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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Moon in the Gutter Q+A with Filmmaker Oren Shai

Today, I am very happy to present this new Q&A I have conducted with filmmaker Oren Shai, whose film Condemned recently blew me away. I really appreciate Oren taking the time to do this and I hope everyone will visit his site after reading this to watch some of his work, including Condemned.

Oren, thanks so much for taking the time to participate in this Q&A for my readers here at Moon in the Gutter. I thought your film Condemned was truly exceptional so this is a real pleasure. To start off with, I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your early years. I know you were born and brought up in Israel and I was curious how you initially became interested in cinema and what were some of your early favorites?

I say blame The Parent Trap. I watched it so often as a kid I must have put many new scratches on the video store’s tape. I discovered the magic of the moving image when I found out Hayley Mills played both twins. Transfixed to the screen, watching her duet with herself, “Let’s Get Together” on repeat. It is still one of my favorite scenes in cinema.

Another great film influence on me was Lemon Popsicle (1979), an Israeli coming-of-age film set in 1950’s Tel-Aviv. It showed me that a motion picture could break you heart. Lemon Popsicle also intensified my fascination with the music and aesthetics of the 50’s, which I’m still captivated by. It had 7 sequels, was a huge hit in Germany and Japan, and remade in the U.S. as The Last American Virgin (1982).

I was captivated by the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, so every cinematic representation of the 50’s/60’s really appealed to me. Hairspray and Cry Baby were (and still are) favorites; Great Balls of Fire resonated with me at the time; American Graffiti, Animal House...

Tell me a bit about ‘Baboon’, the group you co-founded in 2000 and some of your early films.

When I was 18, I made a black-and-white 1950’s juvenile delinquent short titled ROCKING. It’s a little sophomoric but pretty ambitious for the time. My take on The Wild One, with some youthful idealistic romanticism, set in an Israeli suburb. An odd mix, probably, but people still remember it fondly.

‘Baboon’ was a collective of independent Israeli filmmakers. We decided that our voice would be louder as a group and banded together to screen our shorts. I was there for the first series. The group, all really talented filmmakers, continued after I moved away, to great critical response.

You moved to New York in 2001 to study film. Did that move prove a bit of a culture shock and can you tell us a bit about some of the difference and similarities between being a student of film in Israel and New York?

It wasn’t much of a culture shock. I visited the U.S. numerous times before, and grew up surrounded by American culture, from film to television to comic books. It was almost the natural continuation of my journey. The hard part about moving was not the cultural difference but the distance from family and friends.

The difference in the filmmaking experience as a student in both places was more political than artistic. Each school has a different bureaucratic system that you have to learn in order to successfully maneuver within it. It was easier to get big productions off the ground in Israel, where I knew more people, but in New York I learned to work with actual film, so it was good to go back to basics.

Tell us a bit about the very striking Heavy Soul, the terrific film that won you several awards and much acclaim in 2005.

I tried to get Heavy Soul made for 4-years. Wrote the original script my first year at The School of Visual Arts and tried to produce it every subsequent year. It proved too complex. I finally made it as my thesis. Heavy Soul presented itself as a 1950’s classroom educational (“scare”) film about the perils of addiction. My intention was not to spoof the genre, but build upon it, with strong influences from the photography of Bruce Davidson (“Brooklyn Gang, 1959”), Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl, and the cinema of Russ Meyer.

I know you have worked in the music video field. How does directing a video, where you are working to perhaps satisfy another artists vision of what a song should become visually, compare to your work behind the camera on something like Heavy Soul and Condemned?

The musicians I worked with really put their trust in me to reinterpret their songs visually. The work behind the camera is very similar in that you have to know why you are setting up each shot and how it will serve the big picture. The purpose is different because you are trying to sell a product. If you like the song it’s easy. You believe the message. “Buy this record”.

You are also an accomplished writer and looking over your list of subjects I can see we share many similar tastes ranging from Adult film icons like Veronica Hart to Italian Exploitation to Elvis. Can you tell us about your writing and how it fits in with your life as a filmmaker?

Well, I love film history. My writing is generally more historical than opinionated. I recently received my MA, for which my thesis was a study of the Women-in-Prison genre from 1922-1974. Writing about film is a natural extension of my filmmaking. An artist, I think, should be familiar with the history of his art. I mean… on the most basic level, making a suspense film without ever seeing a Hitchcock picture would be like constructing sentences without learning grammar.

There’s a great bit from Alice Cooper’s radio show, Nights With Alice Cooper, in which he interviews Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy talks about how people approach him saying he inspired them to start playing music, but he listens to them play and it’s terrible. Their conclusion is that the young bands forgot to listen to The Beatles. It’s the same principle.

Okay, on to Condemned. First off, what a fabulous short film this is. The first thing that struck me while watching it was how incredibly well composed it is. You can really see the care and detail that went into every shot of the film. Did you storyboard the production beforehand and what was the script-process like?

First of all, thank you. I’m very particular about what goes into frame and why it’s there. I was fortunate to have a crew that cared as much. Credit here has to go to my Director of Photography, Ryan Gould, and Production Designers, Pastor Alvarado and Genn Leong. We didn’t work with storyboards, but had sketches of the cell, which we measured out on my apartment’s floor to get a feel for the space. Pastor and Genn built the most beautiful set I could have imagined. Their work made Condemned possible.

Ryan and I worked together on Heavy Soul, so he knew where I was coming from, and I knew I could trust him completely behind the camera. We prepared a shot-list and discussed each scene extensively beforehand, knowing what we needed to get, so that if shots had to be changed due to scheduling issues we could maintain the aesthetic and linear flow.

Tell us a bit about the shooting. How long did it take and how many folks did you have on your crew?

Pre-production took about a month. We filmed on the Nut Roaster soundstage in Brooklyn. The production design crew had two days to build the cell (almost impossible, but they did it), we shot for two days, and had one more day to tear the set apart. I think we had around 20 people on the crew during filming, give or take a few. It was all pulled together beautifully by my producer, Natalie Rose.

Somehow we managed to condense everything into two shooting days. It was rather stressful, but independent productions often are. We filmed everything in sequence, which was a little time consuming, yet necessary to keep the lighting in continuity due to the constraints of the size of the cell. The scenes were divided by beats, since the film all takes place in one-location confined to a small space, and each one required a new lighting scheme. We were able to finish about 50 different camera set-ups in those two days.

We shot Condemned on Super 16mm, which made for a more complex post-production flow. It took about two and a half months to complete the film once shooting commenced.

One of the most resonate things about the film is your terrific cast. Tell us a bit about them; especially your marvelous lead Margaret Anne Florence.

Margaret Anne Florence was a godsend. Casting the lead proved the most stressful part of pre-production. We held auditions, but no one fit the qualities required for this character. I needed someone who, like Eleanor Parker in Caged, could channel darkness and despair behind a mask of innocence, and do so without speaking. A week before production, Condemned was still lead-less. Days before the shoot, my friend, Sean Bloch, mentioned Margaret Anne, who he saw in a short film his friend made maybe 4-years before. I saw her work, met with her, and cast her immediately. Felt like I found the person I wrote the part for. We shot very long takes to get a sense of the slow pace of time as she experiences it, but also because her performance was so powerful I never wanted to cut.

A mixture of 1950’s blonde starlets inspired the role of Laura, which Aprella portrays in the film. I got to her through a mutual friend, Veronica Varlow. Aprella read the script and wrote me the character reminded her of Carol Ohmart from House on Haunted Hill. That pretty much sealed the deal for me. She is truly a natural performer, and the kindest person. She followed Condemned with an awesome short film called Dracula’s Daughters Vs. The Space Brains, in which she stars opposite Neil Patrick Harris. It’s on iTunes. I recommend it.

Pastor and Genn suggested Ashlie Atkinson for the Night Guard. I’ve seen her in numerous things before and knew she was very, very good. After meeting with her I couldn’t think of anyone else for this role. We modeled her character after Hope Emerson in Caged, and styled her a bit like a silent movie actress. Her expressiveness is visually striking. I could easily see her being in a DeMille picture. After Condemned she toured the world with Sam Mendes’ stage play of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Longtime readers here will know how much I love works that mix-up genres and that is one of the main aspects I loved about Condemned. Tell us about some of the stylistic influences on the film.

A lot of the visual and stylistic inspiration came from the cover artwork of vintage pulps and paperbacks. I wanted Condemned to feel like the filmic equivalent of those books. One that was particularly influential was the cover of Vincent G. Burns’ “Female Convict”, by the artist Robert Maguire.

John Cromwell’s Caged (1950), as mentioned before, was an influence both visually and in designing the characters. The aesthetic of the Italian Westerns also proved important for the gritty feel of the jail cell.

I would have been very comfortable working in the genre system of 1940’s Hollywood. I feel that today when we refer to “genre” filmmaking the immediate implication is horror, sci-fi, or fantasy, which are really broad categories rather than genres with uniformed conventions. Genre is defined by conventions the audience recognizes, and few people today are instinctively familiar with the conventions of the Noir, or the Western, for example. A true genre film would have very little appeal today. To create a piece that strictly adheres to those conventions would push it to the realms of retro. My approach to genre is that by mixing conventions from different ones, you can create an objective experience for the viewer, that doesn’t necessitate prior familiarity with it (although makes it a plus).

I mention that because the influences on Condemned were more the genres themselves than specific films within them. Particularly juxtaposing the Women-in-Prison Noir with the Western, two genres that oppose each other, one dealing with an open landscape of infinite possibilities, and the other with a steel landscape and the denial of these possibilities.

You’ve certainly gotten a lot of justified acclaim for Condemned. Have their been any particular reactions that meant the most to you and can you tell us a bit about how a young filmmaker gets his work out to the public these days?

You have to be persistent and push a good product. Getting a short genre film out there could initially be tricky as it’s a niche within a form that is marginal to begin with. But once you are able to cross that barrier it absolutely pays off. You have to develop a strategy of promotion based on whom your film especially appeals to, and hope that those people help spread the word. There’s an abundance of writing on film online today, sending e-mails often works. I follow many bloggers and writers I thought would enjoy Condemned, so I tried to get the word out by approaching them. I’m grateful for how enthusiastic and supportive they’ve been.

Because I mostly approach writers I like, the responses all mean a lot to me. I was very happy to be included again in an issue of “Shock Cinema Magazine” (they featured Heavy Soul as well). David Del Valle’s review at “Films in Review” was exciting. He’s a great writer and film historian. Also, being featured on Bill Crider’s blog was very satisfying. He’s a prolific author of the type of literature that inspired Condemned.

I am positive you have a really special career ahead of you. Are there any future projects on the horizon you might want to share with us?

There’s a neo-Noir feature in the works. Cross your fingers!

Thanks so much Oren! This has been fascinating and I hope it will lead some more folks to seek out your work. I also hope you will stop back by in the future and share some more information on upcoming projects.

Thanks again and all the best of luck with everything.

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