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“The Easiest Thing to Get People to Do on Film is the Sexual Stuff”: Scott Cummings on His Sundance Doc Realm of Satan

A pregnant goat sits in a dark barn.Realm of Satan

A decade after Buffalo Juggalos, which explored the Faygo-spattered milieu of the Juggalo subculture in his native Buffalo, N.Y., Scott Cummings returns with a full-length immersion into another misunderstood community, the Church of Satan. Realm of Satan, which premieres Jan. 21 in the NEXT section of the Sundance Film Festival, is a deeply collaborative endeavor that adapts the philosophy and practices of the church into a rigorous yet playful visual approach that also takes liberties with observational form through inspired use of VFX. Cummings, who began work on the film in 2016 and persisted through the pandemic, spoke with Filmmaker earlier this week about his interest in the COS (founded in San Francisco by Anton LaVey in 1966); the ideas that shaped the film; its heady, even hallucinatory mise-en-scene; and the challenges of goat wrangling. 

Filmmaker: I know you have a deep interest in underground permutations of American culture. But how did you find your way into this project? 

Cummings: I was a child of the ‘80s. I knew all about the Church of Satan because of the Satanic Panic, which was going on when I was a kid. It’s just crazy to remember that people were playing New Kids on the Block records backwards and finding satanic messages. “Dungeons & Dragons” was satanic. I watched talk shows, like Montel Williams. There was a circuit of weirdos on talk shows. It had always been a little bit around my life from being a metal kid. Some random kid at my school accused me of selling Satanic Bibles. I didn’t even know what that was. I was sort of Catholic. But of course I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s me!”

After Buffalo Juggalos, I couldn’t think of anybody who really could match the level of cultural cachet that Juggalos had in my mind—somebody else who was going to be so willing to go where I wanted to go, to be provocative or to be down to do something kind of nontraditional and crazy. One day it just popped into my head: I should talk to the Church of Satan. 

I saw that they were headquartered in New York at the time, which they weren’t actually. I just had a kid and I was like, “Oh, great, they’re local. That’ll make it so easy.” But of course not. They’re not local at all. New York is not the main locus of paganism anymore. It used to be. 

Filmmaker: Where is it now? Los Angeles?

Cummings: The Hudson Valley. The Hudson Valley has a long occult history in general, which I didn’t know about until this project. There’s a big-ish scene of them and more and more are relocating there all the time. They embrace the witchiness. There’s a deep, long history of occultism up there, [Aleister] Crowley having been there and witches and Sleepy Hollow and all that stuff. 

Filmmaker: What were the terms of engagement? And did you have that all in mind from the beginning or were you in a process of discovery throughout? 

Cummings: A bit of both. I had things from the initial idea that stayed in the film that were totally scripted. Some of it is discovery. I really immersed myself in Satanism. I made sure I read everything. I know I’m not a representative for Satanism, but I would not be a terrible representative. I was always clear, like, “Hey, this is going to be something very different than what you’ve probably done before.” They’ve done a lot of very standard documentaries, stuff for the History Channel or things like that. They didn’t want to do something like that again. I was proposing something a lot different. That was not about the history of the church or loving or exposing the church. It was more about creating a mystery. The whole idea was that we live in this world where you have nonstop access to all the information you want. Being able to give somebody this experience of mystery is like a gift. It’s much more interesting than revealing. Evoking, not explaining, you know? That really resonated with them. And also the idea that the film was very much an aesthetic object. One of the cardinal rules of Satanism is that you have to present things aesthetically.

Filmmaker: What was your relationship like with the leader of the church, High Priest Peter H. Gilmore?

Cummings: Peter is a big cinephile. I think LaVey was also a big fan. We had pretty immediate common ground. He would suggest things to me that I was into, and vice versa. He would say, “You should watch this Paul Bartel movie, Private Parts.” If you’ve ever seen that fucking insane movie, it’s crazy. It’s about a guy who falls in love with a blow up doll, and he’s a serial killer. There was always a transparency: This isn’t a documentary. This isn’t going to be about LaVey. This isn’t going to be explaining why you’re Satanists or what Satanism is. This is going to be some other kind of experience.

Filmmaker: Were there films you shared with him?

Cummings: Yeah, for sure. He had subtitled this film Hard To Be a Goat. The minute he started saying stuff like that…I mean, he’s an obsessive Ken Russell fan.

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about shaping the conceptual aspects. There’s definitely a vibe out of Austrian non-fiction (or meta-fiction), which also makes sense as your cinematographer Gerald Kerkletz (who also shot Daniel Hoesl and Julia Niemann’s Veni Vidi Vici, also bowing at Sundance) is Austrian.

Cummings: I had met Gerald at Sundance [Cummings was there with his partner Eliza Hittman’s 2013 debut feature It Felt Like Love, which he co-edited] and we became pretty friendly. He had shot another film called Soldier Jane, and we had traveled around a bit together. I’d actually talked to Gerald about shooting Buffalo Juggalos, but it just wasn’t in the cards. It was very tricky to get anybody to be super-interested in funding this wacky movie. I made a lot of inroads there through Gerald, and because of that we did a bunch of post-production there. I think he brought more of that very Austrian severe sensibility to this and pushed me a little in a new direction, even though it’s still kind of in the same vibe [as Juggalos]. It’s hard to explain. It was an interesting match for him because it’s a different sensibility than an Austrian director would have and he has a very different sensibility that an American cinematographer would have. It was this clash of sensibilities. But I also came from a background of experimental film. I’m pretty into more minimalist work. James Benning was one of my mentors; James is also like a guiding light in Austria. So weirdly, he’s my mentor, but he’s also a mentor to the whole country of Austria. After a while, working together, we were so kind of synced up that we didn’t even really have to talk anymore. We were a machine. 

Filmmaker: How would you describe the nature of the collaboration with all the film’s participants? There’s the sense of people performing their lives, so that even washing dishes can be a Satanic ritual. Mundane tasks are presented at the same temperature setting as a Satanic Mass or whatever the moment is. 

Cummings: I’m not prioritizing anything as being more real or fictional or fantastical than anything else. It’s all flattened into the same space.You don’t know what’s real and what’s totally not real. Some things were planned in advance, quite far, but because there are so many people in the film and some of them I didn’t even know before I showed up at their places, generally what would happen was we would talk to them in advance and lay out a process. 

Filmmaker: I’m assuming you used the spaces as they exist. But one takeaway I got was if you need a great production designer you should definitely get a Satanist. The spaces were chock full of mesmerizing stuff.

Cummings: One of the gifts that they always brought was that they have these fantastic spaces. One of the core beliefs of Satanism, which is also part of the film, is this idea of total environment. It’s a magical concept that you build the world that you want to live in, not the world as it exists. You just ignore the rest of the world. You can live in some dumpy town, but you make your house this private palace. This is the world as I want it to be. Which is also how the film functions. This is the environment of the film and it ignores the rest of the world and says the rest of the world is irrelevant to the film. 

Filmmaker: I was fascinated by the use of visual effects in very specific spots. It really elevates the film into its own space and creates these flares of drama or comedy. 

Cummings: For me it was always a little bit of a provocation towards normal nonfiction. [The Satanists] are very much Universal horror monster people. The idea of getting practical effects in a Lon Chaney way fits right in with their aesthetic. When I initially pitched the film—this is so pretentious that I’ll just say it, because it was a good line—I said: “It’s like a documentary by way of Méliès, not Lumière.” It’s pulling on a lot of early cinema magic and the idea that film is magic, and there’s all these different kinds of magic working in the film. One of those magics is visual effects, but there’s also black magic and lesser magic and greater magic and ritual magic and practical stage magic. Also, there’s a layer of the film that is doing normal movie magic things. We used practical and straight CGI. I wanted to embrace cheapo practical effects, then there’s a CGI thing that should not at all happen in a movie like this and should not be in the budget of a film like this. The film just stays magical. I consider it a magical object.

Filmmaker: As with Buffalo Juggalos, there’s a sequence that is sexually graphic. Was access to that tricky at all?

Cummings: Not really. The easiest thing to get people to do on film is the sexual stuff. There’s a certain kind of person that is not shy and actually proud of it. The Church of Satan is a very carnal, sex-positive religion. LaVey was very far ahead of his time. He wasn’t just like “free love.” He was like, basically anyone should just be able to do anything sexual—except children and animals—because he wanted to do it himself, too. It’s appreciated that that’s in the movie. I’m straightforward with them. I sent them Buffalo Juggalos. They’ve all seen it. And I’m straightforward about what all my influences are. I do feel that all film is exploitative, and I embrace that a little bit. There is an exploitation element to it, but I know they like these kinds of films, also. So they know, more or less, what I’m after. No one’s a prude. Sometimes the trickier thing was just getting someone to wash dishes or whatever. 

Filmmaker: What originally led you to the quasi-tableaux format, where you’re sitting back with a stationary camera watching a moment unfold?

Cummings: I think it started because I have that experimental background. James is an influence. That was always a visual style I felt very connected to. I think Gerald elevated it significantly. It’s also a bit of laziness as an editor [laughs]. I’m lying. Almost every shot has, like, five edits that you just don’t see. There’s a lot of editing in the frame. When you ask about the Austrians, they’re masters of that style, so it makes sense that I kind of gravitated to them. 

Filmmaker: It’s such a pleasure to sit with these images, in part because there is so much packed into the frame and the camera is so patient, you can luxuriate in the detail. 

Cummings: I always hated this Hollywood idea of cinematography, where the cinematography has to be perfect but you’re not supposed to notice it. And it’s like, why? That’s so stupid. If you get bored watching what’s happening, you just look around. There’s things to see there beyond the main thing. It’s fine to get bored and look at other things. Satanism itself is not a religion about modesty. It’s about being very out there with it. I’m happy the film also doesn’t take a modest approach to cinematography. It’s like: This is the shot, you’re going to have to look at it. You’re going to get it for a while, too. Also, it makes a weird tension to not cut so much. I mean, I do it a little bit. I like the idea of establishing a precedent and then breaking it.

Filmmaker: The camera is freed up a bit at the end. 

Cummings: It’s on a Steadicam, but there’s very little camera movement. But, yeah, when there is camera movement, it becomes much more important. It becomes about the narrative itself. It opens up another question in the viewer’s mind.

Filmmaker: It’s automatic that the brain will try to piece everything together into a story. “Where is this going?”

Cummings: It was always structured in a way that the first 20 minutes or so, you would feel like it wasn’t going anywhere. Then all of a sudden you realize there is something to follow, and then it becomes something to totally follow. It starts very experimental, very observational, and then it becomes like a documentary and you’re like, “Oh, it’s a documentary.” Then it becomes a road movie, and you figure out “I’m watching a narrative.”

Filmmaker: I can’t let you go without asking about livestock. What was your experience as a goat wrangler?

Cummings: The first thing we shot was the goat being born. First I had to find somebody who was going to let me shoot a goat being born for a Satanic movie. 

Filmmaker: How do you approach someone with that?

Cummings: Sam Fleischer, the filmmaker, knew somebody who knew somebody, and that somebody was this guy, Jeremy Kasten. He’s a filmmaker who made a remake of Wizard of Gore, starring Crispin Glover. He’s the loveliest guy. He was done with living in Hollywood and moved to rural New England and got a farm. He’s kind of an impresario-type character, a bit of a John Waters character. He was like, “Come right up!”

Filmmaker: What were the highlights?

Cummings: It was such a good memory, but it was so horrible. We lived in Jeremy’s barn, in the pen with this goat for five days. None of us knew much about goats giving birth. Jeremy was new to farming. We couldn’t leave because we didn’t know what was going to happen. There’s all this footage of the goat generally going to the bathroom and then one of us snoring in the background. It was crazy. We didn’t think it was going to happen. The last day we were supposed to be there was when it came just out of nowhere. All of a sudden we saw things moving. The main thing was to try to make it look controlled and staged and not like we just caught this thing. We wanted it to look like the goat gave birth for us. We were quite lucky that the goat seemed to be into us. So she kind of figured out what we wanted after awhile, probably because we were moving her around. So she automatically started positioning herself correctly, probably because she wanted us not to touch her. But she did it. It was amazing. It was really hard because it started happening, and we were like, “Oh my God, we have to intervene. Is the baby going to be alive?” For a second we thought it was dead. We were all holding each other back. Then the baby finally took a breath and it was like, holy shit. Like, wow. I still have things that smell bad from that. It was just misery, but it was so great. 

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