DoubleTap is an interview series highlighting creatives whose work explores sex, body and identity.
If there were any justice in the realm of film distribution, every member of the #MeToo movement would currently be the proud owner of a boxed set featuring four movies written and directed by New York-based auteur Deborah Kampmeier.
Her 2003 debut, Virgin, starred Elisabeth Moss in a breakthrough performance as a teen who believes that she has been impregnated by God, a conviction that deeply disturbs her Baptist family. Kampmeier’s 2007 follow-up, Hounddog, received an enraged backlash upon premiering at Sundance for its frank portrayal of the abuse endured by a young Southern girl (Dakota Fanning). It wouldn’t be until nearly a decade later that the director would release her third picture, Split — a deeply haunting portrait of an artist (Amy Ferguson), who learns to fully embrace her identity, freeing it from the clutches of her domineering boyfriend.
Now Kampmeier has completed Tape, her fourth feature, which builds on the themes embodied by her previous heroines while exploring them in an audacious new way. It may be her finest work to date.
Isabelle Fuhrman, an exceptionally gifted performer whose credits include Orphan, The Hunger Games, and Masters of Sex is flat-out astonishing as Pearl, an aspiring actress whose dreams for success are revitalized by the manipulative words of Lux (Tarek Bishara), a predator-in-director’s clothing.
He spouts empty, authoritative terms — “Sprezzatura! Claim your power!” — like a shield, clouding the air with white noise as a diversion from his true intentions.
When he gets Pearl alone in a room with him for what he promises will be the filming of a career-launching audition tape, Lux insidiously places the blame on his intended victim, causing her to feel as if she must prove herself by having sex with him. What neither of them know is that the room has been secretly fixed with hidden cameras by one of the man’s previous targets, Rosa (Annarosa Mudd), who intends on utilizing the footage to take him down. Rosa’s warrior-like attire pays homage to Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, while a shot of menstrual blood seeping through the sheets and onto Lux’s mattress calls to mind another Shakespeare classic, namely the “Out, damn spot!” monologue from Macbeth, a play that Fuhrman will soon be performing Off-Broadway.
Tape is an intentionally challenging film to watch, initially because of its style — as Rosa’s concealed lens frequently abstracts the image during the first half — and ultimately because of its content, as Lux’s grooming of Pearl is viewed with piercing clarity during a nearly 40-minute sequence that is excruciating for all the right reasons.
Just as Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, a movie also co-starring Bishara, found an ingenious method for its filmmaker to reexamine her forgotten memories of abuse while interrogating her childhood self, Tape allows Rosa to peer into her own past by observing Pearl, and eventually rescuing her from the prison of unearned shame. A few hours prior to Fuhrman embarking on a 344-mile run from LA to Vegas via The Speed Project, she joined Kampmeier and Mudd for an in-depth conversation with about bringing this fact-based story to life on camera.
When I first spoke with Deborah four years ago, she told me about how the theatre saved her life by providing her a safe space to tell her truth. As artists, in what ways was the experience of telling this story a healing experience for each of you?
Isabelle Fuhrman (IF): I think that, as women, we all experience moments like this. When I turned 18, I remember that the description for every single character I went out for said “nudity required.” It’s not like the shift happened gradually. You turn 18 and those are the jobs that you get sent immediately. So I was very lucky that I’ve never had an incident like this occur when it came to work, but especially at the time when I read the script, I related to that feeling of when you’re working so hard toward a goal and you feel that you need a mentor — somebody in your life to help propel you forward. I remember a time when I was searching for that sort of person, and ultimately realized that the person was me. I didn’t need anybody else for that. Pearl is at a moment in her life where she doesn’t have the time to figure that out for herself, and she’s found someone who seems trustworthy. When you really feel seen as an artist, you feel freer to perform in the best way that you can, and you feel an attachment to the people that you work with because you’re sharing in that experience.
Deborah, Annarosa and I all made this movie together, and I love them so deeply because we shared things that I haven’t shared with some of my closest friends over the course of this film. This industry breeds an intimacy that you can’t get anywhere else, and when that intimacy is put in the wrong hands, that can cause a lot of problems. What we’ve seen coming out in the press over the past two years is not new news by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact that the stories are finally being told is a really exciting and scary thing to have happen. It is pushing into the limelight something that people don’t want to talk about, and even with our film, I think people are afraid of it in some ways because it does really show what that abuse is like. Consent is not a black and white thing. It’s very, very gray, and I think we do a great job of showing that in Tape. It shows how you can put your faith in someone and have that person completely betray your trust, which is what a lot of women in their careers experience.
Annarosa Mudd (AM): One of the things that I enjoyed about playing Rosa was getting to have this vigilante sense of purpose. I’ve just got one thing that I want to do, which is kill this guy. *laughs*
It was kind of cleansing because her life isn’t cluttered with anything else. Deborah wrote the script long before the #MeToo movement happened, but while making Tape, we had the luxury of having all this material coming out as women in the industry began sharing their experiences. In addition to the horror stories, like Annabella Sciorra’s — which really affected me — there were all these weird little encounters, like when Harvey Weinstein burst into Daryl Hannah’s room and she felt that he would have raped her had her makeup artist not been there.
I just felt so honored to carry the experiences of these other women with me as my character went after this guy. My entire role is the product of healing in some ways. Rosa is the figure who is there to heal, and she’s not great at it. She definitely misses a few things, and she doesn’t have it all quite mapped out, but she’s driven by an overarching purpose to fix something.
IF: What stood out to me in the script, and came alive even more so when we began filming, is how it captures that weird feeling you oftentimes get as a woman, when you find yourself in situations with men, and something doesn’t feel right. I think every woman would be able to relate to that. In fact, that happened to me the other day, when I was sitting in a room with someone and suddenly I was like, “I should leave.”
AM: It really shows those little compromises you make in order to convince yourself that something weird isn’t happening. It was an honor to put those sorts of details on film for everyone to see. I was talking to my sister last night about our movie, and she said, “People don’t want to be uncomfortable, but being a woman is uncomfortable.” We have to be in uncomfortable situations all the fucking time, and they don’t always lead to something that becomes a real transgression, but there are times when they do. I just love that our film doesn’t shy away from portraying that truth. This is what it’s like, this is how it feels.
IF: On Amy Schumer’s new comedy special, she said that there was a recent study about how the number one fear that women have is an act of sexual violence being enacted against them, and the number one fear that men have is being ridiculed. And I thought that was so funny. When I walk home at night, I am so afraid all the time. All the guys claiming that “it’s such a hard time to be a man right now” I find hilarious. My response to them is, “Yeah, because we’re talking about you right now, that’s why!”
Deborah Kampmeier (DK): When we last spoke, Matt, I told you that I had completed my trilogy on rape, but then I realized that I actually wasn’t done. Everything that I’m writing and wanting to direct right now is still dealing with sexual violence against women. It is a big issue for me, and I’m going to keep talking about it, writing about it and making films about it until I am done, and that might not be until the end of my life. What was really powerful and healing about making Tape, for me, was that it was my dear friend’s story instead of my story. When she initially told it to me, the first thing I said was, “Go to therapy,” and then, “Can I make this into a movie?” She did go to therapy, and then she gave me permission to make the film. My own story is not exactly this story, but I understand it intimately, and in the process of holding this story for my friend, all these other stories started to be told.
Suddenly, as Annarosa was saying, we were holding this story not just for my friend or for ourselves, but for the entire world, for all of the women who are holding this story too. I see Rosa and Pearl going from a place of isolation to a place of connection, and in the early days of making these films, the shame I got for telling the stories of Hounddog, Virgin, and Split left me feeling very isolated.
Similarly to the circle of women sharing their stories in Split, all the women talking together at the end of Tape are actually sharing their own personal stories — they aren’t scripted. That is when the film hopefully opens out to all the other women who have, and have not, come out in this #MeToo movement. For me to go from a place of real isolation, as an artist, to a place of community has been incredibly healing.
The true story portrayed in Tape is strikingly similar to that of a close friend, who was targeted by a predator masquerading as a theatre director in Chicago. The exposé published in the Chicago Reader a year prior to #MeToo, where she and many other survivors were interviewed, led his venue to be permanently shut down within a week, and inspired theatre companies around the country to break their silence about their own histories of misconduct. What advice would you have for young people on how to spot abuses of power while avoiding the temptation to rationalize them?
IF: There are always red flags, but we just tend to ignore them. I always look for the best in people and that’s a quality Pearl and I share. There’s a lot of people in this business, in LA, who will constantly feed you empty promises, and it’s so important to have a support system that you can go to when necessary. It’s difficult to be honest about things when they are actually happening. In the film, when Pearl is calling her mom and talking about all the amazing things on Lux’s resume, she really doesn’t see what’s happening yet. What’s hard is when she gets into the room with him for the taped audition, and there’s the long build-up of her trying to comprehend and understand where she wants to draw the line. He manipulates her by claiming that she has a marker and can draw the line wherever she wants, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to work out for them, work relationship-wise. That’s a moment where Pearl could’ve called her mom, but that’s not what she does. Just as Annarosa’s character has this one goal to kill this guy, Pearl’s goal is to be an artist and find someone who has her back one hundred percent. She thinks that she has found that with Lux.
My advice for any young actor or anyone in any industry is to keep questioning everything. Just because someone has a certain level of authority doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to ask them questions. You should be able to say, “Hey, this doesn’t make me feel good.” Deborah does an incredible job of capturing that day where Pearl sits in that room, trying to decide whether or not she wants to go through with it. That sequence intentionally took up a large part of the film because the woman whose story this is told us, “That was a whole day.” She thought she was doing something to help accomplish her goal, but was in fact helping him accomplish his goal. This #MeToo movement is incredible because it has made me feel more empowered in my work and in my personal life. For the first time, people are listening. I don’t know if everybody is hearing everything, if that makes sense, but I do think that people are listening, and that is a massive step forward.
In any industry, you really just have to trust your gut. When things aren’t feeling right, oftentimes they’re not right, and that’s a really hard thing to acknowledge, especially when you are standing in front of someone you think has the keys to your future. That’s why these men prey on people who are young, and we just have to be brave enough to say, “No.” I’m 22, I’m still figuring things out, and if someone came up to me and was like, “I have the magic key to help you succeed,” I’d probably believe in them one hundred percent. And then my mom would be like “What do you mean?!” [laughs] If Pearl had taken a moment in the bathroom to call someone rather than look in the mirror and tell herself, “You want this, you want this,” I think that would’ve changed things for her.
AM: I’m putting myself in my younger shoes thinking about Pearl. I’m a bit older than her now, and it really is so tricky when you’re starting out in this industry. You’re still figuring the world out, and you may try something that crosses a line or two because you’re young and trying to be sexy and having a good time. That’s what I see when I look at my younger self, you make mistakes. I was at a speaking event last night with The League of Women Voters in my county, and I was once again overwhelmed by the wisdom of women who are older than me. I was so fucking lucky to be able to reconnect with Deborah in my life, after having studied with her in my college years. She was a superstar to me, and I didn’t think that I would ever be able to work with her in the way that I have here.
My advice for people like Pearl is to find your tribe of women who value what you have to offer, amplify your voice and help you grow. There is such a fucking fierce energy among women right now, especially after the midterm elections. Find those people who stand for what you stand for, and maybe you’ll get to work with them. Women are talking about everything now. We are looking out for each other, we are creating, we are organizing, we are making shit happen. Just try alerting your senses to those people. There are wonderful men too, of course, but there is something going on right now among women that’s really powerful and protective and invigorating, and it opens so many more doors to connect with others.
DK: Speaking of old ladies, I don’t mean to sound like Andrea Dworkin — well, actually maybe I do, because she spoke a lot of truths for which we’ve shamed her for a long time — I think there can only be red flags because we live in a patriarchy. As Annarosa was saying, we have to continue deepening our connection to women and find our tribe. That isn’t to say you can’t have a relationship with men, but the fucking red flag, if you’re a young actress, is being in a room alone with an older man who’s in a position of power. Don’t do it. There can be another person who is a female or a female-identifying person in the room too. There is no audition situation where a young actress needs to be alone in a room with a man, whether or not it involves a sex scene.
IF: I’ve worked with two different male directors in doing sex scenes, and they have gone amazingly well. What you don’t see on camera is that there is a large group of people sitting in the room with us. Very often what happens is the director describes what exactly he is looking for, and then he’ll say, “You and your fellow actor talk about what you are comfortable with and figure it out amongst yourselves. Then I’ll figure out how to shoot it without making you feel uncomfortable.” While rehearsing Tape with Deborah, she and Annarosa and Tarek came to my apartment and we acted out the whole thing. It was very funny.
DK: Did I climb on top of you at some point? I think I was playing Lux.
IF: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. I was nervous about the scene because of its context, but blocking it out made me so much more okay with it.
Considering that you, Isabelle, made your film debut in Hounddog, 12 years ago, how did that first experience collaborating with Deborah help shape your approach to future projects?
IF: Hounddog made me realize that I needed to take my job more seriously. I had such a great time, and the only other jobs I had done up to that point were easy games where you just get to go to work and play. Dakota is an incredible actress. She was so wise and professional onset that she was an adult, in a sense. I looked up to her, and through that experience of watching her work with Deborah, and watching the way that Deborah worked with all of the actors, we all felt comfortable. It was my first time on a movie set, and I was watching something happen that I could only really describe in my head as being magic. It made me go, “Oh wow, people do this as a job. This could be something that I could do beyond just having fun.”
Of course I enjoyed it, but there were real emotions that I had to portray during that shoot, and I remember being kind of unsure about how everybody gets to that point so incredibly quickly. I was so grateful to Deborah for creating such a comfortable space onset, and when I came out to do Tape it weirdly felt like a continuation of our relationship. Deborah didn’t feel like a stranger at all. I just felt like I could slip into this part and feel protected and safe with her and with Annarosa and Tarek. A lot of that was because she knew me when I was a kid. She was there for my first steps. I was so excited to be trusted with a role like this, and when Deborah said that she wrote it with me in mind, I went, “Oh my god, you still remember me? From when I was a kid?”
DK: I did. She was the person I wanted for this role from the beginning. Isabelle was perfect in Hounddog. And I always wanted to work with her again. I did have her in mind from the beginning for Tape, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role of Pearl. I have to say that Isabelle went to places in this film that were so far beyond my wildest imaginings. It was just amazing working with her. I felt the same way about working with Annarosa and Tarek and their performances. I can’t imagine anyone else in those roles. And they each put all of themselves into the work and went beyond what I had hoped for.
I was delighted to spot your daughter as the actress in Tape who skewers the Olay anti-aging cream ad. You’ve spoken beautifully over the years about ensuring that your daughter grows up “whole” rather than “naive and pure.” What changes have to be made in society in order to make this a reality for future generations?
DK: Until we change our sex ed to a sex positive education that includes consent and teaches women and men about female sexuality, then there is no way past these red flags. It has to go back to elementary school and how we set up our sexuality with our daughters and with our boys in relation to our daughters. How do we raise daughters who would know to walk away in the situation portrayed here? Hopefully they wouldn’t be in that situation anymore because we’ll have raised young men who understand what a relationship to a woman and her sexuality is about. What I find particularly interesting about the Pearl character is that there is a naiveté to her in the midst of being a very, very smart woman, and the naiveté is not her fault. Society has engrained it into her and every other young woman that I know — this notion of remaining naive around their desire in terms of their bodies and their sexuality.
IF: Another thing deeply ingrained in our culture, from the time we are kids, is that when something goes wrong, as a woman, you must apologize. A man never needs to apologize for anything. It’s women who are taught to feel guilty about things. There’s that scene in Eighth Grade where the girl is in the back seat of the car and the guy’s asking her to take off her shirt. She repels his advances, and then goes, “I’m sorry.” I remember something like that happening to me. Someone wanted to kiss me and I didn’t want to kiss him. For the rest of the day, I kept finding myself needing to apologize, and he was like, “Your first kiss is going to end up with someone you don’t even like and you’re going to be bad at it.” I was like, “I’m sorry, I know, I know,” and he’s like, “This is about you.” That’s when everything gets skewed, and it happens so far back in our lives.
In sex ed, they talk about the male orgasm, but they don’t teach you about the female orgasm. That’s a massive problem because it basically instructs you that sex is a thing for men. Woman are something to be had versus people who can make choices for themselves. This is as much your decision as it is the man’s. I was very lucky to have a mom who told me, “You have the cookie jar. If you say no, they can’t do anything about it.” When I wanted to have my first kiss with a guy, I realized that if I wanted to make it happen, I could make it happen. You have to take control of your sexuality as a woman, and that’s kind of what’s happening right now. We are being up front about what we are okay with and what we aren’t, and there is a lot of conversation about it, but it has to go so much deeper than that. There needs to be actual change happening. I’ve asked all my great male friends how their moms raised them because I want to make sure I know what to do if I have a son.
DK: I definitely think that sex ed should start with the clitoris. Then it can lead to penises and penetration and pregnancy, but pregnancy should be at the end and they put that at the beginning of sex ed when I was growing up in the South. It has to be reversed, and they never included the clitoris in class much less start with it.
IF: When you teach sex ed as only a means to have children, you’re completely ignoring the fact that sex has become a recreational activity and it has been for a very long time. People have sex with each other, it’s just a fact, and yet it’s being explained as, “When a mom and a dad love each other very much…” What if two people just want to have some fun? Why can’t we talk about that openly and explain how you prevent disease, how you stay safe, and how you should decide whether a person is worthy of you in that way?
AM: Navigating our own desire in general has been difficult because we don’t talk about what women are looking for. But that’s really starting to change, and we see it more when women are behind cameras. I was watching a sitcom that had a really excellent make-out scene and I was like, “That clearly was directed by a woman.” There was something about it that felt super-hot, and it had that acknowledgement and celebration of female desire. There is such value in the work of filmmakers like Deborah that provide us with a space to have that conversation about what we are into, what it looks like, what turns us on.
IF: In my first meetings with Deborah about Tape, she told me how there would be three cameras, each representing a particular perspective — Lux’s camera representing the male gaze, Rosa’s hidden cameras representing the female experience, and the director’s storytelling camera. Those are three separate visual approaches that are all merged into one. It’s so different from the movies where women seem to be occupying a completely different film than the men. The door opens, the lights come on, her legs are oiled up, and you’re like, “Didn’t they just come back from the bar? It makes no sense!” *laughs*
DK: For me as a filmmaker, Tape was about trying to find a cinematic language that shifts from the male gaze to the female experience—not the female gaze because for me, as a woman, it’s not ever about the gaze, it’s about the experience. Rosa’s hidden camera represents how hard it is to find that female experience and the search for it is confusing and unclear. Near the end, there is this huge payoff where you’re hearing that typical sex scene between Pearl and Lux with all the moans, and then you get that hidden camera and it is focused right there on her face. She looks in that camera and you see the truth of her experience.
In my first article for this invaluable site, I wrote, “Only by embracing the full extent of ourselves can we become capable, at long last, of seeing the light.” That is what the final moments of Tape convey to me, as all the women begin sharing their stories.
DK: The story that we tell is the future we create. The most powerful part of this whole journey for me was hearing what my friend said to Isabelle when she first saw the film.
IF: She told me that I made her feel like she wasn’t stupid for having been in this situation. I was so concerned going into the film because this is also the first time I’ve played somebody who is a real person, and Pearl is not a stupid girl. She’s incredibly smart, she didn’t grow up in some small town and she is not naive. It’s just that someone took advantage of her at a vulnerable moment in her life. It is so easy to blame victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault, saying that it’s their fault, but the truth is that it’s the fault of the manipulator who’s able to see those moments of vulnerability and capitalize on them. It was very important for me to make sure that there was never a moment in this movie where the viewer would think, “She’s stupid, she doesn’t know what she’s doing.” I wanted her blind faith and beautiful vulnerability to come through, but I didn’t want it to seem like the clichéd idea of what this experience could be.
Even when I was prepping for it, I talked with friends and asked questions about their experiences. Someone was like, “Well I was really young and naive,” and I said, “I’ve never seen you as young and naive.” Of course, we are all young at first, and we all have moments where we are naive about things, but when those situations happen, I think we are sadly aware to some degree that something is up, and we choose to ignore it because of what we want to believe. When we were filming that crazy long day in the room with Tarek, I felt everything so deeply, and even my mom was like, “This is the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen you in a movie.” Hearing Deborah’s friend say that my performance made her feel less stupid really made me cry because that was the only thing that I wanted.
DK: And I am so grateful for Isabelle’s performance. The vulnerability that she brought to Pearl is breathtaking and it does create this humanity where you can see her intelligence. The patriarchy thrives on making us feel stupid and ashamed, and shaming us is the way that we are silenced. There is no denying this young woman her humanity because of the performance Isabelle gives, and my friend’s words to Isabelle just broke me open.
AM: At a Q&A during one of our first screenings, our moderator said that she felt the film was revolutionary. People like Lux can get away with these crimes because no one knows that they are happening. All of these stories were hidden not only because of people like Harvey, and the culture that created him, but those who protected him as well. It’s a fucking revolution to put this story, moment by moment, on camera and make people sit through it. The fact that we were able to find backing for this film is because the #MeToo movement was loud enough. Our two investors felt that this story was important and needed to be seen. I don’t know if they would’ve jumped on board a few years ago when Deborah first wrote it, but it’s because of their power and means that our movie got made, ultimately. We need people with money and influence to hear us, believe us and support us.
DK: Our investor had been reading all the Harvey Weinstein news stories and all of the women’s shared experiences, and he kept saying, “How does this happen?” Then he read the script and was like, “Oh now I understand. People need to know how this happens.”
AM: He cared about this story being seen. When Isabelle was saying how much she apologizes, that took me to so many little moments in my life where I’ve found myself carrying around the shame of men’s behavior. We are working on very new ground here, simply taking you through one woman’s true story, and to me, that is a revolution.
IF: Every woman has a story, whether it’s “some guy looked at me” or “grabbed me” or “catcalled me,” and we continue to carry around that shame. It’s not like you can look at somebody and go, “Woah, that must’ve really hurt,” because you cannot see it. It’s not a wound that you can visibly see on our bodies, it’s something that we harbor and that we’ve been taught to not talk about, to feel shame about. We’ve been taught to think that it is our fault every single time, and we’ve made it okay for so long. The only way to get over something is to be able to talk about it.
Isabelle’s production of “Mac Beth” kicks off at NYC’s Red Bull Theater on May 7th, you can purchase tickets here.
Photos by Sweet Suezy.