Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Unreinable Compulsion

The Unreinable Compulsion, set for a 2013 release, is the first feature production from Reining Nails. The film is an intense drama concerning irrational, recreational violence and a much-anticipated feature debut for Reining Nails director Jason LaRay Keener following a run of peerless shorts that have wowed audiences at festivals across the States and our very own nights. We caught up with Jason to find out what's in store.

The Pictures: What made you want to make a feature? Where did the idea come from?

Jason LaRay Keener: In addition to describing the main dilemma of the film, the title itself, The Unreinable Compulsion, is self-referential. When I was 12, I saw John Carpenter's Halloween because of the enthusiastic insistance of my mother. It was the first film in which I became aware that movies are made by someone. From that moment on, I felt compelled to be a director. I'm now on the verge of turning 27, so I've been carrying this urge for 15 years. It's quite clear to me that directing a film has always been my unreinable compulsion.

Regarding the story itself, I'm both fascinated and horrified by recreational and irrational violence. It probably began innocently enough by watching the old Robert Stack–hosted Unsolved Mysteries with my grandmother throughout most of my childhood. I'm not terribly concerned about being killed in a mugging or any other type of rational violence, but what I'm quite paranoid about are those members of society who kill for pleasure and sport. I knew I wanted to explore the subject of irrational murder in a fresh way. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer came close to my personal goals, but even it ventures into horror-movie territory quite often. So I made a point to read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. What I loved about the novel was the way in which Dostoevsky used such a sensational situation, based on an actual double murder, to explore broader personal themes—his religious beliefs, his struggles with alcoholsim, and his environment in 19th century Russia. There is a wealth of themes to be found in that novel, so it's not merely a tale of murder.

I've always been most afraid of home-invasion murders, so I did research on Dennis Rader (The BTK Killer) and Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker), as opposed to Ed Gein, who's had a disproportionate amount of influence on films about serial killers. Sticking with a home-invasion premise also allowed me to maintain a closeness to Crime and Punishment.

TP: Yes, home invasions are particularly scary - I actually once almost got murdered that way myself (gang-related, to do with someone who lived across the hall, wrong place at the wrong time). How have you handled the violent aspect of the story? Would you describe it as a horror film in any sense, or, like Crime and Punishment, is the horror and violence more of a dramatic device from which to explore other territories?

JLK: That is horrific, Garry. I think home invasion is one of the key reasons that the Paranormal Activity series is so popular at the moment. Films like Jaws and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have limited effect—you can avoid the monster by staying out of the ocean or creepy secluded houses. With home invasion, the monster comes to you. What worries me are cases like Dennis Rader, where the killer actually breaks into your home while you're not there and waits for you to arrive.

Like many filmmakers, it was the horror genre that initially interested me in the medium—Halloween, Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining. Those were the movies that excited me about filmmaking. I am still very fond of those pictures and others, but I wasn't interested in making a horror film. It's too difficult to be innovative in that genre at this point. Serial killers are a social phenomenon and something worth serious observation. I wanted to approach the subject matter the same way one would approach the subject of an alcoholic or a man having an affair, so like you said, the horror and violence are a springboard to get into other topics.

I suppose the film is comparable to Lang's M, at least in that sense. Thematically, though, I think Bresson's Pickpocket is its closest relative. Bresson's influence has dominated this film from the screenwriting process to production and editing.

TP: And what about the central character - who is he, what is he about? How did you find an actor right for the part?

JLK: Dewayne is drawn from the Raskolnikov model, as well as Dostoevsky's Underground Man, in addition to some autobiographical elements. He comes from a modest working class family and earns minimum wage in an unsatisfying job as a stock boy for a small grocery store. He fancies himself an intellectual, although he certainly is not, and he lives isolated from the world. He sort of exists in an Edward Hopper painting.

This project marks the first time I've held auditions. In my past shorts, I relied on friends and family. Although I'm still utilizing many familiar faces from the shorts in this production, I didn't want the screenwriting process to be limited by people I already knew or locations I already had. I held a two-day audition and met with over 50 actors and non-actors. Near the end of day two, I felt I had cast every role except for Dewayne. I was beginning to panic until Jarrod Cuthrell came in. Jarrod majored in acting in college, and it was very evident that he had a passion for his craft that matched my own. He's a thoughtful actor and very meticulous about his body language and blocking. Although Bresson is my greatest influence, I don't follow his methods of directing actors, or "models" as he called them. I enjoy collaborating with an actor as serious and insightful as Jarrod, and our results have been fruitful.

Dewayne is a sick man, certainly pathetic, but I think it's important to keep his sickness in perspective. Jarrod and I have made a point to not scornfully present this character for judgement. It's an objective presentation.

TP: It's interesting that you draw a parallel between recreational violence and alcoholism, I guess thinking of them both as heightened experiences (early stages of alcoholism anyway), both surrenderings of self-control, sort of escapism but a little more complex than that too, and both being ultimately addictive. Does that also relate to the title?

Thinking about that in a wider sense, in that we have a very violent pop culture, especially in film and particularly in many of the early influences you mention, do you think cinema contributes to a violent culture, where random acts like home invasions are expected, or do you see it as more of a reflective medium?

JLK: I suppose what I meant about alcoholism was the handling of the material. The tradition in film is to handle the topic of the serial killer within the horror or thriller genre. I wanted to approach the subject as more of a tragedy centered around a serious flaw in character–the compulsion to murder a human being. I wanted to handle the topic of murdering someone the same way one handle the topic of alcoholism. Typically, alcohol-fueled domestic violence is presented in dramatic terms. I wanted to present an irrational murder in the same way.

As far as the title is concerned, you do not have to be a serial killer to relate to this film. Alcoholics, drug addicts, pedophiles, cleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, or even people who feel a need to create art can relate to an impulse which jeopardizes the chance to have a normal, healthy life. Many of us have an unreinable compulsion, a desire to do something that we'd be better off without.

I'm reluctant to blame media for violence, as it has existed much longer than media has. Also, I have enjoyed many Friday nights watching the films of Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter, both of whom use violence exclusively for entertainment. With that being said, I think Michael Haneke's Funny Games (both versions) presented an interesting question: Why do we watch violence for entertainment? Those critical of the film claim Haneke was being a pedantic moralist, however he lists Psycho as one of his favorite films. This could make him a hypocrite, however, I think he was asking the question on everyone's behalf, including his own. Why do we watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?

TP: Do you think a film can be inherently evil, or possessing of evil intentions?

JLK: Certainly. A film can endorse and glorify rape, torture, lynching, and anything else you can imagine. Those films will have a hard time finding distribution, though. A greater concern for me is the eye-for-an-eye revenge film. It's commonly used because audiences love it. It's a narrative cheat to me. Here's how it works: You have a bad guy do unthinkably awful things to a helpless character or his or her family. The narrative concerns the journey towards vengeance, and the audience rejoices when the bad guy gets what's coming to him. This doesn't really impress or interest me. I watch a lot of true-crime programs, and what fascinates me are the families of victims who forgive the man that murdered their loved one. These are extraordinary people and the ones I'm most interested in knowing about. I would never suggest that forgiveness is easy, but I insist that it's more interesting than something like Dexter.

TP: It's interesting you mention Bresson whose films and characters were to some extent driven by his Catholocism and often dealt with salvation. Without giving too much away, does Dewayne encounter similar questions in the film?

JLK: The primary influences on The Unreinable Compulsion are Bresson, Dostoevsky, and Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese. The five of us share a Christian perspective that is the center of our worldview and therefore our work. I feel the best Christian art can be appreciated beyond a Christian audience, so at no point did I set out to make a "Christian film." Actually, I did set out to make a Christian film, but let's say I've avoided making a "Christian bookstore film." An atheist or Hindu audience can appreciate the story as a social document, while the film will be more difficult for Christians because I'm holding them accountable to their beliefs. If I have a primary goal, it is to provoke an audience to examine their beliefs and behaviours. Christ's parables of the Prodigal Son and the Workers in the Vineyard were the main influence for this aspect. They're challenging parables, some of the most difficult to accept even for Christians, and they are both personally relevant to me because in my life I've struggled with forgiveness more than any other issue.

TP: Where do you think your own fascination with darker material comes from? There's huge darkness in your Xiu Xiu video too.

JLK: As I said before, probably from watching Unsolved Mysteries with my grandmother as a child. To this day, I return to the original Robert Stack episodes often. You can laugh at the acting and writing, but no film comes as close to being as unnerving as some of their segments. There's something about the lighting, especially on the early episodes shot on 16mm, the music, and Stack's haunting narration. The stories themselves are also captivating yet repulsive and disturbing.

I also have a distant relationship to a serial killer. My great-grandmother's cousin, Nannie Doss, was a poisoner. She murdered her husbands for insurance money. Growing up, my grandmother would tell me about her mother warning her to not eat anything Doss brought to family reunions. My great-grandmother was suspicious of her long before she was eventually caught.

Nannie Doss

The Xiu Xiu video was primarily an exercise in technique. I've always been fond of the look of filming a television screen, and the lyrics matched the story I had in mind for it. The narrative of the music video is a bit nihilistic and tragic, and I feel like it's a bit hollow. I suppose it's a lament over an all-too-common problem, as well as a warning. At any rate, I appreciated the opportunity to do something serious. I think I burnt myself out on the humor of Catfish with Falcon Wings.

TP: How far into the feature production are you? Have things progressed to plan so far? What differences, aside from the obvious amount of time and work, have you found in making a feature as opposed to producing shorts?

JLK: We are almost halfway through. Things have progressed fairly well so far. There have been a few technical hurdles, as well as losing some scheduled days because of rain, but no disasters yet. I'm very satisfied with the way things have gone.

The differences between this project and the shorts is the amount of preparation and seriousness of execution. With the shorts, there was no lighting, no blocking the actors, no following a set script, etc. The films for Catfish with Falcon Wings were founded on chaos, disorganization, and anti-structure. The Unreinable Compulsion is the precise opposite. Hours are spent lighting each shot, and we block a scene until it feels correct. The shorts were developed in a handheld, documentary-influenced improvisational manner, while in this film, the camera is usually static, and the blocking and line deliveries are meticulously planned out and rehearsed.

This production was closer to my childhood dreams than the shorts were. I mentioned Halloween earlier. Well, on one of the first nights of production, we shot the nighttime exteriors for the home-invasion scene. I'm a big fan of Dean Cundey's cinematography in that film, as well as the nighttime cinematography of Unsolved Mysteries, and as soon as we lit the house with blue gels on the lights, it felt like we were remaking Halloween. Since it was viewing that film almost 15 years ago that launched my obsession with filmmaking, it was one more aspect that made this film highly personal for me.

TP: Thanks Jason. Expect to see The Unreinable Compulsion on the festival circuit next year - we can't wait.

Reining Neils

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