A Conversation With Spencer Parsons (BITE RADIUS) Part 2
(Filmmaker Spencer Parsons is no stranger to horror films but he’s never made a film as horrific as his latest, the 30-minute short Bite Radius. Based on a real life murder the film centers on ne’er do-well party animals Peyton and Nicole who are forced to deal with a dead body. While indeed gruesome and extremely difficult to watch, the film is also handled smartly with some odd, subtle diversions from what viewers may expect. We talked to Parsons about the film, his mental state and his inspiration for the film ahead of the films bow at this years Sidewalk Film Festival This is the part 2 of the interview.)
HTN: Since we’re talking about the characters, how did you land these actors? Were they acquaintances or was there a casting call…?
SP: Well, this film offered some challenges for the actors, to say the least! So I cast through referrals. There were formal auditions and screen-tests, but basically, I called around a bit to get started.
My friend Josephine Decker, who had acted in my last feature, was really super helpful. She suggested a number of actresses who I interviewed, and among them was Sophie Traub, who stars in Josephine’s feature, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. And when we met, Sophie was just obviously perfect and totally game for the challenges of the piece.
Trevor Dawkins is a member of the Chicago Neo Futurists, so I had seen him a few times in their shows, and asked him to audition. But a fair number of the other actors I approached to play his role balked at the challenge of identifying with such a character. They had no problem with the gore or the nudity or the terrible things they would have to do; they just read the script and had a really tough time finding their way into this guy. And these were some really great actors.
But Trevor was up for the challenge to play this character who couldn’t be more different from him. And it’s interesting, because the Neo Futurist aesthetic is about radical honesty, and not playing fictional roles or pretending to be anything. That’s Trevor’s main point of reference right now in terms of performing. You go see him in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, and he never plays anybody but himself. I think ironically, that really helped him in this case, because while the character couldn’t be farther from him, he really was able to just take these events and through an act of empathy create a character in front of the camera.
HTN: They both really owned their roles….it’s impressive to see actors so committed to a short film that’s pretty….errr….out of the ordinary.
SP: Well, they’re terrific actors, and I think we all enjoyed the challenge to do something a little different with these characters. Because, you know if this was a feature, we’d have to kind of normative sympathy and motivation so they could be tolerable over the long haul as antiheroes or even as villains.
We can be far more mysterious on the one hand, and yet I think on the other, a good bit more direct about what we do see. We could do without explanations or special pleading because we and the audience are only going to have to put up with these characters for so long. And using that, we can get at a different kind of poetic truth about character and motivation than a feature or a TV show.
To come back to what you said about Bonnie and Clyde, I’ll say that there’s this one photo of the real-life Bonnie and Clyde that really influenced my thinking on this project. In the photo, their energy is really intense and a lot scarier than anything the movie touches on. And not incidentally, I think they’re a lot sexier together than Dunaway and Beatty, even as they’re frightening and not nearly as glamorous. I mean, these people are obviously dangerous characters, and it’s only that context of true despair during the Great Depression that could transform them into folk heroes.
Obviously, what these characters in my movie do is just plain foul compared to robbing banks…though not any worse than murdering witnesses or people trying to capture them, I think it’s important to add. That the characters in my movie (or at least Nicole) might aspire to a kind of Bonnie and Clyde romance, even as their actions and their milieu are so stark and grotesque and un-psychologized, seemed like a fun riposte to that mythology that runs through so much cinema. And a good project for a short film. Sophie and Trevor were totally on board with that mission and threw themselves into it.
HTN: The music in your film also has a kind of ironic sensibility to it. Again, no music or maybe some grungier type tones and mood music would be “expected.” Can you talk a bit about that choice and tell us a bit about your composer?
SP: We wanted that quality that a lot of exploitation movies (especially the Italian ones) have where the music is emotionally pretty far off from the audience’s usual emotional and moral relationship to the action, because it’s cheap library music that wasn’t tailored to the film, or because yeah, the filmmakers are crazy or they’re a thrilling sort of incompetent, or sometimes because they’re actually brilliant, but thankfully working under professional conditions where cooler heads do not prevail. I love how that tension between music and incident creates a more open and complicated emotional space for us in the audience. And the thing that really makes it work is the sincerity. When the music itself isn’t winking, and it’s also not being used in some crushingly obvious, jokey fashion.
The composer, Charles Mueller, and I didn’t go anywhere as far as the Riz Ortolani score for Cannibal Holocaust, but that sort of thing was definitely on my mind. We actually started out pretty straightforwardly by grounding the music in the genre suggested by the material: It’s true crime, so a noir or neo-noir sound would provide a little bit of normative comfort, and those smooth jazzy sounds would go nicely with a gliding camera. But then on the other hand, the cues are built to identify more with the emotions of the characters than with the emotions of the audience, which is pretty normal when the characters are admirable or the action is conventionally nice, but definitely not so common when the characters are awful. But I think (or, I hope) we in the audience already know that what’s going on is fucked up, so then why not have the music sincerely track with a character’s romantic or erotic aspirations, to open up the space a bit, put the characters uncomfortably in charge, and complicate the whole movie’s emotional palette and depth?
Charles is just amazing. He was a student of mine at Northwestern, and I knew he was talented when I asked him to work on this, but he just went way beyond. I ended up learning a ton from him, and he was really game to try a lot of odd things, so I’d say it’s one of the best collaborative relationships I’ve ever had. And, you know, it’s not every composer who will go along with stopping everything to look at how the music works in Zalman King’s Two Moon Junction, which I think is a masterpiece.
HTN: The 30 minute length for Bite Radius is kind of odd. Was there ever a thought of cutting it down to fit the (horrible) “film festival standard” of 18 minutes or less? Has the length of the film hurt your festival opportunities?
SP: Well how odd is 30 minutes, really? 20-30 minutes is a pretty sturdy one-act storytelling form that audiences see all the time on TV. In particular, there’s Tales From the Crypt and The Twilight Zone, or even Black Mirror, which runs about 45 minutes. Obviously for this material, those were great points of reference for thinking about how to structure it in a compelling way for an audience and also entertain any level of nuance or complexity. I guess some version of this story could be done in under 15 minutes, but I think it would be a blunter instrument, reducing the experience to something more like all gore or all implication, and it also wouldn’t allow for much balance between the characters. That would be a different story, a different emotional experience, probably less accessible, and frankly, not worth the effort. Life is too short.
Has that hurt the film’s festival opportunities? Probably. But frankly, the gore and scat and general perviness of this movie make it tougher to program than the length does, because in a show of shorts with less objectionable content, this one would really be a turd in a punch bowl. But maybe it’s self-selecting, and I’m not interested in participating in festivals devoted to such an arbitrary aesthetic standard that’s more restrictive than television or feature films. And in those cases, at least there are hard-core market concerns. Short films should be the domain of the most freedom in our cinematic economy, because by their nature, they’re already functioning outside the market. I mean even when they sell, it’s a crazy exception for them to pay for themselves, never mind profit. When I make a feature, there are a lot of extra-artistic factors I have to think about and manage if I’m to be a responsible steward to the people fronting the money. By its nature, the movie just won’t belong as much to me and the other artists I’m working with, unless I’ve got investor/patrons who radically don’t care about making their money back. Nice work if you can get it.
I have fought some hard fights in that feature realm, but ultimately I was in the wrong, and the work suffered for it. But on a short that I pay for, my collaborators and I are free from all that and can put the story first, really do it full-blast. So I couldn’t be more proud to have premiered this film at Maryland Film Festival, because they really get that. They’re one of the best venues in the country, because they set aside so many screening slots and even open the whole festival with shorts. I saw a lot of really ballsy stuff of all kinds of lengths there. And I’m stoked to play Sidewalk this year, because I saw a lot of great shorts there when I went with Saturday Morning Massacre.
HTN: Speaking of film festivals, what’s the response been to the film?
SP: It’s been really great. Loud. This film has turned out more of a crowd pleaser than I would have expected, and sometimes there will be laughter or applause at things that make me go, “you people are sick.” But especially from what people say afterward, it seems like it’s working as a kind of entertainment that bites back, not just a cheap laugh or jolt, but something that feels a little sick while it’s happening and then haunting afterward.
HTN: Where can people see the film? Any fests coming up? Once the festival run is done, what are you hoping to do?
SP: Yeah, so Sidewalk (in Birmingham, AL) is coming up really soon, and I’ve gotten back some answers from more festivals that haven’t announced yet. I’d like to get it in front of big screen audiences as much as possible, because it seems so far like that’s the most emotionally varied experience with it. I’m also working on packaging it with more true-crime-based shorts, because I’m really excited by the possibilities. Whether they’ll all be by me or by other filmmakers remains to be seen.
HTN: What’s next for you?
Well, that and shooting another short in a few weeks. I’m also prepping a feature to shoot in the coming year in Austin that Aaron Leggett (Bite Radius co-screenwriter) and I have been working up for a while. I’m stoked that Jason Wehling is gonna produce, since we’ve really wanted to work together again since we finished Saturday Morning Massacre. It’s psychological horror and romance in the zone of Don’t Look Now, but with some really gnarly body horror. We wanna freak people out.