Cinema Sauce recently caught up with the Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto to discuss his experiences when directing 2 short-film segments – one for The ABCs of Death and another the upcoming sequel V/H/S/2. Amongst many other topics we talked about his first viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, what he thinks of the Evil Dead remake, the batshit-craziness that ensues in V/H/S/2 and his next feature-length film Killers.
Who or what influenced you to get in to film-making?
There are a lot of influences in my life, but I guess I have a certain fondness for horror films specifically. My deepest influence would probably be when I watched Psycho for the first time at the age of 6!
That must have been quite a shock when you were at such a tender young age!
Yeah, exactly! At the time I was such a pussy and my older sister was like, “Hey Timo, there’s this really creepy film and it’s in black and white…” I didn’t even understand the concept of black and white and colour films at the time. I spent most of the time hiding from the film, but I do remember the creepy violin music. That’s the kind of horror that scares you the most, stuff that you can’t see. From that moment on I was really traumatised and, at the same time, obsessed with fear and all that kind of stuff. I will let you know that I couldn’t even sleep by myself until I was 12 because of that film!
I think my mum was like your sister, because she let me watch Carrie and Friday the 13th when I was quite young.
Oh really? Carrie is one really creepy film! Like, seriously. I watched it for the first time when I was late teens, so that was kind of fine with me. Martin Scorsese was also one of my influences in my late teens. Do you know the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa?
Yes, who directed Seven Samurai?
Yes. Well, I guess to Western audiences he’s still kind of…not obscure, but it takes greater knowledge to go deeper into his stuff. But, if you’re asking me about horror directors then Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, man! He’s a big influence on me, too.
What would you say your favourite horror film was?
I would say…there’s so many of them! I can’t tell you my one favourite, but the film that really inspired me to actually make an entertaining horror film was probably The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My first film titled Macabre is actually like an Asian rip-off of that film *laughs*. When I was a teenager I was surprised by how shocking that film was, and then I watched it recently again, and you’d be surprised by the lack of blood.
Yeah, it’s more about the characters being chased and the audience being scared of them being caught, and what would happen when they were.
Yeah, exactly and then it’s all the terror of all the audio and the sound of the chainsaw. I’m also in to Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. It’s one of his lesser-known film’s but it’s about a guy who’s trying to rent an apartment and the previous owner is going insane for some psychological reason. Then, I’m in to the splatter-house films like Braindead.
What was the last modern horror film you saw that really impressed you?
Actually, Evil Dead man!
Yeah, have you seen it? Did you like it?
Yeah, I really did like it!
The director Fede Alvarez did a short film on YouTube called Panic or something, and it’s full of explosions and lots of technicality, so you know that this guy is talented. So if you watch that film you can see that he’s showing off his CGI skill, but there’s almost none of it in Evil Dead. It’s full of all these practical effects and stuff, so I went in with Gareth Evans – who co-directed the V/H/S/2 segment with me – and we both went crazy over it.
Do you like found-footage films?
Hmm..I actually don’t watch a lot of it. It’s funny you ask that as you’re interviewing me about V/H/S/2!
I know! What got you interested in V/H/S/2 if you don’t watch a lot of found-footage films?
It’s like this. Gareth has the skills to go bat-shit crazy with the camera, so that’s one of the reasons why I really wanted to work with him. The guy really knows how to shoot an action film. If you see what he’s going to do with The Raid 2, it’s amazing (see exclusive images below).
For V/H/S/2 we asked the producer how crazy we could go, and he said there’s no boundaries with it and we could go any way we wanted. So that’s where we wanted to take it, and we took the bat-shit crazy route, I suppose! We had a lot of creative freedom.
I spoke to Gregg Hale a few weeks ago and he couldn’t stop talking about your segment! He said that yours was the best one. This begs my next question. Why is yours so great?
Shit, you asking me?!
Yeah! Gregg didn’t give me a lot of information about it. He just kept saying “Timo’s is the best one…!” So, you have to tell me why it’s so good!
Well, I don’t think it is! *Laughs* I’ll try to answer really cautiously for those who haven’t seen it because I don’t want to spoil it. So yeah, thanks to Gregg, by the way! I don’t personally think it’s the best one…I’ll admit to you this much. I’m one of the guys who didn’t like the first V/H/S. I know the guys who made it and Bloody Disgusting and I think, in terms of concept, they did something amazing. But, there’s something about the project and when I first watched it I thought, “Wow, there’s a hell of a lot of douchebags in this movie and lots of grabbing of tits!” and it was sort of amusing for the first time, but when it kept happening over and over I thought… “Am I being too uptight, here?” I think there was something too heavy-handed about the film, and when I read the reviews I saw that I wasn’t the only one who thought this… Sorry, I’m wandering off aren’t I?
No, no that’s fine! What is different about V/H/S/2?
What I like about it is how it goes down a different route compared to the first V/H/S. When Gregg and Eduardo Sanchez did their zombie segment – which is actually very cool – they have the smallest scale, but they did something really sweet and original. With Jason Eisener, you don’t even need to question the guy’s skill. He did something very…E.T.-on-drugs, I suppose! I wouldn’t say our segment was the best, but we do have the benefit of having this kind of exotic factor. Our segment is about this Indonesian cop whose family is an Indonesian cult. I wrote them based on this American cult called the Jonestown Family. It’s a very famous cult that happened around 1978-1979 and it’s the biggest mass-suicide case that ever hit America; I think over 900 people died in one day. So yeah, I based it on that story and I think it’s just one of those formulas that people find catchy. You see, these Asian people doing this crazy Christian thing and there’s a lot of blood all over it. There’s, also, an element of Satanism. I think that gives it this kind of edgy, bat-shit element. *Laughs*
Your segment is a lot longer than the others – at half an hour – compared to the 15 minutes the other directors had. How did that come about?
When me and Gareth planned the story we just wrote it. We didn’t even think about the timing. We were bullshitting in our heads saying, “Yeah we can do this in 15 minutes,” but in the back of our heads we both knew that there was no way this was going to run shorter than 20 minutes. But, when we came to the final edit it was actually 33 minutes or something. We handed it to the producers and luckily we negotiated it with them and they saw the potential. They asked if we could cut it by 3 minutes to make it 30 minutes so that’s what we did. Also, fortunately for us, Gregg’s, Adam’s, Jason’s and Simon’s were pretty much, short, so even when you add them up the film is still around 90 minutes or so.
Even 30 minutes of time isn’t a lot, and with The ABCs of Death you had an even shorter time frame because there were 25 other directors. How much of a challenge was that?
It was tough! The only reason I wanted to do The ABCs of Death was, at the time, I was so desperate to shoot anything. After I did my first feature film it was pretty well-received at film festivals and it did receive several distributors, so me and Gareth Evans were thinking that the next film would be much easier, but in between that we couldn’t get any projects. So I went on to write Killers, the next feature that I’m doing. At the time, Ant Timpson, the producer, approached me and said “Hey, do you want to do this short film project? The budget is only $5000 and you can only do 3-5 minutes tops.” I wasn’t even thinking. I just said, “Yeah man, sign me in!” To tell you the truth, I think mine is the longest segment in that as well. *Laughs*
Yeah I would say it was. there’s some really short ones..like Ti West’s.
Yeah exactly. Thank you to Ti West..his segment is so short I actually got like 6 minutes!
I wasn’t sure whether your bit seemed really long because it’s so awful to watch.
Yeah, sorry! I know it’s really horrible. I didn’t even realise. I was just shooting it and I liked the idea of this depraved society thing. There’s a real life version of the practical story, and obviously mine is being totally absurd about it, but you know! When I sat down in the editing suite I was like, “Holy shit!” and it was too late to back down.
Yeah, well you’re not going to want to show that to your parents or kids!
No no, definitely not. *Laughs*
For those who haven’t seen the film, what would you say your story is about?
Can I be a bit more philosophical about this? This is not some bullshit arty-farty thing, but what I initially wanted it to do was explore the sordid and dark side of human sexuality. Like I said, there’s always a live version of what I portrayed in the short. It’s actually based on…like, the internet. Like, there’s things that you see on the internet that you don’t even learn in real life; the batshit-craziness of what people can do on the internet. In terms of morbid shit and also sexuality. It’s all based on that kind of thing. I actually wanted to do something, not feministic, but actually emasculate the male audience, you know? When I wrote it I immediately thought to use a bunch of young healthy males in their 20’s forced to do this competition that would make the male audience feel uncomfortable. So my idea was to explore the theme of emasculation with a depravity of lust. I guess that is the gist of it.
Did you have that story before you were given your letter or was it a product of being given ‘L’ (for ‘Libido’)?
Well, before that I actually wrote a werewolf story..for Lycanthrope; the Latin word for Werewolves. I can see from your reaction you’re like “What the fuck is Lycanthrope?!” I don’t think a lot of people know what that means!
I’m thinking of Underworld now, and the Lycans?
Yeah exactly! Lycan is based on the Latin word for Werewolf. So, I was going to do that, but obviously I was pipe-dreaming because as soon as they said the budget was $5000, to make a werewolf suit would cost like $5000 in itself! So I was like, ok forget it.
How were you given your letters anyway?
Ant Timpson, the producer, gave us 3 letter by asking, “What’s your favourite letter?” and from there he actually gave you 2 set-up letters. He raffled, I suppose. I didn’t have any particular letter that I wanted, so whatever letter it is I’ll take it as long as it’s not Z or X! Because Z, without thinking, is zombie.
Yeah! I was thinking, W would be werewolf, V will be vampire and then Z would be zombie, but it’s not. Sorry, slight spoiler there.
Exactly! That’s the point. I think all the film-makers were thinking how they didn’t want to be clichéd. That’s the double-edged sword thing, because every film-maker was thinking they didn’t want to do this simple case of killing. So they actually went extra deep and the project is almost like a psychedelic trippy shit type of thing.
Yeah, that really is what it’s like. Some of the stuff in that film was crazy!
*Laughs* Is that in a good way or a bad way?
In a good way, because I liked a lot of them. Some were a bit weird, like ‘F’. I didn’t really get what was going in that one.
I actually know the guy Noburo Iguchi, he’s like this Japanese guy and the reviews say, “The Japanese are weird!” and, in a way, that’s true.*Laughs*. But, for me, it’s such a beautiful culture and I’m not even Pro-Japanese. Noburo came from an adult-film background. Before he did horror films he did this fetish porn stuff and Japan has a big market for that. I personally love ‘F’. When you watch it for the first time you’ll obviously be like, “What the fuck is going on here?!” but, after watching it for the second and third time you can’t help but like it. There’s something so absurd about it that you just have to laugh. If you can’t at least see the funny side of it..I don’t know, man.
I think ‘Q for Quack’ and ‘W for WTF’ did something really interesting.
Yeah, Adam Wingard and Jon Schnepp; these guys are funny. I read the reviews before I saw their segment and, to tell you the truth, I was already being really judgemental about them. They did a meta thing, and I don’t usually dig meta stuff because I think that sometimes it can be an easy way to make something out of nothing. But, when I watched them I was surprisingly in favour because they did it so matter-of-factly. There’s no pretention in it, even though it’s actually meta. It’s also kind of smart and tender.
‘D for Dogfight’ was my favourite, even though it was really hard to watch because I love animals so much. I think I was on the brink of crying the whole time.
Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s like challenging yourself as an audience as well. What I unfortunately realised is a lot of audiences, especially for The ABCs of Death, they can’t judge the film based on its artistic merit. D is obviously a really well-made film but I was surprised when I read reviews where some people said, “This fucking segment is pointless, because there’s a shot where a dog’s getting punched.” But, you know, how do you know the dog is actually in pain? For all you know, the guy who plays the boxer is a very well-trained animal dude and the dog doesn’t feel any pain. The ending is also a happy ending and that’s why I appreciate the segment; it doesn’t glorify animal torture.
Did you know what the other directors were filming at the time of the shoot or not?
No, no it was a blind thing. I don’t think any of the film-makers really knew what the others were doing. There’s some differences in quality in some of the segments so I don’t think there was much synchronisation between one film-maker and another. We pretty much just got our letters, were given our deadline and that’s about it.
Was that the same with V/H/S/2 as well?
No, with V/H/S it was different. We communicated from the start; we discussed the schedules and we read each other’s concepts. We actually sent the synopses for the other film-makers to read so that we’d know if we ended up making a similar subject. With ABCs, they did filter our ideas, but you never knew what the others were doing while you were doing yours.
Did you prefer it when the others didn’t know what you were doing?
Yeah, because there’s something fun about not knowing what other film-makers were doing, so you can’t really have a sub-conscious competition. When you actually read what other film-makers are already doing you can’t help it. Inside your head you’re thinking, “OK, I gotta top this idea!” With ABCs we were completely in the dark so by the time we saw the other film-maker’s segments it was just “OK, that’s their interpretation of death.” I didn’t even get to see the other segments until a couple of months later, when The ABCs of Death came out on VOD.
So, you’ve done two anthology horrors and now you’re returning to a full-length feature film with Killers. What’s that about?
Killers is a psychological drama so I’m trying to do something different here. It’s about this Japanese guy who’s a serial killer and he’s been doing it for a while now. *Laughs* I’m trying to explain the story without losing focus because there’s so many sub-plots and stuff. So this guy, he posts his killings on the internet, sort of on a YouTube channel. He gets pleasure from people watching these videos; it’s all about ego for him. And then one day, in Indonesia, this other guy who’s a family man sees one of his videos and slowly grows obsessed with it. While the Japanese guy is meticulous and very methodical, cold and calculated, the Indonesian guy is a short-fused sort of guy. He’s not a bad guy or an evil dude, but everything that happens in his life is going wrong, you know? So when he sees the killing video by the Japanese guy, he becomes inspired by it and it drives him in to a murder spree.
Where did the idea for that story come from?
Well this producer who saw my last film Macabre approached me and was like “Hey, let’s do this slasher film!” He came up with the idea of two serial killers from two different countries trying to compete with each other over the internet. While I really liked the idea I actually wanted to do something more serious. So I discussed with him and proposed that we take a more dramatic approach. At the time, I was actually having my first child, my daughter, and there’s a lot of stress that goes with it. I’m a pretty bleak guy by nature so when I’m thinking about my daughter I’m like, “Oh shit, she’s going to grow up in this pretty fucked up world!” Subconsciously when I was writing it I was thinking like, “Hey, let’s write about this guy who’s trying so hard to be a family guy and a father, but dark shit keeps happening around him.” We succumbed him in to this spiralling down and total hell, you know?
Where are you in the production? Have you finished filming?
Yeah, actually when you were trying to reach me I was in Thailand with Technicolor doing a post-production thing. So we’ve finished the whole thing and now it’s about the marketing. We are trying to put it out to festivals so hopefully you’ll hear about it soon. We are trying to release it here in October and we’re aiming for, hopefully, the festival in Toronto.
Great! Are you already planning another film or are you taking a bit of a break now?
Right now I’m pretty much enjoying the process of film-making and I’m writing The Night Hunts For Us, which is actually an action film. I’ve been planning this film for quite some time actually. Killers was such a bleak experience for me that I actually need to release it with something more kinetic, you know? So I wrote a concept about an action film; it’s actually a noir-thriller. I showed the story to Gareth and he pretty much liked it and now he’s going to produce the film and be a supervising action director for it. Hopefully that’ll happen.
Well, that’s all the questions I have for you so thank you very much and good luck with everything. It was a pleasure speaking to you.
That’s cool. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
A truly down-to-earth and very interesting film-maker, Timo was a pleasure to talk to and I can’t wait to see what he has in-store for audiences next. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with the latest redband trailer for V/H/S/2.