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Director/Co-Writer Seth W. Owen, “Peepers”

by on July 19, 2010
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Seth W. Owen really made a mark with his first feature film. Peepers is a comedy about a group of peeping toms that has to deal with a college professor who becomes fascinated by the peeper lifestyle. It’s an original tale and a tricky one to pull off.

Owen spoke to The Film Yap talking about the balance of this type of comedy and what it takes to make a film like this in Canada.

The Film Yap: The first obvious question has to be asking about the origin of the story. Telling the endearing story of peeping toms is definitely an unusual concept. How did it come to be?

Seth Owen: Montreal rooftop is a pretty pleasant place to be, in the summertime, and way back when, when I had a place with roof access, a friend named Eric Hart and got to joking about a community of Peeping Toms… And it was one of those ideas that just never went away.  When Dan, Mark and I were thinking about making another film, it was the one that seemed to really captivate the three of us.  Especially since it seemed like a novel way to illustrate some things that were happening with voyeurism and society without being too literal.  I don’t like to see people in online chat rooms in movies.  I would prefer to see them on rooftops, with a little derring-do.

TFY: One of the most impressive things about the movie is that it never feels creepy, even when they are successful with their voyeurism. How did you create this atmosphere?

Seth: I’m glad you didn’t find it creepy!  I’m sure some still might.  I like things a little creepy, but you’re right, it’s an unsavory topic to many, and tone was definitely a big concern from the beginning.  We just really tried to focus in on these guys as very vulnerable, very lonely human beings.  But of course, at the same time, everyone making the film felt pretty strongly that if you make a film called Peepers, about Peeping Toms, you have to have a little flesh on the screen. Or else people would rip up the seats in the cinema! I know I would!  So that was a dilemma, how to reference all these exploitation films without making an out and out exploitation film ourselves.  Ultimately, I think we may have just pulled it off, and I think that’s due in large part to the performances, and Max Henry’s score, both of which put one in a more sympathetic frame of mind.

TFY: Although Peepers primarily follows Steve Sherman, the film does a good job about have developed subplots with some of the other peepers. How important was this balance of focus?

Seth: It was very important.  And in the editing room, it was something that went through many, many variations.  We knew we were locked onto Steve, but weaving in the other threads and knowing just how much we needed was an ongoing dialogue.  With the Paul Spence character, Peter, he’s a more reserved family man who finds himself drawn into the world of the Peepers, and that was particularly tough, as it’s a less overtly comic thread than the others, but one I think is crucial to the film’s underlying meaning and intent.  I still am hemming and hawing over whether we have enough of that in there.  I hope so.  But yeah, trial and error, that’s how we finessed it.

TFY: I’m almost afraid to ask, but did you do any research for this movie? (Primary or otherwise)

Seth: Well, funny you ask…  We didn’t initially do any research – it was a world that we just kind of cooked up… though of course, if you’re a filmmaker, you don’t have to dig too deep to find some latently voyeuristic tendencies.  Then, funnily (or disturbingly) enough, after we had finished a draft, we came upon a local college newspaper article that had a profile of a Peeping Tom, and it was pretty much to the letter of what we had come up with. So that was encouraging.  The other “research” we did came out of a very fortuitous circumstance when we were writing the script.  Our studio at the time was in a loft building that had these big, wraparound windows.  And directly across from us was this apartment building, with all of the bathroom windows facing us.  So we’d be writing, and then all of a sudden, there’d be, like, a cinemax movie playing itself out right before our eyes. We saw some pretty spectacular things.  A lot of lathering.  You couldn’t not look.  But it may have slowed our writing down a touch.

TFY: You’ve worked with Daniel Perlmutter and Mark Slutsky before on The Recommendations and again on the script for Peepers. How does your creative collaboration work? Do you all write in the same room? Do you email drafts back and forth? How do you settle disagreements?

Seth: We tend to talk things out, endlessly, in the same room, cook up a bunch of gags, and then we divvy stuff up and pass it around, rinse and repeat.  Disagreements tend to be settled by a winning combination of endurance and passive aggression.  And when it became clear that I would be directing this one,  I played the director card as much as humanly possible.

TFY: What was the most difficult part either writing or directing this movie?

Seth: It was a hard shoot.  A wonderful, wonderful experience, but hard.  We had 14 days to get it in the bag,  and not a lot of dough, and a lot of that was shooting at night, outside, on Montreal rooftops in November. With the wind and the rain, and sometimes even the snow howling around us.  And our budget – well, it was huge compared to what we were used to working with, which was literally peanuts! – but for a “real movie” it was limiting, especially for something this ambitious in scope.  Editing had its own set of challenges, and frustrations, but none that are as interesting, or as cinematic as rain smacking you around on a roof.

TFY: What were some of the films that influenced you for Peepers?

Seth: It’s a real rogue’s gallery for this one.  Porky’s was an obvious touchstone. All those 80s sex comedies.  We really wanted to make a sad, grown up version of one of those.  Ghostbusters.  That’s always an influence.  Rear Window is kind of unavoidable when you’re making a film about voyeurism.  You kind of have to tip your hat to that.  Visually, Bobby Shore (the DP) and I talked a lot about Klute, of all films.  And there’s a great Israeli film about peeping called Metzitzim that we discovered late in the day, that has a really similar combination of melancholy and um, horniness.

TFY: What has the film festival circuit experience been like for you?

Seth: Well, it would figure that we’ve been doing the festival circuit just in time for a huge economic downturn.  So not enough free flights and hotels!  It’s been great, though, getting to see it with an audience, and making connections with other filmmakers. That’s always nice.  But honestly, we seem to just be hitting our stride now, so I hope we can hit a few more.  Drink tickets and free hors d’oeuvres – I’m a still-struggling filmmaker, so these things mean a lot!

TFY: Can you speak a little bit about making an independent feature in Canada? What are some of the up-sides and down-sides?

Seth: The up-side of making an independent feature in Canada is that if you’re lucky, the government will give you money to make one!  The downside is that once it is made it may disappear into a pit of Northern oblivion and never be heard from again.  Nobody in Canada really wants to see Canadian movies, for whatever reason – at least not English Canadian movies. The French have it figured out a little better.  But all things considered, we’re pretty lucky here.  Though ask me that again if I’m still trying to get the second one made a couple decades from now.

TFY: Now the big question. What are you going to work on next?

Seth: I’m working on a film called Motorway Lodge.  Writing that now.  It’s about a timid man at an international mineral processing conference.  This one will be even more creepy – that’s my hope, anyway!  So another easy sell!  Not obscure enough? I’m also finishing up an experimental music documentary on a composer named Osama Shalabi, who is kind of a genius, as far as I’m concerned, even if he hasn’t yet hit Justin Bieber levels of stardom. But I haven’t completely forsaken the mainstream –  I’m ready to make Marmaduke 2, or whatever… maybe get a piece of this Smurfs action. I am ready to whore it out for the highest bidder at the earliest possible convenience. So if you know any one, please don’t hesitate to pass along my digits…!

Peepers will play on Tuesday July 20th and once more on Friday July 23rd. You can find more about the film and buy tickets by clicking here.