From Freaks to Fassbinder: six films that shaped my feature Chained for Life

Aaron Schimberg’s new film Chained for Life is a potent response to previous cinematic representations of disfigured people. Here, Schimberg exclusively shares a selection of movies that fed into it.

Aaron Schimberg

Chained for Life (2018)

Chained for Life (2018)

Chained for Life is about an actress (Jess Weixler) who struggles to connect with her disfigured co-star (Adam Pearson) on the set of a European auteur’s English-language debut – that’s the official synopsis anyway. I consider it a comedy, but if you think it’s a tragedy, I wouldn’t argue with you. It’s making its European debut at the BFI London Film Festival. The films below are not my favourites. I don’t even like a couple of them, but they directly influenced Chained for Life in one way or another.

Freaks (1932)

Director Tod Browning

Freaks (1932)

Freaks was butchered by the studio, but the surviving ending inspired the idea for my film. In this ending, the ‘freaks’ take their revenge on the villainous Cleopatra, who has ridiculed and swindled one of their own, by disfiguring her.

I think the film suggests that disfigurement is a worse punishment than death. On the other hand, you can argue that they’ve liberated her. That’s a question that can be applied to disability, or minority status, in general – is it just an unnecessary burden, or can it be valuable?

Initially, I was just going to continue the narrative where Freaks left off. What’s Cleopatra’s life like now? Endless torment? Not worth living? Maybe she’s better off. Maybe she likes her new pals. Maybe her suffering, if she suffers, has given her strength or insight that she’s grateful for. Maybe she’s relieved to cast off the burdens of her beauty, or the chains of her normalcy.

Maybe, maybe not. In fact, this thread ended up just being one tiny part of the finished film, but it was the starting point.

Spirit of Youth (1938)

Director Harry L. Fraser

Spirit of Youth (1938)

This movie wasn’t really much of an influence, but it was directed by Harry L. Fraser who directed Chained for Life (1952), from which I may have borrowed my title. But I can’t recommend his Chained for Life in good faith, it’s abominable, so I’ll substitute his boxing picture Spirit of Youth, which stars Joe Louis, in a really sullen performance, as a fictionalised version of himself. The film’s got a kind of jazz age exuberance, but Louis seems so gloomy at the centre of it all. I find it really moving.

Incidentally, I tried to get Mike Tyson to be in my first film and I’ll never forgive him for not doing it. I often pummel his face in Punch-Out to satisfy my vengeance. Anyway, the thing about the original Chained for Life is that it’s kind of an unofficial companion to Freaks, and I guess my film is too, so I wanted to make that connection explicit. It’s just a perfect title – every movie should be called Chained for Life. I keep telling people this.

Mask (1985)

Director Peter Bogdanovich

Mask (1985)

I think I’ve seen every movie about disfigurement. They’re mostly bad and don’t speak to my own experience, and this one, about Rocky Dennis who had craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, is no exception. But it has some peculiar elements.

There are several scenes of Rocky on the first day at a new school – it happens maybe three times in the film. This is a familiar trope of the genre, the traumatic moment where his peers will see him for the first time, and Bogdanovich just keeps repeating it. But very little happens in these scenes. There are some comments like “there’s that guy with the face” but I’m sure the real Rocky went through much worse every day of his life. Here it’s just low-level bullying that’s quickly diffused once Rocky makes some half-heartedly self-deprecating quips.

My theory is that they shot some real bullying, but they couldn’t use it – if the viewer sees the main character terrorised by bullies, they’ll naturally want to see that person go into a depressive spiral, or else get his revenge (which, incidentally, is the plot of The Mask, 1994). But Rocky is supposed to be well-adjusted and moderately happy. If you see him badly mistreated all the time, and he just goes home and accepts it and continues to have a pretty good attitude about himself, many viewers will spend the whole film thinking he must be stupid or deluded, because it can be difficult for able-bodied people to understand how a person can cope with being assaulted and verbally abused every single day.

I decided I wouldn’t have any overt acts of cruelty in my film, since doing so would create dramatic expectations and it would also make the audience distance themselves from the tormentors. Another thing about Mask is that there are several African-American characters – bit parts – who are shown smiling and winking at Rocky, expressing some kind of solidarity with him. It’s kind of a curious touch coming from a director who wears an ascot.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Chained for Life has a fictional film crew in it and a lot of mental energy went into figuring out how to make that work logistically. How few characters can I get away with and still sell the illusion of a full working film crew? Will the viewer notice slight discrepancies – what if the gaffer is suddenly missing? – or even be aware of their individual jobs or recognise them as consistent characters? Will one character overshadow everyone else?

I worried about this the whole time while writing, and I was correct to worry, because it was also the biggest logistical problem on set. I watched films about filmmaking, a genre I like anyway, just so I could figure out how to do it. Beware of a Holy Whore was one of the most useful because it’s really about social dynamics and less about the filmmaking process, it’s confined to a few locations and is low budget. We made Charlie Korsmo, who plays Herr Director, look a little like Fassbinder. I wanted to have him wear a sleeveless t-shirt that said “The Heart Wants What It Wants”, but my costume designer talked me out of it.

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Director Luis Buñuel

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

I’m listing this so that I can actually mention a film I love. I screened a few films for Adam Minnick, the director of photography. Jacques Rivette’s Joan the Maiden (1994), Tatsumi Kumashiro’s The World of Geisha (1973) and this one. Some others I won’t mention. There is some commonality there, lots of long takes and dolly movements, and hopefully that’s reflected in the look of Chained. Also, I set a key scene in the back of a car, because Kiarostami does it, I assumed he did it because it’s so easy. I was wrong. I don’t care what Coppola went through on Apocalypse Now, shooting a scene in the back of a car is madness. I am not the same person I was before that day.

Summer School (1987)

Director Carl Reiner

Summer School (1987)

This was the first masterpiece I ever saw. I watched it over 30 times in the theatre. My mother would drop me off every day and the theatre staff would give me free Raisinets, their least profitable candy, to which I remain addicted. Usually I was the only one there.

I didn’t think it had anything to do with Chained, though it is about a group of outcasts from whom society expects nothing, and the camaraderie that can engender, so maybe it’s more related than I realised.

Politically it has some sketchy moments, but Summer School has a level of empathy that’s rare even for more reputable movies, and it’s not too sentimental despite a somewhat effective dog subplot. I still like it. Mark Harmon is really charming; he’s as good as Cary Grant, more or less. Also, this movie directed me to the second masterpiece I ever saw, thanks to the characters Francis ‘Chainsaw’ Gremp and his friend Dave.

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    BFI London Film Festival

    A big thank you to all our Members who supported this year’s Festival, which welcomed over 600 filmmakers from all over the world to London.

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