The Sound Of Fear: A Conversation With Writer-Director Graham Reznick

 

Graham Reznick

Graham Reznick has spent almost two decades perfecting a balance between music and the moving image. In addition to work with films such as the infamous VHS, he found time to expand his career to the music industry. 2018 saw the release of not one, but two well-received records from the filmmaker. Now, he’s bringing an audiophile’s worst nightmare to life in Shudder’s first original short-form series Deadwax. 25YL caught up with the director before the anticipated project’s premiere.

25YL: I watched Lamberto Bava’s Demons recently and its whole concept plays around with movies destroying viewers. We’ve also seen The Ring, which is about a video destroying people. What do you think it is in our culture that seems to drive us towards these stories about art somehow being a danger to us?

Reznick: You know it’s a really interesting thing. I haven’t thought of it as deeply as I might have going into the writing of Deadwax, but it is something that’s always kind of been on my mind—maybe right under the surface. I’ve always loved the idea of things having power whether it’s: an object or piece of art or an idea. One of the big influences on me (on Deadwax) is Kiss Me Deadly, which has the great what’s in the box that’s been referenced in millions of things like Pulp Fiction to whatever else.  If you read the book or delve deeply into the story, it’s plutonium or some radioactive material—but that’s not always presented in the movie. In the movie, it’s presented as a thing people want to experience; they want to experience this thing. The obsession to experience this thing is overpowering because we just have to know. We’re curious by nature; we see a mystery or a mystery box…we just have to know what’s in it.

Humans are driven by a Schrödinger’s cat sort of impulse. We can’t let things be dead and alive at the same time. We have to open the box and see what’s in there. We have to collapse those two states into one. I think one thing that drives my love of different types of storytelling, and different types of music, and different types of art are questions. There’s a Jonathan Lethem article about this that’s just great where he talks about a bunch of different music that he’s loved over the years, and why he’s gravitated toward certain specific things. He gravitates towards artists that ask questions versus making statements; I think that’s a really important distinction. I think you can do both but there’s an approach that falls into one category or another–one category is posturing and the other is being sceptical in a healthy way and just trying to understand the experience. I think for me that’s why I’m drawn to directors like David Lynch and movies like Kiss Me Deadly because they are trying to get your mind working.  So, you’re trying to figure something out, not necessarily something that has an answer; something that allows you to explore and try to unravel a mystery.  I just want to live in that unraveling as much as possible. I think that’s the concept of the hook in storytelling; that’s what drives a lot of storytelling. I think that’s reflected in the idea of objects as having power; we have to understand and we have to know what they are. We have to engage with them in a way that could be dangerous; we have to take that risk. So, for something like Deadwax, my own personal obsessions with music and vinyl collecting. It’s an obsessive type of a hobby, like a lot of hobbies, very dangerous. That became an easy way for me to explore that theme the danger—the mystery.

25YL: There is a very big community of audiophiles that collect records. You have to wonder sometimes…what is that line? When do you go enough is enough? I need one more record, one more special thing? It seems like it’s human nature, isn’t it? Deadwax is touching on that. Human nature it’s not enough I have to have that extra thing.

Reznick: I think that’s one of the things that’s fascinating to me…where do you lose your personal sense of that line? Where do you start prioritizing to put the obsession above your actual humanity? Where does that start to blur? There are some people who are defined by their obsession and there are some people who can find a healthy balance. This show is my exploration of that. It was also an excuse for me to turn my personal obsession into work and justify it for myself.

25YL: Let somebody pay you to indulge…

Reznick: But that’s kind of how it is working as an artist or a creative person, you have to find ways to balance those things. I don’t think there’s a right answer in general, but I think everybody has to find their own right answer or line. It can be healthy to have one particular kind of relationship at one point in your life and it can be very unhealthy to have that same relationship later on. I’m married and I have a child now; I can’t buy records with the volume and frequency that I used to.

Hannah Gross stars as Etta in the Shudder original series Deadwax.

25YL: How did you get involved with Shudder?

Reznick: I’ve had a relationship with some people at Shudder for a few years. Sam Zimmerman—who is one of the curators at Shudder—used to work for Fangoria and he was a fan of my first film, I Can See You and really supportive of that film. When he went to work for Shudder he asked me to come and pitch; I pitched this idea to Owen Shiflett. Owen and I just ended up chatting for awhile about things we liked, one of the things we both mutually liked was Twin Peaks. It was the day before the 2016 election that I went in to pitch to him and we talked a lot about our excitement about the new Twin Peaks. I think the energy over that got the show going because we wanted to do something that we both could get excited about which had some of those themes.

25YL: You have screened Deadwax as a feature-length film and I know Shudder is presenting it as episodes. Was it pitched as a feature-length project? Was it something in development that changed this?

Reznick: No, it was always meant to be short form—but about the size and scope of an indie feature.  The only thing that really made a difference to me between making this and a feature film was that I had to structure the writing so that every 10 to 15 minutes felt like a concise act that could break to credits. Then,  because it’s a show about music and because we have a lot of really interesting people contributing to the soundtrack, we made the credits break for every episode a kind of fun event. You get a 30 second interlude of really interesting music that carries things along. Hopefully, people will watch and enjoy those little credit breaks as just little pauses before the next act.

25YL: We live in a time where binging a product, whether rightly or wrongly, is the thing. Would you be okay with viewers who say I’m gonna take this whole thing on at once or would you rather people really digest an episode and then come back to it?

Reznick: It’s fine to watch it at once.  I assumed for the life of the show it would always be available at once. There was a brief period at the beginning where maybe we weren’t sure of the rollout of the show—maybe it would be once a week, twice a week. We’re gonna release them all at once so anyone could watch all of it right from the beginning. There’s something to be said for the appeal of something with the appeal of Twin Peaks: The Return, where everyone can talk about every episode for a week or two weeks and really pick it over and digest it. The show was designed that way. There are so many mysteries inside of mysteries on that show for everyone to just pour over. This show (Deadwax) has some of those things, but it is much smaller in scope. I think it’s fine to watch the whole thing. I also think because it’s a season of a show not meant to be a final statement on the overall story. It’s meant to be continued; it is one complete arc. There are things woven throughout that may not be clear to the viewer upon first viewing that on second viewing may hold a much deeper resonance. Hopefully after more seasons—if we get to do that—viewers can come back and see things that have wildly new meaning because we have planted seeds in case that happens.

25YL: Going forward…any ideas playing around in your head with the Deadwax universe. Is there a thought towards introducing new stories and new characters? Do you think Etta (Hannah Gross) might go forward and prosper in other inclinations?

Reznick: I don’t want to say to many things about the future for people who haven’t seen the show. I would say that many of the storylines in this first season would continue in some incarnation or another and that would be not necessarily the most obvious ones. There’s room to go in a number of different directions and because this is a show about music and the way that people have relationships to music, we only explored one small sliver of that human experience in this two hours. There’s so much more that could be explored that we just didn’t have the scope to do in a series of this size. If we do go forward, we would be adding in several threads; take a look at a lot of other ways to have relationships and different types of music too.

25YL: You have an incredible musical background. It had to be fun putting together the soundtrack for this.

Reznick: Yeah and it was a dream come true in some ways because I have some relationship to the synth soundtrack, electronic music scene. I did release a couple albums on my own and I have a relationship with Spencer Hickman—who runs Death Waltz—which does vinyl reissues. When we had an idea for the show, it was always part of the concept that there would be a few records in the concept of the show that we would then try to release for real. We’ve done something kind of along those lines, not exactly what we originally conceived of; the soundtrack is essentially that. Then we had the opportunity to ask a number of electronic musicians who I have been obsessed with over the past few years to collaborate and contribute tracks. So, that was kind of a dream come true. I am very, very proud of the roster of music that we’ve compiled. I can’t wait for people to check it out cause it’s some pretty awesome stuff.

25YL: And I think you are issuing it on vinyl?

Reznick: Yes.

25YL: What better way to enjoy a project about a haunted record than to listen to the soundtrack on vinyl. (laughs)

Reznick: Yes and the vinyl will come with a few mysteries of its own that I won’t get into.

25YL: That’s interesting. We’ll have to do another interview about the soundtrack.

Reznick: Of course. Yeah.

25YL: We’ve got to talk about the cast. You’ve got a great cast you’ve assembled for this.

Reznick: Thank you. Yeah, we got very lucky; Hannah Gross had just come off Mindhunter. We had a mutual friend and she was excited to do it. Evan Gamble was on Hap and Leonard, a friend of mine Jim Mickle ran that show. He came very highly Ted Raimi appears on Shudder's original series Deadwax.recommended. Ted Raimi was a complete surprise. I guess he heard about the show though casting breakdown services and just—I don’t know if this is speaking out of turn—but actors love to work. He just came in and auditioned. We were like well yeah, great. He came in and auditioned and he was great. It was 100% not what I had in my head and then completely made me refigure the character on the spot when I saw his performance. Of course, I’m a Twin Peaks fan and a Sam Raimi fan—the first thing we talked about was his role as the heavy metal dude in Twin Peaks. He’s great.

25YL: He really is. For him to call you…

Reznick: Lucky break that we got that.

25YL: You talk about Ted doing something that you weren’t expecting, but it worked. Did you find Hannah or Evan or anyone else working on Deadwax were bringing something different than you had envisioned as a writer?

Reznick: Yes, definitely. I think the biggest success a director can have, from my perspective, in casting is to find actors who don’t just bring your words to life; they give them their own life. Hannah especially. Etta was a hard character to cast and to define in the process of trying to cast because I wanted her to be a cipher—like someone you would see in a classic film noir like Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly—someone who doesn’t have a defined arc or background or objectives other than solving the mystery, finishing the case. The personal things aren’t there. A lot of times in modern storytelling there’s a lot of pressure to give everyone tons and tons stakes; sometimes you want that main character to be a stand-in for the audience. One of the things I love about Twin Peaks is that Cooper’s a fascinating character, but there’s no stakes for him at the outset of Twin Peaks; he’s just an interesting guy. It’s not like he has to solve the Laura Palmer murder mystery so that he can get a promotion or pay for his mom’s funeral— there’s nothing like that. There’s just the detective being the detective and I think one of the fascinating things about The Return is they take that to like an iterative degree. It’s just about the hero and what’s the role of the hero. I wanted Etta to be someone without stakes; I gave her a little bit more human side. I’m not sure if we found the right balance— I wanted that character to be entirely unique in that way. Hannah found this incredible balance between. I gave her Kiss Me Deadly to look at and she does the Mike Hammer-like weird bare her teeth creepy smile perfectly. She found this place for the character that is so far beyond what I initially imagined. I’m saying all these things about what I wanted, but it all came sort of as I was working with her. This character wouldn’t exist without Hannah’s performance.

25YL: A lot of female characters are written as bland or unrealistic. It seems like characters such as Etta are kind of redefining that. Did you consciously say “okay I’ve got to approach this female character a different way”?

Reznick: To some degree… There are a couple of people that I based her on who I admire, that have been friends over the years and I just never see represented in storytelling—female personalities that I’ve known. One thing that I did do which was a choice that probably will work for some people, but not work for others, is that I gave her a girlfriend. The reason that I did that wasn’t to make any sort of statement of sexuality at all.  It was essentially to make it so that when she’s paired up with Perry (Evan Gamble), who’s the police officer, it would not be about their sexual tension. I just didn’t want that to be a part of it because that’s not what the story’s about. It’s very difficult to put a man and a woman who are around the same age and who are both attractive in a car together for two hours and not have the audience be will they or won’t they. It’s the nature of the way we do stories and to take that off the table to a  large degree was really important because I wanted to keep the viewer focused on other things. It just wasn’t what the story was about; in that way I thought about it. She’s just a detective and I just wrote her the way I would write any character. Having had some experience in video games—I worked on a game Until Dawn and a bunch of other games for PlayStation—we had to write many different characters and we had to write men, women, but we were also writing for the player. There was an important thing that I learned; you have to both anticipate what the audience is thinking and you can’t worry about it at the same time. So, I had to kind of let go of many of those things doing the video games.

25YL: From what I know of writers that have worked with video games, that is both a great learning experience and a very different learning experience than crafting a narrative for film or TV. Did it help at all?

Reznick: Yes. There’s a tendency when almost everyone starts out writing—I know certainly for me—to obsess over details and obsess over every choice. When you’re writing a video game, one scene is gonna play out in 50 different ways. So, you just have to explore all 50 of those different things. Don’t worry about which one is best, it’s just about finding the core thing that makes all 50 of those things work. It’s kind of the same with writing traditional narratives, linear narratives. I try to focus on the core ideas versus the surface details and those surface details can always change. The core ideas I feel like are sound, then whatever the dialogue is specifically or whatever the details of the moment are—it doesn’t matter as long as they fall in line with the core theme. Everything will click together.

25YL: Is there anything you want viewers to know about Deadwax before they look at it?

Reznick: Well, I like the idea of going in cold to a thing. I think by nature the premise for this and the way the premise is easily expressed in marketing—it might be easy to go in with the wrong expectations, different expectations. It seems like it’s going to be something like The Ring, but it’s not as much as it seems like it is. It’s more of a noir, in some ways, done as horror—a lot of horror elements in it—probably a little more sci-fi than people realize. It’s about a serious thing, but I wanted to make something that was also very fun. Hopefully people can dig that.

25YL: I think they’ll like it. What’s next for you Graham?

Reznick: Hopefully more of this. Gosh…a couple other things I can’t really talk about.

I did an interactive live action show called Rapid Eye that’s still is in post because the interactive portion is taking a long time—that was a fun experience I did last year with EKO. Hopefully that will come out soon. It’s an older project, but it’s been kind of gestating in post. The DP on that, Scott Ressler, worked on Twin Peaks; he was a second unit photography on that. He shot the drone shot going over the falls, one of the exteriors. That was a really fun project to work on, it was about a sleep study. Hopefully that will come out soon.

If you want to hear more about Graham Reznick’s current projects, check out his website or follow him on Twitter. His debut LP Glass Angles is available on vinyl and cassette.


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