CAPTURING ETERNAL DREAD: INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER MICHAEL HALPER

Michael Halper’s “The Last Tenant” is a disturbing tale about a serial rapist who arises from his own death to wreak havoc on earth. Even if the premise sounds a little familiar – with an allusion to Polanksi’s similarly themed “The Tenant” in the title – the film is cleverly told and eerily shot. I caught up with Halper over email to discuss his highly intelligent horror film that provokes many questions about freedom of will, fate, and good and evil.

Tell me a little about how the The Last Tenant was conceived and how you could make this particular subject different than the run of the mill, undead-rapist tale.

The film was first conceived from a short film script of co-writer John Hermann’s.  I’m a part of an online community that conducts regular online themed film festivals.  We took his idea and weaved it into something we could shoot quickly for this particular festival which had a horror theme.  What we took from John’s script eventually became the end of “The Last Tenant.”  The rest of the inspiration was the odd door in the film that he had in his old apartment (that’s where we shot).  We were initially going to shoot the 6 minute film in October of 2007 and finish it in only a few days.  Things fell through with the shooting and we shelved it for several months.  We came back to the script in the Spring of 2008, expanded the story and characters and made a longer film with more substance.  We really wanted to get the audience to like the characters in the film, especially Rachel and Jen, so more attention was given to them.

What we wanted to do differently is challenge the audience’s emotions.  We wanted to push the envelope and show we can handle a difficult subject.  Two ideas came to mind when we were figuring out what kind of villain we’d have.  It was between a child killer and a rapist/serial killer.  Due to logistics of shooting with children at the time, we chose rapist/serial killer.  A person can’t get much worse than that.  We don’t poke fun at the subject of rape like some other films do.  Rape is a serious and terrible thing for a woman to go through.  I think we handled it objectively, even though it’s such a violent and unforgiving film.

You certainly challenged the emotions of the audience, but there were no emotions in the killer. Was this because he was dead, a rapist, or both?

Both.  When he is alive the emotions needed to be kept lower there for him to appear more evil.  For the majority of the film Hinsley is dead.  For those parts it made sense for him to have no feeling and very minimal emotion.  There’s moments where you expect him to react angrily, but he doesn’t.  The most emotion we see from him when he’s dead is at the violent end of the film.  He can’t be affected by or swayed by emotions that a living person would have.  Overall he appears more powerful and menacing with less emotion.  It comes from that old adage – “less is more.”

What’s so odd, yet weirdly erotic, is that during Rachel’s last breath of life, when she’s sliding down from the door, her face comes very close to the killer’s and her eyes look almost sensual; a look of love. It’s such a disturbing moment. Was that look of hers directed or a stroke of luck?

It was something that was discussed on set and directed.  The actress, Alexis Clifford, researched her character very well and knew of stories in which rape victims described being emotionally attached to the rapist, even during the act.  That seemed the best, most powerful, and most thought-provoking direction to take the scene.

In regard to Rachel’s loving look, if I may be so twisted, what’s equally disturbing, is that Hinsley seems to return that look; a look of the living.

Yes, this is the moment I referred to earlier, the violent end of the film, in which we see the most emotion from Hinsley.  When he’s stabbing her we see his viciousness.  When she’s dying, and essentially dead, we see his emotional attachment to his victim.  It’s the connection he has between himself and the victim as his victim is passing from living to dying to dead.

Why did you choose to make Hinsley an undead character? Am I right to assume you are exploring the speculative side of existence and if so, what and who are your influences? I drew from Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence or Return, in my review, but are there other influences?

We wanted Hinsley to be more powerful than his victims and essentially, unstoppable no matter what. If he was a living person he could be stopped, as he is at the beginning of the movie. But when he’s undead there’s no way out and he can’t be stopped. That becomes more terrifying for the victims and the audience. Nietzsche’s idea of “Eternal Recurrence or Return” could be applied. We weren’t consciously or deliberately going for that connection, but clearly the influences are there. The other influences were mainly from our research of various criminals and murderers. We drew from stories and writings of many of them that stated they were enveloped by the suffering and death of their victims, and they felt they could draw from the strength of their victims and harness the life of their victims.

That’s interesting, but again, very speculative. Killers may be morally offensive, but many of them are (sadly) brilliant, philosophically and otherwise. Anyway, let’s talk about culpability. Can one blame Hinsley for his crimes if he is undead?

This is definitely more of a philosophical question.  Whether Hinsley (or any other criminal or villain) is dead or not, he is still acting on his own volition, and thus must be responsible and accountable for those actions, at least to someone or something.  It doesn’t matter how brilliant they are are aren’t, morally offensive actions are never justified, but are unfortunately a part of our world and of reality.

In terms of victimization, who do you feel is the real victim here?

No question about it, the real victim is those whom Hinsley hurts and kills, such as Rachel, Dead Woman, and Victimized Woman.  We bring the audience into this as well and make the audience feel the tragedy of Rachel’s death, making them identify with and feel like the victim.  This aspect was very important to us when we were writing the script, which is why the scene with Rachel and Jen in the apartment is longer.  We had many thoughts about cutting it down, but there are subtle nuances of their characters and their relationship to each other, foreshadowing of things to come, and a little bit of setup.  In the end we didn’t want to lose any of that.

Hmm. I don’t know…. Am I right to view Lance as a doppelganger for Hinsley?

Yes, but it was supposed to be so subtle and few have caught on to it.  Lance oddly seems to know everything about Hinsley and finds the story Jen is telling him “kinda cool” and is intrigued by it.  The physical connection between them is partly due to the fact that John Hermann was originally going to be Hinsley, but since he was spreading himself so thin with the project as it was (we both were) he ended up with the smaller role of Lance.  Fortunately we found Vance Harvey, who acted out the role superbly, which is difficult considering Hinsley has no lines of dialog at all throughout the entire film.

Can you speak about the important character of Lance including his very intriguing name?

The name Lance comes from the spears that knights in medieval times used.  Lance becomes the spear, speeding down the freeway and streets of the city with Jen to go rescue Rachel, and then trying to bust down Rachel’s door to save her.

Did you use any external lighting, or did you rely on the apartment lighting? I ask because there was no catch light in the eyes of your characters when they were in the apartment. While this was understandable for Hinsley, a dead man walking, it also raises questions as to Rachel’s vitality even before she is victimized. Is Rachel alive when she is alive? Again, a very provocative question raised by the film.

The lighting was such that it’s like everything was lit with practicals.  This explains the use of relatively flat lighting and elimination of most shadows in the scenes in the kitchen area from the overhead fluorescents.  The starkness of the look was an attempt to keep the emotions with the characters and not draw attention from that to the lighting.  When Hinsley comes back it switches to higher contrast lighting.  Then in post each part of the film was given its own look with changing the colors and we go from the flatter look with more realistic colors and increased saturation,  to the more uneasy green look with less saturation of natural colors and so that red stands out more.

Rachel is not really alive when she’s alive.  Her life is overtaken by her work.  She’s moving for work, she hasn’t been in touch with her long time best friend Jen for years, she hasn’t talked to her parents, and she currently doesn’t have a boyfriend.  We learn all this about her, but then we’re given hope.  She has finally contacted Jen and they’re going to be friends again.  Her mom calls and she’s going to “definitely give [her] a call in the morning.”  This all makes her death in the end even more tragic.  So in a way, Hinsley and Rachel have both been dead for the past five years, and on this fateful night they both move on to a new part of their lives.

Why do you have the killer keep a journal? Do the entries stop when he supposedly dies, or do they continue?

From our research into serial killers we discovered that it’s very common for them to keep some kind of journal or record of their thoughts and feelings.  It helps them express emotions and feelings that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to share or release to the world.  The entries stop when he dies as it’s a physical manifestation in reality of his internal thoughts and feelings when he is alive.

I loved the hidden door where the killer’s journal and soul reside. I was also impressed by the effects your sound and visual designers manufactured, accentuating the evil behind that door. These reminded me of effects in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Thank you. David Lynch, and specifically “Mulholland Drive,” was heavily influential in that sequence from Rachel being alerted to the door by the screaming through the end of the film. And the entire sequence greatly benefits from music composer Rob Gokee’s score and how we mixed the score with the rest of the sound design.

What heights do you hope to reach by making this short, feature length? Will there be more victims of the same nature? Will you elaborate on all characters and perhaps make Lance more pronounced? He is certainly suspicious, that’s for sure!

The feature film is going to be different, and for good reason.  Tentatively titled “Dead Souls” (no connection to the Gogol story), it’s basically a prequel.  Essentially, the end of “Dead Souls” is the beginning of “The Last Tenant.”  What we’re doing with this is showing the audience how and why Hinsley becomes the Hinsley we know in “The Last Tenant.”  The purpose is to begin a franchise by creating a super-villain, but rather than start with the super-villain already existing like in other franchises, we’re going to show the origin from the beginning.  The bulk of “The Last Tenant”, after Hinsley dies, could very well end up being adapted to another feature-length film of it’s own as the sequel to “Dead Souls.”  So “Dead Souls” will have mostly new characters.  We’ve taken away some elements, but also added new elements and ideas to the characters, story, and mechanisms of what can and can’t happen and how things happen.  We of course will still get the audience into the mind of the villain, get them to care about the characters, and continue to push the envelope whenever possible, all the while still making it a likable and enjoyable film.

And of course, there is that nagging question that leads to so many more: Is Hinsley really dead? If yes, you are raising questions of culpability (culpability to whom – mankind, God, someone or something else?). This in turn raises questions not only of good, evil and beyond, but questions of fate, chance or free will. Again, does Hinsley, a dead man, really have free will? Do any of us?

Our intention is that Hinsley is no longer alive in our normal view of living.  You could say he’s in an undead state trapped in some kind of limbo between the here-and-now and the beyond, whether that be hell, assuming he’d be condemned to hell, or not.  Maybe one day he will go on to the beyond to answer for and be accountable for what he’s done.  Until then, he’s able to cross back over to the here-and-now and claim his victims.

Hinsley intentionally placed himself in that state of limbo as he was dying so he now exists in a realm where all he can do, all he knows, is to terrorize and seek out new victims.  Does that mean it is by his own free will?  Maybe.  The question is whether we, as often programmed and repetitive people, really have free will outside of what we spend our life focusing on, or what we find ourselves habitually doing.  Maybe it encourages and reminds us to find our free will and do something outside of our norm – to not miss what’s going on around us and not miss out on the opportunities in front of us.

That certainly confirms Nietsche’s contentions, but still I wonder if Hinsley or any one of us have that much power, or will, to decide either our lives or their final state. Perhaps we are witnessing such will in Hinsley, the one being who’s return we see, though can’t hear him speak about. Of course, he’s of the plastic, cinematic world-the phantasmagorical vs the real. Whether or not these two worlds can merge without questioning sanity, is certainly a query explored by philosophers from time immemorial, and of course, the brilliant, David Lynch, in “Inland Empire.”

This is certainly one of those questions that none of us may ever be able to answer. The great thing about movies and art is that we can do what we want with them and give the characters that power if we choose, then use that to challenge the audience.




Posted on November 2, 2009 in Interviews by
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