An Interview with Jeremiah Kipp – By Duane L. Martin

Recently I was sent a short film called The Pod to review here in the magazine. The production quality was amazing, and it was my great pleasure to be able to interview it’s director, Jeremiah Kipp. I asked him about his past experiences, how he came to direct this particular story, what he has planned for the future and more. He’s a really interesting guy, and he had a lot of great stuff to say.

* * *

 Ok, let’s start off like we always do and have you tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I was born and raised in Rhode Island, with a happy childhood spent in a remote house set deep in the woods. A huge influence on my life is my grandfather, who would take long walks in the forest searching for old Civil War cemeteries and abandoned houses, digging up old bottles and artifacts. These treks in the woods make one feel the awe-inspiring vastness of nature, of something larger than oneself. I attribute the ghost stories of New England to the magic and mystery of this kind of woodland, combined with our region’s feverish puritanical history—which can be found in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and H.P. Lovecraft.

My grandfather also had a nostalgia for the Universal horror pictures of his youth, and he would describe in vivid detail the hero in Son of Frankenstein swinging to the rescue on a meat hook and kicking the monster down into the sulfur pit below, or King Kong battling fighter planes as he clung to the top of the Empire State Building. This inspired a devotion to the world of the fantastic, the otherworldly, and the unknown.

Carl Kelsch was the writer of The Pod. How did the two of you get together and what was it about his story that made you decide on this particular story as your next film project?

Carl and I both attended New York University in the early-to-mid 1990s. I was in film, and he was in the screenwriting program. The film school experience was rewarding, and inseparable from that experience of being a 17-year-old kid taking to the streets of Greenwich Village with a 16mm movie camera. There was a spirited excitement we felt here in this diverse urban jungle, and Carl and I were among the students who moved here and discovered a new home.

He and I remained friends over the years, each working independently on our own projects and hoping someday to collaborate. One day, we were talking about our fears. But that led to a conversation about love, and its inherent sacrifice, passion and contradictions. From that, the script for The Pod emerged. The idea of a drug meant to be taken in couples, to enable them to discover if they share a true connection, struck a chord with me. The hallucinatory aspect became a metaphor for the desperate confusion and pandemonium of being madly in love and watching it fall apart before your eyes. Hallucinations take those abstract concepts and make them literal, like having lovers’ faces fusing together as a grotesque depiction of human interconnection and commitment.

When it came down to casting the film, did you have any trouble finding the right people to play the various roles?

One of the most enjoyable aspects of making movies is working with actors, and the process of selecting them is largely intuitive. We went through an extensive casting process for the two lead roles. Emanuele Ancorini was an actor I’d used in a small supporting role on a project a few years ago, and he auditioned for the part of Jonas, the heroine’s unscrupulous boyfriend. He brought an actress he’d worked with before named Mary Remington. They had a fearlessness and intimacy that excited me, and were game for rehearsals where we’d be figuring out the effects of the drug, playing scenes as if invisible insects were crawling up their arms or they were sinking in quicksand. From that first audition, it was very clear we were going to have an exciting time working together.

How do you go about casting for a film? Do you go on acting ability alone or do you get an image of the character in your mind ahead of time and then look for someone that matches that as closely as possible?

It’s a combination of all of those things. For example, Larry Fessenden was my first and only choice for the role of the pod dealer Telly. He has acted in several movies, usually appearing as some kind of raggedy man who gets done in by an ice-pick (Session 9), mutant rats (Mulberry Street), zombie bats (The Roost), or killer robots (Automatons). While he always dies spectacularly, in real life I see Larry as something more than cannon fodder for genre films. I’ve been greatly inspired by his art horror films, particularly Habit and Wendigo, and his presence in the New York filmmaking community. He’s emerged from the confrontational performance art scene of the East Village, and has been a nurturing mentor to emerging filmmakers. His philosophy and integrity carries over into his life and his work. I wanted Telly to have those qualities, as though he were an outlaw artist creating a mythology around The Pod as being something potentially dangerous, but also mind expanding.

The film both looked and sounded phenomenal. So let’s start off with the look. Tell us about the locations where you shot the film and also about the film’s director of photography, Jonathan Jacobson. Have you worked with him before, and if not how did you find him?

Our director of photography, Jonathan Jacobson, was on board with the concept. We’d collaborated before, and knew each other from NYU. He was working for a commercial house at the time, and the idea of doing a low-budget, run and gun scary movie appealed to him. We shot The Pod in the grungiest parts of Brooklyn, seeking out derelict streets and lived-in apartments. We had access to a former ice cream factory in Greenpoint, which our production designer Kimberly Matela transformed into an underground club scene and also Telly’s inner sanctum. Our final scene was shot in a metal shop in industrial Williamsburg. For all of the locations, we wanted a gritty realism to counter the fantasy of our story, but added just a touch of Alice in Wonderland in our color scheme, like Telly’s wild purple coat or the bright red jacket that Caroline wears as she drifts along on her nightmarish drug trip.

 Sound is often a problem in independent films, as not enough people pay attention to recording good sound. The sound design in this film was great, not just in the dialogue, but in everything. Tell us a little about your sound folks and maybe elaborate a bit on the importance of good sound in a film.

My regular production sound guy is a mad Columbian named Carlos Pulido, who mostly works in television. He likes to say that if you watch the news, you’ve heard his work. I continually hire him because he’s a professional, gives me a discounted rate, and we have a lot of laughs together. Our post-production sound design was handled by Graham Reznick, who constructed such unnerving soundscapes in Ti West’s The Roost. It helped that Graham and I had similar taste in movies and books, referencing Nicolas Roeg and Philip K. Dick. Graham was interested in using sound to subtly highlight psychological and emotional undercurrents of the scene. Film is an audio-visual medium, and independent movies that skimp on getting clean production tracks or using sound to enhance the mood or texture of a scene are only undermining their picture.

Roughly how long did it take to make The Pod from pre-production to the final edit? Did it take longer or shorter than you anticipated?

We had an outstanding producer, Brian Jude, who really kept us on track in terms of the schedule and budget. Once pre-production kicked into gear, it took us about nine months to complete The Pod. It felt like the right amount of time, and no part of the process felt rushed. Since we had no money, we used the best advantage a no-budget filmmaker has at their disposal, which is time.

What’s happening with the film right now as far as film festivals or other screenings? Any screenings you’d like to announce?

We premiered at the New York City Horror Film Festival, recently screened at the I-Con Science Fiction Festival right after Chris Garetano’s excellent feature documentary Horror Business, and have been submitting to other genre festivals at home and abroad. I especially hope we will be able to screen in my home state at the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival this October.

What about reviews for the film. How has the response from the reviewers been, and have there been any overly negative reviews? How do you deal with bad reviews?

We received positive, thoughtful reviews from Film Threat and Shock Cinema, and a poster blurb from one of my partisans, horror filmmaker Dante Tomaselli (Satan’s Playground), whose own work feels like an intoxicating fever dream. Some critics were mixed, but we haven’t been completely trashed by anyone yet. When you show your work, it no longer belongs to you, but to the viewer and their interpretation. When we screened The Pod in Budapest, one of the viewers compared it to a Hungarian short story entitled “Love in a Bottle” about Lancelot’s doomed longing for Guinevere. I liked the idea of The Pod being read as an adult fairy tale, with Larry Fessenden playing a dark sorcerer.

Tell us about some of your past films that you’ve worked on and some of the things you learned from them that have enhanced your abilities as a filmmaker.

Some of that haunting experience of growing up in New England found its way into one of my previous films, The Christmas Party, which followed an introspective 9-year-old dropped off at a holiday party run by a local Christian minister and his wife—the kind who want everyone else in the world to be Christian too. As the children sing unfamiliar carols and pray as a group, the mood grows increasingly ominous. To my delight, audiences responded to the film in unique ways. In New England, it was regarded as social realism. In New York and at Clermont-Ferrand in France, it was seen as a harsh satire against the Christian right. And in San Francisco, they treated it as if it were a horror film, which led to my interest in pursuing the genre even further with The Pod.

You’ve worn a lot of hats in films you’ve worked on. Director, assistant director, producer, associate producer, production coordinator, writer, etc… Of all the jobs you’ve done in various films, what’s been your favorite and why?

Being on someone else’s crew is only as good as the director you’re working with. James Felix McKenney [who co-produced The Pod] created a family atmosphere on his post-apocalyptic robot movie Automatons, which I assistant directed. That was a great experience all-around. Jim respects the conventions of 1950s B-movies and at the same time weaves in a startling emotional undercurrent and razor sharp political allegory. As associate producer on Alan Rowe Kelly’s backwoods inbred cannibalistic family movie The Blood Shed, going to the set every day was like attending a party, with Alan as the gracious host—though it was quite strange every day to have your director/star dressed like a cross between Shirley Temple and the hitchhiker from Texas Chainsaw Massacre!

Filmmakers like Jim, Alan and Chris Garetano (who I worked with on his freaky new short film Cottonmouth) make these offbeat movies on their own terms, employing a practical can-do spirit. They surround themselves with hard-working and loyal friends. Like true independents, they don’t base their crew hierarchy on the Hollywood model, which all too many narrative films, music videos and commercials I’ve worked on fall victim to. They completely ignore that regimented system, which feels like being in the military. Everyone in the cast and crew feel involved in their creative process, and are there to support the director’s vision.

Were you one of these people who’s always been fascinated with film production, or was it something you sort of fell into later on? Also, do you have a particular fascination with any particular genre, or do you consider yourself more well rounded?

I was one of those kids running around with a movie camera, making zombie movies in the backyard and sea creature flicks in the bathtub. I’m also an avid reader, so literature is also a huge influence, and paintings have also inspired. I am fascinated with the horror and fantasy genre, but also have a penchant for absurd comedy and kitchen sink drama.

 If you could have as much money as you needed to fund your dream project, what would it be?

I read a macabre vampire novel called The Black Castle by Les Daniels, now out of print. It’s set during the Spanish Inquisition and witchcraft trials, where the atrocities of the supernatural monster, a wonderfully amoral and cynical character named Don Sebastian de Villanueva, pale in comparison to the historical devastation inflicted by mankind. If I could get the rights, I would also adapt Thomas Tessier’s short story The Banshee, which has a haunting atmosphere and treats the Irish folklore with chilling ambiguity, touching on men’s romanticizing and distortions of women. It reads like a night shriek of despair.

What are you currently working on and what do you have planned for the near future?

I’m currently in pre-production as assistant director for Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell the Dead, a period film about grave robbers played by Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden. It’s a pleasure to be working with the Glass Eye Pix team once again. After that, it’s on to Jim McKenney’s uncompromising Satan Hates You, modeled after the Christian scare films of the 1960s and 70s. Carl Kelsch and I will be following up our good experience making The Pod with a new horror feature entitled Hemophiliac. And I’ll be associate producer on Adam Barnick’s new short entitled Evelyn Standing.

Do you have any words of advice for all the would-be filmmakers out there?

We all have the technology to go out there and make movies now. That’s the easy part. But if you’re going to make one, do it from the heart. The budget doesn’t matter. You’re going to have to conceive it, shoot it, get through post-production, and screen it for an audience, however big or small. That’s a long and difficult road. If you’re going to put that much effort into something, you should love it unconditionally.