Suture: Interview with Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Suture 1
Suture

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 4 July 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Directors: David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Writers: David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Cast: Dennis Haysbert, Mel Harris, Sab Shimono

USA 1993

95 mins

Black and white and enigmatic, Suture was one of the most singular debuts of American independent cinema at the time. Jason Wood talks to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel about identity, improbable gestures and ‘Ring of Fire’.

Jason Wood: What was the starting point for Suture? The synthesis of film noir and avant-garde cinema suggests that you are both keen cineastes, but the film also expresses an interest in issues relating to identity and wider philosophical concepts.

Scot McGehee/David Siegel: More than anything, Suture grew out of the films we were watching together at the time: some Japanese art films from the 60s, and also American paranoid thrillers, and every twin film we could get our hands on. We were thinking a lot about identity as a construct, and how film constructs identity; and certain narrative tropes started interesting us: hypnosis, twins, amnesia. Out of that stew, the basic plot sort of emerged fully formed.

Was it always your intention to have Clay and Vincent portrayed by actors who were black and white? Your tone here is often quite playful, but it also introduces an interesting take on racial politics that was considered quite potent for its time.

Clay and Vincent being portrayed by actors who were black and white was an idea we had while we were writing. It was an idea that we started out loving but not taking completely seriously. But it stayed in our heads. The humour of it, the ways in which it let the story be a little out of control. And the more we lived with it, and the more we worked on the script, the less we could imagine doing the film any other way. People tried to talk us out of it, of course.

The cinematography by Greg Gardiner is striking. How did you come to work with him and what instructions did you give him in terms of the look and tone you wanted to achieve? Was it always your intention to shoot in black and white?

We decided while writing that we were making a black and white film. More specifically, we decided we were making a black and white Scope film. At the time, we couldn’t think of one that had been made (in the United States, at least) since Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). All the Japanese films we had been watching were black and white Scope, and we loved the look of it, and loved the idea of using a very graphic wide-screen frame to shoot a fairly intimate drama.

Greg Gardiner was one of many people who interviewed for the job, but he talked to us from the beginning as though we were already working together. And though he hadn’t shot many films at that point, he’d had a very successful career as a gaffer. That experience was very appealing, because the light in the movie was something we hoped could really contribute to the emotional feel of the story. We spoke with Greg a lot about shooting the film in ‘white and black’, trying to capture a world of confidence and analysis rather than a more traditional ‘noir’ world of mystery and shadow.

One of the other aspects of Suture that most impresses is Kelly McGehee’s production design and the general use of locations and interiors. Can you say something about the buildings in which you shot (Vincent’s apartment is particularly striking) and what sense you wanted these locations and mise en scène to communicate?

We shot the film in Phoenix Arizona at a time when the city was very depressed financially, so the central downtown area was quite eerie and deserted, but it still had that crisp, clean, arid feeling of a desert city. The location we used for Vincent’s house was a vacant Savings and Loan office. We shot many of our interiors in vacant office spaces, which had a nice anonymous quality and were available at a very good price. We wanted the film to exist in a psychological space more than a realistic one, so the gestures could be big, graphic and improbable.

We had worked with Kelly on both of our short films, so we all kind of grew up together and our creative collaboration was already a number of years old when we began Suture. And she had been involved in the thinking for the film as we were writing, so a good deal of the design foundation had been laid long before we ever got to Phoenix.

The final face-off between Vincent and Clay is brilliantly realised. Was this a difficult sequence to execute?

Most of the sequence is fairly straight-forward shooting, with the exception of the last overhead shot in the bathroom. That’s an image that we’d written quite precisely into the screenplay. Despite our low budget, the bathroom was the one set we insisted on building, just to be able to realise that shot. To do it, we had to fix-mount the camera on scaffolding about 20 feet above the stage, rigging it quite precariously in a way that didn’t allow for any direct looking through the viewfinder. It wasn’t until the video tap was attached that we could actually see the shot: Vincent walking towards Clay, separated by the shower curtain, each with his gun drawn. We were both kind of flipped out by how intact the original written shot had remained, and how connected we both still felt to it. It became this very emotional moment for us, and is still one of our fondest production memories.

The song ‘Ring of Fire’ plays a prominent role. You use both the Johnny Cash and Tom Jones versions. What was the thinking behind this?

Johnny Cash is The Man in Black. Tom Jones is a Welsh soul singer. We loved both versions of the song, and liked the pun of the car-phone bomb transforming Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ into Tom Jones’s version, much as Clay was about to become Vincent. Chalk it up to the juvenile sense of humour of first-time filmmakers, but it all felt right. In the end, we probably paid more for the rights to the various versions than we actually earned making the movie. But it still seems worth it.

Steven Soderbergh came on board as an executive producer. What function did he perform and how beneficial did it prove to have his name attached to the project?

We had brought the film to a rough-cut state and were in the process of trying to raise money when we met Steven. We knew someone who knew someone who was close to him, and that person managed to convince him to come to a screening. The screening turned out to be a technical disaster: reels projected out of order, the wrong gate in the projector. Afterwards, Steven suggested we meet for coffee the next morning, and we were sure we would get a polite, collegial brush off. Instead, he told us he had spoken to his accountant about mortgaging his house to help us finish the film. The accountant had apparently talked him out of that scheme, but Steven adopted us anyway, and stuck with us for months as we continued cutting. We finally raised the finishing funds through a contact of his in France. He was an invaluable and tireless supporter, and a true friend.

Is the climate in which you made Suture very different to the one in which you currently find yourselves working? Looking back on the experience, what do you most recall about the making of the film and its critical and commercial reception?

The whole experience of making and releasing Suture was a series of firsts for us. Reviews, festivals, publicists. Though it didn’t perform well at the box office in the US, we had been to Telluride, Cannes and Sundance. It was all gratifying and fresh, and ultimately it opened doors to people within the industry who were interested in helping us make more movies. Looking back, we can see that we were lucky to have had that first experience within an independent film world that was considerably smaller than today (and friendlier, in a way). No independent film had made $100 million at the box office at that point (or anything even close), so the expectations were lower and the approach to independent filmmakers was, perhaps, less restrictive.

Neither of us had gone to film school or had any real training or apprenticeship in the film business. We had only made two short films when the production began, and so, often, we found ourselves learning how to do things only one step ahead of actually doing them. Sometimes less than a step. But the people we worked with during the making of the film, and the people who helped us get it out into the world, were for the most part incredibly open, generous and collaborative. Looking back on Suture, we find it hard not to remember how much fun we had.

Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film at HOME, Manchester, will introduce a screening of Suture at the ICA on 7 July 2016.

Interview by Jason Wood

Watch the Suture Arrow Video Story:

This review was first published in the aummer 09 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

The Neon Demon: Interview with Cliff Martinez

Neon Demon 2
The Neon Demon

Format: Cinema

Seen at Cannes 2016

Release date: 8 July 2016

Distributor: Icon Film Distribution

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Writers: Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham

Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves

France, Denmark, USA 2016

117 mins

The composer and musician talks about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.

Cliff Martinez started his career drumming for Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Captain Beefheart before making his big leap into cinema, writing the music for Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape, The Limey, Traffic and Solaris, . He’s since formed a close bond with Nicolas Winding Refn, composing the scores for Drive and Only God Forgives. Their latest collaboration, Refn’s shiny new offering The Neon Demon, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has an intriguing, pulsing electronic score that is haunting and emotional in equal measure, while the film itself unexpectedly divides critics and audiences alike.

Pamela Jahn spoke to the composer and musician about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.

The Neon Demon is your third collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. Did the fact that it features women rather than men in the lead role, which is quite unusual compared to Refn’s work in the past, change your way of approaching the music for this film?

Cliff Martinez: No, Nicolas had told me very early on in the process, ‘This is going to be a very different film because the subject is going to be women.’ And when he told me that, I was curious what it would be like. But then when I got to saw the film and I saw the shower scene and things like that, I thought, ok, so that’s how Nicholas is making a film about women, of course. So, no, for me it didn’t feel so much different. It was more a departure for Nicholas himself, I think.

Do you think there is a specific link between electronic music and fashion in the way those two worlds seem to complement each other?

Oh, I never thought of that, but it’s an interesting idea. Maybe there is some sort of connection, I don’t know.

The music to Drive is widely regarded as one of the greatest scores of its time. Did it feel special to you when creating it?

I loved Drive from the minute I saw it, but I don’t think anyone imagined at the time how successful the film was going to be, or at least certainly I didn’t have a clue. It was just a great project to be working on. I’ve never really grasped quite why that particular score got so popular. And I’m still kind of fascinated by the fact that in my 25 years of working as a composer, that’s the one score that people keep talking about.

In 2014, the BBC created a televised re-score of the original Drive soundtrack – what did you make of that new version?

I’ve heard of it but I’ve never actually seen this new version, so I don’t know. I heard that it was re-scored but that’s about it.

You also worked with Nicolas on Only Good Forgives, which has these great karaoke moments. Were you involved in creating these scenes?

As I recall it, the script and the actual film turned out very different from each other, but I think the karaoke material was there from the very beginning. I remember that it was the first thing that I did when I started working on the project. I usually don’t come in until the film has been shot but this time the ground floor was really the script, because there were several karaoke scenes that they needed the music for so they could shoot. I’d never done any karaoke for film before and I remember in the beginning Nicolas had this idea about iconic country western songs but then he decided to go with Thai music instead. So, I think I created five of these Thai karaoke tracks, each track was then tested and got changed several times to be performed at the karaoke bar, but in the end I think we used the original tracks.

You started your career as a composer working with Steven Soderbergh. Was he your first sort of soulmate in cinema, in a similar way that Nicolas seems to be now?

I don’t know, we just seem to work together very well. We seem to agree on films, their philosophy, musical genres and so on. We have a similar taste, I guess.

You’re currently working with Soderbergh on the TV series The Knick. Does it make a difference to you if you compose for the big or small screen, apart from the fact that it’s a longer process?

That’s the thing, it’s more exhausting than feature-film work but, in the end, it just feels like a ten-hour Soderbergh film to me. But there are some differences as well, I guess, one of which being that you have to mix the score so it sounds right on very small speakers, because most people will see it on their normal TV at home. And you also really have to develop your theme and your emotional peaks and stretch them over ten hours as opposed to two hours.

You are working across the board, from cinema to TV and video games. How do you choose your projects?

To be honest, it’s more that people chose me rather than me selecting things. Directors like Steven, Nicolas or Harmony Korine, for whom I composed the score for Spring Breakers, have asked me to score their films. So I feel that if I have worked on these great projects, it’s not so much because of my decisions, but because people have chosen me and trusted me with what I can bring to their work.

Was there a score when you were younger that first made that feeling, that relationship between music and movies, click for you?

There are a couple of films or film scores that come up actually, like the old scores by Bernard Herrmann and especially Ennio Morricone. One of the first film scores that I owned on vinyl when I was young was A Fistful of Dollars. Another thing that resonated with me from the beginning was the TV show Saturday Night at the Movies. I would watch The Day the Earth Stood Still three or four times a year, and the music just got to me, I listened to it every time it came on.

A film might be flawed but the music can still be brilliant. What do you think the score can bring to the movie as a whole?

Well, the score depends on the film. The music has a significant role, especially if there is not much dialogue. People turn to the music to maybe explain a bit more about what’s going on.

Do you think a great score can save a film from being terrible?

No, I don’t think the music has the power to salvage a terrible film, but I do believe it has the ability to completely transform a film. It’s hard to explain what it is, I didn’t understand it myself until I saw a film without music and then with the music, but when you do that, you can appreciate the power of music. But still, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that music can rescue an utterly flawed film and turn it into an entertaining, successful film – no musical score can do that.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Watch the trailer:

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story): Interview with Eva Husson

Bang Gang
Bang Gang

Format: Cinema

Seen at LFF 2015

Release date: 17 June 2016

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Eva Husson

Writer: Eva Husson

Cast: Finnegan Oldfield, Marilyn Lima, Daisy Broom

Original title: Bang Gang (Une histoire d’amour moderne)

France 2015

98 mins

French director Eva Husson talks about adolescence and excess, shooting sex scenes and creating cliché-free female characters.

One of the great surprises of last year’s London Film Festival, Eva Husson’s bracing debut Bang Gang paints a frank, uninhibited and nuanced portrait of modern youth. Based on a real-life case, the film follows a group of teenage friends who engage in sex parties in a small French seaside town. Experimenting in this way will lead each of them to find their own limits and work out their own singular relationship to sex and love.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Eva Husson at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2015 about adolescence and excess, shooting sex scenes and creating cliché-free female characters.

Virginie Sélavy: Bang Gang goes against all the clichés about today’s youth and the panic about the internet. Although you integrate things such as posting photos online in the story you show that the characters’ exploration of sexuality is just part of growing up.

Eva Husson: I’m interested in the exploration of limits. I think that’s the job of teenagers, and the characters just do their job. Some are more confused than others, and some go further. A number of people asked if I thought the film represented youth. No, I don’t think that young people are constantly having intense group sex. But I think that it is very likely that similar excessive behaviour goes on, and it reveals archetypes and issues that are common to everyone. I think it’s much more interesting to choose an excessive type of story to approach that than a more traditional little love story that no one would have cared about.

It is based on a real event, is that right?

Yes, it was inspired by something that happened in 1996 when three hundred kids got syphilis in a small town. That’s what caught the attention of the hospital. They started to think it was a little strange, all these kids coming to them with that same problem. They questioned the kids and they realised there was something a little off. So it’s not something that is recent, and at the time you didn’t have all these issues of videos and photos. I included that in the film because I felt I couldn’t ignore it.

The way you portray the parents is very nuanced. They are quite sympathetic, they’re not repressive, they just don’t really understand what is going on.

I felt it was important that the parents shouldn’t be repressive caricatures because that’s often the way they are represented. I was touched by the fact that the parents try their best but fail, they’re a little clueless. They are quite open-minded and could understand their children if they talked but of course adolescents don’t talk. So I was looking back with sympathy at my parents and my friends’ parents, who were middle class and well-intentioned but got so much wrong. I was angry with them for a while and then I realised that they just did what they could.

You play an adult in the film, the maths teacher.

Yes, because even though in my head I was a teenager until I was 35 it was impossible to continue being a teenager. I love acting because I started as an actress, and I liked the idea of having a small role. Due to the intensity of the shooting I didn’t feel able to play a bigger role. And my husband plays the chemistry teacher, my mother plays the Spanish teacher, my brother is the disabled father and my cousin plays Alex’s mother. It’s a family affair.

What was the shooting like?

It was hard, because of the financial situation. We had limited means compared to our ambitions and so it was difficult to do all the things we wanted to do with the quality we wanted. Also we shot in some isolated places. All the scenes in the house were shot in the country and it was hard to be all crammed together in one place, day and night. The kids were fed up with each other, they were at each other’s throats. It was a bit like a holiday camp, it was drama after drama. To be honest I found it all quite funny. But there was also a lot of enthusiasm. The creative team was really close, there were many happy moments. I’d just had my baby and so I felt a little like a warrior: I’ve just given birth, I can do anything now, all problems have solutions. But I was scared, it’s not like I went in thinking, ‘great, I’ve just had a baby and now I’m making a film, that’s so cool’. I went in thinking, ‘oh shit…’ It actually gave me a strength I didn’t suspect I had.

Was it the first time you made something so explicitly sexual?

For a long time I was worried about the project for that reason. I found the story fascinating, I found the exploration of the extreme fascinating, but as for the sexual aspect of it… I’d shot one or two sex scenes before and I knew they weren’t the most pleasant scenes to film. Everyone is uncomfortable, watching people pretend to moan is not great to be honest… And so I wasn’t too happy about that, but at one point I said to my actors, ‘look, it’s very simple, your bodies are tools, you think of it as dancing, we’ll think about bodies in space, we’ll choreograph them, we’ll do it as a physical relationship to space. Don’t let yourselves get overwhelmed by your own emotions, it’s not about you, it’s about the characters’. And that’s the guiding principle that we all followed. When the actors talk about it they don’t seem traumatised. The other thing is that I kept the sex scenes to a minimum. I wanted it to be about the trajectories of the characters and for those scenes to exist only in relation to their emotions.

Those scenes feel very frank, very sensual, and never empty.

We spent a lot of time thinking about why we were filming each scene, what needed to be shown, in fact what was the minimum we could show, without overdoing it because others have done that, and I wasn’t really interested in that as a filmmaker. We thought a lot about what it meant for the character, which made a lot of decisions easier. When it came to nudity, I wanted it to be something simple. That’s why I had a couple of scenes where you see them naked early on so that afterwards you know that they can be naked, it doesn’t need to be all frontal. I didn’t want to focus on the genitals because people don’t really want to see that.

You’ve created great female characters that are very complex and different. They do what they want to do without compromising and they don’t get punished for it.

That was very important to me. As a woman I was thinking about how women and female sexuality are represented. I thought that a full-blown teenage female sexuality can be explored in a way that doesn’t necessarily end badly. Of course, if you shag lots of people, there is the risk of sexually transmissible diseases. For me that’s not punishment, that’s a fact. But at that age there is also that extreme malleability that means that you learn the lesson of what didn’t work, of what was a little too much, and you carry on, and you construct your identity. The construction of female sexual identity fascinated me, that’s something I really wanted to explore. I think there will be viewers who will find it hard going because it goes against the patriarchal view of things – even in films I love like Breaking the Waves, the female character really suffers, it’s punishment after punishment after punishment.

It’s interesting that syphilis is what happened in the real story because today the big STD threat is AIDS. That’s something that would change your life because there is no treatment, whereas now you can treat syphilis, which removes the potentially tragic element of STD.

Well, I did wonder if I should keep that in, so it was a real narrative choice, because a lot of people were saying to me, syphilis is over. It’s not common, that’s for sure, but it does happen. And it’s precisely no longer a lethal disease these days so the kids can move on, and that’s what’s interesting. I had a fairly wild youth, not in terms of orgies, but drugs, and people around me took lots too, and we all turned out OK. So it’s possible to explore your limits without it destroying your adult life. For me it’s a lie to say that if you mess up as a teenager you’ll ruin your life. It’s the only moment in life when you can go very far and make a full U-turn without any real consequences. I liked the idea of exploring that.

The film also dynamites all the clichés about girls, sex and love, the idea that girls are romantic and boys are not.

Yes, for instance, for Gabriel, a boy, and I know many boys like him, intimacy is something that is very strong and intense and he can’t do collective sex. However, he’s enough of a freak, in a good sense, to think that it doesn’t matter what this special girl who means so much to him does with her sexuality, because he’s someone who sees what really matters. George, on the other hand, is a romantic girl, but for her that’s not connected to sex. So she can sleep with boys without it being in contradiction with her sentimental side. And Alex may initially seem like a little bastard, but through him I was looking back with tenderness at teenage boys, realising that they were just a bit dazed, they didn’t understand everything. At the time I thought they were obnoxious, but in fact they were a little lost because learning about love and relationships is actually not easy – now, 20 years ago or 2000 years ago.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

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Tale of Tales: Interview with Matteo Garrone

Tale of Tales 1
Tale of Tales

Format: Cinema + VOD

Seen at Cannes 2015

Release date: 17 June 2016

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: Matteo Garrone

Writers: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso

Based on the fairy tale collection Pentamerone by: Giambattista Basile

Cast: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly

Italy, France, UK 2015

134 mins

The Italian director talks about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an eccentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.

Matteo Garrone might have made his name with the gritty, realist mafia drama Gomorra (2008), but his latest offering is a different beast entirely. A fantastically bizarre, wildly imaginative and highly stylized affair, Tale of Tales features a trio of stories, set in three neighbouring kingdoms and focusing on the increasingly mad and often hilarious miseries of their royal leaders, all of which are loosely based on the folk myths collected and published by the 16th-century Neapolitan poet and scholar Giambattista Basile.

Pamela Jahn met with the Italian director at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015 to talk about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an accentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.

Pamela Jahn: It seems like Gomorra, which turned out to be your most successful film to date, and your new film Tale of Tales could not be further apart?

Matteo Garrone: Yeah, it seems strange…But, for me, there are also dark fairy tales in Gomorra, in the same way as the tales talk about archetypes, about human beings, so they are also somewhat modern too. And my approach is always one that starts from a realistic approach, from observation of contemporary reality, but at the same time there is also a fantastic dimension. In this case, I started off with fantastic tales and tried to bring them a little closer to reality. But all my movies are very visual, so the approach was not so different from my point of view. I actually felt that the line was quite natural, especially since I always talk about obsessions in my films, and Tale of Tales is about desire and how this desire becomes obsession. Of course, the language of Gomorra was much more based on a documentary style, but behind this choice of the language is an important visual work.

There are not many fantasy movies coming out of Italy these days.

No, but we also have directors who in the past worked well in that genre. For me, one of my references was Mario Bava, for instance. He worked with horror but also with fantasy. And I also like the early work of Pasolini, his short movies and fairy tales in particular, so we do have a heritage of that in Italy too.

When did you discover Giambattista Basile’s tales for yourself?

As a kid, I read tales like the ones by the Brothers Grimm like everyone else. I discovered Giambattista Basile only four or five years ago, through a friend of mine, who is a painter. I immediately fell in love with them, with the different characters of the stories, but also with the visual aspect.

This is your first English-language film. Do you think anything got lost in the translation of the stories into English?

No, because, first of all the original stories were written on the streets in the Neapolitan dialect of the 16th and 17th centuries. So even when you read the book in Italian you are already reading a translation. I also think there is something Shakespearean in the way Basile writes, and hopefully we helped a little to make him known in the world, finally. Because it’s really unfair that nobody knows this author who wrote the first book of fairy tales in Europe and who was the first to write about Cinderella and about many other famous tales…everybody only knows the Grimms. And at that time, the tales were not for kids, they were seen as entertainment for a mixed audience. That’s partly why these tales are also very dark sometimes and also almost oral because they are of medieval origin. It was important to me to keep the soul of Basile’s writing, the violence but at the same time also the comical aspects, because Basile is a master of mixing comedy and fear.

Toby Jones is brilliant as the eccentric king whose love for a giant flea overpowers the love he feels for his own daughter.

Yes, he’s wonderful. Jones is an actor, who like Vincent Cassel, can play comical and dramatic, all at the same time, and always in a way that never becomes cliché, he’s always believable. And that was very important for me with Basile’s tales, to find the right balance between comic, dramatic and the grotesque.

Like in the scene in which Salma Hayek, who plays a queen desperate to receive a child, has to eat a sea monster’s beating heart.

Salma was very generous with me. She’s Mexican, you see, and when we met, she basically told me I’m like a Mexican director because I’m so crazy. But in all honesty, when you believe in something the rest doesn’t matter, so she went through that scene without flinching because she believed in what we were doing.

What is she actually eating in that scene?

It’s a sort of disgusting cake, I think.

Together with Paolo Sorrentino, you are one of the most acclaimed Italian directors today. Is it true that you live in the same building?

Yes, it’s true. We meet in the elevator sometimes, but since he won the Academy Award for The Great Beauty I decided we shouldn’t meet too much. (laughs)

Why did you decide to work with Peter Suschitzky, the cinematographer, who is also a long-term collaborator with David Cronenberg and who shot all of his films?

I saw the work he did with Cronenberg. It’s realistic in its roots but at the same time you can feel something that is artificial in a way. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do with this film, we wanted to create an image that is believable but at the same time you feel like it was created in a studio. Almost like the beginning of the cinema, like the Méliès, something that is almost a performance, something that can surprise the audience, visually and emotionally. But at the same time you feel it’s artificial.

You used to be a painter in your earlier career. Why did you stop?

When I stared making movies I stopped painting, because for me making movies is always a figurative art, and it’s my way of painting now. Unfortunately, I can’t do both, because when I do cinema I think about it 24hours a day, I’m constantly thinking about the language of cinema. It’s something that I cannot combine and think about both at the same time. So if I ever start painting again I have to stop making films. But I’ll probably need at least two years to switch my mind because it takes time. I am very curious though to see what would come out of it, so maybe if I make a movie that is a complete disaster, I’ll go hide in my studio and start painting again.

You mentioned elsewhere that making this film was a very difficult experience for you.

I learned a lot about the technical aspects with this movie, but sometimes it was very frustrating for me because I like to have the control, especially the visual control. And sometimes when you work with special effects you shoot only with a green screen, so you have to imagine what it will actually look like. It’s like you’re giving away your brushes to somebody else and see what they do with them. And it took a long time to see something, like for example, even only to see the giant flea, I had to wait five months.

Has that somewhat discouraged you from making more ambitious fantasy or genre-twisting films like this in the future?

I think making films is always difficult. The world of cinema is somehow connected to something almost esoteric, because when you make a movie in a way you’re blind. Every day you make a piece but you forget what you’ve done the day before, it’s not like when you’re painting that you always see the colour that you put in front of you on the canvas. Instead, putting all the different pieces together is like a mosaic and finally, hopefully, you understand the tone of the movie. But sometimes it is easy to lose the control, visually. And my point of view is this: if a director makes just one really good film in his career, that’s enough. Then you can make mistakes. But imagine if every director would make just one good movie, how rich cinema would be!

Interview by Pamela Jahn

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Maria Usbeck’s Film Jukebox

Maria Usbeck
Maria Usbeck

After five years as the singer of US new wave band Selebrities, it was homesickness that led Ecuadorian musician Maria Usbeck to record her first Spanish-language album, a percussive pop travel diary that revisits the influence of her homeland and mixes it with other exotic cultures she encountered on her travels. ‘Amparo’ is out on Labrador in Europe, Cascine in North America and Rallye in Japan.

1. Wild Tales (Damián Szifron, 2015)
This Argentinian film truly caught me by surprise. Six short stories, each more intense and dramatic than the other. Each one shows us the moment when a person can truly lose their grip. The topics for each story are incredibly well thought out as they reflect a very contemporary Argentinian and South American society, from a wedding that turns into a complete wreck to an actual plane wreck. I would suggest to watch this if you are in need of a laugh but can also handle some moments of pure edge-of-you-seat anxiety.

2. Cría Cuervos (Carlos Saura, 1976)
During the end of the Franquist era, a young girl lives with her two sisters, grandmother and aunt. Her mother has passed after a very long illness, her father later dies of a heart attack. Carlos Saura takes us through this dysfunctional drama allowing us to feel and think as if we were this little girl. Middle child syndrome meets the most beautiful cinematography and art direction. The soundtrack is by one of my favourite Spaniard singers, Jeanette. The main theme ‘Porque Te Vas’, was a song I used to dance and sing along to as a little girl myself.

3. Fando y Lis (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1968)
This is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film, which, when it premiered in Mexico in the 60s, caused a rather angry reaction from its audience. The nature of the film is rather blasphemous. It’s based on the play by the Spanish writer and filmmaker Fernando Arrabal. Its surrealism brings to life human emotion with a rich depth of traumatic pasts and agnostic nature. It’s a film that truly makes you think.

4. Io non ho paura (Gabriele Salvatores, 2003)
A story about a cruel realisation for a young boy, who discovers the darkest side of adults. Filmed in Spain in Italian, this film takes you to a small village during the hottest summer days. As a kid I spent a lot of time running through fields and the woods with my sisters and cousins. Always on the hunt for some sort of adventure or entertainment. Director Gabriele Salvatores delivers an excellent portrait of innocence in the face of desperation. Extremely moving.

5. Araya (Margot Benacerraf, 1959)
Black and white Venezuelan-French documentary that came out the same year as The 400 Blows. It’s beautifully shot. The documentary shows the lives of the Venezuelan people who lived in this beach town called Araya at the time. Working in the salt marsh, making clay pots and having a type of lifestyle that was slowly already starting to disappear and continues to do so.

6. Twilight (Julio Bracho, 1945)
I watched this Mexican film noir about a year ago while on a first date. The man who took me on this date deserves an award for choosing this film. Now if only he was as great as the film was… A dramatic story unravels in the life of a high class society doctor and professor. This man goes through a bit of an existential crisis. His long-lost love has resurfaced and he finds himself torn. This love story captures you with impressionist imagery.

7. Eco de la montaña (Nicolás Echeverria, 2014)
Director Nicolás Echeverria, who is best known for Cabeza de vaca, shows us the life of the indigenous artist Santos de la Torre, of the Huichol people in Mexico. He depicts his work, his family life, his ideals and rituals, as well as his relationship to the outside world. It’s mostly inspirational and eye-opening.

8. The Maid (Sebastián Silva, 2009)
I never myself had a nanny or a full-time maid. When I was growing up in South America, most of my friends did, and their maids were almost like family to them. Director Sebastián Silva was able to unleash the essence of what is almost a psychological thriller. The portrayal of the maid is something truly unforgettable.

9. Dark Habits (Pedro Almodóvar, 1983)
There is nothing like combining Catholic guilt with surrealism. Works like a charm in this Almodóvar film. In a home for rebellious women turned nuns, the most scandalous, witty and funny situations take place. It’s a thrill to watch everything unfold as you dig further and further into the troubles of each character.

10. Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
I was in high school when this movie came out and I remember thinking that this and the music video for ‘Lady hear me tonight’ by Modjo were the most outrageous concepts I could’ve laid my eyes upon. Instantly in love. It’s about two friends who go on a road trip and meet an older woman who is keen to seduce them. The film is not only about sexuality but about the secrets that they hold from each other.

Outlaw Gangster VIP

Outlaw Gangster VIP
Outlaw – Gangster VIP

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 18 April 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Directors: Toshio Masuda, Keiichi Ozawa, Mio Ezaki

Writers: Gorô Fujita, Kaneo Ikegami, Keiji Kubota, Gan Yamazaki

Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Eiji Gô, Kayo Matsuo, Kyôsuke Machida

Japan 1968-69

93 / 97 / 92 / 87 / 86 / 86 mins

Based on a real-life yakuza, Nikkatsu’s gritty 1960s crime series is about a man on the wrong side of both the law and rival gangs.

Produced in rapid succession over the course of about a year and a half, Nikkatsu’s six-part Outlaw series exists within an interesting hinterland between two distinct phases of the Japanese yakuza genre. The first and perhaps most famous entry in the run, Toshio Masuda’s Gangster VIP (1968), was released by Nikkatsu in the wake of Seijun Suzuki’s spectacularly unceremonious dismissal from the studio following their dissatisfaction with Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), a move that caused great waves of discontent within the industry at the time. And the series wrapped up more than two years before the genre’s next major shot in the arm, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honour and Humanity (1972) for Toei, which spawned a series totalling five films (also released recently by Arrow Video), a second series dubbed New Battles without Honour and Humanity and numerous in-name-only spinoffs. The popularity of Fukasaku’s films can be attributed to their kinetic execution, grisly violence and the tabloid-esque sensationalism generated through them being based on a series of newspaper articles that were in turn based on the memoirs of notorious yakuza Kôzô Minô.

Despite the ‘all events and characters in this film are fictional’ disclaimer that appears at the start of Gangster VIP, and intermittently throughout the rest of the series, the Outlaw films are based on stories by Gôro Fujita, a former yakuza all too familiar with a lifestyle that’s governed by clan loyalty and debts paid with blood. The Outlaw series, then, can be seen as a missing link between the ‘Borderless Action’ and ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) that characterised the genre during the preceding decade or so, and the jitsuroko (true account, or actual record) films that came to dominate throughout the 1970s such as Battles without Honour and Humanity. Incidentally, Fujita’s writings would also go on to be adapted by Fukasaku with Graveyard of Honour (1975), another hit for Toei.

Starting in the mid-1950s, the Outlaw series stars Tetsuya Watari as Gôro Fujikawa, an on-again off-again yakuza henchman who often finds himself on the wrong side of both the law and rival clans (and sometimes even his own). But despite his best efforts to resist the pull of yakuza life, he frequently has to get his hands dirty to correct personal injustice. The first – and strongest – film of the series, Gangster VIP, sees Gôro freshly released from prison after a three-year stretch for stabbing a hitman in a bar (his former mentor Sugiyama, who now works for an opposing gang). A free man once more, he is disenfranchised with the kill or be killed mentality of his former peers and intends to shun his old ways. However, he finds his old clan in serious decline, pitted against the stronger Aokis group. He also has to frequently dissuade the curious advances of Yukiko (series co-star Chieko Matsubara), a young woman he happened to save while she was being harassed by a street gang. Yukiko becomes overly intrigued by both Goro’s criminal life and his attempts to abandon it, dutifully tidying his messy lodgings, supplied to him by his old clan. Goro manages to patch things up with Sugiyama (Kyôsuke Machida), who survived Goro’s blade but is now ailing from tuberculosis. But when gangland power plays culminate into personal tragedy, Goro feels compelled to exact gruesome revenge.

Perhaps best known in the West for the similarly-themed noir Rusty Knife (1958) and the Japanese sequences of 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (along with Fukasaku), Toshio Masuda perhaps wasn’t the most audacious director working for Nikkatsu. However, he imbues the series opener with enough stylistic curveballs to elevate it above much of the competition. It’s also a film with a deceptive amount of emotional pull. Its climatic scene of vengeance, hauntingly set to the crooning tones of a nightclub singer, adds a satisfying twist to what could’ve easily turned into a disappointingly standard good-guy-gets-revenge-by-killing-all-the-bad-guys sequence. And a scene where one of Goro’s assigned underlings attempts to flee the city with a newly-requited love, only to be met with merciless refusal by his profession, is a more heart-breaking moment than the genre is usually willing to permit. Watari’s character often philosophises over the wasteful and futile nature of the yakuza game, with a regular motif throughout the series being Goro trying to protect those who naively get caught up in the carnage and to get them out before it’s too late. However, his efforts are usually met with failure. He is also haunted by memories of a tough upbringing, as illustrated by the film’s monochrome opening credits sequence featuring young versions of Sugiyama and himself escaping from a detention centre for delinquents. Indeed, Watari, and by extension the film, may not be ‘cool’ in the same way as number three assassin Jô Shishido in Suzuki’s jangly Branded to Kill, or the shotgun-toting Shishido in Yasuharu Hasebe’s Massacre Gun (1967), but that’s arguably not the point of his character (a latent self-insert for Fujita, exorcising the regrets of his real-life criminal past). Having said that, Gôro does rise to the occasion in fine style when the going gets tough, often finding himself a key player in many of the series’ chaotic raids, messy knife fights and protracted back alley brawls. And his effectiveness quickly earns him the title ‘Gôro the Assassin’. These sequences are surprisingly grisly for the period and bring a sense of scrappy realism to the whole series.

The second film, Gangster VIP 2 (1968), directly continues the story, starting with Gôro and Yukiko, along with Sugiyama’s seriously unwell wife (Kayo Matsuo), trying to make a new life for themselves in the countryside. But as Yumeko’s condition worsens, Gôro has no choice but to accept a job that will take him back into the fray. Using his wits and his trusty blade, he has to survive a new series of deceptions and double crosses as turf is fought over. Keiichi Ozawa replaces Masuda in the director’s chair for Gangster VIP 2 and manages to replicate the formula of its predecessor admirably. Gôro remains an enigmatic yet sympathetic protagonist and continues to be eminently watchable, and Matsubara’s Yukiko possess a quality that subtly sets her apart from other female hangers-on. However, this film doesn’t quite gel as well, even though most of the elements from the first film are present. What is missing is Masuda’s subtle yet effective stylistic flair. Ozawa’s attempts at visual creativity, such as intercutting the film’s final knife fight with stylised cutaways of nearby students playing volleyball, are interesting additions but feel muddled, and don’t land as well as Masuda’s forays into similar territory. Gangster VIP 2 is an enjoyable sequel to be sure; it just doesn’t quite match the quality of its predecessor. As a bonus, eagle-eyed fans will notice a young Meiko Kaji (of Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion fame) in an early yet somewhat pivotal supporting role.

Ozawa is replaced by Mio Ezaki to helm the series’ third film, Outlaw: Heartless (1968). Written by Ezaki and Gan Yamazaki, the film doesn’t directly follow on from Gangster VIP 2 in the same way that that film had followed on from the first. Instead, Heartless seems to almost function as a soft reboot, as indicated by the change in series nomenclature and, most intriguingly, by the complete recasting of Matsubara. Indeed, the recasting of actors into different roles from one film to the next in a given series was a typical strategy for Nikkatsu at the time, and as such it becomes an increasingly more common sight as this series progresses (actors Eiji Go and Kunie Tanaka show up a couple of times in different guises for instance), but Matsubara’s changes are the most readily apparent and have the most noticeable impact (or lack thereof) on the dynamic of each film.

Heartless starts with Gôro, now working as a yakuza enforcer, trying to save a man who has been unfairly duped into owing money to the Mikimoto clan. The man, Sawada, is however slain by one of Gôro’s entourage, concerned that ‘the Assassin’ has gone weak. Gôro forcibly steals the 3 million yen that the clan had cheated from Sawada to give it to Sawada’s widow. Gôro is pursued by the gang, as well as Sawada’s irate brother (a character who goes by the name ‘Ken the Razor’), who mistakenly believes Gôro to be the murderer. Matsubara plays Keiko, the naïve daughter of a former yakuza-turned-bar owner, who Gôro crosses paths with. Like Yukiko before her, Keiko is drawn to Goro’s tough yet sympathetic demeanour, despite the disapproval of her father and from Gôro himself.

One can’t help but feel that a rinse and repeat policy is in force with Heartless, as the film is littered with recycled moments: a knife fight that takes place behind the scenes of a nightclub as a song is performed echoes the superior climax of Gangster VIP, for example. But despite their familiarity, the film’s violent clashes (arguably bloodier than its predecessors) remain bracing, sometimes thrilling. Watari remains eminently watchable, even though creative changes behind the scenes have diminished some of the shading that made his character especially interesting in the first two films (for instance, the opening framing device that sheds light on Gôro’s traumatic upbringing is absent here and will be for the rest of the series). Matsubara also excels playing a new character in a now somewhat familiar universe, and her chemistry with Watari remains as strong as before even though she has a somewhat more incidental role to play this time.

Keiichi Ozawa returns to see out the remainder of the series. Outlaw: Gôro the Assassin (1968) sees Gôro, after another year in the slammer, taking a handyman job at a hotel resort. A woman who works there (Matsubara in yet another role) is embroiled with some gangsters, with one of them slipping her regular payments as a means of trying to redeem himself for the murder of her father several years prior. As the yakuza begin to throw their weight about the hotel, Gôro has little choice but to get involved, as they are all too familiar with his now legendary status as an outlaw in relation to both the police and fellow yakuza. Meanwhile, Gôro is also trying to track down the sister of his former cellmate to pass on an important message, requiring him to search various gang-controlled nudie bars and strip clubs. As a result, Gôro the Assassin moves the series into slightly sleazier territory, anticipating the wider industry’s move toward more exploitative fare in the early 1970s.

Penultimate entry Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968) plays the most with the continuity of the series. The black dagger of the title pertains to Goro’s famed weapon of choice, which is feared and respected by Goro’s enemies in equal measure. However, this marks the first time in the series when any kind of big deal has been made about it. Towards the tail end of the film’s opening night time knife fight between Goro and some bad guys in an abandoned snowy street, a woman from Goro’s past makes an unexpected appearance. Yuri (Matsubara) has ignored Gôro’s advice to stay away and has returned, just long enough to be accidentally stabbed by one of Goro’s opponents (Sueo, the ‘young master’ and son of the leader of the Buso clan). She dies in Gôro’s arms while Sueo makes his escape. A couple of years pass (moving the series into the early 60s) and Gôro manages to find work at a quarry. However the owner, Miura, is in debt to the Buso clan. After an accident on the site, Goro is put in the care of a nurse (played again by Matsubara). Her identical resemblance to Yuri sends Gôro on a little bit of a loop, and Sueo develops something of an obsession with her as well. As the Buso clan square off against Miura, as well as some old friends who are loyal to a rival group, Gôro unsheathes the black dagger once more.

The series’ final film Outlaw: Kill! (1969) starts with a clan boss going to jail after an assassination attempt results in a tempura restaurant being wrecked during the ensuing carnage. With a power vacuum now in full force, the fraught status quo between various underbosses and rival clans begins to unravel. Goro, back in town, resists falling back into the yakuza life once more and seeks legitimate employment. Out shopping (for pants of all things), he soon crosses paths with a group harassing Yumiko (Matsubara), a department store elevator girl. Later, he looks up an old friend he first met in prison, a veteran yakuza called Moriyama, who offers him a place to stay. Little does Gôro know, however, that Yumiko is the sister of Moriyama’s wife, Minako, and that she is also staying with them. Inevitably, Goro winds up becoming the target of various movers and shakers in the underworld, despite Moriyama’s best efforts to keep him out of their affairs. As one may expect, this doesn’t end well, prompting one final killing spree – perhaps the most gruesome and spectacular of the lot.

With Ozawa’s return, the second half of the series starts to rest on its laurels somewhat. As such, Gôro the Assassin, Black Dagger and Kill! do run the risk of blurring together for the viewer. Black Dagger may be the highlight of the latter half of the series, featuring several moments of compelling drama in what is an otherwise efficient potboiler. But part of the problem with the series in general lies in the excessive repetition of plot points; every film pretty much ends the same way, and there is only so many times a formula can be applied before an immunity is built up. Kill! may be the biggest offender in this regard, as it tries to recreate several moments from the past, especially from the first film. The swift and surreptitious assassination of a key supporting character while out in public with his wife is extremely redolent of Gangster VIP’s most emotionally charged moment. And its climatic fight in the VIP and backstage areas of a nightclub uses the same audio visual technique that worked so well in that same film – having the fight unfold without diegetic sound, accompanied only by the music being played by whoever is performing on the stage of the club (except this time it’s a psychedelic rock band instead of a melancholic club singer).

Although Watari still sells the hell out of the role, Gôro’s character is also on autopilot at this point, seeing as his arc hasn’t really developed since Gangster VIP 2. Matsubara also suffers from a similar malady. Although she always remains perfectly likeable, each of her characters basically embarks upon the same arc – a somewhat naïve love for Goro that develops within 10 minutes of knowing him. This dynamic is changed up somewhat in Black Dagger, where Matsubara plays two roles, one of which states in no uncertain terms her disapproval of yakuza. But it is strange to see Goro and other characters get hung up on the fact that one character is (understandably) the spitting image of the other, whereas Matsubara’s other incarnations in other films of the series are treated as new entities with zero baggage. It bizarrely draws attention to her predictable yet paradoxically mercurial presence throughout the Outlaw series, and it’s a tactic that undermines the development of any real emotional investment in the overall continuity of the series, as an actor who is killed in one film may very well turn up as a different character in another. Any relationships that do manage to blossom, such as the budding romance between Watari and Matsubara’s characters in Gangster VIP and Gangster VIP 2, get swept under the rug by time the next film starts. However, maybe there is something deeper to be said about the series seemingly going back to the drawing board, severing emotional bonds and repeating the same mistakes – a thematic extension of the vicious circle that is Goro’s vicious life.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any more fun to be had. Ozawa’s confidence in handling the films’ action set pieces visibly grows as the series goes on, although the introduction of a stylised stabbing sound effect does detract from the realism of these sequences a little bit. This building prowess reaches critical mass in the aforementioned nightclub scene that caps Kill! and the Outlaw series. Despite it being a conceptual carbon copy of Gangster VIP’s conclusion (which had already been sort of replicated by a sequence in Heartless), it still manages to stand out as one of the most visceral and exciting moments of the series. The use of the floor with clear glass sections between the dance floor above and the VIP room below is a particularly inspired location. These horizontal windows, used by horny businessmen to sneak upskirt looks at the young clientele dancing above them, are put to creative use by Ozawa and his camera team when the blades are drawn, making for a more expertly realised juxtaposition than Ozawa’s previous attempt with the volleyball players in Gangster VIP 2. It may get bogged down by repetition, but at least the series goes out on a high.

Overall the Outlaw series, while formulaic, offers up decently entertaining yakuza thrills for the most part. The first film is definitely the highlight, perhaps even a minor classic of the genre, and while the rest of the series is not quite up to that same standard, there are still plenty of things to like in each entry. Watari is excellent throughout and is the glue that holds it all together. The series’ shifts between savage drubbing and crestfallen romanticism (the latter wonderfully underscored by a recurring, and very Enio Morricone-esque, music motif of strummed acoustic guitar and solemn trumpet) offer an interesting, if a little too consistent, variant on the genre as a whole. For fans of Japanese genre cinema from this particular period, the Outlaw series is definitely worth checking out.

Mark Player

Evolution: Interview with Lucile Hadzihalilovicz

Evolution3
Evolution

Format: Cinema

Seen at LFF 2015

Release date: 6 May 2016

DVD release date: 20 June 2016

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic

Writers: Lucile Hadžihalilovic, Alanté Kavaïté

Cast: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier

France 2014

81 mins

Lucile Hadžihalilovic explains how she created her oneiric exploration of birth and matter in an elusive, disquieting female world.

Evolution, Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s masterful follow-up to her 2004 debut Innocence revolves around a little boy living on an island peopled only by women and other young boys. After a disturbing discovery while swimming in the sea, the boy becomes suspicious of the women’s behaviour. He soon falls mysteriously ill and is sent to the hospital, where he is subjected to a no less mysterious treatment.

Virginie Sélavy met Lucile Hadžihalilovic at the London Film Festival in October 2015 where the director explained how she created her oneiric exploration of birth and matter in an elusive, disquieting female world.

Virginie Sélavy: You made Innocence 10 years ago. Why did it take you so long to make another film?

Lucile Hadžihalilovic: What took so long was the financing of the film. It wasn’t quick to write, and it went through many drafts, but that wasn’t the reason. It was really difficult for people to understand the project on paper. I thought it’d be easier, because unlike Innocence, Evolution is more narrative and more of a genre film. But even though it is connected to horror, science fiction and the fantastique, it’s not completely a genre film, it’s also an auteur film. People who finance auteur films in France are not used to dealing with the fantastique, it’s a little too close to exploitation and not serious enough for them maybe. The other problem, even if no one said it explicitly but it seems obvious to me, is the fact that it is about children who are subjected to unpleasant things, and on paper people could imagine things that were even more terrible than what I intended to show.

To straddle art and genre film is very difficult for filmmakers, and maybe especially for French filmmakers. A clear example of that was Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day.

That’s true, and when she made Trouble Every Day she had already made a number of films, she was a name. The theatrical release of Innocence was more successful in countries like Britain and the USA than it was in France. It wasn’t a big release but we got press and people understood the film. I think there is a cultural problem with what is imaginary, metaphorical, people don’t get it in France. I think that people here understand it better because there’s a literature and a cinema that are closer to it, and they don’t look down on the fantastique so much, as though it were only for children or teenagers.

What’s your relationship to horror?

I saw a lot of horror films when I was 20. When I started going to the cinema on my own around the age of 13, it was a time when there were a lot of Italian horror films coming out, Argento, etc. It was fascinating because at the same time they were very seductive, very beautiful, and at the same time rather horrible, and I didn’t understand that combination or the adult world they depicted very well. Until I was about 25 I watched a lot of those films and then I stopped. Now I’m not focused on horror film, but it was important to me at a certain age, and I think it’s something that remains with you. It seems natural to me to watch horror on the screen even though I’m easily scared in real life. It’s like a catharsis and it evokes a lot of things for me.

Despite the fact that nearly 10 years elapsed between the two projects, Innocence and Evolution are very close in terms of theme and atmosphere.

I’d started working on Evolution before Innocence but I wasn’t aware that they were so close. Obviously Evolution was about children again but I wanted to get away from Innocence in the sense that I wanted to make something more narrative, more within genre, whereas in Innocence that was more in the background, it was more abstract. But I didn’t think, ‘right now I’m going to make a film with boys’, rather I thought that for this story it wasn’t interesting if it was a little girl.

Yes, even though the story seems to be about a little boy, the film seems to really be about the feminine again, but from a different angle compared to Innocence.

Yes, it’s a feminine world once more, seen from a more disquieting, more threatening angle. But it’s also about a boy who is not separated from his mother, who is still in his mother’s belly and cannot come out, and what it would be like to give birth. It’s the nightmare of maternity or pregnancy, which is a girl’s anxiety. The relationship to society was also stronger in Innocence, the fact that it’s set in a school means that it’s about a certain form of education with specific aims. Evolution is a more intimate story of this child’s fears, rather than a reflection about society. In this sense, it is not a science fiction film and that’s why I wasn’t interested in saying who these women are exactly, and what the hospital is. It’s more the internal theatre of this child.

Evolution also features much more horrific imagery than Innocence, and the most shocking of all is the documentary footage on a Cesarean birth that you include.

Yes, I liked the idea of horror coming from reality, and that’s because a Cesarean is not a natural birth, it’s surgery, so it’s another abnormal way of depicting birth, another fear of it. Before making the film we had to look for those images and I had seen some videos, and they are really difficult to watch. I liked the idea that there would be some gore at some point in the story, you have to have some gory elements.

Evolution evokes a number of literary, cinematographic and mythical figures, Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the siren for instance. Did you deliberately want to evoke those figures?

Yes, absolutely. I think that we have this whole shared mythology, classical mythology but also science fiction literature, more recent things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but also Philip K. Dick. Theodore Sturgeon, H.P. Lovecraft. Those references are now so much part of culture that I thought I had to be very careful not to say too much because it seemed so obvious. It’s better to guess.

Your film very much functions like a myth, it is built from very simple elements that recur throughout, the village, the red colour, the starfish.

I like to start with something very real, and for the mystery or the strangeness to come from very simple, familiar things. The image of a child playing with a starfish on a beach is incredibly familiar but if you look closely at the starfish you think, ‘what is this monster?’

You seem fascinated by organic matter, the starfish, the strange creature that the children bury, or the body of the women for instance.

The intention with the film was to explore the organic, because it’s this archaic thing that is part of us but at the same time is really odd. It can be disquieting as well as attractive. So we tried to have that throughout the film, to fabricate the film with it. It was upsetting to be forced to shoot on digital rather than celluloid, I thought it was such a shame not to be able to have the material of film. But we tried to work differently to create texture.

The village where you filmed looks dilapidated, the paint on the walls is chipped, everything looks a little decrepit.

It was to give it a reality, a patina. Locations were a key issue, including the interiors. It was out of the question to shoot in a clean setting, in a studio, regardless of what it would have cost, precisely to render the materiality of the walls. As the film is a little abstract, it had to have a very concrete aspect to counterbalance that, and for me that was the setting. That village was great because there’s the humidity from the sea, the saltpetre. It was used as a holiday place and people didn’t live there all year round so it wasn’t all freshly painted. We even added to the decrepitude, to avoid smooth white surfaces and have a sense of reality, of materiality, the sense of time that had passed.

Where did you shoot the film?

We shot in Lanzarote, and the hospital was near Barcelona, it’s an abandoned hospital that has been often used in Spanish horror cinema. It’s very big, and you have the structure, the operating theatres, the tiling, all of that is there, in a state of more or less disrepair, so we had something real to start from, but we could also paint things how we wanted.

Was it important for you to use those two places specifically?

Yes, I thought the most important thing was to find the locations. Early on in the project we found the village in the Canaries. I thought, ‘that’s incredible, it exists’, and it really helped me to think that the film was possible, that we wouldn’t have to create everything from scratch, that there was a very strong place that carried a lot of emotions and mythology. It was a little more difficult with the hospital because some of the ones we saw were too derelict, others were too new, and we had to find something in between.

How did you approach the sound?

I would have liked the sound editing to be done together with the image editing but because the film was a co-production, the sound was done in Spain and the image in France, so it ended up being more separated than I would have liked. We knew from the start that we’d have to create a lot of sounds because there wasn’t much dialogue. I wanted the sound to reflect the feelings of the child, and not to be realistic, but rather emotional, internal and oneiric. We worked in this way using natural sounds from the location such as the wind and the noise from the sea – which we had to rework because it’s difficult to record the sea, you have to recreate the waves one by one.

In the mixing I wanted to create something very specific and not use effects like the ones you have in horror films, to create tension using the sound but not through the usual means. I didn’t think I’d use so much music – there isn’t that much, but it’s quite a lot for me – but as we didn’t have sound when we were editing the editor asked for music, and it led me to use more than I had intended. I wanted something with an instrument that wouldn’t be recognizable, something a little strange. I heard pieces by Messiaen that used the Ondes Martenot and I thought that was exactly what was needed. I couldn’t get the Messiaen piece unfortunately but we were able to do something with the Ondes Martenot on some of the recurring tracks. They bring a certain melancholy, almost a human voice, and it instantly creates a particular atmosphere.

You’ve worked a lot on the sounds, textures and colours of the film, and like Innocence, Evolution is an intense sensory experience. Is that how you view cinema, as an immersive, sensory experience?

Absolutely, and I’d say that’s why you have to see the film in a cinema, it’s like dreaming awake, with other people, in the dark. That’s also why it was so difficult to explain the script even though we tried to describe it in an expressive manner, because it’s an emotional, even physical, experience, with sound and image, and so you have to go through it to understand it, for something to happen.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Watch the trailer:

Jenni Fagan is Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks

Agent Dale Cooper 1
Twin Peaks

Jenni Fagan is a Scottish author and a poet (her collection The Dead Queen of Bohemia is out now), who has adapted her debut novel, The Panopticon for the screen. Her recently published second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims (William Heinemann) is a wonderfully odd tale of winter, love and cinema. She says of the process of writing: ‘I enjoy that magpie way of storing and stashing little bits of things that glitter, that turn up later in prose or poems.’ Her filmic alter ego is Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. Eithne Farry

It’s really hard to pick a single film alter ego, I love so many characters.

Coffy (Coffy), Mallory (Natural Born Killers), Frida (Frida Kahlo), Elizabeth Bishop (Fly Me to the Moon), Clarice Lispector (Silence of the Lambs), Ofelia (Pan’s Labyrinth), Alice Wakefield (Lost Highway), Mia Wallace (Pulp Fiction), or Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Some Like it Hot) –perhaps an amalgamation of all of them might work best.

For the sake of committing to one alter ego for now I will pick Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.

Special Agent Dale Cooper has a coffee addiction and he fetishes apple pie. He often runs in opposition to the FBI with unorthodox methods that get him uncanny results. He’s always taking notes and trying to figure out the mystery, which pretty much sums up most writers’ lives. He’s full of geekery and highly uncool (to the point where he is kind of cool) and he’s grappling with strange forces in this world and the next (again correlates with a writing life). Also, he walks around to an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack, quotes like a sage and hangs upside down so he can think better. He’s extremely introspective and while other film detectives use logic to fix a case, much of Agent Dale Cooper’s approach is based on intuition and dreams.

Three years before Twin Peaks he sees a Tibetan truth in a dream and is so struck by it that his work methodology is based on that dream alone. He meets his evil doppelgänger in the Black Lodge and he is willing to give his soul to save someone else, so he’s brave as well.

Agent Dale Cooper ends the film in the mysterious Red Room with his hand resting on Laura Palmer’s shoulder. You could read it that, to be present with her on the other side like that, he must have never made it out of the Black Lodge. He is a mystery in his own right and he has a fierce sense of what is right even although he’s flawed and has seen too much tragedy in life.

Saying all that, I’m not sure I could wear a suit and be so clean cut, even if I were a special Agent.

Actually now I think about it perhaps I’d just be Gertrude Stein in Paris Was a Woman – imagine having all those artists and great paintings around every day, utterly divine!

Jenni Fagan

Victoria: Interview with Sebastian Schipper

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Victoria

Format: Cinema + VOD

Release date: 1 April 2016

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: Sebastian Schipper

Writers: Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Eike Frederik Schulz

Cast: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit, Max Mauff, André Hennicke

Germany 2015

140 mins

German director Sebastian Schipper reveals the secrets behind his one-take tour de force, from his football coach approach to directing to his fascination with bank robberies.

Only ever so often comes a film that gets under your skin, not only because of the story, the brilliant performances or pumping soundtrack, but because it is fresh, radical, vigorous and raw and, most importantly, highly entertaining. Victoria is all of that and more, as the film follows its eponymous heroine (played by newcomer actress Laia Costa) in one continuous 140-minute shot from her first encounter with a gang of four persuasive thugs led by the charming Sonne (Frederick Lau) on a mild summer night in Berlin to an ill-fated bank robbery and the nerve-racking police hunt that follows it – all in all zipping through 20 odd locations in the early hours before the city awakens. No doubt that a venture like this required not only months of meticulous planning and an excellent crew, but also one big leap of faith. After two disastrous attempts Schipper managed to pull it off, making Victoria not only the runaway favourite at last year’s Berlinale but the most exciting film to come out of Germany in a very long time.

Pamela Jahn talked to the actor-turned-director about his football coach approach to directing and his fascination with bank robberies to get behind the secret of his one-take tour de force.

Pamela Jahn: What came first, the concept of shooting the film in one take or the story that you wanted to tell?

Sebastian Schipper: To be honest with you, I cannot separate them. What I actually had in mind was to make a film about a bank robbery that grabs you like one. It was, first of all, an emotional concept in terms of how to make it feel real, how to share the experience. And why is it, that if you make a film about a bank robbery, it always has to be the biggest bank robbery in the world? Presumably, that’s because it means you create the greatest possible experience for the audience, but I think that sort of approach sometimes kills the opportunity to really get into the moment, to feel what is actually going on. That’s how the concept to do the film in one shot evolved. The more we worked on it, the more I realised that this is not necessarily a film that tackles the brain or the mind, maybe it doesn’t even affect the heart, but it feels as if it has a direct impact on your nervous system. And I really like that. Of course, there are many mistakes in it, which, ultimately, I would have liked to cut or correct in the editing process. But at the same time I feel that because it’s all in there, because time flows and you can’t really escape the high points and the low points, it is almost like you’ve been conditioned by the way you watch the film.

You both write and direct. Does that make it easier when you’re shooting, especially with a project like this?

I wish I could say it’s easier but I find writing a script really painful. It takes an awful long time, sometimes years. Even if you write fast, it still takes at least two years, and that’s only the basic amount of time you are investing. But for some reason I feel I have to do it myself. Having said that, for this project I wrote only 12 pages and we didn’t edit anything in the end. When I think about it, the one big idea I had was that I wanted everything to happen in a team. Of course, with that kind of approach you lose a lot of power as a director in the overall hierarchy on set, but everybody else gains more. At the same time, the pressure is on everyone who is part of that crew. Like the smallest runner, everybody knew, ‘I can’t fuck it up! If the elevator is not downstairs when they come, I am the one who’s made that mistake.’ So everybody involved has a lot more responsibility, and I like that. I also wanted to bring the creation of the characters, of the story and the rhythm – which is normally part of the scriptwriting – into the entire process. To some extent that was a crazy thing to do, but it was also really beautiful.

Apart from the responsibility you also give your actors an incredible freedom to improvise.

It’s funny that you’re saying that because when I did my first film Absolute Giganten, people would ask me, ‘So, did you improvise a lot?’ Back then, I felt almost offended and said, ‘I didn’t, I wrote it all myself.’ And now it’s the complete opposite. That’s something that is very important to me, to have a sense of how people speak, for example, or how it really feels to talk to a friend, a soul mate or whoever. I am very interested in that. And I love actors. But again, this was different to when you direct actors in a more conventional way where you give them instructions about how you want them to say this line or that line. This time I really talked to them about their deepest feelings about the characters, not about the scene, not about the moment, not about the line. I felt almost like a football coach telling them their position on the field, and then they had to play football and follow the match and know what was going on all the time. They all had to take care of themselves.

Did you rehearse at all?

Yes, we had some rehearsals. But I don’t really want to go too much into detail about the way we made the film, because it takes away the magic. All I can say is that we did have rehearsals and then we had three days where we shot the whole film three times. So theoretically, there are now three films, but honestly, only the last one is actually a film. The other two are works in progress.

Did shooting become more difficult after the first run-through, because you then had a version of the film, an idea of the dialogue, the action and so on?

No, thank God. It was an improvisation, but there was still a very strict structure we had to follow from the outset every time we did it. It’s like a band who is playing an improvised piece. You’ve still got to know when it’s your solo, or that this is the rhythm, this is the tune and so on. But most importantly, you have to really know your instrument if you want to improvise. So we were very focused in that way.

How much do the three versions differ from each other?

A lot, mainly in quality. In the first one, nobody wanted to fuck it up, so everyone was very concentrated and technical, but there was no sparkle, no chemistry. So afterwards I said to them, ‘OK, guys, you’ve got to be alive. Make mistakes! Be chaotic, just go with it’. But then they tried that too hard and were all over the place. Those three days were horrible, because I was very nervous and tense – again, like a coach at half time. It was all very heartfelt and so I said to them, ‘You know what, we don’t have to win this game, but we have to start playing football. We have to show them that we are a good team. So don’t be afraid of making mistakes, but please, please concentrate’. And after that they really put it all together.

You talked about the rhythm of the film earlier. How did you manage the energy between your main cast?

They very much managed it themselves. I just had to organise it slightly. For me, it was all down to the casting, especially if you have them improvise so much as in this film. It’s very important that it feels organic, that it flows. And Burak and Freddy are friends in real life as well. First I was sceptical about that because Freddy showed me a picture and I thought Burak might be too much of a macho type and I didn’t want that. But when I met him in person I realised that he is actually very charming in his own way and that he has the biggest heart of all. And then it made sense to me, because he is like the heart of this group, Boxer is the leader while Sonne is good in talking to people, and Fuss is the little sidekick who always comes up with a crazy idea. I think if you structure a group like that then they become a team. It’s a natural process so they don’t all fight for the same spot. In a way it’s like an X-Men group, they all have their little super powers and that’s what I think is really important here too.

Where does your obsession with bank robberies come from?

I think it’s because I have that feeling that we sometimes get trapped in thinking that life is just one consecutive stage after another. You did this, now you are allowed to do that. Then you go a bit further, you move up into a better position, you get a little more money, a little more respect, and this is your life. And I guess the thing with bank robberies is that you walk in and pull your gun and you say, ‘I want everything, motherfucker! Give me my life, right now! I don’t want to be good anymore, I don’t want to wait’. And that’s why Victoria is the piano player in the film. She tried so hard and she’s always been the good girl, but I think we live in a world where things are getting more and more absurd, where you don’t have to be good anymore. On the contrary, it seems like you have to be sneaky and you have to betray people to get further in life. And that’s also what I see in this bank philosophy, it’s all about the money and no one cares about anybody else anymore. It’s like Brecht used to say, ‘Bank robbery is the business of amateurs. True professionals found a bank’.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Mario Bava Season at Castle Bleasdale (Part Two)

black sabbath
Black Sabbath

The second part of a diary of watching Mario Bava films over a week.

It was January, cold, and everyone was dying. I chopped enough wood for the week and stored it against the wall with the kindling. There were frosts every night at Castle Bleasdale – my current residence, a shuddering pile located on the River Piave where the plains meet the first mountains of the Dolomites – but while my wife and children slept fitfully upstairs, I would get the fire roaring, turn out all the lights and watch a film by Italian horror director Mario Bava. Prior to this week, I’d never seen any of his 30-odd films. This is the second part of my scientific record of the Mario Bava season at Castle Bleasdale.

Read part one of watching Mario Bava films over a week.

Friday, 15th of January, 2016

The funeral took place in the local cathedral and outside the sun was strangely, unseasonably warm. I know I’m not going to stir up controversy on my next assertion but I don’t like going to funerals. This one was not the worst. My student, although not old-old, was not young either. He filled a cathedral with family and friends and because of my damned atheism I stood outside and listened to singing of the choir of Alpine soldiers coming from the church. Afterwards they brought out the coffin and people tried not to be too loud when they met friends they hadn’t seen for months, years in some cases. Funerals have this strange social substratum. I wandered home depressed, stopping at the supermarket to stock up on firelighters and food for the weekend. I was going to stay inside and watch as many Mario Bava films as I could. I wanted nothing to do with the sunshine and blue skies. I would close the shutters and keep going. The film I took to next was Black Sabbath – from whence the name of Ozzy Osborne’s heavy metal band – an anthology that is a little too in awe of its Hollywood legend Boris Karloff and young American star Mark Damon. The first film is about a beautiful woman who is bothered by a telephone call from a stalker – possibly her ex who has escaped from prison. It’s a Tale of the Unexpected and highly effective in a sinister voyeuristic way. The second is a classic tale of vampirism and possession but it is fairly rudimentary. The colours are excellent. Mario Bava colours everything with the vividness of boiled sweets. Reds and greens, blues and vermillion. The last story is the one that is really creepy as a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called to a house to prepare the body of a dead medium for burial. The rictus grin of the freshly dead is off-putting enough to ward anyone off but our nurse spies a ring that she would like to steal.

Saturday, 16th of January, 2016

It has just occurred to me that I haven’t seen my wife or my children since the end of last week. Could it be they aren’t upstairs after all? I’ve been eating alone. Bowls of boiled potatoes sprinkled with vinegar and black bread with white butter. The same meal again and again. Hatchet for the Honeymoon does away with any vestige of mystery and takes on the murderer’s point of view. Blessed with the kind of Crystal Ken handsomeness that only existed in 1970, Stephen Forsyth plays John Harrington, the owner of a haute couture house that specializes in bridal wear. Unhappily married to Laura Betti, Harrington is also a self-aware psychopath who kills brides-to-be with a cleaver – not, note, a hatchet. Bava takes a slender plot with many familiar genre elements – a suspicious police detective circulates, Mrs Harrington has a séance – and makes it into something stylish and weird. Harrington’s objectification of women, his impotence and his mania are coolly represented. His charisma and his honesty make him a proto-Patrick Bateman. He watches his prey with a set of binoculars and then, sitting with his wife, reverses them so she is far away. This kind of visual originality is something I’ve come to expect from Bava and the murders are all used as moments of striking invention, each one vaguely trippy as the screen dissolves into a liquid state, colours explode and the soundtrack lays it down heavily. Each murder also brings about a further flashback, a little like Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968), to the kind of Freudian backstory that Hitchcock loved. At the end of Black Sabbath, Bava pulled his camera back to reveal that Karloff was in a studio riding a fake horse and surrounded by stage hands moving the scenery about him. Bava likes to show that he’s not taking everything seriously, and here again he uses one of his own films on television as an excuse for the screams the policemen heard. Does watching horror films cause violence? No. But they can be handy in getting away with it. I also watched The Evil Eye, an early film about an American woman visiting Rome and witnessing a murder. It was black and white and John Saxon was in it, the way he pops up in films all over the place. He stars in a Dario Argento movie but I’m too tired to type his name into IMDb tonight. The fire died and the room is full of smoke.

Sunday, 17th of January, 2016

The bells in the village toll for another death. This time the 90-year-old mother of a friend. I can tell that it is her. She’s been at death’s door since Christmas. The bells toll once for a man, twice for a woman, and they toll twice so it must be her. It can’t be anyone else. They bury the dead quick in Italy so the funeral will be tomorrow or Tuesday at the latest. Today is the last day of my Mario Bava season and I still have many films to get through. I begin with Rabid Dogs. Completed in 1974, the incomplete film was seized following a bankruptcy wrangle and didn’t get cut and released until the late 90s. Bava is trying his hand at the Polizia genre, which exploded in the mid-70s in Italy and told brutal, violent stories of cops and robbers. Following a heist gone wrong, three bandits grab a hostage and carjack an unsuspecting father who is taking his son to the hospital. The atmosphere is laden with tension and the claustrophobia of a sizzling car in the middle of a Roman summer gets progressively more uncomfortable. The bandits are a psychopath, a leering, sweating rapist and one icy professional. A fantastic twist elevates the film. The same is true for Bay of Blood, a slasher often cited as a primary inspiration for all the Friday the 13th style movies that were to follow. A complex legal case regarding a piece of property on a bay is the MacGuffin, but essentially Bava produces a daisy chain of stylish, elaborate and occasionally ridiculous kills with a variety of weapons and murderers capped off with one of the funniest and most daring twists of any of his films.

Monday, 18th of January, 2016

I woke up early this morning. I just lay in bed and listened to the sound of the wind that always blows strongly in the valley in the morning following the river down from the mountains. I wonder about the morality of what I’ve done. Mario Bava took time to make those films. A lot of time. Poured a lot of effort into them. But I just watched them in a week. Half a lifetime’s work probably. And I watched it in a week. It seems unfair, disproportionate somehow: the asymmetrical warfare that criticism wages against art. I can’t help but hope that people stop dying now. January has been so fatal. I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t have the strength to lift myself, like the corpse in the ‘Drop of Water’ sequence of Black Sabbath. Maybe I too wear a horrid grin. I wonder if the wind blowing outside is the same Italian wind that blew in Mario Bava’s imagination. It is blowing so strong that it almost takes away the sound of the bells tolling. This time they only toll once.

Mario Bava’s Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) is out now on Dual Format (Blu-Ray + DVD) released by Arrow Video.

John Bleasdale

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews