Before Essie Fox turned her hand to writing, she worked as an illustrator, designing cards, wrapping paper and decorative ceramics. Always keen on the quirks of the past, her first three novels were Victorian Gothic, but her fourth, The Last Days of Leda Grey, steps into the Edwardian era and the world of silent film. She also explores the ‘facts, fancies and fabrications’ of history on her blogs The Virtual Victorian and The Eclectic Edwardian. The research for her latest novel has informed her choice of a filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
Having just come up for air after writing my latest novel set during the dawn of cinema, I know at once who I would choose as my flickering alter ego on screen – and that is Theda Bara.
California-based DTCV (pronounced Detective) features French singer Lola G and ex-Guided by Voices guitarist James Greer, who met at a party in the Hollywood hills and bonded over Super-Fuzz pedals. They have just released their latest album Confusion Moderne via Dead Meadow’s Xemu Records, and describe their sound as ‘Françoise Hardy fronting Buzzcocks’, mixing classic French pop, garage, 60s yé-yé and post-punk. Below, Lola G chooses her 10 favourite films directed by women.
1. Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, Agnès Varda, 1985)
I love everything Agnès Varda has done but this one especially. It’s raw, visceral and Sandrine Bonnaire is incredible in it. Some of the scenes in our ‘Bourgeois Pop’ video were a reference to this film.
John Bleasdale turns to cinema in an attempt to understand the outcome of the American election.
About five months ago I wrote a piece for Electric Sheep about ‘Watching Tarkovsky in a Time of Terror’. The first line was ‘2016 has been one rolling piece of shit’. Well, the shit has rolled on. The scything of musical legends has continued; hospitals have been bombed with nary a word of protest and the human tragedy of the refugees was apparently solved by picking a handful of children and then destroying what was unironically termed the Jungle. Add to this the American election concluding in what can only be thought of as the biggest prat-fall in world history and we have one of those years that would be best described in Latin but with a heavy emphasis on the Anus.
Italian maestro Fabio Frizzi is the composer of film scores for cult horror films including The Beyond and Zombie Flesh Eaters, and his brooding, synth-powered compositions are amongst the most memorable of the entire genre. On 29 October 2016, Frizzi returns to London’s Union Chapel for an evening of Chills in the Chapel, a show that includes new orchestrations of his scores for cult films by Lucio Fulci, mixed with explorations of his work outside of his longstanding collaboration with the Italian director. Below, Fabio Frizzi discusses his 10 favourite films.
1. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
My favourite film, at least to date, is this great parable of human existence. I’ve seen it many times in all the various versions, and I love that there is always something new to discover. Some films have the ability to teach you something, or give you something important to think about. These are the movies I love the most. For this reason, Blade Runner is my number one, and the soundtrack by Vangelis was hugely important and inspiring for me.
2. Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) Play it Again, Sam confirmed my adoration for Woody Allen’s work. Despite having a very different background and life experiences compared to mine, there are many things I relate to. There is his passion for good music, and having some familiarity with psycho-analysis and an ironic (often self-deprecating) approach to things in life. I found the main character irresistible, and it was wonderfully directed by Herbert Ross. From this moment, and for a long time now, I’ve been a big fan of Woody Allen.
3. Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973)
A surreal film which feels like a balance between a dream and reality, as with a lot of Federico Fellini’s work. As a boy I often spent holidays in Romagna and moments of the film played on my memories (the title actually means ’remember’ in local dialect), and this captivated me. I saw the film on the big screen and many characters reminded me of people I knew as a child.
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
This film really unites different generations of fans. It’s a big production but you simply can’t forget those actors or that classic score. The story mixes action and archaeology and is able to grab even the most distracted viewer. One of those rare movies you can go back and re-watch time and again.
5. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
A great Italian film, directed by someone I knew well. Fulvio, my father, was a man of the cinema and a close friend of the great Sergio Leone. Much of the crew were Italian with a team of mostly American actors, and it was a very high profile production at that time. The result is an extraordinary and intense movie experience. It’s a film I’ve seen many times, always discovering new details. Huge artistic credit should go to Ennio Morricone, who enriched the epic story with his beautiful musical score.
6. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
Another fantastic film, in fact this ‘Film Jukebox’ is making me do a real examination of my own conscience! Who hasn’t dreamed about travelling back in time, to see how their parents lived as young people? Plus, we all want a friend like Doc, a bit of the crazy type, but the perfect companion. Back to the Future is another film that never gets old and you can watch again and again.
7. Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)
When we are small we love fairy tales. Forrest Gump is a beautiful fairy tale with a happy ending that captures your imagination every time. As usual, the actors are absolutely crucial and here Tom Hanks is a real showman. I like how his incredible journey in time is punctuated by big moments in life. It makes you forget where you are and live through that little boy’s experience with a box of chocolates. Finally, the musical score is beautiful, and I always admired the work of Alan Silvestri.
8. Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)
Among the many thrillers I’ve seen (a genre I’m very passionate about) this is the one I love the most. What fascinates me in this kind of sci-fi inspired story is the huge range of both characters, the good guy becomes the bad guy and vice versa. This works well because of the great performances from both Nicolas Cage and John Travolta.
9. Sliding Doors (Peter Howitt, 1998)
What appealed to me about this film, in addition to the great production style and Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance, is the venture into a totally surreal territory. Life can change, completely, if just one event turns out differently, if the light turns red or the doors of the subway close before we can jump on. The theme of fate fascinates me and this film made me really reflect on living life to the fullest.
10. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000)
This is a regular theme of discussion, especially between friends: what if you were trapped on a desert island? A fascinating answer comes from this beautiful Robert Zemeckis film with Tom Hanks. I am fascinated that, for much of the film, the protagonist lives in total isolation. This whole experience is a monologue with the psychological aspects varying continuously between highs and lows. It’s a story that focuses on our fears and the desire to fight back and the extraordinary power within each of us.
The Australian filmmaker talks about working with Nick Cave, directorial tactics and his favourite song from the new Bad Seeds album.
For one night only, on 8 September 2016, Andrew Dominik’s beautifully moving and sad documentary will give audiences around the world a special opportunity to hear songs from Skeleton Tree, the latest album from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and see a glimpse of how it got made. The project originally started off purely as a promotional film to support the album release, but ultimately turned into something bigger, much bolder and undeniably richer, mainly driven by the emotional trauma Nick Cave found himself in after the death of his 15-year-old son Arthur in July 2015.
Like Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s recent documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, which offered an intriguing and highly original look at Cave’s life, One More Time with Feeling is anything but a standard take on the great artist and his irresistibly captivating music. From experimenting with mixing 2D and 3D black-and-white cinematography, to the shrewd staging of the songs, and Cave’s magnetising voiceover, Dominik (Killing Them Softly) manages to not only capture the artist at work but encourages him to gradually open up about his emotions and the sheer bewilderment and haunting grief that surrounds him and his family since the terrible ‘accident’ (a word that Cave himself doesn’t use easily). The result is illuminating and as deeply affecting as the music itself: fragile, fragmented, powerful and utterly poignant to its hauntingly dark core.
Pamela Jahn talked to Andrew Dominik at the Venice Film Festival earlier this week, where the film had its world premiere.
Pamela Jahn: The original brief for this documentary was quite different to the final film. How did it come about?
Andrew Dominik: Basically, the original idea was to just do some sort of live event that would be shown in a bunch of theatres, but Nick didn’t want to do it, maybe because he thought it was too much pressure, and so they decided to make a film instead. And he originally just asked me if I’d shoot the songs from the record, like a performance or something. But that would have only added up to 35 minutes, so we had to put other stuff into this, and what that other stuff would be we didn’t really know. It all happened quite organically. I knew obviously that the film had to deal with the trauma, because that was really the only thing that was happening, or that was the thing that was under everything. It was just a question of how directly we would deal with it, because as a friend, you don’t want to go too much into it, but as a filmmaker you’ve got to try to get to the subject matter at hand, and I kind of felt that that’s what he wanted me to do, that that’s my job, and so that’s what I did. And then the film took shape little by little. I came up with the idea of the voiceover, because Nick’s life is this swirl of activity, but at the centre of that he disappears into whatever goes on inside him, and I felt like we needed that to be expressed. But I didn’t want it to be polished. Nick is always controlling and I wanted to get in the way of that, so he could reveal himself.
Did you have any arguments?
Yes, all the time.
Nick doesn’t like to wait around, and he didn’t. For example, when we were going [to the studio] to shoot overdubs, he wouldn’t tell me when exactly he’s going in to do a take, because they’re trying to fool themselves that they are not working. It’s more like, they’re going to do something that happens to be recorded. Because he doesn’t want to deliver anything, he just wants something to happen. But you can imagine from an organisational point of you that’s a fucking nightmare, when the guys are not even going to tell you when it’s happening. And especially with 3D, everything is difficult. Even if you just want to change a lens, it takes an hour. So all I wanted from him was some indication about what’s going to happen during the day, and he wouldn’t give it to me.
At some point early on in the film Nick asks you, ‘Is this some sort of directorial tactic?’ – Was that true, did you actually have a tactic when it came to directing him?
I do believe in difficulty, I believe in making things difficult for people, because they reveal themselves when you do that. But it’s not malicious or deliberate. I don’t try to manipulate people but I am naturally manipulative, depending on the person. You have to basically adapt yourself to every person that you deal with. Nick, for example, is very suspicious, he’s not trusting necessarily, and he’s a very impatient person and he sees all sides of things. He’s actually a relief to deal with because he’s really bright and he understands what you’re doing structurally. But at the same time, Nick is anxious because he wants to get to the studio to start working on the record, and he’s got to wait around because we’re fucking working out this camera in the car, so at that point you mentioned there, he was serious. He thought I was trying to slow him down to provoke a reaction from him, although I wasn’t.
The title is part of a song from the new album. Whose idea was that?
It was my idea. It’s just a superstition really. I looked at all the music documentaries and all the ones that were good, the title was an action: Don’t Look Back, Shut Up and Play the Hits. So we just went through the songs and this one seemed to make sense.
How do you perceive Nick Cave has changed since what happened?
He’s like Nick, but more so. He says himself that he’s a lot more compassionate. I think he always was compassionate, but he used to be a very armed person, he was never afraid of making things difficult for other people and I think he’s a lot less like that now. And he’s a very ambivalent person, but I am not sure that’s changed, but he’s certainly much more patient with people than he used to be.
It’s said in the film that women are more 3D. Do you agree?
Yes. There is much more depth to women than men. And also, when you are dealing with actresses, they have a lot more speed. If they were like a bike, men have got three speeds and women have got like 15 speeds.
Was it clear from the beginning that Nick’s wife Susie would talk to you as well, and be in the film?
No, and it took a little bit of convincing. But I thought, his family is his life, I mean he goes on tour but at the end of the day he’s a family man, and every time you talk to Nick half of what he says is about Susie and the kids. So it didn’t really seem possible to make a film about Nick without including Susie. Also because what happened didn’t only affect Nick and it didn’t just affect Susie and Earl, it affected everyone. So to not hear from them would have been weird, I think, because it happened to them.
Which track from the new album is your favourite?
I think I like Jesus Alone the most, the first one. Because it’s real, I mean, they’re actually recording it as we shoot it, and the other songs are performed. So purely the one I think I captured the best was that one, probably. But I do like them all really, because ultimately they all mean different things to me.
Interview by Pamela Jahn
Skeleton Tree is released worldwide on 9 September 2016.
The great Russian master’s work offers hope in troubled times.
2016 has been one rolling piece of shit. Imagine the burning things Spartacus’ slave army roll down the hill into the advancing Roman army in Kubrick’s epic film, but imagine that the things on fire are bundles of shit and that will give you some idea of 2016’s unrelenting avalanche of bad, worse and worst news. Already reeling from the Bataclan and San Bernardino massacres from 2015, we’re now seeing people being shot, blown up, hacked with knives and axes and driven over by trucks – a failed coup in Turkey, a wedding party blown to smithereens, the endless horror of Aleppo. The geographical list now associated with individual atrocities is becoming depressingly long, blotting the Google map of our psycho-geography with cigarette burns of destruction. I know we shouldn’t succumb to terrorism; and I understand, statistically, I’m more likely to be killed from a bee sting than a car bomb, but it’s pointless to ignore the fact: the terror is working. The Western mind is closing: a deep Brexit of the soul has begun; the far right is on the rise; racism rears a brutish face and, as Yeats might put it, President Trump shuffles towards Bethlehem to be born.
So why am I watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky? Why am I doing anything for that matter that doesn’t involve wailing and gnashing and the rending of garments? Well, the mundane reason: I need to review them. It’s summer and nobody else was up for three hours of a Russian monk trying to draw pictures on a church wall in black and white. But as I watched late into the night, each film seemed to echo my own doubts: ‘What’s the point? How can you continue? How can anyone continue?’
Tarkovsky’s first feature Ivan’s Childhood shows us a war child on the Eastern front, whose world is made up of rain-filled craters, nightmare forests and the constant possibility of violent death. For all that Ivan’s no victim. His childhood is more this war-torn present than the dreamlike memories of a time when his family were still unkilled by the Nazis and he is eager to be sent on suicidal missions behind the lines. Life during wartime is going to present its share of horror – as distinct from the terror we live with – but it was with Andrei Rublev that Tarkovsky gave his audiences a portrait of the nightmare of history and how it hammers people into submission, silence or death. Terror is everywhere in his 15th-century Russia. Whether it comes from a group of soldiers beating up a jester, the warring noblemen, two brothers locked in such deadly enmity that they will jealously blind artisans to stop them repeating their work, or invading Tartars: violence can be sudden and brutal and the art of the eponymous artist Andrei – the icon painter – is compromised by the violence of the church of which he is a member and its (and his) official patrons. Horses are often used throughout Tarkovsky’s movies as a symbol of hope, of life itself. In a horrific scene of siege, a horse gets thrown down a flight of stairs, swept into a river and finally stabbed to death in the field. That’s what happens to hope. That’s what happens to life. Following such violence, Andrei gives up. Stops working. There’s nothing to be said; no glory to be celebrated. Only guilt and withdrawal. Fear and loathing.
It’s a radical but not unusual revelation. The Holocaust makes poetry impossible. The rest is silence – but the silence will be broken by a young boy, the only surviving member of a bell-making family (another child Ivan) who supervises the casting of a giant church bell as he’s the only one left with the secret knowledge of how to do it. The Prince threatens death to the workmen if they fail, but miraculously, from earth, water and fire they cast this beautiful industrial machine that rings. It breaks Andrei’s silence as well who, inspired by the boy’s art, returns to the world, so to speak. But the boy is distraught. There was never any secret, he confides. This is the mystery of art for Tarkovsky: there is no mystery. The miracle is we don’t need miracles.
This empty mystery returns throughout Tarkovsky’s films: an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. In Solaris, it’s the sentient planet, trying to communicate via our memories, our love, ghosts and regret. In Stalker, it’s the Room inside the Zone, a room in which whoever enters gets what they always wanted. The catch is they don’t necessarily know what they want until it’s too late. An unhappy party of men journey to the Room, and one of them has a bomb. Can there be no good in the world? Must it always be destroyed? In Sacrifice, it is the end of the world in a nuclear war, played out as the nightmare of an aging theatre director. When history is rewound and war impossibly, magically averted, the director burns down his house as the doctors come to cart him off to the local looney bin, but his insanity is the most rational reaction to the crazier world-wide destruction that is threatened.
Throughout all of his films, Tarkovsky offers love, self-denying, self-sacrificing love as the only answer. For all their highbrow reputation, the films never shy away from raw emotion, just as his raw materials are as elemental as fire, water, earth – often all represented in the same masterfully composed shot: a fire burns, rain pours and a wind wants to tear the trees from the ground. The resilience of his vision and the reason they spoke through the pain of this moment in history, this shitty piece of 2016, is due to their confrontation with the pain and suffering of the world, the mediocre evils as well as the atrocious ones, and to still offer liberating hope. Albeit hope that risks being knocked down the stairs and stabbed with spears.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are released in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye.
Elias Krantz is an instrumental musician from Sweden, whose music revolves around melancholic and euphoric asymmetrical melodies, driving rhythms and ambient soundscapes, reminiscent of Krautrock legends such as NEU! and Can, as well as modern post-rock like Tortoise and Four Tet. His latest and rather conceptual album Lifelines consists of just continuous tracks that form side A and B of the record. Lifelines is released on 26 August 2016 via Control Freak Kitten.
1. Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006)
Humble and slow film about friendship and how people change over the years. Amazing pictures and a great score by all time favs Yo La Tengo. Starring Will Oldham as one of the main characters.
2. You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2006)
From the Swedish king of dry humour, Roy Andersson. He is one of those directors that you recognise after seeing the first 10 seconds. The colours, characters, tempo and mood are unique. You, the Living is the second film in a brilliant trilogy Andersson did over the course of fifteen years.
3. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
One of the strangest films I’ve seen, in a good way. Weird plot starring heroine-addicted aliens, nymphomaniac lovers, German scientists in 80s New York. The music sounds like the DIY, cassette-released music that was so hyped a few years back. The whole film is up on Youtube!
4. The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997)
Haven’t seen it for years now, but remember how I loved it when I saw it in my early teens. Think it stuck because it was the first time I went to the cinema, and was presented to a totally new world that just existed there. Since then I love to see those kinds of films at the cinema: Avatar, Mad Max, etc. (films that are pretty lame if you see them at home on your computer, haha).
5. Aguierre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
Classic Herzog. Klaus Kinski, filmed in Amazonas, soundtrack by Krautrock legends Popul Vuh – what else do you need?
6. Gitarrmongot (Ruben Östlund, 2004)
Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s first film. Basically just filmed fragments and scenes in no order, starring 12-year-old guitar playing Erik. Even though it’s so randomly filmed and without an obvious narrative, it has something. Really fun, moving and capturing.
7. My Life as a Dog (Lasse Hallström, 1985)
Maybe the film I’ve seen the most times ever. Lasse Hallström’s breakthrough film. Very Swedish. Saw it a lot when I got a bit older but still was a kid – during that time when you feel you are a bit too old to cry in front of other people. So every time I felt sad but was too much of a ‘cool kid’ to cry in front of others, I watched this film.
8. Rams (Grímur Hákonarson, 2015)
A film I just saw. Beautiful and slowly told story about two rival brothers/farmers in Iceland. Great to see at the cinema, with its stripped-down music and beautiful pictures of the Icelandic landscapes.
9. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
One of the best films of the last years, with one of the best scores by Jonny Greenwood. It’s not an original pick really, but I´ve seen it several times now and love how it just feels like a heavy hitter with it’s acting, music and scenery.
10. Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
And another film I just saw. I guess a lot has already been written about it this year, but it feels like an important film in these times. Slowly told history about five sisters in Turkey. About old and new traditions colliding.
Listen to an extract from the second track ‘On Time’ on Elias Krantz’s new album Lifetime:
Caroline Smailes is an Open University tutor, an editor and the author of six novels. Described by The Observer as ‘an arch experimentalist’, she has used sign language, short chapters, white spaces and 11 possible endings to one novel as a way of telling the story. She writes the first 10,000 words without plan or structure ‘to establish a voice’, next the first draft is composed at top speed, then it’s ‘redraft, redraft, redraft, edit, edit, edit’. Her urban fairytale The Drowning of Arthur Braxton has just been re-issued by Fourth Estate, and will be released as a film in spring 2017. As her filmic Alter Ego, Caroline has choosen Andie Walsh from Pretty in Pink. Eithne Farry
If there’s one character I would love to have as my screen alter ego, it’s Andie Walsh: she’s a strong woman, she’s self-assured, she’s unapologetic, she likes herself, she doesn’t care what others think about her and she wears amazing clothes.
Added to that, Andie is brimming in contradiction. Being plain yet striking, self-assured yet self-doubting and astute yet reckless, sees her dismissed as a typical teenager, yet, for me, it is those characteristics that make Andie exceptional.
She’s a high school senior from the wrong side of the tracks who falls for rich-kid Blane McDonough, but it’s her empathy and her ability to speak from the heart that are worthy of praise. It’s Andie’s capacity for compassion, creativity and personal growth that appeals. She clasps her eccentricities and who she truly is; she refuses to change to fit in and, on top of all that, she actually likes herself.
Indeed, Andie is a role model and friend for anyone who doesn’t quite belong. Her dottiness, her uniqueness, her magnificent mix of both maturity and immaturity, and determination not to let people ’break’ her, are entirely refreshing. She tells us that it’s okay to be different. Actually, more than that, she tells us that there’s something rather remarkable and splendid in being true to who you are.
Andie displays what I wasn’t able to achieve in my teens. She made teen me want to be braver, but I lacked her conviction. My school life was about survival, in both physical and mental senses. Somehow in amongst all the bullying and abuse, I lost who I truly was and I stopped liking myself. I didn’t embrace being an outsider.
I guess that outsider feeling is something many of us experience. Be it not fitting in at school, at work, in families, in a crowded room. I don’t live a life of regrets, but I wish I’d been a little less afraid to display my difference when I was younger. I wish I’d been more like Andie Walsh. She didn’t choose the easiest path to take, but I think she selected the braver one. I wish more people were that honest, and that bold.
One of the Montreal festival’s favourite directors talks about manga adaptations, teen films and not making a science fiction movie.
It was with a standing ovation that Takashi Miike was greeted by a very enthusiastic Montreal crowd as he introduced As the Gods Will, one of the two films he had playing at this year’s Fantasia festival, the second being science-fiction action epic Terraformars. A violent death-game fantasy, As the Gods Will sees high school children confronted with a series of traditional toys with lethal powers; if the children lose the game, their heads explode into thousands of little red balls. The survivors are then taken to a mysterious white cube that floats above the city, where another set of challenges awaits them, the aim of that cruel testing unclear. Adapted from a manga, it is another hyper-kinetic, over-active, playfully delirious film from the prolific Miike, quirkier than Battle Royale and deadlier than Alice in Wonderland.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Takashi Miike at Fantasia about manga adaptations, teen films and not making a science fiction movie.
Virginie Sélavy: Both Terraformars and As the Gods Will are adapted from manga, which is also the case with a number of your previous films. What do you particularly like about turning manga into live action films?
Takashi Miike: If I told my producer, ‘imagine that on Mars there are a lot of cockroaches and I want to make a film where people fight with cockroaches on Mars’, the producer would ask me if I’m alright in the head. Or if I said I wanted to make a film with a daruma doll playing games with children and making their heads explode, people would be asking if I’m insane. Now producers avoid all risks in film, but in the world of manga they can take more liberties with those things. There are a lot of young people competing and the editors take more risks. That’s what people making films want to do, but they can’t right now. So adapting a manga is good because we can prove that we can have a hit with it, and afterwards I can make other kinds of films, so there’s a natural continuity.
A few of your recent films are also violent stories set in high school, Crows Zero, Lesson of Evil, For Love’s Sake. Do you particularly like school settings and teenage stories?
When you make a teenage film you have to have a whole class, so you need a lot of actors aged from 15 to 20, and actually there are a lot of different kinds of actors who fit the bill. There are actors who have played since they were children, and there are also models, but we cannot have a class made up just of beautiful-looking people. So there are a lot of different types of actors that we can use and it gives us a lot of possibilities because there are many imperfections. Even if they don’t play like professional actors there’s something that can be created. Those imperfections are very interesting because it’s like making a documentary film about being young. That’s my interest in those types of films and I enjoy doing this.
The contrast between the cuteness of the toys and their deadliness is startling and very effective. Was that an aspect that attracted you to this particular story?
As a writer or a producer it is a world that you cannot make with adults. It’s not adults fighting, it’s basically children. If they were at university they would not fight like this. There is something that is very childish, that is not balanced yet, about the way they fight, and those children fight with very old traditional Japanese games that are actually quite cruel. So this is something that can be connected, and that’s why I was attracted by this.
You’ve worked in many different genres, in fact you’ve even created your own hybrids (yakuza vampire film in Yakuza Apocalypse for instance) but science fiction is not really a genre that you’ve done much work in, especially on this grand scale. What interested you in the Terraformars story?
For me, Terraformars is not a science fiction movie. For me, in a science fiction movie there is something that is logical and scientific, and the science is the key to the problem, it is what you use to solve the problem. But Terraformars is more like fantasy. And also we can imagine that it is a fight between two schools, and it’s about which school is more powerful than the other. It’s like being inside the imagination of children, and while they’re creating this fantasy we try to find out how people can survive, and what will come after. So it’s a world that is strange and mysterious, but it’s not science fiction.
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Peter Stormare, Michael Chiklis, Kerry Bishé
USA, Canada 2016
Secretary director Steven Shainberg talks about female leads, arachnophobia and Peter Dinklage on the occasion of his latest film, which marks his first foray into genre.
It has been 14 years since Steven Shainberg’s brilliant indie breakout hit Secretary and 10 since his last directorial effort, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Always following his own individual path, Shainberg returns with a horror/SF tale that feels like a cross between X-Files and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Noomi Rapace as Renee, an arachnophobic single mum kidnapped by a group of sinister strangers with mysterious aims.
Rupture premiered at Fantasia in Montreal in July 2016 where Virginie Sélavy met Steven Shainberg to talk about his interest in female leads, his adoration for Peter Dinklage, and the spider metaphor.
Virginie Sélavy: It’s been 10 years since Fur, why has it taken so long for you to make another film?
Steven Shainberg: It’s all about money. I had my children, whom I adore and try and spend as much time with as I can possibly can, but the answer is, it has been impossible to get my other movies made. In the time that it took me to get Rupture made I’ve had seven other movies projects. Some of them are cast partially, two of them got very close to getting made, and every single time the money was not there. That’s the reason it’s been that long.
This is your first foray into horror and SF. What led you to make a genre film?
It is a genre film in certain ways, but in other ways it’s exactly the same movie as the other seven movies that I haven’t made and the movies that I have made, in that it’s the story of a person who is confronted with an unusual situation and has to discover who they are. For whatever reason, all the things I’m interested in are always about that kind of personal discovery within yourself, about who you really are and identity. When I started, I had this idea for this movie and I started talking to this producer about it. Originally it wasn’t a movie I thought I’d be interested to make, and then as I started working on the story and as we developed the screenplay I realised, ‘this is that movie, I’m making that movie again’. And I thought it would be interesting to see if that kind of story could be told in a different context. It is a movie about somebody who has to confront their fear in order to transform into who they really are. That’s the story of Secretary and that’s the story of Fur. And that’s the story of the other movies as well. So in that sense it is really no different.
In the films you’ve made, self-discovery also comes through pain, is that fair to say?
There’s pain, which is also part of self-discovery and change, and there’s confusion, and fear. Those I think are the doors through which we have to pass in order to get anywhere and in order to have any kind of truth about ourselves. And girls are more fun to look at than boys.
Yes, you clearly like female characters.
When Kieslowski made Red, White and Blue, he was asked why all his heroes are women, and I think his answer was something along the line of ‘they’re great to look at’. And you do have to look through the lens at them for a long time, and then you have to be in the cutting room with them for a long time, and then you have to go out into the world with them for a long time, and I think I’m inclined to love them, and adore them, so that’s what leads me in that direction. But then, most of the movies I’m trying to get made have very strong male characters and I think to some extent that’s a desire to change that. But that’s pretty much been my inclination.
Do you have to be in love with your main character?
You have to be in love with all your characters for sure, even the ones that are horrible, at least understand them and want to connect with them in some way. But the protagonist of the movie, yes, you got to love that person. That’s what’s hard about making a movie. I’ll just give you an example. I have a movie that the rather fabulous Peter Dinklage is going to play the lead in and I totally adore him. So because of that feeling that I have for him it’s exciting to think that we can make that movie. He’s a guy.
Despite the similarities between Secretary and Rupture the big difference is that in Secretary there is some kind of resolution, whereas Rupture is open-ended – it seems made for a sequel.
From your mouth to God’s ears. There were various endings for this movie, the intention and the hope were that the movie would make a shitload of money and that we would get to make another one. That’s why the ending is open-ended. Because this tells a very simple first-beat story of Renee becoming part of them. And the thing that happens between her and them, and then between her, them and her kid and then the world, is not part of this movie. It’s supposed to be part of other movies. So that’s the reason.
Why did you decide to focus on a single mum? Did that have special significance for you?
This is the reason why they take her when they take her. She’s primed for the ‘rupture’. This means that there are periods in your life when you are vulnerable and when you’re more fragile and you’re not as strong as you might have been a couple of years ago or you will be in the future. But at that moment some real change can occur for you. And that’s why she’s a person who is saying to her friend on the phone and to her kid, ‘I’m going sky-diving’. Who goes sky-diving for the first time? It’s a person who is looking for a new feeling, they are looking for something in themselves that they can release, for a kind of transformation. So she has this fragile relationship with her ex-husband who is insensitive to her, and she’s vulnerable and she’s tender and she’s looking for a change and that’s the moment when things can happen for you.
You always seem interested in marginalised characters, people who are different for one reason or another.
Yeah. The thing is, problems are what’s interesting. The movie has to have somebody in a problem, and I’m not drawn to the ordinary guy who is angst-ridden about his suburban life unless he’s nuts and really on the edge. I guess I grew up as an unusual person in various ways and so I feel connected. My wife says, ‘you’re much more Peter Dinklage than Bradley Cooper’, [laughs] and it’s true! I would rather cast Peter Dinklage than Bradley Cooper!
The actors are all terrific. How did you cast the film?
It’s one of the ironies of low-budget filmmaking that for most supporting parts you can’t afford another big name. And my translation of that is, ‘oh, we get to cast people who are great and right for the movie’. If Renee goes to that facility and all those people are faces that you know, people you recognize, you will not be scared because you know who they are. But if you don’t know who they are it’s much more unnerving. So we had to cast certain people out of Toronto because of our Toronto deal, but we could also bring some people. So for instance we brought Lesley Manville, who from my point of view is one of the greatest actresses of the world. I never thought she would do it, but she was free, in between two movies, so it was amazing to have her, I love her. And the same thing was true with Michael Chiklis and Kerry Bishé and everybody else, and certainly with Peter Stormare. It needed to be a group that had a certain coherent internal vibe. And the criterion was, is this a person who feels like they’ve ‘ruptured’ in their own lives? That’s what Andrew Lazar the producer and I would assess during casting. ‘That guy is awesome but he’s wrong for the movie. He hasn’t ruptured yet.’ [laughs] I’ve ruptured many times… [laughs]
What inspired that idea of transformation coming out of terror?
It’s something I understand, what you have to move through and be capable of working with in your life in order to arrive at something new for yourself. The spiders in the film are merely a metaphor, and we all have those things crawling all over us all of the time. Most of the time most people can’t transcend that. One of the things that I like about the movie is that everyone else is saying, ‘what do you want from me?’, all the people who are in the facility, and they never answer the question, except to say, ‘it’s entirely up to you’. And that’s the truth, it’s entirely up to you.
What’s great is that you never know if they’re good or bad guys, their ultimate aim is never made clear.
That’s absolutely true. That’s the experience we have in our own lives with people who are working on us. Whoever is saying to you or to me, ‘this is where you’re failing’, or ‘this is your problem’, or ‘you need to…’, or ‘how come you can’t ?’, ‘what’s stopping you?’, we’re suspicious of them. We don’t know if they’re good or bad. They might be loving and gentle but they might be insisting that we do something hard. Or they might be threatening and suggesting that we might be doing something easy and good for us. So we are confused about it. Our experience of it is confusion.
And this goes with the fact that in the movie you show two people transform, the two most beautiful women in the cast, and the transformation looks disturbingly ugly, so you have this contrast between beauty and monstrosity.
Yes, but that’s also about one of the things that we are terrified of: if we make that transformation we will become something horrible to ourselves and to others. Or not necessarily something horrible, but something unknown, and unknown and horrible are right next to each other. You can’t have them transform into something beautiful and lovely because that’s not how we experience the fear of transformation, that’s not how we experience the challenge of all these things. We’re afraid that there’s something ugly in us. Otherwise we wouldn’t be afraid of it. If it was just something beautiful that was going to be revealed it’d be very easy. We’re ashamed and terrified and disinclined. This is precisely the metaphor of the movie and how it operates throughout the whole film. And that’s what made me want to make it. Yes, it’s a genre movie, but it’s really a movie about spiritual existence.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews