Colin Bemis is the director of the upcoming indie release Strawberry Flavored Plastic. This is Colin’s first feature length film, self-described as “a sensational, sentimental, and philosophical horror neo-noir that follows the still-at-large crimes of Noel, a repentant, classy and charming serial killer loose in the suburbs of New York”. Please enjoy our interview with Colin about his upcoming directorial debut.
Ben McDonald: First off, I’d like to personally thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. The rest of the critics at Cineccentric and myself are beyond delighted to hear from indie filmmakers like yourself. Without further ado, let’s get started. First off, how did you come up with the premise of Strawberry Flavored Plastic? What were a few of your inspirations?
Colin Bemis: Somewhat bizarrely, the idea actually generated around a real-life eccentric that a friend of mine had worked with for a number of years. While by no means a physically violent person, and quite possibly a really wonderful guy, the oddities of his expressions and his behavior flipped a proverbial switch in my brain, and suddenly I was imagining this person (although vicariously; I’d never met him) with greater frequency until the story began to unfold in my brain narratively. In conjunction, the overall idea of attempting a docudrama around a layered character like Noel was fascinating to me, and an avenue I wanted to challenge myself with as a writer.
Ben: Now this is your first feature film. What was that process like, organizing and directing a feature film for the first time?
Colin: I had a very cathartic moment sitting in my car in the parking lot of the job I had when I was twenty-nine years old when, not out of frustration or annoyance but really a certain drive and motivation, I just made the decision to make the film. I’d still yet to make my first feature, and the story for Strawberry Flavored Plastic had been bouncing around in the annals of my brain for a few weeks, so I promptly called everyone I wanted involved in the making of the film and said, “So I’m going to write this script and we’re going to make this movie in seven months in the winter in New York.” Every one of those people offered a version of, “I’m in.” So I was immensely lucky in the sense that everyone was so selfless and into it.
Ben: That is incredibly lucky.
Colin: Yeah, I happened to be working six days a week at the time of making these decisions, a frequency which I maintained through pre-production, which naturally made everything more tricky. I would generally work until 4:00pm or 5:00pm, go to the gym, then come home and do pre-pro until midnight or so, and then do it again the next day. There was an absolute therapy on a daily basis knowing that I was pre-producing my first feature, but it wasn’t without its challenges. We began filming on a Tuesday, I believe, and I worked at my day job through the previous Saturday. Then Yoni and Aidan arrived from Los Angeles in quick succession, we got all of our rentals, and then we were off to the races!
Ben: Yeah, it sounds like a very time-consuming process. Following up on that, what were some of the unforeseen challenges you faced directing the film?
Colin: Apart from the very natural dilemmas that one faces when making any film, I think one of the most challenging aspects of Strawberry Flavored Plastic specifically was being as faithful as we could to the reality of the world we were creating. For example, Yoni Shrira (our cinematographer) and I had several conversations about how many cameras to use (excluding GoPros) and the ways in which to implement them. Naturally, our initial instincts would be to go with several cameras, because why not? Well, the “why not” part was essentially that our characters, Ellis and Errol, probably wouldn’t have the resources for several camera-people to handle extra cameras, so we decided to make it as realistic as we could by utilizing just a single camera held by a single character. Naturally, this forced us into the position of relying on longer single takes without much cutting. The danger in this aesthetically is two-fold; one is keeping it lively and paced right, but also in offering the perception to the audience of the film that we hadn’t any other options, which wasn’t the case. It was a decision to keep it as authentic to the world as feasible. It’s these types of decisions that are absolutely risks, and they challenged us most, but we accepted them excitedly.
Ben: One thing that struck me while watching is that the film doesn’t strictly abide to one genre (horror, documentary, found footage, noir). What would you say is the primary genre of your film?
Colin: Horror neo-noir. I think that sort of new stamp that’s been describing Strawberry Flavored Plastic is pretty accurate; it’s a character study wrapped up in circumstantial terror, dark and ominous while also, hopefully, charming and inspiring at turns, too.
Ben: Now about that title, “Strawberry Flavored Plastic”. Where does this phrase come from and what is its significance to you within the film?
Colin: Without spoiling the scene in the film when this line is used and discussed, the conceptualization of this moment is all about Noel’s coming to terms with fatherhood, and almost learning at the same time as he’s expressing it what it means to care for someone else. Given his polarizing but rather specific thoughts on morality, I think this moment in the film and the term in general reflects Noel’s need to save his daughter, especially when he feels like he could never save himself.
Ben: Aidan Bristow’s Noel is the focus of the film, a serial killer who is not without empathy and struggling to justify his actions as a result. Which characters and performances throughout cinema would you say were your main inspirations for Noel?
Colin: One of the most essential aspects of Noel’s character for me was the dichotomy of the audience’s emotional feelings towards him, and that sort of intellectual range. Here is, by most accounts, a monstrous human being: a murderer, a sociopath, and a terrifying person. But he’s also sympathetic, charming, and very human. The idea of rooting for someone whom you know you probably shouldn’t be rooting for is a very complicated and fascinating gray area, isn’t it? I was heavily attracted to the concept of creating a character that, at various points in the film, you’re truly rooting for, and then suddenly feeling uncomfortable about it as a viewer. Wait, how can I possibly be connecting with this man in this moment when I just saw him commit this heinous crime? I think the term “anti-hero” is tossed around with more abandon than it should be; I think “human” is more accurate. There are countless characters in films that we as an audience pine for, root for and hope succeed when, in reality, that emotional reaction should make us look internally at why we’re feeling that way.
Ben: So are there any specific characters or performances that gave you inspiration for Noel, specifically that complex “human” part as you put it?
Colin: Yes, actually. Ryan Gosling’s character in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was a major influence on that element of Noel’s character, as well as his overall arc. I’d had many conversations about the famous “elevator scene,” and it had sparked something in me regarding the imaginary lines we paint for ourselves, socially and morally, about “good vs. bad” and “acceptable vs. unacceptable.” At what point does something become justified, or understandable? I think in that social ambiguity do we all find our own lines of moral judgement, and it was nestled away in these reflections that I found a lot of Noel’s horrors and sympathies.
Ben: While we’re on the topic of your ideas about your characters. How did you coach your actors in their scenes? Did you instruct them to act a certain way or did you allow them more creative freedom over their roles?
Colin: Much like my writing process, I invest as much time and emotion into the preparation and outlining so that the rest flows with more ease. The bulk of character development was done in pre-production; I actually gave very little direction on set. It’s imperative that you trust your actors, and love your actors. These are the reasons they were cast, and because you have faith in their ability to bring life to the written words. I find meddling too much on set in regards to direction means you didn’t bother putting in the work before the cameras rolled. Additionally, much like spending the time in getting the script exactly where you wish it to be, your actors have spent the same time (if not far more) in their intellectual and emotional preparation for their role. When production hits, its time to let them flex their own creative muscles just like the rest of the crew gets to do. For me, most of the prep happens far before we’re out there doing it.
Ben: Congratulations again Colin on directing your feature film debut. What comes next for you? Any future projects?
Colin: Thank you so kindly! I’m happy to say that 2018 is poised to be a pretty wild year. I’ll be shooting my second feature towards the Fall, tentatively titled The Alluring Calm of a Pensive Reindeer, which is an out-and-out horror film I just finished scripting. Additionally, I’m starting a production company in the city I’m from, Peekskill, NY, where I’ll also be ushering in a Made in Peekskill program to promote filmmaking of all types in and around the area.
Ben: Well, we will be sure to keep an eye out for your next film. Best of luck to you on all your future endeavors, and thank you again for taking the time to answer our questions!
Colin: Thank you for this opportunity, as well as your time.
Colin’s film Strawberry Flavored Plastic will be released later this year. More information on the film, including a trailer, can be found here.