Interview with Sean McKnight, Director of “Disturbing Images: The Story of Helmut K.”

Disturbing Images: The Story of Helmut K. (2006), directed by Sean McKnight, paints the portrait of the artist who is questionably consumed by fires his art ignites. Previously a schlock filmmaker, Helmut K. turns to the world of photography in search of his muse. When some of Helmut K.’s photos of scantily clad young men and religious imagery come under attack from a right wing religious group led by Byron Lloyd, rather than shy away, Helmut meets the challenge by adorning his best ring-leading hat. “Be, like the monkey,” chants Helmut K. throughout the circus that boils around him. And it is such a hypnotic circus that Helmut’s art takes back seat to his outrageous performance.

Helmut K.
Norm Macera as Helmut K.

Disturbing Images: The Story of Helmut K. balances artiness with comedy and philosophy for one entertaining ride. In the following interview, the film’s director, Sean McKnight, gives some of his insights into the film and the making of it.

For more information on Disturbing Images: The Story of Helmut K. visit the Cinema Alliance website.

Interview follows.

In the opening shot of Disturbing Images: The Story of Helmut K. the viewer can see a microphone and the back of the head belonging to someone who is presumably a crew member, if not a person meant to represent the filmmaker him/herself. Throughout the film, similar acknowledgments of the artifice of the fiction of the film occur. Was this something that was in the screenplay, or something that you chose to do as director?

McKnight: The film crew is mentioned briefly in the script but I wanted to emphasize and expand that concept a bit more as a way of telling the story. I think one thing that’s important from a director’s standpoint is to place a lot of emphasis on how you tell the story. While reading the script for DI, a documentary approach to it just made sense.

Along with Paul Zerman you are credited with music. What was your role in the creation of the music?

McKnight: Paul acted as a consultant. He came over to my place when I had a rough cut assembled and sat down with me and told me the scenes he thought needed music. He also gave his input on the tone of the music and pacing. The way the Helmut theme plays out in a droning repetitive way was his idea. From my standpoint, I took Paul’s suggestions and expanded on them. I composed all of the music using a program called Soundtrack Pro based on how each scene played out in terms of pacing and feel.

There appears to be a number of different formats used throughout the film. Was this an intentional choice, meant to make the film feel more like a documentary?

McKnight: Yeah, after reading the script, I decided to create two realities… One based on the documentary crew following Helmut around (which is in the script) and another reality that depicts the other events that are happening outside of the Helmut documentary. So, I shot each reality in a different way. The documentary parts are shot in a way that’s meant to look more like video with the interviews all in black and white. The dramatic parts are shot in a way that’s supposed to look more like film, so they’re letterboxed and the color is a bit more rich.

During the making of the film, what was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome?

McKnight: Scheduling. I had some camera people set up to help shoot but could only get them at certain times because they had other obligations, so I ended up buying a camera and shooting the majority of it myself. I have a lot of experience doing camera work, so it worked out. Aside from the camera people, I had to work around the schedules of the actors too. All the actors were very cooperative but they too had other projects they were working on as well as full-time jobs and lives of their own. There were times when production would get held up because we couldn’t get everyone together, so I had to juggle things around to try to make the most of the time that I had to work with. With the places I was shooting in and my own full-time job, I could only shoot on Sunday afternoons and occasionally during the week at night. I had to factor all that in while having to try to figure out what I was going to shoot when with 40 other people’s schedules to keep in mind.

One of the strongest attributes of the film is the script by writer, actor and producer Norm Macera. The screenplay is dramatic, philosophical and extremely comedic at times. How did you come to meet Macera, and what made you decide to work with him?

McKnight: I met Norm through a mutual friend. Norm was shooting a movie called Murder Below The Line and needed circus performers for a fantasy/dream sequence. I do fire performances (fire breathing, fire dancing) on the side for fun and my friend Denise said she knew this guy Norm that needed performers for a movie. So, my wife and I signed up for the shoot (she’s also a fire performer and belly-dancer). Once on set, I was hanging around checking out the cameras and asking the crew about their equipment. I started talking to Norm about Murder… and how things were going and we got into the subject of production. I have a background in production so I volunteered to help out with effects and some other things and he took me up on my offer. I ended up helping out with some effects shots and creating the opening and closing titles for the movie. During the process of working with Norm on Murder… he asked me what I really wanted to do, I told him I wanted to direct. He gave me the script for Disturbing Images and asked me to read it. I found the story and the characters compelling, especially Helmut. I also enjoyed the controversy surrounding Helmut K. and thought that with the cultural war that’s being waged right now that this would be a good time to tell this story and rattle some cages. I don’t like conservative types trying to tell me what I can and can’t watch or listen to. I told Norm that I wanted to direct it and we went from there…

Disturbing Images: The Story of Helmut K.has not only a large cast but also a number of fine performances, such as Norm Macera’s hypnotic Helmut K., Gary Gustin’s fire-and-brimstone Byron Lloyd, Sarah Dewey’s do-gooding Betsy Wilson, Darin Martinez’s soul-searching Jonathan, Denise D’Ascenzo’s fanatic Emma Albright and Jimmy Graham’s investigating Lance Bullock to name but a few. As a director, what is your approach to working with actors? Do you get your performances the same way Helmut K. does, or is it all in the casting?

McKnight: It’s a combination of things. For the most part, I like to let the actors do their thing. I give them the characteristics of the person they’re playing but only a little backstory. I do this so they can immerse themselves in the character and interpret it how they seem fit exploring and expanding on the information I provide. I think they invest more into it that way by letting them craft the character and further develop the backstory, which I consider a large part of what they do as actors. If someone is missing the mark as far as staying consistent with the storyline, then I’ll step in and guide them more in the direction I want to see their character go. I didn’t have to do that too much with DI as each one of the actors I got to work with was passionate about their craft and dedicated to their role. There were a few times when the Helmut in me came out a little if I needed a certain reaction that I wasn’t getting, but I wasn’t as extreme as he is.

Jonathan Knife.
From left to right: Darin Martinez (knife) as Jonathan and Nicholas Wilder as Raymond

Between various scenes of the film, there is sometimes the sound of TV static followed by the flash of images. In my mind, these transitions not only effectively transport the viewer from one scene to another but they are keys to the broader themes in the film. Coming abruptly and jarring the viewer out of one space into another, the images flashed by so quickly that I frequently found myself wondering exactly what they were. In this sense, they were also “disturbing images” of the film. Can you comment on how these transitions came about? Were they intended only as practical transitional solutions, or were they, as I have suggested above, meant to mean something more?

McKnight: They came about because I needed a way to jump from one reality to the next. It’s kind of like changing the channel on a TV set, only you’re changing from one reality to the next instead. The images I used and the visual way they’re presented represent the visual theme of “disturbing images”… The darker images are intense and hit you so quickly in a way that’s almost subliminal so you don’t know quite what you’re seeing which can be disturbing.

Did you, in fact, use Norm Macera’s Super-8 films in your movie? Can you say a little more about this?

McKnight: Yeah I did. Norm told me about these film projects he did in the 70s and 80s that he had transferred from film to VHS. We sat down and checked it out and he offered the footage to me to use in DI as Helmut footage. It worked out great as the footage has this gritty independent film feel to it which looks like the type of movie Helmut would make. The stunts that Norm and his actors did in those movies is also right along the theme of how Helmut put people in danger and filmed it to get the most genuine reactions from his actors. I made posters for the Helmut movies “Hot Hands, Cold Death”, “Tommy Needs A Spanking” and others that are in the documentary parts.

Were there any moments during the filming of Disturbing Images: The Story of Helmut K.that actors deviated from the script and improvised scenes?

McKnight: As far as dialogue, most of the time the actors were pretty much on the money. There were some times when we had to change some of the wording around because of the length of some of the monologues, especially with the art researcher and the psychiatrist as both characters had a lot of lines. Otherwise, there wasn’t so much improv as people coming up with ideas to try out. For instance, the flogging scene with the Byron character was Gary’s idea. He saw his character doing this as a means of purging himself of his sins… I agreed to it as I saw his character as being radical and extreme with his religious viewpoints, so I thought it would work. I think it’s important to listen to your actors’ input as they often have insight into a character in a way you may not have thought of.

How long did it take for your pre-production, production and post-production processes?

McKnight: I read the script in January of 05, started storyboarding in February and putting out the word about casting. I finished the storyboards and the casting process by the end of March. We started shooting a little bit in April, it picked up gradually after that and we finished shooting in October. I started editing right away but was also starting to do production on a documentary at the same time, so that became a factor in my schedule. I finished post-production by May of 06. All told, it was about a year and a half from start to finish.

From left to right: Tim Scarpato (bed) as Kent Albright,
Gary Gustin as Byron Lloyd and Jimmy Graham as Lance Bullock

Are you looking to distribute Disturbing Images: The Story of Helmut K.? Will you be doing any festivals?

McKnight: Absolutely, that’s one of my main areas of concentration right now. We had a screening for it at The Cinema in Philadelphia on August 19th. I’m currently in the process of trying to get some additional screenings around the Philly area. I do have an online distribution deal for it set up through Hayden Films and I’m also looking into another online distribution company right now but that’s still pending. As far as festivals go, it will be showcased at the Lancaster Film Festival in December. I have about 5 other festivals that are considering it for acceptance. The festival circuit is tough, there’s a lot of competition. I’m also going to be shopping it to distributors for a DVD deal later this month.

What other filmmakers and/or artists have influenced you?

McKnight: While making DI, I watched Caligula because I wanted to model Helmut after Caligula somewhat. That’s one of the reasons why Helmut has makeup on and is wearing the clothes I picked out that are a bit extravagant. The kaftans and robes he’s wearing along with the gold makeup make him somewhat glamourous like a Roman emperor, so he’s kind of grandiose, decadent and tragic at the same time. Overall, I’m influenced by directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, Peter Jackson and some others. The Lord of the Rings movies (and the book) have been a huge inspiration to me. The original Star Wars was the movie that made me want to make movies.

The film ends with a quote from Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The quote is applicable to both Norm Macera’s character of Helmut K. and Gary Gustin’s character of Bryon Lloyd. However, while Helmut K. claims to play God and questionably oversteps the boundaries between reality and fiction at times, it is actually Byron Lloyd who does so by going beyond his religious philosophies and lashing out in reality. This final statement would seem to suggest that the real enemies are not those that society brands as witches (Helmut K.) but instead the witch-hunters (Byron Lloyd) themselves. Is this a sentiment that resonates with you too?

McKnight: I think that people on both sides of the coin need to look more at themselves and stop worrying so much about what other people are doing. I can’t say that I side with the religious right as I don’t subscribe to organized religion for my own belief structure. I also think there’s a lot of hypocrisy in organized religion and too much focus on money and suffering. So I tilt a bit more to the artist/witch side. I also don’t like people trying to shove their beliefs down my throat and there are people that do that on both sides, the radical artists and the religious fanatics. Either way, at the end of the day, I think you should look in the mirror long and hard before you go passing judgment on someone else.

Do you have any projects you are currently working on that you would like to plug?

McKnight: I’m working on a documentary called Cry of the City: The Legend of Cornbread. It’s about a graffiti artist from Philadelphia that’s one of the people credited as starting today’s graffiti movement. Cornbread is a legend in the graffiti and hip-hop communities and this documentary covers the events that gave him that status. We cover events such as when he tagged the Jackson 5’s jet and an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo. We also address Cornbread’s struggle with drugs as well as him having to cope with the death of both his son and his mother. In addition to focusing on Cornbread, the documentary investigates graffiti and the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia. The Cornbread documentary should be finished by November or December. I’m reading another script now and am working out a deal for a documentary about a boxer from Philadelphia, so there are more projects coming up!

Care to leave us with a closing movie quote?

McKnight: I’ll quote Helmut: “Be, like the monkey.”

3 thoughts on “Interview with Sean McKnight, Director of “Disturbing Images: The Story of Helmut K.”

  1. Finally got around to watching Disturbing Images, or at least half of it.

    I think I see the themes the director was kind of going for and in the context of Helmut’s life I guess they make sense. Honestly though I stopped watching after about 45-50 minutes or so. Not so much because I found it “disturbing” but more because it just seemed to portrary the same unhealthy situations over and over again: Helmut does something controversial with claims of higher purpose, zealots object citing incoherent religious motives, critics tear into Helmut in a more rational but snarky way, boy-toys lounge around his house living sad little lives.

    I wouldn’t say it left me feeling “dirty” exactly, but watching it on a lazy Saturday I did feel uninspired and that life was kind of a bleak farce. It might’ve been part of the director’s intent but throughout watching it I couldn’t help thinking that the portrayals of everyone but the zealots were “balanced”. Not morally or ethically balanced exactly, but balanced along some other axis:

    *Helmut – Man of passion, charisma, & grand vision (maybe even new insight). But also dirty old man, calous manipulator, stuck in a rut (he apparently uses the same lines to seduce the young men every time), possibly delusional. *Interviewed Experts – These provide a more objective view, tell it like it really is. But are also almost melodramatically biting in their criticisms. *Helmut’s Retinue – I think these guys actually get the most sympathetic portrayal of anyone. They love their master and are deeply devoted but have no existence beyond him. Ultimately the fact that they’ve subsumed their wills so much to his brings them joy when he pays attention to them but misery the rest of the time when he neglects them or treats them as objects.

    It’s difficult to call this a “mocumentary” since that generally implies humor to me and this seemed to have little humor, or if there was humor it was just really infrequent and/or subtle. I got the feeling it was not far off from how an actual documentary might’ve portrayed Helmut though. So possibly it’s like a (re-)enactment of a documentary or something along those lines. Which interestingly seems to fit well with Helmut’s controversial and unusual style pretty well.

    It’s too bad about where the monkey analogy came from. Not that those monkeys can’t have all the sex they want (they are Bonobo chimps after all). It’s just the “be the monkey” phrase brought to my mind the image of primates swinging through trees, taunting ground dwellers, stealing food, flinging poo, and generally going nuts in alot of different ways. The “rut, rut, rut” image that Helmut portrays just seems so limiting.

    And thinking about it maybe that’s my whole problem with Helmut’s philosophy: He thinks he’s doing things that are so controversial and freeing. But in a way he’s so focused on one narrow aspect of life that he’s blind to alot of other possabilities. And I guess that’s finally got to me about the film, Helmut’s little world almost gave me a sense of claustrophobia and a desire for something bigger.

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