Exposed to the elements

Jeremiah Kipp on bullying, ambiguity, and directing Mike Manning and August Maturo in Slapface

by Jennie Kermode

Bianca D'Ambrosio, August Maturo, Mirabelle Lee and Chiara D'Ambrosio in Slapface
Bianca D'Ambrosio, August Maturo, Mirabelle Lee and Chiara D'Ambrosio in Slapface

Lucas (August Maturo) has lost his parents. He’s being looked after by his older brother Tom (Mike Manning), who is ill-equipped at cope and takes out his own stress by bullying him, so he seeks refuge in the woods, where he befriends a monster. Beautifully shot and beautifully played, Slapface captures the magic of a Spielberg film, only to transform into something emotionally devastating. It screened at Frightfest 2021 and is now getting a release on Shudder, which prompted me to discuss it with director Jeremiah Kipp.

I might not have caught Slapface at Frightfest were it not for the urging of Julie Kauffman, whose documentary The Brilliant Terror explores grassroots filmmaking. She had been really impressed by Jeremiah’s work, so I ask him how he felt about that film.

Jeremiah Kipp
Jeremiah Kipp

“I was really honoured to be a part of that documentary,” he says. “They filmed it a long time ago, it feels like, I mean, it was another life. I was in the middle of making another movie and I spoke to them for 15 minutes, and when I look back at the footage of myself in their documentary, I feel like I'm so caffeinated and so hyper energetic.” He smiles. “But I think that they are wonderful interviewers and extremely thoughtful people. I loved the documentary. I thought it had a lot to say about horror filmmakers and that DIY gorilla filmmaker world, and they were very sensitive to their subjects. The interview subjects were treated with such empathy and such interest and compassion. I thought that they really had a lot to contribute to the conversation, so I'm really grateful for that film.”

I confess that having been signposted to Slapface from there, I expected something very different, and the first thing that struck me about it was how polished it looks.

“I've been fortunate enough to work with that crew for a very long time,” Jeremiah explains. “Dominick Sivilli is a director of photography I’ve worked with for many years, the production designer [Kat VanCleave] was someone who I’d had a long association with, so these are extremely talented artists and we had a long dialogue before this. I think that we all felt like the the world of Slapface should feel grounded and naturalistic, and we should feel the lower income of the family. One of the things I really loved about Spielberg’s E.T. is if you look at the wooden floorboards they’re all scuffed up, and they're living in a world that is grounded in reality, like they're eating Pizza Hut and playing Dungeons and Dragons, and all that feels like stuff that young people were doing in ’81 and ‘82.

“In Slapface, you know, a lot of care was made into how these two brothers were living and what the lower income would look like in their house, so for instance, there were a lot of books around because just because someone doesn't have a lot of money doesn't mean they're not well educated or don’t have a tremendous imagination. The little boy in the film, Lucas, clearly has a very fertile curiosity and desire to know the stuff that is hidden. And his older brother, for all of his dysfunctional problems of being an alcoholic, also has compassion and and in some ways, insight and and genuine love for his brother. So you know that all those human connections were extremely important to us.

Jeremiah Kipp rehearsing with Dan Hedaya
Jeremiah Kipp rehearsing with Dan Hedaya

“The production value elements of it being beautifully shot and beautifully directed and so on were just ways of telling the story. We shot in widescreen not just as a loving homage to John Carpenter, but because I think that people's emotions and feelings and what's inside their hearts and minds are very big and epic. And I wanted the lighting to feel expressionistic and very present. Our emotions are, in many ways, larger than we are. So I didn't want it to feel like that kitchen sink naturalism. I mean, I love Ben Wheatley’s Kill List but, you know, that film is shot handheld and lit in a very particular way. It's almost like as if Ken Loach was making a horror film, when you watch the early Ben Wheatley films, I love those movies very much. But we wanted something that was aesthetically austere and as big, as emotional as the heart of our main character.”

That character’s emotional connection to the world is heavily influenced by his experience of bullying, not least the ‘game’ referenced in the film’s title, whereby, at Tom’s instigation, the brothers take it in turns to hit one another in the face.

“You can imagine that Tom, the older brother, learned that from his father,” says Jeremiah. “You can easily imagine that Tom's father played that game with him. And now Tom is play acting the role of the parent even though he's an older brother, and he's a young man, he has no equipment to really be able to parent with, but he's holding on to this idea of something that his father taught him as a way of connecting with his younger brother. I don't think he thinks of it as child abuse. He thinks of it as a way for them to clear the air between them, with this trauma that's in their past. There's a lot of play acting in the movie, like, Libe Barer, who plays Anna, essentially shows up and tries to move in and take on the role of being the mom. And the monster is often imitating human behaviour, like the monster imitates the slaps from the game of slapface, and when one of the characters raises a gun to the monster, the monster raises up their hands and forms that into a gesture that is like cocking the trigger.”

I love the way that the film pulls back from all that, at intervals, to remind us that Tom is still not much more than a child himself.

August Maturo as Lucas
August Maturo as Lucas

“I must tell you that that was Mike Manning's idea,” says Jeremiah. “Originally it was a father and son story. When we did the short film proof of concept, it was about a father and son after the death of the mother, and Mike Manning was the one who suggested ‘What if he were an older brother?’ And at first I thought it was a really terrible idea. I was very against it. I had a knee jerk reaction, I was reminded of the remake of John Carpenter's The Fog, where all of the characters are replaced by much younger, prettier people. I was like, ‘No, I don't want that. I'm not interested in making a teenybopper movie.’ And he and I talked for an hour and a half, and he really did convince me. He said essentially that if it's the older brother, then strangely, the ghost of the father hangs over everything. And the brother’s trying really hard. It's very interesting to watch someone struggled to be something they're not.

“With a young man, like Tom, there's hope that he could pull it together somehow. Whereas if it were the father, it's like that person would be essentially too far gone. I was fortunate that at the time, I was rereading Mark Twain’s, Huckleberry Finn, which is all about young people being forced into situations where they – not even necessarily that they have to be adult, but they have to make hard adult decisions. I thought, well, by making Tom the older brother, I think he gains in complexity, but I give Mike Manning a lot of credit for that idea. Once I embraced it, I never looked back because it really added layers.”

How did he work with the two lead actors to get that amazing chemistry between them?

A hug between brothers
A hug between brothers

“Well, I mean, they're wonderful actors. August Maturo was somebody that we all wanted to be in the movie, when we were all making our list of the actors that we wanted to cast. The casting director and Mike Manning, who produced the film, and I, all thought of August, and I would have done anything to get him. So fortunately, August really responded to the material, and he felt passionate about making the movie and was enormously helpful in finding ways for us to rehearse. We were very fortunate that a couple days before shooting, we were able to all get together and work through the script with Mike and August, contributing ideas and building relationships between them. And also Lukas Hassel, who played the monster. All of them were there and we did a lot of backstory building and acting games. And we talked a lot about the world that they come from, we talked a lot about their parents. We talked a lot about their relationship. We rehearse the scenes, but we also talked about all the stuff that the characters do not talk about. Because I think that the audience feels the things that are in the space between words, you know, they feel the subtext, and they feel the backstory.

“I should also add that August is a remarkably emotionally available actor. I'm 47, and working with August was like working with a 40 year old. He was a remarkably mature young person, I remember, when I was his age, often feeling like I was 40. And that I'd grown into myself, by the time I made Slapface. And August was just a dear, beautiful friend. He thinks about things in a way that people don't usually think about, like he wrote a poem that he wanted to read to the crew about his experience making the movie. And they all thought he was going to be talking about the movie, but when he read the poem to them at lunch, he was talking about the gradations of light that he was seeing outside and the foliage and the weather and the changing of the leaves, so much elemental nature. And the crew really fell in love with him. After that, they're like, this boy is really magical and special.

Touched by a monster
Touched by a monster

“Mike Manning was a really great listener. He just allowed himself to respond to August and be protective of August and care about him. There was a wonderful moment during the shooting in the middle of a scene where they're confronting each other and Tom hits Lucas in anger. But then like, in the middle of the take, Mike Manning pulled August Maturo into a hug. And it was not something that he anticipated, he just did it. We had an environment on the set that was very open to ideas and open to collaboration, and then allowing for things to happen, because I really believe in the autonomy of actors and the importance of the crew being able to contribute their their thoughts and ideas. All the good ideas rise to the top, and if you're open and listen to them, they can happen. So when Tom pulled Lucas into this hug in the middle of a take I was like ‘Oh my gosh, these guys are so connected.’ And then the hitting and the hugging, which was so connected with both of them, you know, the hitting as being a loving gesture and the hug as being a need to hold on to each other, It felt like they really understood the dynamic of that relationship.”

Going back to August’s reflections on nature, the natural environment is a big part of the film and an important contributor to some of its themes. How did the team choose, and work with, their location?

“Well, we filmed it in upstate New York, in a town called FishKill. And when I wrote the script, I was thinking about New England. I grew up in Rhode Island, which is three hours north of upstate New York. It's very rural and mysterious. We were not far from where the legend of Sleepy Hollow took place. So there is a kind of austere, autumnal quality to New England at that time of year. And I think that fit the sadness of the movie. There's a real sense of when time is passing and time is ageing and time is decaying. That felt like the world of our story where grief hovers over everything. The story of these two young men, like every decision they make is informed by a sense of loss, of radical change, and New England in the fall just felt like the right place for that. But I also wanted to make a film about where I grew up, and it felt very close to the environment of my childhood as a little boy running around the woods.”

Slapface poster
Slapface poster

The film ends with a comment about bullying, so I ask Jeremiah if he would like to elaborate on that.

“I think that no one deserves cruelty, and I think that the abuser is inflicting as much pain on themselves as the abused,” he says. “I hope that this film is empathetic towards all of the participants in abuse, because it is harrowing, and I feel like in many films, they feel like the problem can be easily solved. But bullying and abuse is so often hardwired into feelings of insecurity and of a lack of self worth and self respect from the abuser, and sometimes the abused does not even know that they're being abused. I wanted to address the subject in all of its mystery and all of its complexity. And if the film is able to be a good listener, and empathetic to anybody who's in that situation, then I'm happy. I wouldn't want to trigger anybody who is bullied or abused, but I would hope that the film comes from a place of compassion and understanding.”

We have to end our conversation at that point, but pick up later to touch on one last subject: the ambiguity at the core of the film, and how it was managed during the filmmaking process.

“When we hired our composer Barry Neely, he said that the theme of the movie was uncertainty,” Jeremiah says. “That delighted me, because one of the joys of watching Bernard Rose's 1992 classic Candyman was how long they were able to sustain that sense of not knowing whether Helen was cracking up or if the monster was real. We wanted to sustain that nightmare feeling of no one believing you.

“Ultimately the filmmaker has to know the answer, even if they allow space for the viewer to wonder. We made a choice and stuck with it. What felt important is that Lucas fully believes and commits to his belief in the monster, as did August Maturo in playing the role. He asked me if he should play the role as if Lucas was crazy or sane...and I said to play the reality of the given circumstances. Regardless of what the audience interprets, the consequences of manifesting this creature are tragic and irreversible.”

Slapface is available to watch on Shudder now.

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