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.
Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film at HOME, Manchester, will introduce a screening of Suture at the ICA on 7 July 2016.
Based on a real-life yakuza, Nikkatsu’s gritty 1960s crime series is about a man on the wrong side of both the law and rival gangs.
Produced in rapid succession over the course of about a year and a half, Nikkatsu’s six-part Outlaw series exists within an interesting hinterland between two distinct phases of the Japanese yakuza genre. The first and perhaps most famous entry in the run, Toshio Masuda’s Gangster VIP (1968), was released by Nikkatsu in the wake of Seijun Suzuki’s spectacularly unceremonious dismissal from the studio following their dissatisfaction with Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), a move that caused great waves of discontent within the industry at the time. And the series wrapped up more than two years before the genre’s next major shot in the arm, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honour and Humanity (1972) for Toei, which spawned a series totalling five films (also released recently by Arrow Video), a second series dubbed New Battles without Honour and Humanity and numerous in-name-only spinoffs. The popularity of Fukasaku’s films can be attributed to their kinetic execution, grisly violence and the tabloid-esque sensationalism generated through them being based on a series of newspaper articles that were in turn based on the memoirs of notorious yakuza Kôzô Minô.
Despite the ‘all events and characters in this film are fictional’ disclaimer that appears at the start of Gangster VIP, and intermittently throughout the rest of the series, the Outlaw films are based on stories by Gôro Fujita, a former yakuza all too familiar with a lifestyle that’s governed by clan loyalty and debts paid with blood. The Outlaw series, then, can be seen as a missing link between the ‘Borderless Action’ and ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) that characterised the genre during the preceding decade or so, and the jitsuroko (true account, or actual record) films that came to dominate throughout the 1970s such as Battles without Honour and Humanity. Incidentally, Fujita’s writings would also go on to be adapted by Fukasaku with Graveyard of Honour (1975), another hit for Toei.
Starting in the mid-1950s, the Outlaw series stars Tetsuya Watari as Gôro Fujikawa, an on-again off-again yakuza henchman who often finds himself on the wrong side of both the law and rival clans (and sometimes even his own). But despite his best efforts to resist the pull of yakuza life, he frequently has to get his hands dirty to correct personal injustice. The first – and strongest – film of the series, Gangster VIP, sees Gôro freshly released from prison after a three-year stretch for stabbing a hitman in a bar (his former mentor Sugiyama, who now works for an opposing gang). A free man once more, he is disenfranchised with the kill or be killed mentality of his former peers and intends to shun his old ways. However, he finds his old clan in serious decline, pitted against the stronger Aokis group. He also has to frequently dissuade the curious advances of Yukiko (series co-star Chieko Matsubara), a young woman he happened to save while she was being harassed by a street gang. Yukiko becomes overly intrigued by both Goro’s criminal life and his attempts to abandon it, dutifully tidying his messy lodgings, supplied to him by his old clan. Goro manages to patch things up with Sugiyama (Kyôsuke Machida), who survived Goro’s blade but is now ailing from tuberculosis. But when gangland power plays culminate into personal tragedy, Goro feels compelled to exact gruesome revenge.
Perhaps best known in the West for the similarly-themed noirRusty Knife (1958) and the Japanese sequences of 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (along with Fukasaku), Toshio Masuda perhaps wasn’t the most audacious director working for Nikkatsu. However, he imbues the series opener with enough stylistic curveballs to elevate it above much of the competition. It’s also a film with a deceptive amount of emotional pull. Its climatic scene of vengeance, hauntingly set to the crooning tones of a nightclub singer, adds a satisfying twist to what could’ve easily turned into a disappointingly standard good-guy-gets-revenge-by-killing-all-the-bad-guys sequence. And a scene where one of Goro’s assigned underlings attempts to flee the city with a newly-requited love, only to be met with merciless refusal by his profession, is a more heart-breaking moment than the genre is usually willing to permit. Watari’s character often philosophises over the wasteful and futile nature of the yakuza game, with a regular motif throughout the series being Goro trying to protect those who naively get caught up in the carnage and to get them out before it’s too late. However, his efforts are usually met with failure. He is also haunted by memories of a tough upbringing, as illustrated by the film’s monochrome opening credits sequence featuring young versions of Sugiyama and himself escaping from a detention centre for delinquents. Indeed, Watari, and by extension the film, may not be ‘cool’ in the same way as number three assassin Jô Shishido in Suzuki’s jangly Branded to Kill, or the shotgun-toting Shishido in Yasuharu Hasebe’s Massacre Gun (1967), but that’s arguably not the point of his character (a latent self-insert for Fujita, exorcising the regrets of his real-life criminal past). Having said that, Gôro does rise to the occasion in fine style when the going gets tough, often finding himself a key player in many of the series’ chaotic raids, messy knife fights and protracted back alley brawls. And his effectiveness quickly earns him the title ‘Gôro the Assassin’. These sequences are surprisingly grisly for the period and bring a sense of scrappy realism to the whole series.
The second film, Gangster VIP 2 (1968), directly continues the story, starting with Gôro and Yukiko, along with Sugiyama’s seriously unwell wife (Kayo Matsuo), trying to make a new life for themselves in the countryside. But as Yumeko’s condition worsens, Gôro has no choice but to accept a job that will take him back into the fray. Using his wits and his trusty blade, he has to survive a new series of deceptions and double crosses as turf is fought over. Keiichi Ozawa replaces Masuda in the director’s chair for Gangster VIP 2 and manages to replicate the formula of its predecessor admirably. Gôro remains an enigmatic yet sympathetic protagonist and continues to be eminently watchable, and Matsubara’s Yukiko possess a quality that subtly sets her apart from other female hangers-on. However, this film doesn’t quite gel as well, even though most of the elements from the first film are present. What is missing is Masuda’s subtle yet effective stylistic flair. Ozawa’s attempts at visual creativity, such as intercutting the film’s final knife fight with stylised cutaways of nearby students playing volleyball, are interesting additions but feel muddled, and don’t land as well as Masuda’s forays into similar territory. Gangster VIP 2 is an enjoyable sequel to be sure; it just doesn’t quite match the quality of its predecessor. As a bonus, eagle-eyed fans will notice a young Meiko Kaji (of Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion fame) in an early yet somewhat pivotal supporting role.
Ozawa is replaced by Mio Ezaki to helm the series’ third film, Outlaw: Heartless (1968). Written by Ezaki and Gan Yamazaki, the film doesn’t directly follow on from Gangster VIP 2 in the same way that that film had followed on from the first. Instead, Heartless seems to almost function as a soft reboot, as indicated by the change in series nomenclature and, most intriguingly, by the complete recasting of Matsubara. Indeed, the recasting of actors into different roles from one film to the next in a given series was a typical strategy for Nikkatsu at the time, and as such it becomes an increasingly more common sight as this series progresses (actors Eiji Go and Kunie Tanaka show up a couple of times in different guises for instance), but Matsubara’s changes are the most readily apparent and have the most noticeable impact (or lack thereof) on the dynamic of each film.
Heartless starts with Gôro, now working as a yakuza enforcer, trying to save a man who has been unfairly duped into owing money to the Mikimoto clan. The man, Sawada, is however slain by one of Gôro’s entourage, concerned that ‘the Assassin’ has gone weak. Gôro forcibly steals the 3 million yen that the clan had cheated from Sawada to give it to Sawada’s widow. Gôro is pursued by the gang, as well as Sawada’s irate brother (a character who goes by the name ‘Ken the Razor’), who mistakenly believes Gôro to be the murderer. Matsubara plays Keiko, the naïve daughter of a former yakuza-turned-bar owner, who Gôro crosses paths with. Like Yukiko before her, Keiko is drawn to Goro’s tough yet sympathetic demeanour, despite the disapproval of her father and from Gôro himself.
One can’t help but feel that a rinse and repeat policy is in force with Heartless, as the film is littered with recycled moments: a knife fight that takes place behind the scenes of a nightclub as a song is performed echoes the superior climax of Gangster VIP, for example. But despite their familiarity, the film’s violent clashes (arguably bloodier than its predecessors) remain bracing, sometimes thrilling. Watari remains eminently watchable, even though creative changes behind the scenes have diminished some of the shading that made his character especially interesting in the first two films (for instance, the opening framing device that sheds light on Gôro’s traumatic upbringing is absent here and will be for the rest of the series). Matsubara also excels playing a new character in a now somewhat familiar universe, and her chemistry with Watari remains as strong as before even though she has a somewhat more incidental role to play this time.
Keiichi Ozawa returns to see out the remainder of the series. Outlaw: Gôro the Assassin (1968) sees Gôro, after another year in the slammer, taking a handyman job at a hotel resort. A woman who works there (Matsubara in yet another role) is embroiled with some gangsters, with one of them slipping her regular payments as a means of trying to redeem himself for the murder of her father several years prior. As the yakuza begin to throw their weight about the hotel, Gôro has little choice but to get involved, as they are all too familiar with his now legendary status as an outlaw in relation to both the police and fellow yakuza. Meanwhile, Gôro is also trying to track down the sister of his former cellmate to pass on an important message, requiring him to search various gang-controlled nudie bars and strip clubs. As a result, Gôro the Assassin moves the series into slightly sleazier territory, anticipating the wider industry’s move toward more exploitative fare in the early 1970s.
Penultimate entry Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968) plays the most with the continuity of the series. The black dagger of the title pertains to Goro’s famed weapon of choice, which is feared and respected by Goro’s enemies in equal measure. However, this marks the first time in the series when any kind of big deal has been made about it. Towards the tail end of the film’s opening night time knife fight between Goro and some bad guys in an abandoned snowy street, a woman from Goro’s past makes an unexpected appearance. Yuri (Matsubara) has ignored Gôro’s advice to stay away and has returned, just long enough to be accidentally stabbed by one of Goro’s opponents (Sueo, the ‘young master’ and son of the leader of the Buso clan). She dies in Gôro’s arms while Sueo makes his escape. A couple of years pass (moving the series into the early 60s) and Gôro manages to find work at a quarry. However the owner, Miura, is in debt to the Buso clan. After an accident on the site, Goro is put in the care of a nurse (played again by Matsubara). Her identical resemblance to Yuri sends Gôro on a little bit of a loop, and Sueo develops something of an obsession with her as well. As the Buso clan square off against Miura, as well as some old friends who are loyal to a rival group, Gôro unsheathes the black dagger once more.
The series’ final film Outlaw: Kill! (1969) starts with a clan boss going to jail after an assassination attempt results in a tempura restaurant being wrecked during the ensuing carnage. With a power vacuum now in full force, the fraught status quo between various underbosses and rival clans begins to unravel. Goro, back in town, resists falling back into the yakuza life once more and seeks legitimate employment. Out shopping (for pants of all things), he soon crosses paths with a group harassing Yumiko (Matsubara), a department store elevator girl. Later, he looks up an old friend he first met in prison, a veteran yakuza called Moriyama, who offers him a place to stay. Little does Gôro know, however, that Yumiko is the sister of Moriyama’s wife, Minako, and that she is also staying with them. Inevitably, Goro winds up becoming the target of various movers and shakers in the underworld, despite Moriyama’s best efforts to keep him out of their affairs. As one may expect, this doesn’t end well, prompting one final killing spree – perhaps the most gruesome and spectacular of the lot.
With Ozawa’s return, the second half of the series starts to rest on its laurels somewhat. As such, Gôro the Assassin, Black Dagger and Kill! do run the risk of blurring together for the viewer. Black Dagger may be the highlight of the latter half of the series, featuring several moments of compelling drama in what is an otherwise efficient potboiler. But part of the problem with the series in general lies in the excessive repetition of plot points; every film pretty much ends the same way, and there is only so many times a formula can be applied before an immunity is built up. Kill! may be the biggest offender in this regard, as it tries to recreate several moments from the past, especially from the first film. The swift and surreptitious assassination of a key supporting character while out in public with his wife is extremely redolent of Gangster VIP’s most emotionally charged moment. And its climatic fight in the VIP and backstage areas of a nightclub uses the same audio visual technique that worked so well in that same film – having the fight unfold without diegetic sound, accompanied only by the music being played by whoever is performing on the stage of the club (except this time it’s a psychedelic rock band instead of a melancholic club singer).
Although Watari still sells the hell out of the role, Gôro’s character is also on autopilot at this point, seeing as his arc hasn’t really developed since Gangster VIP 2. Matsubara also suffers from a similar malady. Although she always remains perfectly likeable, each of her characters basically embarks upon the same arc – a somewhat naïve love for Goro that develops within 10 minutes of knowing him. This dynamic is changed up somewhat in Black Dagger, where Matsubara plays two roles, one of which states in no uncertain terms her disapproval of yakuza. But it is strange to see Goro and other characters get hung up on the fact that one character is (understandably) the spitting image of the other, whereas Matsubara’s other incarnations in other films of the series are treated as new entities with zero baggage. It bizarrely draws attention to her predictable yet paradoxically mercurial presence throughout the Outlaw series, and it’s a tactic that undermines the development of any real emotional investment in the overall continuity of the series, as an actor who is killed in one film may very well turn up as a different character in another. Any relationships that do manage to blossom, such as the budding romance between Watari and Matsubara’s characters in Gangster VIP and Gangster VIP 2, get swept under the rug by time the next film starts. However, maybe there is something deeper to be said about the series seemingly going back to the drawing board, severing emotional bonds and repeating the same mistakes – a thematic extension of the vicious circle that is Goro’s vicious life.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any more fun to be had. Ozawa’s confidence in handling the films’ action set pieces visibly grows as the series goes on, although the introduction of a stylised stabbing sound effect does detract from the realism of these sequences a little bit. This building prowess reaches critical mass in the aforementioned nightclub scene that caps Kill! and the Outlaw series. Despite it being a conceptual carbon copy of Gangster VIP’s conclusion (which had already been sort of replicated by a sequence in Heartless), it still manages to stand out as one of the most visceral and exciting moments of the series. The use of the floor with clear glass sections between the dance floor above and the VIP room below is a particularly inspired location. These horizontal windows, used by horny businessmen to sneak upskirt looks at the young clientele dancing above them, are put to creative use by Ozawa and his camera team when the blades are drawn, making for a more expertly realised juxtaposition than Ozawa’s previous attempt with the volleyball players in Gangster VIP 2. It may get bogged down by repetition, but at least the series goes out on a high.
Overall the Outlaw series, while formulaic, offers up decently entertaining yakuza thrills for the most part. The first film is definitely the highlight, perhaps even a minor classic of the genre, and while the rest of the series is not quite up to that same standard, there are still plenty of things to like in each entry. Watari is excellent throughout and is the glue that holds it all together. The series’ shifts between savage drubbing and crestfallen romanticism (the latter wonderfully underscored by a recurring, and very Enio Morricone-esque, music motif of strummed acoustic guitar and solemn trumpet) offer an interesting, if a little too consistent, variant on the genre as a whole. For fans of Japanese genre cinema from this particular period, the Outlaw series is definitely worth checking out.
Cast: Fabio Testi, Cristina Galbó, Karin Baal, Joachim Fuchsberger
Italy, Germany 1972
Massimo Dallamano’s Catholic girls’ school psycho-sexual thriller combines elements of German and Italian genre cinemas.
A German-Italian co-production, Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? is one of several films intended to bridge the gap between the West German Edgar Wallace krimi and the Italian gialli. The relationship between the two subgenres dates back to the late 1960s, when gialli like Antonio Margheriti’s Naked You Die! (1968) were released in Germany in black and white (despite being shot in colour) to resemble the classic Wallace krimi in appearance. At the same time Rialto Film, the primary producer of the Wallace films, were trying to find ways of revitalizing their formula, in response to declining popularity. Their first attempt, Double Face (1968), was certainly equipped for lasting cult appeal, being directed by Italian horror legend Riccardo Freda and co-written by the future ‘godfather of gore’ Lucio Fulci. It also starred Klaus Kinski in a rare leading role, as well as a number of Euro-horror veterans, including Gunther Stoll, Margaret Lee and Annabella Incontrera. Unfortunately, Freda’s star had waned by that point, and despite the efforts of the cast, Double Face is bland and uninvolving.
The film’s commercial failure doused Rialto’s interest in further ventures, and the matter might have rested there, were it not for Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. One of the big European box office hits of 1970, Argento’s debut feature sparked off a wave of similar thrillers, bringing the giallo firmly into the mainstream. In Germany The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was distributed by Artur Brauner’s Central Cinema Company (a.k.a. CCC Films), Rialto’s main competitor in the field of the Wallace krimi. Brauner added a spurious credit to German prints of the film, claiming it was based upon a story by Bryan Edgar Wallace, the son of the famous author whose own works had been adapted by CCC Films. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was then marketed to German audiences as an authentic krimi.
Having noticed the film’s impressive box office takings, Rialto decided to attempt another krimi-giallo crossover. Although most of the technical aspects of What Have You Done to Solange? were left to the discretion of the Italian crew, Rialto made a number of changes to bring the film closer to their previous Wallace krimi, including setting the film in London. The main detective would be played by Joachim Fuchsberger, Rialto’s most popular leading man, while the German wife would be played by Karin Baal, the star of two earlier Wallace films, including The Dead Eyes of London (1961), arguably the finest example of the form. A single line of dialogue was added to justify the appropriation of the title of a genuine Edgar Wallace story for the film’s German title (The Clue of the Green Pin), despite the two stories having absolutely nothing in common.
Enrico Rosseni (played by Fabio Testi, best known for his role in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) teaches Italian and gymnastics at a prestigious Catholic school in London. Even though his severe German wife Herta (Karin Baal) teaches at the school as well, Enrico is having an affair with one of his students, Elizabeth Seccles (Christina Galbó, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue). During one of their meetings, Elizabeth sees a young girl and the flash of a knife, but Enrico angrily dismisses her claim. The following day a girl’s body is discovered in the same location, with the victim another student of the school. Even though Elizabeth is a key witness, Enrico discourages her from contacting the police because of his marriage. When another student is murdered, Enrico realizes that Elizabeth is not just a witness, but a key figure in the events unfolding and a potential victim too.
Despite its hybrid origins, What Have You Done to Solange? is very much a classic example of the 1970s giallo. As usual, the police are present but take a backseat role to the hero’s amateur investigations. Although Enrico himself is not a witness to the crimes like his counterpart in Dario Argento’s thrillers, his girlfriend Elizabeth is, and she experiences the same confusion and progressive revelations as the heroes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red (1976). The killer is visible only as a pair of black-gloved hands, although we hear his voice. His motivations are a little more complex. Instead of being a witness to, or a victim of, a traumatic event, he’s taking revenge on behalf of that victim. The incident itself is one of the most unpleasant of its kind and certainly effective, but would perhaps be more appropriate for a Roman Catholic country; the United Kingdom’s laws on the subject make such events largely unnecessary (a similar point applies to Elizabeth’s age; in Italy she would have been over the age of consent). The brutal and sexualised nature of the killings (and their motivation) is sharply at odds with the standards of the Wallace krimi, which rarely featured graphic violence and generally couched any sexual content in a light-hearted tone.
By technical standards, What Have You Done to Solange? is exceptional, especially the cinematography. Although best known as a producer of notorious splatter movies (including the excellent Beyond the Darkness) and hardcore pornography, Aristide Massacessi (a.k.a. Joe D’Amato) is a skilled cinematographer whose framing and shot composition are consistently solid. Director Dallamano is a capable cinematographer himself, having worked on A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For A Few Dollars More (1965) before moving into direction. Together Dallamano and Massacessi create a stylish, visually interesting film, with a number of memorable and eye-catching moments. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone provided the scores to more than a dozen gialli in the early 1970s, including Argento’s early thrillers. His work on What Have You Done to Solange? relies on many of the same motifs and themes that characterise his other giallo scores: angular, discordant bass figures; wordless child-like singing; high-pitched, screeching strings. Despite this, it’s a strong enough score, and certain passages correspond well to the images they accompany.
Although Dallamano is happy to kill off the girls in a brutal fashion and use them to provide the film’s plentiful nudity, there is something sad about his portrayal of these young women. They are essentially adrift in the world. Their parents are generally absent from the film and when they do appear, they present a rose-tinted, idealised view of their children that shows no awareness of their growing physical and mental maturity. Their Catholic upbringing provides them with plenty of rules and admonitions against sin but offers them no help with their predicament whatsoever. The other adults in their lives are equally hopeless. Their teachers (aside from the priests) include a lecherous hypocrite who ascribes to them every kind of sexual vice but spies on them in the showers. Even Enrico, the one teacher who takes their side in disputes with the school, is having an affair with a girl not yet halfway through her teenage years, and is not above pressurizing his lover to give in to his sexual demands. With no guidance except their own instincts, the girls drift into the clutches of perverts, sleazy photographers and backstreet abortionists.
The execution and genre mechanics make What Have You Done to Solange? an excellent example of its kind, but it possesses an emotional resonance that lifts it above the majority of its contemporaries. It is not a flawless film; Inspector Barth’s assertion that showing the teachers graphic crime scene photos is a ‘necessary formality’ is ridiculous and grotesque, while Enrico’s sudden change of heart is poorly handled and does the character no favours (indeed, none of the film’s characters are anything other than one-dimensional). Despite its shortcomings, What Have You Done to Solange? is a first-rate giallo that deserves this new restoration.
A new special edition release, includes the director’s short films and music videos, and a director approved High Definition transfer
Distributor: Arrow Video
Director: Jörg Buttgereit
Writers: Jörg Buttgereit, Franz Rodenkirchen
Cast: Monika M., Mark Reeder, Lena Braun
The German filmmaker talks about women aggressor characters, the banning of his film in Germany, realism and truth.
After last year’s groundbreaking DVD release of Jörg Buttgereit’s punk-art bombshell Nekromantik, Arrow Video is making its 1991 sequel, Nekromantik 2, available on home video for the first time in the UK. Banned in Germany at the time, Nekromantik 2 is the female pendant to the original film, starring the disarmingly sweet Monika M. as a necrophile torn between a dead and a living lover. Slicker and more melancholy, although still punctuated by moments of hilariously incongruous humour, the second instalment of corpse love mixes pop art and gore to probe the limits of the normal and the abnormal.
Virginie Sélavy talks to Jörg Buttgereit about women aggressor characters, the banning of the film in Germany, realism and truth.
Virginie Sélavy: After Nekromantik, you initially refused to make the sequel people were demanding. What prompted you to make a Nekromantik sequel after making Der Todesking in 1990?
Jörg Buttgereit: I was always playing with the expectations of the audience, so when I made Der Todesking after Nekromantik people were surprised. I was trying to get more freedom to do what I wanted to do. After I had that freedom with Der Todesking I wasn’t afraid to do a sequel anymore because I knew I could do something different, I didn’t have to do the same thing all over again. The fact that the Wall came down in between the first and the second Nekromantik was a good way of having a different point of view on the topic. And of course this time the film was made from a woman’s point of view, which is something I felt was necessary, because all the movies I made before had a male audience.
Did you always want to make the film from a female perspective?
Yes, I think so. The idea might have come to our minds when we did one of the episodes for Der Todesking, the ‘ego-shooter’ woman. That was also a female take on the male character from Taxi Driver. That was something we explored more accurately in Nekromantik 2. And in the first Nekromantik we had Beatriz, who was also a very strong woman, so it was just taking it a step further.
So you were interested in depicting a woman aggressor rather than a woman victim.
Yeah, which is something that from today’s point of view may not look too exciting, but 25 years ago it was still necessary. And it worked out in a way, because one of the first festivals the film was invited to was a feminist film festival in Vienna. It was a film festival that only showed films with women aggressors. But I wasn’t allowed to go because I was a man. That was a little depressing! They screened films like Empire of the Senses and Ms 45. They made a hardcover catalogue for the festival. I think it was the first film book that Nekromantik 2 was in. They told me that afterwards they had a shooting lesson for women. The festival was called Mörderinnen.
You have said that the film was liked more by women than by men. Do you think that’s still the case?
Maybe that was the case when the film came out. But the fact that the film got banned in Germany made it very attractive to people who didn’t like it in the first place, which didn’t do any good for me because I wasn’t allowed to distribute the film for two years. But for me it was very satisfying that there was a female audience at all for a horror film. That wasn’t very normal in those days. We’ve just been to some festivals with German Angst in Austria and with Nekromantik 2 in Finland, and I was surprised to see how many female audience members we had – really young female audience members. After a screening of German Angst I was so curious that I approached the young girls and asked why they watched a film like that. My episode [in the three-part anthology] is very close to Nekromantik 2 I think. To them it felt very normal to watch these films, they couldn’t really explain. So it was a very satisfying experience to see so many young women attending screenings of horror films.
Do you think that the fact that the film is about a woman also played a part in the reaction of the authorities in banning it?
That’s very hard to say. If I think about it today, maybe. But the Werkstattkino cinema in Munich, where the raid happened in 1992, was raided on a regular basis. The same thing happened for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. So I think that for the authorities it was just another one of those films, and they didn’t even know it was a German film. When they banned a movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or an American horror movie nobody complained because in the case of TCM 2 there wasn’t even a German distributor, so it was very easy to get rid of those films. But when they took my film I had to fight back because they were trying to destroy the negative, something that was really frightening, and that resulted in raids on our homes as well. So what they did was more like a political attack. And maybe it was also due to the fact that it was my third movie. When I made Nekromantik it played in exactly the same cinema in Munich but nothing happened because the authorities didn’t know me. After the third movie it was ‘OK, this guy is not going to stop if we don’t do something’.
It’s interesting that you made the first Nekromantik as a reaction to German censorship but nothing happened and it was only with the sequel…
Because Nekromantik was so small. It was me driving around with the film prints to all the different cities. Nobody had seen the film. If you wanted to see it you had to go to a midnight screening and district attorneys don’t go to midnight screenings. Sometimes it’s easy to get away from censorship by just making it exclusive. We hadn’t put it out on VHS, that came a year later, so it was a really underground independent film. Everybody heard about the movie. I think the first screening in Berlin of Nekromantik was in a three-seat cinema and 500 people came. After that screening it was just word of mouth. But with Nekromantik 2 it was different, it was reviewed like a normal movie.
Did you still feel you were making a film in reaction to German censorship when you made Nekromantik 2?
I was feeling quite secure, quite free to do what I wanted. So when I heard that the movie was confiscated in Munich, I wasn’t there, I was in Paris, promoting the release of Der Todesking I think, and Nekromantik on VHS. Someone phoned me in Paris and told me the cinema had been raided and I would be charged with ‘glorifying violence’. I didn’t take it very seriously in the first place, but when I got back home and they had raided the place of the producer it got quite serious.
What do you think of that accusation of ‘glorifying violence’?
That was the usual way of getting rid of movies like this, it’s a paragraph of the law where you can skip artistic freedom. It’s aimed at Nazi propaganda. If you glorify violence against foreigners you’re doing something against the law and you should be treated like a criminal and not like an artist. That’s the concept behind it. So I didn’t take that accusation very seriously because I knew that it was not true. That’s why the film was unharmed in the end, because it was not true. The judge watched the movie and an art historian came up with a thesis about it being a metaphor for East Germany and then the film was cleared. If you watch it it’s very obvious that it doesn’t promote violence against other people. It was stupid to take this kind of bullet-proof paragraph of the law to get rid of it, they were just too lazy to think about it.
There is a direct reference to real-life necrophile Karen Greenlee in Nekromantik 2 through one of her drawings, which appears on Monika’s wall. This grounding in reality always seems essential to you.
Yes, of course, because that’s something normal horror movies do as well – ‘what you’re about to see is based on actual fact’ – all this stuff gives films a more realistic and threatening kick. But my films are about real horror, not about walking dead and ghosts from another world. I wouldn’t dare to touch stuff Hollywood could do better. If you work with friends, there’s no money, it’d be ridiculous to do something like Lifeforce [laughs]. You have to stick to your abilities, throw everything away that could be ridiculous if you tried it. I think that’s why so many independent or low-budget horror movies suck, because they want to do the same things as Hollywood, which is pointless in the first place because those movies already exist, so why bother doing it again?
The film pragmatically looks at the reality of being a necrophile, for instance in the first scene, when Monika can’t have sex with Rob’s corpse because it makes her physically sick.
That’s something Dennis Nilsen describes in his book, Killing for Company, which I’d read before doing Nekromantik. There are pictures in Killing for Company where he drew how he put the corpses and the heads in plastic bags, and where he put air freshener in, which I was trying to copy exactly. If they could choose I think they would prefer a living person, but that’s so complicated sometimes [laughs]. Dennis Nilsen had living people in his flat but he was afraid that they would go away, and so he got them drunk to make sure that they would stay. It’s a very innocent and childish concept but he, and Monika too, would have preferred to have a living partner, and that’s what the movie is about. That’s why she’s trying to make the straight relationship work with Mark Reeder.
There’s something funny, but also quite poignant, about the scene when Monika is taking pictures with Rob’s corpse on the sofa.
Again it was a way of trying to picture what I read in books like Killing for Company, having a relationship with this person that you killed last night [laughs]. That was something that fascinated me. When Dennis Nilsen killed someone, he took a necktie from them and went to work the next day with these clothes. He was pretending that this was normal, and for him it was normal. I’m trying to show something normal, which is of course funny and creepy.
The idea of what is normal and what is not normal runs through the film. There’s a really interesting contrast in the film between Monika and her very unconventional desires, and Mark, who works in porn, but is very conventional in terms of his romantic relationships.
That was something I had in mind all the time. It’s still true because if I tell people today that I’ve just done a horror movie called German Angst, they don’t say, ‘That’s great, tell me more about it’, they say, ‘Why? Why do you do this? What’s wrong with you?’ In Germany you have to justify what you do, and people treat you like you’re not normal, but I always felt normal, and I felt more honest in doing these kinds of movies. So that’s maybe the main theme behind it, the need for all German horror film fans and horror filmmakers to justify themselves all the time.
Why did you decide to repeat the climax of the first film in the credits of the sequel?
I think it was mainly because of the fact that Nekromantik 2 starts very slowly and I wanted to have something at the beginning that makes you aware of the fact that there will be something terrible happening after a long wait. Many horror fans were waiting for a film like Nekromantik 2 and I was not giving them what they wanted, I was playing with expectations again. So with the credit scene at the beginning I was making them feel safe so they wouldn’t walk out after five minutes [laughs].
You also include a parody of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André. Why that particular film?
At the time the film was made I had a subscription to Fangoria and I learned English from reading all the letters in that section of the magazine. There was often hate mail that would say, ‘If you don’t like this horror movie, then go and watch My Dinner with André, so My Dinner with André was like the antithesis of a horror movie. When I thought of the concept for a film-in-a-film, I hadn’t even seen My Dinner with André [laughs]! So it’s mainly a spoof on this very dumb approach horror fans have to art movies, where they just won’t watch them, and that was me playing with the expectations of the audience, giving them an art movie. That’s why the characters in that film-in-the-film are played by famous underground artists Wolfgang Müller and Käthe Kruse from the group Die Tödliche Doris. I said they should be naked and I asked them to find out what they could talk about, and so this is like a spoof on the narrow-minded horror fans [laughs], and I’m having a laugh in the back of the cinema about the horror fans who have to sit through this art stuff.
How important was it that you found Monika at a screening of Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery?
The fact that she was there on her own was something that was not ‘normal’ at the time, and it meant that you could at least hope that she would be open-minded to be in an art movie about necrophilia. I don’t know how aware she was of what she was doing. She was very flattered that everybody was giving her so much attention and that we liked every move she made in front of the camera. We never talked much about it. I can’t really remember directing her like, ‘This is your motive’, and stuff like that. It was more like, ‘OK, the camera is here, you walk from here to there to put this on that’. It was a very pragmatic way of directing. That’s always the way it is with me. She had seen Der Todesking and she watched Nekromantik, and that was more than I could have explained.
Did she have a problem with any of the things that she had to do?
No. That was something I was very curious about too. That was maybe one of the main concerns. I told her what we were showing on screen to make sure that we didn’t exploit her. That was something we talked about a lot and I gave her the chance to be in the editing room in case something wasn’t kosher with her.
What do you think she brought to the character?
The most important thing, innocence. Because she didn’t know anything about acting, or about necrophilia [laughs]. And beauty, of course. The perfect contrast to the idea of necrophilia. When we were doing these films we didn’t know what we were doing. But that’s still the idea now. When I work for the stage I make sure I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. For German Angst it was necessary for me to put something dangerous in the movie. So I took this young girl who was not experienced in acting, and that was my dangerous item for the film. That’s what I look for. I’m not trying to make normal pictures like Hollywood, I look for some kind of truth or authenticity.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
The interview was first published in December 2015 for the release of Arrow Video’s limited 3-disc digipak (Blu-ray, DVD and CD soundtrack).
Following their acclaimed Grindhouse and Video Nasties compilations, Nucleus Films have put together a collection of erotic trailers from the 1960s to the 1990s in response to the success of the bland and comparatively unadventurous Fifty Shades of Grey. Focusing on arthouse erotica, the selection combines well-known films such as In the Realm of the Senses and Emmanuelle as well as more obscure titles including The Libertine and The Frightened Woman.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Marc Morris of Nucleus Films about Pop Art Italian erotica, the importance of soundtracks and the taboos that remain.
Virginie Sélavy: Why was it important to you to respond to Fifty Shades of Grey?
Marc Morris: We’d done several compilations of grindhouse trailers. You could say it’s a shameless cash-in, but when I saw this film coming out, I thought it was going to be really tame, and a lot of people going to see this probably don’t know that there’s this underbelly of erotic cinema that was made a long time ago. And I thought it’d be nice to make people aware that there was other stuff out there way before this. A lot of people said, why didn’t you make a ‘Grindhouse Trailer Classics – Erotica’ version? But I didn’t really want grindhouse sleaze, I wanted more arthouse erotica. So that’s what drew the line for me. I wanted it to be more upmarket, more world cinema erotica. I did go see Fifty Shades of Grey and I didn’t think it was that bad, although I thought the soundtrack was dreadful, that was the worst thing about it.
Yes, it’s awful and it reminds you how amazing the soundtracks to these classic erotic films are, and how important the music is.
The film was mediocre, but it’s refreshing to see a film that’s rated 18 for an adult audience.
But there’s nothing in it.
I know. I guess it’s the whole S&M theme that gives it an 18. There’s no nudity – all you see is a flash of pubic hair, her top off, buttocks, that’s it.
The presence of pubic hair was one positive thing for me about the film.
Yes, that was refreshing, a throwback to the 70s.
But in comparison to all the films on your compilations, it is incredibly tame.
There’s more nudity in most of our trailers than there is in the whole film.
Exactly. There are actually very few sex scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey and it’s not really about S&M.
Most of the people who are seeing it, the kids who have grown up on Marvel blockbusters and PG13 Harry Potter stuff, the women who have read the books, probably think it’s really racy. I remember when I was a teenager my mum went and saw Emmanuelle. That was the cause célèbre at the time, back in 1974-5, I remember all her friends talking about it. Emmanuelle, compared to Fifty Shades of Grey, is way racier.
Absolutely. The end still feels a little edgy, even now.
When I was watching Fifty Shades of Grey I was thinking about The Story of O. It’s the same kind of relationship, the woman proving her love by doing whatever her lover wants, giving herself to him and his desires. And even now that pushes boundaries. There’s full-on nudity, whipping, it’s really strong! And I can’t believe that’s an 18 and so is Fifty Shades of Grey! You look back at those films and they are ground-breaking and confrontational, but you don’t get that anymore. I’m hoping that because of Fifty Shades of Grey we’re going to have more filmmakers out there coming up with something a little edgier. I know you had The Duke of Burgundy but hopefully there’ll be more.
The Duke of Burgundy and Nymphomaniac are more the equivalent of the 60s-70s films, not Fifty Shades of Grey.
Oh I forgot about Nymphomaniac, I can’t believe it showed in mainstream cinemas as well. We tried to market the DVD with the Fifty Shades of Erotica title specifically so that it’d be sat in DVD racks next to Fifty Shades of Grey and people would thumb through and see it, and it might educate them into seeing that there were better and racier films that were made back in those days. And it might make them realise that a lot of these films refer back to Marquis de Sade and Krafft-Ebbing and lead them to the books. I got into it through the books – I collected them as a teenager.
What’s your favourite trailer on the compilation?
The first one, The Libertine, from 1968. I love the soundtrack. The film itself is so European and visual, it’s stunning, it’s like Pop Art on film, it’s the equivalent of Diabolik in a sex film. And The Frightened Woman is another really good one. It’s like a companion piece to that film. Everything about it is so beautiful, the set design, the soundtrack, the acting.
This is what’s direly missing in something like Fifty Shades of Grey: those films are wildly inventive not just in the way they depict sex, but also visually and sonically. You said earlier that you deliberately picked films that were on the arty side.
Yes, because I thought that if I put edgier stuff in there it might frighten people off. I just wanted it to be slick, arthouse cinema erotica – sophisticated erotica.
But you still have a good range in that you go from Night Porter to more light-hearted comedies like the Tinto Brass stuff.
Yes, it was difficult because I wanted to keep it S&M themed, but there weren’t enough movies for that. So I thought I’d keep it to erotic film classics, some things that people wouldn’t have heard of, German stuff, like Seduction: The Cruel Woman. Night Porter is actually a very rare trailer. It’s not on any DVD or Blu-ray. That’s the original UK theatrical trailer. There were loads of trailers that I would have loved to have included but that I couldn’t find.
What is not on there that you would have really liked to have?
Definitely The Slave. But there’s no trailer for it. Madame Claude, lots of Italian films. I have a whole wish list for trailers I’d have liked to have included but I just couldn’t find them. We collect trailers on 35mm and I’ve got a whole archive of them and a whole network of people around the globe who have trailers, and you ask around and they say, no we’ve never seen it. They’re hard to find. There’s some very rare stuff on there, like The Libertine, you try and find this trailer anywhere.
Obviously some directors feature heavily on this compilation, Radley Metzger, Tinto Brass, Jess Franco. Are they the most important erotic directors for you?
Yes, I think they are. I was aware there are a lot of films by them, but they were known for producing erotic movies. They’re like the Russ Meyer of Europe. I was going to put in a few Russ Meyer, but they’re not quite the same, they don’t have the same slickness to them. They push boundaries, Vixen does, and so does The Immoral Mr Teas, but they’re very early. They don’t seem as boundary-breaking as some of the other stuff. And I thought I’d lighten it up a bit with some of the Tinto Brass stuff, make it a bit wittier. It’s difficult balancing it out.
Did you feel that you should include some of the big sex films of the period like Last Tango in Paris or Deep Throat?
For Last Tango in Paris I had a trailer but I didn’t include it because it was so boring. It’s just a selection of stills, there’s nothing in it. Deep Throat is a hardcore porn film and the trailer is hardcore so I didn’t want to include that. The only film that we’ve included a trailer for that was hardcore is The Image, and that’s the soft version of the trailer. I didn’t include any hardcore stuff apart from that one because I think it’s an important film. I’d like to have included The Story of Joanna as well, the Damiano film, but I couldn’t find a trailer for that.
What about Robbe-Grillet?
I looked at those but I didn’t want any black and white stuff. I did consider also including the trailer to Quiet Days in Clichy, but it was just a load of old ugly blokes shagging young girls, it’s a bit unreasonable, isn’t it. It didn’t seem to fit. So with that in mind, Jake [West, the other Nucleus Films producer] and I decided not to include any black and white trailers.
The trailers go from the 60s to the early 90s, why did you go into the 90s?
Because I couldn’t find enough trailers. People have said to me, why don’t you do a Volume 2? But it was hard enough to do that volume. I could do something that wasn’t as arthouse, I could do a sexual roughie one, but the BBFC probably wouldn’t like that. I think the most roughie-ish stuff I put on there was the Joe Sarno stuff, like Female Animal.
Was the BBFC a consideration when you were putting the compilation together?
I thought that it wouldn’t really fit with the rest of the stuff. America at the time, and a lot of other countries, put out a lot of roughies, with rape and things like that, and I didn’t think that was very erotic. I wanted to keep it consensual.
There’s one film that stands out in there in the sense that you don’t have much Japanese stuff but you have Blind Beast.
I love that film. I could have put more in there but I worry about owners of rights. Some studios are a bit difficult. There were hundreds of pink movies made but it’s difficult where to draw the line.
So why did you include that one particularly?
Because it’s a favourite of mine. It’s beautiful, it’s a bit like the Italian Pop Art stuff, it’s a Japanese Pop Art film. Everything about it is so mesmerising. It’s like The Frightened Woman Japanese-style. It’s a film people must see!
When you put together the Video Nasties trailer compilations you made two excellent documentaries that put the film in context. Did you think of doing the same thing for this one?
We did, but we couldn’t think of anybody who could talk about it. We needed someone well-known, and it took
me so long to put this together I didn’t have time to go and film anybody, so we thought we’d let the trailers
speak for themselves. We couldn’t find anybody who would do it justice. There’s such a hang-up about sexual material.
Writers: Fabrice du Welz, Romain Protat, Vincent Tavier
Cast: Lola Dueñas, Laurent Lucas, Héléna Noguerra
Belgium, France 2014
Fabrice du Welz made his directorial debut with the stunningly uncompromising Calvaire in 2004. With Alleluia, he returns to the location and the star of his first feature film, as well as its emotional intensity, this time revisiting the story of the Lonely Hearts Killers, which was also the subject of Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Andrew Lane’s Lonely Hearts (1991) and Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson (1996). Gloria (Lola Dueñas) meets Michel (Laurent Lucas) through a dating site. Michel is a small-time conman who preys on lonely women, but Gloria is different from his previous marks. Madly in love with Michel, Gloria passes herself off as his sister so that she never has to leave him, but soon her uncontrollable jealousy takes them down a murderous path. Exploring the extremes love can lead to, du Welz’s take on the story is carnal and visceral, set against the background of a bleak, desolate Belgian landscape.
Virginie Sélavy met Fabrice du Welz at Film4 FrightFest in August where the director talked about mad love, his abhorrence of realism, and Bogart and the hippopotamus.
Virginie Sélavy: Alleluia is the second film in your Ardennes trilogy.
Fabrice du Welz: Yes, the idea is to do a trilogy about the theme of ‘mad love’ around Laurent Lucas in the Belgian Ardennes. Calvaire was the first one, now there’s Alleluia, and there’ll be a third part.
Why did you choose the Ardennes as a location?
I spent part of my youth in the Ardennes, it’s a place that is very singular and has always terrified me. I spent a little while in a boarding school there and I was quite troubled by the hostile nature, the perplexing people and the baffling weather. With Calvaire, the idea was to make a film that would play with horror film conventions, but located in Europe, which produced this slightly surprising melange of genres. I didn’t want to make a would-be American horror film. It was the same thing with Alleluia. I play with some thriller and film noir conventions of American cinema, but at the same time I’m very attached to my Francophone culture. And the third film will do a similar thing.
Why is the trilogy based around Laurent Lucas?
Because I think that he’s an under-used actor. He has an incredible range, a terrible ambiguity, he can be very beautiful and very ugly, he can be troubling, unfathomable, difficult to capture. There’s a mystery in Laurent that really fascinates me.
What do you think the effect is of placing an American story in a French context?
The original story of the Honeymoon Killers took place in the United States, even if Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin, but I don’t want to justify the context. The French have this terrible disease, which is, justifying violence through social context. Since the nouvelle vague, French cinema has consecrated realism above all. But before the nouvelle vague there were great filmmakers like Cocteau and Franju, who made films that were on the frontier of dreams, or at least that developed a fantastical universe – not horror, fantastical. The inventor of fantastical cinema was Méliès, he was French. In American cinema, in Japanese cinema, in Almodóvar’s films, you can talk about violence without justifying everything through the mother, the alcoholic father, etc. I’m exaggerating but it is something that is deeply troubling. The CNC [National Centre of Cinematography and the Moving Image, the public body responsible for the production and the promotion of French films] is dominated by this. With the CNC you always have to justify violence through the context. Some people do this divinely well – Jacques Audiard – others not so well. I absolutely don’t want to be part of this, I want to make a kind of cinema that is transgressive and poetic. And that’s what I’m looking for in the context too. Context is as important as actors to me. I look for a fascinating context that I can play with as I would with an actor, and through that try to achieve – modestly; I’m not saying I succeed – some kind of macabre poetry.
Were you inspired more by the real-life story or by the films that have been made about it?
I was inspired by Yolande Moreau. I met her at a festival and I’ve been fascinated by her for a long time. She’s a very impressive actress. I said, ‘I’d like to make a film with you in which you’d play a total bitch’. She said, ‘yes, great, go ahead’. That same week I re-watched Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson, the story of the Honeymoon Killers adapted in Ripstein’s country, Mexico. And I thought that was the perfect role for Yolande, she’d make a hell of a Martha Beck. I started working on the script, but it was very violent and very sexual, and Yolande said she couldn’t do it. So I was hired to make Colt 45, which was hell, it was the worst experience of my life. After that, I returned to Alleluia because the film had funding, and it was really vital to me on a personal level. It was almost an existential thing because the experience of Colt 45 had been so harrowing. But I had no actress. I was ready to abandon the film if I couldn’t find an actress. The producers asked me to pick a reasonably well-known French actress, but French cinema is so bourgeois these days that it’s difficult with French actors. I’d seen Lola [Dueñas] in Yo, también and I thought it could work. When I met her she said, ‘I’m the one you’re looking for, you can stop looking, I’ll do it 100%.’ But then I had to sell Lola to my producers and that was hard. They were saying, the script is difficult, and now you’ve picked a Spanish actress that no one knows. I fought for it and now everyone’s very happy.
It’s also an interesting choice because it plays with the fact that Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin. And it adds something to her character, she’s an outsider in a foreign society.
I saw that after. It was the life and death urges that deeply fascinated me in the story, the attraction between them, like magnets, and the character arcs. At first, Michel is presented as the predator and Gloria as the victim, you’re scared for her. And in the end it’s completely the opposite, she’s become an ogress and he’s a scared little boy. The whole journey, with the fetishism of one and the jealousy of the other, was a very joyous and fun thing to build.
Watch the trailer:
Gloria is a great character, both monstrous and very human, but in the end you get the impression that she’s very simply a force of nature, beyond any moral codes.
Yes, that’s right. My films have always been a little at odds with the audience, I’ve often been criticised for my lack of empathy with the characters. Vinyan was particularly badly received for that reason. And it was my fault because I really wanted to keep the characters at a distance, at least in the first part. So with Alleluia I was wondering how to make it resonate with the viewers. And I thought it had to be through mad love, because that’s something in which we can all recognize ourselves, even if Michel and Gloria are serial killers, lunatics with no morals, children who never think of good and evil. After the first murder, you understand that they’ve really found each other. They are polymorphous perverts. They have freed themselves from moral rules. And at the same time they reflect something of ourselves, in particular the dichotomy between that unquenchable thirst for this ideal passionate love, which we all want, and the basic urge for the destruction, the annihilation, the crushing of the other. The couple can be the nest of fascism, there is always one who will enslave the other.
Michel tells Gloria about his past, which may or may not be true, but we never get any explanation as to what happened to Gloria with her husband. Why did you treat the characters differently in that respect?
Because Gloria was also a response to Gloria in Calvaire. In Calvaire, Gloria is a character who doesn’t exist, or rather that you never see but that people talk about all the time. Calvaire is the story of a lonely, desperate innkeeper and a travelling singer, played by Laurent, who arrives at the inn. The innkeeper tells him that he’s lost his wife, she was called Gloria and she was a singer. And he transfers his affection onto Laurent, turns him into his wife and starts calling him Gloria. This is something that will be in the whole trilogy. The films can be seen separately but there will be a Gloria in the third part too. I like creating connections between the characters. And I thought that in Alleluia Gloria didn’t need a story.
Was the witchcraft element in the real-life story or did you add it?
It was in the real-life story but it was never used in Kastle’s film, or Ripstein’s, or the one by Lane. Raymond Fernandez practised black magic, it was a way for him to condition his libido. He was convinced that it helped his sexuality, he thought it made him an amazing lover. I found that very funny.
Why did you choose to film in 16mm?
It seemed to me the most appropriate format for the story. There’s an old-school aspect to it with the smoke, the grain, it had what I was looking for, something olfactory, sensual, because digital is very cold and clinical. It’s like porn today, it’s horrible, it’s surgical. The porn I used to watch as a teenager was sensual, curvy, warm, grainy. And film allows that. I was looking for a sensual experience. I love cinema and I regret that it’s so sanitised today. So, very modestly, I wanted to go back to something where you have smells, bodies, skin, breaths.
That love of cinema appears in the reference to Humphrey Bogart in African Queen. Why that film specifically?
I’m a big fan of Humphrey Bogart and I’ve always thought it was insane to see this big star imitate a hippopotamus in African Queen, especially as he was ill. The story of the film’s making is mythical. John Huston, a great man of a type that doesn’t exist anymore, didn’t give a damn about the film, all he wanted was to go hunting with the Maasai. And I was looking for something that would be funny but would also function as a sort of symbol for their love. The hippopotamus scene, replayed by Laurent at the cinema, makes Gloria laugh the first time, it’s the most sumptuous moment, the peak of their love. Then there’s the scene in the bedroom where he does it and eventually she laughs. And then there’s the moment when she doesn’t laugh anymore. I was looking for something that would indicate the state of their love throughout the film, and to use Bogart imitating a hippopotamus as a referent really amused me.
And you end with a dreamlike scene in a cinema.
It seemed coherent to me in the sense that cinema is the place where they fantasized about their love. Many people live their lives vicariously through film and I think that there is a dichotomy between aspirations that are typically feminine and masculine – without making stupid generalisations. Some women tend to idealise things while men often accept reality more readily. There’s something like that going on with Michel and Gloria. I chose to end the story in a cinema because cinema is heaven – or hell, I don’t know.
Why call the film Alleluia?
I really liked this title, it sounds like a prayer. People have said to me that it’s a very cynical title. But there is no cynicism involved. It really is a prayer, a prayer to love, to God, and then the story goes another way. We all want love so desperately in our lives, but are we capable of it? What are we capable of? As Celine says, ‘it’s within the reach of poodles’, and yet… That’s what accompanied me throughout the film and I pass no judgement on anything. So the title, this sort of call to something, I see no cynicism in it.
Cast: Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice Manowski, Harald Lundt
Just in time for Christmas, Arrow Video are releasing Jörg Buttgereit’s legendary underground sex-and-death shocker Nekromantik on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time in the UK. Banned in a number of countries, the film was never officially banned in Britain, having never been submitted to the BBFC, although any imported copies would have been seized by British customs. Shot with friends on Super8 in the greatest underground tradition, the story of necrophiles Rob and Betty, and the corpse that comes between them, became notorious and sought after for its outrageously grisly imagery. This release, 27 years after its creation, finally makes widely available a film that has much more to offer than shock for shock’s sake.
Virginie Sélavy talks to Jörg Buttgereit about the naivety of serial killers, disappointing people’s expectations and the academic theory that saved him from jail.
Virginie Sélavy: What’s your reaction to the fact that Nekromantik is getting an official Blu-ray release in the UK?
Jörg Buttgereit: The idea of releasing it on Blu-ray is something we had in mind for quite a while. It took ages because we did our old master from the Super8 film stock, which is not negative but positive film stock, because Super8 is made for daddy’s home films from the 70s, so you don’t have a negative. It was a lot of annoying work and I felt, what’s the use, because I prefer the movie to look very dirty (laughs). But when you transfer Super8 film stock to HD material there is not more depth, and there is no 3D effect, you get more dirt and more grain, so I’m happy (laughs).
That Super8 look is very important to the film.
I think so too. When I saw the dailies – as we say (laughs) – of Nekromantic, which was not the dailies, because when you shot on Super8, it took two weeks for the films to come back… so after two weeks, I saw the footage and I felt that it looked too normal and not dirty enough, so I was a little bit worried. So when we made film prints for the cinema in 16mm (this was a blow-up), we made sure we did it on a certain kind of film stock so the movie had this kind of greenish look, which looked dirtier, and the black looked more right in my opinion. But one curious thing happened. When we put out the film on VHS in Germany there were a lot of bootlegs in the US. I read reviews in magazines – because the internet was not there, this was 27 years ago – that said, ‘the movie looks so strange and it’s very dark’, and the viewer had the impression that they were watching real corpses. And I thought, well, it always works for the movie if you don’t see the real picture. I remember when I got my first Texas Chainsaw 2 VHS from the Netherlands, I couldn’t see anything. It was just darkness and noises, and I thought, what’s happening in that movie? I was totally fascinated. It’s the opposite of a movie experience today.
What did you think when you saw it properly?
It looked a little like a TV movie to me! It’s so bright! The first Texas Chain Saw is also very bright but it’s shot on 16mm so it still looks dirty. There was a hazing, they sprayed dust in the air, and it’s something that I did excessively when I did my episode for German Angst, my new movie that’s going to be finished at the end of the year. That film was shot on HD in CinemaScope so I wanted to make sure that it looked like a film and it looked dirty, so we did a lot of hazing. I was really afraid of seeing everything in HD.
The contrast that comes from using a home movie format and the subject matter is great. But using Super8 also makes Nekromantik look like an underground film, like those of the Kuchar brothers. It seems much closer to those films than to a straight horror film.
That was our thing, it is an underground film. The inspiration came from seeing Throbbing Gristle live in Berlin during that time, and watching John Waters’s movies, like Pink Flamingos, and having the book Film as a Subversive Art. And me being a big fan of old horror movies like Bride of Frankenstein. So it doesn’t work as a horror movie, there’s no tension, it’s terrible in that way – it’s terrible in a lot of ways… (laughs)
And as in underground film, you use non-actors who have a very unique presence. Daktari Lorenz has that weird wired energy, and it’s almost as if he’s not acting but just being himself.
Yes, I wasn’t trying to make them act. I was aware of the fact that they couldn’t deliver any lines and I couldn’t deliver good writing. I started doing good scripts when I started doing plays for German radio, but the first was in 2000. Until that time I wasn’t really sure if I could write good dialogue. Now I’m doing comic books, like Captain Berlin.That’s dialogue stuff I grew up with, very 70s, it’s something I can deliver very fast. So dialogue is something that I’m more able to deliver now. But these people who were acting in the film were just my friends, so how could they act? The film was never planned to be seen outside of my circuit. It was done mainly for this punk-rock-spirit audience inside Berlin. We were in this walled city so I didn’t even dare to take the movie and drive out of the city with it because there was the wall and they would have searched you, so it would have been impossible to screen outside of Berlin. With my short films I did stuff like this. But with Nekromantik I didn’t dare until the wall came down, which was two years later.
Did you not have more ambition for the film than just screening it within your circle?
Ambition maybe, but I was aware of the fact that it was impossible to reach this kind of audience. How could I, there was no internet. I’d only made short films before, that was Hot Love, which is also one on the Blu-ray. With Hot Love I did a tour through Germany. That was the only thing that was a little bigger than anything else I’d done before. I went to 10 different cities, in the West of course.
How do you see Nekromantik now? When you introduced the FrightFest screening in August, you seemed surprised that people were interested.
I’m amazed that it gets so much… not attention, because I understand why it gets attention. The poster we did back in 87 is an attention-grabber, but the movie doesn’t deliver on the poster. It does something else, and that’s nice, but I would never dare to hope that it really works. When I see the film I have to laugh. I see some stupid little kids trying to do a horror movie, or trying not to laugh in front of the camera. There’s a new de-noised soundtrack on the Blu-ray and in the first shot, where you see the legs and the panties coming down and then a girl is pissing, if you listen you can hear me laughing behind the camera. That’s how I approached the movie.
I think it is part of the appeal of the film, this anarchic charm, the gleeful pleasure at showing the most disgusting things possible.
I think maybe where we were ahead of ourselves was in the fact that the movie pretends that everything you see is normal. There is no justification, there is no chain-smoking police guy divorced from his wife who is uninteresting, but is there to put law and order into place. The fact that the corpse-loving scene is depicted in a way every normal love scene would have been, with piano music, with slow motion, all the clichés, I think that’s the trick, and that’s what gets people worried. Today Betty is like some emo goth chick, but back in 87 there was no such thing. There was no Tim Burton, no Johnny Depp. I was having fights with people about the fact that the main actress is in the bathtub with sunglasses on. That was actually like making fun of goth chicks before goth chicks were invented (laughs).
The way the music undermines all the romantic clichés is brilliant. You use the music similarly in Hot Love and Nekromantik 2, and running through those three films there is the same disillusioned view of love.
That’s what I was struggling with. If you see the introduction for Hot Love, it’s a revenge against my girlfriend who had left me. And the film is called Nekromantik, you can see it’s a combination of two extremes. Other horror films have the same topic, love and death, but nobody was going straight for the meaning of the word. To me, it’s about a very naïve part of you. I like innocence. And if a necrophile is having sex with a corpse and his girlfriend, then it should be presented from his point of view, that’s the interesting thing. I had some trouble explaining all these things. Two years ago I did a stage production on Edward Gein, the grave robber, so I had to sell it to the authorities by saying that this case is a cultural thing, it’s the basis for Psycho, Texas Chain Saw, Silence of the Lambs. But what fascinates me in this case, and this also became an inspiration for Nekromantik, is the naivety and the childish appearance of this guy called Ed Gein. One and a half years ago I went to his grave and I made a short film there. It’s not on the Arrow disc but it’s on the German Blu-ray. It’s called A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein. So you can see that I deal with these people in this sort of sensitive way. I don’t think you can learn anything from them if you just deal with them as monsters. And that’s the same as Nekromantik. You have to care about them, otherwise the movie will be boring. And if you don’t give them a Jodie Foster character in Silence of the Lambs, or someone who can deliver them from evil, then you have to make these so-called bad people sympathetic.
You do that very well in both Nekromantik films and also in Schramm, which is an astonishing serial killer portrait.
I’m trying to do the same thing on stage now in Germany. I found a topic that’s very much fitting because last year I did a German version of The Elephant Man, and that’s exactly the same thing. You have this deformed man and everybody thinks he’s gruesome, but he isn’t. It was very revealing to do that on a stage and to have a different audience. Because The Elephant Man is something that people would go to even if they don’t know who I am, so I have a lot of normal people in the theatre. And they were surprised that the production was so sensitive, that’s what the critics said. Of course they have this picture of me, they see the movie, they don’t see the person. They were saying, ‘we’re so surprised that your stage version of The Elephant Man is so sensitive’. That’s an insult when you think about it, but I was still happy!
A lot has been made of the necrophilia, but the rabbit scene remains the most disturbing scene in the film.
Because you know it’s real. For me it was important to have real death in the film, being inspired by underground movies that deal with this kind of thing. I was always annoyed by people explaining why they watch horror movies – ‘because we like special effects’. And I didn’t want to have that excuse for my movie. The scene is there to make people aware of what they’re watching, and to make people sensitive about why they’re watching it. Because when you watch footage like this, sooner or later you will begin to ask yourself, why am I watching this? That was something I was asking myself. I didn’t have all the answers but it’s a movie, I just made it with my friends. I had this guy who was a producer and was giving me all these facilities, but I did everything on my own, I experimented, I had nothing to worry about in terms of budget because nobody was paid anyway. So we were trying stuff out, which is the opposite of the experience of making films nowadays – or in general.
You said you made the film in reaction to German censorship at the time. What reaction did you expect?
With the first Nekromantik nothing really happened because nobody noticed that the film was there. In Berlin we had two film prints and it was screened at three cinemas. One cinema shared one print by driving around all the time. Only people who already knew me and who were from this underground scene watched the film, so nothing happened. People were a little worried that the film was too serious – that was the first reaction. The first review I read was in a gay magazine, saying that this was the first movie about AIDS, because people are going to bed with the dead now, and that wasn’t something I was thinking about. So I was totally surprised by people taking the film seriously and thinking that it was about AIDS.
Did you agree with that interpretation?
I didn’t have that in mind when I did the script, which wasn’t really a script, it was about 20 pages of scribbling. But of course AIDS was a big thing during that time. I knew people who were suffering from AIDS so it was in my head. If something is in the zeitgeist then it will show up in the things you do, I think. So I agreed with it but I was also surprised by it. And it goes on until today. I read reviews explaining my films and I wonder… (laughs)
What’s the weirdest explanation of Nekromantik that you have come across?
I think the strangest, and on the other hand the most convenient, interpretation was done by this film historian when we were in court with Nekromantik 2. The first Nekromantik was shot in the West side of Berlin before the wall came down, and after it came down we shot Nekromantik 2 in the East part. So the thesis is that Nekromantik 2 is art compared to Nekromantik because it’s a film about the decaying East German part of Berlin (laughs). That explanation saved me from going to jail and having the movie destroyed, so I really embraced it. And of course it was a conscious decision to shoot in East Berlin because everything looked so dead and so old over there, like the 60s, or 50s even. All the outside shots look strange, it was like a movie shot in the past. So that was the weirdest explanation, but it’s also true because it documents a version of Berlin that is not there anymore. But the main reason was of course that we could shoot in East Berlin with no money. I wanted to do all these petting zoo scenes, so we went to the West Berlin zoo because they have much nicer animals and they told us it was 350 Deutschmarks an hour. We went to the East German zoo and they told us it was 50 pence a day, because they weren’t used to professional camera teams. You could take your home camera there and film for the whole day for 50 pence. There was no capitalist concept in East Berlin, they didn’t ask for money. So we paid nothing for shooting outside, it was heaven. It took a while for East Berlin to get a hold of the rhythm of the West, but all the West Berlin people were going to the East and doing stuff there, so it was like tourism what we did (laughs).
At the FrightFest screening you also mentioned another interpretation that was given of the film, which was that it’s about the unearthing of Germany’s past. Do you see it that way?
I know that depicting death in German movies is a problem because of the German past. And if you watch my earlier short film, Bloody Excess in the Leader’s Bunker, which is not as good as the title, together with Nekromantik, you could come to that conclusion. But to me it’s more about Ed Gein than about concentration camps.
But there are references in Der Todesking and Schramm too, so do you think it runs through the background of everything you do?
Nazi trash was something that was part of the punk rock spirit – Sid Vicious was running around in Paris with a swastika. Something like this would have got you in jail in Berlin at once. So doing a film like Bloody Excesses in the Leader’s Bunker… I did a premiere of that film in 1982 in a punk rock club, Risiko, with Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten at the bar and the police came to check if it was a neo-Nazi meet-up. So over there it was daring to use these symbols because even now it is forbidden to use these images.
Is that why the German authorities have such a problem with horror?
Yes I think so. Under the Nazis you had this clean screen thing, there was no dead body during the Nazi occupation, no dead body on the screen. It was just Heimat films, stupid propaganda movies, something like what you would get in North Korea today. And for some reason until today something that is connoted as horror is only possible in the underground, and you need a very good excuse to deal with this kind of matter. So for me it’s only possible to work in this field if I do it for the radio or on the stage. I did a play on Ed Gein for the stage, it would have been impossible to do it for the screen. Because there would have been no money. But for the stage I had lots of money to do it.
Is that why you stopped making films for the cinema after Schramm?
We did four feature films with no money, so as it was like what Throbbing Gristle did once with all their fans, they sent them a postcard, ‘the mission is terminated’ (laughs). I had everything, the movies were banned, the police raided my home, I was labelled an artist in court, and Schramm was nominated for a German film prize. It was the right moment to stop because it wasn’t subversive anymore. And everybody was running out of money. Because getting our money back like today with Blu-ray editions was not possible.
You said in an interview that you like to disappoint people’s expectations. Is that how you would define your general attitude?
It’s a natural reaction I have. When the first Nekromantik came out it had this strange success, people were demanding Nekromantik 2, and of course it should have been even more gross. To me that just felt so predictable and stupid that we came up with Der Todesking, which everybody was disappointed with in the first place. Later on, we gave them Nekromantik 2, which was also very disappointing because it’s even more romantic than the first one. It’s a natural reaction because I don’t like to be told what to do, in terms of what I’m allowed to do from the censorship boards, but also from the audience (laughs). It’s a childish reaction maybe. Nekromantik 2 is full of jokes about what people expect, this art movie on the ceiling in black and white, it’s all stuff people who were waiting for Nekromantik 2 hated. And only after the film was banned did they try to rethink, and they liked it then. You can never trust the critics or the fans. If you give them what they expect they will tell you that you don’t have any new ideas. If you don’t give them what they expect they have another reason to be disappointed (laughs). But in the long run it’s always more interesting to play around with a concept.
It’s interesting that it seems to define your relationship with both the censors and the fans.
Because to me the so-called artistic freedom is very important. And this freedom can’t be harmed by a fan wanting to have ‘Nekromantik 10’ and also by a guy who says, this tape should be burned. In the end it’s the same for me.
Arrow Video’s limited 3-disc digipak including Blu-ray, DVD and CD soundtrack comes with a bounty of extra features, notably Buttgereit’s short films Hot Love (1985) and Horror Heaven (1984), new documentary Morbid Fascination: The Nekromantik Legacy, a new interview with Buttgereit, as well as a 100-page book featuring articles by David Kerekes, Kier-La Janisse and Linnie Blake.
Following on from the short films they made to accompany the albums of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have continued their working relationship with Nick Cave with 20,000 Days on Earth, a beguiling, artistic and highly spirited look at the life and work of a man who, celebrated as a musician, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer and occasional film actor, never seems to rest. Through a vivid collection of memories, archive materials and conversations with those who have affected and inspired him, both professionally and personally, the film revolves around Cave’s very personal views on the world in general and his everyday life and creative process in particular.
Pamela Jahn caught up with the filmmakers at the Berlinale in February 2014 to talk about their relationship with Nick Cave, the magic about emotional truth and why you should never mess with somebody else’s mojo.
Do you remember the first time you heard a Nick Cave song?
Jane Pollard: I do! Mine was actually track four on the first compilation tape that Iain made for me. It was ‘Slowly Goes the Night’. But back then, I didn’t know who Nick was. I thought that he was more from the kind of Elvis era because he had this phenomenal gravel in his voice… an amazing voice. I immediately picked up on that song. Then I bought the record and became just as obsessed with it as Iain already was.
Iain Forsyth: I don’t remember a particular moment. But I remember that the first album I knew was The Good Son and that I was astonished by the range of styles, I suppose, because with most of the bands I was listening to at the time, every one of their records was just another version of the same thing, which was great in a way because I loved it all. But to listen to somebody who can change so much and be so interesting in such a short space of time was very memorable.
The 20,000 Days on Earth DVD and Blu-ray are packed with over 45 minutes of extra material including a making of, several outtakes, exclusive rehearsal performances and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds with Kylie Minogue performing ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ live for the first time in 15 years.
What was the most difficult thing about shooting and interviewing a friend?
JP: This film couldn’t have been made without the friendship already being in place. But there were times where we needed to get out of his way. We couldn’t be in his line of vision because he’d let himself get so comfortable, like when he’s talking to the analyst or in that scene in the archive, for example. If we hadn’t stepped aside he would have started including us in the conversation because he is used to talking to us. But it wasn’t that hard actually. There was a mutual understanding that either of us would have to walk away from this if at any point it wasn’t working, or if it was just average. It had to be good and it had to be different. And it couldn’t have happened without that level of trust. And without that patience. He’s not a very patient man, but he gave us a lot (laughs).
Did you discuss beforehand how close you could come, or how much of his private life could be revealed in the film?
IF: There were no lines drawn. The amazing thing for me is that, now that I am sitting here looking at what we have done, the Nick I see in the film is the Nick I know. I mean, Nick has been doing what he is doing for over 35 years and there is so much stuff about him out there already, but I never particularly recognised him in those things. In the film I do.
JP: He didn’t have to check himself, because he knew that if, at any point, he had said, ‘Oh, you know, that thing I said about so and so, I don’t want you to use it’, then we would have just not used it, full stop. But we needed him to know that about our crew as well, that he was in a safe environment. And when he talks about his father, for example, we chose to use very little. We decided to leave it as an open question, so that you could make up your own mind about the ramifications a loss of that importance has on somebody. That was a very deliberate decision in the editing process. He actually did talk a lot about his father over those two days, but we didn’t want the film to offer itself up to psychoanalysis. We thought it was more interesting that you watched him and understood through all of this – like his relationship to his children, or his reliance on, and closeness with, male collaborators from Roland Howard to Blixa and Warren Ellis – how much of an impact that loss had on him.
Was Nick Cave involved in the narrative structure of the film?
IF: No, we deliberately kept Nick away from that, in as much as he himself was quite keen to keep himself away from it, because he was very conscious about not getting involved with making the film. In fact, as the project became more and more structured and inevitably more people became involved, one of his big concerns was always, ‘Are you keeping control? Is this still your film?’
JP: And Nick would say that ‘you don’t mess with somebody else’s mojo’. So as an artist, he gets that, he knows that you have to feel that it is your voice making this thing. It’s the same with how an album comes together. It’s about a feeling, an instinct, about being in the moment or ‘mojo’, as he calls it.
Part of the allure comes from his striking voice-over, which almost feels like another composition of his. Was that scripted or is that something you developed together as you were going along?
IP: Nothing was scripted. There was no set structure. But the voice-over was written by Nick, mostly while he was on tour. While we were going through his notebooks and stuff, we got to the point where we thought it would be great to have some of that background information in the film, like why he lives in Brighton and so on. So we would call Nick and he would write something and show it to us. And when it got to a stage that Nick felt it was right, he would record it on his phone and we’d use it as a guide in the edit. The thing is though, that Nick is not an actor. He’s done a couple of things before, but if you’ve seen those films, you know he’s not an actor. So we wanted to avoid giving him the feeling that he would have to play a certain part, or imposing another ‘act’ upon him as it were. We just wanted him to be Nick.
In the press conference you mentioned your theory about the truth not being the most interesting thing, meaning that sometimes you have to create a fake situation to create something that is really true.
JP: Oh, thank you for picking up on that. This is something that carries through our art practice on the whole. Some of our earliest works was a re-enactment of the last David Bowie show as Ziggy Stardust, with a fake band, fake costumes, everything, down to the last detail. And we had this theory as young art students that somehow through the most crazy, artificial environment, to the extent of re-enacted situations, there is a democracy of that experience that allows the viewer to have a new emotion. In the way that, say, you go and see a gig for the first time and often in that moment you think about really mundane everyday stuff, like what you should have for dinner, or that your shoes are hurting and that you are stood behind the tallest bloke in the room. But then that gig becomes legendary, it becomes the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, but you weren’t in that room thinking that, ‘one day, that gig will become legendary’, you were there thinking, ‘shit, I am stood behind the tall bloke again’. So in other words, when you know you are in a situation and you know the guy who looks a bit like Ziggy Stardust is coming on stage and he is going to play, note for note, the entire set, there is a freeing from within that happens. We have experimented with this in our art work for years, so when we came to do the film, it was those theories that we brought to filmmaking rather than trying to adopt known techniques in directing. We wanted to try and use the theories and experiences we had beforehand, and we were very lucky to find a crew who were willing to work with us on that basis. For example, we only ever did one take, because otherwise it would have been like asking Nick to act and that’s when self-awareness kicks in, and we wanted to avoid that. The takes usually last for about an hour or two, without intervention. Endurance becomes very important. The crew has to back off, and we often use cloths or put cameras behind things. Because as artificial and constructed as the situation may be, the heart of it is still a real experience for Nick. And there is still something in there, a bit of reality, that he can crap on to and you get this lovely truth out of this, a sort of emotional truth. Because we are not interested in factual truth, but emotional truth, hell yes!
How many hours of material did you end up with before starting the editing?
IF: (laughs) All I can say is that I am glad we didn’t shoot on 35mm.
After all these years of friendship and working together, what is it that still fascinates you about Nick Cave?
JP: The feeling that we want you to get from watching the film. That is it. And I’m still fumbling around trying to find an eloquent way of articulating it. It’s a feeling that you only have a very limited amount of time and you should bother to see through ideas. If you have any ambitions or thoughts, that you should get on and do them. And that’s what it is like to be his friend, at least that’s the biggest impact he’s had, and still has, on us. He’s just so impressive, his discipline and the fact that he’s so progressive and ruthless with his work. He works hard, his schedule is mad. And you come away feeling… not inspired that you want to be like Nick Cave, but that you want to work like Nick Cave. You want to work that hard, and think in a forward direction, and not look back, and never rest on your laurels, and raise the bar, because that’s what he is doing and he does it with every single album they put out – constant progression.
Nucleus Films have just released a three-disc follow-up to Video Nasties: the Definitive Guide, comprising two discs of introductions and trailers to all of the seized and destroyed films under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, and a substantial new documentary directed by Jake West and produced by Marc Morris. Video Nasties: Draconian Days 1984-1999 details the years after the immediate implementation of the Video Recordings Act, through to the end of James Ferman’s tenure as head of the BBFC, when his unilateral introduction of the R18 classification and the effective legalisation of hardcore porn embarrassed and irritated the government into demanding his resignation. The irony inherent in Ferman’s fate, brought low by such a liberal gesture after a reign characterised by secrecy, snobbishness and censorship is not lost on many of the talking heads West and Morris have assembled. He was a hate figure for many horror fans irritated beyond measure by the death by a thousand cuts inflicted upon film after film, often because filmmakers had included one or more of the elements that Ferman seemed oddly obsessed with: power tools and throwing stars, drugs and nun-chakus. He refused certificates to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist, left Straw Dogs in limbo and actually reordered a scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to his liking.
For all that, he wasn’t the simplistic censorian that some of his critics clearly want him to be. He was a clear head during the media flaps over Michael Ryan’s Hungerford massacre and the Jamie Bulger killing and their supposed connections to video violence, and saw off the idiotic crusade by MP David Alton, which would have removed from cinema any characters who weren’t good role models for children. The documentary takes you back to strange times when a piece of middling franchise landfill like Child’s Play 3 was treated like the very work of Satan himself, and know–nothing MPs and news reporters spouted fluent horseshit about the easy availability of actual snuff films to your children. It also documents a hitherto forgotten social scene of horror obsessives trying to track down and distribute all the stuff the BBFC and DPP had tried to remove from the public’s eager gaze, risking imprisonment to smuggle those precious video reels of Cannibal Ferox back from Amsterdam… The gleeful impression given by Draconian Days is that the video nasties that were supposed to turn the nation’s youth into sociopaths actually did something far worse: they turned them into filmmakers and writers. And the state’s reaction to the panic gave a couple of generations their first lesson in civil disobedience: the authorities are idiots.
Mark Stafford met up with Jake West and Marc Morris of Nucleus Films to talk about throwing-stars-obsessed censors, home-made nunchakus and hiding Blood Sucking Freaks under the bath.
Mark Stafford: I was one of those kids who didn’t have access to a VCR during the first years of the video nasty phenomenon, so I spent a lot of my youth with my sweaty little nose pressed up against the video library window imagining what these films were. Draconian Days has actually cleared up a few weird half memories for me – that cover to Pigs was fuzzily lodged in there somewhere.
Marc Morris: ‘Pigs eat anything, including evidence’.
I fnally know what that thing was. The film deals with a fascinating period and a character, James Ferman, who gives the film its backbone. Jake, you’re off camera, what’s your take on him?
JW: He’s fascinating because he’s contradictory. He was a filmmaker himself, and a highly intelligent, articulate intellectual.
MM: He had to balance the scales between the press, the government, the law.
JW: To begin with, he was quite idealistic. When he started at the BBFC, he got in censors who were highly educated and quite sceptical about censorship. But as far as videos were concerned they had to make up the rules as they went along.
MM: The idea being that because the VCR was in the home, different rules applied.
JW: And what emerged were Ferman’s own views and peccadillos, which then started to guide policy. The outcome of that, as Carol Topolski (former BBFC Examiner) reveals, is that he started to lose the plot, he got drunk on his own power.
MM: Like everyone says, it was his own fiefdom.
JW: It became clear that at the end of the day he was setting the agenda and policy. The fact was that he was altering the BBFC minutes, and other controlling behaviour. But he stood up against David Alton, and was instrumental in making sure that law didn’t happen.
MM: He had to stand up for the BBFC’s decisions, say that they’d already certified Child’s Play 3 and the like, and government couldn’t just come in and undermine him, say that they now weren’t suitable for viewing in the home.
JW: I think it was very important, as a filmmaker, to not just do a hatchet job on James Ferman. It would be very easy to just condemn him, but he’s a more nuanced character than that. Thankfully we got a brilliant archive interview with him. I really wanted to give him a big presence in the documentary. He was a man who shaped that era, and part of what was funny and what was tragic about it came out of that as well. His continual over-insistence in cutting horror films is what led to the emergence of the underground horror scene, and us all being here to talk about it now. He created the environment that made horror fans want to become criminals because we couldn’t stand what the BBFC sold us.
MM: You’d read about a film in Fangoria or wherever and hire it out and ‘fuck!’ all the good scenes were cut. What were you going to do? Try to find an uncut version.
JW: And they ended up criminalising everyone because they wanted to get hold of these versions. It was all a lot of fun until people genuinely started getting arrested and prosecuted.
There’s an interesting parallel with the 50s anti-comics crusade and the later underground cartoonists. Artists like S. Clay Wilson said that it wasn’t just the EC comics being an influence in themselves, but the fact that they were taken away by the powers that be that led them to fill their own work with as much depravity as they could muster. You’ve got Alex Chandon (director of Inbred) in your film saying more or less the same thing – filmmaking as a kind of hardcore punk gesture.
JW: That’s what happened with all of us. We were influenced by the very things we were told we weren’t allowed to watch. It created a whole generation, two whole generations of people who were deliberately bucking that.
Watch the trailer for Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two:
I’ve always thought that the censors’ obsession with the idea that kids would watch the nasty scenes over and over again and turn into serial killers…
JW: ‘They’ll freak out in their bed sitting rooms.’ That terrible classist view that Ferman had. He thought that there were some very disturbed people out there, he had this real fear of some sort of social disorder being created by films. And there was no real proof that that ever happened. But when the media purported that it did happen, in the Bulger and Michael Ryan cases, he firmly spoke out against that idea because he knew that those acts weren’t created by film. They criminalised the wrong people. Horror fans were the people who got affected by all this panic, like with Marc.
MM: Hiding my videos under the bath. You had to undo these chrome domes, then undo the screws, pull the side of the bath off and shove all the tapes under there, put the panel back… And then every time somebody said ‘can you do me a copy of Blood Sucking Freaks?’ you had to undo it all again. It was a pain in the arse. But if you left it undone you’d be scared that they’d come round and find all these depraved movies.
JW: There was a point in the 90s where raids on collectors were happening on a daily basis.
MM: You’d get a phone call saying that there were probably going to be some raids next week. It was either hide it under the bath or take it round a friends or a girlfriend’s house.
JW: Then you split up with your girlfriend and she ended up destroying your tapes.
MM: Smashing them up with a hammer.
JW: Now there’s a form of censorship!
I was on the side of all that. I moved to London in 1990 and began going to the Scala obsessively. I still didn’t have a VCR…
JW: The Scala was like the ultimate video collection anyway. And in better quality. They were heady times. You had all these energies, with the film festivals and the fanzines, in the pre-internet world of communication. People had a great sense of social grouping because of that. And that’s the side of the story that was positive, it did bring a lot of people together in interesting ways. So many people have friendships now because of that.
MM: People used to watch films in groups, have nights just watching movies.
I miss that. Now, if you mention a film you think’s interesting everybody’s watching it 10 minutes later. There’s no need to go round somebody else’s house.
JW: There’s no sense of discovery, of somebody finally getting hold of something.
MM: I remember somebody finally getting a copy of Men behind the Sun on VHS from Hong Kong. We all watched it, like… ‘Fucking hell!’ It was an original tape but the quality wasn’t very good, it was odd, VHS gave everything an even grimmer look.
The BBFC’s obsession with throwing stars and power tools seemed kind of odd. They were obsessed with ‘imitable behaviour’, but how many people in the annals of actual crime have ever been killed with a chainsaw?
JW: It was always absurd, this idea. Of course a power tool is a dangerous object but you can’t uninvent the object by not showing it.
MM: Any weapon is an imitable weapon. Any sword, any bottle, any fist. Do you reach a point where you say ‘we can’t show this because people might use fists to hit people’? It’s a cycle of stupidity to believe that there’s going to be a spate of throwing star murders because of a film.
Everybody in my metalwork class was making them. That was why we were doing metalwork.
MM: I made nunchakus out of broom handles. Of course anybody who made their own nunchakus quickly realised that they were going to do more damage to themselves than anybody else.
Over and over again in the intros to the Section 3 films the commentators are trying to understand why this or that particular film got seized.
JW: That’s because the Section 3 films weren’t prosecuted, they were just seized by the police and destroyed. You’re just left wondering as to what it was about these movies that led to them getting seized in the first place.
It’s funny watching Kim Newman talking about Final Exam, this tedious late entry stalk and slash effort, being utterly bewildered that anybody would find anything in it to be offended by and remember enough about it to complain. Did you try to interview any plod that were involved at the time, anyone who did the actual seizing?
JW: In the first documentary we interviewed Peter Kruger, who was head of the Obscene Publications Squad, but in the second film we didn’t interview any police. I don’t think they would have spoken, and I don’t think they would have known much. The reason these films got seized by the police is that they didn’t understand what horror films were. So any film that just sounded like a film that got seized in the past, a Driller Killer or a Zombie Holocaust, they would think, ‘well that’s the same thing’. There was no internet back then, no way of checking what these films were. So the police would just go by the back of the box: ‘oh, he’s got his eye gouged out, that’s offensive, we’ll seize it.’ It was as random as that really. (1)
In Draconian Days James Ferman comes across as complicated but David Alton seems just like an absolute screaming idiot.
JW: I think David Alton is a lot like Graham Bright from the first film. Graham Bright has not changed his views one iota since the 80s when he put the Video Recordings Act through. Alton was a right-wing Christian and a political agenda. Spreading the idea that Child’s Play 3 was destroying society was just politically expedient to get a large following of voters and newspapers on his side to further his own agenda, which seems quite transparent when you look at it now. You can always learn how stupid moral panics are by looking at one that happened previously. The format that they play out is always the same thing. Somebody in power gets offended and decides that nobody should gets to see something because they don’t like it.
There was a little ripple a few years back. I remember walking into a newsagents and seeing a tabloid headline trying to whip up fury about the fact that a lot of the DPP’s list were now emerging again on DVD, but the hysteria just didn’t take. Nobody cared.
JW: It’s a lot harder for them to do that. Back in those days, if you were a fan you had no outlet. Unless you were published or could get on television and your views were broadcastable, you weren’t represented by anyone. Now with the internet you have a platform. So the situation has changed, you can’t scapegoat something on that level because people will come forwards to defend it.
Also, back then a tabloid could grossly distort the nature of a film and people would believe it. Nowadays people can check stuff out for themselves and see that the tabloid version is bullshit. ‘Hey!’ this film isn’t evil, it’s just stupid!’ Where are the censorship flashpoints of the future for you?
JW: The internet. The internet is being more and more controlled in a very subtle way. It’s not the hammer blow of ‘Video is Evil!’ There are things like Cameron’s porn block and parental filtering going on that you don’t necessarily know about.
MM: People watching what you’re looking up, everything logged somewhere by search engines.
There was that TED talk where the head of Netflix, who had lots of left-wing friends and lots of right-wing friends, got them to type the word ‘Egypt’ into Google during the Arab Spring and take screen shots of the results. The left-wingers all had headlines about the uprising on the first page, the right-wingers all had adverts for holidays, with the news stories only turning up on page two… And this isn’t some definitive conspiracy by some Bond Villain, it’s just algorithms, cookies, bits of code shaping how you see the world.
JW: The internet is a Pandora’s box of problems. You want to keep it free for people to use, but all this information being gathered by people who could use it against you is a worry.
So what’s next? Is this your last documentary on all of this?
JW: We don’t have a plan to continue the video nasties story. We only made the second one because we realised there was more to tell. But beyond the Ferman years things got a lot more relaxed. There were still problems but there weren’t big scares, that era is over, which is good. Draconian Days was a surprise to us, that people wanted more, and it took us two years because it was a labour of love.
MM: And Nucleus will be putting out more stuff, more trailer compilations, like Grindhouse Trailer Classics 4. (2)
Watch the trailer for Grindhouse Trailers 4:
By coincidence I’ve recently come across the first one, so together with Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two I have subjected myself to a hell of a lot of concentrated filth over one weekend.
MM: We have depraved and corrupted you.
It was only my lack of power tools that stopped me going on a kill crazy rampage.
MM: We’re lucky you don’t own any, with your background in film viewing you could only be a danger to society.
Interview by Mark Stafford
1 In the first documentary, which I bought and devoured after this interview, seizures of Dolly Parton’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One by clueless coppers are reported. Sam Fuller’s film presumably because its title suggested something to some copper’s filthy dirty mind.
2 Of which what can one say that it features the expected lively mix of blaxploitation, sexploitation, Euro sleaze, horror and kung fu promos all screaming for your attention. Fans of nipples won’t be disappointed. Additional enjoyment can be gleaned charting the career trajectories of the stars popping up in the likes of Strange Shadows in an Empty Room or The Late Great Planet Earth (Martin Landau! Orson Welles!). Or wondering whether Stuart Whitman fired his agent after Las Vegas Lady. Maybe you’d expect Karen Black, Warren Oates, Eli Wallach and Ray Milland to pop up in this sort of stuff, but Christopher Plummer in The Pyx? Sir John Mills in A Black Veil for Lisa?! What happened there? Possibly the same 1970s drugs that led to Monkee Mickey Dolenz tearing up the screen in Dirty Dan’s Women. Prize for best tagline: ‘If it’s hot she’s got a hand in it, or on it’ from Too Hot to Handle, though Sacred Knives of Vengeance’s ‘a masterpiece of martial arts kung fu karate’ does have the virtue of covering the bases.
Cast: Aaron Poole, Jacob Switzer, Hannah Cheesman, Jessica Greco
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
What a thrill it is to experience a first-rate cast serving up one of Canada’s finest ensemble pieces in years. It should probably come as no surprise. With her latest film The Animal Project, Ingrid Veninger (Modra, I am a good person, I am a bad person), the whirling-est-dervish director of independent cinema in our fair Dominion, successfully explodes all (well, most) pre-conceptions anyone (well, mostly me, probably) might ever harbour with respect to movies all about the love, pain and touchy-feely twee gymnastics actors go through on and off stage. In fact, being a fan of all of Veninger’s ebullient coffee-cream-Cassavetes-like pictures to date, I’ll admit to feeling terrified that I’d even have to see it.
How will I ever forget that telltale aroma of putrescence as it wafted past my keenly attuned olfactory system? A mere trace of the lingering flatus, like some gently offensive perpetual mist in the dank hallways of a hooker hotel, did cruelly signal to me that The Animal Project was about – ugh! – actors. ‘Twas enough to render me apoplectic.
I immediately imagined a grotesque gag-me-with-a-large-wooden-spoon Toronto hipster vision of some insubstantial pageant, one of which dreams – nay, nightmares – are made of, one in which I’d have to nail my feet to the floor to keep watching, one wherein the potentially preferable choice would be to round my little life with one good mega-snooze.
I’m glad I did not succumb to this preconception. In fact, within seconds of the picture’s unspooling, I was hooked (line and sinker), realizing I was in for something far more substantial and downright entertaining. Actors at its centre or not, Veninger has crafted a movie that’s rooted firmly in the ‘all the world’s a stage’ territory and in the idea that actors, as indelibly written by Canada’s poetess laureate of guerrilla-warfare-as-cinema, are living, breathing human beings with all the challenges anyone faces – no matter who they are or what they do. It is, happily, no stretch to declare that all the glorious men and women of The Animal Project are players on the stage of life, though like all of humanity, they are no ‘mere’ players.
Leo (Aaron Poole) is a Toronto acting teacher in the midst of several life challenges. On the professional front, he feels like he’s not adequately breaking through the barriers his adult students have set up for themselves. As actors they must discover those inner sparks within their own emotions to freely render performances that will evoke the sort of truth that must not only be their stock in trade but also eventually become almost second nature. Leo appears exasperated by his students’ progress or lack thereof, though he doesn’t overtly blame any of them for their less-than-heartfelt efforts. The endless exercises he puts them through are not only boring him, but his acting students too and they are predictably resorting to self-indulgence and/or mind-numbing inconsequence.
Whatever the problem, he feels he’s to blame.
On the home front, Leo’s a single dad trying to raise Sam (Jacob Switzer), his 17-year-old son who seems to get more distant by the second. The kid means the world to him, but here, on the stage of hearth and home, Leo continues to express self-doubt – if not in words, then by his actions. As a dad, he’s clutching onto a slender thread and feels it could snap at any moment. For his part, Sam’s skipping classes, having ever-later starts to his days and sucking back doobies as if he’s sensing an impending worldwide shortage of bud. He works prodigiously on his music, though his practising feels more like an assault upon his dad’s need for quiet and solitude. Neither seems to understand the other, but as such, they might understand each other all too well.
Ain’t it always the way with parents and their kids? The trick is to make sure the twain shall meet. That, however, is always easier said than done.
On a strictly personal front, Leo’s looking for something but damned if he knows what it is. He carries the weight of his search into everything and it especially rears its head in the acting class in the form of a clearly adversarial relationship twixt himself and the cynical, laconic Saul (Joey Klein), evidently the most promising of the bunch. It’s in this relationship that the viewer is gob-smacked with the realization that Klein and Poole are delivering exactly the kind of performances that keep one riveted to the screen.
Quite often, these two actors hit you right in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of your proverbial sails and connecting with every nerve ending within your body and soul. As actors, they surely kissed the ground their writer walked upon for generating these characters. The intense loggerheads Sam and Saul find themselves at have clearly been building for some time. There’s something unanswered, unacknowledged between them, and we sense it has to eventually explode beyond the verbal and psychological. Like with all human animals it might need to get physical. They are, after all, both tough-minded sons of bitches. Fists might be the way to settle things, but then again, maybe not.
Maybe someone needs a hug.
I kid you not. As ludicrous (and twee-ishly sickening) as this may seem on the page, it makes perfect sense within the world of the film. Leo, for instance, once made a film with his son when Sam was just a child. In it, the kid was dressed in a bunny suit and wandering through the more groove-ola streets of Toronto, offering, uninhibitedly, hugs to total strangers. Hey, don’t knock inspiration. It’s usually just around the corner, but we’ve got to grab it for dear life.
And WHAT inspiration! This might just be the acting exercise the doctor ordered. Inspired by a dream, his old film, and by extension, his relationship with Sam, Leo wants his class to don animal masks and full body costumes, then go out into the world and offer, you guessed it, hugs. The potential for all inhibitions to break down on a professional, personal and just plain human level seems – possibly – within reach.
Wouldn’t it be grand if life were so simple?
We see here the sheer, astonishing brilliance of Veninger’s writing. It’s this very basic premise, which yields several layers of complexity and narrative flesh, that eventually gives way to a multitudinous amount of tissue and viscera. This goes well beyond mere skin-deep, but takes all the characters, and the film’s audience, deep into the bone marrow.
Though Leo, Sam and Saul are the film’s prime connective tissue, it’s all linked to a varied number of interesting, cool and recognizable characters. We’re treated to the journeys of the young man caring for his dying father (Emmanuel Kabongo), the wisecracking lesbian shielding the hurt of being dumped (Jessica Greco), the great-waste-of-life desk-job gent (Johnathan Sousa), who needs not only to act but find love, the lass from Kelowna (Sarena Parmar) who declares she wants to be an actress, but does so with a question mark at the end of her not-so convincing attestation. She probably needs to embrace the girl out of Kelowna by acknowledging she can’t take the Kelowna out of the girl. Last, but certainly not least, we also become intimate with the tall drink of water thespian (Hannah Cheesman) who, armed with an array of technically sound accents and a voluminous collection of auditions for awful TV shows, displays technical proficiency but hides the true talent lurking within and, perhaps most of all, the real person.
Veninger’s script juggles this multi-character drama with considerable skill, and as a director her fly-on-the-wall perspective is astonishingly natural. In addition to a superb production design that’s as much about character and emotion as it is about looking impeccably rendered, the film’s visual gifts are plentiful. The picture is gorgeously shot and Veninger maintains a relatively strict adherence as to where the camera always needs to be in terms of telling the tale visually (though with no labour seams visible). Given the unique nature of low-budget filmmaking, the movie’s gifts are bountiful, from the breathtaking cutting and first-rate sound works to the evocative score. No stone was left unturned in this ravishing production.
The Animal Project is ultimately powerful stuff and its story, characters and thematic underbelly offer a universal resonance. It feels like the work of someone who’s done some living and has the potential to touch a wide range of people. We discover, quite naturally and with no didacticism, that the masks we wear are indeed what we use to crash through our inhibitions to hit the raw nerves of truth and self-discovery in order to move forward in the world, with our spirit, soul, intellect and emotions. It’s how we must live. Most importantly, though, the masks we wear are not enough. We must learn to wear them well.
From the wilds of the northern-most tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon cinema!’
The Animal Project is available worldwide via Vimeo On Demand. In Canada it unspooled theatrically via Mongrel Media, one of the country’s safe harbours for fresh, new, exciting and fiercely independent cinema) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (the year-round home for all of TIFF’s activities , including the Toronto International Film Festival).
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews