Stanley Film Festival 2015 Interview: SUN CHOKE Director Ben Cresciman On Loneliness And Isolation In LA

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Stanley Film Festival 2015 Interview: SUN CHOKE Director Ben Cresciman On Loneliness And Isolation In LA
[Photo by Jessica Barnthouse/Wicked Bird Media.]

There isn't a lot more I can say about Sun Choke that I haven't already discussed in my original review here or in the conversation with actresses Barbara Crampton, Sarah Hagan, and Sara Malakul Lane here. I spoke to director Ben Cresciman at the Stanley Film Festival after the world premiere of his new film on what it means to be alone in the crowded promise land of Los Angeles.

ScreenAnarchy: What does SUN CHOKE refer to?

Ben Cresciman: It's a root vegetable. You can't pop a raw sun choke in your mouth and eat it. A sun choke will give you indigestion, but if you don't prep and cook an artichoke when you eat one, you will die. It's a defense mechanism that artichokes evolved. If an animal eats it whole, it chokes on those little furry things around the heart. The idea was something that signifies that which is both good for you, and potentially very, very bad for you.  

Where did the idea for the story come from?

I made a short film in 2011, a largely improvised drama. A week after we finished shooting that, I found out I was admitted into the USC screenwriting MFA program. As soon as I got out of doing that, I was taking meetings but not seeing any action. I thought, "I just gotta do what I did before," which is make a fucking movie. The intention was that "I'm gonna do this, grab a camera, and scrimp together some kind of budget." As far as the story, I had just finished grad school. It feels like going to the moon and you come back, and nobody gives a shit. I was feeling alone, not feeling like anybody in these meetings was hearing anything I was saying, and I felt unable to communicate what was inside me. I think that was where the character Janie came from, someone who had trouble communicating, but had something they needed to say but in no real capacity to say it. The circumstances of her upbringing set that in.

Do you know anyone like that in particular?

It's informed me, the closest personal connection to the character. The idea of feeling out of control and the balance of, do you indulge whatever's inside of you and let that out? Or do you follow the rules that have been put in place for you? I was also raised by a single mother and my dad left before I was born, so that was certainly a big component, this absentee parent thing.

I grew up in a less-affluent part of L.A. called Silver Lake. Now it's hip and safe, but when I grew up there, there was a nice part, but it was dangerous. I went to elementary school there, but I knew a lot of affluent kids whose parents were always off traveling, and were raised by nannies. That to me was always so depressing. Growing up, I was considered disadvantaged because I had a single parent. But no, man, technically, these kids had everything you think they could want growing up, but their parents could fucking care less about them. That kind of abandonment creates real trauma and I wanted to look at that kind of abandonment in the film and see what character would grow out from that, and that was Janie.

That sheds more light on the film, because it's a bit abstract in its motivations. The film reminded me a little of MULHOLLAND DRIVE because the house on the hill and its theme of isolation in the land of sunshine. That seems to be a quintessential L.A. story. Were you influence by David Lynch's work?

Absolutely. Those themes are present in both of my films. (His first feature is called Negative Space.) You don't see the Hollywood sign or the palm trees, it's not about that. There's this sun-bleached, waking nightmare that people are living on a daily basis, where people want something that they don't have or can't have, but they keep going after it. This is the salt lick, this is where people come to pursue their dreams, and it creates a really interesting atmosphere. I don't think it gets touched on a lot in movies, but David Lynch has certainly done it, the Cohen Brothers have. David Lynch was indirecly a big influence on my movie, absolutely.

At USC, one of my advisers and professors was Mary Sweeney, who was a producer and editor on all of David's films --- and also his wife and mother of one of his children. We talked a lot about dream logic, which was a big factor in her work with David. It's also something that I realized that I could employ. Like you said in your review, the film is ambiguous in many ways, it doesn't always move from point A to point B. For me that was by design, because that's the way I dream. I think that's the way a lot of people dream. You're here, and then you're there. Something's happening that has meaning, and you know why it's happening, and then it's gone and you're doing something else. That to me was a really compelling way to look at film.

I'm curious as to what happened in Janie's backstory.

Absolutely. What you get from the film is that the dad's not around, the mother died in childbirth, and she's been raised her whole life by Irma, her caretaker, who is never named in the film. It was important that the character have a name so she could be a real person and not just the caretaker. The way I looked at it, was that the Janie we see by the end of the film is the Janie that always existed. There was once a little Janie, but over the years, Irma's holistic health experiments laquered over, layer by layer, and created this shell around her. When the movie gets into full swing and Janie gets out of the house, it's like an insect molting. First a shoulder, then the skin pops off. By the time we get to the dancing, that's when she's finally shed that shell. This monster of a human being was always there. Irma, as dark as dangerous as she is, was well-intentioned --- this child might otherwise go down a very dark path.  

I think it's safe to assume that the power and position of her absent father kept her out of hospitals and jail.

That comes up. There have been incidences. Irma says, "wouldn't you rather stay here where you're loved? The police will come." There were definitely outbursts and that's why she's kept at home. Ultimately, every human being gets wise at a certain point. You see it in that first scene between the two of them where Irma wants her to color the flowers, but Janie already knows. She's ready to be a person again. But when she goes into town, she's not at all prepared for what it's like. 
Tell me about the casting of SUN CHOKE. How long did it take to find your Janie and Irma?

It was a process. We saw close to a thousand women for Janie. We reached out to some people. Barbara got a hold of the script though her manager, and there was a bit of a courting period. I found out later that Barbara was ready to do it from the start because she loved the script. Barbara was always the spectre that we figured would come to us.

Finding Janie was grueling. But when Sarah Hagan walked in, my first thought was, "that's Millie from Freaks and Geeks!" I was kind of starstruck and didn't fully appreciate what she delivered in that first audition. I thought it was great, but "how did this happen??" Then she came back once more and really blew us away. At that point, it was a no-brainer. Sara Lane was another person we got through casting, and really wanted to do it.

Ultimately, all three of them really connected through the script, and what I was trying to go for. We executed it with very little tough work. Once we connected, I got to be an audience member. It was a really remarkable experience. You make a low-budget movie on a tight schedule, and there's a lot that can go wrong. There's a lot of pressure. Even though it's low-budget, it's not NO money; you're spending other people's money every second to have found this unit. It became like camp. Everyone knew each other after the first few days.  
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Barbara CramptonBen Crescimanpsychological horrorSarah Haganstanley film festivalSun ChokeChristina AmberDerek BevilJim BoevenDramaMysteryThriller

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