Jeremy Kasten Interview
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Anybody familiar with The Attic Expeditions (and if you're not, you should be) can tell you that it's a film loaded with interesting visuals and intriguing editing. The man behind the madness is Jeremy Kasten. We sat down with the director in August 2004 while he was working on the pre-production of his next feature...
Classic-Horror: You started out as an editor of low-budget films. How did your experience as an editor affect your work as a director?
Jeremy Kasten: I think that on any film, having experience in other departments other than directing is always an asset. Specifically in post-production and editing, it enables you to know really what you need and when you have it. The common belief for how a scene needs to be shot and covered is that you need your master wide shot, your medium shots, your close-ups, and then you have a scene. And in a lot of ways, that's the smartest thing to do, to cover a scene to be safe. But, as we both know, horror movies are their own kind of beast in a way, because you're not always going to stage the scene the way your audience is used to seeing and feeling the rhythm of editing or the progression of shots. Additionally, you most likely have some more complicated set-ups - some moving camera, or effects gags and that sort of thing - that cut into your day. So, planning out what you want to achieve an effect, and at the same time knowing that you can go into the editing room and up-cut it, and change the tempo of what you shot on the set is really important and very helpful.
It also made me want to rehearse with the actors and that's something I hope to always have the opportunity to do in a movie. That way, you know that in the film that I know when I have what I need and the pieces I need in order to rehearse the scene at the tempo I would like to see it played in a movie. For example, the gameroom scene in Attic Expeditions, with Seth Green, it's three and a half minutes of him just making a monologue and he's just walking around and around in this giant room, and the monologue itself becomes more of a mindf**k and more and more complicated and he's moving faster and faster. We rehearsed it to a metronome. I knew that I was going to be having him move through the room to a waltz, so I had a metronome set to a 3:4 time, and then I would slowly turn the metronome up, and as we rehearsed, he would feel the rhythm of the waltz. So, I didn't get stuck with something that was a drag in the editing room, which is often the way dialogue works, is that you're pulling it up and pulling it up and making it more dynamic. Instead, I ended up with something that played exactly three and a half minutes that was exactly the rhythm.
C-H: I'd like to talk about the casting of the movie really quickly. The casting of The Attic Expeditions really benefited from the Screen Actors' Guild's limited exhibition agreements. That's a fairly recent development for them, isn't it?
Kasten: It was brand new when we shot the movie - we started shooting in 1997. So, it's almost ten years old. But they had made it very difficult for independent films and genre films specifically to get made, because, for example, if you're making an art film, it seemed like, for whatever reasons, people were having an easier time working with the Screen Actors' Guild to go off and make a little art film and sort of pretend they were gonna make a short and then extend it into a feature, and everybody would go, "Oh my goodness, what happened here? Oh, how adorable. We've made a movie." But with genre movies, nobody's signing on going, "I'm just doing this because my heart is in the right place." I mean, some of us are, but for the most part that's not the commonly held belief about genre movies and horror movies more specifically. And the LEA was a huge benefit to us, because we were able to say to the actors, "Look, we can't make this movie for more than $200,000, so you know that all the money is going in the right places, and that our heart is in the right place, but we just don't have more money than that. So people came to our table knowing exactly where we were coming from and interested in being part of that with no sort of false hope that this is going to be a cushy movie in any way.
C-H: Seth Green has talked how much he actually enjoyed working on a low-budget experience. It's really a different sort of character for him. How much did you work with him on developing that?
Kasten: You know, Seth came and auditioned for Douglas. I'd seen a lot of people at the time he came and auditioned, and nobody seemed to know that the character is being both incredibly likable and dynamic, and also frightening and unnerving. Seth really came to the role with that. That being said, we did rehearse and we played quite a bit in finding the characters, because I had set out to do, and whether I succeeded is forever up for grabs with the fans, but we set out to make a movie where the actors were playing mediocre actors who were actually in this world that Dr. Ek created to drive Trevor out of his mind. So it's a delicate balance to find the moments where they'd slip a little bit and reveal the person they actually were and that would throw you off. Additionally, Seth is playing an actor who's playing a mental patient who, halfway through the movie, becomes possessed by the dead fiancé of the protagonist, so there's a whole other dimension for him to explore. We did a whole bunch of acting exercise with Beth Bates, who plays Faith in the movie, and Seth, where they would sort of walk around and say things and mirror each other to find some kind of middle ground where they had similar behaviors when they need to be there.
C-H: I also wanted to talk about Andras Jones because we don't hear a lot about him in the interviews. The focus is always on Jeffrey Combs and Seth Green, but we haven't seen a lot of Jones. What drew you to him for the lead?
Kasten: Interestingly, Andras moved out of town and still does live in Olympia, WA. The casting director had suggested him and I watched some of his work and I thought he was very good, but I was concerned that he lived out of town and the difficulties of making such a low budget movie with somebody where you have to put them up and feed them and take care of them and all of those things. Andras read the script and got my e-mail address from the casting director and started writing me these beautiful, very well thought out, lengthy e-mails about what he thought the movie was about, and how he saw the influences of Robert Anton Wilson and HP Lovecraft and Crowley and all this stuff that's going on in the movie that I think not only would elude most actors, but most people. And I was so impressed by that, we started a correspondence, so by the time he flew to LA to audition, we knew each other and we knew that we had a common vision for the role of Trevor. He got the part on the spot. I'd seen maybe a hundred people for that role and I just couldn't find somebody who could pull it off, who what I was looking for, so I went with Andras.
And I will say, I think that he had, in a lot of ways, the most difficult role in the movie. While we were making the movie, I would constantly liken what he was doing to being Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz - everybody else around her gets to play these fun, incredibly exciting, interesting characters, and Judy Garland is sort of forced to be Judy Garland and sweet and the true core of the film, but not really a dynamic character in the movie. Trevor in Attic Expeditions is much the same, in addition to which he's playing "tabula rasa." He's been wiped clean of his personality for the majority of the film, which is, for an actor, is an incredibly hard thing to ask them to play. You're saying, "You have a glimmer of the person you once were, but for the most part, you don't even know who you are," and that's tough.
C-H: It is a very complex film with a lot of inroads and outroads and nobody's quite sure what's going on. It began life as a potential script for a Witchcraft movie, didn't it?
Kasten: That's exactly right. Originally when I'd first moved to LA, I was 19 years old, and I'd moved from being a PA to Associate Producer on Witchcraft 4, literally overnight. I really loved that the woman who was producing the movie saw all the exuberance and potential in me, and gave me the title of Associate Producer. I didn't really understand at the time that Associate Producer on a movie that size is really a glorified PA, but a good title to make you work harder. Which is fine, but as such when there wasn't a script in time for pre-production, I took that on, and I called my writing partner at the time, Rogan Russell Marshall who lived in Mississippi and told him that if he could write a script in a week for Witchcraft 4, he could most likely beat out the writer that they'd hired to do it. So he rented Witchcraft 1 2 and 3 and banged out Witchcraft 4: The Attic Expeditions in five days and Federal Expressed it to me and when I got the script in my hands, I pulled over in front of the post office, and I read the script in my car, start to finish. I didn't turn it over to them. I waited and let the other writer turn in his script late, because I knew I wanted to make Attic Expeditions as my first film. And we spent about six years rewriting it and polishing it and changing it, trying to get it to be the movie we want.
C-H: David Lynch made Mulholland Drive with a very specific interpretation in mind - there's a definitive answer to all of the weirdness. Richard Kelly, on the other hand, has stated that Donnie Darko means whatever the viewer thinks it means. Where does Attic Expeditions fall between those two approaches to the cerebral thriller?
Kasten: I think that it became increasingly difficult for me to make Attic Expeditions a film where I didn't believe in a reality. I set out to do that, and I really fought to keep myself somewhat "tabula rasa" in that way, because I wanted to try to support the three possible explanations of reality in the film. Fortunately, while you're making the movie, there's so many questions, and it becomes your job to answers those questions. At times, I could sense the frustration from the cast and crew when they would ask what is really real. So I eventually came around to saying, "I don't know what's really real for you, meaning the audience, but what I believe is real is - " And as such, I think that there's one stronger voice as to the reality of the film than the other two possibilities that we tried to build in. We worked a lot in post-production and in putting the movie together to support the various levels of reality throughout the movie, and to make sure that at any given time, you could argue for any one of them.
C-H: Which interpretation is yours?
Kasten: I tend to believe Trevor Blackburn murdered his fiancee and then went crazy and has completely slipped off into a comatose state in his own mind. He's built the mythology of the ceremony and the magic and everything else in his head to justify his actions, and that he was probably just a very sick man to begin with. A very wealthy, but very sick man.
C-H: The Attic Expeditions loops on itself a little, and that actually flows into the movie you're starting to work on now, a remake of The Wizard of Gore. The original also looped on itself, although I'm not sure it was the intention of the director to be quite so deep about it. What inspired you to remake a Herschell Gordon Lewis film?
Kasten: First let me say, in response to what you just said, I think that Lewis had more fun in some ways with Wizard of Gore. He was so freed up by that point. He'd made so many movies that had made so much money that I think he really had the chance to know that whatever he made with Wizard of Gore was gonna make money. So, I think he had a good time with it, because the structural ambiguity and the mindf**k elements of the original are classic Herschell Gordon Lewis. They're a little wonky and they're staid and uncomfortable to watch, but strangely hypnotic at the same time, and I like that about that movie a lot.
I grew up as a fan of all those horror films, as a horror genre fan. When home video first happened, I was fairly young - I remember renting VCRs. The horror section at my local mom and pop video store was maybe 40, 50 movies big and for some reason, all the Lewis films, the entire library seemingly, came out on video almost right away. One of the first things I was able to obsessively watch were the Lewis movies. I've always wanted to pay homage to that part of my past. When I was 12 or 13, I would make the worst horror films I could. I don't have any interest in dabbling in that direction anymore, making things that are intentionally awkward and clumsy, but I am fascinated by what he did. In a time that was still fairly conservative - Blood Feast came out in '63, I believe - Lewis made movies that went beyond what anybody had conceived of and were truly disturbing because they shook people up. Regardless of how good or bad the acting is, or the stories, there's still something very interesting and intriguing about the films. They're dark - they're just straight-up dark.
As we've seen horror become completely revitalized in the last ten or so years and the remake craze within the studio system has really exploded for horror. I wanted to find a way to both capitalize on that - because you have to play by the rules to some extent to raise money for movies, it's a very very difficult feat - and at the same time, I didn't want to tread on anything that I think is regarded as a classic. As much as I enjoy the remake of Dawn of the Dead or even the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I think they're both fine films in their own regard, but I don't really have an interest in remaking movies that I think are perfect to begin with. The Lewis films, though beloved, are not viewed as anything that anybody is going to get bent out of shape about the remakes of. I think people know the titles and some of us are fans of the films, but we still have such an opportunity to take the nugget of a great idea and build a new movie around it, without sort of sh*tting on something that's already perfect in its own right. The Lewis movies are perfect for that. They're exploitation movies, which is very very appealing to me, and then they're dynamic in that they have cool ideas at their core, and there's a lot to play with there. That's our approach - do the whole movie around the core of what was cool about the first one. And bring back a sense of showmanship to the exploitation film. Have fun, but at the same time make a very straight, very nasty and disturbing horror film.
C-H: So you're going for a more serious tone in this movie, or are you going to have some humor, too? How dark is it going to be?
Kasten: For me, humor in horror films always works best when what's funny is funny because it's uncomfortable. Evil Dead II notwithstanding because that's really a film and a genre unto itself. Re-Animator, too. They're both movies that both have very humorous scenes that verge on slapstick that work very well and belong to a certain time and place in the canon of horror films. I tend to be more of a fan of darker horror films that take themselves more seriously, and when they're funny, it's because it's serious and disturbing and you find lightness within that. So, I'm not looking to make a movie where there's silly amounts of blood spurting, and people are slipping all over the floor to goofy music because there's too much blood. I'm much more compelled to make a film that goes further and is darker and heavier than I think we're seeing in the new breed of horror films, and yet funny. But I couldn't tell you in the script now when I read it what's funny. I'll know when we shoot it, if that makes sense. You find those moments of levity in making the movie, not necessarily setting out to make it.
C-H: How far along in the process are you of making this film?
Kasten: We're looking to be shooting this fall. I'm very close. We'll be able to make an announcement very shortly as to a start date and cast, but I'm not quite yet there. We're very close, but I tend not to like to make too many announcements before something is something locked up and done. How's that for an answer? That's as dodgy and vague as it gets, isn't it? We're close. We have financing in place that's cast-contingent. We are in the process of casting right now. We'll see what happens, but I think it'll be pretty soon.
C-H: The Attic Expeditions had a really good cast for the budget. Do you think you're going to be able to do that well for Wizard of Gore?
Kasten: God, I hope so. (laughs) The Wizard of Gore is a different creature in some ways, too, because it's a very young cast, actually. I have very specific ideas of what I want in terms of a tone. The script itself is really sort of a punk rock, edgy, rock 'n' roll approach to the telling of the store. If you know the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow or any kind of punk rock approach to a circus that you can think of, that's more along the lines of where Montag is coming from - a real kind of a Goth, downtown, pierced, tattooed performance artist. As such, putting together a package of a cast that really fits in that world nicely, even if it's not the people you'd think of immediately, as long as there's something genuine to it, it's a tough trick to pull off. We were blessed to have Seth in the first film, but ultimately, he was the one sort of youth member of that movie that carried weight in the world of celebrity. Hopefully, I'll split the difference between somebody who turned out to be Seth's size and people that are somewhat of a known quantity.
C-H: You're shooting this movie in 3D, is that right?
Kasten: We are shooting all of the Lewis films in whole or in part in 3D. It's been an obsession of mine since childhood; I'm a true 3D enthusiast and I've always wanted to play with it. I've always believed that 3D is not always the right of somebody at the studio or somebody at the level of Robert Rodriguez to play with. I think that, ultimately, the technology is really not all that complicated. You just have to have the patience and want it real bad. Six months from now when we talk, maybe I'll be feeling differently, but built into this story of Wizard of Gore is an excellent use of 3D sequences throughout the film. Specifically, the Montag sequences - when we're in the theater with Montag, we're in 3D, and there's actually a very good reason for it. It's not sort of one of those things that's slapped onto the movie. It's built-in.
C-H: I see where you're going with that, with the exhibitionism and the 3D, and I like it.
Kasten: It's cool. There's this whole kind of truly mindf**k- In the original movie, hypnotism is the thing that Montag has going for him. I don't want to blow the end of the movie before I've even made it, so I can't even really say what is going on in this remake that allows Montag to be an incredible magician on so many levels, that it definitely figures into those sequences being in 3D.
C-H: You mentioned more H.G. Lewis films. You're going to do a series of remakes. How many are you guys planning to do?
Kasten: Immediately, we're looking to do Wizard of Gore, Blood Feast, and She-Devils on Wheels. If those do well, and I expect and hope that they will, we'll move on to others, because it would be nice to complete this canon of films as remakes. And not necessarily with the same approach to remaking them. I'd love to give each one its one very specific and very individual flavor as a remake, rather than sort of treating them as an across-the-board package, where say, I look at each one and say, "Well, they're all very kind of pierced tattooed Goth punk rock movies." I don't think they are. I think that each one can have its own very specific and very individual flavor, and I'm hoping I get to do that.
C-H: Will you be consulting Herschell Gordon Lewis at all? Is he going to have any input on the remakes?
Kasten: Obviously, of course, he has approval. He's an executive producer on the remakes. We have his blessing to go ahead; I hope that we have his blessing in the broader sense - that he likes what we're doing and that he's excited about the movies. I met him, years ago, at a Fangoria convention, and I'm a huge fan of his, obviously. I hope that we'll very much see eye-to-eye on what we're doing.
C-H: Your remake is going to flesh out the plot of the original Wizard of Gore. It's going to be less, ah, flatline.
Kasten: Right. Right. We're taking basically the notion that there's a stage magician who does tricks for an audience in an almost underground theater setting, where he cuts women up onstage in a hideous manner, and the women are then magically all right, and then 24 hours later, whatever hideous thing he did to them suddenly happens, and they die. In our film, things are further complicated by the fact that the girls who are dying after the stage show are dying in a manner that would lead investigators to believe that it has nothing to do with Montag. That the gags play themselves out in ways that appear to be accidental or hideous deaths from other means. At the same time, our hero is the only one who has sort of pieced together the link between Montag and the girl's deaths, and he starts to question whether he himself is murdering them as he is being driven further and further into Montag's web. In the end, he's put in a virtual D.O.A. situation where he is suddenly involved in the show and is one of the "volunteers" himself, and so he must figure out what is behind Montag's magic in order to actually survive.
C-H: After you do all of these H.G. Lewis film's, and I realize that's way way way in the future for you, would you like try a different genre, perhaps?
Kasten: I think I'm going to stick with horror for quite a while. It's been a dream of mine for so long that it'll be a long time before I get it out of my system, so to speak. I'd love to eventually make big fantasy movies for kids and have at least one film that's part of that canon of movies, along the lines of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Wizard of Oz, something like that. But we have a scoop for a movie called All God's Children that is truly the most terrifying monster movie I've ever read. I'm not a fan of monster movies because I always find that they don't feel real. I think the one that we have, that we'd like to make for a larger budget is a plausible monster movie in a lot of ways, and as such is for me, the ultimate monster movie.
1. What's your favorite horror movie?
Kasten: That's a tough one. Lately the movie I've rewatched the most is probably Suspiria, but the one I look at the most for acting is Exorcist III.
2. What's your favorite non-horror movie?
Kasten: Wizard of Oz.
3. Who are some of your favorite directors?
Kasten: Argento is huge favorite. Kubrick, Martin Scorcese. I love Lars von Trier, I think he's incredible. And I'm a big fan of documentaries. Not any particular documentary filmmaker, but just documentaries in the broader, sweeping sense. Early documentaries, especially. Some of the documentaries that we made in America in the 1970s are really awesome. But that's more for fun. (pause) John Boorman is a guy whose films I consistently love.
4. If somebody came up to you and said, "I can give you access to work with any one person - actor, writer, craft services, anybody - but you only get to pick one," who would you want.
Kasten: I think I would be most excited to make a film working with Jimmy Page closely. Maybe even do the Led Zeppelin story with him.
5. What's your fondest filmmaking memory?
Kasten: Hm. Does it have to be on one of my own films?
C-H: It does not have to be from one of your own films.
Kasten: I was [William] Friedkin's assistant on a movie, which was obviously a dream come true. And there's a couple great moments on that, really just crazy, cool things where I was a kid in LA where I was going, "Oh my God, I can't believe I'm the guy who made The Exorcist's assistant!"
I'll tell you two stories, and you can pick, I guess. One was driving him to work in the morning, listening to Howard Stern, and Howard Stern doing an Exorcist spoof that went on a long time. And both of us just silently driving to work, and me sitting next to Friedkin thinking, "What the f**k?" I'm sitting next to the guy who made this movie and listening to Howard Stern send up The Exorcist. What are the chances and how cool is that?
The other one is that we were shooting the movie, and we didn't have an insert car to shoot a sequence with someone on a motorcycle going down the road. They needed something, and they realized that I had a small convertible that was just right. They strapped the camera to my car, and they got a shot for the movie using my first car. I just that was just the raddest thing, to have a shot in a Friedkin movie done from my car.
Classic-Horror.com would like to thank Jeremy Kasten for the time out of his busy schedule to sit down and talk with us.