Best of Iris Prize
Originally published in 2016
A Doll's Eyes
Director Jonathan Wysocki recounts the terror that kept him out of the ocean during his childhood and the dark desire that drew him back as an adult. He returns to the ocean to discover a fear deeper than the shark stalking his imagination.
Hey Jonathan thanks for talking to The New Current, how's things been?
Thanks for the opportunity! Things have been busy, but great. They'd be even greater if I was able to go back to Wales next week, but work is keeping me in L.A.! I spent a year studying at the University of Exeter and summered in Flintshire, so the UK premiere tugs heavily at my heartstrings.
Congratulations on having A Doll's Eyes selected for this years Iris Prize in Cardiff, how did you feel when you found out?
I was totally floored by the news. I think as an American filmmaker, it's always a dream come true to get positive validation from the European film community. We know you have plenty of great films to choose from on that side of the pond!
What does it mean for you to get this type of recognition for your film?
For me, being nominated for the Iris Prize shows the film's impact is not restricted to an American audience. It's also opened doors to other non-American queer film festivals who never would have heard of the film otherwise. It's a tremendous honor to be associated with the best queer short films in the world.
With this being such a personal film do you have any nerves ahead of the festival screening?
There's always a pit in my stomach when people watch a film I've made, but this one has a level of vulnerability that is particularly scary. That said, I've had so many positive responses from strangers who were affected by the film that I've seen the power in being that vulnerable. Being honest allows other people to be honest as well. So there's been a level of gratitude from audiences I never anticipated when making the film.
Tell me a little bit about A Doll's Eyes, what was the inspiration behind the film?
The film started off as an exploration of how "Jaws" affected me as a child. I grew up in Southern California, and "Jaws" became so real to me that I refused to go in the ocean for seven years. Then I started not only swimming in the ocean as an adult, but swimming with this odd mixture of fear and desire - as if I wanted to encounter this shark that stalked my imagination. When I finished making the film, there was something unsaid about why I felt so compelled to make it...as well as what the shark actually represented. These are the discoveries you see in the finished film.
What was it about this film that has had such a connection for you?
As an adult, I just find it to be a beautifully crafted film. The precise way in which it utilizes all of the aesthetic components to tell a compelling story about fear is why it's often been labeled a 'masterpiece'. But since I saw it as a child and was so scarred by the horror of it, it's become something that is both repulsive and compelling. And because its draw is specifically tied to my childhood memory, it became an obsession tied to my identity. One of my favorite things about working on "A Doll's Eyes" was encountering the enthusiastic stories of other people about how "Jaws" terrorized them as kids. It's fascinating because people would describe how awful it was and how they changed their behavior because of it - one person was even afraid of the bathtub after the film! Yet while they recounted their terror, they did so with giant smiles on their faces. It's a childhood memory that is simultaneously awful but also exciting.
Do you have a favourite scene in JAWS?
The three big death scenes are all favorites because each one is constructed differently, yet all have maximum impact. The first is Chrissie's dramatic, haunting night attack that opens the film - I recreated that one endlessly as a child. Then at the midpoint is Alex, the boy on the raft, who gets eaten in broad daylight surrounded by people. And finally I love Quint's epic bloodbath battle with the beast at the film's climax. People laugh at how "fake" the shark looks in that last scene, but to this day, it still gives me chills! I can attest that those three scenes have been playing on a loop in my brain since I was 10. That's powerful filmmaking!
What would you say the most valuable lesson you've taken from making A Doll's Eyes?
By far, the largest lesson I learned is to follow through with your gut when editing the film. I could have locked the picture in its original version, but I decided to take the risk to keep developing it by digging deeper. It meant working on the film for seven more months, but the discoveries were completely worth it. I look back on that first version now and it seems so distanced and impersonal compared to where my editor and I took it.
What would you say was the most challenging part of making this film has been for you?
I think that the hardest part about making this film was spending so much time unearthing painful childhood memories. It was like digging at a wound rather than acknowledging it and moving on. Revisiting trauma on a daily basis is probably not the best way to deal with it! There was a certain point where I had to remind myself that there is more to me and my past than what I discuss in the 12-minute film. So in many ways, I was relieved when we were done making the film. I was ready to move on and set it free.
Looking back would there be anything you'd do differently?
Honestly, I have no regrets. The way in which the film evolved was such a testament to the value of the artistic process. It was a perfect example of the way making art can transform something before your eyes. I really came away from this appreciating the process as much as the product. It was like a great therapy session!
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
Yes. I was making movies in my backyard with my stuffed animals and imaginary friends from as far back as I can remember...although without any equipment, I had nothing but my mind to capture the images! I did draw movie posters of each film I "made," though. I was aware of marketing!
"On a larger level, I see so much destruction in this world, and I feel like making art is a way to combat what's being taken away."
How much has your filmmaking style changed since you started?
I think my films are less obtuse than when I started. I've learned to be clearer about communicating complex ideas. My amazing circle of friends and my editor have helped a lot with that growth.
Are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell me about?
I'm in development with two features, both of which take place in San Francisco. One is a drama set in the 1980s that follows a young nurse as she crash lands in the world’s first AIDS ward. The other is a contemporary mother/daughter Shakespearean comedy about the last artists trying to survive in tech-infested San Francisco. They're very different from each other, but both are a joy to write!
What advice would you offer an up and coming filmmaker?
Every filmmaker is different, but my advice would be to just make films - don't wait for someone else to give you permission. Every time you create, you learn something from the process, so create as much as you can. On a larger level, I see so much destruction in this world, and I feel like making art is a way to combat what's being taken away. I had a dear filmmaker friend die of cancer this year, and we're having a mini film festival of his short films. What a wonderful thing to leave behind for the living! Had those films only lived in his mind, there would be nothing for us to experience.
And finally what do you hope people will take away from your film?
If my film connects in any way at all I will be pleased! I think the best responses to art are varied ones. So if someone watches the film and recounts how "Poltergeist" traumatized them in the same way as a child, that's great. If someone else has a more profound connection to the theme of shame that leads to their own introspection, that's also great. I just love that the film is out there for others to interpret. I want my personal experience to help others reflect on their own.