I met Bernard Rose a few years ago when I flew him and his 35mm answer print of Paperhouse out to Colorado for a special screening of the film. Not long after, he returned with Tony Todd for Candyman and a rousing post-film discussion that teased a reunion for the director and actor, which has come to fruition not once but twice since then. I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for the Candyman sequel that sees Helen as the bogey; perhaps the idea of a white lady academic gentrifier is already scary enough. During that first visit, Rose and I spent a couple of hours in a bar discussing Tolstoy, which, besides being bracing under any circumstance, is an exceedingly rare event outside of academia. It's been one of the honours of my life to encounter brilliant creators and to benefit so richly from the association. When I learned that Rose and Todd had picked up a camera, taking to the streets of Los Angeles in the dark days of the pandemic to shoot a new, experimental project inspired by Luis Buñuel called Traveling Light, I was grateful for an excuse to interview Rose. Of course the film is iconoclastic, challenging in the best way and a time capsule of a particular moment that already seems a hundred years ago and fading. We began our conversation by talking about the massive--and largely unexamined--psychic toll of the last two years on the human race.
BERNARD ROSE: I don't think anybody has completely realized and acknowledged how traumatic a global event this was--beyond the medical, the tragedy of massive loss of life which is dire and very real, I'm talking about when everything shut down in March 2020, and like nine out of 10 people's businesses were destroyed. I mean, even a war can be local in a way if a street over from you gets bombed and your house doesn't, then you are in some sense okay. But literally everybody was affected in a global shutdown in a really sort of extreme, immediate and intimate way, and I don't know, I think some of the deranged psychosis of the world we're living in right now directly stems from that.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: When you say "derangement," I think of how so much of your work deals with altered consciousness. Known as a horror director, I think of you more in terms of an ecstatic director--starting with your work in music video.
I was very lucky to work during a period where producers and MTV were like, "Make what you want," so we did, and with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ultimately they did think we went too far (laughs), but it was just capturing the moment, you know, creating visuals that were interesting... It was like making silent movies. We could tell these young guys' stories and express stuff they were trying to get at through the music.
You play classical piano.
Is film an extension of your playing?
It does--well, really, I'm a musician. I think people who don't play at all have this slightly exaggerated respect for musicians or for performance. And it's true there's a huge difference between performers and composers, and every culture will tend to praise the performers over the composers while history always prefers the composers to the performers because the performers are gone, you know? But the work remains there for interpretation. I think music has a very profound effect on people. A mysterious effect, and you can certainly experience it when you're playing. It's really a very important part of cinema because it's the only other art form that has a kind of timeline, you know, the whole process of musical notation doesn't look unlike the editing timeline in a computer program for editing film. And the whole thing of how in film shots are not framed by the frame, but by the preceding and the following shot, and their duration is everything. That's when cinema is cinema and not when it's just a filmed play, which of course a lot of films are filmed plays, even today. Then there's nothing wrong with that, by the way, it's a perfectly legitimate thing, and I like to go to the theatre, too, you know, but it's a different thing. The theatre is you know--it's not able to play in time the same way as film and music.
I think of Ken Russell when you talk about this.
I think what I loved about Ken's entire body of work is he really only had one subject, which was, you know, the artist as a profession. And the idea of the artist was somebody who would take whatever it was in the world and synthesize it with their turmoil and the craziness that was going on in their heads--synthesize it into something that was worthwhile and helpful to other people. Not because it was of direct or obvious benefit to them or not even because it was entertaining, but because it was somehow profoundly engaging.
Yes! I think some of the films--of his--that I like best are the slightly more obscure ones, like the film he made about Mahler. Some people probably think it's just the biggest load of garbage, but, well, one of the things I love about Ken Russell was that he didn't care who he offended. He was functioning in a kind of pop-art style that was absolutely self-conscious in one sense, and in another sense it was pure showmanship. But there was always a very serious intent. Lisztomania being a great example as a film that has Busby Berkeley with giant penis numbers, but everything in it is directly accurate, so... But I have to say, I think it was all deliberate, in that he wanted to get away from this dreadful biopic formula where everybody's pretending it's serious and real. Russell was really saying, no, this is some silly pop star I've got pretending to be Liszt, but, look, now that I've got you...let me tell you something about Liszt.
Something about Russell was always overpoweringly sensual to me.
That's right. Ken was really into all that. He was. He was also very much of his time, you know, the Sixties/early-Seventies, that was the era of extreme horniness in film, where right now we're in the era of horrifyingly desexualized cinema, which is very weird. I think it's very uncomfortable the way sex is treated in movies now and on television too. Even when they do it, you just kind of go, ick. I don't know what it is that they're getting wrong, but it never feels erotic. What happened? Even Forties films are staggeringly erotic sometimes. Sometimes...all the time, like The Big Sleep is not really about Humphrey Bogart conducting an investigation, it's about him trying to get laid the whole time.
Dorothy Malone in the bookstore.
Exactly! And nobody even gets close to taking their clothes off or doing anything, but everybody is horny and everybody comes onto him and you kind of go, why him? He's this small, slightly odd-looking guy. Maybe that was the appeal of the film for the audience. They could identify with Bogart 'cause he wasn't staggeringly handsome, and he was kind of a guy in a suit, and you can buy a suit and have it tailored, too, right?
I have this theory about porn from the '70s and '80s, where the uglier the guy is the better the fantasy for the men consuming it, because if a woman would do that with that, maybe there's hope for any of us.
You know, I think you've hit on something there. I think that's why the stuff in film just doesn't look good anymore, because in the Seventies, even in the Eighties and Nineties, and I've even had this expressed to me by studio executives, casting for film and television was considered to be two different kinds of thing. On television, everybody had to be super attractive, because basically television was, certainly in that era, a hundred percent a branch of advertising, and so they didn't really want the people in the shows to look different from the people on the commercials. And in that era, the only kind of people on commercials were basically models. They would dub their voices so they were perfect, no accent or the flat continental accent--no threat. Now it's different. Now the ads have more real-looking people, and in the movies now you have the old television casting. Everyone looks like Chris Hemsworth. They're all like model-perfect, sculpted, perfect figures. Even if they have the tiniest blemish you go in in post-production and they brush them all out. I've seen it--I've done it myself. It's so staggeringly easy to do, these lies of perfection,
Compare it to the sex scene in Don't Look Now where they are both very imperfect.
That's right. Even before it starts, I think Julie Christie says to Sutherland, "Now you're putting on a bit of weight."
Yes! "Those lumps are coming back."
That's why that's brilliant, you know, it's so true. But now we have this awful thing of everybody looks perfect in the movies. They're just too perfect. They look like statues. That's the problem, they do. I think in a way, in the Marvel films, it's not wrong to do that. 'Cause that's always what those comics were about. They were always basically a kind of sterile, infantile view of the world.
You've worked with Philip Glass three times between Candyman, Mr. Nice, and Samurai Marathon. What is it about Glass?
Well, I, I just adore Philip's work and I also adore Philip. I'm very lucky to be able to call him up and say, "Hey, Philip, do you wanna do this?" And he'll play, but I think of course that Philip is one of the most significant composers of the second half of the twentieth century. He moved modern classical music away from 12-tone and atonal and back into harmonic structures, but he had his own style which didn't seem pastiche or regressive. And now he's playing at the Met and he's in the Chicago Symphony, his violin concerto... Philip's in his eighties now and he was still driving a taxi cab in his fifties, it's quite an extraordinary story.
Do you play his stuff?
I do, he's a really good writer for the piano. Philip is a pianist, did you know that? Not a very good one, which is also interesting. His stuff is difficult to play and easy at the same time. I think that's why some musicians don't like playing his stuff, because it's tiring. You try playing the same triad for half an hour...and it's easy to get lost. "Is this bar 75 or 84? It's all the same." But what it does is it involves a lot of concentration, because it's quite hard to keep everything in front of mind. It's precise--even and rhythmic.
A good partner for your altered perceptions.
He is, yes. There's a sort of meditative quality about what he does. Did you know he was an apprentice to Ravi Shankar in the Sixties? He learned a lot of Eastern chord structures from working very closely with Shankar, which I think is why his work doesn't feel a hundred percent stuck in the sort of Western tradition. It kind of straddles the Western and the Eastern traditions with his chord structures.
A strange choice for Candyman.
Yes. One of the producers was a man called Alan Poul, who was also a producer on Paul Schrader's Mishima. He's American, but he is completely bilingual with Japanese and acted as Paul's interpreter on Mishima. Anyway, we got talking about Mishima because I love that movie. We were discussing who should do the score for Candyman and I said, well, really, ideally, it should be someone like Philip Glass. And Allen literally said, "Oh, Philip, let me call him up." I think Mishima was the only real score Philip had done to that point and (laughs) it's a pretty good one. You know, we called Philip in to look at the movie, and it was a very loose early cut, a very early cut of it. In the early Nineties early cuts, rough cuts looked much cruder than they do now. You only had one soundtrack, so the print is literally just a cutting copy. The films looked crude for much longer when they were in analog. Post-production now, everything looks finished the day after you shot it, which is actually a disadvantage because then people judge it. They don't think you've got to redo it. They don't think you've got anything more to do at all, when actually you haven't even started. So that was what Philip came and looked at, and let me tell you, it was very long and it was kind of slow and this and that. He watched it and went away and wrote a suite and sent it to me. I used it to cut the film with and then he had Michael Reisman--who always did this for him at that time--orchestrate the stuff to the cut versions that I'd made to picture and recorded it. Philip wasn't involved in that process, he's not a conductor and he doesn't really like to, so it was done and he hadn't seen the film except at this very early stage.
Was he surprised by the final product?
Well, he finally went to see it with a bunch of his friends when it opened in some Times Square grindhouse and he was a little taken aback, yes (laughs), because it wasn't how he remembered it. I mean, now it's mixed with all the sound and it's tighter and the music of course gives it an otherworldliness I think, and all his friends were, "Oh my God, Philip, it's a horror movie."
What did he think it was?
(laughs) I don't know! I don't know! He caught up with Alan [Poul], a little bit shocked or mad, and said, "You never told me this was a horror film." Well, you saw it, Philip. I mean, what are you talking about? It's the same movie, but it, you know, when it wasn't mixed and finished, I guess it played as...something else? So he, for years, he didn't like the movie. He can be a little odd sometimes, Philip--I didn't hear from him at all and I thought that was the end of it. I was doing other things, he was doing other things, whatever, then when I was preparing Mr. Nice, Phillip's manager reached out to me and said, "Have you considered Philip for this?" And I said, well, yeah, you know, I'd love Phillip to do it, but I don't think he likes me very much. I didn't really go into it. I just waited. Eventually, I went to New York to see him and we were all right, you know, and just discussing how there were certain things that had to be done for Mr. Nice ahead of shooting, and was he interested in that? And eventually, I just said, "So... Philip, what was the deal with Candyman?" He never allowed the soundtrack to be put out initially as a record or anything and, you know, I thought he really resented what had happened--whatever it was that had happened. And he went, "Bernard, I was being stupid." And I said, well, yeah, so what changed your mind? He said his accountant had showed him what he'd earned on just the licensing of that one soundtrack over the years for different things and he reached out to his manager and told him to get back in touch with you immediately.
That's fascinating, because I've always felt like that soundtrack seems like it's for a different film, a slower film. It's what makes it, you know?
No, that's right. He absolutely did not write it to picture, I can tell you for sure. He just wrote it to I don't know what. The other thing was, I didn't use the music to narrate it-- I personally think it's a mistake, especially in a horror film, to use the music to sting the suspense. That was how things were done in the Fifties because they didn't really have the tradition of sound design and the abilities of all that to create suspense and atmospheres and unease and all that sort of thing. In many ways, David Lynch is the pioneer in modern pictures for a lot of that stuff, a master of unsettling, incongruous sounds in scenes to put you on edge. Threatening, alien, horrible sounds, and then nothing happens, you know? He is the master of it. But the Glass score, it definitely worked better to create fear, because the music is almost a bit comforting. It's...a lie. I think it can work, obviously, especially if you're a genius you can use stings, like obviously the Bernard Herrmann Psycho score, which is the classic example of an avant-garde, sting-heavy score, just strings, no brass or percussions. It sounds like a Stravinsky, mid-century avant-garde, but I wonder even if someone attempted that kind of approach now, if it doesn't really work anymore because it feels too self-conscious, so when the music starts up it almost feels like a joke. It's sort of the Wagner scoring theory. I think it's okay if it's an opera, but, yeah.
It reminds me a lot of David Shire's score for The Conversation.
Overscoring, you know, is very Old Hollywood thinking. It's hard to fight against, because it's the default position. There was a glorious period in the Seventies where that was abandoned in the wake of things like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the music suddenly wasn't underscoring the emotions at all. It was...something else. And you were supposed to listen to it. You were supposed to listen to the "Blue Danube Waltz" in 2001. It's not in the background, there's nothing else going on on the soundtrack, not one single sound effect in that sequence. You can't imagine that nowadays, can you? But yes, I love that David Shire score. It's truly magnificent, it sounds almost like a cross between Eric Satie and what became Philip Glass. It has a kind of quality of both of them really. It does have a few tension stings at the end, but by then the themes are so well established, and that main piano theme has nothing at all to do with the suspense. That score for Don't Look Now--that music is very romantic, if you remember. Pino Donaggio, right?
One of the great giallo scores.
And Don't Look Now is one of the great giallos.
Speaking of 2001 and Kubrick, weren't you working as a PA at Elstree when he was there shooting The Shining?
Yes--I was a production assistant for Jim Henson on the last year of "The Muppet Show" and then on The Dark Crystal while it was shooting at Elstree. I'd just bring people things, drive the Muppets from one place to another, Miss Piggy in the trunk. Jim was an amazing person. I mean, it was 1980 and here he's one of the great popular artists of all time. I was in the puppet workshop seeing these things get built, sometimes hair by hair or feather by feather. At the same time Jim was shooting The Dark Crystal, Spielberg was doing Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kubrick was finishing The Shining, and Warren Beatty was shooting Reds. God, can you imagine? All of that going on in the same building? Oh my God. And I would see them all in the same crappy cafeteria, eating the most revolting food you've ever seen. What we didn't know, what I didn't know, was that this was it--this was the end of the great 1970s cinema era with the big director-driven projects with huge budgets, no expense spared. And Elstree was just like an industrial park in North London. There's Kubrick going across the street and there's Spielberg and, you know, George Lucas lurking about, and Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty. I mean, these were all the giants of the movie business, you know, they still are in a way.
"Romcoms are the clearest depiction of Hell I've ever seen because there's a trouble with the Hollywood message in that it tends to always boil down to a dim message of 'love conquers all,' and anybody with the slightest experience of life knows that love does not, in fact, conquer all. Love is actually a destructive and unpleasant force in the world."
Tell me about your connection to Tolstoy.
I think it's definitely true that in the nineteenth century there wasn't this sort of firewall between science and art that there is now, which I think is one of the problems in the culture, is people, you know, they regard science as being something very important and very real and concrete, and art as being something that's purely for entertainment or something like that.
Tolstoy didn't care if he was entertaining. He wanted to educate and build empathy.
Exactly. Entertainment wasn't the sole purpose, or maybe even a motive at all, of nineteenth-century novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and whomever else. They regarded the novel as a kind of investigation of the human spirit and Tolstoy, writing before Freud, was invested in detailing human behaviour on a rigorous, even quasi-scientific level. But, you know, even as you look at Freud, so much of his writing is imaginative. It's not the least bit diagnostic really, in any helpful way. But like Tolstoy, he wanted to investigate the human psyche and human behaviour on a grand level. He was right about a lot of things. I mean, he was wrong about a lot of things, too--let's also be clear about that. He had some very, very weird and wrong ideas about human sexuality, for example, and he was also a big hypocrite. I mean, I think the Kreutzer Sonata, which obviously was based on [Tolstoy's] huge sort of sexual hangups, I think he also had an ability to be very honest about himself. But as so often happens when the subject is too close to you, the conclusions he drew were completely off--but the honesty of the inquiry was never false.
He was curious. And he was empathetic.
He always was. There's even a chapter in Anna Karenina that's written from the point of view of a dog, and it's very convincing. And there's a short story of his that's written from the point of view of a horse. I mean--
With one of the most unpleasant endings of all time.
(laughs) It's true.
When did you get hip to Tolstoy as a guiding light for your work?
Very specifically it was when I was preparing Immortal Beloved and I was reading as much as I could about Beethoven and around Beethoven. And, you know, I saw this novella called the Kreutzer Sonata and I read that simply because I wanted to see what it had to say about Beethoven.
You use a passage from it in the movie.
That's right, I gave Beethoven this little dissertation on the power of music and that's pretty much a paraphrase of the novel from when he's listening to the sonata. He talks about the idea that music, it can sort of directly affect you in an emotional way, of course, but also on a subconscious emotional level, whether or not you wanted it to--which is undeniably true, and frightening and mysterious. It doesn't even have to be great music, we're all affected by cheap music, too, whether you like it or not. All countries have national anthems. It's hypnosis, mind control. I think increasingly, the more we learn about physics and cosmology, we will come to understand that everything in the universe is in a harmonized wavelength of one kind or another, maybe it's like light, sound is, in that it's both a wave and a particle--matter is basically a wavelength, so music is describing it, or changing it as it passes through it. Music is an essential, fundamental building block of the universe. That's why every culture has music, why people have religious feelings when they listen to Bach, you know, because he was tapped into that without any conscious understanding of the channelling process. I mean, he understood it was religious, but it's not specifically Christian. The words, sure, sure, but the music is just something entirely other.
I loved Samurai Marathon, I don't think we've ever talked about it. I think the last time we hung out, you were in the middle of learning Japanese in prep for it.
That's right, that's right, thanks. I had to learn Japanese, I mean, I don't think you can or should do a film in Japan with a Japanese crew and Japanese cast and not learn the language. We didn't even have subtitles, obviously, for the edit, so how can you do that if you don't speak the language? I'm sad about the film not having a wider audience. Blame the pandemic. A lot of things got lost. But the making of it was a fabulous experience. I got involved in it through the producer Jeremy Thomas, who was the international producer on it. Jeremy produced The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and the new 13 Assassins, so he'd been making films in East Asia for 40 years with a lot of critical and popular success. I think it was Jeremy's idea to hire a foreign director, because they might bring something different to the project. If we just give this to Takashi Miike, it'll be great, but it'll be the kind of thing Miike does in his sleep, at least twice a year. (laughs)
At a minimum.
Yes, that's in a slow year. So Jeremy asks, did I want to go to Japan to make a samurai picture? And, well, you know, the only possible answer to that is "yes." But the crew and everybody else, and, and all the cast, everybody was Japanese. I was, like, I was the only gaijin on the picture, you know?
Not even the obvious gaijin for the job.
No, I think what happened was Jeremy had also produced a lot of films with Nic Roeg. He produced Bad Timing and Insignificance, um, Eureka. He'd done a lot of Cronenberg films as well. I think he obviously thought outside the box and he likes directors and trusts collaborators. I can't tell you how rare a man like that is in this business. Anyway, there was a documentary that was made about Nic Roeg, a BBC documentary, and I was interviewed on it and I was talking about Bad Timing in particular and I bet you what happened is Jeremy, who obviously was also interviewed for the documentary, probably saw the documentary and it reminded him of me.
You worked with him before?
Indirectly. I did a music video with Roy Orbison and the song was from Insignificance, so I was using bits of footage from the Roeg film in the video. So I knew Jeremy, this was in 1985--anyway a long time ago. For whatever reason, maybe he saw me pop up in this documentary, praising his movie. In 2019, look, there's Bernard saying nice things about me, maybe I'll give him a job, you know, I dunno if that's how it happened (laughs), but I'm grateful however it happened.
Talk to me about Luis Buñuel.
My god, Buñuel. Well, the thing about Buñuel is he's fresh whenever you come to him in the same way as Tolstoy. There's a harshness and an honesty about Buñuel's vision of the world, which is always topical and always relevant in that I think he views all human interactions from a sort of melancholy point of view, and he expresses that sadness from a surrealist point of view. He's fiercely anti-religious as well, which, you know, as a Spaniard basically made him an outcast, an anti-establishment figure. The two things--anti-religious and anti-establishment--were indistinguishable in Spain in that period. But his point of view is evergreen, and he's always somehow witty even when he's displaying the most appalling, violent things. I love that about him. I love Los Olvidados. It's terrifying and it has one of the bleakest endings of any film ever--the mother comes by and they're taking the dead son out on a donkey to throw him in the trash--but it's also funny in a weird way for its excess. I find a film like Los Olvidados much less depressing than a romcom. Romcoms are the clearest depiction of Hell I've ever seen because there's a trouble with the Hollywood message in that it tends to always boil down to a dim message of "love conquers all," and anybody with the slightest experience of life knows that love does not, in fact, conquer all. Love is actually a destructive and unpleasant force in the world.
Tolstoy said there was no tragedy the equal of the marital bed.
(laughs) One of the things that happened when I was trying to make Anna Karenina was after I first ran it for Warner Brothers, they were just horrified by it. I think mostly because none of them had read the book. I remember one of the executives who shall remain nameless turned around to me at the end of the movie and said, "She's so unsympathetic. She cheats on her husband!" I was like, I don't know what movie you thought you were making, but you realize that in the Hollywood version of that story, she kills herself for love, but in the novel, of course, she does not kill herself for love. She kills herself because she thought that love would save her--that it would change her life, for the better, by running off with this guy. But she kills herself because it's not any better. Two years later and she's the same. Not a Hollywood story, is it?
Who does it serve to so water down our entertainment?
In the Seventies, we were comfortable with a different ending, weren't we? I have theories about what happened. I kind of feel that the growth of the director-led film was because the people who were running the studios at the end of the Sixties understood that they were out of touch in a very serious way after Easy Rider came out and they had no idea why anyone would watch this film. It wasn't even interesting to them. So they thought, "Fuck, we don't know what to do anymore, because, because we don't know what this film is." So they just hired people in the hope that one of these kids would make another one of those, you know? I think that was the impulse, and some really talented people took some big swings and took some big opportunities and made films that the studio bosses really didn't understand. But I think the sophistication of the audience had something to do with the demand for better films, because after WWII, the audience, not just here but worldwide, didn't want this happy-go-lucky shit anymore because they'd all seen and experienced things that were so horrific and extreme that you couldn't sell this crap to them anymore. Maybe that's why Americans were watching foreign films so much in the lead-up to the Seventies. They were watching Fellini and Kurasawa and Truffaut and Goddard because those films had elements that reflected back their reality to them. Meanwhile, America was still making Doris Day pictures and they lost their audience. You know, The Sound of Music was the last time Old Hollywood felt like it knew what to do, and actually that really quite a serious film about being kicked outta your house during a war.
What's the last shot of that movie? They're homeless on a mountain?
They just become refugees. It's the end of that movie. The happiness of the ending is that they're not dead.
You seem drawn to filmmakers who push against expectation. Buñuel, obviously--Ken Russell, Pasolini...
Pasolini was such a genius because he understood the mythological underpinnings of society. He had a way of filming this stuff that made it look like a documentary set in the ancient world or whatever period he was covering. His period films are the ones that we really remember. Accatone of course is a great movie, but it's almost the same movie as The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, just different art direction. Even the music.
He was very on point.
He was. And he was a poet, so he had a poetic sensibility and understood something about how to translate that into film. At their best, his movies could unfold as a kind of ballet. You know, Ken Russell was also trained as a ballet dancer, so you can interpret most of Ken's films as ballet in a very direct way. They are very directly balletic, with The Music Lovers--I mean, you can't do Tchaikovsky without doing a ballet, because Tchaikovsky is ballet, you know? Right. Um, but even in Mahler, there's a ballet in what's supposed to be a dream sequence, but it's not a dream sequence, it's a ballet sequence. All these people understood film could operate on a symbolic level, and they were confrontational and they were quite violent and they were sexual. I mean, certainly in the case of Pasolini, it's more interesting because he's not heterosexual, you know, and Ken neither, although he was ostensibly heterosexual, there's nothing heterosexual about his films. They're "out" when it was dangerous to be that--defiantly so, angry about it. I mean, Ken has five children, but some people are more complicated. We tend to want to put everybody in categories. You have to be this, you have to be that, and I think that's gotten worse. Why does everyone have to identify as just one thing or another? I don't approve of that, frankly.
I loved that your "Smalltown Boy" music video got so much attention again upon Steve Bronski's death last year.
Yeah--terrible. Such talented guys. I'm proud of the story we told in that video.
Tell me about Traveling Light.
I had this feeling very strongly that something gigantic was happening. This was much more than just a public health emergency. We suddenly, in front of us all, there was a watershed moment in history, and nobody had any idea where it was going. I certainly didn't have any idea where it was going. You know, one of the things that's interesting about that film is how difficult it's been to get anybody to sit through it or even to look at it, much less to program it in any way. It felt impossible. Now I slowly start to see how maybe people are interested in it as we start to move away from it. I had that film finished in 2021 and I would show the people in 2021, they would literally just go, oh, nobody wants to look at this. They would physically turn away from it because I think it was too much of a reflection of what was happening to them at that moment--to all of us. I think part of its effectiveness, if that's what it is, is I didn't write any of it. There was no script. It was shot in May, 2020, so none of us had any time to process what was happening, no thinking about it, absorbing it, writing it down and shooting it. That's not what happened. If you tried to write it at that moment, it's just guessing. This film was genuinely and entirely improvised. When I started the film, George Floyd was still alive, and the film ends with the aftermath of the protests in Los Angeles of his murder. It was a reaction in real-time.
You must've had an idea what you wanted--or did you just want an improvised piece, come what may?
Obviously I imagined I was gonna be making a film that was much more about illness and disease, but you know, in May, 2020 in Los Angeles, nobody I knew had coronavirus. It felt like there wasn't any coronavirus in L.A. in May, 2020, and we wondered variously if it was the reaction that was causing everything. There's way more obvious coronavirus right now than there was then, and now nobody cares. What does this do to us psychologically? What's true? Look at the things that have come out, I mean, especially related to things like in the British government, where they were just partying it up on Downing Street while people couldn't gather for funerals or couldn't visit their loved ones on their deathbed. These fuckers were having parties. Are they idiots or did they know something? Both? So, you know, the fact that there's the party at the top of the hill in Traveling Light, I mean, we did that because I realized that's what was going on and that there was a tremendous divide between who had the money and who didn't have the money--who was affected not at all and who was locked down. The people who had the money were up at the top of the hill and were ordering food from the people in the restaurant, who were all just crammed in next to each other. Ten hours elbow to elbow, having a mask, if you're shoved in a tiny kitchen, making somebody's takeout, it's not really gonna do anything for you, and who are you dying for?
Tony Todd is incredible in this film as an Uber driver looking for his son on the streets.
Tony's just the greatest. We discussed the characters and I was filming them pretty much separately because that was what I thought was the safe thing to do. Most of the time, it was just me, and they were all mostly in their own homes. Tony was in his own car and in his own home, too, so I'm with Tony and we're driving around downtown L.A. filming this stuff, and he starts going on about looking for his son and, and I'm like, he really was, you know? No, I didn't know. It was completely real. He was really looking for his son. I think that's what's really interesting about that: Tony was out there and he has since found him and then lost him and then found him again, but the courage it takes to just put it all on the line...for art, for truth. All the searching, the pain, that's real. He's looking and we are looking, we're going in the encampments. We're looking there. And obviously some of the unhoused people are genuinely living on the street. I think they've cleaned up some of it since then, but, you know, I dunno what the figures are. It's something horrendous like 200,000 people who need desperate help.
You went into Cabrini Green thirty years ago and I know you were shocked at the income disparity then. It's only gotten worse, hasn't it?
Well, it's, I mean, it's way worse when you think about it. I mean, like in 1992, when Rodney King took a beating from the cops it started a riot. What happened with George Floyd is so much worse, and you just know that a beating today wouldn't have wouldn't have caused the demonstrations in 2020. We're completely inured to lesser atrocities now. They had to have somebody literally murdered for ten minutes. Floyd really felt like a lynching, don't you think? It had the absolute atmosphere, and also those guys who shot Ahmaud Aubrey--chased him down and shot him in the park when he was jogging. That's lynching. You can't argue that, can you? There's no difference between that and the rest of the filthy history.
You've lived here for thirty years, are you inured?
I've lived in the U.S. as you say since '91, so more than thirty years. But I think that my view on all this is because, you know, I'm not a U.S. citizen. I don't vote because I'm not allowed to, and as an immigrant and as a non-US citizen it's not my business to prescribe and judge and say, yeah, you should be doing this, you should be doing that, or how about this? One of the things that I think is most upsetting about the modern situation is there are all these things in column A and all these things in column B, and unless you agree with everything in column A or everything in column B, you can't be on team red or team blue. I dunno, from the outside, I can't see any difference between Democrats and Republicans. It's like that old thing with the...that old Bugs Bunny cartoon, where there's the Wolf and the cattle dog and they're chasing each other around all day and then they clock off and they go, "'Morning, Ralph," "'Morning, Sam." It just, it just doesn't feel real. It just feels like a...a con job. Well, it doesn't feel real to them, either, I don't think. I think it's just a game. It's a way of controlling people and the real game, the real problem with American politics, is that everybody is paid by special interests or you can't possibly be in the game in the first place. That's on both sides. But if it's not my job to criticize that when I walk around, I see stuff and I think it is my job to record it.
Tell me about the LA mindset that you skewer in Traveling Light.
The L.A. mindset. There's all these people walking around thinking if they do enough yoga, somehow they'll be okay. I've never seen so many different kinds of water. It's a huge business, this whole mindfulness, but I didn't wanna make fun of it. I just wanted to show it. And with Tony, he wanted to document the search for his son, and Danny wanted, he said, "Oh, I always wanted to be a cult leader." (laughs) People are very dishonest about how people live in the sort of mythical 1%, you know? They have this idea that somehow they're all sort of rather proper or dignified in some way, but no, they're all taking every drug they can get their hands on. And why wouldn't you? It's always struck me how the rich are portrayed in something like "Succession" is just... There's no difference between the fantasy of the wealthy in "Succession" and "Dallas". They are exactly the same object. It's basically propaganda to poor people so they think the rich are unhappy. You don't wanna be like them, they're bad people and they're unhappy. No, they're not unhappy. They're not unhappy--but they are bad people.
What I appreciated about Traveling Light is how it's interested in truth, not entertainment. Tolstoy again. And maybe that's why people couldn't look at it for a while.
Tolstoy would write diary entries for many years and with complete honesty--he would document what he was up to, what he was doing, and the thought processes behind his actions. And before he got married, he insisted his very young fiance read them. She was shocked. There were some very shocking things, like how he'd been having families with the peasant women in his village for the last twenty years and had like ten different children. It was, it was quite a thing, but it wasn't the secrets to be unveiled so much as his tremendous honesty. His honesty overrode any sense of even self-preservation. I think the reason he wanted her to read that before she married him... I think what he was saying to her is, I won't stop being that kind of level of honest, however, hurtful it is, or damaging it might be. Truth hurts. I don't think you can judge people and say they're good or they're bad. I don't say the people who are attending the plague party are bad or good or this or that, they're just doing whatever they can, you know? I think the problem with everything being predigested and being just some giant IP means we're not really recording who we are and what's really going on right now, even if it's very painful. If you suppress it, it means it has no real value. I think again of The Big Sleep and the whole film war thing. When Howard Hawks made The Big Sleep, he just thought he was making a story about some guy going around L.A. trying to solve a mystery, but do that period now and it's just arch. It's style. Even someone like Polanski when he makes Chinatown, the setting is still somehow not arch--it doesn't feel like a sideshow or an affectation. If you can't manage truth, it's an art piece. It's a piece of art direction. It's like a theme-park version of the 1940s. We need to... I think if we don't confront our reality... My aim with ivansxtc., with all my films all along, I think, is to recognize that we're in a huge transition, and have been in a huge transition in history that we're not dealing with.
Why aren't we?
It's hard. Even more so because though we all know there's something wrong, we can't agree what it is. It's not the transition we think it is. The rapid expansion and explosion of technology that's taken over and changing every single aspect of our lives has happened so suddenly and so completely, so universally, nobody's had any time to catch up. No one is allowed to question the wisdom of it. No one is allowed to even really discuss it. If you look at a film, let's say ivansxtc., the phones we use in that movie... When they do movies now set at the end of the millennium, they will get the phones wrong because they can't find any of the dead tech anymore, and what's most interesting is they can't even remember it. Even people who lived through it can't remember what it was like. I've got a project going on right now set in 1983, and I obviously lived through it and I remember it all, but when I look at the stuff I go, "No, did it really look like that?" There's something about showing the world as it is in the moment of creating it. I'm not advocating for neorealism, because neorealism is just a style, too.
I'm reminded of how you shoot the dream sequences in Paperhouse just like the rest of the film.
Right, exactly. Right. I mean, that's something I discovered when I made that: film is a dream already. A dream, reality, there is literally no difference. They are literally the same object. It's almost bizarre for you to denote in a film "this is a dream," now "this is real." After a while, you go, Wait a minute, this is just the most meaningless thing you can say. The whole of Paperhouse is basically trying to illustrate that one thing: that there's no difference between a dream and a reality. Look at The Shining--how it functions with everything in that hotel being super mundane. They're dressed in mundane clothes, the guy's a caretaker. It's a deeply unglamorous film. It's brilliant. The fantasy is so powerful because it happens in the middle of all that mendacity. It has rigour. I'm not saying I demand a strictly realistic approach, because I love Ken Russell, too, but I think Ken is at the bottom of it just expressing his reality. You can't say Russell's films don't represent his moment. If there's anything you can draw from my body of work, I hope that it's something like that--that I was honest, I tried to be, even if it came at a cost--and that I was paying attention, even if like with Traveling Light we couldn't know how it would end. It doesn't have an ending, we're in the middle of it, so how could it have an ending? And we won't know the truth of any of it until we're well past it. But I was here. I was awake for it.