I was first introduced to Deborah Kampmeier’s “Tape” during my interview with the film’s cinematographer Valentina Caniglia. Since our conversation took place a year ago, she couldn’t go into depth about the story, but I was immediately intrigued. I finally got to watch “Tape” a month ago, and I’ve watched it three times since then. The film merited repeat viewings because of the layers of story and the nuances of the filmmaking.
Coming at a time when we are in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein guilty verdict, “Tape” shows us something we’ve never seen onscreen before through the #MeToo lens. I recommend that everyone see this film, because although it’s difficult to watch, it’s important. Isabelle Fuhrman delivers a powerhouse performance as the main character Pearl. The film is based on the real story of Isabelle’s co-lead, Annarosa Mudd. During my interview with Deborah, she gave me a deeper context behind the film, and shared her hopes for what the audience will take away from it. Our interview took place before Annarosa came out about her abuse, so she is referred to as “friend” in the interview.
The virtual premiere of the film is tonight! Buy tickets here.
REBECCA MARTIN: What drew you into directing and filmmaking?
DEBORAH KAMPMEIER: I was an actress, and I was doing a workshop in 1993. The workshop was called “Risk”. And in the workshop you were supposed to face an impossible goal, and my goal was to act in Wim Wenders’ next movie. I had just seen “Wings of Desire” and I thought it would just be the best thing ever. Part of this workshop required you to create an impossible goal. That was my goal. It was an eleven-week workshop where you create a six-week action plan for the first five weeks. What ended up happening was I set the goal, and at first I was thinking of making a video letter to Wim. As I was building towards that, I was like, ‘Wait a sec, I have my own story to tell.’ I was talking to the cameraman and I asked him how much it would cost to do a short film. He said a couple thousand dollars, and at that time, he might as well have said two million dollars. Two thousand seems way out of reach.
I ended up sending via snail mail–this was before email–a letter I wrote. I was 23, and it was all about my dreams and just the kind of letter you’d write at 23, you know? The kind of letter that would be embarrassing to look back at. I sent it to everyone I ever met. I had a rolodex of three hundred people, I put it out in the mail. And in this letter, I laid out my dream, and I was also asking for twenty dollars. In two weeks I received $1,600 in the mail, all in twenty dollar bills.
MARTIN: That is amazing.
KAMPMEIER: This was crowdfunding before crowdfunding. I wrote the script in a week, and I went to this company called Film Video Arts and rented a 16mm camera. I hired my DP and my one “producer”, who’d never produced a thing in his life. We ran around New York City, pre-9/11. We were on the subways, at the train stops, and we’d wait until an express local train came. We’d jump on one train, and then he’d shoot me through the train windows.
KAMPMEIER: Yeah, it was guerrilla filmmaking. We went into this building, 1501 Broadway, and again it was before 9/11, so we went to the top floor. Somehow my DP knew about this little closet–you open the closet door and there is this little tiny cat ladder that went all the way up on to the roof, up to this eagle sculpture. I went on the roof, over this eagle, and he went downstairs and up into a gorgeous architecture office across the street. And he said “Hey, you see that woman on that building over there, can I film her?” That was the kind of thing we were doing with this film. I ended up editing for two weeks in an editing room, right next to Martin Scorsese because I kept telling everybody about my dream. This was before indie film was big. Jim Jarmusch had just made “Stranger Than Paradise”. People were giving me things for free. I edited the film in two weeks.
One piece that I think I forgot to tell you was the first day of the workshop I bought a ticket to Berlin on a brand new AMEX card. I finished the film two days before my flight, had a little screening, and jumped on a plane to Berlin. I went to his production company Road Movies, and when I arrived, I learn he’s not there. He was in Paris. It was two weeks of my banging on the door–I called Peter Falk in LA, and I just got his answering machine. It says, “Hello this is Peter Falk” and I’m leaving this message, like “Hi I’m this person, I’m trying to speak with Wim Wenders, and he’s in Paris, can you tell him I’m trying to reach him?” Again, 23-year-old drama. I ended up flying home, not being able to reach him, and not getting into his film obviously. But it changed my life. It’s the most alive I’ve ever felt in my life.
And that was it, I was a director. I was not an actor, I was a filmmaker. It changed everything, it changed the entire course of my life. I tell my students, I say, “Go after what you want. What you think you want, as hard as you possibly can, and then you’ll be led to where you’re meant to go.”
MARTIN: I love that.
KAMPMEIER: And that’s what happened. I was going after this thing that I thought I had to have, and wanted so bad, and worked so hard for. And it led me to filmmaking. That was my way in.
MARTIN: What brought you to “Tape”?
KAMPMEIER: My friend came to me and asked me to work with her. She was writing a screenplay. She’d show up for our sessions to work on her screenplay and she hadn’t done any work on the script. This was happening week after week. At a certain point, my teacher self rose to the surface and I just felt like I had to get to the bottom of what was going on, and why she wasn’t showing up for herself. I gave her writing exercises, and I can’t remember what the prompt was, but she did this writing exercise for ten minutes, and then she read to me. After she finished writing, she mentioned very briefly that she was afraid that if she became famous or if her name was a part of the public conversation that a tape could come to the surface. I said, “tell me more”, and then she began to recount her story.
When she finished, it turns out that she only told one person this story after the events occurred. Her story that she poured out is what became the character Pearl’s (Isabelle Fuhrman) arc, literally word for word. What happened to my friend happens to Pearl. She told me I was the first person she told except for the one friend she told at the time. At that time, she didn’t tell it in as much detail, and she told me this in great detail. I was shaken by it because it relates to my own history, and story. I went to her and told her, “Look, you’ve got to go to therapy, and after you go, would you consider letting me make your story into a film?” She did go to therapy. And then three months later, she came back to me and said that I could make it into a film.
In one afternoon, I recorded her telling me the whole story again, and then she also sent me fifteen pieces of correspondence with this guy. It was actually more than fifteen, it was fifteen email chains, and within each of the emails was four or five exchanges. In these emails was the script that they used in the audition which we see between Pearl and Lux in this film. In the emails was the Olay commercial, which is the infomercial that we ended up putting in. The dialogue between Lux and Pearl comes from those emails. After I collected all of this, I asked her, “so what do you want to happen to this guy?” And she said, “I want him publicly humiliated, and I want to watch him suffer.” When she said that, her rage inspired me to make that Rosa character.
And just in passing, she asked me, “Do you mind putting a nod to Lavinia in there?” She thought it was going to be a picture referenced in the film. To me it became the core metaphor for the film, this idea that Lavinia is raped and her tongue is cut out so she can’t speak about it, and her hands are cut off so she can’t write about it. I feel that is what has happened to all of these women.
MARTIN: That’s powerful.
KAMPMEIER: As my friend gave me the green light, I wrote the script in five days. Not only have we been sexually abused, but had to be silent, until now. Until this very moment we have not been able to tell our stories. They don’t believe us when we tell our stories. My film “Hounddog” which is my personal story, is at 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. The critics killed it. You’re not allowed to say that, until now. Silencing women can be as harmful as the act itself. It can be destructive to our well being.
MARTIN: I love the complexities of this film. With all the #MeToo films that are rising to the surface, this one takes an original look. I’ve never seen a film before where a woman watches her abuser attack another woman. Rosa (Annarosa Mudd) relives her abuse so that she can catch her attacker on camera. It’s so powerful. Also, the way that the cinematography, by Valentina Caniglia, explores Pearl and Rosa’s story in a filtered specific way, is amazing. Can you comment on how you feel “Tape” fits into the #MeToo climate, and what you hope people will take away from this film?
KAMPMEIER: I think that this sentencing of Harvey Weinstein to 23 years in prison changes everything. We just had a seismic cultural shift because of the sentencing. I mean the verdict itself was surprising, I think somewhat disappointing because it was less than what we all wanted, but totally surprising because we didn’t expect anything. But this 23 years is unbelievable. I wept when I heard the news. The meaning it has and what it’s going to change is profound. And it actually speaks to the area of #MeToo that our film explores, which is the gray area. Right? In our case, some of these women were raped and then they continued to have sex with him. In the past, that has not been a legitimate story to tell. I think in the past, it’s been black and white. The Harvey Weinstein sentencing has shown our ability to explore the gray area of sexual abuse. I hope our film broadens the definition of sexual abuse to include coercion.
As a society we’ve largely rejected the gray areas. So they’ve been suppressed and hidden in women’s minds and bodies. I think it’s urgent that we explore the gray area. I hope “Tape” and films like it are going to open up this conversation.
MARTIN: I think it’s fascinating how the #MeToo movement is even effecting the thought process and memory for women. I am fortunate to not have had to deal with sexual abuse, but I question some of the things that had happened to me in the bedroom in the past, and I ask myself why did I not question some things? And there is a whole spectrum when it comes to #MeToo.
KAMPMEIER: I think “Tape” is made for two people, one being those people who don’t know how this kind of thing happens. Our producer for example, was reading all of the stories coming out about all the women that Harvey had abused, and he was just like, “How does this happen?” For our executive producer and for other people, I think you just don’t understand how this thing happens. We keep the audience in the room, and it’s visceral moment by moment to show how this happens. Not just to the famous women, but to every day women who are systematically coerced and taken advantage of. I mean our film is around two actresses, but we’ve seen women mirror their own experiences through this film, through all levels, and all industries. The film is focusing on the experience of every day women, whose ambition is weaponized against them. So the film is for the people who don’t know how it happens, but also simultaneously it’s for all the women who are like, ‘I know how this happens.’ And this film is meant to validate their experience and hopefully feel less alone in the world. For me, that’s what I want the film to do for people.
MARTIN: The film has so many complexities because of that. I was also fascinated by the cinematography by Valentina and how certain people were in focus and others were out of focus. Why was that choice made?
KAMPMEIER: It’s very important for me to address it. From the beginning, I wanted three cameras. I want the producer’s camera, the hidden camera that Rosa wears, and my camera, from the view of the storyteller. What was most important to me was what I’m trying to do is to find the cinematic language shift from the male gaze to the female experience.
There’s a lot of talk right now about shifting from the male gaze to the female gaze, and for me personally, it’s not a female gaze. It’s the female experience. I don’t gaze, I actually move through the world, feeling the world emotionally and sensorily in my body. It’s now about a shift from looking at women’s tits and ass to men’s tits and ass, and that’s not the language that interests me. The language I’m trying to find breaks that form that we watch a story through. For me this experience is difficult to find, and I wanted to use this tilt shift lens that I talked to Valentina about to create the hidden camera. We actually did use hidden cameras, we had four of them: the button camera, the eye glass camera, and cameras that are sitting in the room, and in the bathroom. We did have these cameras running at all times. But most of the time we were using the tilt shift camera because we could control a lot more.
What I really wanted to do with that tilt shift lens was try to find focus, try to find, search, and capture that female experience. The female experience is a visceral experience, with a difficulty of finding focus, and show how difficult it is to know and capture the female experience. For me, the payoff at the end is everything. I know it can be challenging to watch. But towards the end when you’re hearing them have sex, you’re hearing the female performance to the male gaze. And then when you see her look at that camera–the clock, actually–you feel her experience in that moment, which is so different than what you expect to see. You expect to see the male gaze in that moment, instead you see the female experience in that moment. For me the whole beginning is a set up to that moment.
MARTIN: So powerful, also that cafe scene at the end where women are sharing their own stories of abuse.
KAMPMEIER: The film is about this journey from isolation to connection. I think that’s what the #MeToo movement has done, through what happens to the women in the circling at the end, which shows us that the story continues after the film. Every time we brought the film to test screenings or our world premiere at Female Eye, immediately women start sharing their stories. Immediately women come up to me and tell me what happened to them. After the Film Eye premiere, literally after the Q&A and before I could get out the door, nine women came up to me. One woman was sobbing in my arms.
I think 100% of women relate to this story. No, not every woman has been raped. The percentages are very high, much higher than reported, because not every woman shares their stories. But I think 100% of women know something about being coerced, having to exist in a patriarchy, having to find our way through it, having to navigate expectations within that male power structure.
MARTIN: Before we close, I wanted to hear about your work with Isabelle. I know you had worked with her before in “Hounddog”. How did she become part of this project?
KAMPMEIER: She was so little then. She played Grasshopper, and she was seven or eight at that time. As soon as I finished writing the script for “Tape”, she was my first choice for Pearl. In 2015, as soon as we finished the script, we found financing for the production, and then a couple days into pre-production, our financing fell through. Everything was put on hold. The first time around we tried to reach out and we got no response from her agent, and then lucky for us, she changed agencies. When the funding came back together, we made her an offer through our casting director. She came in and played a scene. We had an hour-long conversation, and then she said she wanted to do it, which was incredible because she was literally my first choice.
MARTIN: She was so perfect for that role.
KAMPMEIER: She is so perfect and so brilliant. She’s an incredible actress and so talented.
MARTIN: Anything you wanted to add about the filmmaking process?
KAMPMEIER: This film was a project of passion with very low money, and we shot the film in twelve days. We all were wearing multiple hats and working very hard. I’m so grateful for my crew and my team. They all killed themselves for this film. It’s tough because we shot it April 1st and it snowed. The scene where Annarosa Mudd is sitting outside doing the recording, we shot that in one day, from beginning of the day to the end of day, and it was freezing cold outside. She was sitting on a water bottle, we were blowing heat on her between takes, it was brutal. People knew who’s story it was, they knew where it was coming from, and they knew what it was about. They knew how important it was, and they just stepped it up. It was an incredible collaboration with everybody who brought their “A” game. It’s a big deal to shoot a feature in twelve days.
MARTIN: What would be your advice for emerging female filmmakers?
KAMPMEIER: My advice to young filmmakers is to speak your truth in whatever way you can get it out. If you have to cry it out, sob it out, scream it out, whisper it out, even puke it out, to get your voice out. We live in a society in which women had to identify with a male hero. This leads to women having great empathy for men, and being able to see themselves through men, and it’s time for men to have to identify and empathize with women’s lives in their truth and experience. It’s going to be hard to make that shift. You young filmmakers will be told that your work isn’t good enough, you will be told that it isn’t right, and you have to keep speaking your truth anyways. Keep doing your work anyways.
I mean look, my film “Hounddog” had 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, that is ridiculously insane. I get 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, and simultaneously I received letters from women from all over the country. I still do to this day, thanking me for making that film. And that is what we’re doing. We’re articulating truth, we are making space for women to hear their truth. When we articulate our truth, we start to hear women’s voices. And as we continue to do that, we’ll finally have to grow ears to hear our stories. We’re like bats who have no eyes because they’ve never used them. We have no ears as a society to hear women’s stories. It’s our place in the world to keep speaking our truth. And I think that’s part of what the #MeToo movement is doing. Even if only one other woman hears your story, you’ve made a difference.