An exploration into Fear - Interview with Writer/ Director Steve Kahn
@Ventspleen2014 speaks to Steve Kahn about his short film "Fear" that is currently wowing audiences on the festival circuit...
Hi Steve, thank you for giving me the opportunity to view "Fear". I absolutely loved it! I think we have all experienced periods of time in our lives where the small incidental details have grown to become one, seemingly impossible and overwhelming horror.
Can you tell me a little about how "Fear" came into being?
"Thank you David. I am so glad you loved it and connected with the film. That means so much to me! You know I honestly believe that the audience is always right. In theory if the viewer doesn't like a film is the fault of the director not the viewer. Now in practise no project will connect with everyone and there are definitely some audiences that will never get you. But interestingly enough I just stumbled upon a Roald Dahl children's audiobook "The Witches" and though it is written for children I loved it. Perhaps I didn't love it in the same way that an eight year old would but it contained aspects that drew me in and entertained me and made me think. Something about it was universal. Every artist wants their work to be universal. I know I do. And so in "Fear" I employed layers of depth, as Dahl did in his children's book to create a multi-faceted film. I love beautiful iconic imagery. And to some when they see a beautiful woman like Jessie shot in a beautiful way that is enough. And that's okay. Another facet I employed in the search for universal was to use intrigue. Fear is full of mystery and suspense which keeps the audience guessing. I left out far more than I relayed to my audience in the film. I wanted them to be in a constant state of wonderment. To always be asking and guessing. Ultimately at the deepest level there is the theme: the meaning that I wanted to get across. This was the emotion of fear itself. How fears are just things we work up in our own mind. How we scare ourselves. How we do it to ourselves. And how ultimately it's not the fears we have that hurt us but instead our reactions and over-reactions to them. For me "Fear" started as a theme. It started in the recesses of my own mind. With my own fears. And, while there's been tons of films and movies and songs on love there have been precious few on the process of fear. The nature of fear. I mean what is it? How does it effect us? And, what does it look like? Now I'm not talking about the fear one has when a guy in a hockey goalie mask is charging at you with a huge chainsaw or when zombies are in the process of tearing you limb from limb. I mean when those things happen yeah fear is totally understandable. But, I'm really talking about the irrational fears that is so common to all of us. The little subtle fears that we create in our own minds that get under our skin and can have huge disastrous effects on us and reek havoc on our lives if we let them. I made this film because it was so odd to me that nobody really talks about those, in reality the biggest fears of them all."
"Exactly that. It's powerful and exciting to have images say a thousand words whilst your actor says only a precious few. There is something wonderfully poetic about working that way which I quite love. In Fear I wanted to show how little things, meaningless everyday things, could scare us. How we build meaning into things in our own mind. And, it really worked. We hold on a shot of a radio that that somehow it disturbs us yet we don't know why. We watch a single drop of blood hit a stark white tub or water go down a rusty drain and it feels irrationally unsettling. Even a little yellow rubber ducky seems menacing as it smiles at us with its orange beak. What does it mean to do to us? So if a little ducky can hold demonic potential what about that new zit on my face? Could it really hold the possibility skin cancer? Or that creaky door? Has someone come into my house to kill me? Or the shower curtain. What is behind it? A demonic monster? All these mundane objects we encounter on a daily basis hold potential to be the true demons in our lives depending on how we react to them."
I actually laughed when she threw the duck across the room, hitting the radio, breaking the glass and finally landing in the toilet. Nice shot, but also fantastic in temporarily relieving the building tension. Can you talk us through this, seemingly pivotal moment in the film?
"Sure. Though it was there for comedic relief and to create an emotional dynamic the primary use of the duck was highlight just the silliness of it all. Just how silly we can be as our minds concoct fantasies of doom and gloom. Just how utterly melodramatic we can be. Though it is Gothic the Beethoven music supports that melodramatic feeling as well."
Your use of colour and definition is also amazing. I love the striking contrast between the blinding white of the bathroom and the dark of the living room,stairs and kitchen. Does this signify more than what we see?
"Thanks so much. Overall, that is the feeling I wanted to create: going from innocence to the depths of despair. To support in that effort I started with shades of desaturated white-whites and end up with heavily saturated blue-blacks at the end. This colour effect was used to support the theme of her spiralling out of control as fear took hold of her more and more. Within the film, though, there is more subtle usages of colour which serve to support the tone. I wanted to create a film on the process that fear takes, the emotional journey it sends us on. In the film I subtly used my actress' skin tones to reflect her emotional state. In the beginning she is calm and visually her skin looks desaturated and neutral. When she becomes frightened though she appears pinkish to hint at a vulnerability. As she grows brave her visage appears olive and ruddy reminiscent of a soldier ready for battle. And, when upset she becomes red. On and on. Though these skin tone changes are subtle I feel they hit on a subconscious level and serve to support the theme. I used a minimal colour palate consisting mostly of whites and blacks with accent colours of blue, pink and yellow. These served to help direct focus and support the emotional impact as well. For example Jessie who normally has green eyes has deep icy blue eyes in the film. We see them from her first glance at us and they scare us for some reason. Just the stark coldness of them hint at her uncertainty and serve to foreshadow what is to come."
Very early on, when Jessie is reaching for her dog you focus on her arm, reaching into the unseen. Clearly she knows her pet dog very well but we don't as the viewer. It plays on another primal fear of pets and particularly dogs biting doesn't it?
"Yeah. It really does. And pets really can effect us and can be a source of mystery because they can't say in words how they feel or what's going on. There are so many black boxes in life. So many mysteries where we reach into the unseen and unknown. And, true there is a fear of pets - will they hurt us or are they hurt. One of my Chihuahuas, Cyndi, jumped off the bed a couple of days ago and really hurt her leg to the extent that she puts no weight on it. But, she can't tell me where it hurts or how much pain she is in. As I watch her limp around I don't know what's going on under her skin. I don't know if she has broken a bone. And, fears like that have the potential to drive me crazy. The shot you mentioned is interesting for precisely that black box reason. My actress Jessie knows it's just her dog yet we, the audience, don't. It pushes through the open door and runs into it's hiding place. Presumably it has done that a thousand times, at least that's the reaction that Jessie plays so well. And as she reaches in to fetch him out serves to further scare us. To us it makes no sense that she is so calm. We wonder: "is she crazy?". To us as viewers her mind has become a black box - a mystery - as well. It makes no sense to us that she is reaching into a scary looking place after possibly God knows what. Jessie is an amazing actress, the feeling of fear and nervousness builds incredibly. She is adept at moving the viewer from relative comfort to increasing agitation its a journey I feel we share with her. What was your direction to her? Thank you and I'm glad. Jessie is quite a natural actor to watch. She has an amazing gift of knowing that she is enough, just a subtle look can be enough to express her intended emotion. It's an interesting thing but one has to be at ease at oneself to be able to play that uneasy agitation that you were speaking of. My direction served just to guide her on that path. Good film making like good art and maybe all the best things in life are about more and more subtle refinement. In "Fear" as we go from moment to moment we watch Jessie go through an emotional roller coaster which has to make sense to the viewer. So not only do her reactions have to be real but they have to be real from one scene to the next. In this film that was my challenge in directing Jessie - making all the different moments and emotions make add up believably as we go on and on through the film."
I winced when Jessie steps out of the bath and the close up of the sharp, cutting shards of glass threaten to lacerate her feet. Playing mind tricks with the viewer here as Jessie seems to be unaware of the danger?
"Yes exactly. And she never is aware of it though it is real. That is my little comment on the fact that we don't really know the dangers out there. We don't really know what can really hurt us as we go on obsessing what we think can hurt us. It is such an interesting irony of life that as we run away from a harmless, but perceived dangerous, situation we can jump headlong into disastrous one. Why is Jessie so agitated at the late arrival of her lover? This seems to be a totally off the scale reaction to a minor indiscretion. Is there something we don't know here? We don't know anything about her lover. Who he is or what he is. A nice guy or a mass murderer. We don't even know if he is not a she. But I like that. There are a lot of black box mysteries which run through "Fear". You can't see in a black box so you never know what's inside. That is appealing to me. In the film she has come to a point where she is starting to freak out. In the distance she hears her door open, and her dog bark incessantly and the water drip all of which starts to drive her crazy. So she begins to spin on what Anthony Robbins describes as going through a crazy eight spiral of emotions. She's freaked out by what she thought she saw in the mirror so then is glad she (thinks) her love has arrived, but then becomes pissed at the dog barking, then thankful when he shuts up, then mad her lover has arrived before she is ready, then regrets she took a harsh tone with her love even if it was just in her own mind. That scene which is actually a long monologue of her talking to really no one but herself symbolises what we go through when we are attacked by fear. How our mind talks to itself. How one thought leads to the next and we spiral into the depths of despair."
As Jessie's fear increases, the soundtrack changes from the radio to uses of constant down pouring rain and sudden noises very much akin to those used in The Shining? Is there a supernatural angle here or is it all in her mind?
"That's a great film reference. Kubrick is just about my favourite director and I love The Shining. It was my intention for the viewer to question where the music (and evil sounds) were coming from. First we start off with two pop songs which of course could come from a radio. But then we go to a Beethoven piece with the underlay of operatic voices, perhaps angels or perhaps devils, which continue to the end. Now usually radio stations that pay pop don't play classical. And, they rarely play angel/demonic opera singers. So in doing this it was my intention to lead the viewer, to tell them we are going more and more into my actresses mind. The shots support this as well. As we near the end more and more are from her perspective until the last shot is completely her perspective. The drip sound was used to build tension. If you notice it starts out as a slow drip and then builds in intensity and volume until it climax's into a raging thunderstorm. To me this symbolises the torrent of thoughts and fears that is going through my character's mind. It underlays the film and serves almost as a subtle metronome to set the beat and pace of the film."
"To me the candle represents her inner light shinning through. Her composure as she descends the basement stairs to face whatever there may be. In the scene just before looking out the kitchen windows at the thunderstorm Jessie was bathed in the white lighting bolts which consumed her and surround her. But, through that all she remained steadfast and calm. If you look at the blue lightning through the windows those bolts don't look like natural lighting bolts nor were they intended to. They actually represent her brain neurons firing uncontrollably. So in fact though she is looking out the windows in truth she is looking into her own mind. And calming her own thoughts and overcoming her own fears which roar all around her. Finally, with her inner calm in tact and single candle to light the way she descends the scary pitch black stairs. But, then a small gust of wind comes and causes the candle to flicker and ultimately go out. And that happens to us as well. When we have found our equanimity that can all be lost in an instant. Again, even the littlest thing can shake it. We must always be on guard."
Finally, "Fear" is currently appearing at film festivals, what has the response been so far and what do you have in store for the future?
"You know you never know how the public is going to receive a new film. And, as I said I really feel that they are right in how they react to something. If it doesn't touch them it is not their fault but rather mine. And, that being said "Fear" has gotten quite a good response. As it is more of an old school Hitchcock type piece without any real gore I was especially worried that horror fans wouldn't embrace it but I am so happy that the majority of them have. Horror movie lovers are the absolute best. They are honest and they are vocal. They love the genera and are quite smart as to what works and what doesn't. That's not to say that everyone has liked the film. Early on I gave it to a couple of big Hollywood TV producers for feedback and their complaint was that it lacked a traditional plot. Which it does. And, that's okay. Not everyone has to like it. I would like to run the festival circuit and we have just started on that path. In that effort I want to say thank you so much David as well as give a big thanks to Haddonfield Horror for doing this interview. The honest truth is that without your support "Fear", no matter how good or not good it is, would never see the light of day or play a single festival. I remember seeing highlights from the 2014 Toronto Film Festival recently and the big highlight was a Ghostbusters screening. Now I like Ghostbusters. It was a totally fun movie. But it's also 30 years old. You can see it on DVD, Blue-ray and on broadcast TV. But it played at Toronto because of its popularity. And, for better or worse, most film festivals have become that way as well. Selected films are popular and have buzz. Programmers want to fill seats and sell tickets and get buzz themselves. And that is understandable. So thank you for helping me get buzz and spread the word on "Fear". I think it is a film with beautiful, sexy imagery that has important things to say. Thanks again Steve, I very much look forward to seeing more from you. Your use of camera, light deferential and direction has really struck a chord with me. Thank you for the kind words and for doing this article, David. Much appreciated!"
Thank you very much Steve, the answers you have given me provide an insight into the process and mindset you've adopted in making "Fear"
You can follow Steve on twitter at @stevekahn and find more out about Fear on Twitter at @fear_film
Have a look at the official clip and see for yourselves.
David Martin is on twitter at @ventspleen2014 and you can read his interview with Fear star Jessie Rabideau tomorrow.
Photos courtesy of Fear Film and KMA Publicity