Daniel Stamm is like Christopher Guest but without the laughs.
Both Guest and Stamm traffic in faux documentary features, but Stamm’s films go for the jugular, not the funny bone.
Stamm, who previously gave us “The Last Exorcism,” is back with “A Necessary Death,” a new film about suicide, art and the lengths an artist will go through to start a career. “Death” stars G.J. Echternkamp as a student filmmaker obsessed with capturing a suicidal man’s final days on film.
Big Hollywood reached out to Stamm to get his thoughts on faux documentary filmmaking, the inspiration behind “A Necessary Death” and the enduring power of the DVD.
Big Hollywood: Did you have conflicting feelings about the relationship a filmmaker has with his or her subjects prior to making “A Necessary Death?” Was that part of the creative process that led to the film, or was there something else at work that influenced the subject matter?
Daniel Stamm: I hadn’t really thought about it much prior to making ‘A Necessary Death.’ Except for a 30 minute film on rock musician Nick Cave I had no experience in documentary film making and the dilemmas that come with it. What I was familiar with was the all-consuming drive and ambition me and my fellow film students had. It was almost Shakespearean. It’s your art, your passion, it’s what you live for. But you know you’ll only really be allowed to do it if you can find a way to make a living doing it. So there is always this tormenting question “How will we break into the industry? How will we get Hollywood to take notice of us?” It intrigued me to think about how far we’d hypothetically be willing to go – and how dark things might get down that path.
BH: Did you do specific research on suicides before writing the script for “Death?” Did you emerge from the project changed in any way, or with surprising information on the subject matter?
DS: I did read up on the subject before diving into it for sure. I also consulted with the author of the suicide manual ‘Final Exit’ which is freely available not only as a book but also as a video. Both can be seen in the film. There are a thousand fascinating facts to discover. One that always stuck with me was that the number of people killing themselves in the US equaled one jumbo jet crashing every day. Isn’t that insane to think about?
In the end I always had to remember that, yes, we were following a guy making a documentary on suicide, that’s what his film was about, but ours wasn’t. Ours was about ambition. Not only was it important to me not to have the film contain any kind of pro- or anti-self-deliverance message. I also didn’t want to bog it down by showing off too much of the research we had done. Actual documentaries could probably do a better job at that.
BH: Directing actors in a faux documentary feature requires a different approach, one would imagine, than orchestrating actors in a traditional film. How would you describe the difference between the two?
DS: It’s like cooking and gardening. It requires two completely different skill-sets from the actors. It is one thing to make scripted lines appear fresh, and a different one to actually come up with dialogue in the moment. You use two different parts of your brain. I have met great actors that couldn’t improvise to save their lives, and then there are great improvisers that can’t breath life into a scene on paper for all the tea in China. So it’s important to tailor your auditions around the style you are going for. In this case I had to find people that were smarter and more eloquent than normally necessary because they’d have to function as kind of co-writers on set, creating the story with me as we went along.
BH: Your film deals with very challenging subjects – was that a reason why “Death” wasn’t immediately released despite strong early reviews?
DS: We got the same reaction from most distributors: “We love the film but we don’t know how to sell it.” It was as if we had ticked off every ‘don’t’ in the filmmaking book. We had shot a movie on suicide on 4:3 standard definition handheld video with no name actors and no happy end. It just turned out to be unmarketable, no matter if it won awards or got great reviews. We had offers to go the VOD route right after we first premiered at SXSW in 2008 but I just wasn’t able to give up on a theatrical release. I just – vainly, arrogantly – felt the film deserved it. When after “The Last Exorcism” there still didn’t seem to be anyone willing to take the risk but we were offered a DVD deal on top of the VOD we took it. I know DVDs are a thing of the past but I grew up with them and it means something to me to have that little box on my shelf that says “A Necessary Death” on the cover…
BH: Why do you think you’re drawn to the “documentary” format in both “The Last Exorcism” and “A Necessary Death?”
DS: I came to work in that format by complete accident and then fell in love with it. We shot “A Necessary Death” that way because we didn’t have any money whatsoever when we came out of film school. We had to find a story that would work in the most affordable possible way of shooting, and that turned out to be the found footage format. In 2004 when we started shooting the upcoming wave of fake documentaries was still years away. It felt fresh and exciting.
I got hired to direct “The Last Exorcism” because I had worked in the faux-doc style before, so that wasn’t really a creative decision. But I am glad we did it that way. It gets you very immediate, lively performances and breaks the fourth wall. The viewer is not just a spectator anymore, sitting there in the safety of the dark. Characters look at him, characters talk to him – he’s aware that there are 360 degrees of a world around him, not just the little square he’s looking at, and that he is vulnerable to attacks from all directions. It just immerses you on a different level.
BH: Today’s audiences respond both to this genre and the “found footage” type of features. What do you think it says about our evolving tastes as consumers?
DS: I think it’s a reminder that why we respond to movies is not the polished spectacle, the noise, the effects, the explosions and the hip one-liners but something as basic and eternal as memorable characters in a really good story. The fact that something cost $200 million to make doesn’t make it any more engaging. The principle of ‘drama’ is still the same that it was when Aristotle defined it thousands of years ago: “conflict between two parties with opposing goals.” It’s why we like sports. You could argue that reality TV prepared us for the aesthetics of the style, but I don’t think our tastes as consumers are evolving. We’ve always liked the same stuff. We had just forgotten.
BH: Can you share any information about “The Darkness” – will will see elements you’ve touched upon in your first two films in it?
DS: The script for “The Darkness” made me hold my breath for 90 pages. It’s written by a wonderful author called Megan Holley (“Sunshine Cleaning”) and is truly one of the smartest, eeriest, most exciting and best-written stories I ever got to read. It does have a limited number of people in and around one major location but other than that it is very different from both ‘A Necessary Death’ and “The Last Exorcism’. It’s going to be shot by the same cinematographer, Zoltan Honti, but it’s not going to be done documentary style. We are not going to shy away from lavish beauty this time, and we are going to put the camera onto a tripod for a change. Call us rebels.
“A Necessary Death” is now available on DVD and Video on Demand.