Whilst the bread and butter of our work here at DN is publishing detailed, behind the scenes filmmaking conversations with our favourite directors, it’s always a little disappointing when we can’t demonstrate just why we were excited by a particular film by sharing it directly with you. Such was the case with Austrian/American filmmaker Jason B Kohl’s fractured father/son relationship narrative The Slaughter which we featured as part of our LFF2013 coverage but at that point was only available to view on the festival circuit. Well as they say, good shorts come to those who wait and Jason has today released the full 15 minute film online for our collective viewing pleasure. So sit back and see quality short filmmaking at work, after which you can find out just how Jason brought The Slaughter to screen without harming any actors.
There’s an impressive economy with your use of dialogue in The Slaughter such as when the son retorts “Well, maybe if you ever taught me anything!”, which expands their relationship beyond the bounds of the short. How do you approach crafting dialogue which is, but doesn’t feel like exposition?
It’s interesting because I shot for 6 days and I probably cut 2 days worth of shooting out of the final product. The first cut was 24 minutes so I think of, in a very humble way, Terrence Malick and how much he cuts out of his movies and how much that leaves in. There’s a subtext in the relationship there and I think that the best exposition always comes within conflict and as a feature writer right now, I’ve been very interested in exposition and how filmmakers do exposition. It really is an art form. But I think a key to that is generally placing it within conflict and having an accusation or something like that. I think the other key to that line is that it sort of prompts the rest of the story – the father does teach the son how to slaughter the pig, albeit in a very cruel and conflictual way, but if they were all buddy buddy it would’t make for a very interesting film.
I think that the best exposition always comes within conflict.
The film’s sub-text speaks to our relationship as a society to food, a difficult thing to take on without appearing preachy. Were you concerned as to how much of that issue to place in the film?
Absolutely, that was a huge consideration for me in this film throughout the process. My family raises pigs, we shot the film on a family pig farm. I had been through the process of slaughtering a pig about a year earlier and I think for me there are two parts of this film; there’s the father/son relationship and then there’s the aspect of the pig. I was a vegetarian for several years and I was very offended by the treatment of animals in the American food system. Participating in the slaughter of a pig, which is very sort of atavistic almost, was actually very liberating for me. I was afraid of it at first but I realised that this is a process that people go through to get food. I would say that another part of that fear is something that contributes to the maltreatment of animals quite a bit – we farm it out and hide it away. A big theme for me as a filmmaker is the transition between the generations and I think about the fact that my grandparents raised animals when they were kids and if they wanted meat they had to kill them.
In terms of what the audience could take, I was very interested in priming as much as possible. You see a pig with the title “The Slaughter” over it. I called the film The Slaughter. I had them talk about the thing. I had them see the knife. So the audience, even if it’s still shocking for them, I feel like they are prepared throughout the process. It’s very very deliberate in saying ‘this is what’s going to happen’. Then in terms of cutting the scene itself, I tried to just show enough to show that a life was passing out of the world, but not to where it became gruesome or something. I’m very interested in naturalistic storytelling and for this film I was interested in things like Deliverance and Straw Dogs and these films that show violence and things that are very upsetting. What I always find funny and I didn’t anticipate with the film, was that the audience goes very very quiet during the slaughter of the pig and they always invariably gasp when there’s a bit of human violence that happens later. The violence towards the animal is real; it was performed by a farmer and a butcher who’ve done this their whole lives, wearing the actors’ wardrobe. So the animal was harmed but not by actors (this was very clear in the SAG arrangements and everything). I always find it fascinating that it’s the human violence which ultimately the audience knows is artificial in some way because we didn’t cut off someone’s appendage for the film, that always gets a much more physical, verbal reaction. But those were some of the ideas I was interested in exploring.
So how did you convincingly shoot the slaughter of the pig so the actors were’t responsible for the animal’s death?
The actors weren’t even allowed to be on set for the day that the pig was killed. I worked with a very intelligent production manager named Bill Marks at UCLA who had worked on the new Straw Dogs, and he very much advised me to have the cast and crew present to see what the process was like because the actors, while they didn’t actually kill the pig they were working with the pig’s body and they were going through the process. So at different points the actual experts would step through with always the intentions of it being as humane as possible. That was one thing that struck me about the process, how do we do this humanly? How do we do this in a way where we have a relationship with the animals? So for the performances especially there’s close ups on the boy where he’s reacting to the “pig” and that was interesting because there was no actual pig on set at that moment and almost invariably actors do need something physical to react against. We did one or two takes with Elijah and he was reacting to air and that just absolutely did not work. I love Cassavetes and I always think about this moment where he laid down on the table and pretended to be a dead chicken to get his actor to laugh, to get him to relax. And so in that moment during rehearsals I laid down on the ground and I played the pig and I fought them physically. That’s where that viscerality comes from because you can always tell when actors are anticipating something. Obviously I could’t play the pig while we were shooting so our wonderful Production Manager Kale Davidoff stepped in and played the pig. There’s quite a few funny photos of that.
Something which occurred on set that was perhaps unexpected was a farmers vs crew, Red vs Blue state divide?
That was really interesting. We had these two farmers from very rural Buckley, Michigan, Rory and Mac and they were the people who handled the pigs and brought the pigs in. But on the first day it was like the movie people and the farmer people, there was sort of a divide because these were very different worlds coming together which I also loved about the production of the film. It was funny because by the end – Mac and Rory were only on set for four days – but they and Mike Wiles, who plays the father, were smoking cigarettes together and everyone was buddy buddy. That was really one of the most special moments I’ve had as a filmmaker, seeing that connection come between those worlds. We also had a dinner at the end of the film where we ate the pig that was in the film. You know it can sound gruesome or whatever but it’s a relationship to this thing right. I think that the biggest problems in the world, and also in the film, come from when we hide things or when we try to prevent ourselves from saying or seeing things. That’s when animals get treated poorly, when we turn them into meat machines.
How did you go about casting the roles?
Well Michael Shamus Wiles the dad, he’s a very experienced actor. He’s in Breaking Bad and he’s worked with David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson. He was my next door neighbour in LA and he was from Michigan and we sort of hit it off talking about Michigan. At that point I had a very different draft of the script and then later this script went through two very different drafts before the one that became the film. By the third draft Michael became a real possibility for the film. I knew he wanted to go back to Michigan and it was a godsend for me honestly because one of my absolute missions for this film was to find really good actors. I wrote the script knowing that I only wanted two parts. I find that as a short filmmaker especially and as a filmmaker in general, you can only pick a couple of battles per project because if you have too many things that you’re trying to fight for it just becomes too much. You have limited resources and time and I graduated from UCLA a year early, so I was also on a very accelerated schedule with this. Mike was fairly easy, he was a total gem. He fought to be in the movie and I’m so glad that he was, because he brought so much to the film. Being from Michigan he has that look, and he had actually worked at a slaughterhouse when he was 19.
I find that as a short filmmaker especially and as a filmmaker in general, you can only pick a couple of battles per project.
Elijah Bridges the other actor came from New York. It was funny because we did a lot of casting in LA. I love LA actors, they’re some of the most professional actors in the world, but a lot of the actors have this ‘LA look’ where they have these sort of LA actor muscles and LA haircuts. They would all come in and audition and there was this moment when one of them was wrestling with an Ottoman, pretending it was the pig and I was like “Oh my God, what have I done?” And so my wonderful casting director Brad Gilmore worked very hard, he looked in Chicago and New York and he had open video submissions. Elijah sent this video in that was the wrong aspect ratio, like 3:1, almost upside down, there was like a whisky bottle in the foreground, and there was a band rehearsing in the background while he was doing the lines. Despite all of these distractions, he was the only person who really had a sense of humour about the part. Elijah is more of a musician than an actor, although he has acted before, but again it was that there was a human personality in that. He did things with the role that I didn’t anticipate. I want actors to contribute, I think they’re almost like deities and you just have to create this space for them to express themselves. So I loved that about him and we did a Skype callback with him and Mike through LA and New York and they met for the first time in Michigan where we shot the film.
Your book Film School; A Practical Guide to an Impractical Decision is poised to come out next year, but you’ve also been hard at work on a feature script. Care to share any details about that with us?
Absolutely. It’s also set in Michigan and it is based on a true story that I heard many years ago. It’s sort of a Fargoesque story about an inheritance dispute that goes terribly wrong.
Listen to our full interview with Jason B Kohl recorded at the 57th London Film Festival.