Filmmakers may be the most tyrannical of artists – and the harsher, the better.
Fritz Lang once chucked actor Peter Lorre down a flight of stairs to shake him up for a scene. Stanley Kubrick ground Shelley Duvall through dozens of takes while making The Shining. Lars von Trier is famous for despotic sets that function as gauntlets for actors eager to test their mettle, as if surviving one of his shoots is a badge of honour.
Whether it's a root cause or a byproduct, control is often equated with genius.
Stress Position, the debut feature from the Canadian filmmaking duo who call themselves "the Siblings" (writer-director A.J. Bond and producer/cinematographer Amy Belling, unrelated), interrogates this idea of filmmaking-as-control.
The setup is simple: Two friends (Bond and frequent collaborator David Amito) make a bet to see who can withstand a week of psychological torture at the hands of the other. The rules: no severe pain; no permanent physical damage; nothing illegal. The reward: $10,000.
In places, Stress Position feels like Social Psychology 101: a modern update of the famous Milgram experiment, which measured the extent to which everyday folks would willingly harm one another.
In others, it's a high-minded installation-art piece, which may have something to do with the po-mo upholstery of the torture chamber Bond's crew put together in a retrofitted warehouse.
But for the most part, Stress Position unfolds like an extremely arduous acting intensive, with Bond determined to wring a meaningful emotion out of Amito by any means necessary – sleep deprivation, nicknames (such as "Sheila"), even tickling.
"I'm obsessed with control," says Bond.
"As a director you feel a lot of pressure to fit into that mould. You know, the hard-hitting director who drags incredible emotions out of an actor. I actually find that kind of frightening. I always worry, 'Oh, am I too soft? Am I not Kubrickian enough to get the perfect take?'
On screen, Bond relishes playing the despot, taking giddy pleasure in commanding his friend to design a self-portrait out of his own hair before he can use the washroom. It would all be uncomfortable, even unwatchable, if it weren't for one important wrinkle: It might not be real. Or not totally, anyway.
"I wanted to capture our genuine reaction to these tortures," Bond explains. "But because Dave is an actor, the lines got blurred between what was real and what was him trying to help me try to make a good movie. When we realized that was happening, I very much wanted to address that in the film."
Promotional material calls Stress Position a "feature film experiment."
But Bond has an even more grandiloquent tag for it: "a real-time re-enactment of itself." Sometimes he and his crew would reshoot scenes to perfect their reactions, or to capture something from an alternate angle.
Sometimes they heightened the emotional tension to spike the personal drama, as in a scene when Amito hurls a cutting homophobic epithet at his friend-cum-jailor.
In the process, Stress Position smears the fuzzy boundary between documentary and fiction, with Bond and Amito distorting into versions of themselves, fully embracing their roles as captor and captive.
This doesn't mean the stakes weren't real. They were just amplified for effect. Bond says that he and Amito did have a falling out during the course of filming work, a result of a good-natured wager pushed too far into real-deal psychological abuse.
"I did become a megalomaniac," Bond confesses, a bit boastfully. "Very much so! In some cases, I became a sociopath."
Yet just as the Milgram experiment was craftily designed to appear to test the human capacity for pain while secretly measuring the human capacity to inflict it, Stress Position's most damning admissions land on its director, and on the very idea of the film director as some kind of hyper-domineering noble tyrant.
"There's a chilling connection between torturing someone and directing a film," says Bond. "In my next film, I hope to embrace a much gentler, collaborative approach where I feel I don't have to torture something out of someone. I want to work with them to find it naturally."
If that fails, he could always try tickling it out.