Category Archives: Interviews


Radio On

Format: Book

Date published: May 2007

Published by: BFI

Author Jason Wood

Mention the words ‘road movie’ and most people will think of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding down the highway to the tune of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’. Easy Rider may remain the daddy of road movies but there is more to the genre than this, as Jason Wood’s book on the subject amply demonstrates. With detailed entries on films that explore many variations on the template, 100 Road Movies is a thoroughly enjoyable read in which classics such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde sit next to more unexpected entries such as The Wizard of Oz and The Searchers as well as modern updates like The Motorcycle Diaries. We met up with Jason Wood, a man whose knowledge of cinema is as phenomenal as his enthusiasm and rapid-fire delivery, to talk about his book.

Virginie Sélavy: In your introduction you say that you think the book should provoke debate and discussion and it certainly has done that for me.

Jason Wood: Yeah, I’ve already had lots of people asking ‘why isn’t that in there?’ but I like that, I think a book should do that. A hundred films seems a lot to begin with but when you start scaling back, it’s not. There are ones now that I wish I’d put in there, for example I don’t have a children’s road movie. I guess The Wizard of Oz just about counts, but not really. There are lots of arguments over what should have been in there.

VS: It makes you think about what a road movie actually is, and how you define it, which is good. What made you think of writing about road movies?

JW: I got a bit of a reputation as somebody who wrote only about American independent film. The first book I did was on Steven Soderbergh. Then I did a book on Hal Hartley and another book for the BFI in the same series, 100 American Independent Films. So I didn’t want to just write about one subject. And I’ve always been interested in the way that road movies have used music, the way that sequences are often cut to particular records or songs. I’m as interested and inspired by music as I am by film. When I first started driving, I had an old car and a tape machine and one of the things I loved to do was to make tapes and just drive and listen to music.One of the things that I really like about this road movies book is actually the part of it that I didn’t write, which is the preface by one of my favourite filmmakers, Chris Petit, who made Radio On. He says something in that preface that I immediately related to, which is the intersection between the road movie and music. The other thing I like about road movies is the fact that that they teach you something about yourself. I think the whole idea of the road movie is a journey towards some sort of selfhood and self-knowledge. I think the back of the book says that road movies are a metaphor for life. You might set out in life having the intention of travelling in one direction but fate and circumstance find you moving in another direction. I like the fact that road movies don’t stick to the itinerary, they often go off road, they take different courses. I find that quite liberating because I think that life is like that.

VS: How difficult was it to select the films?

JW: It was really tough and I knew what was going to happen because I’d done this 100 American Independent Films. For that book I got two filmmakers I like very much, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who made Suture and The Deep End, to write the preface for it. And their whole preface was kind of having a go at me in mock tones for leaving out their favourite film, a film called Billy Jack. So I knew from doing that that no matter what one hundred films you select, there’s always going to be one or two that people are going to take you to task for for not including. So for the road movies book I actually cheated. In the introduction I list ten other films that I wish I could have included just to try and cover myself. What I tried to do was to select films that are important to road movies in the historical sense, films that are important in terms of key directors and films that might not necessarily have been considered previously as being road movies. I would regard a road movie as something that doesn’t necessarily have to involve a road or even a car, but as something that involves a journey. So I tried to select films that were a new way of thinking about road movies, The Wizard of Oz for instance, and The Searchers, which is a Western. The key goal for me was as broad a selection as possible. To begin with I tried to do a film for every single country but I was selecting films that maybe weren’t the best examples just because they came from a particular country and the selection was suffering because of that. So in the end I just decided to pick the hundred films that were most representative, films that meant something to me, also films that people would expect to see there, such as Thelma and Louise, which is an important film, but not one that I particularly like very much. But even doing it that way I realised that a hundred films isn’t nearly enough.

VS: When I came across the entry on The Wizard of Oz I thought, ‘What? The Wizard of Oz is a road movie?’ I have to say that for me road movies have to definitely definitely involve a car. If they don’t, how do you define a road movie?

JW: I think they certainly can include cars, and motorbikes, and so on, but my definition of a road movie would be the idea of a journey. They have to involve travel, they can’t be stationary, but the idea of them having to involve a car would for me rule out quite a lot of good road movies. The Searchers is obviously set in a period before cars were invented and I think it is a very good example because it clearly involves some kind of personal quest. It’s about the idea that the character played by John Wayne finds out something about himself that he didn’t necessarily know. So I think that to have not included that film would have been a shame. One of the sub-genres that has originated from road movies, and there are several, is the idea of the walking movie as in Beat Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro or Paris, Texas. I think that road movies don’t even have to necessarily involve a road. I mentioned right at the end of the book a film called London to Brighton, which is a train journey towards selfhood and away from a crime scene. Of course the fetishisation of the vehicles is an important factor of road movies. This book caught the attention of people who wouldn’t normally be interested in film books, a lot of car magazines, and Top Gear… I can’t believe that Jeremy Clarkson would be interested in this… So ideally the road movie would involve a car but for me the essence of the road movie is a journey, which invariably turns into some sort of personal quest.

VS: Why did you not include Paris, Texas, a work that sounds quite important to you or films such as They Live By Night, Wild At Heart and The Wild One, which you mention in your list of ten, instead of films such as Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, which I think are rather mediocre films and which you don’t seem to like very much yourself?

JW: The only other self-imposed rule that I had was that I tried to limit the amount of films per director. So Wim Wenders for example, who is perhaps the filmmaker most commonly associated with the road movie – he even named his production company ‘Road Movies’ – made films in Germany that explored the same terrain as Paris, Texas – films such as Alice in the City, Kings of the Road and The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick. I could have had five or six films by Wenders but I wanted to limit it to just two or three, so that’s why Paris, Texas wasn’t included. I absolutely agree with you with regard to Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, I think they’re both very mediocre films. But they emerged at quite an interesting time in filmmaking, a time when filmmakers were trying to look at the influence of the media and how events were covered, specifically the almost obsessive interest in killers and murder sprees. So Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers had to be included almost as an update of films such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde for the way they take on some of the ideas explored in those films. The other film that I’m not a big fan of but that I had to include was Thelma and Louise. It’s one of the few road movies which is written by a woman and has a female protagonist. I actually think that the film is completely compromised by its ending but it’s an interesting one to have in there because it has a certain amount of cachet with feminist writers. And I probably bowed to a little bit of pressure to include it because people would expect to see it there. If people are interested in Thelma and Louise they should certainly see a film called Messidor by Alain Tanner, which is included in the book. It is a very similar film but it takes the feminist perspective of Thelma and Louise that much further. It was made something like twenty years before but it’s a much more audacious film. With regard to some the other films that you mentioned, instead of They Live By Night I actually included the update, Thieves Like Us, by Robert Altman, which is a virtual remake – it’s based on the same book. They Live By Night is one of my favourite films but I realised that I already had a number of films that were covering the film noir angle. That’s one of the other ones that I regret not having. If I could go back, I probably would have included it.

VS: What about The Wild One? It seems to me that it should definitely have been in there.

JW: The Wild One is interesting. It’s one of the ten films that I say I wish I had included in the introduction. I watched all the films again and I thought that The Wild One had dated very much, which is not to detract from the film; it’s still an important film. But instead of The Wild One, I decided to include a British film called The Leather Boys because it takes many aspects of The Wild One, the idea of the teenage tearaways, the idea of counter-culture, the idea of using motor vehicles as a way to break free from the constricting norms of society, but it also had a whole homoerotic aspect between the two male leads. The other thing is that The Leather Boys perhaps isn’t a film that people would expect to see in there. One of the things I wanted to do was to get people to go away and see films that they maybe hadn’t seen. I’m sure everybody reading the book will know of or will have seen The Wild One but maybe they won’t know The Leather Boys. In the entry I wrote about The Leather Boys I make lots of references to The Wild One by way of saying, you’re probably expecting to be reading about The Wild One, but you’re not, you’re reading The Leather Boys, and this is why… I wish I could have had both.

VS: One of the things that you’ve touched on earlier is how some filmmakers construct almost all of their films as road movies of some kind. You’ve mentioned Wim Wenders; I would probably pick Jim Jarmusch as the ultimate example of that. So it must have been difficult to deal with filmmakers like that in a book like yours because so many of their films are very interesting, diverse examples of the road movie.

JW: Yes, it was kind of that three films per director rule. There’s a quote from Truffaut where he says, ‘I’ve always just remade the same film several times’. I think Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, not to say that they’re just remaking the same film, but they’ve obviously struck upon something that they feel very comfortable doing. And Jim Jarmusch is another director, who you could arguably say, has made only road movies. Dead Man is one of those interesting films, which again isn’t in there but I wish it was, because it’s a Western but it’s obviously a road movie. Both Jarmusch and Wenders – and in real life they are very close – are interested in the way that the road movie opens up the possibility to look at these kind of insular characters. Their characters are all ridden by ennui, melancholia and self-doubt and the road movie is a perfect template to explore that. I don’t think Wenders and Jarmusch are unique as directors associated with a particular genre. John Ford for example is very much associated with Westerns and he certainly didn’t only make Westerns. And you could say the same thing about directors that are associated with the horror genre. With regard to Wenders and Jarmusch this idea of a journey is something that obviously fits the characters that they like to explore. I think it also fits the way in which they like to work. When Wim Wenders made Kings of the Road, which is one of my favourite road movies, he very famously didn’t have a script. He had a very rough outline of the kind of film that he wanted to make. He went out with a very minimal crew and he would visit a location and the night before he was due to shoot he would write a few pages of dialogue. Then they would improvise as they went along. I think Jarmusch works in a similar way. He obviously has a script, a template of what he wants to do. But the idea of being out on the road gives him a certain amount of freedom. As they work with bigger stars it probably becomes more difficult for them to do that. If you look at Jarmusch’s last film, Broken Flowers, it’s obviously a road movie and does involve a journey but it’s more structured and less esoteric in its approach than Stranger than Paradise or Dead Man were.

VS: Stranger Than Paradise – that was a massive turning point in the history of the road movie and of American cinema, right?

JW: Stranger Than Paradise is such an important film for numerous reasons. There’s a book called Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, which is a history of American independent cinema from the 1980s. And the writer of the book, John Pierson, pinpoints Stranger Than Paradise as a defining moment in American independent filmmaking in that it radically altered the way that American independent films were not only made but also marketed. Stranger Than Paradise came out of the tradition of films such as John Cassavetes’ and the European filmmakers of the sixties and seventies. Jarmusch always cites Wenders as well as Ozu as an influence and Stranger Than Paradise is shot in monochrome black and white with extremely long takes and a very static camera. It has at its centre a relationship between two men and a woman, which is also linked to the key American road movies of the early seventies – themselves influenced by European filmmakers, specifically Antonioni – like Vanishing Point or Two-Lane Blacktop in that it looks at the breakdown in communication between the sexes. So Stranger Than Paradise almost encapsulates the history of American and European cinema from about the 1950s. But it does it in a very un-self-conscious way and when the film was made, it really didn’t feel like there’d been anything like it at that time. If I remember correctly the tagline for Stranger Than Paradise when it was released was ‘a new kind of American movie’. And it really did feel like that, although if you analyse it carefully it wasn’t especially that new. But it redefined the boundaries. It said films don’t have to go ABC, they can go ACB; they can do things in a different way, they don’t have to have big stars in, they don’t have to have this pay-off ending, they can leave questions unanswered. And it had great music. It was a film that felt… I hate to use the word cool… but people often compare Stranger Than Paradise to jazz and it felt like rules were being broken and all bets were off. There are other films that came out in the wake of Stranger Than Paradise that were equally influential. I talked about this book by John Pierson and it analyses the huge impetus that it gave to the career of people like John Sayles, but also Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, all these American independent directors that did things in their own way and on their own terms. And the fact that the characters in Stranger Than Paradise were on the margins of society also gave rise to movements such as the New Queer Cinema. The Living End by Gregg Araki is a film that isn’t a road movie but that I felt was very important because it takes characters on the margins of society, which road movies have always done, and it goes one step further: they’re outsiders not only because of their sexuality but also because they’re HIV positive. And they really don’t give a damn, they’re going to take what they want from life, they’re going to refuse to let society dictate to them how they’re going to live their lives, and it feels very liberating. Without Stranger Than Paradise you probably wouldn’t have had films such as The Living End.

VS: For you what is the defining road movie, the one that established the genre? I’m afraid it has to be one that includes a car… How about Easy Rider?

JW: But that’s got bikes in it.

VS: Yeah, bikes work too.

JW: Easy Rider is often called the godfather of the road movie and I think it’s certainly a key film. When we were talking about Stranger Than Paradise we talked about films that were influenced by European filmmakers from the sixties and Easy Rider is certainly one of those films. I think the film that gave birth to the whole idea of the road movie has to be John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. It deals with the American Depression and with having to go on the road for economic reasons. The Grapes of Wrath is important because it makes clear the links between technology and the development of road movies. Road movies began to come about very early on with the films of D.W. Griffith when it became clear that you could mount a camera onto a car. The Grapes of Wrath took that idea and ran with it. It established some of the iconic visual references of the road movie, the shots through windscreens, the use of wing mirrors, the idea of a car travelling on a highway and the shots of the people on the highway. Then you have the film noirs of the 40s and 50s such as They Live By Night, where you also have those iconic visuals, the looks in the wing mirrors, the tension, the kind of enclosed claustrophobia of the car. But those film noirs also took this idea of an America that was very unsure of itself, and unsure of where it was going; a kind of America that was suffering a hangover from WWII and didn’t know what its future direction was going to be; an America that started to view the open road not as something to go out on and celebrate but as something to be fearful of, with the idea that you didn’t really know where the road was going to take you. Instead of the road offering this kind of escape and adventure it began to be seen as something that was fraught with danger. So in the 40s and 50s this whole idea of paranoia crept in and it was the European filmmakers, Bergman with Wild Strawberries and Fellini with La Strada, who developed this idea that the road wasn’t going to bring happiness but misery and introspection. Because of films like that you had the birthing of films such as Easy Rider. Easy Rider is also important in terms of the way it uses music. I mentioned at the start that one of the reasons I like Chris Petit’s Radio On and Wenders’ films is this idea of music in motion, or sound and vision, to use a Bowie quote. And Easy Rider certainly did that; it cut entire sequences to pop records. It still has one of the biggest selling soundtracks in motion pictures history. But it’s also important in that at the end of the film – I won’t spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it – this idea of an America where possibilities are open is shown to be false. The tagline for the poster was something like ‘free men that went in search of America and couldn’t find it anywhere’. Easy Rider is very much a film about an America that has lost touch with itself. It harks back to the film noirs of the 40s and 50s but replaces WWII with Vietnam. It shows characters from all walks of life, you have a lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, a pot-head played by Dennis Hopper, and everybody is lost and everybody is looking for something. But the road doesn’t bring any easy answers, what it brings is frustration and ultimately death. I like the bleakness of road movies. There’s another quote I really like from a Hal Hartley movie called Simple Men, which I described in the book as a road movie with a flat tyre. One of the characters, who wants to leave this small town that he’s marooned in, says to someone: ‘I want adventure, I want romance’. And the other character says: ‘There’s no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.’ I think that’s very much what the road movie is about.

VS: There’s obviously a strong link between road movies and America, and most of the films we’ve talked about are American films. In the book you include films from other countries. How do you feel they compare with American films? Do you feel that the road movie remains essentially an American genre?

JW: People have described the road movie as being America’s greatest gift to contemporary culture and I think there’s a strong argument with that. The motor car was properly developed within America and the road movie is very much linked with the development of not only car technology but also the building of roads, and America was certainly at the forefront of that too. But the important thing about the book was to show that it’s not unique to America. I already mentioned Wild Strawberries and La Strada, two very important European road movies. In recent years we’ve seen a huge boom in road movies from Latin America with Y tu mamá también, Bombí³n el perro and The Motorcycle Diaries. A lot of the filmmakers working in Europe and further afield saw all those American films and said OK, this is a really interesting way of looking at not only the geography of our countries but also at how we view ourselves. Wild Strawberries did for Sweden what a lot of these road movies were doing for America. It was a way of showing to the Swedish people how their lives were changing and how their aspirations perhaps weren’t being met. But what’s interesting is that a lot of these filmmakers not only used the road movie template as a means to analyse their own social and political situations but they also began to use it as a dialogue with American culture and American imperialism. The best example of that is Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road. The whole film is about the dominance of American culture. The dialogue between the two lead characters is all about pop songs and the film travels through villages where rural cinemas are no longer able to operate because of the dominance of American movies. The film concludes in a kind of abandoned border patrol hut between East and West Germany with one of the characters saying to the other one: ‘The Yanks have even colonised our subconscious’. These filmmakers took the road movie template, held it as a mirror and turned it back on America. In turn American movies such as Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point began to be influenced by that. They took the melancholia and introspection of these European films and they injected it into their own films. If you look at a film like Familia Rodante, the Pablo Trapero film, it is a very clear influence on Little Miss Sunshine. So I don’t think that films from America have just influenced the rest of the world. I think it’s now a situation where the rest of the world is equally influential on road movies from America. I think of it as a cultural exchange.

VS: To end this interview I’d like to ask you what is probably a very difficult question: what is your favourite road movie?

JW: Can I pick two?

VS: All right then.

JW: For very personal reasons I’m a very big fan of a film called Candy Mountain. It’s directed by Robert Frank and it’s written by Rudy Wurlitzer. It opened at the ICA several years ago and I went to see it every single night for about a week. I became obsessed with it because it looks at the interaction between movies and music. The cast is made up of people like Tom Waits, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Joe Strummer, Arto Lindsay. It’s a real who’s who of musicians. The other reason I became obsessed with it is that it’s written by my favourite screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, who also wrote Two-Lane Blacktop, which is another film that would be in there if I could pick three. I became so obsessed with Candy Mountain that I named my youngest son Rudy after Rudy Wurlitzer. And one of the greatest things for me to come out of this book was that I recently had an email from Rudy Wurlitzer saying that he’d seen the book and he liked it and I emailed back saying, ‘it’s a real honour for me because I like your work so much that I named my son after you’… I love the fact that the hero of Candy Mountain, played by Kevin J. O’Connor, who’s almost like a character from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, goes on this journey and at the end of it he’s left disillusioned but still standing. It says that the road can bend you and it can break you but it can never completely destroy you, and I like that. The other film that I would pick is Radio On by Chris Petit. It’s widely considered to be the first British road movie. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s certainly the best. It’s hugely influenced by Wim Wenders; it was executively produced by Wenders, it uses Martin Schäfer, one of Wenders’ cinematographers, and it casts one of Wim Wenders’ leading ladies, Lisa Kreuzer. It’s a film that looks at Britain at a very particular time, a Britain in economic decline, a Britain that was thirsting for social and cultural change, but was really unsure of its identity and its future. It catches Britain right before the imminent upheavals of Thatcherism. It’s also a film that is about introspection, about the idea of not really knowing who you are or where you want to go in life. And it has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. It’s very audacious and it certainly broke boundaries; if anything it was ahead of its time. When Radio On was released I think it was met with a certain amount of confusion because people hadn’t seen anything like it. Thirty years later it’s held as a classic.


Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Title: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 November 2005

Distributor BFI

Director: Melvin Van Peebles

Cast: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales

US 1971

97 minutes

Title: Baadasssss

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 November 2005

Distributor BFI

Director: Mario Van Peebles

Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, T.K. Carter, Ossie Davis

US 2003

108 minutes

‘Maybe an asshole but a filmmaker’. That’s how Melvin Van Peebles, the legendary maverick whose revolutionary 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song sparked Hollywood’s blaxploitation fever, describes himself. His actor and director son, sat next to him, exuding the same effortless cool, does not disagree, in spite of all the respect and esteem he evidently has for him. It is in this spirit, enthusiastic but truthful, full of admiration but critical, that Mario Van Peebles made Baadasssss, a vibrant, exhilarating docu-drama recounting his father’s struggle to get Sweetback made.

One of the first black film-makers in Hollywood, Van Peebles first had to take a detour via France to be able to direct in his native country. After seeing his short films, the director of the Paris Cinémathí¨que invited him over to France and, nine years later, Van Peebles’ La Permission was chosen to represent France at the 1967 San Francisco film festival. That got Van Peebles noticed in Hollywood and he was hired to direct the successful race comedy Watermelon Man. Just when it looked like he had made it he suddenly broke ranks with Sweetback, a raw, hard-hitting, edgy depiction of the black urban ghetto with, as a hero, a black hustler forced to go on the run after killing two white cops. Unable to find investors, Van Peebles used his own money, hired a multiracial crew against the rules of the all-powerful unions, and after finally completing the film through sheer bloody-mindedness, found that only two cinemas in the whole of the United States would show his film. Through word-of-mouth and the Black Panthers’ mobilisation, however, Sweetback took up and became the highest grossing independent film of the year.

In an interview conducted in 2005 father and son told Virginie Sélavy how, thirty years on, nothing much has changed in Hollywood.

Mario Van Peebles: To some degree, it’s like a pot with boiling water, if you keep the lid pressed on it, eventually the pot will explode. If you lift the lid periodically, you can keep people oppressed for a lot longer. If you let the steam out and you give them some awards, a couple of Oscars, say ‘you deserve it, you’re terrific’, you might forget the fact that there’s no head of any studio that is black, Asian, Hispanic or female. So you can get distracted by watching the Michael Jackson trial – ‘what do you mean? We’re making progress!’ But when I wanted to make a film like Baadaassss, I sent my script and I was told that if I made a hip-hop comedy out of it, and added a rap soundtrack, they would make the movie. But they said that my father was too political, too sexy, too black, the film was too multiracial and they couldn’t figure out where to slot it in. And I had to make him a more likeable character. And my dad is who he is, and he was very cool, he said ‘hey, make me who I am, tell the truth’. Once I realised this, I thought, well, I made most of my other films for about $8 million and in about 40 days. I made Baadaasssss for $1 million in 18 days. It makes a big difference. So in a weird way, 30 years later, to communicate this message, to show people of all colours making this film, we had to do it in the same way that my father made the original film.

Virginie Sélavy: What do you think of films such as Shaft and Superfly? You made your film as an independent filmmaker and those films were made in Hollywood. How did you feel about them?

Melvin Van Peebles: What happened was, Sweetback made all this money. Hollywood desires money but they could not stand the political content so they emptied the formula, they took out the political content and made it more cartoonish and that became blaxploitation. One of the things that happened is that Sweetback is so steeped in the ambience that they had to hire black screenwriters, black choreographers, etc, so many people got to learn their craft that way. It was a step. Because of the fixation on race, we often overlook the fact that Sweetback was the beginning of independent film, not just black independent film. So I’m the godfather of those films as well as The Blair Witch Project or Motorcycle Diaries. I made those things possible too.

VS: How do you feel about the term blaxploitation?

Melvin: It’s not my term. I don’t consider myself a sociologist, I consider myself a filmmaker, among other things. Maybe an asshole but a filmmaker.

Mario: If I can add something here, Sweetback was a revolutionary film but in the subsequent films, when big money got involved, they made cops hip, they made drug dealers hip so the message gets diluted. But there is a difference too: if you make a series of Vietnam-themed films, Apocalypse Now etc, they won’t say it’s white film, it’s a genre of film. But if you make Shaft, Superfly, etc, they won’t say it’s a genre, it’s got black actors in it so they call it black film.

VS: How did you start in the film industry? When you made Watermelon Man, how many black filmmakers were working in Hollywood at that time?

Melvin: I came to San Francisco in 1967 as the French delegate to the festival. They didn’t know I was black or American. There is a law in France that says that a writer can have a temporary identity card. So I wrote fifty words in French and I got my card. I made a film called La Permission (The Story of a Three-Day Pass) in France and the film won the San Francisco festival and I was the only black person there. So before me, there was nothing. They didn’t expect the French delegate to be black. They also didn’t expect the French delegate to be American.

VS: How did you end up being the French delegate?

Melvin: I’m smart. … I was studying mathematics and astronomy in Holland. Henri Langlois at the Cinémathí¨que saw my first short films and he invited me to go to France. There was a little cinema on the Champs-Elysées where they showed my films and afterwards, we go downstairs and everybody hugs me and kisses me. And I’m standing in the middle of the Champs-Elysées, no money, I can’t say a word of French. That’s how I came to France. Nine years later I was their delegate. So when that happened, that embarrassed the Americans because they could not have the only black American director a French director so they offered me jobs which I did not accept and that forced them to look for others and certainly they discovered other black directors, discovered they were there the whole time, Gordon Parks, the guy got a chance to make a film, and Ossie Davis too.

VS: What happened after Sweetback?

Melvin: When I made Watermelon Man I had a three-picture deal with Colombia but I decided it was time now to attack my plan, my master plan. And my master plan was to retake the images. The long and the short of it is that when Sweetback became very successful, because no one expected it to become successful except for me, only two theatres wanted to show it. But the movie was a runaway success and everybody began to show it. Colombia were so angry that they tore up my contract. That’s what happened to me. However, they did take the formula and take out the political content. And that caricature, that became blaxploitation.

VS: After Sweetback, did you want to make more films like that?

Melvin: Yeah, it’s a trilogy, I never had a chance to make the other parts. I made a couple other American films which no one would distribute because it’s too dangerous, no one owns me. I own Sweetback 100%, I’ve got no partner, I own the music, the book, everything. I had to do it all alone so it’s all mine. And no one would help me. Bill [Cosby] loaned me money at one stage of the game but even he would not take a piece of the movie. He only wanted his money back. This is what I’ve taught Mario and I’m very pleased. He not only knows how to play the game but how to own the team. That’s very important.

VS: You could have done a documentary but you decided to do a fictionalised drama. Why did you decide to go with that option?

Mario: I wanted to be able to get into all those places where a documentary wouldn’t go, like the relationship between my father and me, and I thought that it was such a wonderful period. But beyond the fact that it’s true it’s really about one person standing up and making it. It’s like Rocky, it’s a very classic story.

Melvin:I’m confused by your question. What about Beautiful Mind or Kinsey, would you call them fictions or docu-dramas? Fiction takes you to another place and everything in the movie is true.

Mario: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But then, in a weird way, in the interviews with the characters, it almost gets to be mockumentary. But at the end it does become a documentary, so it changes forms. And it also feels like at times it’s a making of, like someone had walked around with a camera, capturing this wonderful time, when you had all those people, you could see Janet Jackson and Jimi Hendrix and Santana on the same set. And today it would be black radio, Latino radio and rock and be fragmented. And this was a time when everybody was on this movie set, we had every demographic, we even had kid demographic, I was one of the kid demographic, and what a quirky, interesting time to show and to relive, go back to those streets, go back to my father’s life in essence with a camera, talk to Bill Cosby, talk to Jose Garcia, talk to Ossie Davis, and go back to that time.

VS: That form, whatever you choose to call it, works really well for the film.

Mario: It is a strange thing. I hadn’t really thought about that but what happened was once I realised that no one was gonna back it and that I was going to have to make it with my savings, same as how my dad made it, without money, something else simultaneously happened. My muse, my little angel who speaks to me, suddenly said (he switches to a squeaky voice) ‘what studio is gonna take it? What are they gonna make you do?’, that was my muse said and I said, ‘guess what, no studio took it so I’ll do it myself’. So I could literally have a parliament with myself, I could go ‘Oh, let’s see if the director likes it’, ‘I like it’, ‘Well, I don’t know if the writer will approve’, ‘I like it’, ‘well, let’s see if the lead actor likes it’, ‘I like it’. Once I realised this, it was like ‘what now?! We can just take this form further out! Because now it’s just me and I’m just gonna do my own shit.’ So once that happened, I didn’t have to please anybody. And I wasn’t even aware of the fact that my muse was self-editing already so that I could say it’s like this movie or like that movie, because if I couldn’t say that the movie was like anything else before, I couldn’t explain it to the financiers, and I couldn’t get it done. But with my own finances, I could go ‘now I want the thing to go black and white’, and ‘I want to have an angel, and the angel sits on the ceiling’ Who would let you do that? Who would let you have Malcolm and Dr. King talk to the character in a movie? It’s a very rare thing that you get to go that far.

VS: Did you worry at any point that it might turn into some bizarre Freudian thing? Because obviously you’re playing your dad in Baadassss and in Sweetback you played your father’s character as a young boy…

Mario: (laughs) Every now and then I stand back from my life and go ‘wow, that’s kind of wild! I didn’t have a lot of time to think in the process but certain things happened. My son was also in the movie, playing the little angel. When he was playing the angel, the camera broke down. We were shooting on the actual street that my dad lived on, on a lady’s lawn. She really liked me as a kid, but she likes me less now! We’re shooting on her lawn and now she wants me off her lawn, the sun is going down, the camera’s broken and no one’s eaten lunch and everybody’s getting pretty grouchy and my son is running off to have lunch with the other kids… and I heard my dad’s voice: ‘Get back here, this is not a hobby, this is our family business, you wanted to be in the movies, now you’re in it, now do your job!’ There’s my father’s voice coming into my head! And I’m like, ‘this is getting really scaaaary now!’ So I found in making the film that things like that came up all the time. But recently my dad made good on something that had been outstanding for about 33 years. He finally gave me that bicycle, the bike that I didn’t get. They did a re-issue of it and I got the bike. Now my kids can ride the bike. It means nothing to them but to me, I’m like, ‘I’ve got that bike!’ There were lots of times when I had to stop and laugh at the inevitable, you know, that in some ways truth is stranger than fiction.

VS: You don’t shy away from the controversial aspects of Sweetback and your relationship with your dad, in particular when he made you have play a sex scene on film as a teenager. And it’s fascinating to see the conflict, and the drive, Melvin, you seem to be willing to sacrifice the well-being of your children in order to finish your film.

Melvin: That’s absolutely true. That’s absolutely true. I think his reaction is completely valid. Hey, but I’m the parent!

Mario: You know, what’s interesting is I wouldn’t do what he did at the time but my kids are gonna have objections to how I parent. At the end of the day though, if they respect what I stood for, that’s cool.

VS: Was this a way of dealing with it and finding out how you feel about it now?

Mario: No. I’ve done that before. I could have made a hand-held movie about that. That’s a personal thing. But I had already cleared things with him on that. He’d said to me ‘Look, tell the truth’. And I said, that’s the way to do this movie. And that was another reason I had to go independent. People are now looking at the world in terms of axis of evil and evil-doers and by logical extension good-doers, and that’s a very polarised look at good and bad people. Reality is much more complex than that and people can be good and evil on the very same day. The other thing is that as a kid I sometimes felt I was involved in a battle without understanding the war. But in the course of that summer I saw that there was something bigger out there. It’s like stepping your toe is a bad experience but when the person next to you loses their leg in a landmine it’s somehow crushed by something bigger. And then you see that that person is trying to go on and save other people from some situation by putting himself at risk. This was a guy who could have gone off and made money in the system and taken a nice picture with a suit on in front of a big mansion that he bought and been held up as an example to the rest of us to sort of follow in line behind. And here he says ‘Fuck you, I’m gonna have a multiracial crew, I’m gonna do a revolutionary film and I’m gonna do my own thing.’ I could have done New Jack City II and III and IV but I said no, I’m gonna make a film about the Panthers and Baadasssss for no money. I don’t have to risk my house at this juncture and yet there’s a different value, it’s not just economic value, it’s social and political and artistic. And I think that’s a nice thing to pass to your kids.

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The Battle of Algiers

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 May 2007

Distributor: Argent Films/Maiden Voyage Pictures

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Based on: Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger by Saadi Yacef

Cast Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef

Algeria/Italy 1965

117 mins

Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers has experienced a remarkable resurgence since the Pentagon organised a private projection of the film in 2003 to discuss ‘the challenges faced by the French’, in particular ‘the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq’ (as reported by Michael Kaufman in the New York Times). While the Pentagon had its own twisted motives to watch The Battle of Algiers, the film’s lucid dissection of colonial conflict certainly makes it essential viewing in our neo-colonial times.

Based on the memoirs of former FLN (National Liberation Front) leader Saadi Yacef, The Battle of Algiers charts the rise of the Algerian nationalist movement from 1954 until independence was declared in 1962. While it explicitly describes the brutally repressive methods – which included intimidation, torture and summary executions – used by the French Army against the insurgents, it also unflinchingly depicts the indiscriminate bombing of civilians perpetrated by FLN militants. Despite awards at the Venice and Cannes festivals it was banned immediately on release and when the ban was lifted in 1971 screenings were marred by such intense violence that the film was withdrawn from all French cinemas. This effectively buried the film for decades and it was only in 2004 that the film was screened on French TV for the first time.

Now 79, Yaacef, who produced and starred in the film, is a senator in the Algerian National Assembly. Algeria’s struggle for independence has shaped his life and his memory of events that took place over forty years ago remains very sharp. When he evokes his violent activities as a guerrilla fighter, it is clear that he is acutely and painfully aware of what he did, and that this awareness has not been blunted by time. Warm, soft-spoken and extremely articulate, Yacef comes across as a passionate humanist who was led to commit violent acts from which he would have recoiled in any other circumstances.

Virginie Sélavy: After remaining unseen for years The Battle of Algiers has attracted a lot of interest recently. What do you think of that resurgence?

Saadi Yacef: I think it’s a completely natural thing. France recognised recently that what happened in Algeria was a war, which they had denied until then, saying it was just insurgents and terrorists. As soon as they recognised that they realised that there was no hate in The Battle of Algiers. It’s a very even-handed film that shows the violence of both sides. Each side is fighting for something, the ones to reinforce the French empire, the others for independence. And the generation who protested against the film at the time has begun to disappear now. The climate was right to release the film. And it had already been revived by the American press who had talked about it in relation to the occupation of Iraq. So in France they thought, the Americans have seen it, everybody has seen it, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see it too.

VS: What do you think of the fact that the Pentagon organised a screening of the film to find out what they could learn from the French strategy in Algeria?

SY: They had planned the occupation of Iraq but they needed information so they looked through all of the political, revolutionary films to see if they could find anything they could use when they occupied the country. And among a number of films they chose The Battle of Algiers. When the officers watched it, it was only for information – France colonised Algeria then left, why, what did they do, what was the reaction of the insurgents, etc. They wanted to draw lessons from that that they might be able to use in Iraq. I don’t know what conclusions they drew from the film. I think they’re bad pupils because they haven’t learnt anything. They also had Vietnam and obviously didn’t learn their lesson since now they’re even building walls to resolve the situation in Iraq.

VS: Do you see any links between what’s happening in Iraq and your film?

SY None at all. The Latino-American or Vietnamese guerrilla style is not comparable to Iraq from a geographical, social or economic point of view, and neither is it comparable to the kind of guerrilla that we practised in Algeria. In our case it was about colonisation, about a population that had been displaced for economic reasons and came to Algeria to turn it into a French territory.

VS: It is clear from watching the film that you tried to remain very balanced and French soldiers come across as very human. It must have been difficult for you to try and see things from the point of view of people who were your enemies at the time.

SY: No, we wanted to let them express their side of things. I thought about the films that the French or the Russians made about WWII. The Germans are always the bad ones; they’re idiots and murderers whereas the others are victorious and noble. So I thought that we had to show the atrocity of war, how it causes damage on both sides, and we had to make things balanced so that the film would be credible. If we’d shown the Algerians as the victors and the French as the idiots, people wouldn’t have believed it. We even went a bit further. We had a scene in which a bomb [planted by the FLN] explodes even though there’s a baby there. I thought that it was too easy to just blame the French. They were fighting to maintain Algeria under French domination and we were fighting to get them out. Each side had their own reasons but it caused damage and destruction for everybody.

VS: You’ve tried to be so even-handed in the film that in a way I feel you have been quite lenient with the French. There is an extraordinary restraint in the way you depict torture: in the film torture is something that the Colonel decides to use for rational, strategic reasons rather than something sadistic, uncontrolled and hateful.

SY: A man capable of torturing another human being, even if he’s scum, feels something break in him, the most important thing that he has, his humanity, his soul if you want. Torture is something that happens between two people, the torturer and the victim. The victim is made to taste death without actually dying. He is subjected to atrocious pain and begs his torturer to kill him. He’s even ready to forgive the torturer as long as he kills him. Torture is abominable, things like ripping out someone’s nails, or burning someone with a blowtorch. And those who practise it feel a certain power but it’s suicidal. They will never get over what they’ve done. And it creates sadists.

VS: Were you tortured?

SY No.

VS: But you know people who were tortured?

SY Oh yes, many. I wrote reports on torture and gave them to various personalities. It was something terrible. And I wrote about the methods of torture in my book.

VS: How did you become an FLN militant?

SY: I was born in the Kasbah, the old Algerian quarter in Algiers. It has 80,000 inhabitants. The density is unimaginable – 40,000 inhabitants per square kilometre – which doesn’t even exist in China. When you left the Kasbah to go in the European part of the city you could see the difference straightaway and you realised how poor the Kasbah was. I joined a party called Party of the Algerian People, which was demanding independence for Algeria. I was precocious and at a very young age I was writing inscriptions on the walls and distributing tracts, until the events of 1945 after the fall of Nazism. On May 8th the whole world was celebrating victory but the French killed 45,000 Algerians [in reprisal for the killing of a hundred Europeans following clashes with the French Army on VE day], including soldiers who had come back from the front after fighting for France. The 45,000 dead gave me the energy to fight. I joined the armed branch of the party. The French empire had crumbled; they had lost Indochina, Tunisia, Morocco. Their weaknesses allowed us to get organised and I was among those who took up arms in 1954.

VS: What was the first violent act that you committed?

SY: I killed. (silence) Well, I killed. (silence) Then I started making bombs. I felt I was forced into this because there were 400,000 Europeans who lived in Algiers as well as 400,000 soldiers. We were forced to use guerrilla tactics because we didn’t have the same weapons as the enemy. Some of the more extremist French people who lived in Algeria planted a bomb in the Kasbah that killed 75 people and injured many more. And the population was just starting to believe in us so we had to show that we too had weapons that were as cruel as those of the French. That’s how I started making bombs and planting them. It was in order to tell people, we’ll avenge you, you’ll see, we’re fighting for you, so please help us and support us. That’s how we started using bombs. It was efficient. As soon as the French did something, we retaliated with a bomb. It was a question of blood calls for blood.

VS: So the character of Djafar that you play in the film is very close to your own experience.

SY: Yes, Djafar was actually my war name. We were in hiding and we didn’t use our real names to avoid being identified so we had pseudonyms and mine was Djafar. Later I changed it because the enemy knew that Djafar was me.

VS: How did you meet Gillo Pontecorvo?

SY: When I was in prison in France I wrote a book called Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger in which I described the most important events that I had experienced. I published it when I was released from prison in 1962 and I travelled to Mediterranean countries in order to look for a director because those countries were ahead in the domain of cinema, with neo-realism in Italy in particular. I went to Rome and I learned that there was someone called Pontecorvo who was a former resistant. I went to see him and explained what I wanted to do. He himself wanted to make a film about Algeria but he abandoned his own project in favour of mine. I hired him and the script-writer [Franco Solinas], offered them a reasonable fee and invited them to come to Algeria to do some research, to immerse themselves in the Algerian soul and understand what had happened. They stayed almost a year and became experts on urban guerrilla – they knew the question better than me. They were insistent that I should play in the film because they liked my face. At first I refused but then I accepted, to make sure that events would be depicted authentically. I thought that if I acted in the film I would always been present either as producer or as actor and I could stop them if they wanted to embellish the film or add things that were not true. This is why the film is so truthful. And there is not one image in it that comes from any other source.

VS: That’s one of the most remarkable features of the film. It looks like a documentary but everything in it has been recreated. Why did you decide not to use news footage from the period?

SY: Because the war had just ended three years earlier and the wounds were still open and it was possible to film that truth. In order to make it look like a documentary we did things to the images, altered their quality, so they would look like documentary images.

VS: So for you it was more truthful to recreate events than to make a documentary using newsreel footage?

SY: I had the possibility of making this film in reality without relying on fiction because the events were so recent and true. I wanted to use historical truth to preserve it. That’s why I made this film – to give the events a filmic language that would resist time and would later show future generations how we freed ourselves.

VS: Did you shoot the whole film in Algiers?

SY: Yes, everything.

VS: The Kasbah is a fascinating place, with its intricate labyrinth of streets.

SY: That was thanks to Marcello Gatti, an excellent cinematographer who was very good at filming without a tripod. He knew how to use the camera in those tiny streets and that’s what gave this result.

VS: Was it difficult to recreate certain things?

SY: No, not really because I know the Kasbah like the back of my hand so I knew what had been destroyed during the war and what it looked like before. It cost us a bit of money but we reconstructed what had been destroyed and then we destroyed it again on film and that gave very truthful results. We recreated the cafeteria and the milk bar, which had existed. The house where Ali-la-Pointe dies is the same house. The place where I was arrested, that’s where we filmed. Everything was real. There was no need for fiction. It was fascinating.

VS: Was it sometimes difficult to go through these things again?

SY: Sometimes. But I really put myself in the actor’s position and that made it easy, it wasn’t a game of death. I had never acted before, but Pontecorvo was pleased with the result.

VS: Most of the actors were not professionals, is that right?

SY: None of them were professionals apart from two, two stage actors who played extras and one French actor who played the role of Colonel Mathieu. He was a stage actor and had been chosen by Pontecorvo.

VS: How did you select the non-professional actors? Were they people that you knew?

SY: The war had just ended so they were all still marked by it. They didn’t need to go to film school; when they saw French paratroopers they remembered what it was like, it took them back to the war. If we had filmed ten years later it would have been different. I had 15,000 people to film the demonstrations so we just couldn’t have 15,000 actors. They were all ordinary people.

VS: There must have been an extraordinary atmosphere when you were shooting.

SY: Yes, we felt very motivated.

VS: The film focuses especially on the years between 1954 and 1957, which ends with the strategic victory of the French. The film then quickly sums up the events that followed, which led to the victory of the FLN and the independence of Algeria. Why did you choose to focus on those years rather on the events leading to the FLN’s victory?

SY: We filmed almost eight hours of material. But if we had made three films people would not have been interested. We had to limit the film, try and make it two hours long, so that the audience could watch it. So we chose the most important events. That’s why we started with 1954, the beginning of terrorism and the results.

VS: But why focus on the beginning rather than on the final victory?

SY: In order to explain how it all started, how you start a guerrilla against a country like France, which had NATO and the Americans on its side. We didn’t have the same weapons. So we had to show the whole process of how we started.

VS: In the film the character of Ben M’hidi says something very striking. He says that the difficulty is not to win the revolution, that’s the easy part; the problems start after, once the revolution has been won. Do you still agree with that?

SY: Ben M’hidi was a friend. I lived with him for several months. While we were fighting he had problems with some of the FLN leaders. It was about ambition, everybody wanted to be the boss. When we talked in the quiet moments he said ‘you know, there are people who want to take over power even now as we are fighting the war. So what will happen later when we’re free?’ And he was right. As soon as we got independence everybody wanted to govern the country. I wanted to put that in the film to show people that the real difficulties start after you’ve won the revolution. You need financing, intellectuals, engineers, you need everything to build a country and that’s difficult. In the film I also made him say something else. When the journalist asks, ‘don’t you think it’s a bit cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?’ he replies, ‘give us your planes and we’ll give you our baskets’. I put those words in his mouth because he’d died anyway, but the rest, that was something that he’d actually said. He was a character, not like Che Guevara, but a real revolutionary.

VS: And what about Ali-la-Pointe?

SY: Ali-la-Pointe became an excellent fighter, conscientious, loyal, brave, I could go on. He was illiterate, he was one of the victims of colonialism, and to earn a living he was forced to resort to street card games and to mix with pimps. He was always in a fight with the police and he was condemned to eight months in prison for hitting a police officer. While he was in prison he met FLN militants. He asked them why they were there and they explained that they wanted to throw the French out of the country so that later his children would be able to read and write. It was a real education for him. He swore to escape from prison and to join the fight and that’s what he did. He came to stay with me and became a great strategist in the guerrilla.

VS: Even though the film is full of extraordinary characters there is no unique hero. It’s really about a group of characters.

SY: It’s about the people. That’s why we recreated the eight-day strike, the demonstrations of December, all that, to show the people who rose up. It’s not my film. I told Pontecorvo that I didn’t want to make a film about myself because it was the people who fought the war, it’s thanks to them that we freed ourselves so the only hero is the people.

VS: In the film we also see that women played a very important role in the struggle for independence.

SY: Algerian women had been relegated to the background before the war started but there was an evolution in the revolution. Women changed during the war. They made us food, they were our look-outs, they really supported our actions and it’s thanks to them that we succeeded. Even recently when there were terrorist bombings in Algeria, women were the first ones to protest in the streets.

VS: We also see them plant bombs.

SY: The women who planted the first bombs were students. The universities were on strike and they joined us and said they were prepared to do whatever was needed. We chose them because it was easier for them to get into the French area, by changing their clothes and hair. That’s what we show in the film.

VS: You are now a senator in the Algerian National Assembly. Is it important for you to play a political role in your country?

SY: I will do whatever I can to help my country until my death. At the Senate I try to devise laws that fit in with the way people live, and I give my opinion. And I will always do this, even if I leave the Senate. I will always try and be useful.

VS: Working for your country is your life, is that it?

SY: Yes, it’s what gives it meaning.


The Night of the Sunflowers

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 May 2007

Distributor Yume Pictures

Director: Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo

Original title: La Noche de los girasoles

Cast: Carmelo Gí³mez, Judith Diakhate, Cesáreo Estébanez

Spain 2006

123 minutes

A serial killer, an isolated village in the Spanish backwoods, the discovery of a cave, feuding neighbours, speleologists, a murder and an old-fashioned policeman. These are the unusual ingredients of Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo’s assured debut feature The Night of the Sunflowers, which relocates the crime thriller to the rugged outlines of rural Spain. The dying countryside provides an unexpectedly suitable background for the kind of moral dilemmas usually found in urban noirs while grounding the film in a sturdy realism that keeps clichés at bay. The tale is told over six interlocking chapters, each focusing on one of the protagonists, and each gradually uncovering more. This multi-stranded structure is no vacuous attempt at stylistic virtuosity but a skilful way of maintaining the suspense throughout while also creating the sense of a claustrophobic web of connections from which the characters cannot escape.

The Night of the Sunflowers was met with resounding acclaim in Spain and Sánchez-Cabezudo suddenly found himself the toast of this year’s Goya Awards, being nominated for best screenplay alongside such luminaries of Spanish-language cinema as Pedro Almí³dovar and Guillermo del Toro. In the interview below he talks at length about serial killer films and the disappearance of rural Spain and he also explains why the last scene of The Night of the Sunflowers is not an homage to Luis Buñuel.

Virginie Sélavy: The Night of the Sunflowers is your first feature. How did you get into film-making?

Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo: I made two short films ten years ago. One was La Gotera, which starred Dominique Pinon, who was in Amelie and Delicatessen. It was a fantastic experience because he didn’t know anything about us and we wrote him a letter saying we could offer him sangria, free accommodation and a visit to the Prado Museum and he agreed to do the film! (laughs) Incredible! He remains a very good friend of mine. La Gotera was an absurd comedy and it had a certain amount of success. It received prizes in various festivals and was nominated at the Goyas. That same year I made another short film called Mustek, which was a bit more experimental. After that I spent ten years working on scripts for TV and trying to write the story that would convince a producer.

VS: Why is it called The Night of the Sunflowers?

JSC: Well, in France it will be called Angosto. It’s the name of the village where it takes place and it was the original title. In Spanish, Angosto means ‘narrow’, and it’s also ‘angustia’, ‘anguish’, and it evokes ‘Agosto’, which means ‘August’, heat, all that, which suited the film. But in Spain they didn’t like it. They thought it didn’t sound right. La Noche de los girasoles was the title of another script I’d written, and it had given me the idea for the first image of the film. So that’s what I picked when they told me to change the title. Also, the characters are a bit like sunflowers lost in the night. They have nice, organised lives, they think they’ll never leave their well-marked path, and then suddenly everything changes and they get lost.

VS: The title also refers to that crucial night when everything changes.

JSC Yes, there was also the idea of night and day. I wanted the light to be very strong, and to evoke intense heat. The terrible things happen at night and the light of day hides what happened.

VS: It’s a very interesting story because you approach the serial killer story from an original angle.

JSC: I thought about not just the serial killer genre but also current film noir and I thought, why not make a thriller with the type of Spanish characters that you meet in the street every day? In Spain there is a tendency to imitate American thrillers with clichéd characters so I wanted real people, ordinary people who would never imagine they could find themselves in such a situation. Of course the trigger of the whole story had to be someone who is really a killer – and a rapist. There are films that have approached this type of character differently from the classical American story, such as Citizen X, the story of a Russian serial killer, or It Happened in Broad Daylight by Ladislao Vajda, which has a realistic, psychological point of view. I wanted to start the film in a way that would make the audience think that it was a straightforward thriller and then they discover that it’s not that, that the story is different and the final aim is to give a meaning to violence. In some films violence is consumed in a playful way, like some kind of entertainment, but for me, violence is something that is transcendent and important. Killing someone is a serious thing, and it’s a serious thing for those who kill. It’s a bit like in Unforgiven, when Clint Eastwood says, ‘It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.’

VS: There was a Spanish film about a serial killer a few years ago, called Las Horas del Dí­a by Jaime Rosales, which had a similarly realistic approach. Do you feel close to that film?

JSC: I saw that film after I’d already written the script for mine and really liked it. I definitely feel close to the way Jaime Rosales focuses on daily life. And one of the actors, Vicente Romero, who plays the friend of the protagonist in Las Horas del Dí­a, plays the young policeman in my film.

VS: In Las Horas del Dí­a the focus was very much on the killer whereas in The Night of the Sunflowers the killer is simply the trigger for the violence – his violence starts a whole cycle in a kind of chain reaction.

JSC: Yes, it’s a bit like dominoes. The intention was to show how other people’s lives can change ours. It’s like a mosquito that stings and then flies away but triggers the whole drama. It’s the story of lives whose paths cross but it’s not about fatality. The characters are not doomed to do what they do, they can make decisions. It’s just that they decide to go down the worst possible path. The dilemmas that they face are the most important thing in the film. It all came from watching the news and thinking, how can this happen, what happens in someone’s head to make them do those things? And in the news you don’t get the before or after of the story. So I was interested in the circumstances that lead people to do certain things and how they face those things, how they justify their own actions.

VS: Is this why the film is divided into six sections that each focus on a different character?

JSC: Yes, it’s about the subjectivity of each of the characters. And it allowed me to show what happened to them before and what conditioned them to react the way they do. That’s why each chapter has a small amount of flashback so that we know where they come from and why they do what they do when they get to the moral confrontation. It wasn’t about attempting a stylistic tour de force, it was just the best way to tell the story.

VS: The structure makes you feel that their lives are so interconnected that they can’t escape from the events. It creates a very claustrophobic atmosphere.

JSC: It’s interesting that you should say that because the landscape is very open, but at the same time it feels like it swallows the characters. And the claustrophobia is mostly in the relationships between the characters, for instance in the young policeman’s family. The dinner scenes are harrowing.

VS: Yes, and precisely because those scenes are so depressing, we can really understand him even when he makes some rather dubious decisions!

JSC: That was the intention, I didn’t want to judge the characters or give a kind of final moral because that’s not what reality is like. I wanted to let the audience think what they want and judge according to their own criteria.

VS: There is also a certain amount of black comedy in the film.

JSC: Yes, it is a comedy of the absurd in a way. In the scene of the murder there is something completely absurd because both sides believe they are defending themselves. Both feel that they are being attacked. And it’s exactly what happens in most conflicts: each side think that they are defending themselves against the other, just like in Israel and Palestine. Violence is justified through lack of communication and the inability to adopt a point of view different from one’s own.

VS:The thriller aspect is mixed with issues such as people abandoning the countryside and the decaying of the villages. Why did you choose to set your story against this kind of background?

JSC: It was very important to me because it’s something that’s happening in Spain and all over Europe. Rural areas are not a priority for the European Union but the countryside is a very big part of the Spanish identity because it was the basis of our culture and our economy. Since the second half of the twentieth century there has been an exodus and many villages have been completely abandoned. Rural cinema was a strong tradition in Spain, we had many films about country life. I wanted to talk about that Spain, but the way it is now. It was important to have a new perspective on what is happening because everything is changing and there is a whole way of life that is going to disappear completely. Again here I don’t have any answers because I know some villagers welcome the changes while others don’t, but I’m showing what’s happening. And it was perfect for a thriller because there’s an atmosphere of decadence. It’s also the decadence of the characters. I didn’t want to talk about it directly and make a social film. I like films like The Third Man, where the decadence of the background invades the characters and causes moral confrontations between them. It’s not in the foreground but it’s something that enters the characters and is dealt with obliquely through the crime story.

VS: The story shows urban characters coming to a village but it never falls into a clichéd opposition between city dwellers and villagers.

JSC: Yes, I really wanted to avoid that, and I also wanted to avoid clichés about the violence of country people. In Spain we have films like Pascal Duarte, part of what we call Tremendismo, that are about the violence of rural Spain and I didn’t want that either. In The Night of the Sunflowers the violence comes from the town, it’s the city people who bring it into the village. So there is a confrontation but it’s not all black and white.

VS: Why does the character watch a documentary on bees in the last scene?

JSC I wanted to adopt the perspective of an entomologist. We see the story from above, we see the way people’s paths cross. And in the documentary the commentator says, ‘bees don’t sting if you don’t bother them’, which I thought worked well with the killer’s story. But in the subtitles there is a mention of Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread), the Buñuel documentary, and I hadn’t seen that. So everybody said, ah, so it’s an homage to Buñuel, but it wasn’t that at all, I just hadn’t seen it! (laughs)

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky

El Topo

Screening at: BFI Southbank

Date: 5-19 April 2007

Also available on: DVD

Release date: 14 May 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Title: El Topo

Title: The Holy Mountain

Title: Alejandro Jodorowsky Box Set (6 discs)

On April 13th the BFI Southbank in London was packed with a motley crowd of Jodorowsky enthusiasts, from old-timers to young hipsters, from red-haired eccentrics to scruffy types in seventies cords. The Chilean-born director had travelled from Paris, where he now lives, on the occasion of the re-release of his legendary seventies films El Topo and The Holy Mountain and his first feature Fando y Lis. A long-running feud with former Beatles manager and film producer Allen Klein meant that for years they could only be seen on poor quality pirate copies – circulated with the help of Jodorowsky himself. The three films are now finally being made available in their fully restored splendour and the BFI season will be followed on May 14th by the DVD releases of El Topo and The Holy Mountain as well as a six-disc box set containing both films plus Fando y Lis and a ton of extras.

At the on-stage interview that followed the screening of El Topo the BFI audience were lapping up every heavily-accented word of the charismatic director. At 78, Jodorowsky bristles with youthful energy and playful humour. A wonderful storyteller, he regaled us with fantastic stories drawn from his colourful life as a filmmaker, comic book writer, Tarot reader and practitioner of psicomagia, swearing on his five cats that it was all true. We heard how he drank blood on stage during a happening in the sixties, how he secured Salvador Dalí­ and Orson Welles for his ill-fated Dune project by promising money to one and food to the other, and how he made a neurotic woman carry boules on her back for a week as psycho-magic treatment. A former mime artist, he even got up from his chair for a spot of moon-walking! This was a memorable evening, not just because Jodorowsky is an artist of such colossal stature but also because his joyfully anarchic attitude to life is so incredibly infectious.

Earlier that day Virginie Sélavy caught up with him and quizzed him about eerie sound effects, Sam Peckinpah and the ‘Conquest of Mexico’.

Virginie Sélavy: In a previous interview you said that when you’re making a film you’re in a state of ‘criminal ferocity’. I love this quote but what do you actually mean by that?

Alejandro Jodorowsky: One day I shouted so hard at a young woman photographer who was there for an interview that she started screaming and ran out. She was interrupting the creation. When you’re receiving something from your unconscious and other people try to tell you that they understand, that they can do it, that they can do it faster than you, you can’t receive the message from your unconscious. You need to stop the person because otherwise they will stop you. You need to be a criminal because you’re making your picture and you want to do what you want to do. Every time a person comes from the superficial world and they say, ‘I have an idea, why don’t we do that?’ I say, ‘shut your mouth, asshole!’ That’s why I say I’m a criminal there.

Your films have been described as ‘psychedelic head trips’, which I’ve always found rather lazy and reductive. What do you think of that description?

I make pictures for myself, I am not influenced by anybody. But in order to understand, some people need to put what they don’t know into something that they know. They know ‘psychedelic’ so that’s the definition they give. But when the year is over they will say other things because the mentality will change and they will see it in another way. For the moment they’re saying that it’s psychedelic because they were showing it at a time in the seventies when all the Americans were taking drugs. But I didn’t make my pictures under the influence of drugs. I made them because I have an imagination, that’s all.

One of the things that your films do best is to convey the strangeness of life – in the dysfunctional relationships, the deformed bodies, the violence – and the strangeness of death – in the surreal scenes where birds, flowers or ribbons come out of corpses. Is this what your films represent, this strangeness of human life?

I think life has two movements. One is the enormous desire of materiality to go to the spirit. And the other is the enormous desire of the spirit to go to materiality, to incarnation. In my pictures you have both: there are things that are dying and there are things that are born at the same time. It’s what I wanted to do at that time. But that was thirty years ago. They are not my pictures anymore. They were my pictures but now it’s a very difficult situation because I am doing promotion for something I did thirty years ago, you realise my situation, no?

Yes, I can imagine it’s quite strange… You have created extraordinary images so reviews of your films tend to usually concentrate on the visuals but it seems to me that the soundtrack is also very important.

Yes, the soundtrack is very important! I always think that I’m making musical pictures. But not musicals as you see here in the theatre. They call them musicals but they’re not, they’re just stories in which they put songs and dance. For me a musical is a construction in which images and music go together. The music is always sacrificed in movies; it just accompanies the story in order to produce subliminal sensations in the audience. You need to forget the music. Every time a man and a woman look into each other’s eyes you have the music, na na na, or they’re killing someone, boom boom boom, you have a strong rhythm. But that is not a musical. What I do is different. The music speaks as much as the image. It doesn’t accompany it; they’re both part of the creation together.

How did you create those soundtracks?

In El Topo I had a person who played the flute. I took a piece by Bach for instance and I took scissors and cut it and re-arranged the pieces in another order and then I made the guy play it on the flute. That was one musical idea. There was another idea that I called ’21 Friends’. I gave a musical note to my friends, do re mi fa sol la si, and then I asked them to come to my house and I was noting the order they were coming and I made music from that. Et cetera, et cetera… I was inventing ways to make music.

What about all the animal noises that you use?

In El Topo, when the second master is killed I wanted the mother to scream, and I wanted the sound of a bird, aah aah aah, but I couldn’t find a really dramatic bird sound. But I found a rat that sounded like a bird. It goes aah, aah, aah, but it’s a rat. When you make a picture there’s a person who sells you sounds. So you buy a sound, ‘which ones do you have?’ ‘I have an elephant, a butterfly, a rat…’ ‘How much for the elephant?’ ‘Ah, no, too expensive. What about this one?’ And you haggle and then you buy the sound. (laughter)

So it also depended on how much the animal noises cost?

Yes. Some noises I had to make myself. Nobody knows that but I made a lot of sounds. When the thieves attack the masters in The Holy Mountain I had a piano and I took a chamber pot and I started to hit the piano with the chamber pot. It was fantastic, the chamber pot made a fantastic sound! (laughter) No one has asked me about the sound until today, but I made a lot of sounds. And I worked with a fantastic jazz musician called Don Cherry. He was a hippy musician, he was always doing drugs, and he brought lots of musicians. One time I had 100 guys! I showed them The Holy Mountain and he made the music as he was watching the picture. Every time I discovered ways to make the music I needed.

One of the most remarkable things about your films is the fact that they go beyond any simplistic oppositions. For instance El Topo is neither a hero nor an anti-hero.

The good and the bad is the illness of movies. In 300 you have the heroes, the 300 kamikaze rugby men who are prepared to lose their lives and the thousands and thousands of monsters attacking them. It’s idiotic. It’s stupid. In all the American pictures you need to have the bad guy after ten minutes. In my comics I have heroes and heroines. In Meta-Barons and Incal I have a fantastic heroine. For the male society a hero is a man, not a woman. A man can be a hero, a genius, a champion or a saint. A woman can be a prostitute, a mother, a virgin or an idiot. These are the four options for a woman. It’s craziness. When you see an American romantic picture you always have a rich man who falls in love with a prostitute. It’s terrible. The industry has a poisonous mind. I think that now because I have nothing to lose. My pictures are there now so I can say everything I think! (laughter)

There is a brilliant scene in El Topo that seems to me to perfectly represent your approach: it’s the duel with the bandits. El Topo is facing the bandits in what looks like a classic Western scene. There should be a sense of high dramatic tension as they’re waiting for the signal to start shooting, except that the signal is given by a deflating red balloon, which totally undercuts the drama of the scene.

And they start to die slowly! Because I was against Peckinpah, because of the violence, and all the people dying slowly, so I wanted to make the bandits die really really slowly, without any movement. (laughter) I liked doing that!

So you were aware of Peckinpah’s work?

Oh yes, I was aware of him because I had no money, I had no equipment, I had no nothing but Peckinpah had a lot of money and he came to North Mexico to film in a village. He built roads to get to the mountain, created techniques for explosions, imported horses… And then he left and I used everything he threw away, the equipment, the horses, everything. I used it all so I was aware of Peckinpah! (laughter)

You shot El Topo

…where Peckinpah made his film. In order to go to a mountain, you need to climb the mountain. But when an American comes, he doesn’t climb, he says, ‘open a way for me’. They opened the way, it cost thousands of dollars, he shot the film and I found the way ready so I used it!

There is a fascination for spirituality in your films, but also at the same time a critique of spirituality, at least in its organised and dogmatic forms. The spiritual quest in The Holy Mountain ends with the revelation that the masters who preside over the world are in fact dummies. You seem to communicate the idea that there is no absolute wisdom, no ultimate answer, and that all masters and organised systems of thought should be rejected, is that right?

What I want to say is this. Humans have essentially four languages: intellectual language, emotional language, spiritual, creative language and material, body language. They are the four worlds. And the solution is not intellectual, it’s something you feel. The problem is that we’re in a society that poses problems to you, metaphysical problems, and there are no solutions to those problems. The solution is to be found in action. In The Holy Mountain, they need to go from the symbols to reality, from the fairy tale to reality. And from there you need to go to the heart, to creativity and to action.

In The Holy Mountain there is an amazing scene in which toads and chameleons dressed up as Conquistadors and Aztecs re-enact the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. It’s a brilliantly irreverent, hilarious scene and a ferocious critique of colonisation. Was this scene inspired by Antonin Artaud’s ‘The Conquest of Mexico’?

Yes, exactly. Artaud wrote a book called ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ and he wanted to stage the conquest of Mexico. And I said yes, we can do it, but not in two hours, we can do it in two minutes. I will use toads and chameleons and I will make ‘The Conquest of Mexico’. I knew Artaud very well and I was inspired by him there. I wanted to realise his dream.

It seems to fit in quite well with your own ideas because for Artaud it was also a way of showing that Europeans and Christians were not superior to indigenous people and their ancient religions.

When the toads arrive you hear a choir of men who sing ‘Ein Zwei Drei’ in German: it was a Nazi invasion. In that scene I criticise the Spaniards who destroyed the beautiful Maya civilisation. And then I show the American tourists buying and today it’s an invasion of American tourists. It’s always about the invasion of poor countries by powerful countries. It’s the same in Santa Sangre and in El Topo. In South America you have rich people and the Church. The Church was a very big weight, it’s terrible the way they have influenced Mexico.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

For further reading, look out for Ben Cobb’s Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, to be published in July by Creation Books (it can be pre-ordered on Amazon). The book comes with high praise from Jodorowsky himself, who said during the BFI Q&A that he could understand his own work better for reading it!

Interview with the Brothers Quay

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 June 2006

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: The Brothers Quay

Cast Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna

UK 2004

95 mins

In the middle of grey, urban Borough the American-born identical twins and animators extraordinaire have transformed an industrial unit into an enchanted fairytale world, a delightful jumble of trinkets and quaint objects where antique clocks chime the hour and classical music plays softly in the background. This is where Timothy and Stephen Quay have been creating their astonishing animation work for over twenty years, including their darkly inventive short Street of Crocodiles (1986) and their feature debut Institute Benjamenta (1995). In 2005 they released their second feature, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. A surreal fantasy bathed in rich golden hues, it tells of a mad inventor who kidnaps an opera singer and takes her to his island to recreate her last performance. In preparation for the concert, he hires piano tuner Felisberto to ‘tune’ his fanciful, monstrous automata.

In an interview conducted in 2005 the Brothers talked to Virginie Sélavy about dream states, Cameroonian ants, Argentine literature and the frustrations that come from being under pressure to make a more accessible film. Their uncanny habit of talking both at once and finishing each other’s sentences made it impossible to disentangle their respective contributions, which is why they are presented here as one voice.

Virginie Sélavy:The Piano Tuner is only your second feature. Why did it take you ten years to make another one after Institute Benjamenta?

Brothers Quay: It took that long to get it off the ground. We went straight from Benjamenta to writing the script for this. We got development money right away from Channel 4 and within a year it was written but they just rejected it outright. They said it wasn’t accessible.

But they’d seen Institute Benjamenta

Yeah, well, they weren’t that crazy about that either… Benjamenta was started under somebody else and when David Aukin [Head of Film at Channel 4] arrived on the scene and was handed the film he didn’t like it at all. But then Terry Gilliam came on board six or seven years later as executive producer and immediately the French and the Germans put money down.

What’s your relationship with Gilliam?

We’ve known him for eighteen years. He’d seen some of our theatre work and he came to meet us and since then we’ve always been in contact. We did some preliminary designs for some of the monster creatures in Brothers Grimm – but of course they got chucked in the bin… We worked on some of his commercials. He’s on your side by his instincts. He just gets bigger money than us! (laughs)

Why do you think he’s seen as more accessible than you?

Well, he goes out and battles Hollywood, like for Brazil when he took out full-page ads and things like that. We wouldn’t do that. We’d just write a little note in The Guardian – or a postcard! (laughs) You have to be philosophical about it. So-called traditional narrative isn’t a huge obsession with us.

Yes, I can see that…

Although we both feel that The Piano Tuner is a compromise of some sort because the brief was to be more narrative and more accessible when the Film Council came on board. And I think it suffers because the script wasn’t written that way. They tried to get the film into a position where it could be shown in forty cinemas. And of course we knew perfectly well that it was impossible. But the sad thing was that the French and the Germans were on board first and they had approved the script as had the Japanese; and the Film Council came on board because the French, the Germans and the Japanese were already there and then decided to tweak the script. We had a lot of interference from everybody. Everybody had their own idea what the film should be.

So it hasn’t been an entirely positive experience.

No, not at all. It’s been a very unhappy experience. Not like Benjamenta, which might be a bit long, OK, but we made the film that we wanted to make. With this one there was a lot of pressure and it’s not something we’re used to handling. Nobody expects anything from animation so they leave you alone – if you want to get down on your hands and knees and move the camera, go ahead, who cares? (laughs)

Although there is no traditional narrative in Benjamenta, I felt that the story went from one place to another. I thought there was less of a sense of direction in Piano Tuner.

Oh, really? Other people have said that Piano Tuner is more narrative. It’s interesting you should say that because with Piano Tuner we were feeling that we were trying to hit certain narrative points which everybody felt were there in the script and therefore should be maintained. But with Benjamenta we didn’t have that, we were sort of cruising very quietly below the surface, like a submarine emitting its bleeps as it moves along. We were very true to Robert Walser [on whose novel the film was based] in that sense. It was sort of a quiet, zero land and we liked that. It allowed so much to be smuggled into the film. But we couldn’t smuggle anything into Piano Tuner because in the end it just got cut.

The subtitle of Benjamenta is ‘This Dream That People Call Human Life’. Could it be applied to Piano Tuner too?

Yes, because in a sense the starting point for this was… do you know the Museum of Jurassic Technology out in Los Angeles? It’s this quirky little museum run by a guy called David Wilson. When you enter and you see all the exhibits you have this eerie feeling that not everything is as it should be. There’s a fine line between is it fiction or is it genuine documentary evidence that he is producing. And one of these things was the Cameroonian stink ant that inhales spores [which infect its brain and cause its behaviour to change] and we used that in the film as an allegory of madness. That anecdote was really the starting point of the film. And we also used the idea of that famous Magritte painting Empire of Light, where in the sky it’s daylight and if you pan down it’s dark. We were interested in that sort of simultaneous in-between world. I think we might have aimed too high for what we wanted and didn’t pull it off, but these were the sort of things that we were using as framing devices for the story. That and South American literature, magic realism, which also adds confusion to everyone’s vision within the film.

Was The Invention of Morel an influence?

Yeah, it was very important. We couldn’t get the rights for it. We actually wrote to Adolfo Bioy Casares and he said, ‘sure, you can have it’, and then he wrote back a day later and he said, ‘I forgot, I gave it to somebody else’. (laughs) We found out that this guy, some Argentinean in Paris who’s had it for thirteen years, never got it off the ground but keeps renewing the rights. So Alan [Passes, co-writer of Piano Tuner]and the two of us said, well, let’s just work around the themes a little bit. So all you really have is the island, the tide, elements like that.

I thought you also kept the idea of people being replaced by their images and living this kind of eternal but illusory, disembodied life.

Yes, exactly. Perpetuum mobile almost, because at the very end the character in The Invention of Morel asks that if anybody should invent a machine capable of reuniting their images, they help him enter into Faustine’s consciousness, which is a little bit what the Felisberto character is attempting at the end of Piano Tuner. He claims to have succeeded – he says, ‘we’re together, buried among the rocks’. In his imagination at least he’s done it. The Invention of Morel was actually a homage to Louise Brooks – Faustine really is Louise Brooks. Bioy Casares was fascinated by her.

And there’s also the character of the mad inventor.

Yes, I think he features less in The Invention of Morel, he’s more like a shadow figure.

Why is the film called The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes?

It was the idea of a character who could hear at the most incremental level. Our whole idea of the Felisberto character was that he should be a kind of medium and earthquakes seem to follow him. At one point Dr Droz says something like: ‘do they follow you on a leash, like a dog?’ Droz wants to have a theatrical earthquake on stage as the showpiece of his opera and Felisberto sabotages it by pulling off a real earthquake. It probably doesn’t quite come off, it’s too abstract, we would have needed much more time at the end.

How did you create the visuals for the film?

We made designs for everything. The whole thing was built. The forest was there, the rocks, the bench, but there was no sea, that was just a blue screen. Actually there was water, but it was more like a giant puddle… (laughs) It was all built up to about one floor and then our model work was grafted and the sky dropped in. We built the whole landscape out of Portuguese cork.

Cork? Why cork?

It makes the best rocks. It’s what’s used for reptiles in museums. All the pet places buy cork for the animals, which is why when we tried to order a few slabs of cork we were told ‘minimum order is 100 kilos!’ (laughs) This giant sled came and we used it all. In fact we had to use another one. We wanted a sort of volcanic island and it gave that beautiful texture.

How do you work together?

We both build the sets, so one’s building the left wall and the other’s building the right wall for instance. You make a list and you say OK, we’ve got to build this, this, this, this, you start on this and I’ll start on that. And you’re always cross-fertilizing so it grows very organically. We don’t bring in other people to help, we don’t have a team of six people doing the mountains. We use one sidekick who helps gear up things technically sometimes but he’s really just a drinking partner… (laughs)

Do you ever disagree?

Oh yes, of course!

How do you sort it out?

Well, you have a firm argument. But also if we’re shooting something, we shoot it both ways, we shoot his version and my version and you decide on the editing table – you’re always much clearer at that stage. You just try things out. But we’re bound to have differences.

And how do you work with your writer, Alan Passes?

The three of us have always worked out the story together. For Benjamenta we’d meet every single day for three or four hours and hammer it out. But sometimes he feels he’s not part of this because the producers never consider the writer as being on board, he’s just invisible to them. Alan is a novelist, he has a novelist’s vision, a broader vision. We have an instinct for the sort of visual world that we want and the way the dialogue should be shaped. So he’ll contribute dialogue but he’ll also listen to our sense of dialogue. It’s a genuine rapport.

But also, I know that some people have said that in Piano Tuner it is as though the characters are speaking in code. Well, for us it’s important that people speak in code and that nobody speaks directly, like, ‘so, would you like a cup of tea?’ and someone responds ‘yes, I’d like a cup of tea’, ‘well, what kind do you want?’ That’s irrelevant to us. When Assumpta goes around Felisberto in the forest and says, ‘shut your eyes’, imagination is at work, and she’s challenged by it as is he. That’s why he says at one point: ‘I like living in somebody else’s imagination’. Things like that are important for us. But if you aim too hard at the state of the dream you can fall flat on your face because you have nowhere else to go. If you start in a more humdrum way, like Buñuel would, and then suddenly the dream erupts violently, it really stands out and it’s powerful. I think we may have misjudged on this one. We did try to aim fairly high right away to get into a nebulous dream state but people might just tire that there’s never a let-up, you never really come down and say, ‘come on, when is someone going to say something normal?’ (laughs) But we’re just fascinated by this kind of dialogue. In Tod Browning’s Freaks there is that amazing sequence when Randian, the guy with no arms and legs, is talking to someone, and you see him take out a box of matches and his tongue takes out a match, closes the box, does that little rotation, then strikes the match. The whole time they’ve had a dialogue and you don’t listen to any of it because you’re so compelled by what you’re seeing… (laughs)

Was Freaks an influence on the film?

No, not really, but it’s just fascinating that the visuals are so compelling. They could just be talking about the most banal things, which is what the guy is basically doing. But in our case we didn’t want to do that… because we didn’t have a character with no arms and legs… (laughs)

But there is an element of the grotesque in your film too, you have the automata, which are those bizarre part-human, part-machine constructions.

The idea with the automata was that there would be a contamination, that they really did infect people’s lives, that there would be a genuine contamination of elements. We wanted more automata but they said, ‘we’re paying all these actors, why don’t you use some of the actors?’ We were told, no excess of animation or automata, just keep the story moving along…

How you would describe your film to someone who has no idea about what you do?

Somebody wrote to us saying they thought it best that you should just wake up as it’s playing and then you fall back to sleep again and then wake up again and you just sort of drift in and out and in that way you would attain a better sense of consciousness about the film… So far it’s been misnamed as Gothic, no way is it Gothic, Gothic is better represented by Tim Burton. For us, a Baroque sensibility, or a mannerist sensibility in the best sense, is something we feel much closer to. The Baroque deals with the cryptic and the infinite and that speaks to us much more.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy



Photo © Ali Kepenek

On January 3rd, 1984, members of the German industrial band Einstí¼rzende Neubauten joined forces with musicians such as Genesis P. Orridge and Frank ‘Fad Gadget’ Tovey to perform a one-off piece entitled ‘Concerto for Voice and Machinery’ at the ICA. The gig, involving pneumatic drills and chainsaws, was chaotic even by Neubauten standards, culminating when someone threw bottles into a cement mixer, which sent broken glass flying all around the room. As the ICA tried to put a stop to the pandemonium a riot broke out in the audience. Accounts of subsequent events are rather muddled but it would appear that power tools were used to drill through the stage, possibly in an attempt to get to the underground tunnels that allegedly run underneath it, connecting Whitehall to Buckingham Palace.

On February 20th, the artist Jo Mitchell will stage a re-enactment of ‘Concerto for Voice and Machinery’ at the ICA. A group of artists playing the band members will attempt to reconstruct the events as they unfolded twenty-three years ago.

Now, the idea of deliberately planning to recreate in exact detail what was originally spontaneous mayhem sounds to us at Electric Sheep like a rather intriguing proposition. Can the artists really conjure up the same dangerously exciting atmosphere or will it just be a sterile, sanitized retread of the events? Will the crowd be mainly chin-stroking art types taking in the infernal racket with blasé detachment or will the performers stir up another riotous reaction in the audience? While waiting to see what happens on the night, Virginie Sélavy talks to Neubauten’s charismatic frontman Blixa Bargeld.

Virginie Sélavy: As one of your gigs is about to be recreated as a piece of art, do you feel that you have a stronger connection to the art world than you have to music?

Blixa Bargeld: When I started I would have called myself an artist but the discipline I chose in art was music and text. When I started I didn’t know anything about music. I came from an absolutely non-musical, non-artistic background. But after making music for twenty-six years I can’t pretend I don’t know anything about it anymore. So I’d have to call myself a musician now. But I’d still rather consider myself an artist because I work first of all with concepts. I make up concepts and I design ideas that are meant to be performed, and that’s usually connected with the creation of music.

VS: What do you think of Jo Mitchell’s plan to re-enact the ICA gig?

BB: I talked to her for the first time today but we were in email contact before. The first time she contacted me about it, my answer was: ‘Charming!’ And I think I’ll stick with that. It’s a charming little idea to reproduce the concert. After the performance it will be impossible to distinguish between fact and legend. It is already legendary because there are no videos and very few photos of the event, so the only thing you have is the accounts of people who were there that night. Once she’s done the re-enactment it will be completely in the realm of fiction. It won’t be connected to anything that really ever happened. That’s fine with me. In fact, I like that.

VS: It seems like a rather bizarre idea.

BB: It is a very bizarre idea, that’s what makes it charming! It’s funny that somebody is now cast to play me! That’s very funny.

VS: But surely the power of the original performance came from the fact that everything that happened that night was entirely spontaneous and unpredictable. To try and reproduce that seems very contrived.

BB: I don’t know what will happen on that evening. I’m not going to be there. I can’t really go there because it would upset the whole thing. I could only go if I could watch through a small hole from another room. But I can’t appear at the venue itself. It would be wrong.

VS: Do you feel that this re-enactment might turn the original gig, which was very much alive, into some kind of lifeless museum piece?

BB: It’s already a legend, so it’s already a museum piece. It was already a museum piece the next day when it made the headlines of all the English tabloids because what they wrote didn’t have much to do with the actual performance. The majority of all the myths that surround this have nothing to do with what really happened. It was blown out of proportion, compared to what the evening was really like.

VS: All right, so what happened when you destroyed the stage?

BB: We didn’t! The audience did. That’s my account.

VS: Many commentators have focused on the destructiveness of you performances and what has been seen as the nihilism of the band. This re-enactment is probably not going to help change that perception.

BB: Well, playing children destroy many things and you wouldn’t say they’re nihilistic. There is a passage by Walter Benjamin that I’ve quoted again and again in interviews right from the time when Neubauten started because there were always so many questions about destructiveness and negativity. So the best I can say to that is to quote it again: ‘The destructive character’s only watchword is: Make room… The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates, because it clears out of the way the traces of our own age.’ At the moment Goth music is very popular in Germany but I don’t think that Neubauten has ever belonged to that type of music. There’s too much life in what we do.

The other thing is that, if you count all the shows that we played between 1980 and 1984, which ended with the famous destruction of the ICA, serious damage occurred in less than 5% of the shows. What usually gets damaged is the performers. You hurt yourself a lot handling these materials. Sometimes Andrew’s and F.M. Einheit’s hands and arms were covered in horrible cuts and bruises. I remember an American show in Kansas City where F.M. Einheit was handling a piece of corrugated iron which landed under him as he knelt down. He cut both his legs open and had to be taken off stage, which nobody from the band noticed at the time. We were all totally fixated on what we were doing and at some point I turned around and he wasn’t there anymore. The next day Henry Rollins, who was a big admirer of the band, came to visit us in the hotel in Los Angeles. It was the first time we met him and when he comes into the room there are all kinds of medication lying around and one band member has to have his bandage changed every half hour! It was so obviously existential, it just had nothing to do with show business. It was about getting completely immersed into a performance and if you or somebody else got hurt, well, that’s what happened. But hardly ever anybody in the audience actually got hurt, even when we were doing really dangerous things like throwing Molotov cocktails at the crowd. Nobody in the audience ever got hurt but we did. And we did it for years but after a while your body just refuses to carry on. F.M., who is not in the band anymore, severely damaged his right arm because of the way he was drumming and in the end he just couldn’t do it anymore.

VS: It must be difficult because that’s what your audience expects from you.

BB: A display of physicality, yeah.

VS: What’s your relation to your audience? Do you feel there is pressure on you to do certain things and to perform a certain way?

BB: Well, we had to be careful not to repeat certain things because after a while they just become part of a show. So it’s better to stop them. Having said that, we like having an audience. We always perform better with an audience. I do need the audience as some kind of witness. We suck out the attention that we get from this witness and use it in our performance. The audience is the source of the energy that I project back to them. It may look like the performer on stage has some kind of magical force but the magical force is really the ability to suck out the attention of other people and project it back, that’s all.

VS: Neubauten have never done things the conventional way and you have now dispensed with a record label altogether to start an Internet-based project funded by your supporters.

BB: Well, record companies are not doing very well at the moment. The budget that we get from an independent company nowadays is more or less identical to what our budget was fifteen years ago just to make the record cover. So we had to find another way of doing things. Compared to other bands who work on the periphery of mainstream music we have very high standards and we usually take two years to make a record, so that’s a lot of studio time and a lot of costs. We didn’t want to have to compromise on that so that’s why we started this Internet project. We are now in Phase III. We’ll be finished in spring but we still need another 2000 supporters to get through what we have planned. I think it’s a fantastic deal. By subscribing you can take part in the whole process of making the record, and once the record is finished you get it through the post. This way we cut out any middle-men and with enough people we can realise something much more ambitious and much better than with the kind of budget that we’d get from an independent record company.

VS: How many phases are there in the project?

BB: We were thinking four.

VS: Why four?

BB: There’s a seventies movie called Phase IV. It’s about entomologists who study a colony of intelligent ants in the desert and at the end they actually turn into ants and become part of the colony. It’s a very unusual movie so when we started calling our project Phase I we thought maybe we should go all the way to Phase IV as a kind of reference. I hope that by Phase IV we can turn our project into a platform so that it’s no longer simply about producing Neubauten music but it can become a wider model that can be applied to many other people.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy