Proxy shocking horror is “difficult to talk about”

Zack Parker talks expectations, inspirations and the controversial subject matter of his horror Proxy

PROXY_Still6_RasmussenZack Parker’s horror film Proxy got a great reaction at FrightFest Glasgow, but it’s a tough film to talk about. We loved it; a grim, deliberate piece that drags you into the trauma of its characters and refuses to let go, and you can read what we thought here.

The less you know about Proxy going in, the better, but, to give you a basic synopsis, Esther (Alexia Rasmussen) joins a support group after losing her baby. She quickly makes friends with Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins), but as the pair become close, secrets bubble to the surface and the two women find out things about each other that will have traumatic repurcussions.

Parker talked to SciFiNow after the film’s screening at FrightFest to discuss dealing with a sensitive subject and why he’s determined to keep his audience on the back foot.

Have you found it difficult to talk about this film and promote it without giving anything away?

Well, it’s definitely a difficult film to talk about because I think a lot of the pleasure that comes from watching it comes from the twists and turns that happen throughout, so I’ve found it to be a difficult film to talk about ahead of time without giving too much away.

But what I can say is that I’m always trying to deal with a story or a topic that I haven’t really experienced in film before, you know I’m looking for something I haven’t seen before, so I feel this film deals with a certain mental condition that I’ve not really seen portrayed in cinema before. And even to disclose what that is I think is to give away too much of what is in the film. Also I’m very interested in experimenting with structure in film and sort of audience misdirection and expectations.

So while constructing this particular story I wanted to…I feel like audiences have become quite savvy about how a film unfolds, how a story unfolds, and so I’m trying to take some of those expectations, those story expectations and turn them on the audience so that every time you feel you have a grasp of where the movie is going we’d take you somewhere else. Then almost at the midway point it almost becomes a different film altogether.

The film starts with the loss of a child, which is potentially a sensitive subject for a horror movie. Were you worried about approaching it?

A bit, but I’m a father myself, I have three children, so I know that the subject of childbirth and children are very sensitive subjects but also I really respect filmmakers who deal in very challenging subject matter, especially those who can execute that subject in a very intelligent and beautiful way. And I appreciate it as an audience when I’m challenged by a story or a filmmaker. So I guess that’s just something that inspires me and something I’m hoping to do in my own work.

It feels like there’s a big influence from French films like Inside and Martyrs. Did you look to those films for inspiration?

We did, actually, both my writing partner Kevin Donner and I actually watched both those films quite a lot. And in fact Martyrs  was one of those films that had that structure where you couldn’t get a grasp on where the film was going, and that was very exciting, because it almost makes you feel a part of the story as the audience and you’re trying to fill in these holes as you go.

Was playing with structure and audience expectations one of the starting points for the film?

It was; this is my fourth film and getting into my third one, Scalene, was where I really started experimenting with structure and taking what I feel are audience expectations when watching a story and sort of playing with those and hopefully create a new experience for you all watching. So very early on I knew I wanted to take a story and tell it in a way that would be in some ways unique.

Has it been tough keeping the plot under wraps?

Somewhat. I think most journalists and the press tend to be very respectful and understand that that is a crucial part of the film, to maintain the secret. It only tends to be the people that don’t like the film that tend to give away more than I’d like them to.

PROXY_Still2_HavinsProxy did play very well at FrightFest Glasgow but there were some people who really didn’t like it. How does it feel when a film splits an audience.

It’s always very satisfying when an audience responds favourably to your work. That’s always a wonderful feeling. My films tend to polarise people a bit, I think we had a really great showing in Glasgow and just happened to have really the right audience there for it. I’m always a bit apprehensive in the States to call a film a horror movie or a genre film, because I feel the expectations are different here.

I feel that with the pacing of the film, because it’s so character driven, that sometimes that sets up an incorrect expectation, that people are expecting slasher slasher slasher, that people need to be killed every ten to fifteen minutes in order to maintain expectations of what they think of as a traditional horror film but I’m more a fan of the modern European horror films or going to back to classic American ’60s and ’70s horror films. Something like Rosemary’s Baby is a huge inspiration for me.

The cast is terrific, could you tell us how it came together?

Yeah, I’m very proud of the performances. I sort of found them all in different places. The last film I did, Scalene, starred Margot Martindale and Margot really helped me get in with her talent agency and I found both Alexia and Alexa who plays Melanie there. I just interviewed lots of actresses, met with a lot of people, and I knew that these were two very challenging female driven roles and that I needed to find actresses who were going to embrace the challenge of them, and kind of in my mind fall in love with those characters for all the right reasons and both Alexia and Alexa both really got what I feel like I was trying to do with those characters and that story.

I found Kristina [Klebe] through Hannah Hall in Scalene, Hannah was also in Rob Zombie’s Halloween, she played Judith Myers. Michael Myers’ older sister, I met Kristina through her, and we just got along together. I was just in the beginning stages of writing this script and I thought it would be something that would be very good in and it was something very different than what I’d seen her in before, that always excites me to see in actor in something, put them into a character that I’ve never really seen them in before.

And that was also with Joe Swanberg, I sort of met him inadvertently through Adam Wingard who I’ve known and kept in touch with on and off throughout the years and I saw the work that he was doing in the films with Adam and I just talked to him about the script and sent him my previous films and again said “I feel like this is going to be something different for you so let me know if it’s something that you want to do.” And he read it very quickly and got back to me and said “That’s some fucked up shit but it looks like fun so let’s do it.” I think he left directly from our set to do The Sacrament right after.

With Ti West and Adam Wingard there does seem to be a group of American independent horror filmmakers doing something different at the moment. Do you feel like it’s an exciting time for American horror?

There is this really interesting new wave of American both genre films and independent thrillers. And so it’s very exciting to have a film going around these same sort of channels and seeing a lot of great work. I loved You’re Next, I met Adam when he did Pop Skull and I was going around with my second film so I’ve been following his films for a while but also, I’ve also known Evan Katz for a while and I think what he did with Cheap Thrills was fantastic. I’ve also known Jeremy Saulnier for several years and I think Blue Ruin is amazing. I think there’s this great emergence of great young filmmakers with unique voices coming out right now. So I like to think that in some small part that I’m a part of that circle.

PROXY_Still5_Rasmussen_HavinsIN THE INTERESTS OF SPOILERS, THE FOLLOWING QUESTION WILL BE PHRASED IN A PARTICULARLY VAGUE FASHION.

IF YOU WANT TO AVOID BEING TIPPED OFF IN ANY WAY, PLEASE PROCEED TO THE NEXT QUESTION.

SPOILERS.

There’s a very stylish sequence in the middle of the film. Could you talk about the thinking behind the way that looks?

Sure. It’s a big sequence in the film and there’s a big change that happens there in the narrative. So I felt like I wanted to build a very stylised marquee sequence around that chain of events. Really where it came from is that I had been really falling in love with the slow motion sequences that Von Trier had been doing with the Phantom camera in Melancholia and Antichrist and I really just wanted to build this slow motion sequence and since it was in a bathroom and we’re dealing with blood and water it sort of lent itself to this very balletic use of super slow motion camera work and so we shot the whole sequence at 1500 frames per second, I was only able to get one take of each one of those shots, because we just didn’t have enough time to do more and the clean-up would be immense between each one. So we essentially had to shoot it in order and it was in the script like that from the very  beginning. I will say that once I got into editing the film I was a little scared that I had painted myself into a corner with this sequence, something big happens, you can’t really cut out that scene  so either it was going to work or it wasn’t going to work. But  I think that our composers put a lovely piece of music over it that really drove it home so I’m very proud of it and I’m really pleased that people have been responding so positively to it.

SPOILERS END.

Have you got anything else in the pipeline?

The next film I’m working on right now is actually a script that I’ve been working on for about 14 years. It’s a film that I always wanted to make when I had some real resources under my belt, the budgets I’ve worked with so far have been pretty small to say the least, so hopefully I’m getting into a position where I’ll have a few more resources and can make it the way it needs to be made. But it’s something I’ve written for a big city, it’s a much bigger scope film than I’ve done before but also again deals with a lot of experimentation with structure and storytelling narratives and things like that. So it’s something that’s in the works right now. I would say that it’s sort of like a Nicolas Winding Refn arthouse thriller.

Proxy is released on 18 April in the US in cinemas and on demand. A UK release is planned for later this year.