April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

How Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy inspired ‘Scary of Sixty-First’

When two young women score a suspiciously affordable, gauchely lavish apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side, they can’t believe their luck. Until they find out the abode was previously owned by Jeffrey Epstein — the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender who died in August 2019 while in custody on federal sex-trafficking charges.

What follows in Dasha Nekrasova’s directorial debut, “The Scary of Sixty-First,” is a spiral of conspiracy theories, obsession, the occult, drug abuse and likely insanity.

The low-budget thriller premieres this week, looking for distribution, at the virtual, industry-only Berlin Film Festival (an in-person event is planned for June). Nekrasova, who also co-stars as the mysterious stranger who informs the unsuspecting renters (Madeline Quinn and Betsey Brown) of the Epstein ties, co-wrote the script with Quinn.

Although never making light of Epstein’s crimes, the film does transform the speculation and suspicions around his death into something that blends the ridiculous and the chilling. As Nekrasova said during a recent interview, “I made a horror movie because it is a horrifying thing.”

Born in Belarus, raised in Las Vegas and currently living in New York City, Nekrasova, 30, has crafted a contrarian brand of cultural provocation and political critique as a co-host, along with Anna Khachiyan, of the popular podcast “Red Scare.” Often referred to as part of the “dirtbag left” and affiliated with podcasts such as “Chapo Trap House,” the show mixes left-wing political commentary and cultural criticism with guests that have included political figures Steve Bannon and Tulsi Gabbard, journalists Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, philosopher Slavoj Žižkek and filmmaker Adam Curtis.

Nekrasova describes “Red Scare” as rooted in a “critique of liberal feminism,” often seemingly aimed at provoking and offending more conventional “woke” sensibilities.

The filmmaker first gained attention through a viral video dubbed “Sailor Socialism.” While at the 2018 South by Southwest festival to promote the movie “Wobble Palace,” which she co-wrote and co-starred in, she was approached on the street by a reporter from the right-wing website Info Wars. Wearing a beret and sailor’s top, with a cellphone in one hand and an iced coffee in the other, Nekrasova casually dismantled the reporter’s pointed questions with lines such as, “I just want people to have free healthcare, honey.”

Recently she’s been filming a role for the upcoming third season of the Emmy-winning HBO drama “Succession.” As to whether the politics of that show, a satire of an ultra-rich family that heads a media empire, aligns with her personal politics, she said, “Well, sure. It’s a pretty scathing critique of the ruling class.”

Dasha Nekrasova, on the set of the film “The Scary of Sixty-First.”

(Louis Miller / Courtesy of Stag Pictures)

Tell me about the timeline of the movie. Both for the Jeffrey Epstein angle, which feels like it must have happened pretty quickly, but also making a movie during the pandemic.

We shot the movie in January of last year, so it was pre-pandemic. I started writing it shortly after Epstein’s death in September [2019] with my writing partner, Maddie Quinn, who’s also the brunette in the movie. And then it just came together very quickly. I think some might say it’s maybe even a little bit underdeveloped, but if I had kind of dragged my feet, I don’t think I would have been able to make it because of COVID. I think it’s one of the strengths of the movie — it has this kind of momentum and it was clearly made quickly. … Definitely if I had more time I could have maybe thought through certain choices more that were maybe more interesting. But I really stand by everything that I did do. And I think that the spirit of the movie and the momentum of making it does come across.

Why Jeffrey Epstein? What about both his life and his death did you find interesting to incorporate into a story like this?

Living in New York, it felt like a huge deal. And the way that the Epstein stuff sort of touched on a larger conversation around the ruling class, I guess I thought it was really interesting and compelling. It was born out of a kind of helplessness I felt in the face of these unfathomable powers and echelons of power. Maddie and I both were really just kind of obsessed with it.

And then how does his story become this sort of conspiracy-laden psychosexual occult thriller? Are those elements just sort of baked into the Epstein story?

Yeah. Those elements were developed out of wanting to infuse the movie with the visual vocabulary of the Epstein stuff. When it happened and all the photos and footage of him and Prince Andrew and [the island Epstein owned] and everything was surfacing, the island was really this site of profound psychological terror for me. I watched hours and hours of drone footage of Little St. James. And the conspiracy of it — my character says in the movie, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist. The only conspiracy is the one between the elites who depend on a permanent underclass for them to exploit.” And that was sort of how it felt. But then the proliferation of that culture of conspiracy around Epstein, I also thought it was really interesting.

We had Adam Curtis on the pod recently and his new documentary series [“Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World”] also touches on conspiracy. And we talked to him about how in lieu of people having profound and compelling stories to tell themselves about reality — which I think people are feeling increasingly alienated from — conspiracies ended up being generated because they’re just more interesting. And I think [they] kind of get at the truth of what is really going on more than reality even does.

The movie makes an explicit reference to “Eyes Wide Shut,” and there are elements of “Rosemary’s Baby” and Italian giallo (thrillers). Are there any other references woven into it?

“Eyes Wide Shut” was really kind of a bedrock, not as a formal influence, but it was the 20th anniversary of “Eyes Wide Shut” that year [2019] as well. So it was very much kind of in the popular consciousness post-Epstein. [After] Epstein’s death, there were memes that were like, “‘Eyes Wide Shut’ was actually a documentary.” And that what Kubrick was trying to tell us in his last film about these secret societies has increasing relevance and bearing on our lives today. That was really something that I kept returning to.

I call [the movie] kind of like a love letter to Stanley Kubrick, because it’s not formally very Kubrick-y, it’s not very meticulous in the way that his films are, but it does pay homage, I think, to his worldview and a lot of his philosophies and ideas about power — that power is a very destructive and corrupt force. And that the reality that’s portrayed in “Eyes Wide Shut” still rings very true.

Dasha Nekrasova and Madeline Quinn in a scene from the film.

Dasha Nekrasova, left, and Madeline Quinn co-wrote and co-star in “The Scary of Sixty-First.”

(Berlin Film Festival)

There’s a montage of a character’s psychosexual breakdown that seems to be shot at the actual front door of Epstein’s mansion in New York City. Was it?

Yeah, we shot it on East 71st outside his townhouse. Though the “JE,” the monogram, they removed it shortly after his death. So we had to put that back to shoot that scene.

I found that scene very shocking just for being at that real location. Is it a creepy place to be?

Yeah. I had been there before, not inside, but I had gone there as sort of like a site in New York City. And I went there the day that he died. I lived actually very close to [the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York]. So I went to the prison and then I went to the coroner’s office because there was already all of this sort of conspiratorial stuff happening about the body and where his body was and if it was his real body. Then I went to the townhouse and then I went to the compound on 66th, this complex that his brother owns, which is also referenced in the movie. But yeah, it’s got this huge, imposing door and all these creepy kind of satanic gargoyles. And it just feels like this really haunted place.

So what is your top-shelf Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy theory? And what do you think really happened?

Well I guess the real thesis of the film is about a kind of futility, about not having access to ever really knowing what happened. So I don’t have a pet theory. I guess I have sort of reckoned with never being able to know and, in a larger way, never really being able to know what those in power [do]; as Adam Curtis says … this idea that history is a story that people in power tell us reality is.

Exploring what happened to Epstein does spiral quickly into these conspiracy theories that become very baroque and slightly ridiculous. How did you not lose sight of the fact that there were real victims here and not have the movie making fun of all this even while it’s sort of having fun with the ideas of it?

Well I knew one of Epstein’s victims personally. And I went with her to the court date they had after his death where they invited the victims to sort of say what they would say if they had their day in court, basically. So I did feel a kind of closeness to it. It’s not that it’s funny to me, even though the proliferating kind of QAnon conspiracies are interesting and amusing. I felt very, very grounded in the real kind of horror of it. And in that way, making a psychological horror movie feels truer to me than a lot of the documentaries that have come out. I think making an indie movie that deals with things in a genre-y way gets to a deeper truth about it than something like a documentary would.

Do you feel like the perspective of the movie is similar to that of the podcast? Are they coming from the same place?

Maybe inasmuch as they are my brain children, I guess. I don’t have an agenda.

On the podcast, it feels like you could say anything; there are no third rails. Were you being more careful in what you were doing with the movie?

A podcast is a much more … casual medium than a movie is. A movie just takes more care by virtue of how it’s made. But I was also traveling to Thailand a lot in the later part of 2019, because I was acting on this BBC show [“The Serpent”] that was being filmed there. And I wrote and made a lot of the revisions to the script actually on my flights, cause it’s like a 24-hour-long flight back to and from Thailand. And being in Thailand, which is also kind of this human-trafficking hub, sex-tourist destination, I did feel a lot of just personal agony around sexual slavery as this very real feature of our world. I think that also was very much at the forefront of my writing process. I was trying to reckon with those things.

The podcast is often described as being “anti-woke.” Is that accurate to you? Are you OK with that label?

It’s not my favorite label, I guess. But it’s not inaccurate, I suppose. We’re critical of woke ideology, and in that I think it’s loaded but not inaccurate.

And what are you criticizing in this idea of wokeness?

Well, I guess when people say “woke,” they mean a kind of preference for something like identity politics as opposed to class-based politics. And the critique involves kind of pointing out hypocrisies of woke ideology and the way that they’re ultimately sort of co-opted by ruling classes to perpetuate cycles of power and oppression. And wokeness as being ill-equipped for authentic revolutionary politics would be the critique, I suppose.

Do you consider yourself a revolutionary?

No, I don’t. I wouldn’t even necessarily identify as political. I would identify more, I guess, as an artist.