One look at Dave Tafoya’s website will show he understands that filmmakers make films. He is prolific to say the least and has spearheaded dozens of projects over the last few years. Earlier this fall, I heard about the Doylestown-based director’s current project Eyam. I was immediately drawn to it based on its unique and daring concept. It’s a horror film about kids holed up in a summer camp as a disease ravages the planet. The kicker is that the actors weren’t told when the scares were coming.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, filming began after Christmas and wrapped last week. I recently sat down with Dave to discuss his inspirations, the production process, and his plans for the future.
LUCAS MANGUM: What was the genesis of Eyam?
DAVE TAFOYA: The project’s roots were in early summer of 2011. June and July were rather busy for me and my amazing team of collaborators. In June we shot a film called The Kill Play based on a short play by Maggie Farrell. She told me the idea on a Tuesday, gave me the script on Wednesday and after she gave me permission the script fell out of my brain and was done by Friday. The one issue I had with the production was that I’d written something of an epic; 136 pages, most of them conversation. That production, a dialogue-heavy monster with one camera, was the most ambitious thing I’d ever done in my life and after shooting and editing it (we’re currently working on annoying little post-production details), I was completely drained. I needed a vastly different working method if I was going to make another film anytime soon. Watching the words you’ve written and characters you’ve dreamt up come to life is electrifying to say the least, but I wanted the next one to be different.
In early July, my girlfriend and I went to Las Vegas to accept an award for my film I Need You at the Las Vegas Film Festival and wound up watching Lukas Moodysson’s film Together for the first time and the iconography hit me just right. Something about the shaggy community of fuck-ups learning the boundaries of their own rebelliousness and figuring out how to take care of each other was just so beautiful. Everything they own in the film is second-hand and the way they lived was directly in response to the zeitgeist. They set out to live like children but accidentally become adults. The gears in my head started turning but it wasn’t until I rewatched both The Tree of Life and The New World that I knew what I wanted the film to feel like. I wanted it to float, so to speak, to hop between moments, to let the actors have more freedom than simply in how to say the lines I’d given them. I know the moment that the finer details emerged about the story was on July 19th around midnight because I bought an album of an organist named Donald Joyce playing Philip Glass. I sat in my bedroom, played it as loud as possible and the film more or less unfolded in the hour that followed. A few kids in a commune-like situation. Where are they? Summer camp. Why are they there? There’s a disease ravaging the world. Why haven’t they left? They think they’re safer where they are. I approached the scenario like a critic and once I’d filled the logic holes, I sent out missives to actors, started talking reference points and strategy with my cinematographer and assistant director Tucker Johnson and started begging a nearby camp to cut me a deal on a week-long rental (they’ve asked to remain nameless). The organ music really drew the story and the character dynamic out into the light and once I knew who these people were, it just became about finding actors who were game enough to spend a week in the woods, people who could tell stories with glances and pauses.
DT: I’m a lifelong horror film fan and I feel it when the genre’s in decline, which I think it is right now. I haven’t yet released an out-and-out horror film (though I’m editing a kind of revisionist zombie film that will be online in a week or two) because I didn’t want there to be anything perfunctory about my approach. I wanted to have an idea, a fresh take on things before attempting to make something frightening. I know the zombie film is unlike any other ever made; whether it’s scary is up to everyone else. The improv-aspect was important to me because to my knowledge it’d never been done before. I can’t think of a horror film in which the actors didn’t know what exactly they have to be afraid of or what’s going to happen when they wake up every morning. I felt like I was entering virgin territory and wondered why I’d never seen anything like that before. Then I remembered that it’s probably deeply unethical, not to mention a complete gamble. I tried to imagine a filmmaker asking Universal or Lionsgate to pay Radha Mitchell’s salary for a film with no script. It’s just impossible. And you really would need someone like Radha Mitchell for a film like this, someone who can speak volumes with a raised brow and a concerned look, but a studio giving you truckloads of equipment and talented professionals for a film they aren’t allowed to know the ending to is inconceivable.
I knew I wanted the film to be pretty improv-heavy in response to having just made a film with such an enormous and complicated script, but the degree of spontaneity was up in the air for a little while. I don’t remember what triggered it, but I do remember feeling like a whole world of voyeuristic possibilities opened up. I figured the one thing I wanted the actors worrying about was walking around with the apocalyptic gravity appropriate to their situation while trying to either forget or remember what was out there. I didn’t want them to know or expect anything because I didn’t want it to seem like these people were anticipating anything. When we meet them, they’ve been alone together for months and have no reason to suspect that the routine’s going to change. Once I started planning out the scares, or at least the ideas behind them, I thought how much better it would be if these guys had to think on their feet; react to what they were seeing in character. I always read about the one moment on film sets when there’s genuine fear in someone’s performance because of one element being misplaced at precisely the moment an actor turns a corner or enters a room. How much more visceral and alive would a film feel if every single scare was genuine? And there’s absolutely nothing more tremendous than telling someone to walk through a door when you know what’s on the other side and they don’t. I kept looking at the faces of my actors after each jolt and hearing them talk to each other and hoping upon hope I could do that to the audience. I felt like a magician after every scene because everyone wanted to know what exactly they’d just been put through. I’ll never forget that feeling.
LM: What was the most interesting part of the filming process this time around?
DT: I live for moments when my cast does something I don’t expect. I Need You had a ten page script so it was mostly about telling them what had to happen between action and cut and seeing how they improved it. Alexandra Maiorino in particular kept adding these motherly flourishes that just blew me away and added so much strange depth to her character. This film was almost entirely told in those moments. The guys knew their backstories and they knew what actions they had to do, but that’s it. The tone of their conversation, the way they carried themselves, the solutions they came up with to new problems, all entirely their own. Tucker and I got to follow them with cameras mounted on our shoulders and just see how far they’d go. There’s one scene, and I can’t include it because it’s so dark, where they try to decide how to proceed in a particularly desperate situation and the plan gets so warped and unnerving, but the beautiful thing was that it made sense to them in the moment. It felt like I was watching a horror film while I was filming it, which is why I have to ditch it. Based on their knowledge of the situation, they just kept running through the facts and thinking like seasoned horror fans and came up with a survival plan that was quite ghastly. That was pretty surreal. But I realized that every time the cameras were on they felt like no one was safe, but they were still good enough to snap into character. One of them, Jack Farrell, seemed convinced he was going to die every time he stepped outside. They were professionals to a fault. Getting to live with them for a week at camp was too much fun.
And another major pleasure was make-up. I’m becoming more and more fascinated with make-up and as the crew of all of my films is pretty reliably just Tucker these days, the two of us wind up playing a lot of roles. I got a taste of it during The Kill Play and really wanted to explore the possibilities in my zombie film but especially in this movie. I picked up the basics pretty quickly and I think I’ve moved into the intermediate level. You really get to know someone when you’re making them look like they stepped out of a nightmare.
LM: How will Eyam be made available for our viewing pleasure?
DT: Well, I want to try and send this through some festivals if I can make enough money at my day job to do so (festival entry fees can be pretty steep) because I believe it’s got the potential to find an audience. I look at my body of work and it’s all very…widgety. This is no exception really, but there’s some stuff here that I really think is going to stick in people’s brains. I feel like this could find a home. After sending I Need You and the film I made right afterwards, Tron Wayne Gacy, to something like 50 festivals in total and getting 3 acceptances, I decided maybe they weren’t going to make anything like the splash I’d hoped for and put the former online in a way that is accessible and cheap. I don’t want to just give it away because that wouldn’t be fair to my amazing cast but I can’t wait around and hope someone picks it up because I have other movies I want to make and can’t spare money on festival entries for movies that have had a fair shot. So, I’m going to try as hard as I can to get this film into festivals (I feel like the horror aspect might be a good omen because there are so many genre film festivals all over the world – I’m excited just thinking about it) because I feel like it’s different and strange but there are entry points for people who are out to be scared. So I’m going to send it to New Hope and Philadelphia, for sure, and see if the County Theatre in Doylestown might host a premiere. If after a year no one bites and the film doesn’t get distribution, it’ll go up on Dynamo Player, which is an amazing tool for guys like me with no money or clout.
DT: The big guy here was Terrence Malick. Tucker and I are two of the biggest Tree of Life fans on the planet and if I never saw anything but The New World and Days of Heaven again, I’d probably do just fine. Malick is, to me, a teacher. Every new film he makes shows you that film is the medium that renders the subtleties of existence better than any other. It may be years before anyone makes a film that looks as beautiful as Tree again, but more than that his improvisatory directorial style and the rhythm of his editing was what I had in my mind while we were shooting. His style breaks down barriers and seems to make the universe seem both limitless and touchable. Nature is a character in his movies and that’s something I definitely was going for in Eyam. The camp is as big a part of the character’s lives as the people living there. It’s either a home or a prison, and I want everyone to know what these guys have been staring at for six months. John Cassavettes and Robert Altman are also guys who inform my style of shooting, letting a scene breathe a little, letting actors interrupt each other, letting it feel loose. Images, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Opening Night are some of my all-time favourite films.
As far as horror goes, I’m a Hammer Films freak. I’ve seen every Hammer Horror and they’re important because they’re mostly all chamber pieces and give you a great idea how to utilize limited space and money. This film has a lot of Hammer in its veins, especially Vampire Circus, Demons of the Mind and These Are The Damned. But really I love most early 70s horror, good and bad. It was like they were finally discovering atmosphere and that grey-blue colour scheme I’m in love with. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, which is a kind of coolly lurid remake of Night of the Living Dead is a big influence on me. It’s one of the best horror films of the era. And that time period was the golden age of plague and witch-burning movies, which were definitely rolling around in the back of my mind while making this. Mark of the Devil, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Ken Russell’s brilliant adaptation of The Devils. I also had just seen the brand new cut of Erle Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls before shooting which gave me a lot of ideas about isolation and persecution.
A huge influence on me is Ti West, a horror filmmaker who’s a part of Glass Eye Pix, this amazing production house on the east coast run by Larry Fessenden. The Roost and Triggerman are great films, but his best are his two most recent, House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. The House of the Devil is one of the greatest and most terrifying films ever made. It’s not only a brilliant homage to 80s horror, to the point where you could confuse it for the genuine article, but it’s a film that proves that a budget has nothing to do with how well you can frighten someone. West and Graham Reznick, his sound designer work minor miracles with this film. The only time I remember being that scared in a theatre was when they released The Exorcist Director’s cut. Literally the night before we left for the shoot Tucker and I watched The Innkeepers, which was perfect because it gave us a huge appreciation for how to shoot the space. We lucked into a great zoom lens that we were able to use to really accentuate the size of the place, making sure to really show how imposing a hallway can be. And all that came from Ti.
The color scheme we wound up latching onto, especially in the outdoors sequences was straight out of Debra Granik’s truly amazing Winter’s Bone and we took a lot of the imagery and composition from John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is the film I used to scare my friends with when I was in the 3rd grade. Andrew Dominik is one of the best actor directors alive and his film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford might just be the most beautiful thing ever made. Tucker and I worship that film and specifically Roger Deakins’ cinematography. I never make a film without stealing something from the Romanian New Wave. Keeping everyone in discomfort is their speciality and they’re the reason I keep a camera rolling after an awkward exchange. There’s a scene in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days that has informed all of my work. A woman sits at dinner with her boyfriend’s family listening to them argue about nothing. Meanwhile she has a terrible secret that eats at her every second she’s forced to sit there and listen to them and you can see it on her face even though she’s trying to hide it. In a film full of devastating sequences, that stands out. I tried to cram a lot of those moments into Eyam; someone has a secret and has to pretend to be ok until they can’t anymore. There’s a lot of imagery inspired by soviet and post-soviet Cinema like Nostalghia, Silent Souls and My Joy. Joe Swanberg’s been making great films for a little under ten years and has revolutionized distribution; me and my friends really look up to him. Tomas Alfredson is a well-spring of inspiration, especially in communicating genuine affection. Lars Von Trier is a never-failing source of ideas. After studying J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Super 8, Tucker and I have been slightly obsessed with snagging as many lens flares as possible in our shots. Claire Denis’ ideas about time and rhythm are revolutionary to me. I stole a pretty crucial image from Masaki Kobayashi’s brilliant film Kwaidan. I could go on for days on this one, so I should probably cut myself off.
LM: What do you think makes Philadelphia such a special area for filmmakers, authors, and other artists?
DT: This is too good a story to be true but someone told me that when they were making The Road, John Hillcoat or someone said in an interview that they didn’t have the money to create a post-apocalyptic environment from scratch, so they just went to Pennsylvania. That’s probably mangled hearsay, but it encapsulates part of why I’m glad I was born in Doylestown. Drive an hour and I can see art films and eat unbelievable vegan food. Go the other direction and it looks like you’ve fallen off the edge of the earth. For a guy like me who wants to make period and post-apocalyptic films there’s no better creative fuel than just driving to my girlfriend’s house. River Road from New Hope to Upper Black Eddy inspired two of my completed films and at least a half dozen unproduced screenplays. The route from my house to my high school became the setting for a horrific western I’ve written and hope to make some day. It looks beautiful in a way that nowhere else in the country looks beautiful, to me. It looks old, dead and forgotten, but like it’s been that way for centuries. There’s a path in Fairmont park that runs right along Lincoln Drive between Chestnut Hill and Boathouse Row. I walked that path at 2 in the morning for inspiration for a script once. It’s unreal to put yourself in these places because they seem to have been sculpted just to fill your head with imagery. I tend to think of everything in those terms, these days, but even still it’s a gift to be able to drive for twenty minutes and immerse myself in something as splendid as Ringing Rocks or Font Hill. But even beyond that Philadelphia is full of people trying to make art. Go to New York or Boston and everyone’s got a very specific project already in the works; there’s a kind of finality to it. I was guilty of it, too, when I lived in Boston. Artists have gone to cities like that because they needed to expose their art and talent to a wider audience and for the most part it works. That’s why you hear about bands starting from New York or Boston; the resources are there for people who’ve gotten the ball rolling and know the next step they have to take; there are clubs, galleries and screening houses on every block. Philadelphia doesn’t quite have the history of other major cities where the arts are concerned, for whatever reason, and so there’s a kind of humble, ground-up feeling to the art scene. Everyone’s on the same page and dying to help each other. I feel like there’s a little more room to be aimless and figure out your strengths.
LM: What is a little-known fact about yourself that your viewers and readers of Cinedelphia would find interesting?
DT: I have a list of unfinished film projects left behind by famous directors after their deaths that I hope to make. I collect ideas that my heroes never got a chance to realize and hope to make all of them as faithful to the original vision as possible. Before I die I’d like to make Ivan The Terrible Part 3, Alucarda Rises From The Tomb, Captain Kronos Rides Again, Alfred Hitchcock’s unrealized Kaleidoscope: Frenzy and I’ve written a fourth film in Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell’s Mick Travis cycle. But perhaps even more than that I want to make the ultimate Filipino Women in Prison film. I’d need about ten million dollars, a 40 foot animatronic alligator and a lot of cannibal extras. The tentative title is The Most Sensuous Game.
Follow Dave Tafoya’s projects on his website, Honors Zombie Films.