In uncharted territory

Alex Essoe on different kinds of horror and Trim Season

by Paul Risker

Trim Season
Trim Season

Production designer Ariel Vida's sophomore directorial feature, Trim Season, follows a group of young people who isolate themselves on a secluded farm in Northern California, making easy money trimming marijuana. When Emma (Bethlehem Million), Julia (Alex Essoe), and Dusty (Bex Taylor-Klaus), begin to suspect the farm and its matriarch Mona (Jane Badler) are shrouded in dark practices, they realise they might not escape with their lives.

When I connected with Essoe virtually, she was full of enthusiastic energy. The Canadian actress has long been a personal favourite genre performer after first seeing her in Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes. The visceral character she played in Marcus Dunstan's The Neighbour, opposite Josh Stewart, remains one of her most seductive and captivating performances. Together they show her emotional range, moving effortlessly between vulnerability and a cold, distant and rawer presence, that she has built upon throughout her career, that has not lacked a ferocity.

The first time we spoke she was behind the wheel of a car, and this time, she paces on her phone. Her energetic voice is in synergy with someone who never appears to be still. The conversation begins with humorous griping about how technology really hates us, while I indulge her fascination with my regional English accent.

During our conversation, we briefly discuss Trim Season, the film we're supposed to be discussing, but Essoe's enthusiasm for cinema and storytelling, specifically a famous Shakespearean play and her critical thoughts on the commodification of art, brings broader strokes into play.

Paul Risker: You're no stranger to genre cinema, but how would you describe your relationship to not only genre but cinema more broadly?

Alex Essoe: Well, I've always been a cinephile since I was a kid. I would watch every genre and every movie from any era of filmmaking, and that's still my approach to appreciating film. Something that I love about genre films specifically, is the limitless possibilities. There's a lot of art that fits into that category that people might not initially assume.

A play like Macbeth is straight-up horror; it's terrifying. The many different ways the play has been interpreted by different filmmakers over the years is a testament to that, and notably, the most recent version by Joel Coen, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. How interesting to do it in that German, moody, silent-era style. It has that drier presence to it that I'd never thought of for Macbeth, and even Roman Polanski's adaptation, while being faithful to the play, was interesting in how he made Macbeth and Lady Macbeth so young, that makes so much sense. They're young and ambitious, impetuous and impulsive. They don't have the wisdom of age to consider their actions. I feel if they were in their forties or fifties then Macbeth would be like, "Shut your goddamn mouth, I'm not killing anybody. Don't be insane, he's going to die soon anyway." [Laughs] As much of a problematic filmmaker as he is, which I have to acknowledge, it's a great fucking film! We can reconcile that however we need to.

There are lots of things that fit into horror that aren't necessarily obvious - The Silence Of The Lambs is a horror movie and one of my favourites. It has blood and gore, and it has psychopaths. It has all the elements that make a good horror film and what is more of a definitive character in a horror film than Hannibal Lecter? He's a cannibal and one of the most perfect psychopaths ever depicted on film.

PR: While Ted Kotcheff's Wake In Fright is not a traditional horror film, it could be described as a human horror story. This sub-genre about the anxieties of human experience doesn't get enough recognition.

AE: I couldn't agree with you more. What's more horrifying than the heart of man? That's where all these horror stories come from to begin with. There's not a ghost or monster alive that terrifies me more than someone like Hannibal Lecter - someone that conceivably exists in various forms. For anyone who has gotten into true crime, what's more horrific than that?

PR: Seeing footage of the American serial killer Richard Ramirez in court on television, his cold gaze alone was terrifying, and I found it hard to shake that feeling.

AE: Absolutely! The horror of imagination is an interesting theme in films like Skinamarink, which is all about the imagination of a child being afraid at night in the dark. I really appreciated how different that film was in its execution, and how much it evoked those childhood feelings of fear. The human psyche is uncharted territory. We know so little about it, which is why horror, more than any other genre, has no real limitations to it, because it's all a grey area.

PR: Trim Season is a borderline type of film that sits between different genres. How would you describe it?

AE: You're right that Trim Season walks this line between supernatural horror, but it's also very human horror. One of the things that grounds the supernatural elements is the relationships between the characters and the character development itself. Also, the vast diversity of the characters, not just their backgrounds but who they are as people.

I felt so lucky to be with this cast because every actor brought something of themselves that was unique to the table. As a result, you have very different characters. They're not a bunch of tropes or archetypes. They're real people who do or do not care about each other, and it makes the whole thing hit a little harder. There are fun aspects to it certainly, but Ariel wasn't afraid to get really dark and honest about a lot of these things.

I usually hesitate to describe movies this way, but there are some very groundbreaking elements in this film, and it makes me very proud to be a part of it. Especially with Bex's character, they went to a very difficult place, and they did it in service to their art. I always like to say that art should always cost you something, and acting or playing a role should too. You must invest yourself personally, or you're just wasting everyone's time and Bex really put so much of themselves into this, and I think it was extremely brave. They really put everything on the table, and I think audiences are going to respond to them.

Beyond that, there's a true camaraderie that exists between those characters, that's a complicated but relatable dynamic. So, whatever happens to them, you care, and as an audience member I appreciate caring about the characters I'm watching.

PR: You're pitching storytelling, character development and the psychology of the film as being groundbreaking, which is interesting because in cinema, these considerations often are dominated by the obvious technical aspects or reimagining specific tropes and traditions.

AE: It's very easy to gloss over those things. You can still make a successful horror movie without honouring any of those and sometimes that's great. Sometimes you do just want mindless gory fun. But for myself as an actor and as a storyteller, I appreciate it when the director, the filmmaker, has respect for me as an audience member and wants to give me and show me things that I may not have even known I wanted until I see it. I think Ariel executes that well here.

PR: Talking about the psychology of characters, the dinner scene in Trim Season plays differently on repeat viewings. There are little glances and gestures that are so easily missed, whereas second time you begin to see the multiple layers of storytelling. Another reason why films play differently on a repeat viewing is that we're prone to intrusive thoughts and the film stimulates our already active mind.

AE: It's true, and that's why so many movies demand repeat viewings. I've seen The Big Lebowski about 25 times now, and I'll still find a new favourite line or moment: "Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, but at least it's an ethos." [Laughs]. So, it's better than nihilism - it's so funny; it's insane. Those films you can go back to and glean something new from are some of my favourite films.

You're right, specifically about the dinner scene. There are a lot of dynamics and every actor at that table was super tuned in. Part of that was we all really liked and trusted each other and felt we could let our guard down and just get lost in our character, our intentions and objectives. It's nice when you only have to focus on that.

PR: Your point about giving something of yourself as an actor reminds me of when Michael Powell was asked about his obsession with dying for your art in The Red Shoes. He said it was because it's what he would do. Then, there's François Truffaut's question, "Is the cinema more important than life?" It's not something everyone will understand, but for some of us, creative expression or the importance of art, prioritises it in an intimate way.

AE: Even the question is cinema more important than life? Cinema is the representation of life. It's life with all the boring bits cut out. The whole purpose of storytelling is to represent a greater and universal truth that everyone can relate to, even if the movie is not about them. It's not about what you're seeing, it's about what you're feeling. If I'm not feeling anything, my audience isn't going to feel anything and there's nothing that enrages me more in art than mediocrity.

In life, mediocrity is great [laughs]. Please, all I want is a normal, uneventful, quiet life. But in art, mediocrity is absolutely unforgivable. I would rather watch something that's fantastically bad and that's why The Room became popular. It's so bad, it's a mess you have to scrape off the wall, and because of that it's engaging. Regardless of how technically poor it is, you can tell it meant something to Tommy Wiseau. You can tell he's putting whatever it is that's inside of him into that fucking movie.

PR: What are your thoughts on the current commentary that cinema is no longer the dominant art form?

AE: It saddens me that we're in an era in which filmmaking has become commodified, and I've always said this, "You don't make money on art, you make money for art." If art becomes something you want to make money on, then it's immediately corrupted. It can't be honest because you have a bottom line, and you're running it like a business.

I remember Martin Scorsese coming under fire for saying that these superhero blockbuster movies are theme park rides. As if they serve any other purpose, by the way. No one is writing that script thinking, 'Yeah, I'm going to change people's minds about stuff and show them some truth.' That's not what they're for. They're meant to be a fantasy and a release from dreary day-to-day life, and that's fine, that's valid. It doesn't have to be cinema, but one of the things Kevin Feige said was, "Here at Disney, we want to tell stories and break ground, but it is a business - we are running a business." I thought, yeah, you are, and it shows.

Back in the day, artists had patrons who would see their work and want to foster that talent. They'd give them the resources to do that, which was kind of the point and that's why art was so fantastic for such a long time. It got to the point where a movie made a lot of money, as if that's a barometer for quality, and we should use this to make money, but that's really not the point.

Actors used to be buried in pieces because people didn't want them to come back to life. People thought they were sorcerers or something the way they'd embody their characters for the purpose of entertainment. Actors used to have tomatoes thrown at them, they weren't living in mansions, and as a result they were doing it for the purpose of art, not for their own self-aggrandisement.

I think that's why a lot of people are losing faith in Hollywood, of course, but even the venture of filmmaking. They look at these spoilt and coddled celebrities and think, 'Oh, that's all actors.' Most of us are "working Joes." I do not live in a mansion; I rent a room in an apartment, but I don't care. That's not why I'm doing this. I'm doing it because I love to do it and I have something I want to share with people. I want them to feel disturbed or feel comfortable or just feel something. The conflation of art and commerce is one of my favourite subjects - never the twain should meet.

Trim Season opened in US theatres and On Demand, Friday 7th June 2024.

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