â€œWho?â€ youâ€™re probably asking yourself. Unless youâ€™re invested in the Winnipeg indie film scene or happened to catch our review of his debut feature The Nature of Nicholas (a rural period piece about a boy whose struggles with his feelings for his best friend manifest themselves in a decaying doppelganger version of the lad), you probably havenâ€™t heard of Jeff Erbach. Sometimes compared to Lynch, Cronenberg or fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin, Erbach makes surreal films set on the prairie (a strange out-of-time-and-place version of it, anyhow) that few would consider “horror” but all contain strong genre imagery. In addition to The Nature of Nicholas, heâ€™s made over a dozen shorts, populated with subterranean abattoirs, slaughtered angels, ghoulish farm kids and other monstrosities. (Three of his shorts, Around Sanford, Soft Like Me and Under Chad Valley, can be seen online here, and The Nature of Nicholas is available from Domino Films.)
Itâ€™s often challenging, quite uncomfortable work thatâ€™s also seething with a variety of very unusual horrors. To say itâ€™s not for everyone is an almost hilarious understatement, but, as a former flatlander from out West with an interest in prairie Gothic, I sure am glad there are guys like Erbach out there cultivating (pun intended) unique visions of specific places â€“ regardless of commercial appeal. And now a little bit about the nature of Jeff Erbachâ€¦
1. Tell us a bit about the world of your films, the isolated, hermetic pocket of the prairie where terrible things happen. What is this place?
Depends on the film. Some places are not â€œplacesâ€ at all, more like spaces. They happen where ideas happen, floating around in your noodle. It’s one of the major tenets of what I’ve been doing, which is to physicalize an emotion, a thought, maybe an idea. Other places are re-imagined. In Soft Like Me, for example, I wanted to recreate the Canadian prairies at the turn of the century, but the one that no one talks about. It’s the one that isn’t in the history books because history is obsessed with blunt objects like facts. I’m very, very proud of the fact that I’m a flatlander and that my films are buried here. I’ve never made an â€œurban dramaâ€ and have zero desire to ever do that. Isn’t that what everyone does? Who is really left making sets and costumes and creating worlds except for those with millions of dollars? A real shame.
2. There’s an unmistakable surreal element in your work similar to that of fellow Manitoban Guy Maddin, but where he embraces expressionism, your style is prairie gothic in terms of the worlds of your films. What other artists are you in league with?
First, I might take issue with your qualification of Maddin and me. I actually hear this a lot, and I’ve never really understood it. Yes, there’s a strong expressionist element to Guy’s work, but it’s also rooted in Soviet Constructivism, among other things. I see my work as very expressionistic, actually! I’ve always tried to fuse a theatrical sense with a purposeful vision, a plodding cinematic style which clubs you obviously while hiding the sword.
Ack, the influences. It’s a question that I always shy from. So much is an influence, and then there are the more conscious ones and the very deep, hidden ones which might surface a few weeks or months later. Before I even say another word I want to say that I am personally very skeptical of any artist or filmmaker who can easily and casually list their influences. It sounds like their process is laid out like a recipe for duck.
Some see obvious ones, like a David Lynch or David Cronenberg. Others see sensibilities akin to Atom Egoyan or Alexander Sokurov. Not many see my love of Michael Haneke or Hou Hsiao Hsien. Beyond that there’s also Burtynsky and Bergman and Fellini and Francis Bacon and Rimbaud and Polanski and Chekhov and twenty minutes of one film and one breathtaking moment from a play. That’s all you’ll get out of me!
3. Few would consider your films â€œhorrorâ€ in a conventional sense, but they incorporate horror tropes (zombies, monsters, etc.) and â€“ most notably â€“ repeated images of butchery and bloody meat. Why do you find yourself incorporating these elements?
I dunno. I’m not being facetious or evasive here, I have no real strong idea. I gravitate to it. For example, I knew that in Under Chad Valley two butchers would be expressing their attractions for each other. Well, butchers cut meat, so I included a lot of meat – a ludicrous amount of bloody meat. Why? Not exactly sure. For something like the Nature of Nicholas I have a stronger sense of it. The decaying boy is heavily symbolic of how the boys affect one another. He is Bobby’s feeling for what he thinks others think of him. When I physicalize an event or emotion it often comes out in these ways for me. I’m doing a very short one-minute film right now about a disintegrating marriage. The wife thinks that she sees a deer outside, then three years later we find it dead in her bathtub. No zombies or monsters at least, which might signal that I’m moving through this type of metaphor and into something else.
4. The most persistent theme in your work seems to uncomfortable homosexuality, whether literal or metaphorical. How does using horror imagery help express that theme?
Most of the characters in my films explore both sides of the equation, with mixed results. Sexuality is just such a lively theme for me. It is a central foundational piece for most people. Puberty â€“ don’t even get me started. That time in adolescence is the most painful, most fantastic, most nostalgic. The sex I had in my mind when I was thirteen might shame anything that I’ve ever actually had in real life. Sex itself is full of joy and pleasure and guilt, hatred and disgust. We’re bound up in it and I love that it humbles us back to where we are from; hairy, foot shuffling creatures blessed with curiousness. We’re scared of intimacy, scared of disease and of decaying.
5. Why are those themes consistently explored with so much darkness?
If you had to pick a colour to represent a rape fantasy it would invariably be dark. Dark and horrible. Foul thoughts and deadening feelings come with a particular set of very useable embodiments and I’ve been exploring many of them. This doesn’t sound like much of an explanation but I think it might be. It’s about all that I know, or maybe it’s about all that I will say. My own analysis of what I do often doesn’t venture very deep.
6. Most would consider rural western Canada as a place that would embrace the style and subject matter of your films, yet thereâ€™s also a thriving arts scene in Winnipeg. What sort of reception have your films had in your hometown, in Canada and beyond?
My struggles are unique. The work isn’t experimental, really. There’s a pseudo-story to most of it, yet it’s not a narrative either. I often don’t abide by standard narrative structure, character empathy or any other common devices. Frankly, I do myself no favours this way. Sometimes the work is shown at underground film festivals, other times at gay and lesbian venues, still other times at international festivals. Some gay and lesbian festivals would never show my work. Some art festivals, like a Rotterdam, equally would never show my work. Caught between worlds is how I usually feel. Sometimes finding success at an arts council, sometimes with the film industry, but never with both and never easily. Even here in Winnipeg there are many people who might only grudgingly admit that I’ve had some success. It can get quite frustrating if I’m being completely honest (a hallmark of mine: the straight-forwardness part). It’s tough when the Berlin Film Festival won’t show a piece but then a recent juror of that very festival asks you why you didn’t submit your very good film! Of course you did submit it and it wasn’t accepted. So it goes. I often wonder why I don’t just forget it, or at least hang it up and try making a film in my bathtub for $100 instead of having to secure $10,000 just so I can have sets and proper lights.
7. What are you working on now?
Every filmmaker is always working on so much that it just seems egocentric to talk about it. You asked and I won’t be a ridiculous heel. I’m making this crazy one-minute film with the dead deer, doing a lot of instruction with actors, I hope to make a new feature film very soon about a woman who rebirths her missing daughter, Iâ€™m also writing an adaptation of Alison Macleod’s novel, Wave Theory of Angels, hope to do some intense study into some interesting acting methods next year, trying to secure a residency or two and really would like to make a new short film about a swamp monster which induces puberty in young girls. Seems like a lot when I write it out but really it’s not.