Following the release of his wildly entertaining and twisted film CONDEMNED, we say down with director Eli Morgan Gesner to chat about his film, his influences, and general nastiness. Our review for CONDEMNED can be found HERE.
Nathanael Hood: Mr. Gesner! Pleasure to talk with you!
Eli Morgan Gesner: Mr. Hood! How you doing?
NH: I’m very, very well. So! Let’s talk about CONDEMNED, shall we?
EMG: Sure, yes, please!
NH: I wanted to start off by saying that it’s really refreshing to see a film in this day and age that’s so comfortable with being itself, with unapologetically going for broke. There’s never this sense that it’s trying to tone itself down to reach a wider audience and I have to say: I respect that.
EMG: Well, thank you. That’s important to me. Even though this is my first film, I’ve been a successful commercial artist and fine artist for many years, so I think I’ve earned the right to say what I want to say and get my way when it comes to what we’re putting onscreen. I think that the material is offensive to being with, yet the details of the film negate any watering down of the material. Thank you for noticing that. I would hope that, given the current state of filmmaking, that there would be more of this to come: that this would be the era of the filmmaker as novelist as it was in the mid-twentieth century. You know, that I have my own voice and my own vision that I can put down on paper regardless of whatever anyone thinks and have a publisher put it out.
NH: I noticed that there’s an almost poetic quality to the gore and violence in CONDEMNED. It was sorta like Dario Argento by way of John Waters.
EMG: [Laughing] That’s the best compliment I’ve gotten in a long time!
NH: Well, you earned it! Was there any inspiration behind the violence? Were there any filmmakers that inspired you to push yourself that far—the look of the film, the dirtiness of it?
EMG: Yeah. I grew up in New York City—I was a Manhattanite. I literally grew up on the same block as the movie theater at the end of ANNIE HALL. I grew up as a child in that movie theater. I’d just walk in and sit in the projection booth and see all kinds of horrible—and wonderful—films as well as boring films that a kid couldn’t understand. And one day they were having [John Waters’] PINK FLAMINGOES—I must have been seven or eight at the time—and everybody in the movie theater was like “we dare you to watch this movie to the end!” And I remember sitting in the theater watching PINK FLAMINGOES and thinking “What the f__k?!”
EMG: You know, the Eggman and Divine and the way that it looks and its pathetic attempt to make it look glamorous and gorgeous. But, Divine just looks like a psycho clown and the quality of the film and the exposure…and it was even shot, if I’m not mistaken, in the springtime and there’s no leaves on the trees and the lighting’s harsh and bleak and there’s mud on the ground and people in high heels!
NH: And you’ve got this weird Golden Oldies soundtrack going on as Divine shoves a steak down her panties…
EMG: Oh yeah, and the audio was so scratchy…that was really a trial by fire for my little brain. After that, I really got into horror movies. But everything paled in comparison after sitting through PINK FLAMINGOES. You know, my friends were like “I sat through PHANTASM!” And I was like “big deal!” So, that’s kinda where all that comes from. But, I guess my exposure to film back as a child made me love film as a whole, not just particular genres. I’d go and see disturbing, weird films—[Nagisa Oshima’s] IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES really f__ked me up at a young age.
NH: Oh yeah, that’d do it!
EMG: Yeah, so, that’s really where my heart is. As far as the violence goes, there was a curious desire on my part to let the audience know that it was going to be theatrical—that I wasn’t trying to be realistic, that it was more of a stage play. The opening long shot of Shynola (Anthony Chisholm) giving the monologue was on a stage.
NH: Well, I mentioned Dario Argento earlier because it seems to me that in a way CONDEMNED took a lot of cues from the Giallo genre: it seemed to disregard reality in favor of a kind of augmented reality—a theatrical reality—where there are hallways bathed in strange lights, really over-the-top characters scutter around in cloistered environments, a pervasive, dream-like atmosphere…
NH: It seemed to be structured around a number of character vignettes as we explore the various inhabitants of the apartment building. Was there any inspiration for this type of narrative structure? For the characters we meet?
EMG: Yes. Well, the narrative structure—where the idea came from—was from growing up in New York City. Going up and down my apartment building in the West Village or visiting friends you could hear everybody at all times of the day, the screaming, laughing, having sex. Eventually my mind would start to wonder about these neighbors you never saw but sort of knew: what was that strange woman across the hall really like? So I wanted to reflect that. Also, one movie that influenced me was Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER—during the famous “you talking to me” monologue you can hear the other people in the building having conversations, listening to music, watching TV, arguing. Since Scorsese’s from New York, he really understands the idea of being the helpless voyeur, of being constantly confronted with stuff and people.
NH: Well, we only have time for one more question. So let me hit you with the question I always end my interview with: is there a question that you always WISHED that somebody would ask you in one of these interviews?
EMG: [Laughing] You know what, no! I’m new to this! This is my first go-around of having people come to me and ask me questions about my work. But you’ve been asking really good questions! I’m just happy to be here!