Theodore Collatos on “Tormenting the Hen”

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There are two gorgeous landscape shots during the end credits of Theodore Collatos’ “Tormenting the Hen” that I assumed were still images upon first glance. It wasn’t until I peered closer at them that I detected the wind rustling gently through the grass and the clouds gliding ever so slowly across the sky. Even in its last few frames, Collatos’ film was continuing to upend my preconceptions. This is a picture that encourages us to pause before giving in to our knee-jerk emotions. Our social media has conditioned us to plant an emoji on stories we haven’t even bothered to read, aside from the headline. The mysterious character of Mutty (Matt Shaw) in Collatos’ film could easily be written off as a creep when he first materializes onscreen. He’s a soft-spoken white male with a penchant for making statements that sound like threats, especially when delivered to the neighbors whose property he refuses to leave. The fact that his neighbors are a vacationing black playwright, Claire (Dameka Hayes) and her white Brazilian fiancé, Monica (Carolina Monnerat), cause the tension to increase exponentially. “Tormenting the Hen” is an extremely unsettling and riveting film on multiple levels, yet the expectations viewers form at the beginning are guaranteed to be subverted long before the end credits arrive.

In anticipation of the film’s screening this weekend at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, Collatos spoke with Indie Outlook about the tenuous line between reality and artifice, the crumbling of communication and the scene that nearly broke his soul.

What initially drew you to filmmaking?

I started as a photographer and a painter, but found that I was allergic to oil paint after two years. So I shifted gears, and at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I took film history classes to fulfill some art history credits. I fell in love with the usual world filmmakers—Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Kieślowski, Kiarostami, Clarke—and experimental filmmakers like Deren and Cohen. I decided to switch over fully to film and go from there. Lars von Trier was a cornerstone for me, while Wiseman, Drew Associates and Direct Cinema also became major influences. Not many of the people I went to school with are making films now, and I acquired most of my quote-unquote contacts since I moved to New York.

How did you come up with the name for your production company, Brokenhorse Films?

The name came to me and my actors on my first sync sound film. We just wanted to have some kind of banner, and I think we were listening to “I Break Horses” by Smog. I used to ride horses, and there’s this idea of taming a wild horse that interests me. We are essentially this wild creature, and as we’re in society, we become broken and tamed. To make a horse rideable, you have to break it.

In light of the recent horrors in Charlottesville, “Tormenting the Hen” initially struck me as a topical portrait of paranoia.

Yeah, paranoia and the inability to communicate, even if you agree with the person. A funny anecdotal situation occurred to me once at a bar. I was talking to the bartender, and we got into a discussion about film. I said that I wasn’t a big fan of Godard, and he was so offended that he left. We both loved French cinema, but we happened to have this one little difference and then suddenly we’re no longer on the same page. I believe that’s part of the reason why progressives have been falling short. We’re so busy micro-slicing our little differences rather than propelling a unified front. That was the initial theme that I wanted to explore.

I noticed the sign that read, “On this site in 1897, nothing happened,” which I interpreted at first glance as a comment on the denial of our historical past. But then, as I began to learn more about Mutty, I thought, ‘Well, perhaps nothing did happen on this particular patch of land.’

I think you are the only person who has noticed that so far! A lot of that is my stepfather’s humor. Since this was a modestly-budgeted film, we shot at my parents’ house, and my stepdad’s a huge history buff. He finds things like that sign humorous because he’s so obsessed with history, but then at the same time, history only exists if you acknowledge it. We are experiencing the repercussions of that idea every single day on the world stage.

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What led you to cast Carolina Monnerat and Dameka Hayes, who are both excellent as the central couple?

The entire concept of the movie was designed around working with these people. Carolina is my wife, and she produced my last film, “Dipso,” as well as a number of my shorts. She used to be a professional ballerina and modern/contemporary dancer, and has wanted to perform again. We worked together a lot behind the scenes, and that’s where the whole story started. I met Dameka at a party, and we just talked for a long time about Meisner. She’s a huge Meisner person, and I’m an admirer of anyone who studies under that technique. Her acting experience was so impressive and interesting, so I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll put these two women together as a couple.’ I had the name of Mutty’s character in my mind for a while, which is reminiscent of the expression ‘muddying the waters.’ It’s unclear what he is, other than an enigma. The theater stuff sprouted from a short documentary I did called “Adam and Joel.” I had always wanted to make a play out of this film, but I’m not really in the theatre world, so I wouldn’t know how to approach a production. I thought it would be cool to re-imagine it as a play within this movie. I’ve known Brian Harlan Brooks [who plays Joel, an actor in Claire’s play] for about 15 years now. He was in a contemporary dance company with Carolina for over a decade, and I actually did a documentary on the company. He studied Meisner as well and is a multi-talented artist.

I loved how the “improvised” argument that occurs during the play bleeds into the talkback, calling into question where the artifice lies. 

That scene was tightly scripted, but as in the rest of the film, there’s always a flourish the actors bring that makes it much better. Characters written with strong points of view make it easy for the actors to speak in character. Even if it’s not directly on the page, it’s in the DNA of the script. Central to that scene is this idea of, ‘What is the script in the play? Is talking about the work part of the work?’ I like that kind of confusion. When you engage with anyone, there is a level of confusion about where people are coming from, and we put on a front to deal with different situations. Brian took that scene to a whole other level that I wouldn’t feel comfortable to write but there was space outlined to explode, and I knew that he would feel safe enough with me to go there, because we’ve been friends for a long time and worked together before. He definitely took it above and beyond and I’m thankful for that.

There’s a fascinating short film that you made entitled “Truth in Wine” that reminded me of the scene in this film where Monica’s inebriation causes her to have a brutally frank outburst. 

Alcohol, for me, in literature and in film has always signaled that you’re entering into a world of truth, whether it’s true or not. In that particular scene, I was thinking more about Monica’s identity as an immigrant. She’s far away from her family, so there’s kind of a heightened sense of, “Where am I?” Her culture is different from the one she’s living in now, and I was interested in exploring the discomfort that is felt when you are the one different thing in the room.

The use of extreme close-ups in that scene build a great deal of tension and unease, which is further heightened by the red filter.

I don’t think there are as many close-ups in the movie as people have perceived there to be, but maybe there are? I shot each scene instinctually trying to reflect what the scene was saying and I included the color red because I wanted to try pushing the scene beyond what is usually presented in this type of breakdown. Maybe Godard had influence after all… Usually breakdowns are filmed to make the audience go, “Wow, that is amazing acting,” and that’s it. My aim was to push it into a more cinematic space where you’re really in a subjective world. I went back and forth on using the red, but it ultimately reminded me of the type of thing that I would see in a movie I like. When you’re in a fight that intense, you do see red.

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Another memorable use of close-ups occurs at the beginning, as the camera cuts between the three women in the car. Sarah (Josephine Decker) wears sunglasses and is viewed largely from the back, causing us to feel weary of her intentions.

What is the motivation of bringing the couple there anyways? When you work on a budget, the collateral is your actors and their faces. Anytime you’re up in someone’s face, it feels too close and it makes you want to either come closer or step away. It’s constantly making you think about the subjective reality of what they’re even talking about. Is the close-up implying that they’re saying words that the other person isn’t hearing but is thinking that they’re hearing? It’s back to the communication issue where someone could say a plain fact and the person listening is hearing the exact opposite of that fact because of the emotional environment—maybe the listener is defensive or maybe the speaker is. It’s the psychology of the human experience playing out.

What inspired that deeply unsettling shot of Mutty on the riding mower as he drives back and forth on the lawn, appearing as if he’s about to ram the table where Monica and Claire are seated in the foreground?

In real life, when you’re living in the Berkshires or any rural area, there’s literally a constant sound of mowing to the point where it just feels aggressive. In my early days, I went through a horror and slasher phase, and the big audio motif in the original ’78 “I Spit on Your Grave” was the motorboat circling around the victim’s cabin. No dialogue was necessary at all. You hear this motorboat coming around, and it suggests a sense of impending violence. I always thought that was so effective. The idea of someone mowing around your yard is a good metaphor for how Mutty communicates. Here’s a guy who has trouble articulating, but his words and actions are invading people’s spaces.

How did you and your co-editor, George Manatos, go about navigating the fragmented timeline that often jumps ahead, leaving several troubling moments unresolved?

That’s just the sensibility of the script, as well as my desire to not tell too much. I want to keep the audience on their toes. Sometimes I jump into a scene and the audience initially doesn’t know whether what they’re looking at is “real” or not. There’s an argument occurring in the theater, but you don’t know if it’s a real argument. Who’s directing who? Who’s dominating who? All of those decisions occurred organically during the writing and editing process. Working with George was the best editing experience ever. I had never gotten the pleasure to work with an editor before and he came aboard and basically fixed my problems. I did an edit, then he did an edit, and as we kept going back and forth, a fusion began to occur. Ben Umstead, my producer, was also invaluable in this process, as he was on board giving notes since the script stage and knew where we needed to get to as a film. My edits were radically different from George’s, and when I watched his edits, Ben and I felt refreshed and could see a movie in it again. A synergy happened where the best cuts between us became the film. I also got valuable notes from a bunch of other filmmakers in the fine cut stage. But I think the three of us watched the film 50 times to the point where it became painful for me. Without George and Ben, I wouldn’t have been able to finish it.

The editing is especially effective during the barbecue scene where Monica flips out at Mutty. She has many justifiable reasons to be annoyed at him, but in this case, she’s projecting her frustration caused by Claire and Joel’s open flirtation. 

I’m happy you said that because that scene almost broke my entire soul. I reedited that thing so many times, as did George. Then finally in desperation, I brought in other filmmakers—Tyler Rubenfeld, who was also my assistant director, and Christopher Jason Bell —and the four of us hammered that scene out. I think I went gray pacing that scene because there weren’t a lot of options. I shot the scene in an hour because of the light, and the idea was to play around with a more classic aesthetic similar to “Seconds” by Frankenheimer, where the tension is racketed up simply by viewing events through a character’s subjective perspective. There were bits of takes that worked, but putting them together was a nightmare.

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How did you and Matt Shaw go about researching Asperger’s in order to form the character of Mutty?

My original idea for the character was based on a neighbor I had in Brooklyn. She was very old, very religious and spent the last couple years of her life outside of her apartment building, banging her door against the railing. At four in the morning, every morning, she’d be banging on the door and screaming religious epitaphs. I went through this process in my head of starting to not like her for no reason. She was suffering, and I felt guilty about the fact that I was annoyed about getting woken up at four every day. My good buddy who lived in the basement apartment shared these feelings with me and gave me the book The Pear-Shaped Man, which is a story that deals with characters who are annoyed by a neighbor that they don’t know. I started writing from there. Matt has actually lived with someone with this kind of affliction for many years, so he knew first-hand the mannerisms and emotions of someone with that condition, as well as the emotions of those who encounter it on a daily basis. He’d describe the conflicting feelings of getting annoyed at that person, and then feeling guilty about being annoyed. When you’re dealing with someone who has that level of issues, it creates a mixture of emotions: sympathy and hate and fear and anger and love and compassion and sympathy again. It puts everything right on the surface because the person or their situation isn’t giving you enough space to deal with your own emotions.

I was quite moved by the actor portraying the cop who attempts to calm the conflict between Mutty and the couple.

That actor is actually not an actor. His name is Rocky Scarborough, and he is the brother of Dennis Scarborough, who was in “Dipso.” Dennis played a similarly authoritative character in “Dipso,” and when I offered him the role in this movie, he was like, “Someone who would be much better is my brother.” That scene was pretty easy to shoot in that regard because I didn’t want to screw up what someone would actually do in the situation. Before Rocky came on board, we were talking internally about what would happen to Mutty in real life, or what the protocol would be for such a vague situation. I couldn’t get in contact with someone who had the right answers, so when Rocky came on board, it was a godsend. He gave us all the information we needed.

I spotted Joanna Arnow’s name in the “Special Thanks” section of the end credits. You and Joanna share a compulsion for keeping the camera on well past the comfort zone of your subjects, especially when it’s your own family, resulting in the bracing honesty of films like “i hate myself :)” and “Truth in Wine.”

Yeah, totally. I love “i hate myself :),” and it definitely relates to how I work. A lot of my earlier documentaries have a confrontational component. When I wrote the “Hen” script, I reached out to Joanna, whom I had previously met at a screening. Some films I’ve done aren’t considered accessible because they’re just a little too much for some people, and the same has been said of Joanna’s work. She’s a great person, and after reading my script, she gave me a great perspective on it. In the end, nothing actually happens in the story, and I was afraid that the stakes were too low. I had gotten some feedback from people about that and I thought that they may not have understood the tone and politics of the film. I knew Joanna’s sensibility is in the wheelhouse of creative people who would jive with it.

Are you excited for the movie’s upcoming screening at the Sidewalk Film Festival?

Beyond excited but a bit apprehensive about going to Alabama right now and showing a film with these politics. But I think that’s why I made it—to make myself and others uncomfortable about our assumptions. I’ve admired Sidewalk’s programming for years now and to me it’s a beacon of hope with cutting-edge work every year. They allow filmmakers to push the edges a little bit and go beyond the pale. The Q&As I’ve had so far have been amazing, and to Sidewalk’s credit, they had the courage to program the film. “Tormenting the Hen” will be right in the heart of it there, and I’m really excited to see what is going to happen.

“Tormenting the Hen” screens at 8:10pm on Saturday, August 26th, at the Sidewalk Film Festival. For more info on Theodore Collatos, visit his official site.

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