Ansel Faraj genius of Independent Film
Independent Film-Maker Ansel Faraj
Interviewed by Todd Barty
Ever wanted to know what it was like to make twenty five films before you were twenty-five? Or to direct cult icons from a genre television giant as you make your way in the world of cinema?To find out, Artgaze’s film reviewer and presenter Todd Barty caught up with Los Angeles based independent film-maker Ansel Faraj…
Artgaze Magazine has previously visited Faraj’s works with our review of his films Dr. Mabuse and Dr. Mabuse: Etiopomar – two fresh takes on the pulp supervillain Dr. Mabuse. Mabuse’s exploits were first chronicled in books by his creator Norbert Jacques, and a series of German films – beginning with German Expressionist masterworks by the legendary Fritz Lang.
As we prepare for our Australian PREMIERE screenings of these films with Artgaze Film Club on Friday, December 4th (add to your diary – now!) in an appropriately steampunk themed event, we though it timely to chat with the prolific and prodigiously talented Faraj about his work, the Mabuse films, and his more recent projects…
TB: Two of the most acclaimed films in your impressive ouvre are your ‘Doctor Mabuse’ films – Doctor Mabuse and Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar. When did you first encounter this legendary monster from German Expressionism, and what compelled you to revive him?
AF: I was about fourteen when I saw Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, which was my introduction to the character. I had read about him infrequently throughout the various film history books that I devoured as a kid, but I honestly didn’t know too much about the character till I saw the film, and it blew me away. He was such a cool villain, he’s the archetype of so many villains throughout pop culture — the Joker, Ernst Blofeld, and so forth; but Mabuse himself – he seemed so different to me. I was fascinated by him, and the level of control he extended over his empire, and that mystical quality he possessed. He was so many things – a magician, a master of disguise, a criminal mastermind, and at the same time he’s an enigma. When you unravel him, you’re left grasping air – you don’t know who or what he really is. It just really caught my imagination at that time, and I said to myself I’d love to do something with this character one day. By the time I was nineteen, I had already written a script about him and had tried at various times to get it made, and then the following year I was twenty and the stars aligned and I got to make my movie.
TB: Your films demonstrate a prodigious cinematic literacy – it is clear that you have a passion for a stylistically diverse range of films, particularly in the horror/thriller genres. Could you tell us a few of your personal favourites?
AF: There are so many films that I could list here, but I’ll try to be concise. I was really introduced to movies through the Universal Monster series at a very young age – The Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains was a huge deal for me when I was five years old. I grew up on the Universal Monster movies, and on Roger Corman’s Poe series with Vincent Price, so stylistically and tone-wise, these films have always been very important to me. But as I grew older I did venture out of the horror genre and just watched whatever classic film I could get my hands on, The Maltese Falcon was a big one, that introduced me to Noir and I’ve never been the same since. But my two favorite films I have to say are Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, I love that film. I can watch that over and over and not tire of it at all, it’s got a great sense of atmosphere, which is very important to me as a filmmaker, and beautiful cinematography courtesy of the legendary Jack Cardiff; and then a Disney film that unfortunately isn’t well remembered today – Third Man on the Mountain from 1959. It’s got a really great story of perseverance and following your dream no matter who or what tries to get in your way, and maybe I relate to that on some level; and It’s shot on location in Switzerland and has a great cast – Michael Rennie, James MacArthur, Herbert Lom, and Janet Munro; I just love it. It’s a film that really needs to be rediscovered. I also like musicals, and would love to do one someday, something insane like Ken Russell’s Tommy or Lisztomania.
TB: The end of Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar is somewhat open ended (Not to divulge any spoilers!). Is it possible that we will see future films in this universe, even if The Bad Doctor does not show up himself?
AF: Well…. this is a difficult one. Initially, way back when in my head I’d planned a Mabuse trilogy, but that was long before I’d even shot the first film. That remained the plan going into the first film, but by the time we were doing the second film, I’d decided I didn’t want to do a third one. I have to be honest – Etiopomar was a very difficult film to make. Just before filming began, my mentor and best friend Linden Chiles, who played Inspector von Wenk in Doctor Mabuse, died unexpectedly in an accident, which was a major blow to me. He was all set to return in Etiopomar, I’d actually met with him the day before his death to discuss the film and he was really excited; and his passing greatly altered the screenplay – I had to do major rewrites to the script a few days before principal photography started. I was quite depressed making the film, I was mourning my friend, I had less of a budget than I’d had on the first film, a lot of the things I’d wanted to do in it I just couldn’t afford, so I had to figure out ways of readapting certain scenes and situations to fit my resources. You must keep in mind I’m basically a one man studio, I do pretty much everything on my films, so every film for me is a lot of work tenfold, but if I didn’t enjoy the work I wouldn’t be doing it. There was no time, there was no money, and I had placed a lot of pressure on myself to deliver a film that would be an improvement on the first Mabuse, especially on a technical level. It was also the first time I was working on a film that there was some level of “hype” around – a fan base had cultivated itself around the first film and they were excited for the second film and I’d never experienced that effect before. So by the time we reached the end of principal photography, I was glad for it to be over. I wanted to get away from having to try to top myself for a third time in Mabuse’s world, and do something different. This was about two years ago so I’ve had time to relax and deal with the films, and yeah I still do have that third Mabuse film in my head, I would like to make it at some point in my life – it is a pretty crazy story, it sort of brings us full circle within my “Mabuse-universe”, and at the same time involves various real life figures from the past. I won’t divulge anything else, but yeah – ten years from now, maybe sooner, maybe later, I definitely can say Yes, Doctor Mabuse III is coming. Just not at the present moment.
TB: Your films have facilitated a welcome return to the screen for some of horror’s greatest icons – including Roderick Usher, Doctor Mabuse and Graf Orlock, The Nosferatu. Will we see any more of the genre’s greatest stars in your future projects?
AF: I don’t know if this counts but the film I’m currently shooting – The Last Case of August T. Harrison, includes the great horror-scifi writer H.P. Lovecraft as a character very integral to the plot, he gets to interact with August Harrison and whatnot – but I really want to develop some of my own original characters and build movies around them. I don’t want to be the guy that just reboots old silent film properties for modern audiences, yes I love those characters, that’s why I worked with them, but really they were tools for a young independent nobody to use to help get the work out there and get noticed.
I’m very grateful for all that Dr. Mabuse has done for me, but now it’s time to show that I do have my own stable of characters that deserve their moment in the spotlight, and that’s where my focus is at this point. As part of my web series Theatre Fantastique, I introduced a psychic named Madame LaSoeur, and she’s a character who’s been living in my head since I was twelve or so. She’s from the late 1960s, and you never know what’s really up with her, “Is she a con artist? Is she the real thing?”, and I’m hoping to work on a feature film about her. It would be this psychedelic mystery comedy with supernatural elements, sort of like Scooby-Doo, set amongst carnivals, and her friends are ghosts, it could be a lot of fun. I also have this detective character, Adam Sera, whose been the subject of three features of mine and I’d really love to reboot him with a real budget and really get to explore his world, which is very dark, very violent but also very comic bookish. He’s an alcoholic detective, on the fringes of the LA Police force and he’s got a love-hate relationship with his superior, Sgt Craig Hargroves, who has been through it all and seen it all, and is sort of like a paternal figure to Adam, and they fight about the cases they’re working on together. There are some really nasty villains that Adam Sera goes up against, and it would be this action-thriller epic that could be franchised very easily. There are more characters I’ve written about that I’d love to work with, but it all depends on time and money. I learned a lot of lessons on the Mabuse films – don’t bite off more than you can chew would be one of them, specifically with budgets, and therefore I don’t want to tread into these characters stories without having all the resources I’d need to tell the stories honestly, the way I have them in my head, and not “compromise” the characters or my visions for their respective films. So hopefully all these films will happen, and happen soon, and maybe in the near future I might return to some more “classic” characters and reinvent them as I did Dr. Mabuse.
TB: You are blessed to have four greats of the Gothic genre performing regularly in your works; Jerry Lacy, Christopher Pennock, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker – stars fom the Gothic soap Dark Shadows (the basis for Tim Burton’s 2012 film of the same name). What does having genre stalwarts like this bring to your work?
AF: It’s the best thing that ever happened to me, genres aside – as getting actors who have a name value and recognition amongst an audience brings an audience to your own work. And Jerry, Kathryn, Lara, and Chris are all great actors and just great people to work with and be around. They’re so dedicated to the work, and incredibly generous too. They didn’t know me from the next Dark Shadows fan but they were willing to take a risk on me and say yes to the first Doctor Mabuse film, and I guess I managed to impress them enough to have them come back again and again. And they’ve enjoyed themselves working on my projects – Jerry and I are currently shooting The Last Case of Ausgust T. Harrison, it’s our fourth project together and we’ve got a shorthand now, it’s been a hell of a lot of fun. I try to keep the process very collaborative and encourage them to throw out ideas and suggestions and when you’re working with actors that really know their stuff, that come in with their own ideas on character or on a particular scene, it really invigorates the filmmaking environment, it keeps the material fresh and it makes each day of work so exciting. I’ve really been lucky getting to work with the people I’ve been working with – Jerry, Chris, Kathryn, Lara, Lisa Richards, Linden Chiles, and Sally Kirkland, they are all really classy people and they’ve all helped me grow as a filmmaker. I’ve learned a lot from them, and still am learning from them.
TB: Your family are obviously strong supporters of your passion for film making, often appearing as producers on your films. Do they have any particular favourites among your many works?
AF: That’s a cool question; I never really asked them before. It turns out that my Mom and Dad both really like The Happy Home of the Murderous Mahones, which was part of my web series Theatre Fantastique. I’m very proud of that short film myself, it was a story that I’d been working on for awhile in various incarnations, and we shot the entire thing in five hours one day this past February, it all just came together and worked really well.
TB: You have made effective use of social networking and platforms such as Vimeo to get your work as an independent film-maker to a wider audience. How do you think these new ways of sharing and marketing will impact independent cinema in the future?
AF: It is the future, films on demand. That’s a very sorry statement to be made, when one considers the history of ‘the cinema’, you know, since 1894 when movies began, people went collectively to the cinema to see a movie. We had movie palaces once upon a time, and now we have iPads that stream almost any movie you wish off Amazon Prime or Netflix. As an independent filmmaker, this new way of getting your film out there, on a platform such as Vimeo or iTunes or what have you – its brilliant, you will reach your audience. They’ll find the film online and they can access it wherever they’re at and whenever they like. And they can share it with their friends, which, is the most important thing – they’re spreading the word, sharing that digital file. This is how the new generation of cult films are going to grow, by sharing, with the click of a button. And on the studio-front, we can look at what’s currently going on in the world right now, with The Interview, Sony released the film on ‘Digital HD’ and made over $1million on it. Yeah, it was a high profile film due to all the controversy surrounding it, but other studios are taking notice. Warner Bros just announced that Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River won’t be getting a ‘theatrical release’, they’re going straight to “On Demand” with it, because they know they can reach the right audience quicker that way, and pull in the revenue they want rather than spending the money on a theatrical campaign, and risk not making back a profit. The studios and the independents are now converging together with online distribution, and that places us all in a very interesting arena. I was very, very lucky to secure a theatrical release on Doctor Mabuse, it was a limited theatrical release in Los Angeles, which was great as it gave the film more ‘legitimacy’ if you get my drift, but my reach wasn’t as wide. Etiopomar was released online only, and reached a far wider audience, and that’s how I’m going to continue to release my work, as I know it will find its audience.
TB: A lot of the films that you have made so far are in the horror and science fiction genres. Are there any other realms that you are interested in experimenting with?
AF: Of course yeah, as I’ve mentioned earlier, I really would like to tackle a musical and do an action thriller or two. I hope to be able to work in multiple genres and not get pigeonholed into one type of film, but I guess that’s really up to me to make sure I don’t ‘repeat myself’. I’m dying to make a film in the IMAX format, it would be a technological, sci-fi thriller, and I hope one day to make a Batman movie. That would be so awesome.
TB: You’ve mentioned your upcoming release The Last Case of August T. Harrison – can you tell us a little more about that film?
AF: The Last Case of August T. Harrison is a very different film stylistically from all of my previous work. It’s a bit difficult to describe the work when you’re in the middle of making it, but Jerry Lacy plays retired private detective August Harrison, he’s this sad old guy who lives in Venice, CA and his son is a painter, and he gets him reluctantly involved with this case – which is somehow connected to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve always wanted to work in the style of Val Lewton, with the idea of “suggesting horror” and this film is very much that style. It’s a character drama that has horror leaking in around the edges…. “Is this really happening to me?” sort of thing. We’ve got a great cast with Lisa Richards, David Graham, Maggie Wagner, and Nathan Wilson plays Lovecraft. The movie takes place today, in our world, but we have Lovecraft himself become involved in the proceedings. We’re still in the middle of shooting at this point, but we’re looking at a late 2015 release. Keep checking our website www.hollinsworthproductions.com for more updates.
TB: Well, thank you very much for that generous insight into your work, Ansel…
And I would indeed encourage readers to go to www.hollinsworthproductions.com to view Ansel’s incredible work and find links to both his feature films and the short and sharp Theatre Fantastique.
And remember, for a unique opportunity to see Faraj’s very Fantastique Mabuse films in their exclusive Australian premiere, come along to The Old Courthouse Theatre on December 4th for this unique event – complete with a live Question and Answer session with Ansel Faraj via Skype, a ‘making-of’ featurette, steampunk stylings and mad-science themed cocktails. Put on your brass-goggles and be there!