A mainstay of New York’s independent horror film community, Jeremiah Kipp has definitely paid his dues. Working with directors such as Larry Fessenden and Alan Rowe Kelly, Kipp has done almost every job there is to do on a movie set. But lately, he has been focused on directing his own films, his own way. Kipp’s short films The Pod and Contact are striking, deeply personal works that might be best described as horror art films. I recently spoke with Kipp about artistic freedom, East Coast versus West Coast, and why horror doesn’t need to be saved.
Hi, Jeremiah. I really liked Contact, man. I don’t want to belabor the film’s “drugs” aspect. I think their presence just allowed you to get to the place you needed to be to talk about other things. But I have to ask, what inspired Contact?
A downtown film festival in New York called Sinister Six has an annual screening series every Halloween. Last year, programmer Bryan Enk swore that Sinister Six was in its final incarnation and must be destroyed, and he commissioned filmmakers to provide new works that were extreme in their presentation, strongly suggesting each film go for broke in terms of gore and nudity. Contact was made during a very intense and difficult time in my life. I almost made a ritualistic film about suicide, but instead decided to follow up on an image that never made its way into a short I made a few years ago called The Pod. A man and woman kiss, their mouths fuse together, and the image is fraught with metaphor. The entire scenario was built around that picture. You’re right that drugs are a way to tap into subconscious and primal fantasias, but I’ll leave those interpretations to the viewer. I’ll merely say that working with this cast and crew was a beautiful and revitalizing experience, and that the foundation of the film, the atmosphere on set and the central ideas of the movie are linked to feelings of love and connection. Love and horror can be closely intertwined, but then again so can love and magic. At the climax of the film, the character played by Robb Leigh Davis is searching for his girlfriend [played by Zoë Daelman Chlanda], and Robb walked away from the movie still filled with hope for these characters. “I don’t think he will ever stop searching,” he told me, “and maybe someday he will find her.”
The first time I saw Zoë was in a feature directed by Alan Rowe Kelly, a wonderful filmmaker who made I’ll Bury You Tomorrow on a shoestring budget but had such an original voice, such a witty narrative that reminded me of the intricate melodramatic plots of Dark Shadows, and an incredible eye for casting. Zoë was the lead, a shy and troubled young woman working in a funeral home who was happier being among cadavers than people. Zoë brought depth, dignity and charisma to the character; I found myself rooting for Dolores [Chlanda’s character] as she was killing off all of the supporting characters because, as with all the great monsters, you felt such empathy for this distorted lost soul. And she built the role so that Delores, by the end, is a commanding presence—a force to be reckoned with, a woman totally and securely in control of who she is. We became friends when I worked as associate producer on the set of Alan’s second film, The Blood Shed.
I worked with her several times as an assistant director on independent horror films before having the opportunity to direct her in Contact. I sent her the script and said she could choose any role she wanted, and she selected the lead, which gave her many colors to paint with and allowed me to build the movie around her strong central performance. She’s the engine that pushes the movie forward; she’s simply a brave, resourceful and fearless actress. I would work with Zoë anytime, and hope to collaborate with her on many more projects in the future.
At this point in your career, you’ve certainly established yourself as a director. Are you still working on other people’s films in other capacities?
I’m a freelancer and am constantly working on other people’s films as a producer and assistant director, but this can actually be quite rewarding. It allows me to watch other directors, some of them innovative and others less so, and meet cast and crew that I may choose to work with in the future. Recent projects that stand out for me are an independent feature I assistant directed called Somewhere Tonight starring John Turturro, a brilliant actor who never stopped pushing for the truth of a scene, who inspired us all by his devoted commitment to his craft.
I also loved working on James Felix McKenney’s Satan Hates You with the production team of Glass Eye Pix and MonsterPants Productions. Jim creates a family atmosphere on the set that doesn’t have the rigid and sometimes stifling caste system of big budget independent films, which seem obsessed with following the Hollywood model even though the budget cannot support that power structure. Somewhere Tonight and Satan Hates You were banner experiences in the low-budget independent realm because everyone wanted to be there, wanted the movie to be as great as it could be. Those are the kinds of experiences that inspire me, and regardless of whether it’s a good or bad shoot, you always learn something new on every job.
I am limiting my assistant director credits to projects I believe in, but remain open to producing material for other directors either in exchange for a gigantic paycheck or as a way to support an artist I like. But yes, directing my own material full-time has become my priority. Making films has always been my passion, ever since I was a small child running around making zombie movies in the backyard, and that light has never gone out.
From the outside, it seems like the New York indie film scene is very insular and collaborative—almost a collective. Is this an accurate perception?
The world of independent film on the East Coast is small, which means that once you find the people you enjoy working with, you tend to work with them many times. But much like any environment, there are friendships and alliances, backstabbing and betrayal, loyalty and new discoveries. There are always new filmmakers eager to get their feet wet; there are old hands who have seen it all, union guys who still roll up their sleeves for the little guy, benefactors who take new directors under their wing, egomaniacal jerks who undermine their team, name talent who cut young filmmakers a break when they have a good story—and even though we see the same faces over and over, each project is a new adventure. It’s a new family assembled each time, with a collective experience that is unique, and you’ll never have that experience again. When I work on films and eventually see them on the big screen, sometimes it feels like reading pages from your diary because you remember exactly where you were that day and who the people were from that collective, as you call it, who shared that moment with you. When I think of my collaborators on Contact, I must say it’s a true honor to be associated with them.
I’ve lived in New York since 1992, and when I think of the independent film scene I see a lot of artists supporting each other, encouraging each other—there are some excellent mentors here for emerging filmmakers. The horror community is particularly tight, and while there are internal divisions and disagreements, I feel like in general there is a community that exists. A lot of the low-budget horror filmmakers know each other; most of them are generous people. I’m proud to be associated with the horror genre and with these craftsmen.
Back in the ‘90s, the independent movement came along and had a big enough impact that many have said it saved cinema. Do you think independent film is now going to save horror?
There are many talented independent filmmakers working in the horror genre. I don’t believe they’ll save the genre any more than Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and George Romero saved the genre in the 1970s, because the genre does not need to be saved. It is continually reinventing itself. This decade, there are many great directors on the independent scene such as all of the directors under Larry Fessenden’s production company Glass Eye Pix—including Larry himself, the finest of the East Coast horror filmmakers working today in my opinion.
No argument here.
I also love the work of Dante Tomaselli, Jim Van Bebber, Douglas Buck, Bart Mastronardi, Alan Rowe Kelly…but they won’t save horror because the genre always winds up reflecting the terrors of where we are now. [Horror movies] are a time capsule reflecting the culture back to us. When you see Dawn of the Dead or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it’s a finger on the pulse of the 1970s. The Thing and The Fly are like a reflection of the 1980s. Nowadays, we’re seeing the best work and strongest statements about our current situation from the independent horror scene, and from foreign films like the ones being made by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Gaspar Noé. Their work is continually riveting and inspiring.
Over the years, “independent film” has kind of become its own animal. There’s a kind of “an indie film is an indie film” mentality. Do you think the differences in East and West Coast culture extend to East and West Coast independent filmmaking?
Well, it does inasmuch as when I’ve worked on the West Coast, the slang and attitudes are slightly different. I have no problem going to Los Angeles for a job, and have enjoyed myself out there several times, but New York is home for me. Directors I greatly admire such as Larry Fessenden, Tom Noonan, Michael Almereyda, Hal Hartley and Frank Henenlotter have all remained on the East Coast. Those guys have a tremendous amount of integrity.
Are you willing to entertain thoughts of nicer production deals and studio films? Would you be willing to trade whatever artistic freedoms you have as a low-budget filmmaker for a decent budget?
The minute you enter into a work-for-hire situation as a director, your artistic freedom becomes somewhat limited because the producers usually exact some level of creative control. The only alternative is to fund movies yourself or build your career to the point where you can start making creative demands. I am certainly open to the thought of working on studio pictures; however, they aren’t exactly breaking down my door right now, and I’ve heard horror stories of independent filmmakers getting chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, or hired only to be stuck in perpetual turnaround, or being used as the whipping boy on a studio feature that is really being directed by the name talent, or being broken by the demands of the studio system and transforming into hack directors.
[Laughs] That’s a lot of “or’s.”
I’m not saying great work can’t be done within the studio system; I quite love what Peter Jackson has done with his career building himself up from a genre filmmaker to [becoming a director] of Academy Award winning blockbusters, or Christopher Nolan moving from the ultra-low-budget Following to bringing his visual storytelling, his gifts with actors and his narrative trickery to The Dark Knight.
I’m scheduled to direct my first feature at the end of July, a “killer in the woods” scenario called Swine starring Tom Savini, and I hope to bring the best of myself to the project. My goal is to move on from that to another feature, and to continue to develop projects that are daring and sincere. I put as much as I can of myself into each project and surround myself with a cast and crew that can expand the possibilities and bring each film to the next level. To think I have made it seems alien to me; I hope my team is able to be continually exploring, growing, going for it, finding new stories to tell and new ways to tell them. With each new film, the filmmakers should try to do at least one thing that scares them. I can only see possibilities in that—opportunities and new discoveries every time.
Spoken like a true artist. Thanks, Jeremiah.