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IRON DOORS, an interview with Stephen Manuel
IRON DOORS (2010), a new psychological thriller to make you think. About an investment banker with no name (we never get his name in this film so he’s a kind of Everyman investment banker) wakes up to find himself stuck inside a vault with no way out. ‘No food. No water. No way out.’ We experience his loneliness, hunger, thirst, frustration and even his hallucinations with him as he struggles to stay alive… or we are also left to wonder if he is even alive at all and maybe he has been dead all along?
In an interview with Stephen Manuel, we discussed his highly symbolic film, which leaves one full of questions and theories as to what it’s all about. Okay, our interview was conducted in the wee hours of the morning after a spooky night out, just so it would feel more authentic and fitting with the film and the freaky Fantastic Zagreb Film Festival mood.
ME: So, you had this interesting film. Let me start by asking you, what the hell would you like to say about your very tripped out, wigged out film IRON DOORS?
STEPHEN: LOL. Okay, well the movie is called IRON DOORS, and it’s in 3D.
ME: I have to express my shock that you are distributed by the same distribution company as A SERBIAN FILM (2010) which is one of the most shocking and gratuitous films I think most of the industry has ever seen. So, how does it feel to have your movie distributed by the same company as A SERBIAN FILM?
STEPHEN: Oh, you know about that film do you? Yeah, Jinga Films with Julian Richards. Nice guys. I actually know those guys that made that movie and they seem pretty normal, I must say. They don’t really go drinking so I was quite surprised. But I didn’t see the film. That’s an interesting question because I never really thought about it. When we signed on with them, they didn’t have A SERBIAN FILM yet. So, the guys who are our distributors are really cool. They’re really fun and they’re not weird.
ME: Ah, good you are saying nice things about them because we’re on tape.
STEPHEN: Oh really? We’re on tape? Oh, I didn’t know!
ME: Yep! So, let’s get to your film. Your movie is IRON DOORS with Axel Wedekind and Rungano Nyoni. She was great by the way.
STEPHEN: Yes, she is!
ME: Can you tell us a quick summary of your film?
STEPHEN: No food. No water. No way out. Dying to get out.
ME: Wow! And I have the summary here: ‘A young man must escape from a mysterious locked vault before he dies from dehydration.’
STEPHEN: That pretty much nails it, doesn’t it?
ME: Well, tell us a bit about the film.
STEPHEN: Well, the interesting thing about the film is that it’s so limited that it should be boring after five minutes so if you weren’t bored after five minutes then we tried to do our job as good as we could and if you weren’t bored then I hope we succeeded because you know, as I always say, it’s four grey walls and one guy.
ME: You could’ve made him have a nervous tick, which would’ve added some spice to the whole thing. Like he could’ve hit himself all the time or cursed at random moments.
STEPHEN: Yeah, we could’ve made him shut up more too. In hindsight that would’ve been better. A nervous tick would’ve been good but then we didn’t set out to do a comedy.
ME: Well, it could’ve been a comedy horror.
STEPHEN: Don’t you think there were funny elements in the movie? Weren’t there? Like that scene where he makes the girl piss in his shoe so they can both have something to drink?
ME: LOL. Yes, he’s out of piss since he’s been stuck in the vault for 3 days so he makes her pee so they can both drink her piss to survive.
STEPHEN: Yeah, exactly. To stay alive. And when we were shooting the scene, I was going…’this is fucking funny’ and everyone else was going, ‘I don’t know. It’s a bit weird’. And I thought, ‘when this plays out on screen and you get it, it’s a really funny scene’. So, I’m not sure if everyone gets it but I thought it was really funny.
STEPHEN: The oxygen tank! Well, you know, he happens upon an oxygen tank. Some people would think that there would be a lack of oxygen in a vault but apparently not according to research. But there would be no water. So, not having enough water is the main problem.
ME: So, why an oxygen tank? Why does he happen upon an oxygen tank?
STEPHEN: That’s Part 2, you know! Well, in the vault there’s enough oxygen but if you work hard then you might have a problem with the oxygen level. And since he’s hacking a hole into the wall, it’s a problem so he might get out of breath so it’s basically based on household science. But then he opens the door to the next room which is full of new fresh oxygen and that problem disappears and he gets a load of new problems.
ME: For me, as I’ve said, the movie really begins when the luminous gorgeous Rungano Nyoni enters on screen and she’s just magic. Can you tell us about her?
STEPHEN: We cast her in London. We had about ten people in London for a casting session. We did a scene where they had to sing and she was really good at it and we though she was a really cool girl and she had some kind of charisma and we thought that was cool so that’s why we cast her. And she’s been in DR. WHO.
ME: Yes, she is really good. She’s young but with and old soul. There’s something very old and wise about her. She really steals the screen.
STEPHEN: Yes, and she’s been in a really cool British TV series called DR. WHO which I really think is super cool so we were pretty lucky to get her.
ME: She’s just gorgeous! And then they start to struggle to stay alive together. And what I thought was kind of cool is that they don’t understand each other. She’s speaking her native tongue, a South African local dialect while he starts to speak in his native German tongue as they try to break through the wall. That was my favorite moment in the film. That’s when they really start to connect even though neither of them understands each other but they’re both speaking to each other in their native tongue. That was very interesting. So, what do you think about all the different interpretations about your movie? You’ve had some people think maybe they get together at the end and live happily ever after. Some say maybe they both have died and gone to heaven. Maybe the vault is hell and the paradise outside is heaven. Or, as I had said, maybe the vault is a metaphor for life itself, that we’re all trapped here and, as Jim Morrison said, ‘no one gets out of here alive’. What do you think about all those interpretations?
STEPHEN: Well, when you’re directing you have to decide on one interpretation so for me there is one clear interpretation that I put in there but I didn’t want to explain it so much that everybody has to get it. Because I also think that movie works on a subjective level that you get a feeling for what it’s about without you actually having to get exactly the feeling of what it might be. It was important for me that I knew what the story is but I didn’t want to spread it out too much. If you get it, it’s good. If you don’t get it, you might be lost. If you get a feeling of what it’s like, well, for me we’ve succeeded because it wasn’t boring. Because it was just four grey walls, one guy and then a second person appears and its like three rooms and it’s still 80 minutes. You can do TRANSFORMERS for 90 minutes of 110 and it’s still in a big danger of being boring even though there’s so much they throw on screen.
ME: And who says TRANSFORMERS isn’t boring?
STEPHEN: Yeah. Well…
ME: Well, that’s what’s so interesting about cinema. Often your opinions change about a film as time goes by and you have time to think about it and your ideas about a film can change. So, this is not your first film. You’ve made several films before.
STEPHEN: Yes, I’ve mainly directed DVD movies or TV movies. They’re not famous but I’ve done seven films before. But I wanted to do a movie that was actually an interesting subject. That’s why I did IRON DOORS. In the past I mainly do action comedies.
ME: And looking at your past films, you’ve worked with actor Axel Wedekind before. So, you guys have a special relationship. So, can you tell us more about IRON DOORS? What makes this movie different for you?
STEPHEN: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, when it starts it looks like a SAW film but then it’s not because nothing is happening and there’s all these kinds of things that it’s about but there’s all these red herrings. In the back of your head you’re thinking, ‘what’s going on here?’ But nothing is going on. So, in that way there’s more going on outside of the screen than on screen and that makes you have to think which is very interesting to me...What’d you think of the sex scene by the way?
ME: Great! How hard was that to film?
STEPHEN: Well, sex scenes are really hard to direct because first you have to determine why they’re having sex. Plus, she initiates it. And the thing is how do you direct a sex scene so it doesn’t look stupid?
ME: And I was even wondering when they wake up after if she was really there all along of maybe some kind of supernatural character who doesn’t really exist and that he dreamt her up all along.
STEPHEN: Exactly. And that’s actually part of the whole story because that’s something you can interpret. Is she actually there or is she just a figment of her imagination? Why is she there? For me, she is there and she does exist but she can be how you want it to be. The main problem was that, why does she have sex with him? And how to make the sex scene feel real? To be entertaining and something different. In the best case, this sex scene is a bit funny. It’s not too serious. It’s difficult to do. When we were shooting it, it was a very big discussion during the shoot why she should have sex with him.
ME: It feels real. It was good. And also, she isn’t just a bimbo. She goes from a weak character to taking control and she’s very modest and yet organic and instinctual at the same time.
STEPHEN: Yeah, and she has her breaking down point just before that scene. There’s no reason for her being there. They’ve lost all hope and there’s nothing positive there at that point. But also I believe that if you stick people in a room for a while they latch onto each other, even if they are totally different and under normal circumstances would never have gotten together. They’re from totally different cultures so there’s a culture clash and there’s that human thing once they’re stuck together. Like Axel’s character is an asshole and she is very closed off and they kind of change together in that hole. For her, there’s nothing left. She’ll be alone there if he dies.
ME: then they finally make their way out of the vault and walk into a kind of WHAT DREAMS MAY COME paradise scene situation. And we wonder there if that’s real or not.
STEPHEN: Yeah, there’s two possibilities there actually. After they have sex, there’s this point where everything goes kind of dark and that’s the point where he could’ve died. So, on one side he could be dead and goes to heaven. On the other side, they go together to heaven because he isn’t such an asshole as he seemed and he gets a lighter stage on the purgatory level because they didn’t kill each other inside that vault and they could have. There’s also the idea that they were both dead from he beginning of the film.
ME: Well, you know, whatever people say, you’ve had a whole evening with people in discussion about what the film could mean in so many varying symbolic ways so I cannot see a better success for a film then to get people discussing the meaning of it for so long and with so much interest. And through all the talking I’ve come to even like the film more and more myself. So, huge congrats on your film and making something fresh and new that people will not soon forget.
STEPHEN: Well, I’m so glad you liked it. Our main concern was for it not to get boring. I mean, we had a guy hacking away at a wall for 30 minutes.
ME: Well, you succeeded. What’s next for you?
STEPHEN: Well, I do commercials normally. So, Ill be directing several commercials, actually commercials for German cinemas. And actually we’re thinking about a new movie but that would be actually more action orientated.
ME: Well, congrats again. Very interesting film, to say the least. Looking forward to your next and hopefully to see you next year with a film again at FANTASTIC (and FUNTASTIC) ZAGREB!
Interview conducted by Vanessa McMahon July 05, 2011
photos by Vanessa McMahon
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