An Interview with Barbara Stepansky – By Emily Intravia

When I watched Fugue last month for Rogue Cinema, I was excited to notice that not only was I seeing a hauntingly original, well made indie, but also, one directed with such a strong balance of eerie style and intelligence. It was my pleasure to interview director Barbara Stepansky, an exciting filmmaker with a taste for genre cinema. Ms. Stepansky holds a Masters degree from both the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and the American Film Institute. Her 2006 student film Die trojanische Kuh (The Trojan Cow) won the Cowboy Award at the Jackson Hole Film Festival, the Excellence in Filmmaking Award at the Angelus Awards Student Film Festival and first place at the ATAS Foundation College Television Awards. 2009 saw the release of her first feature length thriller, Hurt, and now, Fugue is making its way through the festival circuit.

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EI: We’ll start from the beginning: at what point in your life did you decide to become a filmmaker?

BS: I decided to become a filmmaker at sixteen, when I realized that I could combine all my favorite activities (theater, photography, writing, painting and watching movies) into one singular craft. It seemed like a no-brainer for me from that point onwards that film was the culmination of every artistic endeavor I ever encountered. I started out working as a projectionist at the local cinema while I was still going to high school, just to be closer to film and also to learn some of the logistics to showing films in front of an audience.

EI: Was it always your goal to work in the horror industry?

BS: No, it wasn’t always my goal to work in the horror genre. I actually started out with little comedy shorts in film school. But when one of my dramatic shorts THE TROJAN COW showed great potential for tension and suspense, I received my first shot at directing a feature thriller/horror entitled HURT. I started to get involved in the horror genre and realized that both comedy and horror had the same gutteral reactions – the audience reacts audibly, may it be with laughs or with gasps. And I’m a sucker for audience reactions. I’ve always had great respect for the good horror movies, like “The Fog” and “Alien”, but for some reason it never occurred to me that I could do that too. Once it did, I studied up heavily on the horror genre and really got interested and excited about this genre’s potential for interesting visuals and innovative storytelling.

EI: What do you look for in a script when it comes to choosing your projects?

BS: I look for two things in a script: 1) Is this a story that moves and keeps me turning the pages? 2) Would I want to watch this? I’m interested in projects that have a wide audience appeal and yet at the same time have something about them that my own core morals agree with. I’m not an auteur but at the end of the day as a director I do inadvertently put a stamp on the work and I have to live with the message that I put out there it until the day I die, to be dramatic about it…

EI: Your newest film, Fugue, has been described as a hybrid of thriller, horror, ghost story and psychological drama. In terms of directing, did you find yourself adjusting your style for each genre?

BS: Yes, I absolutely adjust to whatever the script calls for. I probably wouldn’t approach a horror film with the same visual palette that I would use for a comedy or an action film, although hybrids come up all the time. When I read a script, I usually picture right away what I would like to see but the script dictates what its needs are and I just try to listen to that inner eye.

EI: Newcomer and star Abigail Mittel is onscreen for virtually the entire running time of Fugue. What are some of the challenges in directing an actor who has to carry so much of the film?

BS: You just have to trust that you cast well. Abigail and I worked on a couple of other shorts and I always felt that she was such a natural in front of the camera. She was always in the moment as soon as we were rolling. And on top of that I felt strongly that you can’t take your eyes away from her. She has that mysterious quality that makes you just want to watch her. That’s essential for a feature length piece because ideally you don’t want your audience to get tired of your heroine halfway through. Plus a lot of the time Abigail has to react to virtually nothing on set. Most of that was put in during our post process: Creeks, sounds, visual effects. It was very important that she conveyed a sense of dread and fear at all times even though she was basically just playing to air.

EI: I imagine that one of the challenges in making Fugue was how to handle Richard Gunn’s character Howard, who the audience can never know whether to trust or suspect. How do you approach this characterization?

BS: The script takes care of a lot of that work. It was specifically designed for “Howard” to be ambiguous. However, the way I tried to approach the character with Richard Gunn was with as much honesty as possible. Knowing that “Howard” only wanted to do what’s best for “Charlotte” is what drives every one of his decisions. After everything that happened before she recovered with a Fugue State, of course he opts to calm her down, to soothe her, to make her stop digging up that terrible moment in time. It completely made sense to both Richard and myself. It’s only that the script doesn’t reveal his truth throughout the second act of the film that makes “Howard” seem suspicious.

EI: In terms of past films and imagery, where did you draw inspiration for filming Fugue?

BS: I drew a lot of my inspiration from “The Innocents” (1961). The way that Jack Clayton, the director, shot Deborah Kerr’s character experiencing the ghostly apparitions from her point of view was a great influence. I also looked at “What Lies Beneath” which had a very similar color palette to our film, and of course any Hitchcockian thriller.

EI: The press materials revealed that Fugue was actually filmed in your own home. How did that affect your process? (Also, where did you sleep?!)

BS: That is correct, Fugue was shot entirely in my house. We wanted to have a location with easy access and an owner who wouldn’t mind at all that her walls are getting sprayed with fake blood – really the only solution was to do it at my house. In fact, Fugue was written to take place in my house. Once Matt Harry, the writer and co-producer, saw my backyard, we knew we had an element to work with that would make it different from other haunted house movies. Usually, when you direct a film you get to go home and think about it and get some distance. I didn’t have that luxury. I never left set. I was immersed in Fugue. Although my bedroom was always available for me to sleep in (we shot all the bedroom scenes in one day), I did feel oddly displaced, like a stranger in my own home. But during the process I didn’t really mind so much, we were in the midst of a fever of making a feature film after all. What could be better?

EI: Is there anything in Fugue you would have liked to do differently had you been working with a larger budget?

BS: A larger budget would have probably bought us a few fancier gadgets, such as steadicam, dolly, crane, lights etc. I’m a director, so of course I like gadgets. And a larger budget could have helped speeding up our post process. But on a no-budget movie you have to work with what you got, make the best of it and simply enjoy building a story. I looked at it as going back to filmmaking bootcamp and keeping the story-telling skill set alive.

EI: As a female working not only in a generally male-dominated industry, but also occupation, do you find yourself feeling any responsibility to actively portray strong female characters?

BS: It’s undeniable that there’s a draw for me towards strong female characters. I’ve been very independent all my life, navigating my way through this industry with consistent determination, so I’m sure that I feel a strong affinity with female characters that in some shape or form have to fight various battles to survive and transcend. It inspires me. And I believe in telling stories with themes about persistence, resilience and the triumph of the human spirit against all odds – in whatever genre that may be.

EI: How do you approach sound and score in your filmmaking? Are you actively thinking of these elements during filming, or do you wait to shape the sound during post-production?

BS: Fugue was extremely sound-design heavy. I found myself on set saying all the time to the actors: “And then you hear…” So I would say a good 50% of sound design I’m acutely aware of. In editing, you find new avenues of using sound that helps the story that you maybe didn’t think of before. If you have a sound designer already on board they can start working on soundscapes and delivering them to you, which is amazing. But it’s only when the sound designer receives the locked picture that you dive into a whole other discussion and create new ideas to make the film even better. I always very much love the process. Music is incredibly important to me. I create inspirational soundtracks for myself. I listen to it all the time, in the car, at home, just to really feel the world come alive. Sometimes I share them with my composer but I prefer if she finds the music herself. I also don’t like giving her temp tracks because I find it taints the creativity a little bit. Sometimes that’s unavoidable for time and logistics reasons, but Dana Niu and I have a really great short hand because we worked on another feature HURT together, so we’re usually on the same page.

EI: Can you give us any updates on the release status of Fugue?

BS: Fugue is still playing festivals at this point and we’re hoping for a home video and VOD release in 2011. Please check out our website for updates and join us on Facebook!

EI: What are some of your goals as a filmmaker?

BS: My goals are fairly modest, I think: I’d like to keep making entertaining films that people generally enjoy. I’d love to make a decent living doing so. And probably like any former thirteen year old girl, I must remake “Flowers In The Attic”…

EI: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

BS: I’m finishing up post on a short horror film called “Road Rage” with Keiko Agena from “Girlmore Girls”. I’m in development on “Hysteria”, a psychological thriller and a modern “Rosemary’s Baby” retelling, with High Treason Productions who also produced my first feature “Hurt”. Matt Harry and I have a couple more contained thrillers brewing to be a follow-up for “Fugue”. And I’m always jotting down some new scary ideas that might amount to a script one day. But I’m excited to see what happens next!