Without a doubt, independent filmmaker Eric Stanze is one of the more seasoned and exciting storytellers working today. Ever since opening the doors on his production company Wicked Pixel Cinema in 1995, he’s produced 20 different projects, and out of those he’s directed 9 as well as lending a hand in other capacities for the rest.
Stanze also recently served as the Second Unit Director on Jim Mickle’s Stake Land (which is how we found out about this indie superstar), and his latest directorial effort – Ratline (review here) – recently made its way to DVD this past September and since its release has landed on many Top 10 lists of 2011 as well as nabbing a few awards during the 2011 PollyGrind Film Festival.
After recently checking out Ratline- Stanze’s incredible Nazi occultism/love story/crime thriller mash-up- Dread Central caught up with the filmmaker to hear more about what inspired his ambitious flick as well as his thoughts on working alongside his frequent co-collaborators Jason Christ and Emily Haack, the truth about the real-life Nazi experimentation that influenced his disturbing tale and the driving force behind his need to tell as many stories as he can before his filmmaking days are done (not that that’s going to happen anytime soon).
Dread Central: Considering all of the different themes you have swimming around in Ratline, I would love to hear more about what inspired you and Jason while writing the script.
Eric Stanze: Ratline probably started off with us evaluating our resources and seeing what kind of movie we could pull off. One general idea behind Ratline was to make something like a feature length “X-Files” episode, in terms of story, but do it very gritty, very adult, very NC-17. Some have noted the ’70s grindhouse tone to Ratline. I am inspired by films from the late ’60s through early ’80s, including those seedy exploitation films, but I didn’t want to make another “retro grindhouse” movie that essentially parodies that kind of film. I love other films that have done it in the recent past, but I didn’t want to take Ratline down that course. So our movie gravitated toward being a more serious, Giallo influenced flick – pulp cinema that plays everything straight so that it sells dark and sinister.
We approached Ratline not really conscientiously blending any sort of subgenres- we knew the story we wanted to tell and that we wanted to keep audiences guessing, which was our main goal. We’ve heard a lot of great feedback from people who said we kept surprising them throughout, and that’s the best kind of feedback to get. A lot of movies just don’t surprise you anymore- hell, it’s like they don’t even want to try and surprise you anymore, and it’s definitely something important to me as a filmmaker- to keep viewers guessing from beginning to end.
Jason wasn’t quite on board with the idea at first of doing an exploitation film centered around Nazi occultism, but once he understood where I wanted to go with it, he caught on and really embraced it.
DC: The idea of Nazis dabbling in the dark arts is some pretty creepy stuff- how close to historical fact did you play it in Ratline?
Stanze: Oh yeah, I did quite a bit of research and discovered a lot of really weird and disturbing things about the Nazis. Because I enjoy exploring dark and ‘out there’ stories and then grounding them within the context of historical fact, doing homework for Ratline was important to me. Plus, I think that just makes the story all the more creepy if it has a note of realism to it- what’s scarier than real life? And Jason and I realized early on in our professional relationship that we both have so much we want to do and that we’re both probably going to die before we get to make all of the movies we want to make, and that’s how the idea of immortality made its way into the Ratline script. We all want our legacy to live on forever and Frank wants to live out his legacy forever.
DC: Both Jason and Emily deliver incredibly subtle and strong performances here, and I know that the three of you collaborate together a lot; can you talk about your working relationship with the pair and how much they inspired their characters in the film?
Stanze: First and foremost, Emily has this naturally haunted quality about her; whenever there’s a close-up on her face, there’s always something that draws you right into her performance because she’s so engaging. She’s never given me a bad performance, and for as far as I’ve pushed her as an actress throughout all of the films we’ve done together, she’s always been a complete professional and has delivered work that’s been above and beyond anything I could have ever expected. There have been things I have had to ask her to do in movies that were definitely extreme, but she always knows that if she needs to draw the line, she can. She hasn’t done it yet- mostly because she is truly fearless.
Even though Jason and I co-wrote the screenplay together, he never really knew that I had him in mind from the very start to play Frank. I’m not sure why I didn’t tell him, and at first he wasn’t sure about doing it, but he knew how great a role it was and said yes after a little persuading.
DC: Let’s talk a bit more about Jason’s performance. I loved how subtle and ‘average guy’ he played his villain- how important was it to you for him not to be the mustache-twirling type of bad guy?
Stanze: That was huge actually- I wanted to stay away from the typical movie Nazi stereotypes, and to me what makes Frank so terrifying is that he IS so average; he’s a chameleon who could acclimate into any community and no one would have any idea what kind of monster was living there. Until Ratline Jason had never been given the opportunity to play a lead in a feature film, but I knew that this was the perfect project and character for him to take that leap with.
DC: Considering the ending route you went with, do you have any plans on revisiting the world of Ratline for a sequel down the line?
Stanze: You know, I didn’t really write Ratline this way in hopes to make a sequel; really, going with an open ending just felt right even though it’s something we struggled with for a while. The ambiguity of the ending is what served the story best so while I think it’s great people are looking for a follow-up, it wasn’t our intention when we started this to do anything beyond this movie. That’s not to say I wouldn’t make a sequel, it’s just not what I’m focused on now.
In terms of my next movie, I’m not sure what that will be exactly just yet. I have a few things in the works so we’ll see how everything goes. I loved doing second unit work on Stake Land so I’d even love if more of those opportunities happened, too.
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