Interview: Deborah Kampmeier

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I recently got the opportunity to Skype with renowned filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier so I could grill her about her filmmaking inspirations and her views on female directors in the business. We also discuss her first two features Virgin and Hounddog, the controversy and funding that came with them, as well as asking about her brand new film Split.

If you have seen Virgin and Hounddog you’ll know producer, screenwriter, director Kampmeier is not one to shy away from the subject of female empowerment and their representation in society and history. Not to be confused with M. Night Shyamalan’s latest effort of the same name (though it would make an extraordinary mind-fuck double-bill), Kampmeier’s Split is a two-hour outburst of female aggression, shone through a multi-layered narrative that leaves you dizzy. Terms like misogynist, Earth mother, and Goddess freely form part of the characters vocabulary, as they are given moments every now and then to just natter about beliefs and their viewpoints (not too unlike a Richard Linklater script). Masks to alter their personas in an ancient mythical stage show also form a contrasting theme of identity as well as being scattered within the frame.

This is an uneasy landscape from Kampmeier, forcing you into a room amidst a barrage of explicit, penetrating actions, not much subtle about Kampmeier’s writing and directing, at times you feel like part of a cult that holds your eyes open as the women literally bare all and enrage outward with their brutal suffering and repressed anger. As the story goes, with females cutting off chunks to survive, this is exactly what Inanna (Amy Ferguson) is battling with, the needy longing for troubled, neglectful boyfriend Derek, and the accumulative power she must find to break free from such shackles and be liberated at the end. Ferguson’s portrayal of anguish and repression plastered across her face, without words, the actress appears to exude a raw imprint of passion and pain – somehow reflecting our own bewilderment and discomfort as an audience at times. I suspect Kampmeier didn’t want us to luxuriate, though.

Inana At The Gate

Deborah Kampmeier: Are you recording this?

Robin Write: That okay?

DK: Yes that’s fine. I prefer to be recorded than misquoted.

RW: Where in the world do you wish to go that you haven’t already?

DK: Oh lot’s of places. I’ve never been to Greece, and was just talking to a friend saying that I would like to go. Roam around on some far out islands.

RW: That’s where my wife is from actually, from Greece. So, did you have movie star crushes as a girl growing up?

DK: You know, I didn’t really watch movies that much when I was younger. I wouldn’t say I had any crush on movie stars. But I did have a crush on Elvis, that was my big one growing up.

RW: Which film-makers did you admire, aspire to, before you starting making movies yourself? Not necessarily wanted to be like them, perhaps influenced you.

DK: [Krzysztof] Kieślowski had a huge impact on me. The Double Life of Veronique was the first film I saw of his, and that really shook me. That was sort of after I started making films. I saw 400 Blows when I was a teenager, which totally, forgive the pun, blew me away. I realized that’s what a movie is. That’s what movies can make me feel, and understand. Also Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire, and Lars von Tier, Breaking the Waves.

RW: Three Colors trilogy?

DK: Yeah, love all of those. And the Dekalog ten part series he did was very important to me. And Jane Campion always inspired me, with her short films like Peel. And of course The Piano. But before that, An Angel at My Table – that was was very influential.

RW: So your big break was with Virgin, how did you get that movie made?

DK: I had actually been trying to get Hounddog made for about five years at that point. Robin Wright was attached to play Strange Lady. The financing kept falling through at the eleventh hour.  They wanted me to take the rape scene out of the movie.  After the financing fell through for the fifth year in a row, I told Robin that I had another script, which was Virgin, and I wanted to shoot it immediately for fifty thousand dollars.  Robin read the script and said it should be made for ten million. I said I know, but that would take me years to raise and I had to make my first film immediately or I was going to die. She had a week of time available that summer, which gave me five weeks to raise the money.  I did crowdfunding, essentially.  I sent out emails to everyone I knew, contacting friends and family to invest, and I raised forty-five thousand in five weeks. We had three weeks of pre-production and shot it in twenty-one days – it was a real passion project for sure.

RW: So you mentioned Hounddog there, I will touch on what happened in Sundance [Film Festival], but people were trying to get you to take the rape scene out?

DK: I walked away from five million dollars five years in a row. Every time I was told I could have the money, but to take the rape scene out.  I refused to. We finally got the film made with that scene intact, but even that was difficult when all the controversy came out.  Before we headed to Sundance I had to shorten that scene significantly.  Originally it was about 20 seconds that we held on Dakota’s face – it was an unbelievable performance – but we ended up with only about two seconds of that shot still in when all was said and done.

RW: Personally, and I know you lived through that, I felt it was an unnecessary fiasco, the reactions to that, when you look how other films have depicted rape in a far more graphic way. I read about what happened before I saw the film and wrote about it, and did think far too much fuss was made.

DK: It was too bad what happened, it really killed the film. I think if the film came out now it would get a different response than it did back then. It was blown up into something that it wasn’t, so when people saw the film they were maybe disappointed it was not more outrageous. It is a small, quiet film, the controversy and press was too much for the film.

RW: Do you think because it was a small film, and you were relatively unknown, had anything to do with it?

DK: I think it was more that it was Dakota, the all-American girl, and the rape scene got everyone up in arms. At a certain point there were petitions to have me arrested for child pornography, so I took the film down to Wilmington, North Carolina where we shot it, and showed it to the District Attorney. We showed the worst possible cut, the most graphic.  After watching the film, and saying they were not going to prosecute any of the filmmakers, or bring any actions against the film, he thanked me for making it.  He said that they have the real thing happen every day and nobody says boo. But they were getting twenty or more calls a day about my film. Says a lot about our culture.

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RW: So your brand new film Split. Are people getting it mixed up with the James McAvoy thriller?

DK: Yeah, it’s a drag, the timing is bad. Luckily it is not the same story. We had been out on the festival circuit for a couple of years with Split before I realized the other one was coming out. But they are very different films.

RW: So for those that don’t know, what is Split about?

DK: It is the story of a young actress who is cast in an experimental theater project, and in the process of rehearsing and performing this piece she has to confront parts of her psyche that are keeping her trapped in a dysfunctional relationship.  And that occurs, partly, by hearing the stories of the other women in the cast who have suffered abuses and repression in this patriarchal culture we live in. In confronting these women expressing their rage and pain, she his forced to confront her rage and pain.

RW: What are you trying to say with this movie? Where does this story originate from?

DK: It is an ode in a way to my life in the theater, and how my own experiences with acting and art were extremely healing.  It’s about how art can transform our life.  I always say that theater saved my life.  I was able to express pain and rage with clarity and purpose for the first time. As I’m sure can be surmised from the themes in my first two films, I have had a very complicated relationship with my sexuality, and have had to embark on a lot of healing to reclaim it. My path to freeing myself was very connected to my creative life, to the theater, to finding my authentic sexuality and to letting myself express my rage. This was all the fabric the I created SPLit from.

RW: How did you cast Split? Some interesting choices.

DK: I had an amazing casting director, Sig DeMiguel. He loved the script, he and I really dug in. One by one we found each actor – it was a very large cast. Many of the women in the chorus were students of mine or friends of mine. We cast probably half of it through auditions.

RW: What freedom do you have making films at the moment, given that you write, direct, and produce?

DK:  I really do cherish the freedom to stay true to my voice.

RW: It’s a popular subject nowadays, and one I can’t shut up about, but where do you see the climate for women film-makers now compared to, say, five, ten years ago?

DK: I think the really important and big change is the consciousness and awareness around the lack of opportunities for women filmmakers.  People are talking about it, lawsuits have been filed, initiatives have been instituted. I hope we are at a tipping point, but of course we have been here before.  It does seem cyclical.  We talk about it and then it fades away for another decade.  But hopefully the pressure will continue this time around.   The issue is enormous when you look at the fact that the number of women directors has consistently stayed somewhere between four and nine percent. The fact that around ninety-four percent of our stories are being told by men reveals a chronic imbalance. I think, in a way, this is the final frontier for gender equality.  It is our stories that shape our culture, we create the myths we will live by with the stories we tell. When these stories are still primarily told by white men, then that is who is and what is shaping our future.  It feels imperative we break through right now.

RW: Yeah there’s been some great work of late, with Mustang, women collaborating there. Recently saw Divines too, which is excellent.

DK: And we are starting to see these films by women making money, this has been consistent, the past few years. And when all of this is highlighted by some of the amazing women who are insisting on keeping the attention and pressure on – Melissa Silverstein, Women and Hollywood, the Geena Davis Institute, all of the studies by Dr. Stacy Smith – things will inevitably have to change. I am grateful for the work those women and organizations are doing.

RW: What would you tell anyone striving to be a film-maker in your shoes?

DK: Keep listening to your voice, listen to yourself as deeply as you can, and stand by yourself. People will tell you your voice is wrong, because they have been listening to only male voices for so long they can’t hear yours. Stand by your voice anyway.  It is scary to know your voice is different than what is out there. Trust your voice anyway. If you have to whisper, shout, puke it out, you’ve just got to keep putting your voice out there.  And despite the nos, despite the rejections, despite being told your voice is wrong, you still have to speak your truth.  And eventually it will be heard, by someone, and that someone will be grateful because in daring to speak your truth you have spoken their truth as well.  Maybe it’s the first time they have ever heard their truth spoken, maybe it’s the first time they have known that is their truth.  That is a great gift to give.  It’s hard, but it is what the world needs. Your voice.

Split is released in the U.S. on March 21st (online in Canada and UK too).

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