Ever since he first came onto the scene in 1998, Ramzi Abed has been pushing the boundaries of moviemaking to their utmost. His avant garde and low-budget style quickly gained him a spot among Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma entourage, though the intellectual bent of Abed’s films marked him as much more than a leader of the B-flick crowd. Films like Clay Fields (2003) and The Tunnel (2003) are complex in their narrative and visual structure, enigmatically touching on the recurrent theme in Abed’s work—death and the transcendence of the physical world.
In his latest film, Black Dahlia, Abed leaps forward technologically, using the digital format to present his take on the gruesome Hollywood murder mystery. Abed spoke with MM about the pros and cons of digital moviemaking, his latest feature and what the future holds for this one-of-a-kind moviemaker.
Jennifer Straus (MM): How did you get started making movies?
Ramzi Abed (RA): I grew up watching all kinds of stuff on television, and there were a lot of older shows like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, “The Saint” and “The Hardy Boys.” These shows, along with the films my father was into, like pretty much anything with Peter Sellers, Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy in them, changed my life early on. I was also drawing and reading comic books avidly by the time I was about five or six years old. My mother was an artist and a sociologist too, so that influenced me in some ways.
What really changed things was high school in the late 1980s, and my friendship with a wild fellow named Brian Cleveland, who introduced me to more avant-garde and independent ways of viewing art. I was already into artists like Willem De Kooning, Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon, but it was Brian that helped make me think like a filmmaker. I acted in some of his audacious but surprisingly well-executed video projects, which then led me to make a strange piece of my own, titled The Lady Don’t Mind. I destroyed the mixed master years ago, but it was the first step. After that it was Pitzer College in California, then “America’s Funniest Home Videos” as a PA in 1995.
MM: People often compare your work to David Lynch, who you’ve made direct nods to in films like Clay Fields. How has Lynch influenced you as a director?
RA: I think it’s an easy label. He’s an amazing artist, so it’s somewhat complimentary, but it’s also a very simple categorization. David Lynch is unique and creates brooding and textural spaces, but so did people previous to him that I admire, like Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard and Charlie Chaplin.
I do have to say this though about Lynch: Two of his films really highlighted periods of self-awakening for me. One was Eraserhead, which I saw when I was in my teens… it blew my mind because I related so much to its vision and felt an almost mystical kindred spirit with its creator. The other was Lost Highway, which also brought me full circle to myself during a time in my life when I was more concerned with being a freestyle rapper. A good model for me, I guess, would be someone like Mike Figgis or [Takashi] Miike, who both play by their own rules, always keeping their visions personal and challenging.
MM: Do you see Black Dahlia as a shift from your earlier work? How has your style as a director changed since you first started making movies?
RA: Black Dahlia is a big shift from what I’ve done before, in that it is perhaps the most conventional narrative and storytelling that I’ve done. That being said, it’s still filled with questions and little details and also imagery that should allow people to feel things they may have only barely tapped into before. I think my style has evolved more than anything else. As I go back through my earlier work, I can see my personality in my stuff, however I think the techniques and quality are different. My process is more or less the same, and it relies a lot on improvisation, opening yourself up to fate and accidents, but also handpicking people and really designing the looks and sounds of the respective films.
[Black Dahlia] is multiple format, mostly being digital and high definition, which is perhaps the most different thing about it for me. It’s also a film within a film, and it really plays with several notions of reality. Most of my work prior to this has been film, either Super 16mm, 16mm or Super8. It’s invigorating to work in with the new digital formats, because the palette is different and it’s a little more limited.
At the same time, 24p technology is incredible, and it works very well with light, contrast and movement. I think this film will surprise a lot of folks. It’s also going to be nice to see people react to actors like Julie Strain or Cinque Lee appearing in the same film. The score and soundtrack is going to be a lot of fun for folks, too.
MM: What camera did you use for the film and why did you choose it?
RA: We chose two cameras, both from Panasonic. One of the cameras is the VariCam, which is an HD camera that allows you to shoot in variable frame-rates. This camera was essential for much of the storyline, especially in establishing a lot of different looks, along with over- and under-cranking frame rates to help with certain more dreamy parts of the movie.The other camera is a miraculous little thing known as the AG-DVX100A, which is just magical. We were able to use 35mm lenses with it, as well as shoot with it as it is, and along with matteboxes, follow-focus devices and various stabilizers like cranes and a Steadicam achieve very cinematic looks that are really unique.
Again, [Black Dahlia]’s not going to look like anything else. It is really colorful, yet really dark, although there are also places where the movement is stilted, some where it is very fast. It runs the gamut, and these two cameras helped created that
MM: Do you prefer digital to film? What are the pros and cons of shooting digitally?
RA: I think they’re both magnificent formats. I love the freedom and look of digital, oddly enough, but the richness and dynamic appearance that film creates cannot be substituted. I’m also a fan of Pixelvision, and own a Fisher Price PXL-2000, which shoots only 2000 pixels in beautifully grainy black and white. The right format is right for the right project, right?
MM: Another Black Dahlia movie is being filmed right now, based on the highly fictionalized novel by James Ellroy and starring Scarlett Johansson and Josh Harntett. What do you think the key differences are between your vision of this story and this more mainstream adaptation?
RA: I didn’t know that the Ellroy book would ever really get made into a film, since it was something that has been in development for countless years. I think Brian DePalma is an amazing director, so I’m interested in what that one will be like. However, I think our films couldn’t be more different. Semantics are the only things similar between the two pictures. I believe that my film is inherently more conspiratorial and also much creepier. Hopefully, the proof will be in the pudding. I feel like our film is the more rebellious and revolutionary of the two, and it’s definitely more underground in its appeal.
MM: What sort of movies do you see yourself making in the future? Are there any particular genres you would like to explore? Do you think you’ll continue to shoot digital?
RA: Well there’s a whole bunch of them in the works. I wrote a script back in 1999 for Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis that I would like to make into a feature. There’s also a very unique film I’ve been writing that deals with the end of the world, which I’m going to try to get Tom Green. That one’s really personal and strangely commercial. The film I will be doing right after Black Dahlia is a film called Telephone World. Telephone World is really special and will take place in one evening in one constantly moving shot. I also am working on something with my wife, which will combine small-town life with time travel and a rebellious grown-up Pippi Longstocking-type character. Telephone World will definitely be digital, but everything else will probably be 16mm or 35mm.
For more information on Ramzi Abed and The Black Dahlia, visit www.bloodshotpictures.com.