Wednesday 5 September 2018

The Films of Cassandra Sechler and Craig Jacobson

Sechler and Jacobson
We live in a cinematic world where spectacle is largely the province of film makers with the biggest bank balances, and the concept of awe and surprise on the screen - at least on a limited budget - is a diminished commodity. Enter Cassandra Sechler and Craig Jacobson, who are here to right those wrongs like a pair of counter culture caped crusaders. My jaded critical palate was crying out for these bastions of the odd, upsetters of the normal and average, adventurers in dayglo nightmares...well you get the idea.

Sechler came to prominence with the 2010 short film Belle Nouveau, on which she pretty much did everything, directing, producing, editing, creating costumes and even acting. Jacobson helped with set design and as a musician provided the throbbing soundtrack.The four minute short is quite extraordinary - unlike anything you've seen for a long time; it reaches back to experimental films of the 1980s as a spiritual handhold if not a direct influence. Described as 'a surreal exploration of post humanism and the seduction and power that technology holds over women', it's rife with body horror images and is also seemingly a feminist response to Shin'ya Tsukamoto's 1989 movie Tetsuo, The Iron Man.

But let's back up a bit. I was interested in how the pair got to the point of making such an extraordinary art form. Where did all this come from and how did you meet?

"We met on the internet!" offers Craig by way of explanation. "I grew up in Wisconsin and never quite fit in there, and being a young musician, I had wanted to move to California since I was a teenager. So it seemed perfect when I met Cassandra, who is a native Californian. We totally hit it off, moved in together and the rest is history."

"I went to San Francisco State University for a degree in Fine Art with a focus in photography and sculpture," says Sechler, "but I actually was only introduced to super 8mm film and filmmaking as an art medium towards the end of my college experience. Craig and I, as far as filmmaking goes, in all aspects from set building and making costumes to makeup effects, are self taught. A formal education in the arts of course helped in our filmmaking endeavors as it’s all intertwined with passion, creativity, and means of expressing a concept and telling stories, which is probably why we have absolutely no problem “breaking the rules.”

Craig adds "I pretty much learned everything I know from Cassandra! While I didn’t go to college, I did help with her short films. Often I supplied the music, but I’d also end up doing anything she needed me to, whether it was controlling a puppet or adding latex and papier-mâché to her props, you name it. When I realized I wanted to start making films too, I was able to use everything I learned to communicate ideas in my own way. Our styles are different but they’re also very complementary, and we’re definitely more intuitive than traditional. Over the years we’ve grown more ambitious with the scope of our movies, and along the way we’ve been able to include more people, which has always been one of our goals. When working on a movie, we’re very clear with everyone that we don’t have all the answers. We encourage everybody to bring their creativity to the table, no matter what their role is. We’re not into ego or posturing; we want to create an enjoyable and welcoming environment where all are free to contribute."

After Belle Nouveau the pair collaborated on a number of short films, all the while refining their skills but crucially preserving a DIY feel which helps retain a sense of humanity despite the sometimes extreme visuals in their movies. These pieces, including the Anger-esque intimate flickers of Lovey, the puppet Haxan Qualia and the disorientating Alligator Bitch (all 2011), and 2012's cyberpunk reimagining of Alfred Jarry's 'Ubu Roi', Wireboy, are all stunningly realised, strange but immersive films.

The pair have also developed several alternative travelogue films for the Proof that it Happened series, in which Sechler and Jacobson respond to each other's musings on the nature of holidays. "This series began as a personal video I made when on vacation with my father who was ill at the time, " explains Sechler. "I wanted to make a video that would remind me of this dark time in my life and also document my vacation. Then it turned into an ongoing series that poetically explores why we document our experiences (as humans), hence the title."

Jacobson expands the point;"Yeah that is kind of an ongoing series we’d like to curate a gallery show for someday. It’s a really unique project that Cassandra started for the reasons she stated, but it’s become an interesting take on capturing the thought process of the emotional side of travel. Often it’s these quiet moments we remember that say the most about ourselves, and it’s a rather existential aspect of travelling I’m not sure a lot of people talk about. So yeah, it’s kind of interesting because that started a little earlier on in our moviemaking careers, but I still feel it’s a potent video series."

I ask them about how their creative roles are developed and shared. "As far as how our creative partnership works, it’s kind of like being two separate rooms in the same house," says Craig. "Cassandra is very good at all the things I can’t do, and vice versa. Because of this, there isn’t much tension because we’re not really butting heads over anything. Though we know who’s maybe better suited for what, we don’t have strict roles or anything. No matter what, we just complement each other well. I don’t think it’s very productive to be too territorial over who does what, and we definitely respect each other’s visions." "It’s a very intuitive and organic process for us," Sechler agrees.

I have to enquire about what inspires them creatively (although as I ask I'm not sure I want to have the bubble burst, but press on because ultimately I think people who see their work will find it interesting). 

Cassandra: "Many of my inspirations for film works come from my dreams. My subconscious works in mysterious ways to inspire me in my sleep. I also know that my love for silent horror films and classic monster movies (which I grew up on) have filtered into my film work. I have many special memories of going to the video store with my dad as a kid and entering the HORROR section ... I was actually allowed to rent (almost) anything I wanted. The covers of those boxes alone and the experience of being allowed to watch horror, fantasy, and sci-fi films at an early age had a profound effect on me."

Another startling image from the films of Sechler and Jacobson
Craig: "I too get a lot from my dreams and nightmares. The tricky part for me is I don’t think my dreams translate into anything directly, so I don’t try and recreate them as much as I just use them as kind of a guide. You’ll know when a dream is relevant to something you’re trying to achieve and you can use them to inform some of your decisions. A lot of other things that influence us usually become apparent after the fact."

To what extent is your art an extension of an existing scene, or do you see it as something very different to what's going on in the world of visual arts? Cassandra is ambivalent about this: "I feel that much of our work seems to exist outside of not only the genre but what is typically visually appealing to the masses. I think that’s because we don’t try to make something for the sake of doing well, winning awards, entering festivals, or make something to get attention or receive good reviews. We make movies because video/film is the main media we choose to communicate messages and feelings as a means of visceral expressionism unique to moving pictures. We make movies that hopefully make people feel and think. So many people don’t want to think anymore. They want to be spoon-fed crap they have seen before and digest films that they don’t have to deconstruct. I could go on a never-ending rant honestly. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think there is a film movement that perhaps we are indeed part of without our knowing it. A movement of those who said “fuck it” Risky Business style and did their own thing in a world of killer zombie clown shark movies going in a downward spiral."

Jacobson agrees: "If we are a part of some existing scene or movement then we certainly don’t know it (laughs)! We just kind of go about things our own way I guess, and I don’t try to think about it too much. You have to be honest with what’s in your heart. Most importantly I think if you’re true to your ideas then you’ll be faced with taking risks, and you absolutely must take them. You can’t be doing this for the good review, or to belong to some club, or to just simply advance your career."

An image from Elliot
We're leading up to talking about Elliot, the pair's most ambitious project to date. But first I ask them about the medium they shot it in: VHS. Jacobson explains why the pair chose that format: "We got into VHS for Cassandra’s most ambitious short, Wireboy, because it provided the look we were going for in that movie. It was important to have a dirty image due to the subject matter and it became a bit of a production element too. Elliot was kind of a further exploration of some of the same themes, but it was very different in what it dealt with exactly. Again, VHS seemed most appropriate for the story because this was another grimy world, and because the sets in Elliot were all made by hand rather cheaply; shooting the movie in HD wouldn’t have done it any favors. With VHS you don’t have a pristine image, and the medium basically becomes an extension of the organic nastiness of Elliot’s world. As far as the costs go, VHS is actually relatively cheap when compared to other formats. The hard part is finding cameras that still work. The other important thing is to get a decent digital converter that maintains the analog fidelity of VHS."

Elliot was apparently four years in the making and cost about $8,000. At around an hour duration it's by far the longest piece the pair have created, and seems like an extension of the various ideas in their previous movies, albeit with dialogue for the first time. It's also a step forward in terms of narrative, although 'narrative' is a relative word here. Jacobson explains the story: "Elliot is a lonely maintenance worker inside a stark and mysterious power supply complex. His only interactions are with a supervisor named Face who communicates via video monitors and overhead speakers. When Elliot does have a rare moment alone he plugs into his pod and escapes into another world containing an idealised version of himself. The more he explores this alternate universe, the more he desires it, and the less he trusts his own reality."  It's a profoundly sad film yet also an uplifting one, a vague mix of Silent Running, The Matrix, The Residents' Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats movie and 'Waiting for Godot.' with a colour palette akin to falling into a box of Quality Street chocolate wrappers while out of your gourd. So how did it come about?

"Craig and I always have ideas brewing in our sketchbooks," explains Sechler, "but there was no plan per se regarding a choice on when to dive into a feature film or use dialogue as a narrative device. It all happened naturally really. Craig was developing Elliot while we were working on our short Wireboy, extending the ideas we were playing with about technology, social media, and how it’s shaping our world and ourselves. Then while we were in production for Elliot I started developing ideas for a new film (Tearful Surrender, of which more later). It’s more of a matter of balance, practicality, budget and space." Jacobson adds: "I guess we always knew we wanted to make a feature, we just never knew when it would happen. Even Elliot was originally going to be a short, but it grew into a feature so yeah, things just kind of happen (laughs)."

I tell them that I really liked the film and Craig seems a little nervous about audience reactions: "I don’t know if it’s ever going to really take off or anything, but it would be great if it did! Who knows if we’ll ever be well known, but again that’s not why we’re doing this. We don’t make movies with the sole intent of making money, and that’s never going to change. We currently self-distribute and try to get our work seen by as many people as possible, but that’s kind of critical if you want to keep making films. We’ll be pursuing bigger budgets for our future projects, but not at the cost of our integrity. The hard part is figuring out how to get more funding for what we do, instead of doing what’s popular to get a budget."

And on that subject can you tell me about any future projects? Sechler is in like a shot: "What we have next in the pipeline is a new feature called Tearful Surrender: a dark, surreal fantasy/horror film, inspired by tales and folklore of sirens, vampires, and mermaids, films of Hammer Horror, Jean Rollin, and Ken Russell, and the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The film focuses on the desolate and immortal life of a beautifully haunting mate-hungry seductress from the sea and her muses from the underworld who must feast on human souls to survive! It’s our biggest, goriest, and most ambitious project yet, and it will be shot in England to capture the ultimate gothic atmosphere integral to the story and mood of the film. So we’re currently collaborating with cast and crew in England for this feature, and it’s been a lovely experience! Now we just need to get funding settled to be able to start actually shooting."

Cassandra and Craig are currently crowdfunding for the movie and all the information you need (plus some great prizes for donating) can be found at their Kickstarter page here:

And if this interview has triggered your interest in all things wonderful in the worlds of Cassandra Sechler and Craig Jacobson, you can order Elliot on DVD and VOD through their website and find out all about their work with links to their social media accounts and directions to view their other films at

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