In this era of blockbuster hits and endless franchise films, director, actor and producer Michael Fausti has proven he can master the much overlooked but equally important art form of the short. Fausti’s work is a captivating blend of low-fi filmmaking that is both gritty and gorgeous and with its intensive character studies and often direct address to the audience, it probes some deep and uncomfortable questions. These are not mere thrill rides but instead, provocative and stirring pieces that push us to think twice about what we are seeing onscreen.
The Ingress Tapes (review) and Dead Celebrities (review) are both witty, engaging and at times disturbing pieces and are effective for their conciseness. With their tight running times and often dream-like, art house aesthetic, Fausti’s works act like a short sharp adrenaline shot. Michael was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for Attack from Planet B.
Rebecca McCallum: What is it about the medium of the short film that appeals to you? Has this been a conscious decision and also, is this something you lean towards on an artistic level or for purely practical reasons such as budget/ effects etc?
Michael Fausti: For me the appeal of short films, lies in the fact that they focus your creativity in terms of narrative and scope. Ideas or script outlines have to fit within narrow parameters and this is a challenge I love.
The format also gives me the opportunity to explore and road test with audiences ideas and themes, as well as characters. I like the fact a short film can and should leave you wanting more… I have been asked a number of times whether I’d consider turning our short Dead Celebrities into a feature… there is clearly scope but it would become a different beast!
Funnily enough I was chatting with someone at a recent screening of The Ingress Tapes and they asked if I’d ever considered making a prequel of the narrator’s life. Again, never say never… but a feature has a different energy to a short. Maybe it’s even a different art form.
Rebecca: Your two works, The Ingress Tapes and Dead Celebrities are both preoccupied with death, reflection and looking back over life; can you speak a little about why you are drawn to these themes and what you are aiming to convey about these specific motifs in your work?
Michael: I guess death is a constant in some form or other in my work and whilst I think you’re right about my characters being reflective, I’m not sure that they always reach a state of enlightenment! I see my protagonists more as being trapped. Whether it be by their personal obsessions, moral paralysis or being able to escape their past or past sins. How they deal with their demons is really what I’m interested in exploring. The dominant motif in much of my work is the idea of repetition and how the past seems just to be on a loop from which we can’t escape. This is clearly evident in our forthcoming feature EXIT, and also what I’m writing at the moment. The same is also true of the ending of Dead Celebrities where *SPOILER ALERT* the cycle is shown to continue or the tape loop of The Ingress Tapes which just continually rewinds and fast forwards.
Rebecca: Both features feel very heavily steeped in genre influences from British Gangster films in The Ingress Tapes to horror and noir in Dead Celebrities. What has your relationship with genre films been like and can you name a few that have made a lasting impression on you?
Michael: Ultimately, I like to make the kinds of films that I would watch. The British Gangster film has an interesting history and like its American counterpart has always found its inspirations from what is happening in the real underworld. I think the British Gangster film is at its best when it seeks to do more than simply retread familiar genre tropes or transplant an American storyline or characters to a U.K. setting. Films like The Hit (1984), Get Carter (1971) and Performance (1970) in particular take the conventions of that genre as a starting point before heading off in more interesting directions. The brutal nihilism of Get Carter and the surrealist and hallucinatory visuals of Performance are undeniably stylistic influences on my own work.
At heart, I am a horror film fan and the horror and noir genres are always a frame of reference for me at all stages of production. However, the kind of films and directors which have made an impact on me, are those whose films almost seem to defy genre, like Luis Bunuel or have worked across many genres like Michael Powell.
Those making challenging cinema today like Lars Von Trier and Gaspar Noe, seem untroubled by the restrictions of genre or even narrative. This is something I aspire to in my own work.
Rebecca: You have used source material to explore and inform the content of your work, is it important for you to have this as a starting point and do you consider this as being indicative of your art having connections to real life?
Michael: Real life can be truly horrific and a script always needs a strong foundation. Rooting a narrative in real life events or happenings is a good starting point. A filmmaker should firstly be a story teller. If your film finds a connection with the audience, it will be down to your characters and their stories. It will always be this that your audience will relate to, whether those narratives are inspired by real life or drawn from a figment of my own dark imagination!
Rebecca: There’s a comic-darkness in your work with humour playing a subtle but significant role, can you explain what function you think comedy performs in horror?
Michael: Within both the horror and comedy genres absurdity and exaggeration are always present. Separating the two in my filmmaking is something I find difficult to do!! Whilst darkness is usually tempered with light, in horror and crime films we glimpse a world made up of shades of grey… in this mix, comedy is often to be found amongst the death and destruction. Comedy and horror have also always been vehicles for dealing with things that we’d rather not talk about. There are probably more jokes about sex and death than anything else and these are of course the two leitmotifs of the horror genre. When watching one of my films with a live audience, I’m always pleased when moments of onscreen horror are invariably greeted with sounds of shock and laughter in pretty much equal measure.
Rebecca: You choose to work with a restricted cast and both protagonists in your films are male characters with a confident voice who speak directly to the audience, can you tell us a little about the thought process and intentions behind this?
Michael: I like the subversive nature of having a narrator or protagonist who involves or seeks approval from the audience, as in The Ingress Tapes or Dead Celebrities. Particularly if a character is amoral or has their own moral code that is at odds with conventional morality. Forcing the audience to question a protagonist and their motivations is something I would like to explore further.
What interested me when writing Dead Celebrities and The Ingress Tapes about those characters was the idea of people who have outlived their time or are out of step with the world around them. This is an idea that goes back to some of my earliest shorts. I guess many of my characters are looking for their place in the world or to make sense of, or strike back at a world that often seems to be lacking in sense.
That said, the protagonist of our forthcoming feature EXIT is female and the main characters of a script that I’m currently working upon, are all females.
In the case of Dead Celebrities, the choice of a small cast was a practical one. The majority of it was filmed guerrilla style and over a fairly extended period. It would’ve just been too difficult to have a larger cast commit to such a shooting schedule. However, with our feature EXIT we consciously chose to again work with a small professional cast.
When directing a small cast you form a closer relationship with your actors. The script is only ever the starting point and once on set, if you’ve built up trust with actors, they should feel confident to bring their own interpretations to their characters. A small cast enables a greater degree of experimentation, even on a tight production schedule and that is where the true magic can happen.
Whilst many actors enjoy being given clear direction, I don’t believe in “over directing”. I think that actors should embody their characters and react to the situations in that character’s idiosyncratic way. I never lose sight of the fact that fundamentally this is a collaborative process. When casting actors, we are looking for people who are going to bring their own perspectives to characters and aren’t afraid to explore this within safe boundaries. Some of the best work that occurs during filming is that which wasn’t planned for, aspects that you didn’t realise or perceive in pre-production.
In our shortly to be released feature EXIT, we took a first time actor, Leonardo Sahani and explored how a young innocent female character would fair against manipulative, older characters from a different social class. I’m pretty proud of how we captured her evolution from an innocent protagonist to a strong female warrior! I’m looking forward to seeing people’s reactions to this.
Rebecca: You have spoken about how your films have been divisive, often eliciting opposing responses from audience members. Do you deliberately set out to be provocative and how does it feel to be in a screening experiencing the various reactions from people?
Michael: I don’t set out to be deliberately divisive or controversial. However, I do think that independent cinema should always challenge its audience and not shy from focusing on difficult and challenging subject matter. Mainstream cinema can be, by necessity, less challenging and is comfortable to recycle stories about clearly defined, normally male heroes and villains. Few difficult questions are ever asked by mainstream TV or cinema. Though, even amongst independent filmmakers there seems a reluctance to deviate from rigid narrative or genre conventions.
This said, there is most definitely an audience for more challenging cinema out there, as is evident from some of the more interesting films being made presently in the horror genre.
Rebecca: It’s a booming time for horror at the moment with the release of think-pieces from directors such as Ari Aster and Jordan Peele. In many ways, horror feels like the perfect vehicle for reflecting the current state of mind in society and the ideal genre for exploring and examining the issues at its core. What are your thoughts on where the horror genre is at at the moment and in what direction do you see this heading or would you like to see this take over the next few years?
Michael: Continuing on from my previous point, I am genuinely witnessing at the moment an appetite for more intelligent and less formulaic horror films amongst audiences.
Horror has traditionally been looked down upon by film institutions and critics. Maybe as a consequence of this, it has also always been a space for the exploration of societal issues and questions which mainstream cinema avoids as a consequence of potential negative economic impact. The horror genre has always been a home for the outsider. I also think that there has been a significant demographic shift amongst the audience of horror films. In the past this has been the preserve of straight, white males and thankfully this is changing in terms of both audiences and those making films. People like The Soska Sisters, Julia Ducournau and Jordan Peele are making really interesting genre cinema at the moment.
Rebecca: Can you tell us about your next project and anything that followers of or newcomers to your work should be looking out for?
Michael: Our feature EXIT will be premiering at the Horror-on-Sea Film Festival in the U.K. on January 11th 2020. I don’t want to give too much away beyond what I’ve already said. However, I guess I’d describe it as an hallucinatory journey a young women finds herself taking when sex, drugs, murder and the forces of darkness converge. The tagline “Leaving… It’s harder than you think”, sums up not only EXIT’s narrative but also the U.K.’s own present narrative.
I’d be lying if I said Brexit didn’t have some bearing on the film but EXIT’s message will still be relevant whenever the current situation is resolved.
Tickets for the Horror-on-Sea Film Festival are available now: https://www.horror-on-sea.com