Xia Magnus is a writer and director whose debut film, the subtle haunted house chiller Sanzaru, is screening as part of the Fantasia Film Festival. We spoke to him about the film, the impact the Coronavirus has had on independent film, and what it means for the future of the industry.

Can you tell us about Sanzaru?

I would call it a cerebral horror thriller. It’s about a home help aid [Evelyn, played by Aina Dumlao] from the Philippines who is living with a white family in Texas. As the matriarch of the family [Dena, played by Jayne Taini] gets sicker, the aid feels she might be being haunted herself by visions and sounds of her own mother.

Can you give us some insight into the title? Many people might come to the film expecting it to have a Japanese subject.

For me, the Mr Sanzaru character is a haunting figure that looms over the main character. He is the dead patriarch of this family that she’s living with and he’s given himself this name. It’s what he calls his alter ego. In Japanese [Sanzaru refers], to the three wise monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. In Eastern cultures – Buddhism – it’s not thought of as particularly sinister. It has more neutral connotations. It’s more about balance. My whole life, I’ve often associated it with turning a blind eye. It was heavily used during the Nixon impeachments by the Democrats. We’ve always had this negative connotation. That idea really fascinated me, that there would be this Western alter ego that would adopt an Eastern saying and misrepresent it. That’s deeply buried in there. So that’s where the title came from; the difference between the East and the West. The film really deals with that in a lot of ways, particularly with the afterlife and the ways the two families experience the afterlife differently.

It feels like it erases that boundary between the Orient and Occident. Evelyn’s dead mother seems to be engaged in some afterlife battle with Mr Sanzaru.

Absolutely. I think the film itself is more or less coming entirely from Evelyn’s perspective. I wanted it to be an impressionistic exploration of Evelyn’s psychology. So the tone and surreal elements of it to me is very subjective. It’s her psychology we’re seeing the world through. I wanted to combine all those elements. It’s both the afterlife and our current world. At the same time, it’s mixing her experience. She’s seeing Texas through the lens of a foreigner. It’s both those things at once.

I imagine her being a carer grounds the character as being stoic and pragmatic, so not given to be really given to flights of fancy.

A lot of her pragmatism is that she’s an “employee” of the family. As an employee, you’re only allowed a professional standing, even if you’re living with them. Even if you’re wiping their butt after they’ve gone to the bathroom, you still have this professional and emotional distance. So part of it’s that. There’s also her own history and trauma so she’s repressed a lot of her emotions, memories and feelings in her past. So the film is about those things bubbling up, and forcing her to acknowledge them before she can move on with her life.

Was it a purposeful decision to make Evelyn and her family Filipino specifically?

In the writing process, I really set to ground it in the perspective of the caretaker and it was important to me that it was a very specific culture that she was coming from. Filipino specifically came from both my experience with the caretakers that worked with my own family and out of the research I did. In the United States, statistically, there’s a large number of home help aids, nannies, and domestic workers that are from the Philippines. Often migrant workers, so they have deep roots and families that are still in the Philippines. They’ve been coming here as economic migrants. I was fascinated by those things and that went into the specificity. Once we had cast Aina [Dumlao], she brought so much of her own experience to it and really became a collaborator. She became a producer on the film and was instrumental in bringing a lot of that to life.

Do you have experience in dealing with dementia as the scenes of Dena floating in and out of lucidity feel really true to life?

We never say that she has dementia in the film, but her character is very much inspired by my personal experience of dealing with family members [with dementia] in the last stages of their life. And there’s something about their psychological and physical state that’s somewhere in between life and death, like sanity and insanity and kind of a higher plane which I found really fascinating. At the end of the day I was really exploring that; what it means to be in-between this world and the next… It’s quite striking how many people are dealing with this as the Baby Boom generation gets older. It’s fascinating to me.

There’s a theme of isolation in the film that really comes through because of what the world is currently going through. Even though the four main characters are cordial with each other and interact, they’re dealing with their own issues on their own.

That’s definitely true and as a filmmaker, I think because I have trouble communicating with other humans a lot, that’s a theme that always comes through in my work. It’s something that’s there – the way we all struggle to open up to people, even in our own families. Sometimes in the case of Dena – someone who has made it to the end of her life without ever really dealing with the things that have been traumatic for her and her entire family. I think those are themes that were definitely on my mind as I was writing.

Sanzaru is your debut feature. How did you find the process of making it compared to your earlier short films?

Hard! It was very hard. There’s never enough time, there’s never enough money! I think that I came into it with a little bit more confidence than I should have had because I had made a couple of short films that were on the longer side. My other filmmaker friends who were also beginning to make their first features had only made 10-minute shorts or something, whereas I had made a couple that were a little bit more literary, a little longer, so I felt very confident. “I can do this, it’s like putting three shorts together.” And it definitely is not like that. I was definitely put in my place. We had a really tough, but also a really unifying, exhilarating and amazing experience shoot in South Texas. But that was the end of 2017. It was a long time ago now. We had a long post-production phase. Your memory has a way of airbrushing out the hard parts, but it was a major learning experience. Every shoot is.

Did you end up with completely free rein of what you wanted to do, or were there concessions that had to made with backers and producers?

Luckily our coproducers and production companies, Dualist and Film Exchange really were in supportive roles. They were in as financial backers, but they weren’t there to steer the ship. They were there to foster our production and realise the film through our eyes. That is, me and Alyssa Polk who is my creative producer. We really had free rein at the end of the day. We got a lot of input and I tried to listen to as many voices as possible but we really were allowed to do what we wanted to do which is a blessing that is not always the case for everyone.

How has the pandemic affected your promotion of Sanzaru? You exhibited at Slamdance in January, but were you due to have screened at other festivals throughout the year?

Everyone is thinking about [the pandemic] now, but for filmmakers who have smaller, independent films we’re trying to put out right now, that’s all we’re thinking about. It was a big hit. In some ways, we were very lucky as we did premiere in January, so we already had that under our belt so we were able to go forward. We lost a lot of film festivals we had lined up in the early Spring. Festivals are only just now starting to be held online. We’re starting to pick up again, but it definitely slowed way down. I have a lot of friends who had things at South by [Southwest] and Tribeca that really were cancelled or thrown online last minute. They really had to struggle with not having an in-person premiere. So in that way, we were lucky, but we really struggled. It was hard. We lost a lot of screenings we would have had, and also the experience of seeing it with a live audience. It’s been really hard.

How do you think the pandemic will affect independent film itself; how it’s made and how it’s consumed?

It’s so hard to say. Every time you try to guess something like this, there’s another plot twist and it goes in a different direction. I would say that with all the changes that are going on, in both Hollywood and in independent film were changes that were happening before and the pandemic has just accelerated them. But when it comes to independent film, you’re going to see a lot more people that are having their premieres in the theatre and then going online immediately. A lot of independent films that are bigger than ours are doing a single weekend of drive-in screenings and then they’re immediately online. You’re going to see a lot more of that; a lot more platforms for independent films cropping up. Because Amazon and Netflix can only take so many at the end of the day. I just encourage people to rent an independent film instead of going straight to Netflix all the time. Filmmakers do see some of that money if you rent, but if you watch on Netflix or Amazon Prime, you’re not supporting the filmmakers in the same way.

I imagine that it will make producers even more risk-averse to new and original ideas, and that there will be a lot of micro-budget productions being made.

I think there has been a trend towards that already – giant blockbusters that make it to the theatre, and then everyone else is on their own making small movies for smaller, niche audiences. Which is fine if you can find that audience. I think there’s going to be a lot more self-distribution too. Distributors are starting to take notice of how many filmmakers are starting to distribute themselves, doing special touring in-person theatre screenings and going online. I think that trend is going to continue and accelerate because of the pandemic.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline at the moment?

The pandemic has kind of turned everything in a direction that wasn’t expected. I do have a couple of things in development, and something that I hope is going through soon with a bigger production company and studio, and a smaller indie project. You just start doing things, putting them out there and seeing what catches first. No one is shooting anything in the States realistically on an independent level at least for the rest of this year. It’s just too costly to run, with the union SAG [Screen Actors’ Guild] putting in place so many hoops you have to jump through, and rightly. To get your set up to those standards it’s just too expensive. The big studios can afford to do this, and do things like testing your actors every three days. There are all these very expensive protocols you have to follow. So no indie stuff is going to be shooting for a while. But hopefully we all have everything set up so I can shoot my next one.

What would your dream project be, if money was no project and you could take your pick of actors?

I’m working on something like that, that’s kind of a pipe dream! I’m writing it like, “One day I will  have the cast that will get me the budget for this,” but it’s a large-scale take on a zombie movie that takes place in Italy in the 1970s. So it’s like a period piece with a zombie-ish element. It’s definitely a much bigger budget than I have at the moment. So one day, we’ll see.

Do you have any advice for any aspiring filmmakers based on experiences you’ve had while making Sanzaru?

I would say, if more than one person has told you that there’s a problem with the script, in a certain, specific area, there probably is a problem that needs to be addressed. And it will still be a problem in the editing room. Taking the time to solve it at the script stage is going to save you so much headache that it’s really worth it. As a young filmmaker, you’re so hungry and you have so much energy you need to push, push, push to get anything made, that sometimes you rush forward before the script is ready. Then you have to solve those problems later and it ends up costing you more money and more pain. Take your time with the script and it will be beneficial in the long run.