Alexandre Koberidze, Dasha Nekrasova,Radu Jude, Amalia Ulman, Monte Hellman, TV or not TV, Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen, Azor, New Order, Siberia
By Gabrielle Marceau
Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) was, ostensibly, a film that couched a meditation on the mundane topic of marriage and mistrust in mysterious extravagances (operatic orgies, hints of the occult, dream logic). Watching it now, it’s abundantly clear that the film is actually most trenchant in its treatment of class, corruption, and the sexual penchants of an invincible, monied elite (embodied by Sydney Pollack). Non-tabloid critics may have sidelined this surreptitious subtext at the time of Eyes Wide Shut’s release, but in the current climate, online discourse has latched on to the connection between the film’s horny, masked cabal and the sex-trafficking ring run by Jeffrey Epstein for the benefit of the rich and powerful.
Dasha Nekrasova’s first feature, The Scary of Sixty-First, is an homage to Eyes Wide Shut that exists in a completely different media landscape than that which existed at the time of the Kubrick film a mere two decades ago. It tackles the subject of Epstein at a time when it seems that there are no more open secrets and in which Kubrick’s subtle sleight of hand would be superfluous. Scary taps into the hopeless monomania of trying to uncover a conspiracy that everyone is already hip to (or, worse, in on).
Shortly after Epstein is found dead in jail by apparent suicide, roommates Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (Madeline Quinn) become separately obsessed with his death and misdeeds when they move into a suspiciously cheap apartment on the Upper East Side. They learn from a visitor (played by Nekrasova, and identified only as “The Girl”) that the place was once owned by the sinister billionaire as a “flop house” to stash clients and conquests. Through some uncanny force (osmosis, overidentification, or haunting), Addie becomes possessed by the spirit of one or more of Epstein’s victims, and Noelle stays up all night with the mysterious Girl binging on Google and amphetamines.
Nekrasova’s debut draws liberally from classics of ’70s genre cinema, as well as the works of other edgelord directors: the occult statues of The Exorcist (1973); the ambient paranoia of Polanski’s apartment trilogy, especially The Tenant (1976); the stylish, eye-for-an-eye rage of Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981). Keenly aware that her influences will not go unnoticed, she makes them unmistakable. Yet despite (or perhaps due to) invoking such touchstones, Scary is never quite unsettling enough to actually scare, although the sinister synth score and frequently dreamy 16mm cinematography do give it a properly unnerving atmosphere. And even Scary’sshortcomings (namely the uneven performances) are a part of its scrappy flair.
The Scary of Sixty-First is also inextricably linked to its filmmaker’s reputation. Those aware of Nekrasova’s controversial podcast Red Scare will be familiar (perhaps all too familiar) with the film’s in-jokes and drolly delivered ideological incitements (e.g., the goading use of slurs, mentions of the Clinton Crime Family), a tactic that the director occasionally uses as a rhetorical escape hatch, a way to bail out of sincerity the moment it becomes compromising. This affect is possibly alienating to those who aren’t already in the know, though the vocabulary of the extremely online has been increasingly infiltrating the mainstream, and hare-brained conspiracies have become a topic of serious debate even outside the so-called “dirtbag left” echo chamber. Craftily, Nekrasova anticipates her own film’s reception by planting provocations in terms of her subject and style both—i.e., shooting a film about a famous, accused pedophile in the manner of Polanski, another famous, accused pedophile. The film exists in a framework in which the process of consuming stories of sexual trauma leaves us hollowed out and jaded. Scary knows its audience is eager to take sides and signal solidarity online, while also being depressingly aware of their ultimate powerlessness. Noelle and The Girl become increasingly afraid that their investigation will draw retribution from some nebulous incarnation of the powers-that-be, but the real fantasy under their paranoia is that they matter enough to be silenced.
The impact of total Epstein immersion is felt both psychologically (in Noelle’s galaxy-brained theorizing) and physically, when, in the throes of her Zulawskian possession, Addie wipes her discharge onto the JE monogram outside Epstein’s townhouse (the film is clear that having a monogram on your door is what’s truly perverse). It’s a clever overlap of content and concept, a petulant, feminine smear in a film that likes to rub in its provocations. It’s also not the last instance of bodily chaos: Addie’s possession turns her into a kind of oracle, channelling the trauma of Epstein’s victims into increasingly harrowing manifestations, the most memorable of which sees Brown masturbating with Prince Andrew memorabilia, smashed oranges, and bodily fluids, a funny yet disturbing pantomime of a truly horrific act that falls somewhere between Denis’ High Life (2018) and Chytilová’s Daisies (1966).
Throughout her possession, Addie is also exorcising her own suggested history of sexual assault. Scary gestures toward the debates around #MeToo, about the motivations around women’s disclosures. When Noelle casually tells Addie, “You love being a victim,” she responds, unconvincingly, “I’m a survivor.” Addie certainly has the history of abuse to qualify her as a victim, but she’s also so primed for the role, so overly invested in victimhood, that she’s easily infiltrated by the force in the apartment. Even The Girl, who initially seemed to have all the answers, starts to unravel under the pressure of bearing witness.
Scary is not the only film in the past year to grapple with the pervasiveness of sexual exploitation in America. It follows a string of highly publicized (and obligingly received) films, including The Assistant (2019) and Promising Young Woman (2020), that are firmly planted on one side of the debate and prepared to defend that position. Nekrasova’s take on the topic may not have the same clarity of purpose, but it more aptly captures the feeling of living through this moment, in all its excitement, futility, and horror. And compared to its cohorts, which can be dismally drab, deadly serious, or claustrophobically stylized, Scary is, refreshingly, entertaining. It’s becoming increasingly clear that while the discourse is digging in its heels, it’s better to keep an ear to the ground.
Cinema Scope: How long after Jeffrey Epstein died did you start writing?
Dasha Nekrasova: Pretty soon, I think. My writing partner Madeline Quinn and I started writing in September, and Epstein died in August. From the beginning I was very suspicious, and then when he killed himself, it felt a bit like the CIA slapping me in the face. It was a confluence of feeling incredibly manic around that time as well as just being in New York. When we started writing, it was originally going to be a short film, but then it just kept getting longer. And then we expanded into a feature when we met my producers.
Scope: The film was made quite quickly, which is to its benefit. I think emerging filmmakers or artists should be making things quickly, especially if they’re trying to respond to something that’s happening now.
Nekrasova: We shot it in January of 2020, and because of the Eyes Wide Shut reference, I wanted to film during Christmastime. So we always knew that we were going to try to make it quickly, because we were on a limited budget and I needed all the Christmas ephemera to still be up around New York. But, in retrospect, I think it has a very manic energy that comes from the momentum of making something quickly. I’m really glad that I did, even though obviously some parts are a little underdeveloped because COVID hit in February and we couldn’t shoot anymore.
Scope: You did have to go through post-production and premiere the film during the pandemic. How was that?
Nekrasova: I went to Los Angeles in July, as that was where my editor Sophie Corral lived. And around that time I was thinking about maybe moving to L.A. because things were bad in New York, and then things got really bad in L.A. that summer. But it was a great time to be editing, as there wasn’t much else to do. And then we had a virtual premiere in Berlin, which was a little unceremonious. I haven’t even really had a chance to watch the movie with an audience yet.
Scope: Scary of Sixty-First is about being extremely online, but it’s also a film that wants to be seen in a theatre. I’m curious about when you started thinking that you wanted to approach the subject through the form of a ’70s-style psychosexual thriller. Did you know this right away when you started working on the script?
Nekrasova: I think it developed over time, but I always knew we were working with a limited budget, so we needed a strategy around a location. I wanted to make a movie about girls that move into the apartment that used to belong to Jeffrey Epstein, and so it would be primarily in one location. So I drew some inspiration from the apartment trilogy by Polanski. And I knew that I wanted to shoot on 16mm because the subject was so hyper-topical. It was a worthwhile investment because I think it really elevated the movie. If it had been done digitally, it wouldn’t have been as special. And it also gives it a ’70s aura.
Scope: I recently rewatched The Tenant,and while I do find the apartment trilogy scary, they’re more like very dark comedies. Scary has a similar approach, as even in the climactic horror moments, the film is still quite funny. I’m curious about using comedy to approach such obviously horrifying subject matter.
Nekrasova: I think that happened very naturally with my writing partner, Maddie. We would just make each other laugh a lot. Ghost World (2001) was a formative film for me, and was kind of a weird influence on Scary as well. We wanted it to be a psychosexual thriller, but to be tonally a little camp, almost Todd Solondz. We wanted the script to be funny, but not a comedy.
Scope: You’ve talked about how you were feeling quite fixated on the Epstein story and were doing these pilgrimages to specific locations, like Epstein’s house and the correctional centre where he died. By the time you got around to shooting, were you still feeling this obsession with the story, or did the process of writing the script and shooting the film exorcise that feeling?
Nekrasova: Finishing the movie definitely did. But at the time we were making it, because we made it so quickly, it was still very much in the zeitgeist. So it was still a big preoccupation during production. I don’t even think Ghislaine Maxwell had been arrested at that point.
Scope: The film is obviously about paranoia, but the characters’ paranoia is ultimately justified when it’s revealed that there is in fact a sinister plot to silence them. Were you feeling any kind of paranoia when you were making the movie? Was it in the back of your head that something might happen? I’m sure you’ve heard the conspiracy theory about Kubrick’s death right before completing Eyes Wide Shut.
Nekrasova: I’m kind of a paranoid person anyway. But I didn’t think about it. I did consider the fact that it might not get into any festivals, or that it wouldn’t see the light of day.
Scope: This is a bit of an abstract question, but do you think there’s a possible resolution to paranoia and obsession? I’m thinking of both your characters and us, following the constant news cycle.
Nekrasova: I don’t think it’s a victory, but there is some satisfaction in having your fears confirmed. But my character is ultimately powerless to stop it. With the Epstein story, I don’t think there will ever be a satisfying result; we’ll always have to live with the established narrative that he committed suicide.
Scope: I was impressed by Betsey Brown’s performance as Addie. I thought she was very funny, particularly in the scenes where she’s in the throes of this possession. Was that performance gruelling for her? It was quite intense physically, but it also looked like she was having fun, even if it may have been a very harrowing experience for her as an actor.
Nekrasova: Yeah, I don’t know what work she did as an actress to get into that. As a director, I really wanted to get a lot of her. I knew that she was going to be amazing when we were shooting, as watching her act is so delightful.
Scope: I read that she improvised a lot of these scenes, like the one where she’s masturbating with the Royal Family paraphernalia. Was there a lot of improvisation and spontaneity while you were shooting? I think there’s a looseness to the film that really works well, particularly the scenes in the streets of New York that are more on the fly.
Nekrasova: There was a fair amount of improv. It’s also pretty true to this script. When we were shooting the scene in the psychic bookstore, I saw the obsidian crystal at the store and had a prophetic moment of incorporating it into the film by having Noel try to kill my character with it. That’s a spoiler! There were lots of moments like that where the script was basically finished, but then things would occur in filming that we would incorporate.
Scope: I’m interested in the relationship between your character, The Girl, and Noel, particularly the romantic subplot and their sex scene. The characters in the film seem completely alienated from one another, and there’s a lot of hostility or indifference in their relationships. So I’m wondering about this moment of genuine connection and intimacy, and why you wanted to include it.
Nekrasova: I wanted to make the characters shrouded in mystery. Everything you know about her, you have access to emotionally. And so I needed to raise the stakes for her by bonding her with Noel in a deep way, which would convey that she doesn’t have a lot of peace in her life and that this was a significant relationship for her. And so that makes what transpires even sadder.
Scope: Initially we think that she’s a bad actor, but she ultimately turns out to be a vulnerable figure.
Scope: I loved these scenes when the characters are going to Epstein locations ostensibly to get some kind of answer, but all you get is an aura. It made me think of people who go to celebrities’ homes, or locations where films were shot. I’m curious about what you learned from going to these places, and why it was important for you to shoot them?
Nekrasova: Well, the townhouse I had been to prior to his death. The day he died, because I lived so close to the prison, I walked there. Honestly, I thought there would be people there protesting! There were marginal reporters, and I actually ran into a friend of mine who’s also an Epstein truther on my way there. Then someone there told me that the body had been taken to a hospital and so we went there. And then they said that it had been transferred to the coroner’s office…so we were kind of following the body. There was also all of this speculation at the time about him not actually being dead, that the body was a decoy. And then I went to the townhouse and to his brother’s apartment complex on 66th. The townhouse really has a scary aura to it. When you’re inside, in general, it has this demonic affluence. That’s why the movie opens with shots of gargoyles, those architectural details that are all uptown and which I was noticing as I was spending time there. I knew I definitely wanted to shoot something there.
Scope: Have you been keeping up with the film’s critical response?
Nekrasova: I read the reviews that came out of Berlin.
Scope: Are you noticing a difference between critics who seem to be familiar with Red Scare and critics who aren’t? I’m curious about the relationship between the reception of the film and the podcast and your online presence.
Nekrasova: It’s hard to say because it is all a part of my body of work. But I definitely would say some people did watch the film in bad faith, and that kind of comes across in their reviews. At the same time, I can’t blame them because it just is what it is. But for the most part I was pleasantly surprised, because I felt like I gave people almost a free pass to dismiss the film based on the provocative subject matter. So I was happy to see that a lot of people engaged with it. The Indiewire and Variety reviews are both very positive and seem to engage with the film. I think Berlin was also a good place to show it in that context, in the Encounters section and at a European festival. I think people there engage with it more seriously than they would at a genre festival or something.
Scope: I’m a listener, so going in I had that framework.
Nekrasova: How was that for you?
Scope: Well, I enjoyed the film, and while there were jokes that felt a little inside, I think the cinematic references are pretty broadly known. But I was curious about how someone who wasn’t aware of the podcast would respond to the film. I actually started asking around to see if anyone who doesn’t listen would be able to speak on it. But many more of my friends listened than I expected. So maybe the lesson is that everyone is increasingly plugged in.
Nekrasova: Joe Swanberg does this secret screening series in Chicago for new movies—basically, you go to a screening not knowing what he’s going to show—and he showed Scary at one of those. I wasn’t there for that but one of my producers was, and he says that it played pretty well. But people who don’t listen to the podcast will eventually be exposed to it.
Scope: I’m curious about the end of the film, and I’ll try and dance around it to avoid revealing too much. There’s a moment when your character picks up a note, and there’s a very blatant reference to another film that I thought was funny. I’m curious about your decision to go for that ending.
Nekrasova: I mentioned Scary was a short film initially, and that was the punchline. I think a short film can get away with a punchline ending. But then I just kept it because I liked it, and it felt important that the moment was an Eyes Wide Shut extended-universe reveal.
Scope: I think it’s also playing with our expectations as viewers: we’re already thinking of all these references, and so for the reference to be confirmed so blatantly was interesting.
Nekrasova: I think my character says, “The important thing is that we’re still awake,” which is directly from Eyes Wide Shut as well. The psychic bookstore scene was meant to be similar to the scene with Alan Cumming at the hotel in Eyes Wide Shut. I had concerns that people maybe wouldn’t get it. But I’m glad you liked it.
Scope: I was thinking about Scary in relation to other films that came out in the past year or so, like Promising Young Woman and The Assistant, two films that are more directly responding to #MeToo. I don’t think Epstein is necessarily part of the #MeToo narrative, but those two films certainly have a moral agenda and are formally geared toward that. Scary doesn’t seem to do that. Obviously the starting point of the film is that what Epstein did was horrible, but were you approaching it thinking that you wanted to say something directly about Epstein, or rather, that the film would have a moral?
Nekrasova: I definitely wouldn’t say it has a moral. The thesis of the film, I guess, is really about futility. To me, it does have a sense of nonlinear resistance or nonlinear justice. Like, the scene with Addie outside of the townhouse was inspired by this ethnography that I read in college called Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, which was about female Malaysian factory workers in the ’70s who were experiencing a phenomenon of demonic possession among them. It was a response to the rapid industrialization of Malaysia and the upending of their traditional livelihoods into a capitalist mode of production. I wanted Addie to be this vessel for trauma. Then she would become so traumatized that she becomes unmanageable. So when we went to the townhouse and the prison, the idea was that she was enacting a bodily resistance in the face of total futility.
So it’s not a social-justice film in the way that The Assistant or Promising Young Woman are, but it does have that kind of dimension. And I think the reason I made it a genre film is that you don’t have to say that something’s bad—you can take it for granted that it’s something horrifying because you’re already engaging with it in a horror context.
Scope: I’m curious about what attracted you to the films you’re referencing, particularly Polanski’s apartment trilogy. What drew you to this mode and style?
Nekrasova: I think Polanski is the best at making those movies. They’re really about trauma, and The Tenant is about the way that trauma infiltrates space. Also, the budget of those movies seemed like a very useful template for the story that I wanted to tell, but I didn’t really think about it too much.
Scope: There’s a lot of concern in horror films with architecture and this idea of there being hauntings or secrets that you might be able to glean from being in a space. But it’s also true that trying to find an apartment is horrible, truly horrifying.
Nekrasova: Yeah, definitely. In the first third of the film I really just drew on my own experiences, moving around a lot and not being a very viable tenant. Especially in New York, apartment hunting is miserable.
Scope: There’s that kind of familiar horror-movie trope where a house that’s been haunted or has a kind of sinister history goes for cheaper, but I feel like the sad reality of real estate is that an apartment would sell for a lot of money regardless of its sinister history. I can’t remember the number, but I read that Epstein’s house sold for an insane amount.
Nekrasova: It was well below asking: I think it went for $50 million when it was originally $80 million. But yes, still an astronomical amount of money.
Scope: Do you have any other directing projects in mind? You mentioned that writing and shooting Scary very fast was born out of necessity, but are you going to try and keep that approach, or will you take the opportunity to work a bit slower?
Nekrasova: I want to make more movies, definitely. I have a couple of things that I’m working on. I would make another quick movie, but I think that with my next one, it would be nice to be a little bit more meticulous and hopefully have access to things that would allow me to work a little slower. I’d maybe move a little bit outside of genre, though I do think I’ll make more horror movies as well.
Scope: Film is such a slow medium to respond, especially by the time something gets released.
Nekrasova: Yeah, by the time Scary comes out, it’ll be two years since I made it. There are advantages to working slowly, and I may be wrong, but with everything taking so long anyway it seems crazy to talk about a movie that I made over the span of six months two years after the fact. That feels really disproportionate.