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An Interview with Sarah Jayne and Ivan Malekin, Directors of Machination

by Mike Haberfelner

May 2022

Films directed by Sarah Jayne on (re)Search my Trash

Films directed by Ivan Malekin on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie Machination - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Ivan Malekin: Machination explores the unraveling of an anxious woman named Maria who is suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia. Her suppressed past trauma resurfaces after being suddenly thrown into a global health crisis, and we watch as she tries to cope with her worsening mental state.

 

The pandemic, and all the restrictions and lockdowns that came with it - to what extent has that informed your movie, and did you have the idea for Machination prior to the pandemic or is the movie a result of it?

 

Sarah Jayne: The initial concept for Machination was born in early 2020, when we were shooting our cat documentary ... So it's a result of the pandemic due to all the insane media propaganda we were unwillingly subjected to in Malta on a day to day basis. This is including all the conspiracy theories on social media posts about the pandemic at the time like 5G causing Covid. Over time, as we developed the story and met with our lead actor Steffi Thake, her character deepened, making Maria more of a victim of her past trauma and not just another person swept up in the craziness that comes with going down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and the pandemic.

 

(Other) sources of inspiration when writing Machination, and is any of it based on personal experiences?

 

SJ: We can all relate on some level to Maria's plight. I mean, we have all lived through the pandemic the last couple of years. So what we were experiencing first hand, what we were seeing online, hearing from others and the media, it's all in there. Plus one of our parents is a very paranoid individual, so Maria started that way, but she deepened and developed in other ways, and Maria became less driven by conspiracy theories. Before Ivan even wrote the concept for Machination a friend suggested we watch Clean, Shaven as a reference to mental illness portrayed correctly, and there are elements from that film (which we highly recommend) which we kept in the back of our minds. Particularly the use of sound to show the character’s distress and to help the audience get into the mind of a person suffering with mental illness.

 

Machination is I believe your first horror movie - so is that a genre you're at all fond of, and some of your genre favourites?

 

IM: Some critics will argue Machination is not a horror, yet others agree the film is horror drawn from real life as the pandemic was, and still is, scary to many people. We have made a couple of short horror films previously, Midnight and Sibling respectively, but yes, this is our first feature in the horror genre.

 

We are fans of sophisticated and meaningful horror films like Get Out and It Follows which use the genre to draw attention to current social issues, or films like The Witch which is so full of atmosphere and suspense it leaves your breathless.

 

What can you tell us about your movie's approach to the horror genre?

 

IM: The horror stems from Maria’s mind, so we tried to take the viewer inside her disconcerting world. We used low camera angles, Dutch tilts, odd edit choices and framing that jumped back and forth, all in an attempt to disorient the audience and give them a sense of unease and dread.

 

Sound design by Gerard Mack played a huge role too in building the foreboding atmosphere. The snatches of voices Maria hears, the conversations that fade in and out, the build-up to an onslaught of noise and terror, plus the jarring and staccato music; it all played a critical role in cementing the horror of Maria’s every day existence.

 

Sarah Jayne is also writing a horror novel, she loves gothic literature and dark themes and also Hitchcock mind benders, so that is probably where some of the off-kilter elements that crept into Machination came from too.

 

So we approached the horror genre not with an idea to jump scare the audience or offer cheap thrills, but with the idea to build a sense of relentless tension and for the audience to live inside Maria’s unraveling mind: a real life experience of horror.

 

Do talk about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand!

 

SJ: As directors we approached the story with a sense of balance in mind; we have all lived through the pandemic and different people experienced different things, so we didn’t want to say only our point of view is valid. We wanted the audience to be able to take something away from Machination no matter your views on the pandemic.

 

To achieve this, we focused on the internal struggles Maria is facing – even working with a psychologist to determine what Maria may be suffering from. Our approach as directors was not to just make another pandemic film, but to make something that is informative, relatable, and offers multiple layers. There were a number of ways this was achieved – through Maria’s past and how her trajectory unfolded, and also in the visuals – the shots we used, the editing choices, the art department look.

 

We also use improvisation in our work. We only write story outlines then work closely with actors in rehearsal to explore the character in depth and add additional layers. When we film, we have an idea where we want each scene to go, but how we get there is up to the actor. We also encourage actors to respond naturally to whatever is happening around them, and for us, this leads to the most authentic character and story.

 

You've already made a bunch of movies together in the past - but what was your collaboration on this particular film like?

 

IM: Unlike our previous film In Corpore, Sarah Jayne took on a much larger role within the art department for this one, designing the colour palette of the film and making all the costume choices. While I worked as the cinematographer for Machination, my first time helming the camera department on a feature.

 

So we took more responsibility personally on Machination – something that was forced on us due to the pandemic and restriction on how many people could gather in a group in Malta when we shot the film. For a lot of Machination, the crew was only three people; Sarah, myself, and a production assistant/allrounder to help out. But now that we have done this, we actually enjoyed keeping things so ultra small, taking on the extra roles, and are looking to do it again.

 

What can you tell us about Machination's lead Steffi Thake, and what was working with her, as mostly the only actor on the screen, like?

 

SJ: Steffi is an underrated superstar who should be cast in more leading roles. She was our first choice for the role of neurotic Maria, after seeing her in the short film Camilla. Had Steffi declined we would have had to postpone our idea until we found an actor who could bring what we wanted to the table. Despite acting from a young age and having a solid theater background in Malta, Steffi hadn’t worked with improv – it was her first time. It was easy to work with Steffi - she was very open to our vision and helping us bring Machination to life, and of course we spent a lot of time working closely with Steffi to find out who Maria is, and how her story would unfold. We couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role – Steffi brought not only a personal understanding to the character, but she could empathize with Maria and see her like no one else.

 

Do talk about the rest of Machination's cast, and why exactly these people?

 

SJ: The smaller roles of the landlord played by Andrew Bonello, and Maria’s boss played by Sean James Sutton, were cast because we knew they were roles suited to the people playing them. We knew both Andrew and Sean from Malta’s short film scene and we made the offer as we always wanted to work with them.

 

Rambert Attard, who played Maria’s brother Yorgen, was a different story. He answered our casting call for actors, and after meeting him and chatting about Yorgan’s character in the film, we knew that Rambert has a clear idea of the character’s motivation, his sensibilities and his cunning. Rambert, like Steffi, has an extensive theater background in Malta and has recently starred in a few films. He was a joy to work with, very professional and understanding of his character, even his darker secrets.

 

A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

SJ: We were a tiny crew, less than 6 people most days and it was a really grass-roots shoot. This was in part due to Covid restrictions as stated earlier, but in all honesty we like keeping things small and on a micro-budget. After going through this process more than once, no matter how grueling and limited in resources like funds and visual reach your production may be, or feel, you get accustomed to working this way.

 

This was the case with Machination. There were no egos, the crew and even the actors worked in unison to get what we needed done. The crew was like an octopus, one body and multiple arms - everyone helped everyone, directors were ironing, the DOP was taping windows black, assistants were having a say about costume. The on set atmosphere was collaborative – a team effort, and it’s rare to find that on a movie set that is not pure indie.

 

Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of Machination?

 

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SJ: From the reviews we are receiving we can conclude that Machination is really making the audience think. The subject matter aside, it’s evident to audiences that Machination is not a clear cut pandemic film – it’s more, it’s a multi-layered look at a women’s breakdown. The different viewpoints have been interesting, mostly about Maria’s trauma, some have picked up the gist of it, some are not too aware of the full extent of her psychosis. We don’t want to say too much and dictate the audience's train of thought - everyone has different life experiences and health experiences, both mentally and psychically, and everyone will have a different viewpoint. It’s up to audiences to take what they will from Machination and our view on the pandemic and Maria’s mental state.

 

The $64-question of course, where can Machination be seen?

 

SJ: That will cost you! But less than $64 dollars, lucky enough. Machination is now streaming on Vimeo On Demand for less than the price of a cinema ticket, plus you get some exclusive special bonuses: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/machination

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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