Interview – DEMENTER Director Chad Crawford Kinkle on Disability Representation & Working with Larry Fessenden

Michelle Swope talks to DEMENTER Director Chad Crawford Kinkle about his new film and working with Larry Fessenden.

Chad Crawford Kinkle is the writer/director known for the incredibly affecting film Jugface (2013), which I loved. Jugface stars Lauren Ashley Carter as a young woman who lives in an isolated rural community that worships a supernatural pit in the ground that causes them to sacrifice members of their community. The film also stars Larry Fessenden and Katie Groshong, who both star in Kinkle’s newest film, Dementer, which he wrote and directed.

Dementer tells the story of a woman named Katie played by Katie Groshong, who escaped a cult led by Larry Fessenden’s character. Katie suffers from hallucinations and paranoia and is struggling to deal with the trauma of what was done to her by the cult. She takes a job as a caretaker in a home for people with Down’s syndrome. Kinkle’s sister Stephanie plays one of the women in the home, who Katie believes she needs to protect from the devils she thinks are coming for her, because of what she was forced to believe in while she was in the cult. Dementer is shot in documentary style and is profound and unnerving as hell, and also leaves some of the story up to the interpretation of the viewer. I first saw Dementer at Chattanooga Film Festival in 2020 and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. This fascinating, deeply terrifying movie will stay with you.

Dread Central had the immense pleasure of chatting with writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle about his inspiration for Dementer, working with his sister Stephanie, working with Larry Fessenden, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!

Dementer will be released on digital and VOD on March 2nd from Dark Star Pictures.

Dread Central: I saw Dementer at Chattanooga Film Festival last year and it really stuck with me because it feels so real. I’m so glad it’s finally being released! What was your inspiration for the story and what was the creative process for making it feel like you’re watching real people and not just a movie?

Chad Crawford Kinkle: That was a cool screening for the film. It had only been to three other festivals before Chattanooga Film Festival. Covid and other things just kind of shut it down, so I didn’t have any sort of high hopes for that festival at all with it not being live, but it seemed to generate some interest and I was able to sign through Dark Star Pictures because of that festival. The movies that have stuck out to me over the years have a real sense of place in them.

I’ll tell you a funny story about the movie The Idiots by Lars von Trier. It’s a story about these people who go to live in this home for the handicapped, but they’re all faking it. They’re just trying to get out of society. It’s really crazy [laughs]. When I saw it, I was in the Czech Republic at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and this was early in my life and we had been partying quite a bit [laughs], so I don’t think I was in the right mental state. I went to the festival because I was a big Lars von Trier fan. It’s shot in this same sort of cinéma verité style and to make it even stranger, there were no subtitles. We had headphones on, and someone was translating live what they were saying, and it made it really surreal. And he shot these sex scenes and used real porn stars, so there were people really having sex in the movie. It really blurs the lines, and I was going, “Is this real? Is this a documentary? I can’t really tell.” The funniest part about that movie is that when I knew it was not real was when I recognized an actor who is the guy who plays Radu in the Subspecies movies for Full Moon Features.

Chad Crawford Kinkle photo DEMENTER 300x200 - Interview – DEMENTER Director Chad Crawford Kinkle on Disability Representation & Working with Larry Fessenden
Writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle
(photo credit: Jeff Wedding)

So, that movie has really lasted in my mind and then I saw The Tribe at Sundance, which is a movie shot at a school for the deaf that uses all non-actors. It’s in sign language and there are no subtitles. It’s really a powerful movie. When I was watching that, I was thinking, “Wow, I could go into my sister’s world and do something with that. What would that be like?” There were these parallels of this procedure that you’re not aware of because you’re not in that environment. Then I thought, “Well, what if it was a horror movie? What would that even be like?” It took me a while to just verbalize it to other people because it sounded so scandalous in a way [laughs]. When I thought about it, it just had this energy and I realized that this is something that almost only I can do. Only I can have a sister who has Down’s syndrome and can be able to get permission to do something like this.

So, that was the stylistic idea behind it, and it was always to explore this real environment, but create a story within it. From the beginning, I knew that it was going to be shot handheld in this cinéma verité kind of style. So that’s kind of how it came about. Even in the very beginning, I was thinking of doing some sort of folklore documentary, but it would be a story about my sister and there was some mystery surrounding her that people didn’t understand. It was almost like I was going to be a character in it, her brother coming to do this documentary on her, and I would be in the movie exploring this event that had happened. So, it was going to be shot documentary style and even a documentary within a documentary [laughs].

DC: I do want to talk about your sister, Stephanie, who stars in Dementer. I found out after I had seen the film that she was your sister and that made the movie even more fascinating to me, and she’s so great in the movie. What was it like working with her on this film?

CCK: They give them a rating and they say my sister has the mind of a four-year-old. They do that so they can know what level of care she needs, and she needs a lot. She needs help brushing her teeth, getting dressed, and doing everything from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, and she gets up at night. So, someone has to be awake twenty-four hours, in her home. She’s never acted in anything, but she’s very familiar with being recorded and acting out. I say quite often that she’s really a big ham. She’s part of this singing group that goes around to churches and nursing homes, and they’re called The B-Team Angels. They just get up and sing things like “Jingle Bells” and different Christmas songs. She’s always the one who is dancing inappropriately [laughs], and she tries to steal the spotlight. Even though she only knows a few words that she can say correctly. She doesn’t say my name and she doesn’t call me brother; she calls me brola. She comes up with her own words for things, and for years she kept asking for la-lump and we were like, “What the hell is la-lump?” Then we figured out it was meatloaf and that was the funniest thing.

DC: She seems so comfortable being filmed and that’s why I was even more enthralled with the film and her performance.

CCK: Well, she’s just a ham and she likes to be recorded. Every time I would put the camera on her, it would take five minutes for her to calm down; she would just be making funny noises; she would be talking in her gibberish and then she would be imitating me. It would take forever for her to be normal basically, and then I could ask her to do something that I needed for the story. It was really fun being with her many hours of the day. I live in a different town than her now, so I just see her a couple of times a month, so it was really intense to be with her for the two weeks that we were shooting.

DC: The lead actress, Katie Groshong, who plays Katie in Dementer, also starred in your film Jug Face, which I just revisted and loved, as well as your short film Organ Grinder. Did you write the role of Katie with her in mind and why did you want to work with her on Dementer?

CCK: Yeah, one thousand percent. Once I came up with the idea, I knew the main character couldn’t be my sister, because we were going to shoot it in a tight schedule. It was going to be just a fourteen-day, normal film shoot. So, I needed the story to revolve around another character, and I thought of someone coming in to be an aid in my sister’s center. I was thinking of who could play that role and who could do the other kind of weird things in the script, and my mind was just going to Katie. I hadn’t written it, but I just decided, “Yes, she’s perfect for this.”

I also knew her from those other projects and she’s a very kind person. I knew I could bring her into this environment and not have to worry about her at all. I even had some other people say, “Well, maybe you should get a bigger actress. You know, for marketing.” I was jut like, “No, this is not that type of film. I need to have full trust in the person and know them before I bring them in.” Of course, I knew she could do the role perfectly and I could trust her with my sister and being in that environment. So, I ended up just calling her one day and I said, “Hey, Katie. I have a new script, but I haven’t written it yet.” I just gave her the pitch and I said, “I want you to be the lead.” And she was like, “Yeah, of course! I’d love to.”

Then I said, “Now I need to go and get permission to make it. If I can get permission, then I’m going to write it.” The people who run the center that my sister goes to, and a couple of others, were very open about it. They were very excited when I described what I was going to do because they knew that I was going to show people like Stephanie, who aren’t generally shown in films particularly. Generally, it’s a very high functioning person with Down’s that you see, not severe cases. Then I told the people at the center, “Okay, I’ll be back in two months and I’ll have the script written and then we’re going to shoot another month after that.” They were like, “Okay!” I did, I showed up with the script and they read it and they were like, “Oh my Gosh!” I don’t want to do any spoilers, but they were like, “Is that really how it ends?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s how it ends.” My pitch to Katie was an up ending, like it ended on a positive note. The character was able to figure out how to stop this behavior that she was doing. As I wrote the script, she just never did and I was like, “Oh no!” [laughs] I wanted the audience to feel what Katie felt and I’ve had reviewers say, “Oh, the music is getting on my nerves so bad.” And I was like, “It’s supposed to! You’re supposed to feel what she feels.”

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Stephanie Kinkle and Katie Groshong in Dementer

DC: In the film, as we see what Katie’s going through and she thinks she’s protecting Stephanie, she’s dealing with what seems like mental illness and maybe PTSD from being in the cult. Did you do any sort of special research on cults or mental illness for the film?

CCK: Not really. I just imagined that whatever they did to her to turn her into this pawn was so severe that it would have fractured her mind, and she would have feelings that were not really her own. She’s compelled to help people, which is very noble, right? But it’s under the guise of getting close to these people that the devils want. It’s so sinister [laughs].

DC: You also worked with Larry Fessenden on Jugface, before he was in Dementer. What was it like working with him again?

CCK: When I talk about Jugface, I say that Larry was my favorite thing about making the movie. So, over the years I’ve always stayed in touch with him. The character’s name in the script is Larry [laughs]. I wanted him from the beginning, and I didn’t want anyone else to be the cult leader. I love Larry and I’m a huge fan of his work, even before Jugface. Just getting him to be a part of the project was super special. I even wrote him afterwards and I was like, “I can’t believe I’ve made two features and you’re in both of them. That’s so cool to me.” We had an off day during the shoot and we just spent the whole day together, talking about horror movies and hanging out. It was just so amazing. He was only there for a few days. I wish he was there longer [laughs], but he was also editing Depraved at that time. I think I was interrupting his creative flow a little bit [laughs], but I was really thankful that he came down.

DC: I know that Dementer will be available on March 2nd. Can you tell me what you’re working on next? Do you have another film planned?

CCK: Yeah, I’ve had scripts going for years and I’m working on a new one now. I’m just seeing what fits with what people want to make and that’s kind of where I’m at. So, I don’t have anything that is greenlit, but I’m definitely writing. I’m ready to make another movie for sure.