Review by Christopher Nadeau
Opus is part of the deconstructionist school of horror films that not only seek to frighten, but also to offer up some form of social criticism in the process. It’s the kind of self-referential approach to filmmaking that was unique in the late Nineties but has become a staple nowadays.
Still, there’s a boldness in Writer/Director Micah Levin’s approach. The film centers around six aspiring actors and one reluctant tag-along brought together to a bizarre structure in the middle of the desert. They are there to participate in a movie about which they know nothing. They are so excited to be part of the film that none of these characters are suspicious.
But the real character here is the movie itself. Director Micah Levin has stated as much, adding, “I love the idea of a film having its own unique perspective, and for me the perspective is the character of the killer.”
Much of the perspective Levin speaks of manifests itself in the form of interesting camera angles and phenomenal editing. The claustrophobic sets create some truly fascinating moments, and while it’s fun to watch the drama unfold from the killer/director’s perspective, sometimes the overhead shots calls too much attention to the technique.
Still, Levin establishes an effective mood of uncertainty in Opus. By wisely deciding to conceal the script details from the actors in real life, they are forced to dig down into their psyches in order to summon the necessary drama as opposed to reacting to stagey descriptions. And this film is not at all stagey; Opus is refreshingly spontaneous. In fact, the set design is organic, harkening back to the days when entire horror films took place in creepy places as opposed to different locales.
Opus shares many similarities with a Canadian film called Cube released in 1997. In that film, the principles each awaken in different rooms of a cube-shaped construct, each one possessing unique gifts that could aid them in their escape. Both films feature “everyday” characters trying to come to grips with a claustrophobic situation and both end in similar ways.
Despite the similarities, Opus is unique enough to stand on its own. Levin’s film features a host of fascinating ideas: from Craigslist weirdoes, to bad relationships, to the desire for fame superseding all else. The film makes a genuine attempt at social commentary and, for the most part, succeeds.
The brutal killings are glimpsed in rapid, jump-cut edited flashes, most likely because that’s how the killer sees what he’s doing. We know the killer’s using sharp objects but what exactly the weapon of choice is remains unknown. This stands in stark contrast to slasher horror films, where the weapon is as much a character as he who wields it.
Overall, Opus is a fascinating film to watch. It is visually interesting and expertly edited. The concept is strong and, with more development (possibly a sequel?), it could become its own successful franchise. Micah Levin is certainly a writer/director to watch.
Shriekfest 2011: Exclusive Q&A with Filmmaker Micah Levin
Dread Central: Since this is your feature film debut, let's hear more about what drew you in to filmmaking?
Micah Levin: When I was younger, I loved performing magic and creating stage illusions; in fact, I even used to perform at parties as a magician. I started playing around with my parents' VHS camera and realized I could create an endless amount of effects with it. My friends and I used to make short films and screen them for our peers.
One of my producers on Opus (Andrew Bird) and I have been making films together for over ten years now. We also worked together as actors and built haunted houses every Halloween. I loved the process of creating a world from nothing and scaring a bunch of kids in the process. Hitchcock was a huge inspiration for me when approaching Opus because I find myself really drawn to films with creative set design and art direction. My brilliant production designer and long-time collaborator Brent Mason literally built most of what you see in Opus with his bare hands. To me the filmmaking process is really just one big magic trick.
DC: Talk a bit about the idea behind Opus and how you came up with this rather unique storytelling approach.
Levin: I wanted to make a film that was partially improvised that could also be executed on a tight budget, a film that was scary but also had a unique killer and perspective as well. My brother and executive producer Seth Levin had the idea to make the camera the villain, which later evolved into the director.
Our other producer, Mark Cramer, and I also met while acting and wanted to create a production that gave a lot of creative control to the actors. We wrote a rough script and never showed it to any of the actors. They were literally in the same shoes as their characters, showing up to set with no clue as to what would happen to them next. A lot of the storytelling came from putting the film together in the edit. I wanted to make a film where the direction and editing was as much a part of the narrative as the characters. I love the power of editing and wanted to create a film that highlighted that.
DC: Did the fact that a lot of the movie would require your actors to have improvisational skills change your casting process in any way?
Levin: Yes. We had actors come in with only a brief character description and the concept that the film would be heavily improvisational. They sat in front of a camera and answered questions about themselves in character. I would improvise along with them, asking questions based off of their responses. This required them to think on their toes to try and give depth to these roles.
For call-backs I had actors show up at night to a warehouse, this time standing in front of a larger camera and bright light. I wanted to mess with the actors a lot and test their level of comfort. At one point I would whip out a giant knife and have them beg for their life. I really got to see them use their instincts and have fun in the process, and even a good amount of the audition footage made it into the final film.
DC: How was your first feature filmmaking experience like then? How did everything go during production- did the improvisational aspect add to your filming time at all?
Levin: The experience was amazing! I was very lucky to have an incredibly talented team surrounding me, several of whom I went to Emerson College with. I was also very lucky to have veteran filmmaker Brett Leonard (Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity) as our executive producer, giving input and advice along the way. I edited his last two films, and we become close friends in the process. Brett really believes in taking risks and supporting young indie filmmakers.
I had a lot of freedom to play on this film because I wasn’t restricted to either a script or a studio. As the editor and director I was able to shoot very efficiently because I knew I would be the one putting all the pieces together in the end. We shot the whole film in only twelve days, and I utilized my time by shooting most of the scenes from single angles with long takes. That’s how I was able to give my talented D.P. Elie Smolkin time to set up and light each shot and keep the process moving quickly. The whole crew had to improvise along with the cast, which made the production process really enjoyable.
DC: What would you say was the biggest lesson you took away from making Opus?
Levin: I learned a lot about sound. The warehouse we shot in was right next to a construction site so randomly during scenes we would hear terrible pounding noises that caused the whole set to start trembling. We actually ended up recording some of the noises and layered them into parts of the film because it freaked us all out, and I learned a lot about ADR and rerecording voices because of this. It’s a very challenging process and required lots of editing later in post, but I’m really proud of the team at MegaTrend. They did a fantastic job with the sound in the end!
DC: Congratulations on being an official selection for several prominent genre festivals! How have things been going during Opus' festival circuit run?
Levin: Thanks! It’s been great to see the film up on a big screen with an audience. It plays really well in a crowd, and we’ve had fantastic responses so far. We screened at the Backlot Film Festival last month and took home the award for Best Feature Film. We also received best editing and production design at the L.A. Art-house Film Festival not too long ago. I’m very excited that the film will be opening Shriekfest Friday and more horror fans will have the chance to see the film, too.
DC: So what's up next for you then after Shriekfest this weekend?
Levin: I am working with my team at MMM on developing a science fiction feature that I want to do next, based off of a short film I made called Gro2. I really want to play around more with the science fiction genre, although I also have some more horror concepts up my sleeves. B