SxSW 2015 Interview: AVA'S POSSESSIONS director Jordan Galland

By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/11/15 12:09:54

"It's a stylish New York movie about a girl who is recovering from demonic possession, and having a tough time reconnecting with her family, friends and people at work. She has no memory of what she did while she was possessed and is forced to attend a recovery group, like AA for victims of possession. With the amnesia angle, there's a mystery that unfolds, so my elevator pitch is often ROSEMARY'S BABY meets MEMENTO." Director Jordan Galland on AVA'S POSESSIONS which screens at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

I performed at the music portion of SXSW with my old band DOMINO in 2005. We opened for GANG OF FOUR and a played a few other showcases. Domino Kirke was the singer and we were signed to Mark Ronson's label; he produced the record we released titled Adults Only. It's funny now to be returning to Austin exactly a decade later with a film that features siblings of my previous collaborators, Jemima Kirke and Annabelle Dexter-Jones.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?

I grew up in downtown Manhattan, seeing movies at Angelika Film Center and Film Forum. I was very interested in theater as well and started writing one act plays when I was 12. When one of my plays was a finalist at the Young Playwrights competition, they told me it should be a screenplay. So I started writing screenplays. It took a while for me to realize that there is a very specific and rigid structure that I would have to learn and perfect in order for anyone in the business to actually take my screenplay seriously and give it a thorough read. In 2004, I borrowed a friendís digital video camera that had a 24-frame rate setting so it looked a lot better than video, and I set off trying to make a feature film for no money using my friends as actors. The 90-minute version of this was unbearable to watch. As the result of some advice from filmmakers I knew, I cut it down to 20 minutes and submitted it around as a short. It played at some festivals, and ultimately helped me get my first feature, ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE UNDEAD, off the ground. My second film, ALTER EGOS, involved a lot of the same people I had worked with on my first film.

How did your movie come together as a director?

I approached this project thinking "What did I not achieve on my last film that I had hoped to achieve, and how can I learn from that?" I was more thorough about visual references, creating extensive bibles for each department. I had done that on my last film as well, but this time I tried to be more specific.

At Fantasia Film Festival 2012, where my second film ALTER EGOS premiered, the author Kier-La Janisse was promoting her book about female-centered horror and exploitation films called "House of Psychotic Women." The cover was a poster from Aulawski's 1981 film POSSESSION, which I had seen a few years earlier and which had certainly been one of the inspirations for the script of AVA'S POSSESSIONS that I had just completed. I bought a copy and watched every film mentioned in that book, going down the list, from movies I had seen before like BLACK SWAN, THE BROOD and CARRIE to movies I had never heard of like THE BABY and BAD DREAMS. Some are masterpieces, some are barely watchable, but I felt that Ava belonged in this family of films, and that as a character, she was related to these other women.

These films became the basis for all of my reference bibles.

What was your process in getting the film together?

There are so many great people who worked on the film I wish I could talk about all of them in detail. But to start, Maren Olson at Traction Media had been my producing partner on this for two years, helping with development and reaching out to investors. Because the film has so many female characters, and I am a dude, I had been hoping to find a woman to help out the film on a fundamental level, keep the perspective honest and in check. Maren is great a producer regardless, but it was especially helpful to have her on board as a resource for all of the layered female characters that appear in the film. My wife Jessica helped a lot on that front as well.

Once I found the primary location, a building in Bushwick, the movie became real. Carlos Velazquez, who helped me produce my first two films, came on board and recommended the actress Louisa Krause for the part of Ava. I watched her films and was blown away. I immediately cast her in the lead. I worked with an incredibly smart and supportive casting director, Stephanie Holbrook, who rounded out the rest of the cast. When I met Adrian Correia, I knew instantly he was the cinematographer I wanted for this: tough, sweet, funny and an encyclopedia of film knowledge. I had worked with James Bolenbaugh, the production designer, before and had been trying to schedule the shoot around his availability and lucky for me we found a window just before ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, his regular gig, started shooting again. The co-producer Christoper Carroll is just a magical human being who held production together with an iron fist and pushed everyone as hard as possible when I was busy prepping references. Joelle Troisi, who had done the vampire makeup on my first film, was a trusted consultant of mine about the demon makeup even before she was certain she would be available to work on the film. I had my fingers crossed the whole time we were emailing about contact lenses and prosthetic veiny skin, and sure enough I was able to hire her. The VFX supervisor, Gary Breslin, did the effects for my first two films as well, and he had read several drafts of the script, helping me plan the effects so that we could achieve them on an indie budget. Matthew Polis, the sound designer, had mixed by first two films, so we talked a lot about it beforehand and watched/listened to THE EXCORCIST, THE SHINING and BLUE VELVET as preparation and inspiration. I know I'm leaving out dozens of invaluable people but we'd better move on...

What was your #1 challenge with this movie, and how did you over-come it?

There were too many challenges to narrow it down to just one. And I had seen them coming and prepared in various ways, but they still got me. The thing is, with 18 days to film 100 pages, you just don't have enough time. So you have to think about what is worth spending time on and what isn't. One thing I could never have seen coming though was that, after a couple mishaps, everyone started to think "Maybe the demons are real and angry at the film", and the crew started to get spooked. If someone stubbed their toe or opened a soda that had been shaken up and then sprayed everywhere, the whole set was suddenly like, "The demon is cursing us!" All I could do was act like the whole idea was ridiculous, even when I started to suspect it myself...

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be? The moment where you thought "I had something"?

On this film I was in a constant state of just trying to get every shot I wanted and trying to create a reality that was different from our own. There was never a scene or a day that was not a struggle, if partly because of time or wind or sunlight. But I was very concerned with getting short "glue" scenes; the moments alone with Ava where I knew the film would breathe. And I knew the whole time that we were missing Ava alone in a taxi, because on the second night, we managed to film Ava getting INTO the taxi, but the cops shut us down before we could get the next shot. We had a permit, but our permit was up and they were keeping a very watchful eye on us. It was important to me to show Ava in the taxi alone with the city in the background. And every day, I would hope for extra time to get that shot, but there was never any time. Until finally, on the last day, before the sun came up and we wrapped, the cinematographer Adrian and I hailed a cab and shot Louisa in it, going back and forth over the Williamsburg bridge while the horizon got light from the sunrise. It was beautiful, and it felt like a magical moment. We had the whole film in the can and I was getting the one shot that had eluded me the whole time.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee/sugar/tea/soda products?

What drives me is the love of movies, the thrill of creation and collaboration; if you put a great team together, you feel empowered by the shared struggle to overcome obstacles to make something beautiful. I also drink a lot of black coffee and caffeinated sodas.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed in this way.

I wanted the movie to feel visually stunning, like a dream, and for there to be colored lights and haze creating gradients from one end of the frame to the other. Ava is in a haze for most of the film so I felt thematically it made sense. Also the there are other dimensions where demons are lurking, so eerie colored light felt right as well. I wanted lenses to warp the image slightly, and for it feel distorted and exaggerated at times, so I asked Adrian to shoot on 18mm a lot. We talked a great deal about camera movement and composition that would help the viewer really feel like they were in Ava's shoes.

We shot the film on the Red Dragon because of the way it can handle low light sources. We did extensive nighttime lighting for many exteriors but occasionally we had to run and gun, and the sensor on the Dragon really allowed us to do that, while keeping the integrity of the style we had established for other scenes.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW and in Austin?

I have been rushing to get it finished in time for the screening, so I am excited to see it finished, on a big screen, and with an audience. Also, there will be several actors, the DP and art department in attendance so I will be proud to show it to them as well.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next?

It has been invited to screen at several other festivals but there is no set plan yet.

Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?

I would love to watch it at The Ziegfeld. Just because. I would like for it to also screen in David Lynch's living room.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being generally disruptive during a screening of your film?

I would tell myself they were tweeting about what an awesome movie it is.

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

Do it at any cost.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?

The Godfather.

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our 35+ filmmaker interview series. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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