Just outside Philadelphia is a suburb full of trust fund kids and bored old men. In the heart of that suburb is a brothel run by women who are nothing more than a rite of passage to those men. House of Little Deaths explores every thing they do to get through a day, everything they hope for, everything they want to forget, everything they do to escape. A film about the mundane and bitter truth behind a world of fantasy.
Produced by: Scout Tafoya, Benjamin Nangeroni, Jill Steelman
10 questions with House of Little Deaths director, Scout Tafoya at the half-way mark.
Saturday, September 10th, 2016
1Where did the inspiration for the film come from? I had just completed a film called Eyam (https://vimeo.com/ondemand/eyam/) and was obsessed by getting back to the working method I'd adopted for it, which was incredibly fun and satisfying. All my actors improvised their dialogue and they were free to wander the set as they pleased, creating meaning as they went, leaving me and my director of photography to guide & capture it all. In early 2012 I watched Bertrand Bonello's House of Pleasures and just like that I knew what I was going to make next. I was hooked right away. So much is still thrown at sex workers from the cultural unconscious and I thought this was worth trying to change in my own small way. Then it became about being honest about the experience of women in this line of work. I'm a white guy who's never been to a brothel, so I don't know how successful I got but I did research and more than that I let my incredibly talented, ferociously intelligent cast put honest emotion behind every assumption. I wanted to make people spend a day with women who've been turned into pariahs all across the world. I wanted audiences to live with these women and grow to, if not love them, then understand them and empathize with them.
2The film is obviously very minimalist. What kind of crew was working on a daily basis? There were three of us, which is about average for my shoots. Always makes me feel like one of the Maysles. My trusted director of photography, Tucker Johnson, was bogged down with work so I asked my friend Nick Smerkanich, one of my favourite actors, to help make this movie with me and because we've been friends since 7th grade he said yes. Alex Heim, who's in a bunch of my other movies said she had a friend, Julian Lazare, who wanted to break into filmmaking but didn't have any experience. I kind of laughed and thought "Well nothing'll throw you into the deep end quite like working with a lunatic." Julian, Nick and I had cameras and sound rolling around the clock. Everytime they ate lunch, painted their nails, talked casually, we were there like a documentary crew. At night I'd semi-meticulously plot out the interactions between the actors and and actresses and conduct the flow. Money goes into hand here, guy steps into the waiting room, chooses one girl, they walk upstairs. The rooms where the transactions happen are so small I was very conscious of trying never to repeat the angles we chose. I wanted those scenes to always feel disorienting, spatially, like a funhouse almost.
3What were some films that influenced this film? House of Pleasures and Michael Glawogger's Whores Glory were both hugely informative watches. Night and day as far as making a movie on this subject. The Devil, Probably, Pickpocket and L'Argent by Robert Bresson were my holy trinity. The way Bresson filmed and framed action, that howling silence around his actors. He's why there's no music in the film. I never wanted it to seem like any of the action was "cool." Didn't want that escaping into fantasy. I was always thinking of his religious repetition of actions, the way he was presented intimate processes. I was also inspired by Jiří Menzel's Capricious Summer, which is a lovely little film about the spell cast by women and how it's then wasted on boorish guys. I also drew from Lindsay Anderson's If...., Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, Philippe Grandrieux's Un Lac, Sergio Martino's All The Colours of the Dark, Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, and Jacques Rivette's films. They gave me the trust I needed in my stylistic ideas and that people would watch a movie which consisted in large part of women talking and putting on make-up. Preparing to perform for terrifying men each night.
4What was the casting process like? It took nervewracking months. I had to find actresses willing to handle potentially hazardous material without fear & would feel at home with the constant improv, no mean feat. I'm sure it was terrifying to pretend to be someone constantly at risk & on display & have no safety net in the form of a script. Maggie Farrell I'd gone to high school with and had done many plays and films with and trusted implicitly. Rebecca Mason & I had just wrapped a film together so I knew she'd be used to my slightly crazy working methods and she could hold her own. Alex Maiorino & I have made 6 films together, I know there's nothing she can't do. Reina Guarini, with whom I used to work at Siren Records in Doylestown, reached out & asked to be a part of the movie when she learned what I was doing & I said yes immediately. Sophie Chernin, who was in my film Eyam, couldn't make the time work so suggested both Valerie Yawien and Emily Crovella, both up for the challenge. Michelle Siracusa I'd seen perform experimental theatre and really wanted to work with her on something. Tessa Mania I'd known for a few years and loved her essence as a person and thankfully agreed to act on film for the first time.
5There were many intimate moments in the film. What were some challenges in directing those moments?
It's extremely difficult to orchestrate emotion precisely when your actors are inventing everything as they go. It is to my cast's credit that when push came to shove, they delivered in the best way possible. There's a sort of reveal about 3/4 of the way through that required this incredible emotional reaction from everyone, and no one knew it was coming. So out came three day's worth of built up tension after performing as two people (their characters, the women they pretend to be in the rooms with the guys) for three days. The challenge is making sure you're not being irresponsible with your actors' emotions. When your whole film is moment-to-moment unscripted, you're already asking a lot of people, no matter how talented. When you then need them to really feel safe enough to lose it, and cry, and outwardly project loss and betrayal, you need them to know that you're there with them, and not safe behind the camera. I've always directed about two inches away from people's faces because that's where the movie lives. I need everyone to know that I'm right there. Sculpting close-ups and what not was not on my mind. I just needed to be present to help draw out everyone's emotions.
6How much of the film was scripted? What was the story telling process like? I had an extremely rough outline: four days (which we'd shoot in three). Each day would be the girls doing ordinary stuff, talking to each other, trying to live, and then the nights would be the encounters with the johns. I had a few pieces of plot that the girls knew about but had to keep secret from everyone else, so that when they were revealed, everyone would be impacted differently. It was tricky, keeping all those plates spinning, but the more interesting part was watching the cast create so spectacularly every second of the day. They told the story. They express decades of hurt and longing and need in the littlest gestures, in the pauses between sentences, in the degree to which they react to simple and complicated stimuli and how much you can see them repressing. Their faces say more than my words could have in that situation, because it's about a series of specifically female inner lives. I trusted their reactions more than whatever my imagining of the situation would have been. I could trust that they'd be honest in reacting to the insanity of this lifestyle, even if it was only a facsimile.
7What do you think the camera style said about the characters and the world they lived in? Ken Loach once said "...if you put a wide angle lens on and shine a light on somebody, right flat on their face and shoot them close up, you turn them into an object, which seems to me quite a right-wing thing to do." I had that in my head the whole time we were filming, so we deliberately used lenses that would keep the characters from becoming objects, except in very crucial moments of anti-identification. For instance, when the guys come and look at the women, we have these slow pans or real rough, hand-held close-ups, approximating an objectifying gaze, cutting their bodies into commodities with sexist crudeness. Polishing them up, sticking the camera on a tripod, would have meant taking on that characteristic. They move and dance with the camera, as unsteady and nervous as they are, observing all this stuff that no one should be observing. The colour palette was an extension of that, those harsh oranges and whites and overpowering greens. It was meant to feel oppressive, for two reasons. The first was to psychologically mirror the lives of these women, the second was so that when we step outside, the few times we do, it's like coming up for air. The world is alien to them.
8How long did it take to shoot the film and what was the editing process like afterwards? So I drove to Boston on a Saturday to pick up Alexandra Maiorino, was in a minor car accident, drove her to set on Sunday night, arrived on set at 5 in the morning, woke up at 9 to pick up Valerie Yawien and Emily Crovella from the bus station, then grabbed Tessa Mania from the airport, drove back to the set, where the rest of the cast was waiting, having arrived in the meantime. We started shooting that night, a Monday (I got the flu on Tuesday), and on Thursday morning I put everyone back on the bus, stopped home to edit a trailer to show to donors, and drove Alex home the following morning. I was home Friday night. The editing took slightly longer. Like 3 years. Hah. I cut together something like a 4 hour rough cut, then showed it to everyone and took notes. Got it down to 3, showed it some more, kept cutting. And then tried shopping it around and didn't get much in the way of a positive response, and let it sit for a while. Then returned to it late last year, ready to kill my darlings. Got it down to its current length and love it more than ever. Some people are still going to think it's too long, but a film like this is just going to alienate people. No way around it.
9I thought you did a great job capturing small moments in the characters lives. How are small moments important to you as a storyteller? They're the most important part of the story. I joke sometimes that someday I'll make a movie that's just three hours of women doing their nails and straightening their hair. Because there is something so revealing about those practices, about the ritual, about performing for a mirror, looking at yourself while you do your best to change into someone different. I discovered while making I Need You in 2011 that there was nothing more fascinating than people in front of mirrors. It's its own little meta-cinematic sequence, a little theatre of privacy. Standing next to someone with a camera while they look themselves in the eye; there's intimacy in that moment you won't find anywhere else. The things no one will ever articulate honestly (in the context of a movie where the whole point is avoiding stereotypical, overly mannered dialogue) are hiding in those moments. Look into someone's eyes while they're looking back at their reflection, brushing their teeth or putting on fake eyelashes. Absolutely mesmerizing. I'll never tire of finding emotion in small gestures and everyday actions. More filmmakers need to trust humans.
10What's next? I'm in Jersey as I write this about to start shooting my 21st film. It's about a woman reliving what looks in hindsight like the watershed moment of her life, trying to find the good after years of bad. Trying to piece together how things broke apart so bad, how you became someone you don't recognize anymore. If I get distribution for this film, I've got literally dozens of screenplays I could shoot for a modest budget. I've been writing and collecting ideas since I was a kid. You don't make 21 films in 6 years if you don't have some stuff you need to work out, artistically and personally. As long as I have a camera, I'll keep directing one way or another. It's what makes me happiest in the world.
About the Interviewer: Sean Williamson
I'm a father. I've lived in Alaska, Colombia, Los Angeles and have directed twelve films (music videos, documentary, and feature). My directing/writing feature debut, Heavy Hands, was an official selection to the 2013 Raindance Film Festival (London). I started the blog World Wide Dirt in 2008, where I have written poetry, fiction, reviews, burgers stories, and many things in between.
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