There’s no discussion to be had about this film that doesn’t start with your leading man, Lucas Koch. Tell us of creating the character of ‘Pig Pen’ with this amazing young actor…?
Lucas Koch, who portrays “Zack” aka “Pig Pen.” Has been doing supporting roles in indie films such as “Science Team” since he was eight years old. Lucas is a very natural actor and has a unique look. He also happens to be my son. I wrote the story for “Pig Pen” with him in mind and had wanted to do a child driven story for some time. I also wanted to direct him in a film. It was a way of having a father/son experience that are often missed with busy careers. He was 14 at the time when we started filming. The perfect age for playing a runaway character. Having 24/7 access to your lead actor is an added bonus when casting your son. Lucas is much more of an upbeat kid than the poor traumatized Zack he was to portray. We worked for a couple months on him being more sullen and withdrawn. I also prepared him for having to act more with expressions rather than with just words. Since Zack was written to not say much. Zack is a very internal character and carries a lot of pain. By the time we were filming Lucas would really get in the zone when he got into costume. Which involved ill fitting clothes, worn shoes, layers of cosmetic dirt and olive oil soaked hair.
There’s a taboo-of-sorts that is broken when this child-like character (and, by extension, the young actor) is present for acts of extreme violence and psychological trauma. What role do you, the director, play in ensuring these impactful acts work for the film but don’t mess with the star’s impressionable mind?
I became very aware of this taboo while I was writing the teen runaway revenge concept. So by the time pre-production started I had a game plan in mind to protect the actor from certain scenes. I could have never made this film without having my son perform the role. I would have never be able to approach another parent of a child actor and say, “trust me, it’ll be safe.” Where I knew this would actually be the case, others may not have been as easily convinced. From day one Lucas never had the full script. He had scenes essential to the story but any extreme scenes were omitted from his version. For the days where we actually had to shoot extreme scenes with Lucas. I simply shot a master of the scene running up until the point of extreme content. Then we went in for reaction shots from Zack. I would direct him to do various reactions of disgust or shame. He would then leave set at that point and we would carry on with the adult subject matter of rape, drug use, etc.. I should also point out that Lucas had worked with all of the other lead actors and crew at some point before. So, there was a real sense of family in regards to his treatment on set. I really was grateful for how the cast and crew made the shoot a really positive experience for him. Even though we tackled such dark material. I should also mention he has yet to see the full cut of the film and won’t for some time.
There is an honesty and integrity to the film’s depiction of people in dire circumstances that is crucial to the audience’s commitment to these characters. In particular, the scenes between Lucas and Nicolette le Faye as his mother are very tender. Was there any based-in-fact element to their development?
Mark Leake helped me write the screenplay and did the amazing final draft of the script. We both worked hard to create a very real world that mirrored what was around us all the time. Most just choose not to see these problems. You need to understand that our hometown, Baltimore. Is one of the smaller major cities in the United States. A real microcosm of the country. Where the class struggle and racism are so obviously at play in a city of less than one million people. The stories like we show in Pig Pen are so commonplace that they aren't noticed anymore. This film comes from a sense of frustration I felt being stuck in the middle of these worlds. For me it was easier to understand the actions of the poor living with nothing. Rather than the actions of the privileged who live with everything. We wanted people to understand that the characters in the film such as Zack and his mother were products of their environment. They were normal people stuck in bad situations. People without the resources and education to help themselves. Who really have no hope. They resort to desperate measures just to survive and are exploited. It’s so shamefully common in every impoverished corner of the world. We felt there was a real story there. It’s not a traditional horror story but I wanted parallel the horror elements with real world horrors. People are afraid of becoming poor, truly fear losing everything. I knew it would create anxiety for some to even explore this world. I didn’t want to be exploitive in any way even though this is an exploitation film. So, we had no choice but to focus on real characters that you truly felt something towards. The mother and child bond is something everyone can relate to, good or bad. Empathy is the bridge from your characters to your audience. We even gave Wayne, who was designed to be hated to the core from first sight, a moment of vulnerability. A chance for the audience to understand Wayne’s longing for a parental bond and how a monster like this could be created. So, when the audience is finally shown that the class struggle is the real monster, they can feel, believe and understand.
Similarly, you avoid one-dimensional ‘bad stepdad’ stereotypes, with Vito Trigo bringing a frighteningly real psychological aspect to ‘Wayne’. How crucial was the defining of the ‘villain’ role in Pig Pen?
Even though Zack is the lead character, the weight of the film truly rests on Vito Trigo’s shoulders. Ever since Vito and I met on Troma’s “Return to Nukem High” films. I knew I needed to work with him as a director. Vito is a force. For all of the emotional outbursts he has portrayed on screen, one would assume he is a crazy person in the real world. But he truly is one of the kindest people on the planet. It gives Vito the rare ability to have great depth as an actor. As you mentioned I also knew that the “step dad stereotype” would be boring and sink our film. So Vito and I worked very hard to bring something ultra real and complex to the screen. We talked almost everyday for several months. I told Vito I didn’t want him screaming and breaking things through this film. I wanted him to be able to show his range. Vito was really inspired and brought so much to the character. We would brain storm, bouncing references off of each other from Gary Oldman in True Romance to Robert Deniro in Cape Fear. I knew David Hess’ spirit from Last House on the Left would show up on set anyway. So we avoided that as a focus. But we both wanted to create something so hateable, so real. That even the strictest pacifist would catch themselves wishing this scum bag to die. If you don’t feel that way towards the villain in a revenge film, the director has failed as a storyteller.
What also impresses is the technical strengths exhibited. The exteriors carry a rich cinematic feel but also exude an ultra-realism, reminiscent of the after-dark landscape of Michael Mann’s Collateral. How did you settle on the visual style of the film?
The look and visual tone of the film was definitely a big focus. John Grove and Steve Rubac our cinematographers and I spent several months in pre-production planning the overall look of the film. I had spent a number of years working as a camera op and gaffer for both cinematographers. We had a common language from those experiences. I knew I needed them on this project to be able to pull it off with our budget. I personally loved the look of Refn’s last two films, Drive and Only God Forgives. And we tried to capture that feel and lighting for both interior and exterior set ups. And as far as getting that cinematic look for or night exteriors. Two things came into play. First, I bought cameras. When renting the 4k cameras we wanted for our shoot seemed to becoming an ever increasing financial burden. Our production company made the decision (some say mistake) to purchase two Blackmagic studio 4k cameras. We also had a Blackmagic pocket camera for stunts and car hood mounts. Second, to create a certain feel we had decided as a rule to only use two lense types, 35mm f1.4, 50mm f1.2. We tried to get an anamorphic kit but couldn’t afford it in the end. We didn’t want to abandon the anamorphic look. So, we added anamorphic crops to the cameras. And to avoid the slapped on anamorphic bar look we tested and tested. I wanted to shoot night as night. I find over lit night exteriors distracting and fake. The first time shooting with these Blackmagic cameras for night time exteriors we almost ditched them and postponed. The camera’s native ISO settings handled poorly. We would shoot footage take it to the computer and crush the blacks to various mostly noisy undesirable results. We found against all logic that to achieve the look we wanted we had to shoot at a daytime 200 ISO and bring in lots of light. I wanted dark and shadows with the natural available lighting look. Modern camera sensors are so sensitive that they find too much light at times. So we started with “darkness” and brought in the light to obtain the shallow depth of field while maintaining the integrity of the shadows. . Giving us the cinematic look we desired.
6. You’ve run with those at the forefront of the off-centre, more underground horror crowd, having worked on such cult films as The Editor, Science Team and Garden of Hedon. What work ethic emerges after being in the company of those idiosyncratic auteur filmmakers?
I guess I should mention my time as an FX artist since it’s how I got the opportunity to work with all of those directors and teams. Practical special effects were my first passion in the film world. It led me to school in Pittsburgh where I learned special effects and film production. From that point on I was hooked on all aspects of film. Which led me to spend almost 15 years doing fx and crew work for people all around the country and beyond. So, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of directors and experience their trials and tribulations first hand. An fx coordinator is often pulled onto a production fairly early. They get to see a lot of the inner workings of a production. I learned a lot of what to do and sometimes what not to do. So when it came time for me to start my own projects I had a lot more experience on set then some first time filmmakers. Stylistically and subject wise, I have a different approach than those filmmakers mentioned. So the things taken from those experiences were more from the production aspect. Like how to produce quality work on a low budget. How to finish that film all the way through to distribution. Those guys really set the bar when it came to that stuff in the underground. When you work with other talented people your own work has to reflect those experiences. I want to make memorable cult films and beyond because I’ve worked with people who are doing those exact things.