At a point where most horror is content to go “booga booga” with a shock cut or otherwise offer non-stop carnage, a film like Zack Parker’s “Proxy” is a breath of fresh air. Indiewire critic Eric Kohn wrote about the film’s surprises (and it seems to have one up its sleeve every fifteen minutes), but also that “It isn’t about the shocking developments around each corner so much as the energy and invention that it brings to them.” It’s a film that features throwbacks to Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma and Lars von Trier without feeling like empty quoting, and it goes to far-out places without careening off the rails or leaving its characters behind.
Indiewire sat down with Parker to talk about his penchant for slow-burning tension, his influences, and how he planned to subvert audience expectations. “Proxy” opens today in theaters and is available to watch On Demand.
This is a film people should go into not knowing very much, but one of the opening scenes features a moment that might be shocking even for regular horror fans. Were you at all concerned about that?
A little bit, and I think it’s actually been affecting people more than I expected it to. I tend to be what people consider to be a slow-burn filmmaker, and I’m always interested in experimenting with storytelling structure and audience expectations. I knew with this one I wanted to hit people hard early on, almost throw them off-balance, give them the sense that anything could happen in this film, and thereby earn the time to build character and story with the unspoken promise that something like this could happen again right around the corner. Every time an audience feels like they have a grasp on where the story is going, it becomes something else, and then it becomes something else, and almost at the halfway point, we can shift to make it a completely different film altogether.
Were there any films in particular that influenced you to play with structure, to have a gearshift in the story or in the characters?
As a self-proclaimed cinephile and consumer of films, the thing I most appreciate as an audience member these days is when something surprises me. The audience has become quite savvy, we’ve had several generations of moviegoers, and it feels like it’s to a place where a lot of films within the first five or ten minutes you have a good idea of who the characters are, where the story’s going, what the relationships are going to be, what the arc’s going to be. My hope is to take some of those expectations and turn them on people. In terms of influences, I come from that Tarantino generation. He always played with non-linear storytelling. My previous feature, “Scalene” did that a bit, with the story told in three parts: the first in reverse, the second in non-linear, the third in linear. The film ends where it begins, but you have a different interpretation of what happens when you get there. Storytelling structure is one of the last things we can play around with.
It’s a situation where we find reason to believe what we previously thought might not be so, or might be more complicated than we thought.
From the opening scene, there’s a sense of something not quite right with Esther (Alexia Ramussen). Did you want to hint at that before we learn more about her character?
I like an evolving relationship with the characters while I’m watching something. It makes me feel like I’m part of the film when a character keeps changing, when it keeps me guessing, when the rug gets pulled out from underneath me. With what her character deals with early on, we build up an innate sympathy for her, and then I wanted to take that sympathy at completely turn people on her. And that happens with the other characters along the way, where these twists happen, but hopefully they don’t feel like forced twists, and they seem justified within the context of the story once you understand what that is.
And even as we learn unsettling things about them, they’re still pitiable and understandable.
Exactly. I don’t really subscribe to the whole classic protagonist/antagonist theory, which has been kind of done to death and isn’t really interesting anymore. What’s more important to me is if the characters are interesting to watch. I don’t have to put myself in a position of, “OK, I can relate to that person.”
Speaking of, how has the audience reacted to this? I know at Toronto it played at Vanguard rather than Midnight, which surprised me, but on second thought it might be a better place for it.
Colin Geddes programs both Midnight and Vanguard, and he asked me early on after he watched the film if this was something I wanted to show at Midnight, and I said no. I didn’t feel like it would be the right audience. This is, for the most part, a slower-paced film, and it’s 2 hours long, and I know those audiences walk in with pure energy. They want payoff, and they want it quick. I feel like it would have died in that room. From the point of us writing it, I was aiming it at the Vanguard section of TIFF. To me, it felt like it was a better fit for what it was going to become.
Have you been happy with the way it’s been received so far?
Like most of my films, it’s been a very polarized response. But we’re not trying to make a middle-of-the-road movie here. Hopefully we’re making some bold choices. I always appreciate a filmmaker who tackles really difficult material, but hopefully executes it in a very beautiful and intelligent way. So I know it’s going to split people. We’re trying to play with these expectations and do something different, and some people have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, and some embrace it. You can’t control people’s tastes, so all you can do is trust your instincts and make a film that you feel you’d like to see.
The performances seem deliberately heightened. What influenced that?
I’ve always been a huge admirer of Stanley Kubrick, and I feel his films get that same response as well. It’s about what’s interesting, not what’s reality. I once heard a quote from him saying, “Our job is to take the photograph of the photograph.” That’s more of what I’m interested in. I deal with characters who are mentally fractured, and when you’re dealing with the worst circumstances of your life, that’s when your true humanity comes to the surface. That’s been the thing, too. The responses to the performances have been completely different depending on who’s watching. Some will say that Alexia is the strongest, some say Swanberg is. It shifts with every perspective. I find that far more interesting than just general consensus about things. It tends to be more specific to pinpoint what someone’s specific taste is.
When it comes to fractured psyches, this film seems to bring people with strange fantasies meet with reality, and it watches the fallout. What interests you about that?
I’ve always been interested in mental illness. My wife is an occupational therapist, so it’s something she works with on a daily basis. We’ve been together for about half of our lives, I was with her when she was going to grad school and college. Kevin Donner, my writing partner, his wife is a physician. A lot of our financiers are physicians. The town we live in, our circle of friends is mostly made up of physicians. Different cases and medical cases come up in social conversations. It’s the world we live in, so it’s something I continue to be fascinated with.
The film deals with one mental condition in particular, something that doesn’t come up as regularly as, say, split-personalities in thrillers.
It’s a condition I’ve known about for quite a while. Again, I’m hoping to deal with subject matter that I haven’t seen before in film, and that mental condition specifically was the starting point for the film. It was having these two different women who are completely different in terms of their life experiences and personalities, yet share slightly different versions of the same condition, and that connection fills a void in their lives.
There’s a sequence in which you use slow motion very memorably, where we watch everything in exacting detail. It reminded me of Brian De Palma. Did you have that in mind?
It was a few different elements. It’s funny, De Palma has come up a lot after the fact. He wasn’t somebody I was thinking of consciously when designing that sequence, but when the first person mentioned it, I thought, “Oh, yeah, I totally see that now.” These influences filter through you both consciously and subconsciously. I thought I was stealing more from von Trier, because I was loving the phantom work he did in “Antichrist” and “Melancholia.” It’s a super slow-motion rate. We used the Phantom cam in that sequence at 1500 frames per second. It takes on this inherent surreal quality. There’s a narrative shift about halfway through the film, and I felt like we needed to design this marquee sequence around that. I felt like audiences are going to have a hard time believing that this was actually happening at this point to this character. We’re dealing with blood, we’re dealing with water, so it lends itself to this super slow-motion that gives it this balletic feeling. We always intended for it to be driven by the score, which the Newton Brothers did a beautiful job with.
Do you feel there’s more horror that should try to break taboos or be willing to shake people up?
I always appreciate it, but it’s all in the execution. There’s a fine line, but there’s still a fine line between exploitative and challenging. I’m sometimes reluctant to even describe this as horror, because it sets certain expectations. Especially here in the U.S., where when you hear “horror film,” you’re walking in expecting murder and mayhem every 10 minutes. That’s not what this film is. But I’m glad there are parts of the horror community that’s really embracing it.