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An Interview with James Morgart, Writer and Executive Producer of Model Hunger

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2012

James Morgart on (re)Search my Trash

 

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You have written and executive produced the upcoming movie Model Hunger - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Someone once told me that you should always be able to accurately summarize your script in one sentence. So my one sentence pitch would be:

 

Model Hunger is about a failed model preying on young women who exhibit body types that elbowed her out of the industry.

 

Honestly, that’s only one of three subplots within the film though. The first follows Ginny – the failed model – played by Lynn Lowry. A second follows Ginny’s neighbors, Debbie and Sal – played by Tiffany Shepis [Tiffany Shepis interview - click here] and Carmine Capobianco. And a third follows a television show featuring my good friend Suzi Lorraine [Suzi Lorraine interview - click here].

It’s a crazy script performed by a wonderful cast and engineered by a dedicated crew. All of which Debbie Rochon [Debbie Rochon interview - click here] really breathed life into as director and producer.

 

I've read somewhere that Model Hunger is based on a short story of yours called Ginny - to what extent did your script follow your story, and why pick this story of yours to begin with?

 

I wrote the short story Ginny about five years ago, and it was published about four years ago in the now-defunct Gorezone (the UK horror fanzine). Ultimately, the short story served as a springboard for the script. Ginny is told in a sort of stream of consciousness format as the reader follows (or attempts to follow) Ginny’s internal thoughts when she encounters a young woman. What Ginny does to the young woman in the short story is incredibly different from what happens in the film though. And the film doesn’t put the audience into Ginny’s mind quite as much as the short story did.

 

Instead, while writing the script, I sought to have a little fun with the reliability of narratives without straying too far from a conventional linear narrative. Since I was reading a lot of Gothic-horror works while I was writing, I wanted to play with the Gothic convention without straying into Memento territory yet and at the same time avoid being too formulaic. As M. Night Shyamalan has found out, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to out-master Hitchcock’s mastery of Gothic storytelling. Although the film isn’t cut yet, so you never know, Debbie could always have even more fun with it in post than I had with it in the writing phase.

 

As to why I chose it, I would have to say because the story haunted me. Once I thought up Ginny, I couldn’t get her out of my head. Even when we worked on Won Ton Baby!, I was asking the makeup artists on the little downtime we had about the different ways we could make the film happen. I felt Ginny’s life was tragic, and I felt personally invested in it for various reasons. So once I started working on the script, I put everything I could into it. What came out was something that I thought was the best script I had written to date.

 

James Morgart on the set of Model Hunger

What were your inspirations when writing Model Hunger (and Ginny, actually), and to what extent does it reflect your personal views of the modeling industry?

 

Everything in my life inspires me as a writer. One thing I make a concerted effort towards is to remain aware as I work in the direction of a final draft. No one can avoid aspects of their life, surrounding culture, works of literature or film they’ve digested or are digesting, etc. from seeping into and affecting their creative work. However, if one slows down, takes a step back from their work, and analyzes it as they go along, they should be able to recognize things about themselves and their life that are reflected in their work. So, for me, the writing process serves as an opportunity to not only exorcise demons, but to also work through them, comment on them, and sometimes give a nod and a wink to different groups of people who are to come across it. I know it’s cliché to say that writing is therapeutic, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t use it to that end.

 

That said, the more direct answer in terms of what inspired me would be to say that it was the women in my life as well as some film criticism I had come across at the time. I was reading some of the work of feminist film theorist/critic Laura Mulvey as well as the film criticism of Robin Wood – both of which made me consider how we, as viewers, interact with women on the screen. Mulvey’s work has been especially vocal about how women are portrayed in the screen and how we, as viewers, engage them. Wood was a very passionate critic who championed films that other critics might turn aside such as Day of the Dead. Feeling inspired, I tried to engage their work in my own way.

 

More importantly though, I’ve had a lot of friends who have wanted to be models or actresses, and I’ve seen them experience some rather horrific and unfortunate events in their lives because of their profession. When I finally started making films, I came across more actresses and models who would recall some of the experiences they’d gone through or compromises they felt they needed to make that were done with the hope of advancing their careers.

In my opinion, women are faced with an uphill battle if they want to succeed. And if they genuinely enjoy something that involves their physical appearance like acting or modeling, they’re even more limited by the severe lack of options and a rather obvious double standard. It should probably go without saying that any actress or model who gets involved in the industry most likely knows the situation (or has some idea of it) going in, but I don’t think that should excuse the lack of interesting roles made available to actresses nor should it excuse the ridiculous constraints put on models in terms of “beauty.”

Unfortunately, I think the “problem” goes deeper than just the notion that our society or economic system has a standard of beauty that’s unattainable. I think it’s much more insidious than that. For me, it wouldn’t matter if the standard of beauty shifted; the system in place would merely adapt to the cultural shift in order to exploit whatever that new standard is.

With all those things swirling in my mind, I wrote the script for Model Hunger.

 

How did the project get off the ground in the first place?

 

Debbie Rochon with Wolfgang Meyer filming

Model Hunger

Actually, there were several false starts before it finally got off the ground. The final draft of the script that I took to investors was finished about three years ago. In fact, I pitched the script to my late friend Michael J. Hein (founder of the NYC Horror Film Festival) [Michael J.Hein interview - click here] and we’d spoken about him producing it because I’m pursuing a doctoral degree in literature and I knew that I wouldn’t have the time to put together all the logistics (logistics that, thankfully, Greg Lamberson [Gregory Lamberson interview - click here] – our line producer – and Debbie would eventually take charge of). In the meantime, I was working with Shannon Lark [Shannon Lark interview - click here] to put together a stellar business plan to raise finances as well as to handle marketing. Unfortunately, Michael passed away before getting anything formally off the ground.

 

From the start, I knew I wanted Debbie Rochon [Debbie Rochon interview - click here] involved. When we were shooting Won Ton Baby!, Debbie and I talked about films as I drove her to and from the set. The breadth of her film knowledge made me feel like I’d only scratched the surface of film history (to this day, she will randomly recommend films noir or marginal directors that I’ve never come across or have only heard of in passing). She also kept telling me of this film called Nowhere Man she was particularly proud of, and when I finally saw it, I not only enjoyed it, I wondered what sort of film she’d make if she helmed the production for my script.

 

I mentioned to her back then that I thought she should direct a film. Coincidentally, a couple months later, Greg made the same suggestion to Debbie while they were working on Slime City Massacre together. In fact, Debbie’s apparently been approached multiple times throughout her career (Lloyd Kaufman told me on the set that he’s been telling her to direct for years). After Won Ton Baby!, it became a running theme that whenever Debbie and I would talk, I’d always ask when she would direct a film. I told her she just needed to give me a synopsis for a film and I’d spin it into a script. Eventually, I decided to ask her if she’d be interested in directing Model Hunger. To my surprise (and my delight), she said yes.

 

Debbie Rochon on the set of

Model Hunger

Model Hunger is of course horror icon Debbie Rochon's debut as a director [Debbie Rochon interview - click here]. Why her, what can you tell us about Debbie Rochon the director, and what was your collaboration like?

 

Watching Debbie direct was an absolute privilege. She always knows precisely what she wants from an actor. She has this uncanny ability to know each actor’s limitations and how to push those limitations without breaking the actor or ruining her rapport with them.

 

She also came onboard incredibly prepared. She had been working on the visuals for about a year leading up to production. Knowing in advance exactly what she wanted visually allowed her to simultaneously get as much out of her DP as possible and to focus her energies on working with the actors in the moment. What Debbie did on Model Hunger as a director was basically demonstrate a clinic on how to effectively and efficiently direct an independent film.

 

So to say that collaborating with her was a dream would be an understatement. When she agreed to direct the film, I knew from speaking with her that she had a vision as to what this film could be and what themes as well as what aesthetics she wished to draw out. Each time I spoke with her provided another reason to be excited for the project to come to life. In the end, I think we have a very special film on our hands – a work that actually says something, is gorgeous visually, features really powerful acting, and is highly marketable. That’s a very rare thing, and it will be a film that everyone involved can be proud of. I owe Debbie the world for that.

 


Considering you're a director yourself - most notably of Won Ton Baby!, incidently starring Debbie Rochon [Won Ton Baby! interview here] -, did you never feel the urge to direct Model Hunger yourself, and how hands-on or hands-off have you been as writer/producer when it came to creative decisions?

 

To be honest, I very much felt the urge to direct the film because of how much I put into the script and the rollercoaster ride I’d gone through in getting the film off the ground. But I also tell people all the time that not enough independent filmmakers collaborate with one another, and if we don’t collaborate with new people, we can often find ourselves repeating the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. Personally, I feel I have a lot to learn as a director (and subsequently, watching Debbie direct taught me truckloads), whereas years of training and working has made me incredibly confident in my writing skills. I knew I wrote the best script I could possibly write at the time that I wrote it. But with my focus on graduate school, directing would have been too much to handle and far too selfish.  When Debbie accepted my offer to take the helm, I was relieved that I had made the decision in advance not to direct it because I knew she’d make it a priority to put all the right specialists in place to fulfill her vision.

 

Tiffany Shepis

Aurelio Voltaire

(Lynn Lowry in the background)

Regardless of being producer and writer, I never wanted Debbie to feel as though her hands were tied to any visuals I might have had in my mind from when I was writing. More often than not, ten people can visualize ten completely different films from reading the same script. Just as the short story I wrote years ago served as a springboard for my writing the script, I wanted the script to be a springboard for Debbie to make the film.  So even though Debbie and I were on the same page with many aspects of the film, I feel as though the world she created is far more impressive than the world I would have created. In that respect, I think a film like this showcases what happens when creative minds collaborate and aren’t territorial over the material.

 

A few words about Model Hunger's cast, and to what extent were you involved in the casting process?

 

Lynn Lowry

The cast is amazing. I am genuinely afraid of Lynn Lowry and Mary Bogle because of the power they brought to their performances and the fear that they can evoke from a viewer. The range of both Tiffany Shepis [Tiffany Shepis interview - click here] and Michael Thurber was surreal. In fact, there were a couple times I couldn’t watch Tiffany’s scenes because of how moving they were. Carmine Capobianco and Aurelio Voltaire who are normally known for their comedic roles also really impressed me with their dramatic work. Brian Fortune also gave a really gritty performance. Of course, there was Suzi Lorraine [Suzi Lorraine interview - click here] who probably gave the craziest performance of her career thus far and will really take people by surprise I think. Even minor roles are filled by such strong talent that it’s difficult not to say enough good things about the cast.

 

My involvement in casting was largely listening to Debbie’s suggestions as to who she thought would be best suited for each role. She knew exactly the performances she wanted for each role, and I think each decision she made was well calculated. Essentially, I put together auditions in NYC with the help of Kimberly Magness and Adam Torkel (Greg Lamberson coordinated a couple auditions in Buffalo), and I also brought on Suzi Lorraine (I’d written the part with her mind, actually). Aside from that, the cast was Debbie’s call.

 

What can you tell us about the actual shoot and the on-set atmosphere?

 

We had a total of 20 shooting days with two of them in NYC and the remainder up in Buffalo.  NYC was really fun as we had the privilege of shooting at the School of Visual Arts thanks to Roy Frumkes and to Greg’s efforts.  Buffalo was also a great experience which involved some typical horror moments such as a shooting and staying in an apartment building where at least four deaths took place (and, according to some of our crew, was supposedly haunted).  Greg worked with the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission to land some interesting and beneficial locations which assisted to add a much needed dimension to the film in order to secure Debbie’s vision.

 

Overall, it was a positive experience with many of the obstacles and frustrations one expects to have when making an independent film. Fortunately we had a great production team that Debbie had largely put in place as we had talent coming into Buffalo from NYC and LA collaborating with some cast and crew that Greg had on the ground in Buffalo. In spite of not knowing one another, everyone gelled and made a hell of a film. As I said before, Debbie knew what she wanted from the start, and having an LP like Greg, a DP like Wolfgang Meyer [Wolfgang Meyer interview - click here], an SFX artist like Emmy-winner Ingrid Okola, a sound recordist like Adam Bloch, a production designer like Jen Morgart, wardrobe designer like Sunny Walker, and all the PA’s who pitched in made all the difference.

 

The $64-question of course: When and where will the film be released, tentatively?

 

Right now, we’re aiming for 2013. Debbie has been putting together a terrific post team she can work closely with, so hopefully we’ll have a few clips ready for AFM in November and be hitting the festival circuit with the finished product in the spring.

 

Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

We should be getting the website out in the coming months, but for now, fans can check out our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ModelHunger as well as our Twitter: @ModelHunger

Also, check out Debbie’s website: www.debbierochon.com

 

Any future projects beyond Model Hunger?

 

Right now, I’m focused on academics. I have my dissertation on Postwar American Gothic literature and film to write for my PhD. I’m also working on an article about Gothic aesthetics in film from the 1920s up to 1960. It’s an article I’m really excited about since it’s for a book being published by Routledge titled The Gothic World. The book is set to have all the major scholars in Gothic studies writing articles that will serve as a primer for anyone seeking out information about Gothic works and culture. It was a real honor for me to be asked to be involved. I’m also serving as a reader for a professor working on an article about Hitchcock and philosopher René Girard.

 

Outside of critical work, I have a personal rule of not starting preproduction on a new project until the last one’s been sold. So I won’t formally commit to another film until Model Hunger has a distribution deal in place.

 

That said, I have a comic book adaptation of Won Ton Baby! I co-wrote with Michael Varrati which was illustrated by Keryn Thompson that should be finished any day now. Michael wrote an amazingly hysterical storyline and is responsible for the most hysterical parts of the book. He went through an English graduate program like myself, so it’s always a blast to collaborate with him and trade war stories about academic life. Meanwhile, Keryn has done a wildly fantastic job with the visuals and she’s someone I think has a really bright future as an artist. The comic book is something I’m really excited to get it out to the public.

I’m also itching to collaborate with a number of filmmakers like Michael Varrati, Shannon Lark [Shannon Lark interview - click here], Crispin Glover, Joe Hollow [Joe Hollow interview - click here], Jennifer Morgart, and others. I have over a dozen scripts (including a sequel to Won Ton Baby! and a prequel to Model Hunger) and two Gothic novels I’ve set on the backburner until I find the right amount of time to dedicate to them. I’m also just so grateful to Debbie, and enjoy so thoroughly what she’s put together, that I’d be thrilled to collaborate with her as director again in the future. But we’ll see. The film has to be put out first, and finishing school is a priority for me.

 

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In addition to all the creative and academic work, I also serve as the Director of Media and Distribution for Viscera Film Festival (www.viscerafilmfestival.com). It is a non-profit women’s horror film festival founded by Shannon and co-directed by her and Heidi Honeycutt that helps to promote female horror filmmakers and to push against what Lloyd Kaufman has astutely identified as the “blood ceiling” in the indie horror industry. We toured the festival in over 20 cities across the world last year and have been featured on two university campuses so far – this past year Shannon even secured the famous Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard for the main event. My involvement with the festival is something I am extremely proud of, and if we can keep the same core of people involved, I think we can continue to grow it exponentially over the next decade. Unfortunately, being non-profit presents many financial burdens and hurdles.

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

No, sir!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

Thank you!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
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A Killer Conversation

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