This past spring I was fortunate enough to be assigned what I thought might be a well-made, if routine, dramatic indie feature. By the end of the film I knew I had seen something unfold that could be described using many adjectives, but ‘routine’ would not be one of them. ROULETTE was a fascinating and powerfully emotional drama that isn’t easily forgotten, and I knew I wanted to probe director Erik Kristopher Myers’ brain about his debut film.
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Cary Conley: Erik, tell us little about your background. What drew you to film and filmmaking? How did you break into the business?
Erik Myers: I’ve been a cinephile since I was very young, parked in front of the TV and watching anything and everything I could wrap my eyes around. I was particularly influenced by classic horror: NOSFERATU, the Hammer films, and later on, THE EXORCIST. From a historical perspective, I found (and find) films that are socially, thematically, or structurally groundbreaking to be the ones that most set my imagination on fire.
I was also reading at a young age, devouring Tolkien, Dracula and gothic literature. Nowadays it’s mostly nonfiction, especially in relation to social issues. Too many filmmakers believe that it’s all about studying films and in turn neglect to read, erroneously believing that the mediums have nothing in common. This is fallacious for more reasons than I have time to list.
In high school I became involved with theatre, and from there, filmmaking. I was always writing, and from early on, sitting in front of a typewriter and experimenting with storytelling.
I spent several years between high school and college self-educating: studying screenwriting, working on local shoots and theatrical productions, and writing film criticism for websites, some of which has since been published. From there I lined up several scholarships and jumped into the film program at Towson University with an eye on professional filmmaking.
CC: What films and film directors influenced you most?
EM: THE EXORCIST is probably my favorite film of all time — Friedkin created a masterpiece that wasn’t just critically and commercially successful, but he also managed to genuinely traumatize viewers. There is this ongoing divide over whether art is a creative or financially-minded endeavor, particularly when created for mass consumption; and depending on who you ask — the artist or the consumer — you’ll typically receive a black or white answer. Friedkin achieved both, which is a rare thing. I am of the belief that the worst kind of film is the one that you forget immediately afterward, or has no residual effect. You never want someone to leave the theater thinking immediately about what they want to eat, or where to grab a beer. A film experience should be one that stays with its audience. There’s a way to do this and still make money, but it’s a difficult line to walk.
I tend to gravitate toward independent filmmakers, or filmmakers who have come from an independent background and made themselves successful to a wider audience. John Waters, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson. They started off with Scotch Tape and Popsicle sticks and had to find clever ways to entice viewership despite a lack of celebrity presence or a massive publicity campaign. The former can be a greater obstacle than the average person realizes, even moreso than the latter.
CC: The storyline of Roulette is a fascinating web of relationships and interrelationships. Tell Rogue readers a little about how the idea for the story came about, how you were able to develop such an intricate plot, and the process you use while writing.
EM: While in the film program at Towson University, I had written and directed several short films as well as a ninety-minute documentary, but I had yet to attempt a narrative feature. My screenplay for a low budget horror film called SMILERS, which I’d written as a student for the purposes of securing Hollywood investors, managed to reach a well-known film maker who was interested in the project, but he considered me too green to direct. Reluctant to simply sell the script, I opted to bite the bullet and make a self-financed film that could be my "calling card," demonstrating the ability to handle heavy, thematic material with a wide scope on a micro-budget. The result was ROULETTE.
I had to find the middle ground between ambition and economy. The film needed to feel "big" despite a lack of budget and resources. It needed an atypical story structure to distract the viewer from the absence of a Matt Damon or Robert Downey Jr. It also needed a hook — a controversial sequence that would make the movie a must-see through word of mouth, but with an internal logic so that it wouldn’t be contrived, or shock for shock’s sake. These were all musts. I’d seen many a no-budget film shot in a singular location with barely-competent actors muddling their way through an unstructured storyline. These films went nowhere. ROULETTE had to if SMILERS would ever have a chance at being made.
ROULETTE revolves around three characters: Dean Jensen (Mike Baldwin), Richard Kessler (Will Haza), and Sunshine ‘Sunny’ Howard (Ali Lukowski). All three suffer from suicidal thoughts brought on by past life events, which are gradually discovered to be interconnected.
Meeting in a group therapy session, the three decide to leave the group early and retreat to Dean’s house where they subsequently engage in a dangerous and dramatic game of Russian Roulette. As the film progresses, the viewer is introduced to each character’s back story, bringing to light the reasons for their depression, the actions that brought them together, and the unforeseen "cause and effect" their decisions have made upon one another prior to meeting.
I chose what I felt was a unique structure when I began writing. All four story lines — the three back stories and the game of Russian Roulette — are told in a circular, alternating fashion, and climax together as one ending. I felt this would eliminate any chance of boredom since there is literally something happening at all times, and plot points and their connections to the other stories constantly occurring. In addition, it would make the film a bladder burster — there wouldn’t be that scene in most movies where you know it’s safe to go to the bathroom because you won’t miss anything.
I wrote it in just under three weeks with no clear idea of where it was going or how it would end. I just sat down and took an adventure and let the characters make their own decisions, many of which were as surprising to me as to those who have seen the film. I never plot. I simply lay out sign posts and tell my characters, "Here’s where Act One ends, and here’s where Act Two ends. You have this many pages, and you’d better make sure you make some major life decisions at these predetermined points. Now entertain me." It’s sort of like playing God that way. Occasionally you throw a temptation or irreconcilable situation their way, but mostly you sit back and watch them dig their own graves.
Given that there were four stories, this meant that each of the three leads had their own supporting cast, and their own unique environments. Three houses. An apartment. A restaurant. A bar. A church. A hospital. An office building. A psychiatrist’s office. A large ensemble cast spread over a variety of locations, and a four month shoot in the autumn where I could simulate all four seasons. I felt these factors would give the film a sense of scope, and perhaps fool the viewer into thinking I had more money than I actually had, while also creating a very engaging film experience.
And then there’s also the aforementioned "controversial sequence" that closes out the film…
CC: While I don’t want to give away any important plot elements, there is a scene involving childbirth and the horrific emotions one character goes through immediately after delivery. The scene is quite graphic, and some would even say controversial. Were you worried this would turn viewers off?
EM: Yes and no. YES: I was aware that some people, particularly people that I know, that I love, that I work with and work for, would see me in a new way, and not necessarily a good one. NO: shock and horror were the objective. Because in the end, if an audience doesn’t find themselves capable of discerning between the art and the artist, then that says more about them than it does about me.
The whole film is filled with uncomfortable topics and hot button subjects. Suicide. Depression. Alcoholism. Disease. Domestic violence. Rape. Religion and its effect on the family. Pro-life versus pro-choice. And, of course, the right to carry a gun. It’s not a happy watch, nor should it be. There’s nothing that I find more artistically offensive than a safe look at unsafe topics. Life isn’t clean, it isn’t pretty, and it doesn’t come with cutaways to the next scene when things become uncomfortable. There is something truly obnoxious about a film that pussyfoots around something the filmmaker is too afraid to confront, when confrontation is allegedly the point. It yields a neutered, vanilla product that reveals nothing.
The scene in question was intended to be horrific. I still utilized what I consider a certain degree of taste: I went for a Hitchcockian approach where less is more. The shower scene in PSYCHO, for lack of a better example. The Sergei Eisenstein theory on editing: thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis. Edit together shots that on their own have one context, but when juxtaposed create a startling new idea. Let the viewer fill in the blanks. Apparently it was successful, as people who have seen the movie insist that they saw more than there really was. This was the goal. The horror that one imagines trumps the horror that one sees. This is true of film, and true of life.
We did our first screening to a packed house of more than three hundred people. The way the scene plays out, there comes this moment where something shocking occurs and you think that’s it, mind is blown, it can’t get any worse…. and then, without warning, it gets MUCH worse. During that first moment I saw audience members getting up and leaving the theater. Everyone else was gasping. And then the second moment came and it was like jacks in boxes: people popped out of their seats and ran for the door. It was better than a standing ovation. The film had connected with its audience, and whether that’s on a positive or negative level is irrelevant.
CC: The film seems to have a message about making choices and then living with those choices. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
EM: No message was intended. I prefer not to evangelize. Message films irritate me. That isn’t to say that I’m unhappy with anyone taking something specific away from the experience — I’m gratified if they do! I just prefer those interpretations be specific to the individual.
I tried very hard to refrain from personal judgment in regards to the characters, their decisions and the resulting situations. Even the infamous "Baby Scene" (which has gotten me some very emotional correspondence from offended viewers) was orchestrated in what I consider a neutral, detached way. It’s an abortion metaphor, one that is designed to upset, but at the same time reinforce one’s stance. If you’re pro-life, then it makes one point; if you’re pro-choice, it makes another. It gives the film a different flavor to different people, which is far more satisfying than trying to ram my own personal feelings down your throat. In the end, who cares what I think, anyway?
One criticism I’ve received is that there are no likable characters; but ROULETTE is a tragedy, the story of vicious circles and destructive (and self-destructive) behavior. Real people are flawed. Everyone is a shade of grey. To that end, even the worst character needed to be in some way charismatic. And that was how I directed the actors as well — to be honest, to be genuine. Creating heroes and villains is just another way of telling the viewer how to think. "This guy is BAD because he does BAD STUFF!" But WHY does he do bad stuff…? That’s far more interesting, especially if we can relate to it on some level. Not necessarily condone it, but relate to it.
So no, there was no message intended. However, the subconscious is always at play. Creating a story is a lot like magic. It’s about conjuring, summoning. It comes from a secret and unknowable place that we cannot truly understand. The same place as dreams. Who knows what voices whisper from within?
CC: The film has been playing for over a year now–very successfully, I might add–on the festival circuit. Any chance of a distribution deal soon?
EM: ROULETTE was picked up for distribution by R-Squared Films in 2013 and will be available on Blu-Ray on October 22, 2013 at Amazon.com, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers. The DVD will be available Nov. 19, 2013.
It was a long journey to find the right distributor. I received multiple offers, but always with the condition that the film would be edited for content. The concern was that it was too intense. On the one hand I considered it a huge compliment; but on the other hand, it was designed that way, and to put it bluntly, I refused to let anyone cut its balls off. The fact that the film causes such a strong response — some think it’s amazing and brave while others think it goes too far — is its strength. Minimizing the impact defeats the whole purpose.
But in the end, ROULETTE ended up with R-Squared, who have been nothing but supportive of the film’s controversial aspects. No cuts were ordered, and no cuts were made. For that, I am deeply grateful.
CC: I read a rumor on the Internet that you had sworn off filmmaking after completing Roulette. But I also see that you have recently edited two other films. What happened that made you walk away from directing, and do you think you’ll ever give it another try?
EM: I’m not sure how that ended up on IMDB. It certainly adds a mystique, doesn’t it? THE FILM THAT CRUSHED HIS WILL TO LIVE. The film certainly knocked a few years off my lifespan, and cost me a considerable amount of hair. But no, I’m in this for the long game. I’m hoping that ROULETTE gives me the chance to take a few meetings and conjure up some new stories. I’ve lived with this one long enough, and there are so many more to tell, and hopefully to a wider audience. That was always the goal, and nothing will change that.
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Roulette has just been released on Blu-Ray and sees a DVD release on November 19. It is available via Amazon, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and many other major retail outlets.