Cult Projections: Your impressive short, Nasty Stuff gloriously bathed in Lovecraftian horror. Now your debut feature delves into intellectual science fiction. Are you more of a horror fan, or more of a science fiction fan?
Isaac: Well, I guess I’m something in between. You can tell I’m a little bit of both, with a foot on both worlds. Science fiction and horror movies are the two kinds of movies that I enjoy the most and that inspire me the most. On the horror side, Lovecraftian/Cronenbergian/buddy-mutant horror is, I guess, my favorite (and that was my biggest inspiration for my short film Nasty Stuff), and on the science fiction side, I really enjoy intellectual/metaphysical sci-fi, and also psychological sci-fi, kind of like in The Twilight Zone, in the works of writers like Philip K. Dick, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, etc., or in the early films (watch out, I said early films) of filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan or Alejandro Amemabar. The science fiction that is more like character sci-fi, more focused on the characters and on seeing everything through their perspective, then on big high-budget special effects. So that is the sci-fi that inspired me to do The Incident. I love both kinds of film. I also like when sci-fi combines with horror in the same movie (kind of like The Fly or Alien), although that is not something I have done on my own films (well, maybe a little bit on Nasty Stuff), it is definitely something I would like to work on in the near future. My second futuristic film, The Similars, which I just finished shooting on August and is currently in post-production, also has some kind of weird buddy-horror sci-fi … hopefully you’ll be able to see it next year.
CP: What are some of the horror and science fiction movies that impressed you as an adolescent? Were they any particular movies that had a firm impact on you wanting to become a filmmaker?
I: I have known I wanted to be a filmmaker ever since I can remember. I know that phrase sounds like a big cliché, but in my case, I swear it’s completely true! Ever since I can remember I was a storyteller, I used to write and tell stories as a child, made short films in school, and wrote four short novels in high school. As for films, some of the big influences I have on the horror or sci fi genre and that are influences I try to pay homage to my work are: Alejandro Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes and The Others, David Cronenberg’s The Fly and The Brood, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko and The Box, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Memento, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Wachowski’s and Tom Tykwer’s cloud Atlas, John Carpenter´s The Thing and Halloween, M Night Shyamalan’s Signs, Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense and The Village (not his new movies, of course), David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and A Nightmare On Elm Street, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Vertigo and The Birds, Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich (as a writer) and Synecdoche, New York, Joon Ho-Bong’s Mother, The Host and Snowpiercer. And many more!
CP: The Incident is very much in the realm of “the beyond”, that elusive interpretative void that could be heaven, could be hell, could even just be a perpetual purgatory, or limbo. Did you deliberately want the movie to have this obscurity, this cryptic element?
I: At some point of the movie (and I’m sure the people who have seen it will understand now which point I’m talking about, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t), I could be accused of maybe trying to explain too much … But then, as the movie ends, the audience remain with a lot of unanswered questions. That was exactly my intention: I wanted the main theory, message, philosophy and logic behind my film to be fully explained, but I wanted to also leave a lot for the imagination of the audience. I hope to have had that exact balance (kind of like when you eat a slice of pepperoni pizza that is extremely greasy, but then you take some Losec or any pill to avoid reflux, so you’re in good balance [ED: you’re funny]), I wanted to have that balance: an extremely long, over-exposed explanation contrasting with extremely weird unanswered questions without any explanation. In that last matter (the matter of the unanswered questions, the matter of the things that remain unexplained), that’s where I believe that realm of “the beyond” fits in the movie. I really wanted to leave that part open for the audience’s imagination, to have them trying to figure out the end for days or maybe even more. It was very important for me that the audience wouldn’t go out of the theatre knowing exactly who or what caused the incidents. Some can think it’s a religious thing, caused by God. Others can think it’s a sci-fi thing, cause by machines, or aliens. I like leaving that part open!
CP: There seems to be a Biblical reference - Jacob’s ladder – rearing its head in the road sign “Jacob’s Cabin”, and, of course, there is the office stairwell. Are you a religious person? Tackling theological elements within a horror or science fiction story can be tricky, even alienating, how much of a concern was that as a concern as writer/director?
I: I’m Jewish, and I love my religion, but I follow Jewish traditions mostly as that: as traditions. By this I mean, I enjoy the religion more as a tradition I get to share with my parents and brothers, because that’s how I was educated and that’s how I want to educate my children, but just because of the tradition, I mean, just because my parents educated me like this and their parents educated my parents and so on. By this I mean, I wouldn’t consider myself a very religious person, I’m more like a traditional modern Jew. I believe in God, but I’m not a very religious person. So, to tell you the truth, I never really thought a lot about religion as I was making this film. And actually, as dumb as this might sound, I wasn’t even considering there was a religious message or subtext behind the film.
It wasn’t until when the film had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest (Austin, Texas, September 2014) that a lot of people approached me in the end and told me: oh, this is so much like Christianity, sins, purgatory, etc. And I was like … “Oh my god, you’re completely right!” Some of these people couldn’t believe I was Jewish and not Christian! But that’s something I really enjoy as a filmmaker: when people find something in my film I wasn’t even aware of, especially if it’s something as deep as religion. Oh, and by the way, the sign that read “Jacob’s Cabin” was not put there for religious reasons at all, it was not a Biblical reference … sorry to disappoint you, it was a Lost reference! Yes, the biggest influence on my film of all was the TV show Lost! The film is full of references to Lost. Of course, like any other fan, I also hated the very last episode, but other than that, I simply believe it is one of the greatest stories ever told (considering TV series, comic books, novels, films and any medium a human being can have to tell a story). It is so complex and rich in every possible way.
CP: I never watched Lost, so I can’t really comment, but many reviewers of your film discuss the references. There’s the stairwell that repeats itself and the country road that does that same. Were there any other movies or stories that featured a similar kind of Mobius strip that inspired you?
I: I’m a huge referential guy, I loooove references. And I love filmmakers who show their references pretty clear (kind of like what Quentin Tarantino does), so other references for The Incident are The Twilight Zone, the work of writers like Philip K. Dick, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and other films like Cloud Atlas, Holy Motors, Inception, Lost Highway. Cloud Atlas was a big reference point especially in the narrative, maybe not even the movie, but more the novel, written by David Mitchell, in which it’s based on. When I read Cloud Atlas I was impressed by what he accomplished: telling you six different stories, and every time you were hooked into one, he jumped into the next, leaving you wanting to know what happened in the previous one. I said, “Holy shit, I want to make a movie like that!” And then I started writing The Incident. Inception was a big reference also, especially in the way that movie deals with alternate realities and the way they affect time. I know Inception is much bigger and more ambitious, but I was, well, trying to make my small, indie version of Inception. The works of Escher inspired the idea of infinite landscapes. The idea of the infinite staircase came from the 10th storey staircase I used to go up every Friday with my father when we go for Shabbat dinner at my grandmother’s house, which is on the highest floor. One day I wondered: what would happen if the stairs never ended? The idea of the infinite road came mainly after a picture I saw book a good writer friend gave to me, The Mysteries of Mister Burdick. And then I just mixed everything up.
CP: Tell me a little about the production. It looks like it was a continuity nightmare. Where did you shoot the office stairwell, and where did you shoot the country road and the service station?
I: It was indeed very hard, especially because it was a very low budget movie, and because we shot in two completely different places. It not only featured very different scenarios, but also completely different locations, so for logistics and everything that happens with a crew working on a film, yes, it was very hard. The stairs part was shot on a 17-storey building in Mexico City, near the area of Churubusco. It was a residential building, brand new, 30% occupied only, and that’s maybe why we could rent the stairs for our location. At a certain point some of the neighbours came in and it was very funny what they found. Nine floors decorated like this. It looked like a pretty strange museum. The road was shot on the state of Hidalgo, a two-hour drive from Mexico City, in the town of Zempoala, near the city of Pachuca (capital of Hidalgo). It was a 6km straight road that nobody uses because they opened a new road. It was just what we needed. We got really lucky finding these awesome locations. It was very funny, as an experiment, we used to ask the crew: if you had to stay on an incident in one of these two places, which one would you choose? When we were shooting at the stairs, they all said: the stairs suck, so claustrophobic, etc, I’d rather be locked on the road. But then when we were on the road, we asked the same, and after experiencing sunburn, mosquito bites, etc, they all preferred the stairs.
CP: When you have a low budget, how important is location shooting compared to shooting on a soundstage or restricting the action to interiors only?
I: Well, I shot my first film The Incident on location and my second film The Similars on a set (we built a 1968 bus station), and I can definitely tell you, if you don’t have a big budget, don’t do a built-in set, it has to be location. In The Incident, it was the great locations that saved us, as they fitted the story perfectly. For The Similars it was still an independent movie but we had a little bit more of a budget and building a set was the perfect choice for that film, but if we would have had no budget, it would have been terrible. If you don’t have a budget, you don’t have the resources to make it look real on set.
CP: As a screenwriter what part of the process do you enjoy the most, for example, creating the characters, writing the dialogue, re-writes, swapping scenes around, etc?
I: Definitely the part I enjoyed the most was when I first put all the story together, in the treatment, even before starting writing dialogue or anything in screenplay format. When I just came up with the idea of how it would all add up and had the treatment ready, and I was like “Oh, this could be a good screenplay”. That was my favorite part. That is my favorite part, always.
CP: As a director what part of the production do you enjoy the most, for example, casting the actors, principal photography, editing, etc?
I: Well, I enjoy everything, but I’m usually more nervous on all the preparations and pre-production, and then during principal photography, I think that’s what I enjoy the most, because that’s when I’m doing what I love the most: directing a film. Although that is also the hardest part of the process, the part where you’re more tired and that is also the most risky part, the part where anything could go to hell, the part where you could die and no one would know how to finish this film. But all that adds a risky interesting flavor. I love it. I tend to be a director that thinks about editing even from the screenplay. My editors must hate me, haha! But post-production is also kind of frustrating, because it takes forever, a lot of the post-production processes don’t depend on you so you can’t really control the timing, especially if you have no money for this process. But what is cool about post-production is that somehow you’re still into the film but you also are a little bit more relaxed, you have time to work on some other stuff as well.
CP: What is your opinion on the current state of the international horror movie scene, of the science fiction scene?
I: I like that it is growing a lot. I like that there are a lot of film festivals and institutions that support horror and every time more emerging filmmakers take on this awesome genre. I also love the fact that, although horror and sci-fi are sometimes done very independently, horror is also one of the most commercial genres; it makes a lot of money at the box office. So at least with horror you can have a good chance of making a good film that makes a lot of money also. I also like the fact that, to make horror or sci-fi with low budget, you have to get creative. And I love that challenge. Nowadays, it is somehow easy to make a film than it was twenty or more years ago, with the new digital cameras, etc, lets just say, making a film is still fuckin’ hard (everyone that has made a film must know that), but getting the right materials, camera equipment, etc, is easier these days then it was before, to get a small camera that will deliver good quality, etc. So, nowadays, because it is easier to make a film, there are more films getting made, and because of that, suddenly now the ideas behind a film get more important. Creativity is more important in these days then it was before, and I love that challenge.
CP: As a filmmaker do you feel obliged in any way to your audience in terms of narrative complexity? Or do you agree with David Lynch’s opinion that we don’t understand everything in life, so why should we understand everything we see on the screen?
I: I truly believe that all films should explain a lot but also leave a lot for interpretations. I believe it is indeed possible to have the best of both worlds. Films should stand on their own, without the little head of the director needing to pop out of somewhere and explain it. So they should be consistent and logical. But they should also, always, leave something for interpretation and for the imagination of the audience. I hope The Incident is a good mix between those two.
CP: How important is the meaning of a movie? Should every movie have a “message”, or can some movies operate purely as sensory vehicles, as “pure cinema”?
I: I believe those two kind of films can work fine. Some movies can have messages. Other movies can simply be vehicles, entertainment. Apart from being a filmmaker, I am a big film fan, and I enjoy both kinds of movies. But definitely, the movies that change my life are the “message” movies.
CP: Thanks Isaac for your time!
I: Thank you! Thank you for these great, interesting questions! And, remember ... The only way out is to keep going.