Directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel met in seventh grade and shared a love movie making. As a matter of fact, they would lay the groundwork for their filmmaking career the old-fashioned way — Betamax. The duo would harness the power of the handheld Betamax format and begin shooting their own renegade films in backyards all throughout their New Jersey neighborhood.
More then twenty years later, only the format has changed, as these independent filmakers decided to team up to create a unique and powerful film. ‘Deadgirl,’ is best described as a gritty, twisted, yet smart coming-of-age story that follows two teenagers who make a shocking discovery while exploring an abandoned sanatarium. Deep inside a forgotten room of the decaying facility, the pair find a young woman draped in plastic and tied to a gurney. They soon come to realize that this “dead girl” is anything but dead. Their discovery tests the limits of their friendship but also threatens their young lives. Icon Vs. Icon‘s Jason Price was able to catch up with both Sarmiento and Harel to learn about their experience in making the film, the process of bringing an edgy film like this to the masses and what lies in store for them in the not too distant future.
Where did you both grow up?
Marcel Sarmiento: All over, Texas, New Jersey, DC, Boston…
Gadi Harel: Mostly the suburbs of Jersey.
How did the two of you originally meet?
Marcel: 7th grade. I moved to New Jersey and somehow met this weird kid.
Gadi: Junior High. Marcel was one of the first people I knew with a video camera. It was love at first sight.
When did you decide to pursue a career as filmmakers as opposed to going in a different direction?
Marcel: I think we had so much fun making movies with a betamax camera and seeing people’s reactions after the fact that there’s no use in trying to top that experience with anything else.
What were some of your influences, be it a other filmmakers or outside influences?
Marcel: There’s this great Russian animator named Igor Kovalyov that i really like. His short films, especially Hen, His Wife which is just an amazingly ingenious cinematic use of sound and image that really inspired me while we worked on the script. I played it for Gadi and our DP, but really, there’s no connection to what we were doing. It just moved me, in the smallest of moments, and I strive for that. And before I sound too stuffy, I also was really inspired by movies like Over the Edge and Stand by Me. So go figure.
Gadi: I’ve always loved comic books and movies and music, and it’s easy to spot a unique voice in any of these fields when you encounter it. Even in unexpected places. When you see The Road Warrior for the first time, you know you’ve seen something special, that exists on its own terms. Same with Escape from New York. Everyone has their “movie that made me want to make movies” and for me it was probably those two. They weren’t full of crap like so many other things I watched when I was ten.
Can you tell us a little about the process of how you first got involved in the ‘Deadgirl’ project?
Marcel: We were getting frustrated. A bunch of projects we’d been working on seemed to be going nowhere, as we waited for other people to decide their fates. We decided we were going to find something and just do it ourselves. And Gadi suggested we go to Trent’s house.
Gadi: Trent had been a great friend for a while, and when I moved to Los Angeles I’d go over to his house and he’d just tell me stories. He’s one of the best in-the-room storytellers I’ve ever know. Some were scripts he’d already written and the others were just scraps in a notebook. So one day I brought Marcel.
How did you first happen upon the script and writer Trent Hagga?
Marcel: We knew he was going to give us a few things to read when we left his house. But after giving us a couple of scripts from his shelf, we saw one up on top, “covered in dust” as we say, and we asked to see that one.
Gadi: He didn’t want to waste our time with it. He was convinced that we were never going to do it. Or that we’d screw it up. So he was more than a little reluctant and probably regretted bringing it up.
What was your reaction to the script the first time you read it?
Marcel: We called each other that night after reading it. I think the first thing we asked each other was “Do you think we can really do this?”
Gadi: We knew how risky the material was… but we also knew what a rare opportunity it is to get something this original. It was easy to see why it had been Trent’s favorite.
You co-directed the film. What dynamics were involved in that process?
Marcel: It’s a hard question to answer and it’s one we get asked all the time. There’s this perception of the solo director as king, and everyone can’t understand how two people can share the throne. All I can say is, if you’ve made a movie, you realize there are a few core people who really make the movie together, who are in tune with each other and the material and when it works, that core becomes ‘one’ and something beautiful happens. Gadi and I had a pretty clear vision seeing the same movie. And really, on our budget and time frame, it was the only way to make it happen.
Gadi: Also the first movies we made together were when we were thirteen, so it’s been a long collaboration. That helps.
Was it difficult to get a film like ‘Deadgirl’ financed due to the fact that it contains content that some might find shocking?
Marcel: Surprisingly less so then others. The fact that the movie was «out there» made it frankly easier to get funded. People either got it, or they didn’t, but mostly, our investors got that this movie could get noticed. In the end, they understood from a financial position, a film that can get noticed has a better chance to earn a return then one that may not. I’d like to think we also had something to do with it too. I think they trusted us to make something that rose above the basic perception of the material.
‘Deadgirl’ is equal parts “coming-of-age” film and horror film. What are some of the movies that inspired this mix?
Marcel: Mostly the movies we leaned towards were of the coming-of-age camp. Movies like Over the Edge, Stand by Me, The Outsiders and River’s Edge. The script delivered the other disturbing element in spades, so it felt more important to spend our time thinking about the characters and their world.
Gadi: When Blue Velvet came out it felt so original because it took a story that captured small town life and characters that seemed almost stock, and then injected it with this completely surreal and horrific element that went way beyond anything you expected. David Lynch and Cronenberg do that sort of thing brilliantly. We always wanted something that had that sort of mix, that maybe felt more horrific because it wasn’t coming in the form of a horror movie.
The film is truly a great ride and you made it look easy. How easy was it to for you to successfully blend the elements of the story without going to far in any one direction?
Marcel: There was a lot of trial and error. We knew the tone we wanted but it was absolutely a balancing act. Which is why it took us almost a year to finish the movie once principal photography wrapped. Throughout the year we also did a lot of test screenings. One of the most important things was making sure that while the story was disturbing that the movie was never hard to watch, never pushed you to look away.
Gadi: Bingo. To make something that was unsettling but also compelling took a long time to finesse. Ironically, after all that, we still get accused by detractors of making something with no other intention than just to shock and disgust. If only these people knew how far off from our goal that is. And the truth is, we get accused of going too far just as often as we get called pussies for not going far enough. What can you do.
You assembled a very talented cast. What was the casting process like for the film and was it difficult to find the right mix of people to achieve the end product that you were aiming for?
Marcel: We got lucky. A lot of people wouldn’t read for us because of how they perceived the material. The actors who showed up really got it, and were committed. In many ways, I’d rather have it this way.
Gadi: It’s true. Nobody was there for the paycheck. The people that showed up begged us to do it. Seriously.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the “dead girl” herself. How difficult was it to find someone willing to tackle this role and what can you tell us about Jenny Spain and what she brought to the film?
Marcel: We started off thinking we might be sunk. You can imagine who showed up at our casting calls willing to play this part. Nobody we wanted, let alone anyone we’d want to be stuck with working intimately for twenty days. No offense to anyone, but Jenny was a real pro who understood the role and all of its subtleties, and it had nothing to do with being naked.
Gadi: Yeah it was almost impossible to cast. Trying to find someone who could play such a vulnerable, challenging and uncompromising part… there’s no movie without the dead girl but for a long time there was a lot of fear about finding the right actor. To say we got lucky with Jenny would be a massive understatement. But it’s true. Even people who hate the movie spend a lot of time praising her performance.
The film has been making the rounds at many film festivals and is generating quite a buzz. How has the overall process of presenting the film to the masses been for you, be it fans of the genre and the critics?
Marcel: Some of the best moments are from people who hate the film because they express that hatred at such great length and with such passion. You know you’ve got something when both sides take their time making their case.
Gadi: It’s been amazing. The audience – whether genre fans, cinephiles, regular movie going couples on a Friday night, critics, whomever – have been passionately divided from Day One. And it’s impossible to know ahead of time which side of the debate anyone’s going to fall on. You see a couple leaving the screening and the guy will be looking down, unable to look at us. And the girl will smile and say how much she liked it. You never know. Which makes every screening fun to watch.
Dark Sky Films will be presenting the midnight road show for the film, which must be very exciting for you guys. For those who aren’t yet familiar with the film or on the fence about heading out to a screening, what would you say to sway the into coming out and experiencing this unique film?
Marcel: The greatest compliment we get after a screening is from people who come up and say “It’s not the movie I thought it was going to be.” People who were dragged to see it by their friends because they “don’t like that kind of movie.” Then they see what kind of movie it is, and it’s not what they expected. And you can see how excited they were by it.
Gadi: Exactly. The biggest supporters at a recent screening were a mother and her teenage daughter. We understand the film has a reputation and we know how vile the simple description sounds, but the person that is open to what the movie actually is as opposed to what they thought it was going to be is usually the person who responds the strongest. But the flip side of being pleasantly surprised is being disappointed. People who go into it wanting some extreme exercise in brutality might actually be bored.
What can we expect from the DVD release of ‘Deadgirl’ in the way of extras?
Marcel: We have a commentary that includes us, the actors, the writer, the director of photography, the music composer and our editor/sound designer. It sounds like a lot for a single track but it works surprisingly well and as far as independent film commentaries go we think it tells a pretty honest story about the ups and downs of this kind of filmmaking. It’s a warts-and-all conversation with hopefully very little bullshit.
Gadi: There’s also a making-of featurette, trailer, and a fun behind-the-scenes photo gallery focusing on the make-up effects.
Looking back on making the film, what are your fondest memories of it?
Marcel: Working with my fiancee (soon to be wife). I fell in love with her over coffee trying to see if she might be willing to play a part. She ended up making the whole experience so much richer for being able to share the day-to-day grind with someone who was also on set with me start to finish. All the terrible sleepless hard work was just so damn fun having her along for the ride with me.
Gadi: As difficult as a movie like this is to make, the shoot itself ran pretty smoothly. There was very little time but everyone was incredibly dedicated to pulling it off. My favorite memory though was actually the night before our first day. It was really late at night and Marcel and I decided to drive to our first location, just to take one last look at it before the next morning. It was quiet and desolate… the exterior of a junkyard near the LA river. In just a few hours, the trucks would be showing up, and equipment would be unloaded and the production would start. We’d been working on the movie for a long long time before that night, but it had been mostly just the two of us up to that point. But standing on the corner that night we knew how many people out there had their alarm set to 5 a.m., all those people who would be getting up to come make this movie, Deadgirl. There was no stopping it. That was a feeling I won’t ever forget.
You have created a very unique film. As filmmakers how do you feel about the remake trend in Hollywood that we have seen in recent times?
Gadi: Since the financial risks in Hollywood are so massive, the less risk there is, the more likely a movie will be made. And remakes comes with so much built-in awareness, which is attractive — especially horror remakes because it’s considered a cheaper genre to produce. So from a financial stand-point, it makes sense. I get it. I see why this is happening. The real surprise is actually how little effort is put into so many of these. It should be that because you have a built in audience, you can afford to shake things up a little — but mostly the finished product ends up being a glossy, weaker version of the original.
That being said, it was recently announced that you would be directing a re-imagining of the Danish film ‘Murk’ for Gold Circle Films. What can you tell us about what you have in store for us and where are you in the process at this point?
Marcel: Honestly, it’s less a remake then a re-imagining. And only those in Norway will hate us for it.
Gadi: We’re working on our second draft, but they seemed really excited by what we already turned in. The movie is going to be pretty messed up in a completely different way from Deadgirl.
This question may be a little pre-mature considering you will be jumping into ‘Murk’ but will we see you two directing something outside of the horror genre in the near future and what other genre might peak your interest?
Marcel: If anything, it might be more surprising if we make another horror film anytime soon. We didn’t set out to make a horror movie, we just found a story we wanted to explore. It just happened to have a zombie.
Gadi: Exaclty. Even Murk is far from being a horror movie. It’s more of a completely disturbing thriller. There’s a medical angle, a love angle, a high-tech component, too. It will hopefully surprise audiences and even though we’re not aiming to be controversial with this one, someone read it recently and said “You guys are going to piss off a lot of people.”
From the experiences that you have had, what is the best piece of advice that you could give to someone just starting out on a career in the film industry?
Marcel: Don’t listen to anybody. Especially us. Just do whatever you can to get involved. The rest will work itself out.
Gadi: You’re never quite ready to shoot the movie. But it’s important to just start shooting anyway.
Any last words?
Marcel: I dunno. We worked really hard and are very proud of the film. I couldn’t be happier with what’s happening with it today. Hopefully it will be one of those films that finds even more divergent perspective as time passes, too. Who the hell knows. We’ll see!
Gadi: Deadgirl: In select theaters this summer and out on video August 15th, 2009.
Thanks for taking time out to talk to us guys! Deadgirl is an amazing film and we are happy to spread the word about it. Best of luck to you and we will be on the lookout for all of your future projects!
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For more information on Deadgirl, as well as dates and locations for the Deadgirl Midnight Roadshow screenings, visit the official site of the film at www.deadgirlthefilm.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.