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SXSW '09 Interview: "Make-Out With Violence" Directors The Deagol Brothers

by Erik Childress

The “Make-Out With Violence " Pitch: Not a zombie movie.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: In 2004 after graduating from film school/art school we were all itching to move from shorts and installations to our first feature. We wrote a treatment for a high school horror film and sent it to our friend Eric Lehning (who would wind up being our lead actor). Eric was a screenwriting major which we felt made him best equipped to expand upon the treatment. After several drafts and not happy with the way the script was turning out we asked another friend of ours Cody De Vos if he’d be interested. Cody is obsessed with zombie films and is the most naturally gifted writer we know. So for several months we wrote and rewrote drafts through email with the two of them. We got to a point where there were four different working versions of the script being written simultaneously from Atlanta, Nashville, San Francisco and Chicago.

In January 2005 we flew out to California and synthesized all the versions into one screenplay with Eric. Everyone moved back to our hometown of Hendersonville, TN during the summer of 2005 to shoot the film. In addition to being a writer, we knew Cody previously as an actor so we cast him as both the twin brothers in the film. We started casting calls, raising money, hiring crew, finding locations, testing Wendy’s makeup effects, etc. The shoot was only supposed to last through August but we hit several snags in Pre Production that put us behind schedule. Cody’s stand-in and our first DP quit the production a few weeks before filming. The twins of Patrick and Carol were rewritten as fraternal and Eric all the sudden became a lead actor in the film. We found a new Cinematographer but never really had the time to develop a working relationship with him prior to shooting. All of this led to us shooting half the film that summer and then running out of money.
Eric and his brother Jordan Lehning, our composer, were working on the songs for the soundtrack throughout 2005 so they decided to form a band – The Non-Commissioned Officers - to play shows and raise money to finish the film. It took us until Summer of 2006 to raise enough money for a second shoot. The second shoot was much more organized but we still ran behind schedule because of some conflicts involving the firing/quitting (depends on who you interview) of one of the actors. So after shooting for several weeks and nearly completing production we had to shut down again.

By December of 2006, we had become pros at amateur independent filmmaking and were able (with everyone back on board) to efficiently get all the shots we needed to complete the film. Footage from the previous two shoots had already been edited and was used to inform any pickups we needed during that final shoot. Most of 2007 was spent cutting and recutting our two years worth of footage. When we realized we would have to do our own sound design Eric stepped up to be a one man department as Jordan worked on music/score and we worked on the edit. A mostly finished version of the film was submitted to festivals starting with Sundance (we didn’t get in) in late 2007. We did however, get into the 2008 Atlanta Film Festival which to our shock we wound up winning. However, still not happy with that version of the film we recut it, trimming about 10 minutes, and redid some of the music and score. What we consider to be our final version of the film premiered at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre in September 2008 to an audience of our family and friends during the opening night of the The Next Big Nashville music festival. Since then we’ve had some luck getting into festivals and are trying to secure distribution.

We’re having a big meeting tonight to figure out how we’re going to get the film noticed while we’re down in Austin. We're also trying to figure out how we are going to afford a week long stay at SXSW.

Your film has one of the most original zombie concepts I’ve seen. Just when you thought they had only three speeds (slow, fast and eat) the character of Wendy has a robotic quality to her, as if she’s trying to relearn what she did after birth but only switched on when life gets close to her. How did you decide on this as the way to go and what kind of discussions did you have with Shellie Marie Shartzer who gives a real full-bodied performance, when she’s allowed to actually use it?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: We always knew that we wanted Wendy to not be a traditional “zombie.” We never thought of her as a zombie but more like a ghost trapped inside a body. We wanted there to be an internal logic to how her physicality functioned. Like she goes in and out of rigor mortis and not all parts of her body do so at the same time. We showed Shellie a lot of Egon Schiele paintings early on for inspiration in posing and limb placement. When it became apparent that we needed help translating something that abstract into actual movement, we brought in a choreographer. Alexandra Smith is a trained dancer who worked extensively with Shellie to develop Wendy’s routines. They came up with an entire process for how her body functions and used a lot of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham for inspiration. The scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris of Hari respawning after drinking the liquid oxygen was also an inspiration.

Do you hate the trend that finds zombies with motors on their asses?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: None of us are particularly bothered by the idea of fast zombies.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: The Deagol Brothers entire existence is predicated on a mutual love of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. It’s our favorite movie and we all aspire to one day make films as epic. We share a mutual love for Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick, LOTR and the original Star Wars trilogy.
We had always wanted to do a high school film – it seemed like given our limited resources it would be the easiest genre to tackle. That translated into watching a lot of John Hughes films during Pre-Prod – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles. The horror aspect was inspired by Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We had never seen it until after film school and it was so much more original and interesting than we all assumed it to be. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 (specifically the Gary Gilmore corpse) was a direct inspiration for the original incarnation of Wendy. For tone of performance we had the actors watch Malick’s Badlands, Days of Heaven and Ridley Scott’s Alien. We watched more movies in Post Prod when it became apparent we were going to have to do our own sound design. Almost Famous, Forrest Gump and most of Scorsese’s films were a great help to us when it came time to mix the music for the film. Fire Walk with Me and Master and Commander were the primary influences for our overall sound design. The way the Wachowski brothers cut their films was directly ripped off in some of our our montages.

Aside from the Coens, which filmmaking brothers would youy most like to be compared to?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: Based on how much we all liked Speed Racer…maybe the Wachowskis? There aren’t a whole lot of brothers that make for an apt comparison. Since the Deagol Brothers aren’t really brothers, we’d rather be like a close-knit group of filmmakers that just happen to work under one brotherly pseudonym. We’d aspire to be like Francis Ford Coppola, Walter Murch, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and John Milius back in the 70’s if they were the cinematic equivalent of The Residents.
Do you have any other film festival experience? Either as filmmakers or attendees?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: We were fortunate enough to win the Atlanta Film Festival last year and meet Erik Jambor and Craig Zobel who have both really gone out of their way to lend some credibility to our film. We’ve attended the Indie Memphis and Oxford IFF recently and were treated with an amazing degree of hospitality by the festival organizers. We’ve been frequent visitors to our hometown Nashville Film Festival over the years but this is the first time we’ll have a movie playing.

Clearly this is a film about dealing with death and letting go rather than creating it. But in my eyes it’s also about how the living struggle to not be walking corpses and to not be invisible to the ones they care about around them. Did you guys experience that kind of all-encompassing summer that writers love to craft life’s tales around or were you just trying to find a new spin to the zombie genre?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: We were all high school friends who unfortunately experienced a summer similar to the characters in the movie. We lost a very good friend of ours the day after graduation and the illusion of community that high school offers had to be actively maintained to keep some sense of normalcy as everyone went off to college. It’s been the core basis for our friendships and has lasted ever since. Although making this film and the stress of completing it put those friendships into jeopardy.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: Since our film is an ensemble piece and no one actor carries the story it's hard to single any particular person out. In general audiences seem really taken with the female members of our cast (no offense to the boys).

We could see Shellie Marie Shartzer having a life as some sort of cult horror movie actress. Her personal hero in life is Bruce Campbell and seemingly she wouldn't mind being a female equivalent. Shellie's lifelong ambition prior to us meeting was to play a "zombie" in a movie. Now that she has Wendy under her belt she's much more interested in a career behind the scenes. Shellie served as our Best Boy/2nd Grip on all three shoots and her heart truly resides in gripwork. She thinks acting is "boring."
Tia Shearer is the most talented and professional actress we know. She made quite a name for herself during the short time she lived in Nashville - starring in many shorts, features and plays. Tia is totally driven and committed to her pursuit of acting. It would be very easy to imagine her becoming a "big-time" actress. However, destiny would have nothing to do with it. Tia is an uncompromising performer and just based on her talent and determination would more than likely be the most successful member of our cast in the future.

Leah High is actually an aspiring librarian. She doesn't consider herself an “actress” and has other pursuits professionally and creatively but she could be a very successful actor if she were so inclined. Leah’s lack of experience is made up for by her great intuition as an actor and a very natural presence on camera. She has very strong screen charisma that viewers respond to. Additionally, her unique look is a strange blend of beauty and quirk that isn't reminiscent of any other "big-time" actress. There is nothing we asked of her ability-wise that she wasn’t able to deliver with aplomb which is pretty extraordinary for a first time actor making their feature film debut. We get a lot of questions about who she is during festival Q & A’s.

Who’s an actor you’d kill to work with?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: Daniel Day-Lewis. Although everybody probably picks him.

Can you tell us a little about your composer, Jordan Lehring, who also plays Rody in the film? It’s a really beautiful scoundtrack and at times I felt like I was watching a zombie film scored by Sigur Ros.

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: Jordan is a very gifted musician who aspires to be a film composer and had worked with us previously on all of our short films in college. Heavily influenced by Brian Eno’s first four pop records he and his brother Eric began writing songs for the movie that would serve to orient the audience in the world of MAKE-OUT with VIOLENCE. Each character in the film was supposed to listen to different music and the score was to reflect that. We hoped that the varied soundtrack would make the cross-cutting more palpable. Jordan spent a lot of time writing cues that sounded like they could be different bands while all having a thread common enough that the music would make sense as an entire piece of score. Jordan and Eric finished songs as early as May 2004 and we were able to use those tracks to assist in the writing of the screenplay. Having music that captured the particular tone of the movie offset any problems we had dealing with multiple screenwriters. Jordan was asked to act in the film when Eric, who had previously been cast as Rody, was forced to play Patrick. He is currently living in Nashville and working as an Engineer and Record Producer. He recently finished work on the MAKE-OUT with VIOLENCE soundtrack - which we'll have for sale at SXSW. He also co-fronts the rock band Eureka Gold with Buddy Hughen (who also contributed music to the film).

When I first saw last year’s Let the Right One In, I initially described it to people as “Near Dark meets Untamed Heart.” If I was so asked to put a label on Make-Out with Violence, I might say its “Let the Right One In meets Lars and the Real Girl” not the least because it involves a romance with an inanimate female and a climactic scene set around a swimming pool. Do you worry about people trying to put superficial labels on your work as a means of description or the potential hype that such labels might unfairly incur?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: We’ve found that it’s hard for people to describe our movie unless they’re putting it into some context involving other films. Any label like that is going to be misleading on some level but if that’s how people need to describe it then so be it. It doesn’t bother us. Although we do get a lot of people comparing us to The Virgin Suicides and specifically our directing style to Sofia Coppola’s which is strange since we don’t consider her an influence. We did actively try to stay away from any influence or comparison involving David Lynch (who we’re big fans of). We didn’t feel comfortable with people comparing Wendy to Laura Palmer. When asked to describe the film we normally say it’s like Tarkovsky’s Solaris crossed with Weekend at Bernie’s but even that isn’t exactly accurate.

What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: I think at this point any press we can get from bigger outlets is what we’re hoping for. Not to take anything away from the anonymous junketeer but we’ve been trying to create more public awareness of the film with the hopes of getting distribution and paying back all the friends and family that invested.

Do you have any favorite (or least favorite) film critics? And how important do you believe film critics are nowadays?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: No favorite or least favorite film critics. Probably read Roger Ebert, Jim Ridley and maybe Devin Faraci the most just to get an idea about what’s coming out week to week. We’re in a position where we’re trying to get film critics to notice us, so that they’ll write something, which will hopefully lead to more awareness of the movie, which will lead to distribution, which maybe leads to another film. They're important to us because they have the power to recognize our movie. But with that power, nothing is at stake for them. The speech that Brad Bird gives Anton Ego at the end of Ratatouille really sums up how we and most independent filmmakers feel about critics.

Nowadays there are too many online critics. It's easy to find someone with an opinion but difficult to to tell whether or not it’s an informed one. Also in the era of online film criticism and entertainment journalism becoming indistinguishable you see a lot of critics who write more about themselves than the films they’re watching. MAKE-OUT with VIOLENCE won Best Feature at the Oxford Film Festival this year but more people know about the Jeffrey Wells incident. We did get great shoutouts from Kim Voynar, Scott Weinberg and some other really cool people we met down there. And I’m sure some will make the argument that we wouldn’t have received any coverage had Wells not brought attention to the festival. But how do you respond to a critic writing - "I think the breaded wasabi sauce on top of the salmon served yesterday afternoon at the City Grocery was more meaningful and profound than a lot of the movies that played here." – when it’s our understanding that he hadn’t even seen our movie.

In a movie called Dead Girl which played a few festivals last year, two incredibly unlikable teenage guys find a chained up girl in a building. They proceed to keep her there, to utilize her as a sex object and flirt with the consequences involved which included a crush on a local girl. If people didn’t know any better they might think your film is the antecedent to that film’s depravity. Have you seen the film and do you have any thoughts on horror films that would rather play down to an audience’s gore expectations rather than give them something truly horrifying to think about?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: No we haven’t seen Dead Girl yet. However, we’ve become very aware of it while making the festival circuit. MAKE-OUT with VIOLENCE’s logline sounds almost exactly like Dead Girl's so it’s a little weird for people to mistake our movie for theirs. People place a lot of expectations on a film with a title like “MAKE-OUT with VIOLENCE” especially while it coexists with Dead Girl. Ultimately we wind up disappointing some of those viewers because our film is so antithetical to what the logline or the context “zombie movie” would have you expect.
The interesting thing about the whole situation is how similar our original incarnation of the film would’ve been to (our unseen understanding of) Dead Girl had we the resources to shoot it. The first screenplay for MAKE-OUT was much more a combination of a David Cronenberg “body horror” film crossed with something like Harmony Korine’s Gummo (it also veered dangerously close to American Pie territory as far as teen sexuality is concerned). Once we committed something that explicit to paper we realized that it wasn’t the movie we wanted to make and it wasn’t in anyway indicative of our shared experiences in high school. We tried to focus on what conceptually we liked about having a resurrected undead character. Most of our high school experiences were informed by unrequited crushes and “the girl who got away” so that became the basis for all subsequent rewrites. The movie became more a teenage male fever dream about that second chance with a girl you never really had a first chance with. The way guys of that age tend to objectify girls became a strong thread as did the melodrama associated with first crushes, kisses and girlfriends. As a result the movie became much more chaste and puritanical toward sexuality and violence. Everything became more quixotic and romantically stylized. Necrophilia became implied as opposed to explicit which we felt was weirder and more interesting.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a scene of violence or sexuality that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: We would hope that we would’ve been savvy enough to anticipate the problem in the first place. And that being the case, would have inserted something even more objectionable into the film that wasn’t integral and would agree to cut that instead.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: We wouldn’t want to remake anything. Moby-Dick is collectively our favorite book and not even Huston or Coppola succeeded with it; so it would be great to have a chance to adapt that – maybe with an older Daniel Day-Lewis as Ahab (two fantasies with one production!). The Foundation novels would be fun to adapt but we’ve got our own sci-fi septology that we’ve written and we’d rather make original stories. It would be cool to do a James Bond movie. We’ve always wanted to see David Bowie play a bond villain and he would croon a great opening credits song.

What are you looking forward to most during your SXSW experience?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: We’re excited to meet fellow filmmakers and film lovers. We’re also eager to win new fans, and to become new fans of other emerging filmmakers.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of all the other SXSW options they have. How do you do it?

THE DEAGOL BROTHERS: It seems that many independent films lean too far in one of two directions—either they try to eke another few miles out of the well-worn tropes of their preferred genre, or they punish and alienate the viewer with calculated “edginess.” We set out to make a film that would offer an honest insight into a unique universe, and we tried to do so by weaving familiar, if disparate, genre elements into a very personal story. MAKE-OUT with VIOLENCE is a challenging film in some ways, and its most ardent supporters often use the phrase “difficult to describe.” But it also respects and seeks to preserve the childlike wonder of the storytelling experience in film.


The Deagol Brothers' Make-Out With Violence will have screen at the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival on Saturday, March 14 (8:00 PM) at the Alamo Ritz. It will screen again on Tuesday, March 17 (9:00 PM) and Saturday, March 21 (9:30 PM), both at the Alamo Lamar. And be sure to check out the film’s website [/big]

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originally posted: 03/07/09 08:29:25
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