2017 Interviews

‘Tormenting the Hen’ Director Theodore Collatos on the Use and Misuse of Language

Two women are out of their element in Theodore Collatos’ Tormenting the Hen, a nervy psychological tale of competing viewpoints. New York couple Claire (Dameka Hayes) and Monica (Carolina Monnerat) travel to The Berkshires in Massachusetts and reside in an Edenic hamlet. Claire is putting on a play in town and rehearsing with the two actors in her production. Taking a vacation from her environmental engineering studies, Monica is there to spend time with Claire. However, things aren’t as they seem. A mysterious man (Matthew Shaw as Mutty) appears, and he’s curiously bedecked with camping gear. He seems to be the groundskeeper of the residence, which was once a hen house. Although unintentional, he lingers far too often in the women’s presence, creating only discomfort for Monica. Meanwhile, Claire’s actors — Joel (Brian Harlan Brooks) and Adam (Dave Malinsky) — judge and resist her script, even taking offense at her words. In between intimate moments, small talk frequently blows up into arguments that highlights differing point of views. Tormenting the Hen is a film in which miscommunication abounds. Signals are read as noise, and characters’ innocent intentions morph into something noxious when interpreted by others.

Earlier this month, I spoke with Collatos at a Brooklyn café. He just arrived in town days after winning the Duncan-Williams Scriptwriting Award at the Indie Memphis Film Festival. Our chat concentrated on the practicalities of making a micro-budget film before diving into Tormenting the Hen’s themes of perception and misperception.

Tafelski: Congratulations for winning the screenwriting award at the Indie Memphis Film Festival.

Collatos: Yeah, that was amazing. It was such a shock.

Tafelski: Talk me through Tormenting the Hen’s origin. I would’ve never imagined watching a film with the way that you use hens.

Collatos: My parents ran a bed-and-breakfast my whole childhood. Part of the rental property was a chicken coop that was converted into apartments. That’s where the whole hen aspect of the film originated. I had the idea of people living in the hen house, one in which the souls of the hens still linger. People have souls, but we never even think of animals having them.

Every element of the story was along those personal lines: I knew someone who was verbally intrusive; the way people are wrapped up in words now, and how people miscommunicate if they’re from different cultures. If I take you and put you in another spot, maybe your language doesn’t line up to someone’s understanding of words. You may not have a bad intention, but the words become more offensive than the intention. That was the film’s fundamental idea.

Tafelski: So, the film is a matter of communication and miscommunication?

Collatos: Yeah, it’s just the way the world is right now with language. In the film, at every opportune moment, characters twist the meaning of situations so that their [intent is] the opposite.

Tafelski: And what was the writing process like?

Collatos: Writing it was pretty fast. Part of the film — the theatre scenes — is based on a documentary. Those sections I just took from the documentary.

Tafelski: What’s the documentary?

Collatos: It’s a short called Adam and Joel. Two guys talk at the end of a long night. One’s first generation Haitian and the other is affluent and Jewish. They get into this huge conversation about politics, girls, life and everything else. But when I screened it, audiences would judge the people. They wouldn’t hear the ideas. It bothered me because they would write off the Jewish guy as just being an idiot. In the documentary, you watch him grow and change. He’s willing to share and be vulnerable. But audiences punished him for being vulnerable. He says uninformed things, but — by the end — he’s enlightened. I wanted to take that on stage, but I don’t know how to put on a production of a play. I thought that if there was a split in the film where it wasn’t a person representing themselves, there would be a separation and you could look more at the ideas they’re sharing.

The theatre scenes were the starting point of Hen. When I got the actors together, the film transformed. The film was also based on Carol and I dealing with strangers and just being in the city. It’s kind of a cliché, but there is an affect when you’re living somewhere where the night is pitch black and no one is around. Suddenly when someone is around, it feels threatening, even though it’s not necessarily threatening at all.

I think about ideas for a long time, but I try to write as fast as possible so that I don’t get lost. When I write, and I don’t have a clear direction, it turns into shit. If I don’t focus for a week straight and get over any insecurity, then the writing becomes a broken script, and then I’ll have six of those. There’ll be a great script in the pile, but I’ll have to do almost more work to crush the script down into the shape that it should be.

Dipso [Collatos’ previous film featuring a struggling comedian] was based more on an outline. I would tell people what to say. Hen was a 90-page script. We shot it very quickly.

Tafelski: How long was the shoot?

Collatos: It was supposed to be an eight-day shoot. I lost two days because I fucked up. I didn’t initialize the cards to the camera, and I never used the camera before. On the night of the second day, I was in terrible shape and almost in tears. Carol and I just got together and tried to formulate a plan. We went in separate rooms with large glasses of wine. Part of Hen’s writing process was losing these two days and going through the script line by line, page by page and taking out anything that was unnecessary. The mantra for the rest of the shoot was: just tell the fucking story, but nothing extra. The script went from 90 pages to 70. It came out quickly because each character was designed to have opposing views. It was easy for me to hear them, and kind of in a funny way. The film pokes fun at the way that no one understands each other.

Tafelski: In the film, Claire says she gets her inspiration from living in New York. Is that a sentiment you relate to?

Collatos: No, that was just a joke. If you do anything creative, the first question is: What’s your inspiration? It’s such a question that goes nowhere for me. If someone asks me that, I can’t even answer it. It’s too obvious; it’s such a cliché. There’s characters in New York! But there are characters everywhere — that’s the point of it. Claire and Monica are confronted by this major character in Mutty.

This small talk slowly reveals points of view. Most people assume that the other person shares the same point of view and morals and getting into a mess of a conversation because you’re assuming that they agree with you. So, in that car scene, “What’s your inspiration?” [transitions] to now talking about [sexual identity and orientation.] I see that happen all the time. Are you that person who, during a pause in a conversation, waits to say something or waits to listen? Most people wait to say something, and so people are constantly crossing wires.

Tafelski: Going off your thoughts on viewpoints, the film has many. Hen goes back and forth between different characters. It seems we’re aligned with Monica’s viewpoint for a good while. You allow room for everyone’s, though. And during the theatre rehearsals with Joel and Adam, there’s this blending of art and life experiences. Those scenes raise questions about ownership of art. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about this? For instance, in the scenes where they’re rehearsing the play, Joel and Adam say that these scenes aren’t representations of themselves.

Collatos: It’s complicated. It’s a matter of how personally you take what you’re doing. We got into this dialogue of who has the right to tell a story. In those rehearsals, we were thinking about: Is this the play or are they just arguing for real? I wanted to play with that dynamic constantly so that you never know what the play is. Are they really getting pissed off or is that part of the performance — and just what is the perception of what is real? I don’t know if that answers your question well.

Again, it’s funny too because someone takes a situation so seriously that they would be offended by what someone else wrote, and you’re an actor playing a character, but then also feeling like you’re an outsider. I was always trying to have situations where someone feels alienated all the time, but it’s not always the same person. Every scene, it’s a different person feeling alienated. In a lot of the theatre scenes, Adam feels alienated due to the obvious and he just uses every little wedge. In the barbecue scene, when Joel is flirting with Claire, he’s using a wedge too. He’s not even respecting that Claire and Monica are in a relationship.

Tafelski: And Mutty is the most direct in the sense of alienating Monica.

Collatos: Unintentionally, but yeah.

It’s so complicated. I re-watched Hen in Memphis I could barely do a Q&A because there’s so much going on. I had a lot to work out with this film apparently.

Tafelski: Adam and Joel get offended for Claire’s misrepresentations of them. There are two female characters in a relationship. Did you wonder about misrepresenting them yourself?

Collatos: The reason why I chose these people is because they wanted to work with me. I wanted to work with Dameka — Carol, Bryan and David wanted to do something as well. That’s how it started with the relationship, just because they’re great actresses and I thought it would heighten the drama and become more threatening — two petite women confront this hairy naked man. I tried to play with every dynamic of fear. Within the play, it’s just a meta-conversation of a woman directing two men. It’s an echo of the first dynamic. That’s, organically, how the representations came to be. It was the people themselves and wanting to work with them. I wanted to depict a relationship where it wasn’t about the relationship. So often in movies I see in that genre, it’s just about the relationship. When I was developing the script, I liked the idea that they were just in a relationship and that’s where it ends. The relationship is not the issue of the film.

Carol said something funny the other day. I can’t remember her words, but the film has all these “issues,” but it’s about none of them. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Tafelski: I wanted to go back to a technical question. You shot in The Berkshires, Massachusetts. Where did you find the location?

Collatos: It’s my parents’ house. I was just being practical. I made a film [Dipso], moved to New York and I was crushed financially, just trying to figure out how to live here after spending a chunk on the film. With Hen, I couldn’t do it like Dipso again. It had to be barebones. Instead of writing something that I think I’m going to do, I mediated on what I could do with the people that wanted to work with me, where I could practically do it, and then where I could do it where people can take a week off.

Tafelski: How did you balance all of your different roles as director, writer and cinematographer?

Collatos: It was miserable. But it was fast, too — and incredibly stressful. After we lost two days, I almost quit filmmaking. It was just too hard. I ripped out the pages [of the script] and everybody was there, so we still had six days. I didn’t think we could make it at all. We had a pow-wow, and I said there is no schedule anymore. We were going to continue shooting and be on call all the time. That’s how we got it done.

Tafelski: And you edited the film too?

Collatos: Yeah, I edited it with George Manatos. He helped a lot. I would do a cut, he would do a cut. We married the two. Sorry, I just quoted the film.

Tafelski: How long did the editing take?

Collatos: I’d say a year to edit — not like everyday, but while doing our other jobs. We also gave it psychological space because there was a lot going on. The first cut was three hours. By the final cut, there were tough decisions to make. I was thinking of creating a short film out of the ashes and rubble. I’m not going to do this, but I thought of having the same film but not using any of the same content. It wouldn’t work for every scene because some are crucial. Other scenes were three times as long and I had to cut two-thirds out of it. You could rebuild the scene as a totally different one from the content that was cut.

Tafelski: There’s a Pere Portabella film [Cuadecuc, vampir] like that. He was on the set of a Jesús Franco film [Count Dracula] with Christopher Lee. He used the footage to make a film that’s part essay and part making-of.

Collatos: Cassavetes is famous for re-cutting too, which makes zero sense to me — just endlessly shooting and endlessly editing.

I tried to make Hen as efficient as possible. I didn’t want to play around. It’s a tight moral story where you feel a certain way by the decisions people make. I wanted clear events and characters. I think it helped a lot with the actors, too. If they have a perspective, they can just riff because they’re constantly going up against each other.

Tafelski: Did you allow for improvisation?

Collatos: Not really. “Improvising” is such a dirty word. Each scene was written, but then within nearly every scene, one character would have a flourish. Depending on the actor, it would be different. For instance, Matt nails the lines. The night before we shot the scene with the “fish on a hook” line, he kept re-reading the scene. He came up to me with some additional lines and we talked about it. They were the best lines of the movie. But then Brian, who’s trained in the Meisner technique, would take the spirit of the documentary. At the end, he took the script where he wanted to take it, whereas David is a little straight on with the script. Again, it was six days and we didn’t have much time to dilly-dally.

I was going through the script the other day and it was interesting to see. When you shoot, things shift depending on if they work or not. Sometimes you write a scene that sucks when you shoot it. There was, in fact, one scene that was totally improvised. It was the bedroom scene at night when Claire and Monica are laying in bed. For that, I wrote a scene where they’re doing pillow talk, but I didn’t know what it was. I told each of them, “Tell me a story.” Carol’s just fit perfectly with the whole film. It even references kidnapping, which Mutty talks about later. Some things randomly line up, too, when you’re making films.

Tanner Tafelski (@TTafelski) is a film writer and journalist based in New York City. He frequently contributes to Hyperallergic, Kinoscope and The Village Voice. Find him on Instagram, Letterboxd and WordPress.

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