J T Petty Interview

an interview with J T Petty

J T Petty is the writer, director and editor of Soft For Digging, a no-budget horror film that caused sufficient stir at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival to evoke memories of a previous Sundance breakout, The Blair Witch Project. Both films tread the tricky line between commerce, art and experiment, and both were filmed at around the same time, in different corners of the same Maryland / Virginia forests. Soft For Digging is an almost dialogue-free film which starts with an elderly man living alone in a forest, who witnesses the killing of a child. Or does he..? At His investigations turn up rather more then he – or we – expect.

[Neil Young’s review of Soft For Digging will be posted on Jigsaw Lounge shortly.]

What was behind the use of silence – or rather, dialogue-free sounds?

“I feel like sound is the sneakiest way to affect an audience, specially in a horror film. It’s a bit of a clich, but they say that with some movies you want to cover your ears as well as your eyes. Also, I’m a big fan of Eraserhead and David Lynch’s other early movies. The sound of the beetles at the start of Blue Velvet – that was a major influence – really brilliant stuff. By cutting back on the dialogue, I had more time to focus on non-verbal sounds.

Did you ever intend having more dialogue – did you cut and cut to see how far you could go?

Not really – the movie was planned out to the last shot, all from the script. The only stuff that was changed significantly was the priest’s dialogue at the end. A minister from my church played that part – when he heard I was making a horror movie, he approached my dad and said ‘Well, he probably needs an evil Catholic priest.’ And of course, we did – he had the uniform, and I did have him identified as a priest in my mind. But he had trouble with the lines – he couldn’t learn them, and he wasn’t comfortable saying them, so we cut the dialogue together from about nine different versions to get the one we used.

How much of the sound was recorded live, and how much was post-synched?

There’s almost no direct sound, maybe 3 shots in the whole picture. We did 20 shots a day over 15 days, so that makes 300 shots altogether, and all except those three were post-synched – all the stuff in Virgil’s cabin, that was all added later, stuff like the kettle boiling and the cat purring.

Did you always plan to divide the story up into chapters using silent-movie-style intertitles?

Yes, the intertitles were there from very early on. We were on such a small budget, there was no room to play around.

But was such stringent economy to the movie’s benefit in the end?

Maybe, but I look at it now, and I certainly wouldn’t have minded shooting a second or third take every once in a while. It’s easy to see the faults when I watch it now.

When did you shoot the film?

It was Christmas break during my last year at NYU, so that must be January 1998.

Was that before or after Blair Witch – they also filmed in the Maryland woods at around that time, I think.

It was around the same time as Blair Witch, they just got it to the screen sooner.

Did Soft For Digging cost more or less than Blair Witch?

We got it in the can for $6,000 – the Sundance people said it was the cheapest film they’d ever shown, and that includes Blair Witch and El Mariachi.

What was your reaction when Blair Witch came out – were you pleased or horrified by its success?

When we were doing Soft For Digging, I really didn’t think I’d have that much of an audience for it. It was just my final student film, I guess I couldn’t imagine people would react as strongly as they have, so I wasn’t thinking of Blair Witch as any kind of competition. And when I saw their trailer, I just couldn’t wait to see the movie – the whole internet thing was just brilliant.

And when you saw the film?

Well, I liked it – but it didn’t scare me as much as the trailer did.

How close are Soft For Digging and Blair Witch in terms of their geographical settings?

I don’t know that I scouted the exact same woods, but it’s all around southern Maryland and northern Virginia. The woods round there are filled with great ghost stories. I rode with Park Rangers through the national parks, we kept stumbling across old Civil War graveyards and abandoned moonshine cabins – even the Rangers sometimes didn’t know about them. I guess I’ve spent enough time scared in the woods of Maryland to identify with the characters in Blair Witch, though I never got really lost out there.

Did those ghost stories feed into the Soft For Digging script, or was it all set by then?

The stories weren’t a direct influence on anything that happens in the movie, though scouting one location I did find a rope in the ground, like a yellow cord, which probably made me think I should make the cord in the movie yellow instead of white. There was a lot of influence indirectly, in terms of the colour stuff, the visual element.

For one of the big scenes I found this wood where it looked like all the trees had been killed about 10 years before, so there were no trees left thicker than an inch. Shooting through them was like looking through a crowd, and there was this green lichen all over the trees. Stuff like that influenced how I was going to represent the story visually, rather than influencing the actual story itself. This movie was pathologically planned out.

How many people were involved in the shooting?

Well, we had a crew of six to begin with, then two guys came down from New York partway through. My mom and dad and sisters were around, and some friends. My dad did some of the effects, including [key contraption which can’t be mentioned here as it would spoil a big shock effect].

How did the child actress cope – she has some arduous looking moments.

She’s called Sarah Ingerson, and she was just incredibly tough. She wasn’t in the Screen Actors’ Guild, so there was no observer on set, but we never used her for more than, say, four hours at a time. She was like, eight years old when we filmed it, but she looks maybe 10 or 11 on screen. She was so macho about the whole deal – it was the middle of winter and she was, like, ‘I want to DO this scene’. There’s one scene where she’s partly buried in the ground, and we had her mom there, and the mom was freaking out, asking her if she was alright and stuff, till eventually Sarah told her mom to stop talking and asked her to leave the set so she could concentrate on doing the scene.

And she had some tricky make-up at certain points.

Yeah, she had to wear contact lenses and stuff, she spent a lot of time being made up. Then there were scenes where I had to ‘animate’ her, and I did it frame by frame with this old Russian camera. It was like ‘Sarah, move your head a little to the left,’ over and over. I got the idea for the contacts when I went to NYU’s medical library, where they have these collections of forensic photography – I was amazed how much the dead people look like the zombies out of Day of the Dead. [Make-up effects artist] Tom Savini isn’t far off. But even the more tasteful or subtle-looking dead people have these cataracted eyes.

Is it deliberate that she also looks like the kid out of The Exorcist in some scenes?

I get The Exorcist mentioned a lot, I think it’s because the actress looks a whole lot like Linda Blair – but it wasn’t really deliberate.

Were there any other film influences?

Well, I remember one of the most upsetting experiences I had in a cinema was when I saw Lost Highway – at the end there’s all that pixellation stuff where the head flickers around, and I’d been doing that a lot in short movies because I’d been playing around with animation. Trying to recreate stuff I’d seen in Jan Svankmaker movies, and stuff by the Brothers Quay – they’re so experimental.

Apparently someone stood up at a screening of Soft For Digging and shouted ‘Fuck you, JT!’ – what’s the story behind that?

That was a girl in Canada who’s a friend of mine. The way the story’s been told, it sound like she was angry with me, but she wasn’t, she was just really surprised at one of the scare moments, it’s the first time there’s a solid hint that there might be something supernatural going on. Anyway, my friend jumped and she felt personally affronted, like I’d jumped up and said ‘Boo’ myself.

Do you like such audible reactions?

Well, with a horror movie you know that it’s working because they gasp and make a noise – it’s also nice to hear people laugh at the right points.

What’s the balance between horror and comedy in Soft For Digging?

I think horror movies and comedies are almost a matter of tone, they’re so close. All the good horror movies that I see, I see the audience laughing as much as gasping, and laughter’s so close to a growl or a grimace, it’s like a way of signalling to yourself that things are OK. I did intend there to be quite a lot of humour, though audiences don’t always laugh at the same things I do. There’s a moment towards the end when Virgil’s coat gets pulled off – that was one of the very few times when we left something in that just happened spontaneously, it wasn’t part of the script. I always laugh when I see that, but the audiences tend not to – it’s quite a tense scene, and they’re too worried about what might be going to happen.

Jacques Tati was famous for his comedy that relied on sounds rather than dialogue.

I’ve not enjoyed any Jacques Tati that I’ve seen. I respect his talent, I just never found him that funny. He definitely does strike that kind of balance, though, finding a kind of naturalism in silence. It doesn’t feel strange that people aren’t talking, it’s like a quiet world, not just a case of using a camera without a microphone. Tati also puts things behind glass, or far away, and I tried to do the same in Soft For Digging, so that it has that kind of voyeuristic feel to it. Most of what Virgil does is just watch things, he doesn’t do that much solid action until right at the very end, when he [spoiler deleted]. It makes it more natural to have him as an observer and have the camera hold back like that – I think the Tati was always more involved in the action.

Otar Iosseliani’s Lundi Matin is getting great reviews, and he’s also in that Tati tradition of using ‘silence’ – i.e., often dispensing with dialogue. Could this be a mini-trend, a dialogue-free revival?

I wouldn’t see it as a trend – you’ve got to remembe that I was writing this movie in 1997 and 1998, when every film student at NYU had the biggest Tarantino hard-on, everybody had to have characters who were arguing about the price of hamburgers in Amsterdam.

Was Soft For Digging a deliberate reaction to the Tarantino generation?

Not so much a reaction against something, more a deliberate movement towards older silent films, comedy and horror, and things like [D W Griffith’s] Broken Blossoms – there’s a lot of really scary moments in those films. I was also watching cartoons by the Fleischer brothers, and I’ve always been an enormous Buster Keaton fan.

Any silent horror in particular?

I’ve seen [F W Murnau’s] Nosferatu a couple of times with different live accoutrements.

Did you see when the German band Faust toured with the movie?

I didn’t see Faust, one of the shows I saw had lots of sound-effects machines on stage – a giant drum and some canvas, a wind machine, old radios, stuff like that.

Of course, it’s a misnomer to say ‘silent film’ because they were never projected in silence – there was always musical accompaniment, at least.

Yeah, I sometimes wonder if there’s any way we can reproduce that effect. I saw a performance of [Erich Von Stroheim’s] Greed with live piano accompaniment, and if nothing else it was an endurance test for the pianist, it was such a long movie.

Do you think Soft For Digging would lend itself to live accompaniment?

Yes, I think I’d enjoy that. Someone I know in New York came up with a live, atonal ‘score’ for the movie that could be played alongside it – I think there’s a cinema in Los Angeles where they do that. For this film, I think it could work – there are only three points where I put in dialogue, and the first one is stylistic, then the second one is where the kid says ‘Take me to my murderer’.

Is that what she says? I thought she was saying ‘Take me to my mother.’

Well, I always say that audiences should make their own interpretations about what it means. It’s satisfying to me to hear all these different versions of what’s going on, these theories. People come up to me after they’ve seen the film and say “I want you to tell me why this happens, and that,” especially the ending, where Virgil [spoiler deleted]. I’ve heard so many different theories, and some of them are just incredibly clever. I must say, though, that I didn’t really intend for there to be so many ambiguities – for me, there’s a pretty clear narrative line that runs through the whole film. And a lot of what I think is scary is what you can’t quite see, but that’s kind of obvious to say, I suppose.

You open with a shot of Virgil asleep, so there’s obviously the possibility that it’s all a dream – or that, at least, some of it isn’t really happening to him.

I love that, when characters wake up in movies, and the audience is supposed to be all relieved that it’s not real. Of course it’s not real, it’s a movie. But when a character pulls his head off the pillow, they’re somehow happy because it’s suddenly not real for them any more either!

You’ve spoken in the past of how influential Takeshi Kitano has been on your work.

All of Kitano’s characters are modern men alienated in the world. Before making Soft For Digging I’d just seen Violent Cop – so much is made up of him just walking from one area to the next. You’ve got to watch his style of acting, how physical he is, and how physical all the characters in his movies are, you watch them walk around and you know who they are. Kitano himself, he’s like Lee Marvin, if Lee Marvin was a gnome, there’s that inertia, but he’s also somehow playful inertia. That’s something I wanted to have, to have actors act with their entire body – I think that comes from my having studied animation, having actors act with their entire body.

In Kitano’s films, there’s often that idea of getting away from home, away from a safe space. There’s also a lot of that in [Tarkovsky’s] Andrei Rublev – that whole thing about ‘inside places’ and ‘outside places’ – it’s crucial to know what kind of environment the character is in at any one time, it has a real bearing on who he is and what he does. With John Ford and Roman Polanski, their films are often about the power relationships between different characters – but with Kitano, or those Russian movies, the power relationship is between a person and a place. I’d see [Kubrick’s] The Shining that way too, the idea that a place is haunted, more than a person.

I understand you have a job writing video-game scripts – do you see that as an interface between your interests in film and animation, or is it just a way to pay the rent.

Well, it just barely pays the rent. I was looking for a day job – I’d been driving trucks for movies, and editing Soft For Digging. I was working 14 hours a day, six days a week, and sleeping the rest of the time, and I heard about a job going at this video-game place, they needed a receptionist. Then when I got there I saw something saying they also needed a script writer, and I thought, well, that way I won’t have to answer the phone.

Do you see Virgil, perhaps, as a video-game character, in some ways?

Well, I was editing Soft For Digging before I got the video-game job, but, sure, it’s all storytelling in a way. Silent storytelling is a lot closer to videogames. I think the whole video game world is very exciting, kind of a bastard offshoot of movies and animation – it’s kind of close to the status that silent movies were at in the 1910s or 1920s.

And my sensibility works for it. Movies are all about editing and composition, basically stuff you can’t do on a stage. With video games, what makes them special is that you can take control of a character and interact with the world they’re inhabiting. You have to communicate stories through action rather than dialogue, because we just don’t have the dialogue yet.

I see massive room for expansion with vide-games. There’s that old clich about every story having told – but it’s exciting when you’re watching a movie and you see something really new. Films and videos feel, to me, as though they have a lot of room to expand. With videogames, the technology isn’t very wide right now, you don’t have the creative space. But there’s definitely tons and tons of room for innovation.

Have you worked on any big-name games?

Sure – I wrote Batman : Vengeance. The company I work for, Ubisoft, they have a lot of big licenses, they work with Hollywood studios like Warner Bros and Disney. I did a lot of work on a Tarzan game for Disney, and they didn’t give us much room to manoeuvre. With Batman, we were working really closely with DC comics and the studio, they were real worried about the way the Batman license was going. But now I’m working on a Tom Clancy game, that I can’t give too much detail about, but there’s a whole lot of creative freedom on that project. Except of course I have to think like I’m Tom Clancy – I have to learn what the latest Dark Star missile protection system is, or whatever, because he’s really into all that techno-fetishism, that patriotic, man-stuff.

Do you see video-games having a bigger effect on movies in the future.

I don’t think video games are going to impact movies any more than TV has – though TV has had a big effect, of course, in terms of training people who work in those media, and also and on how audiences have been trained to take in a story. Who knows what’s going to happen – personally speaking, I’m at the point where I’ve gotten emotion, great experiences of rage and fear, from video games.

There are so many reptilian emotions involved in the survival side – the main thing is to get to the end without getting killed. And when you feel sad for a character – even love – it’s such an interesting sensation, but really hard to get to. Video-games have such a huge potential right now, but so little of it ever gets followed through. It depends on the technology too much – you hear people shouting about how they’ve created ‘dynamic shadows’, or bigger and better explosions – the technology is just so fundamental in how you play the game.

With film, or even taking photographs, you’re freely interacting with your environment. You can make images of living people, but there’s no need to go into the actual chemical process by which the images are recorded. There’s an emotional reaction involved that goes beyond the technology, but with video-games you’re building something up from nothing, polygon-by-polygon. It’s just such a technical process.

And to think you were just going to be a receptionist!

Yeah, it’s been insanely interesting – but I’m anxious to get to work on some movies.

Will the time come when you have to choose between movies and video-games?

I hope not – I enjoy the work, and I think it’ll get better. I’ve got ‘Young Man’s Disease,’ in that I’d like to do everything. If I had to choose, I’d probably go with the movies, but I may not have to make the choice.

What’s the status with Soft For Digging – are there any signs of a distribution deal.

I’ve had lots of talk with producer-type people about different projects. I still don’t think the movie will get a theatrical release, but there is interest from different people.

Would you go back and do a bigger-budget remake, like Robert Rodriguez did with Desperado after El Mariachi?

I guess so, if that was all I could do – but I’ve got other scripts that I’m desperate to make, like Skin and Teeth – that’s a more comedic script that Soft For Digging, though I had one friend who read it and said it was more of a farcical tragedy. There’s a lot more dialogue, I’m playing with red herrings. I like the idea of telling a story visually, but using dialogue to throw people off track. Miller’s Crossing is great for that – if you listen to the people talk, you can end up getting fooled because everybody’s lying.”

Interview conducted by telephone, Friday 1st March 2002

For the review of Soft For Digging click here

for more details on Soft For Digging, check out www.softfordigging.com


by Neil Young
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