TEN: An Interview with Michael J. Epstein and Sophia Cacciola

Ten is the first feature from Boston creative über-couple Michael J. Epstein and Sophia Cacciola. A wild romp that falls between slasher film and spy movie, Ten features a cast that doubles as who’s-who of Boston performance art, haunting lighting, charmingly retro production design and more twists and turns than a gordian knot. I was psyched to sit down with Michael and Sophia to discuss their latest foray into Boston underground film.

There is a pig theme throughout Ten that is at turns hilarious, eerie and degrading – in the best way possible. My first thought was that this was a reflection of the murderer’s view of their victims, but the twists and turns changed my mind on that. I’m curious what your thought process was behind this?

We intentionally wrapped a weird art film with a lot of symbolism in a more familiar and accessible layer. We tried to make sure the film played out as a fun tribute to 70s low-budget film while still being a vehicle for us to explore some slightly deeper themes. Our goal was to set up expectations such that the movie looked like it would be about a murderer, the “Butcher”, dehumanizing and killing the victims, the women or “pigs”. We wanted to play with that slasher trope very early in the film, but the pig imagery is intended to have a dynamic meaning.

Full disclosure here – we’re vegans, so while we did not have a specific animal-rights agenda with the film, it is likely to bleed into anything we think about. Pigs are really interesting to us because of the commonly cited genetic similarity between pigs and humans. Yet, despite such similarity, society gives their lives virtually no value. There are so many colloquialisms and ideas that insinuate that people, and particularly women, are in some way like pigs, in order to degrade or dehumanize them. Many writers have examined the idea that the subjugation and desentientization of animals sets the stage for allowing the same treatment of women, minorities or even sociopolitical enemies.

In part, we wanted to explore what differentiates humans from animals, with particular attention to individual identity, personality and self-awareness. As the characters shed those superficial identity and personality traits, they are reduced to faceless animals. So, it is intended as degrading but with the goal of questioning what it is that makes us anything more while we are alive. In other words, what makes being human less degrading than being a pig?

You chose an all-female cast, which you’ve remarked is intended to represent a different stereotype of women. What was your goal behind this, and what sociological comment were you hoping to make?

First and foremost, we thought it was just interesting that it is virtually impossible to find a film that has a cast of all women. Women carry extra assumptions for viewers, just simply by virtue of being women.

Many of the characters [in Ten] were written to be genderless. If we had replaced half or even three-quarters of the cast with men and ran the same script, the movie could structurally and narratively function just fine. With the exception of one character, there are no direct conversations about men, women’s issues or gender. There is no romance in the story. And in addition to the primary cast being all female, as much of the crew as we could manage was female. Of the 17 cast and crew present with us for principal photography, only 3 were men. We hope to see more mainstream movies have women in roles that aren’t explicitly female roles.

I found the stereotypes you chose fascinating: the renegade, rebelling against everything, including traditional femininity; the religious fanatic, nearly asexual; the real-estate investor, an independent loner; the medium, the classic earth-mother; the actress, a literal embodiment of hysteria; the model, catty and bitchy; the historian, a know-it-all; the doctor, proving herself in a male-dominated field; the coed, a dependent air-head; and the folk singer, artsy and friendly. A lot of these tropes are obvious; some less so. How did you develop them? Was it before or in conjunction with the story? How did you compartmentalize these different aspects of stereotypical womanhood, and how did you decide which ones to combine into characters and which had a life of their own?

There is a tremendous societal focus on women’s appearance and dress. We wanted our exaggerated-stereotype characters to carry baggage for viewers and to be easily differentiable in the context of the movie, both visually and behaviorally.

And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) had a couple of character tropes, the singer and the doctor, that we really wanted to include. After that, we wanted to mix in a couple of traditionally feminine characters, particularly the coed who serves as a classic exploitation ingenue. We wanted a model who is only valued for her appearance and for her to be the first to “break.” We’re also big fans of the film Carrie and loved toying with the idea that anyone could easily adopt a path of religious extremism. To contrast, we also wanted a character equally obsessed with money and status, as well as a character focused on pedantry. The actress is, in some ways, the most complex character in the structure of the movie, as she is actually functioning as an actress within the narrative. Her story is a little bit of a multiple-viewings puzzle that we’ll likely talk about it the DVD commentary.

For the remaining characters, we went through many possibilities, including numerous abandoned ideas. We settled on final choices during casting, adjusting the script to match the strengths of actors.

In the Q&A, you also mentioned that you had initially struggled with the usage of nudity in the film. With nudity so prevalent in horror and exploitation films – both of which Ten has a taste of – what were your initial concerns about using nudity?

We used nudity specifically to convey the shedding of identity and individuality. We do not have any kind of moral opposition to nudity. In fact, the desexualization and destigmatization of nudity is arguably a critical step in our social advancement. Because nudity remains controversial in the U.S., it was important to us that we made choices with inclusion criteria demanding that it would make the film more powerful or meaningful and not just, hey, we can sell more tickets.  We want the film to be considered a positive, feminist film.

I found the parlor-drama-meets-communism-scare plot a clever way to consolidate your sets while still providing high excitement and giving a distinct air of time and place. And it’s certainly not the usual one for indie horror films! How did you decide to move in this direction as opposed to something a little more contemporary?

We’re not huge fans of contemporary genre films. We love 60s-80s schlocky horror, sci-fi and exploitation films, both for the visceral appeal of the content, but also for the lack of rules. While making Ten, we were asked so many times about why we weren’t following some specific rule of writing or production or whatever. We wanted to make a post-exploitation film, informed by the genre’s approaches, plot and character tropes, as well as narrative freedoms, but rooted in more current social attitudes.

We wanted the film structure itself to parallel the exploration of identity within each of the characters. If there is no way an individual can be simply and meaningfully classified or summarized, the film must also not fit into a simple, meaningful genre or narrative box. Someone described it as an avant-mystery and we kind of like the spirit of that description, but our goal was to use genre to take advantage of expectations.

As we all do with independent film, you both carried a lot in the making of this film; it’s very clearly a labor of love. I’m interested in what the most challenging part of juggling the different roles was for each of you?

Sophia: I guess the hardest part is the sheer enormity of getting everything together to make a film – making sure that all of the people, sets and props are ready and in the right places at the right times is no small feat. On set, I was also the only one who knew where anything was, as I had bought and packed everything for the shoot. So, I was constantly running up and down four flights of stairs with random things needed for each scene. It was even my original intention to cook all of the meals on set! I quickly realized that wouldn’t be possible and luckily our cast and crew picked up a lot of work in the kitchen.

Michael: Labor of love, labor of insanity. Who can say? We were involved in virtually everything. We even did a lot of things we had hoped to hire out for, including practically all of the post work, though it often felt like a relief to take on a job I wasn’t originally intending to do. The hardest part for me was really just the physical challenge of working 20-hour days for 8 days in a row during principal photography, and then finding time during the rest of my normal life schedule to do all of the post work. Sound work, which I only took on after the recorded sound had been synced, was many hundreds of hours split across several months. I went to work during the day and then worked on sound until I fell asleep for what seemed like an endless string of days.

Sophia, you managed both direction and performance with Ten, a feat that’s notoriously tricky for directors just starting out. While you shared tasks with Michael, how did this work for you? How did you police yourself and direct your co-performers while trying to stay in character and in the scene?

Sophia:  In the weeks leading up to the shoot, Michael and I had a bunch of individual and group read-throughs with the actors, outlining the characters’ line-by-line motives and intentions. So, by the time we got to the mansion to shoot, the actors had a pretty good idea  of what we expected in terms of performance. When I was on camera, I trusted that Michael and our cinematographer, Kelly Davidson were getting the shots that we had painstakingly planned out. We purposely wrote my part to be relatively small, but to be honest, I would have liked to have been able to devote more mental energy to it!

Both of you had your start in the Boston music scene. Can you give us the quick and dirty on how you made the transition to the indie film scene? What piqued your interest, and how the reception has been?

Writing songs and performing music was our first major creative outlet, and that is actually how we met. A few years ago, we decided it was time to have some music videos for our bands, and at first we worked with other directors and production crews, making two major videos – The Motion Sick – “30 Lives” directed by Neil Forman (2006) and Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling – “Episode 1 – Arrival” directed by Theodore Cormey (2011).  We learned a huge amount by watching how both of these directors worked.  These videos were great successes for us, airing on a lot of TV stations, ending up in several Dance Dance Revolution games, and being recognized in TIME Magazine’s Best of the Year list.

We were very excited about making more videos but recognized that we needed how to make them on a much smaller production scale, which included learning how to do all of the production work ourselves. After several music videos and a few short films for various contests and projects, we decided it was time for us to go full force and make a feature. At first, we definitely leaned on our friends in the music and performance community for support and resources. Since finishing the film, we’ve felt very welcomed into the local film community.

Do you have any advice for independent filmmakers looking to make their first feature?

Michael: Just do it! Seriously. That is the best advice I can give. Don’t wait until you think you know what you’re doing. Don’t wait until you have the right gear. Don’t wait until the moon is aligned in the right sky quadrant with Pluto. Just make your damn movie.

In the months leading up to Ten, all we did was watch other movies and then rewatch them immediately after with commentary. It was an incredibly interesting and informative way to get a sense of what other filmmakers were doing. In particular, I found the commentaries of Lloyd Kaufman, Jim Wynorski and Shane Carruth to be exciting because they were always working with very limited budgets and resources, but managed to do wonderful things. I also read about a dozen books on screenwriting, filmmaking, festivals, marketing and sales.

Sophia: Also, go out and make friends. If you have a network and you can ask for help, it makes everything much more possible. People have been so supportive and excited to help out, even when “helping out” isn’t very glamorous. The arts community in Boston is so strong and connected, and we all love coming together to make art happen. I am forever grateful that I can ask online to borrow something obscure – a Commodore 64 monitor, antique candlesticks or a Frankenstein’s monster mask – and have the items show up at my door in less than 24 hours. In this age of dwindling industry investment, it’s essential to find your friends and co-conspirators.

Your next piece, Magnetic, is in production right now. Can you tell us a little more about it??

We wanted to make something really different from Ten, and we were already excited about doing a sci-fi film, so we wrote a script that we could make without huge resources. Magnetic is a cerebral sci-fi film starring Allix Mortis as the sole cast member. It is based in a world in which a coronal mass ejection is about to strip the Earth of its atmosphere, ending all life. It’s heavily focused on impartial concepts of duality – existence and non-existence, light and darkness, truth and beauty. It’s far more sparse and music-based than Ten, but attempts to blend philosophical ideas with a wrapper plot that’s interesting.

On December 31st, the Earth will be destroyed. Everything you know will become nothing, maybe it already has.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me! Hopefully we’ll get to catch Magnetic at next year’s BUFF.

Mike Snoonian

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since 2009 Mike has written about independent horror, science fiction, cult and thrillers through his own blog All Things Horror along with various other spots on the web. Film Thrills marks his attempt to take things up a notch, expand his viewing and writing horizons and to entertain and engage his audience while doing so. When Mike's not writing or watching movies, you can find him reading to his little girl, or doing science experiments with her, or trying to convince her that the term "chicken butt" comes from people putting chicken nuggets down their underwear. at age five, she's too smart to believe most of what he says.

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