Interview with Nick Gomez: Lizzie Borden Took an Ax

Bringing the hair-raising chilling drama Lizzie Borden Took an Ax to the screen is director Nick Gomez. We take a peek into the mind of this creative director who spins the true story of Lizzie Borden into an entertaining Lifetime dish. Based on the true murders that took place in 1892, Lifetime released this TV movie, hoping to resonate with fans young and old alike. This seasoned director gives us his take on the Borden murders and why he chose to direct this film.

How different is it directing a TV movie from a feature film?
It’s different directing every feature film from other feature films and the same goes for TV movies. Every directing project has its own challenges and rewards. It’s really about how much time you have for production.  A TV movie is going to have a shorter shooting schedule by about a third to a larger feature film. So you have to be very decisive and very well planned and work very closely with your collaborators to make sure you are telling the story in the most provocative  and efficient way.

What was it about this story that made you want to direct it?
I think it was the script! I am from New England, so I am familiar with the kinds of social contrasts that are always in evidence in a sometimes very restrictive social environment. So the idea that a young woman could commit such an act in a social structure that is so controlling made it for me a very interesting study in pathology. The story of Lizzie Borden as a person of mystery is an explanation of pathology and what are the diverse elements that are coming together to create that pathology. What are the circumstances surrounding someone that make them go crazy and snap and commit violent acts, especially in a place like Rhode Island, where I had family growing up in these small communities – you really are living in kind of a goldfish bowl, everyone is very much in your business. The idea of being alone is not something that goes on in day-to-day life – you’re very much part of the community whether you like it or not. In some ways, it can be a very supportive environment but at the same time it can be disruptive and damaging. So it was easy for me to explore a damaged person who was Lizzie Borden and peel back all those layers and find out what made her tick. I think what makes somebody interesting is also what makes them crazy.

Have you been to Lizzie Borden’s house?
Yes, when I was kid sometime in the ’80s! I actually remember if you lived in that part of the world, you’d go to Salem and you’d visit the House of the Seven Gables and Lizzie Borden’s house but I have no memory of actually going inside.

Did you have access to the crime scene photos, police and court transcripts?
Yes we had the complete court transcripts. What’s interesting about this film, besides it being about pathology, is that it is also a period piece. The idea of opening the door to something that happened 100 years ago is like opening a door to another planet, in terms of what you wear, how you speak, the language that you use – people spoke very differently back then. There was a whole different manner of the way that you articulate some of the simplest ideas and that could sometimes be very complicated. What made it interesting for me was to use the language of day to sort of pry open the thought process of people back then.

Were any lines taken directly from the real transcripts?
Oh yes, absolutely! The interviews of the people who were questioned by the police, the pre-trial examinations and from the court itself, a lot were lifted directly. It was  a long court case so we had to do a lot of editing to bring it all down. I used as much language as I could because I wanted to be as authentic as possible. Sometimes you had to actually simplify because the language that was used was so ornate that it was almost hard to understand. The language we use know is much simpler and our vocabulary is much more limited.

How did you help Christina perfect the role of Lizzie?
I stayed out of her way! She had a very solid concept from the very beginning about who the character was. She knew what made Lizzie Borden tick, what was going on with her, what kind of a girl she was, why she wasn’t a fully realized person. She really had a very solid concept of the character and really impressed me from the very first time we talked about the movie. She understood Lizzie Borden.

Were there any scenes that were more challenging to shoot?
Actually for me, the picture of physical violence was a pretty big responsibility. I don’t like to be sadistic with how I portray physical violence – as a director you have a lot of power over how disturbing those images are. When I have to pick moments of violence I have to leave much to the imagination as possible but at the same time the network of producers were expecting a certain level of violence. It was a fine line for me to try to create violence that was provocative without it being purely disgusting.

What do you think really happened that day?
I think she killed her father and stepmother. She was a victim of serial sexual abuse in that household, her and sister both. I think as a result of that she had very complex feelings towards her father, all very unhealthy. A victim can become attached to their victimizer. She felt that she was somehow losing that attachment and acted out in a way – one thing that happens with people who are sexually abused as children is that there is a giant mechanism of denial that gets created and also a kind of blindness to the act of abuse to suppress them. It is that mechanism of psychological repression that allows some people to act violently towards their oppressor and kind of have no memory of it because their brain is already been structured in a way where these moments get put away in a pocket and are never seen or thought of again. I think she acted out in a way and when she was asked about it later and she says she is innocent it’s because she actually believed it and in some ways she wasn’t even conscious of the act. It’s interesting because in the research that we did, one of the things that we looked at is what happens to children of abuse who harm and/or  kill their abusers and one of the things is that there is a mechanism of denial and suppression. You can be a church-going saint as far as everybody else is concerned but also have an underlying rage. It’s kind of a classic child abuse syndrome.

What’s your favorite scene in the film?
I don’t know if I have one. Scenes are like children; you have to love them all. I think there are sequences and moments. The afternoon when Lizzie kills her father and stepmother was the most interesting to build and construct around.

If Lizzie were alive today, what’s the one question you would ask her?
The one question? I don’t know how to answer that question quite frankly. I don’t think I would limit myself to just one question. If I had one thing to ask someone I wouldn’t engage in that conversation.

What’s next for you?
I’ve got lots of little things percolating about – there is nothing that is set in stone. Ever since Lizzie Borden, I have an interest in the time period, developing things that take place in the past and doing more period pieces. So one of the things I am working on is a murder mystery that takes place in the American west.

Click here to read the interview with Christina Ricci who plays the infamous Lizzie Borden. You can also check out the DVD review here. ~Marriska Fernandes

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