Capone Interviews Mitchell Lichtenstein, The Director Of TEETH!
Published at: Jan. 19, 2008, 10:19 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I've been burning to see Mitchell Lichtenstein's feature debut TEETH since it premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival. What's funny about the film is that the buzz really hasn't died despite the fact that it's taken a year to finally make it to theaters. Part horror movie, part cautionary tale, part myth, part rape-revenge fantasy, part superhero origin, TEETH is a genuinely well-made, tense work that succeeds as both a fairly explicit blood-and-guts film and a real drama. As you may have guessed from his last name, Lichtenstein is the son of renowned artist Roy Lichtenstein, and he started out in Hollywood as an actor appearing in such films as THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE, Robert Altman's STREAMERS, and perhaps most memorably as Simon in the early Ang Lee work THE WEDDING BANQUET. And while Mitchell seems determined to make a variety of films in terms of genres, TEETH is a great debut. I got a chance to talk with Lichtenstein the morning after the film played to an appreciative crowd in Austin at a AICN/Fantastic Fest event. I tend to like these more conversational types of interviews more than straight Q&As. And it's clear that even after a year of talking about his film, Mitchell hasn't grown tired or any less proud of his work. Rightfully so. Bite into this one, folks.
Capone: Hi, Mitchell. So how did the big show go last night?
Mitchell Lichtenstein: It was pretty fun. I think people liked it, and everyone stayed for the Q&A; that's always a good sign.
Capone: Austin seems like a community ripe for a film like TEETH, so I'm not surprised to hear that people took to it.
ML: I think so. It was a nice place to film it anyway.
Capone: That's true, you did shoot it right around there, didn't you?
ML: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: In doing my research yesterday and watching the film--and I do apologize if some of these questions seem a little familiar to you, but there are just certain questions that jump out at you after watching the film, and I can't help myself. What has been the reaction of women to this film? I can see how some might find it a film about empowerment, but others might say it illustrates some hateful stereotype. What have women said to you?
ML: Mostly I get really positive reactions, they think it's really funny. A lot of women say, “Yeah, there have been times where I wish I'd had that.” [laughs] I'm sure some people have had negative reactions, but they don't tend to tell me about it. There was an older women at a festival in France who came up to me afterwards and said, “You Americans have a very sick view of sex.” But that's sort of the point of the movie, so I couldn't argue with her.
Capone: You leave it open, but the implication is that the town's nuclear power plant might have something to do with Dawn's condition, and that's a great throwback…
ML: Yeah, to those '50s radiation-themed monster movies.
Capone: Right, and I love that the power plant is belching out black smoke, which no nuclear plant actually does, but it's a great image. But a part of me was hoping that Dawn was the vessel of God, punishing these sinful boy. You also bring up the fact that this might be the result of evolution. What is the explanation you like the best?
ML: Well, it's really about the vagina dentata myth, which is a pervasive myth in many cultures. And what does it say about men's attitude toward women that historically we have ascribed this feature to women. That's really what this is about, to open that question and have fun with it. On a serious level, even today, it addresses the thinking that Hilary Clinton is a nut-cracker. Why?
Capone: Exactly. Vagina dentata started out in myth, but Freud picked up on it in his “fear of castration” theory, and some people have picked up on it has a personification of HIV. And then it tuns into a rape-revenge film by the end, combined with her condition being more of a superpower. Are you afraid that when she starts using this as a weapon that people's attitude will turn against her?
ML: It's just about her learned what the power of that is. I would think she wouldn't use it for evil. If she went on, I wouldn't want her to use it indiscriminately to punish an undeserving men in the context of the movie.
Capone: I had this theory that this thing inside of her was messing with her hormones and throwing off this scent that makes boys think she's in heat or something. I mean, she gets attacked many times in just the span of a couple of days.
ML: Yeah. Well, we've only got 90 minutes. [laughs]
Capone: True. This has been one of the most talked about films since it premiered at Sundance last year.
ML: To the day, actually. Our first screening ever was at Sundance a year ago today, and today it opens in New York and L.A.
Capone: Were you afraid that in that span that the buzz was going to die down?
ML: Oh yeah. I was really worried about it. But I don't think it has. I think the trailer has done really well and passed around a lot.
Capone: The trailer is fantastic. And that scene of her with the gynecologist might be one of the greatest scenes ever shot. I sat down to watch the film last night, and one of my biggest regrets of all time might be not seeing this film with an audience. My wife was in the house when I started watching the film, and she said, “I'm not watching this.” But she got sucked in, as I think everyone will. She was hooked. But that scene in particular has us howling. And congratulations to whoever came up with the chomping sound that the dentata make.
ML: [laughs] It's pretty great.
Capone: You actually don't show us Dawn's little friend, but you do have some great visual cues throughout the film, whether it's the monster that she sees in the monster movie, or the big hole in the tree, even her ring, and the caves. Were those things you came up with as you were shooting or did you have those in your head going in?
ML: One of the them, the great one, and the one that sold me on filming in Austin was Hamilton Pool, which has naturally formed vagina dentatas with those big cave opening with the stalactites along the rim. And I thought that this was nature telling us to film here. [laughs]
Capone: By showing us the instances in nature that look like that, I got the impression you were pushing the idea that Dawn's condition was a natural evolution of the victimized womankind. Is that the case?
ML: Yeah. For me the idea is that after thousands of years of suppression, women are beginning to adapt to their environment, which is living as an oppressed group.
Capone: Have you ever attended or observed one of those purity meeting that Dawn runs? Are they really that creepy and cult-like?
ML: All my research was online, so I've never actually been to one, no. After her first incident, when she gives her second speech, that's more like a feeling, for me. Is it really happening like that exactly? Or is it in her head? I mean she's really there, but it's supposed to be a little bit more the way she is feeling it. They've become more these robotic things to her. So that scene is definitely pushing reality a bit.
Capone: But you did do some research on what these meetings are like. Are they more like the meeting we see in the beginning?
ML: Yeah, and many of them seem much bigger at actually…not so dweeby looking. They seem to be a little hipper. The music they play might even be more like metal. But all the t-shirt--I don't know how many of them you can really read in the movie--but we had a bunch of them with saying that were all taken from those groups. “I'm Waiting”, “Sex Changes Everything”, stuff like that. It is also much more, in the real groups, there's much more overt Christianity and God stuff, but I didn't also want to make it a condemnation of Christianity.
Capone: I think most people who are familiar with those groups know going in that they are faith-based, so you almost can't help it.
Capone: Where did you find Jess Weixler [who plays Dawn], because she is priceless in this movie.
ML: Isn't she great? The casting directors, she was the first person they thought of for the part. She was recently out of Juilliard, but she was, like a lot of actresses, was put off by the material, and she didn't want to come in and read for that part. I guess they got her to come in and read for a smaller part, and I could see that she would be perfect for Dawn, and she did and she was great. But she was still very weary of it. So I took her aside and talked to her for a long time about the vision for the movie and about the myth, and I wanted to take the typical story of the myth on its head by making her the hero and not the monster, and that she should think of it as the birth of a superhero.
Capone: Was there one thing in particular that turned her around on playing the part?
ML: I think the superhero thing, and the fact that there are a lot of sex scenes the movie. In the script, they are all very graphically detailed because, as you know, certain things happen, but I never expected them to have a lot of nudity or be graphic. So I think she was relieved a bit by that because she was definitely not down with that idea. [laughs]
Capone: Did you ever contemplate a way to show…
ML: …the teeth? Yeah, I definitely debated whether I should or would want to, and ultimately I didn't because I didn't want to associate her with an ugly image, which that would be. I'm building a heroine, and she would become more monster-like if I put that image is in your mind.
Capone: Hey, some of the other images in this movie, especially of the boys in the aftermath of their encounter with her, are pretty awful and graphic. I was actually surprised you showed as much as you did. This is R rated, right?
ML: Yeah. I was sure we'd get an NC-17, but the MPAA was really behind it getting an R. They saw it as a cautionary tale, and they said that parents should bring their teenage boys to see it. It has a clear moral message, which is that if your intentions are good, things will work out. And if they're not, watch out. And that is the message of the movie.
Capone: The MPAA loves their cautionary tales, I guess.
ML: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: Have you ever seen a film called KILLER CONDOM? There are element of TEETH that reminded me of that.
ML: Yes, actually. One of the actors sent it to me after shooting. [laughs]
Capone: I should say it reminded me of TEETH, but when I first heard about your movie, it struck me as the opposite vantage point of KILLER CONDOM.
ML: I think KILLER CONDOM is an idiotic movie, and it also it doesn't have an cultural resonance, where as vagina dentata does because it is actually a myth and it does say something about men's attitude toward women and a fear on a certain level, depending on how you interpret it. The phallus is, culturally, having a killer condom is redundant because the phallus is already a violent symbol. I don't mean to put down another movie, but…
Capone: So how soon can you have a sequel ready? You've certainly left Dawn's future wide open, so to speak.
ML: [laughs] Well, we'll see if there is any demand for it.
Capone: So where does Dawn go from here? Does she spend the rest of her life doing what we see her do in this movie, defending herself from terrible men and using her vagina for good?
ML: I'm not sure. I definitely don't want her to become Aileen Wuornos [laughs]. It's tricky because, as you say, where she is at the end of the movie, you're about to lose sympathy for her maybe, and I don't want you to. So, it's tricky.
Capone: I noticed you had two other upcoming project that your name was attached to, two completely different projects from TEETH.
ML: Oh yeah. And the one I'm doing next and casting now is called HAPPY TEARS, which I also wrote. It's a comedy drama about messed up family. I think we'll be shooting in March or April.
Capone: Is that cast yet?
ML: Probably by the end of the day, I would probably tell you. We're about to sign now. If it works out, it's going to be a cool cast.
Capone: And then there was something else called CHARMED LIFE?
ML: I hope to do that. It's based on a novel by Mary McCarthy, and that's also very different from either of those two, and I hope that will be next or that I'll get to do that soon.
Capone: Sounds good. I'm glad that the reaction to TEETH has been good so far.
ML: Yeah, it opened today in New York and L.A., and both the L.A. Times and The New York Times were great reviews.
Capone: That's terrific. I know that the critics in Chicago are dying to see it.
ML: You should definitely try to see it with an audience.