As one half of the incendiary and oddly prescient Red Scare podcast, the Belarusian-born, New York-based actress, writer, and (now) filmmaker Dasha Nekrasova occupies––alongside co-host Anna Kachiyan––a singular place in today’s film discourse. It’s no wonder news of her directorial debut has garnered such intrigue, not least given the audacity of its subject matter.
Premiering in the ever-tasty Encounters sidebar at this year’s virtual Berlin International Film Festival, The Scary of Sixty-First (which Nekrasova co-wrote with Madeline Quinn) already boasts one of the great premises of recent years: a woman is possessed by one of Jeffrey Epstein’s victims after moving into a flat on the Upper East Side that was once owned by the notorious pedophile billionaire. As film, as horror, and as provocation, it does not flatter to deceive. On a Zoom call from New York ahead of the film’s premiere, Nekrasova sat down to talk us through it.
The Film Stage: When it was announced that your film would premiere at the Berlinale, critic Will Sloan tweeted that the great problematic filmmakers will “no longer be exclusively male.” Do you think that’s true?
Dasha Nekrasova: [Laughs] No, I don’t think it’s true. I just thought it was funny. I’m a big fan of Claire Denis, the female edgelord director.
You began working on the film with your co-writer Madeline Quinn quite soon after Epstein’s death. How did it start?
In September we started writing it, at Equinox, the gym on 61st St., on the roof. It was a short, initially—then it got longer and eventually became a feature.
Did you always plan for it to be a horror film, in some sense?
I guess so. I think the Epstein stuff and all the details of it are so horrifying that it felt like a good fit, genre-wise, for a psychological horror.
It’s interesting that the story doesn’t take the classic revenge route. It seems much more complicated than that, especially with the character of Addie.
It is a kind of revenge. I was very inspired––in terms of the Addie arc––by this ethnography about female factory workers in Malaysia called Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline. It’s about a phenomenal epidemic of spirit possession that was happening amongst Malay women as the country was becoming industrialized. I think that spirit or demonic possession––especially the way in which it’s manifested in the movie––can be a kind of non-linear resistance. Especially with Betsey Brown’s performance––I think she made her sexuality so grotesque and unmanageable that it does have a resistant quality.
How did the possession manifest itself?
Workers convulsing on factory floors, shutting down production lines.
You talked quite a lot about cinema on the podcast last week, and about the filmmakers you admire. Did you look to specific filmmakers for inspiration when working on The Scary of Sixty-First?
The movie makes some explicit references to Stanley Kubrick, but also some stylistic, thematic references to Roman Polanski, obviously, who’s a big inspiration. There are other collaged references from various films as well.
You also talked recently about nostalgia being a “disease.” I was wondering how you toed the line between paying homage and dipping into nostalgia?
Yeah, that was inspired by the conversation we’d had on a previous episode with Adam Curtis. There are aspects of my movie that are referential and maybe a bit derivative but I think they came about very instinctually. A lot of people have compared it to Italian Giallo genre movies, and that was not completely intentional––more of a natural aesthetic inclination that I had.
The music especially has a Giallo feel.
The music was composed by Eli Keszler; he did the score. Something we talked about as well, in terms of references, was Jack Nitzsche’s score for Hardcore, the Paul Schrader movie. Because in that score he sort of does this really creepy thing with choral music morphing with these very dread-inducing drones. And we played around a lot with that idea. I wanted it to be evocative of the spectrum between new age music and satanic dread.
We see a lot of images of satanic gargoyles. Were they taken from the façade of the Epstein building?
The main one—I think it’s like Neptune or something—is prominently displayed above Epstein’s townhouse, but a lot of the other ones from the opening sequence were just other weird architectural details we found on the Upper East Side.
How did you manage to shoot the scenes from outside the townhouse, with this iconic JE monogram?
Oh, the JE was actually taken down after he died, and I had a JE fabricated and we applied with adhesive. We shot that scene in the dead of night in January.
The film has a lot to do with conspiracy theories. Adam Curtis, who you had on the show recently, has also been talking a lot about them. What do you think is their cultural importance at the moment?
Well, I think—like Curtis points out—they’re generated sort of in lieu of there being a compelling master narrative, or consensus reality that feels authentic to people. So conspiracy theories are a reflection of that and sort of a more imaginative and more interesting way to interface with the world for a lot of people.
Where do you see it leading with Epstein?
I don’t know. I mean, Ghislaine… no one’s seen her for a while. [Laughs] More will be revealed I suppose.
The British Royals are mentioned a lot in the movie, too. What do you make of their current place in the culture?
I don’t know. The Prince Andrew arc of the movie has more to do with his relationship with Epstein and that iconic photo with Virgia Giuffre.
Exactly. He was already part of the film before that interview even came out. So I was already acquiring all the Royal Wedding ephemera, like the bell and the spoon and stuff. I bought a lot of tabloids and Prince Andrew merchandise on eBay that I was hoarding, that I was really happy to get to use.
How far down the Epstein rabbit hole did you go for the film?
A lot of the research I did prior. Maddie, my co-writer, and I were legitimately very obsessed with the details of all the Epstein stuff. And there was so much, with the black book and the flight logs and the island. The island and the townhouse both were these sort of sites that seemed really haunted and charged and evil. There’s so much drone footage of the island on YouTube that I wanted to incorporate, and wanted to film to have this vivid visual vocabulary. So the research and the film came together organically.
There was a lot of talk on Red Scare last week about the Scorsese piece in Harper’s. You mentioned how culture was cyclical, with peaks and troughs, and how there are “tremors” of something new maybe happening. How do you see that taking shape?
Yeah. It’s hard to say. We’re really just describing, maybe, like a vibe. I think post-pandemic, at least, it’s become clear that a lot of our institutions are actually very flimsy and vulnerable, and that’s often a signifier of change, of something new happening. I’m optimistic.
Do you see a change coming at all in terms of the films being made?
I don’t know. I think it’s challenging because so many of these streaming platforms produce content internally and that creates a very homogenous culture that can be really hard to penetrate. They’re not as interested in acquisitions. They’re not even interested in original ideas. So much of the emphasis for lots of production companies is on already existing intellectual property, adaptations, sequels obviously. But I think people will reach a point of fatigue with that, and that will make it unsustainable and new forms will have to emerge.
Are there filmmakers you’re particularly interested in at the moment? Or critics?
Well, I’m a great fan of Nick Pinkerton; he’s a friend of mine. I think Michael Bilandic is a really great filmmaker who has a little cameo in my movie as well—he plays Greg’s boss at the post office that he works at. His last movie that came out about two years ago is called Jobe’z World. The lead actor in that, Jason Grisell, is also in my movie as the guy who works in the Wiccan apothecary. Mike’s just finished shooting a new film. I don’t know too much about it but I’m definitely excited to see.
Do you have any ideas for a second project or something in the works already?
Yeah, I definitely want to make another movie.
[Laughs] No, definitely not. I think someone who’s a little more well versed in finance should probably tackle that one. But it was an inspiring news item.
Did you meet Adam McKay while working on Succession?
No, I haven’t met him.
Are you able to talk about the show?
I don’t think so. I should err on the side of caution.
You recently shared a graph on Instagram with films and filmmakers on a grid, with “brutal” and “twee” as the high and low of the x-axis, and “top” and “bottom” on the y. Where do you think The Scary of Sixty-First would land?
Brutal bottom. I think, as a filmmaker, I’m very much a brutal bottom.
The Scary of Sixty-First will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.