Flatpack 2011: Best of Birmingham

Paper Party by Sculpture

Flatpack Festival

23-27 March 2010, Birmingham, UK

Flatpack website

It’s Saturday morning at Flatpack and burbling chatter and a laden brunch table fill the festival headquarters. Lighting is provided by a cycle of overhead projector slides: a celebration of art projects from a coterie of Birmingham galleries, housed in the architectural remnants of the city’s receding industries. During the three years I’ve been attending Flatpack, the festival has brought a welcome escape from the humdrum: its setting among forgotten warehouses providing a unique backdrop; its nostalgia for early cinema bringing to life bygone times; and the personal touch of its programming creating a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. But while Flatpackers tucked into an early morning feast, back in London, a day of protests against government cuts was beginning. A few days later, the UK Arts Council released depressing details of their funding agenda and axed grants. With one of the gallery venues set to close post-Flatpack, it is to be hoped that the spending cuts do not impinge on such a rare bubble of otherworldly charm.

Still, there was a celebratory atmosphere at Flatpack – not only celebrating the Digbeth galleries that provide a home for the festival but plenty of celebrating in them too. Saturday night was Paper Party night with reams of origami, sticky note messages, paper hats and whatever else could be folded, ripped or crafted from brightly coloured sheets. Friday was a turntable-spinning, multi-screen extravaganza to commemorate the infamous cosmic jazz musician Sun Ra (he of Birmingham, Alabama, not Birmingham, West Midlands, fame).

As usual, music appeared high up on the agenda. Before the paper maché-up, a special screening hailed Birmingham as ‘Home of Metal’ – the metal of the factory line and the metal of the heavy musical variety. The television documentary In Bed with Chris Needham was chosen to celebrate die-hard fans of the genre. The result of a BBC experiment handing out video cameras to members of the public in the early 1990s, this insight into the mind of a Loughborough-living, heavy-metal-loving teenager could not have been better scripted if finely honed by Rob Reiner. Filmed by shaky adolescent hands, the documentary follows puny-limbed, hormone-filled Chris Needham as he tries to pull together his band, Manslaughter (later spelt with an ‘o’ to avoid being read as ‘Man’s Laughter’), in time for their first gig. Excruciatingly familiar, In Bed with Chris Needham is like your own teenage experience turned up to eleven. As writer Taylor Parkes puts it: ‘Unlike you or I, this 17-year-old was not a twat. He was a twat savant.’

Chris Needham’s face-to-camera candour suggests a time when people were not as savvy or self-conscious about exposing their lives to the nation. In turn, the BBC’s affectionate editing suggests a time when reality TV did not aim to exploit the public. In this sense, In Bed with Chris Needham appears to be something of a televisual time warp: evidence of a more innocent time. And then, live on stage after the screening, Flatpackers were greeted with real-life, middle-aged Chris Needham, in all his Metal Head glory. Spitting beer across the stage, declaring his undying passion (‘First track, first album by Black Sabbath – all the rest is just interpretation’), he was in equal parts hilarious and unnerving in his canny resemblance to the teenager on screen. It soon became clear that the age of the film makes no difference; in fact, perhaps age makes very little difference in life, full stop. It is Chris Needham himself – brilliant and slightly bonkers – who makes this video diary such a cringe-ridden joy.

Another television documentary, The Forgotten Irish, provided a further highlight of the weekend’s programming. Gently filmed and intensely sad in parts, the film told the plight of Irish male immigrants currently living in the Birmingham area. Leaving behind poverty and, in some cases, institutional abuse, the men had sought new homes in England during the 1950s and 1960s. Finding it difficult to adjust to a new culture, they were often isolated, remaining unmarried and relying on alcohol for comfort; a situation worsened after the IRA bombing of Birmingham created further social isolation. The documentary showed current efforts by the Digbeth Irish Centre to protect and help the men, moving them into sheltered accommodation and offering financial assistance. The tattered orange, green and white bunting fluttering in nearby pub windows took on a sombre movement after the screening.

Flatpack’s continued focus on its home city was not only apparent in The Forgotten Irish or its ‘Home of Metal’ screening; it was also evident in its choice of patron saint, the Birmingham-born film writer Iris Barry, who provided the inspiration for several events, from a panel discussion on female film critics to a screening of She Done Him Wrong (1933), her controversial choice for MOMA’s sacrosanct film archive. There was a walking tour of old cinema sites and a wonderful archival screening, A Secret History of Birmingham, which presented festival-goers with a fascinating portrait of the city. The screening included two films, fished out of a skip by an ex-projectionist, providing utopian visions from the post-war period. A strange, jauntily shot promotional film for Cadbury’s, A Day and a Half, extolled the virtues of industrial production and the Bournville workers’ community. Whirring machines and shots of twisting hepcats unleashed from factory duties were used to inspire a young farm hand to leave behind his rural life for new employment. Miracles Take a Little Longer charted the progress of the ‘city of a thousand trades’ in the period following the Second World War. Interviews with Birmingham journalists, the city mayor and a local school teacher provide testimonials about the city and attempts to battle poverty (a combination of paternal social welfare and urban redevelopment), set against a backdrop of captivating archival footage.

Flatpack’s awareness of its surroundings is one of the festival’s greatest attributes. It provides more than just a programme of disparate films; it seeks to explore its city history and present it in many different ways. It celebrates Birmingham’s alumni, it rejoices in its culture, it investigates its problems and it finds new ways of seeing the urban landscape through inventive screening settings and site-specific events. When we attend film festivals, cities often merge into one. Films are repeated across countries, across continents, in characterless cinema venues. Here, the city provides a link, throwing up interesting questions and visual results. Flatpack is not a film festival that wants to exist in a bubble, despite its otherworldly atmosphere.

Eleanor McKeown

I Saw the Devil: Interview with Kim Jee-woon

I Saw the Devil

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 April 2011

Venues: tbc

DVD, Bluray + EST release: 9 May 2011

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Writer: Park Hoon-jung

Original title: Akmareul boatda

Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Jeon Gook-hwan

South Korea 2010

141 mins

Kim Jee-woon’s follow-up to The Good, the Bad and the Weird is a vicious, diabolically twisted tale of murder and revenge that pushes the serial killer thriller to compelling new levels of extreme pain and philosophical depth. Staring Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik in the role of a dangerous psychopath killing for pleasure, the film starts when, one night, he hatchets the pretty fiancée of National Intelligence Service agent Soo-hyun (The Good, the Bad and the Weird‘s Lee Byung-hung). Instead of letting the police deal with the crime, Soo-hyun goes after the murderer himself in order to put him through the same pain his deceased lover has suffered and, ultimately, much more than that. Displaying every detail of the gruesome horrors perpetrated by both lead characters during their fast-paced, exhausting cat-and-mouse chase, I Saw the Devil is a disturbing yet witty and enjoyable take on the genre. Featuring stunning visuals, it builds up to an utterly unexpected ending.

Pamela Jahn caught up with director Kim Jee-woon after the premiere of the film at the London Korean Film Festival in October 2010 to talk about lucky coincidences, Nietzsche and the dilemma of ultimate revenge.

Pamela Jahn: You mentioned last night at the Q&A that you never watch your own films once they are finished. Why is that?

Kim Jee-woon: First of all, I get a bit bored after the whole editing process, so the technical screening is usually the last time that I see the film. But mainly it’s because otherwise you see all the little mistakes coming up on the big screen and it sort of hurts to sit all the way through them. The films I make without pressure and without grief, like short films, are not a problem, but my feature films I do find very difficult to watch again.

This is the first time you are adapting a script from someone else rather than writing your own. How did the collaboration with Choi Min-sik come about?

When Choi first approached me with this project I was working on a different film, but it got delayed for a year and I thought I couldn’t just rest and do nothing. I needed a script because it would have taken too long to develop something new from scratch. So I was in a bit of a dilemma when exactly at this moment Choi, who plays the serial killer in the film, came to me with this script, and suddenly everything fell into place.

When I first read the script it felt very new and powerful but at the same time it had a brutal and tough side to it, which got me interested. I thought one of the most important things to make it work was to find the right antagonist for Choi Min-sik’s character. Luckily, at the same time I met Lee Byung-hung, who I thought had gone to the US to shoot G.I. Joe 2. When we sat next to each other at a premiere he told me that his project had got delayed for a year too, just like mine, so I adjusted the script and he instantly liked it. It was all very fortunate for us, especially because the film is Choi’s comeback after three years off screen, and it is a very strong comeback, I think.

Despite being a gory revenge thriller, I Saw the Devil sometimes seems like a twisted examination of human emotions and their ties to antiquated moral notions of sin and justice.

Revenge films normally follow the same dramatic structure: you torture the criminal and, in the end, the protagonist gets his or her revenge, and the audience finds some sort of justice in that. But I thought that sort of ending is a lie because the question I kept asking myself was whether it was actually possible to carry out ultimate revenge without destroying yourself. This is what I tried to portray here.

Nietzsche said anything done out of love is beyond good and evil. Do you see this as the moral behind the film?

Nietzsche is giving a warning that in order to kill the devil you have to become the devil yourself, and it is exactly this dilemma that I have tried to express in my film. In other words, the film is not about the sadness about the person who dies but it’s about the torture for the ones who live and are left behind. Soo-hyun realises that physical pain is no longer significant and he carries out revenge through psychological violence. And although he knows that what he’s doing is morally wrong, it is an inevitable decision on his part. But his choice in revenge methods shows the relationship between revenge and success in that, in order to succeed, you have to become the devil. It is a reflection of the endless suffering within the character. The audience experiences the different methods and levels of revenge through the violence but actually, at its heart, the film deals more with the emotions behind the revenge.

Lee Byung-hung’s character not only feels the pain about having lost his fiancée but, working as a NIS agent, he also suffers from the guilt and inner turmoil that he wasn’t there for her when she needed him. It almost seems that the latter becomes the stronger motif for his revenge.

Because he works for a national security team and because his job is obviously to protect others, the fact that he wasn’t able to protect the one he loves brings a false irony into play. Of course, he wants the killer to feel the pain he feels, but he actually dreams of ultimate revenge. So in that sense it is a very narcissistic kind of revenge. But at one point in this process he becomes dangerously obsessive and soon he starts making mistakes and he also abuses others along the way. This is shown at its most extreme in the last act of revenge and the way he inflicts pain on others.

You don’t provide much back story about Choi’s character or clues as to why he becomes a serial killer in the first place. What is it that motivates him to murder women?

His family is seen in one scene when Soo-hyun goes to their house and you realise through their dialogue that Kyung-chul left his son and that the relationship between his parents and him was not harmonious either. So there are a few hints about his personal history. But for me the question was more, ‘how is he going to kill next?’ and not why. The focus was primarily how, and not why, he becomes a serial killer.

What struck me is the use of classical music, especially the opening sequence as the wife’s head is found in the river. Is there a special link for you between classical music and killing?

I wanted the film to start with a very sentimental feel and to make a huge impact through the thriller action opening because this is the moment Soo-hyun feels the most emotional pain and rage, and I tried to intensify these emotions through the use of very passionate operatic music, which becomes like the surface of his inner turmoil. But having said that, when we first started to discuss the possible background music for the film we were actually tending towards more minimalistic music. It was only after having seen the energy of the actors and the strength of the visuals and the performances that we realised we needed something more powerful to go with it. The minimal music simply didn’t work.

You also employ a very morbid sense of humour. How much of this was in the original script? Or did it come naturally while you were shooting?

There was only one funny scene in the original script, which is the scene when the car full of soldiers drives up to Choi. The rest of the humour that is used in the film simply came through the production. Some of these moments came to me like sparks and I used them to develop a pattern of tension and relief within the film in order to create some sort of rhythm and a unique style.

Despite its level of violence, the film received a 14+ rating when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival, whereas the Korea Media Rating Board initially gave it an R rating, which effectively banned the film from theatres in South Korea. What was your feeling about the audience in Toronto?

Screening the film at the Toronto Film Festival gave us the opportunity to have a more liberal forum and I felt that the audience were looking at the film within its genre rather then focusing simply on the violence. I think they understood that the violence was just one characteristic of the genre, which helped to contextualise it. I hope that people here will watch it in this way too.

How much of a relationship is there between you and other Korean directors like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho?

Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and I are friends and we sometimes see films together and we look at each other’s scripts and give feedback to each other. But the most important thing for me is that we have a similar taste in films. As for I Saw the Devil, Park recently expressed his desire to work together with us on the commentary for the DVD release of the film, which is great. So watch out for that.

Read the review of I Saw the Devil.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Illegal Aliens: Racism in Science Fiction

District 9

Imagine a film in which a jive-talking fool, with a childlike inability to understand basic technology, and who is, despite possessing a natural sense of rhythm, hilariously clumsy, provides the comic relief. And in which a hook-nosed, slave-owning, money-grubbing Jew is so careless of the value of life that he loses a small boy in a bet. And in which the villains are a bunch of unscrupulous and murderous lisping Japanese who are by turns vicious and cowardly. This isn’t some Nazi propaganda film, or even a D.W. Griffith epic admired because of its place in cinema history despite its deplorable antebellum politics. No. This is Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999).

In a way, the film’s very awfulness has gone some way to protect it from the devastating critique it so richly deserves. It seems ungenerous to castigate George Lucas and his many creative collaborators as racist, when there are so many juicier crimes against cinematic humanity with which to convict him (see Pinkett’s review at www.redlettermedia.com and redeem wasted hours by enjoying a hilarious dissection of the prequel trilogy). But then again, Lucas does have form: his Leni Riefenstahl celebrations at the end of Star Wars, the sore-thumb tokenism of Lando Calrissian in the second film and the concluding, black voice, black helmet, white face of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Some of his best friends are no doubt Calrissians, but this fecklessness is not an isolated case for George, nor for science fiction as a genre.

Science fiction has the tendency to show up the limits of the imagination starkly. All those invented Tomorrow’s Worlds can’t help but look like cut-and-paste jobs from existing worlds; 2001 looks like 1969, 1984 like 1948, Metropolis like New York and Blade Runner is set in a still recognisable Los Angeles via Tokyo. So when it comes to aliens, it is hardly a surprise that writers and directors start flicking through back copies of National Geographic to find some inspiration. The Alien is rarely alien (except perhaps for Alien); it’s simply other. The Romulans are ancient Romans, wookies are walking dogs, Orcs speak Turkish and look like Rastafarians and the Nav’i from Avatar are Navaho cross-bred with stretched Smurfs. This is not necessarily a failing of science fiction, but in fact its function: the reimagining of the universe rather than the creation of new universes. And so, as it reproduces notions of the other, it does so from an existing cultural perspective and carries with it the prejudices and assumptions of its own time and place and, of course, of the race that produces it. The great Flash Gordon serials (1936-1940) give us Ming the Merciless, the oriental despot, in keeping with and reinforcing the prejudices that would see, among manifest historical injustices, America intern its own citizens of Japanese origin.

When racism becomes the subject matter, science fiction is frequently cack-handed. Wolfgang Petersen’s 1985 film, Enemy Mine, is a case in point. This reworking of Robinson Crusoe via Hell in the Pacific (Boorman, 1968) sees Dennis Quaid as Will Davidge, a gung-ho, Han Solo-type fighter pilot gleefully waging war against the evil Dracs, a humanoid/reptilian alien race. Stranded on a planet, with an enemy Drac played by Louis Gossett Jr., the erstwhile foes learn to cooperate and become friends. On the surface, it has an impeccably liberal credo, but why does the alien have to be played by a black actor? Gossett Jr. at this point had name recognition since his scene-stealing and Oscar-winning role in An Officer and a Gentleman (Hackford, 1982), but he is the one with an eight-hour make-up job and [SPOILER] becomes irritatingly pregnant. Davidge eventually turns against his own race/species in a way identical to Kevin Costner’s cavalry officer in Dances with Wolves and Sam Worthington’s character in Avatar. This ‘going native’ in itself, however, rests on racist assumptions as old as Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. The white man who realises his complicity in an immoral form of oppression against an ‘alien race’ invariably ends up leading the given community in their resistance, or at least contributing in some vital way. Kyle MacLachlan’s character in David Lynch’s Dune (1984), Paul Artreides, becomes the messianic leader of a marginalised tribe of indigenous people. In District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009), Wickus Van De Merwe, despite going native in an involuntary way (he sees his condition in terms of a disease and longs for a cure), facilitates the escape of the aliens. Of course, from the narrative point of view, each of these characters represents an avatar themselves, a way of inscribing the white audience into an experience of the alien other. But it also realises a white fantasy of superiority, even as it ostensibly assuages white guilt.

The problem is the identification with any alien as non-white: the exception that proves the rule might be the über-white David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Roeg, 1976). The black actors who voiced Jar Jar and the Nav’i, and Louis Gossett Jr. play opposite white actors. The alien is a tempting analogy for racism, but, in the analogy, a lot is given away. Even as pleas for toleration are voiced, the central tenets of racism are upheld: these beings are resoundingly different, monstrous, etc. The ‘prawns’ of District 9 live in townships and are subject to a racism that the film on one level is explicitly condemning, but the liberal attempt to negotiate racism via the talking head interview with a sociologist is likewise ridiculous: ‘What to them is a harmless pastime such as derailing a train is to us a highly destructive behaviour.’

Call it the Caliban Conundrum. We learn to love the alien, pity the monster, and even as we do, we admit our racist notions of the other as essentially alien, monstrous, non-human. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Caliban is at once a monster to be despised and a creature to be pitied: ‘not honoured with human shape’. He is the other, conjuring fears of miscegenation but also a voice of protest with his own post-colonial voice of political resistance: ‘You taught me language and my profit on it is I learnt how to curse.’ But Caliban, for all that, is still not human.

Of course, there’s the danger of being over-literal here. I get that Caliban’s monstrosity could be portrayed literally, or as a racist projection of the white European colonials. Likewise, science fiction can have something valuable to say about race via attitudes to difference. In fact, District 9 is valuable perhaps because it is not so much against racism as about racism. It appears unabashed, for instance, in its own stereotyping of the Nigerians as the criminal underclass of South Africa and its protagonist doesn’t exactly ‘learn’. Illegal aliens appear in the Men in Black films (Sonnenfeld, 1997, 2002) as little more than a happy pun, but the meaning is explored more interestingly in John Sayles’s 1984 satire, The Brother from Another Planet. Here, the alien is a mute three-toed black man who takes refuge in Harlem, but, in one of the many reversals, the white men in black who pursue him (played by the director, John Sayles, and David Strathairn) are aliens too. In Harlem, the black patrons look after the alien (thinking him an immigrant: ‘half the city is illegal immigrants’) and are immediately hostile to the alien whites. ‘White folks get strange all the time,’ one notes.

John Bleasdale

Dan Sartain’s Film Jukebox

Dan Sartain

Raising hell with his visceral rock’n’roll, Alabama-born Dan Sartain brings his Southern rockabilly-mariachi-blues to rapturous audiences around the world via his thrilling live shows and records, including the fantastic Join Dan Sartain. He loves films nearly as much as he loves music and has chosen 10 movies that appeal to both his ‘artsy’ side and his ‘common idiot’ side. His new record Legacy of Hospitality, a collection of alternate versions, outtakes and unheard tracks, is out on April 25 on One Little Indian. On the same date, he will also release a DVD, Dan Sartain Lives: The Motion Picture. See him on tour in the UK in April (25: London Buffalo Bar, 26: Bristol Thekla, 27: Cork Crane Lane Theatre, 28: Belfast McHughs, 29: Dublin Button Factory, 30: Manchester: Deaf Institute) and May (01: Glasgow Captains Rest, 02: Newcastle The Cluny, 04: Leeds Brudenell Club). For more details visit Dan Sartain’s website. LUCY HURST

1. Evil Dead II (1987)
This is a damn near-perfect film in my opinion. Evil Dead II is perhaps the only sequel that truly is better than the original in every way. Bruce Campbell is my fave-o-rite actor of all time, and this is the best performance of his career. Ash is the greatest horror villain to ever bless the medium of film. To quote David Cross, there seems to be a fog of ‘anti-intellectual pride’ sweeping the world at the moment. Those who like ‘popcorn movies’ tend to argue that they don’t want their entertainment to be challenging in any way and can simply enjoy a dumb movie for being a dumb movie. I don’t agree, I think that’s dumb. Evil Dead II bridges the gap. This movie can quench the thirst of the intellectually void as well the ‘artsy-fartsy’ crowd with one swoop of a motherfucking chainsaw hand!!

2. Rocky (1976)
I know the mention of Stallone puts a bad taste in some people’s mouths and I understand why. Judge Dredd (1995) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) are unforgivable, but don’t forget Stallone was in Lords of Flatbush (1974) and Deathrace 2000 (1975), which were killer movies. They don’t excuse some of the bad stuff but don’t count the guy out altogether. Rocky is great. If you have never seen Rocky, you should.

3. Re-Animator (1985)
This film has every right to be number 1 on the list, and if it were another day it probably would be. All the nice stuff I had to say about Evil Dead II applies to this film as well. Jeffrey Combs is a talented actor and Barbara Crampton in her role as Megan Halsey is probably the best ‘scream queen’ performance I can think of. Just like Evil Dead II, this film pleases my ‘artsy’ side as well as my ‘common idiot’ side. I might also add that the film From Beyond (1986), which consists largely of the same cast as Re-animator, is also great. It has the same director, and is also based on an H.P. Lovecraft story.

4. Christine (1983)
This film seems to grip people who feel emotional attachments to inanimate objects. It also is a favourite among particular motor-heads I know. Christine is a classic ‘boy loves car, car kills people’ story. When I first found love for this movie I was roughly the same age as the main character(s) and also had an affection for things from the 1950s (objects, not ideals). The main character (Arnie) nurses a sick antique car (a 1958 Plymouth sport Fury) back to health with love. I found out the hard way that it takes more than love to bring a dead car back to life. I thought I could bring back my 1962 AMC Rambler Classic with a little TLC. It gave me a cracked block in return. The movie is still great though (even if it did mislead my idealistic teenage mind). The scene where Buddy and his goons destroy a fully restored ’58 Plymouth is gut-wrenching no matter how many times I see it. It’s almost as fucked up as when they hack a monkey’s face off and dismember a huge turtle in Cannibal Holocaust. I say almost ‘cus monkeys and turtles feel pain.

5. East of Eden (1955)
This is my fave-o-rite James Dean film, and I like all of James Dean’s films.

6. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
I don’t really like cowboy movies, but there is NO BETTER shoot ’em up than Fistful of Dollars. The music, the acting, the cinematography are all great. It’s another one of those ‘half meat-head/half artsy-fartsy’ films I like. I don’t really like guns (or people who carry them), but in the realm of fantasy they get a big OK in my book. In all fairness I can’t call this movie a ‘stoner movie’, but it is flat out the best movie to watch stoned. Oddly enough, when I watch a ‘stoner’ movie I want to kill people, but when I watch an action movie I want to be stoned. Ass-backward, ain’t it?

7. Do the Right Thing (1989)
This movie holds up where a lot of films from this time don’t. Boyz n the Hood doesn’t seem as edgy as it did way back, but Do the Right Thing has never lost its impact. An awesome soundtrack provided by an in-their-prime Public Enemy never hurt anything either.

8. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Why do people prefer The Wrath of Khan (1982) to this? Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a technological psychedelic masterpiece. Nemoy and Shatner are both in great form, and the whole V’Ger thing makes for great storytelling like only Star Trek can provide. I find Star Wars to be quite shallow entertainment, but Star Trek, on the other hand, is something I can get into. The Motion Picture is the best film of the Star Trek series hands down. It’s also another great non-stoner/stoner film (like Fistful of Dollars).

9. The Elephant Man (1980)
I like a great deal of David Lynch’s work, but sometimes the guy is too fucking abstract for his or the audience’s good (see Inland Empire). Such is not the case with The Elephant Man. The message of the film is simple, and beautiful. This movie should be required viewing at grade schools. Even though the movie is factually wrong in many instances, there is still much value to be gained from it. The Elephant Man is Lynch’s best.

10. A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddy’s Revenge (1986)
This film is so fucking underrated it’s ridiculous. Freddy’s Revenge is hated among most fans of the Nightmare on Elm St series. However, in actuality (my opinion has officially become fact) it’s the only one out of the series that is actually worth a shit. The main character, Jessie, is an ‘in-the-closet’ homosexual boy. Freddy is supposed to represent the boy’s ‘inner struggle’ with his own sexuality. The fact that all of this is implied rather than addressed outright makes this film all the more genius. With the kind of audience that the Elm St films draw, and the year being 1986, this kind of subject matter under normal circumstances wouldn’t be discussed in a movie like this.

Philip Palmer is Thomas Jerome Newton

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Film and TV producer Philip Palmer is also the author of quirky, inventive sci-fi. Combining dark humour and playful prose with page-turning plots, he’s well versed in alien worlds. His latest book, Version 43 (Orbit), focuses on death, robots, a violent frontier world and a cyborg cop. July will see the release of Hell Ship, a pirates-in-space adventure. Philip Palmer has picked Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth as his Alter Ego. Eithne Farry

Aliens are usually nasty and ugly or boring. Ugly evil aliens include the Alien that Sigourney Weaver battled – a vast slimy vagina dentata creature. Or Predator, or the Klingons, or Jabba the Hut, or all the assorted bug-eyed monsters (BEMs) and reptilian giants and gross abominations who have snarled and slithered and lumbered on screen over the years.

Good aliens, however, tend to be, let’s face it, uncool. Spock is a great hero of a mine; but he’s a nerd. Mandy Patinkin as the cop in Alien Nation is less nerdy; but he’s ugly. Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still is utterly charismatic; but square.

So if I had a chance to be an alien from a movie, there’s only one choice for me; Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (directed by Nicolas Roeg from a novel by Walter Tevis). Newton is an alien in humanoid guise, who is cool, beautiful and adorably eerie. The fact that he’s played by David Bowie – surely he was an alien? – adds to the allure of the character. Newton has no super-powers or ray guns; but he’s clever, and vulnerable. And impossibly slim; at one point, his girlfriend Mary-Lou angrily tells him, ‘You’re much too skinny!’ Newton falls to Earth in a one-person spaceship and turns into Steve Jobs – inventing a series of astonishing new gadgets that revolutionise the world and make him rich.

The scene in which Newton takes out his artificial eyes and wig and peels off his artificial nipples (ouch!) is hauntingly sensual; the ‘real’ Newton is spooky and monstrous, yet somehow captivating.

The film itself is flawed – oscillating randomly between pure Roeg genius and badly acted naff 70s excess. But Bowie is sublime as the most beautiful alien of all time.

Philip Palmer

Source Code: Interview with Duncan Jones

Source Code

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 April 2011

Venues: nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Duncan Jones

Writer: Ben Ripley

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga

USA/France 2011

93 mins

With Duncan Jones’s new film Source Code firmly ensconced in UK cinemas, Alex Fitch caught up with the director to talk about some of the film’s themes and its links with computer games and modernist sculpture.

Alex Fitch: There are a lot of parallels between Moon and Source Code – the lead character who’s in a situation not of his making, which is connected with technology and so on. Do you think that’s why the writer and producers approached you? And did you take on the project because they are themes that interest you?

Duncan Jones: The first part is absolutely right, it was actually Jake [Gyllenhaal] who approached me; I was in Los Angeles doing international press for Moon at the time and was trying to meet up with people I wanted to work with. Jake had seen Moon and very much enjoyed it, so we met up to try and find something to work on together, and he suggested I read the script for Source Code, which he had been sent. I got very excited about it, not because of any similarities – I didn’t even notice the similarities – but because of what I thought were the differences and how it was an opportunity to do things I hadn’t done in Moon. But I think Jake gave it to me because he saw similarities between Moon and this project and thought there were certain things I’d done in Moon that would transfer well to Source Code.


The narrators of both films have been constructed in a way by technology – they’re not quite human – and I wonder to what extent we should treat Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Colter, as an unreliable narrator. We can take a lot of the film at face value, as much as he’s experiencing it, but there’s this one scene where he’s talking to someone and suddenly they get pixellated, so you’re unsure whether it really is a simulation or a kind of time travel. How much did it interest you to play with those ideas? You could almost take the ending of the film as the fantasy of a dying man that perhaps doesn’t actually happen…

A la Brazil or something? Well, I believe there is a logic to the way I told the story, which can be interpreted in one specific way, which would all be coherent. I wasn’t going to throw stuff in there just to put you off the scent! It all does work towards a particular goal; I can tell you what parts of it are: the pixellation in particular, you’re right, is a key moment. How does the pixellation work with parallel realities? The idea is: in all other versions of the source code, when he gets sucked back into the original reality – which means there is still some kind of link with this mysterious source code at that point – and he hears about the news of his own death, it basically short-circuits him so much, that tenuous link yanks him back to the original reality. In the very last version of the source code where he’s sent off to what is supposed to be a heroic death, that tenuous link is severed and he actually exists in that parallel reality. That’s my explanation…

I’m surprised that you’re happy to give a definitive version as other directors would say, ‘well, I don’t want to explain it to you’!

That’s because they don’t know what the answer is! Also, obviously in that final passage, that final source code where Colter has gone off to that parallel reality and has stopped the train from going off, we now exist in a new reality where because the train was never blown up, he was never sent on the mission in the first place, so he must still exist in the facility where [his military handler] Goodwin is. That is the same Goodwin in this parallel reality who receives the email he sends from the train. I love the paradox of that ending, which was why I was so keen that was part of the film.


I suppose – and I’m not suggesting you want to do ‘Source Code 2’ – you could end up with a scenario where several versions of Colter from different parallels end up in the same place, because he’s succeeded on various missions!


Obviously if terrorists were looking for a target to blow up, they would choose a city to cause maximum damage, but I’m interested in the idea of the film’s theme of a character processing information around him, and since he’s going from a less complex system – the suburbs – to a more complex system – the city – I was wondering if those were themes you’d considered, that he was disrupting increasingly complex environments…

That’s interesting, I can’t say I have. You see, I’m admitting I didn’t have a pre-existing plan there! No, that’s very interesting, that’s a fascinating interpretation. It’s something that was there in the script to begin with and structurally I thought the script was very sound, so it made sense to run with it.

That’s another parallel with Moon, that both characters go from a place that’s quite sparsely populated and very much contained to a very open environment where their presence may become an increasingly disruptive presence, because they’re more than human.

That’s true, there are a number of parallels regarding identity and the nature of a working person trying to impose some kind of rights for themselves against a malicious authority and through the use of technology. It does make you realise just how blinkered you can be at times: when I was reading the script I wasn’t seeing those parallels! I got very enthusiastic about certain aspects of it and they must have been coming through on a subconscious level.


Colter is obviously a very likeable and engaging character, we’re with him on his journey and we’re happy that he succeeded, but at the same time I feel the film doesn’t spare a thought for the poor guy whose body he’s stolen. It’s all very well that he was going to die in every other reality, but when Jake survives it’s because he’s stolen someone else’s life.

It’s true and it’s part of the less-than-rosy happy ending people talk about, which the film doesn’t actually have, but at the same time there was really no way of getting around Sean Fentress dying; he was either going to die when the train blew up or everyone else was going to be saved and he was going to die because Colter was going to have to use his body. So it was the one sacrifice that was going to be unavoidable…


Was the sculpture that the two leads confront at the end in the script? Is it set in Chicago or was that a visual element you brought to it?

The script was originally set in New York, but because of sensitivities to the terrorism angle, they felt it was important to move it away from there. We discussed a number of cities but for a list of reasons, we decided that Chicago was a great city to do it in – it’s a big multi-cultural city in the Midwest, something that both the East and the West can relate to. Visually, it’s a very beautiful city as well. We knew we were going to be shooting in Montreal so we needed to find a place we could match. Montreal can be matched with a lot of places, but Chicago is particularly easy and I was really pushing for this because I wanted to use this Anish Kapoor sculpture. I knew it could be a really useful visual metaphor, a useful tool in the flashbacks he’s having, and make a good payoff at the end of the film as well. It looks alien, it doesn’t even look real! I love that aspect of it…

And obviously, aesthetically, it echoes some of the themes of the movie.

Absolutely, it’s about reflections.

And narrowing your vision down to one specific point…

…and distort it. Distorted reflections, at that.

The film is an Anglo/French/Canadian/American co-production. It’s all very well considering the success of The King’s Speech, but post-Film Council, a lot of people are probably wondering, ‘what is the future of the British film industry?’ Based on your experience, I imagine it’ll be a lot of co-productions?

I think so. Before Source Code happened, we were talking about looking into Anglo-German co-productions. There’s a lot of opportunity there: the Germans have got a lot of money they’re investing in co-productions, and Canada was another good one. I think and hope The King’s Speech is a bit of a game changer. But the Film Council didn’t invest any money in Moon, so I have no idea how they work!

Another influence on the film, whether directly or indirectly, seems to be computer games. You have this idea of a character trying to complete a level; they learn the rules as they go along and as they persevere, they master it. Was it in the script, or are you actually a gamer?

I’m a massive gamer! I have been all my life. I started off on the Atari, got a Commodore 64 and the first floppy drives, then it was the Amiga 500s. I’m a hardcore gamer and always have been, and not just a hardcore gamer, a PC gamer – I’m not one of these console lightweights! (laughs)

So like Colter, you’ve also had to suffer the frustration of levels not quite loading properly.

Oh absolutely! I remember the old days of having to type in: ‘CONFIG.SYS’ and ‘AUTOEXEC.BAT’ to get things to run on a 486! That was a bit geeky, wasn’t it? Sorry about that!

Interview by Alex Fitch

Reel Monsters: Collecting 8mm Horror Films

Image from Trashfiend: Disposable Horror Fare of the 1960s and 1970s

Format: Book

Title: Trashfiend: Disposable Horror Fare of the 1960s and 1970s

Publication date: April 2011

Publisher: Headpress

Author: Scott A. Stine

Headpress website

This is an excerpt from the book Trashfiend: Disposable Horror Fare of the 1960s and 1970s by Scott A. Stine, published by Headpress. It’s available through to the end of April for only £7.00 from Headpress.

As a young child, before the boom of home video in the seventies, I recall being captivated by the advertisements for 8mm films offered by Captain Company in the back pages of Warren’s esteemed publications. 200” reels were offered for as “low” as $9.95 US, and 500” reels for upwards of $19.95 US. Although I had seen most of these films in their entirety on television at one time or another, the thought of being able to actually own footage from one of these films, to be watched any time at my convenience, was too good to be true. And it was, as my family didn’t even own a film projector, and $9.95 was at least three months allowance. I would have thought these films were a pipe dream, had not one of my teachers – knowing my love for monster movies – borrowed a Super 8mm copy of Hammer Studios’ The Curse of Frankenstein and shown it to me and a few friends after school as a treat. A few years later, I had also seen a few of these priceless treasure offered by a local pharmacy that specialized in camera and film equipment, but they were always just out of reach, secured behind glass and bearing price tags that were far too rich for my blood.

Many years later, I managed to acquire a handful of films at a local swap meet where I spent much of my youth – a 50’s reel of The Creature Walks Among Us among them – but traded them to another collector once the novelty of owning the otherwise “useless” films wore off. I would rue this day when, fifteen years later, I was fighting tooth and nail for the very same pieces on eBay. I had no intention of watching the films I had begun to hoard, though; video made these highly condensed versions completely obsolete as far as entertainment value was concerned.

But then, I couldn’t watch them even if I was willing to risk damaging or wearing out the fragile film stock. I owned two 8mm projectors, leftovers from my days of producing my own Super 8 shorts, but both had essentially given up the ghost a few years previous. (One needed a belt replaced and the other a new lamp, but I had discovered that it would be much cheaper to simply replace them entirely than obtain the parts needed to get them working again. The bulb I needed would alone cost around eighty bucks special order, whereas with a little bit of diligent scavenging I could probably get a working unit for about fifteen dollars from a local thrift store or swap meet.) Owning the films as an adult had a completely different meaning than it had almost thirty years prior. Nostalgia aside, they had their own distinct charm in the way of box art, produced specifically for the once widespread format but available nowhere else. The painted art that graced the packaging held just as much allure for me as the covers of vintage monster magazines from the same era, even though they were much smaller and were usually defaced by format and price stickers. And like the magazines, I had to own them all.

But I was not alone in my quest to obtain these dated treasures, nor was I as rabid as many of the collectors scouring the Internet for the same; the fact that others were willing to pay ridiculous amounts to build a collection of obsolete 8mm and Super 8 films gave me pause and made me reconsider how badly I wanted them. Talking with other collectors, though, also made me realize just how little most people actually knew about the format and the field in which they delved. Many had never dealt with paper collectibles, and most had never collected celluloid prior to this. Not an expert by any means myself when it came to films, but still more well-versed than the people with whom I had dealings, I decided to make it my job to better understand this rarely discussed field.

A Brief History of the Format

The 8mm format grew from an attempt to condense the 16mm format even further. The first incarnation of this format – the Cine Kodak Eight, introduced in 1932 – was essentially modified 16mm film with twice the number of sprocket holes on either side, enabling the filmmaker to expose only one-quarter of a frame at a time. Thanks to the dual sprockets, the filmmaker could then reload the film after one side had been exposed and use the remaining half of the stock. After the film was developed, the film stock was cut lengthwise, producing two filmstrips that could then be spliced together.

Due to its economic format, 8mm replaced 16mm as the standard for amateur filmmakers within fifteen years of its introduction. By the fifties, 8mm cameras and projectors (one was rarely sold without the other) became almost as common in households as video cameras are today. In the sixties, there was a push to improve upon the format. This resulted in Super 8mm (often referred to as Super 8), which was introduced in 1965. The improvements were numerous. It used plastic cartridges that eliminated the need for threading the unprocessed film stock or flipping it midway through. The sprocket holes were made smaller so as to allow for a wider image area, about fifty percent larger than Regular 8mm. Other modifications were made that further improved the picture quality as well as reducing the risks of poor exposure.

Since 1965, most films sold to the home consumer were available in either 8mm or Super 8 formats. In some cases, the buyer also had a choice between silent and sound, B&W and color. Of course, the desire for the more expensive sound and color versions eventually won out, making the inferior versions obsolete.

Unfortunately, the accessibility of video cameras for the home consumers in the eighties quickly replaced Regular and Super 8 film as the standard for amateur filmmakers. Although Super 8 and – to a much lesser degree – Regular 8mm film stock is still available, the dwindling demand forced prices up considerably, relegating the format to the domain of purists.

Scott A. Stine

Being Tim

Edward Scissorhands

In this fictional country there is a billionaire who lives on the fringes of society who, come nightfall, dresses as a bat. Somewhere, in a state far across that country is a pastel-coloured suburb that has a collapsing Gothic ruin towering over it. Inside, among the debris of its decaying attic, lives a young man whose fingers are scissor blades. Elsewhere the ghosts of a married couple haunt their idyllic home and a film director is unknowingly making the worst film ever. All of these lives are marked by some sense of tragedy and are lived out by individuals who, through choice as much as circumstance, live on the very edges of normal society. These people, who are aware of their difference and so conduct their lives by their own codes and morals, seek not to become part of normality but simply to interact with it. And, in most cases, they are really only one person – Tim Burton.

‘Tim Burton, like his work, is a wonderful mess. He’s falling-apart funny and completely alienated; he’s morbid and ironic; he’s the serious artist as goofball flake. A self-described “happy-go-lucky manic depressive.”‘ – David Breskin (Inner Views: Filmmakers in Conversation)

In perhaps true auteur fashion, it could be argued that if you have seen one Tim Burton film then you have effectively seen them all, so distinct and persistent is his vision. His growing body of work is populated with stripes, concentric swirls and pools of darkness that are all shot through with a manic humour; grotesque images are compounded by their Gothic trappings; there is an occasional preoccupation with falling snow and faithful dogs; there’s the distinct lack of parental figures; the repeated occurrence of resurrection collides with a total disrespect for authority; generic subversion is a mantra; the protagonist must be an outsider and the narrative fixated with how they came to be that way. The source for this ‘wonderful mess’ lies not just in a perceptive artistic vision but in one that seemingly attempts to make physical the past in order to relive it, experience it and understand it. It is a concerted attempt to embrace something that was once painful in order to accept it. This may seem like a grand elevation of the ‘visionary’ Tim Burton – an emotive reading of the pained artist to quantify the repetition – but a cursory examination of Burton’s childhood and subsequent development into adulthood demonstrates foundation experiences that have been absorbed and reworked, reiterated and relived into one of the most popular bodies of contemporary cinematic work. It may well be art but it is also entertainment, a tragedy and a comedy, a reflection of the self as much as wider society.

Timothy William Burton was born in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank. His father, Bill, who had nearly become a professional baseball player, worked at the Burbank Parks and Recreation department while his mother, Jean, ran a shop that sold a range of items associated with cats either through purpose or motif. While seemingly having a normal life, at the age of 12 Burton left his parents and younger brother, Daniel, in order to live with his grandmother. By his own admission, Burton was an introverted, destructive child – he would try to convince the boy next door that an alien invasion had begun or would tear the heads of his toy soldiers. At 16, he had moved out once again and lived alone in a small flat above a garage his grandmother owned, earning his rent by working in a restaurant after school. Throughout his childhood, Burton found a particular attraction to both film and television – The Prisoner, Gilligan’s Island, Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, King Kong, Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Godzilla all dominated his choice of viewing.

From this brief biographical sketch, the comparison between Burton and his on-screen alter egos is perhaps beginning to become apparent. This is most evident in the image of Edward Scissorhands – the tall, gangly boy with wild black hair who, without parents, lives alone above suburbia in an attic and who creates marvellous topiaries, is really no different to the tall, gangly, wild-haired Burton who lived alone and above suburbia in his grandmother’s flat. When he wasn’t at school or working Burton was drawing, creating images based upon his visual experiences and imagination. As one looks closer at Burton’s oeuvre the traces become more obvious – the attic is where the ghostly Maitlands live in Beetlejuice and, in the belfry, it is where the Joker confronts his maker, Batman; throughout most of his films the protagonist lives alone as their parents are dead (it is only recently that they have begun to appear alive – most poignantly in the reconciliation scene between Willy Wonka and his dentist father) and the narrative threat is (like King Kong and Godzilla) often monstrous and destructive.

All this may reasonably indicate a clear and sustained relationship between Burton’s life and his cinematic work, and Burton’s own reflections on his childhood both support and undermine this possibility: while Burton has indicated that he was perhaps considered strange by his peers he also notes that he did have friends and that, when alone, such a position allowed him to see the world from ‘an external point of view’: ‘That meant my perception of normality was strange. For me, reality is bizarre.’ Burton did not feel that this isolation was abnormal, stating: ‘Every time I looked around… it looked like everyone had their own private world… They were in their own special worlds.’ (Smith & Matthews, Tim Burton) For Burton, being alone, isolated and alienated was just part of growing up, an essential aspect that shapes your perspective on the world around you.

This idea of alienation shaping a persona’s interaction with the world is evident in Burton’s protagonists: the animated Vincent Malloy channels the everyday world through his imagination and transforms it into a tragic rendering of Poe’s work; Lydia Deitz would rather be dead than endure her parents Technicolor world and so sides with the ghostly Maitlands; orphaned as a child, the young Bruce Wayne evolves into an isolated figure bent on revenge that he hopes will positively transform the world he is apart from; Edward’s experience in ‘normality’ not only highlights his difference but enhances his emotions and creativity; Jack Skellington’s desire to be Sandy Claws not only leads to chaos and destruction, but also to the realisation that he is better off doing what he does best – ruling the land of which he is king. The connections and parallels sustain themselves throughout Burton’s oeuvre to the extent that, in the end, perhaps Tim Burton’s films are a unified project because they are a repeated filmic attempt at a constructed and now expected self-portrait. The narratives, the images, the look and the sounds have all become moments in which the director’s past is not only repeatedly made present but in which it is repeatedly amplified. They come together to form an unfolding fictional text that seeks not to work out why but to celebrate why not, for in that fictional country it is far better to be on the outside, to be the alien who has the choice to remain without instead of being forced within.

James Rose

Me and My Rhythm Box: The Music of Liquid Sky

Liquid Sky

With a plosive stab of white noise, the music of Liquid Sky bursts onto the screen with the title card in the same stuttering neon as the visuals. Casiotones of synbrass and spaceflute match the synthetic apparel of the dancers in this garishly re-imagined Manhattan nightclub. The dancers flail their limbs wildly as a walking bassline trundles up and down its arpeggios, but the beat sounds more like a ticking bomb than a disco drum kit. This is New York in the early 80s, but we are certainly not in Studio 54, and neither are we down at CBGBs. This is some Other New York, caught somewhere between the cartoon concrète of Tod Dockstader and the acrylic club scene of Larry Tee.

When diminutive extra-terrestrials land on the roof of a Manhattan apartment, they discover that their best source of food is to be found in the endorphins released in human brains by heroin use and orgasm. Easy pickings among the smacked out fashionistas that strut through this aloofly debauched film, as strung out as it is plumed and primped. Russian emigré director Slava Tsukerman composed the music himself and steers it far away from anything we might expect either from space aliens or drug addicts. There is none of the louche lassitude of the Velvet Underground to these strange jarring noises.

Even notwithstanding that electronic music was by now long out of favour as a soundtrack to alien invasion (remember, in Close Encounters, it’s the humans who play synths – the aliens are represented by tubas and heavenly choirs), Tsukerman’s music here is very far from the kind of smooth whoops and whooshes that characterised SF movie music in the 50s and 60s. Far more crotched and rangy than the Barrons’ work on Forbidden Planet, Liquid Sky‘s score finds itself instead somewhere between the Manhattan Research projects of Raymond Scott and the QY20 sessions of the early Max Tundra. Less the bludgeoning porno-beats of electroclash – the musical genre of recent times most associated with the film – than a curiously childlike take on exomusicology: true sci-fi lullabies, advertising jingles for absurd products not yet invented.

Robert Barry

Essential Killing: Interview with Jerzy Skolimowski

Essential Killing

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 April 2011

Venues: tbc

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Writers: Jerzy Skolimowski, Ewa Piaskowska

Cast: Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner

Poland, Hungary, Ireland, Norway 2010

83 mins

After a 17-year break from filmmaking, the legendary Czech director Jerzy Skolimowski returned in 2008 with the intimate psychological thriller Four Nights with Anna. He has followed this up with Essential Killing, which opened the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival on March 24 and impressed audiences at the London Film Festival in October 2010. Starring Vincent Gallo as an unnamed Arabic-looking fighter, Essential Killing is an epic survival story set against a politically charged context.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Jerzy Skolimowski during last year’s London Film Festival and asked him about working with Vincent Gallo, making political films and his interest in outsiders.

VS: Essential Killing is more ambitious than Four Nights with Anna. What made you want to make such a film after Anna?

JS: The shortest answer is that it’s because I’m lazy, which is only half a joke. I managed to make Four Nights with Anna all around my house. I live in a part of Poland called Masuria, which is a district of lakes and forest. It was very convenient and a great comfort to sleep in my bed, and to not be driven for hours to the locations and stay in terrible hotels. I was looking for the possibility of repeating the same formula. I was aware that in my neighbourhood, about 15 miles from my forest, was the secret military airport called Szymany, where the rumour (which is by now nearly 100% confirmed) said that they let the CIA planes land, bringing Middle Eastern prisoners, who were then taken to secret sites and most likely tortured. But I wasn’t paying any attention to that because it’s a highly political subject and I stay away from politics. I burned my fingers with Hands Up, this anti-Stalinist film I made many years ago [in 1967], which practically ruined my life. I was expelled from Poland, but anyway, it’s a long story!

One winter night, I was driving my car – it’s a very good car, a four-wheel drive – I swerved off the road and I stopped at the last moment before rolling over down the slope, which would have had tragic consequences. At that moment, I realised that I was just next to the airport. On that very road, at that very same place, those military convoys must have been passing, so I thought that if it could happen to me it could happen to them. At that moment I imagined a military van going down the slope, a prisoner is thrown out and escapes, and I saw the image of the man barefoot with shackles on his feet and hands in the light of the road, in -30&#176C, running away in the forest. And I thought, yes, this is my film. Forget the politics, I can squeeze it into the introduction in the most enigmatic way possible, and then I have my film of the man who is running away and turning into a wild animal, who has to kill in order to survive. And I thought, this is a film I can shoot from my house. But the project got bigger and bigger, and we had to get a Norwegian partner to have guaranteed snow. Winter in Poland is not always snowy.

So the snow scenes were all shot in Norway?

No, it was a snowy winter in Poland after all, so a good part of it was shot there, a good part was shot in Norway, and the Middle East scenes were shot in Israel.

There are no indications as to where exactly the story is set. Why did you leave the locations undefined?

Because in my opinion it’s a very universal story, and it doesn’t matter where it takes place. What matters are the circumstances in which this man is running away. And because he doesn’t know where he is, I don’t think the audience should know. Let them feel what he feels – where the hell is this, where am I? You barely hear the language that people speak. It is Polish, but for the international audience it could sound Russian, or Ukrainian, or Lithuanian.

Do you feel it’s a political film?

Of course, to a certain extent it is. But we don’t even know where we are at the beginning either – it could be Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, next to the border. We only see that there is the American army on one side and some guy in a turban, who does not even look Arabic. So we don’t know if he’s Taliban, al-Qaeda, if he’s just an innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all this doesn’t matter. This is not a documentary. I’m not saying, look at how Americans treat people. No, it’s a fiction, it’s a contemporary macabre tale of our world.

The film seems to be about what it’s like to be a human being in extreme conditions, and of course, it’s interesting that you chose someone who looks like an ‘enemy’ of the West.

What is more interesting is that we don’t know if the character played by Vincent Gallo is even an Arab. He could be an American or a European who has converted to Islam, went to an Arab country 10 or 20 years ago, started working there, got a Muslim wife and a child. But he doesn’t need to be involved in politics at all. We know he’s involved in religion from the bits and pieces that go through his mind. But they were precisely chosen so they don’t indicate anything. I put a lot of effort into making them as wide and ambiguous as possible.

Does the title refer to Gallo’s character’s necessary killing in order to survive or could it mean ‘the essence of killing’?

It works both ways, and actually ‘The Essence of Killing’ was the alternative title, and at the last moment I chose Essential Killing.

How did Vincent Gallo get involved in the film?

That was a nice coincidence. Last year, I arrived in Cannes for the beginning of the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, which opened with Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro. Before I went to see the film I met my friend Jeremy Thomas, with whom I made The Shout years ago [1978]. I’d sent him the script for Essential Killing just four days before for advice. Jeremy said, ‘Listen, it’s a wonderful script and if you cast it right, if you get so-called names, you will have a great chance to get out of the art-house ghetto’. Those were the words he said. So I went to see Tetro in the evening, I liked the film, I liked Gallo’s performance in it, and when the film ended I saw Gallo coming towards me. We’ve known each other socially for years, we even acted together in a movie, LA without Map, by Mika Kaurismä;ki. As he was approaching I noticed a certain animalistic quality in how he was walking, and I was thinking that quality would be good for the character in my film. So I stopped him and I said, ‘Vincent, I have a script that I’d like you to read’. Two hours later, he called me. He said, ‘This is a phenomenal script, I must do it. I love to run barefoot in the snow, I’m from Buffalo, it’s always so cold’. So I thought, right, maybe he’s exaggerating a little bit, but I said, ‘It’s May now, we’ll start shooting in the winter. If you’re serious, then start growing a beard’. And he did. And six months later we did it, and he had long hair and a long beard.

He gives a fantastic performance in the film.

Phenomenal. I cannot imagine anybody else being better in that role. It’s really an ‘Academy Award’ performance.

What struck me also about the film are the landscapes, first the deserts, then the snow. There’s a real interest in nature. Is that a new thing for you?

Well, all my life I’ve lived in the forest. It’s a really wild forest. Almost every day I see wild animals, deer or boars. I enjoy that. All my life, except maybe the 25 years I spent in California, I’ve spent in the open space. I like living in a wild forest. I withdraw from civilisation and very much into nature.

What interested you in the scenery?

The relationship between man and the landscape. And the story calls for it. It’s very natural, he runs, and runs, and he passes picturesque locations. And the process of him turning into an animal and being connected to the animals at the same time. That was really fascinating.

There’s very little dialogue, and the film seems concerned with non-verbal communication, which culminates in the scene with Emmanuelle Seigner’s mute character towards the end.

That was one of the most important themes in the film. If there is communication it’s not through language, it’s something else, the spirit of mercy or whatever you want to call it.

Another thing that struck me about the film was its intense physicality, and it’s something that recurs in your films. Is that a conscious thing?

It is conscious. It’s also connected with the fact that I avoid dialogue. There is too much talking in films. Cinema is moving pictures, it has to have movement, actual physical activity. Even if a film has good dialogue, I think, all right, it’s well written, nicely acted, but yadda yadda yadda… So I try and do something different.

Your first film, Identifications Marks: None, focused on a deserter, who in the end joins the army. Do you have a particular interest in soldiers and deserters? Do you feel there is a connection between that film and Essential Killing?

Obviously I’m interested in outsiders, and practically all the characters in my films are outsiders, which is a little bit of a self-portrait. I stay away from people, I don’t go to film openings, parties, etc., it’s a little bit like torture for me. Of course when it comes to my own films I do it for promotion because it’s part of the job, but I stay away from it as much as possible. And Vincent Gallo is an outsider too, an extreme one.

What has been the response to the film? Has anyone commented on the fact that we’re led to identify with someone who may be a Taliban or al-Qaeda fighter?

Some critics cleverly got the message that it doesn’t matter. Those who didn’t thought that maybe the film should point out more where we are and what it’s all about. They don’t get the universal meaning of the story, they want the facts, which I purposefully avoided.

In a previous interview with Electric Sheep you explained that in painting you felt you didn’t have to make any compromises and that you were making pure creative art. Did you feel you had total creative control on Essential Killing?

Oh yes. Same as with Four Nights with Anna. With those two films I was also my own producer, so it was much easier to control everything. I took a 17-year break from filmmaking because I was very unhappy with a couple of films that I’d made before and I promised to myself that if I returned to filmmaking I would never, ever make another average film. It had to be something special and unique, and I think I’ve kept my promise!

Interview by Virginie Sélavy