Getting Communal with Pistoleras’ Maverick Director and Writer. By Brian Kirst
Writer-Director Elisabeth Fies is slowly conquering the world with her unexpectedly powerful debut, The Commune. Filled with masterful touches and a vibe akin to such 70’s creep fests as The Sentinel and The Legacy, The Commune has been receiving rave reviews and now the determined Fies is prepping for a masterful follow-up with her violent Pistoleras. The smart, funny, go for broke Fies recently took a moment from her exotically creative schedule to answer some exclusive questions for all lucky Horror Society patrons.
Brian: Who were your first directing influences – Mary Lambert teaching us all that having a Siesta could be scary – the early work of 70’s mavericks like Coppola – a half baked great uncle who loved to take photos with his brownie camera?
Elisabeth: Ohhh… “Siesta”…good one, Brian. I heard Mary Lambert speak in my graduate film school days and she was a delightmare. When I worked at a video store, we had that beautiful blue and blood-soaked poster up right next to “Miracle Mile,” one of my first directing influences and a top ten favorite. Which is rad, because the writer/director Mr. Steve De Jarnatt is a buddy of mine now, and came to our world premiere party. Geekasm.
Absolutely, the 70s mavericks. I adore a smart psychological thriller, but their audiences are sophisticated and too many modern filmmakers are lazy copycats instead of talented mix artists with film knowledge beyond 1995. You have to come up with a new thriller/horror idea that isn’t “someone who you think is dead isn’t” or “someone is schizophrenic and doesn’t know it!” Viewers can guess either of those insulting plots in the first minute of most thrillers from the past ten years and be right. But the difficulty is viewers have internalized the genre’s required elements. We know that by the end of the movie anyone close to the hero will die or be otherwise out of the picture, until the hero is alone and betrayed by any character that is left. Then the hero will learn the truth of the mystery she seeks to solve, and either be destroyed by the knowledge, triumph and bring the criminal to justice, or have an ironic ending that is a win and a lose. That’s a thriller. Tough stuff to make fresh, which is why I chose to make it with other genres. I designed its structure with horror and coming-of-age dramedy to keep viewers off balance. But it still hits all the thriller plot points. The one thriller convention I purposefully skipped in “The Commune” was beginning with a murder for the hero to solve. Instead we flash back to an attempt at a suicide as our hero Jenny stabs out her own eyes. I hoped the opening would be enough to make audiences sit up straight with the interest of “What would make a beautiful girl want to do that?” and it seems to have paid off. At our premiere, people screamed and shouted. They were totally taken off guard, and then intrigued.
During “The Commune” I studied Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” and Steve DJ’s “Miracle Mile” for a thriller structure that emotionally involves the audience in characters who are going to die. And for the magician’s misdirection trick of distracting from impending horror with a raw love story. Audiences always love real love, and if you distract them with genuine emotion you can lead them straight through the gates of hell without them even feeling the heat. Another influence on the construction of the plot structure was the “Pulp Fiction” of thriller/horrors, Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man.” That movie plays its audience with ridiculous skill. Makes the story look improvised, but it’s all methodically planned to impinge. Viciously, ferociously intelligent and subversive. I feel delight every time I study it. There are dozen more from Dante, Parker, Carpenter, to Bergman, but it probably doesn’t interest anyone but me.
My amazingly talented editor and fellow producer Todd Miro constantly riffs on Kubrick, so the maestro is always present. Certainly we were that meticulous in the editing process to do Stanley proud. Especially to make up for the indie run and gun shooting we had to do, which DP Marc Shap and grip Matt Orchowski made gorgeously fluid and dreamy with expert dolly master shots and bright cheery color to belie the constant danger our lead is in. The color purple and the spiral symbol are in all the threatening scenes because Jenny is stuck in a conspiracy web begun before she was born and purple of course if film language for someone is going to die.
And I could write a thesis on all the mythology references starting with Oedipus. I’m not going to lie; “The Commune” is for sophisticates. The people who love it skew towards Mensa NPR and Huffington Post fans; the intelligentsia, a totally under-served population in this genre who are begging for a good twister and are only given one every seven years or so. The other two niches that get the movie and love it are teen girls, and other auteurs. They’re my excited repeat viewers, and the ones who laughed uproariously in the theater at the right spots and run up to me afterwards with their eyes all bright and excited. Such a great feeling to have given them a fresh yet mythical story they love. And then there’s the modern hardcore horror crowd, who’ve become oddly close-minded waiting for their next formulaic studio slasher remake who say “I don’t get what you were going for. I’ve never seen anything like that.” And I’m like “Um, EXACTLY.”
Brian: What influences you most as a writer – personal experience – news items – a great story told by a close friend?
Elisabeth: I mix all of the above in a blender. News story-wise, I’m curious about the fringe child abuse cults like the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, as well as the megalomaniacs like the grandfather in Austria’s House of Horrors who tried to live forever by genetically cloning themselves through incestuous offspring with his daughter and then grandkids.
I tend to write the personal experience in mostly as emotion and dialogue. The actual reversals and plot points are drawn from news items and the structure of the plot I’ve constructed to ultimately say something I want to say about life. My theme for “The Commune” is a variation on a Hilary Clinton adage, “It takes a village for incest to happen.” I think it’s impossible for only the criminal and the victim to know what’s going on. At least one other person is a co-conspirator through complicity. And my questions are, who can do that to their blood, and what have they deluded themselves into believing that allows them to wake up whistling in the morning?
I’m a thinker, so I ask a lot of tough questions of myself, of others, of life. But “The Commune” isn’t about any particular religious practice and I’m not against organized religion. I’m against zealots and hypocrites.
By the way, we shot it the movie at the Isis Oasis Sanctuary animal reserve and it’s not about them either. They were gracious and excited to have us there making a movie and many of the people were even given lines to include them in the moviemaking magic. I wish we’d had time to get the owner Loreon Vigne in with her ocelots because I’ve known her since I was sixteen, but it never worked with her schedule. Maybe it’s a good thing; sometimes it’s confusing when real people play fictional characters anything like themselves and the last thing I want is for Isis Oasis to take any guff from naive viewers.
Brian: Definitely! – What was your initial impetus for The Commune and how did the storyline grow from that?
Elisabeth: Yea! Thanks Brian, the perfect place for me to state for the record: “The Commune” is not about my parents. It’s fiction. It’s raw and emotional because that’s my signature style, and it’s detailed because I grew up around bohemians and I’m a meticulous researcher.
I’ve had a few reviewers assume I’m an incest victim, and I find that sexist. I’d love to see a reporter ask Polanski what it was like to be impregnated by the devil, or Michael Bay what it was like to come to Earth as a car robot. There’s a weird bias in our society to believe women only tell small personal autobiographical stories. I don’t know if that comes from publicists looking for any angle to sell a movie, or female artists opening up too much about themselves instead of letting their art speak for themselves, but yeah, my plot is fictional. And I wouldn’t have credited my mom as Executive Producer or brought my sister Brenda Fies on board as a producer if “The Commune” weren’t.
That being said, the initial impetus and the fairytale nightmare quality were seeds from something that happened to me as a teenager growing up with metaphysical New Agey parental units. One Christmas I woke up with the statue of the Bali naked flying goddess woman thingie over my bed, just like Jenny does in the movie. Scary, scary statue, and made me wonder who was in my room hanging it above me while I was vulnerable and asleep? I came downstairs totally freaked, and my parents were like, “oh you’re into empowering goddess images so we thought you’d love it.” So about a month later I’m finally used to this monstrous THING over my bed looking at me every night as I fall asleep, and I wake up one morning and it’s gone. I come downstairs again all pissed and hormonal, like did you think I actually wouldn’t notice? And my mom gets all embarrassed and says, “Well…we found out it was the goddess of fertility.”
Over their teen daughter’s bed. So yeah. Those moments, those funnier things, are in “The Commune” and were my impetus for wanting to tell a hippie-centric story with gray boundaries. And then the plot that grew around those incidents is just about taking every scene to its worst possible outcome. What screenwriting guru Robert McKee teaches as the negation of the negation, to make a balls out, surprising movie.
Brian: I feel the draft! – What was the most stressful and what was the most amazingly fun aspect about making The Commune?
Elisabeth: Most stressful, because we were low budget, was I worked nine people’s jobs. It was too much and took away from me being able to put my full attention into where it could have been of better service to the film. Suffice it to say, next shoot I will truly and daily have an assistant, a wardrobe and prop master, set decorator, etc. etc. And unfortunately I won’t be able to sleep in a room next to the crew and cast, because I was too accessible to constantly ask questions of. I never had a moment to pee. I say unfortunately because the most amazingly fun aspect was that the cast and crew were fantastic artists. I had a room in the same eccentric, Egyptian-themed lodge as the crew, and we lived in it for two weeks like it was camp. At least five crew guys played the guitar, including our terrific sound mixer and actor Winter and star David Lago, both of whom have songs in “The Commune”. At night, producer Heidi Hornbacher and I and the cast and crew had so much fun drinking wine and hot tubbing and getting ready for the next day. Totally a bohemian dream come true for me. The crew guys sleeping in the creepy attic area kept playing practical jokes on each other about it being haunted. They’d rearrange the furniture into “Poltergeist” stacks and scare each other. I fell asleep in the middle of the storytelling and singing one night because I didn’t want to miss out. We have some pretty funny pictures and a lot of in jokes.
Brian: You were involved with a film called Conventioneers – what do you think personally could be worse than a Democratic and a Republican hooking up? – A love child between Godzilla and King Kong – An aging cultist macking on his teen daughter?
Elisabeth: “Conventioneers” won a Spirit Award, by the way. Beat “Puffy Chair” and “Brick” that year. Go rent it; fantastic film. And incidentally how I met terrific actor Trevor Murphy, whom I cast in “The Commune” as my character’s lover. He’s a great sport, we had fun. Your question is a tough call. Personally what I think is worse is the record-breaking audience that hooked up with “Transformers 2” opening weekend. All you aholes who paid to see it: Hollywood is YOUR fault.
Brian: Do you have any ‘out of this world’ stories about working on Star Trek: New Voyages?
Elisabeth: None that a Klingon won’t drown in my blood over. “World Enough and Time” was an emotional righting of an historic Star Trek wrong, and a big award winner including a TV Guide award. Trekkers went nuts for it and say there is now an official 80th episode. I didn’t do a lot for the episode, but I wanted to help my friend producer Tasha Hardy make history. The whole production was professional fans and former Star Trek employees playing with franchised material outside of the studio system but with Paramount’s permission. It’s a milestone in what will become the new media rules of our century.
Brian: Cool – What do you ultimately hope The Commune helps you achieve professionally and what social impact do you hope its story has upon the world?
Elisabeth: With “The Commune,” I wanted people to finally feel something like empathy for the discarded baby incubator. I feel bad that we’re jaded when we hear these cult news stories about teen wives. The sexualized teen girl becomes an advertiser’s tool or a politicized symbol for arguments about teen birth control or pornography censorship when the reality is she’s a child and its child abuse. I hope one of my viewers will feel something new walking past a prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard. I want for once for someone to see and feel what brought this child to her own living hell, and to care, and to feel bad about her being betrayed and treated like garbage by a blind society and everyone who was sworn to protect her and raise her with boundaries. I want my audience to love Jenny, and feel horror at her fate, and think about her and worry from time to time when the movie is long over. Considering the crazy statistics of how many sex workers are victims of incest, maybe not hire a stripper for the next bachelor party or trip to Vegas.
Ultimately, “The Commune” is a stepping stone to helming my life mission: “Pistoleras.” It has won big screenwriting awards like Creative Screenwriting Expo’s best action script, and already has fans, and is anxiously awaited. It’s a franchise, it’s a video game, and it’s a way of life that will change the world. My team just needs a few more investors and celebrities whose missions align with ours, and then there will be a new sheriff in town to take down the global epidemic of sex slavery.
“Pistoleras” is a raw violent actioner with spaghetti western influences about a clique of teenage girls who skip parochial school to go surf in Baja. They pick the wrong van of Christian missionaries to party with on the beach, and one of the girls’ ends up sold into sex slavery. So they have to enroll help from the local Mexican wrestlers, storm the Baja bordello, and ultimately free their friend and all the slaves of that city.
The movie is fun and sexy and scary. Through the whole thing our teen sheroes are demonstrating cutting-edge self-defense techniques that anyone in the audience is learning, which is an idea I got from celebrity security expert Gavin DeBecker’s “The Gift of Fear” book. We have a ton of blurbs from insiders about the screenplay, but one of my favorites is from author Erin Torneo: “Pistoleras” delivers a knockout female empowerment message–its heroines make “Charlie’s Angels” look like the Girl Scouts.”
Brian: Awesome! Lastly, any words of advice (IE: Never trust your hippie mother when she sends you off with your tattooed ‘doctor’ father) or future projects that you’d like to tell us about? And thanks – this has been better than a blood ceremony in the woods any day of the week!
Elisabeth: For viewers, never trust a whistler. For filmmakers, don’t sit around waiting to be hired by Hollywood. My future projects include raising the rest of funding for the rock ’em sock ’em change-the-world “Pistoleras,” and shooting a fun horror anthology I’m the Executive Producer on this summer. It’s a riff on “Je T’aime Paris” and “I Love New York” called “I Hate LA.” It’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun: fifteen up and coming writer/directors making neighborhood-specific horror shorts about the hell mouth that is Hollywood. Hope you enjoy! I’m also anxious to work with my fantastic lead actress Chauntal Lewis again, and get the ball rolling on casting her in movies since she is now a gifted, gorgeous actress with one hand due to a car accident last March. She’d make a great Pistolera if we don’t dawdle much longer with financing. And if anyone knows Christopher Lee, it’s my dream to cast him.
One more bit of advice: Ultimately it’s a filmmaker’s job to be controversial and outspoken and make audiences think. Artists are supposed to be sacred guardians of their society’s conscience, and when they aren’t, historically, is when a society falls. We’re at a point when indie filmmakers have taken over the means of production, but there’s little creativity. This golden opportunity is being wasted in timid and soulless material. It’s our job to tell original, notorious tales that push film and our audiences forward instead of aping a Hollywood blockbuster or whatever was hip at Sundance last season. With the exception of Crispin Glover, why aren’t filmmakers making subversive pieces a la “The Night Porter,” “The Magic Christian,” “Holy Mountain” or “One Eye”? You’re not a cog in the Hollywood wheel, so grow some balls and stop ripping off “Saw.” Write and direct something audacious and educated with a point that isn’t for a paycheck, and the world will be a better place. Audiences, support great original indie films forging new distribution paths like “Ink” (four-walling in theatres across the country http://www.doubleedgefilms.com/) and “One Hour Fantasy Girl” (purchase at their site http://www.onehourfantasygirl.com/, and soon at AHulu, Amazon, Netflix, etc).
Reviewers, there’s more than one subgenre of horror film so please don’t ghettoize thriller/horror hybrids. Last time I checked my video store, “The Changeling,” “Burnt Offerings” and “Jacob’s Ladder” were in horror where they belong. This, Mr. Brian Kirst, is why you’re such a delight to have found. At last, an educated reviewer who can defend his criticism! Oh yeah, and everyone stop f*cking little girls.
(photos include shots of Lis w/actor-co-stars Trevor Murphy and Chauntal Lewis.)