Rachael Deacon is a filmmaker, artist, painter, photographer, performance artist, and the founder of Abject Pictures. Her work explores the nightmarish and the grotesque – deep personal fear as well as fear housed in the collective unconscious, and is created in an entirely independent, DIY mode. Her films include A Fever and A River, Monsters Inside, and Gregor as well as the short for the 2013 Atrocity Exhibition. She’s worked on countless other film projects and presently resides in Pittsburgh, PA.
How did your interest in horror and the grotesque begin? And what made you realize that was the genre you wanted to work with as an artist?
I can’t remember ever not being fascinated by these themes and images. As a child I regularly bit my own lip to make it bleed quite severely and drew on myself with the blood. I obsessively replayed my nightmares over and over again in my head the next morning. I drew pictures of monsters devouring themselves. I did terrible things to dolls with knives and those cheap tubes of Halloween blood and homemade nooses.
I don’t think I had any experiences that were particularly unique, or that pointed me in this direction. Rather, I think my perception of common experiences was just different, somehow. My grandmother died very slowly, from the time I was 4 until I was 21. I was at the hospital to visit her constantly, and fascinated by what was happening to her body, the way she bled when they inserted or removed an IV, the way she described her pain to the doctors.
Aside from my preoccupation with psychical pain and trauma, I just always had a very fearful view of reality. My mother loves to tell the story of my asking her if I was just a part of someone else’s dream, and if I would die when they woke up. That fear is still very real for me.
I also started masturbating around that time. Sexuality was somehow tied into all of this, too – my imagination drew the link between the two from the start. I drew pictures of violent sexual acts and hung them behind my bedroom dresser. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with my “otherness”. Then puberty kicked in and amplified all of it. I started seeing things, hearing things.
I always felt this urge to express, not really the way I saw these things, but the way that what I saw made me FEEL. I never made the decision to work in any genre, these were always just the kinds of things that I felt moved to make. I’m still reluctant to call myself a “horror filmmaker” or “horror artist” or whatever, partly because I think that the genre has been so completely bastardized at this point that it’s almost a dirty word, and partly because I feel like it only touches on the most obvious and accessible parts of what I’m doing. But, then again, I have no fucking idea what it is that I am actually doing, so I guess that “horror” is as good a word as any.
What brought you to filmmaking? Do you see film as your primary medium?
I came to filmmaking what I consider to be kind of slowly. Most of the filmmakers I know were making movies in the back yard as a kid, I fucked around a little with my parents VHS – I didn’t really do that. I directed my first short when I was 25 or 26. I’m awful with time, but I’m 29 now.
I’ve always been schizophrenic with mediums – I started out drawing first at my tiniest, then from around the time I was in 3rd grade until 7th or 8th I was being groomed to be a concert flautist, and I was going to this public performing arts middle school, like a FAME Jr. kind of deal, so I had normal kid classes the first half of the day and then made music nonstop after lunch. I started having these panic attacks when I was practicing. My parents never pushed me into it or anything; all the pressure I felt was self-applied.
My standards for myself are always unrealistic when it comes to anything creative, but something about playing that much music made me go particularly nutso, and I was just miserable all of the time, and I saw these kids that were going to the art department after lunch every day and thought “I want to go over there and paint some pictures,” so I went over there and painted some pictures. I also started fucking off and just generally having a more enjoyable life. I smoked some pot, I didn’t pay attention to the parts of school I didn’t care about, I did fun shit, and I kept painting pictures for a really long time.
I ended up eventually dropping out of high school because I didn’t care about enough of it to graduate on time, and I was accepted to every fancy art school I applied to despite my abysmal academic record, because the pictures I painted were good. I picked one in Baltimore that had managed to maintain really solid, classically taught painting and drawing departments despite the disgusting and then-recent graphic design boom, and went there and did a bunch more reckless shit and painted some more paintings. Then I dated a guy who turned out to have a really big child pornography collection so I left, came to Pittsburgh and painted some more paintings.
I just kept painting and drawing pictures of fucked up shit and doing life until one day I found myself having just broken up with my live-in boyfriend of two years, and there was this DIY no-budget filmmaking collective making movies in this tiny little music town called Athens, Georgia that I had drawn some pictures for, for like fliers and logos and shit, for free because I thought what they were doing was incredible, and I decided that I was gonna go to Georgia and help them make movies for a while.
A great-aunt that I never particularly liked had just died and left me money for some weird reason, and it was enough to make that happen, so I did. I got there and I started acting and building sets and doing no-budget FX and I was just head over heels in love with making movies from the very first everything. I had this instinctual sense of how to go about all these separate tasks that happen to make movies, and it just sort of all felt really goddamn right, so I just kept doing more parts of it, and trying to do them better.
When I made that first short [A Fever and A River] I could not fucking believe that anyone liked it, but I was getting these really wonderful responses from people who I knew weren’t full of shit, people I respected. That was the first time I EVER realized that people could and would see that I wasn’t full of shit, that what I assumed would be written off as artfag first film bullshit was eliciting this really honest emotional response from people like me, who really seek that out in the art that they look at.
But I struggled within that crew, partly because I felt like I wanted to move in this direction that was more ugly than they were willing to get, and partly because I wanted to work faster. All of the people involved had these lives that they had to fit filmmaking around, and it was all I wanted to do. I also wanted to shoot film, but the resources weren’t there. I remember the moment I decided that I needed to come back to Pittsburgh and figure out how to make movies that were 100% mine; I was lying on a bare mattress on the floor of a house that had recently been the victim of an extremely grotesque squatter party, with some jerk of a boy snoring in my left ear, and the voice of my friend and mentor Andy Copp on the telephone in my right, saying, “If you want to leave and shoot film, you HAVE to leave and shoot film”.
So I left and shot film.
I have found a true home in this medium that I never imagined I could find in anything. All of the things that I love to do, all of the things that I’m good at are all put to task when I make a movie. I am able to pull from all of them in order to evoke a sense of people, the feeling of a place, of a time, in places and times that have never happened, in a world that is completely mine, that I bring all of these elements into and manipulate them until it’s exactly the world that I want it to be.
The possibilities are so fucking completely limitless and my tools so many – it’s just overwhelmingly satisfying in a way that just making a picture or just writing a story or just making some music or just or just or just – that none of the “just”s can hold a candle to.
I still paint pictures and make music and I started doing film photography because I thought it would help me make better movies, but then I fell in love with that all on its own and I spend a lot of time in the darkroom, but movies are priority, and I can’t imagine that ever changing.
Women working in, for lack of a better term, horror, in the capacity you do seem to be few and far between, at least when compared to the number of men in the genre. Is that an accurate statement? How do you view women and feminism in the art of the grotesque?
The percentage gap is pretty huge between the genders in the horror genre, especially with filmmakers. I don’t really know why more women aren’t making horror movies, other than they’re too busy being stupid or helping make their male friends make their movies.
The gap is so huge at this point, though, that women working in horror have been getting a considerable amount of attention, especially over the last 4 years or so. Women In Horror Month started being a thing in 2000-Idon’tcareenoughtoremember. It’s in February. Since then, I’ve spent every February mostly disgusted. I still live in a universe that these people can’t find their way to for some dumb reason where gender actually IS irrelevant, which I think is technically more “feminist” than shitty, diluted stories that use “horror” as a platform for politics, masturbatory romantic fantasy, and ultimately conformity, but what the fuck do I know.
It’s important to me, when I set out to make something, that I leave all of that shit out of the game completely. Otherwise I feel like I’m lying to the world that I’m putting that work into, but mostly like I’m lying to the part of myself that felt compelled to do the work in the first place. My imagination is the only part of me that truly has no one and nothing to answer to outside of itself. I am cheating it if I start thinking this “what am i saying about myself/the world/the government/religion/my race/my vagina/all vaginas” nonsense.
If I truly had some poignant perspective on any of those things, or if my imagination was naturally wired to want to deal with them, I think it would find its way into my work regardless of me being conscious of it or not. Maybe it does and I don’t know it. There are things that I’ve made that I still have no fucking clue what they were about, all sorts of things are constantly making their way through me that I don’t decide on. And I think that’s the way that it should be, at least for me, and I wish more artists who did that were being celebrated regardless of gender or genre. I wish it was just People Who Don’t Fuck Around Month. And I wish they hadn’t stolen Black History Month’s month. ‘Cause that’s a pretty dick move.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any women doing interesting things within the genre, or that I haven’t seen work from women that I did feel had a distinctly female perspective and probably would never have been made by a man. Catherine Breillat spent years makes these gut wrenchingly honest and truly grotesque films like Fat Girl and Romance and Anatomy of Hell about pretty much nothing BUT being a woman. But she’s often accused of writing sexist stories and homophobic stories because she doesn’t allow politics to keep her from telling stories about people just generally hating themselves and treating each other terribly within the female gender or within the homosexual community or, you know, within the community of people who are alive on the Earth and active participants in its somewhat-varying-but-not-really-different-at-all-ever societal structures.
But then you have people like Roman Polanski, this legendary misogynistic statutory rapist, and he made these movies like Repulsion and Sisters and Rosemary’s Baby and they come from a perspective so thoroughly female that if I’d never heard the name Polanski and saw the movies I’d assume they’d at least have been written by a woman.
And then Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs comes out a couple years ago and I see it and I think to myself “this is maybe the closest thing to feminist horror that I have ever seen,” and everybody else sees it and freaks out and calls it torture porn and deems it exploitative and calls him a pornographer.
And then Lucky McKee makes May a while back and more recently The Woman, and I see them and they’re these entertaining, smart, fun but ultimately shallow and 100% exploitative (not that there’s anything wrong with that) silly movies, and everyone freaks out and says he’s a feminist and a true champion of blah blah blah and blah blah and blah.
I’m getting way off-topic.
Horror is, has, and will always be mostly a cesspool of a bunch of assholes making a bunch of stupid shit that doesn’t matter. But so is the whole damn world, and I don’t want to see the work of anyone, man or woman, who would let that deter them from making whatever is in them to make. The genre is a bit of a boys club, but any girl who would give a shit about that in the first place or let it get in her way is a stupid bitch who doesn’t deserve the voice she has or the chance to use it anyway.
No matter who you are, don’t be a fucking coward, make honest work about whatever calls to you, and – IF IT IS GOOD – other honest non-cowards will always find it and like it regardless of what month it is and you too can die alone and in pain like a respectable artist.
I don’t fucking know. Girls are weird.
Going back to this idea of sexuality and eroticism as connected to the grotesque – can you talk more about that and how it manifests in your work?
I fell asleep at about 6 am this morning after not having slept for a couple of days because I’ve been upset about some stuff that is none of your readership’s fucking business.
I had what I can only imagine was a doozy of a nightmare, that all culminated in the only part that I can remember clearly enough to say anything about: this emaciated, transsexual, diseased, balding, albino monster ladyman pinning me on my back, arms held down above my head, drooling all over me, saying terrible things to me. I knew I was going to die. But then it pried my legs apart and I realized it wasn’t going to kill me, it was just going to fuck me, and then the dream got real awesome and I woke up mid-orgasm.
Although I do think that sex and just generally evil shit are intrinsically tied together in the collective subconscious (saying that made me hate myself), I think that I got like the super mega dose when Satan was doling it out. I don’t know what my problem is.
I don’t think I’ve ever really made a single thing that isn’t at least a little bit about fucking, and I don’t think I’ve ever really made a single thing that isn’t at least a little bit about monsters. I keep threatening to compile all of my doodles of monsters fucking into one volume and call it Monsters Fucking, but then I would have to deal with having to be all HEY LOOK AT THIS OTHER THING I DID WOULD YOU LIKE TO BUY IT? and I hate doing that.
If you really want to break it down, the playing out of any sexuality, even if it’s just masturbation, is a physically violent act. You’re beating up your genitals, or you’re beating up someone else’s genitals, tongues or dicks or whatever are stabbing already open vulnerable tissue, etc. Even the most gentle sex is violent.
And sexual arousal and fear and anger are all, at least as far as I’ve seen, pretty equal in amounts of intensity, or at least all the same ballpark, which is a place that the rest of emotions don’t even live in the same universe as. They all sort of feed off of each other for me, I guess, and like to hang out together, so often I feel 2 or 3 of them at once.
Modern culture, and especially modern American culture, shames and denies sex and violence as THE BAD THINGS, and orders us to not express either, and we are constantly scolded or shamed or punished when we do. But at the same time, our culture recognizes those BAD THINGS as being so deeply desired, and constantly takes advantage of that repressed desire to sell us EVERYTHING, and the desire grows. One day the entire human race might just fucking explode guts everywhere from it. That would be cool.
I might just be a product of that system. I might just be closer to exploding than most people. Or I might just love the monsters and the monsters might just love me. I don’t really worry about it so much.
Gregor could easily be looked at as a commentary on the existence/fear of hell. At the same time I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re probably not terribly religious. Also that crab/spider effect is badass.
I don’t really like to tell anyone what much of anything is about for two reasons: 1. the art that I get the most out of as a viewer is the art that I connect with immediately, in some sort of sparkly magical way that I don’t really understand, and I think telling someone what something is about makes that pretty impossible and 2. I don’t really know what I’m doing.
I can say that Gregor is obviously, in part, a love letter to Kafka, but that part of it sort of begins and ends with the this-guy-is-turning-into-some-sort-of-bug-thing idea which acted as sort of a starting point for me to do…whatever the fuck it is that I did.
I haven’t ever heard of a religion that didn’t gross me out, but I do think there is something that is maybe just the combined force of all of the things that exist anywhere ever sort of calling the shots, and I have seen things that make me think that any goddamn impossible mystical miracle is not impossible. Like, I do not rule out that the sky is gonna part and glow red from inside a vortex that fucking 6 headed dragons are going to fly out of and swoop down and kill and burn everything, and it makes me nervous sometimes. It makes me nervous to think about the endless possibilities of places even more disgusting than this one that we might end up having to deal with when we die. Death is fucking scary, and everybody has to do it. That’s in everything I make, including Gregor.
I can also say that I took great care with Gregor. It’s the most deliberate thing I think I’ve ever made. I used my hands to make it in every way I could – I processed the film myself, I cut it together with my hands. I had the hands of Chucky Hendershot making things for it and Diana Bellmont puppeteering the things he’d made when my hands were too busy with the camera, and I love that you can see the scratches from my line drying the film with clothespins, the black frames from the tiny light leak in the tank (which had me in tears until I realized that I’d only lost about a minute’s worth of footage all together). That extended into the bug leg effect.
Chucky (who was the star of Gregor but also its FX artist) and I had worked together, acting in rooms next to each other at a haunted house, and then ended up both helping on the set of a mutual friend’s movie where a last minute eyeball needed to be made out of nothing for a close-up shot of a girl biting into it, and I watched Chucky make this thing out of a condom filled with water and toilet paper and tied off with a washer outlined in sharpie superglued to the outside for an iris and the fucking thing was flawless on camera, it even bulged out when she bit down. And I was like holy shit.
So when I asked Chucky to be Gregor, I also asked him to think of some way that I could make this transformation happen in-camera and for absolutely zero dollars. He did some research and found this old carnival trick called pepper’s ghost, and we adapted it for the camera, and goddamn do I love it.
To get that shot, there was a sheet of glass between the lens of the camera and Chucky. Behind the camera, were our rigged up bug legs and puppeteer, and we lit the legs and angled the glass we were shooting through so that the light bounced off of the puppet and reflected in the glass between the camera and Chucky. It was FUCKING MAGICAL, it happened right in front of my eyes. The legs were actually being pulled in rather than pushed out, so that footage is in reverse, which also adds to the strangeness of it.
I like Gregor. I like that movie.
Who and what have been your strongest influences as an artist and a filmmaker in particular?
I think that the things that have impact on me make their way into what I make constantly. The last time I watched Polanski’s Repulsion, Catherine Denuve was looking at herself in a mirror and I realized that I’d basically framed one shot in Gregor exactly like it.
I think that people who say they’re not influenced by anything are probably the ones most guilty of consciously just straight up stealing from what came before them. I’ve never done that, but I do often notice my influences after the fact. It makes me happy when my work reminds me of something that I love.
As far as filmmaking aesthetics are concerned, I love surrealism, so I love the work of people like David Cronenberg and David Lynch, German expressionism like Caligari and both Nosferatus and then things like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and the way all of those influenced even the universal pictures, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man and the rest of those monsters.
I also really loved what happened to American filmmaking in the 70’s, especially as far as plot is concerned – there was just this boom in stories about really terrible people doing really terrible things to each other from huge directors, Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver and the like, but also from a bunch of young no names. I think that was when the American horror film was most consistently something to be proud of, and really truly subversive. And it reveled in the grotesque in a way that hadn’t really happened before.
I don’t mean that they were gory, although they were sometimes. But they pushed far past previously set boundaries of decency, and they were about truly nasty depraved people doing all sorts of horrible things. Films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, and I Spit on Your Grave were visceral, immediate, frenzied movies, so much so that the public was truly terrified to imagine meeting the lunatics that would think to make them. And they still hold up today, they still feel like that.
I see the influence of the things I read in my work, not just Kafka but overly emotional people like Walt Whitman and depressed people like Hubert Selby Jr. and crazy people like Ernest Hemingway and minimalist people like Flannery O’Connor and whiny people like Sylvia Plath and perverted people like Poppy Z Brite and Books of Blood-era Clive Barker. Painters like Egon Schiele and H.R. Giger, Bernie Wrightson, blah blah blah people people people, things things things, some music that I like.
What projects are you presently at work on?
About a year ago, a filmmaker whose name I’ve been asked not to use so that it’s not attached to mine in any way (something that has been requested of me more than once and is always deeply satisfying), posted on Facebook that they were moving and getting rid of junk, and they had won some color 16mm stock as an award for some film festival, and did anyone want to come get it? It’s just taking up all this room in the freezer! They were in LA so I wrote to them and was like “I’ll pay shipping if it’s worth it and you’re willing to go to the post office”, and they were willing to go to the post office and it ended up to be so much film that I burst into tears when I read the reply.
I love film so much that when I founded Abject Pictures, I vowed to never shoot my own movies digitally again (I’ll still shoot your movie on whatever you want if you pay me, don’t panic), and let’s just say that my life is not one of having a lot of change left over after cigarettes and food for my dog, so I had no idea how I was ever going to be able to get to the point of affording to make a feature length anything. Then there was the problem of being temporarily crippled by the gravity of the situation: I may never be able to do this again, so I had better not fucking waste all that film and make the best thing that anyone has ever made in all of time.
But then I got over that and started writing this movie a couple months ago. I’m still writing. It’s about monsters and fucking, and some other stuff like time not mattering, and some other other stuff about how everyone is rotten except for people who are too crazy to be people, and some other other other stuff that I don’t understand. At first the working title for it was I HATE YOUR HEART but then I thought that sounded too whiny so I’ve just been referring to it as Everything is Hard and Sad in my head and as “I need two male leads who are willing to show dick and somebody has to let me borrow their 4-7 year old son to terrorize with monsters” to people when I talk about it.
I’ve always asked a lot of the people stupid enough to work with me, but I’m really pushing it with this thing. But I’ve never started making a just-mine-movie and not finished it, and I’m not about to start now. I’ll get it done, somehow – something inside of me is absolutely sure of it. But it’s going to take me a while, and people are not going to know what’s going on and it’s going to look like I’m just working on other people’s things and not making anything, but really I’m going to be researching old silent film visual effects and figuring out how to do matte paintings and gearing up to destroy the universe. Nothing about it will be rushed, I am not about to disrespect all that film stock. That shit found its way to me and deserves to be used well. I’m not going to use Indiegogo or Kickstarter to get it done, either, because – eat shit.
Other than that, I guess I’m working on some stuff. I’ve been scoring my own things and some other people’s things sometimes and writing songs and making noises under the name of The Beasting for a while now. I’m taking pictures. I’m drawing pictures of chopped up genitals. I’m getting a little TOO interested in seeking out vintage slaughterhouse photos and footage. I’m helping other people make their movies because I think it’s really goddamn important to do that. I’m managing not to wage a holocaust even though I totally could, etc.
Finally, can you tell me about one thing going on in the DIY filmmaking world that’s particularly badass?
The last movie I helped someone else make make was for Jimmy Screamerclauz, this crazy white boy I know who is probably my favorite filmmaker working underground currently. Jimmy has this imagination that is too big for everything ever, partly just because of the scope of it and partly because it’s about things so subversive that it would be illegal in about a million different ways to make the movies with actual people.
He figured out a way to animate the absolutely fucking insane shit he thinks about by learning a whole bunch of video game software and other bleep blorp stuff that I don’t know anything about, motion capture, and other stuff with buttons, and just makes it from scratch, literally builds entire universes full of things like godzilla sized disembodied genitals that want to eat people and big open pastures of eyeballs growing on flower stems.
Then he goes and also writes these really fucking heartbreaking, very human stories to frame it all with. When I first heard about it I was like “why do I care about some guy making cgi?” and then I saw a movie he’d made called The Masks That the Monsters Wear and halfway through it I was sobbing from it having moved me so much and it being so beautiful and boundlessly creative and I was like I CARE SO MUCH ABOUT THIS CGI.
Jimmy doesn’t really like to talk about the stuff that he makes in the same way that I don’t, and I’ve heard him say things along the lines of “I just made a movie about a bunch of shit I thought was funny and nobody got the joke,” but I have a sneaking suspicion that he’s lying because he just doesn’t think it’s anybody’s business. And even if he’s not, I don’t care, and it’s none of my business.
Anyway, I did some voice/face acting for him, and it was SO FUN because, as a director, he wants you to summon every ounce of weirdness you are capable of, and he just stands there with this look of total innocent delight, like he can’t believe any of this is happening. He giggles from the second he says cut until the second he calls action again. Who doesn’t want to work with somebody like that?
It’s really important that The People Who Don’t Fuck Around help each other keep their heads above water and make it possible for the crazy shit they dream up to get made and not get ruined by The People In It For Money or Acceptance Who Offer Their Help That Isn’t Really Help It’s Just So They Can Be Considered Fancy Or Expect You To Do Them Favors Later.
When I find someone working as hard and as bravely as Jimmy, I am pretty much willing to do anything for their projects, and I’m usually willing to do it for free. Besides, I’m doing it for myself as much as anything anyway. I need a world with more Screamclauz movies. It makes me feel less lonely .
Rachael Deacon is resolved to have her shit together enough by the age of 35 that she will have fulfilled her contract to direct TRANSFORMERS 12 and will use her big robot earnings to run Abject Pictures from a mansion on a mountain in Alaska with the same 2 or 3 terrible cameras. She lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and if you would like to give her money to make things or take your clothes off for art you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
All Images: Rachael Deacon
Margaret Bashaar’s poetry has been collected in 2 chapbooks – Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011) and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt, 2009) as well as in many literary journals and anthologies. She edits the chapbook micropress Hyacinth Girl Press, attempts to repair antique typewriters, and spends far too much time at haunted hotels in coal mining towns for her own good. She’s only been suspected of being possessed once and hopes to someday become a rogue taxidermist. Follow her on Twitter @myhyacinthgirl