Interview with Heir director Richard Powell
@dinsmorality got to the chance to ask Heir director Richard Powell a few questions about his short film. Check out the interview below and check out Heir when you get the chance.
There is much I want to discuss with the making of this film, but let's start with its central idea: child abuse. Why tackle this subject?
I prefer writing damaged, complex leads and I don't think you can tackle a more a damaged or complex lead than this. The "protagonist" in HEIR would be the "antagonist" in any other film but protagonist and antagonist are simple terms that don't really apply to the characters in HEIR, the notion of hero and villain don't really apply. HEIR is very much about the grey area between good and evil and asks what is it that compels us to do the things we do and to what degree are we responsible for those actions. This subject matter is fertile soil for that conversation.
The director's notes ask viewers to see these abusers not as figurative monsters but literal ones. This was certainly how I saw your characters. Is this a fair interpretation?
I wouldn't say my statement instructs any particular reading of the film, maybe it asks what's the difference between a literal or figurative monster. I don't think there's a right or wrong way to interpret the film or the characters. I'm more interested in the conversation and examination and less interested in nailing things down or labeling them.
It's an interesting notion, the literal over figurative monster, when you consider how often our society labels violent offenders - murderers, rapists, and in the case of your film, child abusers - as monsters. How should we justify the actions of these men? Why are these men abusers, especially the child's own father?
The film isn't really about a specific character or any character's arc. These characters, Gordon, Dennis and Paul, each represent different stages of a cycle. We have the beginning (Paul), middle (Gordon) and the end (Dennis) of a cycle which can either continue or end based on the actions of the most pivotal character (Gordon). His struggle is our way into this cycle which began long before our film begins and will either continue or end based on what he does. There is definitely no attempt at justifying the actions of these men but what the film does suggest is these men were both in the same position as Paul and the bound child in some way in their pasts and that is a crucial element in understanding the themes of the film.
Let's talk about casting. Robert Nolan and Bill Oberst Jr. are quite brilliant in this film. Nolan you have worked with before. How about Oberst Jr.? He, I should note, reminded me of a more subtle Freddy Kreuger, especially appropriate for this subject. How did they become part of this project?
Robert is a great, reliable actor who I would love to work with on every film if possible. I believe in these career long collaborations between actors and filmmakers. The greatest filmmakers always had a few performers they could rely on, could use in ways others couldn't. Robert became involved in the same way as always. I got him the script and we talked about it. One thing that needs to be made clear with Robert is, aside from being perfect for these roles, he is one of very few performers brave enough to attempt them. Most actors I've encountered want the fun, sexy roles. Robert is willing to get dark and dirty and thats a requirement in our films. Bill Oberst Jr was an actor we knew about for years and wanted to work with. We knew we needed some one experienced, unique and committed to the genre and Bill was that person. We also needed some one who could match Robert Nolan, some one who could make Robert look vulnerable. We managed to get Bill the script and luckily for us he responded to it
How did you conceive these characters? I noted in my review that 14 minutes doesn't always allow the answer to questions about the background of such complex characters, but that is OK considering the point you are trying to make. With that said, do you have an idea of who these two are and how they came to be monsters?
The characters grew out of my desire to explore the hidden and taboo world they inhabit. I knew I wanted to start with a character that was on the surface as unlikable and unpalatable as possible and mine for his humanity. The introduction of Bill Oberst Jr's character, Dennis, immediately re contextualizes our relationship with the main character and allows the true antagonistic force of the film, their shared illness, to be personified by a seemingly human villain. As for backs story or how these men became "monsters", it might seem like I've not paid that narrative thread off but in reality the entire film is about history, inheritance and legacy; the title HEIR carries alot of meaning. The film doesn't explain the character's history, it is about their histories and how the past shaped what they would or, in Paul's case, could become. If you're unsure about how a monster like Dennis (Oberst) is created look to Paul or the bound child Gordon (Nolan) encounters.
Nolan's character seems to be, dare I say, a closeted monster, whereas Oberst Jr. does not hold back his nature. I could not help but think of numerous horror films that code a character or a monster who is really a symbol of repression (e.g. homosexuality, racism). But I don't know if your characters are that simple to interpret: "Oh sure, the father represents (fill in your metaphor here)." Could you speak to this repression that the father feels, especially at the end of the film when he decides to save his son from further abuse?
The father's conflicting urges were my way into the story. If he was completely in control or a slave to the urges the film wouldn't have anywhere to go or any dramatic weight. The father feels a pull towards something horrible and he has resisted until now. Once he allows himself to explore that desire, scratch the itch, he starts down a path where he ultimately confronts his desire and the monstrosities it can give birth to. Once the father comes face to face with what he could become, a kind of dark mirror, he recoils in horror and fights against it. We don't end with him triumphant, that would be a gross underestimation of the illness, but he is now resolved to fight.
What did your actors think of this subject matter, and how did this influence their acting? I'm also thinking of Mateo D'Avino, the victim in your film. How did he handle the subject?
These actors understood what we were going for, they understood there was method behind our use of the subject matter and not simply exploitation. Our approach by way of metaphor is in itself an artful, restrained presentation of the illness these men are afflicted with. What's great is this restrained approach says so much more than a realistic telling of this story ever could. The actors get this and no doubt wouldn't have taken part otherwise. With Mateo D'Avino our approach was delicate. Through a series of talks with Mateo and his parents we came to agree that the film had artistic merit despite its rough material and that sometimes difficult material and dark stories need to be told and audiences need to be challenged and confronted. Our approach with the Paul character was my way of going all the way dark responsibly. Paul is perhaps the first horror movie victim that doesn't know he is in danger or in a horror movie situation from start to finish. Paul is unconscious before the horror starts and wakes up after it is over and he is safe, unaware of anything which took place. This allowed us to keep his scenes free of the darker elements in the film. For the role of bound child on the bed (Not Paul of some seem to think) we hired a grown female actress to avoid having any minors exposed to the more suggestive material. This separation of Paul from the molestation scenes really made things easier for all involved.
Any chance of Heir becoming a full-length feature?
Yes. I have the idea, I have the story outlined and I hope to get it made some day. I feel the concept works exceptionally well as a feature and would make for a nightmare of a film. Fingers crossed we get to make it!