It’s tough to have to try to classify movies these days; there are so many that cross genres, even more than two genres, to tell their stories. As someone who enjoys good stories, this is not a bad thing. But what do you do when so many “horror” movies start becoming available that really don’t seem like horror movies at all?
Is it a budget thing? Tell folks with the money that it’s a horror movie and they’ll throw the cash at a filmmaker because horror movies are quick & easy sales to a built-in audience? I wish I knew, or that someone could explain it better, because I keep running into horror movies that are good movies but just are not horror in the least.
Sun Choke is another one like that. This is a beautifully shot film, with some intense psychological motives in play between the main character Jane and her controlling and manipulating caretaker, Irma, in addition to the object of Jane’s new obsession, Savannah, an innocent woman who happens to find her self caught in a psychological game between Jane and Irma without any clue about what’s going on… until it’s too late.
Writer/Director Ben Cresciman took some time out to chat with me about Sun Choke.
Summer: I’m going to have a hard time describing where this movie’s actually classified, so I will let our guest, writer & director Ben Cresciman, tell that tale. The movie is Sun Choke, it’s described as horror but I personally would classify it more as a psychological drama. Hopefully Ben can clarify a few things, and find out where the story came from because that’s what I’m the most curious about. Welcome to the show Ben!
Ben Cresciman: Thanks so much for having me.
Where would you classify this? This movie’s been making the rounds on the festival circuit, and it’s being classified as horror, but I have a particularly developed taste of horror, and that just doesn’t quite fit into those pegs for me.
Ben Cresciman: For me, I don’t necessarily look at it as any specific genre. I think you could reasonably pin it to horror, or more specifically psychological horror, psychological thriller, or as you said psychological drama. Ultimately for me… I mean, the film started out as a character study about two very lonely women and this kind of bizarre patient-caretaker relationship. And once I realized how twisted that relationship was and where it was heading, for me where the movie lands… ultimately I think it would be fair to call it horror, and it would be fair to call it something else.
Realistically, I think what it is is a horror personality and to me that’s always been the most fascinating… you can take it all the way back to Psycho, Polanski’s Repulsion is a big one for me as well. Films that are really rooted in sort of a fractured self, and that’s a really horrific condition, and I think for that reason it sort of a horrific story… but again I’m not personally all that quick to throw genre labels around.
My feeling about the film is that it came out every bit as beautiful and as disturbing as I’d hoped, and beyond that, what people choose to use as a rubric for understanding it, whether that’s “we’re seeing this as a horror” or “we’re seeing this as a psychological drama”, either way is fine with me.
Summer: Well, I will tell you where I’m coming from with this, when I started watching it — I’m going to try not to delve into any spoilers — in the by-play between patient and caretaker, I thought it was going to end up being a modern thriller twist on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
And the way you shot it is absolutely gorgeous… there are some shots and scenes in here where you’re not sure if what’s happening is a memory of Jane’s — something that’s happening right there that she’s seeing through a distorted perspective because of what’s happened to her, what she’s recovering from — or if it’s just a fragment of a different fracture she’s about to journey into. So it turned from this psychological thriller into this feeling of watching a Jodorowsky film festival after having gone to a Salvador Dali art exhibit.
Ben Cresciman: (laughter)
And the disturbing nature of the relationships that you’ve portrayed here… there’s a powerful depth to some of what’s going on, then it sort of takes this turn, and I’m not really sure where to classify that turn. and maybe that’s what I’m having a problem with. Tell me, if you can, where the shift for you in writing this story happened… what inspired that, why did you change that direction?
Ben Cresciman: A lot of it had to do with — yeah, I wanna try to avoid spoilers here — for me, it was when I realized that the nature of this caretaking process… was not… it’s not even that it’s not wholesome, or properly motivated; I think everybody is doing what they’re doing for what they believe are the right reasons.
Ben Cresciman: But when I realized that these health and well-being treatments could also be control mechanisms or even at the furthest reach, torture… a big moment for me when I was writing one of the yoga scenes, and I was researching yoga poses and found one that… it’s amazing that it’s a standing pose and its really all about balance, and if you’re not focused and balanced, you’re going to fall.
That’s a great starting point, but what happens if it’s no longer about focus, it’s about “you stay in this position”, and you stay in this position. It’s no longer an option, you just have to stay standing on one leg in this contorted yoga position for how ever long… that’s torture. And that was a really fascinating turn for me, that’s when I realized this goes much deeper and much darker than a standard character drama.
Summer: I have to say that the subtle undertone of… I’m gonna say subconscious malice, in the caretaker Irma where she turns what she believes to be “help” into a perceived punishment. There’s a very subtle push-pull there, where she’s using the negative reinforcement of something positive… she’s using something positive to do negative reinforcement for Jane’s behavior, and there’s a very disturbing psychological quality to that that is brilliantly done. Golf claps to both you and Barbara Crampton because that was a joy to behold in a performance.
Ben Cresciman: Thank you so much…
Summer: It seemed to me that the story of Jane becoming obsessed with this new person she sees on the street pulled a lot away from their dynamic, and the abrupt change in the relation between Jane and Irma was… well, I expected that to be the climax, the finale, and having it not be that got me wondering “where is this going? I’m really curious now!”
Ben Cresciman: Part of that was definitely by design. Tracking that relationship all the way to the end and making the whole film about that is definitely a way to go about it, and something that I think would have worked in its own way. But for me it was about the consequences of this relationship too. There’s collateral damage, and Savannah, the woman who Jane becomes obsessed with — played by Sara Malakul Lane — is that collateral damage.
I felt it was important to explore… in the sense that the movie really gets kickstarted when [Jane] first leaves the house. It’s about the collision, the butting up of these two worlds — this isolated hermetically sealed, care-taking environment versus the rest of the world that’s moving at its own pace and not particularly sympathetic to any of Jane’s struggles. And when those two worlds collide it can encourage really fantastic and disastrous results and I thought it was important to track those results.
Summer: Okay when you explain it like that… you’re surprised but not surprised at [Jane’s] reaction to the outside world, and her desire to use that as a way to start her rebellion against Irma… basically the consequences of the type of the controlling she had been subjected to was a natural outgrowth [of that]… her reactions her new break are perfectly understandable reactions to that. So when you explain it like that, a lot more of the second half of the film makes more sense now.
Ben Cresciman: Cool. Well, I try. (laughs)
Summer: Now you’ve gotten a lot of praise and adulation from the film festivals. Is this the culmination, the heading for DVD and VOD and release in select theaters… is there going to be a DVD release that has commentary or extras that go deeper into your process for making this?
Ben Cresciman: I surely hope so! This is essentially 2.5 years in the making. The movie comes out August 2 on VOD, iTunes, and August 5 in theaters in LA, and it’s been 2.5 years from when I first started writing it and I’m hoping that this isn’t specifically the end, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to continue talking with people about the movie and certainly a DVD commentary… as a home video fanatic and a commentary freak myself, that’s something I’d be really psyched to do, just on a personal level.
There’s a lot about the film that I don’t feel needs to be explained but there’s a lot of context from the actual production and what was going in my head, what was going in the actors’ head, that you’re not necessarily getting on the screen, and ultimately that’s the kind of stuff that’s in DVD extras. So I’m definitely hoping that a few months down the road we’ll have a physical release like that and get the chance to dive into the commentary well.
Summer: I would love to hear a commentary track. Some of the visuals, especially where Jane is trying to… it looks like she’s trying to understand her perception of the world around her, where she’s out laying by the pool or observing, trying to figure out what to do with the bird’s nest and the eggs that are in there… there are some shots in there that are just captivatingly beautiful… and a little creator hint on how those were those were conceptualized and shot, for the commentary geek in me, I would love to hear some of that.
Ben Cresciman: Cool, we’ll do like a little exclusive DVD commentary right now! (laughs) The film I knew was always going to operate, at least to some extent, on a dream logic, and that I wanted to stay as close as possible to Janie’s subjective experience of these things that are happening.
So in moments like the bird’s nest, for instance, it came sort of organically… first how does a person see this? “I see bird’s eggs in a nest, what am I thinking about?” Then you put those thoughts in her head and see how it’s different.
Photography is a huge component of the movie as far as setting the tone and creating this subjective world, and part of that was the collaborative process between me and Matthew Rudenberg, our cinematographer — who’s just a brilliant cinematographer and amazing to work with — and we really worked hard to develop a visual vocabulary that we could stick to throughout the film that would toe this line of beauty and repulsion.
And the eggs, without getting into any spoilers, are a great example of that. The way the sort of climax of the little egg thread in the movie, that slow motion shot as the egg comes down, and what happens after, it’s very visceral, it’s disgusting, and yet there’s something remarkable about it.
Another note about that, since we’re doing our commentary session, there’s a closeup in which the egg is falling down past Sarah Hagan’s face, and the it’s a slow motion shot and the camera racks focus from the egg to Sarah’s face, and it’s a flawless focus rack on a terribly difficult bit of timing. You’re tracking an egg falling at normal speed through the air and our first assistant camera, who was pulling focus that day, nailed it in one try, it was amazing.
Summer: Wow, that was a one shot?
Ben Cresciman: We probably took a couple others for safety, but that first take, first focus pull was so perfect, it was a wonder to behold.
Summer: Are you working on anything new or just recovering from all the publicity around this?
Ben Cresciman: A little bit of both. Mostly working on new stuff. The recovery process is ongoing and something we have to work through. Working on two projects, hoping to get them up and running in the next year. Similarly dark thrillers that are founded on really dynamic characters, but that’s really all I can say for now.
Summer: We will keep an eye out for them! Thank you for your time today Ben!
Ben Cresciman: Thank you!
Sun Choke is available and VOD and iTunes on August 2, and in select theaters on August 5.
DIRECTED BY: Ben Cresciman
WRITTEN BY: Ben Cresciman
CAST: Sarah Hagan, Sara Malakul Lane and Barbara Crampton
SYNOPSIS: As Janie recovers from a violent psychotic break, she’s subjected each day to a bizarre holistic health and wellness regimen designed, and enforced, by her lifelong nanny and caretaker. But when she develops an obsession with a stranger, Janie’s buried demons begin to surface.