Billy Senese is the writer and director of Closer to God, a Frankenstein-inspired story about genetics' inexorable progress. Billy's movie explores themes of inevitability and consequence, while creating a tense atmosphere of dread. Closer to God is now playing on VOD, and I had the chance to speak with him about the particular challenges he faced bringing this film to life.
C. Rachel Katz: I want to start with some background or context. You made Dark Awakening, then took a break from filmmaking and wrote a series of radio plays, then made a couple of short films, and have now returned to feature filmmaking with Closer to God. Can you take me through that creative and emotional journey?
Billy Senese: I tried to make a feature about fifteen years ago. It was a learning experience. With independent filmmaking, you have so many issues. I had no money. Not only did it not turn out well, but it took a long time to make. But I got through it. I was pretty burned out—it was hard. It was a failure in my eyes. So I took a little break and I got the idea of doing these radio plays. To me, it was a way to keep the budget low but also to get better and to learn the art of crafting the story, and being a better writer. I did seven of these and they're all thirty minutes. They're all kind of Twilight Zone-esque. They're all kind of strange and dark. I really had a lot of fun doing them and I learned a lot.
After I got through the seventh one, I was talking to a friend of mine and he said, “You know, you should really adapt one of these into a short film.” It was The Suicide Tapes. As soon as he said it, I was ready. I was like, yeah I want to do that. And it was pretty easy to shoot because it was a found footage idea. I just immediately started going to work on it. I shot it—it was almost like a day and a half it took me. It was a pretty easy deal. It did really well. It won Best International Short at Fantasia. I got a taste of making films again, and so I did another short film called Intruder.
I worked my way back up to this one, and by the time I sat down to write Closer to God, I felt like I was ready to tackle a feature again.
It was one of those things that you work really hard on and you came out the other end of it which was okay.
CRK: As I understand it, Closer to God was challenging film to make. You didn't have much of a budget. I was hoping you could elaborate on that, on some of the difficulties you faced and how you dealt with them.
BS: Like I said, I was kind of ready to make one, even with a low budget. I funded it myself and I only had forty or fifty available—fifty thousand dollars. I ended up spending a hundred, and that includes my time. I made this thing for a hundred thousand dollars, but I think it looks like more.
It's been a lot of hard work. I'm a decent prouder and I'm smart with how I work. More than that, for me what was hard was the script. It had the makings of a B science-fiction horror movie and I remember giving the script to a friend of mine early on and he said, “Be careful this could be Nicolas Roeg or Roger Corman.” I took that to heart because I'm a big Nicholas Roeg fan. I was just making sure that I kept everything grounded. I had an idea in my head and I felt like I could do it. So I just made sure that everyone was doing their best work and everyone came from a real place. They weren't playing a caricature, they were playing real people.
I brought the lead actor, Jeremy Childs, in as a producer. And he's a fantastic actor but he's also been working in Nashville for a very long time and he knows all the best actors. So I brought him on as a producer and also as a casting director. He put all the best talent in front of me here in town.
Jonathan Rogers is another producer I brought on, and he was the editor as well. He edited both my short films. I show him my scripts early on, and him and I are a collaborative team. And my wife has been with me through this whole thing. She does a little bit of everything. She helped produce it. Wherever she needed to be, she was a gap filler. And she did an awesome job. And Jennifer Spriggs I also brought on as a producer as well. She really helped run the set, and I could stop producing and I could just direct. I had I a really good AD, Drew Langer.
No doubt I had a skeleton crew and it hurt at times. My production designer, Brian, Parker, couldn't be on the set. So he and I did all the designs and everything before hand. My art director wasn't as experienced and she did a great job, but it was really hard not having [Brian] there constantly.
It was really tough going. And I lost my DP the night before shooting. I ended up having to find another DP. Evan Brace came out and he did a fantastic job, but he wasn't with me during all the planning. He just kind of jumped in. Will Fox who's an additional DP on the film came on and really helped me through all the hospital stuff.
CRK: Closer to God won Best Screenplay at Fantasia 2014, which helped you sell the movie. How important is the festival circuit for filmmakers who've got a movie that doesn't fit neatly into a particular genre category?
BS: It certainly is an uphill battle. On top of it, there are no stars in [Closer to God]. It is a genre picture, so that does help me. I mean, if you don't have any stars and you do have a genre picture, you have a much better chance of making a sale. But [Closer to God] is not a horror movie, it's not sci-fi. It's a sci-fi/horror/drama/thriller all wrapped up in one. But it was connecting with audiences at festivals. Critics on the festival circuit were lighting it up. It was a decent film and that helped. In the end, that's how I made the sale.
The Festival circuit is like a prerequisite. You have to do it. That's the battleground.
CRK: Closer to God has been compared to the films of David Cronenberg, which is really a thematic and tonal comparison. Any thoughts on that? Are you a fan of Cronenberg?
BS: I get that a lot. Everybody says it, and they compare it to The Brood, which I've never seen. I really respect him, all the way. I have seen Scanners, and I like History of Violence and The Fly, but those were not my influences making this film. My influences really were films of the 70s. This would fall more in the category of—sort of where my influences came from—Andromeda Strain, I think. And all those 70s dark dramas. The paranoid thrillers, I really love; The Conversation, All the Presidents Men, The Parallax View. I'm a big fan of 70s paranoid filmmaking. And Chinatown. I don't think Chinatown really influenced this picture, but it is one of my favourite films.
CRK: Your film uses human cloning as modern-day equivalent to Victor Frankenstein's experiments. But cloning is also a gateway to get us thinking about progress and the ethical and moral limits of scientific experimentation. Can you tell us about the research you did while writing the script? Was it all hard science or did you delve into the philosophical?
BS: I didn't really set out to make a movie about cloning. I was way more interested in the inevitability of progress. Kind of like what you were just talking about. At the end [of the movie] my lead character, Victor, gives a speech and he says, it's not whether we go down this path — because we are — it's how we meet this future.
One of the things that stuck with me when I was doing a lot of research was I ran across this geneticist and one of the things he said was “if it can be done, it will be done.” That to me was a really chilling thought. I ran across that and I knew that's were I wanted to start. I mean, there could be somebody out there right now who's cloned and we don't even know.
It's a chilling thought that progress is going to happen and I sort of built [the film] like that—the structure, I mean. In the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film, I wanted you to feel like something bad was developing and you had this sense of dread. Tying into ideas of the inevitability of progress, is the inevitability of the consequences of his actions that Victor will have to face. I let that be the driving force of the dread, and the audience has to wait in suspense to find out what's going to happen.
CRK: I see the human cloning debate summed up in the characters of Elizabeth and Ethan.
BS: They're sort of polar opposites. I can see that. I don't know if I consciously thought of that as a place for discourse or debate. In progress there's a lot good things that happen and there's a lot of bad things. And progress can be violent. I like that you see that, but it wasn't an intention of mine.
CRK: The movie's a slow burn and there's a lot of delayed gratification with regards to Ethan. Also, the end seems to reflect or pay homage to classic horror.
BS: There's inspiration in all the good monster movies that are out there; hide the shark, hide the monster. You see Ethan for the first time when he's holding the baby in the end, and you see he's just a little kid. I intended to make Ethan a sympathy play. He's a byproduct of a genetic mistake. Hopefully I communicate that it's not anybody's fault necessarily—except maybe Victor's for creating him. But is that good or bad? He's just this kid who's in pain and enraged.
It was absolutely intentional to let the tension points build. To create tension points with Victor and all the consequences of the protesters. And then you have this other story going on with Mary and this thing that's about to explode. And then they all converge at the end. Hopefully in a satisfying way.
CRK: I understand it was a bit of a challenge to edit this, to get that tension.
BS: It was a dark night. I remember that night. I think I read somewhere that David Lynch said that rough cuts were a living hell. I watched the rough cut and it wasn't very good. And that's the script, so what's the problem here? It really was those tension points.
One thing I got out of that rough cut was that Ethan was working, and all the pieces were good. All my intent was still there. The spirit I was going after and all those things we were talking about, the inevitability, the theatre and the poetry were all still there. So that was a good thing.
That weekend I just got out the note cards from set that had all the scene numbers on them, and cleared off a table and put them all on the table and said, “Okay, how do we have to rearrange this to make it work?” The problem was you didn't really find out about Ethan until halfway through, and that was the most interesting part.
In suspense, it may seem counter-intuitive, but it's giving more, it's showing more. It's the Hitchcock thing. He says, don't just blow the bomb up, show the audience the bomb is about to blow up. And my bomb is Ethan, obviously. So I moved all his tension points up to the front to create less of a mystery and more of a suspense film.
CRK: At the risk of spoiling the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it, there's a pretty shocking conclusion to Elizabeth's and Ethan's stories. Was it difficult to write or to make?
BS: Yeah, it was. It wasn't so hard to write because to me it had to happen. It's sort of a tragedy. I that was another part of it, I structured it a little like a tragedy. I read a lot about tragedy in Sindney Lumet's book, Making Movies, which is a fantastic book. He talks about when tragedy's done right, it leaves no room for tears. I think what me means is, if you set it up right, it's satisfying in a way because it had to happen.
To me it wasn't so hard to write. It was hard to get right. It was the only thing we had to truly re-shoot. I had a lot of pick-ups, but I never really had to re-shoot anything, which was nice. But I did have to go re-shoot that. It didn't really work the way I shot it the first time, so I had to go back to the mansion and re-shoot it in a much more visceral way. I was going for visceral all along, but before I shot it in such a flat way and it wasn't right.
CRK: I understand the film was shot largely around and inside Oaklawn mansion in Nashville, TN. Is it really haunted?
BS: They were making a deal of out if. We heard stories from the caretaker a whole lot about Maggie. And he even went to far as to say he had conversations with Maggie.
We were setting up for a shot and a shadow passed through the light and nobody was up there. And we got the footage and there's no explanation for it. There really isn't. That was the big one. That's the one everybody still talks about. We played it back and tried to piece it together, of what it might have been, but there's no explanation.
CRK: Sounds like a good DVD extra.
BS: Yes! If I had the time to make DVD extras!
CRK: I know you can't give us any details about your next project, which is another suspense film, but can you give us any details?
BS: I'm not ready to present it yet. I really want to get into what I've been doing, mixing genres a little bit. I'm still going down that path of drama and horror and suspense and thriller.
CRK: Thank you, Billy.
Billy's radio plays and short films can be viewed on his website, lcpictures.com.