The month of August 2010 is winding down, and I have just recently seen Prayer to a Vengeful God — a film that is at least as good, if not better, than Dan Eberle’s last picture, The Local. Both films are crime dramas to a certain extent… an exploration of the underworld, the drug trade, violent thugs. Lines of good and bad that may not always be clear.
Dan was kind enough to answer my questions regarding his career and the films (which I strongly encourage anyone to see — they’re truly amazing). So, without further ado, what it’s like being a writer, director, producer and star of some of today’s best independent films… with Insurgent Pictures’ Dan Eberle.
GS: Dan, you started out in jazz for roughly fifteen years, and tried your hand at being a novelist. How did you wind up in the world of film?
DE: I always wanted to make films as long as I can remember. It was inevitable that I would do it at some point. As a kid, I was lucky enough to attended a performing arts high school, and learned the fundamentals of shooting and editing from then artist in residence Steven Bognar (The Last Truck, A Lion in the House). That’s also where I studied theater under Paul James Vasquez.
Even though my primary emphasis was on music, I always loved making and watching movies. I think the years I spent composing and performing, and later, long form writing, helped me refine a specific artistic aesthetic that went a long way to inform my compositional and aesthetic approach in film.
GS: There’s a rumor that you are friends with singer Norah Jones… is this true?
DE: We’ve been pals since college. She’s a great musician and a great human being.
GS: The first film of yours that I saw was “The Local”, and I was immediately impressed by how professional the picture was. How do you get such a good look from what I assume to be a lower budget?
DE: DE: As with any independent film, there were resource constraints on The Local. We were able to raise the production value by embracing our limitations, and making the most of what we had: a solid, simple story, some great actors, a great fight choreographer, a crack crew, and true photographic artistry in DP Tim Guetterman, and James Parsons (who shot 2nd unit). We also had New York on our side, which means instant art direction.
Since Tim Guetterman and I worked together on my first feature, JailCity, we had plenty of time to talk things through and create a strong, unified vision going in.
In the end, any success of The Local was the culmination of talent, ingenuity, and very hard work. It’s never easy to make a film, but you can always make something work if you and your team commit, and bring all your skills to bear.
GS: What were influences on you for “The Local”, or as a filmmaker in general?
DE: I saw so many films growing up, it’s really hard to boil it down to just a handful of directors. In general, I’m a big fan of Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino are probably why I make films. I also love Paul Greengrass, Chan-wook Park, and Nicolas Winding Refn. Obviously, Martin Scorsese is an undeniable influence on anyone working in the crime genre.
As far as films or directors that inspired The Local are concerned, its hard to nail down, which is probably why reactions to the film were so evenly divided. The story of The Local was based by a novel manuscript I wrote years ago. That story was inspired by my coming to New York from out West, my initial (and mistaken) perception of a cruel city, and the frustration of being relegated to menial under-the-table jobs to survive.
GS: Some critics have favorably compared “The Local” to the films of Guy Ritchie. How do you respond to that?
DE: I think it’s great! I can’t say we intended The Local to approximate a Guy Richie film, but he’s a great filmmaker, so I take it as a compliment!
GS: Being the writer, director and star of your pictures… does this give you more freedom of expression, or simply give you more work?
DE: Definitely more work. Obviously, acting and directing at the same time is risky, and I can’t say I’d recommend it to anyone, but people have been doing it since Charlie Chaplin, so its really not THAT big of a deal. I can say that it’s not something I want to do forever, but so far it’s been good for me.
GS: “Vengeful” is something of a silent picture, which may win it some film festival awards, but will likely turn off a lot of viewers. Was this a concern of yours?
DE: First of all, Vengeful is not a silent picture. There is a tremendous amount of sound design, music, and even human voices present. There is (almost) no dialogue, but to say it’s silent is really not accurate.
In terms of alienating the audience by presenting a movie with no talking, no, I don’t think it will turn people off. My guess is, it will make them want to see it more. Independent film, after all, is about making big choices, doing things you can’t do under the auspices of a large corporation.
Vengeful is first and foremost a film about revenge. In my experience, dialogue usually gets in the way of this type of movie, so losing those tired tropes can only get us to the heart of the matter faster, and hopefully truer. My hope is, the lack of dialogue draws the audience in even more.
GS: Both “The Local” and “Vengeful” have heavy drug content. What sort of research goes into keeping those scenes accurate?
DE: It really depends on the scene. In The Local, there is an intimate scene toward the end where Big Black administers heroin to Claire. Since Noname is looking on during the whole ritual – and presumably wishing he could be the one getting high, we needed it to be accurate. In that case, we had an adviser on set making sure it was right.
In most cases, however, its less about the drugs, and more about the stakes, so it’s less important to me to telegraph what this drug is, how it works, and what it does, or even what it is, than what the drug represents: an escape hatch from reality, a high value commodity, or a gateway to hell.
GS: Parts of “Vengeful” are told in a non-linear fashion. When writing the script, do you figure out the story first and then re-order it, or is it written in more or less the same way we see it?
DE: 99% of the nonlinear aspects of Vengeful are in the script. Chopping things up in post usually doesn’t work out as well as planning it from inception, because even a nonlinear sequence has to be composed and directed in a way the audience can perceive and put together.
A movie like The Limey was written in a straight line, and then cut up later, but I would bet that Soderbergh planned it that way before shooting, or at least shot enough coverage enough different ways to facilitate it. Most indies don’t really have the luxury of shooting exhaustive coverage, so we plan!
GS: The main character, John, spends a fair amount of time learning to fight. Other than the fact it would make the plot less interesting, why didn’t he just buy a gun?
DE: It’s a valid question, and there are several versions of the truth here.
In my opinion, John isn’t interested in murder from the outset, he is interested in answers. The fighting – which is mostly John getting hurt – is conditioning. John learning to feel pain, and continue moving forward. This is, in essence, what he was unable to do during his initial recovery. I think the violence of John’s training empowers him in a way he doesn’t expect, and that’s where the change happens.
Once things turn vengeful for John, its not enough just to shoot these people. Jennifer wasn’t shot, she was asphyxiated, and John was left standing. One by one, John returns the favor. And he does so in a very up close and personal way.
Throughout the film, John only uses the weapons that are presented to him by his adversaries. Nobody sticks a gun in John’s face until much later in the story, so it never occurs to him to use one until then. Also, I think John arming up sooner would imply a desire for efficiency. Part of John’s transition is he doesn’t want to be efficient anymore. He wants to be messy. He wants to draw it out.
GS: Amanda Bender describes her role of the Miscreant as, basically, being the Devil. I think it might be more appropriate to compare her to Charon or Cerberus. What do you feel her role is?
DE: I definitely agree with you that the Miscreant is a henchman, but I think Amanda’s point was that the Miscreant thinks of herself as the Devil. Frankly, I think the Miscreant has far too big an ego to think she is anything less than the Devil herself.
Like all the women in Vengeful, Miscreant is acting of her own accord, making her own choices, and basically doing whatever she feels like doing, which is very empowering, and with no firewall, corrupting.
I see the Miscreant as someone who lost her soul a long time ago, and is now relegated to a joyless life. The only pleasure she finds is the thrill of bringing people like Jen into her world of reptilian self indulgence. Naturally, Jen finds power in that unchecked freedom, and it leads to her undoing… and a lot of other peoples undoing too.
GS: Conversely, Jillaine Gill described Urchin (my favorite character, by the way) as a “guardian angel”. Did you intend to inject the film with so much religious symbolism, or are they reading too much into this?
DE: I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear wildly different perspectives on my work. Everyone I’ve shown Prayer to a Vengeful God to seems to glean something different from it. As the creator of the film, it has deep personal meaning to me–probably in ways that wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me.
The bottom line is, I don’t make films to tell people what to think or how to feel, I just make these films the best that I can, and hope people see them and feel something. The great thing about being a filmmaker, or any kind of artist, is that you get to hear what your work means to everyone else. To me, that exchange is the most rewarding part of the process.
GS: The paintings are amazing. Did you write them into the script and then have to find an artist, or did you know the artist and then wished to incorporate her work into the film somehow? While not a critical part of the story, it is certainly prominent.
DE: Gayle Madeira’s paintings were always part of the story. I feel like her work is a crucial part of the film, because we never really know Jennifer, we only know her work. The paintings speak for Jennifer, and the way she sees the world. There is so much heart in Gayle’s work, I consider them a main character in the film.
GS: You’ve worked with Paul James Vasquez, your former teacher, numerous times now, and sadly he has passed much too early. What was he like? Based on his performance in “Vengeful” as the Transient, there really is no other man on earth who could have filled that role.
DE: Paul was a beautiful person. I knew him almost 20 years. He was the kind of guy you’d meet one day and immediately feel like you knew him your whole life. He had an amazing sense of humor, loved hanging out, and always had a great story for every situation.
Paul was a rare combination of a old wise man, and a giant teenager. He was a world-class Shakespearian actor, a literary scholar, and an incredible writer in his own right, but also loved cheesy science fiction, horror and sitcoms.
He was an inspiration. On camera, Paul just came to life. He brought so much energy and creativity to every moment, every gesture. He made it look easy.
GS: Do you have any dirt on David Hasselhoff?
DE: He is your biological father.
GS: What is on the horizon for Dan Eberle and Insurgent Pictures?
DE: I have a couple projects I’m developing now, and plan to shoot again in the Spring .