Director Richard Bates Jr., known for his horror-comedies such as Excision and Suburban Gothic, recently had his latest film, King Knight, premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival. He sat down to talk with Anna about all things witches and LSD trips.
Natalie Metzger is an award-winning director, writer, and producer based in Los Angeles and known for films such as Werewolves Within and The Beta Test, both of which had their premieres at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Additionally, she has produced The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Thunder Road, which won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW.
It is exceedingly difficult to give a numerical score to a film like Chun Chun Chang’s animated short Aura. Clocking in at under four minutes, the story—if it can be called such—follows a man adrift at sea and then beset by a storm. As the man becomes lost in the storm, he becomes connected with the being or goddess at its center, simultaneously benevolent and violent. The film has no dialogue, only a stirring, string-filled soundtrack to carry us alongside the beautiful animation, full of bright primary colors. Aura is a testament to the power of the filmic medium: it eschews traditional narrative and dialogue, opting instead for a dazzling feast for the eyes and ears that nonetheless conveys an affecting story.
How did the idea for this film come to you? For a film like this that relies entirely on visuals, do you first imaginethe scenes visually or did the story/narrative idea come before?
The idea for this film came from different places, such as Greek mythology, Icelandic magical staves, photography, and choreography. I started with a few keywords such as fierce, hidden, and painterly; then, I just had fun trying a few visual designs. Based on the visuals, I then went back to developing a clearer story idea.
How do you write the script for a film like this? Is there even a script, or is it all a storyboard?
There isn’t a script. I made a rough storyboard, then moved everything into an animatic. Most of the modifications in the story were made in the animatic, so I knew the timing and flow of the film.
Did anything change from conception to final product?
Yes, the original plan was to ‘materialize’ the eye of the storm. For example, the eye of the storm would be a structure that would be made from cloud-like sculptures. But later, I figured that I would need to spend time elaborating on this concept in the film, which would slow down the pacing of the story. Therefore, I changed the concept to the current version.
The music was beautiful and so integral to the film—what was the process like to create that? How much collaboration occurred with composer Sturdivant Adams?
It was great working with Sturdivant. I only provided the direction that I wanted the music to be serene every time the goddess Aura showed up and when the two characters were in the eye of the storm. And then he created an amazing score.
How long did the film take to animate?
From the beginning to the end, it took me one and a half years. I spent half of the first year developing ideas and the story.
USC is credited at the end of the film; was this film made as part of your MFA program for animation there?
Yes! This film was my thesis. USC was an amazing experience for me that I received great resources from the program while creating films, and I also got to learn from some of the best in the industry. For this film, I consulted with Candace Reckinger, Michael Patterson, and Bruce Block on refining my concepts for the films
What drew you to animation? How can animation tell stories that live action film cannot?
I’d say the art of timing is what attracted me to the world of animation. There are so many things you can play with in animation. A pacing change in the same movement can tell the story differently.
I think it’s easier and less restrictive to create imaginative worlds in animation than in live-action films. Animation has the luxury of experimenting with different directions efficiently.
What is an underrated animated film everyone should see?
It’s hard to pick one. I think film festivals are a great way for viewers to find some underrated animated films.
Kotomi (Lauren Culjak) is a Los Angeles based composer, artist, and producer. A classically trained pianist and self-taught producer, her sound palate ranges from industrial and gritty to ambient and orchestral.
She composes music for film and television, and has recently composed for the Hulu series “Love Victor”, feature film “Long Weekend,” and The CW series “Nancy Drew.”
Summary: Nick, a chef on the brink of opening his first restaurant, struggles to put his life back together following the loss of his mother. At his wife’s urging, he reluctantly reaches out to Briana, his estranged, transgender father. Seeking closure with both parental relationships, he invites Briana to join him on St. Simons Island, Georgia to scatter his mother’s ashes. Their journey across the American Southeast brings their tumultuous family history into full view and Nick and Briana must come to terms with the rocky emotional terrain of their pasts while determining a new path forward.
Summary: Amir (Asad Farooqui) is a struggling actor, meddling with lowly, wordless terrorist roles. More importantly, he struggles with his parents not taking his career choice seriously. Amidst the party chaos highlighted by politics, cricket, and community gossip, a revelation brings Amir a new challenge—just making it through the day.
Lieke Bezemer’s short ECHO breaks down film to its bare parts—moving images and sound. The images: the snow in Hokkaido, Japan. The sound: Bezemer’s voiceover, grappling with her sexual assault. The two seem somewhat disconnected at first; aside from a reference to “bleak landscapes,” it appears the image is simply there for us to gaze upon. As the film progresses, and Bezemer’s narration becomes more and more frantic, the two collide: the images become wilder, cutting with reckless abandon, and the sound of crows matching a flurry of wings on screen, all serving to illustrate the inner chaotic trauma that resulted from this assault. It’s a powerful move—we only see snow, waves, birds, but we understand Bezemer’s psyche better than if we had seen anything straightforward and “realistic.” In only six minutes, the film manages to convey what others cannot in two hours.
Which came first, the visual ideas or the script? They seem so connected, like you can’t have one without the other, and I was wondering you arrived at the combination of these exact words and these exact images.
Well thanks, that is a great compliment! Actually, the script came at the very final stage. For most of the process, I didn’t even think I was going to be writing one! Where the visuals are a more universal representation of trauma, the script is deeply personal. ECHO is based on my own experiences and before I started making this film I couldn’t talk about my traumas. Understanding, let alone communicating, what you’re experiencing feels impossible – which is actually scientifically acknowledged by brain scans. The rational brain half ‘shuts down’ when triggered by trauma, disconnecting emotions from language. But as I like to say, I ‘hacked’ the system. I wasn’t able to find the words to describe what I was going through, but I found visuals. Combined with stories of Japanese mythology, all of the research on trauma I did and the actual shooting of ECHO created a world tangible enough to then be put into words again: the voice-over where I speak about my sexual abuse. Maybe not a conventional workflow, but I couldn’t have found my voice any other way.
What specifically drew you to Hokkaido? Had you been there before?
I had been to Japan twice and developed a slight addiction to it. I hadn’t been to Hokkaido though, but I knew I wanted to shoot a film in Japan at some point. Japan and I had some unfinished business. The country and its mysteries lingered in my mind during the very first phase of researching for the film. However, I didn’t want the location to dictate the story: the story itself should be the priority. So I let Japan go for a while. The decision to use Hokkaido as the shooting location happened at the exact same time as deciding on nature to carry the narrative. Early on in the process, I decided that I wasn’t going to use people to tell this story of trauma. I was looking for a more abstract, poetic and interpretive narrative. Using nature made more sense to me, given my specialization in nature films. However, I wasn’t quite sure yet. When I randomly found a photo of Hokkaido by Jefflin Ling on Instagram—I was convinced completely. The photo, consisting of a few trees in a minimalistic and eerie snow landscape, touched me more than any piece of art on trauma that I had come across. I couldn’t explain why just yet, but this was the embodiment of trauma for me. This is what it felt like. Later on I discovered that the landscapes perfectly symbolized the dissociation I experienced with my PTSD, where you go into a state of numbness by pushing everything away: emotions, memories, passions, friends—anything that makes you feel at all. All that makes you feel alive. A very common survival mechanism where, on the outside, I started to stare into the distance for hours on end. On the inside, I was burying everything that could remind me of my traumas under a thick blanket of snow, and my mind just went completely blank. This was our starting point for ECHO.
How much footage did you get from Hokkaido? How did you go about cutting down said footage?
We shot a lot of footage for a film that’s just under seven minutes long, probably around eleven hours of raw footage. Cutting down came natural to me and my editor Erik van der Bijl: if a shot didn’t serve a specific purpose, it had to go. We rather wanted to use one long shot than three shorter ones. Rather too little than too much. Instead of going through all of the footage and lining up everything with potential, we created folders with the different types of shots, and searched for a shot when we needed it. With the whole edit being so associative, we made a bunch of different versions before we landed on a flow that we liked.
Once you had the footage, did you change the script at all?
Well, yeah. I made the very first draft of the script. 🙂
How did you decide which clips went with which words? Did you have a clear idea before starting the editing process, or did you discover what fit along the way?
We knew the film had to go from dissociation (numbing) to an anxiety attack (intense fear), and we knew the importance and meanings of the elements like the crows and the abandoned home. After a few versions of the edit I started writing the voice-over with the three phases of that edit: numbing—increasing tension—anxiety attack. Four actually, if you count the returning to numbing at the very end. From this, we discovered that the edit needed a different build up. These phases were a gradual shift rather than an inner battle. So we came up with two setbacks in the second phase, and I rewrote the script. From that script we made a new edit. From that edit we minimalized the script. From that script we made the final edit. Finally, we changed one or two last words in the script. Then we might’ve changed one last shot in the final edit, but who’s counting?
Do you have any films or filmmakers that inspired you with this film? (I felt—and I might be making this up!—some Alain Resnais vibes.)
I understand what you mean, but honestly, not really haha! I actually get my inspiration from various sources and disciplines. Film isn’t necessarily the first source I turn to when making a film. It’s often a mix of things. For ECHO in particular, as I couldn’t find a live-action film on trauma that I could really relate to. All the more reason to make one myself. Obviously, my work is deeply influenced by the all of the nature films I studied over the years. With other documentary genres, Dutch director Marina Meijer inspired me in many ways. She often works with small crews, sometimes even doing the cinematography herself. She taught me how to choose a fitting ‘micro cosmos’ to tell a story, how every shot in the film should serve that story, and to not rush the process: take the time to do your story justice. So in short: the story is top priority, and every decision should serve this. Her comment on how a language barrier creates the opportunity to tell the story even more visual resonated with ECHO. Not only with filming in Japan, but also with being unable to find the words to speak about trauma. Another film that inspired me while making Echo was the animation film My Father’s Room on domestic abuse, by Nari Jang. A narrative fueled by images rather than a script. The metaphorical approach enabled by the animation process is without limits and inspired me adapt this way of thinking too. In both ECHO and My Father’s Room, there is little to no use of color, and negative space is just as important as filled space. There is strength in simplicity, modesty even. But what impressed me most is that it gave me, the audience, the unique opportunity to enter the mind of this specific abused girl—which from then on was the goal for ECHO too.
I’ve always found that, ironically, the “unreality” of art often arrives at the truth of something more so than real life. What makes art—and specifically film—so effective when addressing traumas, despite being “unreal”?
I completely agree! It also depends on what your definition of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is. Is reality what we all share together, the ‘truth’? Or does everyone have their own reality, more like someone’s perspective or experiences? Not everything that’s real is visible. There is a whole dimension to reality that isn’t tangible. Experiences aren’t tangible, but that doesn’t make them unreal. Art—and specifically film—are powerful tools for providing the audience with a new perspective. Film can show you the invisible: the emotions, thoughts, philosophies, memories, pain, etc. And say, you do describe ‘reality’ as the ‘truth’; where a tree is just a tree, and a rape is just forced penetration. There is no depth in that. It doesn’t do the complexity of the situation justice. Showing the reality of trauma is exactly that: just traumatic. Showing the reality of rape is too hard to look at and it doesn’t even serve the message. There is no layering in that narrative. There is no fluidity in time. There is no opportunity for interpretation. There is no healing, only struggle. No hope, only pain. The ‘unreal’ can be all of these things morphed into one: ‘reality’ layered with all of these invisible dimensions—creating a more full, complete story than ‘reality’ alone ever could. Another beauty of the ‘unreal’, is that it makes people want to watch a film with their guards down; because it’s not real anyways, right? But the story is, at its core, very real. And when the guards are down—souls are touched.
What was your favorite movie of 2020 (or of 2021 so far)? In all honesty, I’ve been so busy with ECHO during 2020 that I haven’t watched that many movies..! But on my ‘to watch-list’ are Rewind, House of Hummingbird, Coded Bias, To the Ends of the Earth, Nomadland, First Cow and Gunda.
Hope takes it time to unfold. We are introduced to its protagonists, a French man and a British woman stopping at an American diner. We don’t know what they’re doing here, only that something seems off. The darkness is interrupted by the neon lights of the diner, and the quiet by a fussing child. Slowly, over the course of the film, we begin to understand the sense of melancholia that smothers the main couple, and why the woman begins to cry when she looks at the toddler sitting across the aisle from her; when it clicks, it hits like a gut punch. The performances from Jane Dowden and Yann Gael are superb, and the accompanying music beautiful—while the closing montage may lay the cheese on a bit too thick, everything that came before it remains powerfully affecting and gorgeously shot.
When did you first get the idea for this film? How long did the process from idea to post-production take?
The idea of the story originated from the diner. I would pass it as a kid when we went on road trips as a family, it had this isolated Americana feel that made me always want to stop and get a burger, we never did. I never thought too much of it back then but as I got older and drove the road myself I often thought about my short memories of it as a child. Now a director I always thought it would be a great place to shoot something. I wondered who went there and where they were going. This was the beginning of the story. When it came to writing the film we had a lot of crazy ideas that just felt too elaborate, I was constantly trying to simplify. It was then I started to consider my own personal fears as a father and how we could create a very human story surrounding the issue of parental fear. From there it just formed a life of its own.
Were there any major script changes from conception to end?
No not really. We had the script down pretty quickly and pretty much stuck to it all the way through. The one thing I did tinker with is the moment where Jane (Her) gets ups and moves seats. This is something that actually came about in the casting sessions. I felt that moving her mid-scene, although subtle, heightened the intensity of the moment.
The film follows a French man and British woman in an American diner. Did you always plan to have an international cast? What do you think that brings to the story?
We did, yes. It was important for me to disorient the audience as to where they were in the world. I wanted it to feel like this could be anywhere, a universal believability.
The film did such a good job of teasing out the reason for the couple’s journey—how do you make sure not to give the realization away in the early parts of the film while still maintaining emotional truth?
As important as the climatic realisation is for the audience I always knew it wouldn’t be appreciated unless you felt something for the characters. So the intention was to not focus on a reveal of any sort but to focus on the human disposition of the characters, their relationship and nuanced body language. Tapping into what they would be feeling and how the environment around them would be affecting them. This I believe helped to focus on the right moments. I think on second viewing you start to see the signs much earlier as to what’s going on which is all a result of the above.
I thought the film was beautifully shot. How does your background in photography influence your directing? What does one medium offer that the other can’t, and vice versa?
I think photography taught me discipline and efficiency, especially given that I only know how to work a film camera. You have to be economical with what you’re doing, make each moment count. I was a director before I was a photographer but what I would say is, I never truly understood directing until I became a photographer, more specifically I’d say photography helped me to understand my and feel confident in my tastes and decision making.
You were the editor as well; what was that process like? Did you leave anything on the cutting room floor?
I wasn’t supposed to cut this film. I had an editor that I’d been working with for some years who was supposed to come in and cut with me in the room. However, Covid hit and this made things really difficult. We shot at the beginning of March 2020 and the rushes came back from the lab pretty much just as Covid was starting to really affect things. I thought it was all going to pass by the summer and was happy to take a break but that wasn’t to be. Realising the situation we were in and how I didn’t want to do a remote edit I decided the right thing to do would be to cut it myself.
The music by Kyle Preston was gorgeous—how much input did you have on the music? What was that collaboration like?
So it’s funny, the music was actually found on a licensing website. It’s actually two of Kyle’s songs from an album he had online that I played around with, looping, cutting and fusing until we had one continuous piece of music. Once I had something I was pleased with we reached out to Kyle to see if was up for doing something bespoke but he watched it and really enjoyed what we’d done and suggested some things but fundamentally we kept it to what we had.
Trish Petrovich has cemented herself as the go-to costume designer for Hallmark and Lifetime movies such as A Sugar & Spice Holiday and A Timeless Christmas. Here, she sits down to talk with Anna about her career path, her research methods, and various projects.