featured Interview

Sook-Yin Lee on How Ghosts, Music and the Italian Horror Genre Come Together in ‘Octavio is Dead!’

June 24, 2018Ben MK

You may know her as a broadcaster, a musician, an actor or a filmmaker, but either way you slice it, the conclusion is the same — Sook-Yin Lee is a modern day Renaissance woman.

Octavio is Dead!, Lee's years-in-the-making followup to her directorial feature debut, 2009's Year of the Carnivore, stars Alias Grace's Sarah Gadon as Tyler, a young woman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery and sexual awakening, after learning of the death of her estranged father, Octavio (Raoul Max Trujillo). The film also stars Rosanna Arquette as Tyler's mother, Joan, and is now playing in select theatres, after enjoying its world premiere at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival earlier this month.

I recently caught up with Lee to find out more about Octavio is Dead!, including the real-life experiences that inspired the movie, the amazing cast, how the Italian horror genre has influenced the film, and more.

First off, where did the idea for this film come from?

Lee: Well, the idea for the movie came from a real experience that I had in Barcelona some years ago. I was traveling alone, and my friend, her dad had recently passed away, and he wasn't a big part of her life growing up, so she had been pretty much estranged from him. But he had left her everything, including his attico in Barcelona. She knew that I was traveling; I met her in the streets of London, and she offered the key to her dad's place for me to stay for free. And of course, I thought, "Yay, that's cheap." And so I took the key — it looked like an ancient key that would open the door to a castle — and I made my way to the city, to his place.

It's a very circuitous city, Barcelona. Traveling at night, alone, in the summer, was in itself spooky. And then finally finding his place, a very old building, a tiny, tiny, tiny elevator, a huge door that went up his place — going into his house and opening the door and finding the stench of a body, the stale heat of summer poured out onto me. And a lamp was on, and when I walked in, I saw the remnants of his life, down to his socks that looked like they had been freshly removed from his feet and rolled up beside his slippers. I could feel there was kind of a presence in there, and I warned him, "I come in peace, I know it must be weird that a stranger is in your house, but I'm a friend of your daughter's and I'm just going to be here for a few days."

But I'm Chinese Canadian, and the idea of ghosts — or non-corporeal afterlife beings — were commonplace growing up in my family. We'd leave offerings to the dead, so culturally, it's kind of matter-of-fact. It's just like, "Hey, could you please put the orange out for your uncle." [laughs] It's like that, but in this case, I was very strongly aware of this feeling of him. So oddly it's a very curious and otherworldly movie, but strangely so much of what happens is derived from a real-life experience, down to some poltergeist-like things that started to happen when it seemed like he was trying to push me out, me accidentally flooding the angry neighbor's place downstairs, and me having to bathe outside in his dead garden; those types of things.

In the case of what happened to me, the poet put up with me a lot more. At first he wanted me out, but then after a while I think we became endeared to one another, to a point that when it came time for me to leave, it became apparent that he did not want me to leave, because all of the electricity in the whole building stopped working and I couldn't even get down the elevator.

So because I had the memory of what it was like, that really helped to inform the look of the film — sort of a light and darkness, even down to the color of his apartment, and the color of his bathroom. In fictionalizing this story, I thought it would be much more interesting if instead of a friend of a friend going to meet that person, what would that look like if it was the daughter herself, having been estranged from her biological father, only to encounter him in a posthumous state after he leaves her everything.

So your experience that inspired the movie took place in Barcelona, but Octavio is Dead! is set in Canada (Hamilton, Ontario, to be specific). Can you tell me more about the decision to change the film's setting?

Lee: It was more than a year after it happened; I went back there to take photos, and I was in a subway in rush hour, very crammed. A seat became available, and I walked over and sat down, and across from me there was a man reading a book. And on the back of the book, there was the poet — my friend, staring at me from that back of his book — and I was like, "Wait a minute, is that a very common book?" And the man was like, "No, I just got it from the reference library, there have only been a few hundred published." And there was my poet, Ferraté, looking back at me, almost as if to say, "Hey friend, you’re back here." [laughs]

So I knew that I wanted to make the movie; and originally I was going to shoot it in Barcelona, but then I wasn't able to because the recession hit. And then I adapted it for Mexico city — another wonderful city of books — but then there were political events that I touch upon in the film that the Mexican government really don't want to talk about or dredge up again; specifically, the Tlatelolco massacre that occurred in 1968. That's a kind of point in this film that I kind of touch upon in terms of Octavio's background and why he's fleeing his home country.

I was unable to confirm financing in another country, and in my broadcasting documentary work I was encountering people who were also political refugees unable to return to their home. And it was even more dramatic when they're stuck in Canada — kind of a fish out of water here — and how they make their lives outside of their home country, knowing they can never return. It seemed even more dramatic. And as soon as I made this decision to not leave Canada, then the story really came together for me.

Can you tell me more about the cast? How did Sarah Gadon, Rosanna Arquette and Raoul Max Trujilo become attached to the movie?

Lee: There's a handful of wonderful actors that I can see playing Joan, Tyler's mom, and Rosanna was one of them. And I pursued her — and I've pursued a lot of people, but usually you have to talk to their agents, and they're usually really not receptive. Trying to go through agents is pretty tough, especially for indie movies. But for some reason, Rosanna returned my email and read the script and loved it and wanted to work with me. She was amazing.

I've seen Raoul Trujillo in Sicario, Denis Villeneuve's movie, and it was one of those movies where you're distracted by a supporting actor. I'm totally captivated with Raoul, and so I knew as soon as I started to cast it, he was one of the first people. And again, Raoul is oftentimes typecast in movies and television shows; he often plays the bad guy, the thug, the biker. And in this case, he really identified with the character of Octavio, and he had really wanted to play a kind of intellectual. Raoul is very much like Octavio in many ways.

And then with Sarah Gadon, Sarah got a hold of the script and the story really resonated for her. She was really excited to play a character so different from the characters she's portrayed in films so far. I mean, Sarah's a very physically beautiful woman; she's blonde, she's almost like a porcelain doll. But when you meet her in real life, what you don't see is that she's kind of a tomboy. She's Italian, and she's got a kind of rooted, tough, Italian quality to her. She's very straightforward, very straight-speaking.

When I met her at her house, I was like, "This is not the house of a frilly girl, a girly young woman." It looks like a guy's place. It looks like a university student dude who leaves his pizza boxes on the floor. And just the way she deals — in my relationships with men, there's a very direct kind of quality of talking — she's just so very direct. So there's a great deal of masculine energy that she possesses, but within the entertainment world, she tends to play with more feminine imagery. I think she's still acting when she's presenting that way, so I think there's something very interesting for her to take on this role and see if she could do it; and certainly she could.

Then I found Dimitris Kitsos, who's a brilliant actor from Greece. I met him over Skype after him being recommended by a friend of mine who's a cinephile, who had seen so many art films. And Dimitris made a big splash in a movie by Sofia Exarchou — her movie was called Park — and he's overwhelming great. I was at my wit's end trying to find this character, and we really hit it off, and he understood the character. He brought even more to the character that was on the page. He was a great, great collaborator.

And then there are so many wonderful, sort of underground Canadian creators as well. There's Sasha Van Bon Bon (Alex Tigchelaar), who is a sex work activist, and also a theatre-maker and a PhD candidate and a dancer in a men's club. There's some really great paintings, one by Kris Knight. The title sequence is by Arrington Dionyso. And Laura Dodd did Octavio's painted portrait. So it's chockablock full of wonderful, underground Canadian creators, plus more mainstream American and Canadian actors.

Earlier you touched upon how you kind of fell back on your broadcasting experience. And, of course, you've directed one feature prior to this one, as well as several short films. What did you learn from those experiences, that you applied to this movie?

Lee: So I acted in Shortbus, and I made another feature, but it was an omnibus picture with four directors called Toronto Stories. I think from working with John Cameron Mitchell — a person that's really a mentor to me — on Hedwig the Angry Inch and Shortbus, I've learned so much in terms of the kind of set that I want to create. I want to create sort of a respectful, fun and also hard-working set; a set where everybody can bring their A-game forward and feel freedom to create, but also a good sense of camaraderie. So I really try to make that happen behind the scenes.

And especially for the actors too, it's really important to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable and do all those things that I need them to do. I was one of the characters in Shortbus, and to be inside the actor's mind and have to take on a challenging and sexual role in that situation has given me great insight into what the vulnerabilities and sensitivities are for actors on the other side of the camera when they are revealing themselves in a physical way and revealing themselves in an emotional way.

I wish that I could make films more often. It's just making movies requires a lot of money, and so I wish I could hone my skills with a quicker turnaround time. But I guess at least I can rely on my memory; you know, learning to block quickly, learning to move on quickly, learning how to talk to actors. I think I have that — especially developed through my broadcast work in doing interviews, and trying to get very difficult and personal experiences from strangers. I think there's a lot of psychology that is shared when you're speaking with actors, so as a performer I understand what is happening and what they need as well.

But there are the mechanics as well. This was a very fast shoot — like a 17-day shoot — just crazy. And Daniel Grant, the cinematographer, and I planned it to a tee. We knew that we could have maximum three setups, and in my mind's eye and in Daniel's eye, we came up with the choreography of the shots. We knew how the camera would move and what needed to happen going into it; and, of course, that would change in the moment. we'd recognize something that might work better, but we really had to go in there with a master list. So this last one, it's a complicated movie and it's going into challenging psychological terrain, but you want to make it beautiful as well.

And so I got Elisa Sauve, who's a fantastic production designer. I have folders and folders of materials and photographs and images that I've been sort of curating together to create the look and feel of this world, and so it's a real shorthand for me to give her all those things, walk through the experience, tell her what I was thinking, and then have her interpret all of that.

I'm so lucky to be able to work with actors who are not divas, who are not troublesome, that are just bringing it every time and will give it all they've got. And a team that works together, that's why that camaraderie is so important. It's such a tight turnaround, if somebody is having a fit and is being disruptive, it can't happen. You need to have good people working together, with their eye on the prize.

You're also a musician, of course, and you helped to create the score for the film. Can you tell me more about that?

Lee: I knew I was gonna be leaning into atmospherics and the language of haunted movies and supernatural films. I wanted it to be mysterious and have it be very, very rich, but also a little spooky and uncertain. To create that atmosphere is really exciting to me, but I'm also really a fan of Dario Argento's Italian horror movies and his collaboration with Goblin, the band, who did a lot of the score. I'm a big fan of Nino Rota, who did Fellini's films. I really admire and appreciate the close relationship between director and composer. So I knew that I wanted it psychedelic, and the score itself, in my mind, sort of captures the emotional subconscious of the film.

Adam Litovitz and I and Alia O'Brien did the music score for the movie. And Alia O’Brien is a brilliant musician; she's the front person of the doom metal band Blood Ceremony. She's fantastic. She plays a number of instruments. She's also an ethnomusicologist, and she's going for her PhD in university right now. She's got huge composer chops, compared to Adam and I.

We describe what we do in the soundtrack kind of like "dirt and bone" next to her more "composerly" pieces. And those two worlds really collide beautifully. It's just a strange, strange world, and I think so much of it is the music. So we released an album of the original score on Last Gang. It really stands up as an album on its own as well. There's a lot of experimentation, a lot of very weird feelings evoked through the music.

You mentioned Argento as a reference point of sorts in crafting the music for the movie. Were there any other films that served as an influence in other ways?

Lee: Yeah, certainly Mario Bava; he's also an Italian horror movie maker. His scores are very interesting, and his use of intense colors and shadows is pretty cool. Dario Argento, certainly. But also, I really love Abel Ferrara's work, Ms .45. I wanted to take a bold work, not kind of downbeat, you know? I just wanted to do something that was a memorable film and aesthetically bold.

The score itself is extremely bold, and the look of the movie is very bold, the characters are bold. So there's that quality, but at the heart of it — even though I'm playing with these sort of genre aesthetics — it is about the coming of age of Tyler, and a young person transforming, shedding the past, and becoming another through delving into an unknown past in her estranged father.

And then also trying to understand — here we are born, and we're told what we're supposed to be. We are our name, we're given a name, society tells us what gender we are, etc. etc. We're molded and shaped, and so here is this person that's coming to question all of those kinds of labels that have been hoisted upon her that have never quite fit comfortably. And so she's playing in fluidity in terms of gender and sexuality.

Also, I am drawn towards relationship movies and specific sexual dynamics, because I do find that that is where a lot of drama occurs. There is a desire for connection between people, and yet there is a kind of fear of the other; how much do we let somebody in, how much are we able to express to another. It's always fraught, and it's vulnerable and challenging and difficult. So many explosions occur when people are just trying to get together.

As an indie filmmaker and musician, you've survived and thrived while still managing to stay true to your own ideologies. What kind of advice do you have for other aspiring creators?

Lee: I think it's really important to follow your own curiosities and passions, to uncover what those are and be okay with not knowing, but just look for the stuff that you're curious about. And dig into that. I come from a kind of post-punk world, growing up in the West coast where, as musicians, we rewarded idiosyncratic, individual expression. We loved to see bands where somebody was just doing their thing, that no one else could ever do. It's just like our world — only you can see the world in your way. And find out what that way is, and let that way be, and express that. That's pretty darn exciting.

Octavio is Dead! is now playing in Toronto and Regina.

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