J.T. Petty first turned heads in the horror genre with his feature-length NYU thesis film, Soft For Digging , a nearly-dialogue free tale where an old man becomes a courier for supernatural revenge. Playing at Sundance in 2002, the film’s acclaim soon led to Petty helming Mimic: Sentinel, the third in Dimension’s monster franchise. JT was able to bring a welcome, noticeable style that enhanced the series while giving it a blackly comic, art house spin. His newest film, S&Man (pronounced Sandman) is a highly unsettling and intelligent docudrama, sure to provoke inspired debate. Beginning as an idea to profile a convicted (later acquitted) voyeur in Petty’s childhood neighborhood, it became a film concerning underground horror, violence, and voyeurism, and their presentations as instruments of fiction and reality. - by Bunni Speigelman. Additional questions by Adam Barnick - 10/06
What are your earliest memories of the horror genre?
I remember being seven or eight and sneaking into the den to watch late-night slasher movies on cable. It was completely disallowed by my parents, and I don't think we had a TV with a remote control (showing my age there), so I would watch them about eight inches away from the screen with my hand on the channel-knob in case my mom came in, I could act like I was in the middle of switching channels. I realize now that I was watching the whole movie like a Peeping Tom, like I had my fingers on a neighbor's windowsill and my nose up against the glass. Probably made those movies more precious to me.
Is it because of that you decided to begin this documentary, or were you already making the one about the man from your neighborhood, and decided to merge the two?
It’s all stuff that I was thinking about. I went into film school thinking I was going to make comedies, and then ended up making these horror movies; I love horror movies, I love violence on screen and I’m horrified by violence in real life.
Did this also spring out of your own films? Soft for Digging and Mimic: Sentinel both involve someone spying on something they shouldn’t, which starts the plot. But that’s also the voyeuristic tendencies of the genre in general. Were you always haunted by those themes having done these two films, or was it always there because it permeates the genre so much?
Yeah. I think a lot of that comes from living in the city. But obviously I’m not the only person in horror interested in voyeurism.
Was it all based or structured on the people you met at the Chiller Theatre convention? At the start of the doc, you realize the voyeur isn’t going to speak to you, and you need a new angle. You had a central narrative that was going to be based around him, and you’d frame the psychologists and experts around that. And the filmmakers. And then it turned into a story about Eric Rost, book ended by these other people. So was the structure always consisting of analysts speaking about the subject, but finding a compelling central person to hang a narrative on?
What about support groups?
I went to support groups, and nobody there would talk to me. They’re insanely interesting though. They don’t let voyeurs all in the same group together. They mix up different paraphelias. So that there’d be two spousal abusers, two voyeurs, two pedophiles, all these different sexual types… and then they would then discuss each other. If you put all of a certain type together, then the therapist gets shouted down by this group of people who suddenly start to agree. There’s a psychological term for when the minority thought becomes the majority within a small group. It’s like the danger the Internet poses with chat rooms.
There’s a book called Stigma, which actually talks about that. That basically speaks about majority rules, so you get enough people together saying “this is a disease” and it’s not!
Totally. Although hanging out in support groups is a lot of fun. Obviously peeping Toms and voyeurs are the shyest people in the world… they’re pathologically unable to connect with other humans. So not a lot of them wanted to talk to me.
Can you give us a rundown of who is actually profiled in the film and why?
The scholarly angle is from this woman Carol Clover, she teaches out of California. She wrote a book titled Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film. That book was a turning point for gender study in horror. The first sort of major book to say these slasher films are the most feminist films made in the last 20 years. It’s just become kind of accepted since then. So she speaks about that. And there’s a lot of the idea of the masochistic experience of watching a horror film as opposed to the sadistic experience.
Then there’s Richard Kreuger and Meg Kaplan, who are a forensic psychiatrist and a sexologist, respectively at Columbia. They basically consult convicted voyeurs who have been charged with a crime. They were there for the clinical input of the psychology of voyeurism. They talk a little bit of how that relates to movies, but it’s really not their specialty. They pretty much stick to what a peeping tom is, and does.
You were talking about films ABOUT point of view, and you also shoot from such an odd point of view, for a documentary- can you talk about your choices for coverage in this film? And I noticed you also stay behind the camera except for certain scenes where you show up in the frame with Eric. Tell me about the film’s visual style.
Like weighing down on the subject until you get what you want?
Exactly - and that’s how I feel when I’m in front of the camera, like I’m being aggressed upon by this lens. But visually what I was trying to do there is give the idea that the subject was being interrogated. The whole movie’s handheld. Basically.
Makes you uneasy.
It makes you uneasy, it makes you conscious that you’re watching these people, and it makes you conscious of your role as “stalker” in a film.
I also felt since most people don’t do head-on eye contact in conversation, but watching this, everyone who speaks on camera is staring at ME. It makes you uncomfortable - the audience of this film is getting a stare down as well.
I did the same thing like Errol Morris, who shoots all of his documentaries through a teleprompter. So my face is in front of the lens talking to them. I’m usually off to the side so they can hear me, but hidden by flats so they’re not distracted.
Can you also talk about the editing style for this? Often it seems like you use a ‘rollout,’ or outtake. An ‘off’ sequence where Megan makes a silly face, or the shrink makes obscene gestures at the camera.
Part of it is for that consciousness, part of it is to get away from the talking heads; because I want all of these characters to be “lifelike.” And express who they are. And Dr. Krueger is like The Eagle in the Muppets, very upright… proper. And then when you see him step out and flip the bird, you go “Oh yeah, he’s human.”
Kind of letting them step out of character.
I think what documentaries are trying to do is get behind the “front.” Everybody’s got this facade, their specialty, but we want to see them as human.
One of the things Dr. Clover points out is over the course of a single day, we find ourselves being captured on tape multiple times, without being made explicitly aware of that fact. There was a coffee shop I was in, and I found out online they actually have a live feed, on a website, of the interior of the coffee shop! But there’s no sign that says that. I was wondering if in your mind, there’s a difference between that kind of observation and the kind of stuff Eric did; I know there’s a clip that Eric filmed stalking your girlfriend…
Going back to what you speak of in the film, the “Home Invasion” scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Dr. Clover talks about how the audience is being asked to empathize, essentially with an unmanned camera, which is what you were talking about. She says the challenge of horror films is to make the audience feel something, and yet more and more information about the world is coming to us through video. Either through Internet, but video in general… do you think this continual exposure to looking at the world through the eyes of a camera has an impact on the audiences’ ability to actually empathize with others in real life?
Closer to Peeping Tom, where the camera becomes more of a weapon.
I think there is something sort of alienating, about that in the fact we’re giving them an outlet that doesn’t really feed back to them that much as human contact. But if a message in a bottle is all you have, maybe there’s some good in it. I don’t know, I hate calling technology just straight BAD. I think there’s always a use to any mode of communication. It shouldn’t replace human contact. But I think that it can accentuate it.
You spoke how you can tolerate real violence on film, but in a fictional movie you want it to look as realistic as possible. Badrilliard wrote an essay called The March of the Simulacra…he talks about how when an individual is exposed to a fake image over and over, but when confronted by the real version, people will reject it as fake because what they’ve come to accept and what they’re used to, IS fake.
Do you think the fact that CGI and other technologies can make violence look so real might have some - we like horror films but may find a lack of empathy from seeing real violence, the Abu Ghraib photos Dr. Clover spoke about.
I think actually, if anything we were taught by slasher movies, it’s that the point-of-view shot watching somebody who’s about to die triggers revulsion in the viewer towards the stalker, so the audience hates the person whose point of view that is. So when we see the Abu Ghraib pictures, my first reaction is hatred for the person who’s taking that photo. Now I think that’s a very appropriate reaction. And it was taught to me by slasher films.
You were talking about before how Dr. Clover stated that slasher films are essentially feminist because you’re being asked to empathize with a female survivor. But the others who die in slasher films, they’re the ones who have sex, who do drugs, etc. So according to Robspierre, he stated terror is nothing more than justice. Prompt, severe, and inflexible. Do you think that slasher films basically live by that credo, they’re getting out a form of justice?
The way we’re sort of weaving out of this moral universe that existed in slasher films in the 80’s, I think is a response to audience sophistication. And where we were punishing the promiscuous and hedonists in the 70’s and the 80’s, I think that’s narrative instinct more than that’s moral intention.
You talked about how slasher films taught you revulsion in terms of real violence, and yet historically, real death has been entertainment for people going back thousands of years, going back to the Coliseum. All the way up to almost- modern-day executions. There’s a quotation that says what motivated the spectacle was exactly the knowledge that the victims were people, and capable of feeling pain and fear as people do. So that was arguing that the reason why this was so attractive was that it was genuine. And do you think it’s that desire to see genuine and naked emotion that really drives people to go and see horror films, and try and find snuff films?
You said you were trying to rediscover your sensitivity you had at a younger age watching horror films while you were making S&Man. Did you manage to do that?
I did! And I will say that I do get closer to that feeling making a movie, which is part of the reason to make one.
Because you’re on set and immersed in it?
On set, and in the editing. It’s funny, the editing process is the most controlled for me, and the one that feels the most interesting; really studying the footage and then putting it together. And then watching how it flows and fits.
Do you feel it’s “new”, when it’s the first time you’re seeing it assembled?
No, still very familiar - a lot of it is… it’s like the way that dancing is exciting… you’re in control of it yourself, but there’s some moment of inspiration there. After a couple of days in the editing room, a scene becomes the mistakes, and the things you’re trying to fix; and it’s unbearable to watch. But there are those moments where it feels like watching a movie when you’re a kid.
What’s your thoughts on snuff’s real existence, did you feel yourself questioning this during your shoot?
I’ve certainly seen real death on film, I think most people have.
Look at the Columbine tapes.
And news footage - I think there’s a lot of baggage to snuff, and a lot of backpedaling to say it doesn’t exist - it’s trying to say “We couldn’t possibly be that horrible a species.” I’d be amazed if it didn’t exist. An actual snuff film, the definition you can probably get everyone to agree on is a predetermined rape and then murder on film. Which is a hideous idea of something to watch. And I’ve never seen that. But I’d be amazed if it didn’t exist.
You took an interesting “tone break” to show Bill Zebub make his movie - can you talk about the experience on his set? You said scheduling kept you from seeing other movies made, and Eric wouldn’t let you in on his “process” at all.
You kind of sympathize with her, your cutaways to her show it took all night to shoot, and Bill has like ten beers before he actually starts the shot.
Didn’t Bill used to counsel schizophrenics?
That’s what he said, but that’s as much as I’ve heard on that. Bill’s all over the place.
You made a point of asking Debbie D. (scream queen who is also interviewed and who has worked with Bill in the past) whether she felt exploited, and she was pretty clear that she didn’t feel that way. But you, the end of your movie includes a questionable… you leave the viewer with an open question in terms of what they’re seeing. Considering your own background with the subject, how it started, did you feel that there was any kind of complicity with bringing that to broader audience? To some degree you’re helping (these underground filmmakers promote themselves).
Did at any point of this research - there’s the psychologists who speak of things like “by the age of ten, kids have seen 1000 murders on TV” That’s meant to arouse alarm, but on the other hand they’ve seen a representation of murder, not a real murder. Any thoughts on that? The impression this makes on us isn’t by and large real, but…
It’s a curious question; I think children are definitely drawn to violence.
Look at the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales, nasty as hell!
The fairy tales are nasty as hell, but also – my parents were hippies, my friend’s parents were hippies, we had no toy guns, but if you give them blocks and balls, they’ll take toilet paper tubes and pretend they’re guns. And maybe that speaks to them being exposed to too much violence, but I think that’s also them learning about the world that we live in. I don’t know, it’s part of real experience. I do think too much violence can have a terrible effect on children, but I think it always comes down to the responsibility of the parents and can never be used as an argument for censorship.
You mentioned being intrigued by your neighborhood voyeurs’ surveillance films, which sounded titillating, and he got away with it because nobody wanted to look too close.
How do you feel about that vs. your film? In a way, you’ve gotten away with it if people don’t look too close.
There is always tons of manipulation in documentaries, and I was trying to be conscious of that in the way that this movie’s shaped. Most of my narration, about getting away with something because people don’t want to look too close, is very much directed towards my own movie as much as his. I think every movie you should look at as a puzzle. And most of my voiceover is there specifically to try to trigger suspicion in the viewer. Because I don’t think you should trust filmmakers. Especially not documentarians.
Any specific documentaries you’ve seen that prompted that idea?
I’ve been thinking about it more as I filmed it - I know I was thinking about March of the Penguins - thinking “those penguins don’t have human emotions, that’s bullshit.” But it makes for a better story, and that’s what we’re doing. Werner Herzog’s stuff is always insanely compelling to me, the documentaries, for being so explicitly manipulative about Werner’s impact on that story.
There’s one of those pop culture legends, apparently in the 50’s there were Disney movies of Lemmings running off cliffs into the sea. A Disney producer built a cliff in a studio, and they herded lemmings off the cliff to their “death” but it was falsely created, and cemented the idea that lemmings actually do this all the time, when it was all a fiction - some of them overbreed, and they fall into the sea because Ireland is treacherous. (laughs) But that’s part of where the belief came from.
Note: the film was called White Wilderness and it popularized, using staged footage, the myth that during population booms lemmings become suicidal and leap en masse off cliffs into the sea.
What do you hope to do next, in or out of the horror genre, and are you drawn towards any other subjects that you’re interesting in doing a documentary on?
The word "documentary" is a little iffy in this context, but there’s all sorts of stuff I'd like to get on camera. I've just commenced on writing the film adaptation of my kid's book "Clemency Pogue" for the Jim Henson company. The next movie I'll be directing is most likely "The Burrowers," an original horror/western for Lionsgate.
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