SCOTT J. RAMSEY’s debut feature X, an erotic thriller about a voyeur who hosts debauched masked balls, impressed us at the STARBURST International Film festival earlier this year. We spoke with Scott about becoming a filmmaker, the ideas behind the movie, and what’s next...
STARBURST: How did you get your start as a filmmaker?
Scott J. Ramsey: I’ve been a storyteller and an artist since I was four or five and could pick up a pen and write something down. I started making movies when I was in middle school and then went to study filmmaking at San Francisco State University. When I was there, I attempted to make a feature, and everybody told me that I was crazy - that I should start small and make a short first, but I didn’t listen to any of them. Inevitably, I didn’t finish it.
How important was that film school education?
What I got from film school that enabled me to make X and to be the filmmaker I am was all of the people I met - all the other filmmakers, actors, musicians, photographers. Even the ones I’ve worked with since then who I didn’t meet in school, I met because of someone I met at school. I really enjoyed the film program, but it was not necessarily any of the classes that helped, it was the network of people. I was in a co-ed cinema fraternity and that’s how I met a lot of the filmmakers who I ended up working with on X - that’s how I met Hannah [Katherine Jost, co-writer and producer], Kevin [De Nicolo], who’s one of the producers, and Hope [Raymond], the star of X.
For those who haven’t seen it, how would you pitch X?
The movie’s about a young woman named Christian who hosts monthly masked charity balls at her beachside estate that double as sex parties. Little do her guests know that she is a voyeur and has a hidden camera in the bathroom.
That’s quite an original concept, where did this idea come from?
The story came to me all in one burst, out of nowhere. I was working on that feature in college that wasn’t going anywhere. We had shot everything and I was in post, trying to finish it. The story of X was kind of a distraction from what I was supposed to be working on. I didn’t realise this when I first thought of the idea, but later when we had already shot it and I was reflecting on it, it occurred to me that as a queer person, you grow up with internalised shame and feeling like you are a pervert, so I think that is where the idea to have a main character who is a pervert - a voyeur - came from. To neither sympathise with her nor condemn her was important to us; we wanted to tell her story as honestly and thoroughly as we could.
The characters do have various queer sexual identities, though this isn’t the focus of the story. Would you define it as a queer film?
I would define it as a queer film, because more importantly than the characters being queer, it has a queer sensibility to it, and because the filmmakers are queer. But ultimately, it wasn’t about their sexualities, so it wasn’t necessary for us to make that the focus.
So what were your first steps with developing this idea?
I wrote an 80-page story treatment for the movie with the working title Rated X. Originally, Christian was male. I knew that I wanted to make it my next movie and I wanted it to be a feature. At first, I was going to write it myself, but then I realised I should have Hannah write it with me. She’s a much better writer of dialogue and I knew I was a little too close to it - it felt like I wasn’t able to see it from an outside perspective. So I brought it to Hannah and right before I brought it to her, I had the idea that Christian should be a woman. I gave her the treatment and said, this treatment has Christian as male, so let’s switch it. The first thing she said was: I like this, but I want to change the title, Rated X sounds like a middle school boy trying to be shocking. So I said, fine, how about just X? Christian signs the invitations to her parties with an X, because it means ‘kiss’ and because it’s a shortening of her name.
Are there any particular films, or artworks in other media, that inspired you?
I saw Mulholland Drive for the first time right before we started shooting X, so that was absolutely a stylistic influence. Obviously with the masked balls, we were looking at Eyes Wide Shut; I love that movie and we always get compared to it, so that was a reference. A Clockwork Orange was a reference, especially in constructing Christian’s voiceover. The films of Xavier Dolan; his movies are visually very rich and gorgeous but still have an indie movie sensibility, they don’t feel like they’re big budget, and we knew from the beginning that we weren’t gonna be big budget, so especially cinematographically his work was an influence. In terms of other media, when I brought it to Hannah, she had the idea to structure the movie like a Shakespearean play, so that’s why it’s in five-act structure, and we talked a lot about Shakespeare while writing it.
How did you raise your budget?
We brought the movie to Kevin, one of our close friends and a producer we’d worked with in school, and his parents had invested in other films by other students while we were in school. The three of us decided to pitch to his parents, hoping that they would get it and be into it. We put together an elaborate pitch and went to them with a PowerPoint presentation. They were extremely receptive and invested in us, so we’re eternally grateful and the movie would not have been made if it were not for them. The starting budget was $30,000, the number we asked for initially. After production was finished, the production budget had become $50,000, then post was $100,000. We were extraordinarily lucky that our investors were sympathetic, trusted in us, and were willing to fund until it was complete.
Even with that generous funding, no film ever has enough money, right? Did you have to make any compromises?
We wrote the movie and planned production knowing that we probably weren’t gonna have enough. The story is about kids our age throwing these balls, so the production design and cinematography reflect that. They’re just kids and they’re messy too, so that was built into the story because we knew we weren’t gonna have the budget for big elaborate sets.
What were the biggest challenges of shooting X?
The horror story we always tell is that, on the third day of shooting, we were in a garage, and we had brought all the expensive furniture and books from the homeowners into it. We had set up lights very near the ceiling, and one of the lights triggered the sprinklers. They came down on all the expensive furniture and on all our equipment. It was raining outside, so there was nowhere to go but out into the rain, and by some miracle we didn’t damage any of the equipment and damaged only very little of their property. The nice thing about that, which set the tone for the rest of production, is that the entire cast and crew stayed to help clean up - we were all in it together.
But then, from your budget troubles, it sounds like the real difficulty came in post?
Post-production was a big challenge, because we had to ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement] the entire movie. We shot on a RED, which is a noisy camera, and we were shooting right by the beach. There was wind and cars, and every sound you can imagine. We had to re-record the whole movie and there was a challenge trying to get the texture of the sound to a place where it sounded natural, not like voiceover.
How did you handle directing the sexual content, and know where to draw the line with how much you could show?
There’s two different things at play - sexual stuff and nudity - and we kept those separate. In terms of the nudity, with the hidden camera stuff in the bathroom, it was necessary to have models or actors who were willing to show as much as they could to make it realistic. From the get-go, we set out to look for models who were comfortable with that, and made sure they understood what we were doing. For the actual sex, part of the story is that Christian doesn’t enjoy sex, she only enjoys watching. So sex itself is almost beside the point, there’s not a lot of sex in the movie - there’s the implication of sex, there’s nudity, and there’s certainly an erotic undertone. The one scene that you could categorise as a sex scene in a conventional way is when Christian is fantasising about Stella in the bathtub. For that, I told the actors Hope and Eliza that I wanted them to go as far as they were comfortable going, and I let them pretty much direct themselves. We let them watch playback and the first cut before we showed it to anyone and they liked it.
You made a couple of music videos alongside X - tell us about those.
Kevin - one of the producers of X and one of the composers of the score - and I have a music duo called The Major Arcana; we made three of the songs on the score. Those shorts are music videos that we shot to the songs and have used to promote the movie. We’ve promoted X as a transmedia project, storytelling on three different levels - the feature film, the album, and the three music videos. Two of them are already released, and a third is premiering at a festival this month and will be online two weeks after that. The music videos are surreal fever dreams that remix plot elements and visual elements from the movie and from the lyrics of the songs - not conventional short films, but more narrative than a montage music video.
And X itself is picking up a good number of festival screenings - how are you finding the process of self-distributing via festivals?
An interesting thing about film festivals that I did not know going in is that there are a lot that will accept your film but won’t screen it. We’ve gotten into many that haven’t screened X but have given us awards and made us an official selection, which has been strange. But people at festivals seem to like it and I’m glad that they do. I feel like the movie is suited for a theatrical experience more than an online experience, but the reality of the world now is that most people are going to see it on their computers. Festivals are incredibly necessary, but aren’t the only thing. I think that’s the biggest misconception that festivals are the end of the road, but at this part of the distribution process, it’s just the beginning. The other problem is, festivals are expensive!
So what’s the next stage of distribution?
We’re trying to secure distribution right now, and we have a few leads. We’re just letting things play out, and trying to show it to as many people as possible via festivals and other means. We are also considering some kind of self-distribution; theatrical on demand is appealing to us.
What’s your next project?
Hannah and I are writing another feature, we are shoulder deep in that. On top of that, The Major Arcana are recording more music and playing shows, and using that music to not only promote X but to tell stories moving beyond X.
What advice would you give to aspiring independent filmmakers?
Everything should be motivated by the characters. The characters are the core around which everything else rotates - where the story comes from, where every production design choice should come from, every cinematography choice, editing, music, etc. That’s my number one thing, my number two thing is to go with your gut and know when you’re wrong and when to listen to your collaborators.