Test Dept’s Film Jukebox

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Test Dept photo by Brett Turnbull

Prompted by cultural and political developments, influential 80s industrial music collective Test Dept have recently resurfaced and are currently touring their film DS30 (2014) along with other archive film material. Their book Total State Machine has just been released by PC-Press and is available from Rough Trade East and from the PC-Press website. There will be a number of re-issues of their recorded material soon on PC-Press/Forte Distribution. Test Dept: Redux will be playing live at the Wroclaw Industrial Festival, Poland, on 7 November and at TPO in Bologna, Italy, on 14 November. They will be appearing at the Cambridge Film Festival (4-12 September) on 12 September as part of the Microcinema event programme curated by James Mackay and William Fowler, DARK PICTURES: Industrial Music Culture. Below, Test Dept founding member Graham Cunnington picks his ten essential films, some of which have a personal significance while others have influenced the work of the group.

1.Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
A seminal moment of inspiration and one of those films where you look at the world differently once you emerge from the darkness of the cinema into the light. The landscape of ‘The Zone’ in the film, where one’s deepest dreams can perhaps be realised, somehow reflected the desolation of the former docklands around New Cross where we lived at the time; mile upon mile of derelict and ruined industrial buildings and forsaken empty wasteland. The film raises philosophical questions about the nature of reality and about the existential battles of science and logic vs art and creativity, religion and belief, about right and wrong, good and evil, and it made me feel there were much deeper levels of understanding to explore in the world around me. It also heavily influenced our film Cold Witness starring the great Ken Campbell.

2. Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (Dziga Vertov, 1931)
Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera could be in this list as it was a huge early influence on our visual director Brett Turnbull and of Test Dept’s filmmaking style, especially during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. But Enthusiasm is here as it was the first sound film. The first to use sound recorded on location, and then to use those sounds, cut up into a sound collage for the soundtrack. A technique that we have developed throughout our career, using found sound in creating film soundtrack and music composition.

3. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)
The opening shot of the young main protagonist choreographing the drunken inhabitants of a bar in a small town in rural Hungary to act out the movement of the heavenly bodies of the solar system is a beautifully arresting scene. Béla Tarr’s customary ultra-long takes create a dreamlike metaphorical meditation on the fall and failure of the machinations and corruptions of power and the willing blindness of people to accommodate such things. A constant struggle between dark and light around prophesies of doom in a world on the brink of disaster. This film produced another jolt of a creative spark for me.

4. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
The adaptation of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the script, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the characters, and the surreality and unexpectedness of some of the scenes and scenarios. In every aspect an astonishing and ground-breaking film that really resonated with us, not least because the Vietnam War was a constant background noise on the news when we were kids. Some sonic material of this was inevitably extracted and used in early TD work, and many others’ too. Someone said of our original installation of DS30 on the river Tyne in Newcastle last year that approaching it by boat was like one of the scenes from this film. A compliment indeed.

5. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
Although Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are brilliant films, Eraserhead was the first Lynch film and the first one I watched. More surreal and strange than anything I had ever come across before, it knocked me sideways. It was always on late night screenings at The Ritzy in Brixton and that was the best time for it. The strange main character of Henry, the black and white cinematography, the sound design and the atmosphere of alienation have lingered in my creative cloud, and, as a reference for being out there, doing your own thing and not giving a shit what people think, it’s pretty unsurpassed. A disturbance of the psyche that textured and coloured some of mine and Test Dept’s very early work.

6. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
The fact that this had been banned and could only be watched on illegal VHS video tapes created the initial intrigue. As a punk in South London in the late 70s, violence was a part of my teenage years. The streets were a dangerous place where gangs of Skinheads, Teddy Boys, Casuals, Hells Angels and Bikers were out to get you. This film reflected that reality – Alex and his Droogs wear their identifying uniform and commit ‘ultra-violence’ much as some in those sub-cultures did – but it also made such an impact on me through its depiction of a government using psychological conditioning to control its citizenship, fanning the flames of my own young anti-establishment tendencies. The design of a near-future, much like our own but strange and alien too, helped by the invented language of Nadsat, appropriating words from other sources, and the incredible soundtrack by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, transplanting Beethoven’s Glorious Ninth Symphony onto the Moog synthesiser; all an inspiration which would come back to me years later when me and the other members of TD came to work on the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket as extras.

7. No Mercy, No Future (Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1981)
Incredibly difficult to watch, but this is an enormously powerful work and, along with Sanders-Brahms’s other film Germany, Pale Mother, had such an influence on me, coming out of both in tears, absolutely drained and devastated. A story about a schizophrenic young girl in West Berlin, under the shadow of the Wall, alone and alienated in a brutal city, looking for god. It was an eye-opener that such a powerful emotional effect could be got through a story so uncompromising, uncomfortable and disturbing. It sparked an interest that would eventually lead me to have the courage, many years later, to develop and tell my own story in the solo play Pain.

8. Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
Another future dystopia, it was a toss-up between this and Blade Runner, even though that is undoubtedly the better film, but MMII gets in due to the mutated vehicles and repurposed materials giving an obvious link with TD and our choice of scrap-metal instrumentation. What drew me in was the lonesome road warrior with his dog and his souped-up car, concerned with doing the right thing, but only just, something I identified with completely in my imagination. Also, the opposing tribes: the bad biker-punk gang so much more beguiling than the boring hippie goodies inside their oil-well encampment (except for the cool wild kid narrator with the boomerang). A high-octane-powered roller coaster ride. As TD, we later hooked up with the Mad Max-inspired Mutoid Waste Company, who were living at the time in a quarry in Italy, mutated their own vehicles and could have been characters straight out of the film. We went on convoy with them around Italy and felt as though we actually were.

9. Ghost Dog (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)
I just love this film with Forest Whitaker’s depiction of the eponymous lone hitman who communicates by pigeon and constantly refers to the Hagakure: Book of The Samurai, trying to interpret its code as a spiritual guide; his character here resonates with my own conflicted struggle for a spiritual understanding, beyond religion, in a harshly unspiritual time. He moves through the city unnoticed by most except the few who really see him, accompanied by RZA’s great score, and when you come out of this film you want to do the same, in that lazy, slouching walk that he has, just to be as cool as him – even though he kills people.

10. Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Really three films in one post. This, along with Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War introduced another element into my creative perspective. Film as documentary and as art with a powerful societal message and without words (except those spoken or sung in the soundtrack). The mixture of breath-taking imagery depicted in slow motion or time-lapse with the modernist minimalist repetitive looping soundtrack by Philip Glass created a gloriously vibrant and addictive mix. The films depict the human impact on both the developed and developing worlds, starting from untouched natural landscapes through human intervention to the urban and built environments and beyond to the technologically driven world we inhabit today. Astonishing works, of which maybe a little influence trickled through to our film DS30.

It Isn’t Very Pretty… Interview with John Waters

Pecker (Credit - Michael Ginsburg) (2)
John Waters on the set of Pecker (1998) © Michael Ginsburg

Format: Cinema

It Isn’t Very Pretty… The Complete Films of John Waters (Every Goddam One of Them…)

Screening Dates:
1 Sept – 6 Oct 2015

Venue: BFI Southbank

Enjoy a 2-4-1 ticket on all events in this season by simply quoting Waters241 online, in person OR over the phone 020 7928 3232. For full programme info and to book tickets online, visit BFI website

On 18 September 2015, the exceptional John Waters will be in London to conduct an on-stage interview as part of the BFI’s two-month season celebrating his 50-year film career. Pamela Jahn caught up with the director ahead of his visit to talk about his work, breaking taboos now and then, turning Pink Flamingos into a kid’s movie and feeling good watching French feel-bad movies.

Pamela Jahn: You’ve just had your first UK art show at the Sprüth Magers Gallery in London, now you are honoured with an extensive film season at the BFI – it seems that the thin line between dark comedy, bad taste and high camp that you’ve been walking for decades has manifested into a runway for success on all fronts…

John Waters: Well, it’s true that nobody really gets mad at much about anything I do anymore, but I haven’t changed anything. I mean, the very first thing I ever did was a film called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. I still lived with my parents, it was filmed on the roof of my house with my high school friends, and it was a white woman marrying a black guy and the wedding ceremony was performed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But is it that so different from my last movie, which was about a middle-class neighbourhood that is taken over by sex addicts? I don’t know. But I’m certainly proud to be having a 50-year retrospective at the BFI now – and my mum would really be proud because she was such an anglophile.

The season at the BFI includes not only your features but also your early short films from the 60s, which you just mentioned. What do they mean to you today?

The early films are not really movies, and that’s why they are shown for free. They were never distributed or anything, they’re kind of like my home movies that I made with my friends. Still, I look back at them all with fondness, although I never sit around and watch my own movies. I also don’t think I had more fun then, I always think tomorrow is going to be more fun than yesterday. But then again, I was trying to make an underground movie and I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t go to film school, so I learned just from experimenting, and those really early films are what that is. It just so happened that my friends happened to be Divine and people who, I guess, seemed like normal people to me at the time, but I guess they were a little more extreme than other people’s friends.

According to your mother, one of the most important influences on your filmmaking must have been Charles Walters’s Lili (1953), and from there you went on to organise your own puppet shows as a kid. Did you sort of know back then where you wanted to go with it, that you wanted to make films one day?

David Lochary, when he used to get mad at me, used to say, ‘We are not your puppets, you know!’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe you are!’ Because do you know how many film directors, if you asked them, were puppeteers when they were kids? They all had puppets, because they are control freaks and the puppets could create their own world. For me, when I then went on to do those puppet shows as a kid, I would break the fourth wall of puppetry at the end and come out with a dragon puppet and say, ‘So, all brave kids stick out your hands and the one kid that gets bitten by the dragon will have good luck forever.’ At that point, some of the kids would start crying and the brave ones would stick their hands out, and I always thought the ones who started crying ended up being losers in life.

How difficult was it to be a control freak given the low budget and pretty chaotic circumstances that you shot your early films in? You still always managed to have a script and stick with it, and you’ve always had a very clear idea of what you wanted.

That’s my work ethic. Obviously, I was on pot when I wrote the movies, but I was never on pot or any drugs when we made the movies. I don’t think anybody was, it was too hard to work. I mean they were made for an audience that was completely on marijuana, but when we made the movies, we had like 20-hour shooting days or something, with no food. If you were stoned you couldn’t have gone through it really. Okay, the cast might have smoked pot behind my back somewhere, but not that much. I think afterwards, yeah, but during the actual shooting day… Mink Stone always used to say, when someone called them amateur actors, she said, ‘Amateur? We had to remember five pages of dialogue and get it right in one take – that isn’t amateur.’ And even today, I still don’t like improvisation. But I know all actors want to improvise today and you can see it in movies, there is too much of it. I’m in the Writers Guild – save the script!

Shooting those films with your friends required a lot of trust from both sides, I imagine…

I didn’t make them do anything, it was all in the script and I asked them to do it. There is a movie that I presented at a festival recently, it’s called Killer Joe, it’s a pretty shocking movie and there is a scene where Gina Gershon does this hideous sex act with a chicken, it’s really hilarious. And Mink said to me afterwards, ‘See, they’re just like us. We didn’t talk about it, we just went for it. We just did it.’ And that’s right, it was a group effort, it was a group madness in away, and I didn’t really do anything that was bad for them… I mean, we all survived. I wasn’t a sadist. And the eat shit scene, we just did it once, it was one take, I didn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s try that again!’ I think, they’re my friends and we all did this together, more as almost like a political action. I think Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass movies are the closest in spirit to my early movies and also in terms of the camaraderie those films were made in.

About Pink Flamingos, you used to say it’s like a kindergarten movie – it’s grown-up people doing babyish things. Was that your inspiration for Kiddie Flamingos, the video that was part of your recent art show in London?

Exactly! I basically just rewrote it and took out all the dirty parts and just made it PG-rated with the same story. But I don’t see it as my next film, I do see it as a video-art piece, because it’s the same thing, whether you poke your head in and watch five or ten minutes of it, or you watch the whole thing. It’s not a feature film, it’s a concept video piece. But with Pink Flamingos, yeah, I think you’re dead right, I think no one over 18 should be allowed to see it, it’s so juvenile.

Almost ten years later, Polyester became your transition film, somewhat marking an evolution from the underground midnight movies and before your mainstream success with Hairspray

Yeah, and you know why? Because video had just come out, so midnight movies were over. Before you always had to go to a movie theatre to see a film. It’s hard to imagine these days, but nobody could watch a movie twice. That’s why midnight movies were so popular, because people would come and see them every week, but once video came out, the mystery was gone. So, Polyester was the first movie I did that was made to be R-rated, it was the first one to play not at midnight.

And it was the first one that really put the melodrama at the forefront. Was that part of the plan, to become more commercial in a way?

Yes, I was certainly influenced by Douglas Sirk. But there was never a time when I tried to be uncommercial. I always wanted people to come and see my movies. The ending of Pink Flamingos was commercial, when you think about it. In the beginning I made exploitation films for art theatres at midnight, but I always had an audience and I knew that I was trying to get people. I wasn’t purposely trying to not make people to come.

You originally screened the film in ‘Odorama’. How did you come up with the idea?

I always remembered that in the late 50s or early 60s there was a film that I have never seen, because it didn’t play long enough when I was a child. It was called Scent of Mystery, and the system that they used to show it with was called ‘Smell-O-Vision’, it was basically a big machine that came to the theatres and pumped out the smell, but it didn’t really work. And I always loved William Castle, who had all those gimmicks in his movies, so it was made kind of as a homage to him.

How did people react when you first screened the film back in 1981?

The very first time we showed the film was in Cannes. There was such a mob of people who came to see it, that they broke the glass door to get in, so the ‘Odorama’ was definitely a success. But I think it was coupled with the fact that Tab Hunter, who was a real movie star, was part of the cast. He was in the movie with Divine, kissing, which – I know it’s hard to imagine today – was surprising to people, but it was. And I think Tap was also a huge part of why that movie was so successful.

You mentioned in the beginning that people don’t get mad anymore about the things you did in your movies. Do you also feel that today there are fewer taboos that you can actually break?

No, there are more taboos. Everybody is so politically correct. That’s why there’s this thing in America that they call a ‘trigger warning’, where, in college, the teachers have to say, ‘This is a trigger warning’, in case they are going to talk about anything controversial that might make people question their values, which is so ludicrous. I always thought that’s why you went to college in the first place, to question your values. So, no, I think today they are more taboos – but are they interesting? Maybe not. Maybe Hollywood now makes big 100-million-dollar gross sell-out comedies that are funny. So maybe that’s where I’ve been a bad influence.

In your latest book Carsick you almost reveal yourself as being a sentimentalist after all, in particular in the chapter where you imagine reuniting with Edith Massey.

Yes, I believe the chapter with Edith you could call sentimental, certainly. I don’t think it’s pushed too far. I look back at the past with a certain fondness and my memories of Edith are touching to me… is that the same as sentimental? I guess so, so I plead guilty there.

Do you have a personal shock limit? Are you genuinely shocked by anything you watch these days?

Well, I’ll always try to surprise people, but sure, I’m shocked by bad romantic comedies, I am shocked by movies that are exactly the same as a science project. I’m shocked but not in a good way. I like to be surprised, certainly, and Gaspar Noé surprises me. I think Bruno Dumont surprises me… usually they are French feel-bad movies that make me feel good.

Looking back at your own filmography, is there a movie that you personally would like to remake today?

Well, I always used to joke and say I’d make Pink Flamingos a children’s movie, but I already did that. Maybe I will do Female Trouble set in an old-age home next. At one point I was trying to make Flamingos Forever, the sequel to Pink Flamingos, but today that would never get made because it would get an N-17 rating and it would cost a lot and we’d have to have movie stars in it, so I’d rather not go there. I’ll prefer doing something new… a new surprise!

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Jenn Bennett is Amélie


Jenn Bennett is an artist and author who writes books for adults and teens. Born in Germany, she’s lived and travelled extensively throughout Europe, the US and the Far East. She currently lives near Atlanta with one husband and two evil pugs. Her debut YA novel, Night Owls (Simon and Schuster), which was published this month, is already receiving wide critical acclaim. Set in San Francisco, the title is taken from the name of the night bus service, and heads into the world of graffiti and anatomical art, and involved some gruesome research at the Willed Bodies Lab. Eithne Farry

With her bobbed hair, vivid imagination, and romantic heart, Amélie Poulain is my cinematic alter ego – my Parisian ultra-fantasy in surreal red, green and gold.

In Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fanciful romantic comedy, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, better known simply as Amélie, the titular protagonist is a shy waitress (played pitch-perfectly by famously private French actress Audrey Tautou) who finds a box of childhood memorabilia hidden in her Paris apartment and decides to track down the owner, now an adult. If she finds him and it brings him joy, she’ll devote her life to making others happy. (‘Life’s funny. To a kid, time always drags. Suddenly you’re fifty. All that’s left of your childhood fits in a rusty little box.’)

Her mission a success, Amélie’s wheels spin in other directions. She decides to help two other lonely people get together, a tobacconist at the café where she works and a brooding regular customer. In her apartment building, she befriends an elderly painter whose bones are like glass. She persuades her father to follow his dream of travelling the world by kidnapping his favourite garden gnome and having a flight attendant take photos of it posed with landmarks around the world.

Part of the joy of this film is that it’s just plain enchanting – the eccentric supporting characters, Amélie, her attempts to help people, and all of her silly pranks. There’s also sublime magic in the way Jeunet and the cinematographer paint the City of Light, which isn’t really Paris at all, of course. It’s hyper-Paris. More Paris than Paris. It’s moonstruck and nouveau, the Paris of your dreams…if your dreams are a little surreal and lighthearted.

Amélie wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without the romance, which comes in the form of a mysterious young man, Nino, who collects the discarded pictures from passport photo booths. When Amélie tracks Nino down, she finds he’s just as odd and lonely as she is, and falls in love with him, playing one final game of cat-and-mouse to win his heart. ‘Times are hard for dreamers,’ says the owner of a porn shop where Nino works. That may be true, but I’d gladly fall into Amélie’s hope-filled dreams many times over.

Night Owls is out now with Simon and Schuster (£7.99). You can get in touch with Jenn Bennet via Twitter at @Jenn_Benn.

Jenn Bennett

Anya Lipska is Jake Gittes from Chinatown


A Devil Under the Skin is the latest of Anya Lipska’s (a pseudonym for a British writer) noir-ish crime thrillers set in East London, featuring Janusz Kiszka, the go-to guy and fixer to London’s Poles – and a man with a Trabant-load of baggage from his youth in Communist-era Poland. Asked about Polish crime fiction Lipska told the Independent that it was marked by ‘a big anti-authoritarian streak, a satirical sense of humour, a romantic enjoyment of melancholy, and a preoccupation with the past’. As her cinematic alter ego she chooses Jake Gittes, in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Eithne Farry

Like most writers, I don’t have much of a clue where my characters come from, but now and again I recognise someone or something that has left a lasting thumbprint on my writing. One of them is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jake Gittes in Chinatown: it burrowed under my skin and ultimately found its way into the DNA of my own fictional detective.

Jake is the kind of hero I can identify with. An ex-cop who drags round a guilty conscience from a case that went wrong, apparently leading to an innocent woman’s death, he’s now a sleazy private eye specialising in ‘matrimonial’ cases. He’s cynical and crude, and doesn’t hesitate to dish out violence to men and women who stand in his way. Yet Jake’s flaws make him as battered and appealing as an old leather suitcase.

Jake never becomes a cardboard cut-out hero. As he’s drawn into investigating a fishy business involving water rights and high-level corruption in Orange County, we sense that he’s in way over his head. Just like real people, he is by turn funny and determined, smart and fallible. For me it was a directorial stroke of genius to have Jake spend several scenes, after he gets slashed by one of the bad guys, wearing a comedy nose bandage – it’s a powerful symbol of wounded yet defiant masculinity.

If Chinatown were the standard-issue blockbuster, Jake would ultimately conquer the forces of evil: he’d nail the bad guy and get the girl. Polanski had to fight for his much darker vision – the tragic denouement that turned Chinatown from a good movie into a masterpiece. Jake fails. He hasn’t dispelled the past – he has only repeated it.

Anya Lipska

Princess Chelsea’s Film Jukebox

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Princess Chelsea

Princess Chelsea, aka New Zealander Chelsea Nikkel, is a classically-trained solo artist who became a YouTube sensation with the ‘The Cigarette Duet’, from her first album Lil Golden Book. Her second album, The Great Cybernetic Depression, is a work of ‘retrofuturistic space pop’, influenced by artists such as Kraftwerk and Tomita, inspired by a desire to recreate the magic of childhood movies like The Never Ending Story. The album, with its ‘wall of synth’ arrangements, is themed around a metaphorical future happening, and depression as an apocalyptic event, with Princess Chelsea weaving her personal, sometimes melancholic, experiences of relationships and the music industry through the songs. The album is out now on Flying Nun/Lil’ Chief. Below, Princess Chelsea picks her top ten films.

1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Stephen Spielberg, 1982)
This movie encapsulates all the wonder I held as a lil’ kid from New Zealand, when I would think about the big industrious country known as ‘USA’ – where Disneyland and all the movies come from, and how they had way more types of candy bars than we have here in New Zealand (love the M&Ms scene BTW). I am now grown up and realise USA candy is shitty and, like most countries, the USA is fucked up, with a widening gap between rich and poor, while Hollywood is in a dark ages of boring-ass movies about superheroezzz.
Anyways, what’s my point – I’m an escapist and hell yes, I’ll use pop culture to do it. This movie takes me back and makes me think it’s 1985 and I’m a little kid and the whole world is amazing. I mean who doesn’t like ET… It’s Spielberg at his best, and sometimes you just want to see an easily digestible movie the whole family can watch. Well at least I do.

2. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich,1962)
Only saw this recently. It stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford pitted against each other in fiction and maybe in real life (I read somewhere they didn’t like each other that much). Like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Taylor & Burton) I can sense an almost mean and competitive IRL chemistry between the two leads. An early example of two interesting roles for older female leads who may have been considered ‘past their prime’ by idiots, but ended up delivering career-defining performances. Bette Davis is one of the creepiest villains in cinema as Baby Jane.

3. Pinocchio (1940)
Big fan of pre-90s Disney (although Beauty and The Beast is a triumph). As far as children’s movies go, this one gets dark and the scene (SPOILER ALERT) where Pinocchio’s buddy turns into a donkey is scary for me still as an adult. A lot of early Disney movies resonate with me because I’m a fan of 30s and 40s music, so combine that with hand-drawn animation and I’m pretty much sold. Also like the veering away from ‘princesses in castles being rescued by a prince’ theme Disney took with tackling the fairy-tale Pinocchio.

4. The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)
I feel like I should be listing art-house rarities, but the reality is I love pop culture and fantasy, and the two intersect brilliantly in this film, with some dystopian violence to boot. Retrofuturism in film is fascinating to watch after the fact – a 60s, 70s or 80s, even 90s (WTF) idea of the future is so interesting to me and in my opinion gives films like Terminator, which were blockbusters in their day, a slightly different angle for the viewer in 2015.

5. The NeverEnding Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984)
Childhood favourite – the ivory tower scene at the end is terrifying still IMO – pretty much can’t stand CGI (except TOY STORY), so am always happy to watch films where more effort is put into costuming and models IRL. A mid-80s gem featuring a flying dragon/dog hybrid called FALCOR and a cute ass DX7 soundtrack.

6. Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)
Love slow shots/long takes with lots of shit going on in the background. My favourite movie is E.T. but I enjoy watching period drama for the same reason I like this film – you can re-watch it dozens and dozens of times and still find something interesting you hadn’t noticed. In context – this film was an absolute stunt-and-nuts thing to do that I would suggest influenced another favourite of mine, Robert Altman, considerably.

7. Boy (Taika Waititi, 2010)
New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi made this masterpiece a few years back and I feel he’s really great at capturing the essence of small-town New Zealand in a way that’s charming and not condescending. He approaches some pretty heavy subject material in a humorous but also emotionally affecting way, and the score by NZ band Phoenix Foundation is beautiful too.

8. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)
Another New Zealand film, this is an early one by Peter Jackson that examines an IRL murder. I have always felt pretty connected to the main characters in this film, as I have a habit of developing intense friendships with females in my life. The two lead actresses are a young Kate Winslet and a young Melanie Lynskey (who is in that dumb sitcom with Charlie Sheen) and I’m pretty sure they weren’t at all famous back then, but they were killer in this movie. And an early 90s New Zealand movie set in the 50s is just a great little time capsule via film.

9. The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)
A few years ago I got really into Robert Altman’s movies and it seems like he had a bit of an artistic renaissance in the 90s. The Player combines clever Hollywood satire with his trademark long freeform shots. I love happy accidents in music and in film and I feel his films are full of them.

10. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
I am interested in and would like to explore more silent films of the 1920s, but I’m just gonna be honest here and say I would still probably enjoy Alien more than all of them. Alien is a great film for many reasons – Ripley as much-needed feminist icon + extreme patience with the editing and cinematography make this blockbuster even a bit ‘ARTY’.

Blanck Mass Re-Score: The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears album cover artwork

Format: Double LP

Release date: Sold ONLY at the East End Film Festival screening & performace in London on 10 July 2015

Label: Death Waltz Recording Co.

Viewers with untrained ears might watch Belgian directing team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s dazzling neo-giallo The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) and wonder why Ben Power (Blanck Mass, Fuck Buttons) would be so bold as to want to re-score it. The heady mix of slick psychedelia, early synth and ambient grooves are a perfect fit and certain signature pieces are used repeatedly throughout. However, not one of the compositions was originally scored for the Cattet and Forzani film. Instead they lifted their music straight from the 1970s giallo films that inspire them.

The directors have said they like to assemble their soundtracks as they write their script, embedding the fusion of audio and visual into the early stages of the development process. So it was no doubt an unusual experience to watch their film with Power’s retrofitted score laid over it. Thankfully and unsurprisingly, the new music comes with the Belgian duo’s approval. It features contributions from Stockholm’s Roll The Dice, London’s Helm, Moon Gangs, Phil Julian, Glasgow’s Konx-Om-Pax, and New York’s C. Spencer Yeh, as well as Mr Blanck Mass himself. Each artist was assigned a scene and given the freedom to score it how they wished. Furthermore they were doing this without prior knowledge of what was planned by anyone else. Their combined efforts have come together to form a brooding cinematic morass of electronica. In particular, Helm’s ‘Silencer II’ is a hyper-tense 11-minute epic of suppressed emotion and pent up frustration whereas Moon Gangs’ ‘The Apartment’ or a couple of the C. Spencer Yeh tracks are far less brutal – allowing your fast-beating heart and fragile mind a chance to relax. Note that the shrill attack of Phil Julian’s ‘End Credits’ makes sure there’s a shot of adrenalin for anyone flagging when the film fades to black.

The re-score of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is put out by Death Waltz Records. It’s a double vinyl release, housed inside a 425gsm reverse board jacket and comes in two versions. There’s the ‘exclusive splatter combo’ as Death Waltz’s Spencer Hickman describes it – limited to 500 only worldwide. Not entirely sure what exact colours that means, but it will not be black – that’s reserved for the regular shop version of it.

The East End Film Festival are showing The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears with the brand new score on 10 July at Red Gallery. After the screening there will be DJ sets from Blanck Mass and friends, including Spencer Hickman spinning some rare giallo records of his own.

For more infos about the event and to buy tickets visit the EEFF website.

Stuart Wright

Chordal Tension: The Music of The Third Man

The Third Man 1
The Third Man

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 June 2015

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Carol Reed

Writer: Graham Greene

Cast: Joseph Cotton, Alida Vali, Orson Welles

UK 1949

104 mins

The Austrian zither is synonymous with The Third Man (1949), considered by many cineastes to be one of the greatest films of all time. A combination of guitar and harp, it is a five-string fretboard that belongs to the piano family and is played with the left hand.

The pleasant and alluring signature sound of the zither score starts with the eponymous theme tune – re-titled ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ in the UK after Orson Welles’s character. This seemingly inauspicious musical moment singlehandedly introduced the post-war world to a very unusual Austrian instrument. ‘The Third Man Theme’ enjoyed 11 weeks at number one in America. This kind of stand-alone success didn’t go unnoticed by the movie moguls. It pioneered the use of soundtracks to market and sell films.

Like all the best innovations and cultural phenomena this paradigm shift was entirely down to chance. Director Carol Reed was picking up carafes of wine for his crew when he spotted Viennese local Anton Karas playing the zither for pennies in the courtyard of a small sausage restaurant on the outskirts of Vienna. It was the first time Reed had heard this strange instrument. His mind raced as he wondered if it could carry a whole film score.

Karas was a virtuoso; he’d been playing ever since he found a concert zither in his attic in 1918 aged just 12. Reed brought him back to his Austrian hotel and after successfully testing recordings of the zither with rushes from the film he invited the stunned Karas to score the music for The Third Man.

The Austrian musician spoke no English and initially took some convincing to come to London. Eventually one night he asked Reed to listen to a new tune he’d done – this turned out to be the first recorded version of ‘The Third Man Theme’. Reed loved it and, unappreciative of the skills required, asked him why he hadn’t played that before. Karas supposedly told him that the tune takes a lot out of your fingers.

In the wake of The Third Man’s success the venues for Karas’s performances changed dramatically. He was invited to play the zither for Princess Margaret in Buckingham Palace and for the Pope in Rome. With the money he made from the film Karas bought a bar in Grenzing, Austria… and called it ‘The Third Man’.

Stuart Wright

Freaks: All Equals in Strangeness

Tod Browning with members of the cast on the set of Freaks

This article contains spoilers.

I recently answered a few questions about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) on Radio 4’s Today programme on the occasion of the film’s re-release in cinemas. Set in a circus, Freaks tells of the love of midget Hans for beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra, and the revenge of the other deformed performers when they find out that she has only married him for his money. The brief radio spot centred on whether the film’s representation of disability was offensive. As it was not possible to go into much detail in such a short time, this article is a follow-up, expanding on the issue in greater depth.

It is interesting that 73 years after its release and numerous positive reviews, it is still the question of the film’s exploitative character that was the focus of the Radio 4 spot. The fact that some of the initial American reviews and audience reactions were very negative, and that the BBFC refused to grant it a certificate in 1932, effectively suppressing it for 31 years, seem to have been enough to lastingly colour the perception of the film. Also detrimental was the exhibition of the film on the grindhouse circuit after the war by exploitation king Dwain Esper, under the title Forbidden Love. It was only after the film screened at Cannes in 1962 that the BBFC allowed a limited release with an X certificate in the UK the following year.

And yet, the early responses to the film were more complex and mixed than this may suggest, and it was even a box-office success in a number of cities in its full-length version, before it was cut by producer Irving Thalberg from 90 to 64 minutes, with a happy resolution tacked on at the end. More importantly, the reasons for which the film was vilified by some critics at the time would be deemed utterly unacceptable now, and demonstrate exactly the kind of intolerant, insensitive attitude towards difference and disability that director Tod Browning intended to fight. The Variety review started with praise but found fault with the story: ‘Freaks is sumptuously produced, admirably directed, and no cost was spared. But Metro failed to realize that even with a different sort of offering the story still is important. Here it is not sufficiently strong to get and hold the interest, partly because interest cannot easily be gained for a too fantastic romance.’ In a passage that has now been cut from the text published on the Variety website, it went on to state: ‘It is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget.’

This sort of ambivalence was found in many of the contemporary reviews. Richard Watts, Jr., wrote in the New York Herald Tribune: ‘It is my impression that Freaks is, in its quite repulsive fashion, a dramatic and powerful motion picture. It is obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work, not only in its story and characterization, but also in its gay directorial touches. Mr. Browning can make even freaks more unpleasant than they would be ordinarily. Yet, in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching… Mr. Browning has always been an expert in pathological morbidity, but after seeing Freaks, his other pictures seem but whimsical nursery tales.’

Also symptomatic of the time’s attitude to disability, The Film Daily found the reality of the performers’ deformities an obstacle to the enjoyment of the film: ‘It is a most unusual production, made at the time when the horror cycle appeared to be in full sway, and as a picture of this type it was produced with expert hands. But the nature of its theme makes its chances problematical. First, the fact that the ugly human monstrosities in this picture are that way in reality, whereas in other films the audience knew it was all make-believe seems to induce a different and not pleasant reaction.’

Contributing to the problem was the critics’ view of cinema as entertainment rather than art, as one of the articles on Freaks published in the trade journal Harrison’s Reports suggests: ‘Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital.’ And the Louisville Times: ‘I cannot believe such a show will entertain any but the morbidly curious, or those poor souls with jaded appetites who are even looking for a new thrill.’ (This view of cinema has been one of the grounds for the BBFC’s decision to cut or ban films in the UK, including A Serbian Film a few years ago.)

Tod Browning was most certainly a film artist who created a powerful and singular world of dark, disturbing poetry and bizarre beauty, exploring the marginal, misshapen, misfit corners of humanity. Yet he was also an entertainer. At the age of 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to join a circus. For a number of years he did various jobs there, including performing in an act called ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’, before acting in slapstick short films in Hollywood. His directorial work includes comedies and exotic dramas, as well as the first horror film produced by a major Hollywood studio, Universal’s 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, which was a big box-office success. This enabled him to make Freaks for MGM the following year, but the financial failure of the film derailed his career. However, he managed to make Mark of the Vampire in 1935, and, more importantly, the masterpiece of fantastique cinema The Devil Doll in 1936.

Tod Browning’s background goes some way towards explaining the richness and complexity of Freaks, and the tenderness he felt for his characters. His work at the circus gave him a deep understanding of, and affinity with, the deformed members of his cast (the circus was the setting for a number of his films). His insistence on casting real ‘freaks’ gives the film a gritty documentary aspect that deepens and adds substance to the strange and nightmarish atmosphere. His respect for his cast is also demonstrated by the fact that he insisted that his performers had other talents and were not simply cast for their deformities. Early scenes show the sort of prejudice and taunting that the characters constantly come up against. Later sequences portray the characters in their daily lives: the armless Frances O’Connor eating dinner with her feet; the birth of the Bearded Lady’s baby; Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton with Daisy’s fiancé. Some of these scenes, such as the courtship of the sisters, are full of humour and lightness, which adds another level to the representation of the characters. Others, such as when Prince Randian, a man without arms or legs billed as ‘The Living Torso’, lights a cigarette, will have audiences stare in disbelief and wonder at the skill and ingenuity involved in performing a seemingly impossible act. Some will argue that featuring such scenes is no better than the exploitative freakshows that treated people with deformities as mere attractions. Indeed, one of the problems Freaks has had to face in its reception is that, as a film about freakshow acts, it has been confused with the freakshow itself. There is no denying that these scenes have a spectacular quality, but it is a spectacle presented to elicit not uncharitable curiosity or horror, but admiration for the inventive manner in which the characters deal with the difficulties of daily life.

Watch the original trailer for Tod Brownings’s Freaks:

These scenes are also important for another reason: they contribute to the fact that the disabled characters never appear as passive, weak, dependent people, but as fully functioning, mobile, autonomous human beings, including those with the most challenging deformities. In keeping with this, they are given a full range of emotions, from love and desire to violence and vengefulness. It is very clear that the film’s sympathy lies with the ‘freaks’, and that physical deformity is not equated with wickedness, rather the opposite: the villains of the story are the characters associated with physical perfection – the tall, blonde Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules. But Tod Browning does not offer a facile, simplistic vision of the disabled characters as poor helpless victims of their villainy, and he gives them the power to act on their emotions, including the darkest ones. The extraordinary final scene, in which the ‘freaks’ wreak their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules during a dark stormy night, menacingly crawling under the trailers towards their victims, is made all the more creepy and nightmarish by the deformities of the characters. This has been seen as exploitative by some as a scene that re-establishes the association of physical deformity and villainy. But this simply ignores that the scene is part of a whole, and that Freaks shows the many facets of its characters. By presenting a morally complex, physically active portrayal of fully rounded characters, Tod Browning treats his disabled characters exactly as any able-bodied character. This refusal to paint a worthy, sanitized view of disabled people as all-good unfortunates to be pitied may well be one of the reasons for the discomfort the film has caused in some viewers and critics.

Another thing worth noting is that most films that deal with disability will only have one disabled character, an anomaly among the norm, an exception among the majority. Freaks remains deeply unusual in that the majority of its cast is disabled or suffering from a deforming illness. The circus is their world and there it is the able-bodied characters who are the exception. The film gives visibility, legitimacy and screen presence to a large number of people who would have been ignored by the film industry. Tod Browning introduced the reality of disability and deformity in the midst of a Hollywood obsessed with physical perfection (MGM was Greta Garbo’s studio). The protests of MGM personnel during the shooting are revealing of contemporary social attitudes to disability and the sort of reaction the cast would have had to face on a daily basis. The studio executives refused to take their lunch with the performers because they could not stand the sight of them, which meant that most of the Freaks cast had to eat outside in a tent especially set up for them. This shocking aspect of the production highlights how subversive the making of such a film was in the context of the time.

Throughout his work Tod Browning was interested in the blurry line between what is considered normal and what is seen as abnormal, and one of the implications of Freaks is that that line is easily crossed. It is something that he explored in The Unknown (1929), a film that provides an essential point of comparison with Freaks. In this silent film also set in a circus, Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, a knife-thrower who pretends to have lost his arms in order to woo the pretty ringmaster’s daughter Nanon (Joan Fontaine), who has an uncontrollable phobic fear of hands. There is a stunning scene, remindful of the scene in Freaks when Frances O’Connor eats and drinks with her feet, in which Lon Chaney lights a cigarette with his feet, his arms lying motionless by him, having become so used to pretending to be a cripple that he forgets to use his arms in private. The Unknown is the fascinating tale of how a man, seemingly ‘normal’, falls for a girl with an ‘abnormal’ sexuality, acts ‘abnormal’ to seduce her and then really becomes ‘abnormal’ in his desperation to secure her, only to find out that she has become ‘normal’ and now wants a ‘normal’ partner – again, a strongman.

Watch a clip from Tod Browning’s Unknown:

Emphasizing the idea that the line between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ may not be as clear-cut as it may seem, it is suggested in Freaks that the ‘tall people’ may not be as fully endowed as they should be, and therefore are ‘abnormal’ too in a fashion. In a spirited quip to Venus, Phroso the clown reveals that he is impotent (‘You should’ve caught me before my operation.’). And in a scene that was edited out, the sexually frustrated Venus wants to look for ‘a couple of sailors’ and ‘have some fun’ (which became ‘falling in love – getting married – having kids’), which would place her very much outside the moral conventions of her time and therefore make her a social outcast.

Both The Unknown and Freaks are as much about sexual abnormality as they are about physical and social abnormality, and it is perhaps its sexual undertones that made Freaks so unsettling to early viewers, despite the fact that many of these scenes were cut out. The characters of Lon Chaney in The Unknown, Venus and Phroso in Freaks, are about sexual excess or lack, and the impossibility of making individual desires coincide. Throughout his films, Tod Browning shows much sympathy for misguided, mishandled, mismatched, miscalibrated desires and the terrible, tragic acts they lead people to commit. Hans’s desire for Cleopatra is poignant because, despite his childlike appearance, he is a man, as he constantly reminds everyone, and she does not treat him like one, as exemplified most dramatically in the humiliating wedding scene where she carries him on her shoulders in a grotesque cavalcade around the deserted banquet table. For this, she will pay dearly, and will be made ‘one of them’ after being horribly mutilated by Hans’s friends (the violence has been cut out in the film as it stands). Her punishment for scorning his manhood is to be stripped of her beauty. As for Hercules, in the original version he was castrated by the deformed characters, making the sexual element of the film very explicit. The seemingly ‘diminished’ characters are able to take away the potency of the traditional virile strongman. Sexual and social power are aligned here and the ending depicts a subversive act of revenge by the powerless ‘abnormal’ against normative potency.

And yet, amid the darkness, there is also a humorous and lighter side to the strangeness of human desire: in a scene where Siamese twin Violet is kissed by her suitor, sister Daisy is seen to visibly enjoy the pleasure of the kiss. It is a lovely scene that celebrates the wondrousness of human life and an openness to all the shapes and forms that it may take. And so the answer to the question ‘Is the film offensive?’: no, certainly not, because it paints an exceptionally complex, nuanced, multi-layered portrayal of human beings on the margins of mainstream society that refuses to kow-tow to conventions and offer any facile reassurances.

Virginie Sélavy

Love: Interview with Gaspar Noé


Seen at Cannes 2015

Format: Cinema

Director: Gaspar Noé

Writer: Gaspar Noé

Cast: Aomi Muyock, Karl Glusman, Klara Kristin

France 2015

135 mins

Cannes 2015 Coverage

One of the most talked about films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Gaspar Noé’s latest offering is a labour of love, in every sense of the word. Noé’s first feature since Enter the Void (2009), the drama takes intimacy to a graphic third dimension, chronicling the sexual and drug ventures of an American who falls in love in Paris. But even if Noé is pushing the envelope in a similar vein as he did with his previous films, Love (3D) is more sensual experience than exploitation.

Pamela Jahn caught up with the Argentine director right after the film’s premiere to talk sex, Salò and pubic hair.

Pamela Jahn: Has the response so far been as you’d expected?

Gaspar Noé: I don’t know. I haven’t read many reviews yet. And actually, I fell asleep while watching the movie. I woke up when the credits came on, so the only response I had was from the people at the afterparty.

It’s the first time you shot in 3D, but it’s used in a quite subtle way throughout, apart from a couple of scenes.
Yeah, I didn’t want to do ‘pop-out’ all the time. There are only two, or maybe three moments, where you see things pop out from the image, mostly penises or the hand of the girl. I think the reason why I wanted to make the film in 3D is mostly because it looks a bit more real when you see the images on the big screen, or even on a smaller screen. There is some kind of vulnerability in those images that makes them more touching or emotional in 3D.

Was it difficult to get the actors to do exactly what you wanted them to do?
No, not at all. One day though, Karl Glusman was worried when we were shooting the scene with the transvestite. He asked me, ‘Where are the limits with that scene?’ And I said, ‘There are no limits.’ Actually, I knew that nothing would happen, but he didn’t know what I would ask him to do, so he was afraid. But when he realised what was going on, he started laughing. It was the funniest shooting day ever.

You found both actresses in nightclubs. What exactly where you looking for in terms of their characters?
Klara was just dancing, but she was dancing extremely well. But it didn’t need to be a club. I also quite often stop boys or girls in the subway or on the street, to ask them if they would be interested in playing a supporting role in a movie, and I take their number. I never talk about the main character because then people get overexcited, but once you make the first contact, all you have to do is film them with your phone or a small video camera to see how they look on screen. And I did a test with Klara and Aomi and they were both great. So then I had to introduce them to the guys who would potentially play the main character. At that point, I was still considering three or four guys, but I also thought that Karl was by far the best choice, and the girls agreed.

In the film, Karl plays a young film director and the posters on his walls seem to reference your personal taste in cinema. How autobiographical is his character?
It’s not autobiographical, it’s just the kind of people I know… or, let’s say, a mix of me and many different guys that I know. Even if his cinematic taste might be similar to mine, his behaviour is totally not. And mostly he is in his own mind anyway. He talks shit about women, but in a way, you don’t know what most people think, why they don’t talk.

Do you feel Love is maybe a bit more conventional than your previous films?
Maturity! I’m getting to a maturity zone… [laughs]

Oh, really?
No, it’s just… if you want to commit a new crime, make it different to the previous one. I’m not going to redo any of my previous films. And actually, shooting in 3D was a new game for me, plus I was always talking about making a film with lots of sex scenes and here it is. I dreamt for years of watchching a movie of this kind, where sexuality is portrayed as it is in life and not as it is in adult videos or what they call ‘erotic cinema’ these days. Because actually, erotic cinema has disappeared, it was a genre in the 70s that really existed and now it’s nothing – there’s erotic photography but no erotic cinema. But also, I would still not call it a conventional film. For me, the way sex is portrayed is very banal or close to life in a good, healthy way, yet it’s not conventional… but maybe less intentional.

Was it a conscious decision by you that the girls would keep their pubic hair?
It’s sensual, I wanted the movie to be vintage. Personally, I really don’t get aroused at all by girls who shave their pussy, and I wanted the women to be attractive on screen. At one point I was considering a very pretty young porn actress from the States to play the part of Aomi, but the issue was that she was shaving and it would have taken too long for her to let it grow again. We even thought about maybe sticking some fake hair on her, but it was very messy, so finally I decided it wouldn’t work. Also, the lack of pubic hair reminds me of adult videos, or what people call pornography, because now in modern porn images the girls are always shaving. But also, that even shocked me when I watched La vie d’Adèle, because at one point her girlfriend is painting her and you see she has no pubic hair and I thought it didn’t fit with her character. She is supposed to be very natural, almost like a country girl, and seeing her shaved just looks more like a porn image to me.

What do you make of adult cinema today?
I don’t know, I lost track. I haven’t watched porn since I was 25. I liked the movies from the 70s like Defiance (by Armand Weston), or the French pornography from the 70s like Jeux de langues by Francis Leroi. For me are they were arousing, much more than those Californian videos with girls who look like firemen or soldiers with tattoos. But also, your sexual interest changes during your lifetime. I remember when I was 20, I would get very excited watching two girls having sex together, and nowadays I feel it can be good and that’s it, I don’t get aroused. But maybe that’s because I have less testosterone than when I was 18 or 20.

Are there any boundaries in cinema that you wouldn’t cross?
I don’t know, because when you say that I don’t know which boundaries I could think of. Irreversible always comes second or third place in a list of the most violent films ever, amongst A Serbian Film and Pasolini’s Salò;. But even Salò , for example, is a clean movie. As long as not everything is fake and the message is right… Salò might be hardcore to watch, but it’s also a very clever movie, a useful movie.

This interview is part of our Cannes 2015 coverage.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Watch the trailer:

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Interview with Ana Lily Amirpour

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 May 2015

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Moshan Marno, Dominic Rains

Iran, USA 2014

100 mins

After enchanting festival audiences around the world, Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour’s acclaimed debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night finally comes to UK screens. Shot in gorgeous black and white, this Farsi-language tale about a chador-wearing skateboarding vampire drifting in the desperate world of Bad City creates a seductive, singular world out of an eclectic mix of influences that include comics, David Lynch and Italian Western music.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Amirpour at the London Film Festival in October 2014, where they discussed places of the mind, the magic of music and the loneliness of humans.

Virginie Sélavy: You’ve described your film as an Iranian vampire Western. The first two elements are fairly clear, but in what way do you see it as a Western?

Ana Lily Amirpour: I think it’s definitely the music that was such a defining characteristic. The musical spine throughout the whole film was Federale’s awesome Ennio Morricone-esque music. I think there is that slow-cooking construction that a Western does as well, but it’s more the music.

Why did you choose to shoot in America but in the Farsi language?

I don’t think a film is the real world, a film is a world of the mind of a person. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is supposedly in LA, but it’s the LA of his mind. So I think this is a dark fairy tale and it’s a place of my mind. I’m part Iranian and part American and born in England, and it’s like a soup of so many things. What’s so awesome about the film is that it doesn’t have any loyalty to the real world and it doesn’t have to. It’s like a dream, it’s just consistent to itself.

You grew up in California.

I had my period there, yeah. [laughs]

So where did you spend most of your childhood and adolescence?

I think where you have your puberty and period is a big part of it. I was in Miami before that, but I was just a kid. When I hit puberty I was in Bakersfield, in California – there’s this redneck desert, farming, malls, I was going to a mall, I wore short cowboy boots, and there’s also all the Mexican gangs, and all the Mexican girls that I was mixed up with because I was brown, the cholas, the gang girls with lipstick, they’d push me and all that [laughs].

It’s interesting that you grew up in America and that the Iranian part of your identity is a place of the mind for you.

It’s a weird thing about Iranian culture. We’re one of those cultures like Italian or Jewish, we have very strong families, aggressively imposing families, in an awesome way. So I always had my Iranian-ness in that way, my grand-mother and my aunt and everybody, and the dinners and the noises and everything. But I never had the place itself. There was a weird thing that happened when I made this film. It became this imaginary limbo. I felt like I was making my own country in a way. Here’s the rules, and here’s the citizens, and now is the place and everyone can come and visit, and if you like it, stay… Other people in the film were similar. Arash [Marandi] was in Germany, his family lived there, and Dominic [Rains] went to Texas and Sheila [Vand] was born in California, very similar to me. I think everybody liked how it was like getting to have a place that was Iranian. Because even when I went to Iran I didn’t feel like it was my country… It’s something else. But I am Iranian. What am I? [laughs]

I liked the chador for the vampire because it’s very visual, but it’s also very interesting because it is a piece of clothing that has become a symbol for the oppression of women and in your film it becomes a superhero cape.

And a brilliant disguise. No one is going to expect it from her. For me it was just because I put one on – I had one as a prop in a movie and put it on for the first time. It felt like a stingray, I instantly felt like a creature. It moves, and it’s made of a different kind of fabric, it’s very soft and it catches the wind, and it’s beautiful. And I just felt like a badass. And then I thought, this would be an Iranian vampire, this is it, it’s this girl. And the whole idea for the film started with this character. I don’t even like black in my movies. But it’s black and I just pictured it against white, and so it had to be a black and white movie. And the whole thing about whether, like you said, it’s something that symbolizes oppression for women, I think somebody who is Muslim maybe wouldn’t feel that way. You feel that way because that’s what you are bringing. I do like flipping the script, but it’s about something else. In this world, with all these people and all these countries and all these places, we come up with systems on how to exist as people, the clothes people wear, the bumper stickers on the cars, saying ‘This is who I am’, ‘This is what I believe’. But with all of us, if you start peeling it back like an onion there’s weird, weirdo, weird shit inside all of us. And if you get into the inside, and see the weird shit, usually it calls to question the system that’s on the outside, and that’s what I find interesting.

I like the fact that there’s so little dialogue in the film.

It’s weird because I noticed that I have an aversion to it, and yet I talk a lot. When I was a kid my dad called me ‘Chatterbox’, and I had that New Year’s resolution many years to talk less and listen more, and then there’s this stuff, which is really self-indulgent. I love Sergio Leone and I love David Lynch, and I feel they do similar things with the soundscape and the sound design and the music. If you really think of it as a character in itself you have to create space for it. In Once upon a Time in the West Leone was playing that music when Claudia Cardinale was coming on the train in that sequence when she arrives in town. He had that epic piece already made and he was playing it for her to move to the music, so if you make films that way you’re thinking of it like a character and you make space for it. I also love Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue, I could listen to it all the time, and Woody Allen’s films, they talk all the time, it’s a different thing, it works well, but not in my own films so far. Actors were like, ‘I want to fucking say some lines,’ because they want to talk, they don’t want to just stand there. But what you don’t realise is that the less you’re saying the more you’re saying.

THe lack of dialogue makes the film more powerful. In the case of Sheila Vand in particular, if she was talking more, she would be less menacing.

She was always such a creature. I’m very close with her. She’s hypnotic, I can just stare at her face, stare at her eyes, infinitely. And there’s a sadness and a lonely, aching dissatisfaction to her that I find extremely charming and beautiful and self-destructive. The biggest thing was that, it’s supernatural, it’s not human, and she is a human, so my only concern was, ‘you’re a creature, no matter what, at all times, in all scenes’. So we were watching cobra videos on YouTube, and they follow your hand and imitate the movement, and looking at the tension of it too because they can strike fast.

The film seems to have a very melancholy view of human relationships, and it seems to show how those two isolated characters slowly learn to trust each other. Is that what you wanted to put in the film?

That’s my favourite part, when you say stuff like that, it’s the most interesting time for me. I love what people say about the film. My relationship to my film is like my relationship to my reflection in the mirror, like how others look at you. Yeah I have loneliness, and being a person is so singular and lonely in a way, fundamentally. And also when you’re making stuff you go even more into your little mind tunnels. I think I just want magic and meaningful connections and intimacy and it’s so hard, and life can be so automated. And it’s terrifying. That’s why I love music because it’s that and it’s instantly that. And it’s really special when it happens with other people because that’s really rare. But music does give me this feeling of freedom and comfort.

For that lovely scene of the first intimate moment between Arash and The Girl, when he comes up behind her in her room as she plays a record, you chose ‘Death’ by White Lies. Why that particular song?

It’s a really great song. I heard it when I was living in Germany the year before I made the film. It has this vintage nostalgia, it’s a new song but it has this feeling of synth-pop from the 80s. It just felt like the feeling of falling in love but in an adolescent way, it has a high school love feeling, it’s this innocent John Hughes kind of feeling. That’s what they are to me, those two. Because it’s so dumb in a way to fall in love, it’s two people who have no clue who each other are, so it’s that dumb, sweet, nostalgic love.

Why the title?

It’s so weird because I made a short film that was called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it was five minutes long, in black and white. It was after I put that chador on and I thought of that character. I thought it’d be so cool to have her in a park and some man starts following her, through the streets, into a building and then into an apartment, and then right when he enters into the apartment she turns around and eats him. I was telling Sina [Sayyah], my producer, and I was explaining ‘and there’s this girl, and she walks home alone at night’, and then I was, ‘that’s it, that’s the title’.

The secondary characters are very interesting, there is something very rich about them. This is particularly true of Atti, the prostitute, because it is hinted that there are many things in her past, and it feels like she could be the main character of another film.

I feel like that about all of them, they are all the main characters in their own films. And they all had extremely detailed back stories, every single one of them. Atti watched her mother kill her father when she was 14 years old. She has a very intense and long story that ended her the way she is. But she is also a pragmatic, sensible, tough type of hero. I feel like it’s hard to ruffle her feathers. I love the pimp so much too, he is a fetish of mine.


The character was based on Ninja from Die Antwoord, the South African rap-rave duo. I’m a huge fan and I love Ninja, and I modelled Saeed a lot after him. I knew he was going to be this scary gangster because he looks so intense, so I made Dominic watch Friends because Saeed loves the show and Russ is his favourite character, and six weeks after the shooting he was still watching Friends. It was just to bring it down and make it sweet because it’s impossible, if you look like that you’re going to be taken a certain way.

The two women characters, the Girl and Atti, seem to know more than the male characters, they seem more aware of the forces that move them, whereas the male characters seem more confused about what is happening around them.

Yeah, I would say that’s interesting. The girls are cleverer. I read one time that the men seem more open and vulnerable, and the women are more closed-up and hard to read. I think both are astute observations. I feel that they’re also lonely. It was the one common thing that they all had, stages of it becoming crusty, a loneliness that becomes so stiff it’s really difficult to change.

The soundtrack to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is available from Death Waltz.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

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