In Conversation with Theodore Collatos

 

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A while back I covered Dipso, directed by Theodore Collatos, as a part of my Unsung Indies feature and, just yesterday, his newest feature – Tormenting the Hen – was spotlighted as our Kickstart Sunday pick for this week. I recently had the chance to partake in a bit of discussion with Collatos about his newest film, working with his longtime collaborator Matt Shaw and more.

 

How has the production of TORMENTING THE HEN differed from the production of DIPSO?

Radically different films and productions. I think every film has its own unique character that hopefully reflects the content. Tormenting the Hen was fully scripted and everyone was a professional actor, which made scenes fly by themselves, without relying as much on the documentary elements when filming non-actors. We shot it in 6 craze-filled days without a crew besides my assistant director, who broke his toe on the second day…

Dipso was very much about the non-actors in the film. I think having them memorize lines would have killed their authenticity on film. We shot it in 15, half days with one cinematographer…

What ultimately lead you to the narrative/themes of TORMENTING THE HEN?

The story was originally inspired from real experiences Carolina Monnerat and I felt living in a small rural town. The fear of quietness and being really intimate with people in a different way than in city life. Another inspiration: a short documentary I made, Adam and Joel, a while back that speaks to racial issues we have in America. The themes mainly revolve around fear of others and how people are unable to clearly communicate without misunderstanding or being offended by words. How local and style of our upbringing and perspective is constantly in conflict with others and how we show empathy or fear.

You have stated that you “focused more on the writing than I ever have before” with TORMENTING THE HEN, what lead you to that decision?

I love documentary film, I love narrative film, I love experimental film, I love film… That being said all of my films are reflections of different impulses and instincts. More specifically, though, my last short film Albatross was supposed to be a feature, but one of the main non-actors flaked on me. It actually made for a stronger story in the end but an emotional  roller coaster. Working with non-actors was wearing me out because in general there is a feeling of not knowing what’s going on, not a deeper investment in the work. The opposite end of the spectrum is actors who care too much. So with this new film I wanted to build the entire script around people I wanted to work with and who wanted deeply to do it.  Matt Shaw and I felt raked over the coals by Albatross and so for Tormenting the Hen, it was really important to have a functional script, that the actors could own and take to a new level in an economical way. Something we could bite into and rock through fast and efficiently. Frankly, I couldn’t afford to dilly dally, as my grandmother would say. It was time to execute something with more clarity of purpose from the get-go. I also think I’m more in control of my voice.

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In the past you’ve incorporated real life elements within your narratives (i.e. Dipso); is Tormenting the Hen much the same in that regard?

Definitely. Every story comes from an emotion and real life circumstance for me. For this film it was important for me to not be too direct and be more engaging in terms of storytelling and weaving a tale that’s enjoyable to watch. Years ago my wife and I moved from Chicago, we both grew up around city life, to the country in Western Massachusetts. Just the atmosphere alone was shocking. The silence and darkness became an influence on our emotions. Just being used to noise, the silence became threatening and created paranoia and fear. I’d saved some money for the move, (we were supposed to end up in NYC) but we ended up living in MA for some time looking for work and trying to get by. During this time we met an eccentric local who seem overly interested in us and asked really personal questions, which felt intrusive and slightly rude. This would happen week after week and I began to feel anxiety every time we’d cross paths. I felt judged and unlike living in a city you can’t just ignore people you recognize. Living in a small town taught me everything I know about drama which I found impossible to learn in the city because in the city you can always walk away from people you don’t want to deal with. Years later I wanted to tell this story about fear based on language. That was the root of Tormenting the Hen.

Do you feel pressure to ensure authenticity with those elements or do you allow yourself some sort of creative license?

Tormenting the Hen fully embraces creative license!  My mantra for the film was, ‘just tell the fucking story’! I just used the feeling and emotions of the encounters, to create a dramatic film of paranoia and social commentary, but by no means was beholden to the situation as it actually happened. This individual is actually a close friend these days. Environment is powerful and alters your perceptions like a drug.

You’ve talked about one of your closest collaborators, Matt Shaw, starting out as a non-actor and you now consider him an actor. At what point did you start seeing him as an actor and not a non-actor?

With The Chosen One, Matt was a really supportive ‘extra with lines’. With Dipso, he was a partner in arms but didn’t understand what I was up to and he was an important buffer from the other non-actors. With Albatross, he understood that we/I were valid art makers and was ‘acting’ and with Tormenting the Hen he’s full on kicking the ass of a character. Matt has always been a performer being a musician so I always knew he had the raw ability. But the work of an actor is complex. In the beginning, he was a random extra that became a close friend who then I built Dipso around and he acted but the character is an extension of a world he was familiar, made with friends he’d grown up with and even his ex-girlfriend playing his love interest in the film. With Albatross, I again build a story around an experience he’s having helping  raise his niece. But after the Dipso experience, he could see more what I was after and worked even more closely every step of the way. Tormenting the Hen is an ensemble psychologically thrilling chamber drama, in the world of movies like Knife in the Water. He’s playing a very specific character and doing the hard work of development and improvisation and line memorization in a professional way.

Did seeing and considering him a professional have any impact on the way in which you worked?

Yes! For sure! He’s always great improvising, but it was amazing watching him do the character work with the script. We’d discuss specific lines and tones and he added one of the most important lines in the film. I must say everyone, Carolina Monnerat, Dameka Hayes, Brian H. Brooks, David Malinsky and Josephine Decker,  added so much to the script to make it live, breath and fly on a deeper level. Again I love documentary so it was massively important to me that the world is believable and the acting sublime.

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Is this the first time utilizing crowdfunding for a project?

This time around I have  producers, Ben Umstead and George Manatos, who are really supporting the post-production. Both have been so valuable in helping me get through this til the end. Again we shot the film in 6 days and it’s massively important to raise the rest to polish our hard work. After Dipso and Albatross I really wanted to find a more efficient way to keep making work both thematically and financially and hopefully we’ll all grow into bigger films.

What lead you to explore this avenue?

Necessity.

You mention having Ben Umstead and George Manatos on board as producers and the project has now added Factory 25’s Matt Grady as a producer. What excites you most about the project with the addition of Matt?

Ben and George were really in the trenches with me getting everything up on its feet and now that we’re moving into the next phase Matt’s expertise will really be helpful to all of us in terms of strategy and the business side of things. I love the work that he does for the independent film community at large and he’s a wizard at creating opportunities for cutting edge work. He really loved the film so I think the collaboration just made sense.

Having these three onboard as producers, how has this project differed than one’s previous where it was usually you and your wife, Carolina Monnerat, as the producers?

It’s an enormous relief… Each of the guys comes to the table with such enthusiasm and specialized insight which is invaluable. It takes the weight off a bit and spreads the network of opportunities that may arise.

What type of incentives do you have lined up for potential backers?

We have a lot of irons in the fire. Some specialty items are an original art work by acclaimed New York artist Jeremy Penn. He’s exhibited internationally and has received honors from curators at The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His work is really valued, collected and beautiful to boot, so it’s a really unique opportunity to acquire his work. We also have a cool hand drawn comic based on an iconic scene from the film designed by Tyler Rubenfeld. Other perks are a 3 month subscription to FANDOR the premiere streaming service for indie and world film. There’s also a curated DVD bundle from Factory 25. This one I like a lot, its personalized notes, development and feedback for your projects from our producer Ben Umstead. Then some of the usual suspects digital downloads, buttons and secret gifts…