Interview: Louis Mansfield - Writer/Director of “Whom God Helps”

With the art of film going out the window (See any big blockbuster out in theaters) we are left with independent filmmakers giving us original and unique films. “Whom God Helps” is Philadelphia’s The Federal Film Reserve production companies new horror film that opened at the Fantastic Planet Film Festival in Sydney, Australia on March 29, 2012.

Set in Philadelphia, the story revolves around a young couple whom are walking home from an upscale night out when they are stalked by a mysterious figure. Their once fun night turns deadly as the creature is revealed to be Azrael, the archangel of death. Here, the director and writer of the short film, Louis Mansfield, answers some of our questions about his inspirations, process, and his love for the horror genre in our exclusive “dork-tastic” interview below.

1. Your short film is about Azrael, the archangel of death. “He” is portrayed in many different ways, sometimes as the traditional “angel” and others as a more demonic figure. What brought you to create this character in this particular way?

I thought the cloaked “Death” character is iconic for films like The Seventh Seal but had room to grow. So I was reading about Azrael and was very intrigued about how many different cultures portrayed it. Some see Azrael as having four faces and four thousand wings, with his whole body consisting of eyes and tongues. That was wild to me and I thought it’s OK to have your own vision of this entity as long as you effectively portray who this is.

What would it look like at this point in its existence? Would it have scars? How would it move? I looked to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle for a lot of inspiration and I thought Sean Harris’ performance and look as “Craig” in the film Creep was stimulating as well.

I wanted the personality of the character to be manipulative and coerce us into our deaths or into causing someone else’s. It’s this puppet master that enacts fate’s plan unknown to us which would imply that we really don’t possess the freedom that we think we have.

2. What interested you about this particular story that made you want to create this film?

I wanted to do something along the lines of surreal. Birth of Separation was a feature we did that has a home invasion plot, Non Serviam was a short with crime fiction leanings, and Folie Imposée was an experimental short along the lines of the anthology film Destricted. With every film I strive to learn something new so heading in a different direction with surrealism was exciting since the previous films were more centered in reality.

I was re-watching films by Stan Brackage, Chris Cunningham and Matthew Barney to get a feeling for art installation videos and non-narratives. The freedom you have in those films is amazing. Of course I wanted to tell a story so it was fun narrowing everything down and concluding on what would become Whom God Helps.

3. As a director, who are you inspired by? Which films and filmmakers stand out as significant influences?

Lars von Trier is definitely my favorite director with Andrei Tarkovsky, Gaspar Noe and Michael Haneke all sitting at the same table. Kubrick opened the world of possibilities in cinema for me as a kid with The Shining and Bergman taught me you can shoot a heart wrenching miniseries about a marriage collapsing in mostly close ups.

I always keep going back to films like Tarkovsky’s The Mirror because it’s so beautiful and poetic. The camera movements are tremendous and the performances are timeless. The camera work is something I’m very jealous of and I can’t wait to do more. We’ve had more of a von Trier handheld look to our films that I very much enjoy but it’s time to get more impressive, which is something that we have up our sleeve.

4. Do you consider “Whom God Helps” to be a traditional horror film, or is it something else? How do you feel about the horror genre in today’s media landscape?

I like to think the idea of Whom God Helps is more along the lines of von Trier’s Antichrist which isn’t a traditional horror film and maybe not even a horror film at all, depending on who you ask. There are parallels in the examination of a couple’s interaction which spirals out of control due to a presence that’s beyond them. I wouldn’t say that Whom God Helps is a traditional horror film or follows a specific genre format. It could be considered more of a thriller with a supernatural aspect but that’s neither here nor there.

My taste in horror leans towards the dramatic so a lot of campy/over the top stuff is really lost on me so that cuts out a lot of the genre. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy some horror-comedies though. Not everything has to be so heavy handed but I prefer it to be.

The genre today can cause frustration for fans but there has to be an understanding that some horror films just have to be PG-13 for revenue purposes and American remakes of foreign films are going to happen but if you care enough to scratch the surface you will be rewarded. For example films like Grou’s Seven Days, Grau’s We Are What We Are, and Vivas’ Kidnapped which were all released in 2010 and are really cool horror/thriller releases that aren’t PG-13 young adult vampire flicks.

5. What are you most proud of in your latest film?

The make-up and the performances definitely give me a sense of pride. We had an incredible make-up department headed up by Lauren Palmer, Ruby Muro, and Steve Saturn and they worked around the clock to make this happen. They’re amazing people and I’m fortunate to know them.

Along with the make-up I’m truly proud of Kate Boyer, Brandon Ruckdashel and Jason Vail for their performances. I think Brandon enjoyed his character that was a bit arrogant yet subtly charming as well as Kate did playing a young vibrant woman showing off her new beau. Jason Vail played his ominous role with precision and I couldn’t have asked for more.

I’m proud of many things regarding the film from the RJD2 tracks to the practical execution of special effects. We hope to show what we can do with a limited budget as reference for what we’ll be able to create with a bigger budget. I’m pretty stoked that it’s screened in Australia too, that’s just cool.

6. What was the process of casting Azrael like? Were you looking for something specific in your actor?

I had wanted to work with Jason Vail on a couple of projects but we couldn’t sync up. I think I thought of him because I thought he had a likeness to Matthew Barney who I was referencing in pictures wearing weird make-up prosthetics. So since they have similar bone structure I was able to have a clear vision of the finished look. He was able and willing to do it so that worked out well.

Jason’s a trooper and really nice guy. He sat for four hours every day with 4-5 people putting prosthetics on and airbrushing him. The final look allowed Jason to move his brow and have expression in his face so I was very pleased. He’s been around and knows a thing or two, a total professional.

7. What role does religion play in the film? Did you want to to give your actor and actress (the couple) a strict moral code or did you want the audience to see the Azrael character and the couple as both morally in a “gray area”?

The religious part of it is open to interpretation and not necessarily speaking to only one in particular. The mythology in religion is fascinating and incorporating a modern couple in a modern time with old mythology was a lot of fun. I hope people can conclude something that’s personal to their beliefs while being different from the person sitting next to them. A great success would be each person having their own interpretation.

8. What challenges exist within making a short horror film?

Time and money but really it’s creating characters and story arcs in a short amount of time that the audience will not only believe but can empathize with. If your intentions are to get into film festivals then it has to be programmable…and everyone has an opinion on what that means. So it’s cutting the fat and getting to the point quicker than in features. To keep things interesting I like to use the expectations of the story against the audience, they look left and you go right.

I’m fortunate enough to have a great producer in Christine McDermott so the logistical aspects of shooting are accounted for and well taken care of. Having good people around you is the most important thing and having no time for people who prove to be undesirable is imperative. Whatever issues arise if you surround yourself with genuinely good people, good things will happen. People that have the unrelenting urge to create with the goal of earning respect in their industry and not people just trying to be famous. Recently I’ve met some truly wonderful individuals and I couldn’t be happier about it.

9. What is your style in terms of horror- is “the more you show” better? Or is it scarier to keep things slightly in the shadows?

I think off screen violence is actually way more effective than showing everything. If you cut away from the violence (especially if you keep the violent actions in the audio) then the audience members will individually think of the worst thing for them specifically. I’ll think of what horrible thing I think of and you will too. Mine might be too tame for you and yours could potentially be over the top for me. If you leave it up to the audience, they’ll fill everything in for you tailored to their taste. The off screen violence in Haneke’s Funny Games is more effective than most violent films.

Now with that said, there’s definitely some Irreversible (Noe) inspired violence in this film which I find to be very realistic. In fact we’ve been told it looks too real but I think popcorn violence can at times be irresponsible. If we were walking down the street and saw a man get shot or a woman being beaten that would affect us in many ways. It’s something we’d never forget and would shake us to our core. We’d try to help by intervening or calling the cops. But we watch these films that are fun and entertaining because the severities of those actions aren’t respected and thus exploitive. If violence is wrong and hurtful then portraying it as fun can be irresponsible.

If we’re going to shoot a beating let’s make it as if the audience is watching it in real life and not in a movie. Maybe that’s not entertaining but it’s definitely an experience that’ll get your heart pumping. Popcorn entertainment has its place and can be a lot of fun but I personally choose to either execute violence with a strong sense of reality or off screen which allows the audience to freak themselves out.

10. There is a saying in the film world that you should never show the true face of the devil or other evil entity that is inflicting harm in order to leave the audience to imagine their greatest fear. John Carpenter said that if you’re going to do it, you’d “better make it great”. How do you think that it works in your film?

I agree the execution of evil or the devil manifested is extremely important because everyone has their own idea of what that is. I wouldn’t say that “Azrael” is evil, which was the realization I had when discovering what its name meant, “Whom God Helps”. If anything we’re dealing with God’s plan and Azrael is there to execute that plan, whether people are dying from disease or because of a crime.

So that was another side of the story because this creature you’re watching is fulfilling the will of God and sometimes people die violent deaths. But if this creature is provoking those violent deaths to happen then the impression is that it is evil but how could it be?