Journey ‘Beyond The Black Rainbow’ with Director Panos Cosmatos

on Tuesday, Nov. 15th

One thing that makes a genre fan a genre fan — whether you call them a geek, nerd, or otaku — is their unique capacity to fall completely in love with a creative work. Be it film, game, or comic book, the object of devotion overwhelms the nervous system and transports the imagination of the fan into another realm.

This is what happened to me while watching Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond The Black Rainbow (read our review) at AFI Fest last week. So it was with great joy that I discovered that Cosmatos is a kindred spirit, a fellow geek whose fascinations span the range of midnight movies, 70’s sci-fi, the occult, and the depths of the human psyche.

The nature of Cosmatos’ film, which in many ways is the quintessential midnight movie, means that it is limited in its appeal. Yet the audience it is destined to attract — cinephiles and genre hounds — are already beginning to rally to its dark banners.  No less than the reigning king of the geeks, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim) has professed his fascination with the film on Twitter.

To set the scene properly for the interview that follows, I’m going to share with you the director’s statement on Beyond The Black Rainbow, Cosmatos’ glorious freakout film that conjures up a modernist nightmare world out of the remnants of the pop culture of his childhood. The story is of a seemingly demonic psychotherapist named Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) and his lone patient: an apparently psychic girl named Elena (Eva Allen) who has deep ties to Nyle’s mysterious past.

I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated films when I was a kid, but when we’d go to the video store in the corner, a mom and pop shop called Video Attic, I’d obsessively look at all the horror movie video tapes. I was mesmerized by the lurid box covers and the vivid descriptions on the back. So I’d imagine, in great detail, my own versions of these movies without ever having seen them. That was one of the key inspirations for the film. The idea of making one of those imagined movies.

The mood of the film is my memory of how the late 70s and early 80s felt to me. Both the reality and the fantasy world of the pop culture i would immerse myself in. I think in making it I was trying to grasp something intangible. It’s a nostalgic movie, but it’s a poisoned nostalgia.

After a couple of informal chats at festival mixers and on Twitter about our shared love of genre films, Cosmatos and I sat for a formal interview.

Noah Nelson: You call it a “poisoned nostalgia” in the press notes.

Panos Cosmatos: Nostalgia by definition is looking through the past through rose-colored glasses so this is looking through the past through more of an acerbic lens.

NN: I liked this idea of you standing in the video store dreaming up what these lurid video boxes might be.

PC: After my father passed away I got kinda nostalgic for my childhood and my past, so I started watching all the films I was into back then in a much more emotional way, I would say. But I realized I wanted to make a film that was about the past, but I didn’t want to make a film that glorified it or looked at it in a purely nostalgic way but in a much darker way.

NN: Were you in psychotherapy as a kid?

PC: Not as a kid. I did go into therapy after my father died… for a while. Not with a psychiatrist but a psychologist.

My mother had died in 1997 and I hadn’t at all dealt with that. I completely just compartmentalized it and not dealt with the grief at all. So when my father died it compounded. I realized that if I didn’t deal with [his death], it would really [screw] me up, so I just went into therapy.

NN: Was your therapist then part of the inspiration for the sinister Barry Nyle in the film?

PC: Maybe. My therapist was actually a really mellow Buddhist guy that I really got along with. But I’m always drawing inspiration from wherever and I think that experience of going to therapy made its way into the script because of that. But it’s not at all a reflection of the reality of it.

NN: Well and there’s something to really calm Buddhist people that sometimes you think they’re actually-

PC: Sociopaths?

NN: Yeah. No. Absolutely.

PC: I think every therapist — in general a lot of them — have a strange side to them.

[Ed Note: Cosmatos’  immersion in film was deeper than video store love. His late father, the director George P. Cosmatos made such films as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone. Still, it was the work of other 80s era directors that inspired him to pursue the craft.]

PC: The two movies that made me want to make — realize in a very crystal way — that I wanted to make movies was seeing Evil Dead 2 and After Hours back to back. And I think it was the really dynamic, exaggerated use of camera and sound in those films that made me sort of, clicked in my mind “that’s what a director does.” The potential of the director.

Now as I’ve gotten older, and a lot of time has gone by since then, for a while there I wanted to just make Evil Dead 2. That was kinda what I wanted to make when I was younger, when I was a teenager. Over the years I’ve kinda drifted away from that and also in the meantime it seems like every guy and his mother made their version of Evil Dead 2.

NN: Yeah.

PC: Weaker and weaker versions. So I just completely lost interest in doing that kind of film. I think its just the dynamic cinematic style of them. The very exaggerated artificial camera moves.

NN: There’s so much of the 60’s freak-out movie stuff and that super modernist use of color.

PC: What I had in my mind in a very universal way, I don’t think I articulated this to anybody, maybe the DP. I was just thinking about Michael Mann a lot of the time while I was shooting it.

NN: Oh God, Red Dragon.

PC: Manhunter.

NN: Manhunter.  [Here I’m an idiot. Red Dragon was the Thomas Harris book that Manhunter was drawn from. Brian Cox plays Hannibal Lecter. It was remade by Brett Ratner with Anthony Hopkins in the role he made famous. In my defense I read the book before I saw either film.]

PC: Manhunter. The Keep. Even his newer films like Heat and Miami Vice. Were actually sort of in my mind at certain times.

NN: But the hallways in Manhunter, and the hallways in here, there’s a lot of resonance.

PC: I just wanted to make something that… I think that Michael Mann is an incredibly modernist filmmaker and I wanted to have the sort of overall omniscience of the film be as modern as possible. That’s why I was thinking about him.

NN: Now when did you come to the decision to mic Michael Rogers so close. Because that texture…

PC: Yup.

NN: … you get out of him was completely unnerving…

PC: Yup.

NN: …and it sets the tone beautifully.

PC: That might have been a happy accident. In that, you know, that room in particular had a lot of reverb in it because of the materials. So we had this raw audio and when me and Eric were mixing the movie he sort of suggested maybe me should soften it. We tried softening it but it completely lost its impact, so we decided to keep it crisp and it was a lot more unnerving that way. It’s just the sort of thing that came out in the process.

NN: I guess a related question in my mind. Why go from the 4:3 aspect ratio that starts the film to Cinemascope?

PC: I don’t think I would ever make a movie that’s not Cinemascope. I just like it. It’s the most cinematic aspect ratio. I just like the feel of it. It’s the most photographic.

NN: But the decision to start in one format, to have a complete prologue…

PC: I think the inspiration for that was the opening of The Road Warrior which starts in 4:3 and then blows up into Cinemascope. It’s one of my favorite openings to a film ever. I don’t think I consciously did it, but it probably went to the back of my mind because I’ve probably seen that film more than any other film.

I liked the idea of starting a film with a prologue that sort of explains the world, and then having it blow up and be like “now its a movie”. Now you’re watching the full movie.

[Ed Note: At key points in the film Cosmatos draws on occult imagery to illustrate the depths to which Nyle’s mind and soul have become twisted by his experiences.]

PC: I’ve always been fascinated by the occult to a certain extent. I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessive about it or anything like that.

For me the occult stuff came probably from the 60s generation. The baby boomers attempting to find spiritually and also drifting into strange occult and darker areas. Sort of corrupting their ideals.

NN: At the end Nyle becomes, for lack of a better term, a demon. Is this… are you pessimistic about humanity?

PC: I think maybe I’m just sort of expressing a cynical attitude towards the baby boomers more than humanity in general.

NN: I think I spent most of the 90s ranting about that generation and how they failed us miserably.

PC: I think they can take a little criticism, you know?

NN: They were spoiled and got away with murder…

PC: Lord knows they criticize us enough.

***

When Beyond The Black Rainbow begins to infect art houses with it’s unique brand of poisoned nostalgia next year a whole new generation of otaku is destined to be spawned.

Beyond The Black Rainbow, written and directed by Panos Cosmatos screened as part of the AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi.

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