Chris Sivertson

Chris Sivertson (director of The Lost)
Interviewed by LM Campbell

Back around 1979-1980 Dallas/Jack Ketchum and I lived in a one-room apartment together. He would write scripts and I would film those scripts. Together we created some of the greatest transsexual coprophagic pornography ever made. However, Dallas was always insistent that I never deviate from his scripts. If I altered one line or replaced the shitting-table with, as he would grouse: ‘a pedestrian glass coffee table’, he would get uncontrollably violent. How difficult was he on the set of The Lost?

Hold on a second, I have to look up the meaning of “coprophagic”…ok, cool, got it. Now I’m hungry. Well, Dallas only stabbed me twice while he was on set. I still have the scars on my back. Luckily he didn’t have a gun on him. I quickly learned that the more Scotch that we had on set, the less he cared about what I was doing to his book. But seriously folks, Dallas couldn’t have been mellower or more gracious when he visited us. He just wanted to help me get the movie made as best I could. And I was doing my best to honor his material, so I think it worked out for everyone.

There could not have been any contention in having Marc Senter portray Ray Pye as he was exceptional in the role. What were you looking for in a lead actor and what made Marc standout?

Before we started casting, I was worried that it would be difficult to find a young actor who was good enough to pull off playing Ray. I was looking for an actor who understood all the different facets of Ray’s character and who had both the talent and the balls to make it work. He had to be able to go from charming to manical and back again and make it believable. And he needed the courage to not shy away from the truly fucked-up nature of Ray Pye. He had to embrace it and not apologize for it. Marc just blew everyone else away. He always kept me guessing. In the auditions I could never quite pin down his approach. Usually you can tell pretty quickly where an actor is coming from during an audition – you see their interpretation of the character right away and they rarely deviate from that. Marc kept mixing things up, kept each audition really fresh. He nailed the essence of Ray Pye – he’s a guy who doesn’t allow other people to figure him out. Ray keeps you guessing – and that’s exactly what Marc did during the audition process.

What were Dallas’ first impressions of Marc?

I’m not entirely sure of Dallas’ first impression. We were auditioning in LA and Dallas is in New York. I think we sent him audition tapes, showing him what Marc was doing and I seem to remember that he approved. And once he got to the set, he definitely seemed happy with it.

Marc told me that he threw up on the first day of shooting. Will that be included in the DVD extras?

Unfortunately that wasn’t caught on tape. I didn’t know about that until later. I remember Marc looking very pale when we first started shooting, but I didn’t realize he was puking! Maybe we can recreate it for a DVD extra – I’ll get Marc liquored up and punch him in the stomach. That should do the trick.

Hey Chris, the one difference I noticed most between the film and the novel, is the decade in which it takes place. At the beginning of the film I thought that you were trying to invoke the 60’s – especially after seeing the enormous bush on Misty Mundae – it looked like she was giving birth to Buckwheat… The novel explored the zeitgeist of a decade, but was more about a change in world. Altamont, Charlie Manson – the hippies got their flower-parted heads kicked in by 70’s nihilism. Was there a specific reason why you chose to forego this and modernize the story?

Here’s the short answer: Money!!! If you try to realistically recreate the 60’s on a limited budget, unless your story is very contained, it’s going to come across as pretty ridiculous. THE LOST is an expansive story, with lots of different locations and characters, so it really would have drained our resources. That being said, once I decided to make it more modern, it seemed to be really fitting. Instead of making it up-to-the-minute modern day with cell phones and all that shit I made it an ambiguous mish-mash of different time periods. Ray still drives a car from the 60’s, Charlie and Sally drive cars from the 70’s, we chose locations that are kind of retro-looking, same with the costumes, and the slang that the characters use is old. All of the characters are “lost” in one way or another, and now they live in a town that feels lost in time. Also, those who love enormous bushes will really dig my next project. It’s called HIPPY. That one actually does take place in the 60’s – but it’s contained, so I think we can pull it off.

I agree about the mishmash idea – I really wasn’t sure when the film was taking place until one character used a cordless phone. You know, I think that a younger audience would have a difficult time empathizing with people who lived in such a prehistoric decade…

Well so far most of the teenagers who have seen the movie haved loved it. The setting and the look of the time-period may be different, but young people are still interested in the same things: sex, booze, drugs, and rock n’ roll. And then more sex.

Speaking of youth, since I was young my friends, parents, teachers – and later councilors, police, psychiatrists and parole officers have concluded that I have a skewered sense of morality. Whenever I watch any show involving crime – be it CSI, or any A&E true-crime special – I always hope that the accused will ‘get away with it’. I think it is because I hate people who abuse power; specifically authority figures who believe they are above the law. The police are always bending the rules to suit their own end. I absolutely hated the cops in the book, but your film managed to make me only slightly despise them. Did you get a sense of that in the book?

That’s interesting. I didn’t hate the cops in the book. I always felt that even in situations where they were potentially abusing their power that they were trying to do the right thing – the right thing in this case being the attempt to take down Ray Pye.
So, it was your intention to make it seem that their hounding of Ray Pye to be more in the public interest and less about egocentric cop hubris?

I guess I was just following through on my interpretation of the characters’ motivations. The scene early on where Detective Charlie Schilling goes to visit Barbara Hanlon (the mother of one of Ray’s first victims) struck me as a very powerful motivation for Charlie to nail Ray. Here’s a woman who may still be alive but whose life has been shattered by Ray. I sympathized with Barbara a lot and felt that Charlie did too, which renewed his resolve to convict Ray. I can see how Charlie’s ego definitely plays a role in that desire, but to me that’s a forgivable, very human trait.

It was definitely a powerful device having the film delve so succinctly into murder’s ripple effect…

Yeah, I was happy with that. Thrillers and horror movies often don’t show the effects of violence beyond its immeadiate effect, so that’s another thing that appealed to me about the novel. And I love Dee Wallace-Stone’s performance (as Barbara Hanlon). Her few minutes of screen time resonate throughout the rest of the movie. For me anyway.
Did you know from the onset that Ed’s role was going to be minimalized in the film?

At the onset, I tried not to minimize anything. My first draft of the screenplay looked like a phone book – people would throw their backs out trying to read the thing it was so long. Then there was a long process of trying to hone the thing down into fighting shape. It was tricky to get the right balance of everything. I think the only Ed scenes from the book that I ending up cutting out where some bar scenes. In the novel, there are several scenes of Ed and Charlie hanging out at the bar. Only one of those scenes, the first one, made it to the movie. Oh, and the cat stuff. In the book, there’s a stray cat that Ed sort of takes under his wing. For a while I was trying to keep the cat in the script, but once she got cut out, I guess that kind of minimized Ed to some extent as well.
The film has a spectacular ending. I’m glad that you didn’t continue on with the afterward in the novel. Ketchum’s addendum to The Lost lacked the spirit of the rest of the book. Did it appear tacked-on to you as well?

I don’t think it felt tacked-on in the book. I mean, it feels very different from the rest of the book because that narrative drive of following Ray as a free-man is gone, but it felt natural to me. And remember the cat. I think the ending in the book is necessary to resolve the tale of this stray cat who you’ve been checking in with throughout the story. The cat is kind of a symbol of hope amongst the chaos of the story. I guess that means that there’s no hope in my movie.

And is that why it was not included in the film?

I just chose to end the movie at the absolute height of chaos. I was definitely influenced by the ending of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. You know, boom, it’s over while the audience’s adrenaline is still pumping. And the ending of THE HILLS HAVE EYES (which itself was also influenced by TEXAS CHAINSAW). Without the cat, I felt there was nothing to resolve, so when Charlie finally gets his hands on Ray it’s over.

Without giving away too much of the ending, I thought shifting the violent conclusion from Ed to Charlie minimalized him moreso than the omission of the cat…

I see what you mean. Good point. My intention there was just to keep Ed with Sally at the very end, and keep Charlie with Ray. Throughout the story, Ed wanted to nail Ray, but he wasn’t obsessed with it the way Charlie was. Ed’s primary concern was Sally, his lover. Whereas Charlie was consumed with Ray to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. So I really wanted to see Charlie finally get his mitts on Ray, and just see Ed spend the final moments of the movie with Sally. And I wanted those things to happen simultaneously to keep the chaos-factor high.

Dallas and I talked at length about animal cruelty and I let him know that I would rather firebomb a daycare than hurt an animal (I guess I really do have a skewered sense of morality). To me, the cat was the most endearing character in the book. Of course it would have been ridiculous having an animal narrate, but it was really the biggest victim of The Lost…

I think a lot of the readers of the book feel that way. To me, Sally is the biggest victim of the story. The cat lives to tell about it. Sally…um, may not live. Is that a spoiler?
For people who did not read the book, nor really understand what supposedly happened to Sharon Tate – do you think that they will know what Ray was doing near the film’s climax?

Oh, yeah. Quite a few audiences have seen the movie now, and everybody seems to know exactly what is happening. When we showed the movie at SXSW in Austin, Texas, there was a pregnant woman in the audience! She fled the theater at that scene, along with several other disgusted audience members. The biggest crowd that’s seen it so far was at the Fine Arts Theatre in Los Angeles. There were nearly 500 people there and when Ray pulls up the shirt on the pregnant woman’s belly the entire theatre just went “…OH NOOOOOO…” as a collective. It was great.

A reaction like that is better than a 20-page spread in Rue Morgue, but it also sounds like a great marketing ploy…

Absolutely! There have been several films in recent years that have marketed themselves as being the craziest, most disturbing shit you’ve ever seen. It always seems to work, whether or not it’s actually true.