Since its world premiere at the 2018 Fantastic Fest, critics and horror fans have been buzzing about Richard Shepard’s horror film, The Perfection, starring Allison Williams (Get Out) and newcomer Logan Browning (Dear White People). Told in four chapters, the film follows two master cellists on a bizarre journey of love, lust, and revenge. It is a film that contains some rather shocking and disgusting moments that catch you entirely off guard, never letting you relax for a second.
We were lucky to grab some time with Shepard to discuss his first horror film, working with complicated compositions, electric chemistry, and navigating difficult subject matter.
Mary Beth McAndrews of Nightmare on Film Street: I know that you’ve directed a lot of projects and you’ve done a lot of really cool work, but this is your first foray into horror, right?
Richard Shepard: Basically, yes. I did the pilot of a show called Salem, which had some horror elements to it without a doubt. But this is my first horror film and it’s a genre I haven’t tackled a lot.
NOFS: Have you always wanted to direct horror films or is this something you’ve only thought about more recently?
RS: Well I’ll tell you this, I’ve always loved a good genre movie. As a young kid, and an adult, Brian DePalma’s movies of the late 70s and early 80s were hugely influential to me. Whether it was Dressed to Kill (1980) or Blow Out (1981), his sort of movies were elegant genre films. There was an artfulness to them, and a stylishness to them, and they were sexy and they were violent, and they were, at the time, very fresh. Even though he was copying Hitchcock, he was doing it in his own style. I was very influenced by that and never wrote a film that could use all of those things. But I’ve been dying to! I wanted to use split diopters, I wanted to have old colors used in a sexual, violent way.
That was combined with my deep love for Korean cinema, such as Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) and Old Boy (2003). These were ideas of genre movies that are very elevated and completely crazy in terms of plot twists, and yet it all makes sense in the world that they created. All of that lead to a stew of wanting me to tackle a genre film and that’s where The Perfection came from.
NOFS: I definitely see that Korean film influence, especially Park’s work. Were you also inspired by his revenge plots and how he writes revenge?
RS: He’s just an artist, and I’m a giant fan of his. But it’s not necessarily that I was trying to write the revenge movie, but it became that and obviously is that. I think my influence from him is that he’s able to do these movies with different chapters in a way that once you get through a chapter you think, “well now what’s going on? How is that related to the rest of the movie?” That’s what I wanted for The Perfection in that you hopefully watch the movie and you can’t believe the next chapter is happening and you think, “wait what’s going now?” But yet hopefully that’s part of the fun in that when it starts to make sense, you think, “wow, this is not where I thought this movie was going.”
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I think audiences know where movies are going 99% of the time. So the idea that they don’t know where this is going and also that it’s a fun ride to get there is more than part of what makes this movie fun. Hopefully people will respect the spoilers that this movie has, and they have so far which I appreciate, because you can ruin this movie very easily by just saying what this movie is in its complete form. The fact of the matter is, why people have responded to this movie is that they don’t know what’s going to happen. They just know something odd is going to happen. Hopefully they’re surprised that they were so invested in it.
NOFS: That was definitely my experience. I stayed away from spoilers and I’m so glad I did because it was a wild ride. I wanted to switch gears to the gorgeous music sequences of the film. Why did you pick the cello as the instrument?
RS: That’s a great question. I wanted an instrument that ultimately was a sensual-looking instrument. I wanted it to be something two people could play in a very unique way. It is one of the hardest instruments to learn and I thought that level of perfection that it takes to be a master cellist would suit these characters in a way. Allison and Logan, to their credit, learned to play the cello for the movie. The pieces that they play were written for our movie and they’re very complicated on purpose because their characters are supposed to be great cellists. It was incredibly challenging for them to learn, but at the same time I think the fact that you believe that they are playing the cello is part of, hopefully, what makes the movie seem really cool. There aren’t a lot of shots were you don’t see their hands and fingers at the same time. There’s no digital effects involved; it’s all them. That was part of helping them get into character. Allison is a deeply-committed actor, and once we hired Logan, I learned she was equally deeply committed. They were almost in competition with each other about who could practice more. In a way, by the time we got to filming, there was a real sense of preparation and understanding exactly of what their characters would have to go through to master their instrument.
NOFS: I’m so glad you brought that up because throughout the film I was thinking, “are they actually playing the cello?” These musical pieces are gorgeous, especially in their first duet. It’s so intense and chaotic in a beautiful way, so I was wondering what it was like to shoot and direct that whole sequence.
RS: It’s one of my favorite sequences in the movie, so I appreciate you pointing it out. I love the original pieces of cello music that Paul Haslinger wrote for us. The piece for this sequence was incredibly cinematic the first time I heard it and in a way I could almost picture the entire scene just from hearing the music. I was actually able to tell Allison and Logan what parts of the music they didn’t need to learn because they wouldn’t be on camera. They both actually only learned half the piece because they knew certain parts of it weren’t going to be on camera. And then I got to use a lot of split diopter lenses and cool shots there. I didn’t want to make a sequence of two people playing the cello. It’s about this connection between these two people. We did have cello doubles for both of them, but there’s only two shots in the entire movie where we used a double.
“From the very beginning, even when the editor sent me the first cut, I said, “we have to stop having these closeups of the fingers. I want to see the actor’s faces and their fingers in the same shot. I want people to believe they’re playing because they are playing.”
From the very beginning, even when the editor sent me the first cut, I said, “we have to stop having these closeups of the fingers. I want to see the actor’s faces and their fingers in the same shot. I want people to believe they’re playing because they are playing.” So it was really fun, obviously to shoot with them at the disco and in the bedroom. The whole thing was challenging, but it was also very freeing. We did it in a very free way. When we started cutting, it all worked together well from the color to the sound to the shots to the committed performances. It’s funny, because by the time the movie’s over, it feels like that sequence happened nine years ago after everything that happens.
NOFS: It’s such a sexy moment, too. The chemistry between Logan and Allison was so electric. What was it like working with the two of them in so many emotionally intense scenes?
RS: They really had great chemistry. They’re both incredibly smart people. I know Allison from working with her on Girls and with Logan, before we cast her, she was my favorite audition by far. So I asked her to get breakfast because I wanted to talk to her. As soon as I started really having a conversation with her I realized she’s as smart as Allison, which is pretty damn smart. I realized that these two were going to be a challenge for each other, in a good way. When you’re doing a two-hander like this, I think it always helps to have actors who up the ante of the other actor because everyone brings their A game. That was the case here. We didn’t have a lot of time to shoot this movie. We weren’t going to do nine takes to find the scene, we were going to do three takes because we didn’t have the time. We talked about the script endlessly together before we started shooting. I think everyone felt very much on the same page, as well as the same team. They were both really gung-ho about doing [the film]. It helped that I had worked with Allison before.
Specifically in the sex scene, I wanted it to be sexy and real and you could feel the energy between them. I think because Allison had worked with me before, she felt very comfortable and that made Logan feel comfortable. I said to both of them, “Guys, we’re going to shoot this in a very free way. It’s not going to be, “do this, then this, then this.” At any moment we can stop if you feel uncomfortable, but I want us to be able to do this in a free way. Then I want you to know that you can come to the editing room and kill anything that you don’t like.” I think their confidence that they could do that led them to feel more comfortable. They would have to talk about that themselves, obviously I can’t speak for them. I can tell you that it felt that way and they did come in the editing room. There were a few frames here or there that they wanted removed, but in general, they saw what I saw, which was that it felt real and that it felt like that whole scene, with that music and the intercutting, had an energy that really kicks the movie to another level.
NOFS: I love the collaboration, and it feels like that shines through a lot, there’s a lot of care in this film. Ultimately, there is a lot of sensitive subject matter in The Perfection towards the end. It is such an important story and it is handled so well, especially in a genre like horror. But were you ever worried about portraying this topic or nervous about doing it justice?
RS: Well it’s a good question, I appreciate your view on it. The fact of the matter is, it is sensitive material and handled the wrong way, it’s awful. I have no interest in watching perversity for perversity’s sake. I have no interest in exploiting anything when it deals with human beings like that. But the history of any genre movie is that you are pushing boundaries and you’re dealing with difficult topics, that’s part of what makes it interesting. I think it helps that Logan and Allison were so vocal about their characters and the story we were telling and wanting to make sure that we were not being exploitative. When I saw there were a lot of discussions, I’m not kidding, there were a lot of discussions. It got to the point that when we were shooting, the Larry Nassar scandal with the Olympic gymnasts was happening, and Logan was sending links to the testimony of his victims. There was an enormous amount of care and thought given by all of us to make sure that what we were doing was not being exploitative, but at the time using what was in the zeitgeist to make [The Perfection] an elevated film. Hopefully people watch and feel uncomfortable in a good way, not a bad way, if that makes sense!
NOFS: It definitely does!
RS: And listen, I need to be educated just like everybody else. I’m a white man in my early 50s, I’m not a young woman, I’m not a person of color. So surrounding myself with very intelligent, vocal people who are different than me, who are willing to share their opinions about things, helps make the art better. We have to be sensitive about a lot of things in this day and age, and I know we’re touching on a lot of hot button issues in this movie, but that’s OK. I’m a gambler because I’m an independent filmmaker by nature. So in this case, it was a situation of surrounding myself with very smart people who could help me make a better movie.
NOFS: I agree, and I think those issues need to be portrayed. I don’t think they should be avoided. The sense of collaboration you’ve talked about in making this movie helps portray how much you all cared about this topic and wanted to show it in a careful way. But you also toed the horror line. I was impressed with how you maintained that balance. I wanted to watch this movie again immediately after finishing it!
RS: I hope people who liked this movie will watch it again because it’s super fun the second time to see, knowing the story, how performances are different than you initially interpreted them. Allison was constantly talking about the second viewing. I was also like let’s get through the first viewing! She was constantly saying “I think the second time is going to be a whole other level”.
NOFS: What was your favorite scene in the film when everything was said and done?
RS: That’s a toughie. The movie is still very fresh for me. I think my favorite part of the whole process was shooting the bus sequence, which was incredible. It was just a small crew on that bus in the middle of nowhere. It was just the actors performing, really. It was stressful, but at the same time, it was really fun. I was thinking, “Oh my god, Logan and Allison are going for it. Holy shit.” That was super fun as a director when you feel like “Oh my god I’m capturing something really amazing and intense.” Yes, I’m giving direction and all that, but these actors are here to work and they are doing their work really well. I thought, “Wow this movie might really be something.” That was the most fun moment.
The Perfection comes to Netflix on May 24th. Make sure to check out Kimberley Elizabeth’s review of the film before hitting play. Let us know what you think of The Perfection on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!