INTERVIEW: Jeremiah Kipp, writer / director SLAPFACE (2021)

Trigger warning for bullying and child abuse

After opening to critical acclaim on the festival circuit last year, Jeremiah Kipp’s Slapface has just dropped on Shudder. Here Tim Coleman sits down with the writer / director to talk about bullying, parents and making friends with monsters…

Slapface is based on your 2018 short film of the same name: what was the journey like in adapting this into a feature?

Before we made the short film, the feature length script existed and we went through various producers trying to acquire the financing.  For one reason or another, it didn’t get made.  Movies like Hereditary and The Babadook hadn’t come out yet, which really paved the way for a certain kind of character-driven, performance led horror movie. 

The short film was indeed a proof of concept to garner attention for the feature, but at the time I told myself even if the larger story never gets told at least I was able to share a version of this.  

We played festivals for three years and along the way caught the attention of producers Mike Manning and Joe Benedetto who were seeking a dysfunctional family story within the genre.  Once they signed on, eight months later we were on set making Slapface. It really was a dream come true after years of struggle, but in many ways that’s how most independent films get made… triumphs over inertia fuelled by passion and belief.

The film focuses on the experiences of Lucas (August Maturo), a young boy who is bullied – in one form or another – by numerous other people. How important was it to you to tackle this topic?

By placing child abuse next to a supernatural monster, we wanted to use genre as a way to talk about the abusers and the abused.  Everyone is trying to do their best, but the emotional and physical violence is a product of these characters and their needs. The monster is merely doing a grotesque variation of what she’s learning from the others, just as bullying and abuse are learned behaviours. 

Tom (producer Mike Manning) feels that he is slapping his little brother as a way to connect, and doesn’t read it as sadistic but as an act of parenting.  Moriah (Mirabelle Lee), Lucas’s girlfriend, is part of the trio that bully him while she wants to retain their secret love story on the side, almost as if she’s having an affair.  And when the monster commits acts of violence, it’s an extreme act but done to help the friend she cares for.  

Parental figures play a really interesting role here: as you’ve said Tom beats Lucas in the titular game; their mum has passed away and their dad is absent, with hints that he was dangerous; and Moriah talks about how her mother is volatile and possibly violent. It feels like parental relationships and the domestic space are continually made unsafe in this world.

That’s why I’m always happy when audiences or critics say they are on Team Monster.  As crazy as the relationship is between Lucas and the creature, there’s also something childlike in the hope that the fox and the hound can stay friends even as everything points to them being inaccessible.  

We love the fantastical creatures from films and literature because Frankenstein’s creation and Candyman and Seth Brundle in The Fly all want to be loved. If the parental figures are seen as monstrous in Slapface, one could argue that they are as messy and complicated and confused as we all are, and they express that through chaos: just like what we would perceive a monster does.  I’d argue that Anna (Libe Barer) is trying to be a “good parent” but even she is moving too fast; she just got there and is already moving in like an intruder.

The monster which Lucas encounters in the woods is a witch-like “virago” – a word meaning a domineering, violent woman. It feels like the film is exploring some  subversive ideas here about motherhood being both protective and terrifying?

The monster is referred to as Virago in the newspaper articles that Lucas reads, and in the local folklore.  Certainly there’s a long history of madness and hysteria in Gothic literature that has been assigned to female characters, usually by male authors. Our monster commits acts of violence and is maternal with Lucas, but I never felt like we were judging her character.  I love our witch as much as the other flawed protagonists, and she has her own logic and autonomy: so in the end credits we called her The Monster instead of Virago. 

Maybe I had John Carpenter on the brain referring to the antagonist of Halloween as The Shape, not Michael Myers. I thought of our monster in those elemental terms, as a force of nature. That all said, if audiences started calling her Slapface, I’d be chuffed.

What are your favourite monsters in cinema? Any particular inspirations here for Slapface’s virago?

My favourite monster is John Carpenter’s The Thing – talk about an erratic and unpredictable beast!  Not only can it take on any form, it also hides inside the bodies it steals and tries to remain unseen.  And Bernard Rose’s Candyman is so full of yearning, so loquacious in his ability to express his deep desires, played with such dissipated romanticism by Tony Todd. I also enjoyed the recent sequel, expanding on the mythology in fascinating ways.  Boris Karloff’s brilliant performances in the Universal Frankenstein movies and Doug Jones in Pan’s Labyrinth also come to mind.

For Virago we drew from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but wondered what it might look like if we drew that storybook archetype into a gritty three dimensional reality. By placing that hook nosed wicked witch face atop a seven foot tall hulking creature, it has a bizarre dysmorphic effect.  The actor Lukas Hassel and I did many tests with our costume designer Anna Davis to create that long hooded cloak that seemed to blend in with the bark of trees, making her a witch of the forest. Many departments contributed to our monster, and I loved how sound designer Michael Odmark created a distinctive voice for her combining beasts and insects, raspy older people’s voices and dust settling, wind and creaking ship sounds.  I’m grateful to the collective efforts of our team in bringing the Virago to life.

What’s next for you?

We have a short film called Draw Up and Stare hitting the festival circuit, from a beautiful script by Emily Donahoe with ghosts in it.  We had some great actors to play with: Michael O’Keefe from The Great Santini, one of my favourite theatre actresses Linda Powell and the Academy Award winning Melissa Leo. Such great company to keep.  I’m about to start shooting my next horror feature in two weeks, down in Savannah, Georgia.  It has a monster tied to a specific southern folklore, very different from the Virago Witch.  I am happy that Slapface has found such a supportive home on Shudder, and am excited to be back to work in the genre that has always meant so much to me.

Tim Coleman

Slapface is available now to stream on Shudder.

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