Recently I had the privilege to speak to Director Jason Todd Ipson about his film “UNREST” which will be featured at 9 film festivals in the next two months before coming to theaters. I want to thank Jason for his time.
GVK: You have had a interesting path to becoming a director. Please tell the
readers how you made the journey from Surgeon to film director.
JTI: Much like many filmmakers, I started off making films in high school using my fathers VHS recorder. We used to dub back and forth between VCRS, which forced you to cut the film only once. It was a blast, and I spent my free time doing that, but the idea of actually being a filmmaker seemed too unattainable. So when I reached college (I started at 16), I started out in business classes and then switched to pre-medicine to become a plastic surgeon.
The first day of Medical School, I looked around the room and thought, “I would never want to be one of these people”. My classmates were fantastic and really great people, but they were 100% driven by science. I, rather, was driven by education. I love both learning and teaching.
The idea of leaving medicine is one that hardly any physician ever considers. But the sad truth was that as I became a better and better surgeon, it is really a repetitive job… and not too intellectually stimulating (ironic, I know given the years it takes to get there). I took a step back and asked myself what would truly make me happy so that at my life’s end, I could look back and say I truly pursued my dream. The answer, for me, was to become a lifetime student and educator.
Film is the natural extension of that dream. Every project I make forces me to learn everything about that subject, and then make a piece of art that allows others to learn too. My films are entertaining fictional films – don’t get me wrong – but under any story there is a heart and it is there where you reach your audience. And if one’s film reaches an audience, then that is the largest classroom in the world.
I resigned from my surgical residency and went to USC Cinema-Television’s prestigious Peter Stark Program. I’ve never looked back since.
GVK: What is the background and setting for “Unrest” and how did the idea come about?
JTI: My brother was killed in a car wreck when I was 8 years old. The day it happened, I had a huge premonition that left me shaking and terrified from the exact time of the accident until I was told about it 6 hours later. It never left me.
As I got farther into medicine, I continued to have premonitions. As a doctor, I could walk into a room where a patient was critically ill and know that they would be all right. I could go into another persons room, and get what I call “the feeling”, and I knew they were going to die. And I was never wrong. Truly horrifying.
I wanted to make a film that helped me deal with my own experiences as well as force people to recognize that premonitions are real, and that they are likely spirits trying to connect with us. The fun part is taking these “true events” and making people be able to be entertained, yet forced to think of the big picture of spirits and death.
GVK: It is said that real body parts were used in the film. How did this come
about and what did using actual parts allow you to do that say a
prosthetic would not?
JTI: I absolutely will not deny that, but I absolutely cannot verify it. What we did was very respectful of the dead and their spirits. I am a physician, and as such, I have been forced with events that nobody should ever have to live through… but through looking at the cadavers in the film, one will hopefully force themselves to feel the spirits that are everywhere around them – and they can tune in if they want to.
Prosthetics are make believe. I want people to really understand human anatomy and what death means… in terms of respect and what we actually are – a series of pulleys and cables – guided by something that I cannot define.
GVK: What have been some of the biggest obstacles you faced getting the film
off the ground and during filming?
JTI: Most people really were excited to see this film get made. We were able to assemble an incredibly talented cast, and for the most part had the help and support of everyone.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the University when they heard that I was doing a story that showed what Gross Anatomy was really about, and intended to use real bodies. Instead of embracing it and seeing how they could help – they came in guns blazing to prevent us from making any association. I think that is short sighted. If you look at Georgetown after THE EXORCIST, admissions went up. FLATLINERS used and benefited MIT. But not all schools are forward thinking. I think the University had a real chance to get its name on the map, and by not helping or supporting; nobody will ever know or care.
The VA Hospital was the exact opposite. They acknowledged that their hospital was haunted, and were very excited to see this film made in order to explore the issues of what they all feel inside the hospital.
GVK: What are some of the horror films and directors that inspired you?
JTI: My favorite horror films are ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE SHINING, THE CHANGELING. All of which were terrifying because they got inside of my psyche. Another two recent films that have got me going mentally were STIGMATA and SAW. Again, playing on an intellectual level.
As a doctor, blood isn’t enough. You’ve got to really make me think what it all means. Slashing someone doesn’t scare me. Asking me to take a saw to my own leg to save myself terrifies me.
My favorite director is Bryan Singer; after him, Sydney Pollock. I think both are true storytellers which is why they continue to make such heartfelt work. In the thriller genre, I think David Fincher is pretty great.
GVK: Where was the film shot and how long was the shoot?
JTI: The film was shot in a real hospital morgue at the Veteran’s Administration hospital. We used 100% accurate things to create a real environment. We shot for 24 days. And yes, people did see real ghosts while working under these conditions, though I did not until months after the shoot when some spirit started haunting my condo for a few weeks.
GVK: When casting the film, what did you consider to be the essential elements
for the characters and what made the actors ideally suited for their roles
as this must have been a difficult process finding just the right people
to make your vision a reality.
JTI: If you look at me, you’ll see I’m a pretty straightforward director. The one area where I view myself as a true renegade is in casting.
I believe in casting the most talented people for the roles. That means we have to audition everyone, and find who truly is talented, not just cast a “name” because they will sell the film. When one can make films free from the need of a “name”, then they have an opportunity to make a great film. They get actors that are talented, and want to work together without egos, and the work in on the screen.
I considered the most important and essential elements to be extreme depth of talent and believability. Corri English is legitimate as she transforms her character. You never feel like you are just watching someone act. You feel that you are watching a girl get haunted, and you can relate to her.
In a typical casting session, we’ll get 10-15 thousand headshots, then the casting director will see 500 of those. I’ll see about 50, including the “names” that agencies are pushing. In UNREST we went with the most talented and believable in the various roles.
GVK: If you could go back and change any part of the final film, what would it
be and why?
JTI: Humn, I guess I’m not sure that I would change any part of the final film. Part of being a director is learning to literally hate all of your films while you make them. However, I think the actors did a fantastic job, and I think we have a great product, which is probably one of the reasons it will be released domestically on 500 screens. Sure there are moments we could recapture – but that would make them different, not necessarily better.
GVK: You also mentioned your other films, tell the readers if you would about
them and their genesis. I ask as to go from something as dark as “Unrest”
to a comedy like “Everybody Wants to Marry and Italian”, is a real switch.
JTI: I find that ideas keep coming back to me mentally until I figure out a way to make them work as stories. THE FIRST VAMPIRE is an action-adventure (think BRAVEHEART not VAN HELSING) comes from an idea I had in 1994. However, it took until 2002 to make it into a screenplay, and will be 2007 before that film is made. Quite a genesis process. EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE ITALIAN on the other hand was a dream I had. I woke up at 2:00 in the morning laughing at my dream and figured “I can write this down, or go back to sleep”. I got up and wrote until 8:00 in the morning, and the framework for this Romantic Comedy was then in place. It is based on Freudian psychology and males inability to get over their first loves.
There is no doubt that there was a switch. In one film it was dark and we were surrounded by death. In the next, we literally had grips laughing on the set. I think I enjoy humor more, but a comedy has to be perfect, or the film will not work. I hope you will enjoy EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE ITALIAN as much as I did making it.
GVK: As a creative artist, what are the most important aspects for your films
to contain and how would you describe your style of film making?
JTI: For me personally, I strive for my films to be honest. I want people to watch my films and think that they could literally be eves dropping on something that is really happening. That’s what makes UNREST creepy – the realization of how poorly cadavers and dead bodies are treated. In the case of ITALIAN, you really feel like these guys are in the North End of Boston living their lives.
I would say my style is one of truthfulness. I’m not afraid to show something, but you don’t see flashy camerawork or tricks in my films. I’ve lost a number of jobs because executives would rather have a commercial video director, but on the other hand, I get brought in for fairly large films at this point because they know that I will put my heart into it 100% and look to make a story that the audience can relate to and enjoy regardless of age – that actually has a story that is thought out behind it.
GVK: Thank you,
JTI: Thank you – it was my pleasure.