A struggling reporter sits in a diner with an open notepad, nervously jotting down a potential title for his next interview. As he changes his mind and scribbles an alternative title, you can sense the puffy-eyed writer is under considerable pressure. Who is he waiting for and how consequential this one interview might be for his future career? As he exchanges an innocent but slightly seductive glance with a cute waitress with a weary smile, we switch back to the seat across the table, empty only a second ago. The Devil has arrived, fashionably late, in a dazzling white suit, reminding the startled journalist that they agreed to no recording devices. The bits of the puzzle are starting to come together and the image becomes somewhat clearer as the two start the conversation: the writer has at last been given the break he so desperately needed, and if all goes well and he gets his exclusive piece published, the next, successful chapter of his career may finally begin. But as all of us who ever dabbled in journalism are perfectly aware, the path from conducting an interview to seeing it published in a magazine or on a website can sometimes be more tiresome and less enjoyable than the “stroll” of Peter Weir’s characters in The Way Back. We first heard of young filmmaker Ian Ebright a couple of years ago, when he sent us a short film called From the Sky. Impressed with his technical prowess and even more so with his apparent strong desire to tell meaningful, thoughtful stories, we did an interview with him, which still stands as what we see a quality window into the mind and heart of a dedicated filmmaker eager not to shoot flicks of any sort at any cost, but to produce thought-provoking films. From the Sky was a touching, sobering depiction of what American foreign policy (and war in general) does to ordinary people, and how eye-for-an-eye modus operandi leads to years, decades and centuries of pain, tears and revenge. The endless cycle of violence that gives birth to more violence has now been replaced with another aspect of the human nature: The Devil Needs a Fix tells the story of human greed, ambition and natural impulses that lead to corruption if not dutifully kept in check.
The Devil Needs a Fix is a playful, humorous and eye-pleasing mixture of drama and fantasy. In the nine minutes of its running time, the film raises several very interesting questions, most of which are posed in the first couple of minutes, as “the Devil” explains to the reporter why he suddenly felt the need to come public and give an interview. As the journalist, an everyman called Jeffrey, expresses his surprise at the fact his interviewee decided to wear a flashy pearl-white suit, the Devil simply retorts he likes to stand out. He apparently chose to give an interview because he felt people don’t pay attention to him anymore: hovering over their smartphones with empty stares and indulging only in their utter passivity, it seems people don’t sin as often as they did. The Devil, therefore, literally needed his fix, and it soon turns out it was no coincidence that he set up a meeting specifically with a reporter desperate for a professional breakthrough.
Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ works such as The Screwtape Letters, where an old and a young demon exchange letters regarding a young man whose soul they are trying to corrupt, and The Great Divorce, where the protagonist is a ghost in a grey, depressing, raining city that represents Hell, Ebright’s short film also shows interest for the question of right and wrong, for morality and what keeps men from following their basic instincts. As in The Screwtape Letters, the protagonist of The Devil Needs a Fix is also tempted. Why doesn’t he answer his wife’s call? How important is getting this exclusive for him? Why do we feel the Devil is somehow pushing just the right buttons?
The cast is great: Stefan Hajek really nails his role of the troubled writer, Steven Soro is charming and credible as the flashy and obviously bitter mysterious man in the white suit, but for me, Rosalie Miller as the waitress steals the show. The fact that literally all of the main roles were played impressively, however, is a testament not only to their skill, but to Ebright’s knack for directing his cast. With Helsinki-based folk/pop/electronic band Husky Rescue providing the score and director of photography Oguz Uygur behind the camera, this smart and elegant sophomore film proves From the Sky was no accident. Ian Ebright knows how to make movies, and our optimism for his filmmaking future is further strengthened by the fact he obviously swims well in the waters of vastly different genres. Entertaining, clever and technically well-rounded, The Devil Needs a Fix is the only cinematic fix you’ll need this evening.
Mr. Ebright, first of all, congratulations on yet another great short film. How did you come up with the idea to make The Devil Needs a Fix?
I was in a pretty bad season of life personally and circumstantially, and decided to explore the feelings I was having—set around an idea I had wanted to try as a film for a long time.
To what degree has CS Lewis’ writing influenced you and your creative process?
There was a time a few years ago when I was reading a lot of C.S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is my favorite work from Lewis—I think it’s chilling and wise—and I always wanted to tell a contemporary supernatural story that would wink at elements in that book and The Great Divorce. There’s a concept from C.S. Lewis that informed the end of From the Sky, and I’m currently writing a feature-length screenplay that also has a little nod to C.S. Lewis’ life. I guess now that you’ve got me thinking about it, Lewis must have made a bigger impact on me personally and creatively than I realized before.
Can you tell us something about your casting process? How difficult was it to get these really good actors? And while we’re on the subject—the rest of the crew?
There’s a “gut feeling” element to the whole thing for me, so I try to listen to that. I’m pretty particular about casting and want to feel that the actor is not only going to nail their role but also contrast nicely with the other performers. In terms of Devil, casting came together naturally. Stefan and Rosalie are good friends of mine and multi-faceted filmmakers in the Seattle community where I also live. I had never seen Stefan play a role like the character of Jeffrey the Reporter, and I’d never seen Rosalie play anything like Dee the Waitress, so they were in some ways on my mind as I was writing the script, even though we had not yet agreed to do the film together. Stefan and Rosalie are personal and professional partners, and I thought that built-in chemistry would lend a bit extra to their scene together. Fortunately, they agreed to dive in, and the film is better for having their performances and their input as I continued to hone the script. It was a really collaborative experience.
Steven (who plays The Man in the Red Ascot) is someone I was dying to work with again after his performance in From the Sky. He was one of the first people to read the Devil script, and he loved it right away—even before I was sure of what it was. Steven sent me a video audition and that was about it for me—I knew he’d be great, and thankfully in a very different role than his work on From the Sky. So he jumped on a plane and flew up to Seattle from Los Angeles. From financing to the crew, the rest of this film felt like it fell out of the sky—with lots of people donating their time and talents. It was a humbling experience to receive.
As this is the second film of yours I’ve seen, after From the Sky, a film grounded in complete reality, it was a bit surprising for me to see a film so different in tone, theme and setting. What made you turn to fantasy? What advantages do you see in this specific genre?
I’m surprised too! Devil and From the Sky are very different films, but I think they’re both pretty minimalistic. In terms of why I turned to fantasy, it might sound cliche but the honest truth is that it’s always about the story for me, and this story was exploring things that I was not only interested in, but felt I could do something distinct with. We’ve got a couple of VFX shots in there, but mostly it’s my spin on a dystopian fantasy, which is—like From the Sky—as minimalistic as I can manage. And I think that approach helps bolster moments like the bullhorn and the VFX reveal—because everything else feels relatively human and grounded. I thought about both films the same way, and always reference Jaws in doing so. For me, cinematic storytelling is improved by what we don’t see. It’s the kind of narrative filmmaking I like to watch, personally.
The last time you spoke, you mentioned you admired filmmakers like J. C. Chandor and Bennett Miller who, I quote, “only tell stories that really have something to say, that are about something bigger than any given plot.” In your own words, how does this apply to The Devil Needs a Fix? What does this particular film have to say?
[spoiler] Devil is a very personal film for me. It’s attempting to challenge white, straight men in the West—which implicates me as well. The film ends open-ended, and the viewer can either interpret the finale as the Devil being angry she didn’t get her fix, so she’s lying about the protagonist to make herself feel better, or else she’s right about him and he’s lost to duty which has become his drug. I think she’s right about the protagonist, or that’s the way I read the film, and that’s how we discussed it during the production. Jeffrey’s wardrobe is gray, the whole color palette of the film is muted, and the exteriors are damp and depressing. The idea we were going for is that this guy has all the right answers and does the correct things, but because his heart isn’t in it—which we see revealed at the very last moment when he phones his wife—then he is in hell in the sense that he’s created hell for himself. He’s too afraid to “sin,” and too afraid to love. He’s stuck in the middle, and that is what this film is challenging. Duty can be a good thing for sure, but it can also become selfish–like “I’m checking these boxes to make myself feel pride or feel decent,” or I’m dutiful out of a fear of failing or displeasing others. Whereas love is always authentic and giving: either to others or ourselves.
From the Sky made its point through the behavior of a noble, selfless protagonist, but with Devil I wanted to play with subject matter that made its point through a protagonist who lacks nobility and doesn’t change. So we have three unsavory characters to varying degrees, and none of them get what they want, but one character wins—because either way, she’s trapped him. The protagonist will either fall into temptation or reinforce the fact that he’s acting out of duty rather than love. That’s a scary idea for me personally, and I feel that pull in life at times. The goal is to be true to yourself and to those you love for the right reasons, and not to make a life out of responsible steps based solely on fear, or self-righteousness, or this kind of creeping malaise—in the way that the familiar can squash motivation and authenticity if we’re not careful.
There’s a rather funny moment in your film when the passivity of the smartphone-staring generation is under the spotlight. Do you really feel people have become too cozy, too inert these days?
Yeah, it’s a pretty angry film with a couple of pretty pathetic male characters (but hopefully in a funny way), and that underscores my own headspace and circumstances as I was writing it. I wasn’t happy with myself at the time. I do think as a society we’re drifting towards overstimulation, comfort and reinforcement above a more daring authenticity, and this new normal of being at least somewhat glazed over from the ocean of content and scandal that never seems to end. We’ve developed an appetite for shock—which may be as old as human history—the difference now is we can get it 24/7. But as I pay attention to the culture, I hear lots of women and men are concerned about this too, and I’m encouraged by the ways that people are trying to slow down and reconnect with themselves and others.
When you compare yourself to the time when you made From the Sky, do you see yourself as a better filmmaker? If so, in what ways are you better, or at least different than you were three or four years ago?
Filmmakers who continue to see themselves as students of the craft and who are always hungry to learn and challenge themselves will inevitably grow and improve. That’s my outlook and desire. I’m a student of filmmaking because it’s my passion. Sometimes growth comes through the sting of things not working out or else turning out differently than you hoped, and the necessity of growing a thicker skin and a healthier outlook—that’s good for filmmakers, and it’s good for me as well.
There are areas for improvement in both From the Sky and Devil, but I think my directing on Devil was a bit more assured. And I’m up to about a dozen written screenplays, so I’m really enjoying the process of analyzing my strengths and weaknesses as a writer in each new story I write, and working to grow out of my weaknesses. I’m really focused on continuing to learn how to tell stories more visually and cinematically, and always chasing the goal of characters and story that are fleshed out in increasingly nuanced ways. I believe I’m improving there, but I’m always mindful of how much growth remains.
What do you think happens in The Devil Needs a Fix after the last scene? It seems like there’s more to the story and I’d be very much interested in seeing it as a feature.
That’s a great question and a nice compliment, but I have no idea. It’s funny, as we’ve chatted with audience members at film festivals for Devil and From the Sky, people told us they’d like to see more—either as a feature-length film for From the Sky, or a TV series for Devil, and both never occurred to me in any serious way. In the instance of Devil, I can relate to Jeffrey, but he’s not someone I want to know more about, and I think we say goodbye to him at the right moment.
Back at the restaurant, I like to think the devil and her minions are setting things up for their next victim. As we were creating this film, we talked about the restaurant as almost being this chamber that can morph into a different setting tailored to the weakness of the next person they lure inside to tempt, with each of the minions taking on different roles or personas depending on what will increase their chances of success with the victim. That could be interesting.
What’s the best film you’ve seen since we last spoke in 2015 and what makes it stand out?
OJ: Made in America and Scorsese’s Silence are runner-ups, but the first film that sprang to mind is also my pick: Moonlight. It’s lyrical, humane, and impeccably made—from the direction to the cinematography and performances. And it has this almost other-worldly quality to it like the audience almost passes through the film as an impressionistic experience. I think Moonlight actually earns that otherwise overused word “masterpiece.” I was overwhelmed in the best way possible when I saw it.
Thank you for your time and we look forward to seeing your future projects.
Film’s official site
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Written by Sven Mikulec
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