Critic-turned-filmmaker isn’t the most accurate way to describe Charlie Lyne. His movie blog, Ultra Culture, launched in 2008 and soon developed a strong following. The site was known not only for its irreverent takes on film and music but also its shortform video elements, ranging from out of context movie clips to a pretty much perfect autotuning of Mark Cousins. His first feature, Beyond Clueless, was an essay film about teen movies that adopted a more clinical air than his writing. In between that feature and the release of his second, the horror film-focused Fear Itself, Lyne started writing a column for The Guardian and contributed to Sight & Sound. Since then, he’s taken on the British Board of Film Classification through his unusual Kickstarter-funded protest film Paint Drying, which is exactly what its title would suggest. Through all of this, there has been no clear shift from writing to filmmaking but a simultaneous engagement through both mediums.
Whilst Fear Itself launched on BBC iPlayer late last year, it is only now getting its Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Ahead of that screening, we spoke to Lyne about his work.
In Beyond Clueless, you focused on the teen film genre but also, within the film itself, on all of the disparate tones within that genre; there are sections on horror, comedy, romance. What brought you to focus on not a genre but a tone – of dread – in Fear Itself?
That’s an interesting observation, I’d not thought about that. For me, the things that emerged through starting to rewatch all those films and trying to put Beyond Clueless together was exactly that – there wasn’t a tonal consistency, which is an unusual starting point, I think, for a genre study because that’s usually what you would be looking for. Actually, what kind of became my focus was the shared spaces of those films, so you’re not dealing so much with films that necessarily feel one and the same in terms of their sensibility but they do all take place within the same sort of dozen iconographic spaces – you have the cafeteria and the corridor, the swimming pool and the graduation ceremony, and those kinds of environments that pop up again and again. Which actually, for me, felt like a much more interesting common denominator, because it meant that you could very easily create something that felt like it existed within a unified space – despite the fact that you would have stuff as disparate as slasher horror and romantic comedy all kind of threading through the same environments.
In the voiceover that starts Beyond Clueless there is some mention of parallel space, universes, and structurally the film does bend towards these areas. It almost feels like that film is built as a string of single film video essays but which are interrupted by these incredibly striking supercuts set to Summer Camp’s music: the sex sequence, the hallway montage that opens the film. Structurally, it seems like you had a clearer path in this film that you did in Fear Itself.
Yeah, I mean it seems strange to say now but certainly at the time it wasn’t a concerted decision to structure it in that way and that structure came about by accident more than anything else. Looking back on it… certainly when I talk about the film I describe it in much more intentional terms. To me, that was the two sides of what I found interesting about teen movies as a genre; as something to revisit with more of a mature, critical eye and consider what I missed first time around and what I was taking in as a quite susceptible adolescent viewer, and also not to reject the more elemental emotional power of those films and the kind of really authentic gut feeling that I still get from those movies – that is hard to avoid if you grew up with films like that. You know, they’re still going to carry that kind of nostalgic punch which, I think, is a mistake to overlook. A lot of people think of nostalgia and of the more emotionally loaded side of the film viewing experience as something that needs to be almost suppressed to get to the critical heart of it but I think that the two are both equally important.
That does come across in Beyond Clueless through the images less so than in the narration, which is this almost nature documentary approach, an analytical take. Whereas in Fear Itself, you use a fictional character as your essayistic voice – it is purely propelled by emotional response, but not one that is tethered to nostalgia but a strange self-discovery.
Yeah, absolutely. The films, for me, definitely have different… modus operandi. These things always come about fairly organically, and retroactively I stick rules on them and define what I was doing all along to make it seem like I was always totally in control. Certainly at some point in the process I get a sense of what core mechanic I want a piece of work to have. When I say ‘mechanic’ I mean what the relationship between the film and the viewer is and so, you know, with Beyond Clueless, that is of a narrator who is an omnipotent force viewing this space, like you say, as almost like an anthropological study but also as a diegetically real world. The only exception to that, I think, is when she’ll say something that acknowledges that these are fictional creations.
With Fear Itself, the mechanic was much more about going the other way and seeing these things very much as creations and as pieces of media that exist in our real world and then using that to look at how they filter into our lives and how they become a part of the fabric of our experience. It’s strange, I see them as quite contrasting films, though then I’m constantly reminded that’s because I’m so immersed within the world of video essay and taking that element for granted. Whereas obviously when Fear Itself plays at festivals it’s referred to as “the inevitable sequel to Beyond Clueless” and I understand that because film essay is a niche and people see them as very interrelated.
That’s it, though – it’s the small pond of the field. I do think the films are starkly different. I watched them back-to-back recently and I don’t think it’s necessarily obvious, or wouldn’t be to a casual observer, that the films were made by the same director.
I think that’s true.
I read that when you were making Fear Itself you would often playback without voiceover or sound to see if the images flowed naturally and that does come across in the film. The images talk to each other in a way that’s different to Beyond Clueless, they force the viewer to do some work.
Well, yeah. I tried to find rules within the films that could help me understand what they were, because I find that when I’m in the middle of making something, I am a terrible one for not being able to see the wood for the trees so I find that if I do lay out some consistent rules that I, for whatever reason, seem to be following, that usually helps me get to the bottom of what I’m actually going for.
For instance, a big difference between Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself is that Beyond Clueless crops every film to the same aspect ratio, whereas Fear Itself preserves all of the original aspect ratios. That, for me, is less a matter of convenience and more a statement about what the films are doing. Beyond Clueless is trying to force all these films into a collective mush that is indistinct in some ways and is less about each individual film and what it’s doing and more about a collective pool. Like you say, that becomes less about the images and how they are talking to one another or how they have been crafted whereas Fear Itself is more of a kind of examination of individual decisions and individual films.
It’s not that it’s a catalogue, either. You are jumping from aspect ratio to aspect ratio in Fear Itself but it’s never jarring. Part of keeping that flow is through the sound design, which is really impressive. You had Peregrine Andrews work on it, right? I’ve heard some of his radio work.
Yeah, well it was a collective effort. Jeremy Warmsley I would really credit with coming up with the whole sonic landscape of the film, especially because 80% of it or whatever is scored. He’s wonderful and up for being involved in the whole process so, you know, he was there from day one to the bitter end, tweaking and re-working stuff and finding the aural voice of the film. And Pez – Peregrine Andrews – was the sound mixer at the end and who, I think, was quite useful from a wood for the trees perspective. He was able to come in and say “Why the fuck are you doing this?” after we’d sat in a dark room for five months assuming that was fine.
I’m fascinated to see how it plays, sonically, in a festival setting. Even watching it on a laptop or television, as I did, the use of silence is quite unnerving.
I really don’t think it’s better or worse, I just hope it’s different. The main difference is that there’s a different container. Whereas the online version is encased within a 16:9 frame because, obviously, that’s how the vast majority of people will be watching it.1 The cinema one is within a 2.39:1. For my own sanity, I find it much more satisfying when the expansions and contractions [of the frame] happen only in one direction. With 2.39:1, everything is moving in and out, there’s only ever pillar boxing and never any letterboxing which gives it a nice expansive feel and it’s sort of shocking, almost, the few moments where it does expand out to fill the widest point of the frame.
There’s a beautiful moment in the film where you have an aspect ratio shift alongside a mix of soundtrack – the leap from The Night of the Hunter to It Follows.
Yeah and that’s one of the moments that, for me, is slightly disappointing on the home video version just because inevitably you’re shrinking the frame. Although you’re going to this big, cinematic aspect ratio, the only way to present that within a 16:9 frame is to letterbox it. I do find that a little bit frustrating but as viewers we are used to that convention so hopefully the effect still carries across to some degree.
How did you begin your relationship with the BBC, who commissioned you to make Fear Itself as an online-first film?
It happened incredibly quickly. A lot of it is just down to very fortuitous timing. When Beyond Clueless was in cinemas in the UK, which was for all of four days or so, during that time a team at the BBC happened to be in the position of needing to find a British filmmaker to make an essay film of some kind in time for October. I think they had made the leap that maybe it could be about horror for Halloween and then, I guess, someone opened up a listings magazine and saw that there was an essay film in cinemas that week, probably the only essay film that came out in cinemas that year. So, yeah, it all sort of came together well timing wise.
The origin of that is that they had decided to do feature-length commissions for the iPlayer platform, the video on demand platform they have, and I think that they couldn’t really afford to go straight into making original fiction films or anything because they didn’t have the budget, so video essay to them seemed like a neat way to get stuff done with what money they could dedicate to it. They have Adam Curtis there who is sort of everyone’s hero in the world of video essay and he had just done Bitter Lake as their first online-only feature film. So I think they were looking for something that was similarly effective in terms of the budget but totally different and I think this ticked enough boxes for them.
I read in an interview you did with Adam Nayman a few months back that the fair use rules in the UK changed when you were making Fear Itself, allowing you to claim criticism implicitly.2 That implicit over direct criticism is something I find really fascinating in Fear Itself.
I always feel like it’s a really exciting time to be working in video essay as a form because it feels like it’s changing so rapidly, not only in what people are making and the kinds of places that they are getting the work seen but literally in terms of what is legally possible. When I did Beyond Clueless, we went through American lawyers and used the American fair use system because, at the time, it was much more liberal and you could deploy it in much more interesting ways. At that time – which is only two years ago – the British equivalent, which is called fair dealing, was much more restrictive, to the point where I would have had Fairuza Balk having to say “Laney walks across the room and puts her foot onto the first step and then walks down another step”. It was incredibly descriptive. Then, by complete chance, finally after decades the wording of fair dealing was re-written with a lot of work from various incredibly admirable British lawyers, including one who went onto be our lawyer for Fear Itself. It was re-written to basically add a lot more exemptions and to be a lot more reflective of how people were using sampling and copyrighted material in their work in the twenty-first century. So a big part of that was allowing for criticism to be implicit rather than being direct, rather than saying “the director puts the camera here to say this and the actor does this to make this point” you can allow people to draw their own connections with the help of the way that you present the work.
It seems that not only Fear Itself benefitted from this change but also another film, one you edited, Ross Sutherland’s Stand By for Tape Back-Up.
Yeah, totally. I mean that’s one where we’ve never gone through the actual process of having lawyers look at it because it was made for no money and released for no money – there was never any money to pay a lawyer. I think exactly the same rules would apply, it’s criticism by implication, which does feel to me like the new frontier but a much more interesting area than a lot of what’s happened before because, you know, I think that’s more reflective of the way that we all consume films and look at them within the context of our lives is as an extension rather than something that is this sort of concrete block to be chipped away at by professional critics.
Do you see your films as an extension, then, of the way you engaged with film as a critic on your website Ultra Culture?
Yeah, for sure. I see it all as the same sort of fluid spectrum. I remember that being the biggest realisation for me in starting to make Beyond Clueless, that I didn’t need to sort of reset all my parameters and take off some critical hat and put on a filmmaker hat – that it could all exist within the same sort of world and the same sort of outlook. I think partly that came down to the fact that what I was doing on that blog was fairly cross-media anyway and that it was always driven by imagery and .gifs and videos and everything else rather than just big blocks of text which, at the time, was as much to mask my limited grasp of English grammar as to make a point about the evolution of film criticism or media. I think it really helped because it certainly gave me the feeling that what I was creating could have a worth in and of itself – what struck me as an older idea of criticism [was] as a sort of parasitic entity that hangs off more worthy art. I think I was lucky to go into it not having that complex.
Ultra Culture, which stopped posting in 2013, has almost lived on through your Twitter account and that idea of .gif-based or video-based criticism and also tied up to a personal criticism. Ultra Culture had a YouTube channel filled with reaction clips and snippets, like Helen Mirren saying she’s mortgaged the house – that sort of two-second grab has lived on in random clips that you’ve tweeted out.
To be honest, that’s exactly what I say the few times that people still say “Oh, are you gonna do any more on Ultra Culture? Are you gonna keep updating it?”. My response is that pretty much everything it used to do is now what we all do on Twitter. I would really see very little point in keeping that going because at this stage, 90% of the posts could be neatly encapsulated in a tweet, at which point they are much more liable to be seen by a much wider audience and to travel around and to be shared in a way that I always hoped they would be on Ultra Culture, but that was a fixed outpost that always had a fairly limited scope – it’s still a hyperlink that you gotta follow and take in, whereas, like you’re saying, most of that can now be uploaded as a video into a tweet or uploaded as a .gif or whatever else. Someone was telling me about this the other day, about outlets like BuzzFeed or whatever aiming for reality where they leave the web and exist purely through the medium of social media and other outlets, which certainly seems very plausible to me.
It’s almost like some of your videos on Twitter are, well, not necessarily drafts for video essays, but you do have a string of videos, like your series where the Guardian logo clip cuts off the final lines of famous film scenes, which is hilarious to me.
I’m glad you appreciated that, I was always frustrated that that didn’t take off.
The Chinatown one kills me every time.
I think it is decidedly niche, that joke.
A lot of the stuff on there is niche, though, in an interesting way. You’ve had your Mrs. Doubtfire video essay embedded in a tweet and you also had your two-tweet Skyfall video that went somewhat viral and was rewarded with a thoroughly humourless article from Birth. Movies. Death.
Oh, I know, I loved that.
It was excruciating reading.
I loved it! I was completely in awe of it. They were doing exactly what I love to do most, which is take something completely fanciful and apply a ludicrous degree of seriousness to it.
That is pretty similar to what you do with Bubble Boy in Beyond Clueless, actually.
Yeah, exactly – it’s the same logic.
I couldn’t believe that film existed.
To me, one of the most interesting ways to get at video essay work out there now is through the medium of Twitter video and I’m still really learning the way it works. One of the biggest hurdles is obviously the minute-and-a-half, two-minute-twenty time limit, which I’ve now discovered you can very easily circumvent by signing up for Twitter ads and then that lets you upload long stuff, which seems like a weirdly easy fix, although those seem to… for instance, we’re getting really deep into minutiae now, I’m sure this won’t be of interest but when I uploaded that Mrs. Doubtfire one, that was uploaded in 2.35:1 and they’ve encased it within a 1.85:1 frame; they’ve letterboxed it whereas when I uploaded the 2.35:1 Bond footage they just presented natively, which I think had some impact on the degree to which people bothered to watch it because it does just look less appealing, the Doubtfire footage, because it’s encased within this slightly staid-looking frame. Again, though, all of that I find fascinating – would the Bond thing have done twice as well if it hadn’t had to be split across two tweets slightly awkwardly?
No, I think the two tweets was the charm. It made it.
It gives it the feel of, like, is there some sort of subconscious level on which you think ‘Wow, people really don’t want this story to get out, they’ve even limited the length of the video on Twitter so that you can’t tell the story’.
Here’s a story I heard about James Bond… [1/2] pic.twitter.com/3gtOdBeowO
— Charlie Lyne (@charlielyne) June 27, 2016
… split across two tweets because the video’s too long for Twitter. [2/2] pic.twitter.com/roJyMNxK6p
— Charlie Lyne (@charlielyne) June 27, 2016
It’s that sense of conspiracy, a little cliffhanger between tweets.
I’m fascinated by that. Especially since it seems like a really new thing that people haven’t quite worked out how to exploit. Like I’m sure that in a year’s time, Twitter video will be absolutely flooded with awful, cynical advertising stuff but right now it feels like people are using it in a really interesting way – like the SuperDeluxe guy.
Vic Berger, yeah.
Yeah he seems to have completely monopolised the space of Twitter video by making stuff that is perfectly suited to that form.
In your Mrs. Doubtfire and Skyfall videos, as well as your recent short film Copycat, it’s striking that you’ve chosen to go with your own voice in voiceover, which is not the case for your two features.
It’s strange because, for me, they all started as my voice in terms of the way I lived with them, because obviously for a year with Beyond Clueless and six months with Fear Itself I was just listening to my interminable read of those words. But then I think for those movies, possibly because at their feature length, I was trying to create more of a tonal experience than I’m trying to create with a short.
That’s true, yeah and maybe that’s telling that that has nothing on it at all. Because I felt like I needed something that was more of a performance, that could achieve certain aims that I felt like my voice couldn’t achieve. So with Beyond Clueless that was finding a voice that felt kind of at home within that space, which I think meant that it definitely needed to be American and also preferably someone who already existed within that world, so obviously Faruiza Balk is a person already closely associated with teen movies. Then for Fear Itself, just because it had evolved into so much of a kind of character and containing these fictional elements, containing such a wealth of different tonal approaches all within one supposed character, again it just felt like it vastly outstripped my acting ability to convey all of that so we cast Amy E. Watson, who was our heroine.
It’s a great voiceover performance.
Yeah. It’s exciting for me as well, as someone who spent months watching the film again and again with my own voice, it’s exciting to feel it come back to life with an unfamiliar and hopefully authentic sounding read.
I guess what you’re saying is there’s an interesting sense of authority, in a way. In Beyond Clueless the narrator has the authority from having been in these films and Fear Itself is selling the emotional authenticity of the fictional narrative.
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know how true this is for the viewer but maybe certainly in the way I create it, if I’m hearing my own voice on a piece of work the inherent meaning of that is ‘this is the voice of the person creating this video’ and I think that works for certain purposes, you know, that makes sense when it’s just something stupid like me telling an anecdote about James Bond or with Copycat, where I am so clearly the master of ceremonies who is re-telling this person’s story but, for instance, I think that wasn’t what I wanted the voice of Fear Itself to have. One of the kind of subtle but very important distinctions with Fear Itself is that although what the narrator is talking about is very much guiding the images on screen, I didn’t want the implication to be that the film had been cut together by that character; I wanted them to be two distinct elements that were kind of forming all these psychic links, and for all of them to feel separate but interrelated you need a voice that doesn’t feel like it’s the “creator”.
I think that definitely does come across in Fear Itself. I find that disconnect really fascinating. There’s a disconnect in Stand By for Tape Back-Up too, because while the character Ross Sutherland plays is in control of the images, when you were translating that work from stage to screen you have had to fill in the gaps – as in, when he performed it as a stage work the screen would cut to black but you don’t really do that in the film version. The hold or pause on the credits from The Wizard of Oz sticks out to me.
Well, the Wizard of Oz thing came about because he used to have that combination of The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon playing as the audience came in, as a way to acclimatise people to the concept and so that felt like a really natural transition, especially because we kinda talked about… because there are obviously a lot of moments in Stand By for Tape Back-Up where all you are looking at is a static image, either of a paused piece of video or just a blue screen static VCR display. We talked about the effect of that and whether people would endure that and we came to the conclusion that they would, but perhaps not as the very first thing that you look at when you start the film. So it was useful to have that Wizard of Oz segment. It’s basically achieving or aiming for the same function that it had in the theatrical environment, which is acclimatising people, but in this case you already have Ross explaining the concept to you.
Yeah, you’ve just got to encase people in that video-viewing environment.
I remember we were still concerned about the blue screen and whether that would be off-putting to people but after we finally committed to it, I think on the final day of editing the film together, I sort of said in passing to Ross like “I wonder if we’ll get flattering comparisons to Derek Jarman” [who directed Blue] and literally every review of the film has made that point and ascribed a huge amount of arthouse referentialism to us.
The editing approach, or perhaps more accurately the aesthetic of Stand By, you seem to have carried over to Copycat – this invoking of the visual era of the material, so using VHS source rips instead of Blu-Ray rips. Was there ever any thought put into presenting Beyond Clueless or Fear Itself in an era-based form?
It’s interesting because with Copycat it was quite a last-minute decision. I mean, ridiculously, what you’re seeing there is actually pristine Blu-Ray rips of every single one of those films put on VHS and then ripped off of the VHS again, so there is a beautiful 1080p version of that film that no one has seen and a lot of wasted time putting it together. In the end I think what pushed me to that aesthetic was really the content of the film, which was Rolfe, the storytelling in that film’s way of seeing the world, which he saw through all these old movies that he watched as a teenager and as a twenty-something on VHS. Ao his whole approach seemed so filtered through these kind of nostalgic memories of VHS-watched horror films that it was a fairly obvious shift by that point. Likewise, that’s a big part of Stand By for Tape Back-Up, because of how Ross filters his experiences not just through the films but through the mode in which he watched them.
By contrast, for me, Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself were less specific to any one viewing experience. Beyond Clueless being about the internal reality of those films, it felt inappropriate to really evoke any particular format or viewing experience because I was treating them as a real world. Fear Itself, again, was kind of hinting at these films as kind of elusive, like parallel experiences that run alongside our lives, so again it felt weird to pigeon-hole them into any one format.
Fear Itself nicely avoids the trope that everything about horror cinema must be presented in a retro VHS format, and it instead seems to have embraced the online aesthetic. The mode of release was BBC iPlayer and, even though you also do this in Beyond Clueless, you have the titles of almost every film written in the corner as clips play. The film still works so well when watched on a laptop because it’s about someone viewing film.
I agree, actually. If there’s any kind of allusion to a mode of viewing it probably is that online, cut-and-paste, seen on YouTube then bringing up another film on Putlocker or whatever else. It is that kind of approach. I think, weirdly, people are more used to that concept of shifting aspect ratios and formats now that they are consuming media in a much more sampling way: they find a Blu-Ray rip of a film on this torrent site then they stream a film on Netflix then they watch a clip on YouTube; you are taking in all these very different styles of film-watching. It’d be that. It felt kinda apt, to me. We certainly didn’t want to pull the films completely out of their practical context. I think one of the first things that the narrator says is that she’s been trawling through stuff online, which is like in the opening 30 seconds, so that was to kind of immediately get away from the implication that we were trying to create this purist experience of what a film should be – you know, something that’s seen in the magic of the darkened cinema or whatever else. If Fear Itself is about a kind of film viewing it’s about a much more piecemeal one – catching a scene while you’re flicking through TV channels or falling asleep halfway through a movie, that way of taking in media.
On that idea – trawling through films online – what sets your two features apart from a lot of other essay films is that they seem like they’re actively pitched at relatively younger film viewers. They’re essay films without the weight of film scholarship or theory. Thom Andersen’s latest film, The Thoughts That Once We Had, is good but you need to know a bit about Deleuze to engage with it beyond the surface.
Yeah I really hope so. When I met Catherine Grant for the first time recently, we were talking about [in]Transition [a journal of audiovisual scholarship Lyne wrote about in The Guardian]. She asked me what I did and I told her about Beyond Clueless. She had this moment of awe, in that she said that she, until recently, hadn’t heard of the film but when she started teaching video essay to her students a bunch of them had the film as their only reference point, which is amazing to hear. I never wanted it to be something that was of interest only to people with a kind of academic interest or understanding of video essay. Actually, I would say that’s certainly not unique to these films. They’re possibly rare in that they attempt to straddle those two worlds, like the fact that they play at festivals and exist in certain academic contexts but are also put forward as accessible, audience-friendly (hopefully) films – that might be quite rare. For instance, there’s plenty of feature-length essay films on YouTube that people have watched but that they wouldn’t necessarily apply the words ‘essay film’ to or that would have played at documentary festivals.
So many YouTube-based longform essay films about cinema are so often just fan commentaries, in a way close analysis, or odes to the existence of a New World Order.
I mean yeah, that is true. Whenever I talk to people who make that kind of work that I find impressive, I’m constantly trying to persuade them to submit it to documentary festivals and film festivals. I keep saying “You have no idea how much programmers would appreciate this kind of work. It’s so different to the bulk of what they get sent.” It’s criminal that the Red Letter Media guy, who does those feature-length Star Wars reviews, it’s absolutely criminal that those didn’t premiere at Sundance. They’re fucking beautiful and amazingly polished pieces of work. I’d love to sit down and make a pristine 1080p version that could play at festivals because they’re incredible in-depth pieces of work.
He should do his own version of The Story of Film.
Yeah, absolutely – I’d watch. Actually, on The Story of Film, Mark Cousins is a good example of someone who possibly straddled those various worlds in a more interesting way because A Story of Film obviously found a massive audience on TV and on Netflix but also was played in galleries and at festivals and a myriad other contexts.
He seems to be trying to ensure he’s not pigeon-holed as an essay filmmaker per se, what with I Am Belfast and that film he made about DH Lawrence (6 Desires).
I think what I really admire about him as well is that each film feels motivated less by a sense of what kind of filmmaker he is or what a logical next step for him is and more just by his immediate impulsive interests, you know, which helps when he can make a film in like six days, or whatever his standard turnaround rate is. I really admire that he’s not someone who is precious about his canon in any way.
That’s great and also reflects an online sensibility that you see in people who make these online-only films, this sense of turning it around quickly. The fact that people can make these and you can release your Skyfall video on Twitter represents a kind of democratisation of film analysis using video.
I hope so. I’m always so hesitant whenever I do Q&As or end up on panels that are targeted at people who are trying to break into the film industry. I’m always a bit loathe to say that kind of classic line that people trot out about “the film industry is being completely democratised now and anyone can film a movie on their iPhone and it’ll be released as wide as Tangerine was”.
I think Sean Baker hated how overblown that element of the press coverage was, it just ignored his history of filmmaking.
Yeah, he was like an existing filmmaker and the film had actual actors in it and a budget and so on. I think that attitude does kind of ignore the very ingrained privileges that still limit who can and cannot make films. That said, I would say that film essay is perhaps the closest thing we have to something that is very democratised. The barrier of entry is a computer and a DVD, basically. Which is still a barrier, not everyone has a computer but I think it’s certainly a way that people with very limited possibilities in terms of who they know within that world can make work that will be seen.
Speaking of the film industry, for lack of a better term, two of your films – Beyond Clueless and the really long Paint Drying – were financed via Kickstarter and then you had Fear Itself and Blackout as commissioned works. How have you felt working under each of those systems?
I mean my attitude to crowdfunding has always just been that I think it’s a wonderful thing for a very specific set of circumstances and that the main problem, in my eyes, with crowdfunding is that people see it as a one-size-fits-all solution to traditional funders not wanting to make their films. And so my logic with Beyond Clueless was that it was a very – what seemed at the time at least – a very, very niche proposition but one which would be of interest to a certain community of film fans, you know, teen movie fans. Kickstarter felt appropriate because it’s a way to reach that very specific audience and basically sell them a copy of the film in advance and I think that I had on my side the fact that it had only recently launched in the UK – so people hadn’t quite had the enthusiasm for it sapped out of them yet. But then for instance, had I made Fear Itself independently… that’s not something that I ever would have crowdfunded, because I would have been doing it purely as a way to try and drum up money without any real consideration for whether that was the appropriate forum to do so.
Paint Drying, on the other hand… for me, the crowdfunding was an integral part of the act of doing it. It was all about creating a collective effort to make this piece of work that would stand against the BBFC [British Board of Film Classificiation] and so the work was defined by crowdfunding. Its length was defined by how much money was raised and so that for me felt perfectly logical – that comes down to trying to create a situation in which people feel like they’re getting a fair deal. So with Beyond Clueless I was very keen that the actual copy of the film, the proper non-DRM protected copy of the film, was only a fiver as opposed to 40 quid or whatever they can reach on some of these more, what I would call money-grubbing, Kickstarter campaigns. Likewise, with Paint Drying, it was always very clear that no one was benefitting from this in any way. We would all be collectively creating this epically long film that would go in front of the censor board and we would all personally gain the rating that came out of that, but that there was never any kind of financial aspect to it – it would never be released, it would never make any money, it would never benefit people in any way other than in the knowledge that it had taken place.
That’s important for a Kickstarter, though, a viral stunt angle.
The most interesting thing, to me, about Kickstarter is the way it functions and, looking at its capabilities and limitations and trying to think of interesting uses for them – which is exactly what Paint Drying was. That couldn’t have existed prior to the existence of crowdfunding and I think sadly that’s true of very few crowdfunding campaigns.
Some of the best ones I’ve seen recently are just taking the piss, though. Like Kentucker Audley’s hat with movies on it.
He was one of my backers, in fact, on Paint Drying. Yeah, bless him.
I know when you were coming up with the anecdotes in Fear Itself that would form the story of the narrator, they were pulled from a lot of different people involved in the film. Was that process the same when it came to film selection?
Yeah, absolutely. It was very much a collective effort and something that was 50% pulled from memory and 50% pulled from research. It’s funny, it’s tempting now in hindsight to be cryptic about the way it came together because, honestly, what we were aiming to create was something that was fairly elusive and hopefully convincing as a single person’s experience. But actually I think it was important to us that it was pulled from lots of different unlikely places. One of the notes we kept getting from the BBC was that it didn’t feel like a single register, if you know what I mean – like the voice didn’t have a single register – and we kept pushing back on that and saying “Yeah but people don’t have a single register.” The whole intention was to create something that felt human in that it had an ability to be analytical at times and at other times emotional and at other times nostalgic and go through a range of registers just as we all do in conversation. Which isn’t to say you don’t have to be quite careful about how you balance those so that it doesn’t come across as someone just wildly skittering through different mindsets.
With Beyond Clueless there are films shown in it that you immediately want to seek out once you’re done watching – Bubble Boy is a big one. Is that something you consciously build into your films, through editing and placing emphasis structurally? In Fear Itself, do you want people to go seek out Martyrs, for instance?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s never that intentional a decision, although certainly I like that about the films, I like that I sometimes see people walking out of screenings with little scribbled notes of movies that they want to go and watch but yeah, certainly I don’t see it as a recommendation engine or anything like that.
I don’t mean it as a recommendation engine, it’s more that both films convey some very fascinating idiosyncracies in terms of film selection. In Fear Itself it’s the low-budget film Amber Alert, which in your film feels so tense and resourceful, it’s riveting footage. The you Google the film and you see it was mostly panned.
Yeah and actually I would say that is entirely unfair because that movie is fucking wonderful. Inevitably in Q&As I get asked “Oh which of the movies would you recommend to go away and watch?” and it’s always Amber Alert. Yeah, that film… completely unjustly panned but also barely released anywhere in the world. I think it got a VOD release in the US, wasn’t released in any way in the UK, I doubt it was in Australia. It’s one of the most effective horror movies I’ve seen in years. I mean, the whole movie has a kind of everyday tension like that sequence has, where they’re driving along the motorway. Probably 75% of the film is just them in the car driving along and I can only imagine it was made for next to no money but the director clearly has a keen sense of tension building. So no, there’s a part of me that’s working to that logic. I remember Amber Alert being one of the first films that I really hoped and prayed I would be able to include in some way in the film but, you know, equally Fear Itself feels like something of a stand against a precious approach to movie watching or a prescriptive approach to movie watching. So I would say it’s not necessarily a lesser experience to see a single scene from something than it is to see a whole film, you know?
It’s all, again, working towards a single tone. But I do find it interesting that in Fear Itself you frequently pull clips from sequels – you have A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Poltergeist III, The Exorcist III and you use that same Nightmare sequence in Copycat. It’s almost like you’re rescuing that moment or fighting against the idea that these sequels are lesser works but doing so in a way that avoids actively saying so in voiceover.
Yeah, absolutely. I hope the film is anti-snobbery in that sense, that it doesn’t attempt to hold up Jaws as a better film than The Exorcist III even though some people might argue that it is. Really, I could make a case for any of the movies that are included and hopefully the film is a case for them having at least one standout scene that is worthy of examination. Especially if the film is trying to be about a personal experience of cinema rather than a theoretical experience. I do think most of us are immune to a purely rational way of looking at cinema and in a qualitative sense and saying “Well, clearly the first Exorcist movie is the best of the franchise.” Often our personal experience can be more dependent on the context in which we first saw it or how it happened to chime with something that was happening in our lives at that moment. You know, I’ve got all kinds of odd preferences that I couldn’t entirely justify on an intellectual level but, for one reason or another, became personally significant to me.
That sentiment is the kind of thing that does spill out in the videos that you release on Twitter. It’s unfortunate that with your Mrs. Doubtfire video, it was part of a series that didn’t get picked up. Is that kind of video, at least in the short term, what you see your work moving towards?
I love having that as an outlet. I mean, as is probably obvious, that Mrs. Doubtfire thing was originally for a series that would have been made for an online platform and would’ve bene released in a much more codified way. But I love that now if something like that goes off the rails that’s not the end of its existence – it doesn’t just live in an archive, unseen forever. There is always this way to get stuff out. Also, I think it changes the way you think about work and when it’s finished. Actually, that Mrs. Doubtfire thing is relatively polished because I was making it for money in a very specific context but, you know, the Bond thing – I think I had re-told that story over dinner one night and then the next morning thought ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be interesting to just record it and put it over some footage?’. So that was made in like 45 minutes and is probably wider seen and better reviewed than a lot of the feature films I have made. I like that: it teaches you to be less precious about everything and be willing to work in a slightly more… to think about some of your work more as a sketch that you’re putting out just to gauge a reaction. I think that’s a better way to see filmmaking.
Whenever I go to a festival I meet first-time filmmakers who’ve spent like 10 years working their way up to making their first film and they’ve been in funding for two years and then they had this huge shoot and now everything is riding on this movie that so many people have invested time and money in – and I just think ‘God, I don’t blame you for being incredibly anxious about how this goes down.’ Whereas I think if you take a slightly… not anti-auteurist, I suppose, but anti-canonical view of your work, everything feels like there’s a lot less riding on it. I feel like I could make a film that everyone hates and it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
That’s a pretty great premonition to end on. Thanks for speaking to us.
Thanks so much, man.
Fear Itself screens with Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton on the 29th of July and 1st of August at MIFF. Tickets can be purchased here.