Toby Miller of Bums on Seats sits down with filmmakers Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais, to discuss their latest film, The Kingdom of Shadows.
TM – What can you tell us about The Kingdom of Shadows?
CP – The Kingdom of Shadows has various strands of stories in it: one strand is about a family trapped in a house, another is about two lovers trapped in eternal darkness, a third strand focuses on a man running away from a crime he has committed, and the last strand is about an alchemist who is searching for the key to inner transformation.
DF – The film initially started as a series of dreams that we recorded over one summer. Through the process of shaping these dreams into some kind of a script we started looking at the themes that seemed threaded throughout them: family and the relationships between family and generations, and certain psychological conditions that are passed on from generation to generation. The more we studied and looked into this the more we started exploring the mythological counterparts to these narrative – that led us to look into one of the founding myths of our society, which is the Christian Creation myth.: the story of Adam and Eve, and then Cain and Able. We also read a lot of the Gnostic texts, Alchemical treatises, and a lot of medieval mythology – all of this may not be apparent on first viewing of the film, but I do think it shaped our approach to the characters and the narrative strands within the film.
TM – I’m fascinated by how you approach making your films, which are so dense with visual styles and filmmaking techniques. Where does production start on a film like The Kingdom of Shadows?
CP – We always have a clear idea of what the film is, and this was true of Kingdom of Shadows. But we don’t know how every bit is going to be and that’s partly what we’re setting out to discover. So each of our films is an investigation: that is our guiding principle. We always have a plan for everything, but that plan includes room for improvisation and experimentation.
TM – Is there a fine line between visual abstraction, which your films excel in – at least to my eye – and leaving a strong narrative thread for the audience to follow?
DF – Well…. I wouldn’t say The Kingdom of Shadows is abstract filmmaking. Rather it’s very much a narrative film; I think all our films are narrative films. Narrative is very much the central subject of our experimentation, though our films may appear more abstract when placed next to convention cinema. They may appear to have loose or even disintegrating narratives, but I think if you look at them carefully you’ll see that they’re very tightly composed and very much concerned with the sequence of action and images…
CP – …and the journey that a viewer goes through as they are watching. I think that maybe there’s confusion on the use of the term ‘abstraction’. We do place a lot of importance on the visual language, and the images we create are a primary giver of meaning to the audience. They are not giving information, rather they are to be experienced, and that’s where’s the meaning comes from. So I’d say our visuals are symbolic rather than abstract.
TM – Re-watching your film ‘Savage Witches’ I was struck by the sound; I’d be quite happy to listen to the whole film as if it was music. I didn’t need the visuals. So I wondered if you thought audio was as important as the visual?
DF – We are very interested in experimenting with sound. We think of sound as images, and sound should also be considered symbolically. This is one of the reasons we shoot all our films silently and then construct the sound entirely in post-production: every footstep, every breath, every note of music and every bit of atmosphere. I think this is so we can really investigate it and really see how the different combinations of sound and images activate different sensation and different ideas in us and in the audience.
TM – There’s also a wonderful sense of the unreal in un-sync sound, not matter how accurate the sound is dubbed on afterwards. Federico Fellini always overdubbed his audio, and even the most conventional of his movies – say ‘The White Sheik’ – seems dreamlike because of the drifting audio. Is that another benefit that interests you?
CP – Absolutely. It brings to the surface that cinema is an artifice and a fantasy, and this is what really interests us.
DF – This is one of the key tensions in cinema, between things appearing real and things being total artifice. Cinema is essentially complete artifice, I don’t think it has any skill to capture total reality, rather it can only ever be a mediated version of reality. The approach that excites us is when we don’t attempt to create something that is believable or real, but we simply use the artifice to express something that seems more of our inner selves. Something that seems more like our dreams and our fantasies.
TM – You’ve also stressed the influence of Silent Cinema on your approach to The Kingdom of Shadows. Is that also about using cinema’s artifice?
DF – I think cinema’s visual language reached a peak with silent cinema. The visual language of most mainstream cinema released now is a language that has halted at a certain point in cinema’s development, while some silent cinema uses the full language of the medium. It’s an excellent place to go to see the full potential of cinema as a visual language. But yes, one of the great things about silent film is that filmmakers and artists really seemed to embrace the artifice of cinema.