An interview with Martin Keegan director of Verboten

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In addition to writing and directing Verboten, Martin Keegan plays Mike Gorman, the fierce single father of a troubled teenager. Keegan has just signed to write the screenplay adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. With New York Times Washington D.C. bureau chief Carl Hulse, Keegan is also co-writing Secret Service, the true story of William Wood, a James Bond-like character who created the Secret Service under President Lincoln. His film has been won Best Dramatic Film at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival. Keegan hosts the pop culture talk show Hollywood Babble-On at social broadcasting site NowLive.com, where he has interviewed such guests as David Lynch, Kevin Smith, Freddy Rodriguez and Amber Tamblyn. He has performed internationally as a comedian, working with Rosie O’Donnell, Bobcat Goldthwait, Jeff Foxworthy, Arsenio Hall, The Wayans Brothers and George Lopez.

Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us about your background and how you got involved with film making?
Martin Keegan: I spent seven years on stage as a standup comedian with people like Rosie O’Donnell, Jeff Foxworthy and George Lopez. Writing, directing and editing that live show on a nightly basis taught me to tell interesting stories without wasting time. Live audiences get bored easily, forcing you to adjust or suffer the same painful rejection repeatedly. I’m a masochist, but not stupid, so I adjusted. My first effort at filmmaking was a comedy dating video. I had no idea what I was doing. Ignorance may be bliss, but in filmmaking it means bankruptcy. I had to trade all of my furniture to the editor in order to finish the project. When commercial producers offered me the chance to write/direct/produce using their money I jumped at the chance because I was tired of sleeping on the floor. I wrote and directed a short film, Has Been, about a washed-up comedian (written as I stared at myself in the mirror). After Has Been won The Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, Michael Douglas’ literary rights firm hired me to write feature film projects.

Bijan: Has there been a particular film that encouraged you to become a filmmaker?
Martin: I am a film junkie who does not want to go to rehab. I was born literally a few feet away from what was MGM studios (now Sony). I remember pointing to the large wall that surrounds the studio and asking my father, “What they do over there?” He responded, “That’s where they make the movies.” The thought of me now being part of the “They” making movies is thrilling. Three directors who inspire me are Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lean and Francis Ford Coppola, all master visual storytellers.

Bijan: What inspired you to make Verboten?
Martin: I was signed to adapt Shirley Jackson’s short story thriller ‘The Lottery’ into a feature-length screenplay. I want to direct the story and needed to show on film that I could handle a psychological thriller.

Bijan: How did you decide on the visual style of the film?
Martin: I wanted a sense of drama, but I didn’t want to draw attention to the camera. I tried to use the camera as another way to express emotion.

Bijan: Have you been inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho? I found this as a tribute to Hitchcock and his great classic, even Tony Wilde resembles the Antony Perkins.
Martin: I am inspired by Hitchcock’s ability to frighten and excite audiences without the use of blood. His films are much more interesting than today’s thrillers, which rely less on plot and characters and more on body counts. Hitchcock felt the anticipation of horror was the ride, not the horror itself. Hitchcock’s cameo appearances in each film tell me that he didn’t take himself too seriously and I enjoy that whimsy in his films. I hope Verboten creeps audiences out, but I also hope they laugh or smile at the perversity.

Bijan: Casting of the Verboten is fantastic, how did you choose the actors for their parts?
Martin: Tony Wilde was the only actor who auditioned in character. He walked in the door as a psycho kid, eyes bugged out as if he was off his medication. He explained matter of factly that if he wasn’t an actor he’d be a serial killer, but not the type that killed just anyone, he’d only kill people who deserved it. Then he talked about his love of blood and how he feels closer to his girlfriend when she is menstruating. As soon as he left I knew I had my psycho. Ines Dali is a stunning and charismatic German actress new to the United States, who is booking every audition she goes out on. She assured me she could lose her accent and I explained to her that if she did she would lose the part. I then rewrote her role as a German woman and was inspired to change the title to Verboten. When I asked Ines if she was comfortable with nudity she asked, ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ Not a single American actress displayed that kind of confidence or healthy body image. I play the terrifying father, which now has my friends with children keeping a close eye on their kids when I’m around.

Bijan: Camera work of Verboten is exceptionally smooth. did you use any special techniques?
Martin: We were lucky to be the testing ground for a revolutionary motorized camera dolly (HAL by AVATAR TECHNOLOGIES) that will eventually replace the steadicam and the need for dolly track. It’s a mounted camera on a small vehicle outfitted with shocks that allow the machine to drive down a street, up a curb, through rough terrain, or inside a house negotiating furniture without bouncing. It’s wild. The end result was a big look in short film shot in only two days.

Bijan: How did you decide on the music of Verboten?
Martin: I gave the composer one guideline. I wanted something creepy that made your skin crawl, but not so big and obvious as to overwhelm the story. Our composer Danny Lux has been nominated for two Emmys doing music for TV shows like My Name Is Earl, Grey’s Anatomy and Boston Legal. Both he and his assistant Michael Reola created the score utilizing a recurring theme of a toy piano playing slowly.

Bijan: Why did you use a German title for the film?
Martin: The female character in peril is German. Verboten seemed appropriate because of her nationality, also because of the fantasies of the boy. Verboten is a more powerful word than its English equivalent, forbidden. I also like unconventional thinking, and while I’d be surprised if we we’re the first to do it, I have never seen an American short film with a foreign title.

Bijan: Please tell us about your future projects
Martin: I am writing the feature adaptation for Shirley Jackson’s short story, ‘The Lottery’. I am also writing ‘Secret Service’ with The New York Times Washington D.C. bureau chief Carl Hulse, a biopic about Secret Service founder William Wood and his James Bond-like activities during the American Civil War in the 1860’s. Money is being raised for my comedy film (investors welcome) ‘Celeb,’ a feature based on my short film, Has-Been, about a washed-up comedian. I also host a twice weekly talk show dealing with film on NowLive.com, called Hollywood Babble-on. On recent shows, I have interviewed David Lynch, Kevin Smith and John Dahl, and I look forward to more conversations with directors in the future.

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Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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