INTERVIEWING AARON SCHIMBERG: KEEPING IT NORMAL

On Thursday, July 19, I had the pleasure of meeting with director Aaron Schimberg, whose new movie Chained for Life had its International Premier the night before. Nestled in a back room in the SGWU, we had a quick chat.

366: This is Giles Edwards sitting down with Aaron Schimberg who directed Chained to Life … Pardon? Oh, Chained for Life. Terrible start. It played to a full house, and I also noticed when I was out in line that the press line was as long as the ticket-holder line, so that will hopefully get the word out on this great feature. You probably saw the reaction of the house a lot of clapping and laughing.

AS: I only paid attention to the people who weren’t clapping and laughing.

366: Well, there were plenty of people who were. Now, Chained for Life is kind of a “meta-movie” about making a period hospital-horror film while mostly focusing the actors’ world. We actually recently did a long-form review of the movie Freaks, and one of the things remarked on by the reviewer was that that was the kind of film you really couldn’t make anymore. But you, obviously, have put together something that, while different in tone, is comparable in structure, with a band of “normal” actors and production people and individuals with different disabilities. So it looks like that kind of thing is still possible. Did you have difficulty corralling the groups together or starting this project in any way?

AS: The film is in many ways a response to Freaks and an update of it. It was hard to cast in a way because there aren’t a lot of advocacy groups for people with disabilities, but not everyone in the film was an “actor.” Just because it’s a low budget film, it’s difficult to cast anyway, so I had to cast sort of by any means necessary: either pick people out from the street, or go through casting agents, or friends, or people that we’d seen in other movies. Everyone seemed to me—if you’re asking about actors with disabilities—seemed to relate to the script and and seemed fully on board. It was almost like a summer camp atmosphere, a very positive environment. It’s hard to get a film off the ground, but once we were up and running it was a pretty smooth process.

366: I like how you said “summer camp atmosphere,” because that was definitely captured—certainly in the scenes at night at the hospital with just the “freak” part of the cast there, hanging out.

You said [last night] that about twenty pages into the script you were writing about this lead character with certain attributes, a certain accent. How did you get in touch with your leading man, ?

AS: Yeah, so I had written a character with neurofibromatosis, who was British. I don’t know why. I was probably thinking of the Elephant Man, who had neurofibromatosis—possibly, there’s a debate about what disease he had—so I was thinking of that. A soft-spoken person, like Joseph Merrick was. And then, about twenty pages in, I saw Under the Skin, and there was an actor, with neurofibromatosis, who was British, and he was upstaging , and I thought this seems like a good sign, maybe I can get this guy. 

I don’t write roles for people ever because it’s a low budget film and you can get disappointed when people don’t want to do it when there’s not a lot of money involved. My first film I wrote a part for Mike Tyson, and I was sure he was going to do it and… I don’t think we ever even got it to him; to this day it’s a great disappointment to me, I still regret it, so to this day I don’t do it. Nevertheless, after I’d seen Adam Pearson I started to write with a little bit of him in mind and hoped for the best. So we just sent it to him and a couple of days later Adam said he loved the script, and we Skyped, and were on the same page.

And he really loved it and he gives an amazing performance. I think people assume that he’s kind of playing himself, but he’s actually one of the biggest extroverts I’ve ever met: very much the life of the party, everybody loves him. He could be a cult leader if he wanted to. But in the film he’s a very shy person, and in Under the Skin he was similar, so I think people assume that about him.

366: It certainly comes across as very natural, so I guess that speaks to his acting ability.

AS: Yeah, he’s great. I think there’s—I think people always think he’s playing a variation of himself, but in fact he’s got a very wide range. And you see in the film, he has a couple scenes where he’s extremely angry, screaming. That’s also not him… not that I’ve seen.

366: You mentioned this first movie of yours, that was Go Down Death; from my understanding that got a limited release.

AS: “Limited,” yeah, that’s a polite term. It got distribution, but not much of a theatrical release. You can get it on iTunes, places like that.

366: Since I imagine not many people are going to know about it, what is it about? And what drew you to the subject matter?

ASGo Down Death is a little more experimental. It’s about a town that’s threatened by an unseen force. Kind of a bunch of vignettes that are slightly related to each other, and it deals with some of the same issues as Chained for Life: disability and disfigurement, that’s part of the film, but it’s very anti-narrative. I wanted to play with narrative… This film, Chained for Life, also plays with narrative, it changes course, but it’s a lot more narrative, more accessible in that way. And I think a lot of the lessons I learned in Go Down Death, as my first film, I applied to Chained for Life.

366: There was one scene that definitely got a lot of laughs: the German director’s “Muppet” tirade. What was it that gave you that idea? Because it was nothing short of amazing.

AS: I was thinking and have observed, the only characters in a film who are introduced as a sort of surprise fashion—emerging from the shadows, turning around in a big chair, something like that—they are either people who are disfigured, hidden in the shadows and revealed at a certain point, or extremely famous kind of cameo actors, like Orson Welles. That sort of surprise element. And the film plays in general with comparing famous, beautiful people with disfigurement, and how in some ways they can relate to each other in terms of always being observed and exposed. And of course, did that a few times, like in The Third Man when he emerges from the shadows.

So that scene’s the sort of logical conclusion of that observation. After I’d written about thirty pages of the script I noticed that Orson Welles kept popping up in various ways; I don’t think it was intentional, but there are several references to him. I could guess, or have some theories about why that is, why my subconscious kept going to him, but it was really unintentional. But it certainly culminated in that scene.

366: Another scene that I think really tied up what I think you were trying to do with the movie was during the closing credits with the single shot of the “freak” characters sitting on the bus. I thought it was a perfect touch: “Oh, that looks so normal and tedious. These are just people and should be regarded as such.”

AS: Oh yeah.

366: I’m getting a notice from our press liaison—but I’ve got one last question I like to pose to my interviewees, Your home town: where is it? And do you have a recommendation for a restaurant there?

AS: My original hometown is Minneapolis. I live in New York now, but “Al’s Breakfast” in Minneapolis.

366: Well thank you for that recommendation and sharing your time. I wish you the best of luck with distribution and sharing that film with as many people as possible.

AS: Thank you.

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