By Chuck Williamson
Charles Pinion has gained cult notoriety for his unofficial trilogy of transgressive, art-schlock horror films — all self-distributed, fiercely experimental, and shot using analog video technologies. With the forthcoming release of ‘Aztec Blood’, Pinion finally returns to the world of psychotronic horror — now in 3D! We discussed his new film, its origins, and the transition to digital filmmaking.
Aztec Blood is your first feature-length film in eighteen years. What was the impetus for your return to filmmaking after such a long hiatus?
I would say I never actually went on hiatus (though I am a big believer in sabbaticals). My most recent narrative feature We Await premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in 1996. Afterwards, back in San Francisco, I spent several months writing another feature called Thousand Eyes. An L.A.-based producer got in touch with me — he had seen Red Spirit Lake and We Await — so I started visiting LA now and then to meet with him and discuss potential projects. At first, he wanted to do a straight-up re-make of Red Spirit Lake. This was for no money up front. I would essentially be doing a re-write of my own movie, Red Spirit Lake, “on spec.” I had no interest in doing such a thing (Red Spirit Lake was only a few years old at that point), and especially for no money. What I did agree to do was write a script that would have similar elements to Red Spirit Lake: a remote location, a vulnerable woman, her friends, ghosts, and of course, nudity. This became Haunt, on which I collaborated with my friend Michelle Barnes. The story went along pretty well, and had some nice creepy and spooky elements (that I’d like to re-visit someday). But it was also a somewhat staid, commercial version of Red Spirit Lake. Not remotely transgressive. There would be no fisting in Haunt!
I finally moved to Los Angeles, escaping with some reluctance the dotcom-booming San Francisco that had been my home for six years. In LA, I edited (and shot parts of) Two Headed Cow, a documentary about legendary Flat Duo Jets guitarist Dexter Romweber. I also edited a documentary about Kurdistan called Thank You for My Eyes. As Chezerez Jourdain, Jordan Ellis and I have co-created several music videos and short films, and have a music documentary in mind for the near future.
Filmmaking is a complicated and uncertain process. The bottom can fall out of any project, long before money gets involved, and then it can fall out again. Basically it can fall out any time. Anything can go wrong. The story might just not work. The location might not be available. Etc. Most filmmakers have several projects going on, on different burners. At any point the gas can go out on one of those burners, and you’re left with a stew of incomplete, “wasted” effort. In the world of independent movies (i.e. meager-to-no financing), it’s easy to get discouraged. You need other projects to keep you going.
Meanwhile, one must make money to live. Toward that end, I edited a few Canon camera-training DVDs, written and hosted by Greg Salman.
How was Aztec Blood conceived? What were the writing and preproduction processes like?
In 2004, Greg Salman, my Canon training DVD employer, approached me with the title American Mummy. I liked it immediately. I was surprised that it had not been used yet. We went through some ideas — a Native American mummy? A Revolutionary War mummy? — until we finally settled on an Aztec mummy. We have since changed the title to Aztec Blood, but its original title was the jumping-off point for the project’s evolution.
We wrote it over a few evenings over many months. We had the movie cast and ready to shoot in 2006. We were going to shoot it quick and (literally) dirty, living in the same tents that the characters lived in, for ten days or so. Just knock it out. We were going to shoot on a then-cutting-edge Canon HD camera. But financial issues came up, and we had to pull the plug. This is a common story in this crazy business.
Periodically Greg would check in with me, and we would talk about the movie, to keep it fresh in our minds. One day in 2010 the money came through, and we began pre-production on Aztec Blood, with a big difference from its earlier incarnation: it would be shot in 3D.
Aztec Blood marks a transitional moment in your career, as it shifts away from the analog video technologies used in your previous films — VHS, Hi-8 video, etc. — and marches headfirst into the world of Digital 3D. What have been the benefits and challenges of making this change? In particular, why the shift to 3D?
I was initially resistant to shooting in 3D. It’s hard enough to make a movie without the strictures of shooting stereoscopically. However, I am a long-time practitioner of what Kembra Pfahler calls Availablism. As an artist, I use what is at hand. A condition of this investor’s interest was that it had to be shot stereoscopically. We had access to 3D cameras and, as a result, the movie is in 3D. I was really not interested in shooting it in 3D, but that was the deal. I love the fact that it’s in 3D now, but in a sense, I shot myself into a corner, because some of the shots only work in 3D. They work spectacularly, mind you — but only in 3D!
One reason so many contemporary movies are “conversions” (shot in 2D but then showered with money to become fake 3D, via software) is because it’s really challenging to shoot in 3D.
What were some of those specific challenges? And what was your guiding philosophy in how you incorporated 3D into the film?
There are general provisions and proscriptions to shooting in 3D. There are “set” precepts via the anointed priesthood of stereoscopic filmmaking. As an ex-punk singer and artist, I think rules are made to be broken, and generally endeavor to do so. However, 3D is bound by the laws of parallax. Breaking those laws can result in a painful experience for the two-eyed viewer.
The precepts of shooting in 3D include a great deal of “safety” in the amount of negative parallax (stuff coming at you off the screen) and positive parallax (things in the distance, or “behind” the screen). The most conservatively shot stereoscopic movies still look magical, however, like a glowing diorama that you can, at the very least, reach into.
Of course, stuff coming at you is one of the things I enjoy about 3D. Not to an obnoxious degree, mind you, but ever since I first saw that claw coming at me off the screen in The Creature From the Black Lagoon, my expectation of 3D includes a certain amount of “fun”. We shot our movie in what we call Ultra3D, because we go a bit beyond the precepts in terms of parallax. Things come out from the screen a bit more than is “accepted”, and go back a bit more, as well. There have been no complaints of headaches so far. As Greg has said many times, 3D is as much an art as it is a science.
My other challenge in shooting Aztec Blood was that we used a fixed, wide-angle lens for pretty much the whole movie. 3D has a grueling regimen in terms of matching up the lenses. We basically had little time to change to lenses of a different focal length, re-calibrate etc. Therefore, in terms of story-telling, some of the grammar of cinema was not available to us. There were no zooms, there was no pulling focus, there were no whip-pans or over-the-shoulder shots. In addition, a wide angle lens tends to distort, which, as can be seen in my other movies, I really enjoy. But such shots do not work in 3D, because if you’re too close, the left and right eyes see extremely different things, causing a headache for the viewer as his eyes struggle to make sense of the illusion.
So in terms of 3D, there was much more brutal learning-as-we-went. Meanwhile, the clock was always ticking, the days were never long enough, and the sun kept getting lower behind those desert peaks.
The guiding philosophy was slow, flowing camera movement, or no camera movement. Let the actors move within the frame. Let the viewers’ eyes spend time in each shot, to enjoy the illusion of space and of life.
Your earlier features also sought to transgress the limits of sex and violence imposed on mainstream cinema at the time, working from a set of aesthetic principles mapped out in your Pulp Video Manifesto. Did this philosophy inform much of Aztec Blood? Or do you see it as a different entity altogether?
Aztec Blood is far removed from my earlier efforts, both on a technical level and conceptually. In terms of story, all collaborations are influenced by those who are collaborating. Greg made sure that things made sense in the story (something I am not always concerned about). He also did all the deep research into the Aztec god, Tezcatlipoca, who is the star of this movie and the rest of the trilogy. In terms of sex and violence, characters in Aztec Blood are mostly well-behaved, which can not be said of the characters in my other movies.
Aztec Blood does not lack its transgressive, splatter-gore flourishes —decapitations, green vomit, severed limbs, and a particularly nasty recurring gag that plays out all the way to the film’s end. So, in some respects, it doesn’t stray too far from your earlier work at all.
Thank you. I am still so very close to it. On set, the gore scenes were where I felt most comfortable, and in my zone.
The mummy has become one of the more marginalised figures of horror cinema. What made you decide to rescue it from the Universal Studios ghetto?
Truthfully, just the name (now gone!), and the desire to tell a story!
How have audiences responded to Aztec Blood thus far?
Audiences enjoy it. Once they realise that it’s appropriate, the laughter comes fast and furious. And the screams.
So should we expect a second wave of psychotronic horror films from Charles Pinion?
That would make me very happy! I hope to make Thousand Eyes — a dark, personal story — in Mexico City. That’s the burner I’m focusing on right now.
Chuck Williamson is a film critic for the magazine.