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MAD SCIENCE IS A WOMAN IN BIG BITING PIG'S FRANCES STEIN
by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [June 7, 2016]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] Sometimes you can judge a film by its title. This film is called Frances Stein, as in Frankenstein. Get it?
Yes, Frances Stein is a horror/sci-fi film about a mad scientist who ignores the dictum that some things Man -- or in Frances's case, Woman -- was not meant to know. Frances wants to know about memory, mind transplants, and immortality. Stuff like that. The usual mad scientist interests and hobbies.
The film is the latest from Big Biting Pig Productions, a Kentucky-based outfit headed by PJ Woodside and Steven Hudgins, known for tackling a wide range of horror subgenres. This time out it's weird science.
"In this case I didn't choose the subgenre and then write the story," said writer/director PJ Woodside to the Hollywood Investigator. "It was the other way around. I frequently take cliché female characters and turn them on their heads in my scripts. I wanted to create what appears to be a 'jealous ex-wife' character, but is something much different in the end. That led me to her role as a 'mad scientist.' I had been working on the script for a while when the Frankenstein aspect came to me. I also like complex characters whose morality is not black or white. Telling the story of the monstrous scientist in such a way that she would be the protagonist was fascinating to me."
Woodside and Hudgins (who take turns directing) have matured as filmmakers since their first BBP feature, Maniac on the Loose. Their production values are more polished. Hudgins's first feature, The 3rd Floor (though done before BBP and without Woodside, I consider it BPP's unofficial first film) was entertaining, but also suffered from poor lighting and composition. By contrast, Frances Stein makes admirably use of the nondiegetic colored lighting popularized by Dario Argento's Suspiria.
Observe the use of lighting in these images:
In the above image, Frances's rival, Jayne (Jessica Leonard), hears weird noises emanating from a room in her house. There is no rationale for the blue lighting to the left, nor the violet hues on the right. They serve to create an atmosphere of eerie nighttime dread, with a touch of the fantastique.
In the above image, Frances's former assistant, Avery (Cody Rogers) returns to his apartment. Turquoise lighting to the left, bluish-violet on the right. Eerie, fantastical, nighttime colors.
Perhaps for a change of pace, when Cody approaches Frances's house, the building behind him (a shed or barn?) is lit a creepy green.
"Referencing old horror movies, and being able to create the laboratory from scratch, gave us some freedom to play around with colored lights," explained Woodside. "So we did! We pride ourselves on being creative with the means that we have. We had many 'make it work' moments that turned out good visuals."
Woodside and Hudgins's film output over the years has also improved in terms of composition. In the above image, guests at a party thrown by Frances's ex-husband, Patrick (Scott Cummings, in the black sweater), express embarrassed discomfort over Frances's hysteria. Actors are carefully staged, much as in a painting.
The above image of the two torturers (rapper T.O.N.E.-z and Hudgins) is both well staged and well lit. Their faces are half-hidden in the rich blackness of the dark room, enhancing their menacing personalities and intentions.
Frances's face (Woodside) is similarly shrouded in darkness, and lit from below to create menacing shadows that distort her features. Her creepy silhouette contrasts with the warm, orange lighting behind her.
Hudgins served as the DP on Frances Stein, "with assistance from Timothy Blair for lighting," said Woodside. "On the interrogation scenes, I ran the camera with assistance from Timothy Blair, but we set up shots together."
As with some previous Big Biting Pig films, Frances Stein use nonlinear editing, revealing bits of the story from different points in time and different characters' perspectives. "I'm a big fan of stories that make you work a little, such as Memento, The Machinist, and Fight Club," explained Woodside. "This script started out linear, but I knew if I wasn't careful, it would be seen as Jayne's story. I didn't want that. I needed a structure that would keep coming back to Frances, even when she's not on screen. That’s how the interview/interrogator scenes came about. These gave us a lot of freedom to jump around, to hit key scenes, but also to keep the big question in the viewer's mind: what happened to Frances? One of the central characteristics of the interrogation scenes is that Avery is lying. I knew if I could set this up right, it would create suspense."
Frances Stein shows ingenuity. It borrows from Frankenstein while also injecting other elements. It's a science-based twist on such supernatural horror films as Eternal Evil and The Skeleton Key. The quest for an immortality that requires victims, but which relies more on computers than on magic. Coming up with original twists to old tropes has long been a BBP strength.
The acting -- Frances Stein's weakest point -- is a mixed bag. Some of the cast is good, some less than good. Kentucky lacks a large pool of highly trained, yet willing-to-work-for-free, actors (one of the advantages of shooting in New York or Los Angeles). BBP's films have grown in ambition over the years -- bigger stories, more locations, bigger casts -- and they've begun to strain the available talent pool. I hope they return to smaller stories, such as The Creepy Doll and Spirit Stalkers.
Woodside says that financing came from both a Kickstarter campaign and private donors. "Our total budget is around $15,000. I was lucky to know two composer/musicians who wrote the music for the movie at no cost. I am very grateful to them for that!"
Frances Stein was shot on a Panasonic HVX200, in 24p, "which we've been using for several years. It's such a solid camera that we haven't felt the need to upgrade. We used a GoPro for the memory shots. Our editing software is Sony Vegas Pro. We've been using it for almost 10 years and have yet to need something different."
To date, Frances Stein has screened at the Alhambra Film Festival, MayDay Film Festival, and Motor City Nightmares Film Festival, "where it received an award for Best Sci-Fi Feature."
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