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Director Jeremiah Kipp’s SLAPFACE, centres on the young and lonely Lucas (August Maturo), who after the death of his mother, lives in the rundown family home with his brother Tom (Mike Manning). When Lucas encounters a monster in the woods, it begins to intimate the human characters, from the girls that bully Lucas, to the abusive game of slap-face he and Tom play.


In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Kipp discussed borrowing from his grandfather’s stories, how fear and insecurity motivate violence, and the importance of expressing the monster’s humanity.


FRIGHTFEST:- 'What we are' versus 'who we feel we are' can often be out of synch. I've spoken with directors who say that it took a number of films before they felt they could call themselves a filmmaker. Do you feel that you can call yourself a filmmaker?


JEREMIAH KIPP: I've loved making movies ever since I was twelve-years-old. I was one of those kids running around with a VHS camcorder in the woods, enlisting my friends, and turning my grandfather into a monster. I loved making movies because it combined all of the things I was passionate about as a creative young person. It combined all of the performance aspects of acting with the visual elements of drawing, and the storytelling elements of writing. So I made hundreds of those movies in the backyard, and I was fortunate enough to study filmmaking at New York University.


SLAPFACE is feature number six, but true to the spirit of your question, it was very strange making this movie because even though I'd done five other features, there was something special about SLAPFACE. It was my first time as a solo writer-director. Most of my features before had been work for hire, where I was essentially handed a script, and told, “Go make this movie to the best of your ability - here's the budget.” There was little creative say in the material or in the edit. But with SLAPFACE, there was one writer, and that was me.


… I was reminded of other filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen who say that FARGO felt like their first movie, or Guillermo Del Toro who said THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE felt like his first. These movies felt like a culmination of things they were interested in, and they were finally able to pull together the resources along with their desires to tell that story.


FF: To speak about theme, are you attentive to specific themes from the outset, or is it a journey of discovery?


JK: I think a lot about theme when I'm directing, but in the writing process it's a little different - the themes emerge over time. Writing SLAPFACE, it all started with my passion for Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN. There's a remarkable section in the middle of the book, where the creature is circling a farm house and imagining the lives of the people inside. I started thinking of bringing in elements of my own family growing up in Rhode Island.


I grew up with my grandparents deep in the woods and there are elements of my grandfather's story that found their way into Lucas’ story. For example, the three girls that throw rocks at Lucas and one of them circles around and says, “I'm your secret girlfriend”, they were people from my grandfather's life. I thought, ‘What if that happened in our story? What if I took the game of slap-face that my grandfather's father played with him, and it found its way into this film?’


… There's something delightful about having a monster in your movie. There's a joy in discovering a creature in the woods that will be your secret friend, but there's no joy in the system of abuse between two people who love one another.


When the brothers are slapping one another, they don't think of it as being child abuse. They think of it as being an expression of contact. They think of it as a way to clear the air between each other. They think of it as a way to feel something because they're so traumatised by grief. This act of hitting one another shakes them up and allows them to say, “I'm still alive. I feel something.” It’s a crazy justification for bad behaviour.


Taking that brutalising world and putting it next to one where a boy and a monster are having little adventures in the woods, when those paths cross, the themes naturally start to emerge between what’s real and what’s imagined.


FF: SLAPFACE is in part about peer pressure and how we succumb to it. We allow people to dictate to us, but we also fear confronting ourselves, that creates a toxicity and digs a metaphorical grave.


JK: People hurt others out of a fear of being left out of another group. When the children are bullying Lucas, and Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) spits in his face, she does it because she's measuring her feelings for Lucas against being part of a group that accepts her. She doesn't want to be ostracised. People are patterning their behaviour on a fear of being left out, or the fear of not doing a good job. You're always aspiring to not be hurt and so sometimes you preemptively strike another person as a way of saying, “I will hit you before you hit me.” It creates a cycle of abuse that's dangerous.


FF: Monsters are often a reflection of who we are, and in SLAPFACE, the monster channels the anxiety and fear of the characters. It specifically focuses on the consequences of cultivating negative energies, tapping into the formation of destructive negative belief systems and behavioural patterns.


JK: Finding the humanity of the monster and treating it like a character that has her own desires, love and fears, was crucial. This monster was not the “other”, this monster is as much a part of these relationships in the movie as the other characters are.


… The monster can be read as an interpretation of all the basic human needs that we have, for better and worse. I was more interested in addressing some of the things you are talking about, than playing the game with the audience as to whether the monster is real or not? It’s a part of the fabric of the story, but what's more interesting is how is the monster a representation of our own humanity, and how as humans we behave monstrously? And how are those things in communication, because they’re constantly rubbing up against one another in the movie.


I care far more about the representation of character than having some sly twist where it's either in Lucas' head or it’s not. Nobody believes Lucas, which is part of the allegorical nature of the story. I always liken it to Big Bird on SESAME STREET, when no one believed that Mr Snuffleupagus was real, and yet we the audience saw him. It informed our opinions about the nature of that creature’s reality. What was more important in that story was that Big Bird was not believed, and this very important relationship for Big Bird was left out of the experience for others.


Children can see a lot of that complexity, and I’d be curious what children think of the movie. When we screened it at Cinequest young people responded emotionally to the depiction of childhood in the story.


SLAPFACE is streaming exclusively on Shudder.


Paul Risker.



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