[Our thanks to Matthew Grinshpun for the following interview.]
Paul Solet, director of Fantasia hit Grace, had a very busy schedule, and I was quite fortunate to get in a quick interview with him just as he was leaving the festival. Tremendous thanks go to Paul for sitting down and doing what turned out to be a very impromptu interview right outside the doors of the screening room, as well as to Chris Allicock and Leah Visser for organizing this on such short notice. Given the time constraints, I focused my questions on the "meat" of Solet's film, so you're likely to get a lot more out of his answers once you've actually seen it.
MG: One of the themes running through [Grace] is this visual comparison of the behavior of this kind of normal, upper middle class family with that of the bloodsucking baby, in particular this theme of animal slaughter and how this aberrant baby is in certain ways behaving similarly to the humans. There was a question asked after this screening, if you were trying to make a political point, and you said no, absolutely not, you are not a preacher. But there seemed to be at least some level of pun or amusement in this.
PS: Like I said in the Q&A, I see my job as being an entertainer or to make something that is entertaining, an entertaining experience for people. I'm not trying to tell you how to live your life, tell you what to eat, tell you who to sleep with. I really don't give a fuck. That said, I think that it's important to find the humor in both sides of the equation, whether it's the natural birthing or the traditional medical community. Neither of them are painted in a perfect light. It's more the flaws of the people than the sort of establishments that we're exploring. But like I said, it's really much more about creating an authentic, effective backdrop for your story and your world, and it just makes sense that when you are exploring the idea of the uncanny power of the bond between a mother and child in the context of death, within the genre, it only makes sense to build your characters this genuine backdrop, whether it's natural birthing or whatever else we're exploring.
MG: That said, there's this aspect in the backdrop of the movie, especially toward the beginning, of a generation or values conflict between a woman and her parents. What I'm getting from you is that this is done in the service of character development, that this is very much a practical thing; you want to set up conflict in the story. But, I feel that at least on your part there's some level of amusement, that you're having a lot of fun here. Are you amused or angry?
PS: I'm not angry about anything. I'm definitely amused. I find the generational conflict one of the things most easy to relate to and most compelling. We've all had this sort of family dinner-table awkwardness and subtextual digging, all this stuff. That's the stuff that feels real to me, and it doesn't take a big special effects budget to make that work. And when you do finally pay those characters off with the more "genre" beats, if you give a shit about them and understand something about them, it's just much more effective. But absolutely, I find this stuff amusing. Absolutely.
MG: The project was born through a short film that I unfortunately haven't seen. But you explained that the short film is really lacking the social and cerebral element. What gave you the idea to transform what you said was a "gut punch" movie into something that had this social element.
PS: It actually started as the feature-length script. What happened is that people loved the script. A script speaks for itself in Hollywood; if it's good people will want to buy it or auction it. But letting you direct something if you've only done short films in the past is a much more difficult task. So the short was born of the unwillingness of financiers to let me direct the film. I was taking meetings with other directors that they wanted to bring on and they just weren't going to do a good job. It's not a pride of authorship thing, it's just that these guys were going to make a shit movie. They didn't understand the script and they were going to do it poorly. It's your duty to show a financier that you have the chops to pull this off. You're asking them to give you a million bucks, you'd better show them a reason. So that's where the short came from. The short was a distillation of the key beats of the first act of the feature which was already written into the six-minute pitch film.
MG: To what extent did your experience shopping around this short, showing it to audiences, lead you to change that feature script that you had developed beforehand?
PS: That's a good question. Watching the actor from the short through her process, talking to her and seeing her stuff, was definitely an educational experience about the character. But watching the film with an audience--the short did the rounds of festivals and won some awards, was pretty well received and I got to watch it with a few crowds--I saw what was working and I saw what people were responding to and I saw what I was responding to. And the stuff that I was responding to was the build, the atmosphere. That's what excited me most. My favorite films are Cronenberg movies and Polanski movies, and that's the kind of shit that I want to do. The short certainly confirmed some of those instincts.
MG: I'm asking questions about the social element of this film because for one, the story is very well told, but what's so fascinating about it is exactly what you're fascinated with: this build and how these social elements work into the build. As the story builds, the male characters really come off pretty poorly as people. They're horrible. They're manipulative or weak. Why that decision on your part?
PS: I don't see them as horrible. I see them as weak, certainly, and even castrated. But to me they're sort of tertiary, it's just not their story. It's not something you see explored a lot. It's a very real family dynamic. We like to pretend that it's a patriarchy, and we like to complain about that sometimes. That's the accepted idea about the family dynamic, and that's bullshit a lot of the time. Often there is a very strong female presence in the family that is making the decisions. Period. And to me, exploring that stuff was just a lot of fun. And you can sort of feel it when people are like "uh huh. I know her."
MG: I had the impression watching the movie that Madeline was crazy, had gone to an extreme, but you seemed to have, in your comments, quite a bit of sympathy for her.
PS: Yeah. I definitely have sympathy for her. One decision at a time, I understand why she would make those decisions. This is her child. This woman has been trying to get pregnant for years and years. She's had who knows how many miscarriages, and she's finally pregnant and she loses her child. She's been determined to carry this child to term. She's determined to have a natural birth. She's gonna go through with it. I understand that decision. That's the first unorthodox decision, but I get that. We set this up as the thing she wants most in life and she does it. That's the sort of process I went through to ask myself "well, is this real? Does this feel real?" She doesn't need to be empathetic, she just needs to be sympathetic. You don't need to say "I would do that." But you need to say "I get it."
MG: You dedicated this film to your mother, and in the comments after the film you talked about the very personal experience you had that led to the germination of this project. Is it difficult sometimes for you to divorce this film from an incredibly impacting personal story?
PS: No, not really. It doesn't. I know that my mom has long been at peace with this. Her and I together are at peace with it. It becomes like everything else in life. There is no reason to hog these experiences for ourselves and make them so precious when the energy can be directed toward something that will be of service to people. I very much see my job as helping people have fun. This is a service to folks. This is not a paycheck thing.
Interview by Matthew Grinshpun.