Kickstarting a New Generation of Exploitation: The Minds Behind TEN

A movie interview article by: Nicholas Slayton

Michael J. Epstein, Sophia Cacciola, and Jade Sylvan are busy artists. Among them, they're in a number of different bands including the Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, and Darling Pet Munkee, as well as individual projects. And at the end of 2012, they got together to film TEN, a “post-exploitation” horror film

I reached out to the TEN crew and managed to speak to them about the film. Esptein (director/co-writer), Cacciola (actress/producer/co-writer) and Sylvan (actress/co-writer) jumped into a conversation about independent production, the innovations of exploitation films and the triumphs, and troubles facing Boston's arts scene.


Nicholas Slayton for Comics Bulletin: How did TEN get started? You made a trailer for a contest, but what made you decide to make a full length feature?

Michael J. Epstein: There's a movie theater hear near Harvard called the Brattle Theatre, and they hold an annual trailer competition called the Trailer Smackdown. They assign a title and let you pull down a set of characteristics, and you make a trailer, then they have a party night where they show all of the trailers. It's interesting to see how all different people approach getting assigned the movie title “TEN,” and what parameters they chose. Then we accidentally decided to make it a real movie. I think we're the first ones. They've been doing it for 10 years – that's why it's called “TEN” – and we're actually the first ones to be stupid enough to turn it into a full movie.

Sophia Cacciola: When we were doing the trailer we had an outline of an idea, so we had a lot of ideas stuffed into the trailer, and it lent itself to that.

Epstein: But when you're making a trailer, you don't actually know what the movie's about. It's mostly “let's make a cool scene that doesn't really have anything to do with anything, but we like.”

Jade Sylvan: There could have been a plot. You have to see the movie to find out.

Epstein: There's a plot now.

Cacciola: We tried to work in a few scenes from the trailer into the movie, and those turned out to be the hardest part.

CB: The film's said to be about the Spektor Island Massacre in the 1970s. What's the massacre, what happened on that island?

Epstein: I don't know a whole lot about it. I had just heard about some years ago, and it stuck with me. I'm not sure what it's really about or if it's real or not. Interesting story about some strange volcanic formation after an earthquake. If you look around the web there are all these weird conspiracy theory sites. So it's this weird conspiracy thing about how the government was conducting experiments in this weird place.

Sylvan: I'd never heard about it until I moved here. I'm from the Midwest, and I think it's an urban legend.

Epstein: It stuck with us as an idea, and whether it's true or not, it's a good idea for the movie. It was a choice, do we actually research this and follow all of the conspiracy theories, or take the basic idea and do our own thing.

CB: My favorite part of the description was that this is a “post-exploitation film.” What does that mean to you? Is TEN an homage to the era of exploitation films? A pastiche?

Epstein: What's really interesting about exploitation movies is they were presented as being done in a garbage, schlocky way, but in fact, they were ultimately the only movies that allowed types of characters that would otherwise be stereotyped or marginalized in other movies, like having women as lead characters in action movies.

Cacciola: We still don't have women as lead characters, especially a black woman. All the old '70s blaxploitation movies, where it's a strong black woman who has conversations and kicks ass, those still don't exist [in the mainstream], and that was 30 years ago.

Epstein: The way I describe it is that they were using violence, nudity and sex, and other taboo subjects to sell movies, but it also created a situation where they could create interesting conversations about those topics. Some exploitation movies really are just bad schlock movies. But there are a lot of them that are really fascinating and approach interesting ideas without having to spend a lot of money to make it possible. I love exploitation movies. There's a whole range of filmmakers who are influenced by that. It's interesting seeing the whole Tarantino-Rodriguez crew making really expensive exploitation movies.

Cacciola: Sometimes it doesn't really work for that idea. The charm is that they did it with nothing.

Epstein: The point to me is that we're making stuff that's informed by that, and we have the benefit of the hindsight. I don't know if at the time they viewed those movies as groundbreaking, as their giving voices to characters and people that wouldn't have voices otherwise, but 30-40 years later we view this as innovative. We still haven't gotten to do this in mainstream film. Being informed in that manner makes it so that we can make a movie that takes on some of those ideas. I don't consider us using shock to sell the movie.

Sylvan: We have an all female cast, which doesn't really happen. Not only that, it's an all female cast where that isn't the point, which is actually the weird thing. They don't do woman things, if that makes sense. We don't have any conversations about relationships or things like that.

CB: So, it passes the Bechdel test.

Epstein: Yes.

Sylvan: They're motivated by desires that usually male characters in movies are motivated by. So the plot points are traditionally, I would have to say, male in film.

Epstein: Usually a film like this might have two token female characters.

Cacciola: Most of the characters would be interchangeable with the males. It would change the outcome, but you wouldn't have to change much.

Epstein: The script is written so that none of the dialogue would be strange coming out of a female's mouth. But it's structured in a way that the characters are female. When we started this, it wasn't even that we thought this was such a ground breaking thing. We just thought there aren't a lot of movies with all female casts in this ensemble form. Then we started doing research, and it's almost impossible to find a movie that's an ensemble cast of women.

Sylvan: And usually the movies are actually about men. In The Women the whole movie is them talking about men, and that was made in the '30s.

Epstein: It's surprising how few movies exist [with all-female casts], maybe none.

Cacciola: It's surprising how much we accept men with all men in them and don't even think of them. Most Quentin Tarantino movies have no women. We don't think about. In this case people will be forced to think about it because they haven't seen it.

Sylvan: Kill Bill had it.

Epstein: Kill Bill is a mix of kung fu and exploitation movie, where you have this female character getting revenge.

Cacciola: In Pulp Fiction, you have Uma Thurman who's this classic femme fatale who's not really that interesting.

TEN film pigs

CB: For Cacciola and Sylvan, what was it like acting in it? You co-wrote it, and then helped bring the characters to life.

Sylvan: It was a really interesting process for me. I'd written a lot of nonfiction and poetry and fiction, but this was the first time I'd written a screenplay. And I've also performed and acted in quite a few things, but I'd never acted my own writing before. It was challenging for me as an actor; I found it harder to take direction almost then if I was reading someone else's words. And I thought it was interesting to see what other performers did with the lines.

I'm writing them, we're writing them, and I have my idea about how they would come off or how somebody would say them. And then the performers would do their lines and craft their characters and it was totally different and that was awesome. Sometimes they'd change the words, and I had to navigate when I'd say something. Usually I didn't. Oh that's cool, they made this be theirs. It was a very collaborative feeling, to be involved in both of those things.

Cacciola: Things that I didn't think would work – that I didn't love about the script – once it was in the actors' hands, it translated. We have a very religious character who quotes a lot of biblical passages. When I was reading the script I'd kind of glaze over. But when she was saying it, she really understood, and make it make sense and work in ways that I could not envision on a flat page.

Epstein: It's really interesting seeing that transition. Really, characters coming to life, because everyone involved invested a lot of time and life in finding who their character was. It wasn't just “Oh I'm going to memorize lines.”

Cacciola: A lot of the cast was chosen by people we knew. Not necessarily actors; we're really involved in the music and the arts community in Boston. There's not a lot of performers that we knew that were traditional actors. A few were.

Sylvan: Several are burlesque performers and vaudeville people from the local scene.

Cacciola: We actually went in thinking “Oh the acting might not be that good, but they're captivating people.” And then they were all so good, so it was really weird.

Epstein: They're all people who are artists in some form.

Sylvan [to Sophia]: you said when you looked for people to cast, you were looking for a type of person, not so much an actor.

Cacciola: Part of it was that we were moving into this mansion in Rhode Island for a week, and I had to find people who could live with us. We couldn't bring in a boring, normal person who doesn't fit in.

CB: You mentioned the arts scene, and you Kickstarted the film to fund it. Is it easier to reach an audience or supporters now? Or with things like the Boston Phoenix going under, is the arts scene hurt?

Epstein: Just with changes in the last few years, we've been able to cultivate a good kind of local set of connections through social media. We're active in going to shows and doing things, but social media's helped us get in touch.

Cacciola: We're in touch every day, but you've still got to put yourself out there. You've got to bring your body where these people are, and talk to them and support their projects. The Boston art scene is really communal with everyone supporting each other. With the Kickstarter, the money just flows in a big circle. Any time someone needs $20, someone's pledging the $20.

Sylvan: It's like a small closed economy. I don't even know who's supporting who anymore, but somehow we all keep making money or doing stuff. It's just different now. The real artists who have been creating interesting work on the forefront of whatever their area is, they've had to scramble and figure out how to do it, because media always changes before people catch up. We're just trying to navigate all of the changes that are going on and use whatever tools we have.

Cacciola: I think the loss of the Phoenix is a huge blow to Boston. We won't see it quite yet, but soon, because it was the alternative newspaper. It was around for 40 years doing that so well, and being able to put the word out about things in Boston.

Epstein: As I mentioned in my blog article, the quantity of stuff it covered was pretty high. And since it was a respected outlet, so you had a lot of stuff getting attention and getting that respect. We have a few places covering arts, but the quantity they do is much smaller.

Cacciola: And the reach they had was enormous, way outside of our small circles.

Sylvan: I think something will have to take it's place. I don't know what that will look like.

TEN film blood

CB: Do you think horror should be shocks and in-your-face gore? Or should it be more suspenseful and atmospheric?

Epstein: I both hate modern horror films and love Alfred Hitchcock, so I think that probably gives you the answer. Maybe there's a place for both. Maybe there's a place for really bloody gore. I'm not into the pure shock movies where you feel you're being manipulated by the slow movement of the camera and the building of the music and boom it happens when you predicted it would.

When I watch modern horror movie that's kind of my experience: I'm being manipulated by this exact pattern they use over and over again. Even in Hitchcock's stuff, when it was sort of doing it, he was able to control pacing in a way that made you feel like you never knew when or what was going to happen.

Cacciola: And he had a control over what not to show you, letting you imagine what this thing is you should be scared of. One of my favorite shots from a Hitchcock movie is when this woman gets shot – and she's wearing this big red dress – and she just kind of crumbles to the floor. Her dress spools out around her and it represents the blood. It would have been worse with blood. It was just so beautiful the way it spread out. Just that ideology: that you don't have to show everything.

Epstein: I do also enjoy a little fake blood.

Sylvan: There was some fake blood.

Cacciola: There's a lot of fake blood in our movie. But if it's there it's got to be schlocky.

Sylvan: Only tasteful fake blood and only tasteful nudity is necessary.

Epstein: The way I talk about movies in general is that I think the people making the movies don't trust the audience to be patient and to take a long journey, maybe sit through a shot that lasts a minute or two minutes. If you watch 2001, it's a great example. It's like five minutes of panning on the outside of a spaceship. Some people hate it, but to me it's the kind of thing in filmmaking that's compelling, because you have time to experience what you're looking at and to soak in the imagery. When we were making these, we did a lot of takes with very long shots.

Some people will hate it, but I want the experience to be like you're sitting in the room with these people, in a fixed location, with maybe a full minute without a cut. There's something about that experience that's unsettling, especially in modern film. I really trust the audience to be a good audience and be drawn into that experience. I don't have to hit them over the head with really fast movement and constant stimulation. I think people will appreciate something that's a little more subtle.

Sylvan: It's just novelty at this point. We're so use to everything being so fast. It's all top 10 lists with a sentence and a picture that's maybe a gif. I think it's interesting to see something that harkens back to a different form of medium.

Epstein: There are people doing that now. There are some filmmakers rejecting the fast cut multi-camera stuff, but it hasn't broken into the mainstream yet.

CB: Since you're musicians, so did you make new music for TEN? Or did you use old stuff, such as “You're Making a Big Mistake” which was used in the trailer?

Epstein: For the trailer we used something that existed, out of convenience. We're working with Catherine Capozzi; we play in a band called Darling Pet Munkee with her. She's doing an all original, more score-oriented than song-oriented soundtrack for it. It's kind of a guitar based score. Stylistically it's a wide range.

Cacciola: Cathy gets a lot of weird noises out of her guitar. She's very riff driven, she can play a cool melody, but you wouldn't know it's a guitar all of the time. All of the layers blend together.

Sylvan: The film is very character driven, even though it's an exploitation thing. She's doing themes for each of the characters. That's exciting for me as someone who's involved in the writing process – again, seeing how another artist puts a spin on the characters.

CB: What's the release plan for TEN? Are you aiming for the festival circuit?

Epstein: The movie's basically done, we're just doing sound work. We're going to submit to the fall, summer festivals, with the goal of getting into some good festivals and trying to get distribution. The best case scenario is that we get into good festivals next year. We're very prepared to self-release it if that's the best course. More and more people are doing it. I don't expect that we're going to have a big theatrical run with this thing.

Sylvan: Cult movies are the way of the future.

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