Every Film Is a Consciousness Working Through an Idea: Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan on For the Plasma
As an anxious, post-youth New York City cinephile with a dismaying penchant for missing out, I found For the Plasma, Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s debut feature, an intimidatingly hep first watch. The tone, somewhere between goofy and morbid, between airless and chaotic. The horror-red title font. The surprisingly fun synth score. The high-waisted jean shorts. The blondeness. After I saw it at its sold-out premiere screening at BAMcinemaFest, way back in the spring of 2014, I scrambled to get ahead of the young, well-spoken directors’ influences, hoping to solve their self-proclaimed “digital-pastoral” puzzle the way I thought I knew how: with movie love. What influenced this?
Subsequent viewings took my anxiety down a peg, as I saw there was no puzzle to solve, really. And the word “puzzle” is all wrong, anyway. For the Plasma, as its title may or may not suggest, is concrete-intangible. It circles rather than arcs. I find it easier to describe in clumsy metaphor: one meticulously composed vanishing point after another; a whatzit with laser-focused ideas; an actor trying out intentions until exhaustion sets in.
A young post-graduate named Helen (Rosalie Lowe), holed up in a beautiful big house in Maine to surveil the forest for signs of fire, enlists her friend Charlie (Annabelle Lemieux) to use her surveillance network to search for…something else. Patterns. Rarely does a film dig so deeply — and with such fresh, odd humor — into the simple act of seeing. The patterns are recorded, and they yield literal and figurative profit, but their meanings always slip. The film ends more or less where it begins, with few questions answered but the promise of more play. Always, more play. The film is currently available for streaming on Fandor.
Filmmaker: Where did the idea for this come from? With some debut movies it’s pretty easy to see where the ideas came from, and I’d say with For the Plasma it’s not.
Kyle Molzan: Still might not be.
Bingham Bryant: A lot of ideas had been circulating in my head in various forms for years. I had been in California, and there were a couple of minor things that happened to me — I was very moved by the redwoods, and at the same time hearing about how the photographs by the Hubble Telescope were actually not strictly photographs but sort of painting-photograph hybrids that have been colorized according to some vaguely scientific scheme. Probably more as eye candy than anything else.
Filmmaker: Was there a specific experience in the redwoods? Was it just looking?
Bryant: No. It was just looking, maybe being outside of the city and being in that kind of landscape for the first time in a while.
Filmmaker: How big an influence was the location — the Russell Porter House in Port Clyde, Maine — on how the script was structured? 50 percent?
Bryant: I’d say it was more like 70 or 80 percent of it. I knew the space inside and out. I knew every single location and was thinking about not just how a scene could be shot, but what might play out there, and how if this fiction were suddenly dropped into that real place how it would work. There are no cheats in the film. There is no movie magic to fold or distort the reality into a more manageable fictional form. If the girls say they are walking some place, then they walk in the direction they would have to go to get there.
Molzan: The back of the house, the front of the house, all connected the way they’re connected.
Bryant: The things that happen to them are direct consequences of the actual proximity of real places and spaces and objects.
Filmmaker: Obviously you could have faked it.
Bryant: Yeah, we could have faked it, but to have such a “fictiony fiction,” such a science fiction, fantastical, pataphysical story, it needed anchors. It needed an element of, not naturalism, but realism, to be cinematic. Otherwise, it would have become entirely an either graphic or fictional thing, and it wouldn’t have been cinema.
Filmmaker: What is the location? Where did it come from?
Bryant: It’s a small town in Maine called Port Clyde, a fishing town mostly. It’s always had a slightly surreal, bizarre atmosphere. Andrew Wyeth lived there. Also Robert Hamilton, the painter, who is much less well known but an important figure in Maine painting. His paintings are in the movie.
Molzan: There is so much to this house.
Bryant: The house has its own peculiar history. Porter was an amateur astronomer, and he was head of an artist colony that was based out on that peninsula where the film was shot.
Molzan: He tried to make it an art commune after being a painter at MIT.
Filmmaker: You knew the location and loved the location and wanted to set something there.
Bryant: Yeah. We felt the need to shoot something in a place where we would be able to shoot larger things, and have a more complex relationship with the landscape. In New York, because it’s very difficult to handle film productions here, and because everything is so physically crowded, there is a little bit of myopia that gets into the films sometimes. We wanted to get away from that.
Molzan: You do have water. You do have Central Park. You do have buildings, obviously. It’s just different.
Bryant: It’s really interesting how a lot of New York independent films, good ones, end up in Central Park. You need some space. You need some breathing room. That’s how you end up with Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, or Heaven Knows What.
Filmmaker: The only place in New York you can go without a backdrop of buildings is a park, pretty much.
Molzan: I remember when I came here I was pretty frightened by it, all the buildings looking down at me. I’m from a part of Florida with not a lot of big buildings.
Filmmaker: How did you two join forces?
Bryant: Kyle and I were working together in a movie theater, Film Forum, and there was a lot of shit-shooting. I’d discuss ideas with Kyle and then incorporate a lot of his thoughts, sometimes in ways that depended on mutual misunderstanding. We saw a lot of movies together.
Filmmaker: You guys were friends and then essentially your mutual interests and obsessions fed into what you guys knew was building a script.
Molzan: A lot has to do with taking advantage of what is around. Bingham was writing. We’d go away at night, come together during the day, and talk about what new ideas we’d have, and the possibilities of the script’s longevity. There was a process of getting the space. There was a process with the actors. There was a process of getting the production model that we were allowed through a Panavision grant, all of these things. The normal process that everybody goes through, basically.
Filmmaker: How much do you feel like this film is a response to what you guys have seen? Is it a kind of homage?
Molzan: The Art Theatre Guild in Japan, ATG, that model really became a utopian ideal for us. We would have loved to have been picked up by them, produced by them. Impossible — it doesn’t exist anymore.
Filmmaker: Can you explain?
Bryant: ATG was this Japanese production company formed in the late ’60s by a lot of directors who had been working for the major studios, and a couple who hadn’t. They formed an independent production company. They had theaters, two at first, and then more around the country. They distributed international art house film and produced Japanese independent film. It was a very complex operation, although it did incorporate some funding from the studios that began to see ATG as a training ground for directors. From the late ’60s through the mid ’80s, they were involved in almost every interesting film being made in Japan, and were certainly involved in the development of every single interesting director there. Everything is of amazingly consistent artistic quality.
Molzan: ATG let filmmakers develop their ideas, sometimes let the ideas grow into something avant-garde. It was a place to expose ideas.
Bryant: There have been other versions of it, like the French cine-clubs in the ’30s. Maybe something like it could be possible again. Obviously it was not the production model that we made our movie under. Ours was sort of a utopian enterprise inspired by that.
Filmmaker: So, enjoying the freedom they had but without any of the actual —
Molzan: Distribution models built in. A lot of people now can make whatever they want, but then nobody ends up seeing it. Which is obviously a problem that we had.
Filmmaker: When you made the movie, when you actually started shooting, were you looking at other movies? What kind of conversations were you guys having in terms of visual influence?
Bryant: We talked to Chris Messina, our director of photography. Chris was someone whom we found very late in the process and was a complete miracle.
Molzan: We gave him three movies.
Bryant: We talked to him about a couple of movies, most of which he’d already seen.
Filmmaker: Can you go into detail?
Bryant: There were three movies that we were thinking of in a lot of respects, not just visual. There were Ermanno Olmi’s The Scavengers, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Charisma, and Raúl Ruiz’s The Territory. Not really as films that we could take anything from, or be influenced by, as much as movies that we felt were made in the right sort of spirit.
Filmmaker: What’s that spirit?
Bryant: There are superficial connections, like this strange plot taking place in a forest that seems always to get further and further out of control. All three of the films do have that. At the same time, the ways that they open up and the directions they go in are all completely different. I think Plasma is completely different, as well. Maybe this sense of exploration of always trying to find new paths. Of conceiving of a film not as something that was a way to get from point A to point B, but a way to get lost. To just keep on finding new things and trying out new ways of thinking. That’s something that’s still our ambition.
Filmmaker: The script for For the Plasma is sort of center-less.
Bryant: There is no center. At the same time, it does demarcate a kind of territory. There might not be a pole at the center, but there are various zones of attraction and repulsion, and there is movement.
Molzan: In shooting the film, we completely leaned on the script in every way, shape, or form. I don’t think things ever really spun out narratively out of our control per se. It’s shot in three weeks, so it’s quite fast. We worked completely throughout the day and night. The intent is always there.
Bryant: With a little bit more time I would have been happier. To stray from the script. To stray from the plan. To try other things.
Molzan: There was definitely no time to wander from the script. There was time to basically say: “Oh, let’s change this. Let’s cut this out. Let’s do something like that.” We didn’t even get to that. We didn’t even do that. I don’t remember us cutting. Maybe like a sentence. We never cut a scene.
Bryant: In a sense, the physical grounding of the film and the reality of that place, kept us from getting lost, or losing the film’s thread. We were day in, day out, being presented with the same questions that the film asks.
Molzan: You’re never more creative than when you’re on a film set, making your film. Then all you want to do, creatively, is do something that’s the antithesis of it — every other angle that you’re not allowed to shoot is what you find inspiring. I remember, I wanted to make inserts in the film of me bringing lunch to the crew! Weird things like that.
Filmmaker: There is so much fear on a set, too.
Molzan: That’s part of it too.
Bryant: I would have liked to have had the time to have more ideas. It was a very martial, very military, athletic shoot. We were running around constantly. There wasn’t a lot of looking at the ground, just because we would have tripped up if we had done so.
Filmmaker: Did you guys have a traditional crew? AD and everything?
Bryant: We had a small, but traditional, crew. We had an AD for a week and a half.
Filmmaker: So you had an AD for half the shoot?
Bryant: We had an AD for half the shoot. The first half, thankfully.
Molzan: The main crew, other than people just helping out and doing what they can to function as PA’s, was Chris and Erica Hill, our camera assistant. Beyond that, we are minding art direction with the actresses.
Filmmaker: This isn’t too traditional.
Molzan: Well, we had seven other people to help us. Everybody is doing what they can. We’re not paying them, so how could we ask them to be more and more professional. We had four different sound guys, I did sound sometimes.
Bryant: One of them kept on talking.
Molzan: One kept on eating too much. Bing got very upset because he ate two portions of our spaghetti one night, leaving somebody hungry.
Bryant: I ran a tight ship. And I’m still producing the film.
Molzan: You still are, yeah.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about performance. There is almost what I feel is an intentional stiltedness. How did you guys communicate that? Were there points when the actors were lost?
Molzan: There was a rehearsal process.
Filmmaker: That’s not necessarily normal, on a low-budget first feature, to have a rehearsal process.
Bryant: There was some rehearsal in New York with the two lead actors. There were examples given to them of films that we were thinking of in terms of the acting. We showed them some Rohmer films, and we talked about Rohmer with them. Of course it’s difficult for anybody to be thrown into a script like that, with so many questions left unanswered, and so many ellipses, but we told them to feel free to invent however much they needed to and create whatever background they wanted to out of the materials that were given to them.
Filmmaker: So there wasn’t a rigid philosophy of performance necessarily?
Bryant: No. There is a unifying style. Rohmer, for example, was interested in people and performance. Bringing out all the odd, peculiar qualities they have. That was absolutely the case here. Rosalie and Anabelle were interesting and inspiring, so they were in the movie. Tom Lloyd, who plays the lighthouse keeper, is a wonderful and peculiar person, and he gave us fair warning that he was going to have difficulty learning his lines. We were totally ok with that. We found a way to work around that.
Filmmaker: Where did he come from?
Molzan: Wasn’t he a lawyer?
Bryant: He is not an actor. He was somebody I know and found fascinating and has all sorts of weird mannerisms that were fun to imagine in the context of the movie.
Filmmaker: So he’s not a cinephile?
Bryant: He is not much of a cinephile. He is a sailor. He loves to sail. He loves sandwiches and sailing.
Filmmaker: I’m very curious about bringing someone like that to this movie. How do you communicate your ideas? Was he asking, “What the hell am I saying?”
Bryant: It wasn’t something that was possible to explain to him, exactly. I relied on him to trust us.
Filmmaker: How did you gain his trust?
Molzan: We tried to not over-shoot. I remember the first day, realizing, like, “What is gonna happen?” How are we going to get him to say his lines? How is he going to just not want to do this?
Bryant: It’s like with everyone else. It’s not just favor-giving, it’s making a film out of enthusiasm and with a shared spirit of the enterprise.
Filmmaker: What about, for example, Tom’s very specific mannerisms? His winking? The tongue?
Bryant: That’s just him. The winks and the tongue were mannerisms of his that were put in the script. No one else would’ve been asked to do that. They’re part of his repertoire. You know he’s told a joke because the punchline is accompanied by his tongue sticking out.
Molzan: Old school.
Bryant: It’s an incredibly charming feature of his.
Filmmaker: And with Annabelle and Rosalie, those roles are tailored to them?
Bryant: Yeah. Both roles were definitely influenced by their personalities, and in some ways maybe reflected how their relationship ended up behind the scenes. Mutual interest and fascination, and also exasperation. Maybe that’s just reflective of any creative partnership.
Filmmaker: Their clothing seems pretty specific.
Molzan: Cool college kids. Coming out of school, getting a job through a friend.
Bryant: It’s extremely hard to dress actors for an independent film. Everything about clothing is so codified and so easily put into different categories. We’re now four years after the production. And we could’ve dressed them in a way that might have aged badly. But we tried to just give them a look that was the film’s. And not too vintage or old-timey.
Filmmaker: You shot on Super 16mm film. And there’s the heavy use of ADR. Style-wise, the film feels a bit like it’s fallen out of time.
Molzan: That’s just the type of thing that we like — films from the ‘60s, the ‘70s. If Bingham wrote a book, it wouldn’t be of this time.
Bryant: Still, it was important to make it a film about now. And to comment on now through contrasts. To have certain contemporary references — the appearance of an iPhone or the word “eBay,” or the specter of the internet — it was a conscious element of the design rather than an automatic one. The film presents a certain physical reality, and then there are ideological and thematic overlays on top of that.
Filmmaker: Do you both have a fine art background?
Molzan: I went to Pratt, in film production. I took critical theory classes — things like that were more important to me. Color, design. Bing has an art history background.
Filmmaker: There are so many ways of seeing in the film, it reminded me of the practice of art history.
Bryant: My mother was a visual designer and my father is an art and antique dealer. He deals with a lot of late 18th, early 19th century British portraiture. The film was influenced, I’m sure, by being around his work. It’s a lot of detective work — every single time he found a painting, it was this whole Peter Greenaway-esque rabbit hole, researching its past, why it was of significance. In some ways it’s similar to what the girls are doing.
Filmmaker: The score of the film is remarkable.
Bryant: Keiichi Suzuki has been a really important figure in Japanese music since the ’70s. We brought him on board because of our love for his work from the ’70s and ’80s. But this score is more of a piece with his more recent work for, say, Takeshi Kitano’s films. They take place in Tokyo, now, in an ultra-modern environment. In that context, the scoring sounds incredibly modern and cutting-edge. This score is like that, but it brings in, musically, references to his older work. Some of his long love affair with American pop music from the ’60s and ’70s. It kind of bridges the gulf between the contemporary technology displayed in the film and the place as it might’ve existed 50 years ago.
Filmmaker: Did you edit the film together?
Molzan: Yeah, every day we could, start to end at Bingham’s house. Coffee in the morning, one side of a record, then start the process. Me over Bing’s shoulder.
Filmmaker: Some stretches feel like they were created in the edit room.
Bryant: Yeah, some of the more essayistic sequences. We we were on the lookout on set for shots that might be incorporated into sequences like that.
Molzan: Chris would find a shot — or if we had time, we’d go out and get, say, shots of the water.
Bryant: I can’t stand “B-roll” and the idea of shots as just glue, but we wanted something to open up the movie outside of the rigidly formally designed scenes.
Molzan: There’s nothing wrong with establishing shots. But you can use your brain on set in a way that’s more forward thinking. You have no idea what’ll be possible in the edit. You can do so much with just simple cuts.
Bryant: I’ve been reading Jean Epstein’s book The Intelligence of a Machine. Every film is a mind, a consciousness, working through an idea. That was something that had occurred to us while making the movie. The movie’s not from any character’s perspective. It’s the perspective of the film. Its consciousness. We wanted to give our machine-brain some ability to daydream and wander.
Filmmaker: It’s hard to trust yourself with those kinds of sequences, though.
Molzan: We only shot things we thought were relatively editable. The “b-roll” we shot — we thought it might end up getting a foothold towards the end of the movie.
Filmmaker: You’ve had a great festival run. How did this transition into actually getting the movie out in theaters?
Bryant: Every little bit of momentum is wonderful. But things don’t always come at the right time. We had a strange situation where the film got into its first festival, a wonderful one — BAMcinemaFest in Brooklyn — with a sold out crowd. And then nothing else, until the next festival, Entrevues Belfort, six months later. I think we needed the momentum of a second festival. So then we got into these great places — Jeonju, IndieLisboa.
Molzan: We also got many rejections.
Bryant: Then [distributor] Matt Grady and Factory 25 came to it. It’s a movie that has to find people. Or people have to find it. They have to have some affection for it. It doesn’t force itself on anyone. It’s not going to impress anyone into liking it — it needs a relationship.
Filmmaker: Will you continue to collaborate?
Molzan: We’re still hanging out. We talk about future movies we could make one day. And there’s a solo project we’re each working on. I did a lot of research on George Simenon — I would like to do a movie on him. A period piece with no money. Bingham and I would also like to make a really abstract movie together.
Bryant: I’m trying to put together a film this spring, which is — I don’t think it’s terribly abstract, more formal — it’s a ghost story, closely tied to a particular perspective, which is that of the ghosts. They’ll be wandering around a small town in upstate New York watching various narratives play out. They’re like stray animals.
Filmmaker: Does For the Plasma help at all in the development process? With getting financing?
Molzan: It could. If we want to deal with money again, it could. Money is really a subject of For the Plasma. When we made the movie, we were ushers at Film Forum making $8 an hour, out of school. And at the time, in 2011, 2012, before production, we were still in an economic depression. And we were realizing what our potential and ethical duties were as creative people. So this movie did aspire to evoke this world of a) doing what you want, b) making money, and c) having the potential of something that wasn’t there before. Having a job and what it means to do repetitive work, and how it affects your relationship to society. We talked about that a lot.
Bryant: What they’re doing in the movie is work. A kind of scientific research. And it’s a creative pursuit. And I’m not personally sure what the correct way is to balance these things. A lot of people go through this: What’s a job. What’s a vocation? What is work?
Filmmaker: What does the title mean? “For the Plasma”?
Molzan: It means, how do you justify doing something? It comes from Jerry Lewis’s book, The Total Film-Maker.
Bryant: He uses this phrase, “Do it for the plasma of it!” It seems to mean, “for the heck of it,” basically. I don’t think it’s a common saying. He throws it out casually. “For the plasma of it!” Titles are a miserable, horrible punishment, and this is our best attempt to capture the spirit of the film in a title.
Molzan: Jerry Lewis! “Hey ladies! I’ve got the plasma!” He’s saying movies are his blood. The phrase is describing a way to justify making something, to justify making fun.