To say that Bliss breaks the vampire movie mold is a hilarious understatement. Bliss shatters that mold, shreds it into molecules, and throws it into the sun. It is to formulaic vampire stories what Godzilla is to a city planner’s schedule, and the mind behind it has to be just as explosive. That mind belongs to Joe Begos, creator of other over-the-top genre films such as Mind’s Eye and Almost Human. Read our full review of Bliss HERE.
Nightmare on Film Street sat down with Begos ahead of Bliss‘s wide release September 27th to talk about the cast, his creative process, and why he made the film. Here’s what we heard:
“[Bliss] is to formulaic vampire stories what Godzilla is to a city planner’s schedule”
Grant DeArmitt for Nightmare on Film Street: I’ve read that, with your past movies, you’ve used this really punk-rock, kind of guerilla attitude to filmmaking. Did you feel like that was the case with Bliss? Could you give us a brief timeline, a window into the making of this movie?
Joe Begos: I had written a lot of scripts after the last movie that I couldn’t get financed, and I was really fucking pissed off. I had a lot of shit going on in my life. I fired all my agents and I was like, “You know what, fuck this. I’m just going to start again from scratch. I’m just going to make a small movie. What can I go make in three months?” And I started writing Bliss as a cathartic release of everything I was going through.
So I wrote the script, and I was going to make it from nothing, in an apartment in LA. When I was about ready to be finished with the script, a buddy of mine, Graham Skipper, told me he found somebody who might help make the script. “They’ve got a little bit of money,” he said, “do you have anything?” I said, “As a matter of fact I do,” so I was able to inject a little bit more cash into that. We were then able to shoot on film and get a couple more locations. We shot it in about a month and then went into post just last summer. So from when we started to write the script to when we premiered at Tribeca, that was about 10 months. And that was about five months ago, so from script to release, it was about 17 months. Which is pretty fucking rad.
NOFS: It really is. Was there anything that changed from when you didn’t have the money to when you got it from that friend? When you got this little injection of cash?
JB: Just some locations, and the fact that we were going to shoot on film. Some tech stuff. The budget is about $200,000 right now, which is half of my last movie. And because it was about half of what my last movie was, it was important for me to push the production value. To push what I was trying to do as a filmmaker and the content itself. So I knew we had to shoot on 16MM, and I knew I wanted to shoot like this really 70’s style, early Scorsese style. A gritty-ass fucking drug movie that had these vampire shades to it. And to show a side of Los Angeles that doesn’t necessarily pop up on screen too much.
NOFS: It is such a vampire movie, there’s so much blood. Still, you changed a lot of things about normal vampire templates. it was bigger, brighter, less gothic. You didn’t even include any fangs. Was it your plan to reverse all those tropes?
JB: I just wanted to make sure that it was super grounded in reality. I also wanted it to be up to the viewer or whether or not she was a vampire, or was it was all these fucking hallucinatory drugs she was taking. I like when things are very restrained, like Habit or The Addiction. I specifically like the Jack Nicholson/Mike Nichols movie Wolf, the actual transformation is very, very minimalized. I kind of wanted to do that with a vampire.
There are very specifically a lot of mirrors in the movie, and all of the characters can see themselves in those mirrors. I made your deliberate choice to do that. I didn’t want Bliss to feel like any other vampire movie. I wanted it to be something that felt really fresh, that would stick out of the pack. Not something about a wealthy family in Glendale California dealing with ghosts.
NOFS: It definitely does stick out, and your answer brings up a really interesting question. Bliss is this really hallucinatory movie, very drugged up. Is any of it not literal, do you think? Were you shooting something and thought, “maybe this isn’t exactly what’s really happening?”
JB: Yeah, everything after the vampire threesome. [Laughs] I wanted to be up to the viewer to figure out what’s real and what’s not after that. Pretty much after that threesome happens, and Dezzy doesn’t know what’s going on, I wanted the viewer to be in her shoes.
NOFS: Speaking of Dezzy: Dora Madison absolutely takes over the screen every time she shows up on camera. When did she come aboard the project?
JB: Maybe a few weeks before we started shooting? She just came in on an audition, and I didn’t know who she was. But she came in, and I watched her audition tape, and she had such a striking visual presence with her hair. I loved the way it looked and the way it would photograph and fill up the frame. She had this very realistic, real person quality to her.
So she’s running lines, and she was kind of improvising stuff. Going a little bit off-book. And the stuff that she was saying was, like, insults or phrases that I would normally say. Nobody else I know talks like that. My production partner was watching and he was like, “God damn it.” [Laughs] He was irritated that there was somebody so close to my mannerisms. Then when I met with her, was completely down with everything we were going to do. To be honest, she was pushing me to push things further. So she’s really a fantastic collaborator.
“I didn’t want Bliss to feel like any other vampire movie. I wanted it to be something that felt really fresh, that would stick out of the pack.”
NOFS: That’s awesome, because from what I’ve read, you wrote Dezzy as a semi-autobiographical character. So it’s very cool that you matched up like that. Speaking of the characters, Graham Skipper is in this movie as Hadrian, Dezzy‘s drug dealer. Now, for Mind’s Eye, you wrote the character of Zach specifically for Graham. Was Graham always going to be Hadrian?
JB: Oh yeah. I wrote that for him from the get-go.
NOFS: So beyond the orgies, drugs, and bloodthirst, this movie centers around a painting that Dezzy is trying to finish. I heard that you actually had a painter come on set and do the painting that she’s working on. Can you tell me about that?
JB: Well, he didn’t do it on set, but I did work with a painter beforehand to design what [the painting] was going to be. At a very basic idea, I knew it was going to be this guy, Chet Zar. I had a very basic idea of what I wanted it to be, and he came and elevated it. He painted it in pre-production, and every couple of days he would have it professionally photographed. So, by the time he finished the painting, he had it photographed at different stages. We were able to select the ones we wanted and blow them up to canvas. Then, he would paint over the canvas, so that it had texture. He just did some minimal stroking over the canvas to add texture to the photograph. That way, we were able to have a realistic, organic progression of what she was doing, and have it designed and built beforehand so it would look dope as hell. Chet was able to come in and show Dora a realistic way process of actually painting it, so she looked proper when she was doing it on screen.
NOFS: Moving on to the film’s festival run, this film has screened at Tribeca, at Fantasia, I’m sure forgetting some…
JB: It’s been at Tribeca, Overlook, Cinepocalypse, Fantasia, it will be at FrightFest, BeyondFest after that. It’s had a nice little festival run going.
NOFS: That’s so awesome. Are you at those screenings?
JB: It depends on what the crowd is like. I’ll be at Fantastic Fest just because of that crowd. And because they’re also showing it in 35MM. I watched most of it at Fantasia. I watched most of it at Tribeca. Other than that, I didn’t really stick around. I’ll kind of watch certain aspects of it. Like, I watch the first 5 or 10 minutes of it, the last 5 or 10 minutes. I’ve watched it a real fucking lot.
NOFS: Did you expect the audience reactions that you saw? Did anything surprise you?
JB: I am surprised by how the reactions have been pretty good. A lot better than my last two movies. It’s always surprising when people dig what you’re doing. Especially when it’s so personal.
NOFS: Right, there’s a lot of you in this movie. You started it in a very similar place to Dezzy. On that subject, has there ever been a time when you’re creating so much that it’s almost like freaking you out? Like Dezzy is?
JB: When I’m directing or editing something it’s like that. It consumes everything. But when I’m writing, it’s really hard to get it on the page. That’s the hardest part of the whole thing for me, starting with a blank page. I hate the process of writing. I like having written something, if that makes sense, but I like the process of shooting and editing a lot more.
NOFS: You’re a combination writer/director for a lot of your movies, but would you say you think of yourself more as a director?
JB: I think of myself as a filmmaker. I just did a movie that I didn’t write. It was a cool experience and all that, but I mean, I definitely like projects being the complete seed of mine from the get-go. Writing and producing it. All that hard work I think pays off in the end.
NOFS: Ok finally, I want to go back to the autobiographical element this movie for a second. If you, Joe Begos, were to become a vampire, would you be like Dezzy?
JB: Hopefully. (Laughs) Just fucking and killing and making art.
“It’s always surprising when people dig what you’re doing. Especially when it’s so personal.”
You can read more about Joe’s work by checking out Nightmare on Film Street’s review of his blood-soaked, action-packed, horrific dystopia VFW, which we caught at Fantastic Fest 2019. Our very own Jonathan Dehaan called the movie “a pure, unadulterated shot of adrenaline injected straight into your f*cking eyeballs,” so you don’t want to miss out on that.
Bliss is available now through Dark Sky Films so be sure to check your local theater or favorite digital film service to find it. For more interviews with awesome horror creators like Joe, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and for all your horror movie interviews, reviews, and news, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.