It’s fitting that bacteria is such a focus of “Excess Flesh,” building up in the filth that accumulates in the apartment shared by Jill (Bethany Orr) and Jennifer (Mary Loveless), polar opposites who begin to resemble each other when Jill’s jealousy of her roomie’s success at her career, in love and in life in general inspires a “Single White Female”-esque emulation. Yet Patrick Kennelly’s debut feature is less like any film you’ve ever seen than a living organism, the leads feeding off each other when they’re not compulsively stuffing their faces with food, either because Jennifer can without gaining weight or the binge eating that brings comfort for Jill, and the audience feeds off of their push-pull relationship that supplies the drama for the hothouse horror film that largely sequesters them inside their apartment to hash things out.
As a multidisciplinary artist, there’s no mistaking the theatricality Kennelly brought to the production, turning what appears to have been a grueling, small-scale production into an intense experiential horror satire. Shortly after the film premiered at SXSW, Kennelly and Loveless explained how they lived to tell the tale of the crazy shoot, their even crazier film and what he considers to be truly grotesque.
How did this come about?
Patrick Kennelly: Like pretty much all of the stuff that I do, it starts from a very conceptual place. Once all the different building blocks of that are added up, then I understand what it’s about, why I’m doing it. Here, it was just an extreme terror that I was feeling towards sitcoms and romantic comedies.
Mary Loveless: For me, the comedy [was the main appeal]. The script reads like a comedy, and in [co-writer] Sigrid Gilmer’s work, and maybe not so much in Patrick’s, it’s not the “setup, setup, joke.” It’s like, “Was that a joke?” It’s so dark and beautiful. That kind of comedy really appeals to me, and if I think it’s a comedy and everyone else thinks it’s a horror movie, so be it.
Patrick Kennelly: I always start out making comedies, but then they always turn into these kind of things. [laughs] But what I’m interested in and what was being explored in this is the construction and deconstruction of identity, and how these both interior-personal and exterior forces collide head-on and create these psychological states, whether it’s body dysmorphia or eating disorders, so I started out with sitcoms and romantic comedies, which I perceive as the real horror movies, and eventually it comes to that other place. It goes through many other sort of transformations down the line, purely due to the involvement and collaboration of all the different artists and people that I have making this happen.
Many of your projects have been about identity. What is the continuing interest?
Patrick Kennelly: I’m just continually trying to find what one’s projection of self and why one exists in a way. Identity is the bedrock of all life, I believe. I’m not just talking about an individual one, but about a social one and a cultural one that all moves together. I like to entertain, too, and what is entertaining? It’s putting all this in a narrative and examining how those narratives both represent and construct identity.
This is your first feature, but you’ve worked in a number of different mediums including theater. Did that prior experience inform how you went about making this?
Patrick Kennelly: Definitely, in terms of the people that I work with and the way that we shoot it and how the movie reveals itself over time.
Mary Loveless: We shot in sequence…
Patrick Kennelly: And basically it was all on stage. Actually, my main job in all of this is to facilitate all of these other people, so when I’m there on set, it’s just to allow people who I trust to do just do it. I’m just the audience. I hope that my energy, both in a positive and a negative way, feeds that and shapes it.
Was it a tricky tone to hit? It can be funny, but also horrific, sometimes at the same time.
Patrick Kennelly: No, I think it’s just playing it realistically. You’re just playing the psychological and also the circumstantial reality of those moments. All the other stuff around that that creates this other thing.
Mary Loveless: Because we weren’t actually in someone’s apartment, the set itself was built for us to trash it and that made it feel more theatrical, at least for me. It was a little bit heightened. It’s like the costumes. All of a sudden, you transform. Just stepping onto set fixed everything.
Given that one of the characters begins to take on the characteristics of the other, would the two actresses observe each other for reference?
Mary Loveless: Yeah, we did get that opportunity to pick up on and mirror each other. We were very lucky. We got about a week-and-a-half before we started shooting, and we did a bunch of theatre game movement/acts-of-trust stuff, so Bethany and I got very comfortable with each other’s bodies.
Was there a particularly crazy day on the set?
Patrick Kennelly: Every day was that day. [laughs] Today is actually a pretty crazy day. It feels like a continuation of all that.
Mary Loveless: The day that we were outside, the cop scene, that was crazy. To leave the set and take it out into the real world, out in the daylight, I was like, “Whoa, now this is something, Now I feel so exposed.”
It sounds like an intense production.
Patrick Kennelly: Well, all moviemaking is.
Mary Loveless: The amount of garbage and food that just accumulated [on the set] and there were lights on it all the time, so many of our crew members were wearing masks by the end of shooting.
Patrick, you said earlier you don’t know what something is until after you make it. Is this something different to you know than when you first envisioned it?
Patrick Kennelly: Yeah, which is a pretty scary thing. [laughs] But that’s why I do this particular stuff. I’m not in it to make a lot of money or for fame and glory. I do it because it’s about learning something everyday. That’s what keeps me going. Learning in terms of an obsession or a thought or an exploration I have – I’m reading all these things and thinking about them. They’re all scattered, then I start to put them together like a puzzle. I think a lot of people involved in this production would probably say the same thing. There’s a lot of personal, intense involvement – people I’ve worked with for many years in many different capacities – in music projects or theatre projects, and this was really convergence of all these people teaching me a lot of things.
“Excess Flesh” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays SXSW once more on March 20th at 4:45 pm at the Alamo Lamar C.