Interview with Douglas Buck

Domestic Horror

by Donato Totaro Volume 2, Issue 4 / October 1998 20 minutes (4797 words)

In two years short years, American Independent director Douglas Buck has becomes a Fant-Asia fan favorite for his uncompromising brand of “domestic horror”; Douglas Buck was back at Fant-Asia ’98 with his short film Home , a companion piece of sorts to last year’s Cutting Moments (the film that had people crying “ouch”). Combined, the two films form a macabre psychological exploration of the patriarchal nuclear family gone seriously wrong. In both films Douglas Buck approaches the theme of the disintegrating male psyche in an understated formal manner (minimal dialogue, restraint camera style, non-contrast lighting). Home maintains the emotional claustrophobia of Cutting Moments , but where it differs – a conscious choice on Buck’s part – is in refraining from explicit, gut-wrenching violence. I caught up with Buck over a pint (or two) at the Fant-Asia watering hole, “Le Vielle 300,” to discuss the method behind his calm madness.

Author (far right) with Quelou Parent and Douglas Buck

Donato Totaro : Can we begin with your background, how you got into film?

Douglas Buck : No comment! Why should I tell you about my background! When I was naked with daddy at 7 years old, that led to Cutting Moments ! Seriously, it is a little weird because I’m an electrical engineer. That’s my day job. I come from this total suburban family, where everyone works 9-to-5, and everyone in the neighborhood does pretty much the same thing. But I’ve always had this passion for film, though I never, ever conceived as a reality being a filmmaker, a writer. I’ve had to overcome resentment over that fact. It was only after so many years, after I graduated from college, and got a year into my life as an engineer, that I finally sobered up from years of doing drugs and alcohol and realized, “wait a minute, I don’t really want to be an engineer!” At that point I said, well I’ll try writing a script, because I had a friend who was in a similar situation, so I took a screenwriting class, and wrote a script. It’s weird because it was a shitty script, but was optioned by some entertainment lawyer in LA who was shopping it around to Robert H. Solo, the producer who did Body Snatchers and other good stuff. It didn’t get picked up but I thought, wow, this is going to be easy, and then wrote five more scripts that received no interest at all! At that point I said, well I can’t just sit around writing scripts and not getting anywhere, maybe I’ll try and direct something. I went to film school to basically get equipment and meet crewmembers, because I didn’t have any technical knowledge.

DT : What school was that?

DB : The New School of Social Research (in Manhattan).

DT : Both your films deal with the family. In very general terms, why is this so?

DB : It’s personal. It’s what I know. But sometimes you see things that other people do and I say, gosh I wish I knew politics like Oliver Stone, but I don’t. As a personal thing, I felt resentment toward the distance and lack of communication that existed in my household, which interestingly enough, doesn’t exist today.

DT : Has your family seen your work?

DB : Yes, everyone except my father. All my family members are very strong people. As me and my siblings grew up, my brother and sister, we started talking. And while it was volatile for a very long time, now everything is out in the open and it’s a much more workable situation. But there was a period of time where it was very difficult. I would see this rift between my parents and, as a child, would so strongly wish it not to exist. It was very difficult for me to comprehend that these two giants who I called my mother and father, my gods, were not in synch, and that I couldn’t bridge the gap for them. There’s much more communication in my household now than ever before. But I think that happens if you make it through something rough. You realize that the bonds are really strong and there is this ability and desire to work together. I think that’s what came out of my family’s situation. I’m not that surprised that my father isn’t going to see my films. He can’t handle this kind of psychological stuff. It’s not his cup of tea. But my mother, brother and sister go see them. They support my work because it’s me, but I’m not sure they really enjoy or fully understand my desire to be doing this. I think they understand emotion, rage, anger, and frustration. But I don’t think they understand what is, in their eyes, this desire to destroy rather than construct. To me of course it is much more complex than that, in that I don’t think I am purely destructing in my films. To me deconstruction leads inevitably to construction. It’s like what Robin Wood says, that there is actually hope in apocalyptic filmmaking, in the sense that things can not get worse, but only better. The two defining things in my life are my familial relationships and my love of film. So I think they work in tandem.

DT : Is it fair to say that your films are “anti-family”? Or at least anti-patriarchal, because in both your films the father is the villain.

DB : Yes, I wonder about that. It seems that in both films, even though Home is more about the male character and Cutting Moments more about the female character, I still think the sympathetic characters are the female ones. Even though some people dispute this because in Cutting Moments the mutilation we see is all against the female. And I think that is a valid criticism, that I don’t show the male genitals being cut off. On that I’d say that when I was younger I always had this sense of otherness, because of the fact that I was creative and artistic and no one in my sphere was anything like that. Also in our society, and I may be wrong, the male voice is considered the dominant voice and the woman’s voice is the other. The male is the norm and the woman is the other. This is always reinforced in the horror film. There’s always this connection between the monster and the female. So I’ve always had a stronger connection to the female because I felt that otherness. And I always felt that the male character was the stronger one, but not strong in a good way but in an abusive, repressive way. So getting back to whether my films are anti-family or not. My films are clearly anti-family, anti-suburban, the films themselves anyway. But personally, even after making these films, I see value to the family. Like my sister and her family, who are liberal, open-minded people, are very happy within it. So I can recognize that, which is cool. But with my films, it was partly an adolescent punch back at my family. A chance for me to get them to recognize the pain. So it doesn’t necessarily reflect what I believe intellectually, but emotionally. It’s also interesting that the father’s in both films are clearly also victimized. The father in Cutting Moments doesn’t like who he is and has this redemptive moment when he stands up and sees his wife in front of him, and they have that moment where they both recognize that they have to be removed from their situation. Maybe he’s not accepting full responsibility, but she accepts some of it with him, so that kind of makes him sympathetic. In Home the father is sympathetic in a way. When he is in the living room and the mother is taken away he looks somewhat shaken. He doesn’t know how to deal with it. The only way he knows how to deal with things is when the son walks in and he remembers his role again as the father. So he is victimized by his role as much as the other characters.

DT: Is that where the hope is in your films, in this form of catharsis?

DB : It’s interesting, because I guess you could say that the hope in Cutting Moments is that the family has been removed and that the child is allowed his individuality, to grow up without those influences anymore. So in a way the hope is in the destruction of the family unit in order to reconstruct it into something else. Whether I see that as a universal truth, I don’t know? But that’s the point of view of the film anyway.

DT : Why in both your films does this lack of communication in the family lead to extreme violence?

DB : Because it said so in the script!

DT : Was it just a way to make your point in a much more visceral way, or are you actually dealing with domestic violence?

DB : Well that’s interesting, I don’t really know. All I can say is that both films started on an image. In Cutting Moments the image was the cutting of the lips. Actually I was listening to a P.J. Harvey song, “Rub till it Bleeds,” and I kept having this recurring image and would in turn listen to the CD endlessly because I loved this image. I’d listen to it while in the shower and get this image in the mirror. Then I began to ask myself, why would she do this, and began to create the story for it. So it started on an image of devastation and then I built up to it. It is the same thing in Home . The first image I had for Home was the guy walking out onto his porch and sitting down covered in blood, narrating what a great day it was, as he breaks down in tears.

DT : Maybe we can talk a little bit about your film style, because there are many parallels that way in the two films. How did you arrive at an understanding of what the style of your films would be?

DB : Well I guess with me I go with my influences, with myself included because you can not detach yourself. I love Bergman, especially his religious trilogy, Winter Light , Through a Glass Darkly , and The Silence , and Cries & Whispers . Through a Glass Darkly was actually the first Bergman film I saw and I was so blown away by it, and then I saw the other three. I love that whole idea of the silence of God, which is what they are about. And I love the pacing, the staging. Those films so effected me. I’ve had three or four occasions where a film or filmmaker just blows me away. Gaspard Noe was one of them, with his film Seul contre tous (1997), which I saw recently at Cannes. Bergman was perhaps the first one. I recognize and love his style. It’s not that I try to copy the style or recreate it. I spoke to Nacho Cerda, and I think it is similar with him. What we both do is prepare carefully so that everything comes down to directorial control. It’s about expressing your vision, which you really feel in Nacho’s films. It just develops, and my influence is Bergman. But, I’m not saying I’m Bergman by any stretch of the imagination, or even Nacho Cerda!

DT : I can definitely see the influence of Cries & Whispers . Can you talk about that?

DB : I think about it afterwards, and I can see it as an influence now. The scene where she masturbates with a piece of glass and then wipes the blood across her face. The mutilating of female sexuality, the loss of self-esteem, and the loss of esteem with her own sexuality. I think this is the case because of how society is set up to the point where woman are identifying their sexuality according to the dictates of men’s reactions to them. And when men’s reactions aren’t there anymore, their sense of sexuality is lost and becomes a painful thing to carry with them, and almost a troublesome thing. So it becomes something they mutilate in both Cries & Whispers and Cutting Moments . I think it’s an incredible moment when she masturbates with that piece of glass in Cries & Whispers .

DT : I don’t think she so much masturbates as cuts herself, disfigures herself to spite her impotent husband.

DB : Well, she pushes the piece of glass, which you can see as a phallic instrument, inside her vagina and, maybe symbolically, she is masturbating.

DT : Even the dinner sequence in Cries & Whispers between the woman and her husband leading up to the mutilation scene reminds me of the male-female relationship in your film. The ice-cold feel in the air and the closing up of any hope for communication. I like the way you use symbols and icons of the home. The way you place the television, which is supposed to pacify, in the center of the home, but it does the opposite. I love the way you use it in Cutting Moments with the constant sound of the baseball game heard off-screen, especially when she’s mutilating herself in the bathroom. And of course the irony of having baseball, the all-American game. In this sense I see your films as being very subversive, in the way they attack such pillars of American society, as the family and baseball.

DB : Actually, there’s a lot of baseball imagery throughout the film. I love baseball! There’s a baseball cup that reads “Major League Dad” in the bathroom, which she pulls the scissors out of. And then in the home movies they are playing baseball. So there is the theme of baseball running through it, which as you say, is part of the all-American tradition, the American mythos. I got the OK from the New York Mets to use the footage, those fools! I had to call the team PR department and speak to them. They asked me what the film was about and I said, “It’s a family drama where everything works out in the end.” So they said, great, and sent me the release form. They asked me to send them a copy of the film when it was done and I said, “Oh yea, sure, I will.” And never did of course!

DT : The scene where the young boy is playing with the two rag dolls and the implication of sexual relations between the father and the boy. Have you had any feedback on that?

DB : Obviously, everyone asks me, “how fucked up was your family life”? A, B, and C, B being, were you molested? That’s basically the level of the feedback. But when I made Cutting Moments I was worried because, as far as I know, I don’t have any conscious memories, or flashbacks of such. I was never molested. But yes, I did incorporate feelings of sexuality going all over the place in both Cutting Moments and Home . And because of the gore hounds going to see the gore, I was worried that I might be minimizing molestation, because I’m dealing with a subject that I don’t necessarily have full understanding of. I don’t want people to think only of the violent images and forget that the film also deals with molestation. It concerned me for a period of time.

DT : What kind of reactions have you been getting from your films?

DB : Well most of the press has been favorable. A lot of times I think people don’t get what I want them to get, and they just get off on the gore. On the surface, the most important thing about Cutting Moments , compared to Home , is the violence. Clearly, the violence is right in your face and it is integral to the whole film. Home is about everything around the violence. So violence is still important, but in a different way. You are not wrong if you call Cutting Moments a gore film. I think it is a gore film, but people miss something when they hoot and holler and only get the gore. I accept that because I understood that that would be the case if the gore was done right. As I said, I’ve had a lot of good press, but there’s always the odd exception, like after this one particular screening. I went over to talk with my actress and there was this woman who wouldn’t even go near me, and just looked at me with pure disgust. Unknowingly, she goes over to my sister and says, “I feel really sorry for this guy’s girlfriend because he’s a real sick pervert.” My sister is, like, “Yea, well that guy’s my brother.” And that didn’t stop her for a second. And my sister, who is just a sweet, nice person, with no interest in this stuff at all and who was there only to support me, has to listen to this stranger tell her what a sick pervert I am! That’s the only person who actually approached me in a negative way. Maybe people stay away because they think I’ll cut them! To me, honestly, she’s scarier than anything I could be. She’s the one who seems to think that what she saw on the film reflects what I do at home at night. I’m a little sick, but not that sick!

DT : Well I know you weren’t at the screening of Cutting Moments last year, but there wasn’t that much laughing during it. Only a smattering really. But people getting off only on the gore, has this happened elsewhere?

DB : Absolutely.

DT : Were you conscious of this then when you made Home ?

DB : Absolutely not. I tell you what though, Home was a much more difficult film to make because of trying not to top Cutting Moments , or trying to achieve the same great feeling that I had with Cutting Moments . After a success, your second film is always a lot tougher. I used the same DP, but a lot of different crew members, actors, and more locations. I was less sure of myself in a million ways. From auditions, to rehearsals, to filming. I don’t think the actors were aware of it, though. But I definitely was very uncertain inside. On the question of gore, in Home , if you remember, there is that scene where the father walks past the kitchen, and you see a quick glimpse of the gore, and then he walks outside. Well in the first cut of Home , from that shot I cut back to shots inside the kitchen. In one shot the mother’s tongue is actually cut out and is lying on the floor. There’s another shot of an ear lobe on the floor, and the camera pans up to the little girl and along her mutilated, twitching hand. There’s blood all over the place.

DT : Why did you cut that scene?

DB : Well after that I cut back to the father outside on the porch. At that point I thought to myself, truthfully, the scene is not about that, and it felt gratuitous to me. It felt like I’m going in there, but the character doesn’t go in there, just the camera. I didn’t want to include the scene just to appease some segment of the audience that wanted to see that.

DT : By the way, that word, “gratuitous,” it doesn’t exist for Fant-Asia ! Did you think the fans of the original film wanted more gore?

DB : Yes. I knew that I was going to disappoint a big portion of the audience. There was no doubt in my mind, but I had to make an honest assessment of what the film was about. I didn’t want to make a decision based on audience expectation rather than what I was feeling and wanted to say.

DT : Talking about gore, can you talk about what Tom Savini’s role in the film was and how he got involved in the production?

DB : Well, you know, he was never there on the set. He’s a really nice guy, very approachable. What happened is that I knew him, we were friends. I sent him this script and asked him if he would like to do the effects, never actually thinking he would ever say yes, considering that I had no money. After several phone calls he agreed and said that he would have his assistants do it, Tom Vukmanic and Brett Moore. So what I did was I got Nica Ray [actress who plays Sarah] and brought her down to Savini’s shop in Pittsburgh and Tom did a trial run with me which we shot in 16mm. We did a trial run of the lips, the hedge clippers, everything. His assistants were there also. And by the way, Tom Vukmanic is great, just awesome. He’s a great special effects artist, very conscientious and great to have on set. He followed Savini’s lead and when it came time to shoot he came down and stayed with us and did all the effects. Certain things went wrong and had to be redone, and he did them all. He did a great job on it. Being able to credit Savini surely helped to sell the film, as well as adding an extra element of interest to it. Which in a way is almost unfair to Vukmanic because everywhere you go, it’s “effects by Tom Savini,” which downplays Vukmanic’s amazing contribution. After Savini saw the film I spoke to him right afterward. He confided in me that after he first read the script he thought it would be a return to the days of Maniac , and that there was no way he was going to do that. But he was really impressed. He thought the lips were really being cut off! He was really loving it.

DT : Well people were really squirming during that scene. It hit people right in the gut.

DB : Well sometimes things work in your favor. Like in Cutting Moments , when we were filming the scrubbing scene. Vukmanic put this chaffing stuff on the made-up lips and covered it with blood. So when she cut down on the lip the chaffing thing ended up squishing upward, so it actually looks like she is cutting into the lip. And that was just coincidental, but it worked so well in the film.

DT : Speaking of Nacho Cerda earlier, with his trilogy now complete, do you see your two films leading to a third film?

DB : I don’t know. Nothing has moved in that direction. Right now I wrote that script for hire for Troma and I’m in line to direct a play for a theatre group in New York. So I can’t really say. Who knows, I might do more than a trilogy and people will say, “enough of this stuff already!” I didn’t even mean for them to be something that stood together really. It just happened that way.

DT : You say that you work as an engineer. Are you not able to find a creative outlet through engineering?

DB : No, absolutely not! Actually, I kind of like my job, but maybe I’m lucky that both sides of my brain work OK. Though of course I prefer the artistic, creative side, and would quit my engineering job in a second and never look back. I think. Anyway, I know I would never be able to do that with my creative side, just put it away and be an engineer for the rest of my life. My ultimate goal is to remove the engineering part from me, but I can deal with the 9-to-5 routine and kind of enjoy it. But as far as the typical engineering mentality, there’s no outlet there. Well, unless you find creativity in talking about fixing the garage door opener or something.

DT : So there are no artistic people in your family?

DB : Well actually, my mother has a creative bent, an insightful bent. She did some stage acting in very small theatre groups. Like the German club, because both my parents are first generation German immigrants.

DT : What are your upcoming projects?

DB : Well I just wrote a script for Troma Entertainment, called Terror Firmer . Because Lloyd Kaufman was here last year for Fant-Asia and he liked Cutting Moments a lot. I think because of how well people responded to Troma & Juliet , which had certain serious elements that perhaps previous Troma films didn’t have, I think he wants to continue in that vein. He gave me freedom to put in some of my stuff. If they shoot Terror Firmer the way we wrote it, I think you will definitely recognize themes in it. I think there is some really good stuff in the script. I even put in some great Freudian stuff [just for the critics!] The script is a film within a film. They are shooting a Toxic Avenger 4 in the film and because Toxie’s chemical’s (his tromatons) are rebelling against him, he becomes pregnant with his own mother. So he’s going to be castrated, which makes her a true castrating mother!

DT : That’s like the reverse of Braindead , where the son is reborn through the monster mother’s womb at the end.

DB : I was disappointed with that film, maybe because I’d heard such great things going in that my expectations were so high. I don’t know.

DT : The only dissenting voice you’ll hear from me about Cutting Moments is the final scene – and maybe you can change my feelings on this – but the second climax, the double suicide in the bedroom, I felt was anti-climactic. Emotionally at that point I had nothing left to give, so it felt void. I felt the film would have remained more powerful if it had ended before that scene.

DB : Well, let me say, what I’ve been saying all along, that there’s a very fine line you walk when dealing with extreme violence and extreme subject matters, and when you are going a little over. I absolutely understand that.

DT : It’s not the violence per se that I’m talking about, but emotionally, I just couldn’t give out any more. Maybe if there would have been another scene in-between?

DB : But I think it fits thematically, though. It is the final culminating love scene that they haven’t had all along. Clearly that moment of looking inside each other’s eyes, there is this sharing, and a final communication between them. And it brings them into the other room, where the lovemaking occurs. So thematically it does work, at least for me. But sometimes when I watch the scene I think that maybe I went overboard, simply in terms of using prosthetics, the cutting off of the breasts, even though it looks so real. I wonder sometimes if I went too far in what I show. But thematically I’m OK with that scene. It’s the lovemaking scene where everything is validated and culminated. The violence in the bathroom is by herself, whereas in the bedroom they share it. But of course people have remarked that all the violence is against the woman, except for right at the end when he castrates himself.

DT : The film, thematically anyway, feels a bit like some of Cronenberg’s films. Crash , for example, with the violent sexuality.

DB : Actually, Cronenberg might see my film when it plays at Toronto on a program with Nacho Cerda’s films ( Aftermath , Genesis ). So I’m excited about that. I sent him a copy. I called and spoke to his assistant, Sandra Tucker, and she said that he doesn’t always see short films. I also sent him a quote where someone said, “If David Cronenberg had directed Diary of a Mad Housewive , it would have come out like Cutting Moments .” I think there’s a rumor that Cronenberg wants to get involved with Nacho. At least Nacho heard through Sandra Tucker that Cronenberg will show up at the screening. So I don’t know if Cronenberg has seen it, but it sure would be cool.

Interview with Douglas Buck

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of ACQQ (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 2, Issue 4 / October 1998 Interviews douglas buck, horror, violence