NRFF Interviews Director Erica Scoggins
Film Block: V Cinema: LAB 1 Date: 04.03.18 Time: 11.30-12.45 PM
The Sacred Disease
Director: Erica Scoggins
Erica Scoggins’ narrative films and visual art examine moments of unreality brought on by adrenaline, desire, disease, and trauma. The Sacred Disease depicts Temporal Lobe Epilepsy as a means to slip through cracks in the fabric of the world. Her ongoing paper-based series, “Evil Women,” presents gaunt and delinquent ladies as they navigate a world that simultaneously desires and demonizes them. This theme fed her most recent film, The Boogeywoman, currently in post-production.
Born and raised in East Tennessee, Erica Scoggins studied fine art and writing at Belmont University in Nashville before getting her MFA in film directing at California Institute of the Arts. As a postgraduate teaching fellow at CalArts, she taught a hybrid theory/practice course on ineffable moments and unexplainable phenomena in cinema. She currently teaches Art at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.
1- Congratulations on being part of the second edition of the New Renaissance Film
Festival, Amsterdam. How does it feel to have The Sacred Disease screened here?
Thank you! It’s bittersweet because I’m ecstatic to screen with you all and pretty sour that I can’t make it. Luckily, our leading lady will be representing. It has been a good nearly two years of screening The Sacred Disease in festivals–from larger and older to smaller and newer. The point is the spirit behind the festival, and New Renaissance is a much-needed new renaissance.
2- Can you give an outline of the story?
The film follows Angie, a young woman suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. More
specifically, she’s suffering from the deadening medication meant to cure her illness and reeling from the death of her brother. As she ditches her pills and follows a mysterious woman with the same disorder to the outskirts of their town, we discover that her grief is wrapped up in guilt. As the medicine in her system weans and Angie slips back into the seizure state, the narrative dissolves into an experiential recreation of this traumatic and sublime experience.
3- What was your main inspiration for the film?
The Sacred Disease is based on my experience with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, partial seizures stemming from the part of the brain controlling memory and emotion. A “misfire” in this part of the brain produces strange episodes consisting of a number of bizarre symptoms–a foreboding sense of deja vu or jamais vu, changes in perception, a sudden overwhelming sense of euphoria or fear, automatic or forced thought, a tingly sensation of the skin, olfactory and aural hallucinations, etc. Long story short, these extreme moments (no matter how frightening) were so powerful and otherworldly that I became obsessed with re-creating the feeling long after the medication had stopped them. I knew film was the only way to tap into the magic of that lost experience.
4- Describe your creative process.
I’ve been a visual artist since I can remember, but at some point, I wanted to sound and movement and narrative. No matter what a project is “about,” it’s actually about creating an alternate world. A time or a place that has slippages, in reality, no cell phones, and possibilities that reach beyond the sometimes mundane nature of the real world. I draw constantly during the writing phase, illustrating characters, visualizing moments, trying out dialogue. The writing process is perhaps the most creatively frenetic time for me. Once decisions are made, that rosey script of possibility becomes a looming mountain. I have to gather my cast crew and constantly apologize for making them climb it–knowing I wrote all of the problems.
5- How did you finance The Sacred Disease?
Shooting a short film in East Tennessee is like organizing a community meeting and divvying up duties for a block party. Friends, family, friends of family, and friends of friends contributed with lodging, locations, catering, donations, performances as extras, and they even took up crew roles. The local University loaned us a camera and equipment and some student crew members. A talented crew worked for little and no pay. With so much support, our budget needs were significantly reduced. A mixture of private funding and thesis support from my school, CalArts, was able to cover the things not donated.
6- What was the most challenging aspect of making it?
Our problematic actor was my Dad’s ‘69 Camaro used in the film. Sometimes she just didn’t want to perform. One night, at 4 am on a dead end road in Charleston, TN, the power steering hose busted and my brother repaired it with a Miller Lite can and zip ties. But I suppose that’s the more surface level film shoot madness.
The biggest challenge was actually translating this experience that really doesn’t translate to language into a narrative script then communicating to my actors and finally arriving at moving images.
7- How did you cast the lead actors and prepare them for their roles?
Two of my producers and I held auditions in LA, where I was living at the time. Kyla Ledes (Angie) was the first we saw for the role (out of more than 50), and I kind of knew right then. The funny thing is she was also from East TN and we had gone to the same college. We spent half an hour talking about medication and side effects. She suffers from chronic migraines and its medication, which have their own set of perceptive and physical problems. The way she was able to translate my sometimes esoteric directions into her body is how I knew she was the one.
Abby Eiland (Nicole) had this command of the room, a sense of control that threatened to dissolve at a moment’s notice. She was intense with a subtle warmth. I knew she could magnetize Angie.
Derek McLenithan (Daniel) committed to this project the moment he walked into the room. I threw him right into a strange improv designed to explore the awkwardness of language and the body during a seizure. It was a beautiful and bizarre moment.
I use a lot of music in the process of developing characters so I made them all playlists and really just tried to describe the seizures in a way that could be translated physically and atmospherically.
8- Is there a message you would like audiences to take away from watching it?
I hope they are able to sense, if even just a little bit, what one of these episodes could feel like. It’s not a dream. Everything on-screen happens in the world of the film. We are just experiencing the symptoms of the seizure with Angie so perception, time, and the aural landscape are skewed. I’m not advocating for taking medication or not taking medication. Cinema is just the one realm where we can fantasize about living out our natural “disorders”–unmedicated, unaltered. This is where I could recreate the feeling of these strange moments that are almost entirely lost to me.
9- How have audiences responded so far?
At least two old men have been quick to tell me they “just didn’t get it,” one apologetically and one with a sense of stubborn pride. It’s a hard film to classify, and it definitely tests the audience in places. The best moments are when people come up to me and say something along the lines of, “I’m not entirely sure what I just saw, but it did something to me.” That’s the best feedback because that’s exactly what the seizure is–pure, illogical outbursts of fear or euphoria in conjunction with confused time and physically violent periods. After a seizure, the person often doesn’t know what happened, just that something did happen.
10- Have you always wanted to be a director? What advice would you give someone starting out?
Something was planted in me one summer night in the basement of my friend’s house. I was sixteen years old, my eyes glued to a TV with a built-in VCR playing David Lynch’s Lost Highway. I had grown up on box office mainstream cinema, but this was something different. It demanded something from me.
That seed didn’t come to fruition until partway through my college education. I was a studio art and writing major, but I could not shake the desire to combine image and narrative. Making movies had always seemed like something that just happens in Hollywood and that a girl from Tennessee just doesn’t make movies, but I realized there is a whole other world of filmmaking. As soon as I went to California, everything I wrote was about the South. So now I’m back and I shoot everything in Tennessee.
I guess I’d say if Hollywood doesn’t suit you, make your own spot (that’s a metaphor of course). A lot of people will tell you how to make movies, and you should really listen to them and learn from their experience. But you’re making your movie so your voice has to be the strongest in the end or the film won’t really be yours.
11- Where can people follow your work or get in touch?
You can find info on any of my films and art practice at www.ericascoggins.com.
The best place for quick updates is Instagram. My personal account is @redhairredpants and our latest film in post-production is @the_boogeywoman.
Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheSacredDiseaseFilm/
Thank you again for screening The Sacred Disease from myself and the rest of the cast and crew!