One of the joys of cinema is its ability to follow even the bizarrest of concepts to their logical conclusions, and in doing so, speak to the often complex relationships experienced in our own lives. That’s very much the case with Matt Kazman’s Father Figurine in which a well to do family find themselves at the mercy of a rather unusual stipulation in their deceased patriarch’s will. A film which plays its outlandish premise with a straight face to great comedic effect, we asked Kazman to tell us how this morbidly funny swipe at the 1% was inspired the current first family and helped along by a mould of an old man’s head.
A few years ago, I made this short Killer that was about a boy dealing with the death of his mom in an unusual way (he thinks she died because he masturbated, so he now thinks people die when he masturbates). And that element of the short – the fact that people can do irrational things in the throes of grief – stuck with me, so I began brainstorming other ideas about people grieving in unusual ways. That’s how I came up with the seed of this, which was an idea about a family who are living with the stuffed corpse of a loved one. It was an absurd idea with a lot of emotional potential, but I wasn’t sure which direction to take it in.
Separately from that, I was thinking about the Trumps. Not about them politically per se, but more as a family unit. I was curious about what those people are like when they sit down at the dinner table (if they ever do that), and I was specifically thinking about Melania and Barron, who are a part of Trump’s family, but kind of feel like outsiders within it (at least, from my perspective). I also feel like those two are more defined by Donald Trump than by anything they’ve done themselves — I mean, I don’t think Melania is a good person, but I think she’s married to a much worse person — and I liked this idea of people who are defined by someone else, and sort of feel trapped in that situation. So, a lot of thoughts were swimming around my head — I knew I wanted to write something that poked fun at super wealthy people, and I created these characters based on Melania and Barron…and then I had the thought that if you could have your body stuffed and kept on display, then Donald Trump would definitely do that. And that’s how the whole setup came together — this idea that an old rich guy who was never around has essentially forced his presence on his family after he dies.
Once I had that setup, things really started coming together — in fact, it kind of started becoming less directly about grief, because this family doesn’t even like this guy, they’re just stuck with him. The arc of the film became about them slowly realizing that they can get something out of this twisted situation. With this stuffed corpse around, they finally have this opportunity to tell this guy how they really feel, and that ends up being really cathartic for them. It’s very episodic in nature, but I structured it in a way where we see how these therapeutic conversations affect his kids, who kind of start to forgive him, then we see how that affects the mom, who has a much more complicated history with him. I saved her conversation for last so that she could have the most catharsis, which (spoiler) naturally meant beating the shit out of this corpse.
Once I wrote the script, I was like “I’ll never make this”, because it was clearly very expensive but then I got wind of a short film grant by this company called SHIFT. I applied to it and ended up getting one of their $30,000 grants, which was amazing and allowed me to actually go and make this. I then partnered with my producers Ben Altarescu and Josh Chertoff (who have produced a bunch of my other work) and started pre-production. I live in LA now, but I saw the family as a distinctly East-Coast kind of rich, and thankfully Ben and Josh are based in New York, so it made sense to shoot it there.
I didn’t do us any favors by having the corpse’s head become degraded over the course of the film.
The biggest things to figure out in pre-production were finding a mansion to shoot in and making this stuffed corpse. We knew that both of those elements were going to be expensive, but we hit the ground running. I knew that for the house, I wanted to find a location that inherently had the gaudy vibe that I was picturing in my head because I didn’t think we had the budget to manufacture that with production design. So, I looked up homes on a bunch of different film locations websites, and we ended up getting lucky because one of my favorite options was the only one that would work within the ballpark of our budget. We shot most of the film there, on Long Island, except for the dining room scenes, which we shot at a historic house/museum in Montclair.
The stuffed corpse was a whole other thing. We spoke to a few different companies, a few people who specialized in this sort of stuff, and learned a lot about what was accomplishable and what would be “realistic” choices if you actually taxidermied someone. We quickly realized that we couldn’t afford to make a whole body; we could only really make a head and a set of hands and fit them on a no-frills mannequin body. And I didn’t do us any favors by having the corpse’s head become degraded over the course of the film, because that meant that we needed to have 4 heads made. But again, we got lucky because the company that we ended up working with (Gotham FX) already had a mold of an old man’s head, which eliminated a lot of costs. There was a limit to how much we could customize it, but we were able to do things like open up his mouth and make his skin complexion and hairstyle anything we wanted. Some of the conversations we had ended up affecting little things in the script, for example, the guy at Gotham reminded me that when something is taxidermied, it’s totally stationary and can’t move. I wasn’t going for a Weekend at Bernie’s vibe anyway, but getting that reminder added a gag where when you see the corpse lying in bed, he’s still in a seated position, which I loved.
While getting these elements together took a lot of time, the casting process was relatively easy. I worked with a casting director who I’ve known for a while, Karlee Fomalont, and coming into the process, I knew that I wanted to reach out to Amy Landecker for the role of Patricia, the wife. I’m a huge fan of Amy and I thought she would be hard/impossible to get, but as soon as I mentioned her name, Karlee told me she knew her agent, and we sent her an offer with the script and a link to my last short. They got back to us pretty quickly saying she was interested, then I had a really nice meeting with her, and she was on board. The kids, Katherine Reis (who is actually in her 20s) and Ryan Foust, were both recommendations from Karlee, and they thankfully said yes as well. And David Rasche, who plays the lawyer, is a wonderful character actor who I’ve loved in a lot of things (most recently, Succession), and again, we just reached out and he said yes.
Pre-production at that point was just getting everything in order. My DP, Ryan Nethery, and I had worked together a lot so we already had a shorthand. I was working with a new production designer (Kelsey Alvarez) and costume designer (Brooke Bennett), but at this point, when I’m working with someone new, I’ve seen their work and they’ve seen mine so we kind of get what each other is about. The costumes, in particular, were a big part of the look for me and Brooke was able to get some really extravagant stuff. We were trying to walk a fine line between realistic and absurd, nice and gaudy; and I feel like that line was that the design of their house and the furniture was all really gaudy but their clothes were actually nice.
With regards to the camera, I was not super picky about what we were using. We were just planning on using a Sony a7S ii (which is a solid camera), but a couple weeks before the shoot, my producer got us a very good deal on a RED Monstro, and it felt foolish not to take the opportunity to shoot on a larger sensor, especially since we were going for more of a still photographic look. A lot of my visual references were from photographers (Lauren Greenfield, Anja Niemi, Gregory Crewdson) and filmmakers whose work has more of a photographic and vignette-like quality (Roy Andersson, Ulrich Seidl), so we used vintage Canon stills lenses and shot it in a 3:2 aspect ratio to emulate more of of a still portraiture look.
The shoot itself ended up being one of the most stressful shoots I’ve ever been on. It wasn’t disastrous by any means, but there were a lot of accidents that happened on set, a lot of “Murphy’s Law” type stuff. On Day 1, we got to our house in Long Island at 6AM so that we could shoot the opening scene before the sun was out in full force, and when we opened the equipment truck, it was completely empty. My producers quickly realized that the bonded lot gave our PA the wrong truck, but they had to go back to Brooklyn to get the right one, and it set us back 4 hours on a 3-day shoot right off the bat.
There were a lot of accidents that happened on set, a lot of “Murphy’s Law” type stuff.
Then, that afternoon, the power in the neighborhood went out because a tree had fallen on a transformer. We were running off generators, so that didn’t actually affect us that much, but someone was like, “oh, this shoot is cursed.” Thankfully, the crew handled everything really well, but we just had to move much faster to get everything we wanted, and everyone, including myself, was very stressed out. The stress didn’t make its way to the actors though, because they really boosted everyone’s spirits whenever they were around. Each of them had slightly different approaches, but they were all really collaborative, and more importantly, by the time we were rolling, they were all on the same page, so every take was great, and being able to slow down and be in the moment was a nice reminder that it was funny and we were lucky to have the opportunity to make something like this.
I usually edit my own films, but for post on this one, I brought on a talented editor (Patrick Lawrence) to make the first few cuts and give me some distance from it. He brought it to a good place, but it became apparent that the film was really long (the first cut was around 23 or 24 minutes) and while the performances were great and the tone was consistent, it felt like overkill at that length. So, the process became picking away at each scene, trying a bunch of alts, and trying to cut it down as much as possible without losing this feeling that I was aiming for. That took some time, some breaks to get distance from it, and a lot of watch-downs. The shortest it ever got was 15 minutes, but my team and I didn’t like that cut, so it slowly filled out back to 18 minutes or so. Then, after screening at some festivals and seeing how audiences were responding to it, I cut almost another minute out of it.
At the moment I’m deep in a writing cave. I’m working on a feature based on my short Killer, and I’m writing something that expands on Father Figurine – it’s different from the short in the sense that it’s not focused on the corpse, but it’s about that family. I also shot another short this year with some friends that was an attempt to make something in the opposite approach as Father Figurine, i.e. quickly, with no money, just an outline with no written dialogue, improvising, etc. That’s finished now and I’ve got a couple other shorts I’ve written that can also be done for cheap so I’ll probably try to shoot one of those in the new year.
Father Figurine is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.