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Fantasia ‘18 Interview: “CHAINED FOR LIFE” director Aaron Schimberg takes on big ideas

Saturday, September 1, 2018 | Interviews

By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS

Though decidedly not a horror film, CHAINED FOR LIFE takes on massive social issues with the same nuance and fluency like the more socially aware horror films. Tackling major topics such as attraction, consent, violence, and representation the film does not shy away from big questions, and pays no mind to whether these questions have answers. Told as a story about making a movie, the film oscillates between the film within a film of a hospital in the 1940s, and the cast and crew making that film in present day. By splitting the attention, writer/director was able to create an setting where these eady issues can be woven seamlessly into a simple plot. At last month’s Fantasia Film Festival we were able to sit down with director Aaron Schimberg to start to scratch the surface of his complex film.

How did your screening last night go?
It went well. I only pay attention to people are clapping. It was a lot of laughter and apparently a lot of clapping.

Did you stay throughout or did you leave during certain scenes?
There are two scenes that I leave for. I think there’s some psychological block that I can’t stay for them. If stay for the rest it is a good sign. If it were not going well, I would leave after five minutes, but I think that’s the last time I’ll ever watch. I’m done. I’ve seen it a lot.

Where there any places where people laugh that surprised you?
I feel like at any point in this movie, laughter would be appropriate. And at the same time if nobody laughed, although it would probably break my heart, I would understand that as well. I feel like anything can kind of play into joke. It’s played only three times publicly, but the laughter has been different at each screening.

There are many ongoing themes throughout the film about appearance and intention, and tattoos get brought up several times in the film. As a heavily tattooed person, it is interesting to see that included here.
Yeah. In fact there was more of a tattoo subplot initially in the script. But for reasons having to do with makeup, with the complexity of fake tattoos, I didn’t want to skimp there. I wanted Mabel (Jess Weixler), the character to have a lot of tattoos and it just couldn’t make it look realistic, it was a quick shoot. So there was of that was a longer discussion in the script, but it just sort of referred to in passing.

The film definitely deals with body modification in other ways too.
There’s reference that because the film with film is set in Nazi era Germany. Tattoos have a different meaning in that context. Also the way that some tattoos are shameful and some expression.

Tattoos in today’s society have a very different meaning than the era of the film within the film, and I think that kind of speaks to the fact that you’re taking on all of these really complex topics and there are really big ideas here. There is also the topic of consent when it comes to your own appearance, and gender performance.There’s so much going on here. How did you approach making the film when you are including so many of these massive issues?
I had an initial idea, and all of my work deals with disability or disfigurement in some way. I have a bilateral cleft palate and its an issue that I have to always express through filmmaking. The film initially was sort of direct response to disfigurement, and asking the question whether cinema contributes to the attitudes about it. Once I started figuring out the narrative I started to go down rabbit holes. I tried to unpack all my thoughts about these issues, internally. So tattoos, for example, I think about the fact some kind of scars, some kind of marks, would be shameful and others would you could display proudly and be able to take ownership of that. I just fell down that rabbit hole. For that reason it was just a really difficult long process. There are a lot of ideas and trying to contain that, and make it relevant to narrative was difficult. All the dialogue is somehow related back to that theme. There is no idle chatter.

It’s interesting you say that though because it doesn’t feel like people are artificially focused on that subject. Of course actresses would be chatting about like the best face cream. So that shows how casual people are about this sort of thing. And that points to one of the biggest takeaways from the film within the film, that women’s only value is her appearance.
Yeah. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to place the two settings in two different eras. You hear the stories about FREAKS, and the lore of the able bodied actors being disgusted by the disabled actors, and all this like very blatant discrimination. But at the very least that behavior is illegal today. I think there’s discrimination going on today and there are private issues flying around, but there’s also a certain level of social awareness, and they know when they can’t do that. On the other hand, I was talking to a lot of actors in the film, actors with disabilities, the stories that they told me about being on other films are actually much worse than anything that I portray in the film. I tried to actively avoid any sort of outright discrimination because audiences will start to empathize with characters that they may not empathize with in real life. If they see someone acting in a socially unacceptable manner, they’ll know that that kind of behavior is wrong. They’ll start to take the side of somebody who’s being discriminated against, but that’s not really the same as empathy. You sort of have to work it out for yourself.

Did you write the film with Adam Pearson in mind?
It was a leap of faith. I had 20 pages of the film and I’ve written that Rosenthal, the character, has neurofibromatosis and is British. I don’t know why I wrote that. I think I was thinking of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. About 20 pages into the script I saw UNDER THE SKIN. I saw Adam Pearson. He has neurofibromatosis and he’s upstaging Scarlett Johansson. I don’t write roles for people because I have such a small budget. I have no power to gain any actor. I’ve been disappointed in the past, but I couldn’t help but think he’s be great. And I started getting my hopes up. But he loved the script and it worked out perfect and I just got lucky.

Deirdre is a Chicago-based film critic and life-long horror fan. In addition to writing for RUE MORGUE, she also contributes to BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., FILM THRILLS, and HIGH DEF DIGEST. She's got two black cats and wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero.