TADFF 09: "Let's Dance like it was 1989." Interview with Strigoi Director, Faye Jackson.
[Over the course of the 2009 edition of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, I had the pleasure of chatting with Faye Jackson, director of the offbeat vampire folklore allegory, Strigoi. Celebrating her seventh wedding anniversary with her husband and producer Rey Muraru with a highly enthusiastic audience taking the simple pleasure of giving a collective shout, "Strigoi!" at the urging of festival director, Adam Lopez. Even after the whirlwind, Jackson was a fountain of energy and insight into a film which may throw a curveball towards those expecting the usual Romantic-Teen-Romp treatment the vampire movie has been getting as of late. The transcription of our chat is below.]
Kurt Halfyard: Did you stay and watch the film with the audience for its World Premiere screening?
Faye Jackson: I watched the beginning and the end, but Rey [Muraru, producer] stayed for the entire film. It was a little quiet at the beginning, I was worried that everyone was getting everything, but you always worry about this, which is why I shouldn't be there, but it was fantastic seeing it projected after only seeing it on a smaller screen on the lab.
KH: It looked really good on screen.
FJ: Thanks. We did it really old-school, there was no digital intermediate as most films do now. We had to do a couple things for the titles, but otherwise the process was completely analogue. And the lab just loves you, because nobody does that any more. You get a lot of preference from them...You speak to the labs and they say that it looks that much better. People say you can have much more control with a digital intermediate, and it is a little harder to do those details with colour timing and details that you could otherwise fix with a digital intermediate (you'd have a lot of leeway if you had it). So we had the attitude of 'we better not fuck up because this is going to be hard to fix'.
KH: When you are setting out to write and direct a vampire movie, where do you start? The only comparable film I could think of when watching Strigoi was Anthony Schaeffer's The Wicker Man. The film is unique in tone and execution as vampire movies go.
It started from lots of angles. First with a version of the Romanian revolution told in 5 minutes with about 20 people. But the idea of just coming back from the dead, and the act of killing [the lord and lady Tirescu] in a way. The village judgment was correct. But the act of killing them makes them corrupt too. It recycles corruption again and again. Ultimately this lord character and his wife have taken from the villagers for years, and there is a sense of justice, because they are just taking back of what was taken from them originally. That was the original concept, but if you have been to this part of Romania, there is just so much character and detail. It is so different from everything I know, even everything else in Europe. It is one of the last places where there is even a part of the 19th century. The have still got these traditions, and the people were treated like peasants, working the land in that way. And that is changing now, again. I felt it was a race against time, because every time I go back it gets a little bit more modern. It is only a matter of time before the horses and carts are gone, replaced with modernized farming (or whatever). As charming as it is as an outsider, you can't really blame anyone, because who wants to get up at 5am and take their cow to the field. You will notice a lot of people in the movie, who we had to cast a little younger than we liked, but it is an aging population with the younger people going to Italy and Canada. People looking for a better experience from what they've seen on TV and often it is disappointing.
KH: The main character, Vlad (and his offscreen siblings and parents) is certainly the stand in for that aspect of Romanian life...
FJ: The idea was that everyone was in this world, except Vlad, because he couldn't face his own family due to his medical degree not working out and him doing some shitty jobs to get by, not finding something better...
KH: He is finding his place in between tradition and modernity?
FJ: Yes. But there are also these huge clashes in these places. Since the revolution, everyone switched to watching TV, and the TV is always on. That image to me is weird.
KH: There is a big consumption/corruption metaphor in the film...
FJ: This idea of what they actually did parallels the sort of corruption that they condemned him for. Mara is very much feeling guilty. She is the moral compass and the best character in the film. Sort of the anti-Strigoi, as she is so generous, with all the food. And I like the food culture in Romania; she tries to combat the greed in her way, with food. Also, the idea of how corruption perpetuates itself. It is getting better in Romania, 20 years after the revolution, but I find it very interesting to hear stories from people who fought during the Second World War, oh wait a minute, before the communists it was not like perfect either. There is a sense of always blaming someone else. But in this film, there is nobody else there to blame. They are the only ones.
KH: How did you balance the serious and the humour in the film. Was this balanced in the editing room or the screenplay?
FJ: It was at the start when we thought, how do we get Romanians to speak English, to get the characters of the people I knew down, and lot of the characters sense of humour, so it was in the fabric of the characters. Because my Romanian isn't good enough to write in Romanian, and I know it well enough to know it would sound as if it was spoken. And it is one of those languages where there is so much wordplay and it is so rich that I could not use the language like that. I wouldn't know if the jokes would really work if I went there. But I knew I could do it in English. I actually just edited a couple shorts in Romanian, and I am glad I did this in English. As an editor, I could do it, but as a director, I would not really know what I was doing in with the language. I wanted to show this world in the way that I understand it and the way that I could relate to it. It would be a lie. In a way the film is (possibly more) for an English speaking audience. A Romanian audience can still enjoy it, but the sense of humour is observed from an outsider's point of view. I also wanted to subvert some of the Romanian cinema traditions. One of the things I wanted to do was make a fun Roman movie because the people of Romania have a huge appetite for life and Romanian cinema is so dark, and the humour in it is dark. There are some great films, [4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu] but they are so depressing? As a country, the people are not that depressing and the humour is there. The only one I can think of is Black Cat White Cat. I wanted to do something fun.
KH When Vlad is arrives in town and pokes around, a lot of strange things are happing; the tone of the film (from the villager's point of view) is that this secretiveness is completely normal rather than 'supernatural.' There is almost a casual indifference to some things nobody talks about the strange stuff going on, which makes for an interesting dead-pan comedy, especially in a vampire story.
FJ: I wanted to show the story as it happens, incrementally having strange things happen. I didn't want to have fangs or things that start to look silly for me. When we began, we thought, nobody has done a vampire movie in ages, but then, in the mean-time, vampires started getting popular again. It is a different take on things, and when you look at the interest of filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro looking at the origins of the vampire, and people do like that. The problem may be that you see a new vampire movie is coming out and people have different sets of expectations. I think we have to find the right way to market the different elements in Strigoi. I am not really a huge vampire fan, I liked The Hunger. My experience is that Dracula is received in Romania as a bit of a joke. Too cheesy, and it is kind of a shame because they could probably make a lot of tourist dollars if they embraced it more. And you see the western version of vampires and everything after that rather than the old folk-lore versions. The oral storytelling sort of disappeared during communism because people were scared to say anything, and people didn't talk about anything for safety reasons. People told less stories about family history and stuff because they became accustomed to not speaking about things. One of the things I figured out over a while is that people of that generation dealt with it by dancing and drinking on the weekends and do all the things that did not involve conversation. The dancing was a way to express without talk.
KH: How does your film slot into their tradition?
FJ: All of the actors were so involved and really invested themselves in the characters. They brought a lot to how the film turned out. Also friends and family emotionally invested in it. I think that certainly Romanians do get where it is coming from. The cast brings an authenticity to it. We needed all these different characters (who could speak English, which is though in itself) and I am really pleased how we ended up. We took some gambles, even though the actors have a lot of experience in TV and film, they hadn't done this sort of thing. Everyone on set was Romanian except for myself, the DP and the special effects supervisor was Romanian. We were casting around faces, this was important to us. I didn't want people putting on accents or having to deal with accents and all that comes with that.
KH: What is next for you and Strigoi?
FJ: We found out that we are playing MIFFF [The Maelstrom International Fantastic Film Festival in Seattle] and things are happening after Toronto After Dark. This is just the start and we will see how it goes. Things are happening quickly after Toronto After Dark; and it was a very good start! Thank-you!
KH: My last question, on a personal note, would be: How was your seventh wedding Anniversary?
FJ: We've never had so many people congratulate us and say "Happy Anniversary" [laughs]. We've [Faye is married to producer Rey Muraru] both been working on Strigoi for so long and this was as good a screening, and anniversary, as we could hope for! So it was fantastic!