The Manifestation of Mourning: Director Jeremiah Kipp on Grief and Witches in ‘Slapface’

Slapface is a hard-hitting horror from Jeremiah Kipp, which fuses social commentary together with the sinister. It sheds light on how trauma and human suffering can manifest into something much more concrete, which, in this case, is the Virago witch.

Offering noteworthy performances from August Maturo and Mike Manning, Slapface is now available to stream on Shudder. We caught up with writer and director Jeremiah Kipp to discuss the movie.

Skye: For those who haven’t seen it, how would you summarise Slapface?

Jeremiah: It’s a story of a young man who has lost both of his parents and is living with his older brother. They are struggling with the trauma of their loss and, in response, have created a weird, ritualised system of abuse called ‘slapface’. One will slap the other and then get slapped back just as hard, as a way for them to connect and communicate. It’s a very crazy and dysfunctional way of parenting.

Because of this, the child seeks solace in a local legend known as the Virago witch. Through this monster, he finds a strange maternal figure who he has a deeper connection with. However, this bond between them soon turns stranger than boy or beast could possibly imagine.

Skye: How did the idea for this film arise?

Jeremiah: So, my favourite novel is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There is a remarkable section in the middle of the book where the monster is circling around a farmhouse imagining the lives of the people inside. It was such a powerful section that had so much to say about loneliness and the desire to be part of a family. As I imagined the lives of the family inside, I thought, “Wow, what if I told the story using elements of my own family history?”.

I grew up with my grandparents in very rural Rhode Island. We were a very low-income family, not unlike the one in Slapface. When he was younger, my grandfather was bullied by three young women who threw rocks at him. One of them would always circle around and say, “You’re my secret boyfriend – don’t tell anybody or I’ll harm you more”. His father would also play slapface with him, so there was this strange ritualistic abuse going on between these two people who deeply loved one another.

I took a lot from my grandfather’s story, which he was very willing about. He was alive at the time I was writing Slapface and was always enthusiastic about my filmmaking career and excited about the work I was producing. Even if the film was brutal, he always regarded it as being very honest and truthful.

So, as I incorporated those elements into the story, the monster gradually transitioned from being a Frankenstein-like creature into a witch out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. This is because I always saw the line between Grimms’ Fairy tales and horror films as being very thin. If the witch didn’t exist within the story, Hansel and Gretel would essentially be social realism. Without the witch, it’s a story about two starving children with abusive parents who are lost in the woods. The witch takes it into a heightened reality and embodies this metaphoric quality. So that was what led to Slapface as a feature.

The 2015 short actually came about because it was very hard getting the feature made. It was suggested that we make it as a short proof-of-concept to begin with. This led to an eight-minute version that touched on the highlights of the story, which we played at film festivals for three years. That’s what enabled us to find the producers of the feature; Mike Manning, Joe Benedetto and Artisha Mann Cooper. They believed in the project, and we eventually got it made. In short, it was a feature-length script that became a short film proof-of-concept, which then turned into a feature-length film. It was quite a rewarding end to that journey!

Skye: It must be really great to see what began as simply an idea develop right through into something more! Did much change from the short to the full-length feature, or was it how you had envisioned it?

Jeremiah: It was originally a father-and-son story, and when the producers came on, Mike Manning said “What if Tom was an older brother and not the father?”. At first, I was very against this idea. But we talked for an hour and a half, and he really presented his case in a powerful way.

It got me thinking. If Tom was an older brother and not the father, then as a young man trying to take on this fatherly role without having the ability to do so, it would mean following what his father had taught him. This was a parenting style that was both abusive and dysfunctional. To Tom, however, it was an act of love learned from his parents, which perhaps existed as a way for him to preserve the memory of his father. This parallels Lucas’s attempts to hold onto the memory of his mother through the Virago witch, who reminds him in many ways of the relationship that he may have lost. Underneath all of the slapping and abuse, they are two people really trying to hold on to their family and protect it.

Skye: What was it like working with the cast, especially August Maturo and Mike Manning? I noticed that they’ve both previously been Disney actors.

Jeremiah: I think Disney-trained actors are like the marines! Technically they’re beyond anyone. They get taught a real understanding of the camera and lenses, which meant that August and Mike were really proficient as actors. Although that’s not really what interested me about either of them – it was more so their emotional ability.

August is a wonderfully strange and eccentric young man who has the biggest heart and an amazing ability to express complicated feelings. Most actors his age have a really difficult time accessing grief and rage, but August is able to really dig deep into himself and find those things, while still being an enormously joyful person. It is extremely fascinating to watch him tap into this rich inner life, so it really was a pleasure collaborating with him.

With Mike, we would do several takes, and in the last run he would say, “Let me try something daring and wild!”. He would call it the ‘Robert De Niro take’, because apparently De Niro used to make bold expressive choices during the final run. Mike would often go far out on a limb and do something so brave or complex, something even he hadn’t thought of himself! Often that would result in a wildly unpredictable choice that would feel so grounded and real.

The odd thing about putting two characters together where they act abusive to one another is that they become almost like dance partners, protecting one another from harm. All of that informed their acting, and they bonded really well on set. Both August and Mike were truly great collaborators and a joy to be around for the duration of the shoot.

Skye: What would you say have been your biggest influences, whether they be film directors or films you’ve seen?

Jeremiah: One of the things we were trying to do was take elements of grounded, naturalistic realism from movies like River’s Edge and Debra Granik’s wonderful movie Winter’s Bone. There is also a superb scene in the film Killer of Sheep, by the great African American filmmaker Charles Burnett.

All those films are vivid in their expression of low-income American life. Although, it wasn’t that we wanted to make a documentary, but rather we wanted all the scenes to be informed by something that was truthful.

I’m really passionate about George Miller’s Mad Max films and anything by Jane Campion. She is my hero, and I admire her unusual way of looking at the world and her empathy towards all of her characters. Her ability to depict characters and all their moral complexities without judging them is a tremendous source of inspiration. I haven’t seen The Power of the Dog yet, but I really want to!

Skye: What would you say was the most challenging scene to shoot?

Jeremiah: The most challenging aspect was the physical and emotional violence of the movie. We had to take a lot of care with the slapface scenes. Whenever there was a scene with the brothers hitting each other, we had to ensure that those scenes were deeply rehearsed.

Mack Kuhr was our stunt coordinator, and he was really remarkable with the actors. He was able to train them how to act as if they were hurting each other while also keeping them completely safe.

Ultimately, the only way that an actor can reach into the darkest parts of themselves is if they feel safe and secure that no actual harm will come to them. There are scenes where the bullies are beating up Lucas, and yet the irony is that you have to keep each other safe whilst you’re filming them.

Skye: The film deals heavily with trauma, grief and abuse. What made you decide on using the horror genre as a lens through which to focus on this?

Jeremiah: I really loved The Fly by David Cronenberg. I remember him saying that it would be really painful to watch a subject suffering from cancer or AIDS, and that if we want to make a film and access those feelings of grief and loss, it is much easier to watch somebody turning into a giant fly. So in Slapface, we have this monster who the child befriends amidst his suffering, which provides us with a distancing device. We view the monster as a creature beyond the reality that we see every day, and it is this poetic and allegorical aspect that in turn allows us to address difficult topics.

With that said, we also wanted to treat the monster with as much compassion as all of the other characters. We wanted to treat the monster as a real person and not as a prop or lumbering special effect. We’d hired a remarkable actor named Lukas Hassel who physicalised the creature.

So that’s the strange thing. You initially use a monster in your movie as a way of creating a metaphor to talk about difficult subjects, but then you also want to represent them in as humane and empathetic a light as possible. This is because they really are just a grotesque distortion of who we are. There isn’t too big a leap between us and the monster. Whenever anyone watches the movie and loves the monster, I’m extremely happy. I’d had a great affection for monsters ever since I was a little kid.

Skye: Are there any other projects you’re working on that you’d like to share?

Jeremiah: I’m currently working on a feature that is another monster movie. It is a very different kind of monster than the one found in Slapface, however, with ties to another folklore. We’re shooting it down in Savannah, Georgia in March. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say about it right now!

Skye: If you had to sum up Slapface in three words, what would they be?

Jeremiah: Compassionate, grounded and monstrous.

We’d like to thank Jeremiah Kipp for taking the time to talk to us, and congratulate him on Slapface, which is now streaming on Shudder.


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