Black and white and enigmatic, Suture was one of the most singular debuts of American independent cinema at the time. Jason Wood talks to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel about identity, improbable gestures and ‘Ring of Fire’.
Jason Wood: What was the starting point for Suture? The synthesis of film noir and avant-garde cinema suggests that you are both keen cineastes, but the film also expresses an interest in issues relating to identity and wider philosophical concepts.
Scot McGehee/David Siegel: More than anything, Suture grew out of the films we were watching together at the time: some Japanese art films from the 60s, and also American paranoid thrillers, and every twin film we could get our hands on. We were thinking a lot about identity as a construct, and how film constructs identity; and certain narrative tropes started interesting us: hypnosis, twins, amnesia. Out of that stew, the basic plot sort of emerged fully formed.
Was it always your intention to have Clay and Vincent portrayed by actors who were black and white? Your tone here is often quite playful, but it also introduces an interesting take on racial politics that was considered quite potent for its time.
Clay and Vincent being portrayed by actors who were black and white was an idea we had while we were writing. It was an idea that we started out loving but not taking completely seriously. But it stayed in our heads. The humour of it, the ways in which it let the story be a little out of control. And the more we lived with it, and the more we worked on the script, the less we could imagine doing the film any other way. People tried to talk us out of it, of course.
The cinematography by Greg Gardiner is striking. How did you come to work with him and what instructions did you give him in terms of the look and tone you wanted to achieve? Was it always your intention to shoot in black and white?
We decided while writing that we were making a black and white film. More specifically, we decided we were making a black and white Scope film. At the time, we couldn’t think of one that had been made (in the United States, at least) since Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). All the Japanese films we had been watching were black and white Scope, and we loved the look of it, and loved the idea of using a very graphic wide-screen frame to shoot a fairly intimate drama.
Greg Gardiner was one of many people who interviewed for the job, but he talked to us from the beginning as though we were already working together. And though he hadn’t shot many films at that point, he’d had a very successful career as a gaffer. That experience was very appealing, because the light in the movie was something we hoped could really contribute to the emotional feel of the story. We spoke with Greg a lot about shooting the film in ‘white and black’, trying to capture a world of confidence and analysis rather than a more traditional ‘noir’ world of mystery and shadow.
One of the other aspects of Suture that most impresses is Kelly McGehee’s production design and the general use of locations and interiors. Can you say something about the buildings in which you shot (Vincent’s apartment is particularly striking) and what sense you wanted these locations and mise en scène to communicate?
We shot the film in Phoenix Arizona at a time when the city was very depressed financially, so the central downtown area was quite eerie and deserted, but it still had that crisp, clean, arid feeling of a desert city. The location we used for Vincent’s house was a vacant Savings and Loan office. We shot many of our interiors in vacant office spaces, which had a nice anonymous quality and were available at a very good price. We wanted the film to exist in a psychological space more than a realistic one, so the gestures could be big, graphic and improbable.
We had worked with Kelly on both of our short films, so we all kind of grew up together and our creative collaboration was already a number of years old when we began Suture. And she had been involved in the thinking for the film as we were writing, so a good deal of the design foundation had been laid long before we ever got to Phoenix.
The final face-off between Vincent and Clay is brilliantly realised. Was this a difficult sequence to execute?
Most of the sequence is fairly straight-forward shooting, with the exception of the last overhead shot in the bathroom. That’s an image that we’d written quite precisely into the screenplay. Despite our low budget, the bathroom was the one set we insisted on building, just to be able to realise that shot. To do it, we had to fix-mount the camera on scaffolding about 20 feet above the stage, rigging it quite precariously in a way that didn’t allow for any direct looking through the viewfinder. It wasn’t until the video tap was attached that we could actually see the shot: Vincent walking towards Clay, separated by the shower curtain, each with his gun drawn. We were both kind of flipped out by how intact the original written shot had remained, and how connected we both still felt to it. It became this very emotional moment for us, and is still one of our fondest production memories.
The song ‘Ring of Fire’ plays a prominent role. You use both the Johnny Cash and Tom Jones versions. What was the thinking behind this?
Johnny Cash is The Man in Black. Tom Jones is a Welsh soul singer. We loved both versions of the song, and liked the pun of the car-phone bomb transforming Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ into Tom Jones’s version, much as Clay was about to become Vincent. Chalk it up to the juvenile sense of humour of first-time filmmakers, but it all felt right. In the end, we probably paid more for the rights to the various versions than we actually earned making the movie. But it still seems worth it.
Steven Soderbergh came on board as an executive producer. What function did he perform and how beneficial did it prove to have his name attached to the project?
We had brought the film to a rough-cut state and were in the process of trying to raise money when we met Steven. We knew someone who knew someone who was close to him, and that person managed to convince him to come to a screening. The screening turned out to be a technical disaster: reels projected out of order, the wrong gate in the projector. Afterwards, Steven suggested we meet for coffee the next morning, and we were sure we would get a polite, collegial brush off. Instead, he told us he had spoken to his accountant about mortgaging his house to help us finish the film. The accountant had apparently talked him out of that scheme, but Steven adopted us anyway, and stuck with us for months as we continued cutting. We finally raised the finishing funds through a contact of his in France. He was an invaluable and tireless supporter, and a true friend.
Is the climate in which you made Suture very different to the one in which you currently find yourselves working? Looking back on the experience, what do you most recall about the making of the film and its critical and commercial reception?
The whole experience of making and releasing Suture was a series of firsts for us. Reviews, festivals, publicists. Though it didn’t perform well at the box office in the US, we had been to Telluride, Cannes and Sundance. It was all gratifying and fresh, and ultimately it opened doors to people within the industry who were interested in helping us make more movies. Looking back, we can see that we were lucky to have had that first experience within an independent film world that was considerably smaller than today (and friendlier, in a way). No independent film had made $100 million at the box office at that point (or anything even close), so the expectations were lower and the approach to independent filmmakers was, perhaps, less restrictive.
Neither of us had gone to film school or had any real training or apprenticeship in the film business. We had only made two short films when the production began, and so, often, we found ourselves learning how to do things only one step ahead of actually doing them. Sometimes less than a step. But the people we worked with during the making of the film, and the people who helped us get it out into the world, were for the most part incredibly open, generous and collaborative. Looking back on Suture, we find it hard not to remember how much fun we had.
Interview by Jason Wood
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