Exclusive: Stevan Mena Talks Bereavement and More
The role of mentor is a time-honored one. An older, more experienced craftsman taking a younger, impressionable apprentice under his tutelage and guiding him along his path toward mastery of any given skill is a tradition that goes back to ancient times. The range of skills being taught can be wide and varied: blacksmithing, literature, business, the arts, philosophy, journeymen trades, martial arts… The list goes on and on.
From time to time, the unique skill set handed down is darker, more nefarious, than just a simple trade or artform. Sometimes… it can even be murder.
Writer/director Stevan Mena is no stranger to this concept. With his 2004 film Malevolence, he introduced a killer who’d been taught his skills by someone in his past, and audiences watched as he practiced his art against strangers unfortunate enough to wander into his hunting ground.
After a small diversion directing the horror comedy Brutal Massacre in 2007, Mena began work on the second part of his proposed trilogy which started with Malevolence. On March 4, 2011, Crimson Films and Aurilia Arts Productions present Stevan Mena’s latest excursion into madness entitled Bereavement, which stars Michael Biehn (Aliens), John Savage (The Deer Hunter), Alexandra Daddario (Percy Jackson), and Brett Rickaby (The Crazies).
Dread Central spoke at length with Mena and brought back his explanation about the film, its characters, and the proposed third act to his serial killer opus.
Dread Central: I wanted to start by getting a little background from you on where you grew up, did you go to film school, what sparked your interested in film… that sort of thing.
Stevan Mena: I’m a native of Long Island. I was born in Astoria, Queens, and I grew up in Nassau County, Long Island. I went to film school, but I dropped out in the first semester. I’m not a big fan of structured learning, so I couldn’t really function there. I ended up just going out and getting my hands dirty and learning by doing, going to sets and volunteering, going to rental houses and asking questions… that sort of thing. Just making movies myself. I did some apprenticeship with a director named Ralph Toporoff (AMERICAN BLUE NOTE). I worked with him in the Nineties and he absolutely taught me a tremendous amount. So, I took a lot of my learning curve off by working with him. But, again, it was mostly in the field and actually by trial and error by myself.
DC: Growing up, were you shooting small video films? I hear from a lot of directors that they were shooting small Super 8 films when they were young.
SM: I came in after the whole Super 8 thing. For me, it was during the Eighties that I was growing up, so I had a VHS camcorder. It was a really cheap one. It was one where we had to carry the VCR around with you and it was as big as some of the movie cameras of today. It was pretty pathetic, but it was what we had. In the beginning, when I was really young, it was me doing stuff in my backyard, but I just never grew out of it. All of my friends who I used to get to volunteer stopped wanting to volunteer and kind of grew out of it, but it just became a complete obsession with me and it still is to this day. I can think of nothing else. I drive people crazy with it.
DC: What was the film that did it for you – where you said, “Yeah, I want to do that!”
SM: I’ve been asked that question a lot and it always reminds me of a very, very specific moment. It was when I saw THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE in a re-release by New Line. I was twelve years old, I think, at the time. It was in a double feature with SLEEPAWAY CAMP if I remember correctly. SLEEPAWAY CAMP was the first film and, after it was over, I said to my friend, “Do you want to stay for this other movie, TEXAS CHAIN SAW?” which I’d never heard of. We were like, “Yeah, why not?” Ninety minutes later, I was completely blown away. That’s the only way to describe it. I was completely blown away as a twelve-year-old seeing that film. I was absolutely terrified and I wanted to know everything about it. I started doing research on it and, back then there was no Internet, so I did it the hard way. I found out how it was shot on a shoestring budget and how it was made outside of Hollywood and I kind of became obsessed with how that film was made. I realized then that it could be done. You can make a film outside of Hollywood. Being that I certainly don’t come from a background of means and being from the East Coast, I always knew it would be a little more difficult for me to break in. It was exciting to see that somebody outside of Hollywood made such a huge impact on my life and that was definitely the film that did it for me.
DC: Was it after that internship that you made Malevolence?
SM: That’s right. During the Nineties, I had stopped making movies. I’d gotten some advice that the best way to break in was to write, not to wait for somebody to tap you to direct, but to actually write something and, if possible, to go make it yourself. So, that was exactly what I did. I spent the Nineties learning how to write scripts. But around 1998, I had the idea for MALEVOLENCE and it kind of mushroomed into this five-hundred-page colossus of a book that I ended up cutting into three scripts. I took part of that story and made MALEVOLENCE. It was around 2000 that we first started shooting. Being that we had no money to do it and we were shooting on weekends and borrowing and stealing and whatever, it took us about two years to realize the finished product. So, it wasn’t until about 2002 that we were showing it to distributors and it didn’t make the theaters until 2004. A lot of independent filmmakers have gone through a lengthy process on their first film and we were no different. It finally did make it into theaters in ’04. Right around ’98 is when I interned with Ralph Toporoff and again, my learning curve went from six years to one. He really helped me to get over a lot of my fears of going out and actually doing it.
DC: I’m curious… you said you had this five-hundred-page opus and you took a piece of it to make Malevolence, so is Bereavement also a piece of that?
SM: That’s right. BEREAVEMENT is the first part of the story. BEREAVEMENT is a much more character-driven piece and I always knew that the first part of the story needed a much bigger budget and a much more disciplined approach than what I was able to do on a shoestring with MALEVOLENCE. The middle part of the story was always this bank robbery, on the run, run-n-gun kind of story that was more action-driven than character- and performance-driven. I knew I would be able to pull that off with a very low budget. I knew I could never do that with the BEREAVEMENT story, so that was why I did MALEVOLENCE first.
The other reason is I think the character of Martin, who was the killer in MALEVOLENCE, his back-story evolves in the BEREAVEMENT picture and I knew he would be a lot more scary in MALEVOLENCE if you knew nothing about his history than if you knew everything. I know there’s been a lot of talk about other films that reveal too much back-story about the killer and it kind of ruins it. Certainly, I felt that way with MALEVOLENCE that if I did BEREAVEMENT first, then you know everything about him and he’s not as frightening as if you knew nothing. But now, for people who have seen MALEVOLENCE, they think it’s interesting to now go back and see how that all transpired because it is quite a unique story and now there’s something else. Certainly, the person who brought him into this world - into this life – which would be Graham Sutter, his story is also intriguing and now, much more frightening knowing where the movie ends up.
DC: I think it also adds a certain amount of pathos and understanding to the character in Malevolence who you think is only the faceless killer, but now we find out that he’s also a bit of a victim by being molded into this remorseless thing.
SM: Absolutely. The movie definitely touches on the cycle of violence and the reciprocity of that. I think people, when they saw MALEVOLENCE, felt like there was something missing - there were pieces missing – because there was a lot of stuff that was introduced that was not developed because there’s only so much you can tell in one movie. I think that will be rewarded when they see BEREAVEMENT because a lot of those questions that were posited are now answered in a big way. Certainly, Martin is a victim, but then… I don’t want to give away too much about the film, but pretty much everyone is a victim in BEREAVEMENT when you really break it down. That was kind of the message I wanted to get across… and that was that there really aren’t any winners or losers when it comes to violence and murder. Everybody is a loser.
DC: I guess it begs the question – going back to your five-hundred-page document – if Malevolence is the center and Bereavement is the beginning, will there be a third installment to the story?
SM: Well, there’s been a third part for twelve years now. It’s been written and ready to go. Obviously, if BEREAVEMENT is received well and people want to see the end of the story, then I would definitely do it.
DC: But you have that locked and loaded…
SM: Oh, yeah… I could pull the trigger tomorrow and make that movie.
DC: One thing I noticed in Malevolence was that there is violence in the film, but you keep a lot of it off screen. I mean, for example, you see the raised knife, but you don’t see it impact. You hear it impact, but you don’t quite see it. Was that due to ratings considerations or a budgetary thing?
SM: It’s a combination of a lot of things. It definitely was a budgetary thought in the beginning, but my style is that I like to leave something to the imagination because I do think that’s effective. I know that’s old school and a lot of people don’t really adhere to that anymore. I kind of came full circle because when we shot BEREAVEMENT it turned out to be an extraordinarily gory and violent film. We felt that we went way too far with it and we had to tone it down a little bit to get it into mainstream theaters. We’re still concerned because it is still an extremely violent movie. But it’s a fine line that you walk. There’s a way you can over do it, I think, where it gets so gratuitous that it becomes cartoonish. For me, a scream in another room is always more terrifying than seeing the person scream on camera. I always find it just so much more frightening if I don’t know everything that is going on. If I’m left in the dark a little bit and I don’t know all of the facts, I’m always more scared than if I know what that scary noise was. I think that applies to gore, too. Once you see somebody pulling somebody’s intestines out and wrapping it around their head, you get to the point where, “Well, is that scary? Is that gory? Am I satisfied with that?” It would have been much more frightening to hear the knife go in, see the reaction on the victim’s face, than the reaction on the killer’s face… maybe see a little blood… but know what’s going on and experience the visceral reaction on your part watching those people die. I think that’s ten times more effective and it stays with you a lot more. Even the sound that the victim makes can stay with you and haunt you more than actually seeing their intestines flying out.