Starting with the insane and inventive dive into the multiple interpretations of The Shining and moving to exploring the terrifying condition that is sleep paralysis in The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher has managed to transform documentaries into a higher art form with his magnificent mussing on multiple aspects of horror and what really scares us.
Primal Screen, which was made exclusively for Shudder, focuses on this idea far more than all his other films detailing the massive influence one simple horror movie trailer had on the lives of several people.
We got to chat to Rodney about creating his movies, creepy ventriloquists and YouTube being a modern miracle.
Zombie2: First of all could I just say I am a huge fan of your work and I loved Primal Screen. I still think The Nightmare is one of the scariest films I have seen in a long time. Secondly thank you so much for answering these questions for us.
Rodney Ascher: Of course, and thanks!
Zombie2: How did you come up with the idea for Primal Screen?
Rodney Ascher: To me it feels like a pretty straight line from the last few projects I’ve done. When talking with the folks at Shudder, a short I did before Room 237 came up, ‘The S From Hell’ which was about a few peoples’ childhood fear of the Screen Gems logo (yes, its a real thing). It seemed like childhood phobias, especially from mass-market culture was fertile ground to explore.
Zombie2: What kind of research did you do before filming?
Rodney Ascher: A lot of the research came after talking with the people we featured, but ventriloquism was something producer Tim Kirk and I had been reading up on and discussing previously for a different project so I was happy to do the first episode on the topic. But yeah – the research including a few nonfiction books on the subject, more evil-dummy movies than I can count, a few surprising conversations, and endless nights falling into online bottomless pits.
Zombie2: This documentary takes the same fantastic format as The Nightmare blending interview audio with acted out recreations. Can you run us through your process in taking the speakers words and translating them into these extremely effective fictionalised scenes?
Rodney Ascher: In both cases, I had rough audio-only versions of the project edited before filming the re-enactments. Then, after some back and forths with concept artist Louisa Van Leer I sketched out some shot sequences and storyboarded them out, roughing out timing. In shots where timing to the voice over was really important, I’d play the interviews back on the set.
Zombie2: In my opinion, the true power behind your work is your ability to create a hybrid of reality and fiction. You display both the facts and the feelings of the interviewees in mini vignettes of horror that tap straight into the audience’s fears. How do you decide what to add in and where do these nightmarish images come from such as the shadow ventriloquist?
Rodney Ascher: I don’t know that I can describe it more specifically than I listen again and again to my favorite parts and imagine what I want to see. The image you mention hit me during the initial interview, when he said ‘the darkness was coming from the ventriloquist’ I was kind of struck by the implication of that. I don’t know if what I filmed was exactly what he was thinking but I think part of the fun of it for me is getting to interpret people’s subjective reactions. It’d maybe be a different process if we were trying to prove a death-row inmate’s innocence.
Zombie2: How did you find working with child actors especially in creating scenes of terror?
Rodney Ascher: The kids were great and got into it. I think the audio playback was helpful here too, since we weren’t recording sound for most of it, we could film them as they listened to the interviews, or sometimes the music that I obsessively organized and selected to set the mood on set.
Zombie2: Like all your films this documentary is packed with excellent archive footage and pictures. How do you go about getting and selecting what to put in?
Rodney Ascher: We watch a ton of stuff, burning through the collections on Netflix and the public library. I got a lot of recommendations for the best of ventriloquism-cinema from some friends too. Youtube is a modern miracle (there’s a real art to picking your keywords) and the Vidiots Archive had some impossible to find stuff that helped bring it home.
Zombie2: The uncanny valley is a fascinating subject and increasingly more pertinent as technology speeds forwards. Do you think things will get better or worse in our acceptance of things like us but not us?
Rodney Ascher: I’m not sure – clearly there will be more and more human-adjacent creatures in our future. The big question is whether anxiety about them is something we’re born with (like a fear of snakes say) or familiarity will breed acceptance.
Zombie2: As this specifically looks at the Magic trailer and our dread of dolls and dummies, would you explore other fears under the Primal Screen banner?
Rodney Ascher: Absolutely, if this one goes over well.
Zombie2: Can you remember any trailers, TV shows or films that scared and moulded you as a child as much as the Magic trailer affected these people?
Rodney Ascher: There was an episode of ‘That’s Incredibe’ that horrified me and I couldn’t get out of my head for years. In it, a daredevil runs through some sort of a tunnel of fire, and makes it okay, but then for some reason, he turns and runs back! He has to be pulled out of it and I remember him holding up his horribly burnt fingers to the camera and saying ‘dont try anything like this kids.’ I only saw it the once over 30 years ago but I remember ever detail. To this day, the idea that doom has a siren call that can lure any of us to oblivion haunts me.
Zombie2: What’s next for you?
Rodney Ascher: I’m working on a handful of things in different formats though we’re not quite ready to announce them yet. And hopefully more Primal Screen!
Zombie2: Thank you for your time and I seriously can’t wait to see what you bring out next!
Rodney Ascher: Thanks Alex, I appreciate it!
Watch Primal Screen on Shudder NOW!