a time-loop that ends each week with the Earth’s
destruction. It’s our go at existentialist sci-fi and we’ve moved from
pigs to sheep with it.
What got you into
filmmaking to begin with, and did you receive any formal training on the
of us has received any formal film training. In preparation for
found it very useful to watch movies and then immediately watch them again
with the directors’ commentaries. There were often interesting
production stories that informed how we handled things. We watched all of
Lloyd Kaufman’s Make Your Own Damn Movie, read dozens of books on
filmmaking, and just studied every technical tutorial we could. We were
most focused on capturing the spirit of the experience, while having just
enough technical knowledge to get by.
What can you tell us about your filmwork prior
had also done a ton of music videos at that point, as well as a few
shorts. We probably weren’t quite ready to jump into features, but when
are you ever? We got into doing music videos because we played in bands,
and after working on a few videos with other directors, we decided it
would be much more cost-efficient to learn how to do it ourselves. After
Ten, we’ve discovered that our true love is making features (we
immediately started work on Magnetic) and we’re planning our third (and
fourth and fifth) now.
How did the two of you first meet up even, and were you
first involved privately or professionally?
met as singer-songwriters at an open mic at Club
that we attended religiously. That soon morphed into playing in bands
together, and a few years later, to marriage. We’ve been married 8 years
now and each year brings on bigger and more insane creative projects for
us. We love working together, and we are glad we were able to include our
personal relationship in that because no one else could put up with us
working as many hours as we do.
also both been involved in quite a number of music projects over the years
- so do talk about those for a bit, and your preferred musical styles and
Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling
Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (http://donotforsake.com)
is no-wave, post-punk, art-rock moody and minimalist. Sophia yells a lot
and plays drums, Michael plays bass. The band is deeply inspired by the TV
show The Prisoner - we even remade the opening credits: https://youtu.be/GbUhmwSObto
Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library (http://mjeml.com)
is a large ensemble indie-rock band.
are our two main projects, but we also both play in a children’s music
project called Space
- we’re from space!) and Darling
Pet Munkee (http://darlingpetmunkee.com
- garage-rock songs about the items sold in the backs of comic books).
also plays bass in Drab (http://www.ilovedrab.com).
Michael was formerly also playing a lot with The
Motion Sick (http://themotionsick.com
- indie-rock) and Neutral
Uke Hotel (http://www.neutralukehotel.com/
- a ukulele-driven Neutral Milk Hotel sing-a-long band).
Filmmakers, musicians, actors, whoever else
who inspire you?
are constant consumers of film, music, and other performance, and we find
ourselves absorbing elements of all of the wonderful things we see. It’s
great being part of the diverse and rich Boston arts scene. We not only
have great film festivals like the Boston Underground Film Festival, but
we have amazing bands, an incredible burlesque scene, and all kinds of
mixing of those worlds to create unique work. Our greatest inspiration
probably comes from all of those people in our proximity.
also find inspiration in the fiercely independent spirit of uncompromising
modern filmmakers like David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Miranda July, and Shane
Your favourite movies?
are so many great films, but to give a sense, a mix of our favorites
across time include: The Abominable Dr.
Phibes, most Kubrick, most
Hitchcock, lots of Roger Corman [Roger
Corman bio - click here], Primer,
Upstream Color, Casablanca,
Metropolis, City of Lost Children, The Duke of Burgundy,
Mad Max: Fury
Road (can’t stop talking about it!), Only Lovers Left Alive, anything
based on a Philip K. Dick story, any non-CGI-driven post-apocalyptic film,
and of course, 70s vampire erotica. We love movies that build new worlds
to explore, and let us take a look at humanity from a fantastic
and of course, films you really deplore?
they are exceptionally good or explore something really unique, it’s
really rare that we’re into dramas - what is the point in watching a
movie that is like real life?
Also, Michael really, really hated Gravity.
movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?
you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?
for the interview!