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“Easy films to make are hard to watch…” – Talking With Director Steve Kahn

Impact spoke with filmmaker Steve Kahn about his new short film Fear, to be screened on Saturday 24th January as part of the Beeston Film Festival.

Did you have any particular influences, cinematic or otherwise, when making Fear?

I started out in the sciences, in physics. Early on the sciences was my way to seek out the truths of our world. Physics and General Relativity and Quarks were only trumped for me by both the complexity and satisfaction of understanding the human mind.

For me projects always start off with an observation about humanity. Or an axe to grind. And Fear was no exception. Truth be told it was me. My fears inspired me. The germ of the film started out in a completely self-centred way. In my mind a pimple on my face could morph into skin cancer; a vague look from a stranger could belie an unfounded hostile intention. Even, as in the film, an unexplained thump late in the night could send terror running down my spine freezing me solid, paralyzed with fear, as thoughts of demonic possession and evil creatures from hell hid in the shadows ready to jump out at me.

Then, I realized I wasn’t alone. Everyone seemed to be susceptible to those jolts of terror. From anthrax to aliens to fears of our neighbours or of those with different accents or religions or race. Everyone seemed at risk of falling into the fear spiral cascade. I saw it happening everywhere, again and again.

Once they’ve taken hold, our fears are never logical as we more and more lose sight of the rational world. Instead, they are deeply emotional and instinctual which in an instant can send us back to a primordial time when magic explained the workings of the universe and the human condition was ruled entirely by superstition and mysticism. Fear takes us back to that age. Now loss of our modern day reasoning powers all threats, real and imagined, big and small — the more hyperbolic the more effective — become possible as our ungoverned thoughts send our hearts spinning wildly out of control.

Ultimately it’s not the perceived threats that end up doing harm but rather our reactions, or over-reactions, to them. In “Fear” what my protagonist is afraid of doesn’t hurt her but ultimately what does is her reaction to that very fear.

Jessie Rabideau is great in the film, what made you choose her for the role?

Thank you. This was Jessie’s first job as an actress. She had never been in front of the camera before other than being on the Tyra Banks show America’s Next Top Model as a reality star. And so going in I knew there would be difficulties working with an untrained actress. Despite that she has an atypical look and personality which I found quite interesting and perfect for the part. I wanted a very unforced feel for the film so I knew if I could capture her natural behaviour I might have something promising.

One interesting thing about Fear was that it felt like it bridged different genres, perhaps moving into gothic near the end, was this intentional?

I think it’s not as much intentional but really the way I think about film, and what I want to say when I make a film.

As a director there are many ways to work. One is you can say to yourself: “I want to make a horror film” or “I want to do action”. But another way, and the way that interests me is to work according to a theme based approach where the theme, the idea, takes centre stage. So rather than serving plot, or serving genera, the central facet is theme with all other components supporting that.

To me a great short film can be likened to a great poem: filled with meaning but limited in verbosity. In making Fear it was my intention to strongly stick to a poetic vision where iconic imagery said everything with very little need for words or exposition.

“To me a great short film can be likened to a great poem: filled with meaning but limited in verbosity.”

So in fact it is quite interesting that you pointed out that things take a gothic twist near the end because in fact they do. As the Beethoven Sonata in A beings we enter into that gothic part which you were referring to. Though it is absolutely brilliant there is something slightly corny about that melody. In using it I wanted to subtly introduce that feel into the film because I noticed in my own dealings with fear, through my own facing of irrational panic, that part of the process of transcending fear was the self-realization of how corny I was acting while freaking out. I would look at myself and say you’re just acting so silly. You’re just being silly.

I like to think of Fear as a visual poem on the fear process. And in the fear cycle the moment when the silly feeling occurs is at a point where the person in doubt doubts their doubt. Often it arises in a self-mocking gesture. At such a point in the cycle if one can listen to that and can laugh at themselves then their fear cascade can be broken. The fear can be transcended. But if the person cannot step out of themselves in a moment of self-realization and laugh at how silly they’re behaving then the cycle resumes and redoubles. It becoming stronger than before as now their fear is immune to being mocked. It builds on itself in the mind again and again further reinforcing the vicious cycle.

Does it only exist in a short film format in your mind or can you imagine a feature length version of the film?

As shot, Fear can only work as a short. The desire to create visual poetry can’t work in a feature length film format, I’m afraid. In that medium plot must dominate, with ideas running as sub-textual elements. But, that can be fun too. A great film can be elusive in its meaning for decades that masters such as Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher may interweave. It is fun for fans to realize years after watching Fight Club that it is really about the emasculation of men or that The Shining, though a horror film, is about the governmental institutional domination of man.

“A great film can be elusive in its meaning for decades…”

So it’s fun to work in this way as well – to create a mystery which underlies the film and which may take film lovers decades to unravel. Using this approach I have begun work on a feature length version of Fear. As always it has started with me looking out at the world and inwards at things about it and about the way we act that bothers me. And the work has begun.

Music had an important role at certain points, was much time spent over song choice?

Yes. In film making there are seemingly endless choices one can make. From the story structure, to the dialogue, the way the story unfolds, to colour choices, lighting, shot composition, acting choices, location decisions… On and on. Some choices can be good and some not so good but the best are the ones that can support the theme and story in the most economical way possible.

Music plays a vital role in Fear as well. Initially my character turns on the radio to alleviate her spooked out feelings. The song that comes on is Tears For Fears’ ‘Pale Shelter’. With that sweet melody she is able to relax. In almost a fantasy sequence she watches delicate bubbles gently float overhead. And though she is calm there is something eerie about this. Ironically something bothers us though we can’t quite put our finger upon it.

“In film making there are seemingly endless choices one can make…”

The next audio cue is ‘Hurricane’, a 2013 release by MS MR. When I stumbled upon it just felt right. It has a foreboding element that supports how my actress feels as she freezes staring down at the bottom of her bathtub wondering where the mysterious blood drops are coming from. It was a small fortunate accident, or perhaps not, that the girl we are watching has ‘Pale Shelter’ from the ‘Hurricane’ that is brewing.

Finally we get to the Beethoven sonata we were speaking of earlier. In addition to supporting the thematic elements it is interesting to note that the radio she turned on which initially played a 1980’s New Wave song then a modern pop hit now plays a Classical gothic masterpiece. I’ve had people note that the music doesn’t seem to come from the radio as well. After all it is really a beat up old AM/FM radio but the sound is high fidelity and perfect. In mixing sound I didn’t compress the music and limit the EQ band or fill it with static one would expect from such a device. And what radio station would even program a 1980’s tune followed by MS MR followed by a Beethoven Violin Sonata anyway? And the answer is none. That would never happen.

The answer is that at a certain point there is no radio anymore. At a certain point the music we are hearing is taking place in my character’s own head. These music choices served to gently shed light on this fact, to bring the viewer more and more into her head. To subtly make one realize we are going into her mind on our exploration into fear.

Is there something you want audiences to take away from Fear or would you just like them to derive their own interpretations?

I know I love to talk about theme but first off I’d it love if an audience is entertained. The worst thing one can do as an artist is waste anyone’s time, to bore anyone. In my book it is a horrendous sin and the reason I spent so much time in post to polish the film. There’s a great quote I heard recently: “easy films to make are hard to watch.” I’ve found that to be universally true.

Next, I hope that people enjoy the beauty of the film. I really enjoy gorgeous iconic images and hope that I achieved that with Fear. I hope the images stay with some. One fascinating thing I’ve learned about people and humanity by being a writer and director is how differently people can see the world. After watching Fear viewers have come to me with their own interpretations and things that they’ve found meaningful to them. And I think that’s fantastic.

“The worst thing one can do as an artist is waste anyone’s time…”

I heard somewhere that Pete Townsend didn’t realize what Tommy was about until after The Who finished the album. Creating art is very much like that. A lot of it is done on a subconscious level where choices are used just because they feel right intuitively. And only afterward, maybe even years afterward can one intellectually understand why that certain intuitive, yet perhaps illogical choice was so perfect.

And finally, ultimately, it does come down to theme for me. And it doesn’t have to for everyone. But if some can see themselves in my character, if they can see how their own fears can control them and how their mind can spin out of control. And then if they can become more conscious to that whole process then my film would have been a true success.

Tom Welshman

Fear screens at Beeston Film Festival on 24th January at White Lion Bar & Kitchen.

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