With the movie scene feeding the public with the same commercial movies on and on, stumbling across some interesting movie projects is more and more rare. Recently I’ve had the pleasure to discover three short movies which deal with themes we’re not really used to see in films: Crestfallen, Contact and Drool, three powerful stories about suicide, drugs and the power between sexes by independent filmmaker Jeremiah Kipp. An adept of the horror genre, Jeremiah manages to produce and direct movies with an underground vibe, leaving aside the usual cliches of the horror scene. Curious about these projects and about the implications of making such a movies, we asked Jeremiah about his extensive experience in the horror film making scene, a scene which he has been exploring carefully, building a lot of tension and in the same time not turning too much into commercial.
Originally from Rhode Island, Jeremiah has been making films since he was 12, when he first got a camcorder from his grandparents and started making projects on VHS. Eventually, this helped him get into NYU. But it was just in 2003, that Kipp got his first breakout film “The Christmas Party” which played at festivals for about 3 years. Since 2005 Kipp has turned exclusively to freelancing, although his artistic path include lots of project, also from the commercial world. Currently based in New York, some of Jeremiah’s credits include directing The Sadist, starring Tom Savini, but also producing Satan Hates You and working as an assistant producer at I Sell the Dead.
Asked about the predilection for the horror genre, Kipp has a very poetic approach of this particular movie scene:
What draws me to genre film making is the ability to stretch reality, to make narratives veer into the surreal. A naturalistic drama can present a couple breaking up, whereas the horror genre has them ripping each other apart — which feels somehow more realistic, identifiable and accurate to those feelings. A horror movie can have someone transform into a gigantic fly, which is somehow easier to cope with than the sickness, aging, decay or disease we face in real life. That’s the beauty and poetry of horror.
Freelancing as a filmmaker
Since 2005, Kipp has been working solely as a freelancer. Leaving a stable daytime job for an unknown future isn’t something that everybody would do, luckily Jeremiah was one of those people who could do both type of activities for a period of time, to eventually dedicate his time to his passion. The beginning was hard, just as any beginning, but eventually he found his way around:
It was my good fortune to work for a company as supportive as New Line Cinema, where they encourage their employees to be creative. As long as I let them know in advance when I was freelancing, they would give me the time off to work on my own projects. By 2005, I found that my income as a freelancer was sufficient for me to leave the day job — it was one of those moments where you recklessly dive off the cliff. I had no idea what the future would hold, as this is a very fickle business. Over the years, I learned the ways to survive as a freelancer. At first, I served a long apprenticeship as an assistant director on other people’s films. I have done that less and less, and have spent far more time concentrating on putting my own work out there. But I do encourage artists who have to work full time jobs to try and find places that understand who they are, what they do, and are flexible with their time.
Financing didn’t prove to be a problem, as the director was flexible in the type of projects he approached. As for the crew, during the years, he discovered some really enjoyable people to work with and new faces eager to appear in new projects:
The financing for each project is different, as the money always seems to come from an unpredictable direction. This year, I did a commercial for a European watch company, an independent film where the producers launched a successful crowd sourcing campaign, an independently financed Web series, an original piece for a new production company, a music video for an independently wealthy artist…each of those scenarios was unique. Over the years, I’ve built a community of actors and crew members I enjoy working with, so there’s a vast pool to draw from. That said, this is a youthful business and there are always new faces eager to prove themselves. It’s a bit of a nomadic existence, where you keep seeing many of the same faces, only on different projects and situations.
A bit about the horror scene
Regarding his most recent three short films, Contact/Crestfallen/Drool – all of these are tragedies exploring pretty dark themes: suicide, drugs, power. What I really love about them is that even without dialogue and a really minimalistic setting they manage to build a great tension and give you the chills. Again, Kipp shares a romantic view of the world.
You’ve hit upon an important word for me: tension. It’s the essential element in all of these films, which is creating a sense of mystery for the audience about what is happening, and what is going to happen next. Even in a project as obscure as DROOL, we hope to affect and engage the spectator by continually stimulating them to wonder and observe. The tragic element comes into it probably because I have a romantic view of the world; I believe in the possibilities of love and compassion — and yet we live in a brutal environment where it is difficult to understand one another, even the ones you are closest to. I suppose all of my films are about this subject because it’s what drives me in daily life, outside of films. Movies are really only a way to communicate something to whoever is watching, and once you complete the film it belongs to them.
A film project is a complex one which involves lots of people with lots of different talents, all of them absolutely necessary for the overall process. Unfortunately not all of them get the same recognition. Jeremiah has got the luck to work with loads of talented people.
Most of my collaborators have amazed me. I truly love actors, and often mention my closest collaborator Dominick Sivilli who was the director of photography on most of my recent projects. I’m profoundly grateful to the opportunities afforded to me by the producers who have either financed the films or supervised their production. To name just one of the many would insult the others, making them feel left out. Instead, please allow me to highlight just one of the many different professions I interact with. The use of music in these movies is criminally under-appreciated. CONTACT would not have its subterranean underground atmosphere without the industrial sounds of Tom Burns, who also brought in a kind of jazz medley that felt like aching romanticism. He’s a wonderful artist, a truly inspired and ingenious man. I’d work with him again right now if I could afford him! I also loved my collaboration with Harry Manfredini, who scored genre films such as FRIDAY THE 13th and SWAMP THING. Unlike Tom, who is very intuitive and speaks through his actions, Harry preferred having long conversations about the content of the film before settling down to work. He wanted to tap into what was happening underneath the images, to fully comprehend the themes before delving into his score. Lately, I’ve enjoyed having Barbara J. Weber score my films — she just handed in a piece for a Web series about phobias, and is going to start on her next assignment for me in a week or so. She has the kind of minimalist, eerie and transcendent vibe I like to go for; or maybe that’s just how she works when we collaborate since her other music sounds quite different. It’s like she is a tailor making me the perfect suit, only in this case it’s quite an uncanny one.
Kipp also shares his thoughts on working with Dawn of the Dead celebrity Tom Savini on the full-length project The Sadist.
Tom Savini is a force of nature. If he likes you, he will do anything for you. And if he doesn’t like you, he’ll walk all over you and destroy you. As it happens, my cinematographer Dom and I earned his respect when we showed him some of our footage. It wasn’t based on the script, which was a more-or-less standard “slasher in the woods” movie. We did everything we could to make it a strong film, and we’ll see how it all turns out. The producers have been re-cutting the film for a while, so we’ll see. No matter what, I absolutely loved my experience with Tom. He has an iconic screen presence, a kind of demon with a screw loose. And yet in person, he’s more like your tough old uncle. I would work with him again anytime, and to my delight after THE SADIST he invited me to the set of a film he directed, where I got to see him enjoying himself fully on the other side of the camera.
Producing, directing, and commercials
Having worked on so many different experiences, commercial projects, shorts and also full length movies, Kipp confesses that there’s a certain beauty about commercials that attracts him most. It’s challenging to share a story in less than a minute.
This may sound strange, but I have a great love for making commercials. To tell a story in thirty to sixty seconds is an alluring challenge. But also you can be boldly experimental in an almost reckless way. Commercials are all about fast bursts of energy. I also embrace the impact of the short film format. Storytellers like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Deborah Eisenberg have made highly evocative short stories that feel like novels, only with all of the waste cut out. They’ve been distilled into wondrous diamonds. The long format of feature films only works for me if the script can support what we are trying to say. But it is perhaps the most awesome of these mountains we filmmakers can climb…
I also love the filmmaker’s sense of humor when comparing the work as a producer with the one as a director, comparing the first one with a “supportive midwife”.
Producing is the most difficult job on a film set, which is why they are awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. The best producers have a big picture mentality and the desire to put together the best possible team. I’ve worked with some enormously wise and supportive producers as well as some flat-out yahoos. For me, directing is a more rewarding job because it allows me the opportunity to express or communicate something; it’s storytelling. As a producer, I tend to feel more like a supportive midwife.
Black and white, no dialogue
Lots of Kipp’s movies are black and white visual experiences which lack dialogue. Nonetheless, the cinematic experience is as powerful as with words and colors, even more intense and evocative as you aren’t distracted by other visual elements and you can focus more on the camera and the actors:
I love black and white, which helps pare the image down to the essential. It makes the film more of an abstraction. That’s probably also why I have also made films without dialogue. They aren’t filmed plays, they are cinematic experiences where the emphasis is on the use of the camera and the expressiveness of the performer to create a visual story. I’ve also made films with dialogue, but prefer to keep it sparse. The camera sees everything; it can read the very thoughts of an actor. The old adage is true, though: a picture is worth a thousand words.
Kipp’s approach to the cinematic experience is an “all in” one. He doesn’t separate the technical side from the creative side or the visual from the message. He knows what he wants to transmit and the rest just comes naturally.
I don’t separate the two. The visual experience and the message are exactly the same. When my cinematographer and I talk about the shots, if we’re selecting a lens it’s based on what the image is trying to say. The camera placement is about what the image is trying to say. The communication is through the picture we create, and the meaning is formed when the audience watches and interprets it. I dislike the notion that there is “the technical side” and “the creative side” when in fact they are the same. You have to know what you want to say, but then also how you say it through the visual medium.
Although Jeremiah’s experience revolves mostly around the horror genre, he also likes to experiment with other genres as well. His way of coming up with an idea of a film is a pure example of thinking out of the box, as he eliminates the classical way of seeing a movie: with plot, characters and theme.
Oh, I truly love other genres, and the cross-fertilization of genres produces some of the finest and most unpredictable work. I like doing boldly experimental films that eliminate plot, character and so on, and in a different way I enjoy making character-driven comedies that are about the truly ribald and absurd. I remain very open to the projects which come my way. They all tend to have a slight edge, but that’s probably because of how I see the world, which is very aggressive!
Dark themes and phobias
Choosing themes that people usually avoid talking about or facing, gloom, sinister and dark themes, Kipp attempts to help people deal better with these unpleasant sides of life by exposing them in an artistic way.
We may avoid talking about these things, but when a movie expresses such internal struggles I find myself feeling less alone in the universe. If it helps me to understand these feelings, or to cope with them in some small way, or to notice them through an artistic expression, that’s something quite powerful. I would hope the audience has an emotional response to the projects, and if they find themselves ruminating on them afterwards, that makes me happy.
Recently, the filmmaker is working on a Web series focused on phobias, which will premiere in October. Each episode deals with a very specific phobia, and the episodes that Kipp directed deal with the fear of touch and the fear of feet. As I had the chance to have a sneak peek at these brilliant shorts, I can tell you to expect powerful and bold experiences. Again, the same evocative black and white imagery, great acting, strange music all of which treating delicate subjects in a sincere manner:
The series was created by Scott W. Perry. He enlisted a handful of directors to make short films, each about a specific phobia. I chose to make one project about “Fear of Touch” — because while I love people as individuals, I find myself terrified of them in large groups within confined spaces (elevators, subway cars, even walking down the streets here in New York City.) It’s strange I should love where I live so much and yet have this strange mania. So I chose to make a film about that and developed it with a wonderful actress named Kelly Rae LeGault, having her play various iconic personas interacting with a sea of human hands. I liked working with Kelly, who to me is kind of like Lady Gaga or Madonna in her desire to play around with different unique looks. How each character deals with the nightmare was a source of inspiration for us. I also made a film about the “Fear of Feet”, which sounds silly or fetishistic. Our co-producer Paul Pastore had an interest in the subject, and when we researched it we found the story of a child traumatized by an incident in her orphanage where she was repeatedly kicked in the face. As an adult, the smallest thing would set her off. So we had the moment of this adult character in crisis, and our actors Xiomara Cintron and Alejandro Santori were fiercely expressive. You love someone and are faced with something nearly impossible to understand; how do you comfort someone who has undergone such a strange trauma? At any rate, that was the starting point. The aim of these episodes was to do something daring, sincere and eerie. The other directors, Scott Perry and Mike Polizzi, had their own agendas for their episodes. My hope is that viewers will be treated to a diverse group of films; there will be something for everyone.
We hope Jeremiah Kipp’s movies managed to sparkle your attention and to reconsider horror independent movies. You can find some samples of his work throughout the article and below.
Photos are courtesy of Jeremiah Kipp/Exclusive interview for Mole Empire.