Nowadays, we seem to complain a lot about the state of movies. Too many remakes, too many sequels, every new release looks like something else that came before it, etc. It should be rejoiced when something GENUINELY different comes along, something we have not seen before. TEETH (Click HERE to read The Arrow's review!) is a movie like that, but we'll just have to see how celebrated it is for being "different." This is the coming-of-age dark comedy/gore-film about a teenager's tooth-filled vagina I'm not positive everyone was asking for... But like its adorable heroine with a most unusual problem, it's unique enough to set tongues wagging... (Might've been an awkward choice of words there.)
I had the "pleasure" of seeing TEETH a few weeks back (it's a good movie, to be sure, but it hurts to watch sometimes) in order to prepare me for Mitchell Lichtenstein, the writer/director making his feature-film debut. Obviously, one doesn't know what to expect when meeting the man who had this premise on his mind, but Lichtenstein (a former actor and son of famed artist Roy Lichtenstein) was shockingly normal. In fact, he seemed modest and at a loss for words most of the time, as if not quite ready for the interview-frenzy he's in the middle of now.
Mitchell Lichtenstein Interview
In the press notes, you mention the "vagina dentata" - which has apparently existed as a myth for centuries throughout many cultures. What came first, you discovering this myth, or you deciding you wanted to tell this particular story, and then doing the research and finding out about it?
ML: It really was that I learned about myths years ago in college, and [notorious feminist author] Camille Paglia was my teacher -
There you go, that explains it.
ML: (laughs) Yeah. And I think it was in one of her classes, it was in connection with 19th Century literature, where it was sort of metaphorically referenced. And I thought about it over the years, and I thought it could kind've be a fruitful subject, given the pervasiveness of the myth in the many cultures. And it hadn't really been addressed directly - I mean it probably has been, in a total gross-out movie, not with a serious character who's sympathetic and is basically the hero of the story.
How did you decide what the tone would be, because you could have played it as serious horror, but it's more of a comedy, with some real scares throughout.
ML: I think it's just my aesthetic, I didn't really map out comedy versus horror. I grew genuinely to love the main character and I wanted to take her story seriously, but some of the surrounding stuff is tongue-in-cheek. These teen romances - you know, there's always these obstacles, and this is sort've an extreme obstacle! (laughs)
Did you ever wonder, or care about, what people would think about you when they finally saw TEETH? "I didn't think Mitchell had THAT on his mind!"
ML: (laughs) Especially when I was writing it - I wrote it over a number of years - and people would ask about it. With older relatives, I did find a way to say what it was about without really mentioning what it was about, but luckily they weren't that interested, so they didn't follow up on it. They're not paid like you are to follow up on it. (laughs)
What is the most extreme reaction you've gotten, either positive or negative?
ML: I was recently at a film festival in a college town, and usually I introduce the movie and then come back for the last 15 minutes. Not to give anything away, but at the end of the movie there's something that happens to one of the guys and a dog, and I was waiting by the top of the aisle and these two frat guys just stood up and walked out and said "Thanks for that." (laughs) Those kind of walk-outs are really satisfying. But the idea that they sat through the whole thing, and THAT was just the last straw, they couldn't take that one. I kind've think I've been successful when those things happen.
Has anyone been outraged - came up to you and said "How could you do that?" or something?
ML: At the Deauville festival in France. A French woman came up to me and said "You Americans have a very sick view of sex!" And that's part of what the movie is about, so I can't disagree with that. But she was really vehement about it. But that's part of the message, so that's a good negative reaction.
Have men and women reacted in notably different ways?
ML: Men certainly have a more visceral reaction to it. I was wondering while we were making it if men would actually sit through it. When we showed it at Sundance, the first place we showed it, Jess (Weixler) said she was walking down the street and some women came up to her and were really congratulating her, and that was nice, but sort've expected. Then some guys came up to her and were like "Right on! Right on!" And I don't even want to know what they were into. (laughs) I think guys probably, when they hear about it, are more likely not to want to see it, but they're much more into it then I would have expected.
Did you have to cut anything to get an R rating?
ML: I would really challenge anybody who saw it at Sundance to notice the difference, I'll say that. But you know, I always assumed we'd get an NC-17 rating, but we're rated R, and the MPAA was really behind it because they saw it as a cautionary tale that parents should take their teenage sons to, because of that message: if your intentions are good, things will work out...
When you were pitching this, was it difficult finding people to collaborate on it?
ML: Yeah, Joyce Pierpoline, the producer, and I quickly realized that we weren't going to get anywhere with a traditional - not even studio, we didn't even go there - but even indie producers who do challenging films, they were not responding. (laughs) Sometimes literally not responding.
How long was it in development before it went in front of cameras?
ML: Once we decided to do it, it went pretty quickly, but I actually at first thought a woman should direct it in the years I was writing it, which started 7 years ago. We found a really interesting British woman who was interested in doing it, and at a certain point we realized that she had her vision, but it wouldn't have been this.
In the press notes you mention you're not particularly a fan of horror films, and while this isn't a "traditional" horror film, it's really squirm-inducing and features some intense gore that even I was thrown off by.
ML: Well, I do love some horror movies. I love CARRIE and ROSEMARY'S BABY and some others. But I don't like the ones where women are being chased around with knives...
Was there any specific inspiration for TEETH?
ML: Not really. I was writing it so that the story was the most fun for me. Most movies would have gone through a committee and been channeled toward one genre or another. Because it's time-tested, and easier to promote. This genuinely takes from a lot of sources: it's a dark comedy, it's a horror, it's a coming-of-age film... I don't even know if that answered your question. (laughs) I wasn't forced to channel it into kind of genre.
I definitely thought John Waters during it. Have you been told that?
ML: I have been told that, and I do love John Waters. He saw it in Berlin, and he liked it. You know, TEETH is John Waters with good actors. (laughs)
I hope you didn't tell him that!
ML: Well that's part of his thing, although he does of course have good actors. But I'm thinking of his earlier stuff, where they were perfect for what he was doing. You couldn't ask for anything better.
I was going to ask about the casting of Dawn, because Jess is so perfect for the role. She's actually a lot older than I thought she was, she looks like she's about 16, but I guess she's in her mid-twenties now. Can you describe your casting process, what specific qualities you were looking for?
ML: Jess was always the first person we thought of for the part, and she was scared off by the script, as many were, and she didn't want to commit to it but she ultimately did. I had to kind of talk her through my vision of it, until she understood how I saw it.
But with most low-budget movies you're obligated to put someone with some name recognition in it, for obvious reasons. I was just lucky that I didn't have that restriction, or obligation, and I was able to cast the best actors for it. So I hope people out there see that you just have to cast the best person for the part.
What's next for you?
ML: Another movie that I wrote called HAPPY TEARS, and it's very different, it's a comedy-drama about a family. I hope to be shooting at the end of March.
Did TEETH give you the opportunity to do that?
ML: Yeah, I had written this before, but having done something that's been well-received - we'll see if it does any business - but it's been well-received and it helps.
Do you see another foray into horror in the future?
ML: Maybe. It's really fun, and people have talked about a sequel, so we'll see. There's more bad guys out there.
And that's all the time we had, but I got in a pretty good amount of questions for what seemed like a very-brief 15 minute interview. I'd like to thank Mitchell Lictenstein for his time. TEETH opens this Friday!