Interview with filmmaker Dan Sallitt

I just got off the phone with Dan Sallitt, writer/director of The Unspeakable Act. The film will make its world premiere at SFF, and I chatted with Dan about his movie and its taboo topic. And, since I know you’re going to ask: No, Dan Sallitt did not have sex with his sister. He doesn’t even have a sister. Now read on to get the goods.

The Unspeakable Act is making its world premiere at SFF. How did you end up here?
Sarasota has become a festival people that people talk about. In my part of the world, The Color Wheel [which had its world premiere at last year’s SFF] is a film that people try to emulate the success of. People think of it as a model of how an indie film might want to proceed. A friend of mine named Chris Wells is a mutual friend with [SFF Director] Tom Hall and thought that my film would be a good fit. Apparently, Tom had seen some of my movies.

What do you hope audiences will find with The Unspeakable Act?
That’s always a tough question. You have your own personal approach to it and then you’re happy if anybody gets anything. Films are indirect things. I don’t have statements to make about anything, much less incest, but the film gives you a chance to see a character that is very familiar but also somewhat mysterious. I think movies are good at showing people what they don’t know. For me a lot of the fun of this film is showing family life in detail, how they take things for granted and how they might interact with each other in different ways. Anything people want to respond to is ok with me.

Have you ever taken a film on the festival circuit before? Have you been to SFF before?
This is my fourth film, my third that I’ve shown at festivals, but I’ve had much more success with this film so far.

Can we talk about the visual style?
My camera style is pretty minimal. I plan the shots very carefully and I like to leave all the film mechanisms very bare. You probably also noticed that there isn’t a lot of music in the movie. The fun part is to get reactions and emotions across by using minimal means, so you have to be very careful where you compose and where you cut. It’s fun to strip everything down to the simplest way you can do a scene, and sometimes it seems like the best thing to do is hold the shot for the whole scene. If you can do the entire scene in one shot, then great. I really like to not have things that seem too superfluous.

Why this topic? Why did you think this film needed to be made?
I’ve thought about that, and I honestly can’t remember why I chose the topic. I don’t have anything to say about incest. I don’t have a sister, thank God—I couldn’t have made this movie if I did. My poor actress has a brother who’s a few years older than she is, and I hope I didn’t get her in trouble with her family.

Incest seems kind of a sordid subject, but it’s almost idealist: what if you knew someone really, really well—all their quirks and habits—and you still loved them? This sort of romantic, idealized feeling is the way this character feels, that she knows this guy so well and he’s still the person worthy of her love. It’s not about a sordid thing, it’s about a character who feels like she found something she can’t replace. The character herself knows at a certain point that having a desire for incest is almost narcissistic; it’s a childhood fantasy of your perfect mate being you. There’s this romantic idealism under the surface.

When you start making a movie, it works if you have a lot of interesting things to connect to it. There’s this house, this family, this coming-of-age thing that gets refracted to it. The energy to make a movie depends on how many other interesting things the movie drags in. Family is an interesting fascination, so are the teenage years themselves.

It’s interesting that it’s a younger female that is pursuing an incestuous relationship and not an older authority figure. Can you comment on that?
This film doesn’t have any value as a case study or a statement of what incest may be like in the world. I think there’s a lot of psychology on the surface but deep down I wanted it to be a mystery, about something we don’t recognize. The last thing I wanted was to have something that slotted into familiar ideas about what incest might be.

What other films are you working on?
I’m working on a few treatments right now. The Unspeakable Act is actually part one of a trilogy, and I already have a treatment for part two. It became a trilogy before I made it.

In part two, the only returning characters are the brother and sister, who will each be in their own relationships and get together at a later point in life. In part three, the family will gather together, with mysterious older brother joining them, and probably get together for medical crisis.

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