Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Interview: Paul Solet [Grace @ IFFBoston After Dark Sat.]

Paul Solet's Grace comes to IFFBoston this year with a full head of steam after a somewhat infamous showing at Sundance (two guys actually passed out during a screening). It's a film has everyone who cares about genre cinema screaming bloody murder that someone actually went and made a horror movie with purpose -- one that is in fact frightening. Grace centers on a woman (Jordan Ladd) who gives birth to a stillborn child that miraculously comes back to life. But the baby soon shows signs of being not quite right and, well that bottle full of blood on the poster isn't just an image drawn up by a promotional team. What's a new mom to do? It's playing the midnight showing on Saturday and you can buy a ticket here. And not only that, Paul Solet is a former Cantabrigian who graduated from Emerson and is more than a little eager to blow some minds on his home turf. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for Reviews From the Couch and his enthusiasm is infectious even through email...

RFC: Grace is your first feature, but you've had a lot of success with short films including a version of Grace in 2006. I'm sure there are some of benefits to working on a story in a short format before making it a feature, but could you describe some of what your were able to learn from the short films and from working on Grace as a short film before diving into a feature?

PS: I think part of the art of filmmaking is working within the confines presented by budget and schedule, so shooting no budget shorts is a wonderful way to learn to stretch a dollar and a day. I've done shorts on all kinds of formats on all kinds of budgets, and each one has contributed to the next. The primary goal behind the GRACE short film was to demonstrate to potential financiers the capacity to handle a feature, so we approached the shoot essentially as a mini-feature. We cast real actors in Brian Austin Green and Liza Weil and shot on 35mm with a real crew, so the experience of shooting the short version of GRACE was literally a perfect test run for the feature. Working with actors always brings things to light for me that I may not have discovered alone in a room banging my head against a legal pad. As the writer and director, you're not always able to put the sort of sustained, exclusive focus on one character that a thinking actor will, so Liza taught me a great deal about Madeline Matheson just through watching her process that I was then able to incorporate into my work with Jordan Ladd on the feature. I learn so much on each project, and I know that won't ever stop as long as I keep my eyes open and stay teachable.

Horror movies are something I hold dear to my heart -- some of my earliest and best film memories are watching John Carpenter movies with my dad and being far too freaked out by even the goofy ones like Critters and Killer Klowns. Were you lucky enough to be brought up with a healthy dose of films that kids maybe shouldn't be watching? And what have been some of your more memorable, nurturing horror film experiences?

My parents did their best to shield me from what they felt was inappropriate, but I always found a way to watch everything I wanted to see - whether by going over to a friend's house with less present parents or watching with a stoned babysitter, I managed to devour everything in the horror, cult and sci-fi sections pretty young. When my parents realized I really had a passion for this stuff, and that I actually wanted to DO this myself, they became unflinchingly supportive. I definitely remember being terrified by certain films as a kid, but I think if I didn't have the films to be terrified of, I may have just filled that space with something else. Watching ALIENS, I have to say, scared the hell out of me. Utterly terrified (thanks cousin Paul....). I also remember Jack Sholder's ALONE IN THE DARK shaking me up. And of course, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. But I had nightmares about C-3PO with an afro, so who knows what really did the damage.

Grace has gotten some comparisons to David Cronenberg's early, body-horror films -- which more than anything else gets me pretty excited for Saturday's screening. The TV show Fringe is also getting into some body-horror territory, albeit form a more sci-fi angle, and I think people are still discovering Takashi Miike and some of the Asian horror cinema that isn't about pale creepy ghost kids. American audiences have finally seemed to get tired of those J-horror remakes and the self-aware horror films of the 90s seem pretty ancient these days. One of the more divisive sub-genres to come around recently was the (poorly named) "torture porn" that could be viewed as a reflection of the George W. cultural climate, and this too seems to have come and gone as far as trends go. More than most, genre movies, and horror in particular, have a tendency to share trends and in some ways reflect the fears society is facing at the time, do you see new trend coming down the road and are there any filmmakers out there now that you're keeping an eye on?

There are a lot of young filmmakers that I'm totally excited about. Fabrice Du Welz who did CALVAIRE, Jaume Belaguero who did REC and THE NAMELESS, Pascal Laugier who did MARTYRS, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury who did INSIDE - all of these guys are doing really powerful work. As far as societal trends being reflected in horror, I'm sure there's truth to that. There's always an appetite for horror. The usual discussion explores how horror is a cathartic experience. I'm sure there's truth to that as well. What excites me, though, isn't the academic analysis, it's the merger of story and horror we're starting to see more of. We're getting more films that are less reliant on shock to distract you from their lack of substance. When you've got writers like Adam Alleca working on films like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, things are changing. These are seriously talented individuals that grew up in love with genre films. It's not just a paycheck. My hope is that we're really moving into a period where horror films don't have to be vehicles for someone's exploitation checklist - breasts:check, blood:check, jump scare:check... - a period where the potential of the genre as a playground for exponential exploration of otherwise mundane subjects is the only exploitation we're seeing. Don't get me wrong, I love a gut punch, but if each incident of violence, each scare, is earned and informed by story, these things become so much more powerful.

What is it, do you think, that continues to make horror films such a great way for filmmakers to launch their careers? Making a good horror film, making it effective, isn't easy -- there are numerous pitfalls. Do you think this makes it the perfect genre to learn the ropes?

Horror is definitely a director's medium. It's so much fun visually, and there's so much room for innovation and style, but you're absolutely right, it's a tough genre to do right. The only thing harder is comedy, but there are parallels - in comedy, if they don't laugh, you failed; in horror, if you don't disturb them, you failed. From a business standpoint, horror has historically been as safe a bet as a financier can find for lower budget films because they're guaranteed a certain audience, no matter what kind of piece of shit they make. That's why there will always be a glut of bad horror films made by people that are looking to get as far away from anything remotely genre related as quickly as possible. It's different when a filmmaker loves the genre they're working in, and appreciates the potential it holds.

From the sound of your IMDb bio you seem to have a plan of attack in place for upping the ante of genre films, which sounds great to me because even though there remains a strong fan base for genre films, I'm happy if I can find more than a couple of great American horror movies per year these days. Do you plan on sticking with horror for a while or are you looking to mix it up? Do you already have some future projects in mind?

I do have projects coming down the pipe, yes, horror and otherwise. I'm not dogmatic about working within genre conventions. What's exciting to me is story. Like I said, I think the genre is a playground that enables unparalleled potential for exploring any subject because your only limitations are your own imagination and your responsibility as a storyteller to create a consistent universe, so I'll never hesitate to work in horror. At the same time, if a non-genre story moves me, I'm all over it. I just want to make good movies.

Thanks again for taking the time for this. Grace is really one of the top films I'm looking forward to this week. It's a great feeling to be excited about a horror film -- it doesn't happen enough.

Man, I'm so happy to hear that. I'm a fan first, always, and that is EXACTLY how I feel!

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