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Panos Cosmatos, Beyond the Black Rainbow

It’s a strange paradox of today’s cinema that so many films feature lavish and eye-popping special effects yet are such ordinary viewing experiences. Sure, today’s VFX and surround sound are capable of overwhelming you, of beating you into submission, but, with a handful of exceptions, they seldom take you further. One film that does is Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow, an astonishingly ambitious debut feature that is as much an elegant art object as it is a science-fiction head trip of the highest order.

Set in 1983 — and feeling as if it was actually made in 1983 too — Beyond the Black Rainbow is a hazily remembered waking dream of a picture about a tormented scientist (described in Cosmatos’ script as “an aging surfer calcified into a reptilian wax vampire”), who is subjecting a beautiful young captive to a series of unsettling mind control experiments. The film has secrets, plot twists and a daring escape, but it is more focused on tone, feelings and sensations than linear plotting. Pulsing with an omnipresent score by Sinoia Caves, Beyond the Black Rainbow evokes the eerie early cinema of David Cronenberg, and not just with its repressed scientist protagonist, dispassionate tone and cool production design; the film also riffs on similar ideas about repression and social control, drawing from such shared inspirations as William Burroughs.

Beyond the Black Rainbow premiered in 2010 at the Whistler Film Festival before it was discovered by the Tribeca Film Festival programmers and screened at last year’s event. Filmmaker then placed Cosmatos on our 2011 25 New Faces list, and the following interview was done in preparation for that piece. Beyond the Black Rainbow opens Friday from Magnet Releasing.

Filmmaker: Why is the film set in 1983?

Panos Cosmatos: Well, all the films that inspired it came from that era – from the mid-to-late ‘70s through to 1983.

Filmmaker: Do you know this band How to Dress Well?

Cosmatos: I don’t.

Filmmaker: It’s one guy, from Brooklyn and who has studied philosophy in Berlin. It’s basically soul music, except there is a lot of digital noise, and it sounds like it’s coming out of a radio far away. It has the feeling that you are listening to a memory — like the work is less about a song than the memory of a song. I thought of him as I watched your film.

Cosmatos: That was sort of like the inspiration for the film. When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated films but I would spend hours at the video store just looking at the box covers of the horror and the science fiction films and imagining my own versions of them without seeing them. Remembering that time was the inspiration of the film — the idea of making a remembered or imagined film.

Filmmaker: When you finally saw those films, did they live up to the expectations you had based on the box covers? You mentioned early Cronenberg at the Q&A. Did his films live up to their box covers?

Cosmatos: In his case, yes. But in many other cases the films, they were just so vastly different from what I imagined. I remember sort of riffing in my mind as a kid on what I thought Videodrome would be like. And that one was much different from what I had imagined.

Filmmaker: I just watched that again recently. That’s like the iconic Cronenberg movie but I remember being disappointed when it first came out.

Cosmatos: Did you see it in the theater?

Filmmaker: Yes. I was in college. I’m a big Philip K. Dick fan, and there’s a little bit of Philip K Dick in that movie. But I just saw it recently a couple of months ago in the Criterion reissue and I don’t know… it’s a strangely shaped movie. It’s almost not like a whole movie. It ends so abruptly.

Cosmatos: I love the abrupt ending. It’s funny though, I actually think Videodrome works best viewed on a CRT television with a tube TV. Something about [that TV] enhances the themes of the films. I had only seen that film on VHS and then I checked out a screening of it years later in the theater and it didn’t have the same visceral impact.

Filmmaker: So this is your debut feature, but what did you do before? Did you make any shorts?

Cosmatos: I sort of, just for lack of a better word, laid low and made a lot of experimental short films that I never really showed to anybody. I would show them in the local festival on Vancouver Island but I never submitted them to any other festivals. And I used to work with bands — I did cover art and graphic design. I watched a lot of movies, read about films and that was basically my film school.

Filmmaker: How long has this film been in the works?

Cosmatos: I had a notion about it for a long time, but about three years ago [in 2007] I started writing it proper and a year after that I moved to Vancouver to get it made. At the end of that year we shot it and it was about a year of production after that, on and off.

Filmmaker: How did you finance it?

Cosmatos: I self-financed it. You have to make a movie any way you can, especially a first film. And I had the money on hand so I just used it. It was paid for mostly with Tombstone DVD residuals.

Filmmaker: What do you mean?

Cosmatos: Oh, my father directed Tombstone, and he passed away in 2005.

Filmmaker: So your dad worked in movies, but he didn’t let you watch R-rated movies?

Cosmatos: Yeah, he and my mom tried to shield me from violent films. And then I went to a sleepover birthday party and they showed First Blood. The next day my parents picked me up and they freaked out on me — they got really upset that I’d watched that film. But then, ironically, not long after that my dad was hired to direct First Blood Part 2! One of the first horror films I saw was Alien. My parents were watching it in the living room. I was supposed to be in bed and I snuck into this other room and I could see it reflected on a framed print behind them. And I watched most of Alien in a reflection on this print.

Filmmaker: On a filmmaking level, how much did you learn from your dad? He was in the film business, so did you visit his sets?

Cosmatos: I would visit his sets. We would be filming in far away locations, and we would visit, my mom and I. My favorite film of his was his first Canadian film, called Of Unknown Origin. It has a bit of a J.G. Ballard-esque feeling. It stars Peter Weller, and it’s about a yuppie who has refurbished the inside of his brownstone. The outside is this old brownstone and the inside is modern. His wife and kids go away on vacation and a rat infests the building and no matter how hard he tries he can’t kill it. He goes insane trying to root out this rat infestation. That’s the film of my dad’s that I felt the most connection with. (laughs). I love popcorn movies just as much as I love bizarre art films. And my mother, she was an experimental abstract sculptor and there were these haunted pieces of sculpture [around the house] that I always really connected with. I always felt like my filmmaking sensibility is a weird hybrid of both of them.

Filmmaker: One thing I was intrigued by at the Tribeca Q&A was your statement that you think of the film as a ’70s electronic music album. Was the score by Sinoia Caves one you started with before you shot the film, or did it come later?

Cosmatos: I was a fan of the band Black Mountain, and I hadn’t heard Sinoia Caves, which is the side project of the keyboard player [Jeremy Schmidt]. I had known his girlfriend for years and she read the script. She thought that I might like his music so she sent it to me, and I was inspired by it. I actually wrote some new material based on that. And then when we were editing he came by and checked it out.

Filmmaker: So the score came in during post?

Cosmatos: Yeah.

Filmmaker: Does music play a role in your creative process, in the development of the script?

Cosmatos: When I’m writing I almost create an official soundtrack playlist.

Filmmaker: What was on this one?

Cosmatos: Oddly enough there was a lot of music from a video game, Half Life II. It had a really amazing sound I’d never heard before, and I found it really helped me in the writing process. To a certain extent, like I said in the Q&A, this is an experimental electronic album. The next one what I want to do is more like a black Sabbath record, so it will be a bit more propulsive.

Filmmaker: What other stuff inspired you in the creative process, like artwork, photography, books?

Cosmatos: Well, I love fantasy art: Frank Frazetta, Moebius, Heavy Metal comics. When I was younger I read a lot of Burroughs and a lot of science fiction — Asimov and J.G. Ballard. Music-wise I grew up mostly listening to heavy metal and hair metal (laughs). As I got older I listened to more pop rock and eventually more experimental stuff. But there’s not one genre that I listened to the most. And one of the other influences for me growing up was the New York underground filmmakers, like Kern and Nick Zedd. I hope that there is a little bit of their spirit in that movie, somewhere.

Filmmaker: At the Q&A a woman brought up the concept of the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s prison. Your film also references William Burroughs and his philosophies about social control. How much were these broader philosophical ideas on your mind as you developed the film?

Cosmatos: Those are themes that interest me; social control mechanisms; religion and what that means in our society and in our consciousness; our own personal internal controls. Those are what interest me. But I wanted the film to be like slow motion suspense — almost like macroscopic suspense. And I just wrote the thing in a very stream of consciousness way. I didn’t really intellectualize it that much until I was trying to structure it.

Filmmaker: What was that process like, that stream of consciousness?

Cosmatos: It was a little bit like collage. When I write, I accumulate hundreds of reference images for characters, settings, moods and looks, and I keep going back to them. I get all these elements and then I keep rearranging and shifting the pieces.

Filmmaker: How involved in the producing were you?

Cosmatos: Well, I’m really hands on. I’m pretty involved in every aspect of the film, as much as I can be. I tried to keep the feeling of making a small Super 8 short film as much as I could, in that sort of structure. We did have a crew and a lot of talented people working on it.

Filmmaker: What did you shoot it on?

Cosmatos: 35mm. It was modified Panavision two-perf so we could get more film out of the reel.

Filmmaker: How much did you build for this film? There’s such a strong aesthetic running through the film it seems as if it’s largely fabricated.

Cosmatos: Well, I worked with the set designers to design it in a way that I could get everything I needed, basically, but we built the absolute minimum. The sets were modular so we could reconfigure them and create different hallways and different rooms out of the same pieces.

Filmmaker: And the exteriors? Were those found locations?

Cosmatos: Yes. Everything that’s not in the institute was a location.

Filmmaker: How many days did you shoot?

Cosmatos: Three weeks.

Filmmaker: Wow. And how did you find the actors?

Cosmatos: We just did a casting process. People just came in and read. The [lead actor], I think I described him in the script as an “aging surfer who has calcified into a reptilian wax vampire,” or something like that. (laughter.) When he came in, the first line that he read I immediately knew that he was the right guy for the part. He read it in this very eccentric way that perfectly captured what I was looking for. We didn’t discuss the part. From my perspective I’m just looking for a specific feel.

Filmmaker: Did the finished film track the script too much? The film almost feels like fragments of a larger film.

Cosmatos: There was a sequence that I took out, but what’s on the screen is almost exactly what’s on the page. It’s very close.

Filmmaker: I was wondering, what contemporaries do you connect with? There’s a sensory, trippy aspect to your film, and very few people seem to be doing that these days.

Cosmatos: I finally saw Enter the Void a couple months ago. It was a very interesting, very beautiful film. I really liked Antichrist a lot. I had fallen off Von Trier films until that one, and I was drawn back. I really loved that film because I felt like it was a horror film but completely unconstrained by the restrictions and expectations of the genre. I find it exhilarating when a film feels like anything can happen in it. Another film that did that for me was a long time ago — Belle de Jour, the Buñuel film. It sort of set up this possibility that everything can happen and almost nothing has to happen.

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