Film School: Mauricio Chernovetzky and Mark Devendorf, “Styria”

Did you catch the fact that I was pretty excited by the upcoming film version of Carmilla? Maybe I was too subtle. To clarify, I’m pretty durned excited about the film, Styria, and thanks to the incredible power that is social media, I was able to get in touch with the film’s writers and directors, Mauricio Chernovetzky and Mark Devendorf. They graciously took the time to answer my raving fanboy questions, for which I’m extremely grateful. Here are their unedited responses to my emailed questions. [Because I initially heard back from Mauricio C., my questions are addressed to him, but both directors kindly responded.]

EDIT: For the sake of clarity, I have not seen this film yet. Check the movie’s Facebook page, linked at the bottom of this post, for info on upcoming screenings.

Angry Scholar: Styria is based on J.S. Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, a gothic story that has been adapted for film numerous times. What made you (and co-director Mark Devendorf) decide to create a new adaptation now?

Mauricio Chernovetzky: When we read Le Fanu’s original novella we realized that apart from Carl Dyer’s Vampyr, which was soley inspired by the text, none of the adaptations really delved into the interior life of the characters. Instead they focused on the lesbian aspect of the story to make sexploitation films, such as Vampyros Lesbos. But we found that the original story is far more layered, tense and atmospheric than these adaptations.

Mark Devendorf: Also, none of the other adaptations have really been faithful to the relationship between the girls and the underlying themes, which to us was the most fascinating aspect.

carmilla(Julia Pietrucha)-pushes-lara-further

AS: Obviously Styria is a contemporary reimagining, rather than a literal retelling, of Carmilla. What elements (setting, etc.) from the original remain the same, and what elements have been updated?

MD: The original story was so influential, (Dracula was originally set in Styria as well) most aspects & scenes have been picked clean by other movies, but we tried to keep the relationship of the girls close to that of the book, which has a cat/mouse aspect to it and as I said, the buried themes.

MC: We adapted the story to the late 80‘s and merged New wave goth sensibilities with Victorian Gothic ones. We set the story in a town called Styria on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Reinterpreting the external aspects of the plot, allowed us tap into the richer parts of this classic Gothic tale.

AS: The trailer contains some horror-like elements that are not present in the original. Would you say the film could be classified as horror?

MC: There are some horror-elements, but the film as a whole is really much more of tense, beautifully shot Gothic thriller.


AS: Carmilla famously includes some pretty overt lesbian themes, which also seem to be represented in the film’s trailer. Are these themes explored more fully in the film itself?

MD: In the book, these erotic themes were present, but there were actually no salacious scenes. We wanted to focus on the sensual tension of their romance and sexuality.

MC: Our film really focuses more on the obsession and dependence that grows between two teenage girls who are both troubled and in desperate need of a connection.

AS: Can you talk a little about your casting choices? It’s great to see Stephen Rea as Dr. Hill. Relative newcomers (at least to American audiences) Eleanor Tomlinson (Lara) and Julia Pietrucha (Carmilla) also seem like incredibly apt choices for their roles, based on the trailer. Did you have these cast members in mind from the beginning?

MD: We searched for over a year to find the right cast, because we knew, without the right actors, the film wouldn’t work.

MC: When we sent the script over to Stephen, he simply said, “I found it horrifying.” (Which is good, right?) And with him in the project, it raised the stakes for the other actors. Both Eleanor and Julia have been acting for years. But this film really gives them a chance to develop very interesting characters. The film is ultimately about their relationship and we are very happy with their performances.

AS: On the blog, a major focus is folklore. Carmilla purports to draw heavily on Austrian vampire folklore, with explicit mention of the history of vampires in the region of Styria, the methods by which they are dispatched, and the legal proceedings that led to their disposal. Does any of this figure into the film?

MC: While doing our own research we made a connection that we felt no film had yet explored, namely the link between vampirism and suicide clusters. We realized that from a sociological perspective, the vampire folklore made perfect sense. Imagine a small isolated village where young women begin taking their lives, like a horrible disease spreading and destroying a community from the inside. Today, there’s a name for it, Suicide Clusters. But the name doesn’t really explain the phenomenon away. It’s still happening today. So what we realized is that “vampires” with fangs might not be real, but vampirism definitely is!

MD: It is quite unusual that there is enough research in a film that a new theory on vampirism is discovered, which I think shows the amount of research we did. We also drew quite a bit on the imagery and themes of the symbolists, with their entwined obsessions of death and sensuality. The murals in the castle are based upon their work.


AS: Styria is your first time directing a full-length feature film, and Mark Devendorf’s first time in the director’s chair. How do you see this film relating to your previous work?

MC: Mark and I have worked very closely over the years. We share a passion for a wide-range of filmmakers, from Carl Dreyer and F.W. Murnau to David Croneberg and Bela Tarr. When we decided to collaborate, it knew we wanted to make a film about the entwined mysteries of death and sensuality, the fear of fear of loneliness, and the nightmares that creep from the shadows of our psyche.

MD: Also, with the pressure of our first film, with the madness of overburdened schedules, shooting in a foreign country, exchange rates, etc., it allowed the “director” to be in two places at once.

AS: What made you choose a supernatural thriller, potentially a risky genre, as your feature-film debut?

MC: When we first started talking about the idea, we were simply gripped by the need to make an elegant and mysterious thriller about a troubled teenager who’s obsession with a beautiful stranger threatens to consume her.

MD: For a first feature and the amount of time it takes to make a film, you need a subject you’re going to be passionate about, and so we drew from our own teenage years and the questions we had then (and still do) about love, sex, death, etc., to push us through to the end. Also, we started before the current vampire obsession, at a time that someone from HBO said, “people don’t like vampire movies anymore.” We just had to trust our instincts.

AS: Anything else you’d like to say to potential viewers?

MD: People often talk about wanting films that challenge them, that are intelligent, sensual and suggestive, instead of the alternative. At a preview screening, an audience member came up to me and said, “It’s so beautiful, I felt like I was watching art.” Well, here you go!

MC: Yes, we set out to make a thoughtful, beautiful film that offers a different perspective to the vampire legend. We really hope you enjoy it. Please follow us on facebook for updates about local screenings and release dates!

Styria has the potential to reinvigorate a classic work of Gothic literature, and perhaps steal the vampire film back from its unfortunate, sparkly contemporary permutations. If you haven’t done so already, check out the film’s official Facecbook page and official site.

(Images courtesy of Mauricio Chernovetzky.)

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