“Happiness isn’t monolithic, sadness is,” states Danny Denial’s character Black in a pivotal moment in Denial’s forthcoming feature film Kill Me to Death. The quote sums up the overall theme of the film, which tackles the weighty subjects of suicide and depression within the context of art, sexuality, and community. For Denial, if we all experience sadness then why aren't we talking about it?
Premiering this Thursday at the Northwest Film Forum, Kill Me to Death has been years in the making, with shooting wrapped for over two years. Denial wrote, directed, and stars in the indie film which was shot on a shoestring budget of $5,000. Grants from places like the Office of Arts and Culture helped make filming possible but difficulties nailing down distributors made the post-production process long and arduous.
“It just seemed like our film was a little bit of an outlier,” explains Denial. “It was on the fringes and it didn't really fit. It wasn't really a festival film and it's not commercial, obviously, because the whole point is it's a lo-fi film.”
Eventually, the idea of partnering with a foundation to release the film in benefit of the organization was proposed.
“For me, the two organizations were either the Trevor Project or Gender Is Over,” Denial discloses. “So I reached out to both of them and Gender Is Over was just so enthusiastic and so cool about partnering on this. They had never done anything like this before and they worked with people like Laura Jane Grace and all these really awesome figures that I admire. I thought it was just a really cool way to connect with the community with the project which was a big part of why I wanted to do this in the first place.”
Shot very quickly, in just a matter of weeks, the film stars a bevy of local musicians with little to no acting experience. Most recognizable is Eva Walker, host of Audioasis and frontwoman of the Black Tones, and Denial, who leads the dreampunk band Dark Smith. Christiana Crabbe makes music under the name Sprig and also plays in a band with co-star and partner Michael Renney called Bad Time Friend. Noah Kappertz plays more instruments than they can list and Claire Grayson now lives in Los Angeles, quite successfully releasing music under Grayson.
Because of this, the film’s secondary theme is music and attempts to provide a peek into the lives of DIY musicians in Seattle. Scenes are set at local venues like Lo-Fi, Vermillion, and underground house venue Werewolf Vacation, where conversations between the characters happen in darkened rooms amongst the sound of shredding guitars.
The Werewolf Vacation scenes were particularly difficult to shoot, as the crew had very little control over the environment. The show was already booked when Denial reached out the venue about filming so it was integral to him that they be courteous of the bands playing and the people there to see the show.
“We were there hours before the show started and by the time they're loading in obviously things are running late,” Denial discloses. “So we're trying to shoot this really big scene as all the bands are loading in and we're kind of hindering some of the loading in and then the show's starting and we're trying to shoot around the actual crowd who doesn't really care that we're shooting a film...we're shooting this really emotional scene and they're all just screaming running by you up the stairs and I don't know how you keep it together.”
On the other hand, for their scenes at Lo-Fi Performance Gallery in Eastlake, the crew had far more control by booking the show themselves with the distinct purpose of shooting.
“Lo-Fi was really great because you have that the big room and you have the gallery room so you have all this space to work with,” notes Denial. “So it just felt like a good fit for that. And then the team was really open minded and I think a lot of venues would say, ‘OK you want to do a film shoot that's also a ticketed event..?’ I can’t remember how we worked out the people, like I don't think they paid a cover because they were extras. It was so cool. They were super open minded about it.”
“I wanted to keep it as local as possible,” explains Denial, on his soundtrack choices. He does, however, feature some non-local artists like New York’s A Deer A Horse and Lawrence Rothman’s collaborative single with Kim Gordon, “Designer Babies,” emotionally closes out the film.
“It’s the craziest thing they actually were like, 'Yeah, you can use that song,'” expresses Denial. “It was basically a place holder at the very end. I couldn't find any other song and I kept it in all the way to the last cut. I kept thinking, ‘I'm going to have to take this out because they're never gonna let me use this.’”
When Denial finally reached out, Rothman and Gordon were supportive of the use of the song because of his choice to benefit Gender Is Over - If You Want It, LTD through the film. The New York-based 501(c)(3) organization was originally inspired by Yoko & John Lennon’s “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” campaign and supports the fight for gender self-determination and body sovereignty through community building, retail sales, events and charitable giveaways. They take a strong stance against coercive gendering, with the belief that society’s emphasis on assigned binary gender roles is harmful, damaging, and often violent.
“For me, the biggest thing about this film in 2019 being as heavy as it is and dealing with so many really ugly, hard things that affect not just but particularly queer people and working with an organization that actively is trying to give back autonomy and body sovereignty just means a lot to be able to use this film as a tool that could actually help them do that,” Denial affirms.
Music and suicide have long had a nearly-synonymous relationship in the Pacific Northwest, almost to the point of cliche, but Denial’s goal was to look at it from a different perspective. One that neither glamorizes nor demonizes those suffering.
“I just wanted it to be discussed and less taboo,” expresses Denial. “Because I felt like it was this thing that was still heavily stigmatized even among artists where you would assume it's a little more commonplace or more frank of a conversation. For me, the biggest takeaway was that I wanted all these characters who are somehow, in some shape or form, dealing with or have dealt with or cycling around the idea to be able to talk about it.”
“One of the biggest things about joining this project in the first place was because it was dealing with all these different points of view on suicide and mental health,” says Noah Kappertz, who plays the character Gray, a non-binary musician with extreme anxiety who frequently isolates and dissosociates themselves from society.
“Seeing that you had this part written for a character that was so many of my identities that, for me, have been isolating for so much of my life...that you wrote this character in that is also dealing with these things was...it’s this 'you're not alone' thing,” explains Kappertz. “We all are dealing with this in our lives and we can come together. I think there isn't a right or wrong way of being around mental health and suicide.”
“I really appreciate that there aren't really any heroes or villains around those topics,” chimes in Michael Renney, who plays the drug addicted character Yale, about the film. “And it's not trying to create a narrative that feels too wholesome. Like trying really hard to not be like, ‘Don't kill yourself.’ It’s not a PSA.”
“And it's also obviously not advocating that people should go kill themselves,” he continues. “But it makes it normal because those things are normal. They're real and everybody kind of goes through them and it doesn't make you broken. It just means you're dealing with the programming that we have.”
Kill Me to Death premieres Thursday, August 29 at 8pm at the Northwest Film Forum. General Admission is $9
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