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Interview with ‘The Commune’ Director Elisabeth Fies

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageRecently CC2K's own Tony Lazlo got to sit down with filmmaker Elisabeth Fies and talk about her new film The Commune. Being the uber-geek that he is, naturally Tony took the interview in all kinds of fun, film-centric directions. Read on for the full interview!

TL: Elisabeth, thanks for agreeing to this interview! First off, let's talk about your movie, The Commune. When you set out to make this movie, did you have any existing movies or eras of filmmaking in mind that served as inspiration for your project? Or in other words: There's an old saying that an artist should make the kind of art that they themselves would like; What kind of movie did you want to make when you made The Commune?

EF: I wanted to make a good old-fashioned 70s cerebral thriller/horror. The kind of movie that holds up and still scares because it’s about something and is done with intelligence and grace. Good examples are Martin, Burnt Offerings, Repulsion, The Tenant, Don’t Look Now, The Changeling, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. I’m a film scholar, and I felt like these movies weren’t being made anymore. So yeah, I made what I wanted to see. Because for the last decade we’ve only received one movie in that style a year, while we’re besieged with dozens of lazy Saw and Friday the 13th knock-offs.

TL: You have me at a disadvantage in this interview because I've yet to see your movie. I have, however, read up on it online and watched all the available clips, and I admit it reminds me of an existing work. No kidding, I flashed on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Maybe it was because the boyfriend's name was Puck; maybe it was the woodland setting, but a glance at the movie cast list reveals many names lifted from myth, including Shakeapearean: Artemis, Jupiter, Cassie, Cassius, Loki and Puck. Even Jennifer finds its roots in Arthurian legend in Queen Guinevere. Can you talk about the role of myth in the formation of The Commune?

EF: Well thank you for noticing! Mythology IS The Commune. I drew from dozens of different sources to try to retell a modern tale with a mythic quality. I grew up learning to read on my brother’s comics and Greek myths, so that circular storytelling and grandiose sensibility is in my blood. I love archetypes and symbols and foreshadowing and synchronicities. I planted a ton of visual references, as well as the character names you picked up on. Myths I drew from were Osiris/Isis/Horus, Inanana, Persephone, Cupid and Psyche, and of course Oedipus. There are references to Celtic pagan religions, Babylonian and Sumerian beliefs, the trinity divinity story of almost every religion. The three women represent the mother/maiden/crone triptych, and each woman is given an onscreen dance and sex scene that represents her stage of life and power.

I wasn’t consciously thinking of Shakespeare, although every modern fiction writer can’t help but steal from him. I think what you caught there was our shared love of Greek and Roman mythology. The Gwenwyfar reference is to Mists of Avalon. It’s a great work of feminism that had a very disturbing idea at the center of its plot. An idea I could never rectify and had to make into a horror movie. And Cassie of course is Cassandra, the only one who can see what is happening and has the power to stop it. The Midsummer stuff…well Mists of Avalon had used Beltane so I wanted to change it up, and fall and winter pagan rites are more depressing and aren’t as focused on fertility. Also, my birthday is on the Celtic midsummer so that was a lame shout out to me, ha!

TL: Let's talk accolades! You won a Golden Cob Award as Best Emerging B-movie filmmaker. Once upon a time, "B-movie filmmaker" might not have been flattering, but these days it seems like a badge of honor. How do you like the title "B-movie filmmaker," and more important, what role do B-movies have in the cinematic ecosystem? Can you get away with more in a B-movie?

EF: Definitely! I absolutely am where I want to be in the B world because you can actually tackle political issues with more class and garner more interest in the subjects you want to discuss by wrapping it in entertainment. Look at T2 or Avatar! These would be considered “B” films if they weren’t big budget. So would all the comic book movies. These days the only difference between a B movie and a Hollywood blockbuster is the budget, and the depth of soul. B movies are more likely to have an original voice and some emotion, whereas the dozens of rewriters on studio scripts are forced to take anything out that the studio moneycounters fear won’t appeal to the four quadrants. They’re MBAers not artists, so they don’t understand the concept of the more specific you are, the more people your work will appeal to.

The first person I screened The Commune for was my friend Katt Shea. She compared me to Larry Cohen; specifically for the raw, emotional feel. I was pretty freaking excited about that. He’s a master of using suspense and humor in genre “B” films, his work is always political, and that Moriraty performance in Q makes me grin every time I think of it. Cohen’s films always have an interesting life to them for each character. They’re very full worlds.

Cameron is a master of getting his message across in “B” films. I’d much rather make a movie that has a POV that’s important to me and gets seen by a huge audience than to make a preachy drama that ends up on Lifetime or with an Academy Award nomination but no one outside the industry has ever heard of it. I’m not making movies for other people in Hollywood to watch. I’m making movies for people like me who can’t find their lives represented in the movies being made. I interned fifteen years ago at Debra Hill’s production company, so my nefarious plan to toil in Hollywood obscurity is working. I’m right where I want to be, on the outside like Romero and Carpenter and Argento. I don’t think it’s any accident that it’s their early work done on the quick and cheap that I resonate with the most as an artist.

But also, sometimes you find more acceptance on the outside. Hollywood and their movies are mean to women. But last year the B Movie Awards nominated all women in their Emerging Director category. I can’t think of another festival that’s ever celebrated women 100% in a non-gender specific category. That’s so rad! Very progressive. And I had found some acceptance in the comic book community before that…It’s not always better to hang with the ahole popular kids. They might drive better cars and have richer folks, but they’re also conformist, scared, and boring. Sometimes the band geeks and the burn outs and the journalism class are the ones who’ve got it going on and can like you as you are.

TL: Moving on, I heard that The Commune was taught in a film class! Tell us more about that, and share your thoughts on what it feels like to have your work discussed by students and teachers.

EF: Oh it’s thrilling. I can’t lie, it was always a goal. There are subject matters and a filmic POV I used that I hoped would make it into film class discussions. I certainly spent enough time making the screenplay mythical to warrant studying it.  We actually shot two versions at the same time, one a thriller and one a coming of age drama. The secret plan was we were going to edit them both and make them both rentable in the same package. The cover would be The Commune: Yin and Yang, with the dark half being the thriller and when you flip the DVD cover upside down the light half was the dramedy version. I thought it was brilliant, never been done before, and would get the attention of FIND, and that the distributors would go ape-shit for us providing them the two most popular genres for people to rent in one. But then the bottom dropped out of the movie industry and now all the distributors want to swindle your movie away from you for free. So I can’t talk an editor into editing the second movie, because no one’s getting paid for the first as it is. But yeah, I thought it was the best idea I’d ever had and that it would end up getting taught in film schools because it demonstrated how much just changing the camera angle, or cutting it differently, or using different music changes the mood and meaning of a scene.

I wasn’t able to be at the class when The Commune was presented (wah!) so I don’t know exactly what was discussed. I know the professor used it to point out that your first film need not be cheap and shoddy-looking. She was very impressed by our production value and the style cinematographer Marc Shap used of master shots on a dolly. They were a bitch for Todd Miro and me to edit. But they’re just gorgeous; a time-save on set because you’re not doing that boring uncinematic Master, 2 shot, OTS bullshit that non-filmmakers usually resort to on their first movie out of ignorance. I mean, watch a no-budget movie like Martin or Season of the Witch or El Mariachi to see how an auteur films cheaply. Money can’t buy you a cinematical eye or make up for you not studying film theory and technicals.

Marc’s a terrific DP. And four more of our G & E crew are talented DPs as well, two of whom I’ve already gotten to shoot with. So the team was crazy good. We were filming seven pages a day so we didn’t have time to fart around and we had such cheap equipment the monitor often broke down. But there was always something specific I had a storyboard or reference photo of about every three pages that Marc was able to provide for me. And the rest you just manipulate in editing to become what you want, same as I always did in my documentary work. When you’re working that fast, sometimes as a director I just have to rely on my team to grab what they can so I can focus on getting the performance tone right. It’s not the time to be an exacting Kubrick, that’s for sure. Although I still feel disappointed about some shots I didn’t get, especially some inserts. Now I always have a Canon 5D strapped to me so I can make sure I get every shot I need. But hey, Team Commune got ‘er done, and at a certain point you have to move on to the next project and stop recutting and recasting the movie in your head. Can’t be the asshole painter who walks up to his masterpiece in The Louvre with a wet paintbrush.

But yeah, the dolly master shots were a brilliant solution to the low budget problem. Crushing the blacks in camera was Marc’s idea, though I would never do that again now that there is great Red Giant color correcting software. You really want to get clean, great footage and then try adding the flair in the editing room where you aren’t committing to anything. People seem to be very keen on my decision to make everything beautiful and sunny like the sacrifice day of The Wicker Man or The Hills Have Eyes.  Clue number one that too many festivals are focused on being just like everyone else. I really fought hard for the color decision and stand by it. I needed it because the freakiest thing to me about my mom dying was how the world just went on, and everyone else had a beautiful day. I find that jubilant sunshine more horrifying than a foggy night. My guys kept trying to pull out the fog machine and I was like what? No!!! This isn’t The Howling…Haven’t you guys seen the Buffy episode “The Body”? THAT’S what death is like…

TL: Bill Cunningham at Pulp 2.0 called The Commune a "feminist" movie, and I wanted to ask a very open-ended question about feminism: Do you count yourself a feminist filmmaker, and if so, what role does a feminist perspective have in your filmmaking? How does it inform what you do? Please feel free to expound as you see fit!

EF: I’m an unapologetic feminist who partners with men who adore women and want to provide them the same opportunities, paychecks, orgasms, and rights that men have. My undergrad degree from UCLA is in Women’s Studies. I like to think my ability to express what I’m thinking and feeling and my world point of view in movies and writing IS my political statement. As well as the maverick way I live my life. I don’t concern myself with global politics because I focus all my energy on fighting in the frontlines of storytelling where I can reach the most people.

One of the biggest ways feminism informs what I do is that I’m not so naïve to think my point of view isn’t biased. I study feminist film theory so that I can take responsibility for all my actions as a filmmaker, from which take we chose in the editing bay to who was cast. Script-wise, before I film something I’ve written I run it through a system of checks and balances with a variety of other trusted professional writers of different racial, economic, and gender backgrounds so that they can point out my biases and I can decide if what my subconscious says in the screenplay is what I can stand by politically and ethically as a responsible human. It took nineteen drafts to get my sex slave industry screenplay Pistoleras from a place of anger at men to a place of partnership where the genders were working together as a team to solve the problem. That was my goal, and I made sure I didn’t stop doing the work until what my goal was and what was actually said in the screenplay matched. And when we shoot it, I’ll probably have to do the same amount of cuts to remove my bias. You can’t take away the filters you see the world through, you can only take responsibility for them.

In terms of when I film, I’m always showing the audience the story from a female protagonist’s POV, which is stupidly rare. Stupid meaning, it makes no sense from an economic, mercenary standpoint not to make movies for every audience. It’s been remarked by critics that the POV shot of Jenny checking out Puck’s ass as he walks away may be the first time we’ve ever seen that in a movie. Really? Because I can see that same objectifying shot of a woman at least once a night on TV. But I’m the first one to provide 51% of the population and the gays a chance to check out a guy’s butt in the middle of a narrative and to assume we the audience want to look at a man. Stupid. We say the studios are all about capitalism, but clinging to the status quo of white male power and the myth of a white male audience still supersedes making money. There are way too many underserved markets to argue otherwise. When The Powers That Be wake up to who they’re actually sharing the planet with and that the Others that outnumber them want to pay to see entertainment that reflects their lives, a lot of money is going to get made.

TL: Whoa! You worked on Star Trek: New Voyages? Are you a Trek fan? If so, what do you think about the direction the franchise has taken under J.J. Abrams?

EF: Yeah, I was a Trekker. I have no interest in seeing the new movie, but I grew up seeing every original episode at least four times, and was a huge geeky ST:TNG fan. I was even at their series finale party at Paramount. ST:TNG may not hold up, but at the time it was groundbreaking storytelling and I felt enthralled and inspired.

TL: Let's say an aspiring horror filmmaker (or an aspiring filmmaker of any kind) asks you what movies they should watch to learn more about the craft. What are your drop-dead must-watch favorite movies? Any number, and no need to rank 'em.

EF: Well bless you! How fun. The bible is The Silence of the Lambs, which at this point I love so much for its successful use of feminist film theory that I really should just shut up and write a book on it already. Chinatown. Witness. Rosemary’s Baby. Halloween. Once Upon a Time in the West. Duck You Sucker.  The Empire Strikes Back. Seven. Alien. Terminator 2. Sex, lies, and videotape. Cat People. Notorious. The Thing. Heathers. No Way Out. The Matrix. The Quick and the Dead. Out of Sight. The Wicker Man. The Descent. Fatal Attraction. Night of the Living Dead. Sisters. Evil Dead 2.  Peeping Tom. Psycho (Happy 50th B-day!). The Beyond. Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Deadwood, Rome, and Buffy the Series. Citizen Kane. Cat People (original). May. Ginger Snaps. The Shining. The Watcher in the Woods. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The Exorcist. Bug. Scream. The Serpent and the Rainbow. Jacob’s Ladder. Angel Heart. Poltergeist. Friday the 13th. Mulholland Drive. Videodrome. Assault on Precinct 13. Blue Steel. Ghostbusters. Miracle Mile. Holy Mountain. Through a Glass Darkly. Meshes of the Afternoon. Q: The Winged Serpent. Final Destination. God I could go on and on. I mean really, I always divide my movie-studying into sub-sub genres that match what I’m writing or directing at the time. I literally have 500 lists of movies at Netflix, where I’ve been the seventh reviewer out of millions for two years now. If you want to save me to your favorites and talk movies, I’m Fies, #7.

TL: Time For a Hypothetical: If you had eleventy-jillion dollars to work with, what movie would you make?

EF: I would make a “Safari getaway goes wrong” action-thriller starring Linda Hamilton, Angela Bassett, Sigourney Weaver, and Jamie Lee Curtis. With Pete Postelthwaite or Kurt Russel or Lance Henriksen or Patrick Stewart as the brilliant rugged guide who gets killed, leaving them stranded in the jungle. And some shirtless Twilight boy as one of their hot pieces of ass who makes stupid decisions and screams a lot until he gets eaten and we all clap.

Nah, I’d probably just make ten little films for eleventy-jillion. I don’t know how I’d react to Hollywood entitlement and politics; I’m used to working with little teams that are emotionally invested in making our movie. I hear such nightmare stories from my friends working in the studio system. There’s something to be said for being broke but having autonomy and final cut. But…but wouldn’t you love to see those women kicking ass together? Sigh.

TL: Time For a Hypothetical Strikes Back: If you had eleventy-jillion dollars to work with, what movie would you RE-make?

EF: I really hate remakes. I can’t give you the answer I give in Hollywood meetings because it truly is an eleventy-jillion dollar idea. But I will say that usually I think people should look for movies that were totally flawed to begin with and fix them. Not redo a classic that people should just go rent, for eff’s sake. Or something extraordinary has to happen, like switching the lead’s gender or placing it in a different location or making the lead non-caucasian and never bringing up the issue of race.

Oh wait. You’re the perfect person for me to say this to. It really chaps my hide that for how many times I Am Legend has been adapted, no one has apparently ever used the source material. I would film Matheson’s brilliant novella as is. Especially leaving all the interesting themes about what solitary confinement does to the protagonist’s sexual urges. Fascinating, heady material there.

TL: Return of Time for a Hypothetical: If you had eleventy-jillion dollars to work with, what movie currently in the pipeline would you stop from going into production? (Feel free to plead the fifth, of course.)

EF: The Thing. I feel so frightened of how they’re going to ruin it. But I’m also not stoked about Straw Dogs and Videodrome. I read the I Spit On Your Grave screenplay and it was fine. We’ll see what the director did with that source material though.

Okay, that being said, I’m stupidly optimistic about the new Predator movie. The trailer looks like exactly what I want as a fan, and exactly what I would have pitched in a meeting. But that makes sense, because it’s produced by Rodriguez, and I have a weird artistic synchronicity with him and Tarantino. I’m their little sister they don’t know exists because their dad went off and had another family when he was on business trips.

TL: Give us a status report! What's next for you? Talk about representation, deals, offers, plans, plots, etc. And what's this about a western you're directing?

EF: I’m over halfway done producing I Hate LA, a thriller/horror anthology with a dozen interconnected short films by acclaimed female filmmakers. It’s a riff on Paris Je T’aime, only our theme is horror and each short is shot in a different city of LA proper (Hollywood, Malibu, etc.). It’s terrifically fun.

I’m raising money to produce Pistoleras, my teen chick spaghetti western wherein a team of The Craft-style outsiders use their feminine wiles to bring down a Mexican arm of the sex slave industry. We’ll demonstrate cutting-edge self-defense techniques in the movie, and it’s been proven many people who simply see the demonstrations later can use the techniques themselves in an assault situation. We’re looking at shooting the first fifteen minutes this summer as a short and a money-raising tool, so if you know any Midwestern dentists who want to invest in a film that can save the lives of all the women in their lives, let me know.

And I’m also looking at doing a microbudget feature this fall/winter that would be a fresh take on the slasher genre. Psychosexual is a short I shot last month for I Hate LA that I would love to expand. No one has ever eroticized men’s deaths onscreen the way women’s are in slasher films. It’s been amazing to actually film naked men being treated the same way, and it’s a project I’ve been wanting to do for nineteen years. I’ll have to call one of the characters some variation of Carol Clover (Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film).

You can buy an autographed special edition DVD at TheCommuneMovie.com/buy.html The Commune  DVD will also be online at Chicago Horror Society’s site starting in July. We’ll be on iTunes in the next few months. We’re almost on Netflix; only need a few more people to save it to their queues (Please help; you’ll totally be saving us!). But remember, the average person spends $7 a rental at Netflix, so it’s not really “free” to wait months until we get there. You can watch it right now streamed online at Indieflix.com for only five bucks.

If you live in LA, we’ll be shown at Bleedfest Sunday July 18th with the westcoast premiere of The Soska Twins’ grindhouse flick Dead Hooker in a Trunk, and an incredibly rare screening of Amanda Gusack’s absolutely brilliant thriller In Memorium, which predates Paranormal Activity by two years and puts it to shame. In Memorium isn’t available anywhere, so it’s worth the ten buck ticket price even before getting two other features and supporting overlooked female filmmakers. http://www.BleedFest.com

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Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.

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