IFC Midnight releases Eric England’s disgusting new horror film Contracted on Friday, November 22nd. Written and directed by England, the film stars Najarra Townsend, Matt Mercer, Alice Macdonald, Katie Stegeman, Simon Barrett, Charlie Koontz, and Caroline Williams. It will be available on plenty of VOD outlets (including iTunes, Xbox, PlayStation, Amazon Instant Video, GooglePlay, SundanceNow and more) as well as select theaters.
If you live in LA we’ll be hosting a special screening on the 22nd at The Downtown Independent (251 S. Main St, Los Angeles, California 90012) at 10PM! I’ll be conducting a Q&A after the film with England and some of the cast! There will also be booze if you’re over 21. You can buy tickets HERE!
“Get out of the f*cking way!!!”
About 15 minutes into my trip to the outskirts of Silverlake to observe shooting on Eric England’s Contracted, this is the phrase that’s yelled at me. Was it a cigar-chomping producer whose foot I stepped on? Nope. It’s an impatient neighbor. I’m sitting in his driveway interviewing Caroline Williams when he pulls up, apparently none too pleased with the fact that someone in the apartment complex has given the crew permission to be there.
On a quick and dirty (and quite low budget) 15 day shoot like the one currently underway, stuff like this is bound to happen. It happens on big films as well, but typically those outfits have security the public can yell at. Here it’s one of their lead performers. It’s just one of the many hurdles of low budget filmmaking. Another hurdle? Actually producing a movie under such unstable conditions. But, despite all of these potential distractions, England seems perfectly relaxed. Later in the day he tells me that his regimented sleep and eating habits help keep him afloat and flexible while under the gun, and they seem to be working.
The apartment unit occupied by the film is stuffed with gear, turning what was days ago a somewhat spacious apartment into a nearly impossible space to navigate. Throw a dozen or so crew members in and you’ve compounded the issue. Yet the scene being shot is quiet, tense and horrifyingly solitary. Njarra Townsend, who plays the film’s afflicted Samantha, is crouched by the toilet. Thick red blood oozing from her… um… personal areas.
I’m in the set’s video village (i.e. the adjacent bedroom) with England, staring at the mess through the monitors. We’re only 4 feet and two open doors from the carnage. Watching the monitor, Townsend lifts her head up into frame revealing an intensely sick visage. Pale, dry and crusty. A thick red contact lens that would make 1998 era Marilyn Manson jealous. Blood seeming to trickle from her eye. This girl isn’t doing well.
Later on I’ll watch Caroline Williams (who plays Samantha’s Mom) bang on the bathroom door – aware that something is very obviously wrong with her daughter. Does Samantha let her in? No. She seems hellbent on exacerbating her physical deterioration by shutting out and lying to everyone around her. This is a true downward spiral.
Talking to Townsend between takes I try to get a sense of where the character’s been and where she’s heading. I haven’t read the script, there’s obviously no trailer yet and I’m trying to make heads and tails out of just what this girl has done to get herself into this kind of trouble. Townsend looks to England, her red contact lens still unnervingly in place, unsure of how much she should give away. “She makes a mistake. She’s very complex. She’s recovering from a lot of stuff and trying to hang on to herself. She’s just trying to find something to take her out of the dark places she’s been in, and she makes a mistake with this one night stand.” Noting the gruesome and personal nature of the body horror on display, I wonder if there was a moment in the script that caused her to consider not taking the project? Something too intense to pull off without going home permanently scarred? “The whole thing I felt was touchy. Then there’s a scene towards the end of the movie that’s really intense and disgusting.” She smiles, clearly she kind of likes the fact that this project is intense and disgusting.
Back in the driveway, somewhere between being yelled at by the *sshole neighbor and watching the shoot, Williams tells me that there was no such scene to give her pause. She approached the project from an optimistic place, wanting to work with someone whose talent she holds in high regard. “I knew of Eric through ‘Madison County’ since my family originally came from Arkansas, from the very same town as Eric. ‘Madison County’ got a lot of buzz, and whenever you have a chance to work with a dynamic young filmmaker like him, that’s an opportunity you want to take.” But what was it about this film specifically? How does her character deal with the deterioration of her daughter? “It’s not necessarily your typical Mom. One of the things I like about the script is that as soon as the girls starts to biologically degrade, the Mom does as well.”
After a few more takes the scene is shot and the crew breaks down that setup and begins preparing for another shot. The sun is setting beautifully over the neighborhood, so England and his producers Matt Mercer (who played Will in Madison County and appears in this film as well), J.D. Lifshitz and Raphael Margules head outside to talk. England and Mercer had been trying to figure out how to make Contracted on their own when a fortunate encounter with Lifshitz and Margules altered the course of the project.
Lifshitz, an enthusiastic presence to say the least (as a reporter this is a refreshing change of pace from many producers on studio films who either don’t care of choose to remain quiet), explains the appeal of such a wonderfully disgusting enterprise, “we were interested in doing something with new investors for our next feature. And then Eric came to me with this. It has such a fresh flavor to it. It’s early Cronenberg mixed with the neo-version of what filmmakers used to do in the 70’s with this fast paced yet meditative tone. The other day I brought up ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, it’s so grimy. Both films, they’re not alike, but they’re both scary and haunting. And we’re hoping to release it in Smell-O-Vision [laughs].”
While IFC Midnight might not have figured out how to incorporate Smell-O-Vision into the limited theatrical/VOD arena just yet, Lifshitz and Margules extoll the more realistic virtues of the film. By all accounts, the footage that’s coming in is of a much higher aesthetic order than they had any right to expect from such a compressed budget and schedule. Margules explains that it’s simply, “claustrophobic but beautiful.”
I wonder how Mercer juggles the sometimes opposing impulses that go into both producing and acting, if he’s feeling the wear and tear he certainly isn’t showing it. “It’s hard because we had such a short pre-production window on this. But I really start shooting my stuff next week so we’ll see if I can just focus on the performance then.”
The producers head back inside and leave me with England as the sun continues its descent and he steels himself for the long hours and days ahead. After all, this is just the beginning of this ambitious schedule, not to mention the fact that England’s schedule outside of the film is hugely ambitious as well. He’s attached to quite a few projects. “I’m really impatient with how I work. I like to stay busy. And you have to. The days of being James Cameron and spending 11 years between making movies are over.”
A few days before I had finally gotten around to watching Madison County while traveling, and I note that Contracted actually seems to be quite a bit more bloody than his debut slasher. He smiles and nods, “I wanted to make a certain type of film. I wanted to do something that was gory, ‘Madison County’ didn’t have a lot of gore so in this one I wanted to spill some blood. I also wanted to do something that was both physical and psychological. I wanted to do something that was in a different realm in terms of aesthetic.”
While many people on set today have labelled the film as a morality play or a movie about mistakes, I wonder how today’s youth will react to a movie that might actually be telling them, you know… to take it easy. Are they inoculated against good advice at this point? Is that even what England is trying to do? On his way back inside to dive into the next setup he shrugs, “a lot of people are interpreting it on a moral or political level, and that’s fine. But I’m not trying to take a stance on anything. I just put stuff in that interests me. Maybe I’ll interpret it when I’m done.”
With a movie that looks this strikingly queasy from the outset, I’m certainly looking forward to interpreting it as well.