Sundance Interview with Teeth Director Mitchell Lichtenstein
by Alex Billington
January 15, 2008
One of the films everyone was raving about at last year's Sundance Film Festival was the indie horror comedy Teeth. If you really need to be reminded about what the film involves, then why not: vagina dentata! A young girl in high school discovers she's got teeth "down there" and learns to use this to her advantage (guys and girls take note). A year ago at Sundance I caught up with the film's director, Mitchell Lichtenstein, and talked about all things Teeth and his inspirations, among many other things. Now a full year later just as the film is finally being released into movie theaters (on Friday, January 18th) and right before this year's Sundance kicks off, I present to you my interview with Mitchell Lichtenstein. Curious to know more about Teeth? I'm sure you are!
Mitchell Lichtenstein, who wrote and directed Teeth, is an up-and-coming indie filmmaker who prior to Teeth had only directed a short titled Resurrection. What I really love about movies like Teeth and directors like Mitchell is their very independent and free-spirited aspect. You'll see exactly what I mean later below when he talks about the freedom of using whatever actors he wanted, and it paid off, because in the end the film's star, Jess Weixler, won an Acting Award at Sundance. But besides all that, this is a fun, well-done, and hilarious horror comedy that I hope gains a cult following.
Is this your first time at Sundance?
Mitchell: Yes it is.
Are you enjoying it so far?
Mitchell: Oh, yea, it's been great. I'm not even quite aware that it's a film festival because I haven't had time to see anything except my movie, but after today I think I get a little time to really see what it is.
For the sake of those who aren't at Sundance, can you give a little explanation of the story of Teeth?
Mitchell: It's about a young women who discovers that she is anatomically unique. And that happens when her boyfriend gets violent with her and is 'punished' for it.
What was your reaction when you first heard that Teeth was accepted into the dramatic competition category here at Sundance?
Mitchell: Amazed. I was just amazed because we assumed it would go into the midnight, although I had higher aspirations for it. My focus of the movie is not on the gore and all that stuff, although I enjoy including that, but since we hadn't really shown it to anyone I was thrilled that [Sundance Programmers Geoffrey Gilmore] and [John Cooper] saw what else was in the movie. And their putting it into the competition kind of acknowledged that, I think. To be acknowledged in that way—and I really thought that they were seeing what the movie was, and so I'm so grateful for that. Because when you hear what the movie is about, most people would assume it's one thing, and it is that thing too [laughs]. But I think you have to approach it a different way once Sundance has blessed it with that competition.
Did you expect the buzz that's going around to be this big?
Mitchell: I didn't really think about it, I don't know. I guess, just the subject matter would get people talking, but I don't think people are talking just about the alarming subject, so if that's true, then I'm happy about that.
Have you heard any feedback so far from anyone at the fest?
Mitchell: Just you know, people… Women are coming up and saying that they think it's really an empowering thing and great. Because that was my intention, but as a man I'm not in a position to say I succeeded at that. So at least some people are saying that.
Yea, I've heard from some people that women have a lot stronger reaction to it or at least a differing opinion than men.
Mitchell: Yea. Although, [Jess Weixler], who plays Dawn, has had guys coming up on the street to her and going 'right on!' So I guess men are also… Yea, I don't know why! But they're getting off on it, too.
Did you have any inspiration behind the idea of the story and why you decided to make a film about vagina dentata?
Mitchell: Well I learned about this myth years ago in college, and it was just sort of percolating as the more I kind of read how there is such a pervasive myth in different cultures and different religions and then how other movies can be interpreted as referencing vagina dentata with more removed metaphors. And it seemed that by removing it to a further metaphor, like for example Aliens has been reviewed as being a vagina dentata reference, because it's a female monster and there's sort of teeth within teeth in there, and it's all happening within moist, dripping caves and tunnels.
And I thought, when you create a female monster, I think that comes from a male fear projected onto women. But if you go back to the original metaphor of a toothed vagina, then you're automatically, I think, showing that it says only something about men, and their attitude toward women. It doesn't have anything to do with the qualities of women. So I think it's interesting to go back to that and face that original metaphor. I don't think you could've done that in film until now just because of… I don't think people would show it.
There are a lot of horror aspects, comedic aspects, and various aspects in Teeth. Are there other films that you referenced for the various elements?
Mitchell: I'm sure subconsciously and just from what I've soaked up, but it really came out of: first, the 'what if' a girl had this condition, and then creating a character that did and the story came out of how she would deal with it. The mix of comedy and horror and stuff I think is just my aesthetic. But, I certainly recognize that Carrie is a model, because she learns about her power reaching puberty and it's connected to her sexuality and then it's a destructive power, but aimed toward people who, within the context of the movie, deserve it. But one big difference is that Carrie is destroyed in the end and Dawn will never be destroyed because she is not a monster. Carrie was a sympathetic monster but in this movie it's really not Dawn who is the monster.
How do you go about conveying the idea that she has vagina dentata without actually going down the pornographic realm of showing a 'snarling vagina' and using various aspects, like I remember there is scene where they're holding up the tooth. As the director, how do you convey this?
Mitchell: Well, we developed some pretty cringe-inducing [laughs] sounds for those moments. And then there was this great location outside of Austin, Texas, which is really what sold me on shooting down there, called Hamilton Pool. It's basically a big sink hole and the cliff above has a big overhang with real dental stalagmites, and it seemed so perfect as a way to show without showing this vagina dentata in nature, because that thing is formed by nature, it's a cave, it's a toothed lip. And as you say, the actual tooth that the coroner's talking about. That was just—I wanted to showing something physically related to that. But also all these movies, they must have the scene of the coroner talking to the police detective, so it's kind of tongue and cheek.
Now this just got picked up by Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company, so congratulations on that.
I was wondering, will you have to cut anything to get it down to an R level, or have there been any initial discussions on what the rating possibility will be.
Mitchell: Well we don't know what the rating thing would be, because we haven't submitted it, but I guess we kind of have to assume it would be above an R. And the reason I was thrilled to go with these guys, is that they were very enthusiastic about releasing it as it is. Other big places really had obligations to their company to release an R movie and I didn't want to do that.
I honestly think Lionsgate is the perfect choice. In watching this I'm thinking there is one company that needs to get this and it's Lionsgate, so I'm glad you're with them.
Mitchell: Yea, thanks!
[Update: Since this interview was completed, Lionsgate sold the distribution rights to Roadside Attractions and the film received an R rating for disturbing sequences involving sexuality and violence, language and some drug use.]
Can you explain a little bit about the casting process given there are a lot of little known actors, or better yet, how did you find these great actors and put them into this to create such a wonderful movie.
Mitchell: Well, Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee were they casting directors and we found everyone through them. But we were in a great position because it's completely independently financed we weren't required to use any name actors. I could just use the people that I loved. And that is really rare I think even in independent movies because there is almost always pressure to hire a name, especially if it's independent, because then that helps get it some attention. And luckily I didn't have to do that.
And Jess was just, I mean… It took a little—she was actually the first person that the casting directors thought of for the part, but reading the description or the script, she was weary of coming in and wouldn't come in, and finally she came in and read for a different part. And I just stopped her and said, you have to read this other part. She was trapped in the room so she had to read it [laughs]. And she was great. We had to just talk to her about my vision of the film and that it wasn't an exploitative thing and then she got on board and she was a great sport the whole way through.
Sort of as a wrap-up, now that you've got this done, is there anything else you have aspirations for working on in the future or any other projects?
Mitchell: Yea, I've written a couple of other scripts. They're very different. They're comedy-dramas or more pleasant.
Not as crazy as Teeth?
Mitchell: No, there's unfortunately no…
Well, I'd love to see you in the horror realm more often!
Mitchell: That would be fun! Well, there certainly is room for the continuing adventures of Dawn.
Sequels then, huh?
Mitchell: Yea. But, besides that, I've got other genre stuff. Not other genre stuff, but a little more stayed.
That reminded me, one last question about the end, where does she go from there? The car scene, what's next for her, does she conquer the world?
Mitchell: Well yea, that's the sequel. But she has to run off and she pretty much has to be in hiding because her deeds have now been discovered and there's lots more work for her to do [wink, wink].
Thank you to Mitchell Lichtenstein for the interview! As I'm getting ready to gear up and head out to Sundance again, Teeth is finally ready to hit theaters. Roadside Attractions is putting it out in theaters this upcoming Friday, January 18th, so check your local listings! You won't want to miss it!!