I first discovered the dynamic duo of Jessi Gotta and Bryan Enk through their film The Big Bad (2011), one of the most unique vampire films of the past two decades. They recently released a film short, reviewed last month in Rogue Cinema, called Anniversary Dinner, which explores the relationship between a man and his wife…who happens to be a zombie. Much like with The Big Bad, I was again blown away by the quality of filmmaking, so I asked the pair if I could sit down with them for an interview.
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Cary Conley: Tell the Rogue readers a little about yourselves. How did you get into filmmaking? How did you meet each other?
Bryan Enk: I was interested in filmmaking as early as grade school but didn’t actually pick up a camera until my freshman year in college. It was BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA that finally inspired me to take the plunge … and I’m not sure why. Anyway, I met Jessi several years ago while doing indie theatre in New York; a few years later we were both mulling over doing a feature around the same time – we decided to join forces and turn two potentially separate projects into one, which ended up being THE BIG BAD.
Jessi Gotta: Yeah, I blame Bryan for me getting into filmmaking! We met doing a show at the Brick Theater in Brooklyn many years ago, and we have been friends ever since. It was really random that we both wanted to make a movie at the same time. Synchronicity, I suppose. We both gave each other that little push we needed to really commit. And I had always loved movies, and in particular horror films held a special place in my heart.
CC: What films and filmmakers have influenced you the most?
JG: Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch are two of my all-time favorites, so anything and everything they have and will ever make. I love EVIL DEAD II – the elements of comedy, gore and horror are amazing. Another favorite is LET THE RIGHT ONE IN – it blends horror with dramatic heartfelt moments so seamlessly. Oh, and THE SHINING … I saw it when I was a little kid and never got it out of my head. As far as filmmakers, I really like Edgar Wright, his films are so tight and well constructed. There are so many more … umm … Joel and Ethan Coen, Scorsese, Tim Burton, Mel Brooks.
BE: I’d like to think I share David Fincher’s work ethic, though he works with budgets that allow him to do endless takes and obsess over the smallest details, so I’m not sure how much of an “influence” he actually is on my own work experience. I would say the raw, gritty style of Abel Ferrara is more my speed. I also can’t help but think of early Sam Raimi every time I try some crazy camera move. I like Michael Mann’s surrealistic flourishes, and we both share a love of extreme close-ups. I also like the fractured montage style of the late, great Tony Scott, though I’ve had little opportunity to explore that technique myself so far. There was one scene in THE BIG BAD where I lost my mind and thought I would try to be Martin Scorsese – I humbly vow to never attempt such a thing ever again. Maybe.
CC: Tell us a bit about your production company, Gotta/Enk Films. What caused you to want to branch out on your own?
BE: I don’t know if it was a desire to branch out on our own as much it was a necessity to actually get anything done. I had just wrapped up a long-running stage serial in New York and wanted to get back into feature filmmaking after an almost ten-year hiatus; Jessi was also looking to make a low-budget feature film, so it ended up being good timing. We discovered that we work really well together, and I think we both agree that there’s a lot more to learn – what was originally designed to be just a one-off project ended up being the maiden voyage of a much larger enterprise.
CC: Both films from your production company have been horror films. Why this particular genre? Is it an innate love for horror or more of a financial issue?
JG: I’m madly, deeply in love with horror. I was in the third grade buying SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK at the book fair, which turned into Stephen King … the next step was the movies. But actually for the past few years, the blending of genres to tell a story has particularly revved my engine. I love when a movie pulls from different genres to utilize all the best tools. I think that is something that can be specific to independent films in general … big budget mainstream movies are labeled and marketed as one thing, everything is black and white, but indies can muddy the waters and steal from and scavenge all genres and “horror films” are no longer limited to a certain set of rules. We have films like LET THE RIGHT ONE IN … at its heart, it’s a horror film, but it takes from many other genres to tell its story.
BE: I’ve been a longtime fan of horror as well – I was the curator of an annual anthology horror film series for four years and my exposure to all those horror shorts is probably what inspired me to do a horror feature. Jessi and I originally set out to make a “horror movie” but THE BIG BAD ended up being a more complex animal – it’s also a dark fairy tale, a supernatural melodrama, a mystery, lots of things. ANNIVERSARY DINNER is also more than just a horror film – it’s a gothic romance and, in many ways, a dark comedy. We realized we were making cross-genre films. That’s our approach; we make “genre-bending” films.
CC: Jessi, tell us about the script for The Big Bad. Where did the initial idea come from? Were the stylistic elements always in the script or is that something you and Bryan developed in pre-production or on set?
JG: The original story for THE BIG BAD came from a horror short Bryan had been mulling over for a few years about a woman fighting a werewolf in the desert. I loved it and couldn’t get it out of my head. But I think werewolves appealed to me from the standpoint of it being an average person who is “infected” and how that infection affects/can destroy a person’s family. The year before we started working on this film my dad was diagnosed with cancer so there was much to pull from. In the film the character I play,Frankie, does not hate the person infected; she hates their disease…
BE: Jessi and I worked very closely while she was writing the script so I was always in-tune with what the stylistic elements were going to be. However, I think we went into THE BIG BAD with the intention of making a straight-up genre film; the film organically became a lot more stylish during shooting and post-production, much more so than in the script phase. I’d like to think the movie let us know what it needed to be as we were making it.
CC: Jessi, while I was generally impressed by The Big Bad, one of the highlights has to be your acting. It was hyperkinetic, raw, and emotional throughout the entirety of the film. How were you able to sustain the energy you needed for such an emotional and physical role? It must have been exhausting!
JG: Thank you, Cary. I think it was just knowing that there was no alternative. It was all or nothing. You had to play through the pain and exhaustion and the heat … it wasn’t pretty but you had to, or this thing you were desperately trying to create wasn’t going to come together. One misstep and you could be left with nothing…that, and a solid supply of Red Bull and Wellbutrin helped, too.
CC: Bryan, I felt like The Big Bad was highly stylized and quite effective in creating various levels of mood and tension. I’m specifically referring to the lighting, editing, and cinematography. Can you talk a little about the process you went through to create and plan the stylized visuals in the film?
BE: The scenes that had the most intricate planning were the ones in the forest. The forest was a set, which we preferred to actually shooting on location so we could control the lighting and the environment. Director of photography Dominick Sivilli and I worked out a lot of what that would involve before the set was even built. We looked at a lot of forest scenes from horror movies – we wanted something that was kind of a cross between the theatrical style of the original THE WOLF MAN and the pretty-grungy look of the 2009 remake of FRIDAY THE 13th.
Beyond that, the script very distinctly has three acts, and we approached these as having three different “looks” and vibes. Act One takes place entirely in a dive bar, and we wanted to keep it relatively “real-world” but also with a somewhat sickly kind of look – you don’t know you’re watching a “supernatural” story quite yet, but you know something is a little off. Act Two has Frankie plunging down the rabbit hole into Annabelle’s lair – a lot more extreme close-ups and aggressive, disorienting camera angles. Act Three I think kind of merges the two styles as Frankie and Fenton finally confront each other – there’s also a sense of tragedy in the third act, so the colors are somewhat more muted, the images a bit more washed-out as it takes place almost entirely at night. I sometimes describe THE BIG BAD as “if Sam Shepard or Tracy Letts made a werewolf movie,” and that’s what was guiding me especially with Act Three.
But, again, this was all very basic pre-show conceptualization – the movie truly came to life and developed its distinct personality as we were shooting and editing it.
CC: I was particularly impressed with the special effects in The Big Bad, created by Jane Rose. Her effects in Anniversary Dinner were also superb, especially the subtleness of the zombie makeup. How did you discover Jane and her considerable makeup talents?
BE: I met Jane during the third installment of my horror anthology series; that year featured all women directors and a friend of mine introduced me to Jane, who had done a Lovecraftian horror short that ended up being the curtain raiser. She did all the makeup effects in that film herself and I brought her on board PENNY DREADFUL, the stage serial I was doing at the Brick Theater in Brooklyn. It was just a natural progression from there.
CC: Jessi, you recently completed your directorial debut with Anniversary Dinner, in which you also co-starred. Did you find it difficult to both direct and act in the film? What challenges did you have to overcome? Now that you’ve done both jobs, what will you do differently next time?
JG: Ha, I had no idea why or how I thought that was a good idea for my first time. It is extraordinarily tricky to direct and act in your own work. I will say this, we planned it out the best we could, and we shot me out in one day, so that I could be behind the camera for the rest of the shoot. I was also very lucky with the team of people I was working with – everyone brought their A-game and was there to get the job done. It was such a talented group of people and everyone really pulled together.
As a learning experience, I kind of jumped directly from the frying pan right into the fire, so I would like to believe next time around I will be more aware, be able to better maintain the ship even when the “acting” hat is on.
CC: Speaking of challenges, what were some of the most challenging aspects in directing The Big Bad, Bryan? Did you learn any lessons?
BE: THE BIG BAD was one big series of obstacles, and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible. It came out pretty damn great, but getting there was insanity. Real down and dirty guerilla filmmaking, trial and error from top to bottom. The entire thing was a challenge, and one of the most rewarding life experiences I’ve ever had. It had to be done the way it was done so we could truly realize just what in the hell making a movie of that size and scope actually involves. One of the main reasons I’m looking forward to our next feature as both a producer and a director is it will allow us to utilize all of those learning experiences and hopefully not make the same mistakes a second time.
CC: Both films have been playing on the festival circuit, with The Big Bad earning rave reviews as well as many awards. Have you thought about securing a distribution deal? What challenges have you faced as you look for a distributor?
JG: We actually sold THE BIG BAD! A few distributors approached us and we sent out the film to lots of places… in the end we went with Phase 4 Films. It will be available On Demand this fall and will be out on DVD in March 2013.
CC: Bryan, what advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
BE: Do it. Don’t wake up one day and you’re 90 years old and thinking, “I should’ve made that movie back in the day.” If nothing else, do it for the sense of community, of creating something with a group of people. Who cares if it doesn’t turn out as well as you had hoped? You now have the experience, and hopefully some friendships and good memories to go with it.
CC: Jessi, your turn. Any advice for folks hoping to break into the filmmaking business?
JG: I’m still trying to figure it all out myself, but I guess the main thing is to just get out there and gain actual experience. Hell, everything is digital now, get a Flip camera and play. I know that seems overly simplified, but there is no school in the world that can out-do experience. You just have to dive in.
CC: What future projects does Gotta/Enk Films have in store for us?
JG: Oh, do we have something in store for you! Up next, Gotta/Enk is exploring outer space with META/STASIS, our new sci-fi horror feature that chronicles the strange events following the crash landing of a military vessel on a distant planet that leaves only three survivors.
BE: Once again, Jessi took some vague, half-assed one-sentence concept of mine and turned it into this grand, epic story. My heart was pounding the first time I read the script – and the second and third time, too. There’s so much suspense! I’m really excited about this one – it’s got a really intense human drama at its center, a harrowing existential conundrum against this really amazing and out-there sci-fi backdrop. Even though it definitely shares some of the same themes, it’s ultimately a very different creature from THE BIG BAD; I didn’t realize this until we had our first table read-thru in July and spoke with a friend of mine afterwards, but it’s actually something of a companion piece to MIDNIGHT DAYS, a supernatural war film I directed back in 2000. Lots of big, complicated and dangerous human emotions to explore and play with – I can’t wait!
JG: We just finished up script revisions and concept art … it’s really been so exciting. Our IndieGoGo fundraising campaign will run from early September through Halloween.
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For more on THE BIG BAD, ANNIVERSARY DINNER, or to check out META/STASIS, go to www.gottaenkfilms.com/metastasis.