We are pleased to make available an extract from ‘Nicoletta Elmi: Italian Horror’s Imp Ascendent’ by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Craig Martin, published in Kid Power!. Edited by Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe it is the first book published by Spectacular Optical Publications and includes articles on Celia and Chocky, and an interview with John and Paul Hough among many others.
A great addition to the pantheon of cinematic monsters, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook has been creeping out festival audiences around the world, and with good reason. The story of a grieving mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), and her troubled son Sam (Noah Wiseman), it is a startlingly original debut imbued with great emotional depth and nuance that is able to both scare and move. One night, Amelia and Sam read a strange book before bedtime, in all appearances a children’s tale about a sinister creature called the Babadook, which has mysteriously appeared in their home. But in doing so they unleash a monster that they will both be forced to fight.
The Babadook is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 16 February 2015 by Icon Distribution.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Jennifer Kent about creating a monster, facing the shadows and partial resolutions.
Virginie Sélavy: You’ve invented a great new monster, which is not an easy thing to do. What was the inspiration for the Babadook?
Jennifer Kent: I would say it’s Amelia. Everything started with her. Every element of that entity or energy, or whatever you want to call it, is based on what she’s suppressed, so the focus was really on her first. And then all the physical elements of it started to creep in, things that scare me. I really hate cockroaches, we have big ones in Australia, and they fly when you’re not expecting it, so that frightens me. And I also based it on what I like, early silent horror, early silent films, and Georges Méliès obviously makes an appearance. I’m very inspired by the beautiful handmade nature of these early films, I think they were very theatrical and really something extraordinary. The Babadook is really two layers. The top layer is what you see in the book, it’s that kind of strange-looking male figure. But that’s only the top part, it’s like something quite evil is playing at being human. And what’s underneath is something nebulous and far more sinister.
You say that the monster comes from Amelia, but watching the film, it also feels like it’s something that both mother and son create together.
Yes, I think that’s very true. Take one of them out of the picture and this thing couldn’t have come to life. I think that they both created it, just through their dynamic, and although that’s the case, that it’s Amelia’s monster, it’s certainly taken both of them to bring it to fruition.
How did you work with Alexander Juhasz on the art for the book?
For me the whole film really rested on that book, and not just in terms of story – it’s like a pop-up film. So it was really important for us to get that book right. We were looking at a number of Australian illustrators, and I kept referencing Alex, saying to my producer, we need something like this, and then I just said, ‘Why don’t we just ask him?’ And we did, and he lives in America, he’d never been to Australia. Six months before we started shooting, we took all the core crew away for the weekend, and I talked about the film and I showed them all the films that inspired me. Then he and I got to work on the book pretty quickly after that. I would show Alex my crappy stick drawings and try to describe what was in my head. A lot of illustrators do their own thing, but Alex is very original and inventive and he took directions very well. So what we ended up with was really what was in my head.
Many people would like to see the book printed. How do you feel about that?
Actually, Mister Babadook and I are secretly working on that at the moment. I’ve written a standalone book and it contains the pages and the story from the book, but it goes a little bit further, and we’re really excited about that. So that’s our next little Babadook adventure.
I know a lot of people will be very excited to hear this.
Great! I was adamant that I would never make ‘Babadook 2’. I’m such a purist, so it was, no merchandise, that’s it, nothing. People were joking, ‘What about Babadook trainers?’ And I’d tell them no way. And the only thing I wanted to make was that book, and I think it could be really special for people to own their own Babadook book.
Did you set out to make a horror film, or is it just the way you had to tell this story?
I really think it’s the latter. I’m quite bemused, actually, by the need to place it in a box. I understand that films are marketed via a certain genre. But it would be a shame if people who would love this film don’t get to see it because they say they hate horror. With this I focused on the story of Amelia and her boy. That for me was the entry point. And not just their relationship, but the need to face our shadow side and how important it is in life. And to do that is scary. So it made sense that the world of the film would be one full of fear and terror. I wanted the film to be true to those emotions, so horror was the most logical place for it.
The film is like a dark fairy tale and, like the best fairy tales, it is both very creepy and deeply resonant emotionally.
I love fairy tales, traditional folk tales resonate with us, they’re universal. I wanted this story to be universal, I didn’t want it to appeal just to people who live in Adelaide. For me this film could be happening anywhere. And I think fairy tales and myths have that power, to connect with what it is to be human.
Why did you decide to focus on a mother?
I think it wasn’t an intellectual choice, it was just this need to face the shadows. And Amelia doesn’t. She starts the film as far away from that darkness as she possibly can. But it’s at the point where she’s got to face it or something terrible is going to happen. And it always felt right to see it through her eyes. Early on people said it should be about the boy, but it really was never about the boy. Of course he’s really important, but the point in adding Sam was that, when you suppress things, you don’t only hurt yourself, you hurt everyone around you. And I thought, who would be that person close to her? And it made sense that it was a young child. Even when she goes to some really dark places, I still tried to keep it within her point of view as much as possible, so that people would not sit back with their arms folded and judge her, but they’d actually travel through that experience with her.
The great thing about the film is that you end up identifying with both of them at various points, sometimes simultaneously.
Some people have said, ‘That kid is so annoying’, and I say, ‘Good’! That’s deliberate, he needs to be. We need to feel for her, how hard it is. And I think it does flip, your sympathy lies with both of them, that was my aim, and I’m really happy to hear that that’s how you felt about it.
Through the figure of the monster, the child seems able to understand what’s going on with his mother a lot better than the adults around them.
Absolutely. For me he’s the hero of the film, and I don’t underestimate the strength that children have, and their intuition, and their connection with something other than the mundane world. And it’s him that first sees this. He feels that energy that’s coming. And he’s trying at all costs to protect his mother, but he’s six years old, so he’s not able to do this, and ultimately it’s her choice. She needs to face up or pay the price of not doing so.
The end is very nuanced and unconventional. Did you always know it would end that way?
Yes I did. It is unusual but it’s very much how I feel about life. I couldn’t have written it any other way. We had offers to finance the film if we changed the ending. And that was non-negotiable for me. Because darkness is not something that you throw away, and then life starts and you’re all happy. Darkness is a part of life. And it needs to be integrated.
It’s a very brave and interesting way of finishing the film, because it’s neither totally reassuring, nor totally dark.
It pisses some people off, but I think, OK, fine, it’s good! It isn’t the usual way to end a horror, definitely not. It’s a partial resolution, a negotiation that’s begun, but we never really arrive at an ending. If you go through what she did, how can life become exactly the same again? It can’t. You wear that with you for the rest of your life.
As an actress, did you consider playing the character of Amelia?
No way, that would be my own horror film! I have no interest in acting anymore, none whatsoever, and I haven’t in a long time. I love doing what I’m doing. And I think all those years of acting have given me enormous compassion for actors. And it’s given me a lot of feeling reading them and instinctively knowing what they need, and pushing them when they need to be pushed. For example, I could never have done that work with Noah, directing that little boy, without my acting experience. So even though I have no desire to do it I’m very grateful for my ability to act and understand what it is from the inside.
It definitely pays off. Both Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman give incredible performances.
Without sounding too schmaltzy I think a director should really love their actors. Can you imagine Essie, what she had to go through to do that performance? It was my job to take care of her, and make sure she didn’t look foolish, and make sure she could be as brave and horrible as that woman is at times. I have enormous respect for actors.
Most of the action takes place in the house, and it becomes a sort of mental space where past traumas have to be resolved.
The most wonderful scary films that I can think of, like The Innocents, The Tenant, or Rosemary’s Baby, the environment they play out in are all extensions of the characters’ mental space. Even The Shining. And it doesn’t need to go anywhere else. Gradually the film becomes just the house. But the house is alive, it’s a reflection, an extension of what’s going on for Amelia – and for Sam, but mostly for Amelia.
The atmosphere of the house is also determined by the work on colours. They are all very muted. How important was that for you and how did you work on creating that atmosphere?
I really needed a world for this film, and the biggest thing I love about cinema is that you can create such complete worlds. I knew that this was not social realism. I knew that for this monster to spring out and to be believable, it needed to be captured in a world that reflected it and that wasn’t something that felt naturalistic. So I wanted things to feel grounded in reality but for them not look modern. I worked really closely with our wonderful production designer Alexander Holmes, and we created an aesthetic that wasn’t quite black and white, but the colour palette was really reduced, so we had just blue and burgundy and then black through to white. I was really stubborn about that and I think I drove Alex a bit mad in the beginning. I didn’t want to put filters on the lens or gel on the lights, so we did it all in camera. And he’d be like, ‘Can’t we just put this brown cupboard in?’ And I’d say, ‘No it’s brown!’ When we saw the finished effect, we were really happy because there’s a cohesiveness through everything in terms of colour. It felt right for the world to feel quite cold. It was deliberate, and it creates, for me anyway, a fugue state, a dream state.
In keeping with this, your filmmaking style is very unshowy, elegant and restrained.
Yes, I’m not so much into flashy. I wanted it to look beautiful. Early silent horror and 1930s horror really appeal to me. It has this elegance and beauty. And even 70s horror, John Carpenter, Halloween and The Thing are very elegant films, they’re very sparse, they’re not crowded aesthetically, they’re really strange. And I love that.
The special effects are also very simple.
I was really adamant that I wanted handmade-looking special effects. The reason for that is the world needed to reflect the nature of the book, and the book is this pop-up, handmade-looking thing. So I wanted the effects to look like that, because that’s where the Babadook springs from. So it’s not like, if we could, we would have done CGI, not at all. I really wanted the effects to be stop motion and in camera. Everything, I’m proud to say, is in camera, and of course we did do some smoothing in post-production.
It’s interesting that you started by being reluctant to categorise the film as horror but throughout the interview all your references are horror films. It seems that it is a territory that you like working in.
I absolutely do. And I can’t deny my inspiration. Unfortunately the ‘horror’ word is reductive for many people, and on the other hand when you say ‘horror’ you have this large subculture who cross their arms and say, ‘OK, scare me’. And I’m not interested in that. What I find most satisfying is when people come up to me after the film, like this one guy who had lost both his parents before the age of 15, and he said, ‘That was the most moving study of grief for me’. I’ve had people in tears after the film and that means so much to me, much more than people saying, ‘It was really scary’. I like that too, but it’s not my entire focus.
What’s your next project? Are you going to carry on working in the sort of horror area?
I have two film projects. What is more appealing to me is creating a unique world from an idea. So the film that I’m working on at the moment is set in Tasmania in the 1820s. Tasmania is an island at the base of Australia and it was considered hell on earth in that time. It’s a story of revenge, portrayed through the eyes of a female convict, and I’m exploring how futile revenge is, and what the other options are. So it’s a horror world, certainly, but it’s not what most people call a horror film. I let the ideas dictate the forms the story needs to come alive.
Following on from the short films they made to accompany the albums of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have continued their working relationship with Nick Cave with 20,000 Days on Earth, a beguiling, artistic and highly spirited look at the life and work of a man who, celebrated as a musician, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer and occasional film actor, never seems to rest. Through a vivid collection of memories, archive materials and conversations with those who have affected and inspired him, both professionally and personally, the film revolves around Cave’s very personal views on the world in general and his everyday life and creative process in particular.
Pamela Jahn caught up with the filmmakers at the Berlinale in February 2014 to talk about their relationship with Nick Cave, the magic about emotional truth and why you should never mess with somebody else’s mojo.
Do you remember the first time you heard a Nick Cave song?
Jane Pollard: I do! Mine was actually track four on the first compilation tape that Iain made for me. It was ‘Slowly Goes the Night’. But back then, I didn’t know who Nick was. I thought that he was more from the kind of Elvis era because he had this phenomenal gravel in his voice… an amazing voice. I immediately picked up on that song. Then I bought the record and became just as obsessed with it as Iain already was.
Iain Forsyth: I don’t remember a particular moment. But I remember that the first album I knew was The Good Son and that I was astonished by the range of styles, I suppose, because with most of the bands I was listening to at the time, every one of their records was just another version of the same thing, which was great in a way because I loved it all. But to listen to somebody who can change so much and be so interesting in such a short space of time was very memorable.
The 20,000 Days on Earth DVD and Blu-ray are packed with over 45 minutes of extra material including a making of, several outtakes, exclusive rehearsal performances and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds with Kylie Minogue performing ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ live for the first time in 15 years.
What was the most difficult thing about shooting and interviewing a friend?
JP: This film couldn’t have been made without the friendship already being in place. But there were times where we needed to get out of his way. We couldn’t be in his line of vision because he’d let himself get so comfortable, like when he’s talking to the analyst or in that scene in the archive, for example. If we hadn’t stepped aside he would have started including us in the conversation because he is used to talking to us. But it wasn’t that hard actually. There was a mutual understanding that either of us would have to walk away from this if at any point it wasn’t working, or if it was just average. It had to be good and it had to be different. And it couldn’t have happened without that level of trust. And without that patience. He’s not a very patient man, but he gave us a lot (laughs).
Did you discuss beforehand how close you could come, or how much of his private life could be revealed in the film?
IF: There were no lines drawn. The amazing thing for me is that, now that I am sitting here looking at what we have done, the Nick I see in the film is the Nick I know. I mean, Nick has been doing what he is doing for over 35 years and there is so much stuff about him out there already, but I never particularly recognised him in those things. In the film I do.
JP: He didn’t have to check himself, because he knew that if, at any point, he had said, ‘Oh, you know, that thing I said about so and so, I don’t want you to use it’, then we would have just not used it, full stop. But we needed him to know that about our crew as well, that he was in a safe environment. And when he talks about his father, for example, we chose to use very little. We decided to leave it as an open question, so that you could make up your own mind about the ramifications a loss of that importance has on somebody. That was a very deliberate decision in the editing process. He actually did talk a lot about his father over those two days, but we didn’t want the film to offer itself up to psychoanalysis. We thought it was more interesting that you watched him and understood through all of this – like his relationship to his children, or his reliance on, and closeness with, male collaborators from Roland Howard to Blixa and Warren Ellis – how much of an impact that loss had on him.
Was Nick Cave involved in the narrative structure of the film?
IF: No, we deliberately kept Nick away from that, in as much as he himself was quite keen to keep himself away from it, because he was very conscious about not getting involved with making the film. In fact, as the project became more and more structured and inevitably more people became involved, one of his big concerns was always, ‘Are you keeping control? Is this still your film?’
JP: And Nick would say that ‘you don’t mess with somebody else’s mojo’. So as an artist, he gets that, he knows that you have to feel that it is your voice making this thing. It’s the same with how an album comes together. It’s about a feeling, an instinct, about being in the moment or ‘mojo’, as he calls it.
Part of the allure comes from his striking voice-over, which almost feels like another composition of his. Was that scripted or is that something you developed together as you were going along?
IP: Nothing was scripted. There was no set structure. But the voice-over was written by Nick, mostly while he was on tour. While we were going through his notebooks and stuff, we got to the point where we thought it would be great to have some of that background information in the film, like why he lives in Brighton and so on. So we would call Nick and he would write something and show it to us. And when it got to a stage that Nick felt it was right, he would record it on his phone and we’d use it as a guide in the edit. The thing is though, that Nick is not an actor. He’s done a couple of things before, but if you’ve seen those films, you know he’s not an actor. So we wanted to avoid giving him the feeling that he would have to play a certain part, or imposing another ‘act’ upon him as it were. We just wanted him to be Nick.
In the press conference you mentioned your theory about the truth not being the most interesting thing, meaning that sometimes you have to create a fake situation to create something that is really true.
JP: Oh, thank you for picking up on that. This is something that carries through our art practice on the whole. Some of our earliest works was a re-enactment of the last David Bowie show as Ziggy Stardust, with a fake band, fake costumes, everything, down to the last detail. And we had this theory as young art students that somehow through the most crazy, artificial environment, to the extent of re-enacted situations, there is a democracy of that experience that allows the viewer to have a new emotion. In the way that, say, you go and see a gig for the first time and often in that moment you think about really mundane everyday stuff, like what you should have for dinner, or that your shoes are hurting and that you are stood behind the tallest bloke in the room. But then that gig becomes legendary, it becomes the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, but you weren’t in that room thinking that, ‘one day, that gig will become legendary’, you were there thinking, ‘shit, I am stood behind the tall bloke again’. So in other words, when you know you are in a situation and you know the guy who looks a bit like Ziggy Stardust is coming on stage and he is going to play, note for note, the entire set, there is a freeing from within that happens. We have experimented with this in our art work for years, so when we came to do the film, it was those theories that we brought to filmmaking rather than trying to adopt known techniques in directing. We wanted to try and use the theories and experiences we had beforehand, and we were very lucky to find a crew who were willing to work with us on that basis. For example, we only ever did one take, because otherwise it would have been like asking Nick to act and that’s when self-awareness kicks in, and we wanted to avoid that. The takes usually last for about an hour or two, without intervention. Endurance becomes very important. The crew has to back off, and we often use cloths or put cameras behind things. Because as artificial and constructed as the situation may be, the heart of it is still a real experience for Nick. And there is still something in there, a bit of reality, that he can crap on to and you get this lovely truth out of this, a sort of emotional truth. Because we are not interested in factual truth, but emotional truth, hell yes!
How many hours of material did you end up with before starting the editing?
IF: (laughs) All I can say is that I am glad we didn’t shoot on 35mm.
After all these years of friendship and working together, what is it that still fascinates you about Nick Cave?
JP: The feeling that we want you to get from watching the film. That is it. And I’m still fumbling around trying to find an eloquent way of articulating it. It’s a feeling that you only have a very limited amount of time and you should bother to see through ideas. If you have any ambitions or thoughts, that you should get on and do them. And that’s what it is like to be his friend, at least that’s the biggest impact he’s had, and still has, on us. He’s just so impressive, his discipline and the fact that he’s so progressive and ruthless with his work. He works hard, his schedule is mad. And you come away feeling… not inspired that you want to be like Nick Cave, but that you want to work like Nick Cave. You want to work that hard, and think in a forward direction, and not look back, and never rest on your laurels, and raise the bar, because that’s what he is doing and he does it with every single album they put out – constant progression.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Viilbjørk Mallin Agger, Ghita Nørby
Argentina, USA, Netherlands 2014
With its painterly rendering of times past (aptly framed in a vintage 4:3 ratio), and reliance on the uniqueness of its characters instead of a dense script, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is an austere affair. Set in 1882, the sparse narrative follows a Danish army captain (Viggo Mortensen) on his journey through the desolate expanses of Patagonia in search of his eloped daughter (Mallin Agger). Few words are spoken as faces full of aspiration, anger and despair gaze out across the intensely beautiful landscape; a harsh, elusive landscape in a world that appears to be as magical as it is threatening. Elaborately choreographed, hauntingly scored and channelling the transcendental work of Jodorowsky, Tarkovsky and Kubrick, Jauja is very much a film that demands your attention from the outset, and pays dividends as it reaches its mysterious, otherworldly conclusion.
Pamela Jahn spoke with leading actor Viggo Mortensen, who also co-produced the film, at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014, where Jauja premiered in the Un Certain Regard section.
Pamela Jahn: In addition to taking the lead in Jauja, you also acted as a producer and co-composed its original score. What made you want to get involved in the film on so many different levels?
Viggo Mortensen: On a purely personal level, the project seemed very appealing from the start, because I am doing a movie in Danish – finally. But I am also speaking Spanish with an accent like my father’s, whereas the Danish sounds more like my grandfather’s, more old-fashioned, which was fun. And those landscapes you see in the film, I know them from when I was a boy in Argentina. That’s where I learned to ride horses and so on, which was a bit strange but intriguing at the time, because it brought back lots of memories: the place, the smell, the landscape, the weather – all this was very familiar. But the real challenge was that I am playing a man who is in a place that feels very strange to him and he doesn’t like it very much. He’s looking forward to going back to Denmark soon, but then his daughter goes missing and he sets out to find her.
Did you know Lisandro Alonso’s work before you got on board?
I had seen all but one of his films before we started working together on this project, and the one film that I liked in particular was Los Muertos. There is something in that story in terms of the visual poetry and his use of time, the simplicity of his shot selection… all that reminded me of Tarkovsky’s movies, which I like a lot. Not just him, but it was that specific director that I thought of when I watched Lisandro’s films. And I really liked the idea that he initially proposed together with Fabian [Casas, screenwriter], which we then worked on together to get the Danish elements of it correct, and to make sure it’s specific. If you want something existential and universal too, you need to be specific and detailed, you need to give it weight. As an actor, the more specific you are, the more you can make a leap. And personally, I like to tell stories that at least have a chance to be really interesting movies, whether they are big budget or low budget. That doesn’t really matter to me, because the relationship with the camera, with the director and the crew is always the same. It’s the same job to prepare, the same job to shoot, it takes the same time and, in the end, you have to promote it, so you might as well do something you like. Something you want to go see in the cinema yourself. That’s more or less how I guide myself: I am looking for projects that I can still learn from and that I might want to see myself. It doesn’t always work, of course, but at least you have a good blueprint.
You mentioned the landscape, which looks somewhat artificial but breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. Did you get involved in the ‘look’ of the film, too?
I am a photographer myself and I could see that we were using certain lights that we didn’t need to use, but that was Lisandro’s idea, because he wanted to shoot it in this old-school, artificial way, almost like they did in old Westerns. There is something really appealing about that. But what I liked about it the most was that [the cinematographer] Timo Salminen, who is originally from Finland and had never been to Argentina, had more of a Nordic look at the landscape, which fits in well with the characters – it’s very different to the way an Argentine photographer would have shot it. But it’s not just the lighting, it’s the framing also. So you have two different angles, really: the look is sometimes hard and strange, which could be the father’s point of view, who never really accepts being in this landscape; for him it’s just a job and he regrets even being there. But it’s also at times incredibly beautiful, and that’s more like the daughter’s point of view, because she loves it there.
How did you approach your character? Who is Gunnar Dinesen and what is he to you?
There are things in the film that I suggested we should do when I was reading the book. I am someone who, until recently, has lived in the woods and who is very happy being and living in wild places. Part of the reason why I was comfortable doing this movie with Lisandro was because there were certain elements, even from a different character’s point of view, that I am familiar with, although my character is actually quite clumsy. Dinesen is a surveyor and scientist, very northern European, very rational, everything has to have a logical explanation. But then he is also a guy who wears a sword and boots with heels and furs while walking through rocks, which is ridiculous – a bit like Don Quixote. Don Quixote is also both serious and specific. And in that way my character is very determined – like if you are going to do a job, you might as well do it correctly, and in a timely fashion. And if someone says, ‘Well, we’re having tea at 4.30pm on Tuesday’, you say, ‘Well, I’ll be there’. But it’s Argentina, so whoever you were going to meet might turn up on Wednesday, or maybe he doesn’t.
The film has a very dreamy feel to it, much like a mind’s landscape, a travel through space and time.
Exactly, and that’s the beauty about it. Lisandro makes these leaps, which most directors would not be able to make, but he makes you feel that they are organic. Suddenly it’s dark, suddenly there is an electric guitar, suddenly there is a cave… and somehow he makes that work, he makes you believe it because he grounds it in details, in real behaviour. Like my character, who is always trying to find a logic within everything. His evolution lies in the very fact that, by the end of the film, he is asking that question: ‘What makes a life function and move forward?’ And he says: ‘I don’t know’, and smiles. He accepts that he cannot control it. It’s almost a relief for him to realise that you cannot understand everything. And at the end of this movie, it’s the same for you. You don’t know if it was all just a dream, and if so, whose dream? The dream of a young girl in Denmark today? Or, the dream of some strange captain? Or, it could be very much the dream of a dog or of a wooden soldier. But luckily, it doesn’t matter.
What’s your guess? Whose dream is it for you?
Often I tend to think that it’s the girl’s dream, but I don’t know. And again, it doesn’t matter. If you pick one option, then you are stuck in a linear thinking, just like Dinesen. So even though I lean towards that, next time I watch the film, it’s different and it makes me smile. It’s a rare movie in the sense that it reveals more layers, more humour every time you look at it. For example, Dinesen is a spectator, he is constantly trying to make sense of what the hell is going on. He’s not really in love with the landscape, he’s just practical. And he gets lost, so by the end, he doesn’t know what else to do, he just keeps going. But is he still looking for his daughter? Probably. Whatever it is, he keeps looking.
But he finds ‘Jauja’.
And that’s interesting because Jauja is not a place, it’s more than that, it’s an idea. It’s an impossible idea or feeling of contentment, satisfaction, tranquillity. It could be anything and, trust me, in Spanish it’s a weird word too. It’s a word that comes from the Arabic and in the old Arabic it meant something like a doorway or a passageway, like a transition.
That idea of transition is also intensified by the music, which is very peculiar. How did you get involved with the score?
If you know Lisandro, you know that he doesn’t usually use music in his films, but suddenly you hear this electric guitar and organs and piano notes and you are like, wow. But it’s not like, wow, that’s wrong – it’s great. It’s another one of these jumps he takes, but it comes from an organic, sincere place that’s not saying ‘look at me’ as a director. It’s not pretentious. He said to me: ‘I want this transition, where one time in space is going to start twisting things a bit for the character and for the audience. And I think I want to try and use music in that moment when you go to sleep that night under the stars, so if you have any ideas then let me know’.’ And I said: ‘Well, there is that guitar player I know who I have also worked with. Some of it is very harsh but some of it is more lyrical.’ So I sent him some pieces and he chose those two, which you hear in the film. And that moment of music works really well, I think, because of the way it pushes you into another space. Do you think your involvement as a producer and actor will help the film find a bigger audience?
I hope so. I do think it is a big jump for Lisandro creatively, in terms of narrative through line, and photography – on a lot of levels. It’s a more sophisticated type of filmmaking. I did it because I liked it, but the reason why I got involved as a producer is because I wanted to help him get a bigger audience because he really deserves it.
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Allen Danzinger, Paul A. Partain, Gunnar Hansen
During the pre-production of ‘Leatherface’, a horror film script by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, the production manager, Ron Bozman, was away in Houston playing poker, and he pitched the idea around the table. One of the players suggested an alternative name – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCM). A classic was born.
2014 sees the 40th anniversary of its release. The title alone is a work of art, but it’s the way the film transcended traditional notions of the genre and threw us headlong into a terrifying nihilistic attack on the American dream that secured its longevity.
The story is simple. Five hippie kids (Sally Hardesty, Franklin Hardesty, Kirk, Pam and Jerry) visiting their grandfather’s long forgotten, dilapidated house in rural Texas are terrorised by a grave-robbing family of cannibals (Old Man, Hitchhiker, Leatherface and Grandpa).
The 40th anniversary restoration of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is released in the UK on Blu-ray by Second Sight on 17 November 2014. The two-disc limited edition Steelbook Blu-ray is packed with new bonus features, including a new audio commentary by Tobe Hooper.
Watching the ‘making of’ documentary The Shocking Truth I was amazed by the accidental way in which the armadillo spinning in the road in the opening moments ended up in TCM. The script version doesn’t mention it. Instead, it has the rotting carcass of a dog baking in the hot sun before the camper van zooms by. There is also no mention of the grave-robbing or the freeze-frame flash of the camera showing us the gruesome sculptures Hitchhiker left behind. Intrigued, I decided to explore some of the key moments of the screenplay to see how what Hooper and Henkel (H&H) wrote on the page shaped the film.
H&H’s first draft of ‘Leatherface’ was a whopping 160 pages. This was reduced to 103 by the time it went into production. Roughly speaking one page of script equals one minute of screen time. TCM is a short film, clocking in at only 83 minutes. The main reason for this is that only half of the first 40 pages actually ended up on the screen: much pointless, hippy dippy dialogue about the zodiac and unnecessary exposition were thankfully dropped.
When academic Carol J. Glover dared to watch TCM in 1985 she wrote in the introduction of her book Men, Women and Chainsaws: ‘It jolted me into questioning for the first time the notion of the “male gaze” and its assumption of masculine.’ This is best illustrated by the way our hero, Sally Hardesty, is introduced in the script. First she is an archetype – ‘a beautiful blond girl’. Just another one of the five stereotypical young Americans in a camper van driving through Texas. Even wheelchair-bound Franklin is simply described as: ‘a young man in a wheelchair’. The only hint of his weight is the ‘sagging ramp to the ground’ when he exits the camper van for a pee.
When they leave the confines of the vehicle to wander around the cemetery she is quite definitely singled out on the page for her sex appeal. H&H wrote:
Sally is braless and her breasts bounce enticingly beneath the thin fabric of her t-shirt.
This exact image plays out on screen. With this shot, Hooper is able to make the camera, and therefore the audience, become the wandering eyes of the lusting rednecks in the graveyard.
Out on the highway we are introduced to Hitchhiker. This Charles Manson caricature is clearly a product of casting, because on the page H&H described him with curly carrot-coloured hair. His role in the screenplay is to point out the post-industrial wastelands that the city (represented by Sally and her friends) had left him and his family through the economic destruction of this rural community.
This exploration of the socio-political climate for horrific ends continues what The Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Last House on the Left (1972) had started. For decades the horror genre explored evil fantasy monsters or ghosts in far off places like Eastern Europe. But with America stuck in a war it couldn’t win, the liberal dream stabbed to death at Altamont and serial killers now becoming pop celebrities. George A. Romero and Wes Craven’s films invited audiences to look at the dark reality of their country. For Hooper, appalled by the atrocities of the Vietnam War, ‘man was the real monster’.
The initial appearance of Leatherface is as fleeting as it is shocking on the page. With the whirring ‘motor noise’ still rattling in the background the hapless Kirk wanders into the house. Our only worry at this stage is that the owners may catch him trespassing. He bounds inside, but trips up. As he gets to his feet H&H write themselves into the modern horror history books with the line:
Kirk catches a fleeting glimpse of a horrible leathery mask covering the face.
The first genuinely new horror icon of the post-war period is born. A couple of hammer blows later and Kirk is dead. This visceral moment ends abruptly and attention immediately switches to Pam. Naturally, she goes into the house to look for her man. H&H revel in spoiling us with terrifically gruesome scene descriptions that resurrect the spirit of Ed Gein’s domesticity. They tease out the gory details over three pages from this understated starting point:
As her eyes adjust she sees that the furniture is constructed of a combination of bone, metal, wood and some sort of thin leathery substance.
Each piece of the macabre decor magnifies Pam’s fear and trepidation. It’s uncomfortable because you’re watching and waiting to see someone die. On the page it’s a much slower, more gruelling experience as you pick your way through each piece of human bric-a-brac. There’s far more here than the camera has time to look at, but you get the sense they’re in the room nevertheless. When the killer finally reappears H&H reveal precisely what Leatherface looks like using Pam’s POV.
It is a close fitting hood rather than a mask, covering the entire head and slit to accommodate the ears. The face of the hood is human, but shrivelled and leathery. There is a throat piece which is tucked below the collar. Over his clothing the masked figure wears a black heavy apron.
Later, on the same page, they condense the description to christen him Leatherface at the very moment when he stuns Pam with a hammer. The formula is speeded up for Jerry’s more efficient death. The surprise of the first murder and the subsequent suspense in the run-up to the next two elevate the drama in the TCM screenplay above the purely exploitative graphic violence of Last House on the Left. This is because Hooper’s direction never lingers on the violent act. Like Craven he shocks you, but he’s never interested in the blood spilled by Leatherface. Although the screenplay revels in the blood lust of our killer, none of it made it on screen.
For example, we see:
With a squeal the masked figure lifts Pam high in the air and rushes her across the room. She feels a smooth warm prick and she is free, high in the air impaled on the brutal steel of a meat hook. Pam kicks weakly. Her eyes roll in their sockets, she tries to scream…
But we don’t see:
…but her throat fills with blood and she chokes and gags. Leatherface moves swiftly. He strips Kirk’s body of its remaining flesh, lifts it from the meat hook and lays it on a huge butchers block. Blood pours from Pam’s mouth. Her hands flutter weakly; her eyes have rolled back in her head and show only white. Leatherface draws the starter rope of a gasoline powered chain saw and it coughs then roars. Pam twitches faintly. She coughs and spews a bloody mist clouding the air. The chain saw changes pitch as it bites into Kirk’s flesh.
No doubt budget and time would have had an impact on Hooper’s directorial decisions. Certainly the introduction of the chainsaw is held back a little bit longer.
It’s night when Sally and Franklin decide to look for their missing friends. Up until this point, Franklin is her only antagonist in the film. His disability isn’t enough for H&H’s idea of drama. Instead they give us a pig-headed brother who resents having to leech off his sister and doesn’t mind letting her know with his constant whining. It’s not always clear on the page how annoying Franklin is being, but his performance never fails to show it. This may have had more to do with how Hooper treated his actors during the shoot. At SXSW in March 2014 Hooper said: ‘I would separate the actors and not let them socialize. Franklin, I would advise him and he went with it … to not change his clothes to get as sweaty as possible, to never have lunch with anybody else.’
At this crucial point in the film the screenplay is explicit about how tense Sally is becoming about their missing friends and how much of a burden a needy, wheelchair-bound brother is in this situation. She fights with Franklin for the flashlight and the right to search for everyone on her own. His role as Sally’s antagonist is never clearer than at this point:
Franklin guesses her intentions and is reluctant and deliberately stupid.
Here’s where Franklin begins to honk the horn and they discover the van keys are missing. They no longer have the choice of heading back to the gas station for help. Sally has to go looking for their missing friends. But her brother, ever the burden, goes after her and for the first time his disability actively becomes a problem for both of them.
Sally… I’m going too.
Sally moves rapidly away; she does not respond to Franklin.
Franklin is close behind, labouring desperately to keep up. His chair wobbles awkwardly and he has difficulty in steering.
Sally…. I can’t keep up.
Still Sally does not respond and Franklin begins to drop behind. She enters the forest; Franklin is desperate.
Rather than make you wait until they reach the house, H&H use the cloak of darkness to deliver a new, loud, visceral surprise. They wrote:
[Sally and Franklin] whirl to face the noise and see a massive, hulking figure roar down upon them wielding a chain saw. The ugly steel fangs of the saw flash in the moonlight and the waving beam of the flashlight.
It’s the first time Leatherface is paired with his signature weapon. In the script this is page 73 out of 103. Admittedly, it’s only around 50 minutes in on screen. Franklin is dispatched in seconds and Sally runs away screaming.
By killing Franklin, H&H invented ‘the final girl’ phenomenon.
Sally escapes to the Old Man’s service station via the house and through a forest. In the screenplay there is some traffic on the road that swerves around Sally as she ‘screams and pleads’ for them to stop. None of this made it into the film. I would argue that the presence of others at this stage would have severely weakened the end sequence.
Safe inside, and the threat of Leatherface seemingly gone, she soon discovers that her saviour is also part of the murderous clan.
The Old Man is carrying a gunny sack; his behaviour is strangely ominous. Sally senses something is amiss and looks more closely at him.
In the script the graveyard crimes from the opening segment of the film are used by the Old Man to chastise the Hitchhiker as they bring Sally into the house.
I told you to stay away from that graveyard.
Whereas on screen this line changes to:
I told you. I told you never leave your brother alone.
So what would appear to be big, important changes at the start of the film barely get another mention by the end of the film.
Decanted to the house she meets Grandpa, and in a satire of the nuclear family, Leatherface plays the role of matriarch.
The mask is distinctly different from the one he wore earlier. It is the tanned facial skin of an elderly woman.
On screen you see Leatherface has lipstick and pale blue eye shadow on. It’s a macabre sitcom scene in the making. The screenplay goes on to paint a clearer picture of the absurdism at play here:
Behind the mask Leatherface is smiling broadly; there is a flash of filed teeth. He is excited and pleased with himself; he approaches wiping his hands on his apron.
H&H try to get Leatherface to interact. The words on the page are not lines for any actor to learn verbatim, they are just gobbledygook. His first line of dialogue reads:
LEATHERFACE ’A ab e y ob er ewe ober’
Rather than make him a fully fledged member of the family, each time he speaks, it gives the Old Man more reason to shout at him. It is during these exchanges that the film, more than the screenplay, expose this sadistic, mindless killer as no more than a simple child behind closed door.
James Rose’s book about TCM (Devil’s Advocates series, Auteur Press) describes this scene as a warning about how far people are prepared to go if you cut them off socially and economically.
On the page we can read a list of horrors that Sally can see in the room. Whereas on screen Hooper chooses to show the horror etched into Sally’s face as she, bound to a chair and gagged, takes in the room. He saves the revelation of the bone ornaments and mobiles for a wider shot when the family bring Grandpa into the room.
The humiliation and torture of Sally is written blow for blow by H&H. Starting with a clever reversal of expectation, they describe Leatherface approaching her with a knife. You think that he is going to slaughter her like a cow, but no, not yet:
Hitchhiker turns her palm up and quickly and expertly cuts deep into the tip of her index finger. Leatherface lifts her hand and with Hitchhiker’s assistance they force it into the Grandfather’s mouth.
Her will to survive is tested over 14 pages of script (pages 86-100 or 64-78 minutes). The moment she sees her opportunity she runs for it. However, H&H don’t let her get out without an obstacle or two. Blood pouring down her face, they write, she trips over the washtub and crashes through a window in a shower of glass.
When she reaches the highway the real world makes a surprise appearance in the shape of a cattle truck and a pick-up. Sally escapes in the back of the latter.
It’s a swift, and surprisingly neat end to such a lengthy, torturous ordeal. In just two minutes of screen time Sally leaps through a window, outruns the family, Leatherface is fatally wounded by his chain saw, and she is in the back of a pick up being driven away from this nightmare experience. This compares to over four pages of screenplay. Stylistically, the script deviates from how it has been presented so far. H&H begin directing the camera. This simulates how frantic the situation has become. Like a cap that has been let off, the film and all the tension are being released.
The Driver leaves the road and runs into a field.
Leatherface recovers the saw, sees Sally and the Driver running in nearly the opposite directions and squeals in terror, rage and pain and flailing the saw wildly in the air and now hobbling and bleeding profusely, he charges after Sally.
A battered, old pick up approaches beyond Sally
It has become traditional to linger on the victim’s success as the credits roll, but H&H’s finale is about the monster that’s left behind. That iconic silhouette is no accident.
Leatherface stands in the center of the highway squealing in maniac rage and wielding the chain saw with savage, idiot fury.
In conclusion H&H’s story is a simple one – five young people leave the city and become isolated from the real world as they knew it; and then from themselves. One by one they are killed until there is only one left. It was a novel idea at the time, but now it is a tired formula used by almost every slasher film. Regardless, this 1974 original still rises above all its competition because of its clarity.
On the page H&H lavish the reader with lots of extra scenes and gory details of the kills that are unmistakeable horror tropes. However, Tobe Hooper decided much of it held the story up and just weren’t necessary. More importantly, he decided to leave the bloodshed to our imagination and that choice gave the film its power. As a result the perceived feeling of many viewers, after watching TCM, is that it is a much more graphic film experience than it really is. Proving suggestion rather than details is what our eyes and ears need when we’re watching a movie. Hooper no doubt had this all in hand when he started shooting TCM, and the screenplay acted as both a road map and footnotes for his vision.