Iain Marcks on Navigating Ambition, Directing Actors and His Short Film, Switched
Imagine you’re neighbors with a film-world colleague. With that unmistakable, breathless post-postproduction glow, he asks you to take a look at his new short film – and while it’s certainly slick, with grist for conversation to spare, there are a few things you can’t help but think could have been done differently. The film is a head-on tackle of an intrinsically repugnant (some would say “problematic”) genre, the rape-revenge picture. It turns tables on audience expectation by pitting a witless pickup artist (Joe Mischo) against a woman he meets at a bar (Kara Elverson) who, duly, kidnaps and ties him up in her apartment – only for a mysterious second woman to take center stage. The film is a harrowing examination of the kind of male anxiety simultaneously dominating contemporary discourse about women and their rights, and yet rarely articulated for what it is. Bathed in lipstick-red giallo lighting, this is Iain Marcks’ Switched.
Marcks is an accomplished film writer, projectionist and DP, recently contributing to American Cinematographer and attending conferences on cinema worldwide. (Of his work for the magazine, Iain told me: “It’s actually pretty eye-opening, having to write a 5,000 word article about a Hollywood blockbuster.”) As a freelance critic approaching Switched as a friend of the filmmaker, my task of sifting through the film led me down a couple interesting blind alleys. How seriously does Iain’s movie take itself? In probing myths about male hegemony – wrapped around an unassuming, botched one-night stand – how true was his aim? Is the film supposed to be sensationalistic, or the opposite? During a refreshingly frank chat in advance of its streaming premiere on Fandor, I tried to take Iain to task without losing our sense of aspiring-filmmaker camaraderie; the results are below.
Along with Iain Marcks’ short film Hum – which Filmmaker covered last year – Switched goes live on Fandor April 8th. Both films will be showing at Videology, in Brooklyn, on Saturday April 4th. (Switched can also be watched here on Twitch for the next six days.)
Filmmaker: So first things first. This is a rape-revenge movie; you’ve said you wanted it to be provocative. For the purposes of making a 15-minute film, are “provocative” and “ambitious” the same thing?
Marcks: Well… provocative is Cronenberg, or Verhoeven – people who know what they’re doing. Verhoeven was a huge influence, a favorite director of mine for years, one of my first favorite filmmakers. So I wanted to try something in that vein, something that might be done specifically in order to not just challenge myself but to challenge the audience. I didn’t wanna make it easy on anybody. I figure if I’m gonna fail, I’m gonna fail in the service of ambition. Now, what’s ambitious is, they always say, write from experience because that’s what’s easy.
Filmmaker: I always thought it was more like, “write from experience because it’ll come naturally, and therefore it’ll be more true.” Which is kind of a dicey proposition.
Marcks: Right. It seemed really cliché to me; I didn’t wanna do that. So I asked, “What do I know the least about?” Now, there’s never been more discussion about violence in cinema, violence pertaining to women, the role of women in cinema – not just behind the camera but what’s happening to them on-camera. Never more than right now. The Bechdel test, everything. People are having conversations about the role of women in the stories being told. Through that, I came across this book from 2013: Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. In order to get my hands on a copy, I had to go up to the New York Public Library performing arts branch and get it out of the reference section, I couldn’t take it out. I spent a couple afternoons there, reading it, getting into it.
Filmmaker: Why is it so hard to get a hold of?
Marcks: It’s a small, academic publisher in Australia. It’s like, $45 for a 200-page book! But it’s excellent, it really is, and it starts off with a definition of rape-revenge within cinema, art history, etc…. and it has what Alex calls “the rape-revenge canon,” films that singlehandedly define the genre within subgenres. World cinema, science fiction, thrillers…
Filmmaker: So rape-revenge is not a genre as designated, but a bunch of movies that fit the bill.
Marcks: Yeah. It’s more of a format you can apply to other genre films.
Filmmaker: One of the interesting things about Switched…. it doesn’t depict the worst of it, for either character.
Marcks: We didn’t have the budget.
Filmmaker: So you wanted to?
Marcks: We thought about it. I think if you’re gonna show that, there has to be a good reason, and I couldn’t come up with one, other than feeding the audience some blood or some violence onscreen. Which is provocative, but the film is about trauma – so it can’t be traumatic as a selling point. It’s more about emotional violence than physical. I didn’t wanna do the fake blood, gore kind of thing. Problematic depictions of sexual violence. I needed to get that across in other ways, too. A lot of this film is about telling stories.
Filmmaker: You wanted to make it provocative by subject matter. And now it’s, what, too provocative? Too out in the open?
Marcks: Well, I made a film that’s maybe over-serious, and my concern has been that there wasn’t anything intrinsically thrilling or exciting about it as a film. By that point we had music, we had the ending with the video camera and the eyeballs, it was meant to evoke some physical violence to match the emotional. It’s one of those things: emotional violence is a downer for audiences, I think, but physical violence is exciting. That’s who the film was made for, but we didn’t have the budget or the time or the wherewithal to really go over the top. We had to “go there” with the gore and the blood, the baroque denouement we ended up with.
Filmmaker: I wouldn’t even call it a plot twist, because it happens halfway through the film. It doesn’t feel like a corrective, it feels like a mood piece.
Marcks: Well, what do you mean, “corrective”?
Filmmaker: Well, you tried making a rape-revenge movie from a female perspective. But as established: it’s not a spoof of a preexisting rape-revenge movie template.
Marcks: No – it’s none of those things. It’s very straightforward. I feel like my films are all trying to experiment with something; the first was all about character, second film was all about technique. This film was more about style and drama. I knew I wanted to do something in a really, really specific, over-the-top, lurid style.
Filmmaker: It has an ’80s feel, for better or for worse. The color palette, the lighting – I don’t know how “retro” you wanted it to be.
Marcks: We had talked a lot about The Warriors, and Andrew Laszlo’s book about shooting on location in New York – the concept of good vs. bad cinematography came up a lot. We also talked about The Conformist, Storaro going for those over-the-top colors, giant washes, not being really specific about it. Like, if a room is gonna be red, just make the whole room fucking blood red. Playing a lot with shadow and shade, especially in the conclusion.
Filmmaker:That’s a scene where I thought, “this would work better in a theater than it’s currently working on my laptop.”
Marcks: I graded it for a theater, too – for a dark room. When I watch the film in a bright room, the scene is actually too dark – that’s where I would have graded it up. Made it brighter.
Filmmaker: Going back to Storaro – believe it or not, I actually can’t take a lot of Bertolucci. I find The Conformist painfully overhyped. The images are incredible, but the screenplay is utterly subservient to the filmmaking, the gearhead kind of stuff you’re talking about – the colors, the tracks, the dollies. Lose Storaro and you’ve lost the film. When you set about making Switched, did you start with technique? Or did you start with the themes and ideas in the script?
Marcks: This is what’s so cool about short films: especially when your resources are really small, y’know, you can focus in on a single idea, in the sense that, if you were doing a feature, you’d have more variables to consider. This one had to be very compact, very basic. I wanted to experiment with drama, having never worked with real dramatic actors before – it was always performers, people who I either cast to type, or people who were very good onstage, or who were very good physical performers, clowns, etc. They didn’t do serious dramatic films and I wanted to work more in that direction, and I thought it would be easier to do. The first rule of filmmaking is, everything has to support the script. No matter what. Everything on the production level had to flow back to the originating idea, and with a short film that’s just much easier to do.
Filmmaker:You told me once you regretted “filling the actors’ heads with nonsense.” What does that actually mean? Overdirecting them?
Marcks: It was all of the things I wanted to see in the actors’ performances – I didn’t really trust them to give that to me of their own abilities. I was very hands-on, I think to the film’s detriment. Do you think it works?
Filmmaker:Well, you have a couple major lines that don’t really land.
Marcks: You can see them thinking, right? I put all these grandiose ideas into their heads and didn’t let them interpret the dialogue naturally. It needed to be more subtle; there’s a lot of subtext, but it doesn’t come through because I interfered too much as a director. I’ll put it like this: instead of holding the map and telling them where to go, I was sitting in the passenger seat with one hand on the wheel – you know what I’m saying? I needed to be the navigator and instead I just interfered with their process. That’s one of the big lessons I learned about actors: they’re there to do a job that I can’t do, and being the control freak that I am, I wanted to be involved in every aspect of the experience. This taught me that I need to let go and trust my actors a lot more next time. Not nonsense from a conceptual standpoint, because what they were going for was legit – they just didn’t need me to get too involved in their process. Which is what I did. For the amount of interference that I caused, they did a really excellent job.
Filmmaker:So how did you decide where you wanted to bury your subtext? It comes to the fore at the end – to say the least.
Marcks: Well, the film is so arch. Something I have to work on for the next one is, it’s chock full of ideas and style but at the same time, how do you keep people from tuning it out? What I was most worried about was doing justice to the material, to the concept, to my actors – while, at the same time, conveying the ideas I wanted to. Later on I had to realize, “Wait a minute – this is a movie. People are supposed to enjoy themselves.”
Filmmaker:It has to be engrossing.
Marcks: There’s a lot of Verhoeven. I like that, with Robocop, he manages to take this intense, hardcore social satire and hide it in a trashy science fiction film. Same with Basic Instinct – very complicated power dynamics, subverted and put into a really trashy thriller. So it’s the exact opposite of what it actually is. He knew what he was doing the whole time – he’s provocative. That’s what I wanted to do, but maybe too late I came to that realization that I didn’t wanna make a “message picture”.
Filmmaker: If you expanded this into a feature – if that’s possible – would you continue to lean heavier on the suggestive, or just make a hideously violent movie?
Marcks: You know, I’m also into Hitchcock. He made “trashy” films too, but they were funny, they were sexy, they were provocative. He had time to do that and I think the feature version of Switched would be more of a comedy, but also bloodier. It’s almost a vigilante film, like a Ms. 45 type movie – maybe not as dark, but Ferrara knows how to thrill his audience, and I like the lengths he goes to to do that. And Verhoeven’s sense of satire – I don’t know if I’d be able to make that happen, but that’s what I would want. Done in the style of exploitation, but there’s always a reason. I felt comfortable saving that approach for another time.
Filmmaker: They make fun of the audience while it’s titilating.
Marcks: Verhoeven’s movies knows there’s an audience watching them – they never titillate just for their own benefit.
Filmmaker: Has anyone been, like, deeply offended by the film? That you’re aware of?
Marcks: Not yet, no – our composer, Martha, likes the film, but she doesn’t like the characters. She thinks they’re both really horrible people.
Filmmaker: I’m inclined to agree.
Marcks: Right – but is that a condemnation of the film itself, though?
Filmmaker: Well, trauma without developed, sympathetic characters kinda just looks like trauma for the sake of provocation. But I thought maybe that was your point – the characters don’t need to be “sympathetic” by virtue of who they are, because it doesn’t matter. It’s a hideous situation.
Marcks: The people who’ve seen it have all had really different opinions and different takes on the subject matter. I’d be more satisfied if someone really hated it than if they just didn’t care. If somebody saw it and the next thought that popped into their mind was, “Where am I gonna eat dinner?” That’s the worst. I’m at the point, now, where I need people to see it in order for the film to be finished.