Director Zack Parker has a knack for marrying unnerving incident to shifty, hard-to-pin-down characters. His latest film, the psychological thriller “Proxy,” could sort of be described as a sociopathic lesbian love triangle… and yet it’s more than that, even. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to Parker one-on-one, about his movie, what sort of storytelling excites and drives him, making movies in his native Indiana, being a stay-at-home dad and how the California Raisins helped lead him to where he is today. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Like “Scalene,” your previous film, it feels like “Proxy” is very invested in exploring shifting audience sympathies. Not at all in a bad way, but this seems like a real thematic preoccupation on your part — that you enjoy setting characters up and then undermining assumptions about who they really are or what they’re capable of.
Zack Parker: (laughs) Yeah, I think there are two different things that I’m interested in at this point. One is experimenting with story structure, and how a story unfolds, which I feel like we did in “Scalene” and are trying to do in this one as well, with more (story-based) twists. As an audience member, I feel like several generations of moviegoers now have become quite savvy to how a film unravels. There’s a lot where in the first five or 10 minutes of the film you have a good idea of who the characters are and what the relationships are going to be and what the story arc is going to be. So my hope is to take some of those expectations and kind of turn them on the audience, so that every time that you feel like you have a grasp on where it’s going it would go somewhere else. And at the halfway point “Proxy” almost becomes a different film altogether. The thing that I appreciate most when I watch films now is when something surprises me, because I feel like that’s one of the most difficult things to do. In terms of character sympathies, I guess I’m just not a very big subscriber to the protagonist-antagonist theory — I just feel like that’s kind of been done to death and is not very interesting anymore. So to me it’s not about who you connect to — who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy? — but about [whether] the characters are interesting to watch.
ShockYa: Take me back to the original idea for this. It’s hard to discuss, I realize, but was part of it at the core essentially always going to turn on two characters who don’t really know of their similarities?
ZP: It was. And you’re right, it’s become a difficult film to talk about because you don’t want to spoil some of these reveals that happen throughout. But I’m always hoping to deal with a subject matter that I haven’t seen before on screen, and so my writing partner and I were thinking about different ideas and came up with this certain mental condition that tends to afflict young mothers, and doing a film about that and having these two women who are polar opposites in terms of their personalities and external experiences but share slightly different versions of the same condition, and would have this strange connection that would begin to fill a void in each of their lives.
ShockYa: Without mentioning that condition by name, did you read to specific case histories or were you trying to flag psychological motivations to marry to character, if that makes sense?
ZP: I’ve been familiar with the condition for a while, and I did do some reading on it, but my wife is an occupational therapist, my writing partner’s wife is a physician and a lot of the financiers of the film are also physicians who are our friends. We both live in this world of physicians and physicians’ spouses, so mental conditions come up fairly often in social situations where people are talking about patients — of course never by name, but just talking about certain situations. And that circle expands into people who are psychologists and psychiatrists, so we would consult them about this idea and what would be true, what would be not. And they would always tell us that cases are never textbook, so we wanted to make sure that we weren’t using a textbook definition of these conditions, but really more [digging into] a real-world effect that it has. Each case is always slightly different than the next.
ShockYa: You co-wrote both “Scalene” and “Proxy” — what’s that creative process like? Is it getting together in a room and grappling with and nailing down narrative beats, or is there more back-and-forth?
ZP: The process was pretty similar with both Brandon (Owens) and Kevin (Donner) — they’re both just good friends of mine to begin with. We each see one another pretty often. Kevin and I are both stay-at-home parents by day. We both have three children, so we see each other quite often and our kids play with each other and everything. But the process begins a lot with just conversations — getting an idea of what the story is going to be, and the major shifts that are going to happen within it. And then once we feel like we have a good understanding of it, Kevin will go and write about 10 pages and then he’ll send those to me and I’ll make a few notes. And then he’ll go back and do changes, and once we feel like that chunk feels good we’ll go on to the next chunk and the next chunk and so on and so forth. And then when we get to the end I like to go back and re-write the entire thing myself, almost to filter it through me and kind of get it in my bones — just because if it’s a film I’m going to make I feel like it needs to pass through me somehow before I can start making it.
ShockYa: Both “Scalene” and “Proxy” centered on women — very complex, troubled characters — to the degree that I’ve talked with people who are surprised to find out each movie was directed by a man. Is that (focus) by design, or just coincidence?
ZP: It’s a bit by coincidence. When we were talking about “Proxy,” it was just that a majority of the people that (the disorder we talked about) afflicts are young women. So it seemed appropriate for it to be a female-driven film. But I do tend to enjoy films that are female-driven. I feel like actresses can convey layers of emotion, and are more courageous about conveying layers of emotion than most men are — they’ll go a little deeper, and they’ll be more vulnerable. They’ll expose a bit more of themselves. I feel like men tend to be a bit more defensive when it comes to emotional work, just in general.
ShockYa: The score, by the Newton brothers, is string-driven and classical, and kind serves as an interesting aural counterpoint to certain scenes. What was that collaborative process like?
ZP: Well, the Newton brothers have scored all four of my features so far. I think we work really well together, and I think one of the things they enjoy on my films in particular is the freedom that I give them to explore anything that seems completely out there and strange. I know they’ve worked on some pretty big films and done some beautiful scores, but they tend to have to do a lot more atmospheric, whereas I like our scores to have really strong melodies. I almost want them to be their own character within the film, to be very bold. It’s very rare in a scene in our film where you have music and dialogue at the same time — I feel like that’s two people talking over each other, and I like the music to be its own voice. The music becomes the dialogue and drives certain sequences.
ShockYa: You were one of these kids who was busy making movies when you were 11 and 12 years old, right? How did that creative switch get flipped, when movies went from something you enjoyed to something you wanted to make?
ZP: I come as far from Hollywood as I think you can get and still live in the U.S. I don’t know, there was something that just drew me to it. I come from divorced parents and both my parents worked, so I spent a lot of time watching TV growing up — that was sort of the world that I lived in. And when my dad brought home a video camera when I was 11, I just started making movies with it. At the time, clay animation was really popular with the California Raisins and the Domino’s Noid, so I was making my own clay animation videos and just trying to figure out how it all worked. I had a lot of questions, but this was the pre-Internet time and when you come from a pretty secluded place where answers are typically hard to find — I couldn’t go to the library and find a book about making movies, they just didn’t exist there — I just started making my own, and then making things with my friends. And when I got into school, instead of doing a book report or project, I would ask if I could shoot a scene from the book or a scene for a project — just something that really was the only career path that I ever really pursued. I felt like I understood films, in a strange way. I feel like every shot means something, every cut means something — a close-up means something completely different than a master shot, and I feel like that’s part of the ongoing education of film and I feel like it’s my job as a filmmaker to become as fluent in the language and vocabulary of cinema as I possibly can, and I guess with each film that’s what I’m pursuing.
ShockYa: I’m headed off to Iowa next week for a film festival, and I’m really heartened by heartland filmmakers, if you will. But what sort of sacrifices have you had to make, personally or professionally, to still live in Indiana?
ZP: Well, I still live in Indiana, in the same town that I grew up in, which is the same town my wife is from, and we have three kids there. I did move out to L.A. when I was 19, and lived there for about five years, and lived in Chicago for a few years. But after we got married and had our first child we moved back, and I’ve actually made all four of my features in and around Richmond. There are pros and cons in shooting films anywhere. It’s incredibly cheap to shoot films where I’m at — there’s a hunger and enthusiasm with people making films that is sometimes harder to find in big cities. If you have any kind of track record it’s a little easier to raise money, because [there aren’t] as many people are asking for money to make movies, so if you can find enough of the right people who are excited about that prospect it can make it a bit easier. There is that disconnect — the business of films will always be firmly based in Los Angeles, and you need to have a connection to that place. I always say that you can make a film anywhere, but you have to have someplace to take it when it’s done, you know? So you have to have a connection to Los Angeles, absolutely, and I try to keep that and get out there when I can, when I need to.
ShockYa: What’s next? Is there anything definitively on tap?
ZP: I have a finished script, one that I’ve been working on for a while, and I brought Kevin on to help me with it a few months ago. It’s close to finished at this stage — to a point where we can go to people, so I’m just starting to get it out there. It’s a film I’ve been wanting to make when I had the proper resources under my belt, so I’m hoping “Proxy” kind of puts us in that position to get those resources. It’s a bigger film in terms of scale and scope than any of my previous films, but it still experiments a lot with story structure and audience expectations. It’s something I wrote for the Chicago area, so with any luck and if things fall into place then hopefully we’ll be shooting later this year or by early 2015.
Written by: Brent Simon