When it comes to vampire films, most fans are used to seeing the same tropes recycled over and over again. However, in Joe Begos’ new film, BLISS, Begos presents a different type of vampire origin centered around a struggling artist who, in an attempt to work through the ultimate creative block, turns to drugs, sex, alcohol, honestly anything she can get her hands on, in hopes it’ll help her to complete her masterpiece. However, after a few days of partying, she notices a change within which gets her painting again but also results in her developing a strange desire for blood.
For the release of the film, which opened today in theaters and across digital platforms, I had the chance to speak with writer/director Joe Begos. During our chat, we discussed everything from how his personal life kickstarted BLISS, the benefits of working with the same team, and the importance of practical effects.
To start things off, can you talk a bit about how the story for BLISS came about?
Joe Begos: I was in a place where I just couldn’t get a movie made to save my fucking life and went through a lot of shit in my personal life. I was going fucking broke and I didn’t know what I was going to do so I was like, I’m just going to make a really small movie again, something that I can definitely make that I can get money for cause I know I can do that and deliver that. I was going to write something that kind of mirrored what I was going through and I just started to add little shades of vampirism to make it more exciting. That’s kind of where it came from.
Other than the experiences you were dealing with in your personal life, were there other forms of inspiration you pulled from?
Joe Begos: The way the movie is aesthetically wise I definitely did. As far as the actual story of the movie I wanted to do something that I felt like wasn’t around or that I didn’t see much of. I kind of wanted to do something as original as possible so I tried very hard not to pull from things as much as I could. I think I succeeded but there are definitely little nods to stuff in there. But for all intents and purposes I tried to keep it as fresh as I could.
Dora Madison, who plays the lead role of Dezzy, absolutely kills it in this film. How did you go about casting her in this role?
Joe Begos: She’s one of the only people that I didn’t write for. She came in and auditioned and she just had this striking presence when she auditioned. She had this great hair that photographed well and this great look that other people don’t have – she looks real. Then she started doing the lines and started doing improv during the agency scene where she was saying words and phrases that normally I would just say myself and she didn’t know who I was. It got to the point where it was just irritating my producing partner because she was saying things that were so close to what I would say. Then I met her and told her what we would be doing and where I was going and she was just in for it all. She was one of the best collaborators I could have had because we were pushing each other to go further.
Whether it’s actors, or those on the production side of things, you have a tendency to work with the same people. What is that experience like?
Joe Begos: It’s awesome and kind of what you strive for. Making movies is such a tough thing that you want to be surrounded by people who are going to have your back and who are going to trust you and do what you want but are also really good at their job and can elevate stuff because they know what you are doing and can make it better. I feel if you like something that I’ve done it’s attributed to me but also the collaborators who helped make it happen because we all shaped that. Now that we’ve done so many movies together, the gang of people is kind of growing and it feels like a better, creative collaboration. I always like hearing what everybody has to bring to the table, especially when they are kind of on the same plane as me, creatively wise.
I really enjoyed the use of practical sets and how you showcased areas of Los Angeles that many people haven’t seen. Can you expand on finding the locations and any challenges you faced?
Joe Begos: As far as the locations go, I knew that I wanted everything to be super real and I wanted them to be locations that I usually have visited or things that I know exist in certain ways. I wanted a very specific aesthetic of Los Angeles that’s not normally shown on film. A lot of the places in the movie are places that I actually go to. The biggest challenge, I guess, was finding a loft because I wanted something that was going to be big enough for our [Dezzy] to live in but not so big that we couldn’t afford to production design it. I also wanted a big view of the city, so you can imagine what it’s like trying to find something like that where we can shoot in and destroy in a month for a very limited budget. And then doing the band thing, like booking the band, that was a pain in the ass because we couldn’t really rent a venue. What we did was we just book a band in an actual bar downtown and just got waivers to shoot it like it was a documentary. So we were shooting in a live, open bar with a band playing during that whole sequence. A lot of those people in there are just people who waltzed in and were just drinking and they basically had to be part of the movie while I’m sitting here directing these two girls who are covered in blood, making out, with a camera spinning 360-degrees.
Correct me if I’m wrong but the whole film is done with the use of practical effects, right?
Joe Begos: Everything is, I just don’t like CG. If 200-million-dollar movies can’t make CG look good there’s no way a tiny indie is going to look good. It’s also so expensive to hire a guy to do CG stuff when you wrap a production, plus you never know what it’s going to look like whereas when you are on set, you can always be directing the effects. If you do it like I do it, you specifically plan it where you’re shooting some days all the effects so that you only have three people on set and you’re not spending a lot of money. That’s the way to do it and that’s the way that I kind of have navigated in pulling off some of these rad effects on a low budget. There’s been no CG, besides wire removal, in any of my films and I’m hoping to keep it that way.
Going back to working with the same people, I saw that you worked again with Steve Moore on the music. When it came to BLISS did you give him free reign to do what he wanted or did you give him guidance on how you wanted the music to sound?
Joe Begos: So the way that I do it is it’s such a big part of the sound that I do want to give very specific direction on what to do. Steve is a super talented guy, but if you just let him run wild the results may be good, but not exactly on the aesthetic plane that I want. What we do is when we build the edit, we have a very specific temp score. We combined scores and instruments and instrumentation and actual real music and we kind of build this blueprint. He watches the movie once, with no music, and he gets his own ideas and then he watches the movie again with the blueprint of music. We don’t want him to exactly copy what’s there but to compose based on the feelings it is eliciting and the instruments being used and the style that is felt overall. Afterwards, he’ll come to us and give us the first few cues. The thing is he does it in chunks so as he goes through the score both him and me we find the sound. The first few cues are obviously like, “Oh yeah, this is pretty cool. I like this part of this and that part of that” and then it evolves into the next batch of cues from the next section of the movie. By the time we get to the end, it’s a very honed in sound with instrumentation that we are using which allows us to go back and do the second pass. It’s a very organic experience of building that in a collaboration with him because he’s phenomenal. I have a pretty good idea of what I want but Steve comes in and elevates it. That’s what the most important thing with any collaborator is, they have to be able to know what you want and then be able to elevate it completely without disrupting what you originally had intended.
Lastly, it felt like, as the viewer, we were thrown into experiencing this crazy adventure that Dezzy goes on. What were you hoping, if anything, that viewers would take away from your film?
Joe Begos: I don’t know what I really wanted them to take away. People who know me say this is essentially my brain on film all spilled out. I can say with confidence that a lot of my ex-girlfriends also may have a field day with this film (laughs). I just wanted to put, literally, what I see in my brain everyday onto film just because it was a cathartic experience. I wanted to shape something around that and feel it out to see what it was like to make yourself vulnerable like that. I honestly don’t know what I want people to take away from it besides having a very sensational experience and, also, maybe, being a little more sympathetic towards the artist which probably isn’t going to fucking happen, I assure you (laughs).
For more on BLISS, check out our review here from the Tribeca Film Festival.