TO MOTHER, WITH LOVE
TO MOTHER, WITH LOVE
Richard Bates, Jr. Talks about the feature adaptation of his short film shocker, EXCISION
By Kier-La Janisse
In July of 2009, Fantasia was proud to present the Canadian Premiere of Richard Bates, Jr.’s Excision. It was his directorial debut, and a shockingly insightful exploration of the lengths we will go to for parental approval – even when those parents are neglectful, self-absorbed and downright emotionally abusive.
Pauline (played by Tessa Ferrer in the short and model AnnaLynne McCord in the feature) is a frumpy, frizzy, acne-scarred teen whose physical carelessness is matched only by her rather striking social ineptitude. Her judgemental mother (Karen Tiegren in the short and a surprisingly affecting Traci Lords in the feature) is a former Cotillion queen who can’t figure out how she got saddled with such an unsightly and graceless creature, a fact she aims to rectify by naming her second daughter Grace. But Grace has cystic fibrosis, and as perfect a child as she is, she’s doomed to die, leaving only – Pauline. This is a fate that mother simply can’t face, and she fawns over Grace like an only child. To her, Pauline is a lost cause. And without the love of her mother, Pauline’s getting more lost by the minute.
After winning nearly 30 awards on the festival circuit with the short film version of Excision, Bates got the opportunity to expand his very personal debut into a feature, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was subsequently picked up by Anchor Bay. The result is a film in that same treasured outsider-girl vein as May and Carrie, with the shock meter turned up to eleven. Emotions and viscera fly freely in a flailing attempt to stitch up old wounds that just get more infected with every well-intentioned prodding. Tampon humor and herpes trauma are part-and-parcel with the protagonist’s delusional obsession with becoming a surgeon through self-education. She’s going to make her mother proud. You’ll see.
Richard Bates, Jr. Spoke to Spectacular Optical about the development of his unusual protagonist from short form to long form, and the exploration of delusion as a coping mechanism.
When did you decide to expand into a feature, was it planned all along?
I planned to make it a feature all along. Despite the success of the short, the feature script was passed on by every studio in Los Angeles considerate enough to give it the time of day.
How would you describe the funding process for the feature? Did the success of the short film open the funding floodgates or was it still a hustle to get the money together?
The financiers of the feature length version are the best group of friends in the world, a bunch of kids from Virginia and New York who put their savings on the line in order to give me a shot at realizing my dream.
What were the benefits of making a feature? What did you see as the limitations of the short that you wanted to revisit or improve upon?
There was a lot more to the characters that had to be left out to make the short work in under 18 minutes. I was able to expand upon a lot of the themes and incorporate more of a sense of humor.
Your feature took a leap in terms of recognizable faces in the cast (John Waters, Marlee Matlin, Traci Lords, Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise). Since Excision was your only short film to this point and is now your first feature, what was it like to be suddenly working with longtime industry vets, was it daunting?
Nope. We all got along great. I cast against type for the most part and we all had a lot of fun with it. I figured, if they were going to take a chance on me I was going to take a chance on them. I got to know their personalities and insecurities very well and rewrote the characters to reflect them. We all put a lot of ourselves into this movie.
The younger sister in the feature is clearly laid out as being more socially adept and integrated than her counterpart in the short film, which emphasizes the distinction between the sisters more. Pauline’s ‘unattractiveness’ is almost absurdly exaggerated as a result. In her dream sequences, she looks like a model – How does this physical transformation fit in with her surgical power fantasy? (considering this is what she does look like with different makeup and hair, and she makes no attempt to look like that in her waking life).
Pauline looks the way she does in the dream sequences because that’s how she sees herself. These delusions cause Pauline to have an almost preternatural sense of self-confidence and result in a lot of audacious behavior her looks-obsessed community can’t rationalize.
Her relationships with her mother and sister were clearly things you strove to develop further from the short, but how would you describe Pauline’s relationship to her father?
Pauline feels very connected with her father. You’ll notice there’s a vast difference between how she acts in response to a scolding from Bob than Phyllis. He’s less critical of his family because he has a life outside them. When he’s home, it’s often about self-preservation. Pauline confuses his apathy towards her for a sense of understanding.
I love that she gets herpes from her dad – a lifelong stigma that is already traumatizing enough without the added incestuous implications (regardless of the context of transmission, this is a sexually transmitted disease and it is looked upon as such by society and the medical profession). How does this incident play into Pauline’s sexuality?
The incident plays into Pauline’s sexuality because, from a very young age, she has a firsthand understanding of the negative repercussions of sexual activity and knows nothing of the joys. So, while she’s fascinated by sex she’s withdrawn from the intimacy of sexual experiences.
Would you describe her sexuality as pathological?
Yes (in her case)… Although I think a lot of mentally stable people have twisted, sexual fantasies.
What kind of research did you do for both the short and the feature regarding the various characters? Are they based on research or on personal experiences of certain behaviour?
All the characters are based on people I know in Northern Virginia (where I grew up) except for Grace. I do not know anyone with cystic fibrosis but I interviewed several patients and read tons of literature on the illness. The characters are based on people close to me. My family, friends, my friends’ families, etc. These people make up a lot of where I grew up, and at Sundance several kids in the audience from Virginia came up to me after the film and said they “knew everyone in the movie.”
Changing one’s hair in films (as in life) is often tied to traumatic events, and obviously Pauline is an extreme person, so when she changes her hair, it’s to go completely bald. And it’s a physical manifestation of her complete delusion and loss of control. Obviously the negative reinforcement she’s been getting from her family has been ongoing since childhood and she’s developed a coping system. So why the accelerated mental snap over the few months – what is it that pushes her right over?
The mental snap was a long time coming and is represented through the increasingly self-congratulatory dream sequences. It’s also about entitlement… she’s convinced herself she can do this thing for so long without actually learning how to do it. She’s very much a product of the time… As far as the head shaving, I look at that as more of a cleansing ritual. Out with the old, in with the new. Preparation for the next great step in her life…
Finally, have there been any negative aspects to the whole process, things you would sidestep if you had to do it again?
I’m proud of the film. Everything I experienced making it was worth it… I think it was Jean-Pierre Melville who said “Your first film must be made with your own blood.” I really took that to heart.
EXCISION screens on Aug 4th at 9:35pm in the Hall Theatre [SOLD OUT]. More info on the film page HERE.