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Horror Film Director Norbert Keil and Actor Barbara Crampton Discuss the Pleasures of the Genre

"All characters should be able to justify their actions, however heinous," says Crampton, who plays a twisted doctor in body horror film, Replace


Director: Norbert Keil
Cast: Rebecca Forsythe, Lucie Aron, Barbara Crampton
Studio: Jinga Films
US Release date: 2017-06-16
UK Release date: 2017-08-27
"The more I work, the less therapy I need."
While there is a strength of presence to the visual aesthetic of Norbert Keil’s Replace (2017), often violent and grim, the story of one woman’s attempt to hold onto youth is a reminder that horror cinema is a realm of ideas. The debut feature of the German filmmaker, it's a mature work that not only taps into a fear of our gradual decay but addresses ideas of choice, freedom and emotional impulse.

Afflicted with a dermatological disease, Kira (Rebecca Forsythe) discovers she can replace it with the skin of other girls. It's a discovery that leads her to make the choice between self-preservation or decay.

Ahead of the UK Premiere at Horror Channel FrightFest, Keil and actress Barbara Crampton, who plays the ominous Dr. Crober, discuss with PopMatters the human nature of the horror at the heart of Replace. They also reflect on their respective processes in front of and behind the camera -- Keil discusses the gestation of an idea and thematic intent, while Crampton reflects on the shades of archetypes and the resonance of characters on her sense of self. Uniting the discussion, they address the enduring appeal of the horror genre, the audience as a collaborator, and the transformative nature of the creative process.

Why filmmaking or performance as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Norbert Keil (NK): There probably were two of those moments that really did it for me. The first was watching E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial when I was 11 -- it left me in tears for days after. I’m not making this up: Days. The second one was Return of the Jedi. I left the theatre and I clearly remember that moment when the sun blinded me and I just thought: This is what I want to do -- take an audience on a ride that is filled with emotion, suspense, scares, laughter and places you’ve never seen before. Of course, my thoughts weren’t as elaborate as this, but it‘s what I felt and since that day I’ve pursued filmmaking.

Barbara Crampton (BC):It's something I've dreamed about since watching old movies in my youth. I particularly loved anything with Danny Kaye, Miriam Hopkins, and Bette Davis. These were the performers who influenced me at an early age.

I recall Quentin Tarantino saying: “If you want to make films, watch films. If you want to write books, read books.” But I have also heard the contrarian opinion to pursue that which you are less familiar with, or rather have had less exposure to. How do you view the importance of exposure to a creative medium as being integral to the individual pursuing it?

NK: I think every filmmaker has to find out for him or herself how much research, film history, technical expertise and in-depth knowledge he or she needs to be able to be a good storyteller. Add to this that in my opinion filmmaking is never a one person thing, it’s always a group effort. In a way, I went the Tarantino-route. I never went to film school but watched a zillion films, and I'm still doing that, just because I love it. I feel that it did teach me a lot, but it took a lot more to become a filmmaker. So the exposure I think was essential for me, but it also was just part of a lot of things.

Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman told me: “Making a short film I felt you could hold it in your hand, whereas a feature film is like a runaway train.” How do you compare and contrast short with feature films?

NK: A short can be like a good joke. It can have a narrative arc, but doesn’t necessarily need one. That’s why shorts can be so much fun.

A feature is totally different. You need to convince your audience to stay in their seats, or to stop streaming during every minute of your story. Creatively I think features, in terms of emotional depth and artistic expression, just offer much more to both the filmmakers and the audience. The ride is more immersive, more fun and you get to be much wilder. So I see how it could turn into a runaway train because there are so many more elements to it, but for me that just means the whole team needs to be prepped much better than on a short.

On the subject of the genesis of Replace, the way in which ideas or stories take shape are divided between those writers who write through images and those writers who perceive that stories are thought out through words. How does the process work for you? Does the idea emerge through images or expressions and words?

NK: For me it always starts with a feeling, a clear emotion or something that I am terrified of (if I’m writing genre). So with Replace, I had a very scary experience when I ruptured two discs in my spine, and in the months after I felt that I had lost control over my body. When I looked for a way to visualize that loss of control, the image of dried skin came into my mind and was quickly followed by peeling it off and replacing it. So you could say that for me it's always a very specific emotion, that then mutates into a visual, and that then fills the page.

When you first read the script for Replace, what was the appeal of the character and the story?

(BC): Originally when I was asked to consider the part, it had been written for a man, so just that alone intrigued me. Crober is a doctor and no nonsense. She has an interesting ‘turn’ at one point and that seemed like a departure for me, and a challenge. We actors don't like to repeat ourselves and this was something a bit different. The story of a young girl faced with her bodily decay and wanting to hold on to her youth forever really interested me. This is a fact and peril, if you will, that does not elude any of us. The three main characters in the film look at this aspect of life from three very different points of view. I loved that, and everyone in the film has a voice.

Thinking back to the character of Irma you played in Sun Choke, Crober could be described as a shade of a similar archetype. It leads me to contemplate how, as an actor across different roles, you are afforded an opportunity to explore the differing shades of an archetype. Do you find this to be a rewarding experience, and one that informs your everyday perspective?

(BC): Every character has a prism through which they see the world, and experience happenings and events depending on their point of view. The two characters you are talking about, Irma and Dr. Crober, have very different backgrounds and professions, but you are correct that their responses to taking care of a young, seemingly out of control girl in both stories, and taking advantage of their position do have similarities. I add myself into the mix of working on a character because I think: If I were this character in this situation what would I do? In addition to making my portrayal seem real and natural, I also want to entertain you!

All characters should be able to justify their actions, however heinous, and working on different types of personalities helps me better understand myself and human nature. It's enabled me to be more forgiving of others and myself and to be more open-minded.

There's a moment in the film when Kira talks about how her mother felt like she had wasted her youth. This taps into the idea of life as a singular opportunity that can't be corrected or changed once lived -- the permanence of choice. This moment laments the sadness of life as a series of fleeting moments that I found to be a particularly powerful one in the film.

(BC): Just when you begin to figure it all out you realize all the things you could have done differently or could have done better, and you suddenly realize how old you are and the impermanence of life. Everyone experiences this to different degrees. I try to do the best I can in all the little moments that make up the ‘now’ and to not make myself crazy thinking it's a singular experience that I have to somehow get ‘right’. One is always going to make mistakes and have successes -- every one of us. How can we make choices consciously and still be joyful is my goal. Being in the moment is a big one for me to continue to work on.

NK: You couldn't be more spot on with that observation. The permanence of her own choices and the inevitability of life being a oneway road, that will ultimately lead to an end, are exactly the things that Kira tries to battle. She is a very tragic character in that she regrets so many choices that she has made. I think it's a battle we all have to fight with ourselves -- do we live with who we are, or do we do our utmost to become something or someone else?

How conscious are the ideas or themes? I ask because when I interviewed Pablo Larraín, he spoke of how you discover the film in the final cut. The idea we have just discussed is a conscious one but is the film a mix of deliberate and organic ideas and themes?

NK: All the ideas and themes Richard Stanley and I wrote into the script are very conscious choices. And everything I discussed with the actresses and actors in rehearsals and on set were very intentional choices too. So thematically there were no surprises in the editing room. But having said that, I'm sure that a lot of people will discover things in the film, that for them are as true and real as everything that we put in there.

That's one of the wonderful things about art in any form -- it will be a different experience for everyone. People are coming up to me after screenings a lot and asking: "I interpret that event in the film in this particular way -- am I correct?" I always tell them that there is no correct interpretation of anything. The truth will always be what you feel or take away from a film, even if it's something other than what the filmmakers have intended.

One of the other ideas the film engages with is the nature of choice. Kira specifically shows the way in which choice can become a prison, or ironically entrapment through a freedom of choice. Although Kira is in many ways never free, as she is burdened by her fear of ageing and is therefore subjugated to impulse.

NK: Indeed the first time we witness Kira making a conscious choice in the film is when she is at a crossroads and has the option to redeem herself. Before that she always follows basic instincts and gives in to her needs. So your observation is pretty much perfect.

I think your remark about entrapment through the freedom of choice is very interesting. I've often wondered myself if there actually is a thing as freedom of choice. We are all so constrained within our lives or what we think our lives should be, by the opinions of our friends and family. I'm not complaining, just observing. So if you look at Kira in that way, she is actually a very brave person. She goes down a route that her family and friends would be horrified at and chooses to give everything she has for what she so longs for. This also makes her a very lonely person. And here we are again, she's trapped by her freedom of choice.

The morality of the film seems to emerge out of what could be described as a moral vacuum. For much of the film, while we do not agree with Kira's actions, we do not judge her. It is perhaps only when Crober talks about "humanity not remembering a few test subjects" that the consideration of morality is sparked. To my mind, it speaks of how our emotions and instincts, such as the survival instinct and the need for self-preservation can cloud or threaten our intellectual nature.

NK: For me Kira's battle with morality was always the most important and intriguing part of the film. Watching her body performing unspeakable deeds, while her mind screams bloody murder and tries to stop the body, that just mesmerized me. Why? I think we all have urges that are subdued by society, behavioural norms and of course morality, which includes the above. So it's great in a way to watch somebody else just give in.

We are emotional creatures. It's not the mind that makes the biggest choices in our lives, but our emotions. When you fall in love, it's not your mind. When you get into a fight, an argument, when you create art. It’s always an emotion that is driving you.

Speaking with Don Mancini about the reason for the enduring appeal of the Chucky character, he said: "Fundamentally it is that we have a primal aversion to distortions of the human form that links us to our fear of decay and ageing. Even seeing a skeleton or a rotting skull or whatever gives us a similar feeling. You are looking at a face or a body thinking: Okay, I recognise that it has two eyes, a nose and a mouth, but it’s just off. That's something that what we now call the uncanny valley. It's just inherently disturbing. So I think that's part of Chucky's enduring appeal.”

It strikes me that this may also explain the wider appeal of the horror genre for both storytellers and audiences alike. Do you agree with Don's above point and what are your thoughts on the reason why we are drawn to horror stories such as Replace?

NK: I would totally agree with Don. One of the scariest images I've seen in my life is the distorted child floating underwater in Ken Russell's Gothic. It gives me goosebumps right now. So yes, slight distortion is scary as hell.

Talking about Replace, I think people are intrigued by the concept because it is tangible. We have all had a really bad sunburn at some point, or a wound that kept hurting and shedding dead skin. So it's something we can relate to. It's not like she's growing a third arm out of the top of her head. Horror stories, in general, will take you to places so dark and scary, fun and surprising that you will always want to come back for more. It's like riding the rollercoaster and screaming your lungs out, but afterward, you'll want that rush again. It's like a primal experience or at least it is for me.

(BC): There's no doubt that a face that seems off as in a doll like Chucky or a fixed visage as in a hockey mask is inherently disturbing. We all look for facial cues for greater understanding, and if we don't get that, it's frightening. However, I do think people are drawn to horror to face their fears. Fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of death. One wants to see people in scary situations overcoming danger and prevailing. If someone on screen can do it and succeed, then perhaps I can too.

Barbara Crampton in Replace (2017) (IMDB)

When we last spoke, Barbara, you said: "On the last night of filming We Are Still Here, I was really overcome, and I said to Travis Stevens in the hotel: “Can we please do the movie all over again? I finally understand her... I can do it now." Is this an experience you'd liken to your performance of Dr. Crober? But would this deeper understanding as opposed to the pursuit of understanding deprive them of an essence? In your mind, if you could go back and play these characters again, how different would their presence and inflections, their verbal and physical exchanges be?

(BC): Maybe just as in life, after we live it, we would go back and know how to do better next time. I most likely feel this way about all my performances, especially after I see them myself. There are certainly things I would tweak after seeing Dr. Crober play out on screen and in the story, but they are little moments here and there, not huge changes.

I don't think I've ever given a perfect performance in my mind. I'll never be completely satisfied. I just hope the essence of what I try to do with each character comes through, and I've served the writer and director in ways that they are satisfied enough. My job is to serve their idea as much as possible.

When you finally sat down in front of the final cut of Replace, despite your knowledge and awareness, could you express an understanding of Barbara's feelings as it pertains to you as the writer and director? Is there a sense of finally understanding a film at the end?

NK: You discover things and new connections in the material, that's for sure. Richard Nord, who was a consulting editor on the film, and who's worked with amazing people like Mike Nichols, told me this while we were discussing the edit: “You write your film three times. When you write the script, then when you shoot it, and lastly when you edit it.” He was referring to story-beats, timing and what we were trying to relate to the audience.

So in a way he's right, but I think it's also true that you have to stick to your vision as much as possible through every step of the process. So coming back to the question of understanding a film at the end, I feel that for me it's not understanding, it’s more a process of potentially redefining your film, and that can totally happen. On Replace, though we did not redefine anything really, we just shifted balances and put the beats in the best position.

Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?

NK: I agree with Carol Morley on as much as the audience bringing themselves is an amazing and important element for any film. But I feel that a film will not change, really, nor will the audience add to the finished film. It's the perception of a film and the way each group experiences it that will be changed by the audience. So sometimes your film might be a shocker, and other times it will be a dark drama that touches people. Or people might cheer for the gross effects or the nudity. It's unpredictable and super fun.

Does the audience own the film? Yes, in a way they do. As a filmmaker, you have gotta let it go, like parents have to let go of their children eventually.

(BC): The audience definitely finishes the movie for you. I might debate her on the percentage of it however. I'll give the audience more than ten percent to complete it in their hearts and minds. There's the movie you think you're making, then the movie you make, then the movie the audience tells you that you made. Sometimes the reactions are vastly different than the filmmaker expects -- in good ways and in negative ways. The enduring ones live a special life. Audiences fall in love with the story, it's ideals and characters. If you truly love a film and it resonates with you, has meaning, than it belongs to you in your heart.

The great films do that for us all. I have It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz stored forever in my DNA. Both films deal with the notion that happiness is in our own backyard. Films remind us who we are and who we aspire to be. They comfort and bind us together as a culture, and in our humanity. We are collectively like a rocket ship that is consistently going off course, and has to continually right itself to persist to stay the course. All storytelling helps us do that.

Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

NK: So true. So many people described the shoot as kind of a demented therapy session, and on Replace a lot of people brought so much heart, energy, and creativity to the film, and none of them, including myself, was left unchanged by the experience. You open yourself up and share ideas, and there's no way not to be changed by that. It's wonderful and amazing. Especially when you're low budget. I think it's as much a job as it is a passion, and very emotional.

(BC): To me being creative is everything. We are always creating every day in our personal lives, but you are often not in touch with it in the moment. Working on a film heightens and specifies your intention and all involved are working on the very same thing, in the same moment with no distractions. One is forced to pay attention to exclusion of all else. It's a very freeing experience. There's depth and meaning to attention and perception.

If you are trying to say something with your film, you will have worked it out while making the movie, and hopefully evolving and improving as a storyteller and human being. Film deals with moments and feelings, and we are mirroring and examining human nature. The more I work, the less therapy I need.

Horror Channel FrightFest hosted the UK Premiere of Replace, which will be released on DVD/EST on 16 October 2017 by Jinga Films.

Sources cited:

Risker, Paul. Interview with Ariel Kleiman. Film Int, 1 February 2016.

—-. Interview with Don Mancini. Horror Channel FrightFest Programme Guide, 13 August 2017.

—-. Interview with Carol Morley. Starburst Magazine, 24 April 2014.

—-. Interview with Christoph Behl. FrightFest Gore in the Store, 24 April 2015.

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