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Digging for Answers: A Conversation with J.T. Petty - Director of Soft for Digging
Conducted in mid August 2005
Interview Conducted By: Matthew Dean Hill

J.T. Petty is one of those dudes who is going to make an indelible mark...for the better...on horror films. He is confident in his vision, talented enough to execute that vision, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that he believes in the power of "story". Case in point, his amazing film Soft for Digging, which combined the creepy, cold-wasteland atmosphere of the Coen brothers with the eerie, character-driven weirdness of vintage David Lynch. I had the opportunity to talk with J.T. recently, and he shed some light on not only his creative process, but also on his thoughts about modern horror cinema.

Atrocities Cinema: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, J.T. Soft for Digging is quite an achievement on a miniscule budget. What was the budget exactly, and how did you get such "bang for your buck"?

J.T. Petty: We got Soft for Digging in the can for a little under six thousand bucks. I had the advantage of being in [film] school at the time, so I had access to a camera and some lights. But, the only way we got the movie shot on that budget was obsessive planning. The entire movie was edited at the storyboarding stage, including all the pixelated (twitchy animation) stuff. We only did second takes when we absolutely had to; our shooting ratio was less than two-to-one.

Atrocities Cinema: How did the project come into being? What were your inspirations for the story, and what were you trying to say?

J.T. Petty: The kernel idea for the movie was to do something with very little dialogue. I've always loved horror, so it felt natural to do it as a horror film. And the conventions of horror are so well established that I felt like I could trust an audience to know the basic story I was going to tell, and focus more on the visual elements of the movie. It was important to me that the one big speech in the movie confuse things more than explain anything. I love movies like Miller's Crossing, where you'll be hopelessly confused if you pay more attention to the dialogue than to the visual language.

Atrocities Cinema: I can certainly see your point. A lot has been made of the almost total lack of dialogue in Soft for Digging, so much so that many people have gone so far as to call it a "silent film", for all intents. From my perspective, I couldn't disagree more! The sound design...encompassing everything from daily, mundane sounds to screams and subhuman grunts...is absolutely riveting. Was this simply a stylistic choice, or is there something more or less "practical" behind that decision?

J.T. Petty: I think people just call it a "silent film" because it's a convenient phrase. The biggest practicality about focusing so explicitly on sound design was to make the movie frightening. I suppose it's almost a cliche by now that if you don't want to be scared in a movie, you cover your ears...not your eyes. Sound is so insidious, so much more so than spoken words. I stole hand over fist from David Lynch's sound design in Blue Velvet and Eraserhead. I took a lot from [the original] Texas Chain Saw Massacre as well; I think that movie has an incredible narratively-entwined sound design.

Atrocities Cinema: It's funny that you mention David Lynch and Eraserhead, in particular. As I watched Soft for Digging, I kept thinking about how much the structure and style, while unique, had much in common with Lynch's earlier work. I found bits of The Elephant Man in there, too. This isn't mere "imitation" on your part, though...it's what all filmmakers do (or should do). The very nature of film, I think, is that one should take what one needs to get a point across...visually or audibly. To paraphrase Quentin Tarantino, "I steal from movies constantly, but I steal from the best!" To what extent do you "steal" from other movies? What other directors and films do you consider major influences on you and your work?

J.T. Petty: I steal left and right; I think it would be impossible not to, and crazy for anybody to claim differently. My only complaint would be when people "borrow" instead of "steal". I'm not big into homage; I feel like something's only worth taking if you're going to make it your own. For Soft for Digging, I stole a lot from Andrej Rublev, The Evil Dead, Miller's Crossing, Violent Cop, The Shining, and Jacob's Ladder. I'm sure there are others in there.

Atrocities Cinema: This question is kind of a custom for me...I ask it of all independent directors. If you had been in a situation, during the conceptualization and production of Soft for Digging, where you had a much higher budget or more resources in general (time, materials, sets, what have you), would there be a "short list" of things that you would have done differently? Would you have taken a different approach to anything about the movie had your resources been a bit more plentiful?

J.T. Petty: It's a tough question. It's kind of like asking a parent how they would have raised their children so they'd be less ashamed of them. However, there are certainly parts of Soft for Digging I'd like to re-shoot after seeing them in the editing room. Some of the constraints I learned to like, though. For example, I certainly would have shot on 35mm if we had had the money, but I actually think 16mm is better for the film as it is; I love the narrow aspect ratio and deep focus, and think there's a really nice claustrophobic feel to it.

Atrocities Cinema: Fair enough. In general, would you consider yourself a "horror film fan"? What are some of your favorite horror films, and why?

J.T. Petty: I'm definitely a horror film fan. I heard Carol Clover describe them [horror films] as "ground zero for filmmaking", and I think that's true in a lot of ways. It feels like you're getting at the heart of what's going on in movies with horror, getting away from dialogue, into subjective experiences, into visions and untrustworthy realities. It makes sense that no other genre is as full of point-of-view shots and dream sequences; horror seems to be trying to put its audience directly into the heads of its characters. A random list of horror films I like - Don't Look Now, The Shining, Odishon (aka Audition), Dreyer's Vampyr, Jaws, Parents, Kairo (aka Pulse), Jacob's Ladder, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I don't think modern horror could exist without Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and I'd say it's the only horror movie I know of that doesn't age.

Atrocities Cinema: It's interesting how most of the films you mentioned are far more visual than they are visceral. In Soft for Digging, the special effects...both visual and practical...are minimalist but quite effective. How do you feel about gore? What about the overreliance on CGI effects in many larger-scale horror films these days?

J.T. Petty: I like gore, but it has its place. I think brutality is so much more effective. Look at how little blood is in Texas Chain Saw. Look at how much harder to watch the monologues are in Manhunter than any of the scenes of violence. Gore for me is almost always a relief; the real horror is in the moments leading up to it. And, I think the best horror filmmakers know this. When Takashi Miike really wants to make us squirm, he lingers on the things that don't result in founts of blood - needles and fish hooks, off screen cable saws... CGI's an incredible tool that's being abused.

Atrocities Cinema: Again, fair enough. On to other things. So, I understand you're doing a documentary about the "underground horror scene". Care to give the Atrocities Cinema.com audience some tidbits about that project? I know you've been talking with some of the folks over at Toe Tag Pictures. Give us the details, man! The details!

J.T. Petty: I'm nervous talking about a project I'm not finished with, especially one with so many wild cards as this underground horror thing I'm trying to piece together. The folks at Toe Tag Pictures are absolutely very fucked up, and have put together some of the least pleasant images I think I've seen on film. Did you hear about Fred [Vogel] getting arrested on the Canadian border a few weeks ago under the obscenity laws? But, all the Toe Tag guys are great; Fred Vogel's probably going to have a sizable effect on American horror.

Atrocities Cinema: Yeah, I heard about Fred. Censorship and intolerance rear their ugly heads yet again! So, what else is on the horizon for you as a filmmaker? Will you be working with any of your Soft for Digging colleagues again in the future?

J.T. Petty: The biggest thing on my horizon at the moment is a horror/western I have rumbling at Lion's Gate. I have brought back my DP [director of photography] Patrick McGraw from Soft for Digging to shoot the underground horror project I'm working on now, and again he's doing amazing work with the extremely stingy resources I'm giving him.

Atrocities Cinema: We'll all be looking forward to your future projects, J.T. Now, where do you think the genre is going from here? What's the future of horror cinema, as you perceive it?

J.T. Petty: I hope the genre makes a hard swerve out of PG-13, but that's going to depend on what horror movies people go see. Studios won't fund more "hard" horror films if audiences won't buy tickets. But, I'd be willing to bet that horror's going to get a lot closer to real life, politically and otherwise...whether that's horror growing closer to reality or vice versa is up in the air!

Atrocities Cinema: You heard it here (again) people! If you ignore the PG-13 dreck, it'll go away! So, finally...do you have any advice for young...or not so young...up-and-coming filmmakers?

J.T. Petty: Just all the old saws about hard work, honesty...all that. Movies in general are an impossible business, and anybody trying to break in without being born into Hollywood Royalty will have to work like the devil on a steady diet of shit. How's that for encouragement? A sunnier answer would be that the cost of making movies is steadily declining. There's sufficient technology to make beautiful video out there...and not necessarily by imitating the look of film stock...and digital editing is dirt cheap. Go ahead and make your movies! Most of of the movies that changed how we see horror were made well outside of Hollywood.

Atrocities Cinema: Great point..."from adversity is borne genius", and all that. Well, thanks J.T.! You've certainly shed some light on not only Soft for Digging, but also on how you feel about this thing called horror cinema! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. I'm sure I speak for all of my readers here at Atrocities Cinema.com when I wish you the best of luck!

J.T. Petty: Thanks! It was fun. Best of luck, and thanks for your interest. Hope I was "atrocious" enough.

Atrocities Cinema: It'll do...it'll do...thanks again!

More interviews to come soon...

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