“Intense” barely covers it. Taking inspiration from a Dylan Thomas poem, Matt Lambert’s new short film is a morbid tour de force that draws you in, spits you out, and compels you to watch it again. Here Matt opens up the heart of darkness of a film that combines surrealism, surprising restraint and truly excellent sound design.What was it about the poem We Who Were Young Are Old that resonated with you?
My Dad turned me on to Dylan Thomas when I was a kid. His poetry has grown with me and I’ve built a personal relationship with it, the words taking on new meaning as I’ve gotten older.
This is probably the most personal piece I’ve made so far. It’s a sotry of children who go to war and come back as old men. There are traumatic events in one’s life, often self-initiated, that cause you to leap bounds forward developmentally…
I love the sound design – the reading of the poem is resonant of the old crackly Dylan Thomas recordings – although more ominous! Was that something you had in mind when you made the film?
The VO was recorded in studio by JD Smyth, an editor at Final Cut, NYC that I’ve worked in the past. I was initially were thinking someone whose voice fit with the boy’s, but the formal and operatic qualities of the film pointed to a more omniscient and dramatic voice over.
Terressa Tate at Final Cut NYC’s, Royal T Room, created the original score. Throughout the editing process with Pete O’Donovan at Final Cut, LA, we worked completely mute. Structurally everything made sense, but with such subtle visuals and several undefined elements, it lacked life.
As Terressa defined the string and fabric elements and built out the ambient space, I was blown away by how much of a pulse the film started to have.
Watching the film I was struck by how it managed to be both morbid and restrained – which I think made it all the more unsettling. How did you go about developing these darker ideas that thread throughout the film?
A lot of this past year for me has been about restraint – both narrative and visual. I’ve been pulling back from a lot of the ‘maximalist’ work I’ve seen around me, some of which I had part in.
A year ago, I would’ve gone for pure shock value – blood and gore.
However, I’ve been influenced by directors like Michael Haneke who find ways to evoke intense emotion through implication. In ‘Benny’s Video’ there is a 4 minute murder scene that plays almost entirely off-camera. It’s through audio that he’s able to pull the viewer in and have them paint an even more graphic picture in their minds. Give people less and they’ll create more. Books still manage to be pretty damn visual and evocative.
For me, German Expressionism has also had a magical quality with its visual implication. As a stylistic, and often economically-driven, rebellion to Hollywood, there is a restraint and iconic simplicity that pushed their cinema to the operatic and hyper-real.
I love the combination of the moody, dark, ‘realist’ atmosphere with the jewels and bright red strings – it lends an understated otherworldliness. It looks deceptively simple, but how did you pull it off? And what practical challenges did these seemingly simple effects present?
Hyper-real and surrealism was what I was after — real and raw, but with a dreamy quality. Coming from a strong VFX background, I was so tempted to go wild with technique. However, I think subtly of it’s effects is one of the film’s biggest strengths.
For this film, we had zero money. Therefore clever and simple techniques were the only option. The blood was just yarn and sheets of cloth. For example, in the shot with the hand, we wrapped Patrick’s hand in string and just pulled it up through his sleeve and reversed the footage.
We were then lucky enough to augment those existing elements with some subtle treatments from the amazing folks over at The Mill in LA and Gavin Camp, the Flame artist.
The sound design is really the thing that brings all these visual elements together though…
The film is dedicated to Patrick Wessel, the actor in the film who sadly passed away. What are your memories of working with him on the film?
I struggled with whether or not to finish the film because of this. Patrick was diagnosed pretty extreme cancer not too long after shooting. Not only was he a friend, but the content of the film felt so morbid on its surface.
He passed away the night before the final sound mix. It was such a surreal and dark experience, but I realized I needed to be selfless at this point and just make the best thing I could to honor him.
Last time you were on the YDA blog, we were chatting about Bare Bones – how’s that going? Any new plans for it?
Yeah, Bare Bones is evolving quite rapidly and has definitely been a great counterpoint to the more introverted and cerebral personal work I’ve been doing lately.
We just had another London exhibition at the Red Gallery – a space about 5 times the size of our last shows in London and NYC. For a second time, I had a bunch of filmmakers (David Wilson, Radical Friend, Champagne Valentine, Hayley Morris, AG Rojas, Julia Pott, Sam Mason, Ryan Rothermel and myself) create original films.
Here’s the trailer for vol. 2:
Next up is trying to do something small out in LA in February and perhaps something a little more involved in Berlin in the Spring as I’m heading there next.