Seeing director Zack Parker’s new thriller Proxy will undoubtedly represent two of the most unforgettable hours you spend in the cinema this year – if, that is, you can get past the first five minutes. In the film, Alexia Rasmussen plays a heavily pregnant woman named Esther who loses her baby as the result of a brutal beating, which takes place in the aforementioned opening minutes, and subsequently befriends another bereaved mother called Melanie (Alexa Havins) at a grief support group. But is Melanie quite what she seems? And, for that matter, is Esther?
We can’t tell you any more – not even the identities of the characters played by co-stars Joe Swanberg and Kristina Klebe – for fear of spoiling matters. But we can say that Parker’s fourth film is both extreme and extremely interested in being one, or maybe six steps, ahead of the audience at every point, right until the final seconds.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I was absolutely gripped by Proxy. I mean, almost walked out after the first few scenes, but then I was absolutely gripped.
ZACK PARKER: Ah, okay.
I’m guessing I may not be the first person to say that to you.
[Laughs] It’s something we’ve been dealing with a little bit. But it was fairly expected. I feel I needed to hit the audience pretty hard at the beginning of this one. I tend to be what people would call a “slow burn” filmmaker. So [I thought] if you hit hard at the beginning, you give [viewers] the sense that anything can happen in this film, that would then earn me the time to build story and build character, with almost this unspoken promise that something like this could happen again. And I feel like it kind of does.
People can actually watch the first five minutes of the film online. Is it fair to say that is part enticement and part warning?
I think so. It’s a good taste of what you’re in for with the film. And if you can get past that part, then you can definitely stomach the rest. But I think there’s been this controversy that’s been built up over it, so I think they wanted to show people what the film was [so they can] make sure it’s going to be something for them. Or it’s almost sort of this dare.
You really succeed in wrong-footing the viewer over and over again.
That was a lot of the intent going in. As an audience member myself, and as a bona fide cinephile, and consumer of films, what I appreciate nowadays is a film that surprises me. Because I do feel that audiences have become quite savvy. Generally in those first 10 to 15 minutes you have a good idea who the characters are and what their relationships are going to be and even a decent idea of what the story arc is going to be. My hope was that we could take those expectations and turn them on the audience and given them something a little different.
What was the genesis of the project?
Something I’m very interested in right now is experimenting with storytelling structure. My last film Scalene did that to a certain degree. With this one, I wanted to even push it again a bit further. And also I’m also very interested in dealing with a subject matter that I feel like I haven’t seen in film before. My co-writer Kevin Donner and I started talking about a mental condition called Munchausen by Proxy (in which a caregiver exaggerates or fabricates physical or mental problems in a person they are looking after) and we started discussing how we’d never really seen that topic portrayed in a film before. That really became the seed of where the story began.
Given the nature of the material, did you have problems casting the film?
There were certainly people that were turned off from it. We knew that especially for the two lead female roles that we needed to find actresses that would embrace the challenge of them. They had to go to some pretty dark places within the context of the film. I knew immediately when I interviewed Alexia and Alexa that these two were going to be the perfect [pair]. It was important for the story that they almost be not only be polar opposites in terms of personality but also physically as well.
I certainly don’t mean this as a slam on Joe Swanberg’s movies, which I enjoy very much, but between You’re Next, Ti West’s forthcoming The Sacrament, and this, I’m beginning to think he’s actually a better actor than he is a director.
[Laughs] Well, I’d been seeing the films that he’d been acting in with some friends of mine, like You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die. So I sent him the script, he really seemed to be on board. I like giving actors a role that I’ve never seen them in before and I felt this was something that was going to be quite a departure for him and actually something far more dramatic. And one of the best things as a filmmaker of having another filmmaker act in your film is that they know what it’s like to make a film. So they understand all the technicality behind it and they are just there to service what you want just like they’re hoping the actors on their films are there to service what they want.
I’d watch a whole movie just about the character played by Kristina Klebe.
[Laughs] That’s interesting. I know she had a both fun and difficult time with that role. She had to undergo a bit of physical training for it. We almost wanted to change her silhouette and even the way she moved and walked. I know the first time she saw herself on the monitor she went, “Oh my gosh, I look like a man,” and it was a bit jarring to her. But that was the transformation that we were looking for. Again it was a role that she had never really played before.
The film features a fairly dim view of humanity. Is that one you share?
I’m just interested in watching people who are going through stress. I like films where people are dealing with a mental fracture in their lives. I think that when people are dealing with the worst case scenario, that’s when their true humanity starts to arrive.
I did find some of it very funny – although that’s possibly a reflection of my own fractured psyche.
I appreciate when people pick up some of the dark humor that’s in there because it certainly was intended.
What kind of reactions have you gotten from audiences?
As with most of my films, this is fairly polarizing. There are those who really seem to embrace it and those who really seem to reject it. But those are types of films that I love, that split people. I think the worst reaction you can get is somebody who feels just so-so about something.
I don’t think anyone is going to have that reaction to this film.
[Laughs] Well, that means you’re making an impression on people and I think that’s what good cinema does.
You sound like a very cheery and pleasant guy. I do find that the bleaker and more disturbing a director’s films the nicer they are.
[Laughs] Well, you know, I was born and raised in a small town in the Midwest, which is where I live now again with my wife and three kids. I often joke that I’m a stay at home dad by day, filmmaker by night. I guess I just sort of exorcize these demons through my own films