TIFF Report: A Conversation with JT Petty

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This week I got a chance to sit down with S&Man director JT Petty and chat with him for a while about his new documentary S&Man, shortly before his film made its Canadian premiere as part of the Midnight Madness programme.

S&Man is a highly controversial film, so controversial that it seems to have caused even an indirect argument between myself and the Gomorrahizer right here on the pages of ScreenAnarchy. I’ve given it a glowing review, and I maintain that an important part of the film as a discussion of the cinematic form is what you don’t know about it. JT, in this very interview, says, “I don't really want to reveal too much, because it somewhat ruins the puzzle box of the movie.” He also offers many insights throughout, and you’ll be pleased to see I’ve actually transcribed it rather than just chuck up the raw audio. Todd is lazy! [damn straight - Todd]

Mathew Kumar: You start the film by discussing the story of the neighbourhood voyeur that influenced you to start making a documentary, but the documentary is also about horror films. What was horror's formative influence upon you?

JT Petty: I grew up on horror movies. They were precious to me as a kid, because I was disallowed from watching them. I watched Halloween like 12 times with my finger on the stop button the whole time, in case my mom walked in. So maybe you can make the connection between voyeurism and horror there, that the way I was watching horror films was the way in which most people would be watching someone else through their window. It was this forbidden thing, and it was that much more titillating because of it.

The way that that came together in the movie was that the peeping tom was going to be his own movie, as I was just really interested in finding him. I mean, his house was "the ghost house", you know? That creepy old house that you'd dare each other to go knock the door of. In about 2003 I began trying to contact him, and he was so insanely shy. While that was happening I was on the circuit with Soft for Digging, doing the festivals and the horror conventions, and started bumping into underground horror directors like Fred Vogel [August Underground director, and a subject of S&Man] and watching their movies.

There are “Jackass” moments to their movies, sections with filming unaware people on the street reacting to things, and there was often this weird questionable-ness about it. They came together in the same documentary because I was actually failing to make something of them separately, but together they made sense.

MK: A great example of the connection that you bring up straight away is Peeping Tom.

JTP: An amazing movie. I feel like Peeping Tom is actually prescient. I can't imagine making that movie when it was made. I feel like I'd have to travel forward in time to the end of Brian de Palma's career, watch all of his movies, write an essay about them, and adapt that into a screenplay. It's so insanely rich. When I first watched it, on crappy VHS as a teenager, it was boring, because it really is more about the psychology and meaning of us watching it.

MK: S&Man seems to be exactly like that, too.

JTP: Totally. It's... I was trying to make it very provocative. Makes you completely conscious the whole time that you are watching it. So we shot it like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a weird floating handheld camera, not really shaking quite enough that you're too conscious of it, but just enough that you know it’s there. We shot it through a teleprompter, to ensure the subjects were looking directly at it the whole time.

I wanted the viewer conscious of the fact that they're watching it, as one of the central questions of the movie is, “Why would I want to watch a horror movie? Something that's designed to make me suffer?”

I wanted to implicate the audience, but something that is also important is implicating myself. A lot of people miss it, but the movie outs how manipulative the director is, his complicity with all of the subjects in shaping their narrative. I want the viewer conscious of themselves as much as of me as shaping the form.

MK: So there is a lot of manipulation?

JTP: Part of it is cutting between subjects. Suddenly you think Debbie D [A "scream queen" and documentary subject] is talking about something much, much more exploitative than she actually is...

MK: Yeah, there's a perfect example of your manipulation in the scene were you cut between her hopes to cross over into the mainstream with someone laughing really hard.

JTP: Which makes me seem like such a dick! Everyone I've shown that to, they've said "You can't include that! It makes you such an asshole!" and I say, "Yeah, exactly."

I don't really want to reveal too much, because it somewhat ruins the puzzle box of the movie.

MK: It's interestin that you say "puzzle", as you work in the games industry as well as creating movies. I wondered if you’d used your understanding of that form to create S&Man.

JTP: I don't know if I did that consciously. But, for example, in the Splinter Cell games, because they're so media heavy (you can find emails, phone messages and so on) I was always hiding shit deep into those games. There's one level where all of the US soldiers in it are involved in this giant, complicated homosexual affair. You only find that out if you find every single e-mail.

But it's that idea of whispering into a box and burying it somewhere. And if someone is clever enough to find it, it's so much more satisfying to hear the message.

MK: I think of videogames as an inherently postmodern form, and S&Man seems a particularly postmodern film.

JTP: Totally. It's not that unique today, though. Take Lonelygirl15, she's the hot one right now. Even the news, there's Jessica Lynch, she gets saved and there's a massive fiction created before she's even in the hospital. We have such an intimate relationship with the media right now that we're both shaping reality into fiction, and decoding that fiction constantly.

MK: S&Man actually reminds me of the videogame Metal Gear Solid 2, which towards the end becomes a game that plays heavily with the form of videogames. But S&Man seems even cleverer to me because it's about cinema, and playing with the form to make it’s point.

JTP: Sure, It's a kind of endless recursive loop. A lot of my ability to do that is just technical. I couldn't have created this movie cutting on film. To get all the little pieces together and rearrange them easily.

MK: How have you found women react to the film?

JTP: Well, gender in horror is a crazy interesting topic, and it’s worth noting that in modern horror women are making up a bigger audience than ever, even for films like Saw or Hostel. More women saw Saw than The Descent. Where does that come from? I think the danger of the movie is to get too wrapped up in the images and accept it as a given. That's happened more to women than men, but all of the men in the film are so specifically aimed at women than it can come across as a very aggressive film. But it's also a portrait of these men.

MK: One of the aspects of cinema that interests me deeply is the meaning of violence in cinema, and films that broach the topic, such as Ichi the Killer and The Devil’s Rejects. What do you think that S&Man is saying on the topic?

JTP: The point of view that I was approaching the movie from was really the question whether violence in movies was sadistic or masochistic: the act of filming it, and the act of watching it. Ichi the Killer is actually a brilliant work examining that way of looking at film, one character's a supreme sadist and one character is a supreme masochist. The Devil's Rejects, that's gorgeous and amazing film making, but it was almost distasteful for how sadistic it encouraged you to be.

I definitely see sadism growing in horror films. A lot of that, I think, is that we're such a sophisticated horror audience now that filmmakers work so hard to subvert our expectations. You see something like Hostel and you're certain this character is going to die, and this other character is going to be the hero, and Roth flips that. It's shocking and exciting, but it erases the moral universe set up by the movie, and once we get into the action, it makes it so much more sadistic and it so much harder to watch.

You find yourself in a much different place from Halloween, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where you're so tied in with the victim, and you're suffering through the movie.

MK: Carol Clover argues very strongly for horror films as masochism, but certainly by the end of S&Man I felt you were arguing the opposite position and strongly implicating the viewer.

JTP: Totally. I really think it's where horror films are going right now and it’s part of point of the movie. During the film I talk about finding a movie that scared me as much as movies did as a kid, and sadistic movies don't do it for me. Audition, for example, is so insanely scary, and it's a blatantly masochistic movie, with a very firm moral universe. It's almost fascistic in its severity. Or Pan's Labyrinth. So gorgeous so amazing, and there’s no sadism there. Every time there's violence it's horrible, and it's so disarmingly terrible, resulting in a wonderful, heartbreaking movie.

MK: Personally I wonder how you could be scared if you're the one in power.
JTP: Well, it's the fear of what you're going to do. Which is a very specific kind of fear. One that has a large audience.

There are those points, I'm thinking like old Hitchcock movies, where you suddenly sympathize with the killer. The killer in Strangers on a Train, who's lost his keys down the drain, and you're like "Oh man! I hope he gets them!" and there's a thrilling shot of horror in that, but it's very different from the sadism in the hero cutting off fingers in Hostel.

MK: So where do you place horror films like Saw on the scale, and how does that tie in to women watching more horror?

JTP: I guess... I'd say the Saw series, Wolf Creek… All these movies are getting more sadistic. I think that a lot of the appeal of horror films is, you know "get you a little something that you can't get at home". You know, what's the tension missing from our lives? For men, I think that these slasher movies with the female victim are appealing because you get to identify with this woman, and be in a completely non-aggressive, feminine state, for at least the first two thirds of the movie. I mean, 16 year old boys don't want to admit it, but at that point you're so curious in girls, and actually being in that mindset is interesting. Making that turn around towards the end, where the heroine thinks "I'm going to fight to survive” it's a re-masculisation. This is all Carol Clover stuff, though. You get to experience another gender, safely return to your own, and then go on with your life.

Maybe for women there's something about being on the other side. You spend so much of your time aggressed upon by the male gaze that there's something to be said about taking the part of this terrible killer.

MK: But yet when women watch your film they're horrified. Is it the possibility of reality?

JTP: There is the possibility of reality, but at the same time the movie is so conscious of what it's doing. It's like a street magician actively telling you what he's doing with the cards and yet you still don't quite get it. I'm constantly reminding you that you're watching it. It doesn't allow you to make that leap of irresponsibility.

Because horror movies are also all about misbehavior. I mean you look at the Midnight Madness crowd and they applaud every time someone get stabbed and it's “Oh yeah, we're being naughty.” But my film is so conscious about asking "Oh, you like this? You like misbehaving?" That it doesn't let you off the hook.

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