DAVID GIARDINA: PULLING “TAFFY” Image

At a time when so many horror films and thrillers literally clobber the viewer with an excess of CGI trickery and endless violence and gore, the small indie offering Taffy Was Born takes a more classic approach to scaring the excrement out of the viewer. This creepy feature finds an emotionally damaged man named Verid (Scott Mitchell Kelly, in an astonishing performance) who returns to his hometown with no memory of his childhood but bitter anger over his adult life (which included false imprisonment on bogus embezzlement charges and subsequent incarceration in a mental hospital). Slowly piecing together the missing pieces of his past, despite the evasive and obstructionist efforts of his sinister aunt and weird neighbors, he slowly realizes the family secret and the wreckage it created on his mind.

The creative force behind “Taffy Was Born” was David Giardina, an actor/filmmaker who shot the film in his native Connecticut. Working with a minimum of budget and a maximum of imagination, Giardina spins a highly effective scare-fest in “Taffy Was Born.”

The film is currently on the festival circuit, and was also a part of this year’s Cannes market. Film Threat spoke with Giardina at his New York apartment about the journey of “Taffy Was Born.”

“Taffy Was Born” plays heavily in the power-of-suggestion style of filmmaking (best known in Val Lewton’s RKO classics) rather than the gore-in-your-face approach. Why did you opt for this mental/emotional assault on the viewers’ senses rather than the full-frontal visceral attack? ^ Yes, that is a very sharp observation. Val Lewton is certainly an influence on me. Even without thinking of it consciously, that style influences me in how I approach making a movie- at least with “Taffy Was Born”.

A film like “The Seventh Victim” is in many ways an ancestor of “Taffy”. Lewton’s films were about the horror of the unseen- what we don’t know (or what we don’t want to know) can harm us. I’ve always loved scary movies- everything from James Whale to “Night of the Living Dead”- but the films that really affect me on a deeper level are those that aren’t so obviously gory. Gory to me is fun and easy to laugh off. The chilling ending of “The Seventh Victim” for instance, is impossible to laugh off. We’re dealing with the human condition and the possible threats not just to our physical person but to our emotional/spiritual safety.

I think “Rosemary’s Baby” is similar in this respect too, as is the 1961 film “The Innocents.” I think film has unlimited potential of course to entertain us but also to heighten our awareness and affect us in a more lasting way. Given the quite horrifying subject matter of “Taffy Was Born” I did not want to graphically revel in that which I find repulsive. I wanted to present certain themes without using the subject matter as a way to titillate. I want to encourage people to be more aware and question things in this society we create.

Scott Mitchell Kelly may have seemed to be a peculiar choice for the leading role of the unhinged Verid — his web site (www.scottmitchellkelly.com) shows him to be a visibly self-confident actor/model/athlete, the polar opposite of his “Taffy Was Born” role. What attracted you to this actor, and how did you work to transfer him into the jittery, mentally-frayed character he put on the screen? ^ Scott Mitchell Kelly was by far the best actor I auditioned for the role of Verid. I auditioned many actors for every role and had seen many actors for this part. None had the naturalism or a willingness to reshape themselves into the role that Scott had. Scott actually told me early on: “I’m putty. I want to be molded”. Normally I would shy away from the whole method acting thing. Being an actor myself, I always preferred the technique approach to acting- i.e. creating an illusion of being a character as opposed to actually becoming the character.

With Scott, his method training really helped with transforming him. He did bring a lot of his air of confidence and physical agility to the role. Verid is in virtually every shot so we have to be with him and relate to him from the start- even if we don’t know what he is up to and if he seems not-quite “right”. Scott managed to keep us with him which was important. There are a couple times in the movie where Scott actually did his own stunts which, if he weren’t a trained athlete, could have been disastrous. He also never let himself go completely emotionally which I think added greatly. He retained a sustained “just barely keeping it together” quality. At first I tried to get him to let loose and be more overtly emotional but then I saw it as a plus that he didn’t.

“Taffy Was Born” was primarily shot in Connecticut, a state which is not exactly overflowing with independent film productions. What were some of the challenges (and joys, for that matter) in shooting your film in that state? ^ Besides being a lovely New England spot (and my native state), to me Connecticut is a perfect movie set. It has everything- cityscapes, small town areas, natural beauty, and being from there I know where all these places are so when I write a movie like “Taffy” I write with actual places in mind. I also found that most places in Connecticut were so courteous and friendly in allowing us to film there. Everyone from owners of the beautiful gothic house where the main characters live to the local police that let us use their stationhouse, everyone was great. In big film industry places like NY or LA if you even carry a camera in public the cops converge on you and demand to see a permit, and God forbid you don’t have one to show them. My thoughts always start with Connecticut when it comes to developing my next movie.

You were recently in France for the Cannes Market. From a professional and emotional standpoint, what was it like bringing your film to this high-profile event? ^ Being at the Cannes Film Festival was literally a trip and a half. Cannes has such a famous name and truthfully the idea of having a screening there was a bit daunting. Going in, I knew that “Taffy Was Born” was a teensy tiny little movie compared to the other films there (can we say “Star Wars”?) so I didn’t imagine we’d get any kind of attention. We were lucky enough to have a reporter from Hartford Courant (the major Connecticut daily newspaper) there to do a piece on it the night of the screening, which surprised me, but otherwise it’s a big name town as far as the festival goes. Cannes did not start off this way back in the late 1940’s. The festival was originally an answer to the trite commercial productions being made, a place to show more original and off-beat fare. But since then it is all about the big stars, big directors. I understand that and I’m glad I got a chance to go and experience it. Cannes is a lovely spot to begin with.

What did you do at Cannes to drum up interest for the film? Indeed, how can a small film like “Taffy Was Born” stand out from the hundreds of movies competing for attention at Cannes? ^ I was brought to Cannes by a distribution marketing company called ITN. They took a handful of films there to be screened at the market. While there they do their best to interest potential distributors and programmers to buy the films in their catalogue of which “Taffy” was one. Like any other industrial market, there are booths set up in the Palais which is a sprawling convention center. ITN had one of these booths and they spent their days showing industry people samples of different movies they had. I noticed, not surprisingly, that the movies that were getting all of the industrial attention were the “blood and guts and exploding cars with buxom bikini babes with fangs” variety. “Taffy” was the black sheep as it were so I don’t think ITN knew how to promote it. I did my bit to go to the Palais each day and hand out promotional material to buyers etc. However this is not my forte and being that I’m not a “name” in a big name environment it was a challenge.

What was the reaction at Cannes to your film? Have you received any interest from U.S. or foreign distributors based on the Cannes Film Market? ^ The screening of “Taffy” in Cannes was very frustrating. There were about 20 others films screening the night of our screening so potential buyers would stroll into our screening room, sit for a few minutes, then stroll off to another screening room. Being that “Taffy Was Born” is the kind of movie that must be watched from beginning to end- I was appalled. I mean, how can they feel they’ve gotten a good enough idea of what the movie is about just from few minutes? It was explained to me later by an experienced Cannes-goer that this is how they do it there. They are, essentially shopping. Also, the screening room itself was NOT at acoustically sound. We could hear some of the other films being screened nearby VERY clearly. You’d think at Cannes this might be considered “Tres mechant” but apparently not.

So far I have not gotten any distribution hits from this festival screening. Again, going in I wasn’t expecting this to happen. I just wanted to go and experience this famous event.

What are your upcoming projects? ^ Right now I am in the middle of shooting a documentary. The working title is “Probable Cause.” It is an examination of the American Medical Association and Food and Drug Administration and how these industries lie in order sell their products. Ignorance has proven to be their biggest tool- they have been creating and perpetuating diseases so that the mass populace will buy pharmaceuticals to counteract the symptoms of these diseases. Using “HIV/AIDS” and other “modern day plagues” we are seeking to heighten people’s awareness that a lot of what one hears and sees on TV is not true. We’ve been interviewing many different people for this including some who were diagnosed with “HIV” years ago but who have refused to take the toxic drugs their doctors prescribed, and are now perfectly healthy. I’m collaborating on this with author/educator Matthew Grace, who’s book “A Way Out” is about this subject. I’ve never made a documentary before as I’d never found a subject that inspired me enough, I guess. Being socially minded and a complete raw food vegan (I don’t even take aspirin or vitamins) I think I finally found a subject to sink my teeth into. We hope to done with principle shooting this winter.

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