As a film town, Atlanta seems to be gaining a reputation for Urban audience pleasers and low-budget horror films (perhaps contending now for Zombie Capitol of the world). However, I’ve always noticed way more diversity than we’re ever given credit.
Bret Wood is an example of an atypical filmmaker for the Atlanta scene. He’s a scholar of classic film and someone bold enough to make period pieces on an ultra-low budget. The fact that he’s also been an enthusiastic participant in the popular community film activities like the 48 Hour Film Project right next to the weekend warrior auteurs show that he’s also willing to have fun with filmmaking too.
He began feature filmmaking with a documentary called Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films which drew critical acclaim from many circles including the New York Times. He has completed other film related documentaries as well having a few books on film history published.
His first foray into narrative features was the film Psychopathia Sexualis an Atlanta based production which was a Victorian age period piece adapted from a historical medical textbook.
His most recent feature film, also a period piece, is called The Little Death and I wanted to talk to Bret about it as well as his previous short film, The Other Half.
You’re an author on the subject of film as well as a filmmaker yourself. Which is more rewarding and have your literary explorations of film informed your own filmmaking?
But without a doubt, filmmaking is what I always wanted to do, but for years I assumed it was a pipe dream. I figured, as long as I could do SOMETHING film-related, I'd be happy. And writing about film history was attainable to me at a time when filmmaking wasn't. For years I wrote screenplays and wrote film books/essays at the same time, telling myself that I would follow whichever path opened itself up to me. I always looked at my film history endeavors as attempts to better understand how films work -- so that if I ever graduated to filmmaking I would know what I'm doing. I still enjoy doing both. I'm a regular contributor to tcm.com and my visual vocabulary is always being broadened by the things I discover in pre-1950 cinema.
Please let us know a little about your latest feature film The Little Death.
THE LITTLE DEATH is an adaptation of Frank Wedekind's play TOD UND TEUFEL (DEATH AND DEVIL), combined with Anton Chekhov's short story "A Nervous Breakdown." The story revolves around a woman (Courtney Patterson) who enters a brothel in the 1910s and confronts the owner (Daniel May) and demands the release of a woman (Christie Vozniak) she believes is being held there in sexual captivity. While they match wits in one room, we follow an inexperienced young man (Clifton Guterman), who has been dragged into the brothel by his buddies, and whose path inevitably intersects with the others. I call it a Victorian sex tragedy.
It began as a personal exercise to become a better director. I hoped to get together with some actors and workshop the script, without ever filming it. As it progressed, I realized I would HAVE to film it, just to have a visual record. I intended to do it in the style of the American Film Theatre productions of the 1970s, which were unapologetically stagey, filmed plays that did not try to hide their theatrical origins (my favorites of the series are John Frankenheimer's THE ICEMAN COMETH and Tony Richardson's A DELICATE BALANCE). Because I was working with such a talented cast and crew, it doesn't feel stagey at all, simply claustrophobic.
The Little Death is your second Narrative Feature I believe in addition to some documentary films. Does it get easier upon subsequent efforts to complete a narrative feature as an indie filmmaker?
THE LITTLE DEATH was much easier than PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS because I had learned from my mistakes... the same mistakes all first-timers make: being too ambitious, not planning well enough, shooting unnecessary scenes that would eventually be cut from the film, not listening to people who gave me advice about the script and the editing.
THE LITTLE DEATH takes place, essentially, in three rooms. PSYCHOPATHIA, on the other hand, had at least 30 different scene settings (I'm afraid to count). THE LITTLE DEATH has about a dozen characters total, while PSYCHOPATHIA had about 75 -- all in Victorian dress! THE LITTLE DEATH cost less than half of what PSYCHOPATHIA cost. So yes, things are getting easier. I still make errors in judgment (a beautiful, elaborate sequence that took an entire shooting day was cut from the film) but the errors have become fewer, and less painful.
What was the biggest challenge you faced on The Little Death in production?
The problems that hinder me most are locations and scheduling. Finding a cost-effective place to shoot a Victorian-era film in Atlanta is nearly impossible.
And getting four top-grade actors in the same room at the same time is equally challenging. Since I couldn't afford a decent wage (and many people were working for credit alone), I couldn't have the same crew for the entire two-week run. Everyone is so busy pursuing stage work, free-lance employment and other independent films that the cast and crew had to be rotated in and out of the schedule. I'm just thankful that Linda Burns agreed to produce, because she managed to juggle that never-ending nightmare as if were business as usual.
You also recently completed a short film called The Other Half; can you speak a little on that film?
I shot THE OTHER HALF in 2008, and it screened only once, in 2009, at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, as part of the Cinekink Film Festival. I had gone a couple of years without making a film and was starting to doubt myself. I wanted to make something that tapped into my darkest fears and desires and took the audience on a perverse, upsetting ride through the inside of my head. Several critics panned PSYCHOPATHIA because it wasn't erotic or scary enough for them. It's not supposed to be erotic and scary; it's an adaptation of a medical text. THE OTHER HALF was my attempt to show that I can do erotic and scary, in something besides a turn-of-the-century setting.
Jane Bass plays a downtrodden housewife whose psychologically-abusive double-amputee husband (Adrian Roberts) coerces her into hiring a prostitute (Kimberly Jurgen) for him, driving them to a motel, and then staying in the room while he "proves" to her that he isn't dead yet.
It's probably my favorite film because it follows its own path and doesn't fit into any particular genre. Viewers always look a little weary after it screens. That makes me happy.
My biggest regret was that -- at 17 minutes -- I didn't just expand it into a feature. What can you do with a 17-minute short with objectionable content? Not much.
How do you balance your activities between producing classic film DVDs and your own original ideas? Does one tend to win out over the other?
They comfortably co-exist. I'm lucky in that my employer, Kino Lorber Inc. (a New York-based film/video distributor) allows me to work from Atlanta, and lets me time-shift a lot (working on nights and weekends if my filmmaking efforts tie me up during the day). Most everyone in the film distribution business is an aspiring (or frustrated) filmmaker, so I get more encouragement and indulgence from my employer than most people do.
What is your next project?
I have several scripts I'd love to film, but the one that is most likely to happen is called THE UNWANTED, which is a revisionist version of Sheridan LeFanu's gothic story "Carmilla." I hope to start workshopping the script with actors in October.