Xia Magnus graciously took time out of his schedule to speak with Father Son Holy Gore about his feature debut Sanzaru — a Southern Gothic with a twist of Filipino culture mixed in— which is playing this year at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
(The following interview has been edited for clarity.)
C.H. Newell: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today, Xia. I’ve had the chance to watch Sanzaru a couple times, thanks to the folks at Fantasia. Honestly one of my favourite films of 2020 so far.
Xia Magnus: Thank you so much, Chris. And thanks for watching it more than once. (laughs)
CHN: That’s actually one of the benefits about this year’s virtual edition—
XM: Good point, I hadn’t thought of that.
CHN: It’s especially great for people like myself who are writing about the films. The ones I really enjoy I’m able to watch multiple times and I can then really digest things. So, I’m going to jump right in here.
Something I’ve been thinking about, in regards to Sanzaru, is how much I enjoy the bits of Filipino culture we get via Evelyn. I don’t know your background, so I’m curious if you have any connection to the Philippines, or just an interest in Filipino culture? How did that come about when writing this screenplay?
XM: A bit of both. My personal history is not connected to the Philippines. I come to the Filipino aspect of the film via health aides, regarding my own family. The Regan family and Evelyn, in a way, mirror my own family’s experience when my grandparents passed away, and the home health aides they had. Out of my research into that community and subculture, if you will, of foreign domestic workers in the US, I grasped onto their experience. Particularly in Texas, but throughout the United States, Filipinos make up a huge number of domestic workers, like health aides, so on. I read a New Yorker article in 2016 while writing Sanzaru that was about all this, the whole culture of the staffing, and this weird, racist assumption companies have towards Filipino workers: assuming they’re naturally good caretakers and good with the elderly. My interest in all that got folded into the story. Once I met Aina [Dumlao] and our working relationship developed, then the Filipino connection became much stronger because she brought so much to her character, as well as the film in general.
CHN: The setting itself of Victoria, Texas makes things very Southern Gothic, but the presence of Filipino characters, even a Filipino ghost, makes the traditional Southern Gothic vibe feel unique. Was it an intentional decision to clash cultures together as part of the dualities that pop up in the film? Because I’m always most interested when a horror film goes against the genre in ways, playing with our expectations. I think it only helps to liven up the genre.
XM: When writing I’m always looking for ways to push genre expectations, how I can use the conventions or tropes of the genre to do something different, or at least give a fresh perspective. Particularly when figuring out visuals. Some of that starts when you’re writing, but so much comes after you get shooting. Once we began shooting in Victoria, the Southern Gothic vibe really came out of simply being there.
And I just love the Gothic, it feels mystical and magical to me. Visually I wanted to draw certain parallels because much of the film takes place in Evelyn’s physical world. But it also takes place in this in-between, this dream state. I also wanted to contrast the landscape and her home, in the Philippines. We had footage we didn’t use— flashbacks to the Philippines we ended up cutting out. Hurricane Harvey messed up some stuff while we were filming, we actually had these rice paddies we wanted to work in somehow. Didn’t work out. So, basically, I wanted to alter aspects of the Southern Gothic by looking at Evelyn’s perspective through it.
CHN: I think that’s fascinating. You can tell it’s not a random choice, the inclusion of Filipino culture. It doesn’t feel like you jammed that in for an extra layer. Also really cool to hear you shot stuff for flashbacks to the Philippines, even if it didn’t make the final film. That just shows, again, that there’s depth to those choices. The Filipino characters within the Southern Gothic adds so much to the other dualities in the film.
XM: Yeah, and American imperialism— in the Philippines, or, well, all over the world, of course— the historical trauma there, it’s always on my mind. The juxtaposition of cultures brings out a lot in the story, as you said, in those dualities, and it was something that helped elevate things I already love about the Gothic.
CHN: Your film has a unique atmosphere I found haunting. Are there any films specifically that influenced you while writing, or later while shooting?
XM: In terms of atmosphere, visually, the films of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul were a big influence— he directed Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and other fantastic work. Those films really cast a spell on you. A ton of Asian cinema, specifically horror, was very inspirational to me. That stuff’s all atmosphere, so thick. The emotion is part of that. The atmosphere itself is emotional, it leaves you with that haunted feeling I wanted my film to have. And all that’s a part of Southern Gothic, too. There were also just films from the ‘60s and ‘70s that inspired me, horror films I really love, that have generally influenced me.
CHN: I particularly love those ghostly shots of Mr. Sanzaru creeping over people, like when Evelyn’s asleep and he’s sitting on top of her. It actually reminds me of that old painting, The Nightmare [by Henry Fuseli], where the little monster—
XM: The Incubus.
CHN: Yes, the Incubus, it’s sitting on the woman’s chest.
XM: Well, that shot is specifically modelled off The Nightmare. So I’m glad you caught it. And that’s actually what we called him while we were shooting, the Incubus.
CHN: It’s a stunning shot. Same with the one where the Incubus is preying over Amos— supremely creepy. One of those striking images that stayed with me, the kind you can visualise perfectly even when you haven’t seen the movie for days.
XM: Thank you. I’m glad it was so effective.
CHN: I feel that underneath the horror of the film there’s a story about family. Evelyn, Amos, Clem, they’re searching for their own element of family they’re missing, or longing for. I think the movie’s ultimately about the secrets families keep, what that can do to the people who are part of them, the trauma it can create. Fair to say, do you think?
XM: Right on the nose. For me that was what it was all about, the way secrets keep people apart, lack of communication, and how all that messy stuff comes to the fore when people are confronted with death. People, as they’re dying, are able to reconcile the trauma of their past, or they’re not. To me it was all about Evelyn and Amos being able to move past their issues with the help of their friendly ghost. (Laughs.) And they can reunify their family. But the Regans aren’t able to do that, for various reasons, so they have to go down with the house. And of course the fact that they’re stuck in this very isolated, claustrophobic space together heightens it all further.
CHN: You mentioned part of this story was based on family experience, and I always find it so interesting when artists drawn on tough life moments to make their art. Was there anything difficult about putting your personal experience into this?
XM: Making any movie is difficult. (Laughs.) But yeah, it’s always a little difficult when writing something personal. It’s important, though, to tell those kinds of stories. That’s why I prefer to write this sort of stuff. I’d rather write something exploratory than repress my feelings. It does feel therapeutic. I mean, death in the family— I think a huge part of the story did directly come out of traumatic events in my life, and in my family. So, by alienating it somewhat, by creating characters and separating it from myself to a certain degree, it was therapeutic for me. I tend to lean more towards that kind of creative process. It was hard, but maybe not particularly because it was so personal, given that it was therapeutic in the long run. More hard in other ways, when it comes to making a film in general. That personal aspect of the story was definitely a huge part of the film that was important to me.
CHN: It makes the film that much more effective, and probably why I gravitated so heavily towards the story. For me, the most effective horror, regardless of whether it strays into the supernatural, is horror with a very human, beating heart at the core. All that shows in Sanzaru.
XM: Quite happy to hear that.
CHN: I want to thank you, again, for taking time to talk with me today, Xia. I really appreciate it. I’ll be thrilled for more horror fans to see your film, hopefully sooner than later— they’re going to love it.
XM: Oh, thanks so much. Nice talking to you, and great questions. Take care.