A couple weeks ago C.H. Newell was privileged enough to have a chance to speak with director-writer Chad Crawford Kinkle, whose new film Dementer is now available on various VOD platforms. The film is incredibly unique, unlike almost anything before it, especially within the horror genre. And so it was a treat for C.H. to pick Chad’s brain for a little while about experimental horror, Dementer‘s unique production, disability representation in film, as well as much, much more!
So strap yourself in for this ride.
[This interview has been edited for clarity & length.]
C.H. Newell: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, Chad. I was a big fan of Jug Face when I first saw it, so of course I was excited to see whatever it was you did next. I dug Dementer, and I’m just going to jump right in with some questions here.
Chad Crawford Kinkle: Thank you. And go for it, man. Ask me anything you want.
CHN: When I read the press kit that was sent out for Dementer it said this film is very unique, and that’s s very true. It has a documentary-like feel at times, experimental at others. Did any specific films inspire you here? Or would you say the unique atmosphere was largely a result of the unique aspects of the film’s production?
CCK: Yeah, I mean, it’s a mix of both, really. Just shooting, I knew that in [Stephanie’s] environment, first of all, I was going to need to be the cameraman myself. That meant it was probably going to be handheld. And I knew just because of time constraints that we weren’t going to be able to setup shots with a dolly, or even on a tripod. Because just from the concept of it, shooting to look like a standard, typical film or narrative was not going to fit the subject matter. This needed to be really personal, really intimate, and the way you do that is with a camera floating around as someone’s POV, basically.
Of course there are movies that I’ve watched that really had an impact. The movie The Idiots by Lars Von Trier—I watched that at a film festival in Europe, and it really struck me how intimate that movie was, and I was really kind of confused if it was real or not because of the sex scene in it that was shot with actual porn stars. I was in film school during the late ’90s, and that was during the Dogme 95 movement. They were kind of embracing these types of cinema verite styles—for a normal narrative, you know, not using lights, and all these other rules. And I just really loved that whole take on making movies in general. Also, when I did Jug Face it was shot very traditionally. We had everything you could imagine: dollies, jib arms, Steadicam; all the toys. And it was shot very cinematic, in widescreen. But in shooting it that way, I felt like I was a bit rigid. I felt like I missed opportunities to capture the uniqueness of the moment. That’s one of my biggest regrets with Jug Face.
So, with this movie, it was like the complete opposite. It was just going to be me coming up with shots right then and there; I had storyboards, but after the first day I realised I’m just going to have to scrap them, and find the shot organically, to see what needs to be done in the moment. Documentaries like Grey Gardens, which had a really cool feel to it, so I was thinking about that while shooting Dementer. And anything that’s shot in some kind of facility. I’d watched The Tribe back in 2015, I think, and it’s shot in a school for the deaf, and it was all non-actors. I’m not sure if [the director] shot it all handheld, but the film is all very immersive. And I wanted that experience. That’s the movie that really triggered this idea in my brain because I thought, hey, I can go into my sister’s world and do a movie. Then I thought, what kind of movie? Well, I make horror movies. But then I thought whoa, that’s a dangerous combination; doing a movie with my sister, who has Down’s Syndrome, in her world, in a horror movie. I’d never seen anything like that. So I thought, okay, I’ll think about it. I actually just looked up today who I first asked about this, who I first told, and the funny thing is, it’s Larry Fessenden. I’d sent him an email after going to Sundance and told him about the idea, and I asked him what he thought. What I’d told him is, essentially, exactly what I ended up doing. I just read the email again today, and he was very supportive. Larry said this is something that sounds like it could be cool. He told me to let him know how things went. I didn’t have a plot in mind at the time. It was just: my sister, horror movie, her world. That’s kind of how it came about.
CHN: Glad you mentioned that, because I had something else to ask here but I’m going to jump ahead a little first. I actually talked to Larry last year or the year before about his latest film, Depraved, which I loved. Larry’s one of my idols.
CCK: Me, too.
CHN: And I consider it an honour to talk to any filmmaker. It’s a privilege—I get to watch movies, often early, and then I get to talk with the people who made them. But Larry is, y’know, Larry! I grew up watching his movies when I was a teenager, and I still watch them, so it was a big deal to talk to him. He was very, very creepy in Dementer, and great in Jug Face. I was curious whether Larry, as an actor, ever gives directing advice? Or when he’s acting does he just stick to that role? It has to be awesome having a guy like him on your set, in any capacity.
CCK: Damn, I wish he had. [laughs.] But on Jug Face, we were trying to sort out the scene where he jumps out of a truck and beats up the potter, Dawai, in kind of the mid-part of the story. We were trying to choreograph the scene, then Larry was just like, guys, do it like this because I’ve done it before. So yeah, every once in a while he’d say something, give me a little hint, which was really cool. Then with Dementer, it wasn’t like that at all. He’s just the coolest person to be around, so supportive. I just feel like his presence helps me relax. Actually, on Jug Face, the day that Sean Young kinda went off on me, he sat me down afterwards and said, so, I saw you just had a little something there. [laughs.] He’s helped a lot. I wish there was something specific.
I did have this moment I’m very proud of with Jug Face because that scene where [Larry] goes and beats up Dawai, he thinks that Dawai is the one that’s caused the jug to be missing. And Larry got that. But then later, he goes back and Dawai is tied up. He goes to beat him up again and Larry said, isn’t this the same scene we did earlier? I explained to him yes, but before he thought Dawai had done something, and now you know he didn’t do it, but you want to take your anger out on him. So it’s like a sadder thing, just trying to exorcise this frustration. And Larry was like, okay, I get it now. That was a cool moment for me. Sometimes when writing and directing, I don’t consciously always think of the connections, the elements. I know subconsciously why they’re working, but I maybe can’t even vocalise it until someone asks me a direct question. Then when I do, when I can, I’m always surprised, like, yeah that did make sense what I was doing there! Thankfully.
But with Dementer, I just knew that [Larry] was going to be good. He got the character. I knew he’d be creepy. And since he’s a writer, director, and actor—and, of course, the godfather of indie cinema, to me—I knew there’d be a shorthand with us, so I wouldn’t have to belabour what I wanted, that he’d just know what to do. And that’s exactly how it was.
CHN: I wanted to go back to your sister. One of the things I loved about the film is that, we get so many movies where we see actors who are able bodied or who are not living with disabilities playing characters with those disabilities. Same thing with queer representation, it’s often not queer people playing the parts, though it’s beginning to change, albeit slowly. So I’m always very intrigued when a film like yours incorporates people who are actually living with the disabilities portrayed in their characters.
I was curious, as far as why we don’t see it more, do you think the excuse is money? That it’d be too costly to accommodate people with disabilities?
CCK: I don’t think it’s really an excuse, so much as it’s a practical reality of making movies. Every second, every minute is costing you money. And to have someone involved in a project like my sister, it can be difficult. When it comes to an indie project it’s often a controlled set, few actors, and few locations, that kind of thing. I did the complete opposite using non-actors, people living with disabilities. And really, when I was growing up, I’d see a movie or show with someone who has Down’s in it and they’d be very high-functioning. I’ve only known one person with Down’s who’s that high-functioning, everyone else I’ve known is more like my sister. There was a feeling that she wasn’t being represented, and it would bug me.
But when I started learning about the realities of shooting and the pressure, the cost, I thought, oh, right, that kind of makes sense. You can’t exactly bring someone onto set who’s not going to do what you need them to do. You don’t have the liberty of time to do it. It could be a slight excuse, but it’s just a reality, too. I mean, just myself—and this may be controversial—it doesn’t necessarily bother me that much when an actor’s playing someone with a disability, because I think it’s cool they can, through their mind, try to live in that person’s shoes, and try to be authentic. I think it’s really cool. In the same way, I never shy away from writing a character that’s not a white guy, or a man, so on. I think it’s beautiful a creative person can put themselves in another person’s shoes, even if they’re not authentically that.
CHN: I guess it’s all in the portrayal. It’s all in how someone chooses to portray it, that’s where offence can really come in.
CCK: Oh, it can, and does, go horribly wrong. And that’s obviously a poor way to do it. But if done with integrity and a good purpose, I feel like it’s okay. Yet I’ve always wanted to see more people like my sister onscreen. That wasn’t necessarily a selling point when I was trying to get the film made. It was really about this journey I was going to go on with my sister and make this movie with her. And the cool byproduct was I was going to show these people in their world, as they are; they were not going to be anything else than who they are, in all their grandeur. When I looked to get permission to shoot, I expected push back from the organisation at the centre where my sister goes, but they were all for it. I mean, they knew I wasn’t a crazy person. [laughs.] They knew me already.
CHN: You already had a connection, or a relationship, I guess.
CCK: Exactly. And they were excited that I was going to show [the people at the centre], and show everyone there who could be in it. But it’s an issue, you want real people in those roles, yet there are realities that come into play, such as money, unfortunately. I mean, it’s starting to change a bit. It used to be an actor’s name meant how much money you were going to make on a movie, just their star power, and I think that’s faded a bit.
CHN: It’s definitely changed. Certainly over the past decade.
CCK: Just with the saturation of media in the digital age. Long-winded answer. I have conflicting thoughts, I guess.
CHN: But it’s a solid answer. It’s a complex issue, and often, in the era of social media, we don’t get a chance to see complex thoughts about complex subjects. So it’s nice to actually hear a genuine response, whether people agree or not. Again, one of the things I really loved about Dementer is that we do get to see these people living with disabilities getting a chance to be themselves, not what an actor’s portrayal says about them and their identity.
One of my favourite scenes in that regard is when Katie’s helping the people from the centre get ready for bed. It’s so tender and sweet. I was wondering if Katie [Groshong] has ever worked with people who live with disabilities, or does she come by compassion naturally? I found the scenes with her and Stephanie especially were so natural.
CCK: On one hand, I was surprised how well she did. But on the other, I wasn’t. Because I’ve always known her to be a compassionate, sensitive person. She’s a huge animal person. She’s kind. That’s why I wanted her, because I knew she’d be perfect for the role. But then she even took it to another level when we actually got there and started shooting. She just exuded exactly what the character was—this person who desperately wants to do something good with her life, even if maybe that’s not their own intentions banging around in their brain. [laughs.]
CHN: Now that you mention it, the ending is so shocking, yet in a subtle way? Because it doesn’t quite spell it all out, even though you know what happens, if that makes sense. And I guess that’s part of the experimental nature of the film, as we talked about. But it left me feeling like… is this really what’s just happened? Are we really seeing this? It left me reeling. Afterwards I sat there for a minute, and as the credits rolled I thought, wow, that was heavy.
CHN: [laughs.] But in a good way, you know? I wanted to know, in your opinion, do you think there’s more power in not showing everything? Is there something stronger in suggestion? The idea that what we don’t see is scarier?
CCK: One hundred percent. I’ll tell you the story of how the ending came about. When I pitched the whole idea I just had the logline, which is, really, the whole story. I pitched it to Katie, but it ended in a positive way, like [the character] figured things out. Then I started writing and I had a feeling it was going to end bad. Similar to Jug Face, I just didn’t have an ending. You want it to be a natural conclusion of the story. Particularly in TV shows, sometimes the final climax of a season doesn’t feel natural and you can tell they probably came up with that first and just went on writing and held onto that original ending, rather than going with something more organic. So when I got to this ending and I wrote it, I thought, did… did I just do that?
CCK: [laughs.] And I felt really uncomfortable. So I wrote two other endings, just to be like, surely that won’t be the one.
CHN: Giving yourself some options.
CCK: Yeah, and for the first few weeks I wasn’t going back to read what I’d written before yet. I was just doing the next scene and kept going. So when I finally read from the beginning, it was so clear that this ending was the one that was supposed to take place. And the entire concept of the story is that [Katie] has a fractured mind. So I knew that in the end she wouldn’t know exactly what happened or be able to piece it together. I also knew the audience wouldn’t necessarily be able to either, and I knew that’d drive some people crazy. But it was the worst thing for the character, to not know, and I knew the audience is aligned with the character so it’d be awful for them, too. That was the power: to feel what the character felt. A lot of people pushed back on that, they want more clarity and wanted to know. But Katie doesn’t know, and there’s nobody there to tell her. Funny enough, in the screenplay, the meat processor guy—his name is Scott Hodges—I’d written him a much bigger role. In the first couple days of shooting I cut it all. Because when he gets the heart, he knows what’s up, he’s heard of The Devils. So me cutting that stuff out, it was the paranoia of not over-explaining. People had complained in Jug Face that I hadn’t explained enough, and I didn’t. I try not to explain too much and mess with the flow of the story.
When lived in L.A. just randomly one night I was at a bar, and I was being introduced to a group of writers. I said I made Jug Face and one of them said, we were just talking about that movie today! I was like, really? They said, yeah we were saying, we’re not gonna explain anything, just like Jug Face.
CHN: [laughs.] Oh, man.
CCK: I just started laughing, like, I think I explained some stuff. I mean, I think I had some things in the credits that explained a little more, too. But, I don’t know, I enjoy not knowing.
CHN: I do, too.
CCK: And with storytelling in general, the less hand-holding I can do, I think the more powerful the story can be. Because the people make up the connections, and that’s what’s amazing. You make them fill in the gaps and it becomes whatever they want it to be. That’s really powerful.
CHN: When I was watching it, at the end, I almost thought, did I miss something? Not in a bad way. Just because I was shocked by the ending. I had to go back about five minutes, watching the screener, and then I realised, no, I’ve seen what I’ve seen. It was, indeed, powerful. Another part of it is, with your sister being involved, I think it’s wonderful because you’ve included this story of people living with disabilities and it’s not exploitative, despite ending in this very shocking, horrifying way. The way you’ve portrayed it all is without exploitation. Makes the whole venture more powerful overall. I feel bad for Stephanie at the end, obviously, because she becomes this pawn. Yet I also feel, almost worse, for Katie because she doesn’t even comprehend what’s happened either.
CCK: So sad, I know.
CHN: It’s all compounded, and makes for a stunning ending.
CHN: When I write about film I usually write from a critical theory perspective, and in terms of allegory. In an allegorical sense, one thing I loved about the ending and Katie’s journey is that she’s a great portrayal of trauma and how people leave abusive situations. The cult works well because they’re like a sick family, and people who leave traumatised families, of any kind, can sometimes perpetuate that trauma in their later relationships. So Katie sort of represents that terrible cycle some people experience after fleeing abuse. And, of course, Katie does such an amazing job, she was incredible. She was in Jug Face, correct?
CCK: Yes, she played one of the other wives in the community.
CHN: What was it like working with Katie this time around? Obviously different, because she’s in a lead role here, but there’s clearly a comfort level you two have working together.
CCK: I’m comfortable with what she can do. And I know that she’ll go do the crazy things I ask her to do without complaining. [laughs.] She’s a really good sport. And she trusts me too, I think. She was in a short of mine before Jug Face, called Organ Grinder.
CHN: Yeah! It’s on the Blu ray I have of Jug Face. Really cool. Didn’t realise that was Katie, too.
CCK: So, yeah, working with her was really the same, other than that she had to carry all the scenes. I’m sure it was harder for her because she didn’t have trained actors to work off. At one point she said to me, Chad, I’m struggling here. But I said, nah, you’re doing great. The only thing that I could tell when she was nervous was that she would try to fill the silence with talking. She would just keep talking with the clients or my sister. I had to tell her, just chill a bit, you don’t have to fill that silence. Let whatever’s going to happen happen. Plus, I said, if you don’t stop talking I don’t have a place to cut, and I need somewhere to cut. [laughs.]
CHN: I love that. Like I said, I think this is a powerful film. It’s different, it’s unique. There’s always great horror out there, but occasionally it feels as if there’s a lot of the same type of horror coming out. So it’s wonderful to see something like Dementer because it shakes up the genre, and I can’t really think of anything else that’s a proper comparison; which is a good thing. Some films are strange for strange sake. This has a purpose, though, not just being experimental.
Do you have any idea about what you’ll do next? I know the pandemic has made it strange and tough for everyone right now, but any clue what you’ll take on for the next project?
CCK: It won’t be as weird as this one.
CCK: I was coming up with some more commercial ideas after Jug Face, so I still have those kicking around. And I’m still writing new ideas. After Jug Face things weren’t exactly going well. I came back to Nashville and I was pretty devastated. I was thinking, mainly out of frustration: I have to do a movie and do something people will pay attention to. So what could I do myself? I’d had the idea of making a movie with my sister for a long time. Then I went and doubled down on the weird; that’s what I felt was not getting my other projects made, so in a way it was a fuck you to everybody. I was a bit frustrated with the genre and the expectations of what a horror movie could be. I just wanted to do my own cool little movie and see what happened.
CHN: Well the film’s fascinating. I think it’s really neat you got to work with your sister, too. How did she feel when it was all over?
CCK: In one way I’ll never know. Her case of Down’s Syndrome is severe, and her level of communication is not great. I do know she had a blast on set, and I know all the other clients, even the ones who couldn’t process exactly what was going on, they were having an amazing time. They loved the interaction. The ones who didn’t have a concept of us making a movie, they still lost their mind because they don’t get much attention beyond the people who work with them, so they had fun, too. I did try to show Stephanie part of it and I had her come up to my office. She looked at it, made a weird face, then walked away.
CHN: [laughs.] That’s excellent.
CCK: I thought maybe she was embarrassed. But she loves movies. She likes to repetitively watch parts of movies. Like, from growing up, I know a couple scenes from Three Men and a Baby that will never leave me because she just played on them repeat; rewind, play, rewind, play. There’s some Barney I’ll never get out of my head, either. She doesn’t care about the whole movie, she likes to find the scenes she enjoys and watch them over and over. That being said, she knows when that camera’s on her! She’s a total ham, always acting out. She’s part of this group called The B-Team Angels; they go sing songs at churches and nursing homes, that kind of thing. She’s always standing up there with the group, she’s not really singing the right words but they sound right, and to take the attention away from everyone else she’ll dance. She really gets into it. So I just knew, when I put the camera on her she was going to do really fun stuff. But it was going to take time. She’d just be talking or laughing or making strange noises, and it’d take a while for her to calm down every time I’d shoot.
There are little shots when Katie’s remembering Stephanie, and you see Stephanie’s face really close up in the camera. This is another one of those things where Stephanie was just like, I’m going to take all the attention for myself. And when I’m trying to shoot something she came over to me, grabbed the camera, and was looking into it. I was like, Stephanie, quit it, but she’d do it again and start talking. And it became this fun visual in the movie.
CHN: Very cool.
CCK: It was a real cool experience.
CHN: Yeah, I mean, no matter how many films you make from this point on, this is an experience you’ll clearly never forget. That’s a really sentimental memory. Not many filmmakers work with their siblings, let alone you and Stephanie getting to make something this unique.
CCK: Stephanie was actually in Jug Face.
CHN: Oh, really?
CCK: Yeah just some of the background shots of the community, and when they’re going to the sacrifice. Actually most of my family are the backwoods people.
CHN: No way!
CCK: When they were on set, it was the most nerve-wracking thing possible. Like everyone’s at work and I was worrying about their well-being. Is it cold? Are they being fed? I remember thinking, I’m never going to put anyone in my family in a movie again, that’s too much. Then I doubled down and put my sister in a movie.
CHN: [laughs.] I love it, man. It makes the film beautiful, yknow? Even though it’s horror, and it’s grim, there’s a beauty in it, from the representation to the characters.
CCK: That’s what makes it more tragic.
CCK: You’re always trying to provoke people when you’re writing a story. You’re trying to give them an experience they want; mostly. And I knew the combination of the sweet images and the horror images would be very unsettling, and get under people’s skin to give them an experience I don’t know if they’re getting from other horror movies. It seems like they’re not, to me, anyway.
CHN: I agree. Something else I’m curious about here. Between Jug Face and Dementer, the cults—what is it about cults that keeps you writing about them? I love stories about cults, and that’s partly what drew me to this film. What, for you, is fascinating about cults?
CCK: It’s almost like, that’s my thing. [laughs.] I guess where I grew up in Tennessee, small town Tennessee, I grew up around smaller sects of Christianity that have slightly more strange rituals, kind of culty elements. That’s probably the main reason. And I love The Wicker Man, it’s one of my favourite movies. So I’m not exactly sure why I come back to it, but it makes sense to me. I like the rural nature of it, of these two movies, because that’s what makes sense to me. Those things are scary and creepy to me. It’s what I know, in some strange way, though I’ve never been part of a cult. I was close enough to people with different, odd beliefs, being from where I grew up, that it felt natural to include this stuff in my writing.
CHN: Backwoods horror and rural horror stories scare me most because I live in Newfoundland, very small island on the coast of Canada. Lots of people compare this place to the American South in terms of geography, not climate. Because we are partly in the Appalachian mountain range in places here; deep, deep forests. That’s why I’ve always found The Texas Chain Saw Massacre so scary, particularly, because it’s real to me. Like I feel I could go to the backwoods in a small town here in Newfoundland and maybe there’d be some maniacs out there doing sketchy stuff, who knows. That’s why Jug Face, and Dementer, especially get to me. The rural is where things can kind of be hidden more so outside of the city.
CCK: I don’t remember growing up thinking the horror of the rural was super provocative. It wasn’t until I lived in New York and I had a professor say, I’m more scared of the woods because you can scream and nobody’s ever going to hear you, who knows what could happen to you out there. And I thought, that’s true, even if I’m very at peace in the outdoors; I can see how someone from the city could find that scary. I think the other thing that works with folk horror is there’s a natural fear, in modern days, that we’ve lost something, different truths about the world through technology and the pace of life, and that sits in the back of peoples’ minds. So you can have these people in the backwoods living out their own realities, and it just works.
CHN: It does, and it’s working for you, too. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me, it’s been a great conversation. Again, I am thrilled about whatever you do next, and I’ll be waiting on it patiently. Take care of yourself, Chad.
CCK: Love to hear that. Appreciate your time, Chris.