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The Hell She Knows: An Interview with Contact’s Zoë Daelman Chlanda

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The Hell She Knows: An Interview with Contact’s Zoë Daelman Chlanda

What does it mean to connect with another human being? How fragile is one’s grasp on sanity, and self? Is it our families who give us our core identity, or do we find that elsewhere? What is the price that must be paid in even looking for answers to these questions? Director Jeremiah Kipp’s latest film, the 10-minute long Contact lives in the disturbing (nightmarish) atmosphere of these realities, the space between knowledge and wisdom, the abyss between making a youthful mistake and tragedy. Produced by Alan Rowe Kelly and Bart Mastronardi, and shot by Dominick Sivilli in beautiful black and white, Contact is a compressed journey of horror and revelation, with a core of emptiness, the echoing aloneness of Self, that jolts the audience at the finish, reverberating.

A pair of young lovers, high on each other and their love, decide to take a mysterious drug they procure somewhere in the underbelly of New York City. The drug trip goes bad, and the horror here is actual and gory (what is real, what is hallucination? and who can even know when you are tripping?), as well as psychological. The goal of the drug trip, for the lovers, was to connect in a new and intense way. They get more than they bargained for, although in a way they get exactly what they were seeking, and that is more horrifying than anything else. Be careful what you wish for. They wanted to connect, right? In a terrifying scene, they do. Literally. Contact depicts a loss of identity, the rupturing of trust, and the shattering of youthful hopes. Kipp’s gift is in the depths to which he is willing to go, and the specificity in which he films his story. It is clear, yet mysterious at the same time. There is very little dialogue. The story is told in images, one flowing to the other, and through the cuts, evocative and simple, an entire world opens.

The film respects its audience, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and it is a satisfying movie to think about and contemplate for that reason. To up-end Gertrude Stein, Contact is a film where there is a lot of “there there.” The more you look at it, the deeper it goes. The cast is excellent, each person filling in their part of the whole (Tom Reid as the worried silent father, Katherine O’Sullivan as the quietly devastated mother with a hint of OCD in her table-setting behavior, Alan Rowe Kelly as the corrupt drug dealer). The two leads—Robb Leigh Davis and Zoë Daelman Chlanda—are superb. Without the lightness and happiness they create, the strong bond between them, the film would not have the impact that it does, where separation, disconnection, is akin to banishment. Banishment from the world of love and hope. The strength of the film is partly because of its silence, the lack of explanatory dialogue. It has a spare quality, intensified by the black-and-white images. Seeing a bloody wound in black-and-white can be even more terrible than in fresh vibrant color, because your mind catapults off into awful realms through the mere act of “filling in” the red.

Recently, I sat down with indie horror actress Zoë Chlanda to talk about her process as an actress and about her experience making Contact. Chlanda is a sensitive and specific performer, an actress who thinks deeply about her roles, and thinks deeply about how she fits into the larger picture. I’m a process-junkie. I wanted to hear more about how she worked, and how she was able to pour so much life and depth into the role of Koreen in Contact.

How did Contact come about?

I met Jeremiah on the set of another movie, The Blood Shed, and we started going back and forth to the set, so that was a lot of hours to get to know each other, outside of him being the Assistant Director. We got to talking a lot. And we get along, we have good conversations. I liked him right off. He always said “I want to work with you again” and I said “Me too”, and the thing about him is that he follows through on everything he says, and that’s a very big deal in this business. He got me involved in two other projects, small parts, I was happy to be asked, happy to do it, and they were different from things I’d done before.

What are you normally offered? Is there a feeling like, “Oh, that’s a Zoë part”?

Within the horror world, I’m lucky. I think they do think of me as being a strong woman, so they give me kind of meaty characters which I’m thrilled about. Years ago, I was auditioning for commercials a lot, and it was so different, I was like “girl next door,” “young mom,” non-threatening in every single way. I didn’t complain much because I was being sent out a lot and non-threatening women sell a lot, apparently.

There’s a lot of work for that type.

Right. But I think that’s why it was so exciting when I met Alan Rowe Kelly and he got me involved in I’ll Bury You Tomorrow because it was someone who wanted me to do something so different from what everybody else saw me as. I jumped at it. I want to be able to do all kinds of roles. I’m not interested in being Zoë all the time. I played an alcoholic mother in Pink Eye, and I loved doing that. I like challenges. I hope a Zoë role is a challenging role.

Did you always want to be an actress?

I wanted to be a ballerina. My parents took me to the ballet a lot when I was little and I begged for classes. For my 5th birthday, I was signed up, and the ballet was the be-all end-all for me. I went to a very good school on Long Island, and then we moved back to the city, and I went to the American Ballet. It’s very intense. Most girls were already out of real school and they were being homeschooled, but I was going to a regular school, a pretty intense school, as well as ballet, and as I got older I realized that ballet was mentally and physically very difficult, and it’s a short-lived career. You’re done pretty quick. But I loved performing, telling a story without words, and with acting, I get to use my words, and I can do it until the day I die if I want. You’ll always need a middle-aged lady [in a movie], you’ll need an old lady…I like that. Because if I love what I’m doing, I don’t think I’ll want to stop. I like the idea that I can do it forever.

Whose work do you really admire?

Within independent horror films, I got the chance to work with Debbie Rochon. I produced a little film with Alan [Rowe Kelly], and she was in it. She’s a huge Scream Queen, probably the biggest. That’s all I had heard about her. What does the hugest Scream Queen mean? They’re bloody, they take off their clothes a lot? I didn’t know enough at the time. But I had heard about her forever. She was in a little segment, acting by herself pretty much, and I watched her, thinking, “This is why this girl has been working in the business for so long, and this is why everyone knows her name.” She was really neat, as an actress and as a person. She’s tough, but still very vulnerable when she’s acting. I was glad to get to see her act because I had always heard her name, I knew she was a big star. She also makes tons of movies. She is constantly working. She’s good, she’s a good actress.

When Jeremiah came to you with Contact, how did that conversation go?

He sent me the script and said “What part do you want to play in it? You can do whatever you want.” He first thought of me for a different role. He said, “Well, maybe you could do the drug dealer.” I think he thought right away that I wouldn’t go for Koreen because of the nudity, and I’ve never done nudity before. But when I read it, I thought that I didn’t want any other role. Koreen was the meatiest. I called him back and said, “I want THAT role.” I knew we were working with Dominick Sivilli. He makes things look beautiful. Jeremiah is very poetic, and he’s a really thoughtful person, so I knew that the film would be intense.

Did you rehearse it?

Yes. That’s another reason I like Jeremiah.

You like rehearsal.

I love it. That’s one of the best parts of it. You have more time to really develop the character. He got me and Robb Leigh Davis [who plays Westy, Koreen’s boyfriend] together, and Robb was so giving, and he so liked rehearsal too. He didn’t shy away from it. We met two times prior for rehearsal in the space, and the first time we met it was over coffee to talk.

How do you use rehearsal?

For instance, Jeremiah did something with us where he would ask each one of us a question, and he said, “Answer as the character, and let’s see where this goes.” He came right out there with, “Do you love him, Zoë?” I said, “Yes.” My God. He’s my rock star. The way I thought about Koreen looking up to this guy was: He was so different, something she had never seen in her own hometown, he was a rock star to her, and he wanted her to be his girlfriend! So I was madly in love with this guy. Later on, Jeremiah said to Robb, “Do you love her?” And I got scared, and I thought, “Maybe I don’t want to hear this, because Koreen would like to think he loves her, regardless,” and Robb said, “Yes. I do love her.” I thought his character really did love me, and that was important.

 

Robb and Zoe

I really felt a relationship there between you and Robb. There was an element to it that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, going down the rabbit hole. Even though you were going to this scary-looking place to get the drugs, I didn’t feel that your character was in the hands of someone who meant you harm.

I felt like he was going to take care of me. We found that in rehearsal. That’s what we found: The love for each other. I trusted [my boyfriend], I looked up to him, and I think he was very aware of that responsibility, knowing that I came from a smaller town. [My character] was a bit naive in a lot of ways. I was going through things I probably should have done a long time ago, but I didn’t. I’m a little bit older, a late-bloomer. But I think what his character saw in mine was that I was so transparent in my feelings and that was refreshing for him. We talked about our history together. Jeremiah and I talked about my history before I even got to New York City. I go through my character’s history a lot. I question everything. What’s her favorite color? What’s her sign? What’s her relationship with her mom? With her dad? Does she have a pet? What does her room look like? What kind of music does she listen to? If I can map out the physical things around her, and understand where she’s coming from in terms of her relationships in life, if I can breathe it in almost—that stuff will be there, and you are aware of what’s going on in your body. For example, if you’re feeling sad, you become aware of what else happens: I get a little dry in my throat, maybe I feel a twitch in my leg, I tend to not look someone in the eye as much if I’m nervous or sad. Once you decide on the emotion and then go through it, your body will do the right thing if you’re really there. You can’t be totally out of control because you have to say the lines. I try to learn the lines like I sing a song, like I know it so well that I could do it backwards, so I don’t get caught up in it.

The drug trip scene is so specific in how it is filmed, but also in your very specific responses to the drug, the pulling on the hair, the scratching. How did you find those things? Did you talk about what is going to happen in the drug trip?

Some of the rehearsing was [Jeremiah saying to me]: “You’re in pain. Be in pain, Zoë. Bring it to 5. Where is it at 10? Bring it to 4.” Jeremiah was throwing things at me, I think he visually wanted to get an idea of my reactions. Then he worked with the levels. If he saw something he liked, he would say, “Can you take that to 8?” He played with those levels. In terms of the drug effects, I came to that on my own. You can research what certain drugs do to certain people. Jeremiah also said, “Watch Bad Lieutenant.” I researched symptoms. When we were at the shooting day, it was a long day, because I think Jeremiah also wanted to do it over and over to get us exhausted and exasperated, because if you’re taking drugs it can be the greatest thing or the worst thing. That was a bad one for her. I imagined that she thought that things were crawling all over her, she was itchy, it was like I almost wished I could take my own skin off. You could see how people could scratch until there’s nothing left. Horrifying.

There’s obviously an arc the character goes through. The moment when you return home at the end of the film there’s that long look around from you when you are in your dad’s arms. When I first saw it, I felt that that moment of connection with her boyfriend during the drug trip, when you both literally merged…that moment was in her now. It almost looked like she liked having her secret, as awful as it was. As though she is thinking, “I can survive, as long as I have this secret inside me.” There was something a little triumphant about that look. That was my initial response. Now I am not so sure. It looks a little bit sadder to me now that I’ve seen it again. How do you see that moment as part of Koreen’s arc?

I felt very sad for her. I felt like she didn’t make it. She took a chance on something and fear sent her right back to what she knows. I felt like she was now going to live the life her parents want her to live, and she was so afraid of what happened to her, taking the drugs, but at the same time when she got home and she’s looking around—it’s a different horror. Perhaps not as scary, because it’s what you know, but there’s an emptiness. I feel like she knows that this is it, in terms of her hopes and dreams. But there is a little bit of triumph there because she did try, she got out, she went for it. But she crashed and burned. It was a prison. [So that look from me is:] “Look closely. This is going to be your life. Your parents will die, and you will live in this house.” It took so much courage to begin with to leave. She finally did that, later in life. She finally leaves and something unfortunate happened. It’s nice what you said though, in a way, because it seemed at that moment unfortunate that it happened, but maybe somehow, that secret, what she went through, will inspire her at a later date. I think about Koreen in the future, what will happen to her. There was a lot of pressure on the daughter Koreen. I think she was an easy teenager. A wallflower. I don’t think she stood out, I don’t think she was bad, she wasn’t really popular and she wasn’t picked on. I think she got away with being anonymous, unnoticed. She probably didn’t get punished too often. This was the crazy thing she did. She left home. I thought a lot about how she left. I thought she probably just packed up and left, left a note. I don’t think she would confront her parents. So coming home, she’s coming back to the hell she knows. Now I’m really an adult, I’ve given up on my dreams.

There was another moment that seemed similar to that last shot of you. When you go to the drug dealer’s, there’s a glance you give to another girl [Shane B. Kulman] who is standing there. A longer glance. Can you talk about that moment? It’s very specific.

I looked at this girl and in a way I am in awe of her. She’s wearing whatever she wants, she’s very in touch with her sexuality, and being pretty, hanging out at this place. I was kind of wowed, but also aware that I am not that kind of girl. I don’t really want to be her, but sometimes I do. What is she doing there? Who’s taking care of her? I was with my boyfriend, and that’s the only reason I felt at all safe being there. She looked different from all the girls of my town. There are no women in that scene. She was the only one there, and she was kind of glamorous to me. But also I’m a human being so I’m a little judgmental too. She doesn’t look safe. I don’t think I’d want to hang around her with my boyfriend. She looks pretty slick.

Where was that scene shot? Tell me about the location.

It’s in Patterson, New Jersey. It’s an old factory, and there were actually homeless people there. When we were walking down the stairs, there was a woman underneath, reading a book on a cot. I’m used to guerrilla filmmaking, though.

How did they find that location?

Alan Rowe Kelly found it. Alan is very good at stuff like that. Patterson is very interesting, it’s a city that was booming at one point and now it’s the opposite. There are so many huge old factories, brick structures with huge windows, and they are crumbling, and they don’t have enough money to even knock them down.

That location was awesome.

It was very sad, the debris left by people who lived there. You’d see shirts, shoes, the saddest thing was a couple of baby’s toys. There was a little photo album that you know that this person cared about it and tried to take it with them everywhere and for whatever reason, they didn’t care about it anymore, or they lost it, and I bet that that was the one thing they made sure they kept with them all the time. It was the one thing that kept them alive maybe. It was very creepy. Perfect.

 

Drugs

How long did you shoot there?

A whole day.

Was the shoot, in general, a short one?

Yes. Three or four days.

Let’s talk about the special effects makeup in the drug scene.

Daniel Mazikowski did the special makeup, and he was incredible. I had never met him until that day. Jeremiah brought him in and he was incredible in not only what he could do, but also, he was so kind, asking me if I was okay. I mean, it was difficult—

You and Robb were attached by this huge appendage.

In our mouths. We’ve got this two-sided dildo basically, and they’re putting the makeup all around our faces, and it was good because it added to the freakout. We couldn’t really talk, so I tried to relax and breathe. It was putty and paste, and then [Mazikowski] was painting it, and around it, so it took some time. But he kept checking in with us and I could see that he was working as fast as he could and trying to make us as comfortable as possible in a very uncomfortable situation. And the movie needed this. I knew it was going to look great, once I understood what they were going to do, so we had to do it, and it was done in the nicest way possible. He had a nice energy, he was very concerned about us more than anything else. I like that calm energy on a set. Everyone was supportive and trying to make us comfortable, especially that day. We’re naked for the whole day, we’re sitting on the floor, a wood floor, so it could have been really uncomfortable, and if there had been bad energy that day, it would have made it worse. We were about to do some really scary shit, let alone the makeup part.

You filmed that sequence in one day.

Yes. We started with the smoking of the drug and that was good because that would have been the first thing the characters did anyway. It was good to film it in sequence. I’m glad it happened that way. You can’t always count on that. Koreen wanted to make it romantic, so she was putting the candles around, and she was excited. He’s showing me how to do the drug, and then it went into the first effect you would feel from the drug. You can think about it in a couple of different ways. If you burn yourself, what’s the first thing your body feels? I get migraines occasionally. When the migraine first comes on, what do I go through? It takes the breath out of me. It usually has to do with my breathing. That’s how I started with the drug scene. It got a little bit better at times where I was able to focus on Robb, he could bring me back.

The beginning of that scene had a very sensual peaceful feeling to it. But then, you could see it drop.

It started as a very loving thing, sensuous. We were going to get high and make love. And it didn’t turn out that way. We filmed in sequence, and by the time we got to the special effects part, we were already kissing, and in that moment in the script she realizes that something else is happening. Our faces are stuck together, quite literally. He is not holding me there. I am not afraid of him. But all of a sudden we are fusing together. It takes a while to get the makeup right, so we’re waiting, and I’m getting more uncomfortable and agitated, which is perfect for the character. “Get this makeup off me. Get me OUT of here.” By the time we actually got to shoot the scene that is all I wanted to do—rip myself away from him, even if it meant ripping off my face. I was on a swing when I was little, a big rope with a tire, and I was going around and around and my hair got caught and all of a sudden I realized I was stuck. My mother said, “Wait” and she was going to go get some scissors, but I freaked out and couldn’t wait and pulled back and ripped my hair out, making it worse. I felt like there was no being rational, or slowing down in that moment for Koreen, because Koreen couldn’t be outside of herself at that point. She couldn’t count to ten and tell herself it was just the drugs. She was totally high.

He was too. Her knight in shining armor, the guy leading her by the hand, is also incapacitated.

She thought this would be a very together thing, and it ended up being her all alone on her trip, while he was all alone on his trip. There was no connection. At the end of the scene, I’m on the floor, he’s facing away from me. At one point, I felt calmed down a little bit, and reached out for him, and he flinches when I touch him. It was horrible. They are actually very disconnected. It was totally the opposite of what she had been looking forward to.

When you had your discussions with Robb and Jeremiah about the script, did you talk about it in that way, like: “this is the story we want to tell in this scene”?

At times Jeremiah would say, “Okay, now you’re focusing together on Zoë’s hand” or “You’re focusing on Robb’s hair together,” “You’re connecting, you’re being high together.” He would direct us where to focus. “Rob, focus over there, and Zoë, you want out of your body.” The direction was there, but did we talk about the characters? No. I think Jeremiah wanted to see where we would take it, and he could always edit it to the story that he had in mind. By the time we got to the section of the scene where the trip goes bad, I just felt, “There is a disconnect here, and she is all alone.” That’s what made it more terrifying, and I think maybe she had distrust later on, of him. It took her on a total mind-trip. I think after that she didn’t trust her own thoughts, didn’t trust him.

You don’t bounce back from that.

There is no bouncing back. She doubts herself in a lot of ways, which is too bad because right before that was the first time she started to trust herself, and what she wanted. She is becoming her own person. Then she goes back to that quiet place of not being sure, wanting someone to tell her what to do.

The opening of the film with the parents is quite ominous. The silverware gleaming, the empty plate. I got the whole story. Then you see you two running through the warehouse, and even though the surroundings are quite scary-looking, the energy between you both was so playful.

Filming that section was so great. I certainly didn’t mind being Koreen at that moment in her life for a few days. She was in the moment. She wasn’t bogged down by life, job, health insurance. She’s in love. Nothing matters. She’s thrilled. It was magical.

I loved the actor who played the father [Tom Reid].

Wasn’t he wonderful? That was Koreen’s special relationship. He was a good man. Before I had Robb [as a boyfriend], that was the man I looked up to. I looked to him to see if he was proud of me, and then I was proud of myself. He set the tone. I was the light of his life. When she walks in at the end, he just opens up his arms to her. She grasps onto him, and he could have not hugged her back, but he holds her like, “You’re safe, you’re safe.” He did a great job. Katherine [O’Sullivan] did too. I thought a lot about my relationship with my parents, what I had with my mom, what I had with my dad. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, I decided, and my father was a little bit more mysterious, so I was maybe afraid or worried about what he thought or didn’t think of me. Oftentimes, the parent who stays home that you are closer to you sometimes don’t respect as much, unfortunately, because you think you know everything about them. He was the father, he worked, the reason we had this house, and I really cared what he thought about me. It’s a very rich film, isn’t it?

Can we talk about Vindication for a second, because it is such a different character that you played in that film from the one you played in Contact. You have the monologue, the explanation basically. Your scene is different from the other scenes in the film.

I play a mother, and this [scene] was her chance. She died during childbirth. I think she’s been waiting for this. This is her first chance to talk to her son, perhaps give him something that he can hold onto that will give him some peace in life.

She knew what kind of person she was carrying.

It was him or her. Either she was going to kill this kid, or she was going to die, and she couldn’t kill her own son. So she gave her life. She died so he could live, even though she knew that his living would mean a lot of pain for other people. Can you imagine being a parent to a psychopath and knowing it? Do you save the world from your child? Loving them can’t change them. I felt like my character didn’t have the strength to deal with any of this. She had no choice but to die. I knew Bart [Mastronardi, the director] was on a mission. It was like he was taken over by a force. You get a sense when you talk to him that he means business. He’s passionate in any project that he is involved in. I knew it would be good. I was thrilled when he asked me to be in it. And then to play a mom, that was very interesting and new for me. I did think about parents who have children who do horrible things, and how a lot of people are mean to them because of it.

You are blamed for the actions of your child.

There’s that, yes. Maybe there is something you did. I thought of my character as dying from a broken heart.

There’s that shot when the baby is taken away from you, just a closeup of your face.

I was so happy the baby was here, but horrified. That was the broken heart. I so wanted this baby to be here, but I also didn’t want it to be here. I wanted to stay pregnant forever, keep [my son] inside of me because that’s the safest place for him, because when he comes out, I am going to kill him. She was not strong enough to deal with everything she would have had to as a mom. I felt bad about that. You can’t do anything for the type of person [her son is], a psychopath, but maybe if he experienced some love…It wouldn’t have changed his nature, though. When she returned to her son in that scene, I saw that as her one chance, and I took that very seriously. Is there something I can relate to him, or give to him, that could perhaps give him some peace? I want him to know that he’s not responsible, he doesn’t have a choice in all of this. I wanted to give him something, as his mom. That was intense, to have to play that.

How do you like directors to work with you?

Here’s what I don’t like and I haven’t found this too much on film sets, but when I was doing more commercials, sometimes people think that you’re a trained seal. “Say it like this and do it like this.” I understand, and I am always going to do my job and do it well. I like it when the director makes you feel like a collaborator. He can stop everything, just for a second, and say, “What is going on right now for you in the scene, and how do you feel about this?” I like a director who thinks that their actress can bring something to it besides just their bodies and their lines. I want them to use us fully. We’re thoughtful people, we’ve studied the script, and we take this seriously, and we practice this, let’s try it a few different ways and see what works the best. They’re my boss, and on set I want them to be the boss, but it’s nice when you get the idea that they are willing to try anything if it’s right. Like saying to the actor, “What was your instinct there? I saw you were about to do something, follow through on it, let’s see what happens.” Jeremiah said that once to me with Contact, and it had to do with the one line I have in the film, “We will.” The drug dealer gives us the drug and says, “Do this together,” and I say “We will.” Originally, Robb was going to take the drug and say something like, “Don’t worry,” and then Alan snatches it away from him, and Robb’s about to take it back. We hadn’t talked about that moment, and right then, in the moment, I wanted to show the drug dealer that I was in this, too. That was my moment of strength there. I’m not just following my boyfriend around, I am a person. I felt like the drug dealer is looking at me like I was a prop, and I think in that little exchange, Koreen grows up a little. I’m here too, buddy. No one is telling me what to do, I want to do this drug, and I am doing this with him. That just happened, I just found it, and Jeremiah liked it. He also could have said, “That doesn’t work” and I would have been fine with it. I didn’t plan it, felt it in the moment. I like directors who like actors, and who like working with actors.

So the Contact set had a good vibe.

It had a very good vibe. When it came to the drug scene, I’ve never done nudity before. It’s never made sense before. I see it in a script and it seems gratuitous. Listen, there are real reasons to get naked in life, so if it ever came my way in a script like that, I would do it. And I read the Contact script, and I thought, I believe that. I believe that Koreen would want it to be romantic somehow. I could see her setting up how it’s going to be. Just like her mother with the silverware, she’s setting it all up. “We’re going to do drugs, I’ll light the candle”, and so the nudity made sense. Knowing Jeremiah, too, I just know that he has good taste. That has to be a given. People either have taste or they don’t. I felt like we had the same idea about what is in good taste and what’s in bad taste. Why there was nudity, why it helped the story, and then how it would be shot. I know Jeremiah well enough, and he also went out of his way to talk about that with me before we shot it. If there was ever a time to get naked, it was in Contact.

It felt innocent.

It was very innocent. It started off really romantic and very sweet. But then it’s even scarier, because you’re vulnerable. No one was there on the set that day that didn’t have to be there. That was key. Who do we really need in the room to get this done? And then, on top of it, the people who were there, the camera man, the special effects, they are all committed to doing their job. You just have a feeling about people, I think. They’re professionals. I know Jeremiah, too, and if I told him I was uncomfortable with it, he might have said, “Well, I’m going to have to let someone else do this.” I think he knew that it was important to the story, and he was right. I trust him. He really does what’s best for the project. He’s good. I love the movie, I’m so happy with it.

It’s amazing the journey it takes you on in only 10 minutes.

They really did make a story happen. That’s Jeremiah and Dominick. It felt like such a complete full piece in such a short time. You really get a story. You get invested in those characters in a very short time.

 

Zoe

Sheila O’Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.