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Rodney Ascher doesn’t do fear like a normal person. Where your typical scaredy-cat might run away from something terrifying, Rodney’s the kind of guy who runs up to it and prods it with a stick. Then has a conversation with the stick about what just happened.
Somewhere between therapist, filmmaker and nerdy fan, it’s no wonder people were so happy to talk him through their obsessive theories about The Shining in his film Room 237. Speculating about messages hidden within the film when played backwards, it was an astonishing study of the way we react to, and interpret, cinema, as well as things that scare us. Several years later, as he teams up with Shudder to make the subscription service’s first ever original title, talking to him remains an oddly soothing, unsettling experience.
The film under discussion is Primal Screen, a 30-minute short that once again mines the grey area between experimental artwork and documentary (you can read our review here). In it, he quizzes three men – Gary, Daniel and Craig – about their fear of puppets, specifically in relation to the trailer for Richard Attenborough’s Magic.
Like his subjects, Rodney saw that trailer when he was young. Just how much did it traumatise him?
“It traumatised me a little, but not a lot,” he says. “I did remember it for years before I saw it again. For some of the projects I’ve done, the folks I’ve talked to have gone through similar things to what I did, but in a more profound way.”
Is that why he focuses on other people’s nightmares than his own? Is he scared of his own fears?
“I think that the experiences of mine are indications that there’s something interesting there, but I tend to find that other people have gone down these holes in a deeper, more noteworthy way than I have,” he reflects. “I’m able to know that there’s something worth investigating around this thing, but then, the deepest wells are ones that some other people have dug.”
Is it hard to find people to take part? Or is more about finding the right kind of person?
“You have to find people who can go kinda deep in all these things,” he says. “The simple fact that you found the trailer scary as a kid could be interesting for a short while, but I’m looking for people who wrestled with it or struggled to understand it.”
Whether he’s afraid of the object in question or not, there’s no denying that Rodney’s work is unique – or, at least, part of the film essay genre that’s far from the mainstream. How on earth do they come into existence?
“It came together very quickly and organically,” he explains. “I sat down with a guy at Shudder to talk about working on some project together and we wound up talking a lot about this short film I did before Room 237 called The S from Hell, about people with a phobia of the Screen Gems logo. In some ways, that kicked off both 237 and The Nightmare, but it’s also a model for Primal Screen.”
“The Screen Gems logo is an incredibly specific topic!” he chuckles.
But Ascher is a man who mines even the most obscure, unlikely topic for unexpected depths. He recalls how one of his previous interviews talked about the thin line between fear and nostalgia – and, just like that, we’re spiralling into the kind of hazy, half-abstract conversation that makes the director’s work so absorbing.
“I think there’s something interesting, counter-intuitive and fascinating about the way that people want to revisit the scene of the crime,” he continues. “Something that you’ve avoided at all costs as a child, you can’t help as you get older going back there and picking at it, picking at it, trying to understand what it was that got under your skin. A lot of people seem to fall in love with it, in a way.”
In Primal Screen, he raises a disturbing parallel between ventriloquism and social media – the way that people speak through a disembodied identity online. Was that an observation that came about from intensive research, or just the kind of thing that swims around his head everyday?
“It’s an idea that came up when I was talking to another friend,” he reveals. “I’d been researching this and we’d been talking about it for a while, and I remember someone said ‘Isn’t that a dying art? How important is it to our culture?’ And it just came out of the conversation that ventriloquism is only fading if you’re talking about people performing with a wooden dummy on a stage. But if we’re talking about people talking through something that is not their mouth, people talking through cartoon characters or heightened versions of themselves, I might think that it’s taking over normal verbal conversation! Even just trying to present a heightened version of themselves on Facebook. There are some people who create fictional characters who would go places that they would never go to. Last year in the US election, things got really out of hand, but it goes back further than that – and I imagine it’s going to project further in the future. Now, you look at the icons that people communicate with on Twiter or Facebook and sometimes it’s a cartoon character and we’re just getting to the point where sometimes, they can be an animated GIF in those windows. I can’t imagine it’ll be too long until they’re actually mouthing the words. We’re just at the beginning of that phase.”
“I can’t imagine anybody stepping up to the plate to produce something like this.”
The other thing that has changed over the years is streaming, with online video platforms becoming often essential for horror films to find their audiences, as theatrical distribution can unfairly elude genre flicks. What does Rodney make of the shift?
“It’s hard to be too definite, because the ground is changing beneath us so quickly!” he muses. “Especially as, on the one hand, I can see people fearing the loss of the theatrical experience, which is always the best way to see anything, but you can’t deny that streaming makes things available that they would never have a chance to see.”
When it comes to project backing, it’s even more useful for filmmakers looking to get their vision in front of an audience in the first place.
“They are able to finance things that might never exist anywhere else,” agrees Rodney. “The new Twin peaks just launched here and without the notion of how things play on streaming, that would never exist. Primal Screen I can’t imagine existing with anybody stepping up to the plate to produce something like this other than Shudder.”
At only 30 minutes, the end result is slight, but substantial, feeling like the start of an unusual TV series. Do they have plans for more episodes?
“I’m very much hoping that we’re doing more,” says Rodney. “In fact, when we did the interviews for this, we recorded many more interviews on other topics, so there are some audio interviews banked to get a lead on to producing more, but there is a very wide range of topics…”
“It would be nice for it to be a balance of things that are well known horror tropes, like doppelgängers, or mirrors, or things that you might not necessarily find scary, like corporate spokescharacters, toys, album covers… What I’m really hoping after this first one is that we might hear from people who we never would have been able to reach out to, who would tell me about things that I never could have conceived of, like the Screen Gems logo!”
Like… we reach around for the most absurd thing possible… breakfast cereal?
“I hadn’t thought of that!” He pauses, and his voice takes on a familiar tone. “Is there a particular breakfast cereal you’re thinking of?”
Suddenly, we find ourselves wondering if we do have a previously untapped fear of breakfast cereals after all. Have we always been secretly petrified of Sugar Puffs? Given the willies by Weetabix? Creeped out by Coco Pops? Before he can begin to delve into our brains, we turn the tables. What scares him, if it isn’t puppets?
“Actually,” he confesses, “there’s a moment… that didn’t terrify me so much when I watched it, but it had a really lasting effect – it’s the scene in the 1960s Batman movie when he gets lowered down on the rope ladder from the helicopter and he comes out of the water with a shark attached to his leg? Looking back at the moment now, there’s something campy about it, especially compared to the darker tone of the new Batman movies, but for me, that told a story that the ocean was just brimming with sharks! That any random five-square-foot section of the ocean was likely to have a shark in it – like alphabet soup.”
He laughs, as he divulges the details of his own Primal Screen memory. What about Jaws? Did he see that as a kid?
“I saw Jaws when I was pretty young, but that was the story of one crazy, giant shark… and what are the chances are you going to encounter something like that? That moment in Batman taught me that sharks are everywhere. I never forget that when I went swimming!”
Should we expect a film about sharks next?
“If I were [to make one], I’d take the shark’s point of view!” he jokes. “In my old age, I’m struck by all the damage that’s been done to sharks as they’ve been demonised in cinema.”
While we wait for that revolutionary shark movie to one day maybe happen, there’s always Primal Screen to watch over and over again. Are there any hidden messages in that one? Rodney lets out a sinister chuckle. “You’ll have to discover that on your own…”
Primal Screen is the first ever Shudder Original film, with a host of other projects on the streaming service’s production slate. It is available to watch online exclusively on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.
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