PIG director Adam Mason (The Devil's Chair, Broken, Blood River) answers for what he's done in his single shot true-to-life terror opus. Read on as Adam explains his need to pummel audiences senses and push their boundaries with his ultra visceral sensibilities.
Back in April, Twitch/Dread Central/Bloody-Disgusting webcast Adam Mason's PIG. A cinema verite, one take (basically...) horror film, simply about a twisted man in rural area, and some very unlucky victims. Gory. Sadistic. Unflinching. Effective. Judging PIG on it's own merits, which is a snapshot of a day in hell, the project works. Shot quickly, with a "Let's just go do it!" attitude, director Mason and his cast have yielded some fine results. If you have an affinity for the old uber violent grindhouse flicks like They Call Her One Eye, and I Spit On Your Grave, then PIG is for you. If not? Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Outspoken and uncensored, here's Adam Mason.
How long did it take to plan and then how long did it take to shoot?
Pig was essentially born out of a couple of years of extreme anger at getting screwed around by the movie making system out here in LA. I don't suppose people are particularly aware of my other movies - but Pig is my fifth feature as director - and give or take a few great people along the way - my whole career has all been one long barrage of abuse at the hands of a rats army of rather disgusting reprobates (I'm being very polite in my language here). This industry gets away with murder in the way it treats people. From a business perspective (I couldn't have been happier creatively) - Devils Chair, Blood River and now Luster have just been a succession of really miserable, disappointing experiences -- where you're constantly left thinking 'are you kidding me'. And don't get me wrong here - I love what I do, more than anything. I live for making films. But unfortunately the parasites who work at the business end of the film industry take the passion that pours out of creative people - and the exploit it relentlessly. Because it's easy to do I guess. I hear the same old story from everyone I know whose a creative. It's probably mainly to do with how disorganized creative people are (almost by necessity of what they do) - so they are easy prey for the people who want to come in and make a quick buck. Andrew and I have had a similar past five years - not just from the point of view of making four feature films together now, but also our life experiences (we emigrated to LA together in 2007). We're thick as thieves really. I'm an only child but regard Andrew as my brother. I'm godfather to his beautiful new daughter.
Anyway - I digress...
2009 was an awful year for the both of us, however way you want to look at it. Blood River had (and continues to) sit on a shelf somewhere, due to some utterly ridiculous bullshit that I'm not going to go into here. Luster has been nightmarish, from the ludicrous shoot to the torturous post production process (a lot of which were problems of my own making). And to finish everything off - the economy has made everything a thousand times harder. I'm not going to speak for Andrew here - he is more than capable of doing that for himself - but come the middle of last year -- I just felt like I was drowning. I'd been struggling in this business for more than ten years, always just keeping afloat financially. Broken had opened a lot of doors for me - it got me Devils Chair which then premiered in Toronto, but then just sank. Again due to a load of bullshit I can't go into here. And since then everything has been one heartbreaking disappointment after the other. That was followed up by a nightmare experience with Blood River - where I made what I think is the best film of my career - only to watch it get completely sabotaged after we completed it.
And finally then to Luster, which is a story all on its own.
The feeling I had - was that no matter how hard I tried - it was ultimately to no avail. Because making a film - you don't just do it yourself. You can't just do it yourself. It takes teamwork, and when you're doing stuff on such low budgets -- not everyone matches the level of commitment or talent that it takes to do something that is actually good. Consequently over the past few years, I've ended up feeling like I'm banging my head against a wall.
Its frustrating for everyone involved, not just me. When you spend two years of your life making a film like Blood River, and then watch all your hard work get spunked up against a wall - its enough to make you homicidal. And not just for me. It fucks Simons career who I wrote it with. It fucks the three actors, who are all absolutely fantastic. It fucks Stuart the DP who did some incredible work. Martin the composer. Neil the production designer. Those are all people who only worked on the film in the first place because they respected me. They certainly didn't do it for the money, which was awful. Its annoying when you're working for minimum wage - and giving everything you've got, to be treated with such absolute disrespect. With Blood River it was really a worst case scenario. None of us could believe the way it has panned out. I keep telling myself that ultimately that film will find its audience, and in a way it has already started to, thanks to the way it is now available freely on the internet, which is a pretty ironic twist of fate given what happened.
The really annoying thing for me has been that in a lot of ways - Broken has been my most successful film, from the point of view of how it was made and then ultimately released. I started to realize that that had been in a large way due to how simple Broken was, both technically and how I'd kept the number of people involved down to one hands worth... How aside from me - there wasn't really anyone able to make any decisions about how the film got handled. The buck stopped with me ultimately - and that meant that if something went wrong, as it inevitably does with everything in life, the responsibility lay at my feet and my feet only. That was incredibly liberating, and the sense of achievement I got from that has never been matched since.
Until now, with PIG.
My point here is that for the last few years Andrew and I have been saying 'we should just do all this ourselves and fuck everyone else. We don't need them. All the suits do is betray us'. So we thought about that for a while, tried an experimental arthouse project called Retard which was very good, but way too ambitious for the resources we had available (i.e. me and a camera and Andrew). So we abandoned that and went back to the drawing board.
Of the stuff I've done to date, the thing that people always seem to come back to liking the most is the end of the devils chair - The last twelve or so minutes. That gritty, almost documentary style, that ironically is really not very hard to do! The end of devils chair was never really scripted, not in what ended up on screen anyway. It was all improved on the day. We didn't light it. As a result - we managed to get two or three times the amount of coverage in the can that day that we were managing for the rest of the shoot. It was very liberating. And pretty powerful. I kept thinking about that - and how it had been so 'fun' and freeing to do. Simon and I had discussed doing Blood River in that style out in Namibia, but that developed into something more complicated over time.
Things got pretty bad in the second half of last year, and Andrew said once again 'you know we should do something...'. I thought about it and replied something along the lines of -- 'what we should really do is something like the end of devils chair but stretched over a feature'. At the time I was pretty busy trying (and failing) to get Luster wrapped up. So Andrew went off and I didn't hear much from him for a few days. Next thing I know I'm meeting him in a dive bar on sunset, and he's got this notebook with him with a load of mad scribbles in it. He seemed very excited --Over a few beers he outlined what would ultimately become Pig.
He had the character down, the setting.. a few of the other characters (Lorry and Guy were both there as is... Molly Black was another victim back then, but was in there). It was impressive to say the least. I then took it away and thought about it... fleshed it out quite a bit for my own sake as much as anything else. I was concerned that as I'd be DP'ing the movie myself, and the whole thing was to be improv'd - I needed to have a pretty good idea of what I was going to be coming up against lighting and camera wise.
In the mean time we brought Michael Sarna on board to produce the movie with Andrew and I. Michael was an old friend from when I shot second unit on a movie in Romania, some eight years ago now. He had some suggestions for locations and with his help, Andrew found the place we ended up using - a ranch out near Lancaster. While Andrew was taking care of a lot of the technical things we needed for the production and working on his character, I was figuring out how we'd shoot this thing. It suddenly occurred to me that if we attempted to shoot the entire movie in a single, uninterrupted take - not only would that add to the cinema verite style of the piece, it would also simplify things greatly for us.
We knew we had a maximum of four days we could shoot this thing in - and I was worried from the start that if I got into shooting coverage, we'd simply never make it. I'd wanted to do a similar thing on Luster, to keep the style insanely simple -- but as soon as you involve money in the equation, people get too scared to take such a bold approach (mainly cause it fucks you for choices in the edit, should you run into problems anywhere). I figured if I was ever going to attempt something like that - this was the time to do it. I pitched the idea to Andrew and he loved it immediately. From a performance point of view it also really opened everything up - cause the camera was now becoming almost a passive participant in the movie. And that was our goal - to make the viewer feel like a voyeur to what was going on..... I figured it could only help to ramp up the tension...
By this stage, Andrew and I had committed whole heartedly to doing PIG (which wasn't called PIG back then) - which was getting some looks of bemusement from our respective other halves and friends.... When you're down in the dirt, and skint, taking on the responsibility of shooting a movie can seem like a pretty dumb move. Regardless - we pushed ahead and wrote the characters around a bunch of great actors we knew personally, people who'd be up for the challenge and we were pretty certain wouldn't complain at what we knew we'd have to put them through...
And like that - we were off. The next week or so is a bit of a blur. We brought Jason Collins the FX guy on board. I'd been wanting to work with him for years. He's really a genius. He did some great stuff on luster, but I wanted to do something proper with him. He committed 100% to us, which was an amazing attribute to the film.We then hired Ben Foreman - who'd done a couple of days of sound on luster came on board as well. We couldn't have done it without him either. He was my right hand man for the whole shoot. I couldn't speak more highly of him. And that was our crew. I operated the camera and did the lighting. It was like going back to the old days on Broken, only with an even smaller crew. We got the whole production together in a week from scratch, and seven days on from that point - we were surrounded by rattlesnakes and shooting.
What was the most difficult part technically?
Well - doing it in one shot was insanely difficult. We didn't really know that we could pull it off, and just kind of dived into it. We had issues with the camera (we shot it on a 5D mk 2) - and how much we could actually shoot continuously on the memory cards. So that became a major consideration.
We had a lot of parts in the film where we knew we wanted to camera to travel long distances with the character, which was a nightmare to try and figure out - But because there was no money-man asshole involved - these issues and decisions always came down to a discussion between Andrew and myself - No one else. And in that sense it was a real pleasure. It was two mates trying to figure out a bunch of brain teasers for a laugh.
After a while we realized that the one shot thing actually imposed a load of 'rules' that actually really helped us out a great deal. By having a set of restrictions, it gave us a lot of solutions for how we went about mounting each sequence. Gradually as we started to understand the parameters of what we came to call 'The Meth-od', and a really powerful structure developed. In hindsight, it was really important that we were able to introduce some kind of order into what was an insanely chaotic undertaking. It gave us certain limits, and within those limits we were able to stage the madness of PIG.
Then - we just went for it. It was a hellish four days. But out of it came the movie.
Did the performances take a toll on the actors?
Yes. It was insane. I could not begin to tell you the dark place we had to go to make this film. All of us were badly affected by it. I don't really want to talk about it, to be honest, because I think it hit us all in different, very personal ways. But from my perspective, I went into a place I've never been before, and never want to go again. It was like the saying 'if you stare long enough into the abyss, eventually the abyss will stare back at you'... And the abyss definitely starred back.
Physically it was very, very hard - doing these uninterrupted takes felt properly dangerous. The hundred degree heat didn't help. Nor the rattlesnakes which were everywhere and numerous. There was always, at any given time, a huge amount of things that could go wrong. The line seemed to blur a lot of times between reality and fantasy, and during those long takes, frequently the film would seem to take on an insane life of its own.
It probably sounds like sensationalist bullshit - but often times I think all of us there involved got sucked into that world, and more often than not, it would start to feel all to real. It wasn't really scary so much as this genuine feeling of madness. Very powerful. I've never experienced anything like it. From my POV as director, it was an incredible way to work with the actors. Most of the time on movies you are trying to make everything feel as real to life as possible for them. But unfortunately nothing about making a movie ever feels that real. What is real about pretending you're living someone else's life, while 50 bored crew members stand around you eating donuts and looking at their watches? Not much. To my mind the whole process of filming works against getting the best out of the actors. That's why theatre is so much more powerful than film when its done properly. Most actors really struggle with the way you have to cut every two seconds. The technical side of things are always fucking with the performance. The DP is never happy. Sound is never happy. To my mind the only thing that really matters is that I can hear what the actors are saying and that it is in focus. The rest is all just bullshit that annoys the hell out of me.
With PIG we laid all that to rest. PIG was all about the performances, and Andrew Howard was the ringleader. A lot of the time it was just me and Ben, right in the middle of the actors, out in the middle of nowhere. It didn't take much for it to start feeling real, especially with Andrew in his element, doing what he does so well.
How did you rehearse them?
I knew Andrew was going to do his thing. Andrew and I have worked together so many times now that there's an unspoken thing between us now. We're always on the same page before we start. With the other actors though, it was a fine line really. Because you don't want to rehearse people too much with that kind of material. You want their reactions to be as genuine as possible... So it was a balancing act between keeping it as fresh as possible, whilst giving them the security of at least knowing more of less what to expect from each take.
Andrew and I carefully chose all the actors involved - chose people we've been friends with for a few years, because a high level of trust was of paramount importance. There was a huge amount of trust required in making PIG. We tended to walk each day through in the morning before lunch, just blocking the basics of what was going to happen without much detail. We were always battling shadows and reflections with the camera, so more often than not the rehearsals were about technical things. When it came to shooting, sometimes we'd only do one take. If it worked it worked. If it didn't we'd do it again. Often you'd find me and Andrew crowded around a monitor, trying to figure out if we'd got it... was it good enough? Any shadows? It was very liberating. A real process of creating something, albeit something very dark.
The beginning I remember we did quite a few times -- and was very hard and tiring. Once we figured out what worked and what didn't, the technical stuff took a massive back seat, and it was all about the performances, (which I might add, were almost always spot on.)
How scripted was PIG?
It was scripted enough to allow us to prep what we needed to prep for the shoot. Obviously all the FX stuff had to be agreed upon in advance. We had an outline for the whole shoot - a 20 pages treatment, if you like. Not a single line of dialogue was written. Everything was adlibbed on the day. There's some great lines in the film I'd love to take credit for. But truth be known, they are all the actors own. We also had a map drawn of where the man would go over the course of the 90mins - how long he would approximately spend in each location, and more or less what he would do. We knew we had to shoot just under 25 mins a day.
Some sections - like where Daddy and Savannah kill Guy - were completely improvised -- with neither myself nor Guy having any idea of what they would do, beyond a couple of bits (the rocks for example were prepared in advance). Shooting those kind of scenes was very stressful, especially on the actors. They all went through a lot of onscreen abuse. But like I said - it all came down to trust at the end of the day. If we'd used some wet around the ears LA types - it would have been game over before we even started.
Everyone involved was hardcore, and committed as you can get. I take my hat off to everyone involved. It was a lot tougher on the actors than it was on me, and I consider it to be the hardest thing I've ever done.
I think I noticed a couple of shots switching. Like when ...
I'll leave that to you guys to figure out. Once we got the technique down, you simply cannot tell. I've forgotten where the edits are now myself. I can't tell. There's not many of them though - I'll give you that much.
Given it's caustic (to say the least) nature, and the fact there is no real narrative, what was the impetus to make PIG?
I think I answered this in the beginning. I will add though that I feel that horror movies today, especially in America -- have become generic to the point of serving no real purpose. There is so much darkness in real life... that horror feels really old fashioned to me these days, almost like its from a different era. I think that movie goers are so film literate and savvy, that on a subconscious level they can see everything coming from a mile off. Every trick you try and throw at people, they've seen it before. The way films are edited has become ludicrous. Attention spans are down to nothing. An audience can predict the way a scene is going to be cut from their subconscious knowledge of film grammar. If you want to scare people these days you need to think outside of the box. A bit of ominous music isn't really going to cut it anymore.
And it feels to me that no one is going against that really in the US. Its just the same old bullshit. There's a bunch of people in Europe who are doing some brilliant stuff. Michael Haneke for example. Gasper Noe. Brilliant, audacious filmmakers.
With PIG, the one shot thing completely turns all that on its head. As soon as the audience realizes there are no edits - and that what they're watching is not following film convention or traditional narrative AT ALL, - they start to feel as if anything can happen. It makes the material feel dangerous.
And that's all you want out of a horror movie really.