Acclaimed indie director Deborah Kampmeier's raw new film 'SPLit ' adds a third to her award-winning streak of films that tackle sexuality on screen.
SPLit is the third feature from Deborah Kampmeier. It's an elegant, nightmarish film roiling with the tensions of femininity. The film features Inanna (Amy Ferguson), who is an actor by day and stripper by night. Her manic love affair with a troubled mask-maker spirals into violence. Inanna's descent into this abusive relationship is paralleled by the play in which she is set to star, not coincidentally titled "The Descent of Inanna." Through myth, fantasy and eruptive performance, Kampmeier entwines archetype and realism, bringing her audience on an unapologetic journey into womanhood.
Kampmeier's previous features were highly acclaimed. Her first film, Virgin, starring Elisabeth Moss, was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards. Then Hounddog, starring Dakota Fanning, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. These works form a loose trilogy examining the development of female sexuality.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Kampmeier prior to SPLit's release on on DVD, VOD and streaming. She spoke to NFS about representing sexuality on screen, intricate production design on a budget, and challenging the patriarchy through filmmaking.
"I feel like it's my job to cast well and then hold the space for this actor to work the way they like to work."
No Film School: There's a very specific style of theater directing represented by Athena in the film—the creation of a safe space, mirroring, very physical action. Was your directing process on set similar?
Deborah Kampmeier: Yes, it was. The way I do it in my acting class, and the way that particular mirroring exercise is done in the film, actually comes out of a workshop that I took based on this myth, The Descent of Inanna. The process of doing it in the film was very powerful for myself and for all of the actresses involved. We shot that scene—the circle of women sharing their pain—before anything else. However, these women connected so deeply that it felt very authentic anyway. I really believe that doing that scene first created the environment that's reflected in the rest of the film.
NFS: Did you find yourself working with the male actors any differently?
Kampmeier: I would say that I work with everyone in a different way. I force my actors to do an initial exercise that I call "eye contact," and then from that point on, part of what I do as a director is listen to how that particular actor likes to work. When I'm directing, I feel like it's my job to cast well and then hold the space for this actor to work the way they like to work. I learn who they are, and relate to that, not who I think they should be.
NFS: Have there been any audience responses that surprised you, so far?
Kampmeier: We premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival, and that's a very particular audience—it's a retirement community. And I was not expecting the response to be as positive as it was from that particular audience. But they were very receptive and I think it spoke to them. Men as well as women, and that surprised me.
NFS: Have you found that men are responding well to this film?
Kampmeier: I am, and that does surprise me. I had a man respond to it in a way that made me feel like, "Well that's it, that's all I need." He said that watching the film made him love his wife more than he'd ever loved her.
Kampmeier: Yeah, it's been really interesting. In a way, men have been more receptive. I think that sometimes this material is too close to home for some women. There's resistance to seeing it, just as there's a resistance in Inanna to seeing it.
NFS: I imagine that you ran into a lot of resistance in trying to get the film funded. Did you find that investors were challenged or perhaps ran into some of their own fears?
Kampmeier: Yes, I did. It's similar to my first two films. A big part of my challenge as a filmmaker is finding financial support from people who feel these particular stories are important to be told.
NFS: As it is your third time around, do you feel like you've learned any tricks to getting that financing?
Kampmeier: It doesn't get any easier. That's what I'm learning. I keep thinking it's going to. After my first film was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, I was like, "OK, here we go," and that wasn't the case. I was on a panel once, and heard another woman filmmaker say, "As a woman, your second film is harder to get made than your first."
NFS: Really? Why do you think that is?
Kampmeier: I really don't have an answer for why that is. It's part of the narrative that we live in as female filmmakers. The disheartening statistics that never move, no matter how many times we talk about it. No matter how many initiatives we have, we just hover there around 92-96% of films being made my men. At least there are a lot of conversations being had about it, and I hope this time the pressure stays on to change that.
"As a woman, your second film is harder to get made than your first."
NFS: You use a Sumerian myth in your film, "The Descent of Inanna." I think it's really interesting taking a myth that comes from a time that was not necessarily more equal, and using it in such a progressive narrative. What do you think is the role of myth in modern storytelling?
Kampmeier: Well this particular myth was written by a woman, and it's one of the oldest that we have. It's right on the cusp between a matriarchal society and this patriarchy that we live in. So I think to recover this ancient female voice is very powerful. Let's journey into the abandoned self, which is usually the dark stuff; the rage, the raw sexuality, the grief, the shame. What's so important about the myth is that we're not healing those pieces or getting rid of them, we're actually re-integrating, becoming whole. To reclaim those inappropriate, not pretty, pieces of self feels really essential, especially right now.
NFS: There's a lot of attention being given to one line of dialogue in the film: "I don't want my daughter to grow up pure, I want her to grow up whole." Can you discuss what that line means to you and how it fits in with what you were just saying?
Kampmeier: I think it resonates with people because there is a deep need, as women, to be nurtured and supported to express our entire self, our whole self, not just the acceptable self. And I think that the acceptable self is what's forced down our throats from day one, as women. I believe this idea of purity, which is very prevalent right now in certain parts of our society, is about control. It's about controlling girls and women and it robs them of their whole self. We live in a paradigm that represses, exploits, commercializes, shames and abuses girls' sexuality instead of nurturing and nourishing it.
We keep our daughters naïve instead of educating them about their sexuality. And then they are set up for all sorts of experiences that diminish their power and their autonomy. I feel very strongly that sexuality is integral to our creativity, to our life force, and when we are separated from our sexuality as women and girls, there's this huge chunk of our soul that's been stolen from us. So, no I don't want my daughter to grow up "pure" and cut off from her sexuality. I want her to grow up with it integrated and belonging to her. So that she can make choices about her sexuality rather than other people imposing their choice on her.
NFS: This twisted concept of sexuality that is forced on women from day one is, some might say, the kind of sexuality that is typically represented in Hollywood films. The nudity and sexuality in SPLit is not that at all. Can you talk about how it's different?
Kampmeier: Female sexuality is presented in our culture as a male fantasy. Female bodies are presented from the point of view of a male gaze. I wanted to show female sexuality from a female perspective, and that includes a lot of things that aren't always represented in mainstream film. To show a woman, in her 50s, masturbating furiously, it's not pretty.
What have women in their 50s had to do to break through the male fantasy and find their true, authentic sexuality? What have women who have been abused had to do to reclaim their sexuality? It's not what the male fantasy shows us. It's complex. It's volatile. The chorus of women in the film have done this and are pushing Inanna to claim her own sexuality and rage. That's what I'm interested in. I'm interested in showing the experience in going from, as Inanna does, a place of repression and abuse around sexuality into a place of power and pleasure and rage. What does that journey look like?
NFS: I'm going to pivot a little bit to the production design. In each section of the film, physical objects seem symbolically very important. I would love to know a little bit about how you worked with your production designer, not only for the masks but for the whole cohesive look of the film.
Kampmeier: I had gone online to see if anyone had done a production of "The Descent of Inanna," and there was one in Mexico that looked amazing and I reached out to the designer, Eloise Kazan, who's a genius. She and I communicated for quite a bit of time and we exchanged beautiful research photos. She knew the myth well, and appreciated the differences in my screenplay to the myth.
"As filmmakers, we've been in the Aristotle story structure from the beginning. And maybe that structure won't hold the story we need to tell."
Kampmeier: The myth has this descent into the underworld, and certainly what we designed was way beyond what our budget allowed for, and we figured out how to make it work anyway. There's this scaffolding we used to create the descent. And all we could afford were the cheap blue ones, and Eloise and the crew put mud on the entire scaffolding to make it earth instead of blue. It was that kind of "how are we gonna take the budget we have and meet this vision which is pretty epic?" And we got very creative with it, and we drew it all from this image of these women emerging up out of the earth.
NFS: And how were the masks made?
Kampmeier: We wanted the masks to feel very organic, very feminine, very much that earthy energy. She brought on an incredible mask maker, Mario Zarazua. We then had three actresses come into the studio and we made the molds for the masks from their faces. We decided we would have three emotional archetypes; rage, grief, and pain. And so each actress took on one of those expressions.
We did some theater movement exercises and found the face for each actress. And then they each held that face. It was quite amazing when the plaster was put on their faces, they were deep in the emotion of each mask. And they were completely covered for at least twenty minutes. And finally, when the masks were dried and taken off, they were weeping under that plaster. It was just incredible what these three women dove into in order to mould these masks. You feel it in the masks, I believe.
Kampmeier: And these three masks were the base for every other mask created. It was fascinating how, as masks will do in theatre, they transformed with each actress who put them on. It held the archetype, but it also held the experience of each woman. So even though they started as three individual masks, within particular emotional realms, they transformed into endless expressions in the chorus of women.
NFS: Inanna's mask was made from her face, is that correct?
NFS: It looks just like her, and when she puts it on, it has a very profound impact. It's scary.
Kampmeier: In life, we carry a social mask. And that's really clear in Inanna's mask. Its style acknowledges the way in which she has accumulated patriarchal value in order to be the queen. That's part of the myth: her father has given her these gifts, these maps to society, and she has embraced them. But as she descends, the first piece that's taken off is the mask, and she can begin to connect to herself.
NFS: We see this concept of accruing patriarchal value a lot in the workforce. A large portion of women who are successful seem to be following that path of emanating the male persona, doing what the boys do, "leaning in." Clearly as a filmmaker you are not doing that. I wonder what you have to say about these two different methods and how they can maybe complement each other, or if you need a little bit of one or the other to succeed in the film industry.
Kampmeier: Ideally, just as in the myth, I think you need both. You need to be smart about how to navigate the material world. But you also need the underbelly, you need the feminine. There are parts of the feminine that are very acceptable, and I'm not saying to eliminate those, I'm saying to include the other. You need both. And I think sometimes in order to get to the underbelly, you have to put the other down. You have to put the mask down in order to really find the truth of self. And then once you've found that, as Inanna does, you ascend back up with all of that richness.
"We identify our experiences through a male story and a male protagonist over and over again, and it can sometimes feel like an impossible project to really hear our our voice."
Kampmeier: As filmmakers, we've been in the Aristotle story structure from the beginning. And maybe that structure won't hold the story we need to tell. We're trying to find ourselves. We identify our experiences through a male story and a male protagonist over and over again, and it can sometimes feel like an impossible project to really hear our our voice. And that's a big part of the power of this myth for me, to be able to hear our true voice. But then you gotta come back and figure out how you're going to make it work in the culture we live in.
NFS: What advice would you give to women filmmakers looking to make less commercial films like this?
Kampmeier: The thing I feel so strongly about is finding the courage to just keep speaking your truth. I always talk about how you can scream it out, or whisper it out, or puke it out, but you just have to get it out. And people are not going to be able to hear it. They are going to attempt to shame you for your voice. Not always in a malicious way, sometimes it's simply because they don't have the ears yet to hear it.
But you have to keep speaking your truth anyway, and eventually someone will hear you. Even if it's just one person, grab hold of them. Part of what's so beautiful with all of the groups that are starting to pop up, like the Film Fatales, is there are a lot of female filmmakers who are banding together to support each other, both practically and emotionally. It's scary, it's really scary to risk speaking your truth when it isn't what's said out there. But it's what we need.