This is part of a series of first person posts in which we provide a forum for filmmakers and other artists to discuss their process, their influences and/or their experiences showing their work. In this edition, A.J. Bond talks about "Stress Position," a genre-bending feature about two close friends, one gay and one straight, who make a bet to see which of them can withstand a week of psychological torture at the hands of the other. The film opens in Toronto at the Carlton Cinema on April 18, 2014 with further expansion in the following weeks, including Vancouver on May 23, 2014 at the Vancity Theatre.
It is said that we filmmakers thrive on the stress of directing a film. The mounting pressure motivates us. The constant intensity makes us feel alive.
In actuality, I find being on set a torturous experience. The relentless stress, the crushing pressure, the always-on, 100-questions-a-minute, all-eyes-on-me atmosphere makes me want to “vomit, explode and die” (to borrow a phrase from my producing partner, Amy Belling).
Whereas writing a film can be kind of magical and editing a film can surprise and delight, I find nothing redeeming about the actual production of a film. If I didn’t love all the other aspects of filmmaking and storytelling so much, I certainly would have quit long ago. It’s an insane endeavour.
And so for my first feature film, knowing that it would undoubtedly be the most stressful and torturous experience of my life, it seemed only logical to integrate literal torture into the process. I’ll be putting myself through hell anyway, why not throw in a little waterboarding? The idea was to actually torture myself and a close friend, actor David Amito, for a week each and film our genuine reactions. Inspired by a flippant remark about the torturous interrogation techniques used by the US military at Guantanamo Bay, Dave and I designed personalized torture regimes aimed at breaking each other’s will, but without causing any “severe” physical pain. Charting a path somewhere between frivolous “Reality” TV competitions like Fear Factor or Kenny vs. Spenny, serious-minded documentaries like Burden of Dreams, and “torture porn” horror films like SAW, Stress Position made for a very unique, genre-bending experience.
Immediately following 9/11, the US military began employing “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” intended to psychologically torture suspected terrorists into revealing high-value intelligence, but without causing any “severe pain” or leaving any incriminating physical evidence. For Stress Position I did extensive research into the subject of psychological torture and manipulation, literally surprising Dave with many of these real techniques, while also developing several of my own novel methods for creating stress and fear (or not, as many of them failed to intimidate Dave at all). My “torture chamber” was designed with the help of sculptor and production designer Lauren Meyer to be an avant-garde installation piece, a highly unusual and stylized environment in which to slowly and meticulously explore Dave’s weaknesses.
But the real torture began when we started filming the “behind the scenes” experience of making Stress Position. Marguerite Moreau stepped in as an associate producer, acting as a front for my camera-shy producers to voice their concerns. Worried that the tortures I designed weren’t working, I began staging scenes with Dave in order to create more “drama”. We setup various elaborate “torture” scenarios inside the cell, only to reveal the artifice behind each ordeal after the fact. This documentary angle purposefully blurred the line between reality and fiction, challenging the audience to carefully scrutinize every moment and every performance as a potential forgery (just like any good interrogator/torturer would). But as the production began to spiral out of control, I became obsessed with dredging something “real” out of this contrived experiment, even at the expense of my friendship and potentially my own sanity.
If you so much as start plotting the torture of another human being, you start to dehumanize them. Pain becomes a tool. You start thinking of their emotions as buttons to be pressed to create a desired effect. Essentially you become a sociopath – a person who lacks normal empathy and emotional affect, using cold cunning and manipulation for personal gain or amusement. I very quickly began to genuinely believe that I had uncovered the fatal flaw in Dave’s personality. After just a few days of psychological manipulation and probing, I started to think that I could in fact better him as a person and as an actor – through torture! The thinking was, that by breaking him – both breaking him mentally and breaking his spirit – I could access some kind of inner truth, some genuine well of emotion, that would connect Dave with his true self. In short, I became a sociopathic megalomaniac.
What I found especially chilling though, was how closely this paradigm mirrored a director’s normal duties: coaxing “truth” out of an actor and manipulating an audience’s emotions to create a desired effect. Torturing people may turn you into a sociopath, but it just so happens that sociopaths make good auteurs. Thus the film became a portrait of the kind of megalomania that so easily arises on film sets, spurred by an addiction to control. I started to emulate my heroes of infamous cinematic perfection, like Kubrick and Antonioni. Stress Position begged the question, how far can a filmmaker go to find a good ending?
Do directors inherently dehumanize their actors (and potentially even their audience)? Did Stanley Kubrick dehumanize Shelley Duvall with hundreds of takes of screaming and crying in The Shining? Did Abdellatif Kechiche dehumanize the young stars of Blue is the Warmest Color with his grueling 10-day-long sex scenes? The list of filmmakers as torturers goes on and on: Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog, William Friedkin… As a young director you almost feel inadequate if you aren’t abusing your actors in some way.
If the opposite of sociopathy is empathy, perhaps there’s an antidote. The sequel to Stress Position could involve Dave and I going into much needed psychotherapy – with each other. Perhaps we can find a connection between therapy and filmmaking. Director as psychoanalyst – a benevolent force who gently collaborates with an actor to uncover a truthful performance built on mutual trust. Sounds great. Though I can’t help but wonder if that approach would really work for my next film, Wisteria, a psychological thriller about a young woman losing her mind and running amok deep in the Canadian wilderness…
Watch a clip from the film below:
"Stress Position" opens in Toronto at the Carlton Cinema on April 18, 2014 with further expansion in the following weeks, including Vancouver on May 23, 2014 at the Vancity Theatre.