The (He)Art of Darkness: A Conversation with Writer/Director/Cinematographer Karim Hussain

The (He)Art of Darkness: A Conversation with Writer/Director/Cinematographer Karim Hussain

karim cameraIf there’s anything comforting about genre film, it’s knowing that there are still  filmmakers out there that do not want to compromise their art for commercialism.  It may not seem fiscally responsible to some, but to the artist, their integrity is the one thing that often carries their work into the next realm.  For writer/director/cinematographer Karim Hussain, film was never about the big, fat Michael Bay paychecks.  His passion to create has lead him to making some intense, controversial, beautiful films.  Starting with the highly controversial “Subconscious Cruelty”, up to the gorgeous and hypnotic “Ascension”, Hussain has found a way to dedicate his life to the world he loves.  That world may sometimes be brutal, gut-wrenching, confusing, and forceful but it’s always challenging and most importantly, always on the edge of horror’s best made films. Karim Hussain may very well be one of the only filmmakers on the planet still upholding the spirit of the midnight movie.  This isn’t your older brother’s genre filmmaking…

You’re not going to find Karim Hussain’s movies at Best Buy and you sure as shit aren’t going to see any sort of review on AOL.  Hell, you’re not going to be able to find any of his movie to purchase without really looking hard or downloading them as bootlegs, but when you do get your hands on one of his movies, you’re going to be mesmerized.  Mr. Hussain was kind enough to take a little time to talk to The Blood Sprayer about what’s been going on in his career and what’s to come from him soon.

BS: You’ve been in the film world for close to 15 years, that I can tell.  In that time you’ve pretty much worked in every aspect of film imaginable.  What set you onto that path?  How did this obsession start for you?

KH: I started very young, at 7 years old making films in Super-8, a fantastic education for the mechanics of film. I’ve always been obsessed with films, and always have known, even as a tiny child, what I wanted to do. The Universal horror films and Hammer movies really did me in when I was young, seeing them on television. Then euro-horror when I was a pre-teen blew me away and inspired me to no end. I even tried to do a feature in Super-8 when I was 12 that rapidly turned into a short film! 12 year olds aren’t the most reliable to make it on time and hit their marks when they’re just your friends from the neighborhood.

horseheadBS: Subconscious Cruelty was the first of your films that I saw.  It’s honestly shocking. Not a lot of people can have their films called that and actually have it hold weight.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it, can you give a brief rundown as to what that movie is about and possibly explain what spurred on the idea, as well as, how the production of that movie went down.

KH: That’s a crazy, epic story, some bits of it have been told at length and others still to be told. Basically, I did a Super-8 version of it that I started when I was fifteen years old. It took 3 years to end up with a half-hour version, that I showed to producer Mitch Davis, who I met at a film festival in Montreal. I was living in a very conservative, strange town called Ottawa, two hours by car away from Montreal and I was visiting more and more Montreal and meeting like-minded friends. I was ultimately kicked out of high school because they thought I was making pornography, but unfortunately for me, I wasn’t doing that much more financially viable activity… I was making bloody ART FILMS! Something not recommended for those who wish to have stability in their lives… In any way, Mitch was able to raise some money to start production on Subconscious, which I started when I was 19 years old. It took 6 1/2 years to complete, always scrounging for money and also dealing with the negative being taken hostage so we had to pay ransom to get it back and being stopped at Canada Customs and having material declared obscene on the spot and confiscated, which made us hide the negative under a false name for a while. The inspiration for the film was my dreams and obsessions at the time. I was young and entering the world of adulthood. I was the classic angry young man with a camera.
BS: What was the initial reaction to Subconscious Cruelty?  That’s not your typical introduction to a filmmaker-how has that shaped your reputation within the film industry?

KH: Initially, it went quite well in Europe, and especially in Japan. Lots of festivals and publicity. It came out at the right time, people were still interested in seeing midnight movies in 35mm in a cinema, not like today where it’s rare you can get the crowds that you used to, unless it’s a very specified event. In Canada, it was seen with suspicion, disgust and confusion, actually like most of my movies. It generated a lot of hatred, death threats, the usual. Industry people couldn’t accept it, despite the craftsmanship behind it considering our ultra-low budget (100 thousand dollars, including the blow-up from 16mm to 35mm). I have a fond memory of the head of a rather large distribution company being very interested in one of my scripts, who after he saw a rough work-print cut of Subconscious Cruelty was in such total horror that he told the girl who brought me into the company that I was a physically dangerous person who might harm her if I continued to speak to her! Ironically, for the short film La Dernière Voix a couple years later, similar people who recoiled in terror with SC nominated me for their equivalent of an Academy Award in Quebec, which was pretty funny. One of the big agencies in Montreal also dropped me after I was one of their ‘exciting, new’ clients for a week once they saw Subconscious Cruelty. They once more were so petrified, the boss refused to call me personally and had their assistant do it. Amusing. I don’t really belong in the Quebec film industry (which is an autonomous, successful one with its own star system), which is not particularly bold, ironic, or gutsy in its content. Things that step out of the box are frowned upon and tend to upset the locals, unless they are adapted specifically to Quebecois culture, which for me is a bit limiting. And that’s fine. They do their thing and I do mine, which is mostly working out of town with people who make films for the international market. Montreal’s still a nice place to live in and the people are pretty cool in general.

BS: The films that followed Cruelty, La Dernerie Voix and Ascension, were vastly different.  Gone was the abrasive goriness and instead, you focused that much more on imagery and sound to bring forth fear.  The films have the surreality of Lynch movie, but a dense emotion like you’d find in a Haneke film.  What brought about the ideas for these films and their vast difference from prior work?  Is this where you feel your writing/directing pieces have moved to over time?

KH: For those two films, they were a part of a period where I was extremely interested in architecture and hypnotic, dreamy filmmaking that challenged the audience in a rather ironic way. Some people like ’em, some people hate ’em. Honestly, either reaction is fine for those films, which are very difficult for most audience members to watch. At least they provide a reaction, even if sometimes that reaction is wanting to tear my head off in frustration! I’m proud of those films, they fit in a very specific time for me, but none of my new projects are in that vein. I believe it’s important to always change with each film and confront the audience in a new and different way. For me, it’s very boring when you see a director and they always do the same thing, as interesting as that thing might be. It’s no way to grow as an artist.
BS: When I think of your films, some other names come to mind: Richard Stanley, Jim Van Bebber, Gaspar Noe, etc.  You’re part of a group of rare, horror-influenced filmmakers who’ve transcended normal genre confides and expanded your audience’s idea of what horror really is.  That being said, where does horror sit with you nowadays?  Does it bear much influence on your art, or is it a case of relying on the classics that have always driven you?

KH: I always will love the horror genre and still adore it. Not a fan of the re-makes, which mostly eliminate the political content of the 70’s horror movies they attempt to copy (not to mention the great, memorable soundtracks!). I think it’s important to always push the boundaries of what can be defined as horror in order to help broaden the playing field for open-minded fans.
abandonedBS: You, Richard Stanley, and Nacho Cerda wrote, what I consider, one of the greatest modern horror flicks the horror community has seen-The Abandoned (which was also directed by Nacho Cerda).  How did the 3 of you end up working on the script together?  How much changed when it became a collaborative effort?  Did the final product that we see resemble the initial concept or was it an entirely different beast?

KH: Thanks, I’m very proud of The Abandoned and happy with it. The way it went was I wrote a full, original script called The Bleeding Compass that Nacho always liked. We worked for many years on a stalled project with the Spanish studio Filmax called Oblivion, that ultimately was going to be too expensive, so Nacho decided to do a smaller film and asked me to dust off The Bleeding Compass script. We worked on it together for a couple years and got to the point where we were really happy with it, but then a couple months before production was supposed to begin in Bulgaria, Filmax said the film was still too expensive and 40 percent of the script had to be cut out and reduced in scale. I was already in pre-production on La Belle Bête, a film I was about to shoot in Montreal, so I was unable to do the chopping work. So we called our friend Richard Stanley to do this and take care of the on-set re-writes. Then in post-production, the three of us toiled on refining things based on what was shot.

Ironically, the finished product is quite similar in a sense to the first Bleeding Compass draft, which was very surreal and non-linear, like a nightmare on film. Ultimately, the film wanted to be that, even though all the stuff that made the film make more traditional sense was actually written, then removed due to production restraints! That said, the movie still packs a punch and Nacho did a great job.

BS: You’re quite busy with work as a cinematographer.  Currently, I know you’re working on a film we’re all very excited about here at The Blood Sprayer, Hobo With A Shotgun.  What’s the contrast in doing that work in comparison to directing your own films?  Is it less grueling and more fun, or is it one in the same on the stress meter?

KH: Hobo With A Shotgun will be, no pun intended, a blast! A completely crazy, gory and extremely entertaining action-gore-comedy. Every day, I kept on waiting for the adults to show up on set and stop us, but they never did! Jason Eisener has such a fantastic and kooky sense of frenetics and madness, as does the rest of his creative trio, Rob Cotterill and John Davies, and the rest of the whole team. It was a complete fun-fest and can’t wait to see the finished product. It was an extremely physical shoot where we stretched the 3.5 million dollar budget into something that resembles a much bigger thing, something which is a great attribute to the crew’s talents and Jason’s vision. We shot on the new RED MYSTERIUM-X cameras, which are quite stunning. I’m an old film nut (Hobo is my first feature shot digitally), but the improvements RED have made over the old RED chip are incredible and finally make this camera a very interesting tool to use. The levels of low light we can work well in have never been seen before in cinema, period. And Hobo is a complete color holocaust. It looks like Suspiria mixed with The Warriors sometimes. Jason works off of pop culture references and then subverts them, so I think like minded fans will find themselves in a beloved and squishy place. Plus I think they’ll see Rutger Hauer do things they’ve never seen him do before, which is cool.

Another movie I shot this past fall, that hasn’t had as much publicity (though that will hopefully change soon) is a movie called Territories that I did as a cinematographer, directed by an extremely talented and awesomely cool guy called Olivier Abbou. Another interesting tidbit is my great friend Douglas Buck (director of Family Portraits and Sisters) was the editor, and he really did a fantastic job as well! Territories is a political horror movie about two ex-Guantanamo Bay guards who think Barrack Obama is too soft on his immigration policies and have basically re-created Guantanamo in their backyard on the Canada-US border. They kidnap anyone whom they think is ‘dangerous’ for the country and enact the kind of interrogations they’ve been trained for on American soil… It’s a kind of pitch black comedy in a sense, but also extremely tense and disturbing. I’m very happy with it, we’re getting ready to finish the color timing and final prints of it this summer, but I’ve seen the final cut and think open minded genre fans with a taste for politics will hopefully get a kick out of it! That one has a much grittier look, shot in Super-16 on Fuji’s new VIVID 500 film stock, which provides garishly saturated colors and deep blacks, much like 70’s reversal film. The film has a much harsher, almost documentary style look, with hard light in the night exteriors to give it an aggressive edge that was so prevalent in 70’s cinema that Olivier and myself love very much. Olivier’s perseverance guided Territories through a tough shoot, and it’s a testament to his strength as a director that I believe that movie turned out so well. Let’s hope audiences agree!

filthyAs for being a cinematographer, I LOVE it. For me, there is no difference in passion and energy between the movies that I direct and the ones I only shoot. They are still my babies. And it’s a joy for me to broaden my horizons and learn from the other directors I work with. Contrary to some other cinematographers, I don’t have this complex of ‘really wanting to direct’, which can be intrusive sometimes in the relationship between DP and director. Since my directing career was established before people even thought of me as a cinematographer (though I always shot my own films), I can happily let my ego aside and completely immerse myself in the world of the director I work with and support that person fully and selflessly. It’s the director’s film. And that’s an incredible pleasure when you’re working with someone talented. Same thing when I write for someone else. I’ll always have an opinion on things and propose things, but in the end, it’s got to pass through one person and if the production allows that person a certain amount of freedom, well then we might be having something interesting.

BS: Can you tell us about a little bit about the documentary you and Nacho Cerda are working on, Coffin of Light?  I know that it spotlights the history of the Spanish horror film industry (which will be amazing!).  Is it still in production, do you have a distributor, and when can we expect to see it hit the streets?

KH: Coffin Of Light is still in post-production, a kind of side project that Nacho has been working off and on for years. It features some extremely entertaining interviews with many stars of Spanish genre cinema that have unfortunately passed on at this time. Can’t say when it will finally be ready and released, but it’s a love letter to an era with plenty of great archive images to boot.
BS: Italian horror has been a pretty significant influence on your work.  Like most of us horror fans, it’s the benchmark by which a lot of great horror cinema is measured.  What is the appeal for you as a filmmaker, to the work of folks like Fulci, Argento, Bava, Deodato, etc.?

KH: One thing, amongst many, that I love about Italian horror is how emotion tends to take over from logic. Light is influenced by obsession instead of physics. Dreams are reality. Plus their craftsmanship and amazing music put the current studio efforts to shame. What can I say, I just love the stuff. Too bad the Italian film industry is pretty comatose these days. Some good movies are coming out here and there from Italy, but they aren’t really genre films, mostly crime pictures. The best recent Italian horror film I’ve seen in years is Michele Soavi’s Arrivederci Amore Ciao, which is stunning. And it’s not even a bloody horror movie, technically, it’s a crime film!
BS: I’ve noticed that it’s difficult to find your films in the States.  Are there any signs of your work being US-formatted and released wide in America?

KH: Don’t know if the films I’ve directed will be coming out in the US anytime soon. Perhaps, can never say! In the meantime, most people have to order European editions or download bootlegs.

karim glassesBS: What can you tell us about the next project of your own that you’ll be writing and directing?  Is there anything on deck or currently in the works?

KH: I’ve got a few movies I’m working on. One is called Terminal Care, that I won’t say too much about, except it’s a sex comedy about euthanasia. Plus another project for the fall I will be involved with, that I can’t really talk about yet, but one that I think art-house genre fans will hopefully be excited about!

BS: As we always do at The Blood Sprayer, I have to ask you:  What is your be all, end all favorite horror film ever made and why is that film your choice?

KH: There are too many to choose from, this question is unfair!!! It would be like choosing one of your children then sending the rest to the gallows. I would feel bad mentioning one, because then I would think of other ones that I didn’t mention…

BS: After all these years, what keeps you doing what you do?  What about cinema still drives you?

KH: What keeps me doing what I do is the simple fact that I cannot do anything else. It’s why I was put on this planet and I’m still extremely passionate about it, despite all the heartache and stumbling blocks that are constantly thrown at you. I guess I’m a sucker for punishment. Sort of like waking up every morning and slamming your head against a brick wall. You’d think at one point, you’d say ‘Damn, I’m slamming my head against a brick wall, that hurts’, but making cinema is about always hitting your head, but when it hurts, you ask for more. Hopefully smiling with a full set of teeth if you’ve still got ’em.

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I'm the founder of this here site and a contributing writer. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the foundation of who I am as a horror lover but sleaze, exploitation, Italian film, and erotica from the golden age are my areas most widely researched. This is done with a great amount of vigor. When not assaulting my mind with film, I'm with my beautiful family or cheering on my beloved Baltimore Orioles.

One Response to “The (He)Art of Darkness: A Conversation with Writer/Director/Cinematographer Karim Hussain”

  1. Great interview with such a fascinating filmmaker. While I’m not overly familiar with some of Karim Hussain’s work, I feel compelled to try and track down a few of his films on the basis of reading this and hearing what he has to say about genre cinema. As someone who is always on the look out for daring and challenging filmmakers, I’m so glad to have read this interview today. Keep up the good work.

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