Saturday, September 18, 2010

Get To Know Your Savage

In the midst of preparing another entry, and being limited to borrowing computer time from others, I just missed commemorating the birthday of another fine filmmaker, compelling blogger, and, yes, supportive friend: Mark Savage. If you really wanna run with the coincidences, much like the subject of my last post Philippe Mora, he's also another Australian expat currently in the SoCal area - how I keep coming into contact with dese ockers I'll never know.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mark back in 2006, during my period of freelance work for the now-defunct Subversive Cinema DVD label. Subversive had licensed three of Savage's films and a short for a box set release called SAVAGE SINEMA FROM DOWN UNDER. MARAUDERS, his debut, was shot on '80's-era professional videotape with friends over a series of weekends, and demonstrated vigorous energy along with its gratuitous violence. SENSITIVE NEW-AGE KILLER, his most widely-seen film, was a fun intersection of Australian quirky character comedy with criminal violence, one of the better entries among '90's-era artsploitation. If he was pushing the envelope with SNAK, he ripped the whole darn package open with DEFENCELESS:A BLOOD SYMPHONY, a unique supernatural tale that contained no spoken dialogue, just classical score and visuals both excruciatingly horrifying and innocently beautiful, shot on high-definition video before it became standard practice.

The box set was followed a year later by single-disc releases of SNAK and DEFENCELESS. All these are sadly out of print, as are all of Subversive's product, but a brief check of Amazon and eBay shows that new and used copies are available and reasonably priced. I conducted this interview with Savage that summer to promote the box set release, which was originally published at the Subversive Cinema website, which has since been taken down. In honor of his birthday, I am reprinting the interview:

What was the incident or film that made you firmly decisive to become a filmmaker?
I wanted to be a horror writer when I was six. I developed an interest in the grotesque and unusual because I wore an eye patch from the age of four to nine and I never looked like other kids…or felt like them. Horror films captured my imagination and soul like nothing else. The most influential were the films I saw on TV — Buchanan’s IT’S ALIVE, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, VALLEY OF THE GWANGI, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (this triggered a fatal interest in females that has never abated), HOUSE OF WAX, LOST WORLD, Bert I. Gordon’s CYCLOPS. I was also cinemativally aroused by “LOST IN SPACE,” “DR. WHO” and “THE TWILIGHT ZONE.” Cinema was always an immersive experience.

Besides your brother, was your family supportive of this decision?
My parents encouraged me to write because I started very early. I did it obsessively. They wanted me to be a journalist, though, so my sliding creatively into depictions of life’s miscreants and misfits, and the accompanying horror, extreme sexuality, and harsh violence made them uncomfortable. They have been supportive of my struggle as a filmmaker, however, and understand how difficult that life choice can be. We are close.

How did you get the opportunity to make MARAUDERS?
I saw an opportunity. I was directing commercials and industrials for a major production company in Melbourne. They owned their own cameras, lights, dollies, production vehicles and edit suites. I approached the boss and pointed out to him that his investments were depreciating and sitting around doing nothing on weekends. I told him that I’d like to get productive with the gear and, in turn, make a feature that he could earn income from. He appreciated my entrepreneuring spirit and greenlit the production.

Did you and the friends who helped you make it ever think it would become a widely seen film, or did they initially approach it as a "big home movie"?
Our intention was to make a releasable movie, but we were naive about its distribution. All involved gave 100% and dedicated close to forty weekends of their life to its production.

What was the reaction of the various other people you involved, particularly children, to the dark tone of the film?
Reaction to the final film was positive amongst younger people, but older people were offended by the language and graphic violence. My mother found the language objectionable, which was not surprising. The children acting in the movie had a great time. They were fascinated with the special effects make-up and curious about how scenes of violence were constructed. It was not traumatic or distressing to them. Of course, the film is not for children, so I never showed it to them.

I really like the use of the still pictures of the adult cast at the beginning versus the child photos at the end — they symbolize both a large theme of "how do 'nice' kids go so bad," and the real-life friendship the four of you must have had during the long production. Was that what you had in mind when you put it in the film?
I love to see photographs of killers and rapists when they were children. It is fascinating because I look into their eyes and wonder what happened between when the photo was taken and when they started to commit the crimes that define them. Children have amazing faces, and they are as complex as adults, but their features are somewhat misleading because their feelngs and histories have not yet carved fissures of pain and suffering into their facades.

What was the inspiration behind SENSITIVE NEW-AGE KILLER?
SENSITIVE NEW AGE KILLER was inspired by my struggle to be a filmmaker — to have a "hit" that would propel me to the next level. My ambition impacted heavily on my marriage, so the original draft was very heavy on the marital conflict. Although the themes were autobiographical, I didn’t want to make a film dealing literally with those. I like action movies, especially those made by Ringo Lam and Kinji Fukasaku, so it was a natural to channel my ideas into that genre. The film has a strong sexual undercurrent and elements of bizarre humor. Those aspects are pure Me, and I hope they distinguish the film from the fims of the directors I admire. Makng movies requires a can-do attitude, a determination to forge ahead at any cost. I am a tough taskmaster, but I am never unfair or abusive to cast or crew. I collaborate with talented, hard working people, and they are as obsessed with the process as I am.

Was it easier to get SENSITIVE NEW-AGE KILLER made since it was ostensibly a "comedy," a genre that more often comes out of Australia than action or horror?
I financed SNAK with two investors. They liked that I was commercial-minded. Getting money is always hard, but the comedy aspect of the film had little impact on the ease or difficulty of the task.

Was it difficult to create something light after dwelling on darker material beforehand?
I had no trouble creating something light because I see humor in many things (often the most appalling things!). My previous movie was THE MASTURBATING GUNMAN [released on VHS in America under the unwieldy-but-clean title MASKED AVENGER VS. ULTRA-VILLAIN IN THE LAIR OF THE NAKED BIKINI], so I was still in comedy mode. Getting audiences in Australia to accept the mix was a challenge. Humans like their genres pure. SNAK mixed genres, even parodied genres, and was unusual for an Australian film. Aspects of the story such as one character snorting his mother’s ashes and another achieving orgasm by listening to a dying man’s heart were both grotesque and humorous to me. My co-writer (David Richardson) and I self-censored a lot of crazy concepts in the drafting of the screenplays. We share a black sense of humor.

Was there any event or series of events that led to conceiving DEFENCELESS?
I wanted my next film to be pure in terms of shooting and final shape. I love the ocean and the coastlines, but I am appalled by what is happening to our world in terms of "development." Nature is being transformed for the sake of profit. Susanne Hausschmid (the co-producer and lead actress) and I share passions for many of the same things, so we created DEFENCELESS to depict those. I tend to make films about whatI love and what angers me. What angers me most are people who abuse the liberty of others. What satisfies me is seeing those same people destroyed. DEFENCELESS celebrates fighting for what you believe in, even if you forfeit your life to do it. The lead woman represents Mother Nature herself, and I was challenged by the graphic depiction of her struggle and finding the light in the dark. Without beauty, brutality is boring.

What sorts of advantages did you have from shooting the movie with digital technology?
Certainly it is cheaper to shoot a higher ratio of footage digitally. On DEFENCELESS, I shot with a very high end camera, so the shooting cost was still substantial. Video does not handle contrast as well as film, so you must work hard to even out backgrounds and avoid looking up into an overcast sky. I use reflectors constantly to fill faces and elevate the exposure on foreground objects (such as people) so I can stop down the backgrounds and make them more attractive. Video can potentially look much uglier than film, and it doesn’t have the density of film, so the time spent lighting correctly is as long as film, sometimes longer. One big advantage of video is that you can shoot for a long period without having to reload.

Do you find that people react differently to the extremely explicit scenes because of the unconventional way they are presented, without dialogue or traditional genre music?
Some genre fans have difficulty with DEFENCELESS because it does not adere to genre conventions. Although it is a horror film, it is also a depiction of beauty, friendship and deep emotion. I have no interest in directing retreads of films I admire. I must sign each film with themes and styles that are unique to me. I like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT very much and am curious about the often-mentioned remake. It is a project I would be interested in remaking, but only if the producers were looking for an original re-imagining of the original. Why remake a film if all you want to do is give it a technological update? I am a very emotional person, so my films are emotional. If that embarrasses or offends some fans, that’s too bad. Personally, I am offended by films that pretend humans don’t have strong feelings. Or don’t embrace their sexuality, even if that sexuality is dangerous. The no-dialog aspect of DEFENCELESS was more worrying to friends and colleagues before they saw the movie. Personally, I think I pulled the no-dialog thing off, but I’m in no position to speak for anybody else.

Why do you think it is that Australia seems to have such difficulty accepting genre films with the same openness they give to comedy and domestic dramas?
Because Australians equate horror films with America and Britain, they have problems accepting homegrown ones. Australia does not have a tradition of horror films. Horror films were, in fact, banned for decades in my home country, so filmmakers never felt comfortable attempting them. The situation is changing now with films like WOLF CREEK and UNDEAD because the makers grew up watching horror on video. Although there have been some genre exeptions such as MAD MAX, THIRST and RAZORBACK, these exeptions certainly launched no production floods. Australia, which is a comfortable, beautiful country to live in, has not been a breeding ground for subversive cinema, perhaps because many filmmakers have been government subsidized and life has been easier than for those who must chase private financing. I have always occupied the latter category because, until recently, government film bodies had a bias against genre pictures. Australians embrace comedies about themselves, especially if the working class is the subject of humorous derision.

Do you think there is a ongoing mentality that permeates all your work, i.e. Scorsese’s Catholic guilt, Bunuel’s comic nihilism?
The internal and ongoing struggle between the conventional and the transgressive permeates every aspect of my work because that is also my struggle. I relate to it. Where there is duality there is conflict. In DEFENCELESS, I mixed my love of childrens’ movies or movies about children (FORBIDDEN GAMES, MUDDY RIVER, FLY AWAY HOME, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, GABY - A TRUE STORY) with my love of perverse cinematic sexuality and violence (ASSAULT - JACK THE RIPPER, IN A GLASS CAGE, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, IRREVERSIBLE, WINTER HEAT), so the duality is on the screen. The conflict is, therefore, with sections of the audience. Some appreciate the mix. Some are angry that there is a mix. But you can’t worry too much about that. There are people out there who are jealous of people who make movies because they want to be making movies themselves. They are often the harshest critics of my films. They know who they are and I know who they are, too. They are also a minority. On the other hand, there are people who appreciate what I am doing and what other filmmakers who are working in their own cross-genre are doing. I am happy that my films polarize. Only a fool gives another fool the time of day, so it is important, as a filmmaker, that you don’t let the negativity or the positive hype affect your visions. Focus is most important. And permitting people to love or hate you. This is the duality of being a creative person, an artist, a filmmaker, call it what you want. It is the greatest challenge to overcome. To be unique despite the flow of the grain.

Mark continues to share his erudite and challenging views on film and society at his Phantom of Pulp blog.

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