Zeb Haradon directed and starred in “Elevator Movie,” one of the most idiosyncratic, and challenging surrealist films I've seen in a long time.
It's a disturbing, mesmerizing, and psychologically perverse film about a shy man who is stuck in an elevator with a born again Christian woman with a promiscuous past for months. The film makes up for its low production values with originality and provocative performances.
It will be screened this weekend at the Three Penny Theater at 2424 North Lincoln on 8/22 at 7:15 and 8/23 at 9:30 pm. as part of the Chicago Underground Film Festival.
He answered a few standard questions by e-mail, and offered some insights on his background, influences, “Elevator Movie,” and future projects. He also offered some tidbits on “ Waiting for NESARA ,” his upcoming conspiracy theory documentary. It's about a group that believes that Bill Clinton died and was replaced by a look-alike, and they plan to replace Bush with a UFO riding Jesus. It promises to be as quirkily fascinating as his first feature.
Can you tell me about your educational background?
I went to SUNY Buffalo , a four-year New York State college, and majored in cognitive science (the formal study of intelligence – a hybrid of psychology, computer science, philosophy, and linguistics). I took a couple film and art classes as I had the time. I took film history, which was just watching old movies, and a class on the history of photography, and one on the history of surrealism. I took one day of a filmmaking 101 class, but dropped it the first day when I found out we had to work in groups.
How did your formal education and/or your life experiences prepare you for filmmaking?
My major area of study had nothing to do with filmmaking really, and in the few film classes I took, I didn't ever touch on the technical side of it. I guess seeing a variety of movies from different eras and cultures showed me a wider range of what you can get away with in film. College was the first time I had to take an elevator anywhere on a regular basis, which did lead to the idea for Elevator Movie.
How did you get started in filmmaking?
My grandfather had a super-8 movie camera, and later a VHS camcorder, on which I would make little movies for fun. I think the first thing I made was a super-8 movie with Go-bots (generic Transformers) when I was eight years old. I also remember making some horror movie on VHS about a Nazi soldier returning from the dead and killing people. My grandfather acted in it and I had him spitting ketchup (as blood) into a cup while I pretended to stab him, and I used real Nazi helmets and knives from WWII as props. I think I was about 10 years old when I did that one, so filmmaking was really a wholesome childhood hobby for me. I got back into it in college and made two short super-8 movies, which were part of an unfinished trilogy called “The Culmination of Events”, and edited them very primitively, just using scotch tape to hold the splices together. They weren't rally about anything, they were just oddities. One was about a guy finding a dog's leg in the woods wrapped in gift-wrap. I started filming “Elevator Movie” within a year of finishing college.
What or who were your influences?
As far as “Elevator Movie” goes, Luis Buñuel primarily. Jim's ridiculous lust for Lana is a lot like the old man's for the young maid in “That Obscure Object of Desire”, and the idea of them being trapped in an Elevator for absolutely no reason is a lot like the dinner guests trapped in the room in “The Exterminating Angel”. I very consciously adopted these ideas in “Elevator Movie”. I also took Buñuel's approach of developing a primarily narrative plot and inserting little unexplained odd details here and there. John Waters was somewhat of an influence, just in the sense that I like to surprise people with sudden, disgusting images. There's a lot of influence in “Elevator Movie” that I didn't notice until after I saw the finished product. Like I noticed that the episodic nature of “Elevator Movie” is similar to almost any Jim Jarmusch movie. And the end is kind of like the ending of “Kids”.
Critics have compared “Elevator Movie” to the works of Dave Cronenberg, Shinya Tsukamoto, and David Lynch. Do you feel like you owe a debt to their work?
I appreciate when people compare me to someone accomplished and respected, but I think a lot of the time they are comparing me to those filmmakers because they don't know what else to say. “Elevator Movie” isn't really anything like a Lynch movie. They might be roughly the same distance from normalcy, but in opposite directions. Seeing Eraserhead probably had a lot to do with making me want to become a filmmaker, and was at one time my favorite movie. I even copied one shot from it (Lana looking in disgust at the mouse, copied from the girl across the hall looking at the baby). But besides that I am not aware of any similarity between the two in theme or plot, and none was intended. As for the Cronenberg comparison, I think people are talking about the metal vagina scene. What inspired that was reading Freud's article about how people develop fetishes – I won't go into every detail except to say I was really amused by his crazy theory and wanted this movie to amuse people in the same way. If you read that article you'll see how the second half of the movie illustrates his theory. I did watch Tsukamoto's “Iron Man” to get makeup ideas for Lana, but I really didn't like it and didn't use anything from it. A lot of people compare “Elevator Movie” to James Fotopoulos' movies too. I hadn't heard of him until I read the first review that said that, but now that I've seen two of his movies (I liked them both ), I see why that's said.
Is it difficult to do multiple tasks (such as act and direct) in a movie?
It's easier, but you get a lot of things wrong. For example, I didn't realize that I had to connect a cable between the camera and the sound recorder to get them to synchronize, so I had to do a lot of work in editing to try to fix that, and wasn't completely successful. But if you're willing to sacrifice some technical results, it is easier to do as much as you can by yourself. For example I didn't have to give direction to the person who was playing Jim, because it was me, and I knew exactly how I wanted him played. If there was a line or scene outside my ability, I cut it. The most difficult thing was having to do some of the body double scenes myself. When you see the close up of the metal vagina, that's actually my crotch with a prosthetic metal vagina on it.
How did you come up with the initial idea for "Elevator Movie?"
I think it was from taking the elevator to my dorm room every day in college. I developed this weird thing with elevators. It wasn't fetishistic or anything, I was just always thinking about the elevator, and you know how you feel your stomach move a bit when an elevator first starts or stops? I would feel that at random times in the day when I wasn't in an elevator, and I would feel like the ground was just a rising elevator platform. I was also very shy at the time and I started to look forward to taking the elevator every day because it was the rare time I might be forced into a social situation with someone. I can't pinpoint exactly when I started to think of it as a film or develop the plot, but recently I found a 2 page story I had written prior to March of 1997 that contains most of the elements that ended up in the final movie (I wrote the script in late 1999).
Were Jim and Lana based on real characters?
Jim started as an exaggeration of the way I saw myself in my darkest, darkest depressions, but as I developed the character I put a lot of things in that have nothing to do with me. Lana is not based on any real person, but I did think of her religious nature and the effect it had on her as being similar to De Sade's Justine. Her character is almost like an answer to Jim, written to have character traits which will lead to the most unpleasant consequences for him. One aspect of her is taken from an allegedly real person. The way she gets excited by watching Jim kill a mouse is based on a story I heard about this lady who got turned on and slept with her boyfriend for the first time after he shotgun-killed a sick cow in front of her. Although, that's probably an urban legend.
How did Robin Ballard come to the project, and what was she like to work with?
Before I finished the script, someone I knew had agreed to play Lana, but after I rehearsed with her, I realized she just couldn't do it and I really needed a professional actor to play the part. So I put out a “casting call”, which was really just a posting in an internet newsgroup, and Robin answered it. I couldn't have been luckier. She completely understood the character and the script, really knew how to act, and showed up on time and treated it like a professional film, even though I was just filming in my apartment and didn't have a crew and it was usually just us two on the set. She also gave some really good script feedback before we started filming.
Would you ever want to work on a big budget film? What if someone gave you a million dollars?
I have some ideas which would require large budgets, and which would appeal to a large enough audience to economically justify the expense. These are ideas which I do intend to get made into movies some day, but not yet. I also have a lot of ideas which will require budgets of under 100K, and won't attract large audiences and I'll probably do those films first. But I wouldn't enjoy working in a setting where I had to relinquish creative control to someone else, and if I somehow ended up in that situation, the result would surely be an awful movie. The million dollars would have to be my million dollars, or would have to come with no creative strings attached.
How did you get involved in the Chicago Underground Film Festival?
I just submitted it through the standard process and they accepted it. Having a fairly substantial press kit and website probably helped – www.elevatormovie.com . Having a few positive reviews written about it, most notably from film threat, was probably helpful too.
What are some of your favorite films and filmmakers?
Every Buñuel movie I've seen is great. I like most David Lynch movies, most Guy Maddin (especially “Careful” and “Cowards Bend the Knee”). A lot of documentaries, "Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist", “Titicut Follies”, “Beyond the Mat”, “Marjoe”, “Persons of Interest”, “Whispers from Space”. My favorite documentary right now is a short one called "The Sunshine" by Phil Bertelsen. I like watching Christian and Mormon propaganda movies like “God's Army”, “Judgment”, and “Left Behind”, old film noir like “Detour”, “The Scarlet Street ”, “The Third Man”. I like Kurosawa movies, I like some Mormon home movies that I found at the thrift store when I lived in Utah . I like stupid TV shows like “Da Ali G show” and “ South Park ”.
Is there any genre that you are drawn to or would like to work in?
I think more in terms of the story then the genre. I have ideas you could classify as science fiction, horror. I think every movie should make you laugh or else it's not worth watching, no matter how serious a topic it is, so I could say comedy is the general theme I guess. I am just finishing up a documentary called “Waiting for NESARA”, and I think I'd like to one day direct a fictional adaptation of it, as a spaghetti western.
Are there any actors or actresses that you would like to work with?
I'd mostly like to avoid working with actors who have recognizable faces. It detracts from the movie. I like the way that Werner Herzog casts. If he wants someone to play a street musician, he casts a street musician.
Can you discuss "Waiting for Nesara," and your other upcoming projects?
“Waiting for NESARA” is a mini-DV feature length documentary that me and my wife Elisa are finishing now. It has had a test screening hosted by Seattle IFP and should be on the festival circuit in late 2004 or early 2005. It's about a group of mostly (but not entirely) Ex-Mormons in Utah called The Open Mind Forum, who met weekly to discuss something called NESARA. NESARA is a secret law (National Economic Stabilization and Recovery Act) that they believe Bill Clinton passed in the year 2000, but which was subsequently covered up by the Bush administration. Although there's no mention of the law in any official government source, the group believes it will abolish the IRS, remove George Bush from office, expose him as a reptilian alien, distribute millions of dollars to every man, woman and child in America, and install a UFO-flying Jesus Christ as America's new leader. The group believes that the September 11th attacks were Bush's first attempt to delay NESARA's implementation, and that the Iraq war will be his second. The movie was filmed before and during the Iraq war, and the group remains faithful (right up until the bombs start dropping) that their UFO allies will intervene in time to prevent war, and thus to ensure NESARA's implementation. Our website for the film is www.waitingfornesara.com . As for upcoming projects, I have several ideas that range in level of completion from scrawled notes to completed scripts. I have a pretty good idea of which one I'm going to work on next, something called “Shapeville”, but besides the title I want to keep it a secret.
Your new documentary is about Mormons and you used a former Mormon (Robin Ballard) in “Elevator Movie.” Is there something about their culture/religion that you find fascinating?
Casting Robin had nothing to do with her being a former Mormon, I didn't even know about that until filming was almost finished, but most people who lived in Utah are Mormons or former Mormons. However, yes, I am fascinated by Mormons, because they are completely fucking insane! The members of The Open Mind Forum were actually the friendliest and most sane people we met in Utah . Because of that, Mormons should fascinate everyone. I'm really surprised that Utah 's culture hasn't interested people more. I lived in Utah for five years and it's like no place else in the United States , it really made me feel like an anthropologist because it's a completely different culture. Living there is like living in an 18 th century small town that has been taken over by Jim Jones. It's really the twilight zone, or invasion of the body snatchers. Any filmmaker who is looking for ideas should just travel to Utah for a few weeks – you'll find a story on every street corner, especially if you venture beyond Salt Lake City or Park City and travel to exotic locales like Orem, Ogden, Provo, or way down south to the polygamous part Utah. The average IQ in Utah is 87, it has the highest anti-depressant usage rate in America, people usually get married in their teens, and this very odd cult with a very odd history touches every aspect of life in the state, even for non-Mormons. Visit while you can, because it's really the last theocracy in the western world. The Mormon church is in the beginning states of toning down it's weirdness and excommunicating the craziest hard core believers, and I think that within 50 years it will be just another religion and Utah will be just another state.
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Don't count on making your money back. Keep a regular job until you can afford to quit, but don't count on that ever happening. Don't try to copy big budget movie ideas on a small budget. You probably have a lot of ideas, select the easiest one you can do for your first project. Start your second project before you finish your first – have them tied to each other some way if possible. That way if your first one crashes, you have the second one already half finished. As for creative advice, if you're looking for it from someone else, then don't make a movie.
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