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Mind Over Matter: Zack Winestine Discusses “States of Control”

States of Control is the explosive character study of a woman fed up with the artifice of modern life. Her philosophical journey leads her to a cathartic act of violence, so don’t expect to see your average indie film about slackers sitting around bemoaning their lack of fulfilling relationships. Clocking in at a lean, mean 85 minutes, States is remarkably taut. Think of it as the art house movie that went to the gym.

This rigorous independent feature opens in New York on April 13 after a limited engagement in Los Angeles. filmcritic.com discussed the upcoming release with the articulate, contemplative writer-director Zack Winestine. With his extensive background in cinematography, we opened up our discussion by touching on the film’s visual impact.

How did your considerable experience as a cinematographer influence the ‘look’ of States of Control?

The film is about someone for whom a major issue in their life is control over themselves, their bodies, their emotions. I wanted the visual style to reflect that. It’s not loose, MTV-spontaneous, ‘Let’s shoot this whole movie however we want to!’ Every time the camera moves, pans, or sees something, it’s carefully worked out because the character is someone who is very, very self aware. It was essential to create a visual atmosphere which reflects how this character is reacting to her world.

Having come up through the camera department was helpful because it enabled me to visualize the film in my head while writing the screenplay, and also during pre-production. Quite literally, an important part of that process was going through the script scene-by-scene, playing them out on my mental screen, then breaking those down into individual shots. I was very ambitious, trying for camera moves and coverage which is normally very difficult for a film on such a limited schedule and budget. That’s where my specific Director of Photography [DP] training came in, because I was able to say, ‘Well, if I lay a dolly track down for this move, I can get these other moves out of it at the same time — it won’t take up any additional resources.’

Now, because I had a lighting background, I took the time before we had money to find locations that would be easy to light and would lend themselves to interesting compositions. Good locations are more important than most people realize. As a DP, I always begged to be involved in choosing them – it wasn’t always possible. I’d rather have a great location with almost no money for equipment or crew than the opposite: a wonderful crew, all the equipment I needed, and a lousy location! At the end of the day, you’re stuck having that photograph in front of you.

What was the source of some of your themes in States of Control?

I was still in elementary school during the 60’s, but during that time I was very aware that exciting stuff was happening. It was a time of ferment, of all this strange experimentation. One thing I became curious about, which really stayed with me, was when the radical movements started falling apart. Toward the end of the era, a group of people decided to go underground to pursue terrorism as a tactic. For all of the intellectual rationalization that some were giving for their actions, it never quite added up. Why would cutting one’s self off from society and committing these violent acts change the hearts and minds of those they were trying to reach? I got a sense that one of the things that was really going on here was the desire not so much for social transformation as for some kind of personal transformation – the desire to erase one’s identity and create a new one. That’s something which obviously found reflections in Lisa, the central character [played by Jennifer Van Dyck].

There was another starting point for States which may seem to 180 degrees different. For a long time I’d wondered about the reasons why a number of intellectuals from the 1920’s and 30’s became attracted to fascism. They considered it to be an avant-garde movement. For many of them, it centered around the desire to restructure society so that a certain kind of ecstatic feeling became the primary goal. There were certain very odd parallels to the negative side of mysticism and religious experience.

It’s important to be clear that none of this stuff is explicit in the film and I’m not sure that anyone seeing the film for the first time is necessarily going to pick up on any of this stuff, which is fine. The word ‘fascism’ is never used, but there are little throwaway references. If you want to look for this stuff, it’s here.

Perhaps that makes it more disturbing. It’s not like American History X with skinheads, yet you’re presenting ‘the origins of fascism’ in a contemporary setting.

And embodied in a person whom at least initially feels like a somewhat normal character. She’s not a skinhead. She’s not a punk. She’s not someone who has clearly established herself as someone different from everyone else around her. If the film is to work, the audience has to identify with Lisa at first. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean be in love with her, but certainly feel that there were at least some aspects of her character that you as a viewer would relate to. Personally, I’m very sympathetic to her. She makes decisions which prove disastrous, but she makes them for reasons which I think I understand.

Do you think it was a challenge writing a female protagonist?

It’s funny — I’m asked that a lot, and one reaction I’ve had from a couple of people (and I’ve always taken this as a pretty high compliment) was that until they saw the end credits they just assumed it was a female director. Ultimately, the decision to work with a female character helped to distance myself from her in a way. I found it easier to see her as somebody else even though I’m playing with some of my own interests and concerns. Other than that, I didn’t think about it too consciously.

Do you share many of Lisa’s views?

Hmmm — I share a lot of them, but…

Kind of a loaded question?

It is. I mean, obviously, I wouldn’t impose the character on an unsuspecting audience if I didn’t find her really interesting. I basically took some of my ideas and pushed them to a bit of an extreme. Everyone has ideals of one kind or another. What’s unusual is to take a character who starts feeling the need to push those thoughts to their logical conclusion, not compromise them, and make whatever changes necessary in her life to follow through. This is not necessarily something I am able to do in my own life, and in some cases it can be a very dangerous thing. But writing States was like having a laboratory to experiment and see what happens when someone takes that position. And to explore the consequences.

Most of the supporting cast take off for Los Angeles, something Lisa is critical of. Do you harbor any ambivalence toward the City of Angels?

(laughs) That was kind of a personal joke. The script was written at a time when practically everyone I knew in the New York film community was taking off for Los Angeles. It becomes a nice shorthand metaphor for things Lisa finds problematic about her world. L.A. is certainly a place where Lisa would have a great deal of difficulty.

Lisa’s husband (Stephen Bogardus) seems to teach film studies — he also discusses Bergman’s Summer With Monika, at which point Lisa tells him that instead of rebelling, he saw a film. How much are you criticizing the medium of filmmaking, or, by implication, your audience?

Or, more to the point
, myself — because I made a film. That criticism is there. But remember, it’s Lisa who says that, not me. I think it’s something she feels very strongly. It references back to her opening voice-over at the very beginning of the film, where she says, ‘No more stories.’ Now, she herself is a struggling novelist. Whatever her strengths of weaknesses, she tends to see issues in very moral terms and becomes increasingly convinced that not acting in the world and transposing these things into an imaginary realm is somehow corrupt. As a filmmaker, I obviously disagree!

Lisa wavers between methodical training and impulsive behavior. How do these lines blur?

In the opening titles, the first words are the name of the company: Impulse Films, Ltd. That was not an accident, because thematically that’s what the movie is about — a person who is very divided. At one point she’s got this extraordinary interest in self-control, she’s a really disciplined person, and then there’s another part of her which wants to be very spontaneous, so she swings back and forth. That’s a central theme that runs through her decisions throughout the film. And sexuality becomes a metaphor for that. In a sense, sex is about letting go, and she’s a person who clearly has some issues about how to relate to her sexuality. That’s one reason I wanted to introduce this element: it becomes a clear metaphor or specific way of setting up a set of conflicts that question ‘control.’

In New York, some people claim to feel imprisoned by the city. They never take any action about it, but harbor fantasies of escape like running away and living in the woods, or something. Lisa, in an extreme way, winds up acting out that fantasy.

That’s why I’m hoping people really do identify with her. She lays out her fantasy right at the beginning of the film when she talks about how someday when she’s older she wants to find a house in the middle of nowhere, live in the woods, and watch the clouds – to escape from that world she finds imprisoning. And at the end of the film, she’s accomplished it in a form very different than what she might have expected (and, hopefully, the audience as well.)

Did you have a specific audience in mind when you wrote States of Control?

The film is meant to be accessible. There’s certainly no point where I’m playing games depending on some particular audience’s inside knowledge of film or anything. It’s a dense film, but I hope I put in the necessary work to make things clear. The bottom line is, States will appeal to people who like art films — particularly foreign art films. That’s the kind of filmmaking I grew up on, that spoke to me, and was the kind of thing I was drawn to when I had the opportunity to create my own work.

What’s in the future for States of Control?

Everything depends on the New York run, which, of course, depends on the opening weekend. That’s why it’s so critical that people interested in seeing this film or supporting this kind of filmmaking come on Friday, Saturday, Sunday [April 13-15]. The following Monday morning, the Pioneer Theater will look at the box office and decide whether to keep it for another week. And if they do, then that opens up the possibility of play dates in other cities, cable deals, etc. But it’s a crap shoot.

Any final thoughts on opening in NYC on Friday, April 13? Optimistic? Nervous?

Well, I’m trying not to be too superstitious! (laughs) It’s Good Friday the 13th, which is a mixed metaphor if ever there was one! The truth is, I have no control over what happens when States opens. At this point, I almost feel like it’s not my movie — it’s something which I helped to bring to life, now it’s got a life of it’s own. I hope it stands on its own two feet.

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