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Poet of Blood: An Interview With Nick Palumbo

by Andrew Repasky McElhinney

Andrew Repasky McElhinney is the maker of the films The Scream (1994), Her Father’s Expectancy (1994), A Maggot Tango (1995), Magdalen (1998), A Chronicle of Corpses (2001) and Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye (2003). Visit: www.armcinema25.com

Nick Palumbo is the writer and director of the feature films Nutbag (2000) and Murder-Set-Pieces (2005). Visit: www.frightflix.com.

Even in this age of protected and suppressed images, snuff webcasts bring The Global War on Terror home. Any computer literate kid can download beheadings, bondage and brutality all in the name of infotainment. Violence is the world’s universal language, just as digital videotape is its voice.

Nick Palumbo’s barbarous second feature, Murder-Set-Pieces is set in such a world of hate. Our Real World vampire, The Photographer (Sven Garrett) is a self-styled Neo-Nazi Terminator of women. By day, this Arian jock is a soft-core fashion photographer. Afterschool, he is the sinister stalker of very young girls. And at night, he is a suave sex slasher strolling Vegas’ neon-infested strips.

The effect is reminiscent of Untitled Cindy Sherman Stills catalogued into order by The Brothers Grimm. Alternating between alienated suburban pre-fab condos, strip clubs in strip malls, the killer’s blood soaked underground dungeon, and the “ca-ching” of the casinos; Murder-Set-Pieces is a independently produced grand guignol in the tradition of Last House on Dead End Street and Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Like the frenzied acceleration of a mass murderer about to get caught, American’s yen for violence is greater than ever before. Palumbo's images are poetically abstracted and burn into the eyes with irrefutable relevance that proposes Murder-Set-Pieces as THE exploitation film of the 9-11 decade.

Andrew Repasky McElhinney: What brought you to filmmaking?

Nick Palumbo: I saw The Wizard of Oz (1939) as a child and I fell in love with The Wicked Witch of the West. There was a reason that she was evil and I felt sorry for her. I felt like she didn't want to the way she was, but couldn't help it. I was fascinated by her and that lead to my love affair with the dark side of human nature.

ARM: Las Vegas seems a character in Murder-Set-Pieces.

NP: It is. I wanted to show Las Vegas for what it is. It's promoted on TV as this fantasy island for adults and even kids but Vegas isn't really like that at all if you live here. Its one of the highest crime cites in the nation, the world even. A lot of the crime is hidden because it's a tourist town and they lose millions of dollars. In Vegas it’s about the money, if you have it, you get what you want. Only when an outsider finds a body will it be on the news. They've cleaned the downtown area up to the average person by building new buildings, which makes the drugs and the homeless move a little further back into the desert. The surface is cleaner, you have to dig a little more...

ARM: What is the story you are telling with Murder-Set-Pieces?

NP: I wanted to make a realistic film about a serial killer told from his point-of-view. I wanted to exaggerate the murders a little bit and show how disgusting murder is, and how callous people are towards it. Real violence, real horror isn’t fun. Murder-Set-Pieces is a cautionary tale of what is the greatest problem with 21st century America: Parents don't look after their children.

That sounds like a world without grace. What is the role of religion in your work?

NP: I grew up in a religious fanatic type of family, not my father and mother, but everyone else around me. At first, I embraced it, ultimately I was turned off by it. Religion seems to be about practicing fear tactics. Religion and death go hand in hand. I was brought up around Pentecostals -- holy rollers -- who preach constant pain and death and agony and hell. Because of this, I think you start questioning your own mortality at a young age and what's going to happen when you die. When you get older, you have to make your choices.

ARM: What were the motivations behind The Photographer of Murder-Set-Pieces being a Nazi?

NP: I don't believe in this, but in a horror movie type of way I liked the idea of “tainted blood.”

ARM: What does your use of the 9-11 footage represent in Murder-Set-Pieces?

NP: The 9-11 footage represents the breakdown of American society. It's original footage shot by my Director of Photography Brendan Flynt. I wanted to find a way to represent murder as a whole in the killer's nightmare. I thought, what better visions than New York imploding upon itself? It represents a decadent society and all the murderers everywhere. Murder is rampant and people have no regard for human life. That's why I used the 9-11 footage right after the scene where The Photographer murders a child.

ARM: What is the relation between culture and politics?

NP: The media will try to influence what people want to see. Politicians will rant and rave about what their kids can and can not do or can and can not watch. But these same politicians will let their 5 year old little girls walk to school alone. I see that on a daily bases in Las Vegas and I think that’s pretty sad.

ARM: How do you feel about Murder-Set-Pieces’ erotic violence turning people on?

NP: For most serial killers, sex and violence go hand in hand. It’s realistic. I wanted the audience to take The Photographer's role -- to see what he sees and feel what he feels.

ARM: But why dwell on the sexual subjection, humiliation and butchery of women and young girls?

NP: The Photographer is a misogynist, he feels superior to women. He enjoys seeing their fear before he murders them. I'm just trying to be real from the killer's point of view. I based his character on several different murderers.

ARM: How did you find actresses for these roles?

NP: I hired real people whenever I could. The hookers in the movies are real hookers. I cast the girls in Murder-Set-Pieces as who I thought The Photographer would be repulsed and attracted to. The girls become very nervous when I told them it would be a difficult role because there would be this weird interaction with this big man and they would have endure some pain -- mental and physical -- and it would be unlike anything they would have to go through. I wanted them to believe it wasn't a movie -- I would trick them into thinking that once we turned on the camera that they were really being murdered.

ARM: Why did you want “real fear” but shy away from the inclusion of the pornographic?

NP: I never thought about shooting the sex, of having the killer having sex with the victims. In many ways that might have been less than effective. And I mean that from the actress’ point of view, I think that in the process of simulating being raped, they can make believe or pretend better without actual penetration.

ARM: Is there any difference in getting males to perform in the movies?

NP: Men are more offended by the movie than females. The women I dealt with seem to escape into the dark fantasy of this film. Even though the actresses were scared when I told them what the movie would entail, there was also a fascination they found with the character and an attraction to the fantasy violence. In my experience, men take the film literary and to their heart. More often than females themselves, men see the film as a complete attack on women as a race. Men, more than women, judge me as a human being based on the movie, where as women in my experience are more open to seeing Murder-Set-Pieces as artifice and a script that's trying to say something. The character of the killer is a misogynist, the director is not. In general, I think men have more trouble, probably because of what lies within them, in differentiating fantasy from reality.

ARM: What is it like working so extensively with (then 10 year old) actress Jade Risser in the context of such an explicit and disturbing film?

NP: Jade’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the part. Some of the scenes were difficult to do because she would truly get frightened. The end scene when she had to walk in the basement -- the fear you see on her is real fear. I didn’t let her see the set until we went down there to shoot. She's a great actress beyond that. And when you cast a kid, you're casting their parents as well. Lucky her parents were cool with it. When Jade saw the film (with her parents), she said: "this movie rocks."

ARM: How much of Murder-Set-Pieces is violence as entertainment?

NP: Ultimately it is the audience’s to decide how much of the violence is intended as entrainment. It’s a story I wanted to tell and I think it is done in a stylized, entertaining way -- if the subject of murder can be that. When I make a film I want to entertain the audience visually. Murder-Set-Pieces is a visceral film. I've been trained by Italian [Gallio] films that the look of a movie and the way it moves is more important than an actor or the dialogue. I’m interested in how a movie can illicit emotion from people. Murder-Set-Pieces is taken from today’s headlines and mirrors society in 2005.

(May 19, 2005


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