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Confessions of a Working Director - 6/30/2009


Long before we knew that Ratline (written by me and Jason Christ) was to be our next project, Jason and I had engaged in discussions about a strange new feeling of panic that has started to build in us.  Long before we met each other, we were both high school kids making amateur movies with camcorders in our backyards.  For me, even as this transitioned into a career, these early productions had a unique feel to them.  My earliest student work, up through everything I made before Deadwood Park was produced in a different emotional state.  Because I was young.

In short, now that we're older, we are becoming more sensitive to the fact that our time on earth is finite.  Ten years ago, our friend and collaborator Tom Biondo died very suddenly, very young.  In 2007, our friend and collaborator Tony Bridges, born the same year as me, killed himself.  My younger cousin Jeff was killed in a car accident, as was my grandmother.  My experience with death is that it comes unexpectedly, and seldom as a result of old age.  This I know contributes to that panic-burn inside me.  I don't want life to end without getting to experience as much of it as possible.  Adding to this is the fact that I'm getting older.  Even if I make it to the finish line and die of old age, I'm a lot closer to that line than when I was a teenager, out there making amateur movies with my buddies.  I'm closer to that line than when I shot my first professional release, Savage Harvest in 1993.  I'm closer to that line than when I transitioned into making movies as my full-time living in 1999.

This isn't a morbid fixation on death, or anything negative like that.  In fact, I see this as a positive thing.  It means that I enjoy what I'm doing with my life, and I want as much of it as I can get.  That makes me a very lucky individual.

It is a pleasant change from when I was younger, actually.  Years ago, before I gained the confidence I have as an adult, I thought of life as something to just get through.  Something to tolerate until the end finally, thankfully, arrived.  I have always been extremely driven, extremely obsessive, cursed with an unwavering work ethic... and I've always been very unhappy with what I've received in return for all my passionate work.  Today, I guess I value that passionate work more, and I feel that the work itself is a reward.  Ironic, that I value life so much more today, now that it is so much more brutal than it was for me in my youth.

Jason and I both have it - that bittersweet feeling of understanding what you were put on this Earth to do, and knowing it won't last forever.  That was the first concept we ran with in our development of the Ratline screenplay.  That was the spark that set the fire ablaze. 

Thinking about these discussions with Jason made me want to write a character who thought he was immortal - someone who has a very serious agenda, but feels he has all the time in the world to pursue it.  In our story, I wanted this character to be coming to the harsh realization that he is not really immortal - that he has the same life span as all other human beings.  I wanted to see him suddenly speed up his agenda, trying to accomplish as much of it as possible before his life runs out.  How would he function?  Probably with a newfound drive and relentlessness.  But how much would that inner panic-burn affect him?  Would he lose his cool, become reckless at times, and make mistakes?  Would his sudden understanding that his life is finite make him an unstoppable machine or a fragile being doomed to failure?  Likely a mix of both...

The next concept we latched on to was moral ambiguity.  Both Jason and I had an enthusiastic interest in making a movie that had no good guys or bad guys.  We made sure that our main characters were evenly spread out across the spectrum of "good" to "bad" - but none of the characters were allowed to exist at one extreme or the other.

We intentionally wrote scenes to make the audience unsure of who to root for.  I was interested in doing this for a variety of reasons.  First, firmly established good guys and bad guys make a movie easy to digest for mainstream audiences, but I wanted Ratline to be more challenging, and more interesting than that.  Not only did our strategy add texture to the story and characters, I also believe it will make the audience think more about what they are seeing.  Without spoon-feeding everything to 'em, the audience will be forced to think about the movie, and formulate their own conclusions, which hopefully means they'll remember the flick long after it is over. 

Second, our tactic mirrors real life (no real people are purely good or completely evil) and ironically, our tactic simultaneously gives our horror movie a welcome off-kilter, surreal aura.

Third, some of the films that have influenced me the most over the years intentionally blur the line between good guys and bad guys.  Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite films.  Is Captain Willard a good guy?  He follows orders and is assigned to eradicate the dangerous Colonel Kurtz.  So Willard is a good guy... except that he is an assassin - aware of the absurdity of war, yet still willing to take lives within that chaos. 

Two of the most influential films to me in writing Ratline were Blade Runner and The Third Man, two movies firmly hooked into the concept of moral ambiguity.  Arguably, good guys and bad guys don't exist in these films.  The characters are spread out over this spectrum and are therefore much more interesting.

Fourth, I think my interest in Ratline's moral ambiguity is in part sparked by our Nazi Germany subplot.  There was a World War 2 theme in my last movie, Deadwood Park, but that movie focused on a character subjected to that hellish environment, and not on the war itself.  In Ratline, the Second World War plays a smaller part in the story, but it much greater impact on the narrative and the characters.  I'll go into detail about this, and how WW2 impacted Ratline's agenda of moral ambiguity, in the next blog.

Thanks for reading.

Eric Stanze