Jim Towns and Mike McKown are an independent dream team with a huge vision. Their films, “Prometheus Triumphant: A Fugue in the Key of Flesh,” and “Stiff,” are bold, scary, intelligent, and highly provocative. And though the themes they create seem the most improbable and convoluted imaginable, they’re really pretty simple and universal. “Prometheus” is a silent horror film with comic interludes much like those imagined by Carl Theodor Dreyer and Tod Browning. The plot concerns a village besieged by plague and one young doctor’s decision to bring his beloved back to life.
“Stiff” is a contemporary tale about an offbeat young woman who works as a telephone crisis counselor with ulterior motives. Both films are available on DVD by
Cinema Epoch and are a must see-must own for anyone interested in breathing new life into the stringent roles society imposes.
I had the opportunity to talk to Jim and Mike about reanimated corpses, medical ethics, eternal love, and filmmaking on the edge.Would you say that “Prometheus Triumphant” and “Stiff” explore the same issues?
JT: Definitely. I would say “Stiff” continues where “Prometheus” leaves off, even though “Stiff” is as different than “Prometheus” as two films could be. Obviously, “Stiff” is in color, it’s modern and has lots of dialogue, but they’re similar in terms of theme and intent. They both concern life, death, and the relationship between a man and a woman.
But the dialogue in “Stiff” isn’t ordinary. It’s strangely stiff, off, and disorienting.
JT: Yes. We’re dealing with two characters, Troy and Lori, who each exist outside of societal norms— in two very different places. It’s almost as if they must communicate through these barriers, across a great gulf of very different languages.
It seems like there’s always a disconnection between people, especially between men and women— that makes me laugh.
MM: Yeah. It is kind of funny. Someone can be talking to you and you find yourself thinking about something else. It’s like you use just enough brainpower to maintain the conversation. What we found in “Prometheus,” was that no matter how dark and serious the subject matter, the film still had to be entertaining. The audience must be able to laugh with or at a dark film, or it just won’t work.
Do either of you have a medical background? I ask because of the cadaver-themes in both films.
MM: I was on a pre-Med track through college, and also studied film. Then at graduation, I decided that I didn’t like people enough to become a doctor (though I might have become a pathologist or worked in an ER), and went to school to learn make-up and special effects. After that I went to work at a video production facility.
JT: I had no medical aspirations, but did study art and painting, as an Illustration major. As part of my courses, I did study Human Anatomy and Physiology, and did see many cadavers.
I can always spot like-minded artists— as a pathologist’s daughter, and a filmmaker with roots in medical studies and an affinity for the twisted.
JT: (Laughs) If there’s a story that needs to come out, we’re able to deal with and talk about these things when others can’t.
Right. And there’s something sickly comical about the whole thing. By the way: How old are you guys?
JT: We’re both thirty-six, and only about two weeks apart.
MM: I do embarrassing stuff like videotape weddings, deliver newspapers, and pretty much anything that allows me time off when I need to work on films. I also do some video production work, but that’s kind of waning in Pittsburgh, so I definitely need more work in weddings than newspaper delivery these days.
I lived in Pittsburgh, near Forbes Field. Are you both from Pittsburgh?
JT: Yeah, but now Mike lives in Mount Lebanon and I live in Los Angeles. I work in TV part-time, on the sets of sit-com and reality stuff, which at times is as difficult as videotaping weddings.
What sitcoms did you work on?
JT: I worked on a bunch of pilots. Last year I worked on a sitcom with Bob Saget, and for a year or two on Reba McEntire’s show, “Reba.”
Mike and I operate on a microscopic budget level for the stuff we do. So to be around productions that have huge amounts of money that’s pissed away, is really mind-boggling to us.
What was it like to work with Reba?
JT: She was the first celebrity that I worked with on a daily basis, and I couldn’t have found anyone better. She’s a legendary singer and actress, yet she’s completely professional, approachable and normal. It was a great working environment and we always had a lot of fun. Reba was in our favorite movie of all time, “Tremors,” with
Kevin Bacon, and the giant worms.
So what did you do on her set?
JT: I was a Key Set Production Assistant—so basically, an Assistant to the Assistant Director.
Nice… How did you get that gig?
JT: It’s all nepotism out here. My next-door neighbor was a producer on the show and put my name in. That’s it. Nepotism’s almost needed out here because there’s no time or money to try someone and then find out that person’s no good. But lately, I’ve been working on small jobs and art direction on other films. I’ve also been concentrating on writing and trying to get the ball rolling on our next project. Things are coming together and we’re meeting with producers for our new film. I’ve been at it about five years and it’s finally starting to pay off.
JT: I basically do the screenwriting, but for most projects, we bounce ideas off each other.
What camera(s) did you use and how did you edit the film?
MM: It was a Sony DSR-200A DVCAM, which is what I could afford at the time, but it worked out very well. I edited the film in Premiere and ran it through After Effects with a program called Cinelook. I set the amount of grain I wanted, used hi-contrast black and white, and key framed in all the scratches and dust. I also adjusted the frame rate to simulate that shuddering-jittery look of the old silent films.
JT: It was a real process of evolution. We had several different versions of the film with varying amounts of added damage. It took us a long time to get the film to that perfect place—where you weren’t focused on and distracted by the damage. There’s an art to discovering the amount that’s just right.
Did you use any external lighting?
JT: We did a little bit, but we didn’t have any electricity.
Was it shot in a factory?
MM: We shot in all different places. Where she (the corpse) was reanimated was in the basement of an abandoned insane asylum. The dance scene was shot in the main hall of the asylum. We also cut in scenes at an abandoned steel mill. At one point, we did rent a generator, but we also used some Coleman Propane Lights.
JT: And we shot in abandoned houses. We basically tried to find the scariest places in Pittsburgh, in places where you’d never want to be, if you’re a nude and painted white actress.
Were two actors used to portray Esmeralda? In certain scenes her body looked different.
JT: (Laughs) I think you’re the first person who ever noticed that two actors were used.
In the first scenes I marveled over the cadaver and wondered where you found such a woman. Then in later scenes, her butt looked far too healthy.
JT: Well we had an actress named Kelly, who we cast because she had a corpse-like look and long red hair. Many pin up-type girls auditioned, but they were way too modern looking and healthy for the role.
How long did it take you to shoot?
JT: We filmed over a period of three and a half years, and there was a time where it became harder and harder to coordinate shooting times with Kelly. So we ended up using a body double for some of the scenes, but not too many of them. When you’re shooting for that length of time, actors come and go, or cut their hair without telling you. So you just have to adapt as best you can.
Exactly. Sometimes I like to interchange actors when there’s no reason. At any rate, the actors did a great job.
JT: Yeah, and under the harshest conditions where it was either boiling hot or freezing cold. We also had no working bathrooms or any other comforts.
The nudity felt asexual, with the most sexually charged moments when Esmeralda was dying.
JT: Yeah, we thought that was the sexiest scene, too. It was all very purposeful—a sexy death scene, where three men try to hold her down on the bed as she’s convulsing.
There’s something futuristic about the whole thing. Maybe because the ethical issues seem current—like the mechanics of stem cell research.
Dying always seems to bring about religion, which inevitably leads to superstition.
JT: True. A good example is when Dr. Janick argues with the professors at the Medical College, who are so opposed to his radical ideas. And yet, when one doctor’s daughter is dying, he’s urged to bring in an apothecary to bring her back— which is basically the whole science vs religion thing.
Who throws acid into Janick’s face? Is it a bandit or one of the doctors who resented his work?
JT: It’s a bandit, and part of the bandit sub-plot. The bandits form a hate group much like the KKK. They react to the plague by attacking midwives, apothecaries and doctors, because they’re unable to help them, or stop the plague.
And the sub-plot creates an almost Film Noir affect, or a Hitchcock-ploy to throw you off the true plot.
JT: That’s right.
How did “Prometheus” do at the festivals?
JT: (laughs) Not well. We tried about twenty-five festivals, including festivals in Pittsburgh, but it didn’t go anywhere.
So what sparked the interest of Cinema Epoch—a great distributor?
JT: It’s one of those things…Greg Hatanaka who runs Cinema Epoch, came to the screening at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood, and really took a liking to “Prometheus.” It took a while to get everything set up, but it all came together. Cinema Epoch also released “Stiff.” It’s a distributor that takes chances on filmmakers.
How does it all work in terms of sales?
JT: Well, it’s not going to be a break through cash deal. It’s a niche film, with a very targeted audience. So it’s been modest in the United States. But overseas, the Europeans are nuts over the film.
Do you plan to create another silent film in the future?
MM: It’s kind of a weird thing where I enjoyed making the film, but ultimately what I was hoping the film would do, it didn’t do—which was to get us recognition.
If we reached the point where we were able to release movies and achieve success, I would definitely make another film like “Prometheus.” At this time, I want to make a film that’s more palatable to a wider audience. It’s the idea that you must be true to your own evolution as an artist and a filmmaker.
JT: I think initially, it will. It’s just that when you’re dealing with big chains and trying through your distributor, to sell to Netflix, Blockbuster, etc. you just don’t know how it will turn out. Until you’re working in the industry, you’ll learn that most of the people who make the decisions about your project will never read your script or view your film. They make quick decisions based on the cover, concept, and very short bursts of information. So when it comes to all that, “Stiff” has much more going for it than “Prometheus,” being in color, a talkie, and much more accessible. Definitely, someone at Netflix could look at it and immediately understand what it’s all about. Still, you never know about such things.
“Stiff” was released on DVD a couple of months ago. What’s your take on a film’s immediate release to DVD—a common trend these days.
JT: Well it would be great to have the time and luxury to submit to festivals, but when you make a deal with distributors, you work on their timeline and with the goals of their business manager. So it’s a choice each filmmaker must make.
Can you talk about the character of Lori in “Stiff,” and that horror-film, ambiguous ending?
JT: We liked the idea of adding another layer to her character to give her more complexity. So even though she plans Troy’s death and others, almost like serial assisted-suicides, I think she cares more for Troy then she planned, and she only discovers this after he’s dead. This human side to her calculating personality makes her ambiguous. What’s interesting to me is that the Lori I imagined on paper, turned into someone else on film.
That’s always the way. So what’s next?
JT: Right now we’re working on a project that I wrote and Mike’s directing called “Survival Night.” We’re producing the film ourselves and we hope that we’ll have the time to enter a few festivals and to publicize the movie before we talk to companies. Now that we’re wiser and more experienced, we have a little more credibility then when we began.
Posted on January 20, 2011 in Interviews by Amy R. Handler
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