Interview and feature by Michael Lizarraga.
From torturous, crude surgeons to urban legends of the Black Eyed Kids, Screamfest 2015 yet again un-vaulted a flurry of diabolic short horror films at its recent 15th annual fright festival in Hollywood, California. But if there was one piece of work that teemed with terror amongst this mausoleum of madness, it was Gabriel Olson‘s 14-minute film THE BRIDGE PARTNER.
Unlike other shorts presented, THE BRIDGE PARTNER relies on mannerism and emotion rather than conventional gore and guts to bring about squirms, a true “classroom” for today’s young filmmaker in tapping into the more psychological approach to horror that has given rise to such padded-cell classics as PSYCHO, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and MISERY.
Selected by Wes Craven himself as the winner of Wes Craven Best Horror Film at Catalina Film Festival (shortly before the legendary filmmaker’s passing) and screened at over 20 festivals worldwide, THE BRIDGE PARTNER is a genuine glimpse at how, in the midst of our desperate search for acceptance from society and peers, we can be extremely susceptible and vulnerable to a predator in sheep’s clothing. Or, in the case of BRIDGE, a “blue dress”. It also explores the idea that predators don’t just come as overbearing, beastly men seeking poor, defenseless young ladies, but can be a charming, elegant middle-aged woman stalking her victims for sport and pleasure.
“One of the things that attracted me to this story was my connection to the protagonist (Mattie) as a timid person who has a lamb-like quality — and that she alone is confronted by a force,” says director Gabriel Olson. “That force could be considered evil or destructive, but I also felt that the force (Olivia) is a ruthless, roving catalyst for change, carefully sniffing out weakness and pushing her victims by any means. She could destroy Mattie or cause her to change and grow, much like FIGHT CLUB’s Tyler Durden dragging the convenience store clerk out back, putting a gun to his head, and challenging him to fulfill his dream to complete veterinary school or die. While Olivia’s ultimate goal is quite different, her interest in shaking up other people’s worlds completely fascinates me.”
Based on a short story by Hugo award-winning author Peter S. Beagle (THE LAST UNICORN), THE BRIDGE PARTNER stars SAG winner Beth Grant as Mattie Whalen, an older, timid small town house wife who lives a dull, mundane life and is in desperate need of friends. When her womens’ club leader presents her with her new Bridge partner, Olivia Korhonen (played by four-time Emmy Nominee Sharon Lawrence), a mysterious and exquisite “new-in-town” European woman, Mattie is first charmed by her elegance and finesse. However, things quickly get eerie when, after a card game loss, Olivia leans in and whispers softly in Mattie’s ear, “I’m going to kill you.” It is utra-Hitchcock from this point on as Mattie is unsure what this “threat” means and if it is indeed real. She soon finds herself constantly looking behind her as she goes shopping, visits the beauty parlor, or even walks through her home. When she brings the “threat” up to her aloof and passive husband Don (played by Oscar Nominee Robert Forester), and to her womens’ club leader, it is quickly dismissed as a joke or a sarcasm from Olivia. It isn’t until Mattie is again “threatened” by Olivia that she conjures an instinctive courage for survival she never thought she had.
A USC graduate whose award-winning commercials have been showcased in Shoot Magazine, director Olson is a fresh new face in horror whose work is considered by some to be “a wonderful exercise in slow burn tension and impending horror.” A prime example of Olson’s unsettling, chilling artistry and direction is Bridge’s ‘beauty salon’ scene: Mattie is under a hair dryer, and in walks Olivia, who immediately offers to file her nails and “prime” her appearance for their next card match. Choosing a particularly sharp filer the way butchers select knives, Olivia gently caresses Mattie’s soft hand, slowly slides the blade along her nail…
Another powerful element of BRIDGE is the “psychological dance between the two characters,” as Olson puts it, a juxtaposition of a sheep and dog, and whether or not a sheep can transform into a dog, and vice-versa. “Sometimes, we play the sheep in life and take a more passive or timid stance,” said Olson. “Other times, we’re the dog, capable of lashing out and standing up for ourselves.”
BRIDGE can also be looked at as an “origin” of a killer, Mattie perhaps becoming as psychotic as Olivia after suffering an ordeal to defend her life. Throughout the film, the viewer is at times left wondering why she doesn’t just “break off” her partnership with Olivia, but as we closely observe, Mattie deep down wants very much to be like Olivia — elegant, mysterious, dangerous. We get this during a dream sequence in which Mattie fantasizes walking into the club dressed like Olivia, acting like her. Being her.
And as in any well-rounded story, we also see the side of her antagonist Olivia and why she does what she does. Like dogs raiding sheep for mere sport, Olivia simply has an uncontrollable and irresistible lust for destroying things that are weaker and defenseless. What better “sheep pen” than small town rural America, where even a classy, elegant lady like Olivia can find it “stimulating” to hurt and harm someone wholesome and innocent just for kicks. A sort of “primal instinct” for pleasure, as she puts it.
Asked if he is a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, whose work bears close kinship with the new director, Olson replies,”Absolutely! I’ve learned so much from him. One of the things I love is Hitchcock’s balanced use of humor and suspense. They’re not so far off from each other.
“The Coen brothers are also filmmakers I very much admire; their style and tone are inimitable. I think they also walk that line very uniquely between humor and suspense. I love the methodical worlds that David Fincher creates. I was 15 when I saw SE7EN, and it blew me away. And more classically, Billy Wilder; what talent to leap between Film Noir and a film like THE APARTMENT.”
Olson also directs theater, attributing to the many allegorical and thematic elements of BRIDGE. For instance, the title metaphorically lends itself to a deadly “game” played by a stalker and a victim. For those unfamiliar with the card game, Bridge’s purpose is for two partners to relay information about the strengths and weaknesses of each player’s hand to each other, and thus the game synonymously outlines the relationship of the film’s main characters — Mattie (who is terrible at the game) being “refined” by her shrewd partner on and off of the card table (hence the “refining” of Mattie’s nails and appearance at the beauty salon). Then there is the cover art for the film, a close shot of Olivia’s sharp knife-like heel stabbing a ‘Queen’ card, blood flowing, Mattie in the foreground.
There are also aspects of the card game itself that signify the characters in the film: a “dummy” and a “declarer,” for instance. In Bridge, the first player to name the suit of the final contract – or the first to bid no trump, if that is the case – becomes the “declarer,” while the declarer’s partner, the “dummy,” places his/her hand face up on the table. The “dummy” then becomes an observer while his/her partner, the “declarer,” plays the cards from his/her own and the “dummy” hand. We need not guess who the “declarer” is and who the “dummy” is in the story.
And, of course, there is Olson’s consistent metaphor of sheep and dogs throughout the piece, which, for anyone familiar with how predators hunt, tells us that it is often the weaker sheep or zebra straying behind who is “singled out” amongst the herd, hence Mattie being a timid loner and easily spotted by a “huntress”.
THE BRIDGE PARTNER is an all-around fine film. An “A” (for Ace). I just wished I could have seen Robert Forrester in a few more scenes.
The only other thing I would have liked seeing was what happens after Mattie begins discovering her own inner beast and, like the dreaded Olivia, destroy something beautiful – a well-crafted, well-developed ambiguous ending by Olson.
Which led to my last question for the writer/director: Is there a mini-series or a feature in the cards?
“I would love to adapt the short into a feature or a TV series and there has been some interest, but I haven’t quite cracked it,” Olson replied. “The original short story by Peter S. Beagle is 25 pages long, and definitely has the makings of a feature, but it’s taking some time as I want it to not just be an extension of the short, but to introduce fresh elements so it’s a new exploration for me, rather than a rehashing.”
View the trailer below:
Michael Lizarraga is a Los Angeles-based horror/fantasy author, magazine writer and an old school Gothic thriller/comic book/kung fu flicks junkie. Find out more about this Latin lunatic at www.MichaelLizarraga.com. You may also visit him at LizarragasBogBlog.BlogSpot.com, Facebook.com/LizarragasLair, and Twitter.com/MichaelOpus13