The concept of a little girl lost in a strange world populated with monsters is nothing new, which is exactly one of the strengths of Ink. The urban fantasy—written and directed by filmmaker Jamin Winans, who cast and shot the film entirely in his home state of Colorado—centers on Emma, a child snatched from her bed one night by a horrifying creature named Ink and dragged through a netherworld full of frightening visions. But the film uses those familiar tropes as a framework for a far richer story, one that taps into the power of dreams, family, and second chances. It’s also a great action film stocked with creepy bad guys called Incubi, superheroes called Storytellers, and a sense of spectacle on par with Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet—that is, on a very tight budget. In advance of the film’s screening Dec. 29 and 30 at Mounds Theater, Winans spoke with The A.V. Club about genre-bending, the pitfalls of preachiness, and how Ink draws equally from Snow White and Nine Inch Nails.
A.V. Club: Was there a specific image or character that Ink grew from, or did you start with the overall concept and work down from there?
Jamin Winans: It all started with one image. For me, that’s always how it starts. I’ll have a certain visual in mind and then ask questions from there. Why does this one image strike me? Who are these people? Why are they there? In the case of Ink, I was actually listening to a Nine Inch Nails song. I can’t remember which one, but it was years ago, and an image popped into my head of a monster grabbing a kid out of bed. When I was about 4 years old, I was madly in love with Snow White, and, consequently, I was really scared of the witch in the movie. I was convinced she was going to come out of my closet at night and get me. And of course, it turns out that Ink looks a lot like the witch from Snow White. [Laughs.] Anyway, I was listening to this Nine Inch Nails song and imagining this kid getting grabbed. Then I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody else flew in the window and started fighting the monster in the middle of the kid’s bedroom?” The whole story just grew from there.
AVC: What did you set out to accomplish with the atmosphere of the film?
JW: When you’re working with no money, it’s hard to be really specific. You have to go with what you got. I would say, though, that all our aesthetic choices were thematically based. We really set out to create different worlds, and to have each world be driven by its characteristics. It was all based on this quote I’d heard once: “How alike are all the tyrants of the world, and how unique are all the saints?” That’s so true when you look through history, and that was kind of the idea behind the Incubi and the Storytellers. We wanted to give all the Incubi—to borrow from Star Trek—a very Borg-like quality. They’re all very sterile. They’re all the same. We wanted that plasticky quality, and that inspired their wardrobe. On the opposite side, we wanted the Storytellers to be distinctly unique. We wanted to go with a real pop-culture idea. One Storyteller looks more ’80s punk, another looks more ’90s hip-hop. One thing we wanted avoid was a lot of exposition in the film; I think we all hate it when some guy comes along in a movie and says, “Okay, this is what’s going on.” A lot of the motivation behind the look of the film was trying to help the audience get their bearings without explaining everything.
AVC: Genre films, especially science fiction and fantasy, are especially prone to becoming bogged down in their own mythology.
JW: I’m a huge sci-fi geek, and that’s one thing I’d say is bad about [the genre]. There’s such a need to explain everything. But it’s a tradeoff. If you’re trying to make a film for a mass audience, it’s going to be hard if you don’t pander to a low-brow audience. A lot of the sci-fi out there is trying to please everybody. That was a constant struggle with us, I think: We knew the story would suffer if people didn’t know who the characters were or what they were doing. That’s a risk that we run with Ink, that people might have a hard time getting onboard. But I think a lot of the audience for this film is like me. They watch a ton of movies and a ton of sci-fi, and they’re already familiar with a lot of the conventions of the genre. With sci-fi fans and film geeks, there’s a shorthand. A lot of audiences out there might need that extra exposition, but we don’t. With Ink, I really tried to focus on making a movie that I would enjoy, that I think people like me would enjoy.
AVC: You've been quoted as saying, “We hate calling our films sci-fi because they get grouped into a cheesy sci-fi category that we don't want to be in.”
JW: That’s just the way the world works, unfortunately. You end up having to categorize your film in some way. The great thing is, I think Hollywood is getting on top of that. There are a lot of sophisticated sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novel-based films coming out. People are becoming more savvy about it, but I realize a lot of audiences still won’t give a sci-fi film a chance. Getting labeled as sci-fi or fantasy can be tricky. I think Ink is broader than that. I don’t think it’s definable as one genre.
AVC: For a dark film, there’s a lot of hope in Ink. Do you feel there’s still some life left in that kind of message?
JW: Redemption is always a story that I’m attracted to. A lot of people might think it’s overdone, but it’s a very human idea that we can all relate to. It’s something I know I understand every day. But I’m also worried about how to tell the story of someone who falls and rises back up without it sounding preachy. I’m not trying to tell people how to live a better life; that was just a natural progression for the story to take. I didn’t set out to make a happy ending. One of my friends who saw the film said, “I wish a lot more people had died.” [Laughs.] Which I totally get. I absolutely love, for instance, Tarantino films. But are they really doing us any good? Probably not. I’m just as addicted to them as anybody else, but one goal that I do have with my films is the idea of making the world a better place in some way. Even if it’s just for a couple hours.