Friday, March 30, 2007

Interview with Director Jimmy Hemphill

In 2006 I saw a spectacular film called Bad Reputation (review) and tried to spread the word on this fantastic indie film! By the end of 2006, I was still so impressed with the film that it ended up on my 10 Best Horror Films of 2006 list.

Filmmaker Jimmy Hemphill has created an engaging, entertaining and intelligent film that works on many different levels. Being a woman, especially one involved in the genre, Bad Reputation spoke to me personally and made me question deeper than I ever had the double standards that exist between females and males. Even for those who don't want to get "deep," it still offers a very entertaining rape-revenge story set in high school.

Hemphill both wrote and directed the film, and since it deals with issues from a woman's perspective, it is amazing how Hemphill "gets it." He is one of my favorite independent filmmakers at the moment, solely based on his work in Bad Reputation, and I hope to see much more of his work. It was a real treat to interview him.

If you can, check out the Bad Reputation screening in New York coming up. Follow the link at the bottom of the page for extra info! I urge everyone to check out this great film - it's definitely worth it!

Fatally Yours: Jimmy, thank you so much for doing this interview! I love Bad Reputation and definitely think you’ve got a great career ahead of you.

Jimmy Hemphill: Thanks so much!

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about Bad Reputation?

I have two lives, as a filmmaker and journalist based in Los Angeles. It’s kind of like the poster for that movie ANGEL—“High school honor student by day, Hollywood hooker by night.” By day I’m a film critic for AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER magazine and the website, and by night I’m an indie horror filmmaker.

BAD REPUTATION is a thriller in the somewhat disreputable but, in my mind anyway, socially complex subgenre of rape-revenge movies. It tells the story of Michelle, a girl who is sexually assaulted and then publicly humiliated at school before turning the tables on her tormentors and killing them off one by one. I wrote the movie after years of trying to get other scripts made and having no luck. I just wanted to do something I could shoot fast and cheap. Of course, the thing went about 500% over budget and took several years to complete, so that shows how much I knew about independent filmmaking going in.

Did you have any directing or writing experience before this film?

Nothing that remotely prepared me for this. I had written some for-hire exploitation stuff, and made shorts in film school, but that was all apprentice work. Six years of film school, first at Columbia College and then at USC, gave me a head start, but from a practical point of view I don’t know if there’s any way to learn how to make a feature without just doing it.

When did you begin shooting the film and how long did it take to complete (including post production)?

I shudder to say that we shot the film in the summer of 2004 and didn’t really finish it until September of 2006. An early version played at film festivals in 2005, but my producer Christopher Landers and I continued working on the movie and fine-tuning it until our September 2006 showing at Shriekfest.

How hard was it to make this film on a low-budget? Can you tell us any problems that the production faced?

There’s one great thing about making a film on a low budget, and that’s that you get to make the movie you want to make. You don’t have the financial risk that exists on a studio film, so you don’t have to make silly compromises to try to soften the characters or pander to the dumbest people in the audience. Everything else about low-budget filmmaking sucks. The hardest thing is that everyone on the movie has to do multiple jobs, and it’s easy to get spread too thin. You can lose perspective on what’s truly important when you’re responsible for both the performances and the catering. You also don’t have money to pay anybody, which is why the film took so long to complete—we were all working on it around day jobs, so it was a very slow process. 

What inspired you to write and direct a rape-revenge tale?

It really started with the impulse to make a movie about this whole mythology of the high school slut that exists in America, which I find very odd—but very fascinating at the same time. As a teenager I never understood the double standard that says a guy isn’t cool if he doesn’t get laid a lot, and a girl isn’t cool if she does. I still don’t understand it, frankly, and even if I wasn’t morally repulsed by the idea of denigrating a woman by calling her a slut, I don’t get why the label generally has nothing to do with how much the target actually sleeps around. In some cases, as you can read about in Emily White’s book FAST GIRLS, girls are actually branded sluts after they’re raped, a horrific idea that was the genesis of BAD REPUTATION.

Why did you decide to set it in high school?

High school is just such an emotional pressure cooker that I figured all the stuff about labeling and gossip would work better there than if the characters were older. Plus there have been so many great rape-revenge movies with adult women—movies like EXTREMITIES, LIPSTICK, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, etc.—that I would have just been repeating what had been done before if I went that way.

This film is very woman-focused. How did you put yourself in a woman’s shoes, so to speak, to know what lead character Michelle would feel?

Part of it comes from research, and part of it comes from just tapping into the feelings Michelle has that are universal—isolation, humiliation, anger, etc. Also, to give credit where credit is due, a lot of the dimension in the role comes from Angelique’s performance. But mostly it’s just that I love women and relate to women and always have. I like writing female characters a lot more than I like writing men, though I’ve never really analyzed why. And maybe it’s better that I don’t.

I noticed that Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws (a seminal book on gender and horror films) appeared in your film. Was this book a big influence on Bad Reputation?

It was the biggest influence, by far. MEN, WOMEN AND CHAINSAWS is one of my two favorite books of film criticism of all time (the other one is Robin Wood’s HOLLYWOOD FROM VIETNAM TO REAGAN), and I think it’s the definitive volume on contemporary horror in general and the role of women in horror in particular. There’s a chapter in that book called GETTING EVEN that focuses on rape-revenge movies, and basically I wrote BAD REPUTATION with the idea that I wanted it to be the kind of movie that would be featured and praised in that chapter! I wrote Dr. Clover a letter and she and her publisher gave me permission to use the book in the film, but I don’t know if she’s seen BAD REPUTATION yet or what she thought of it. Truly, I’m terrified to ask because I would be heartbroken if she hated it.

The actors all do a great job in the film. How did you find them and what was the auditioning process like?

I placed an ad in Backstage West and actors came in and auditioned. If you live in LA and you have a little patience it isn’t too tough to find great actors. I can never understand why so many low-budget horror films have terrible performances given the talent that’s out there. My theory is that maybe it has more to do with bad writing that the actors can’t make realistic than it does with a lack of ability in the cast.

Angelique Hennessey is by far the star of Bad Reputation, though the rest of the cast does a great job as well. How did you two meet and what made you cast her in Michelle’s part?

Angelique auditioned for a different part, one of the bad girls, and she was great. But I kind of had my eye on Kristina Lauren for that part, and I was having a really tough time casting Michelle. Then by chance I was seeing the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake with one of my producers, T.W. Porrill, and we ran into Angelique in line. When we saw her hanging out with her friends and acting naturally we realized that maybe she would make a good Michelle—I had been too closed-minded to think of her that way before because she was so good being a bitch at the audition. We called her in to read for Michelle and she nailed it.

There are some very clever nods to other movies in your film, from teen flick She’s All That to Friday the 13th. What was your intention with referencing these films within your movie?

I think teenagers relate to each other by talking about pop culture, because they don’t have enough life experience to communicate in other ways. This is something I think Cameron Crowe expressed beautifully in that iconic image of John Cusack holding the boom box in SAY ANYTHING: the character didn’t have the vocabulary or maturity to articulate what he was feeling, so he let the song do it for him. In my movie it’s not music but movies and TV that the characters refer to. When Michelle says the line about wanting a condom because she’s a “safety girl,” that’s obviously from PRETTY WOMAN, because I figured that entering this world of sexuality Michelle would imitate what she had seen and heard in popular films on the subject. I also figured when she starts killing people she’d probably just imitate what she’d seen in slasher films—where else is she going to learn how to do it?

What films inspired you to make Bad Reputation?

There were so, so many. This was my first movie, so I was kind of insanely influenced by every film I ever loved. Some of the influences are obvious, like TERROR TRAIN, but I was just as inspired by non-horror teen films and grown-up romantic comedies. The talkiness of the script probably comes from my love of James L. Brooks and Ron Shelton movies—not that I’ll ever write dialogue one-tenth as good as theirs, but I was going for a certain kind of ironic wit in the writing that would be fun for the actors to play. And of course CARRIE and LIPSTICK were massive influences, as was THE ACCUSED in the staging of the gang rape itself.

What is your favorite memory or experience from Bad Reputation?

We shot the last scene of the movie on the last day of shooting, and I had put it off until then because I really wanted the actors to be ready for it. I knew that if Angelique and Danielle Noble couldn’t pull it off, I’d be in big trouble and the movie wouldn’t work. I was also nervous because two other horror filmmakers, Todd Ocvirk and Patrick Gleason, were visiting the set that day and I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of two directors I admire. Anyway, we shot the scene, which is a very emotional one, and when I said cut there was dead silence in the room—everyone was clearly very affected by what Angelique and Danielle had done, and I knew we had a great scene.

Bad Reputation contains some great social commentary. What message (or messages) did you hope to get across to the viewer?

Hopefully the movie operates on multiple levels. If a group of teenagers rent it during a slumber party and just enjoy it as a fun revenge picture, that’s fine with me. But people who want to dissect it the way that I dissect Wes Craven and John Carpenter movies will hopefully see that it’s a movie about sexual double standards, and how in this country we still apply labels to people that have nothing to do with reality and everything to do with fear and prejudice. I have no idea why in this day and age the idea of a sexually liberated woman is still terrifying and dangerous to so many people, but obviously it is—if it wasn’t, criminal defense lawyers wouldn’t be able to use the “she was asking for it” argument so successfully whenever a rape victim has any kind of sexual history.

How do you feel about the recent crop of “torture porn” horror flicks (like Hostel, Live Feed, the Saw series) that focus more on gross-out blood ‘n’ guts than actually being scary?

Well, for me the genre of horror is large enough to include many different types of films with many different purposes and effects. While my favorite movies are the ones that incorporate genuine suspense and psychology, like THE DESCENT, I loved HOSTEL and TURISTAS and thought they were extremely unsettling. In their own way they’re just as substantive as 1970’s landmarks like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which in their day were slammed for being mindlessly sadistic the same way that today’s torture films are. I don’t know that the SAW series—which I love—has any real point beyond just cleverly manipulating the audience, but HOSTEL and TURISTAS definitely tap into our fear that as Americans we are losing ground economically, militarily, and politically in the wake of 9/11 and the problems in Iraq. Unfortunately I do think you’re going to see a lot of filmmakers less intelligent than Eli Roth and John Stockwell ripping those movies off and making films that have no point beyond grossing the audience out, and a little of that goes a long way.

What are your plans for the future? Do you have any other projects in the works?

Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on the BAD REPUTATION DVD and getting ready to go to its European premiere at the Weekend of Fear in Germany. Promoting an independent film is a full time job in and of itself, but I am writing in what little spare time I have and have a few different ideas for what I’d like to do as my next film. One’s a giallo set in the world of sororities that gives me a chance to expand on some of the ideas relating to gender and sex that were raised in BAD REPUTATION, and another’s an action movie that reinvents the buddy cop genre as a romantic comedy—kind of a cross between 48HRS. and ADAM’S RIB. I’ve also got a ghost story that I’ve been tinkering with on and off for what seems like forever. Basically, my hope is to have all three of these scripts cranked out by the time BAD REP comes out on DVD and then make whichever one I can get the backing for.

Bad Reputation has already won awards. What are your plans for it in the future – more festivals, distribution deals, etc?

As I mentioned, we’ll be at the Weekend of Fear in Germany in April, then on May 14 the film will be showing at the Pioneer Theater in New York as part of their Monday horror series. Then I’m hoping we can get a little limited theatrical play in Los Angeles, before Maverick Entertainment releases the film on DVD later this year.

Jimmy, thank you so much for this opportunity to interview you. It’s been a real pleasure! Bad Reputation is on my top 10 list of best films of 2006, so I really look forward to what you do next!

Thanks for the interview! I’m a big fan of your site, so this is a real honor.

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