Teresa Decher is an actor, writer and producer who has just made her directorial debut with the exceptional short horror film Subject 3 (Our review here: https://wp.me/p8FNZO-26u).
We spoke to her about short horror, releasing a pandemic movie in the middle of a pandemic and what it’s like to direct for the first time.
How did Subject 3 come about?
Teresa Decher: I had wanted to just do another short film because I’ve written and produced for a long time, and I had never really considered directing. You didn’t really hear about female directors a lot when I was growing up and when I was first getting into the industry. I was making this transition from comedy, and I’ve always loved Sci-Fi and horror. I really grew up on anime. That was what I had to look forward to when I would come home from school. I wanted to do something that felt a little bit darker and had a little bit more character development and depth, and so I just thought, “Hey, a pandemic would be cool”. This was, of course, before we actually lived in a pandemic.
Right. Absolutely. In terms of working within genre, because it is very much a horror Sci-Fi short, did you find that you were at all limited in terms of perceived genre requirements or anything like that?
I think when you’re an indie filmmaker and you don’t have a lot of resources or money, that’s what limits you. How big can you make this world with what you actually have access to, and I actually really like working within those creative limitations. I think there becomes a problem when you can just throw money at any problem and solve it and you’re not having to do the work of, “Is this the best way to tell the story, and how can I get this across with what I actually have access to?” For us, that was crazy how much life reflected it, but I was like, “Oh well, if everyone was sick, we would all wear masks”.
Absolutely. The film is about this global pandemic that has caused many deaths, but it’s also a very personal story about your character. Was it difficult to measure those elements?
I love world-building, but that always feels like those things go together with the human aspects. I wanted to tell a story of how men’s decisions at the top and the people with power, their decisions often end up affecting women and really take root in their body. That was the hidden metaphor in this world. I like taking those bigger ideas and putting them into really personal stories.
Absolutely, because the film features this young woman trying to escape a medical professor who has an extreme and morally questionable approach to curing the disease. There’s this theme of progress at any cost and how appropriate that is. Can you talk a little about this theme?
Yes. I think we live it every day. I think progress at any cost is a great way to put it. If you just look at what’s happening in America right now, there’s a lot of people being left behind, and throughout history, there’s always been a lot of people left behind. I think a lot of different people get left behind. I think where I relate to the most is I’m privileged in a lot of ways, but also being a woman, we’re not always included in every conversation, and we have a long history of also being left behind. That’s where that piece came from.
There is concurrently this recurring theme of public scepticism of medical institutions and practices, which has become especially relevant now. In particular, your film portrays a character questioning face masks. Was that an important theme for you at the time you were making the film?
Yes. I think that was to justify why not everyone wore a face mask all the time, but also because in my mind, working out the disease was that it took effect in the blood and so you would have to actually. kind of like zombies, get bitten or actually have something enter your bloodstream. It sounds like coronavirus actually is similar in that way. It enters your bloodstream through the back of your mouth, and I didn’t know that was possible. I think it was even these two officers that are part of this containment force that they are even questioning their authority. I think when you’re dealing with this mass trauma for too long, people get numb to it no matter what it is and at some point decide to stop following rules too, which I think we’re very much seeing right now.
Subject 3 is a very short film but a very large story and a big world implied by it. Were you interested in telling a larger story or potentially returning to this world?
Yes. I think I’d always wanted to do a feature version of it as well of a little bit more in-depth of Cassie’s relationship with her professor and that small story within that world but really fleshing that out. This was meant to be a little bit more of an overview of the world and the aftermath and the consequences. I would love to come back to it in the future and really just to get to explore everything that could have happened and did happen in my mind in this world.
You mentioned earlier it was your first time in the director’s chair. How was the process of production for you from this perspective?
It was amazing. I think because I’ve been producing for so long and I edit all my films and I’m really hands-on in a lot of ways that it wasn’t that different. I’ve co-directed a little bit before. I love it. I think a director’s job is really easy when you have the right people. I’m so lucky to know really talented crew and cast who are just willing to come out and help for projects that they believe in, so I feel really lucky in that way.
Fantastic. This is also after many years of acting experience.
Do you think that that experience has affected your approach to directing, and do you think that you’re the kind of director you’d hope to work with as an actor?
I would hope so that I would want to work with me. In some ways, I guess I do tell myself what to do when I’m in front of the camera too. I think yes, acting has absolutely informed my directing. I think I know what it’s like to be in those vulnerable positions. There’s this moment that you always get an acting where you’re like in front of camera and you’re so close. You’re almost there, but just having the director’s permission to fully go there is what I think makes some of the best performances. I think that’s what I hope to do as far as working with actors is just let them explore and let them go as far as they want to. I can guide it a little bit as well, but I think sometimes all you need as an actor is just that permission to let out what’s inside of you and what you’re feeling.
That sounds like it’s really informed how you’ll go about directing and being a very supportive director of actors .
I think having a safe and supportive environment to create is the most important to me because I think sometimes in film we forget that we’re still making movies, and it’s not supposed to be this really intense experience. Don’t get me wrong. It gets intense when you’re working long hours and things fall apart, which they always do somehow, but it should still feel like a supportive environment even through all that. I’m never going to be the person to yell at people when it’s not going the right way. I’ve seen that happen on set, and I kind of lose respect a little. I understand things happen, but I think that there’s no room for devaluing your crew to the smallest role. The production assistants still do so much. The set wouldn’t be possible without them. I’m a big fan of kindness and respect for every level.
You wouldn’t be an advocate of that kind of what I like to think of as method directing. The sort of, “Oh, we need this character to feel really isolated and cut off from the group, so let’s do that by isolating them and cutting them off from the group”.
I think that there’s a time and place for that. I think that if it was something where I wanted one of my actors to feel isolated, I would probably work with them a little bit more one-on-one, and then scenes that didn’t include them, I would work with the other people one-on-one. I’m not necessarily against creating distance, but I wouldn’t also want them to feel alienated. I wouldn’t stop them from talking to the other people or becoming friends because that’s also up to them for what they need to get there. I trust my actors, and I trust all of my cast and crew that they’re going to let me know what they need as well.
Now you touched on this earlier, but what do you feel are the benefits of specifically making a short film? Is it mainly practical concerns that dictated that? Or is there a potential there that you enjoy?
I like short films. I think they’re a muscle of themselves because to tell a story in a limited amount of time and space is a really hard thing to do. I think going to so many film festivals, I watched so many shorts. You either have people try to bite off more than they can chew and tell too long of a story, or they turn into sort of more like vignette pieces. There’s nothing wrong with either of those things, and I totally can relate to both of those feelings, but I also love the challenge of like, “Okay. How can I tell something complete and really draw people into an experience in a limited amount of time?”
What will you be doing next? Do you have any other directorial projects in mind?
Yes. I’m kind of in the writing seat right now. I’m working on a novel that I’ve been working on for the last, oh, I think, year probably now. It’s a YA fantasy novel, so I’m excited about that. That’s made, I think, just my writing overall a lot better. I never knew how hard writing a book would be, but it’s hard . I’m also directing a couple more projects, one for my friend who’s a very talented young actor. He came to me with this idea, a sci-fi artificial intelligence idea, and we’ve been working out the script together. I’m really excited to get another chance to direct and just collaborate with more people.
Where can our listeners enjoy Subject 3?
It is still on private right now. I did release it for a few days, but we’re waiting to hear back from a few more festivals. Out of respect, I always like to keep it hidden until we hear final decisions, and then it’ll just be on my Vimeo, which is vimeo.com/teresadecher, but it looks like Decher. You’ll get there.