As someone who writes a lot about short film, one of the main discussion points circulating around whether a piece works or not, is what you “take-away” from a viewing. A film can be deemed successful if it makes you laugh or makes you cry, but how about if it makes you uncomfortable? Jared Hogan’s latest short, Pray for the Children, is a film that falls into this bracket. An unsettling 14-minute short that centres around a young man haunted by visions of death, this is a bold, daring piece of filmmaking that’s certain to split opinion. Eager to find out more about his violent narrative and why he decided to make this film, Hogan joins us to discuss his controversial short and the discomfort surrounding it.
A heads up, there are several NSFW moments in here.
Can you introduce your narrative to our audience and explain what made you want to tackle this story?
It mostly began with curiosity. There were so many instances in my own life where I would find myself staring at my hands while I was driving, not being able to shake the thought that one muscle reflex, one jerk to the right or the left, could lead to so much pain and loss. I guess what really intrigued me was a question that always accompanied those thoughts: What keeps me from acting on those impulses? There must be, I thought, some sort of barrier between what our bodies are fully capable of doing and what our minds allow us to do.
That thought fascinated me and also raised another question: What would happen if that barrier began to deteriorate? What if the mental gave way to the physical? Our darkest thoughts transcending into the physical world. Finally, I had to ask the question: What would this look like? What kind of person would experience this kind of decline and deterioration?
This film is not just about violence. It’s about the things that cloud our minds.
Additionally, I was interested in the structure of the film. A series of events that play out in real time, but are brought back to the relief that these instances were all in our characters head. That is until the final episode, that similarly plays out like all the others, but never snaps back to a more comforting reality. In contrast, we’re left to realize he’s crossed over in a sense. Those thoughts have become actions and those actions have affected the people around him.
For me, this film is not just about violence. It’s about the things that cloud our minds, but that we don’t want to allow to spill over into our lives. Things that feel like they’re not hurting anyone, but in reality hurt those closest to us.
I was hugely impressed by how uncomfortable Pray for the Children made me feel, what do you hope an audience takes away from viewing your film?
I think on a visceral level, the intent was to make you feel uncomfortable. Imagine how it would feel to have someone inside your mind, seeing your darkest thoughts. Almost like… we’re not supposed to be seeing this, are we? For me, that vulnerability, although not a character choice, really drew me in. It’s voyeuristic in nature, but also I think a reflection of us all.
I guess that is where a lot of the discomfort comes. Seeing ourselves in this character — feeling exposed — but not wanting to admit it. Additionally, Stan’s (our main character) demeanor and the way he carries himself is decidedly unsettling. The film, from the score to the objective nature of the camera, was designed to make your skin crawl. So, hopefully it’s all working together.
From the opening shot, it feels very clear that mood and atmosphere is going to play a big part in the impact of the film – how much did you work on and think about that during production?
Yeah, I’m not sure how conscious I was of it in those terms. Those elements are always a large part of the equation, but those are the things that seem to flow more naturally for me. This time around, I really made an effort to be present for my actors in a way I hadn’t before. Listening a lot. Workshopping scenes on set and trying to dial in our collective tone. That was a big emphasis for me and I hope gave more weight to the mood and atmosphere that we were all aiming to create.
I can imagine one of the criticisms that could be aimed at your film would be regarding the violence and how graphic it’s depicted, were you ever tempted to tone it down and were you ever concerned your film might be seen as glorifying violence?
It was definitely something I wrestled with. For me, this was a visceral portrait of this downward spiral toward physical violence. That is what I was most interested in — this film being the end of a longer decline, most of which has already taken place before this film begins.
While the violence is contained in his mind, we are seeing the violence how our character sees it. Quick, easy, and brutal. He is in control. And there are no consequences. In his mental decline, we see him equating human life to that of a cockroach. He’s completely losing touch with his humanity and his regard for the human body, including his own. Even the opening shot is of Stan doubled over while he’s turning on his amp. He’s a contorted heap of flesh that’s hard to define.
He has to deal with how his actions affect not just his victim, but the world around him.
Visually, up until the last scene at dinner, Stan has only had his own blood on him — his decisions only affecting him. But the reality of his violence turning outward and physical results in him being covered in someone else’s blood. And he has to deal with how his actions affect not just his victim, but the world around him. Specifically, someone very close to him.
What is most disturbing about the ending of the film, to me at least, is the final look we see on Stan’s face. He’s taken in the weight of his actions but has lived this scenario out so many times in his mind that when it manifests itself in reality, he’s only left with the same curiosity he had when these events took place in his mind.
Your short is really driven forward by a powerful performance by Tyler Chase – how much did you need to work with him to get him into the headspace of his character and what do you think his performance brings to the film?
Working with Tyler was maybe my favorite thing about this experience. He brings such weight and subtlety to his work. We had a lot of conversations about this character. This was not a character I was interested in empathizing with. I wanted to distance the audience from this character, almost to see him with contempt or disgust, only to have the audience catch glimmers of their reflected selves in this fractured character.
I had written a version of the script where his trauma was more evident.
But I wasn’t looking to overly humanize him or his actions. I had written a version of the script where his trauma was more evident and we even shot some scenes where it was more explicitly outlined what could have perhaps provoked this kind of behavior. I think for Tyler, that was actually an important part of the process, playing out those scenes. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t interested in making that kind of film. Tyler and I both agreed the film was more of an objective study in the loss of control.
Production-wise, for a film featuring such dark and extreme moments of violence, the filmmaking actually feels very restrained. Camera movements are kept to a minimum and feel very controlled when they do occur, did you set out with a certain goal for the cinematography?
I feel like films are always about keeping things in balance. With this type of story featuring these types of themes, restraint in its presentation was something that was important to me and my DP, Kody Zenger. Kody and I talked at length about filmmakers like Béla Tarr and Miklós Jancsó and their use of time, texture, depth, etc.
I didn’t want the approach to heighten the intensity of that violence in a gratuitous way.
In taking on the responsibility of dealing with graphic violence, I didn’t want the approach to heighten the intensity of that violence in a gratuitous way. Instead, I wanted to watch it unfold objectively. No close-ups of gaping wounds. Instead, an unflinching look at the wreckage of someone spiralling out of control.
The editing also feels quite unassuming, with long takes preferred to quick cuts, as the editor of the piece what kind of pacing did you want the film to have and how did you achieve that?
In writing this alongside my friend and collaborator Parrish Stikeleather, we knew we were writing a film that was going to use time itself as a figurative weapon. It’s not just the fact that a woman is stabbed, but that we watch the aftermath — much like Stan — without blinking.
That was always the voice in my head while editing. To keep things simple.
I think in that moment we really start to see the chasm between ourselves and the main character. He looks on with interest and curiosity while most of the audience looks away in disgust. That’s not something I’m illustrating with the camera, that’s who the character is and it’s highlighted in the simplicity of that scene. That was always the voice in my head while editing. To keep things simple.
From that striking opening scene, the soundtrack plays an important part in setting the tone of the piece, can you tell us a little about the original score for Pray for the Children and how you went about getting the right sound for the film?
I’d made a playlist while I was working on writing the film. It was all angry but in a subdued, quieter way. This was by no means an intentional decision, it’s just what felt right as I was collecting different songs and ideas. I have always been obsessed with music, but have no musical ability myself. So making playlists is the best way for me to communicate with different composers that I work with.
For this film, I worked with a long-time collaborator Cubby. I knew I was after heavy distortion, but also something bold and memorable. I think there are films that require the score to take a backseat and reinforce the visuals in a quiet way, and then there are films where a score that exists up front is the right decision. For a character who doesn’t say much, but obviously emotes (re: the opening scene) through music, I felt it was important for the score to closely follow his emotional trajectory.
What are you working on next?
I’m thinking of shooting another short early next year. Something simple, but something I need to get off my chest. But my larger focus and what I’m most excited about is my first feature that I’m in the middle of developing with Parrish as well. We are just now sending our first pages back and forth and hope to get the ball officially rolling on that this year. Fingers crossed.