A Dark Souvenir – Interview with the director

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A Dark Souvenir tells the story of a newlywed couple couple who go on a honeymoon and upon returning home, discover that something with malicious intent made the journey back with them. I recently spoke with the director/producer Matt Pillischer about his inspiration for the story, ghosts, the indie film market these days and the difficulties he’s faced bringing this project to light. Check out their Seed & Spark to support this indie film as well as their website for more info and clips from the film.

What was the inspiration for the story?

Well, there’s lots of inspiring events.  I’d say the main reason it is becoming a reality is because of my recent marriage and honeymoon.  That’s what inspired it all.  I’d been writing scripts of all kinds, horror, drama, comedy, for many years now.  They’ve never quite gotten anywhere, and besides my feature documentary Broken On All Sides I haven’t made any movies.  My wife Karen Meshkov (co-producer and actress in A Dark Souvenir) and I went on our honeymoon in Scandinavia.  We had good friends in Stockholm, Sweden who convinced us to come there as a jumping off point.  We went there, then to the countryside of Sweden, then to Copenhagen, Denmark, and St. Petersburg, Russia.  It was an amazing trip, and I took lots of video and pictures.  As we toured an amazing fort off the coast of Copenhagen, built in the sea, I took several videos that had me thinking this would be a great location for a ghost movie.  Some of that footage has made its way into A Dark Souvenir.

I’m always writing movies in my head.  I’m having ideas, I’m writing scenes, I’m thinking of plots.  If they’re good enough, I’ll punch them into a note in my phone, or dictate them into my phone’s voice recorder.  I had lots of ideas on the trip.  One of the funnier ones was “Haunted Hydrofoil,” which would involve the ghosts of Stalin, Trotsky, and Lenin haunting and fighting over the souls of a boat of tourists in St. Petersburg.  That would be fun.  But the story that kept coming back to me, particularly as one I could actually produce on no budget, was this idea of something haunting a couple returning home from their honeymoon in a far-off land.  And the idea of a joyous time, the new marriage, being plagued with problems of death and horror.  The ying and the yang of life.

So, I took videos, I started brainstorming in my head, writing in a notebook, and then pulling out the computer on the plane ride home and actually starting to outline the script for A Dark Souvenir.  I also really liked the idea of working with my wife Karen.  We’ve done other projects together, and I knew if I could convince her to do this it would be a lot of fun.

Another inspiration for the story are movies that have taken place, like a play, in a single location.  And that keeps costs down.  Movies like Saw, Rope (Hitchcock), Tape (Richard Linklater), and some of the “Paranormal” movies.

A third inspiration for the story was to create a horror movie with decent, real characters, and particularly with a real woman character.  I don’t like the way women are portrayed in movies generally: objectified, 1-dimensional, or flat-out hatefully.  So, in a small way I wanted to add the the genre in a way that could support women and good women’s roles.

And lastly, I was inspired because I realized in this day and age, you can shoot and put out a digital movie so easily.  I did it with my documentary.  And most nights I watch a different indie horror movie on Netflix or other streaming platforms.  Most of them are god-awful.  Really bad.  And I’m not one of these people that likes B Movies or can often laugh at horrible plots and executions.  I want goodstory-telling!  So, in short, I’m making the movie I would want to stumble onto late at night on Netflix that would scare the crap out of me, wow me with a decent plot and full characters, have an artistic sensibility, and impress me that it was made on a low-budget.

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What are some of your film influences, horror or otherwise?

Well, I mentioned some: Hitchcock, Linklater.  Actually I think some Linklater gets into this script because it’s a man and a woman, hanging out with each other a lot of the time.  The Sunset/Sunrise movies are brilliant because they create a whole movie around essentially one long conversation.  I love Kubrick for his visuals, his portraits and landscapes, his long scenes, no fear to have long shots and extreme wide shots (and he chose great stories).  I love The Shining.  I love political filmmakers like Ken Loach and Barbara Kopple.  I love Miranda July for her real, quirky characters and mixture of humor and profoundness.  A lot of Gus Van Zant.  And Ti West is my absolute favorite new horror director.  I loved the House of the Devil, and very much liked The Innkeepers.  Horror classics I love: Rosemary’s Baby, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween.  And I’d say Ingmar Bergman is probably the strongest influence (there are elements of Hour of the Wolf in my movie).  I also loved the French horror movie, Them (Ils).  There are some new filmmakers of color I’m very excited about too: Ava DuVernay did Middle of Nowhere (a story around prisons and families dealing with prison time), and two filmmakers I recently met, Tanya Hamilton (who made Night Catches Us in Philly), and Dawn Porter who made Gideon’s Army (doc out now on HBO).  I try to catch myself only talking about white, male filmmakers.

What, if any, are some of the difficulties you’ve faced in putting this project together and getting it to the point it’s at now?

There have been lots of difficulties.  My wife and I are not doing this production fulltime, this is essentially a “spare-time” production.  But that means we are flexible too.  It’s a blessing and a curse.  Since it’s been part-time I’ve had to get more creative about how to make a scene happen in the short time slots we have, do very few takes, and even write new scenes around existing things we’re doing (for example, chilling out and playing music on our patio after a long day– this might make it into the movie).  So, raising some money will really help us be able to finish because we’ll feel like we can dedicate some real time to this if we pre-sell lots of DVDs and have a chunk of change to work with.  Life doesn’t stop when you want to make a great indie film.  Bills don’t go on hold.  And we’re still juggling other jobs.

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Do you have a believe that ghosts/demons actually exist and interact with our plane of existence or do you just view them as a story-telling element?

I don’t think they actually exist, although sometimes I would like to believe.  I’m a staunch atheist and a materialist, so I prefer concrete explanations for things and most often I think “otherworldly” occurrences can be explained by science.  Still, I don’t think this ruins the fun of fantasy, of creative thought, of good old ghost stories– and I’m open to being proven wrong.  And there are times when I’d like to believe there’s more.  My mom died when I was 21, and it was quite a hard time for me.  I remember coming home for her funeral, it couldn’t have been more than a week after her death, I was staying in the house I grew up in.  I was taking a shower, and in the shower I just started sobbing, crying uncontrollably with grief.  When I got out of the shower, the bathroom had steamed up, and there was a single handprint in the condensation of the mirror– as though someone had just touched it.  It was a hand smaller than mine.  Could that have been my mom telling me she was OK?  I’d like to believe so, but there are other explanations.  Still, I’d like to believe, and perhaps a part of me does.  I’ve had dreams about her, and some of my more new-agey friends have described that as “your mother visiting you.”  That would be nice too.  I have always said two things: (1) if I saw a ghost, then perhaps I’d become a believer, and (2) seeing a ghost would scare the shit of out me.  I do believe there is energy in our bodies that is released when we die, and that there are all kinds of energies we are just starting to understand.  This leads to possibilities of things like telekinesis, alternative forms of communication and interaction, etc.  But I don’t know very much about it so I’ll wait for some scientist to explain it to me.

How long have you been working on this project? Did it all come together at once or is it a combination of ideas you’ve tried in the past?

I’ve really only been working on it for a year.  It all came together pretty quickly.  Quicker than any other project, which is why it feels so right.  We’ve already started shooting, even though I’m constantly re-working the script.  I became really happy with the script about 2 months ago, although I’d already started shooting it!  This is not your normal production.  But because it’s such a small crew– just me and Karen for the most part– there’s a lot of flexibility that other movies wouldn’t have.  And I’m trying to look at limitations as an opportunity.

With the ongoing demise of big Hollywood films, do you see this as a prime time for you to be putting out a independent film, especially in the horror genre? Do you think  “mainstream” audiences are becoming more open to the idea of low or no budget films?
I hope audiences are interested in no/low-budget films, and yes I think they are.  I do think it’s a prime time to be putting out an independent film.  The problem is how does the audience they access them?  Well, for all my complaints about the lack of good content on Netflix, at least a lot of it is independent films.  I’d rather watch bad indie films than bad Hollywood monstrosities that cost millions of dollars to make!  And there are more and more platforms popping up that allow indie filmmakers to find their audiences.  And that allows more people the opportunity to give the art of filmmaking a try.  It democratizes it.  Sites like Vimeo and Youtube are great, particularly the possibility of sharing for free or on-demand.  There should also be sites where filmmakers can make some money for it, because artists deserve to be paid for their work.  So, I’m really excited about the potential of Seed & Spark and similar indie distribution ideas that support and put the independent filmmaker in control from start to finish.

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