On Posthuman Horror and Other Cinematic Pursuits. Mark Robins, from Monkeypuzzle Cinema, interviewed by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on May 20, 2013 in Interviews tagged with , , ,

‘I’m making science-fiction horror films because it strikes me that our experience of the world in our everyday lives is pretty much a technological, science-fictional one. And when you add the human element to that, there you’ve got your horror covered. With our disconnection and increasing hollowness amongst the increasing noise, real, lived life seems to have become science-fiction horror itself.’

George A. Romero, director of the gothic horror classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), has talked about the hardships of independent filmmaking in various occasions: the lack of resources, the number of compromises that need to be made in order to please production companies, or the exigencies of an ever-changing market are often mentioned as important hindrances to creativity. Despite this, some of the best entries in horror history have been produced by highly enthusiastic individuals with a vision and love of cinema. Enter Monkeypuzzle Cinema.

Their first full-length feature film, Maps and Stars and Music (2010), a poetic and haunting picture that advertised itself as a ‘different type of ghost story’, got into the Portobello Film Festival for its premiere. It ended up winning the Best Newcomer prize with its first showing. The success of this film has inspired their creators to draft an ambitious and promising second feature, Post|Human: An Event, which promises to be an equally exciting moment in contemporary horror. Monkeypuzzle are very aware of their genre credentials, and in this interview talk to us about influences, interests and the future direction of their thoroughly gothic imagination.

How did Monkeypuzzle Cinema start?

Well, I always wanted to make films, always. And I did some stuff back when your only option if you didn’t have an inexhaustible bank account was 16mm, which was still often too expensive. Then about the turn of the century, digital filmmaking became acceptable as an aesthetic and the technology that allowed you to prepare and shoot and then do all postproduction and even distribute became more affordable, and suddenly more could be done with limited resources. Everything became possible. And so, Monkeypuzzle Cinema emerged and since genre films were always my favourite kind of cinema, although it wasn’t a stated intention, we just worked on one genre project after another.

What is it about horror cinema that you find so interesting?

How to answer that? Okay, so being obsessed with cinema from the age of four, it’s always been the genre stuff which intrigues and fascinates and feels like home. So, I think if you are honestly a cineaste, then you are more likely to embrace the abstract tones, the more musical qualities that you get in genre cinema, the notes that more realist cinema is incapable of. It’s ultimately a way more truthful genre. Life itself is a big cumulative series of events which really can’t be explained, only theorized about and that’s what genre cinema does. It’s not limited only to literal representation, it has the freedom also of metaphor, of extrapolation, of abstraction, that the more determinedly realist genres have no chance of getting to. Horror and sci-fi and fantasy use the possibilities of cinema more fully as a consequence, so you tend to find genre fans are most dedicated and more imaginative and more willing to work with the film than other kinds of filmgoers. And I think that they feel it more as well. Someone whose favourite film is something like King Kong or Psycho is more prone to be obsessive and knowledgeable and dedicated and sensitive to someone who claims a kitchen-sink director as their favourite. That isn’t cinema. That’s television and it requires no work on the part of the viewer.

Cinema is the seventh art, the culmination of all the other six and its language has only been practiced in the last hundred and twenty years. Relatively speaking, that’s no time at all. It’s essentially a new language and grammar, artistically speaking, that still is so far off from being defined and finished and is therefore incredibly exciting. It has its roots in the sensory reception that we have through our bodies as we move through the world and so it’s almost as if cinema is an answer to something the human race has always felt the need for. Horror, I find, is the form which most pushes and tests and sets out to define the grammar of cinema. So, it has a special place. Plus, childhood stories, fairy tales, Disney pictures, are nothing but horror tales in disguise, so we come to know the world around us and the people inside it in terms of horror tropes. And the workaday mundane world we are often forced to tread feels less truthful perhaps as a result of that; the inner experience of being, of moving through the world, is consistently, constantly far more profound and meaningful than the outer world’s offers of chiefly reductive experiences.

Would you say your films have a particular aesthetic that rings with this genre?

I hope so very, very much. To go back to what we said before about many things being television rather than cinema: it’s funny that the advent of digital technology, which has prompted a resurgence of low-budget British cinema, has largely manifested itself as genre work. In other words, given the opportunity to make anything at all, it seems many filmmakers are choosing to make these kinds of films.  Okay, so the last time British cinema was anything like this healthy was when producers were taking advantage of the Eady Levy in the seventies and genre was fantastically ubiquitous then, also. And so while people of my generation, and younger, had to suffer the strangled, sporadic bores of Puttnamesque prestige cinema and Channel 4 productions that should have stayed on the small screen when the native British film industry collapsed in the 1980s, we still had a sense memory of, and a desire to return to the wilder, more creative shores of earlier genre filmmaking. It wasn’t just in America that this kind of film had a golden age of sorts at this time. It was in the UK too, and many other places, too.

The British Horror Influence

And at the risk of sounding old, you had to work harder to accrue knowledge then. You had to really be dedicated to see all the things that you read you should see, to become familiar with the works of directors you knew you should become familiar with if you wanted to claim yourself a cinema fan. You had to seek it out and open it up and stare at it because it was scarcer than it is now. It wasn’t all available at the click of a mouse. And so the facts you unearthed about the makers and the stars and the studios and release dates and colour processes and the aspect ratios all became giants stomping around inside your head until you managed to catch a rare screening of something. And when you did, when you saw that film, you knew that the next time you might see it would be four years from now when ITV might get around to premiering it. So you didn’t blink, you’d let everything just sear itself into you. That kind of fanaticism would be useful now too. Not the hungry devouring and easily bored kind that maybe technology promotes, but the savouring and the extrapolating and the plain old paying attention. So you’d have taping late night films on TV, finding books on the subject and, suddenly, the world would open up. You’d read Danny Peary, you’d watch Alex Cox on Sunday nights and see that Britain had, once, one of the most strange and bizarre and sincere and nasty and funny genre heritages imaginable. And, simply put, if you really loved cinema, you just wanted to be part of that. You still do; there’s still so much to be learned and considered and enjoyed.

Although were I to have the money, it would be anamorphically shot celluloid with me all the way, the cost of digital has fallen enough that we can maybe find ourselves a place as part of this amazing heritage. You know, it’s lamentable: somewhere like Japan has, as a country, used its own myth and legend and values as staples of genre cinema, and has them consistently reinterpreted and reformed and re-embraced, whereas Britain has no solid filmic history of using national myth and character to make films of scope and iconic intent. And this is partly where the question of aesthetics comes in, because we need to be more mindful that the primary source of communication in any art is the medium itself. The medium is the message, yes, but more specifically and more deliberately than that, the style is the content. We shouldn’t be afraid of that. It doesn’t mean a lack of substance, it just means you are asking more of your audience’s skill and imagination to be able to read and discern that substance. If you look at single camera television now and much of cinema, there is very little, in terms of grammar and mise-en-scène to distinguish them from one another. This hand-held aesthetic of constantly wobbling and shifting attempts to find framing and focus has become so prevalent in the most mundane of settings as to become absolutely meaningless.

Now, it’s true that this has probably only become so because it’s the laziest and easiest way of shooting; construction doesn’t even have to take up a glimmer of thought until the editing stage. But as genre filmmakers we should be learning lessons that were fought for us and understand that being a formalist is not a bad thing. Just the opposite. I want to be a better formalist all the time. And so, the aesthetics of our work, I hope are a signifier of that. The greats were all formalists, I mean Hitchcock never stopped being so, and more of us could do with trying to use the lessons of the masters who understood forms like music, where the expression, the timbre, the melody and so on are the primary communicators of meaning. Film is the same. It’s harmonies and melodies and rhythms. Film is musical, it is not literary.

Post/Human: An Event promises to be one of the best independent horror films in years. Can you tell us a bit more about what sparked this project?

It’s a long and twisty road. We wrote something called Focus, which was a determined attempt at one genre that brutally changes halfway through its running time and becomes a completely different one. It will be challenging to shoot, as much of it has to be funny – old-fashioned, fully physical, gracefully, expertly-timed funny. And it really has to work or nothing else will. Right now, I’m not ready for meticulous physical comedy, so that’s been put aside for later. Then Maps and Stars and Music was written, full of this heavy, worried obsession with how experience and history weigh on you. And it was nice to make something almost sort of cosmically bedazzled and beguiled. It was received very well, and next I wanted to do something that was pure genre cinema, almost brazen in its joy as being a full-strength, members-only, no-newbies allowed horror film. So I wrote SeaWitch which I think will be great one day, very sweet and poetic and Georges Franju, and at the same time, nasty, nasty stuff. I tried hard to get that made, but it turned out that the setting demanded a remote port town which, when you haven’t got much money, is very difficult, especially if you want to take stunts and blood and full-scale violence there with you. So, then I decided, it’s slasher time, let’s just take the most delineated, propelled, A-B-C form there is and just be pure and don’t look either side and run through one of these scripts as quick and headlong as possible.

Maps and Stars and Music (Trailer)

But writing takes you where it wants to, and I was glad it did because re-watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by chance made me remember that that idea was perfected nearly forty years ago and has remained without equal or rival since. So, Post|Human became something woozier again, but this time punctuated with pinpoint horror and very specific angsts, both eternal and contemporary. It became something that could hold a lot of diffused concerns and themes and still carry them with pace in a very defined setting and time frame. I wrote it very specifically with an eye on being able to put it into physical production with the select resources available to us while at the same time remembering you have to be big and smart and you have to really push things. Good genre audiences are very savvy for the most part; they can sense staleness and insincerity and a lack of effort a mile away.

And so as you write this, the ideas take off and you incorporate what you worry about as a human being, namely what a strenuous and terrifying and uncertain time we live in, a time when technological progression moves so exponentially faster than ever before. We are unable to see even a decade in front of our noses. And we are able to, for the first time in human history, have the means to begin a denial of the inherent atrophy our fleshly beings are subject to with the incipient, large-scale application of technology into our very selves. All the while we are communicating in ever more prolific, yet distant and oblique, ways in the midst of all this, or rather around all this, and certainly, I should think, because of all this, the much mooted death of god stance we should have reasonably expected from the 21st century has itself died. Suddenly fanaticism and extremism, and even just widespread ‘faith’, has made us this creature of absolute contrasts. And the thing about that kind of creature is that extreme spectrums don’t make for happy balances.

So, what am I saying? It strikes me, and I know that very generation must feel this, that these are the strangest and most terrifying times in which to be living. So far. And so this got me to thinking, too, of transhumanism and posthumanism and what they might mean for us, and what happens if we start to rid of ourselves of the atrophic qualities of mortality by gaining dominion of the course of our flesh’s destiny and what that means about the deities people believe in, or more accurately what that means to people who believe in deities. And then we have to incorporate all of this into the existential anxieties and how do they change each other? I mean… it goes on. And I thought the only form where you can do all this, and a thousand other things altogether, and not be messy, diffused or disparate is the horror film. More precisely, in the science-fiction horror film. And so I make things in this genre because it strikes me that our workaday experience of the world in our everyday lives is pretty much a technological science-fictional one. And when you add the human element to that, there you’ve got your horror covered. In short, it’s a horror science-fiction because, with our disconnection and increasing hollowness amongst the increasing noise, real, lived life seems to have become horror science-fiction itself.

The Metaphysical SF Influence

The promotional images have a very uncanny resonance that mixes interestingly with rich colours and what looks like a very artistic take on the slasher. What are your frames of references?

Okay, well, I’m tired of bleach bypass imitations in films. I’m tired of the moss-green or steel-blue aesthetics of the lazy digital colourist. All these technology and we put it in service of quasi-monochromatic dullness that, again, is such an unthought-through destination as to be absolutely meaningless. Literally. And I find colour-to-greyscale grading to never get the complexities and beauties of genuine black and white right, and so I am going for colour. Varied, careful, active colour in the same frame, in each scene, across the whole film. I love colour. I love the diffusion of people like Geoffrey Unsworth. I love the look of Brian De Palma’s red period films. The belligerent person in me wants to fight against this modern notion that pushed clarity or definition is automatically the choice to be made. I want to evoke natural grain, or as close to a chemical representation of it as my digital medium will allow. I want legitimate, diegetic and justifiable lens flares and I wish I could go for the squeezed blurs of anamorphic. That last matter has yet to be decided on, even though we are shooting for hard-matted scope. Really, in short, even though we are shooting digital, I want a classical film aesthetic, from mise-en-scène to lighting, to composition through to camera movement and editing pattern. And there are tricks and techniques you can do to get there and I love that they take time. And I love that they are hard to do, because the curmudgeon in me thinks the only reason that so much stuff now has this one-note, high contrast and immediately boring aesthetic is the ease of default settings on editing programmes.

Frames of references… well, we look at Asian cinema of the sixties and the nature of colour in those that really had as much to do with the meaning as any part of the narrative, we look at films by the Archers, by Hitchcock, early Spielberg, Bergman, Polanski, Brahms, George Miller, Tarkovsky, Landis, Lewis, De Palma, Kubrick and lighting people like Unsworth, Zsigmond, Slocombe, Cardiff, Challis, Freddie Francis. I’m just naming people now, but you can’t help but do that. It’s because you love all these people and you would be happy to do just a fraction of what they were and are able to do.

The Asian Horror Influence

You have partly answered this question already, but what is Post/Human about?

Well, without giving too much away, a young woman journeys back to the mental hospital/ research facility where her deceased mother once worked many years before. There she finds that time isn’t as linear as we might want and that there are some very terrible, cosmic secrets being held there. I’m never very good at synopses. There’s a nice lot of apocalyptic paranoia in it, too. Particularly nuclear paranoia. It’s this strange memory of diving into cinema at around the time of the last great spike in nuclear paranoia in the early 80s, where protect and survive leaflets were pushed through every door in the country which stated conflict as a certainty and which advised you on how to rid your home of the dead bodies of relatives after an attack. Add to this the way cinema reacted to the anxiety of this unthinkable subject and… Well, I think it’s a strain of genre cinema that really needs a comeback. The world is more unstable in this regard than ever before and it would be nice to see some good, strong nuclear metaphors and representations again. But that’s only what a bit of it is about. I think it’s a smart and insidious and creepy and scary film, and I think it’s sad and I think it’s aiming for beautiful, too, which I like horror to be, too. I love how genre fans can understand how other genre fans see beauty in the most unlikely of places and images. It’s nice. It feels like we are smarter than those who don’t get the genre, which, let’s face it, we are.

Post/Human (Video)

You are currently sourcing funding for this project. Why should horror enthusiasts support Post/Human?

Firstly, because we mean it, and all genuine genre fans mean it. Sometimes this genre can be used for cheap fashion or easy irony, but if you really love it, you know the price you have to pay for doing so. You have to become in many ways one of the ‘sadder but wiser’ group, but you also understand what it does for you and you are glad to pay that price. It isn’t something that should be worn too heavily, but real fans don’t do it for ironic reasons, they tire of people who laugh at Hammer’s flying vampire bats, they tire of people saying grindhouse when they should be saying fleapits; they carry on regardless through the periodic co-opting of our beloved form by people who lack knowledge and understanding. And they keep hopeful and optimistic always that something significant and important is just around the corner. There is nobody more optimistic than a horror fan and there is no-one happier than a horror fan whose optimism is proven to be justified. And I think we do it because the genre loves us back. I’m sure most of us have felt protected or validated or understood by the genre at least once in our lives when nothing else seems to have provided that for us. And I’m even surer that many of us still feel like that on a daily basis in some respects. It’s a genre that has inspired the most dedication since the dawn of cinema and will never fade. Cinema is illusion pieced together the right way to attain a truth and occasionally the truth. And that’s a fitting description of the metaphors at the heart of horror. And genre fans know this and they know other genre fans know it. So we’re sincere, horror fans. Like you are, like your readers are. Simply put, it’s important.

Secondly, British cinema needs support still. Its burgeoning, resurgent horror scene is something that, for the first time in a lifetime, could be something of real significance. And crowdsourcing is something that is too immediately on the precipice of being co-opted by selfish types who don’t need it. It’s another grass-roots movement born of necessity because there are literally no other means available to get your resources to tell the story you want to tell. And, suddenly, Warner brothers and Zach Braff are on there, stating flippantly that it’s because they have nothing to lose, cap in hand and helping usher the crowdsourcing movement into the realm of another exploitation tool used to protect money and ensure their own future. It’s horrific to see so many people like me, and I’m sure a good proportion of your readers, in danger of losing the one option available to us to achieve the once unachievable – making a film.

Lastly, I think it will be good. I mean, really good. Our script is good, our designs and plans and performers and ideas and senses are good. It will be good. It’s smart too. It would be wonderful if people were kind enough to support us, because this is a culmination of sorts. I think all genre fans have their own epiphany moment, when that book had that paragraph, when the film had that scene, when the world revealed its little secret that the normal folks weren’t privy too. I had mine, too, and its conclusion was ‘you need to make one of these films, too.’ And it’s decades later and I’m trying to.

Monkeypuzzle Cinema’s crowdsourcing page is strictly limited-time and may be accessed by following this link. Please check it out and donate:

www.igg.me/at/monkeypuzzlecinema

If you would like to have a look at previous projects, find out more information, receive newsfeeds, or get in touch with Monkeypuzzle Cinema, their webpage is www.monkeypuzzlecinema, and their Twitter feed is (@mpuzzlecinema).

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