David Marmor’s 1BR, a film about a young woman who soon finds out that her too-good-to-be-true apartment in Los Angeles is indeed too good to be true, has been creating a bit of a buzz on the festival circuit. A few days before its east coast premiere at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, I was lucky enough to chat with him about his path to filmmaking, his influences and inspirations, and even a little about David Lynch’s strange version of paternal anxiety.
Tell me about how you got to making 1BR. Why this movie, and what compelled you to make this particular film?
It started from two scenes really. The first was when I was in my early 20s and I moved to LA, and it was very much like how Sarah was in the movie. I didn’t know anybody, I was very young and not very confident in myself, and I was moving for the first time into an apartment building away from home and away from everyone I knew. I found that experience very isolating, and very alienating, kind of surreal, and a little scary. LA is a really daunting city to arrive in. You just feel swallowed up by this sea of humanity that just goes on and on. There’s constantly people arriving and striving for the same things you are. These apartment buildings all look very pleasant: there are trees, and sunlight, but you’re also surrounded by people. You’re packed in. You’re sharing walls and floors and ceilings with these people that you don’t really know. I would walk the breezeways and I would wave to people and they’d wave back and I got to know their faces but I didn’t know anything about them. Those are the people you’re going to have to run to if something goes wrong. There was just something about this whole experience that I hadn’t felt before and was just disquieting. That was the first seed of it. In a weird way it was autobiographical. And then, sort of at the same time, I started to get really fascinated with the history of these utopian communities and fringe religions that L.A. seems to breed, and so I was reading a lot about that and that came together with the strangeness of the apartment building. That was really the beginning of the story.
Interesting. It’s sort of like when David Lynch made Eraserhead because that was his Philadelphia story.
I’d also heard that was him being isolated, and I think that was around the time he had his first child and it was a fear of parenthood.
Yeah I’ve read it was about his existential fear of being a father, which he expressed in a way that only David Lynch could express.
Exactly! That’s why he’s David Lynch!
So when it comes to filmmaking, and directing and writing, what got you into that? What made you decide to choose that path in life?
I don’t have a really good answer to that, and it’s funny a lot of my friends and colleagues don’t either. It’s just one of these things that for a lot of us, and certainly for me, it was for as far back as I could remember what I wanted to do. I grew up with the movies of 80s, Spielberg and Star Wars and all that, and I was just as enthralled with that as anybody. I’ve always been writing. From as far back as I can remember I’ve always been writing little stories, so that’s always been in my nature. Then when I was in high school I got very heavily into theatre. I actually did quite a lot of acting and theatre directing. Despite that I really took a circuitous route to get there. I grew up in a family that is a very science-y family: my parents are doctors and my sister’s a doctor, and I went to college for computer sciences. I worked for a videogame company for several years after college and then finally got my act together and moved out to LA to go to film school.
When you were making 1BR, was there any particular filmmaker or a particular movie or piece of art you were emulating in order to get a certain feeling across for this movie?
There’s a lot of answers to that. If you want to look at the most direct influences I think you could not make a movie like this without being influenced by Polanski’s Apartment trilogy, and if you watch those movies you’ll definitely see the influence in how we shot 1BR. Polanski’s style was something that appealed to me for this movie, where I wanted it to almost feel a little ‘70s in style in the way that it’s done fairly simply. I’m not trying to call attention to the directing in any way. I’m trying to keep the tone as low-key as possible because what’s happening gets so extreme in the movie. I think that’s something that Polanski does really well. Another influence was Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which is a very [subjective] movie. It entirely takes place from Nina’s point of view and I think it’s done brilliantly, and 1BR is very similar; we’re very much with Sarah the entire movie and it’s very important to be in her psychology, so I took a lot of lessons from that movie. And beyond that there’s the more general influences from the filmmakers I love, and a lot of visual references I went through with our DP David Bollen. I would say Edward Hopper’s paintings and the photos of Gregory Crewdson were big touch points for us. And then all the experience of movies I had mashed together in my head over the years were in there as well.
So did any of those influences shape how you approached directing this movie and guiding the performances?
The movie was very heavily shot-listed, and even for some of the scenes I was able to do storyboard work. I’m very exact with what kind of frame I want, so in that sense there was nothing low-key about it. Basically, the issue with a movie like this was that part of the reason I chose a very simple style was not because I felt it was appropriate for the material but also because out of simple necessity. We had fifteen days to shoot, which is really fast for a feature. So there were a lot of scenes where I felt “I have to save my fire for the big scene, so for this scene I can give myself two set ups. We can’t do any special shots.” And sometimes we had to cover it in one shot. That really constrains what you can do, but also great in a way. Those kinds of limitations can really open up possibilities to a scene when you can do whatever you want. So I found that process mostly fun but occasionally really annoying.
What are some recent horror films that have come out that have made an impact on you?
Well I have to confess that none of my references are going to be super recent because my wife and I just had a child less than two years ago so all I’ve really seen is my son basically, but from just before he was born the two movies that have really blown my mind would be The Witch and It Follows, both of which I thought were stunningly great movies. I had some issues with the way It Follows ended, but some of the stuff that happens in the first half of that movie is just incredible. It does what I really love in horror movies in that it acts as a metaphor for something deeper, and I think it is really a brilliantly-conceived movie and a really brilliantly-directed movie. The Witch in some way I think is even greater than It Follows. I remember watching that movie and thinking it wasn’t going to do well, because it was marketed as this terrifying horror movie and it’s really basically a creepy and unsettling family drama. Which I love. You’re watching this family disintegrate in the wilderness and it’s really an upsetting movie in a great way.
What are some of your go to comfort food all time favorite horror movies?
Oh wow. One of my all-time favorite scariest movies for me is Texas Chain Saw Massacre. So many of those movies I watch now from the 70s I think are just kind of silly, but that movie there’s just something so awful about it. It almost feels like a documentary in the way it’s done. There are some influences from that movie in mine in the way it’s done, particularly in the way it ends. The thing I love about that movie is you get to the end of it is she gets away, and that’s last shot of her being driven away and I think, “She’s not okay. This is not a happy ending.” So there’s something that’s so great about that. That’s a movie that stands up for me as an all-time great horror movie, but it’s not a movie I feel like watching very often because it feels like work. It’s so grim.
It’s always felt to me like something we shouldn’t be watching, like an 80 minute version of the Zapruder film.
Exactly it’s like a snuff film. In terms of a horror movie I can just put in any day is The Shining. I’m a massive Kubrick fan anyway and I think it’s one of the most beautifully-made horror films ever.
As a filmmaker, and as a life-long horror fan, how do you feel about the idea of “elevated horror” which suggests that only now is horror coming into its own as an actual genre with something to say?
That’s complete fucking nonsense. I think anybody saying that clearly is not familiar with the history of horror. That’s what [has] always been great about horror: it’s been able to take on topics and taboos that you couldn’t talk about in non-fantastical ways. I think anybody watching Get Out and thought it was doing something revolutionary never saw Night Of The Living Dead. And even George wasn’t the first; that’s what horror is in my mind. If you divorce horror from some kind of deeper meaning, and it doesn’t even have to be social commentary, you just have exploitation, which I think is true with any genre. Any great movie in any genre has something deeper to say than just a surface story. So yeah…I think that’s bullshit.