Julie Rigg: Well, Zack Winestine, welcome to Arts Today. I was fascinated by States of Control because it is actually unusual to see films today that are about psychological states, that make that their complete focus. This one's about a woman who becomes obsessed with pushing herself to greater and greater extremes of control, and also with committing a huge gesture, a daring act. So what actually interested you in making this kind of psychological study?
Zack Winestine: One thing I was interested in exploring is what happened at the end of the 1960's, when a number of very idealistic, very committed, very intelligent people started behaving in ways that in retrospect seem increasingly self-destructive and increasingly irrational. There was a move to violence. In the United States, one of the principle student organizations was the Students for a Democratic Society. Around 1969 it fell apart and a number of people went underground and proclaimed that violence was the only way society could be changed. It was very strange. I was ten years old at the time, and it was very interesting growing up in a world where these discussions were going on...
JR: ... and taken seriously
ZW: ...taken very seriously. Even many people who objected to violence felt a little bit that they were less brave, that they were less committed, that they were less worthy than the people who were willing to go all the way and commit themselves in such a fashion. I think I sensed at the time, and it's something I've picked up in reading about the period and talking to people who went through it, that what some people were feeling was less a need to change the external world than a need to change themselves internally, to change their personality, to change who they were. That desire to transform oneself, to destroy a previous life and create a new personality is something that's fascinating. It's particularly interesting because it was not just lone individuals acting on this but it was something in the air, it was almost a communal obsession.
JR: One thinks of the Red Brigades...
ZW: Yes, it's not restricted to the '60's. There was actually a specific reference: the film picked up on some events which happened in Canada in the early 1980's. There was a group which became known as the Vancouver 5, a group of Vancouver (British Columbia) activists who were accused of firebombing a chain of video porn stores around I think 1981. Initially, they proclaimed their innocence, and there was a nationwide movement of support to pay their legal fees and so forth. Unfortunately it turned out during the trial that the Canadian government had wiretaps of these people planning the bombings, so they were convicted and sentenced to very long prison terms. Again, it was this seemingly self-destructive situation where some very good people ended up destroying themselves, ended up severely hurting the cause they were part of, and ended up doing something which lost them the sympathy of a large section of the population.
JR: Some people, immediately after the screening of your film, were talking about the Unabomber. There are parallels, not only a character who is driven to an extreme action, in the case of the film bombing a porn shop, but also a kind of romantic escaping into the woods, and testing oneself against nature. Me, I was reminded of earlier romantic fascist movements -- you know, the T.E. Lawrence philosophy or Yukio Mishima, some of that stuff.
ZW: That's really interesting. I was hugely interested in T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, starting off (maybe not surprisingly) with the David Lean film. It's a magical film and one of the truly great films that's been made. Something which Lawrence shares with Lisa (the central character in States of Control) is this tremendous desire to test oneself, this tremendous desire to strengthen one's will, to exercise greater and greater control over the body, to push one's body to the absolute limit, and achieve a transformed mental state in the process.
JR: Staying up for 56 hours, and documenting your changing mental state.
ZW: Exactly, and that's something that Lisa's constantly experimenting with. The Unabomber was a fascinating case. Theodore Kaczynski wasn't identified until we were midway through editing the film. I gave very little thought to the Unabomber when we actually made the film because so little was known about him then. But the film was nearly complete, and I'd been living with the character of Lisa for two years, and then all of a sudden the news came out about Kaczynski. The parallels were eerie. I've been asked, was I influenced by the Unabomber, which is a very scary question. It's kind of frightening to think that might be the case, but there are some odd parallels.
JR: Well certainly the romantic obsession with nature and the individual. I mean that's a very old kind of...
ZW: I think it's the combination of someone who is terribly frightened and terribly disturbed about what technology is doing to contemporary society, and who takes the step of trying to remove themselves from society to the greatest degree possible. It's something that Lisa ends up doing at the end of the film, and even in the details -- there were stories abut Kaczynski shooting rabbits, and there were whole passages in his diary about tracking rabbits through the bit of land that he owned, and that's something that Lisa ends up doing also. Both of them certainly share a terribly jaundiced view of what technology does to people, the way in which it's affected human interaction. Lisa is deeply concerned that the world she's living in has become increasingly artificial. The fact that lived experience seems to be increasingly replaced by images, by representations. Instead of going out into the woods you look at a picture book of the woods, or you see a film about someone else going into the woods. I think even that's archaic, now I suppose you sit at the internet and call up websites about wilderness. This is something that Lisa's desperately trying to get away from. I think that Kaczynski is mad, I hope that Lisa doesn't go quite that far. Lisa does commit a violent act but she's very careful to insure that nobody actually gets hurt.
JR: So it seems to me you have some sympathy with Lisa's position.
ZW: [Laughs] I have tremendous sympathy with her position, and tremendous sympathy with the quandary in which she finds herself. Sympathy is maybe the wrong word, I'm fascinated by her position, and I'm fascinated by the action which she takes.
JR: But it was more the sort of... well I call it proto-fascist in a way, this search for the authentic. Well that goes right back to the romantic tradition in European thought. The sort of distrust of or sense that contemporary society is corrupted, and a corrupting experience. And to me that sort of situated Lisa in a very long line of these kind of heroes. That's why I was mentioning Mishima as another prototype. Is that an interpretation you would agree with?
ZW: To be honest, I'm very unfamiliar with Mishima's work. Joanne, my coproducer and wife, was very interested in his work but I haven't read much myself.
One thing I was very struck by, this whole question of trying to find some kind of authentic experience. It was a bit of a shock to discover that there were a number of fascist intellectuals who shared this interest. It's a disturbing thing to find out that something which is important to oneself was apparently important to a number of people whom you'd like to think you have absolutely nothing in common with. There's a Professor named George Mosse, at the University of Wisconsin, who's written some extremely interesting books about the ideology of Fascism and the ideas which lay behind fascist movements. He argues that certain intellectuals were drawn towards some of these movements because they represented in part an attempt to organize everyday life, to organize society, around the pursuit of these kinds of almost mystical or spiritual experiences. There's something honorable about thta goal, but it resulted in one of the most evil and destructive events in human history. That's quite a paradox, that's quite a quandary.
JR: I wanted to look at what... Lisa has this kind of attraction and yet revulsion to pornography. You set her up as having a partner who is impotent, she's blocked in her own creative work, burns her novel, etc. And then there's a lot of exploration around the metaphor of the control of the body. [laughs] One member of the audience last night seemed to come away thinking that you were saying that sexual frustration made people extremists. I don't know, were you suggesting that?
ZW: No, to me the element of sexual frustration just helped motivate the character, helped explain why she pushes everything just a little bit further than most people might in her situation.
JR: But she pushes her body further and further, as we said. I mean, training, learning Karate, running, eventually almost kicking to death some bag-snatcher.
ZW: I think Lisa's torn between two ways of responding to her situation. One part of her is convinced that she needs to exercise ever greater control over herself, ever greater will-power, ever greater self-discipline. There's another part of her which I think would really like to let go, be spontaneous, be impulsive. [laughs] The title of my company is Impulse Films Limited, which I think kind of expresses this conflict.
JR: Surrender control.
ZW: Surrender and yet not surrender. It's being impulsive but pulling back from that at the same time. There are certainly moments in the film where she does let go, and sex becomes almost the most concrete possible example of that. Sex is letting go, it's finding release, it's losing control, and that's something that Lisa both wants and has a great deal of trouble with. That's one thing that led to the whole theme of pornography. There are a number of different kinds of sexual situations in the film, or representations of sex. That was something I got a lot of pleasure out of playing around with. I'd be concerned if people read the film as a statement against pornography. I don't think Lisa's a puritan, I don't think she has an ethical problem with pictures of naked people or people having sex...
JR: It's the mediation of experience that's distressing her.
ZW: Exactly. I think for Lisa, at least at the point that she's reached by the end of the film, there's not much difference between a pornographic film and the film States of Control which I actually ended up making. I think she would see both of them as corrupt, both of them as an excuse for people to be passive and to sit in a dark theater and watch somebody else having an experience.
JR: I want to move on and talk to you about some other things, but just thinking about the relationship between this kind of quest and some of the psychological mechanisms, the sort of mass psychology of Fascism. They would both have in common a sense of being cheated.
ZW: A sense of being cheated by life, being cheated by the promises that society has made.
JR: You've done some interesting things both with sound and music, and with visual metaphor in the film. I was interested in the nature metaphors, the clouds, at one stage you show a whole field of leaves fluttering. These are obviously iconic images for the character. With the use of music and sound, what was the tack you took?
ZW: I think it's always a mistake to try and be too rational about why decisions are made in a film. For me, what's so remarkable about film as a medium is its expressive power and its ability to use sound and image to convey emotional states and to convey feelings. It's really a matter of experience and intuition somehow, and to some extent trial and error in the editing process. You have an image and there's something interesting about that image. That image of the leaves, you know when we got to the location -- it was a patio and there was a wall of ivy in back of it -- while we were shooting the scene I was kind of keeping an eye on those leaves, and there was something very interesting about the way the wind was blowing through them...
JR: What the surface was doing.
ZW: Yes, it's almost... There was something -- they were leaves, but it was also like water, something very expressive of a natural process. Of course, we were filming in the middle of New York City and there was an iron foundry 20 feet away and it was hugely noisy there. But there was something suggestive of sound, I started thinking I could add some interesting sound effects, sounds of wind, or better yet work with the composer and come up with music that has a wind-like quality to it and might work really nicely against these leaves. And you're never sure exactly, you know you can't anticipate precisely the effect it's going to have, but there was something interesting there. So when we were done with that scene, Susan Starr (the Director of Photography) moved on to the next set-up and I kept the camera and I played around with those leaves for a little bit.
I came up as a DP, and it was really great because I could do things like that. There'd be a down moment, and I'd see this image that -- god knows, we didn't have time to stop the entire unit and bring everything to a halt while we grabbed a couple of shots of leaves, but I knew that Susan wouldn't need the camera for a couple of minutes, and I played around with it and found an image I really liked. I just had a hunch that I'd be able to do something with it later in the editing. I think it worked out.
JR: Yes, it did. I mean, there are a number of moments like that in the film. You mentioned that you're a Director of Photography, and I think you've worked on about 15 other low-budget features before you got to your own. Is that right?
ZW: I had a pretty wide range of experience. I came up as a focus-puller, and before that a clapper-loader. Actually, I worked on about 20 features in the camera department. Then I started shooting about -- it's frightening to think how long ago, about 9 years ago. Did a lot of music videos, some documentaries, some television work, and a number of very small low-budget features as the Director of Photography. I found it tremendously useful to have this background. It's almost like boot camp. When you spend 15 years on film sets, small ones, big ones, successful ones, disastrous ones, you develop reflexes. It helped me to anticipate the problems that would come up, to anticipate the technical problems that people would come to me with. I knew in advance what questions I'd be asked.
I think so much of being able to use film successfully is being able to anticipate, and being able to understand how a decision you make at 11:00 in the morning on one set is going to have an effect on what happens on a different set at 5:00 that afternoon. Making a film is a series of trade-offs, it's constantly a matter of weighing what's important at this moment in this scene. Is it the light, is it the performance, is it a camera move, is it the sound. And particularly on a film like this you're constantly having to compromise, you're constantly giving up things. The trick is knowing what you can afford to give up, what's really not important and what is, and fighting for the things that are important.
There were times when people thought I was nuts. There is a little camera move, it's near the opening of the film where we dolly from a close-up of a cassette-recorder to a close-up of a clock. And I thought I was nuts, it took two hours to get that shot, and that's a tremendous amount of time on a small set like the one we had. And yet before we started I had decided that the scene is practically the opening of the film, it's a very important moment, and I thought the move might create an effect that would really set the tone for the entire film, and it was worth sacrificing some other things to get that shot.
JR: It seems to me that it's that understanding that shows in the film, and that your situation is actually quite different from many of the first-time feature directors whose low-budget American indie films we've been seeing here. I hadn't realized until you were speaking last night how big the current wave is. What were the numbers you mentioned?
ZW: It's huge. It's disastrous [laughs]. The two premier festivals for American Independent film are Sundance and the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Both of those festivals this year received over 750 feature film submissions.
JR: Holy moly.
ZW: This is frightening! I'm as responsible as anybody else -- I made my little contribution to it. But 750 films! This is insane. Nobody can see them. The festivals can't view them properly, the distributors certainly can't get a look at them. Obviously only a small fraction of these will ever be released, will ever be seen by people, and it's not a good situation.
JR: Why has it arisen?
ZW: I don't know. For whatever reason film has become trendy and hot, the way rock music was back in the Seventies. When I was growing up everybody getting out of school formed their own band, now everybody getting out of school wants to make a feature film. And people know that it's possible to do it...
JR: We know the stories -- Rodriguez, credit cards...
ZW: And there have been some amazing success stories, at least success stories commercially, if not artistically. So everyone's gone out and done it. I think this is a house of cards that's going to come crashing down.
JR: What do you think about the quality?
ZW: Well, it's dangerous for me to start making generalizations because I've been wrapped up in my own little world for the past couple of years, and I simply haven't had time to see a lot of the films which have come out. I've been somewhat disappointed by a number of films that I've seen, and I tend to see the ones that have been the most successful. Which is scary, because I sometimes wonder whether the most interesting films and the most creative films are the ones which are not getting out. I wonder whether distributors are playing it very safe now, and are most open to the films which are the most formulaic and remind them of the films which did well last year.
JR: It seems from what I see, and we get filtered here, but they're hitting the deck at an enormous rate here, we've had a kind of arthouse explosion, we don't have the critics to review them [laughs], we don't have the marketing to get the word out. And they are very predictable, a lot of them. Some of them are good...
ZW: There aren't enough theater screens, so what happens is a film gets out and it has five days to prove itself on a theater screen and then it gets bumped off by the next film. And that's not enough. There's no time for word of mouth to build, the film has to get rave reviews across the board right up front. It has to pull the audiences in on the opening weekend, and if it doesn't it's going to disappear without a trace. This is good for certain kinds of films, but there are other kinds of films which take a bit of time to find an audience, which require word of mouth, and there is very little room for that right now, which is sad. I understand why people go out and try to make a film that has obvious hooks, that is easily saleable as 'being like' whatever film was the big hit six months earlier, because this is what the distributors are demanding now.
JR: Well, States of Control I think is an exception! [laughs] It's in a totally different tradition of filmmaking. Zack Winestine, good luck with it.
ZW: Thank you very much!
BOXOFFICE MAGAZINE review of States of Control
filmcritic.com review of States of Control
DVD Verdict review of States of Control
ARTS TODAY (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) interview with Zack Winestine
FILM THREAT interview with Zack Winestine
FILM FORECAST interview with Zack Winestine
PRINCETON Magazine review of States of Control
INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER article about States of Control
WIRED Magazine review of States of Control
FILMRUTAN (Sweden) Ron Holloway's review of States of Control at the Mannheim International Film Festival