A hint of the absurd also fuels Swinsky's obsession. Like an amalgamation of horror's most iconic villains - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface, Halloween's Michael Myers, Friday the 13th's Jason Vorhees - his main character is a masked murderer named Lazer who makes quick, sometimes comical, work of his victims.
Swinsky began honing his own eye for the gruesome during his teens as a skateboarder in Atlanta, where he documented the scene from a filmer board while using an old hi-8 camera with a telephoto lens taped on it to create a makeshift fisheye. Those early skate films, including one titled Southern Comfort that earned him a lawsuit from the liquor brand, deepened his fascination for shock footage and raw reality as explored through his work with Vice and his Vrille video series.
Today, as director of photography for directing team Motion Family, he contributes to music videos for many of rap's biggest names. It's a complementary career for the horror king of Vine, as he was crowned last year upon winning Tribeca Film Festival's first Six-Second Film Competition. In preview of the April competition, for which he's again nominated, we explored the roots of his repulsive vice and the rape scenes featured in his recently directed Black Lips video "Boys in the Wood."
There's an interesting parallel between the harsh realities you documented early on, in your Vrille videos and VHS Tape skater video and, more recently, in the fictional horror films you make on Vine. Did the former inspire the latter?
Swinsky: I'm just fascinated with grimey footage and found footage on old VHS tapes. My friend Dan Plunkett and I went to a buddy's place in South Carolina and they brought this VHS tape and were telling me about how we just had to watch it. It was about an hour long but the beginning is the most backwoods redneck shit I've ever seen in my life. They get a family relative drunk and start torturing this man. Spray painting his face silver, lighting his crotch on fire, and then they tape his entire face up and he's struggling to breath. I really thought I was watching someone being killed and I've shown it to other people and they get sick to their stomach watching it. So that kinda had me hitched onto a search for more or going out and documenting as much as I could to start my own tapes. The thing that's kinda crazy is they have the horror films V/H/S 1 and 2 and they are pretty much the exact premise of my search. So I do take little pieces from these old tapes and gruesome stories I have heard and try my best to have a solid 6-second Vine. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but we always put the best effort we can in to each one.
How did your fascination with fringe culture begin?
I almost don't see it as fringe culture, to me it's just a normal fascination. I believe everyone has their own vice, whether they're open about it or not they have a fix to get. I'm not saying horror, torture and murder are my vice, by any means, but it's less explored in mainstream film than it should be and that lack of material pushes me to try and capture more. I've almost become desensitized by these type of things after seeing how much real gruesome footage is out there. Just go check out the mature section on LiveLeak.com for a daily dose of reality. But those videos are mostly human error, revenge or some security camera footage. The shaky hand-held home videos are the ones that can do a number on you. "3 guys 1 hammer" was a tape of two 19-year-old Ukrainians who filmed one of 21 of their own murders of a homeless man. That video stuck with me for a solid year.
How does that aesthetic influence the work you do now, filming music videos as a director of photography with Motion Family, and directing the Black Lips' latest, "Boys in the Wood," which was pretty gruesome, too?
Filming has always been my passion and rap was only introduced to me about four years back. The whole culture is still new to me and there are still artists I would love to work with. But we have a different way of filming than most people and that is our run-and-gun style. I believe if the video fits the style, lacing a few people up with cameras (that know how to use them) and using natural lighting can make for the more authentic rap music videos. Directing goes hand-in-hand with being a DP, as you are engulfed completely in making sure you pull off what the director wants to see. The Black Lips video was pretty much a free-for-all on what we wanted to do and see. We had limits that we set initially but we still were not able to get the authentic drug use we wanted to see. There was a guy lined up to shoot up heroin but that fell through. I'm not gonna say who was really smoking what in the video but what you see is about as real as it gets. That rape scene was pretty amazing. It was one take and Jared [Swilley] and Dale [the rapist] had just met moments before shooting. Dale went in so hard, no pun intended, that it felt too real to even roll it again. Another angle would have been nice, but fuck it.
What's the key to making a six-second horror film work within such tight time constraints?
I still don't know that answer but having a beginning, middle and end is what we always aim for. If we ever decide to make something more prevalent, such as a short film, we can use these six-second Vines as a focus group for the masses. For the most part someone is being killed or on the verge of death so seeing people's reaction to different scenarios really pays off for future references.
As one of the pioneers of this medium, do you feel beholden to stick to it or are you ready to expand beyond the format?
I would love to keep making more but time is always an issue. I travel more than I'm home so finding a couple hours to spare is very difficult. Also, we are constantly trying to outdo ourselves with how expansive we can get within a zero dollar budget. Vine has expanded beyond our expectations and finding a place amongst millions of comedians posting numerous posts a day is difficult. If we go a week without posting a new Vine, we get lost and fall back a few notches. We have written many short films but at this point we don't have a location to destroy and make a huge mess of because they are pretty bloody.
Lazer seems like an amalgamation of Leatherface, Jason, and Michael Myers. Does he have a heart-wrenching backstory like they do that makes it easy for you as the creator to empathize with him?
That's been brought to my attention before and there really hasn't been a new serial killer series come out in quite some time. Lazer doesn't have a back story but maybe the other man behind our vines, Bryan Strickland can break it down...
Strickland: Lazer's backstory begins when he is four years old. His throat is cut by his parents and his body discarded alongside a filthy rural road where he remains for several hours until being spotted and taken to a hospital. Despite extensive seemingly critical injury, Lazer pulls through. This astounds the ER doctors who treated him and insist he actually died, even as he makes a complete physical recovery. Around his neck forms a thick scar which looks and feels like rope, and betrays the details of his past to anyone who sees it. He is out under state care until sometime around age 16. He is marginalized, never adopted, never has friendships, and eventually disappears after killing his roommate and a member of residential staff. A decade later, reports surface of a masked man attacking people for no apparent reason.
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