Subconscious Cruelty: The Interview
Filmmakers Karim Hussain and Mitch Davis discuss their Subconscious Cruelty experience
On the cusp of a minor breakthrough, with their independent feature about to play Montreal after having played successfully abroad, I sat down with filmmakers Karim Hussain and Mitch Davis to discuss their Subconscious Cruelty experience. This interview could very well be prefixed with the title, “Everything you wanted to know about Subconscious Cruelty but didn’t know/want/care/ to ask.” It is one long interview, so be forewarned. Although we can safely say that this Offscreen interview represents the final word on Subconscious Cruelty (over 17,000 of them!), the freedom of space allowed us to venture all over the horror genre, so read on…
What was the genesis of Subconscious Cruelty? How did you get together on the project?
Karim: Subconscious Cruelty was something that was traumatizing me since I was 15 years old. I had been doing a Super-8 version of Subconscious Cruelty over a period of many years. I started in a very bad place called Ottawa, a very conservative city in Canada where I grew up. I was doing little odd jobs, since about 7, and I would buy Super-8 and shoot film. The Super-8 version had taken a few years, and eventually I came to Montreal where I met Mitch at a film festival. We were interested in the same films, and he was also making short films. So we got together, I helped him out on one of his short films, and afterwards I came to Montreal again to shoot a chunk of the Super-8 Subconscious Cruelty . From that 30-minute version of the film we were talking and it ended up that we had access to some money to make a film, which was strange, because it was like a suicide pact in a weird way. It was the early 1990’s, and intense period for a lot of people. There was a lot of darkness around and jumping into the film was a way to encompass all those demons and trap them into a celluloid prison. So it really was a reason to survive, to live, to see the next day.
Mitch: What’s funny is that as hyperbolic and dramatic as that might have sounded it really is not off the mark at all. I had made 3 shorts at that point and was getting ready to make a 4th one, at which point my personal life completely exploded. A girl I had been dating for 3 1/2 years that I absolutely adored broke up with me. Friends who I had known since a kid became junkies, and ripped us off. It got to a point where I just did not want to get up in the morning and I became very self-destructive and furious. I did not trust anybody, and Karim was one of the few people I could relate to and did. There were about 4 people I would see and I would avoid everyone else. So what happened was that I still wanted to make movies but felt I could not work with people, with actors. I did not have the focus to direct or know what I wanted to do. By a very weird series of circumstances I found myself in an oddly influential position where I was actually able to raise a small sum of money. I had always loved a script of Subconscious Cruelty that I read, which was different from what we shot, although the “Human Larvae” section was there and so was the business man segment with the Christ iconography at the end. Larvae was almost exactly as it ended up being was shot. We talked about it so much and ultimately I decided to come onto the film as a full fledged producer which was something I never thought I would do, in the sense that I’m not a businessman or see myself as a producer, nor want to be one. I do not like talking business. But this was, as Karim said, something to live for, to put all our energies behind. And there were enough points I related to in the film, besides the aesthetics, which we were both in sync with. On a soul level there was enough in the movie I could identify with. So it seemed to make sense. Had we been happier people, or if things were going better, I do not think the film would have got made, oddly enough.
Was it done piecemeal?
Mitch: Oh yes, beyond that. Initially the film was going to be a $24,000 Super-8 feature. Because we thought, well Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik was shot on Super-8 and sold all over the world. It did not make a whole lot of money, but it did not have to because of the low cost. So we thought, fine, even if we have a modest success. That’s the beauty of a low budget film, If you are under $100,000 you may alienate 98% of the movie going public, and 75% of the horror audience, but it doesn’t matter. Probably by the end of November 1993 we were discussing it and we realized if we can raise a bit more up to $40,000 we can shoot the whole thing in 16mm, have the negative so we can make a blow-up or at least have a 16mm theatrical. We decided we would shoot the film, have it in the can, and Karim would cut the workprint and we would use a cut workprint to raise completion funds afterwards. $40,000 would never have covered all the postproduction costs. This was just for the production, but we have seen films pre-sell in other territories and get the completion funds if they have a cut workprint, so we thought, we could do that…but history proved otherwise. The end budget is around $100,000, which none of us would have thought was possible, and it was not possible in 1994, which is why we finished it in 1999.
How did you develop the script?
Karim: The script was elaborated throughout the years, but we did start off with a concrete full script, though it was not structured like a normal script because the film is a very experimental film, structured like a dream. It is not a full-on narrative for the entire picture. So the screenplay would sometimes be individual segments, like in the film; sometimes we would have a voice-over for the script, and we would have a separate shot list. So it was an oddly structured script, which you pretty much had to be a filmmaker to understand. I do not think anyone has a copy now. Although the final film is different from the original screenplay, the themes of the film and the intents remained the same. It never really strayed from what it always wanted to be, which was a cry against certain types of hypocrisies and conservatism, and certain types of fascism in mainstream society.
Those are pretty heady concepts for a 19-year-old? I know your mother is an artist, did she have any influence on you in this regard?
Karim: Yes they were heady concepts for a 19-year old! And yes, my mother is a writer; she writes erotic fantasy novels. My mom is really cool. I have a stronger background with my mother and a stronger kinship with femininity in general. Which a lot of people may not realize or believe after seeing the film, but women have actually responded to the film much better, at the international festivals we have shown it at, because they seem to understand the body politics of the film much better than men. It is a very body conscious film, very preoccupied with creation, and the destruction of creation, and creativity as a metaphor for birthing. The death of the baby in the film is in many ways the creation of an act of either art or the ultimate horror. So creation in the film comes from death, and death from creation. It’s a very….pregnant film! It is pregnant with ideas and with concepts, even though all of them do not always come through, there is always an insemination happening. If anything, the film is like a field of eggs and you are masturbating all over the eggs, and wherever the sperms may fall and whatever is conceived, one does not really care. It is more the act. It is a scream first, think later film.
Can’t the birthing process also work as a metaphor for the creation of art?
Karim: Oh of course, the birthing process is a total a metaphor for art/creation. Which is why a baby is born in the film and killed. There is a line in the film about killing during the act of creation, which for me is about the most horrific thing you can imagine. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the way cinema is going these days, with producers coming in even before a tough or intense idea can come to fruition and come to film. It’s how people are silenced.
Was the film always figurative that way?
Karim: Yes. It was never going to be a full-on narrative. Some of the inspirations for this film were Sweet Movie, El Topo and Holy Mountain, which were very figurative, experimental films. Narrative in certain ways. Probably more Sweet Movie, which was a huge influence on this picture, in the sense that it worked mostly on emotion, as opposed to full-on narrative. Or ideals. Subconscious Cruelty is not a normal film that you can sit down and watch per se. It is a film for which you kind of chain yourself into the seat and think. You feel the film and whether you love it or hate it is something to discuss afterwards. It is not a normal popcorn movie, and it was never meant to be.
Was it always conceived as an anthology film?
Karim: Yes, because it was structured like a fever dream, where, like in dreams in general, there is not necessarily one consistent narrative. Sometimes it will go off in a very comprehensive tangent and then sometimes it will go completely surrealistic and stream of consciousness. Which is why there are narrative segments in the film, and sometimes valleys, almost like strange commercial pauses in-between the full-on narratives. It was always very meticulously structured that way, to be like a dream where sometimes it would be narrative, then figurative, and almost logical. In fact the film is also inspired by education films from the NFB, especially at the beginning, with the very cold and dry explanations about the right brain. Things like that. I love those films from the 1970’s.
In terms of the funding, was it all private?
Mitch: Yes. And people tend to go, oh you are so lucky you live in Canada, where the government funds all these subversive films, like Crash. But really it is a whole other world now. In the late 1970’s there was a tax shelter period to encourage producers to make films, to the point where there may have been more producers than filmmakers! [The peak Tax Shelter years in Canada were from 1974 to 1980, ed.] Things have changed. Now if someone in their late teens, early twenties were to come along with a script like Rabid, or Shivers, there is a good chance the government would say no.
Karim: However, yes it is difficult for controversial subjects to get government money, but even just recently, personally anyway, I have been dealing with some government entities that see that we have managed to complete this picture and see its value and are kind of interested in supporting it. Everything goes in cycles.
Mitch: But this may be because the film has been made. The reality is that we had at one point an 80 minute work print that was picture cut and we’d been making the film for about four years. We go to Canada Council because we thought, hey, they have a track record of investing in products based just on treatments, for first time directors. We thought they would appreciate the fact that it experiments with film language, and that it was made by two borderline teenagers who had done it not only without any money or corporate help of any sort, but that they persevered for years. In the end they said no, and we had to spend two more years raising the money to finish the film, which we finally did in December 1999, which was the final weekend of shooting. See it had gotten to the point where we shot a full month in February 1994 on a big sound stage. Which for us was a big new thing. We were used to shooting in fields, in people’s apartments, and in our bedrooms. But this was a big sound stage, with moving walls, huge light fixtures, with big crew of about 10-15 people. This was a miracle. After all this the money disappeared, and a lot of problems came through. We had crew revolts. Once reality kicked in we were brought back to shooting with 5 people, every 6 months for a weekend and then stopping. And adding more footage to the pile.
Like Night of the Living Dead!
Mitch: Yes, another one for the fire, but not quite.
All told, how many shooting days would you say?
Karim: It began in February 1994 and ended December 1999. But all said and done about 50-60 days. Which is quite a lot by Hollywood standards, however there were a lot of days where we would just do inserts and do things slow and easily. And other days where we shot rapidly. As is the case with low budget filmmaking. It was a mixture of taking our time and being extremely rushed.
Mitch: The location shoots were rushed because of light. For the interiors we tried to at least schedule liberally, only because you really have to compensate with lighting and composition, just look at Bava. You can make a film look like it is worth 10 times as much if it is lit nicely. Creativity has no price tag in the end. So we would try to spend as much time as possible so it could be lit atmospherically, to have precise compositions, and Karim is very obsessive visually.
Karim: There are a lot of tricks you can do. Bava was one of my big influences for the photography because I operated the camera for the entire picture, working with another cinematographer for the beginning, with a lighting cameraman in the British manner, but then halfway through the film we went our separate ways and I took over the entire photographic aspects of the film. So there were a lot of little tricks we would do to make things go faster. Lighting tricks. Playing with smoke, hiding things in darkness. Things inspired by Bava. Who could go out there and do movies really cheaply in 12 days and make them look big. Quick set-ups, using the zoom lens a lot, which is an old Italian trick from the 1970’s.
Brea Asher in the Human Larvae Segment
Was it an easy shoot…obviously it wasn’t in the conventional sense?
Karim: No, it wasn’t! Well it depends. Sometimes it was smooth and easy, and other times it was very difficult. We were very young. I was 19, so it was a trial by fire. There were a lot of special effects that led to delays, though ultimately they came out good. It was more political and financial problems that arose. We did have problems with some of the crewmembers that did not understand this type of film. We shot in this 1,300 square foot sound stage for a month in Feb 94, were everything was built from scratch. A huge soundstage intended for 10, 20 million-dollar films, we had on this little $40,000 film. Obviously just going from little underground movies to that was intense. We had some problems relating to physical things. We had a lot of exterior scenes where the actors had to be naked. There is one sequence with everyone making love to the ground. They tear the ground open and it is bleeding as if it is flesh. One of my strategies in shooting this kind of scene was isolate them and shoot them! If you are going to get actors to do this kind of thing you almost have to set it all up like it is some weird cult. Where people will get so entranced by things in the story they will do things they never thought they would. For the sake of the light, the image. It was very, very cold. We had driven to the middle of nowhere. There was ice frost.
Mitch: We were set to shoot a few weeks before but there were delays. One actor got sick, and then we realized, it could snow any day now and we were terrified. So we said, it has to be this weekend, even if it is cold. It was harrowing to realize when we arrived because people were going to be lying nude on the frost. Covered in mud and corn syrup, which isn’t a really flattering position to be in!
Karim: We shot that sequence in late October, early November where, in Canada, it can get very cold at times. And it was wide open, nowhere to hide from the wind. We arrived in pitch-black night to the field. There was tall grass, ice all over, and the actors were getting weary. I was there with a fellow named Scott Noonan, this insane guy, who was an assistant at the time. And he sat there and said, I wouldn’t ask you to do something I would not do, so in the pitch black dark, in the middle of the Canadian country side, me and Scott began screaming like wild animals, running, tearing off our clothes, to get our actors in a real primal state of mind. Loosing all the inhibitions that we needed in the scene. And then the actors said, fine we’ll do it. We were trying to get a grasp of the scene ourselves, letting the grass wisp along our genitals as we ran through the field. When we were done we realized, oh shit where are our clothes! In the pitch black and tall fields we couldn’t find our clothes, so we walked into the farmhouse, which was our production house where we all stayed, completely naked, sheepishly unable to find our clothes. We had to wait until morning, and of course the clothes were covered in frost so we were wearing rags for the entire rest of the shoot that weekend. So we had to suffer with the actors. Even Mitch ended up playing one of the people fucking the earth.
Mitch: Well what happened is that before we shot this we had experiences in the past where actors would come in and really get high off our energy, and agree to everything. And only when they got home did the words sink in: you are going to be naked! And we would have people calling in days before their scene telling us they can not do it. One woman even said her boyfriend would break up with her if she did it. So it was the most asinine thing. And we didn’t have the money. And we got worried that this would happen again. So the end result of all this worrying is, oh my God, here we have to have people naked for two straight days and it is freezing. What if they freak out, they are isolated out here but heck they can stay in their rooms. Anything can happen. I spoke to Karim and volunteered to be naked myself in the scene, covered in mud and blood, figuring that they would see we respect them. Initially I was supposed to eat out a bleeding tree and then fuck it. I told Karim I would be willing to do that and he said, cool, we’ll do that. But we ended up loosing sun because the camera was dying on us. We were using someone else’s camera that day and the motor kept stopping.
Karim. Well actually it was the magazines that kept jamming because we shot that whole scene in slow motion, and it was a bad magazine. So not only were we having this intense actor situation where they were having sex with these weird blood packs hidden beneath the ground, but we were having technical problems with the camera jamming and spraying film everywhere. And ruining countless takes.
Mitch: Which wasn’t very encouraging when they were shivering under their towels. That was one of the few times we had to rent an outside camera because we were shooting high speed photography, to get a slowdown slur effect, and dreamlike ambience. But most of the film was shot with my camera, an Éclair ACL, which has a crystal motor speed of 24 frames for second. So it was really for this that we put ourselves at the mercy of a rented camera. So in the end I did not get to eat out and fuck a tree! And the actors did not freak once. In spite of the technical problems, it was a smooth shoot. The actors were cheerful, people were getting high, in a good mood, listening to music.
Why was it shot MOS?
Karim: For the first month of shooting we only had a non-synch camera, a camera that could not shoot life sound because it was too loud.
Mitch: Even with a better camera the sound stage that we had gotten for very cheap was not soundproofed. You had industrial noise coming from the fixtures, piping problems. Also, it was that kind of film, so it was partly technical/pragmatic and partly aesthetic.
Karim: I enjoy giving direction to the actors while operating the camera. That way I can just improvise something during the shot. In MOS you don’t have the problem of the sound. It was always structured to be a film like that, much like the Italians always shot their films like that.
Mitch: Exactly. And our favorite films from the 1970’s and 1960’s were mostly MOS films.
Any other reasons on way it took so long to make that you want to add or finish with?
Mitch: There are an awful lot.
Karim: There were financial factors. But a good amount of the film’s negative was taken hostage and we had to settle legally some three year later, and we can’t say all the details, but it was extremely traumatic during the time the negative was held hostage because we had to go and cut on film, contrary to the way films are cut now. Most people use avid computers to cut their film. Between 1994 when we began the film and now, the technology of cinema has changed dramatically. The way sound was edited and finished. Mag sound, the old way of doing it, some elements remain, but it is so changed. Back then we were editing everything on film on an old 1950’s moviola which is even more difficult than with a flatbed Steenbeck, which is how film is cut on film. We had to cut into the positive image.
Mitch: And we did not know if there would be any other existing elements.
Karim: Not knowing if there would ever be a negative to conform it to. So it was traumatic. But finally after the settlement was made, the negatives were returned and then in a very odd and weird moment, I was once returning from the United States from a business trip and was stopped at the border by Canada customs when they saw a press kit which had some graphic photos from the film that they didn’t like that at all. And they probably did not like my last name as well, because at the time there were renewed tensions after the Gulf War and anyone named Hussain was automatically suspicious. They proceeded to put me in a jail cell while they watched the entire rough cut of the film because I had a video of the rough cut on me, a few videos actually, and some press material. They watched the entire rough cut and came back white as ghosts! It’s probably the first public screening of the film, and then they confiscated all the material and declared it obscene for Canada, which is ludicrous because it is a Canadian film. However, that caused a lot of paranoia and we even hid the negative once we got it back under a false name, the name of a children’s film called, “Slappy the Blue Pig”. And we changed the production company to Family Productions, to try to be as innocuous as possible. An extreme state of paranoia which now appears mute, because since the early 1990’s the feelings and morality has opened up and things have changed. So I don’t foresee too many more problems like that in North America.
Mitch: Well, North America, I don’t know about that. We might have some problems somewhere. I mean I don’t think we could play it in Alberta, or in the South. Yes in Quebec, now that films like Bais Moi have been playing in huge multiplexes everything and the climate is much more tolerant, that I’m sure Subconscious Cruelty could come out with nary a whimper here. It seems that this film breaks all of Ontario’s obscenity codes, which I did not even realize were still in effect. We always knew about the Ontario Film Review board by proxy fucking the rest of Canada with their enforced edits on films, but only a year ago the re-release of Caligula was blocked for all of Ontario by the Ontario Film Review Board. So knowing that these people are still there, I don’t see how supportive they will be. There’s a theatre in Toronto that actually contacted me about the movie, to possibly do a small art house run there, but we have to find out exactly what we are up against because the Ontario Film Review Board actually have the authority to send people in and confiscate prints. And how many prints do we have? We can’t risk losing prints. But we know that here in our own backyard in Quebec we will be safe.
Well you are right that there is a liberalizing turn with regard sexuality, but in terms of violence in horror films, I think your film is more subversive today than if it came out in 1990.
Mitch: In the 1980’s yes, but 1990, 1991 no because when we started to make the film in 1994 you have to remember how safe and antiseptic the horror film had become. I mean what were the commercial horror films coming out big then, Dr. Giggles, and films that tried to target the lowest common denominator.
Karim touching up baby for the human larvae segment
Well you had Silence of the Lambs
Mitch: Even that though, it was one of those “it is not a horror film, horror films,” unfortunately. But you were a horror fan and you can relate. And any horror fan in North America can relate with the bitterness because the horror film in the early 1990’s was being typified as this really stupid, impotent genre. There were no confrontational horror films being made anymore. They had no philosophies or point of views anymore. It seems like it was just a bygone era. So when we made Subconscious Cruelty we just wanted to see a return to films that did not feel the need to infuse a sense of humour at every third beat to not loose the fourth person from the back row, who might be intimidated. We wanted to make a film that would really be almost like a terrorist act on film, that would not entertain but destroy the audience. To really give people too much to feel. And bring back a bit of vitality. I think it is important for there to be the odd celluloid hand grenade just so people remember that cinema can be a force. That films can still have an effect.
So you are martyrs for the sake of cinema, in effect?
Mitch: No, not quite. I mean our favorite horror films from the 70’s, you think how uncompromising films used to be. I’m not talking about gore so much, yes maybe with Last House on the Left, but look at a film like Martin. Which is one of the best horror films ever made. These kind of films were just not happening any more in the 1990’s. But sexual violence was a major taboo.
Karim: Yes, I mean sure, that’s all true, that was the mind set of doing it. But actually, ironically, now that the film is playing and that we’ve been to a few festivals with it in Europe, we realize that cinema’s power has actually been muted because of the advent of video, and the internet, and the idea that anyone can become a director now. People know how movies are put together and know all the tricks. Cinema is much less of a dangerous or unknown commodity or power now. In this sense I believe the film belongs to the 1970’s, when its release would have caused a huge scandal. Whereas now it will be primarily playing to small arthouse crowds, which is fine. But at the same time, this idea of putting a terrorist act on film, literally, short of snuff, and people have done things like that in Bosnia just the same, people are so media sensitized that if you are going to be truly subversive, you have to do it through a political ideal, as opposed to a shock ideal, although shock still stands for something. So I think it is a very naive film but a very sincere film that I am still very proud of and happy with. But at the same time you have to change your outlook and mentality when you see it to one of naivete. To the type of perceptions you may have had in the 1970s, because it is a film that belongs in that era. It has very little to do with the year 2000. Which is nice, but it is very important not to get stuck in a rut of nostalgia.
Well I don’t think that is possible because it pushed the proverbial envelope far further than any other film from the 1970’s.
Karim: Yes, it does. I think more so than any film I have seen too. But just the same, it doesn’t do it in a completely stupid way. It tries to say something. Which is why I can live with it. Even pushing it beyond that level, it takes so much to shock people these days. You practically have to murder someone in the cinema to have them react, and God knows that would be horrible.
Mitch: What Karim is saying is true, but at the same time, I think there are elements, specifically with the Human Larvae segment in Subconscious Cruelty, that really effect people through its extremity. But at the same time shocking people not just at the visceral level but a personal level. I think a lot of stuff with the baby, the menstruation, and just the whole sexual revulsion aspect. I think a lot of it is so creepily sincere. There is a really horrible integrity there that strikes a nerve in people and really resonates with people. But the point being, all the gore in the world will only effect people on a superficial level. You will get them to flinch, and it will be over with. But the stuff that happens in HL goes far beyond the realms of shock, blood and guts. There is a philosophy there.
Ivaylo Founev and Brea Asher
Karim: One of the things I like about the film is that no matter how far technology advances or how savvy people are about film technique, babies are still born in the same way. The human body will still always shit, piss and bleed.
Mitch: Yea, we’ll never be outdated in that respect!
Karim: In that sense, the body aspect of the film will always be pertinent, no matter how technologically advanced we get. We’ll always be basically, dust.
Well things are starting with genetic engineering!
Karim: But the people they make will still shit and piss. For now anyway.
Mitch: Something Karim said before that was interesting, about how video has kind of taken away the edge because many of these films don’t have theatrical outlets anymore. It is important to mention that sometimes we feel that we were born about 20 years too late, in that the studios have really won. Films are so expensive to make, and it costs so much to promote them and get them into theatres, that the smaller people can’t come out and compete on an equal footing, or even a tiny footing. Just think about a film like Bill Lustig’s Maniac from 1980. It was made on a budget comparative to ours, it was very extreme and confrontational, alienated almost everyone, and it had to get an X rating, unrated, yet it played in huge theatres, with a large print release all over North America. There were about 4 different TV spots. This was a time when these movies still came out and competed. Nowadays if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were made, or Suspiria or Holy Mountain, they probably wouldn’t even get played. I mean look at Shinya Tsukomoto or Richard Stanley. Their films have an incredibly tough time getting shown in North America. Europe is a different story, but on this side of the world, it is very difficult to get to see these type of movies. And it kills us because Subconscious Cruelty was designed as a big screen experience. And at least we have DVD now, and ways to watch it at home where it won’t be as bad as it once was. But if it would have been made in the mid 70’s, early 80’s it would have gone around. And now all we can hope for is an arthouse release and select festival screenings. That is as far as it can go now, which is really sad.
Karim: We might seem like cavemen one day because we did finish the film with 35mm Dolby stereo prints and one day that might be seen as completely archaic.
Has the film been sold to any markets so far? Can you talk about the making of the DVD and how much you have recouped of the initial costs?
Mitch: To date we’ve done two festivals so far but have many more lined up. We had a world premiere at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain last October and shortly thereafter it played the Stockholm International Film Festival.
Karim: In February we will be playing at Fantasporto, Portugal. In March we will be playing the Brussels International Fantastique Festival. We are going to be playing Espoo cine in Finland in August. Malaga Fantastique Festival (again in Spain). We will playing at Cinemuerte International Film Festival in Vancouver (July). And we are also going to be having a small Canadian arthouse theatrical release in 2001. In fact, all up-to-the-minute screening info will be available at the newly updated Infliction Films website (www.inflictionfilms.com.).
Mitch: What I am happy about is that after only two festival appearances we’ve sold three territories: we’ve sold Japan, all across Scandinavia, and the UK (note: the Scandinavian and UK video deals both fell through shortly after this interview was conducted). What’s beautiful is that we’ve already recouped one-third of the production cost, which is very encouraging for a film like this. And I get pleasure from knowing that we are doing statistically much better than many Canadian films in terms of International sales. Hopefully future Canadian investors and sponsors will learn from this. Your average Canadian investor, when they look at a film like SC or any of the kinds of movies that that people like us want to make, and even if they find it unique, they will ask, what are the demographics for this film? And you can’t take a film like Subconscious Cruelty and say, well it is made for the 18 to 24 year-old, male record store employee! The audience will not be that immediately obvious and apparent, but the audience will come out of the woodwork to see a film that is different.
Yes a movie always finds its audience.
Mitch: Films that are very unique and have a point of view tend to find their audience over time. And it usually doesn’t take that much time.
Karim: It is a film for women, who have responded much better than men.
Mitch: Hopefully, given all this, next time someone like us comes across with a film that is unclassifiable in genre definitions, but yet low budget enough to really not prove a financial risk, Canadian investors and government bodies will look at why the film has taken off and they will look at this as an example and maybe have more confidence with this kind of picture in the future. Then maybe Canada will get back its subversive edge, which would make us all feel a lot better again.
Karim: The company in Japan that bought the film is called “New Select.” It is quite a large company, so we are extremely thrilled by this deal. It will come out possibly theatrically, on video, as well there will be a special edition DVD with commentaries, deleted footage, and a very surrealistic making-of which I won’t say much about, except it has something to do with Christmas. The film has taken off well in Asia and Europe and is doing the large fantastique festival circuit. Sometimes as a midnight picture, but that is fine because the film was always structured to bring back the midnight film. So the film is finding its audience. We have yet to really push it in North America, except for the small Canadian releases, but hopefully it will be coming out here as well. But so far it has been a movie that was made in North America but taken off outside the country.
Japan seems natural, but I’m surprised with the UK?
Karim: Well the censorship has recently relaxed in the UK. And the UK deal is part of the deal we are closing with the Scandinavian distributor for the territories of Scandinavia and the UK. So it will probably go out straight to video in England on a horror label release.
Karim: There may be cuts, we don’t know yet. So far the Japanese release will be uncut except of course there will be optical fogging for the genitalia.
That’s a lot of optical fogging!
Karim: Yes. It is impossible to cut this film really because of how it is structured. The violence and the graphic aspects of the film are the story itself. They are symbolic in the film, they are all metaphors. It is not a standard narrative, so the violent acts all mean something. They are all very representative of either a ritual, a political idea, an emotion ideal, or a dream logic thing. So it is very difficult to say this piece of violence will be cut for X amount of reasons. And the editing is very 70’s type editing, with lots of quick cutting, cutting on movement and not on timing. Basically the way that a lot of editors were cutting in the 70s’, by putting the film over a little light box and cutting the film by hand, which is how a lot of the more graphically cut sequences were put together. So in terms of technically putting the film together, if you try to make certain edits in the film, it would be difficult to make the shots fit together. But I won’t be surprised if somebody tries to do it, and all you could do at one point is just let go.
In terms of the structure, was the order always the way it is now?
Karim: It was always pretty much in that order. The individual segments had changed, but the ending stuff with the businessman was always meant to be that way. There were some sequences that were cut out of the film; one particular sequence which was nothing but a montage of rotting animals in the forest, which was a very nice sequence on its own but bogged down the film. Which is the usual thing you have to do with films for cutting down the running time, even if the scene works individually you have to think of the bigger picture. And I get quite merciless when I’m finished a cut of the picture. If something is making people just look at their shoes I’ll remove it immediately. And that was the case with some of the excised scenes. If the full Subconscious Cruelty existed it would last about 95-100 minutes, but thankfully cutting all that stuff out has made the movie run at a considerably fast pace so that people don’t fall asleep during it!
Did you think of including the cut footage on the DVD?
Karim: Yes, at least on the Japanese DVD there will be the deleted scenes.
How were the actors cast?
Karim: The actors were mostly professional actors with backgrounds in theatre, cast in the traditional audition process. We had done casting calls in local art newspapers and some, specifically Eric Pettigrew and Martine Viale, the leads in the Martyr scene, were professional dancers not actors. Martine had a particular background in Japanese Butoh dancing, Japanese death dancing, and that entire sequence was rehearsed and structured much like a dance, so that scene has much more to do with modern dance in many ways, than film. Much of the movie has more to do with still photography and its history, than cinema, which is sort of an interesting way of doing the film, even if people might hate it!
Eric Pettigrew, Martine Viale, and Co.
In terms of dealing with such difficult material, the sexuality, the violence, the Christian iconography mixed within that, were the actors on the proper wave length or did you have problems in certain scenes?
Karim: If they got as far as the set, then they had no problem with the sexuality and nudity. We had lost some people prior to the shooting, people who had agreed and then realized they did not have the guts to carry things out.
Mitch: People who had agreed with incredible enthusiasm and we really believed in. Which just goes to show have far divisions can reach.
Karim: Specifically, the woman who had been booked originally for the lead in the Jesus scene had copped out a week prior to shooting while we were on the sound stage. So we had to go through a mad scramble and thankfully Eric Pettigrew came through and found Martine, who ha knew from her dance background. So at that point all the actors who were onto the film I had spoken to enough to get them to believe in the project and pretty much were willing do anything for the film. So the nudity was not a problem from the get go because the ad in the newspaper said there would be artistic nudity in this film. Some of the actors were particularly enthusiastic, especially Christopher Piggins, who plays the businessman. While shooting the sequence where his penis gets sexually mutilated Piggins actually insisted that Mitch and another production assistant wrap gaffer tape around his hairy legs and at the beginning of action they would very brutally tear the tape off his skin, shearing off the hair to give him proper facial reactions. And as well at some point he wanted Mitch to stomp on his bare feet….
Chris Piggins, Montreal’s cult actor supreme
Mitch: Yes, he wanted me to crush his foot against a light fixture. He kept saying, the camera can tell, the camera can tell. We’re not talking 20 minutes or an hour here, we’re talking 3-4 hours, and after about an hour of this his nerve endings became a lot more sensitive and the pain had to intensify. It was really funny because Karim and I can become pretty ruthless when we are up against time and we want things to look right. We can really motivate people. But at this point even we became very considered and kept asking Chris, “are you sure Chris, are you sure?” I really felt bad stomping on his foot, but to give Chris credit, he would have it no other way.
People may recognize the name Chris Piggins from Maurice Devereaux’s Lady of the Lake (1998), and he is also in Devereaux’s latest film, Slashers (2001). He may be on his way to becoming Montreal’s premiere cult actor!
Mitch: Chris can definitely be that one, he can fill that niche.
Karim: Yes there were a lot of intense moments with Chris. There was one sequence where Chris Piggins was being filmed under a waterfall in extremely cold weather and I’m sure his brain was slowly freezing under the waterfall! There were two assistants on the ground because Mitch was up on top of the cliff and was afraid to climb down because he is afraid of heights, so there were some very intense moments which felt like a “Werner Herzog” set where there was complete organized chaos, with screaming and intense emotions. But that just became the act of shooting the film, the act of shooting the movie became a theatre play in itself. I was directing the actors in a very enthusiastic and intense manner where we did almost have our own private Jonestown and at the same time it was this film set, very technical and well controlled. However with this type of material and project you do have to go a little crazy and we were encouraging the actors to loose all their inhibitions. So it was a very intense and interesting shoot. I can’t say today that I would shoot in that way again because I have already done it.
Mitch: I don’t think either of us would now. But we were really young, much angrier and just gung-ho to get it done in whatever way possible. It was also the type of shoot that was unusual and unlike any other. In the first month in February 1994 we all lived together for a whole month in this warehouse in Longueuil, Montreal. Almost everyone slept there and we would sleep 3 hours and get back to the filming. I remember some nights the actors had to stay covered in blood overnight sleeping with towels because we couldn’t match the blood placement the next day. We couldn’t redo the prosthetic effects because we only had a certain amount of material. We got pretty crazy. One funny thing about Chris again. The irony about Chris nearly freezing to death is that he himself found us that location. And we repay him by nearly killing him! But he’s the man who a month earlier was encouraging us to torture him and now we are freezing his blood supply. Life works in odd ways sometimes.
Karim: During the Christ scene the actors went all the way. Martine really urinates in the film. Which is quite difficult to do on cue.
Mitch: Thank God Eric had danced with her before.
Karim: We shot the Jesus scene over two days and Eric Pettigrew was covered in blood, colored corn syrup, pretty much for two straight days. We couldn’t replace the blood on him. So it was a difficult time for everyone.
Mitch: And Eric never complained. He was so enthusiastic, it was remarkable.
Karim: He used that to his advantage, and he felt so good once he washed it off. And then we shoved a big tree branch up his ass. But that’s another story.
Mitch: The one image I remember most about Eric is his coming out for a cigarette and I would pass him one and the cigarette would stick to his fingers, his mouth, because of the corn syrup.
The way you describe this whole shooting process, this contained chaos, is like the theme of the film itself, the fight between the left-right brain.
Karim: It is again a movie that was shot and the actual shooting was done like it would feel if you were watching the film. It was very intentionally done that way. Since this was a very low budget film, a first feature, our only restrictions in the film were financial. If we wanted to put something in the film and could afford it, we would.
Mitch: And if the actors were willing to go as far as we were. And those that came to the set were.
Karim: That sort of order out of chaos was meticulously planned when everything was getting intense on the set and it was becoming a madhouse, there was still a concentrated and focused agenda in plan behind the shooting. At many points I may have been the only who knew what was going on, because I was operating the camera. Because from third person people coming on to the set they would have had no clue. And I had pre-edited the entire film in my head, as I always do. So I knew when I needed something and did not. I guess only after they see the film will people realize the thought and order behind the chaos.
Mitch: A lot of the crew towards the end of the first month were getting angry with us. For all of our shorts before the feature there was a core group of people we worked with, all friends and filmmakers themselves like Patrick Tremblay, Robert Cotterill, Ben Boucher, and Phil Spurrell. We were comfortable with each other and understood this type of aesthetic. But when we worked with a bigger crew, with friends of friends of friends, we had this distinct feeling that there were always at least five people leaning against the wall sizing us up. Towards the end of the month there was a lot of nay saying, character assassinations, not the actors, but some of the crew who clearly lost faith in us because they could not understand what the movie was going to be. And we also realized at that point that these were people who did not really go see films often themselves, which made me wonder why they wanted to work on films.
Did you set out to make a film that would break these taboos or did it come out of how you were feeling at the time?
Karim: It is really a product of the way I was feeling at the time, surely all of us, but myself as the writer-director. A lot of it was also transcriptions of my dreams. The film is structured like a fever dream and as well over time the film had evolved very much and changed in consequence to the way my subconscious was changing. So certain days before we were shooting I would dream up something the night before and just go on the set and change things to adapt that dream to the picture. A big inspiration for this film was a period in the early 1990’s when I encountered a horrible disease that makes your brain swell, meningitis. During my high school days in Ottawa there was a meningitis outbreak, and several kids in the school I was going to were dying of meningitis. There was a high school dance, the dance of death as it was later called, where afterwards two children died. They had to give antibiotics to everyone in the school, which changed everyone’s body fluids bright orange. It was like a city of plagued orange children. It was a very strange time. During this outbreak I had taken some antibiotics and I became very sick one night. I may have even had meningitis, and the antibiotics had helped me. So I did have this insanely horrific night were it felt like my brain was melting in my skull and I survived it, perhaps if only to make this damn movie. The dreams I had at that time would veer from narrative to non-narrative, and contained images that appeared to be physically boiling, which was a direct inspiration for those moments in the film where you see images degenerating, being scratched, or dissolving under chemicals. That’s a big metaphor for those fever dreams you have where everything is ephemeral. This is why the film, especially near the ending, becomes very stream of consciousness and you might not necessarily remember everything you’ve seen, like during a fever dream where images come and go. But you never forget how you felt when you had the fever. That is why the film is very a-narrative and structured as it is. In the sense that you are not really supposed to remember a fall away, you’re just supposed to feel it. It’s the red after the slap.
That image of the photo of the little girl burning under the chemicals, at the end of the Human Larvae segment, to me represents the brother’s psychic meltdown.
Karim: Yes completely. And his perception of women and specifically his sister is completely false and hideously distorted. This character is quite nightmarish but again representative of many people that are out there.
You began the film when you were 19 and now you are 26? Do you feel comfortable with the film now.
Karim: I’m very comfortable and happy with the film. Again I would never make this film again today. Not meaning that it is so graphic and I have no guts to do it. It is just that when you make a film over such a long time you progress as a director. Now I’m much more controlling in my stories, more narrative and, in certain ways, more traditional.
Karim: Yes, less feverish. The projects I’m working on right now are as a scriptwriter. I’ve written a bunch of stuff with Nacho Cerdá and we have a film called Threshold of Dreams, a Spanish production. It is his first feature after his sensational ‘death trilogy,’ which I wrote it with him, which will be coming up. And that material is very representative of where I am at right now.
So Nacho is the left side to your right side?
Karim: Not necessarily.
Mitch: Nacho can be pretty right side sometimes!
Karim: We both complement each other. We are very similar in some respects and very different in others. So the Nacho Cerdá collaboration will hopefully come up with a few films that are representative of both us as we are right now. Looking at Subconscious Cruelty now I see it as a very naive but sincere and essential film. I definitely know there are a lot of other angry young people that are just realizing a lot of things about the world, which is how I was when I made the picture. Young people who are confronted with being an adult for the first time and begin to encounter the hypocrisy and injustices of the world. I think that is really the audience for this film. The 17 to 20 year old youths turning to adults suddenly getting very frustrated with what is being thrust onto them. Which is exactly how I was. The film works on the level of say, industrial music, when it was big in the early 1990’s, or on the level of a good punk song, that type of expression of rage and frustration against the world, not necessarily as a movie but as a metaphor for a movie. Which I think is interesting because it is extremely cinematic at the same time.
I can see that, but I think there is a certain level where that type of rage is very inarticulate, whereas in this film it is articulate.
Karim: Yes, it is surely above a mindless scream. To do a mindless scream and to do something violent without any thought would be of no interest to me, absolutely no interest. It is a scream, but yet at the same time the scream had to mean something. So they are screams made of sentences rather than inhuman sounds.
Were you ever afraid that at some point there would be some people not articulate enough to understand those levels of subtlety in the subtext?
Mitch: You can’t let that stop you.
Karim: You can’t be afraid of that when making a film like this because it is going to happen anyway. People will look at this and say, hey this is a movie about people who screw Jesus up the ass with a branch. Well, wait a minute, that whole cry is against people who abuse organized religion. It is not saying screw all religion, they are all horrible. It is a cry against people who manipulate religion for their own ways, and how Christ probably wouldn’t have been a Christian these days. How he would be disgusted with how people take mainstream religion and use it for profit, or political power and position. In America it is terrifying how the Christian Right is getting control over everything, including cinema. So I think Christ would not approve of that. And that is one of the big things: you do get raped when you put yourself on the chopping block. It is a very Christian film in that sense.
I would love Scorsese to see that Christ segment, because I see the Christ character as being very sympathetic. One of the most moving or empathetic moments is at the beginning of the Christ scene where you see Christ kneeling on the sidewalk in this cold urban environment, distraught, lost in this modernity, with his arms in the air looking at this desolate ruined church. That creates a strong empathy for him, before he is raped.
Karim: Exactly. It is not at all an anti-Christ film, not whatsoever. In fact it is very sympathetic to Christ. All it does is it represents what has been done to Christ, the rape of religion if you will. And what has been done to organized religion these days. How they’ve taken these, in theory, good ideals and manipulated them and made them into something ugly and dirty. Obviously this isn’t the case with everything about religion, but this film is about the bad things in life.
It is all in the execution of how you do things. If you go back to the wonderful 16th century Italian painter Caravaggio, he was chastised for his naturalism because he dared show religious subjects with dirty feet and sweaty headcloths. So that is similar to the problems you are going to face. Caravaggio was sympathetic to Christ, but his representation still offended the religious status quo.
Karim: Obviously people will go out and say we are just trying to get attention with this type of thing, but if that is the case, fine. But to us there is depth hidden behind the shock. And I think it is actually quite evident. You can’t find a more blatant film than Subconscious Cruelty. So as far as I’m concerned, you would have to be really stupid to not see its true intentions. So far most people who have seen the film agree and get this.
Mitch: Which is also because we have shown the film in Europe, and they are more used to films being infused with political sensibility and symbolism. I know in North America many people will see it only at the superficial shock level, and there is nothing we can really do about that. The movie has to be whatever it is, and the more surreal and non-linear you get, the more you experiment with film language, the more it becomes like a big Rorschach pattern, which is great because that is emotion over logic, which is something I think both Karim and I really admire, in any type of art. But you also run the risk of being misinterpreted because everyone will see a different shape in the pattern. And that is fine, it will give them something personal to take home with them afterwards, and if they want to get mad, let them get mad. At least they will feel.
In terms of your film being so different from just about anything else, there is always a precedence. Who are some of your film influences? What film or filmmaker comes, you think, closest to your film?
Karim: Alexandro Jodorowsky definitely, was a very big influence. We’ve had comparisons to David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Of course they are huge influences and I adore their cinema.
Mitch: Those are the films we grew up on.
The opening, in sensibility, reminds me of the opening of Jesus Franco’s The Sadist of Notre Dame, the shots of the empty streets, the sense of poverty. Which in turn was influenced by Buñuel.
Karim: Yes, sure. Jess Franco has made some great films and some of the worst films. But I agree there are some really nice bits in that film. And yes Luis Buñuel was a big influence on the picture. Antonioni’s Zabriske Point for the scene where they are fucking the ground. And the montages at the end of Zabriske Point with everything exploding. The raw sensation of that. José Mojica Marins, the Brazilian director, who is a clever filmmaker, was influential. The films of George Romero, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Cannibal Holocaust for the editing style. Of course Mario Bava for the visual look of the film. There is a lot of inspiration from 1970 Italian gialli, the films of Ken Russell, Dusan Makavejev. My inspirations and influences are a real mix, but it all comes together as an odd cinematic smorgasbord.
Mitch: One of the things we did, on one of the first short cast meetings in January, is we showed a whole group of people The Holy Mountain and we were able to tell right there, who would need a lot of work and who would basically direct themselves.
Karim: Basically, all of them didn’t like it!
Mitch: And we thought, oh it is going to be a long month! But it was cool.
How do the four stories, “Ovarian Eyeball”, “Human Larvae”, “Rebirth”, and “Right Brain/Martyrdom”, fit together?
Karim: It fits together on an emotional and metaphorical level. They work with similar themes and complement each other in subtle ways. Like in the Larvae segment the brother is very obsessed with his own semen, looking at his hands with semen is an almost Nietzschean, naive ideal because that character is a virgin. It is mentioned that he doesn’t actually know what it feels like to be with a woman, he just looks at them. And gets this insane idea, like a scientist looking at maggots under a microscope, he has no real clue of what it is like being a woman, so his ideas of menstruation are grotesque and exaggerated. He looks at his semen as a key, as something powerful, that makes him better than anyone else in the world. And it the end, the businessman, after he masturbates, he looks at his semen as something disgusting, something that humanizes and makes him weak. And he is angry at the women in the porno film he is watching because they make him have to be human. He can’t be a supreme Nietzschean Penisman ideal. So they are both Nietzschean but in different ways. These characters are more symbols than characters. There is no real characterization in the traditional way, with the possible exception of the brother in "Human Larvae". There are common themes throughout, like the theme of fish. How people are perceived like fish, the sort of constant, conformist creatures that are duplications of themselves. The brother mentions that he and his sister are trapped like fish in an aquarium in their house. He also sees children when they come out as fish because babies all do have a similar basic structure, a bit like fish. If you see a school of fish of the same species it is very difficult to find a difference. Again that analytical, cold perspective on humanity that a lot of the people who inhabit the film have. There are common themes throughout. And basically the film is about destroying the left half of your brain and drowning in dreams, as it says in the film, going on the right half of the brain. Whereas the only rule in the film is that there is no rule. Although when you have no rules you will always have constant things you will do. In a state of anarchy no matter what happens in the chaos and anarchy, that becomes a strange kind of conformity in its own way, because you will always do the same things you imagine you will do. Say there is a war going on in a town, you will rape and pillage, but you will still need water, and food in the middle of all of this. So even in the middle of anarchy, there is extreme conformity, where everyone is trapped in the same prison. Which is like the film, everything fits together on that level. It is a subconscious narrative.
Mitch: But in a strange way, at a linear level, I would say it is about the horrors of male sexuality. And their redemption through femininity. In many ways, I’ve always seen it that way.
Karim: Yes and no. I wouldn’t necessarily say the horror of male sexuality, but the miscomprehension that can come from male sexuality and the extremes of horror that can be attained from miscomprehension. These people have been pushed to extremes from their lack of tenderness, lack of being close to femininity, so they have created a whole concept of femininity which has nothing to do with what the reality is. It is a little like Americana Psycho, the novel, and not the film, which was made after Subconscious Cruelty. The book was a big inspiration for the businessman character, and that ideal. Keep in mind that the film was conceived at the tail end of the Bush era.
And released at the beginning of a new Bush era!
Karim: Yes, here we have, it is finished and we are at the beginning of a new Bush era. Maybe the film will really find its audience now in the US because of this new conservative reign. Perhaps the whole thing we saw in the eighties, early 1990’s will be coming back again, and this rage in the arts, and this renewed use of heroine, which is a horrible thing. I would rather have the film have a smaller run and the world be a better place, than suddenly everyone getting up and saying, yea man this is my reality.
Now that’s very good of you Karim!
Karim: Heck, it is not an expensive film, we’ll be OK anyway you slice it.
Mitch: Also, in terms of the climate the film came out in, it is important to mention that when Karim was writing it and we began to make it this was the tail end of the Brian Mulroney government in Canada, which was a very pro-business, crush the middle class, crush the lower class type of regime.
Karim: It was Reagan style politics.
Mitch: In Canada, the people we knew in our realities were hurt by the things Mulroney had done. He had imposed huge taxes, backbreaking for the poor, and he literally tried to destroy the middle class and just make it all lower class and a huge upper class. Just like Reagan. But here there was a sense of doom in the street. Even the most well off parts of Montreal had a sense of the apocalypse in that no one knew where the future was going, a feeling that everyone was desperate and time was running out, and the candle was being burned on both ends. And this is something that a lot of the actors were going through and were able to relate to something that might have been this obscure.
Getting back to the recurring imagery, of course the image of the fish in most Christian religions is a symbol of Christ, so that connects with the fish hook and also the sequence with the businessman there is the sense that he is masturbating because of the shame and guilt he feels.
Karim: Which is very Christian. Yes it all fits together. The film, on the subconscious level is actually quite narrative. In a representational level it is the opposite. You just have to think with it to see that it is narrative.
There is also the nice paradox where at the beginning you have the voice-over that says “destroy all lies,” while also having said that ‘cinema is a lie,” so in effect you are destroying cinema, or the film is destroying itself while at the point of creation, like the murder of the just-born baby in the Human Larvae segment.
Karim: When we had done that opening montage I was very frustrated with the act of cinema, and I would call cinema the “lie of the light,” because when you think about it movies are one big, endless lie. We are all professional liars in cinema, trapping alternate universes in chemical prisons.
Gosh, Godard said cinema was the truth 24 times per second!
Karim: Yes. At the same time I’ve always thought that cinema functions like a coffin of light, you go in them, you turn off your life, and if you come out things will continue. But it is a gestation period, much like if you are in a coffin sleeping. Cinema for me is the ‘coffin of light’ the gestation of reality. And basically immersing yourself in lies and denial. So yes there is a lot of that around. I see that in the pure love of cinema, that you can only, truly make movies when you see how evil they can be. And I think that is important.
Well, another paradox. I like the left/right brain idea, even though science has proven that it is not quite true in that schematic way. It is an interesting twist on the döppelganger theme because you get away from the notions of evil.
Karim: Well it is a metaphor. It is a döppelganger of creative and logical instead of good and evil.
Mitch displaying CJ’s split skull
But if the intent of the film is to exist purely on the right side, can you have a social critique which is rational and intellectual at the same time?
Mitch: But it is all through abstraction, so I think you can.
Karim: Well no I agree with you, because it is the injustice of it because keep in mind that there are characters from the left side of the brain all throughout the film, the businessman is left side of the brain, so the thing is, if everyone is already one from the beginning, and we are only talking from the right side of the brain, then there is nothing to conquer. Obviously during this whole picture you do have to use your left brain, you are coming in from a left side perspective, so many films have references to reality, and that is the thing. The voice-over at the beginning of the film says “we want to drown ourselves in dreams, but all things are inspired by reality.” So in that way we are trapped in that never ending cycle, so that even if we try to escape in dreams all of our dreams are created by what we see in reality, the left half of our brain, the constant reality of what it is. So to exist is an oxymoron. There are so many things we are doing in the film that smash you in the face in terms of how things should work. The movie functions on the level of the right brain and wants to destroy the left side and all logic, but it is meticulously structured and very logically put together in terms of pacing and montage. So it can’t be just throwing the pieces of film in the air and seeing where they fall.
It is the surrealist paradox of how to design random or unconscious art.
Karim: If anything, it is a diabolically structured and manipulative film.
How did you get the left brain, right brain idea?
Karim: I’d known about it threw having read some scientific material and I thought it was fascinating that you could actually take parts of the brain and physically touch them and say, this is where I dream. And this is where I think of whether I have to wash my underwear! You can take that as a slice of meat and say this is the part that gives me my sex drive, or the slice of meat that allows me to see, or speak. I’ve always been fascinated by medicine, my father is a pharmacist, and I grew up looking at medical books. I’ve always been influenced by medical things.
I read a quote by Roger Sperry who first came up with the terms right brain, left brain, in 1973 and I thought it nicely expressed your film: “The main theme to emerge… is that there appear to be two modes of thinking, verbal and nonverbal, represented rather separately in left and right hemispheres respectively and that our education system, as well as science in general, tends to neglect the nonverbal form of intellect. What it comes down to is that modern society discriminates against the right hemisphere.”
Mitch/Karim: Wow, that is perfect, gorgeous. That is a great metaphor for the entire picture. And all art in general. I mean society is going to discriminate against Subconscious Cruelty, but it was kind of made that way.
The film ends you have the skull, the businessman’s skull, which has expanded and you have the right side which is flickering red.
Mitch: Well, you have the right side flickering red all throughout the film. It always signifies the right side of the brain when it is functioning.
But does that mean that the right brain wins in the end?
Karim: Yes, it wins, exactly. The right side of the brain, the flashing red symbol, the sign of vitality, red is the color of life, of living, but also the color of death. But when it is moving and pulsating, it becomes like a heartbeat that propels it. Anything that flashes red is a sign for blood moving in the human body, that the body is truly thinking and breathing. So that pulsating red light indeed does mean the right side has won because if you see the left side it is all green and rotting and cancerous, and the right side is normal. So the right side has won. You would think that after all this dreaming and confrontations, that is exactly what the businessman looks like in his bed.
In terms of the saturated colors, is that how you worked it out?
Mitch: We have the brother character in the "Human Larvae" section always bathed in blue light, to the point where he is watching his sister sleep with a generic stranger and she is bathed in pulsing red, with the aperture opening and closing, so the red is breathing, and the corner he is staring through is gelled deep, deep, saturated blue, to really show the lines, the divisions.
Karim: The colors all mean something in the film. They are all reflective of certain characters or more general metaphors and states of mind, and is very well thought out. People might think it is very inspired by Suspiria and Bava, which is definitely is, but at the same time the colors were also well thought out for metaphoric meaning and how color is reflected onto emotion. So especially in the Larvae section, each character has their separate color, so it is not just painting a pretty picture, but has motivation.
Like Vittorio Storaro and his color theories about cinematography.
Karim: Yes, and he is dead on.
Mitch: And certain colors do provoke strong emotional responses, even when they are used as total abstractions, or particularly when used as abstractions.
You should read Kandinsky’s little book on color theory in abstract art, Spirituality in Art.
Karim: When you think of this as an abstract film on one level, it is still diabolically constructed.
Mitch: The very first screenplay draft was a very precise shot list, from shot scale to composition to camera movement, to lens size. And color toning. So the script was written as a shot list. When we were, like, teenagers or something in 1993 and it was a super 8 film, it existed already as a shot list, and that actors had to read it as a shot list and had to visualize.
Was it shot with a prime lens or a zoom lens?
Karim: I like to use the zoom lens and macro lenses, which are primarily used for insect photography. This goes along with the metaphors of the film because the characters look at each other as if they are insects under a microscope. So we did a lot of microscopic close-ups on eyes, to make them look like genitals. And to look at the world underneath the world. There is a lot of close-ups in the film, to go along with the analytical, deliberate, microscopic aspect of the film. And a lot of slow motorized zooms which act as a metaphor for how the characters are always looking deeper and deeper. It is meant to draw the audience in. I would say 75% of the shots in the "Human Larvae" segment are zoom shots, where there is a camera slowly zooming in to reflect on the perspective of the brother, always looking, analyzing, keeping a distance, but not understanding. I used long lenses and zoom shots to make the audience feel like voyeurs, like the brother. The zoom lens means you can keep away from the actors but approach them without ever having the physical contact. It allows you to have a feeling of distance and yet closeness.
I like the looking because with the brother character looking and the businessman looking at the porn, they make nice bookends if you see the film as two fever dreams, the brothers’ and the businessman’s at the end, and in the middle you have this kind of objective “Rebirth” segment set in the outdoors with the people screwing the ground. So in terms of the overall style relating to the theme and left/right brain, the camera movements can also be part of this with the very controlled zoom shots (left side) and very frenetic handheld shots (right side).
Karim: Yes, the handheld shots usually come in when the control is being lost, when it goes into the straight, pure creative things; but to also break up some of the visual formality I shot some of these very analytical things with a hand held camera. So even when you are being analytical and antiseptic you still have human frailties, you still have to piss and shit. So it was meticulously planned in terms of which ‘analytical’ shots were handheld and which were not because I wanted to have this frailty come out and show through in some of the stuff.
Mitch: And also in the midst of all this hypnotic and slow motor zooms there would be the odd really jarring, fast, manual zoom for impulse.
Karim: And a lot of the editing was structured to sometimes jar the audience with humility. Some of it may seem choppy, but someone like Romero or Walerian Borowczyk, did have these long meticulous shots with these very brief shots that were cut on movement as opposed to timing. Almost working subliminally.
I think most young, media savvy people today would probably understand that type of editing.
Mitch: Well, yes and no because this is different. I initially thought that too at one point because you have all these kids, say the MTV generation, but what they are used to…
Well I mean just that our sense of temporality is much more fragmented now.
Mitch: This is true, but in terms of how people look at film images, I think a lot of kids may be used to music videos where there are tons of cuts, many more than a narrative film would have, and now many narrative feature films are emulating MTV editing, like a Michael Bay film, but just the same they are used to seeing editing just to change the image.
Oh yes, that’s for sure.
Mitch: It is not being used for what we call ‘emotion editing.’ And the type of fractured, almost pace breaking editing style in Subconscious Cruelty still makes a lot of Western viewers stop and stutter. And I’m not sure just how to think about that or interpret that. People think of the MTV generation as just being able to accept fast cuts, and the irony is that they can only accept the fast cutting….
…when there is nothing happening!
Mitch: When they have no intent behind them.
Yes, I only meant the general form. Can you talk a bit about the images of Paganism in the film. In the middle segment, for example, the “Rebirth” segment, there is a strong pagan feel behind it.
Mitch: Well the whole entire bleeding Mother earth thing is very Wiccan, I guess you can see in terms of Paganism.
Karim: In theory you can see it as an Ankh sucking sequence, but it is not really. You can see it as a theme that appropriates a lot of Pagan themes, but then again a lot of the film appropriates themes of Christianity, Judaism, Muslim religions, among other things, without necessarily wholeheartedly approving them. Since paganism is a religion like any other there are some great things and bad things in it. Although it does appropriate some of its theories as a good thing, as a rebirth, a way of purifying yourself from the dogma and repression that stems from very controlled and repressive environments.
Well historically of course, it was Christianity that repressed paganism.
Karim: Exactly. It is not necessarily Christianity sucks, Paganism rules, not at all, it doesn’t take any labels like that, just the emotions and passes them through.
Mitch: Well you should probably talk about the positive affirmation quality of blood.
Karim: Yes, during the Larvae sequence blood is seen as something to be feared, blood is seen as a subversive liquid, although it is what we are all made of. It is a damning liquid, or seen as something to be suspicious of.
It is interesting that you chose to use the word ‘damning’….
Mitch: Yes, because that is the way it comes through, with the menstruation scene. It is connecting the blood to femininity but it is a very damning type of fluid.
I meant as a damn that is burst. The way he uses the towel to stop the blood flow.
Mitch: You can say that, but no pun intended. We’ll have to include that in our commentary track!
Karim: The blood always stains in that segment, whereas I wanted to show that blood is basically what we are made of. As products of the earth, we eat the animals, the vegetation, we are the earth, and we will return there. I wanted to show the earth as if it were a living creature. And if it is a living creature, then you can fuck it. So that sequence is there to say that blood can be a beautiful thing because if we say that blood is disgusting and we hate blood we are hating ourselves. So that character in the film, the brother, obviously hates himself. I wanted to show that hey man there is no reason to hate yourself. Blood can be a beautiful thing because it is what we are, and we are on the earth, and basically your environment is you. So don’t hate yourself. The Larvae sequence is a cry for love! At the same time there is the hypocrisy shown with the knife blow job in the Rebirth segment. The imagery is Muslim, with the girl wearing the veil, which is a cry against a certain kind of hypocrisy and fascism in Muslim religion. There are good and bad aspects of Muslim religion, but certainly one I am not nuts about is the discrimination against femininity in Muslin religion. In the generality of it women basically run everything there, but they are still oppressed. It is not so cut and dry, but it works as a comment on that.
The film is so explicit, but is there anything you held back on?
Karim: No, not really. All the really nasty things we wanted to put in the film are there. If anything, if I were to make the film again I would make it much less graphic, but you also can not deny want the film has to be, which is very angry from the get go, so no, the only things we didn’t do are things we couldn’t afford to do.
Mitch: We had to scrap a whole segment that was supposed to come after the Rebirth sequence that was set on a vaginal circumcision farm, a huge Sergio Leone-type desert wasteland that Karim came up with which would have been beautiful but would have been two weeks, at least one week, of shooting and it was so big that we had to scrap it.
Karim: Actually it was supposed to come after Rotting Animals segment, so the Rebirth sequence actually replace it.
Mitch: Oh yes, that’s right. The Rebirth sequence was cheaper.
How about the special effects. What type of effects were involved, were they all ground effects?
Mitch: The one thing we are proud of is that they are all in camera effects, things we did on the set. Outside of some optical tinting effects.
What, no CGI effects!
Mitch: Well, even if we had all the money in the world, the effects for this film would have been all done live. The thing with CGI is that it almost feels like an intermission, which you wait through until the film begins again. I think even stop motion animation is less jarring. We come from a background where we really love organic special effects. We love prosthetics. So it was nice to have very organic effects in a movie that is about the body. The effects had to be things that were on set and that you could touch with your hands, and smell. For the actors it was also nice because they could see what they were acting and responding to. I think there is a place for computer opticals, maybe, but not in the stuff that I write, maybe the stuff that Karim is writing now.
Who did what on the special effects?
Karim: The special effects were primarily done by C.J Goldman, who is a fantastic special effect artist who worked under the supervision and with Adrien Morot, who has gotten quite big recently after working on some major films. We had a very big crew of people who helped out, people by the name of Andre Gaul, Bruno Gatien, Mike Minicucci, and Patrick Tremblay.
Mitch Davis behind Adrien Morot
Mitch: And Karim also did some of the effects too.
Karim. Basically it was CJ Goldman and his team. And Adrien Morot was a huge help giving us a lot of free materials, letting us use his workshop space, and even letting in some of his old props from early films when we couldn’t afford to make them from scratch.
Mitch: Yes, there is a lot of Quebec film history in our movie.
Karim: We can’t really say what they are, but there is some stuff recycled from some big films that you’ve probably seen or heard about.
Who did the Ovarian Body?
Karim: That was Goldman.
Anne Marie Belle observes ovarian eyeball as CJ tests bladder effect
Mitch: Yes, he is an amazing special effects technician. He has been doing this since he was very young. He actually took the old Fangoria-offered Dick Smith make-up course. And I remember meeting him when I was very young about 13, he lived in my neighborhood. I was doing really cheap effects, like ear syringes, and slit writs type effects, and CJ was the only person I knew who had done head casts! He spent all of his money and time working in his basement with toxic fumes and chemicals, and he loved this. And he ended up working on a bunch of my shorts when I was younger and I acted in a film he directed, which I’m sure he would never show to anyone now. He is the type of guy who has been so enthusiastic. Since he started working with us he has gone on to bigger pictures. His development spanned the entire course of our film. Since that time he has worked on the Alan Parker film Mrs. Parker and her Viscous Circle, Species 2 with Adrien. But he worked with us for no money. He gave us the supplies at cost. If we would have had to buy for these effects, just the bust of the woman in the Ovarian Eyeball sequence would have cost half of our budget probably. Because it was so detailed and he is so meticulous. He did a body cast of an actress, Sophie Lauzière, for her lower torso. He put bladders in the abdomen to make it breathe. But when she showed up on set she had actual trimmed her pubic hair in a different way than when he had done his cast, and he was so distraught that he ran to the back and had her sit in front of him naked for about two hours getting it right, plucking each hair in one by one, as he did from the start. And he actually matched it really well.
Karim: The special effects definitely has improved the production value of this film tenfold, especially at the beginning with that dummy. One of the very clever things C.J did was to put a bladder in it to give it the illusion of it breathing, and in all the screenings we’ve had of the film people are convinced that we cut into a body during that sequence.
Mitch: Yes, you hear a big collective gasp at that moment when the scalpel goes through the skin.
Karim: So their collaboration helped immensely. As well the split head of the businessman used at the end. And also another one of the real good dummy heads is that of the brother screaming with all these liquids coming out of his forehead. That was done by CJ’s assistant Andrei Gaul. The baby that gets its throat slashed is actually a recycled baby from another movie, so if its arms look a little odd…
Well I think that is probably the least effective special effect.
Karim: Yes, that is maybe because it was made for another movie.
Mitch: Although we tried to cut it really tight.
Karim: We couldn’t afford to build a new one. But overall the special effects artists were integral in making the film appear much larger than it is. So a big thanks to all those guys who generously helped and took time out of their projects.
The effects also play a part along with the visuals in general of this tension between the beautiful and the ugly. Can you talk a bit about that?
Karim: There is obvious contrast there. One of the conscious things was with the music, composed mainly by Teruhiko Suzuki in Japan, and David Kristian from Montreal who did some music along with the sound design. The music is meant to contrast with a lot of the horrific images in the film, with some very beautiful music in the film over these horrific images. Which of course is a very Italian thing to do. They did that a lot in the 1970’s, with Sergio Leone of course and Cannibal Holocaust, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava. It is effective because it immediately causes a right brain/left brain style confrontation of expectations and emotional linearity. The contrast forces you to take stock and allows the reservoirs in your brain to accept a different type of audio visual experience. So there are a lot of very beautiful aspects mixed in with the horror, not to necessarily say that horror is ugly, but that horror is honest. And honesty is a beautiful thing, usually.
In the Human Larvae section there is a lot of use of the word evil. How do you mean this word?
Karim: The character in the Larvae section is very naive. He does not have social contact. He gets all his information from books. So his conception of evil is idealized. He is like a little boy who is saying, “I want to be evil, I want to go to the other side.” He doesn’t even understand what it means. For him evil is an amusing thing, an ideal to attain. It is a very twisted perception on the concept of evil, probably more weakness than evil.
I don’t think it is used again after that section.
It is quite shocking when the camera pans down and reveals the businessman wearing a cross, because of his behavior.
Karim: He’s not religious. He just wears it as a symbol of respectability, which is clearly pointed out in the film. He wears it to become part of the status quo, like a fashion accessory.
Wouldn’t he take it off when he is sitting in his home masturbating?
Karim: He won’t, because for him it means nothing. He grew up in theory as a Christian, and it was something that was given to him by his parents. And he is the type of guy who would just wear it because he wants to be perceived in business situations as a good guy, even though he does not believe in any of it. He doesn’t go to church. He just abuses religion, much like the people that Christ is screaming to, all the years of history that have been put behind it. It is not necessarily all good history. But a good chunk of that history comes from the people that have abused it for their own purposes.
There is the dream sequence he has where he is laid out under the waterfall with his arms spread…
Karim: Yes, he almost becomes a Christ figure. But that is supposed to be an act of cleansing, the reassuring cleanliness of martyrdom, and the fact that you have done your act of martyrdom, and have gone through this bit. He is clean finally, a true, pure man, and his pure man is just living in the right brain. It is about denial, about the beauty of accepting denial. The beauty of destroying all your duties and left brain obligations. About how fantastic, hypnotic, and poetic it can be to just let go, and live in a world of dreams, and in theory your body will inevitably get destroyed anytime you make that decision.
There is the sequence where he gets the syringe in the head, and it is the cross that gets melted into a heroin-type of drug, free-basing religion…where you thinking of Marx’s famous phrase there, “religion is the opium of the masses”?
Karim: Well at that time when we were doing the picture heroin was plentiful amongst young people. And we had a few quite explicit examples of it around our lives, with no names mentioned (laughter all around). We had seen one particular zealous woman in the building Mitch was living in who was addicted to religion, and we were listening to these people manipulating her horrifically, getting her to send them money, to join crusades. She was like a junkie.
How did the music develop?
Karim: The original score for the film which, like the special effects, we were extremely lucky in getting, is by T. Suzuki, who scored the entire film in Japan. The soundtrack was recorded before we shot. In many cases I would listen to his music and write the script or the shot list to his music, and change or adapt things accordingly. I would tell him the idea for the scene and he would compose several songs, send them to me and I would choose the one I liked best. None of the music or sound design was designed straight for the film, which is how I prefer to work. I would play the music on set, and have the actors move in time to the music, or hear it to understand what we were doing. So Suzuki did a fantastic job, when you see the film with the music it feels so much bigger and fuller, it is almost like a musical in certain sequences because the film is meticulously done to the music.
Mitch: And the music definitely effected the set atmosphere. They already in some cases had trouble visualizing what their bit was going to be like, and sometimes no amount of words would be able to articulate it clearly for them. And we saw how with the music it would immediately change how they moved. Argento had done something similar on Suspiria.
Karim: And D. Lynch does that.
Mitch: But there was a beautiful symbiosis between the images and music. Karim would occasionally send Suzuki shot lists, which he would compose music to and return to Karim as a very focused, broken down procedure. And then Karim would completely change the shot list! So it was great how each one’s imagery would effect the other’s. It came to this beautiful collaboration where Suzuki is almost the co-author of the film because with anybody else the film would not have this level of impact[a1], or beauty, or mystique.
Had he seen the film?
Has he composed for other films?
Karim: He did some music for Mitch’s Divided Into Zero short, and he will in the future I am sure.
This is not from a long lost Kubrick film…Divided Into Zero
Mitch: He has been so supportive. We were friends before the film.
How did you meet?
Mitch: He was here in Montreal. He played bass in a band, and I auditioned for the band once, and we ended up talking more about film than music and hit it off there. His predominate influence for being a musician in the first place was the punk scene, and bands like Iron Maiden and technical heavy metal, but above everything it was the music of Simon Boswell and Claudio Simonetti, Goblin, and John Carpenter, so he was always a film soundtrack type of guy. And even his heavy metal was very poetic and soulful and felt like movie soundtracks. He would write songs based on the Michael Armstrong movie Mark of the Devil and stuff like that. He was a special kind of a guy. Over the years he has written at least four tracks for individual projects of ours that we have never made, and he has never been annoyed by that.
Karim: As well, the special sound design is very important to the film. David Kristian actually got involved on a much larger film called Community that I was doing in Canada at the time, a mainstream horror movie which has become momentarily aborted. He did a lot of the sound design for that when it looked like I was going to be shooting that film a few years ago. Since David had already recorded a lot of stuff for Community which was also appropriate for SC, we just said, alright we will use the tracks we composed for Community for SC. He did a brilliant job. He would spend hours freezing microphones in refrigerators, tape them and electronically distort them afterwards. He uses a lot of old 1970’s type analog synthesizers to manipulate sounds. He would put microphones on his body and walk around into strange places like schoolgirl changing rooms and record their voices and then electronically distort them. So I was given several hours of sound design, about 90% of which was done for Community. Which goes to show you how you hit an economically difficult situation there is always a solution.
Isn’t there an organ during the Christ scene?
Karim: Yes, that is Suzuki’s stuff. A church organ sample. It is important to note that most films these days when they do sound design they just take existing CD’s, and take those library tracks and manipulate them. We only used three sound effects from music library material.
Mitch: And David Kristian hated using those. He is fanatical and will doggedly come up with every sound that he puts into the mix, he prides himself on that. When he uses preexisting noises he pulls his hair out, he’ll recognize the baby cry from Russell’s Gothic as being the baby from the BBC record library and say, “this is crap.” To the point where the wind sounds you hear in both Divided Into Zero and SC are vocals of David’ voice being recorded. He won’t use generic wind tracks. Which shows the level of obsession and determination that man goes for. He is a musician as well with about 15 years of experience.
Who did the trippy, folksy guitar music over the Rebirth segment?
Karim: That’s Suzuki. Which is very inspired by Vangelis, which is beautiful.
Mitch: All the music that had melodies and themes is from Suzuki. Pretty much 98% of the music is by Suzuki.
What did you do to keep sane during the interim seven years? Any key turning point in getting it finished? Any regrets on it taking so long?
Karim: To keep sane I just kept focused on the film. I did not do any drugs and drink while I was doing the film, because I was afraid of losing some of these ideas in my brain. It was difficult to keep sane. There were some dark moments. At one point I didn’t have sex for two years. I slept with the workprint of the film instead, that was my lover, because there was no negative to conform it to! So to keep sane I basically tried to remain obsessively professional.
Mitch: Getting the negative back was a key moment because up until then we would work jobs we didn’t really like and do different things to be able to afford to shoot on the odd weekend, but of course we were always terrified that we were shooting more stuff and throwing it toward a bin that may never really reach completion. We knew that we would somehow resolve this but we couldn’t absolutely say when, and that made us very sick and uneasy throughout the whole time. So when we got the negative back at least we had a real reason to get the completion money because now there was nothing to really stop us. So after getting the negative back it became much more full speed ahead. It still took us a while because we got the negative back in 1997 and at that point we were taking a lot of writing jobs, we were programming for Fantasia, we were travelling a lot, and our lives had changed so much that now we had to be able to find the time when everyone could get together to work as a unit. Everyone else who was working with us for free were in their late teens early twenties but now had wives, some had families, so it was more difficult just to find the time when everyone could get together. But the good thing about the film taking so long is that it is an anthology film, because at least we were able to take the individual segments and start and finish them. Had it been a straight linear narrative movie, it might have worked against us. But as an anthology film it worked to our advantage.
As a final question, do you think the world is ready for your film? Or do you care!
Mitch: It will be in different pockets. It has been before and it will be again. In parts of the world it is right now. It will go over better in war-torn countries, I believe, as most of these films do.
Karim: Well is not whether the world is ready for Subconscious Cruelty, but that Subconscious Cruelty is a product of the world. So if you are ready or not….
Karim Hussain filming the Human Larvae segment
Maybe the question should be, is Subconscious Cruelty ready for the world?
Karim: Yes, I think Subconscious Cruelty is ready for the world, as a product of this universe. If the world is ready for itself, it will be ready for Subconscious Cruelty. If you can look in the mirror and say I can accept who I am, then maybe you will be able to see Subconscious Cruelty. If you hate yourself, then maybe you can’t see it. Subconscious Cruelty was created by the world, so the world will just have to deal with it.
Mitch: But these kinds of films, because they aren’t connected in any real way to pop culture, they are timeless films. They will always find their audiences in little waves. It is not so much a question of generation. I think at different times people from different countries will relate. North America right now may not relate to it as much as in five years from now, or three years. But these kinds of movies will always have a vitality. Even if we have outgrown them while making them.
Karim: Well it is not that we’ve outgrown them, but we’ve developed, changed as people. If we were the exact same when we finished the film as when we started that would be a horrible thing. We try to move ahead in life and not swim without legs.