||The Spinning Image in conversation with Brett Leonard, director of Feed (conducted December 2005).
The Spinning Image (TSI): If we can begin by backtracking a little bit, prior to Feed you directed an adaptation of Marvel’s Man-Thing. Did you manage to sneak in any references to Howard the Duck?
Brett Leonard (BL): Howard the Duck (laughs). No. I know that he was in the same comic that the Man-Thing originally appeared in. Man-Thing was an interesting process. I was brought in by Marvel, who had a script by Hans Rodionoff, and they asked me to supervise and develop the script further. I did that for about five or six months, then took it to Australia to make it and about a month before shooting The Hulk opened. That sent shockwaves through the Marvel world and they basically scrapped the script that I had been developing, which was much more character-oriented, and, for lack of a better term, they went with a very dumbed-down version. I had already cast the film, was already in pre-production, already building a swamp, so I went ahead with it, but I feel that the script was very weak in Man-Thing. I’m very happy with the execution of the film visually. It was a very low-budget film for a Marvel comic movie, but the work that my director of photography [Steve Arnold] and the production designers, Peter Pound and Tim Ferrier, did was fantastic visually, especially in creating the swamp atmosphere. But we basically had a very, very simple story as [Marvel] wanted no back-story and no characterisation because that’s what they got nailed on with The Hulk. So, unfortunately, I think Man-Thing was a victim of The Hulk’s demise.
TSI: It was your experiences on Man-Thing, working with Pat Thompson and Alex O’Loughlin, that led directly to Feed.
BL: Yes, because that was such a painful experience, to have to shoot a dumbed-down script, something that wasn’t really the version of the movie that I wanted to shoot, I wanted immediately to get back up on the horse and really make something that I felt strongly about, personally about and not have anybody controlling me from above. Feed was the antidote to that. The two actors, Pat Thompson and Alex O’Loughlin, came to me after seeing a documentary about Feeder-Gainers and said, “We have this thriller idea.” I instantly thought it was fantastic because I thought it had sub-themes which related a lot to Western culture, especially American culture, consumerism, body obsession, beauty obsession, all those things. I thought, well, we can make a really creepy, visceral thriller that has some intelligence, some sociology behind it. That’s more the kind of thing I like to do; something that’s conceptually interesting in the context of a genre film.
TSI: Feed represents quite a change of direction for you. Your previous films have been very effects-driven.
BL: Yeah, it’s true. I didn’t get into effects because, “Boy, oh gee-whiz, I love effects.” I love science-fiction, I love horror, I love genre films and it just so happened, in the early 90s when I hit Hollywood, this thing called computer graphics had just started. Nobody even knew about it when I made The Lawnmower Man. It was very, very new. So I was right there at the beginning of that and I used it as what it was itself, in that if you look at The Lawnmower Man it’s actually celebrating the cyber-aesthetic. It’s not trying to be something else or used for photorealistic effect, which is, of course, what computer graphics are all about now, which is fantastic, but I was thinking this is another aesthetic itself. For me, I’m always more into the visual, sort of surreal abstraction from a design standpoint and I never really wanted to use computer graphics just to make a realistic world. I wanted to make an imaginary world. Of course I went on to make T-Rex: Back To The Cretaceous in IMAX 3-D, which featured photorealistic dinosaurs. That was the extreme in terms of photorealism because it actually had to have ten times the detail of 35 millimetre film, ten times the detail, say, of King Kong’s effects in order for it to play in an IMAX 3-D theatre. That was very challenging. So the effects became a career line for me because of the success of The Lawnmower Man. That’s why it happened. I’m a filmmaker. I love genre films. I love the films of Scorsese, Cronenberg and Bertolucci. Really, I am not essentially a techno-geek. It just so happened that I did some films that came after The Lawnmower Man that were techno-mythology. The Lawnmower Man was one of the first cyber-films and that was sort of a wave I rode.
TSI: Presumably being involved with the production of Feed from the very beginning meant you had to do a lot of the initial research into the film’s subject matter.
BL: Yes. The research was the most difficult part of Feed, finding out that these extreme kinks are incredibly prevalent. There are over 4,000 sites on the web dedicated to Feeder-Gainers and I was just, like, “Whoa.” It was also a very daunting experience to have to go on to the cannibalism sites. In Germany there are 400 registered cannibals and they speak in code on the internet. It’s really creepy shit. So what happened was, we thought we were coming up with a very extreme story, one that went into a stylisation, a kind of allegory, but that story isn’t that extreme [compared] to what’s going on out there. And, of course, we started the film with the scene of the cannibalism thing that happened in Germany. That was actually designed exactly after the images that came out of the video of the guy who was the cannibal. That was very much trying to mirror reality. It was the most disturbing thing to shoot. When we shot it, everyone kind of went, “Okaaaaay. Er… yeah, let’s get out of here.” (laughs)
TSI: I know one person who admitted to covering his eyes during that scene.
BL: Yeah, many people can’t view it. One of the things with Feed that I was trying to do and that I’m proud of is that people find this film to be one of the more disturbing films they’ve ever seen or the sickest film they’ve ever seen. It’s funny, Fangoria magazine said, “Brett Leonard redeems himself after Man-Thing with one of the sickest films we’ve ever seen.” Now, for Fangoria to say that, that’s a lot. The truth is, viscerally, Feed is not very violent. What I wanted to do was push different kinds of buttons – psychosexual buttons, body image buttons. Everybody eats, everybody has a feeling about their body, everybody is obsessed in Western culture with image and so, because of that, this film is, I find, more disturbing to people than, say, a film where there’s a lot of viscera going on. Even the cannibal scene is very subtle in its suggestion, visually. You don’t see much at all. It’s the vibe. It’s the feeling that it’s real, that it’s really going on. That’s the thing that gets to people and that’s what I’m most proud of in the film – that there’s a kind of vérité feeling to it, although it’s still very visually stylised. I think the combination of those two things is something I want to continue to explore. It allowed me to explore a visually stylised universe in a genre film that had a lot of suspense and yet sparks of a kind of garish reality. That combination is a very interesting one.
TSI: Did you have any fears that, despite your best intentions, the film could turn out to be exploitative?
BL: I’m sure there are people that will say it is. (laughs). It’s not. I don’t think it is at all. If people say it is exploitative of people who have weight problems, well, the only likeable person in the movie is the Gainer. She’s actually the sympathetic character in the film. It’s funny, even one of the distributors in Australia, when they first saw the film said, “Well, can’t you show her less and make her more like the Elephant Man?” I’m like, “No. This is a character.” The idea is that you get used to seeing this woman and then you start to feel for her even though she [represents], in a sense, an image that is one of the most disturbing I think you can have in Western culture. If you think about it, it’s really not that big a deal. It’s just a big, fat woman. In Polynesian culture the fatter a person is, the more beautiful they are. So what is the nature of aesthetics and beauty? This is one of the sub-themes. Obviously there is a thriller element driving the whole thing but these sub-themes are things that prick at people and for those people who have had very strong, shocking reactions to it, I think it’s getting to areas where they don’t want to look at themselves.
TSI: As you said earlier, there’s not a lot of on-screen violence in the film, but there is one very shocking sequence where Patrick Thompson’s character is extremely violent towards his girlfriend [Rose Ashton].
BL: Yeah, the violence in the film is emotional violence. Obviously, there is a physical component in the sexual violence. In a sense we are dealing with the nature of sexuality. One of the things I wanted to play with was, here’s the protagonist, here’s the “hero”, but heroes have a lot of problems, usually when they want to go out and save people. I wanted to show the hero may be just as screwed up as the antagonist or possibly even more so. And that’s obviously what the denouement of the film is about. You can make your own interpretations but the idea that there are heroes in 2005, I think is ridiculous. American heroes going into a mosque and blowing people away in Iraq – is that heroic? It’s a stupid, dumb kid who’s been programmed to kill. So that aspect of the film actually folds into what the film is really about for me. It’s about America for me. It’s about the United States. It’s about consumerism. It’s about Western culture in an out of control sort of feeding frenzy that’s subsuming the world at this point. I’m very disturbed by what my country has been involved in, what it’s been doing and those themes are subtly woven into Feed, in some of the dialogue especially. Who represents what and what represents who, that’s for the interpretation of the audience but those sub-themes are definitely there.
TSI: There is an unsettling feeling of ambiguity halfway through Feed where the audience is compelled to sympathise with the bad guy.
BL: That’s right. And he is, in a sense, a victim as well because of his past. So is the hero because of his past. I show flashes of disturbing past histories for both the hero and the antagonist. That was one of the things I wanted to do. I didn’t want the hero just to be this basic Hollywood stereotype. I think audiences, especially young intelligent audiences, are sick of seeing the same old formula again and again. People of that ilk have responded very positively to the fact that this movie ends in a very different way than you would normally have a film end. You don’t know who the hero is. Is there a hero? The actions that the people take are human actions, flawed actions. They are not the actions of any one category or type of character, and that, I think, is where the film has to go because the audience is too savvy. They’ve seen too many examples of the same kind of story again and again. Especially the young audiences, who I am always interested in. They want things that are more authentic, more truthful, even if they are stylised. Feed is a very stylised film, especially visually, but there is something there that’s authentic and it’s talking about something that you usually don’t talk about. I think that can grab an audience.
TSI: Speaking of the stylised look of Feed, was that something you planned or was it something that evolved for budgetary reasons?
BL: My director of photography and myself talked about exactly how we were going to shoot the film, the colourisation of the film, the garishness of the film, the use of the high-def video and giving it its own aesthetic as opposed to trying to make it look like something else. There’s a sophistication to a lot of the coverage in the film and yet it also has a kind of vérité feel. There’s a lot of hand-held camerawork in the film, there’s a lot of dynamism in the cutting. You’re seeing a lot of this style coming out now and being applauded as if it’s new, like in The Constant Gardener and The Bourne Supremacy, things like that, where you are taking a Hollywood movie and a Hollywood genre and doing this sort of cinema vérité French New Wave hand-held thing with it and it’s considered better than sliced bread. This is very old. This is something that Visconti was doing, so there’s nothing new about anything we’re doing, but I wanted to play with that style. I guess the way I wanted to mitigate that style was to also have very set tableaux in the film, so you have this sort of modern contemporary-dynamism that is really just a throwback. Then you have this, for want of a better term, Kubrickian tableaux, where there is a lot of irony in the frame, such as the large woman and the very toned man. Those kinds of icons are very interesting, visually, to me as a storyteller, as is using them as things that represent what the film is about just in one image. So, yes, it was all very planned.
TSI: That sense of irony you mention is very much evident in the songs you chose to use on the soundtrack. There are a few classic, even iconic, pop songs on the soundtrack.
BL: Well, ones that people have maybe forgotten about, but yes. My mother used to love Cherish and as a child I used to listen to it and be creeped out. I thought it was the creepiest song. If you listen to the words, he’s a stalker who’s stalking someone and saying, If only I could mould you into someone who would love me the same why I love you. So it fit perfectly with Michael’s obsession and I’ve always wanted to use it in the context of something like this. So when we were able to do that I was very pleased. Things like Yummy, Yummy, Yummy are obvious choices. The Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polk-dot Bikini dance is one of my favourite parts of the movie. (laughs)
TSI: There are a few of those darkly comic moments.
BL: Well, the film is designed as a black comedy. Again, in a Kubrickian sense. Is A Clockwork Orange a comedy? I think so. I think if you look at it now, especially. The use of irony, which is very rare in American film because Americans don’t really understand irony as a mass audience, is one I have always found important in doing genre work because if you don’t have irony in genre work it becomes too serious and self-involved. This is my most ironic film to date, for sure. (laughs)
TSI: I read that you racked up an incredibly high ratio of footage shot to footage used on Feed. Was that a result of the documentary style of shooting you employed?
BL: Yeah, but anyone who has produced any of my films will tell you I shoot a lot. I shoot a lot because I like a very dynamic cutting style. There are almost 6,000 cuts in this movie, which is very unusual for a film of this budget level. I shot something like a 100:1 because the HD affords that. You just put another tape in. It’s not processing and film stock and all that. It’s fantastic, especially when you are using new talent, to get performances, to get a feeling, to get a vibe and to cover it in a number of ways that allow you to cut it in unexpected ways. You can create something different, that’s greater than the sum of the parts, if you have greater coverage. I think there are some very popular contemporary filmmakers who are doing this to an extreme, Tony Scott being one of them. He’ll set up a wall of ten cameras and shoot every scene with them all running continuously and then cut it in this sort of epileptic style of which I think Man On Fire was the most extreme example. It was like there was not one moment without flash-cuts going on in that movie. I thought that went a little too far, but that is a contemporary reaction to the fact that the audience is bombarded with visual information at a much higher frequency rate so in order to engage a young audience, especially, you do have to have a greater density of visual information and that kind of coverage allows that.
TSI: In terms of the casting, you’ve used actors who would perhaps be considered relative newcomers by British and American audiences, but you also took a very brave step in casting Gabby Millgate who is probably best known as a comedian. Her character could verily easily have slipped into the realms of comedy but it doesn’t.
BL: No. Gabby is a comedian, a very skilled comedian. That’s how I knew her and as a friend I would go to see her stand-up act. She sings these songs she writes that are very, very funny, but ironic and dark. Her comedy is tinged with a kind of anger. She is a woman of size and I needed someone who understood the pain of that. And she really exposed herself in this movie. She gave a very courageous performance because she had to go there. Now, she’s nowhere near as big as the person she plays in the film but she is someone who understands that pain and is a very intelligent and beautiful person, so that comes through. There’s an authenticity to it. Her comedy is always tinged with that pain and so I just brought that pain out. It was very daunting for her but she really came through and I’m very proud of her performance.
TSI: Two of the stars of Feed, Patrick Thompson and Alex O’Loughlin, you’d already worked with before on Man-Thing. Had they already been cast in that film before you came on board?
BL: No, I found Alex fresh out of NIDA, the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia. Man-Thing was his first film. He’s definitely a movie star and a really talented young actor. Pat Thompson grew up in the business. His father is Jack Thompson, so he was in and around movies all the time and has been a television star in Australia for many years. He was very used to being in front of the camera but always wanted to do more dramatic work. I knew he was a more dramatic actor who hadn’t gotten the chance to really show his stuff. He was really the one who first came up with the idea for Feed, him and Alex.
TSI: Was it through Patrick that Jack [Thompson] joined the cast of Feed?
BL: Well, I met Patrick through Jack. I’ve had a friendship with Jack now for quite a number of years. Russell Crowe introduced me to Jack and we are fast mates. He’s one of my best mates in the world actually, Jack Thompson. He’s one of these incredible, rare individuals. He’s a real renaissance man and he’s having a great comeback right now. You know, he’s just done that film with Sean Penn, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, and he’s fantastic in that. And he just did a film with Soderbergh, Cate Blanchett and George Clooney called The Good German, so he’s having a full resurgence now. And he really deserves it because he’s a great actor. He was one of the producers on Feed and was very supportive of doing something very radical.
TSI: I have to agree with what you say about Alex being a movie star…
BL: Yeah, he’s just completed another film, directed by David Goyer. He’s definitely on the go. He’s got the leading man looks and he’s a very serious actor. For him to play something like this – this is the kind of thing a young Christopher Walken would play and Alex has got those kind of chops except he’s got the leading man style. Alex really had to descend into this role and it was quite daunting for him actually. It was great working with friends who are also good actors. We had, like, a 15 person crew and it was a very refreshing experience after Man-Thing.
TSI: The film was shot entirely in Sydney, which also doubles for Hamburg, Germany and Toledo, USA. Did that present many difficulties?
BL: Yes, it was very difficult, but the creative limitations enforced by that lend a kind of surreal air to the movie, a kind of Lynchian vibe. You’re in this street in America that’s not quite right but you don’t know why because it looks like America and people are talking with American accents. The driving stuff was the most difficult part. Getting cars that are left-hand drive is very expensive and we couldn’t afford it so we had fake steering wheels in the cars with a guy lying down in the next seat driving down the wrong side of the street. The limitations also lend a claustrophobic air to the film because we don’t pull back to wide shots of the environment very much because it’s Sydney. We were thinking at one point, oh let’s go and shoot some stuff in America for establishing shots but I said, No, no, no, no. Let’s let the film play. This is about these two guys and the cat-and-mouse game between them. It doesn’t need to be about environment.
TSI: Have you been touring with the film to see how it plays with an audience?
BL: Yeah, I did. It was the closing film at the L’Etrange Film Festival in Paris and that was great. It turned out to be a great experience. It was a 500-seat theatre. It was the first time I saw it in a theatre with a big audience. It was a Parisian intelligentsia, genre crowd so I was sweating bullets. I was like, “Oh no.” You know, that’s a pretty tough crowd, but they just rocked and rolled with the film, applauded at certain points and gave it a big ovation at the end and then I took questions for half an hour. It was great, a really good experience. People that are looking for this kind of film, that’s an extreme film experience that also has an intelligence to it – what I would call genre-art films, which is a whole category unto itself – this is a film they will enjoy. Everywhere it has played, those people have found it and enjoyed it. All through Germany at the fantasy film festivals, we got a great response, and at Sitges near Barcelona. It’s just now starting to play, just in Europe. This will be the first theatrical release so we’re very excited about it.
TSI: That genre/art-house crossover nature of the Feed certainly makes it difficult for people to pigeonhole it.
BL: Yeah, and that’s really more what I want to do now. I’ve been pigeonholed as a “cyber-special effects” genre filmmaker, but if you look at my films they always have weird themes in them (laughs) and that’s really more what I’m into to. I’m much more that style of a filmmaker and now I’m at a point in my career where I want to do that more and more – it doesn’t matter what the budgets are – to have the freedom to tell really interesting stories that also prick the social conscience and disturb people. I think it’s time for artists to be disturbing the shit out of people because it’s a really disturbing world. This movie is definitely designed to do that.
TSI: It was quite a surprise to see your name attached to Highlander: The Source [as director]. Are you a fan of the Highlander franchise?
BL: I was a fan of the first movie, so when they came to me to do it – it falls into the exact opposite side of my filmmaking oevre, which is, again, effects-driven fantasy sci-fi – they really wanted to reinvigorate the franchise and do something much better from a script standpoint. I was able to develop the script to a much greater degree of satisfaction than I was able to do with Man-Thing. I just finished shooting it in Lithuania, very challenging. It was like going to the Gulag Archipelago and making a movie. There are great people, great talent there and all that but it’s just a very challenging place especially as it was all exterior nights, six-day week exterior nights in the frigid winter weather. That got a little taxing but I’m very happy with what I got in the can and I’m just starting to edit it. It’s very different. It’s what I would call the dark Highlander. It’s a very dark world. Adrian Paul is the lead. He’s playing Duncan MacLeod from the TV series. I actually had never really even seen the TV series. I’m not a big TV fan so I came fresh to him and his character. I just wanted him to be very dark and brooding, something very different to what I eventually saw in some of the episodes of the TV series. It’ll be a fresh experience for the Highlander fans. It answers some of the questions. There’s a very interesting villain called The Guardian who’s just really strange (laughs).
TSI: You’re finishing up the editing on that now. Do you have anything else immediately lined up that you can talk about?
BL: Well, there’s another film in the line of Feed that I want to do independently in Australia called Headless, which is a political horror film. It’s a little love letter to the Bush administration, but it’s a horror movie.
TSI: Are you making Australia your base now?
TSI: Is that partly to do with your disillusionment with America, politically?
BL: A bit. Disillusionment with America in general, with Hollywood a bit. I’ve done it. I lived in LA for 15 years. I’m really not into the scene of that. I’m into work and Australia’s a place of more raw, interesting, cinematic energy. It’s like Hollywood was 50 years ago, so I enjoy it. Plus there’s an amazing lifestyle there. It’s a fantastic place.
Feed is available to buy on the 29th May 2006.