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Q&A with "Family Nightmare" director Dustin Defa

Dustin Defa
Dustin Defa

Brooklyn-based director Dustin Guy Defa says he’s not a documentarian, but his short ”Family Nightmare,” culled from 40 hours of VHS home movies from his home in Salt Lake City, is a visceral and disturbing masterpiece. He wants you to know – this is not found footage. 

A standout in the Documentary Shorts showcase, “Family Nightmare” (2011) has also played at Sundance, BAM Cinemafest, True/False, and Rooftop Films. This is Defa’s second year at SXSW; his narrative feature Bad Fever premiered in Emerging Visions in 2011. Bad Fever will be released on DVD and VOD in June. He plans to begin shooting his next narrative feature, Sweet Lover, in New York City this summer. 

“Family Nightmare” plays tomorrow, Friday, March 16, 2pm at Alamo Lamar C as part of the Documentary Short Competition 2 program.

Austin Chronicle: “Family Nightmare” is in the documentary shorts category here at SXSW, but it could fit into other categories.

Dustin Guy Defa: It’s probably an “experimental documentary,” because it’s not narrative. I had heard that Sundance had trouble figuring out where they were going to place it, if they were going to put it in the documentary section or not, but I always thought about it as a documentary. But I’m not a documentarian. “Family Nightmare” may be the only one I make.

If the ending with the obituaries didn’t happen, what would it be? That’s why I made it, it’s the story of my family. I’m using my family as characters. My family is very animated and loud and I’m not. In a very surreal and abstract way, I’m expressing what it felt like to be a child living in that house with all that substance abuse going on all around us.

Austin Chronicle: It’s important for people to know this is not found footage.

Dustin Guy Defa: The audience needs to know. I think that informs the whole film. That’s what the movie is, my relationship with my family, and me using my home movies to go through some personal stuff.

Austin Chronicle: What was the editing process?

Dustin Guy Defa: I went through 40 hours of footage. Just going through and digitizing the footage and seeing my family, that was a nightmare itself. The editing and starting to do the voices was another horrific experience. Now I’m starting to think of it as cathartic but at the time I felt haunted.  

Austin Chronicle: It took a minute for me to figure out that the voices were dubbed.

Dustin Guy Defa: That would be my perception, that people would not be able to figure out that the voices were dubbed for the first two minutes, and then catch on. Some people still think I’m warping the actual soundtrack. But people who are really attuned to film, it becomes pretty clear. I put in a few sound effects, and as the movie goes on I started doing really crazy stuff, doing guttural voices.

All the dialogue is 100% the real dialogue. I wanted to make sure that people understood it was dubbing so I didn’t try to completely lip synch. I tried to get close but I didn’t want to do it perfectly. It’s not stated [at the outset], but it’s my voice, I do all the voices.

Austin Chronicle: Were you planning to do that from the beginning?

Dustin Guy Defa: I decided to do the voices while I was editing. It’s a playful thing and I also needed to do it for myself, actually...I’m exaggerating in such a huge way. But even though I’m exaggerating, it was weird because I was still dealing with whoever’s voice I was doing. I was dealing with my ideas of them.

Austin Chronicle: With 40 hours of tapes, home video must have been a big thing in your family.

Dustin Guy Defa: We were that kind of family. During that time, once VHS cameras were on the market, they were shooting all the holidays, everything. Now that’s probably the story with lots of families. And I don’t know if this is going away or not, but like with [William Eggleston’s] Stranded in Canton, there’s a performance going on for the camera. I don’t know if people are getting used to cameras now and they’re not performing anymore, but in this my family is really performing. They’re acting.

Austin Chronicle: Is there a role of humor in it?

Dustin Guy Defa: When I made it, I felt very serious about it and the first time I showed it at BAM, people were laughing and it was really upsetting. I didn’t know that was going to happen and now I realize why people are laughing and it is actually funny. It’s almost perfect because my family laughs – you can see them laughing through all this stuff and they’re just not realizing where they’re going. It’s chaotic and careless. That’s what abuse is like. But I totally understand, it is actually funny near the beginning. I think you can tell, at some point it stops getting funny.

Austin Chronicle: Maybe people were laughing because it’s relatable. Maybe it causes sort of a “shock of recognition” kind of laugh, more than a “ha-ha funny” laugh.

Dustin Guy Defa: It’s probably shock of recognition. And the way I’ve done my voice is kind of carnivalesque or circus-like.

Austin Chronicle: At that time, in the Eighties and Nineties, there were some families that did a lot of home video and some did none at all. Why are some families compulsive videotapers?

Dustin Guy Defa: I don’t know what it is because I don’t have that compulsion myself. I’ve never been interested in filming real life. At that time, I was making movies, slasher movies, with my friends and family. I was trying to incorporate more of that stuff, but you know at the very beginning, where the kid has the knife? That’s from one of my slasher movies.

But I don’t have that [interest in filming real life]. I don’t know what it is, it’s like scrapbooking, I guess, or photo albums. It's like fetish. Those tapes are the most valuable thing for my family. What is that? Maybe it’s an obsession with death, or an illusion that it means eternity, or a real record stamped in stone.

Austin Chronicle: But you’re a filmmaker, so you’re making a stamp of your experience.

Dustin Guy Defa: Yeah, but that’s not something I think about. It leads nowhere. But I have my own fetishes too, like Bergman. He got the stamp and he got the whole page in the history book.

Austin Chronicle: Bergman and who else?

Dustin Guy Defa: Shirley Clarke...I used to love Robert Altman so much, and it’s like I forget about him, and now I’m on this Altman kick.

Austin Chronicle: Seventies Altman?

Dustin Guy Defa: No, all of Altman. The Long Goodbye and Three Women are my favorite. And Nashville... The two best retrospectives I saw this year in New York were Andrzej Zulawski and Eric Rohmer. I’m a big Bresson fan.

Austin Chronicle: Did you go to film school?

Dustin Guy Defa: No. It never even crossed my mind.

Austin Chronicle: Let’s talk about the look of Family Nightmare. It has that wonderful degraded VHS look where everyone looks scary just because of the decay of the tape.

Dustin Guy Defa: It seems almost easy to make VHS haunting and eerie. I wonder what that is.

Austin Chronicle: There’s a name for it. With analog video, and especially VHS, there’s an image error called “ghosting,” where the motion bleeds over into the next frame, and it makes people’s teeth look like fangs. It’s perfect for this.

Dustin Guy Defa: It is perfect. So with the “ghosting” and what I did with the sound, I had a visceral, almost hallucinogenic thing going on watching it myself. Those two things going on together are a weird experience.

Austin Chronicle: What do you most often get asked in Q&As, how your family feels about it?

Dustin Guy Defa: That happens all the time. It’s been hard for them. The movie is hard. I would say everybody has a tough time with it. I do. It’s tough to look at it, the reality. I don’t know if that’s a healthy thing or not, for people in it to look at it.

Austin Chronicle: It’s different that writing a memoir. I guess a memoirist verbalizing it would be similar to editing the video, but there’s this fact of the video being a visual record.

Dustin Guy Defa: Yeah, you’re seeing two different things going on at the same time, like fun and people having a good time and dysfunction. I’m concluding by the movie, I’m saying, the ending to what’s going on here, what looks like fun is something really bad. At least for my family. It goes nowhere. That’s where it goes.

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