Friday, July 06, 2012

Panos Cosmatos Interview: Beyond the Black Rainbow

Panos Cosmatos wrote back in time for me to blog this, a brief email interview. His debut feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow - view the trailer here- has its Vancouver premiere  tonight at the Vancity Theatre. This is the film that, against the odds, decisively places Vancouver on the cult cinema map, while having almost no visual bearing on Vancouver whatsoever (other than a brief glimpse of our mountains, I didn't recognize a single aspect of our city - which, "Vancouver Sometimes Plays Itself" be damned, is kind of refreshing in its lack of narcissism). It's also, as mentioned previously, one hell of a trip film.

Note: blogger is currently making me want to kill it - it's taken me something like three hours to wrestle with glitches to get this up in a readable format, so if there are still some formatting issues, please do forgive me - the new version of blogger is quite a vexation, and I have places to be!

Allan: Curious about the concept of the black rainbow. I first encountered it in "My Little Town," a somewhat obscure Simon and Garfunkel song that references growing up in the suburbs; the black rainbow signifies the failure of imagination, something I am well familiar with from my many years in Maple Ridge. Since the suburbs factor significantly in the end of Beyond the Black Rainbow, I wonder if that song has any bearing? (I gather there's also a line in a Ted Hughes poem - "to hatch a crow, a black rainbow," which was Paul Simon's source for the image).

Panos: I'd never heard that song before, it's incredibly eerie and depressing and now I want to kill myself... but I think it suits the generation who embraced it and a rejection of that mentality is part of the emotional undercurrent of the film.

"Black Rainbow" are just two words that came to mind one day and I thought they suited the tone of what I wanted to create. I like the old school exploitation mentality of coming up with a title and a poster and then writing the script. I always come up with a title before I write to set the tone of what I'm doing. Sometimes I even make a poster. It's a vibe to go by. A touch stone.

I decided to include the title of the movie in the dialogue as a nod to John Waters who once said he finds it hilarious when the title of a film is spoken within the movie.

Allan: I spent a few years in my early 20's doing psychedelics in the suburbs, so for me, the final images of the film are very profound and resonant: seeing the suburbs through Elena's eyes, how strange and surreal they must be, after what her life has consisted of. In a way, I could imagine this confrontation - Elena meets the suburbs, complete with flickering TV light seen through curtains - being the starting point for the whole film, the image you began with and always planned to arrive at. But I'm just guessing; if not there, where did the project start?

Panos: I had a similar experience. That was not the seed but as soon as I'd locked onto the 80s as the time period for the movie that image came pretty quickly. There's an image that appears after the credits that's kind of a key for one way to interpret the movie.

After my father passed away I became very nostalgic for a while. Yearning for the "simplicity" of an age gone by. I remembered how I had spent hours in the video store as a kid looking at the boxes and reading the descriptions of horror and sci-fi movies I wasn't allowed to watch. I'd come up with my own imaginary versions of these films. That was the starting point, to make an "imaginary movie". I'd had the skeleton of an idea for a movie about a girl in a sinister institute floating around for a few years and it just seemed to resonate with that concept. Everything else kind of bloomed from there.

Allan: I wondered if you could talk a bit about your father's cinema. I actually am a huge admirer of Of Unknown Origin - it's a shame it's so overshadowed by Rambo: First Blood Part II in discussions about your father, because it's one of the most entertaining, wittiest Canadian genre films I know. Since your film feels a lot more like a Toronto tax shelter horror film than anything shot in Vancouver - and since, I believe, that film happens also happens to have been a Toronto tax shelter film - I wonder how much bearing it has on BTBR?

Panos: My favorite of dad's movies is Of Unknown Origin. I can relate to its style and themes more than any of the others. I also associate it fondly with when we first moved to Canada and all my memories of that time. I believe it was indeed a tax shelter film. I didn't make my movie to look like a tax shelter film, at least not intentionally, but I did make a concerted effort to avoid it looking like a Vancouver production. I wanted it to feel ambiguous where and when the movie was made.

Allan: I've taken to describing BTBR as "the great Canadian trip film" - am unaware of anything quite so psychedelic in Canadian cinema before this - but for a trip film, the film seems quite strikingly anti-drug: Barry seems, through his experiences, to have gone beyond human limitations and morality (beyond God, I believe he says, which is, if I'm recalling, essentially what the title means) into a rather dark and only tangentially human realm. Am I reading this right, or am I perhaps reading my own experiences into it? Acid took me to some very strange and not-so-healthy places back then, and seems to lend to a sort of separation from "community values," leading to aberrations like the Manson family... are these sorts of observations relevant to the film?

Panos: I didn't want to make a moralistic movie, I have no interest in that. I tried to present the characters in as straight forward a way as possible and let the audience be judge, jury and executioner. However, there is a dark side to the drug and free love evolution of the 60s and that was something that I wanted to incorporate into the movie.

Allan: A film I've yet to see mentioned in writing on BTBR is Todd Haynes' Safe. Did it have any bearing? In addition to its recreating a very recent past, it has a sort of kindred antipathy for the sort of new ageyness represented by Arboria, though it deals with a later manifestation...

Panos: I love Safe and It's minimalist style definitely made an impression on me. I read an interview with Haynes where he said he came up with the idea as a teenager smoking weed in his parents Mercedes in the garage late at night. That's something I can relate to. The antipathy towards new age religion, wellness centers and homeopathic healing is definitely a theme that strikes a chord with me. You've lived in Vancouver so I'm sure you know Kitsilano, primarily inhabited by aging baby boomers, is lousy with wellness centers.

Allan: I'm a big fan of the insect photography of Ken Middleham, who did the bugs for Phase IV, Bug, and The Hellstrom Chronicle. I know you've acknowledged Saul Bass' Phase IV as informing the film - I assume that's where the "pyramid" comes from - but I was wondering if you brought in the stick insect as a more obvious acknowledgement of Middleham's terrific bug photography. (There's a great little documentaryon him on Youtube, by the way).

Panos: Me too. Absolutely. I'll check out that documentary today. Phase IV was a huge influence on the movie in its sterile tone, stylized framing and somewhat oblique approach to story. I just saw the "lost ending" of Phase IV last week and it was a real eye opener.

Allan: I don't know how much Greek cinema made an impact on the film, but Elena's photo of her mother - in which I've yet to see a trace of a human form - immediately reminded me of the photograph the children are chasing in Angelopoulos' Landscape In the Mist. What is actually in the photograph, and is it significant? (It looks like it might be a BC landscape).

Panos: Her face is visible, but it's sideways. I've never seen Landscape In the Mist. Do you recommend it?

Allan: I'm not sure. I liked it a lot on first viewing, when I was just sort of discovering films by Tarkovsky and such. A few years later I tried it again and thought it was kind of pretentious, strained and obvious. I have yet to return for thirds...

By the way, Adrian Mack pointed out to me after the press screening that melatonin, a hormone released in sleep and sometimes used as a supplement to help people sleep, and which triggers vivid dreams, is prescribed in the film. I don't mean to steal a question from him, but as the film is quite dreamlike, and as Norm Li has mentioned how his own dreams informed his decisions, I wonder if you could share any dreams that might have contributed to the movie. Feel free to ignore this question if Mack already got to it, though!

Panos: I have incredibly vivid dreams on an almost nightly basis. It's almost a medical condition. Some dreams I wish I didn't remember, they can fuck up your whole day. In the past I've written scripts that were drawn entirely from dreams, and sometimes I'll dream watching whole movies that don't exist. Black Rainbow wasn't drawn from a specific dream but I wanted it to have the trance-like, unsafe feeling of one. A bad one.

Thanks to Panos Cosmatos for taking the time to get back to me, and see my interviews with Norm Li (cinematographer) and Jeremy Schmidt (soundtrack) here and here!

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