Besides being a director and writer, Trinidadian American Vishnu Seesahai, professionally known just as Vishnu, is also an actor, cinematographer, editor, producer, and action choreographer. Vishnu’s presence as a Black horror director in a genre where there are so few is nothing short of huge. Especially since the few that do exists are fond of horror clichés.
Vishnu’s first feature film,a documentary styled psychological thriller titled The Manifesto, was dubbed by Twisted Pictures (producers of the Saw series) the most disturbing movie they’ve ever seen. His latest film just had a world premiere at the 2012 16th Annual Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City. Candid is a grisly horror movie about a female serial killer and the voyeur who becomes entangled in her murderous web. Feeling he was the right man for the job, Vishnu also plays a main character. The multi-talented virtuoso is also the co-founder of SyndicationNation.tv, a HD open source internet video broadcasting platform for the web which boasts the highest video quality and speeds on the internet.
Check out DZI’s exclusive interview with a groundbreaking, new voice in horror filmmaking:
Sidra Lackey: So did you go to school for filmmaking?
Vishnu: No. I went to school for engineering and applied math. I did get into NYU’s MFA Film Program and I wanted to go to that program because I wanted to take class with Spike Lee. He really inspired me. In fact, Melvin Van Peebles really inspired me. His stories are even more profound. But unfortunately you realize a school like NYU doesn’t give you really enough resources to go make films or enough of a rolodex to go break into the business. So your best bet, at least at the time, was to go make a really decent short, go win some festivals, and try to get in the industry like that. So that’s what I did.
SL: You got your degrees in engineering and math, so did you kind of fall into film? Or was movies always your first love and they took a backseat?
V: My first love was engineering and science, but I’ve always been a storyteller all the way through. If I even go through any of my engineering books you’ll see panels. I was always drawing panels, and I thought I was kinda drawing graphic novels, but I was always telling stories. I won a bunch of storytelling and art contests and I always merged the two. And that was sort of my release. So when I was studying computer science, my focus was on computer graphics so I could go work in Hollywood- do special effects and stuff like that- but it wasn’t enough of a voice. So I went with the more artistic thing because that’s who I am. At the end of the day you’re gonna end up who you are.
SL: How many years have you been working within the film industry?
V: I’ve had a good 10 years making films. Doing everything from fight choreography to second unit direction. And a little before that, I started out really studying the craft of acting for about maybe another 6 years. I can do everything pretty competently. But writing is the longest running since I was a kid.
What I think is most unique about my approach and perspective is the voice -and that’s the writing.
SL: Which part of filmmaking are you most comfortable with- directing, writing, or acting?
V: Being a writer/director is where I’m most comfortable. Also, I’m very comfortable with cinematography. And I’m better than most editors at editing. The difference between the way I approach editing and the way most of the other cats do is they’re not engineers. So if there’s something I want to do with the software I can actually write a plug in. I can push that software to do something it wasn’t engineered to do. Same thing with cameras. I can push the tech a little bit further. That’s a huge advantage because filmmaking is actually process engineering. So I feel like I’m really comfortable with all of those, but what I think is most unique about my approach and perspective is the voice- and that’s the writing.
SL: Is Candid your first feature film?
V: Candid is actually my second feature. My second one in the last 2 and a ½ years. The first one I haven’t even put out yet. The Manifesto. That’s a horror movie that’s gonna kill ‘em. It’s way out there and designed to be released online. So when Twisted Pictures told me to change the ending and they’d buy it for like a quarter of a million, I was like, I’m not interested. I think the ending in place is the perfect ending for the film. So that’s how the project got shelved.
SL: Can you talk about the inspiration behind Candid. You’ve mentioned part of it is based on a real life story.
V: The most obvious thing is the voyeur thing that there’s cameras everywhere. People are actually, totally tuned into the camera world. Either they’re on one side of the lens or they’re on the other side being the exhibitionist. So I wanted to comment on that, but I wanted to make a love story between a voyeur and an exhibitionist and have it really go dark. And the reason it went in that direction is because of a story I heard when I was working on a previous production where an actress had been raped and had been marginalized by the system. And they really couldn’t prosecute the person who raped her. So she actually told me her story in the context of “I need to use this for motivation” for a scene we were doing. And when we were doing the scene I saw her lose the moment, and I pulled it out of her because I knew it was a shocking moment. I respected the fact that she shared that with me so I ended up asking her if I could use it in a story and she said yes, because she really wanted her story out there.
The other inspiration is Aileen Wuornos, the notorious female serial killer that was put to death. And you kind of feel for her when you watch the documentaries, because she seems like she got railroaded in a lot of ways. Not just in the judicial process, but in her life, and her reason for killing. You can kind of understand it. A very human monster like Samantha in Candid. Every time she kills she cries. She has remorse. Candid definitely is social commentary.
SL: So what happens to Samantha at the end really? Does she really get caught or continue killing?
V: [SPOILER–>Well she definitely gets caught in the end.] But what you don’t know about is the prequel which is coming out in a graphics novel form. The artist who did Candid’s poster Odidious Mixzoplex– and I got together on a short graphic novel to tell the rest of the lead up. Maybe even make it a free graphic novel online. There’s an illusion that both the detective on the case and both Samantha are connected. But I didn’t really perceive continuing on with a Candid franchise. The Manifesto, the one you haven’t seen, is the franchise. So I’m waiting for the right moment.
SL: What if instead of Samantha being the killer, she was the voyeur and your character Jim was the killer. Would you have made that movie? Do you think it would have been redundant?
V: No, it wouldn’t have been redundant. I don’t think it would have been as strong. I feel like putting a female character in the forefront and having the voyeur in the background- it’s a little bit more pronounced. We’ve seen a lot of male serial killers. So I wanted to break that stereotype. Break that barrier down a little bit.
-SL: Were interracial relationships a theme in Candid? Because Samantha is White and Jim is Black.
V: I could have cast that entire cast in a variety of different ways. With maybe one scene changed, the scene between the two artists battling and then race is mentioned, but most of the film it doesn’t really matter to the story. That’s not the central issue and that was my point. The dynamic between Samantha and Jim had to do more with their backstories and the lens.
SL: The actress who played Samantha was just wonderful. How did you come across her?
V: Toni Busker. She’s a journey actress and has been in a lot of stuff. The biggest thing is the last Pirates of the Caribbean. She was one of the 3 mermaids. I came across her by a friend of a friend years ago down at my friend’s restaurant out here. I was still in LA at the time and I was shooting an action movie, and she said she could do action but she really couldn’t. But she can act. She can really act. I tell you, she’s one of the most talented actors I’ve worked with. Her approach, she’s a method actor.
SL: Were the rape scenes the most difficult scenes to shoot?
V: The rape sequences were really difficult. Because the challenge was to make Toni feel comfortable and at the same time, give the audience the sense of desperation the character has. And she has to ultimately sell it, do justice with it, and do it in a very tasteful way.
SL: How do you feel about being labeled as a Black horror director? And how do you feel about the lack of Black horror directors?
V: How do I feel about being labeled a Black horror director? Or just a Black director in general? It’s time for some new voices from different sexes, different races instead of just one perspective all the time. There’s one other guy I know of- Deon Taylor- he did Chain Letter. I was really happy he broke through. I just feel like we could take the whole genre up another level with his voice, with my voice. I don’t have a problem with any moniker. I don’t like labels, but I don’t have a problem with the truth. I am a minority, I did make a few horror films, and I do, do this genre. And actually I think probably it will attract more people to the work. If you did say, ‘Oh he’s a Black horror director,’ people would probably be like, ‘Oh what does a Black guy know about horror directing?’ (Laughs) I don’t think it’s a bad thing. If I sucked or our work is terrible then that could be bad for everybody. But I don’t feel like it’s bad at all. I feel like it’s really different and really good and innovative. I welcome that. That’s great.
If you want to make something really good, stop making Hollywood movies. If you want to make money, make Hollywood movies.
SL: Do you think it’s time for a new crop of horror directors?
V: Yes. With them cliché-ing the genre that’s actually hurting us more. People are running from horror. They’re like, ‘horror used to be social commentary now it doesn’t even have that’. Now it’s just people trying to mash together clichés and remaking the older horror movies. Like Alexandre Aja. He started off making Haute Tension– High Tension which is a really suspenseful serial killer film, and now he’s the remake king. He’s remaking everything by John Carpenter in the 70’s. It’s ridiculous. I feel like that has to stop. John Carpenter used to be my favorite now he’s falling off. I haven’t seen a decent film out of him in years. The closet thing I’ve seen to a decent film out from him in the last few years is maybe Cigarette Burns. If you want to make something really good, stop making Hollywood movies. If you want to make money, make Hollywood movies.
SL: So what’s the solution for the horror genre?
V: The future of horror has to be on the web then. It has to be because you don’t get the rating, you get to make something out of the box and it’s scarier. Horror directors have got to move it to the YouTube generation. We’ve got to move it to viral videos, and we’ve got to make commentary on viral videos. We’ve got to make commentary on social networking, and we’ve got to make commentary on how people hide behind computers. I feel like the masters of horror don’t do that. They’re out of touch. They’re masters for sure though. Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the best films period. That remake is unbelievable. But what are you doing lately?
SL: Do you foresee yourself in the new few years to become one of the well-known, top horror directors or even director in general?
V: Film director in general for sure. I’m gonna get my due artistically, because I’m breaking a lot of ground right now in filmmaking. There’s nothing that can stop me except for myself. The most interesting thing about Candid is it was made by one person. I didn’t even think it was even possible. This guy Francois Truffaut came up with ‘Auteur Theory’ where a director can be a writer or painter, for example, just by controlling your own vision. The entire budget for the film? $5,000. I made a one man movie. An auteur project. And that liberated me.
On top of that, people don’t even expect it to come from a dude like me, so I’m like a total wildcard. Just one turn of the dial away from going to the really high heat. Now the deeper philosophical question is, does that even matter? At the end of the day getting recognized by a few so called taste-makers and gatekeepers doesn’t mean half as much as getting recognized by the audience in that genre. Can I do justice to that genre where people feel they got their money’s worth?
SL: Have you been affected by a horror before that really shook you?
V: Yeah, a few times. 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers believe it or not.
SL: Favorite horror directors and films?
SL: Director Tom Six of TheHuman Centipede. Human Centipede 1 I thought was pretty cool. Human Centipede 2 is ridiculous! I love that film! It doesn’t really have any commentary- it’s really kinda just a surreal world, but the fact it went in for the super fan- I thought that was funny. It’s actually brilliant as a horror film. I haven’t seen anything more brilliant lately. Also, I enjoy director Ti West’s films who did The House of the Devil.
SL: Well horror is certainly your forte and you definitely did the horror genre justice with Candid.
V: Thank you. I just love horror and while it’s often called gratuitous violence most of the time there’s a point behind it and to run away from violence is not realistic. It’s a part of our history as old as the campfire when we used to tell stories of the fear of the ‘other’ or fear of ourselves. But it all stems from fear and it’s a catharsis. When you go see a horror film it’s a catharsis in the same way video games are or even reality television. It’s very natural, very normal and most of us who love the genre realize it’s just entertainment. But a lot of other people think we’re glorifying violence. There’s really so much other violence going on even in the context of film. If you go watch an action film where some action hero wastes a bunch of people, or even a sci-fi film, there’s not that much of a problem with that. So it’s contextualized violence they have a problem with. Some people just want romantic comedies and to be in bliss. And some people want to be shocked. I gear towards the shock. Different strokes for different folks.
Candid is set to screen this Halloween season at The Crown Heights Film Festival 2012. For more info check the CHFF Facebook page.