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Grimmfest 2021: An Interview With Jeremiah Kipp and Mike Manning About Slapface

Slapface is an emotional and complex film about a boy and his witch. Its UK premiere went down a storm at FrightFest, and it will be returning to the UK again soon for Grimmfest in Manchester. In anticipation of that, I spent half an hour with Jeremiah Kipp, writer and director, and Mike Manning, producer and one of the lead actors.

Having looked up Jeremiah’s background, I started by asking him about all the short films in his catalogue. Did he simply love that format, or had he spent a long time finding the right one to turn into a great feature film? “I’m a work-for-hire film director most of the time, so I have directed other features,” Jeremiah said. “But they’re mostly being handed a script and being told, ‘Here it is, do it on time and on budget.’ That’s fine, but then the short films I did gave me a bit more creative input: I could develop the script and create something. Slapface was a short film also. The feature-length script was written first, and we’d been trying to get that made for a while, but no producers could really get it off the ground. Then the director of photography, Dominick Sivilli, said to me, ‘Why don’t we make it as a short film first and see what happens,’ and I felt if nothing else ever happens to the movie, at least I could tell this part of the story. So we made it, and did the film festival circuit with it, and that’s how it came to the attention of a producer named Joe Benedetto who knew Mike Manning, and then Mike and I met. Mike had read the script…” and Mike took on the story of the partnership from there.

“Immediately, I was looking forward to working with Jeremiah,” Mike said. “As a creative, he is a nice balance between someone with a clear vision and also someone willing to work as a team to fine-tune ideas. When I read the script, it was a story between a father and a son. There was something special about the story, and it reminded me of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. I loved that it was about the journey of this little boy, but I said, ‘Jeremiah—no pressure, this is as much your decision as mine—but what if instead of a father it is an older brother?’ Everything else could stay the same, but this change made it feel more tragic to me. We’ve seen these stories before with abusive or neglectful parents, but if this was a brother who was just as abusive, but he’s also young, and trying—genuinely trying—to do the best he can, I thought that added another layer of redemption for the character and also complexity for the story. Also, I said, ‘Jeremiah this is a great story, but I, selfishly, want to play Tom. So think about it and let me know, take your time.’ I think he rang me the next day and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

On the topic of the sibling dynamic, I recalled seeing Mike as a big brother in The Call and asked whether he has siblings of his own to draw on for these roles. “Yes, I do,” said Mike. “I have a younger brother and a younger sister. It does make the brother roles easier to connect to. I think in The Call I was a jerk, too—just a jerk, but in Slapface there’s a bit more complexity to it. Needless to say, I don’t treat my siblings that way.”

Mike Manning
Mike Manning, producer, and actor in Slapface. Image courtesy of Chhibber Mann Productions

Jeremiah had mentioned other horror features, but as far as I could tell, Slapface has had the best critical reception so far. I asked how he explains that step-up in quality if that’s what it is. “Well to be perfectly blunt,” said Jeremiah, “in most of those other jobs, I was just handed a script, and when I asked if we could do rewrites they said, ‘No, we’re literally shooting this sh*tty script and that’s what we want.’ In other projects, they would bring in multiple writers, and when you change one thing, there’s suddenly a chasm between the original intention and what you’re ultimately doing. It was a bit of a struggle with those movies. They are what they are, and I think they’re entertaining. But with Slapface, Mike and I agreed: this is the story, this is the script. I did have some initial concerns with the change from father to brother because I didn’t want to create a situation where we start changing a thing and it moves inexorably away from what it was in the first place, but an hour and a half conversation with Mike remedied that. It became clear that we both wanted to tell the same story. Mike had come up with some notes that were profoundly good and somehow took it in the direction I had wanted to go in the first place. For example, he asked, ‘Can we make the ending even darker, even more tragic?’ and I was surprised by that note: you never hear that. So this was the kind of creative company I wanted to keep, the kind of producer I wanted to work with; I felt protected and encouraged by Mike.

“Then with every creative decision we made, even the casting, Mike was great about it. He told me, ‘Within the realm of people that would attract our investors, I won’t cast anyone you don’t want.’ So every single casting decision we made were people we really wanted in the film. Then we got to the composer, and I put forward someone I had worked with a lot, and Mike reminded me of the deal. He put forward Barry J. Neely, who was absolutely extraordinary and the perfect fit for the movie. So everything that we had to agree on became something we were both passionate about and really cared about, and I never felt pushed around by Mike as a producer. I felt cared for, supported, and encouraged. In the same way, I think Mike found me to be open-minded and able to take on notes that were great for the movie and made it better. The film that the audience is seeing and that critics are responded to was made by Mike and [me] with a bunch of collaborators who were for the movie, not just people who were picking up a cheque.

“We also found the right child actor. August Maturo [who played Lucas] was absolutely superb, and he was twelve years old when we made the film. It was a role where he had to play anger and grief and trauma, [which is ] really challenging for a lot of child actors to convey. I remember when the casting director Caroline Sinclair and I were making our list; August was right there at the top, and we all knew he was the right guy. When we sent him the script, we were really pleased that he responded immediately. When we were working together in rehearsals and on set, it felt really strong seeing Mike and August working together, forming that bond familial with one another. They were inclined to trust one another, and in rehearsals, they had to play this ‘slapface’ game where Mike had to hit August and August had to hit Mike. It was done with a stunt coordinator, Mack Kuhr, so we did the whole thing very safely and no one was ever harmed in the production of this movie, which is very important to us because the film is about abuse. I feel very strongly, and I know Mike does too: if you’re going to tell a story that is embedded with this much grief and pain, you really have to be professionally courteous and respectful towards one another; everyone has to feel safe. In order to play the violence of the story, the actors have to feel like they’re in a safe playground to express that fear and that danger.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Mike. “It was very easy to feel protective of August on the set, partly from playing his older brother, but also seeing this twelve-year-old actor being so committed to the role, so prepared and so passionate about getting it right. You couldn’t help but to surround him with all the support that he needed to feel like he could go where the script needed. Throughout the shooting, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we support and lift August?’ because this young boy was giving his all every single time.”

Jeremiah Kipp (director) on the set of Slapface with Dan Hedaya (Sheriff John Thurston)
Jeremiah Kipp (director) on the set of Slapface with Dan Hedaya (Sheriff John Thurston). Image courtesy of Chhibber Mann Productions

I smiled because, in contrast to all this earnest output, I couldn’t help remembering that I’d seen Disney series in both Mike’s and August’s background when I did my homework. I asked Mike what it was like moving from that arena into horror films. “I think Disney is a great training ground to be professional and to collaborate with a team,” said Mike. “You have to accept that you go there to do the best you can, surrender to that world. For me, it was a snowboarding movie and then a sitcom called Crash and Bernstein. Crash and Bernstein had a purple puppet. I’m not winning any Oscars for my scenes with the puppet, but it was a lot of fun, and we all showed up and did a good job. When Augie was on Girl Meets World, he grew up on that show: we knew that we were going to hire someone who was professional, knew their lines, was on time and had the work ethic. Then we discovered he had also done The Nun, so great: he also had some horror background, he gets the tone and the feel of this. Then, when he and Jeremiah got on Zoom and talked for a bit, he got off the call and told me ‘this is our kid.’”

I think grief does inform horror movies because we can’t abate it: we go to sleep at night, wake in the morning and we carry grief with us. It’s as haunting to Lucas and Tom as the monster in their space.

–Jeremiah Kipp

“Kurt Russell was a Disney actor, too,” interjected Jeremiah, “before he did The Thing and Escape from New York. John Carpenter said that Kurt Russell’s work ethic was above anyone else’s. I’m all for Disney-trained actors: you parachute them in, and they can hit their marks very precisely. But I think from doing that stuff, Mike and August are extremely emotionally available because they’re so well trained, it allows them to release their rich inner life into their scenes.”

Back to Slapface. Jeremiah had described the film as being about abuse, but to me, it was more about grief. The abuse came about because navigating this grief was not an easy process for two boys. These topics crop up a lot in horror films, especially over the last few years, and I asked whether my guests had any thoughts as to why horror is the right genre for such emotional subjects. “I think we feel haunted by grief,” suggested Jeremiah. “Grief permeates us and sticks with us. I think that’s why the two brothers play this game of ‘slapface’: Tom describes it as ‘a way for us to clear the shit away,’ and they’re both clearly haunted by the loss of their parents, but also the spectre of their parents hangs over everything. But when Tom is playing ‘slapface’ with Lucas, it’s clearly a game he learned from his father; so when Mike created this scenario where is an older brother instead of a father, it makes the father even more powerful and scary because he hovers over everything, threatening to destroy it in a haunting way. I think grief does inform horror movies because we can’t abate it: we go to sleep at night, wake in the morning and we carry grief with us. It’s as haunting to Lucas and Tom as the monster in their space.”

“I agree,” said Mike. “Also, I think good horror movies have you root for the character. It’s pretty easy where you have a film in which good guy chases bad guy and tries not to die—a very simple formula. Films are much more powerful when you really root for the good guy, feel for him, when you hope he makes it out or wins, when you can see yourself in his place. Grief is something we’ve all gone through in some form and so it’s an effective way for an audience to relate to the characters and feel for them before you send them out into the woods or the haunted house or whatever. That’s probably what separates basic, formulaic horror from good horror: the ability to make you feel for these characters and relate to them.”

The “bad guy” in Slapface was the Virago Witch. I asked whether this character came from folklore or was made up for the film. “It was entirely made up for the film,” Jeremiah said with apparent pride. “When I was a little boy, growing up in Burrillville, Rhode Island, there were woods all around the house. I felt a little bit isolated, and I would walk around the woods, imagining creatures living out there. So when Lucas is looking for a protector, who is better than a seven-foot-tall Frankenstein-like creature with a witch head on top, which is a pretty remarkable creation. The Virago Witch is completely made up, and we did think about what the creature looks like a lot. It’s not described much in the film but we do give a lot of indications for the viewer. Certainly, we wanted for audiences to feel like the monster is part of a strong New England folklore, then I would be really happy to hear that.”

Jeremiah Kipp, director of Slapface.
Jeremiah Kipp, director of Slapface. Image courtesy of Chhibber Mann Productions

As for the effects of the monster, it was Tate Steinsiek and his Illwilled Productions that were responsible. I asked whether they were told what the witch should look like, or whether they came up with the image themselves. “The initial impulse was from the Grimms’ fairy stories. It’s kind of a grounded, realistic and naturalistic story, and the question became how would you visualise the idea of a long-hook-nosed witch in a contemporary setting? What would that witch really look like and what would it feel like? Without a wonderful actor inhabiting that role, it really is just rubber and paint; so Lukas Hassel came on board. He’s six-foot-four, and with the shoes on, he became seven feet tall. A lot of the conversations about monsters were had with Lukas Hassel and with Anna Davis, the wardrobe designer who came up with that tree-looking robe with the hood on it, and it was Lukas’s idea to have that belt with all the toys on it that created a history for the monster. You get the idea that it is a woodland creature, and this monster has played with children for hundreds of years and is keeping little tokens of all the children that she has met.”

I asked Mike, as an actor, what it is like working with something that looks different from what it will on the screen. “Green screen is always more difficult for me [than practical effects] because it requires you to imagine what you are seeing as the monster, the dinosaur, or whatever it is. Then in the final product, you have to hope that what you are envisaging actually matches what they end up using because something might have changed along the way. I think that can affect the performance; the audience might wonder, ‘Why is he acting that way?’ when it’s a small dinosaur or whatever instead. I grew up with Nightmare on Elm Street and its practical effects; especially in this genre, I love being able to see and feel everything in the moment. That’s what I appreciate about this film: being able to see the Virago Witch there in person. I would always prefer that over green screen. I mean it’s fun, you’re playing pretend, still acting, but practical effects are much more realistic.”

The witch was ‘real,’ but some of the movements came from special effects in Slapface. “We tried to only show parts of the witch,” said Mike. “We wanted the audience to wonder what does she look like (to this boy), and how does she live. Lukas Hassel brought so much character and movements to the character that we didn’t actually need much special effects at all. Sure we sped up some things or darkened some shots here and there, and there are some moments that required effects being added (which I loved), but the majority of it is Lukas Hassel trying things and being Virago, and it working.”

Leading the call to its close, I asked what Jeremiah and Mike were working on next. Mike answered first: “Slapface is being released early next year, and we’re all very excited about that, especially with the response from viewers so far. Then I have another film coming out later, where I play a boxer—still aggressive, but a different type of character. Then we’ll see. I’ve just finished a stint on Days of our Lives playing someone who was much more meek and insecure, so that was a nice juxtaposition from Tom in Slapface. So we’re just looking for the next project.”

“I’m in post-production for a film called Draw Up & Stare,” said Jeremiah. “It’s a ghost movie starring Melissa Leo and Michael O’Keefe, wonderful actors from New York, and that will be doing the festival circuit next year. Of course, we’re all very excited for Slapface and continuing this movie’s journey on to Grimmfest in Manchester. That’s a place that has a special place in my heart: the music that I listened to when I was August’s age was from the great Manchester bands like Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, The Smiths, and so on.”

I couldn’t close without asking whether the short that Slapface was based on was available to watch somewhere. “Not right now,” said Jeremiah, “but you never know. With the DVD and Blu-ray bonus extras, the possibility of releasing a little sneak peek later on…but right now, we’re just sharing the feature with audiences, and they can get the full story.”

“Good answer!” declared Mike. “The producer side of me approves that answer.”

Leaving me intrigued…if this article has intrigued you, you can see Slapface at Grimmfest in Manchester on 8 October or from home in their Virtual Festival on 14 October. If that doesn’t work out, you’ll be able to see it on Shudder sometime in 2022.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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