Director Rodney Ascher has made a career of exploring fascinating concepts via documentaries. His first feature, Room 237, was all about a variety of interpretations that obsessed fans found in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The second, The Nightmare, was more horror based, interviewing people who suffer sleep paralysis and recreating their experiences on film. His latest project, Primal Screen, is a special presentation that dives into the pop culture artifacts that traumatized us in our youth. The first installment focuses on ventriloquist dummies, specifically the one from Richard Attenborough’s Magic.
The film, which is produced by Shudder, will be showcased on the big screen at O Cinema during Popcorn Frights Film Festival as part of its Homegrown lineup (which features four other short films). Primal Screen is as interesting as it is unsettling. Ahead of its Saturday premiere, New Times spoke to Ascher, the man blending horror and documentary to grand effect.
New Times: Where does your fascination in working with archival footage and interviews stem from?
Rodney Ascher: The first time I got excited about the possibilities of archival film was from a very short scene in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. I was probably 11 when I saw it and I never forgot it. Near the beginning, Richard Dreyfus’ teenage son presents him with a video that he prepared to express his true feelings and it was an amazing, hilarious, over-the-top montage of monsters, disasters, girls in bikinis, and animals fighting. I had never seen anything like it and I was blown away (even if Richard Dreyfus was less impressed). In film school I got turned on to the collage-film work of Bruce Conner and music videos that borrowed from his style and did my own experiments re-editing my favorite scenes of movies on VHS.
All of that opened me up to the possibilities of using archival film expressively, and then I fell in love with the way Errol Morris used clips from old genre films to tell real peoples' personal stories. I’ve tried to put all that together and also talk about the way those particular films affected peoples’ lives.
What sparked your interest in horror and blending documentary to create something that's heavily reality-based while still focusing on fear?
I got excited back when I did The S From Hell by the way it allowed me to tell small, human stories (and go off on historical/psychological tangents) while using over-the-top genre imagery. As I get more ambitious in the newer ones, shooting more original material, I’m looking forward to where this combo can go from here.
In terms of balancing existing footage and reenactments, how do you decide what needs to be re-created and what doesn't?
First I cut together a radio-show version of the story and go from there. There’s practical considerations of course, but mostly I just listen 100 times until visuals come to me. At this point I can usually guess what moments I can tell with archival and what is best suited for reenactments — though I certainly try to shoot at least a few moments that are especially abstract and subjective.
Do you typically start with a wider concept and then hone in on similar themes of the people you're interviewing?
Yeah, in general, though I’m happiest when people we interview completely surprise me. I mean, for Primal Screen we started with the idea of childhood phobias, especially pop cultural ones, which occupy an intriguing place somewhere between nostalgia and nightmare. We also did a lot of ventriloquism research and tried to find people who could get into some of the aspects we found most intriguing.
What brought you to automatonophobia [a fear of things that falsely represent a sentient being] for Primal Screen, and why did you specifically choose to tackle that through the vein of Richard Attenborough’s Magic trailer?
That trailer’s always been pretty notorious (in my circle anyway) and it certainly lent itself pretty perfectly to the the project, which is to say that it was an interesting little pop culture artifact on its own, and after talking with people about it, it was clear that it could be a vehicle to quickly get us to bigger ideas too.
There's a connection that's made in Primal Screen about how individuals use masks to say things they'd never normally say. Do you feel like that notion is grounded in truth?
I do... it’s not always as sinister as in the examples we used, but speaking through puppets or digital avatars can give people license to say things they wouldn’t elsewhere.
Do you ever find yourself convinced by the arguments your subjects make? Or do you ever find any too far-fetched to believe?
I make it my mission to see and present things through the eyes of the narrators. If I can’t see it, I can’t show it. Some of the ideas are harder to get your head around than others, but spend enough time going over the theories and things start to get more and more persuasive, especially at 2 or 3 in the morning. I might say that showing the effects The Shining had on people was closer to my mission than presenting the definitive decoder ring to the film. But I do genuinely find a lot of the things people say about it awfully compelling.
Do your subjects watch your films? How do they react?
Sometimes they come on set if they’re local, but usually I wait to show them until I’m done and cross my fingers that they like them. At this point I’ve been lucky and everyone has appreciated my interpretations — but it's pretty nerve-wracking waiting to hear. They’ve given me a lot of trust in telling their stories!
Has it helped them to discuss this stuff in depth?
In The Nightmare, which is the most heavily loaded one emotionally I think, I was surprised to find out that most of the folks from the film were more interested in learning about the other people featured than in talking about their own stories. Which is to say that I haven’t heard that the process of doing the film was especially therapeutic for any of the subjects, but I frequently hear from people who see the films and feel better that they’re not the only ones who feel the way they do.
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How was it working with Shudder producing Primal Screen?
Shudder was great; they were supportive of the project both in conception and execution. I’m glad you saw a relationship between Screen and The S From Hell because that was certainly a jumping off point. We’ll have to wait and see a bit to know if we’re doing more episodes ... but yeah, I’d love to do more. There’s some common horror tropes that would be great to dig into — mirrors/doppelgangers/getting buried alive/creepy spokes-characters — though mostly I’d love to be surprised by things that have gotten under people’s skin. I never could have guessed that there were kids with a phobia of the screen gems logo before I made The S From Hell.
What are your favorite horror films?
Night of the Hunter, Videodrome, Jigoku, Halloween 3, and Orson Welles’ version of Kafka’s The Trial.
Primal Screen. Part of the Homegrown: 100% Pure Fresh Squeezed Florida Horror program, showing Saturday, August 12, at 5 p.m. at O Cinema Wynwood (90 NW 29th Street, Miami) alongside four other short films. Tickets are $12. For more information, visit popcornfrights.com.