One of the most pleasant surprises for me at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was attending the U.S. premiere of the independent “body horror” entry Contracted by prolific 25-year-old writer/director Eric England. Eric attended the 10/16 show of Contracted at CIFF and “fell in love with Chicago.” This interview was conducted shortly afterwards via e-mail.
MGS: The thing that impressed me the most about your film was its overall spirit of fun and the way you balanced horror and comedy. The late night audience I saw it with at CIFF was laughing from beginning to end. This sense of fun is something that’s missing from a lot of other recent horror movies I’ve seen, many of which have budgets much bigger than yours. What do you see as the relationship between horror and comedy?
EE: I think that horror and comedy go hand in hand. They play off each other as a release valve and they’re very similar. One sets up a joke, the other a scare. The only difference is the payoff. I actually don’t see Contracted as a true horror-comedy, but it absolutely has humor in it and sometimes I feel like people are afraid to laugh with the film. But they shouldn’t be because I definitely didn’t try to take everything in it very seriously. So I’m glad the audience in Chicago was able to pick up on that.
MGS: The “body horror” subgenre is strongly associated with the 1980s and the films of David Cronenberg in particular. Were there any specific movies that influenced Contracted or were you more inspired by real-world fears about sexually transmitted diseases and the concept of losing control over one’s own body?
EE: Definitely the latter. I actually wasn’t as well versed in Cronenberg and body horror as I am now. When I set out to make Contracted, I just wanted to make that kind of film. Then the comparisons to Cronenberg and “body-horror” started to get brought up and I was like “yeah, I guess I see the relation.” So I didn’t really set out to make a film in the vein of those or any other as much as I just wanted to make a reverse engineered sub-genre film involving an STD as the device.
MGS: Contracted opens with a very creepy and cryptic scene involving necrophilia that seems to hint at the origin of the virus. Were you ever tempted to clarify exactly who the B.J. character was and what his motives were or did you always intend for that aspect of the film to be shrouded in mystery?
EE: I’m a big fan of ambiguity in film. It polarizes some audiences and I’ve been criticized for it in the past, but I love things that make you come to conclusions for yourself and I try to reflect that in my films. So mystery was definitely always the goal with B.J. and his back-story. I wanted to give you just enough information on him to piece together what was happening and leave the rest to your imagination — including what he looks like.
MGS: I was also very impressed by the special effects make-up in the film, which seemed for the most part very old fashioned and not CGI-enhanced. It seemed like the idea was that Samantha was rotting from the inside out but very rapidly over a span of just three days. How exactly did you work with your make-up artists in showing the progression of this deadly disease?
EE: Thank you so much for picking up on that and mentioning it. We had an amazing SFX make-up artist in Mayera Abeita and she was given literally no money to transform Najarra and she killed it. She did tests and experimented and was just an all-out rockstar. I also have to give a lot of credit to Najarra herself for pulling off the performance while in the make-up because that’s definitely not easy with what she had on and had to go through. Mayera and I worked pretty closely together on figuring out what things would look like and how they would happen as well as making them feel believable. I was pretty detailed in the script with what stages I wanted at certain points of the story, but Mayera was huge in keeping it on track, executing it and consistent, along with my AD David Buchwald who was a huge savior in scheduling and saving us time to manage the make-up process.
MGS: I think Najarra Townsend’s performance is also central to the success of the film. She has such an interesting look and a very real, “un-actorly” presence onscreen. The whole time I was watching her I was thinking “Where have I seen her before?” After I got home, I looked her up and was delighted to find out that she was the little girl in Me and You and Everyone We Know. Were you aware of her beforehand or did you find her through a traditional audition process?
EE: I was aware of her just in a general sense, but Matt Mercer (co-star/co-producer) is the one who turned me on to her. When we had a couple of go-to actresses fall through, we were ready to try a traditional route of auditioning and he suggested Najarra. Right off the bat from her headshot, I loved her look, but I was afraid she was too young, so I asked her to come in and read. The moment she walked in the room, I just knew. She blew me away and as soon as she left, I told Matt that I wanted her to play Samantha. After a callback, she completely killed the reading again and I knew she was the one. I lucked out completely because not only is she an amazingly talented actress, she’s also an incredible person and someone I grew very close to while shooting. That’s so important when shooting a movie like this and I think it shows. You have to trust someone to carry a film like this, not only on camera, but off. Najarra was just the total package for me.
MGS: What are your filmmaking plans for the future?
EE: For the future, I just wanna try and continue to make edgy and interesting films that hopefully stand the test of time. My big thing is versatility. The horror genre is such a niche place, but horror is such a broad term and I think there’s a lot of ground to explore. So I never wanna do the same thing twice if I don’t have to. So moving forward, I just wanna continue to do films that feel different from what I’ve already done, but continue to show growth, not only for me, but for the genre as well.
MGS: Best of luck, Eric. I greatly look forward to your future work.
EE: Thanks, Michael. You too!
Contracted will be released by IFC Films on November 22. You can learn more about Eric on his official website: http://ericengland.blogspot.com/