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An Interview with Jac Avila, Director of Dead But Dreaming

by Mike Haberfelner

February 2012

Jac Avila on (re)Search my Trash


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You are very hesitant to give away too much about your upcoming film Dead But Dreaming - so, what can you tell us about it yet?


I see Dead But Dreaming as an Aristotelian epic. A low budget epic, but an epic nevertheless. Yes, Iím hesitant at this point in the production to go into details, but what I can say is that the film follows the conflictive story of a few intriguing characters through the ages. Itís a fantasy/horror film about some people that drink blood to survive and live a long, very, very long time if theyíre not killed, that is. Itís something like Jean Rollin meets Hammer Films meets True Blood, with lots more blood, sex, torture, violence and nudity.


There you have it, the big revelation. Dead But Dreaming is a Vampyre movie epic.


What were some of your inspirations for Dead But Dreaming, and how did the project get off the ground?


I had the original idea for this movie a very long time ago. I wrote a script tailored to Carmen Paintoux, the lead actress in Martyr, and Veronica, the leading lady in SirwiŮakuy.


I did a couple of rehearsal scenes with them and they were awesome, but I didnít have the funds back then, and the technology was not where it is today, that was in the 90ís, thus the story was shelved for all this time. I tried to revive it a few times but I kept running into mental, creative and financial blocks. As time went by it was fairly obvious to me that the story could no longer be made as originally concieved. Carmen and Veronica were no longer in their late teens, early twentiesÖ So, I had to change the story, keeping the spirit, but almost everything else had to go. Which was very difficult, I was in love with the original script.


After the release of Maleficarum, we found ourselves with some extra funds for production and, in addition, an extremely nice person, who loved what we did with the inquisition film, wanted to contribute to our next production.


However, what closed the deal for this project was that Veronica, who is vital for the story, was available and willing to come all the way from France right away, so it was obvious that I was finally ready to shoot this film. Everything just fell into place.


As I understand, the film is still in production. So how far along is it, and what can you tell us about the actual shoot so far?


Weíre half way there. We shot almost half of the movie. All of the parts involving Veronica are in the can, so she went back home to France and weíre shooting the rest of the movie.


We completed some of the most difficult scenes before Veronica left and before Amy Hesketh [Amy Hesketh interview - click here] had to go to New York for a few days. One sequence involved three days of shooting at a museum where we had a public flogging and execution. Another sequence takes place in the Island of the Sun, in the middle of the Titikaka Lake. It was very hard to get to that far off location with all our cast, crew and equipment. We hired a minibus that broke down on the highway, we had to wait for a replacement. After reaching the shores of the lake, many hours later, we had to cross the Tiquina channel in a boat, then take the minibus again to Copacabana and from there we took a boat for a three hour ride to the island.


Apart from those two difficult locations and scenes, everything else is going smoothly, which doesnít mean that we donít have a lot of difficult scenes in the future.


From what I can make out from the stills available, Dead But Dreaming seems to jump around between quite a few different time periods to tell its story. Why, and how much of a challenge is that production-wise, especially on a low budget?


This is a very ambitious project. Every time I described a scene to Amy, whoís producing the film with me, I sent her into shock. And I still do. However, she takes the challenge and here we are, producing the most difficult film I ever made.


Iíd love to travel in time. If that option was at all possible I would definitely book a few trips. Since I canít do it for real, I do the next best thing; I create a past for my amusement.


To tell this story I have to go into why certain characters are the way they are and how that came to be and the only way to do that in an interesting, captivating way is to travel back in time. Iím not very fond of telling that part of the story with a narration track.


Itís a challenge, of course, especially since Iím recreating periods that are far apart both in time and space. One period of time is around 10,000 BC, in the Andes, in an area that it is believed was the site of the mysterious Atlantida in a period of time we know very little about but which is very important for my story. In this part of the movie I go into mythology, but a mythology that I create, including a couple of languages that in the story become the root of later languages.


Another period is Greece circa 57 BC, which we know a lot more about, but without travelling to Greece. Here I looked into the old Greek dramas and mythology to develop the script by taking a fragment of an old story.


From 57 BC I jump into the 1800ís, when South America was at the beginning of its wars for independence from Spain. I place the story in a historical context.


Later on I go into France in 1944, during WWII but only for a short scene involving the liberation of a French town from the Nazis and a Gestapo dungeon.


Finally I go to more contemporary times where I deal with authoritarian dictators, plots to control the economic base of some country etc, but all within the main story, the one that begins more than 10,000 years before.


The hardest part in the production is finding or making the costumes, but luckily we found that some institutions are very helpful. We even got the actual uniform of a national hero from the 1800s to dress our Governor. Along with the antique uniform we got antique weapons, more uniforms, really cool.


The locations are not hard to find, we are surrounded by them, some have easy access, some donít, but they are all available for me. One difficult part is the sound. Weíre in a big city that has the nastiest sound pollution you can find. Drivers are in love with their horns, demonstrators are in love with their fireworks, and pirate music vendors have their speakers so loud they make the city tremble. Avoiding or ignoring that awful city noise is a big task. We canít have ambiance sound of trucks and ambulances in the 1800ís.


We managed to shoot Maleficarum with less than half the budget we have for Dead But Dreaming, so we feel that we can make pull this new film with what we have. If thereís something I have it is experience in working with micro or no budgets.


To turn the last question on its head: As a director, do you feel any kind of special stimulation in filming a period piece?


I love the challenge, for one. The stories I have in mind make sense if they happen a while back. Iím more comfortable telling violent, sadistic stories when Iím removed from its reality by a few hundred years.


I also delve into fantasy, the images that old tales, history, provide to us. Itís all stimulating to me. The nasty parts of history have an appeal to me and apparently to a lot of other people who are becoming our very own, growing fan base.


What can you tell us about your overall directorial approach to Dead But Dreaming?


I have some very difficult scenes in Dead But Dreaming. I have to deal with large numbers of people in locations where I donít have 100 percent of control. So I have to work around that. A lot of the people Iím working with donít have a lot of experience, so I have to be very, very precise in what I ask them to do. I canít expect a lot of them to take the initiative, to create their characters from scratch, to bring something they can see into them. It all has to come from me.


But to counteract these shortcomings Iím working with my very talented bunch of actors and a small crew of very experienced people so I know what to expect from them and I can relax a bit.


What I donít do is ask from people what they cannot give. Iím very intuitive in that sense. I donít waste time trying to force a cube into a round hole.


Veronica Paintoux

I immensely rely on the experience and amazing talent of my leading ladies, particularly Amy who, so far, had the hardest job in this movie. The hard part for me is to make sure I go as far as possible with the scenes without pushing my leading ladies too far. They have a hard job and Iím most concerned for their wellbeing.


Amy Hesketh

Your three leading ladies, Veronica Paintoux, Amy Hesketh [Amy Hesketh interview - click here] and Mila Joya, are all no strangers to your films. What draws them back to you/draws you back to them, and what are your collaborations usually like?


With Vero, Amy and Mila thereís a lot of trust. I know how far they are willing to go and they know how much I can ask from them. I love working with them, Iím very, very comfortable and they feel comfortable as well.


And itís interesting to see how they make everyone else feel comfortable in scenes that are very hard to shoot. We had a scene in which Amy was raped by four soldiers. Only one of the actors had experience working in something like that with us, the torturer-rapist in Maleficarum. The other three were neophytes. But Amy made them feel comfortable in being absolutely horrendous to her. In the scene sheís practically naked and the soldiers take turns, encouraging each other, teasing each other, laughing, while Amy is crying her heart out, unable to fight back. It was terribly uncomfortable for me. It was certainly extremely tough for Amy, and truly awkward for the actors playing the rapist soldiers. Itís hard for an actor to play a role where he becomes the epitome of evil.


When we shot the public flogging scene Amy was naked most of the time and she was making all the extras, who had never seen anything like it, feel very, very comfortable with the situation. She makes jokes, not showing her discomfort when weíre not shooting, she manages to dispell the tension. Sheís a good sport and makes everyone else feel like itís a fun time, even if itís not for her. Itís the same with Vero or Mila, they make everyone feel fine when the situation is actually very difficult for them and hard to watch.


When we were shooting at the Island of the Sun there were tons of tourists walking around. Thereís a bloody scene where Vero is naked and covered in blood. But it has a twist. We were shooting that scene and many of the tourists were watching, when the twist came they broke into a big ovation and cheers, it was fun.


Obviously, what draws me back to them time and time again is their tremendous talent and their beauty and the fact that we all work together well. What draws them back to me?Ö I donít know, I must be extremely charming, but I wouldnít know.


You have also cast yourself in Dead But Dreaming right? Without giving away too much, could you talk about your role for a bit, and why you chose exactly that role for yourself?


Originally my role was tiny. I appeared at the beginning of the story, to justify the existence of Veroís character and then I would re-appear at the end. One reason was that I kind of look like the ďhistoricalĒ character I had in mind for this role and I had a very specific way I wanted him to be. But when I was reworking the script I found the character sneaking in all over the place as if he wanted to be more important, or something, soÖ there I am now, but Iím no longer that Ďhistoricalí character I was basing the role on, but someone completely different. I was even tempted to cast someone else for the part, but I didnít find anybody with my devilish charm and looks.


When I choose a role for myself I make one that I will feel fine doing. Directing and acting at the same time is complicated, so I canít give myself a role as complex as the one I played in Barbazul in which I was directed by Amy. 


In this role I play against Mila and Amy, most of the time, I start with Vero, with whom I have a short and nasty exchange but after that scene is over I donít see her anymore, in the movie, and she becomes my obsession for the ages. Most of the time Iím on screen Iím with either Mila or Amy or both and they take a lot of the attention away from me. That makes things easier and cool.


What can you tell us about the rest of your cast and crew?


I have an ensemble of actors we worked with in Maleficarum and Barbazul, and in addition I called in Jorge Ortiz, a well-known Bolivian actor who never worked with me before. They all do an excellent job.

My crew is small, the same crew I worked with in Maleficarum with one addition, a make up artist. The director of Photography, Miguel, is my most important collaborator because he gives the film the look it will have. And of course I have Amy as producer and animal handler (me, not the horse) and she makes sure I direct well and that everyone is doing their job and sometimes, when Iím acting, she kind of directs the scene.


Your last two films, Martyr and Maleficarum, featured quite a bit of torture and the like. Is there anything comparable to that in Dead But Dreaming?


Well, not as much as in Maleficarum, but more than in Martyr. The torture and violent scenes in Dead But Dreaming are pretty nasty but never comparable to what I did in Maleficarum. Although they stand on their own.

Martyr was a more personal film. The torture was sought out by the main character, Camille, who made everyone around her play a role in her passion. Camilleís sought after suffering IS the story. In Maleficarum, we have an inquisitor who goes out of his way to make things bad for Mariana and Francisca, the accused witches. His methods are extreme and thatís the focus of the story.

In Dead But Dreaming the torture is not the story, itís a big part of it, but itís not the theme. Thatís one basic difference.


The $64-question of course: Is there any even tentative release date set yet?


No. We havenít considered that yet. Weíll be done shooting at the end of March, I think. If it works out like Maleficarum, itís possible that weíll have the film ready at the end of October, but weíre not expecting to release this film until early next year.


Any future projects beyond Dead But Dreaming?


Amy is preparing a couple of scripts that weíre going to shoot this year and Iím totally committed to this project which, in fact, is not just ONE movie, itís two, so far, and if Veronica returns in September, as weíre negotiating, it may be a three part story and if the story holds, there might even be a part IV Ö thatís why I started by saying Dead But Dreaming is an Aristotelian Vampyre Epic. It can go on, and on.


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Anything else you are dying to mention and have merely forgotten to ask?


Weíre on a roll, a lot is happening around our work. SirwiŮakuy was invited to participate in a festival in New York, CineKink 2012, where it was received with a lot of enthusiasm by the audience, Amy was called a ďvisual geniusĒ. In the meantime, here, in Bolivia, Maleficarum was censored by the Cinemateca. The strange thing is that a film like L.A. Zombie played there and Maleficarum was censored. We donít understand that. The stated reason for not showing Maleficarum is: ďit has explicit languageĒ - we donít know what it means. Itís a lame excuse.


The films I make are very explicit, as you know. I donít limit myself to suggest something. I show it, the way it is or was or the way I think it is. So, if Maleficarum was censored, itís easy to guess that Dead But Dreaming will be censored too. On the other hand if Dead But Dreaming is as successful as Maleficarum, then weíll have a winner.


Thanks for the interview!


Thank you for the opportunity to spread the news.


© by Mike Haberfelner

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Tales to Chill
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Tales to Chill
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a collection of short stories and mini-plays
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Tales to Chill
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On the same day
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... and for the life of it,
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A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
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directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
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