Masks, Melanoma, Mutilation: The Haunting Films of James Fotopoulos
by Sam Weisberg
Growths. Contusions. Gaping head wounds. Pus. Mannequins with limbs missing. Neutral masks. Decaying masks (sometimes sketched in computer ink over the frame, sometimes sculpted in clay, sometimes worn by actors). Kangaroo masks. Gorilla masks. Drawings of centaurs, gargoyles, medieval torture chambers. Nipples. Conch shells that look like nipples. A man penetrating an ape mask with a dildo. A man penetrating his own gunshot wound (in his stomach). Lots and lots of scrawled words (Sample: “Dripping velvet,” “I grabbed your leg,” “forked penis.”) Tracking shots of bucolic or peaceful scenes (forests, dunes, foamy oceans, etc.), to contrast severely with these aforementioned grotesque or scary things. Storyboard-like drawings superimposed over blurry portraits, squiggly lines, nude models. Nudity, nudity, nudity.
Looped guitar squalls (some performed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore). Synthesizer beeps that resemble hearing exam noises. Out-of-tune thumb pianos churning out the same rudimentary riff. Screams. Female ululations. Hissing. Static. Phrases and clauses–some pornographic, some opaque, some both–that are repeated in a monotonous lull, often for ten minutes straight (sample: “Fuck my ass.” “I am your wife, save me.” “Over and over again.”) Warbling, computerized female voices (like a less friendly Siri). Voice-overs played deliberately out of sync with shots of lips moving. References to both the Old and New Testaments. Talk of shit, talk of vomit, talk of urination, talk of sexual fetishes involving all three (not to mention necrophilia and bestiality).
Sepia film stock. Red stock, blue stock, green stock. Grainy VHS-quality footage. Surveillance camera footage. Sped-up film. Scenes shot in black box theaters and other spacious rooms with lots of inevitable background noise. Replayed video footage of actual terrorist beheadings, Prime Minister assassinations, public beatings.
This is just a sampling of the visceral images and sounds you will behold in James Fotopoulos’ vast portfolio of films, often presented in similarly staccato fashion. (Most of the 30 or so films I watched, shot between 1995 and 2015 and ranging in length from 56 seconds to nearly two and a half hours, are available only upon request, via Fotopoulos’ company Fantasma Inc.. His first three feature-length–and most plot-driven–releases, “Zero,” “Migrating Forms” and “Back Against the Wall,” are sold commercially on one DVD). Some of Fotopolous’ works (most notably “Hymn”–his only film, despite a generous portion of graphic nudity and sexual content in his movies, to show unsimulated sex–“Christabel,” an ode to the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name,” and “The River,” a fever-inducing cocktail of clanging music, swirling red blobs and embryo-like drawings) register more like museum installation pieces than cinematic works. In fact, some have been shown at museums as prestigious as The Whitney.
Others, though the dialogue may be impenetrable at times, have a more coherent plot structure. In Fotopoulos’ debut “Zero” (shot when he was only 19), for instance, a backwoods loner plagued with a malignant tumor falls in love with, and then rapes and desecrates, a mannequin. (The film achieves far more depth, sadness and creepiness than James Franco’s own take on necrophilia, 2013’s “Child of God.”) “Migrating Forms” and “Back Against the Wall” also explore sexual deviance and abuse.
After this trifecta of early films gained some press notice and festival coverage, around the early 2000s, Fotopoulos’ films became a bit more abstract, favoring drawings, voice collages and pointedly synthetic tape loops in lieu of a structured story. But in the past few years, as the budgets have gradually increased, he has returned to more narrative–if no less disturbing–moviemaking, and has begun working with artists carrying more name recognition (such as indie filmmaker darlings Joe Swanberg and David Zellner). More recent films like “There” and “Dignity” are meditations on post-war trauma; “The Given” is a riveting, chaotic look at a particularly self-flagellating actress (filled with unnervingly lengthy monologues, it’s certainly the first Fotopoulos film in which the name John Cassavetes entered my mind). A few of the newer films are bizarre conceptual pieces about real-life figures, such as “Chimera,” which imagines Ronald Reagan and former CIA Director William Casey meeting up on a distant, barren planet, and “Untitled (Thanks, Get In…),” in which Zellner plays an openly gay Cary Grant chauffeuring–and attempting to seduce–a young Hollywood upstart.
Though it’s hard to detect any deliberate humor in these movies (and though Fotopoulos in person is serious and soft-spoken), some of my personal favorites were the ones that made me laugh out loud. In “The Ant Hill,” Fotopoulos not only evokes the amateurishness of black box theater troupes (stilted blocking, outrageous overacting, very fake-looking props and special effects); he also invents a hilarious form of simulated sex, that of naked people writhing next to each other, but not touching, on a mattress. In “Spine Face,” a relatively short film, robotic male and female voices chirp such berserk commands at each other as “Turn around and let me put my nose upon your anus.”
But laughter was certainly not my standard reaction to these films, which I watched between May and November. Most of the films have at least one or two memorably terrifying images that are hard to shake, and that is commendable in this age of third-rate, disposable horror fare. Most of the full-frontal nudity on display is either of the art-class posing variety, or is used for grotesque purposes, but in a few films Fotopoulos achieves genuine eroticism (most notably the teasing shot of a woman’s damp face and neckline, post-coitus, in “There”). Thinking back, I am most blown away by Fotopoulos’ mastery of film stocks and lighting. Long after VHS had bitten the dust as a standard media format, he worked overtime to give several of his films a grainy, pirated video feel. He’s a storyboard perfectionist–his “Alice in Wonderland” adaptation, mostly a collection of drawings, plays like a storyboard flip-book, with music attached. And I was especially haunted by the surveillance camera-like footage of three mental patients–two of them decked out in terrifying neutral masks–in“Esophagus” (pictured above).
I got in touch with Fotopoulos shortly after a retrospective of his rare and not-so-rare films screened at Williamsburg’s Spectacle Theater, last spring. He was easily one of the most responsive and generous people I’ve featured so far on this blog. I spoke with him once over the phone and once in person in Bushwick, over the summer. The following are excerpts from these interviews.
Sam Weisberg: When you first got into filmmaking, what film styles or directors did you hate?
James Fotopoulos: I didn’t hate any films. My films weren’t a reaction to certain types of filmmaking. I started making movies so young, in the early ’90s. It was always something I wanted to do. I was really interested in special effects, fantasy films. Then when I got more articulate, the films that really affected me were older Hollywood films, like John Ford. I liked Bergman, also, and Raoul Walsh.
SW: Watching “Zero,” I got the sense that there were many limitations in mainstream film, the way they’re lit, the way they’re framed, that maybe bored you.
JF: They didn’t bore me. I made “Zero” when I was 18, so a lot of [the visuals] were due to production limitations. At the Spectacle, they showed all my 16mm films, and I know people are really interested in that format now. But at the time, I only shot on 16mm because I couldn’t afford 35mm. 16mm was just a step to 35mm.
The tinting and toning of my early movies came out of old Hollywood movies. I still am not that interested in experimental cinema. I remember Chicago had this collection [of silent films] at the Art Institute, where everything was tinted and toned, which was once more common.
The films I made between the ages of 18 and 24–that was pure instinct, pure emotion. It was so intense for me and I wasn’t articulating all that much. I was just driven to get these things made, at all costs. They were all very low budget. A lot of them were devised around having no budget.
SW: What was your lowest budget film and highest budget film to date, among the features?
JF: “There” was probably the highest budget. Which was sort of a medium size film budget. “The Ant Hill” cost like $500. “Jerusalem” [a quartet of films that also includes “Conjunction,” “Sublimation” and “The Pearl”] cost nothing. It was the cost of renting the tape and a hotel room. The actors doing the voices did it for nothing.
SW: I know you briefly attended film school at Columbia College. Did you apply to many different film schools?
JF: No. My parents thought I should go to college and all I was interested in in high school was film. I had already taken a summer course at Columbia when I was 15, on 16mm filmmaking. Columbia had no admissions policy, they just let you in there.
SW: So there was no backup plan?
JF: No, it was film or nothing else. I knew that by 15.
SW: What were the highs and lows of your experience there?
JF: I dropped out after two semesters. It just didn’t gel with me. I was so focused on what I wanted to do. I shot two shorts while attending Columbia, and immediately when I started shooting “Zero,” I just dropped out. I was just so tunnelvisioned. I was gonna make a feature, and I wasn’t gonna listen to what they told me.
I didn’t dislike the school. It’s just that there was no one at the time to really tell you the way to get a movie made, out in the world. This was over twenty years ago, so it might be different now, but they just sort of broke things down in very simple ways, like “This is a classical way of lighting and this is a classical way of editing.” And if you watch enough films, you know that half that stuff doesn’t even apply.
I was already pretty self-operational. I was good at organizing people, [to appear in] the short films. On the second short film, which had sound, the school was really annoyed because I needed a 17-track mix. They didn’t want people to go past five tracks.
I had to read books on how to get films made, how to cut negatives. There was a laboratory called Spectrum, which has since closed down. It was out in Carol Stream, Illinois. It was run by these older guys who had been processing film since World War II when they were in the Navy. They learned that when they were drafted. They took me in, and I was there every week, and they were showing me all this stuff that no school could have taught me.
Doing “Zero” was the biggest learning process. I cut the negative on those films. I worked in the lab doing color-timing. And the mistakes that happened, you’re not gonna learn in classes. On “Zero,” we had to reshoot half of it because the film got stolen off the truck, on the way to the lab.
SW: What kinds of films were they assigning at Columbia?
JF: It was your standard film school films. “The Rules of the Game,” “Citizen Kane.” On my own at the library, I remember watching the films of Napoleon Chagnon [anthropologist who collaborated on films about the Yanomamö villagers, in Brazil and Venezuela]. I was really into “The Ax Fight.”
Actually, I remember I saw Godard’s “Numero Deux,” which is a great film. And there were some very radical movies out there, and that sensibility mixed with mine. I drew a lot, too. I was interested in special effects. I played guitar. There were all these different interests I had.
SW: I was going to ask if you had perfect pitch, because there’s lots of deliberately dissonant music in your films.
JF: I don’t know if I do. I wasn’t formally trained. I just started playing guitar, around 12. When I was 14, I started to play around with synthesizers and recording on four-tracks.
SW: Did you play the eerie, repetitive xylophone part in “Zero”?
JF: No, my friend Tom Thrill did. It was actually a kalimba, like a thumb-piano. He also did [the score for] “Migrating Forms.” He came back in 2007 for a bunch of stuff, and I haven’t actually seen him since. I don’t know if he does music anymore. Some of the film scores I’ve done myself, like “Trinity” and “The Sky Song.”
For “Families,” a lot of the ambiance was done with synthesizers, things that sounded like wind. For “The Nest,” I wanted the sound done as simply as possible, like the early sound films. It was mixed on set. Everything was done live, with some pre-mixing. By that time, I knew the lab I used would do whatever I wanted, but it was pretty unorthodox. “Hymn” was very technical, we had a sine wave, two tones crossing through each other. “Christabel” was very elaborate sound-wise, and “Esophagus” was, too.
SW: I wanted to ask if you used the title “Esophagus” because everyone in it seems to be using the voice-modulated software and can’t speak.
JF: I don’t remember why. That’s an interesting interpretation. I have very little memory of it, though it took four years to make. It was supposed to be the next film after “Zero.” What slowed it down was the scratching I did on the film. I did that frame by frame, animating all those little lines [over the images].
SW: The computer voice in “Esophagus” that’s played over the mental institution/rubber room footage at the beginning–where the same lines repeat and repeat–seem to be a dialogue of some sort, even though there’s only one voice speaking. There’s a mysterious third person mentioned in the dialogue (“I’m not watching him today,” etc.), which makes me think it’s two hospital inmates talking about a very deranged third inmate.
JF: I don’t even remember writing that. I wrote that movie in 1997. I think it was going to be much longer. We shot a lot of stuff for it early on that never got used. The story was supposed to go back to the origins of the universe and then all the way into the future. We built these tetrapods that we shot coming out of a river, several times. The final version was pretty condensed.
The surveillance room idea came about because we were shooting in a warehouse, and there was an office there with barely any space. Just this flimsy square structure set up in there. At the time, plasma screens had just come out, and we moved the camera above the screens to get that [haunting] look.
We got the computer voices from an AT&T program. I used that for [several films]. I was trying to do a synthetic, artificial thing, making it as devoid of the influence of actors as possible.
SW: Given when it was made, the computer voices sound pretty advanced. You programmed the voice to say words like “Noooo” with a certain degree of emotion.
JF: You had to play around with it a lot. We worked on a different film that had 14 hours of that stuff. We ended up abandoning it.
SW: Do you think you might return to that device again?
JF: I don’t rule anything out, but I have no plans to. What I’m doing now is a lot different from all that work.
SW: Speaking of early stuff, how did you find that creepy shack locale for “Zero”?
JF: At the time I was living in Chicago, close to the lake, but we went out to the western suburbs, near O’Hare. There were all these forest preserves. The shack [the main character] lives in, we shot that in the basement of a restaurant. Someone was running a ballerina studio out of the basement, and there was a living quarter attached to it.
SW: How’d you find the lead actor [Matthew Buckley]?
JF: He was a musician we knew, and sort of a character. He was in some of the shorts I did, while at Columbia. “Substitute” was shot in a hotel room, and it was also about a man [copulating] with a mannequin. And “Tranquility,” the second one, was a little bit different but it took place in the same location [as “Zero”], that basement dwelling. It was in color. “Zero” kind of expanded on those themes.
SW: How do you normally find cast members?
JF: For the early films, I cast people I knew, or I moved through people I knew to find actors. Starting with “Back Against the Wall” and “Christabel,” I put out casting call alerts in the trades. The actors sent me their reels and I’d go through that stuff. In some cases, they were replaced. I often replaced them in the middle of productions or right before them. “Migrating Forms,” for instance, took a long time because people quit when it came down to doing it.
SW: What was their reason for quitting, exactly?
JF: When that film was made, nobody knew who I was. None of my films were playing publicly. On “Zero,” there were a lot of people not taking the film seriously. With regard to them quitting, it’s hard for me to really understand what they were thinking. Sometimes they just aren’t that serious, or are weirded out by it.
When I finished “Zero,” the next film I was gonna do was “Esophagus,” and no one wanted to do it. So then I was gonna do “The Nest.” We had the equipment, we had the film, and then the actors agreed. They saw “Zero,” and they immediately quit. So I went to shoot “Back Against the Wall.” And it wasn’t until three or four years later that I shot “The Nest” again. [NOTE: It was released in 2003, and “Esophagus” came out in 2004].
SW: It must be maddening when people quit last minute. Is it hard to keep your cool in such moments?
JF: No, I’m pretty good at keeping my cool on films. It’s part of the process.
SW: I noticed almost all your films have at least one scene of graphic nudity. When you’re getting headshots sent in, do you tell the applicants they must be comfortable with nudity, or do you go after art class students that have already posed nude?
JF: I put that requirement up front in the ads. No one gets there and is then told they have to be nude! Earlier on, I just knew people that would be comfortable. Art students, people like that.
SW: Do your films tend to come in at the desired length or is there always a lot of trimming?
JF: It varies. In most of my films, I aim for that 80, 90, 120-minute range. For my early films, only “Migrating Forms” was longer [than intended]. It was two hours and I cut it down to 80 minutes. More recently, in “There” and “The Given,” for whatever reason, there were a lot of scenes cut, subplot things that just got lost.
The early narratives were storyboarded and very rigid. I was using film at that time and if you made a mistake, it was too expensive [to fix]. Over the years, the methods sort of fluctuated, though in “Dignity,” everything in there was in the storyboard, too. The more abstract works like “Jerusalem” are looser in terms of how they unfold, they’re more fluid.
SW: How long do your shoots usually take?
JF: It depends. For the early films, my pre-productions were six months long and they were very thorough in terms of choosing the people and gelling the lights. For “The Given,” the process was unusual in that the script was very long and we rehearsed for nine months with [lead actress] Sophie [Traub], to shape it. Whereas “There,” the shoot was, like, 17 days. It followed a more traditional filmmaking mode.
SW: Was that because Sophie wanted to rehearse that long?
JF: No, the script was very strange for “The Given.” It was difficult dialogue to memorize and there was an extremity to the acting. It’s sort of grotesque, the range of it is all over the place, which is the point. I wrote it in 2005 and it was much different. It was a combination of fragments of images, and there were some drawings in the script. I was hired on this film that never got made, but I was involved in it for two years–
SW: “Area Six,” right?
JF: Yeah. [NOTE: “Area Six” was an adaptation of Jay Bonansinga’s 2001 crime novel “The Sleep Police,” to be directed by Fotopoulos and produced by Kimberly Shane O’Hara and Eric Klein. Shooting was slated to begin in the spring of 2006.] For a number of reasons, it collapsed.
JF: It was a legal issue. It had to do with the producers’ options. I wasn’t involved in any of that stuff.
But I spent a couple days with a homicide detective and he told me this crazy story about a murder case he was on, which was very disturbing. I fashioned a script, sort of, from that. And that was what “The Given” originated as, but I didn’t think I was ever going to make it.
Sophie worked with some other friends of mine, and I knew what she could do. When she got on board, we approached it a lot differently. It wasn’t gonna be a traditional film. It was gonna be a strange, actorly experiment, and almost all of it fell on her to interpret. She didn’t request that amount of time [to spend on it]. She just trusted me and I trusted her. And I think she did a great job.
SW: Was there a lot of improvisation in that performance?
JF: No, everything she says is scripted, except the party scene. The script was written in a column-type form, like word fragments. So Sophie had to really work at getting her interpretation right. And the performance was very image-based. I would relay visuals to her. We worked for a while shaping that. Her movement was one of the first things I was interested in. We worked that heavily into the film, how she commanded herself physically. A lot of the sleepwalking stuff came out of that. She was a very physical actress.
It was supposed to be a very simple film. I wanted it to be very brief and very quiet and not very complicated in how it unfolds.”There” and “Dignity” were very graphic in terms of the visuals. They were weighted-down films. And “The Given” was sort of the opposite. We did shoot specifically with certain lenses, which I always do, but the other two were shot on Red cameras, with a very elaborate post-production process. This was much more fluid.
SW: Do you personally know the outcome in these films, even the very abstract ones, where much of the talking is done by people we never see? Like in “The Fountain” there are three female characters but we only see two of them, the other one is only heard in voice-over. There are three similar-looking scenes with the same voice-over dialogue replayed, but one character’s voice changes to a little girl’s. And sometimes one actress reads all three characters’ lines. That’s a theme in many of your films. But even if we don’t know everything going on, do you know the outcome, if there even is an outcome?
JF: Sometimes I do. Sometimes the process of making those films, it’s like a blueprint when you go in. There’s fragments of these ideas, and they change while you’re doing them. Sometimes, I learn things through the production of the film itself. You have to be clear to some extent [on what the story is] to get the films made, because everyone wants everything sort of explained when you’re making them. You have to have a script to show people. So it’s a balancing act, where enough of it makes sense to me, but enough of it is open so that when all the parts come together, it shifts into something new.
At the retrospective at Spectacle, some of those films I hadn’t seen in almost 15 years. Sometimes it takes me a couple of years to really process what the emotional force of doing those films was.
When I did “Untitled (Thanks. Get In…)” with [visual artist Raymond] Pettibon and David Zellner, I didn’t write that script, Raymond did, so that was a much different process.
SW: That movie also involved [SST Records producer] Joe Carducci. How’d you get involved with the whole SST label scene?
JF: Well, I’m not involved with that scene. Joe Carducci was the first person that put my work out, but I didn’t know what any of these connections were. “Zero” was released through Provisional which was a label that he had, with Bill Stevenson and a few other guys. It was a video label in the mid-90s. Joe and I also had the company Thermidor [Releasing] together. We formed it in 2007. We first got together with Raymond in 2003, but we didn’t really get to the first film of his until 2007. We wanted to do an omnibus. Raymond had four scripts, and we settled on three. We completed “Untitled,” we shot another one which I don’t think is completed, and the third one we never shot. Thermidor then tried to make “Epsilon Indi,” a science fiction film that Joe wrote. We spent 2008 and 2009 in development on “Epsilon” and were planning to shoot it in Austin and San Francisco, but the project fell apart, mainly because of special effects-related issues. We dissolved Thermidor, I think in 2012.
Anyway, the idea of “Untitled” was pretty basic. They’re just driving in a car. We shot Zellner and [co-star David] Nordstrom actually driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, for some of it. And for the rest, they sat in a car in a garage up in the Hollywood Hills, and we shot it fairly robotically, with reverse angles, and a greenscreen.
SW: Was Pettibon around to consult?
JF: No. Early on we talked about shooting them actually driving around for the whole film, but I didn’t want to do that. The dialogue for Zellner was really epic and he did a great job, as did Nordstrom, but it would have been hard for Zellner to remember those lines while actually driving, and to have the compositions work that way.
Also, Pettibon’s videos have their own aesthetic. They are really great videos, but I didn’t want to approach it like that at all. I just wanted to tap into that lo-fi, grimy production quality but have it be more of a movie concept. Kind of an Edgar Ulmer’s “Detour”-type thing, since half of that is in a car as well.
SW: I know that was your only L.A. shoot. Were the rest shot in the Chicago area?
JF: Everything was shot there until L.A., and then we shot “Dignity” in Austin. “The Given” was shot in New York. “There” was shot in Chicago because it was supposed to take place in a Midwestern area. I’m pretty transient, I’m pretty mobile.
SW: You mentioned earlier that for some films you wanted the acting to be deliberately artificial. The synopsis I read of “Families” mentioned that there was a mix of actors and non-actors. How do you find non-actors?
JF: That’s not really accurate. The only non-actors were these sort of talking head parts. I knew a guy who was a paramedic. I knew a preacher-type guy whose mother died. We were going down into southern Illinois to shoot farmland, and someone knew some kid down there. But all the other parts, like those guys playing cards, those were actors. They came out of Chicago theater. The [deliberate] stiltedness–the actors had to do that. Non-actors can’t do that.
SW: “The Ant Hill” was deliberately actorish, like the black box theater at my college. I felt that it was kind of making fun of some of the limitations of black box theater. Or shooting a movie in a black box theater. You want to do a death scene and you have limited time, props and budget, so someone gets stabbed with a toy sword and then in the next shot his body just disappears!
JF: That was shot in like one day or something. It was very artificial. It was like doing a high school play taken to the extreme–
SW: –a high school play with beheadings!
JF: It was sort of that public access world, like in “Conjunction.” The thing that fascinated me about public access was, you’d see stuff that the filmmakers didn’t know how to execute. Around the time I made “Jerusalem,” they’d show films of local theater. There were students that would put on these plays they wrote. They were making things up I’d never think of. They would dissolve into a lamp and pull back out, and their backs would always be to the camera.
“The Ant Hill” was meant to be a public access-type thing with really brutal subject matter. We rented the stage in some amateur Shakespeare theater-type place, and we shot it almost in sequence. The forest scenes were heavily processed on the computer. In some of those films, like “Ant Hill” and “The Mirror Mask,” [I was going for] an extreme level of artifice. I wasn’t trying to replicate reality, but to show a dollar store collection of these images. When the Internet started showing things for real, I wanted to do something different, something representative. Like the sex scene in “The Ant Hill” where the people are just squirming naked next to each other. Anyone can see “real” sex if they want to.
SW: Speaking of which, is “Hymn” the only film you did with unsimulated sex?
JF: Yes. We just tried to make it look real in other films.
SW: New York City had a crazily entertaining public access television roster in the ’90s. There was a show called “Sick and Wrong” that opened up with the R. Budd Dwyer suicide footage. Besides the weird theater shows, what was the Chicago public access scene like? What was the most fucked up thing you saw?
JF: It wasn’t quite like New York’s. What fascinated me was this Christian Science puppet show, where they would sing Mary Baker Eddy songs. It was around 2000. But the first thing that captured my mind, regarding video, wasn’t public access. It was the “Max Headroom” pirate video, in Chicago in the ’80s. It was so strange and unexpected. It broke in [as a deliberate signal interruption] during a “Doctor Who” episode [in 1987]. The look, the texture, the masks, the strange logic of it, that was always in my head.
SW: There sure are a lot of mutated and neutral masks in your work.
JF: Masks go back to the beginning of my work, to “Zero.” I made all those masks. Only when I got to “Dignity” did I stop making stuff. I had effects people make stuff, from that point on.
SW: What else drew you to the raw video aesthetic?
JF: Well, by the mid-90s, video was coming in a more aggressive way. Kodak started changing stocks because of it. Ilford briefly made a 16mm stock, which is what I used on “Migrating Forms.” People were cross-processing films, bypassing the bleaching stage, leaving the silver on the negatives. But stuff was being shot on video, so even then I knew I’d be using it.
When I made “Christabel,” the shots I had in mind, you couldn’t print on 16mm. The negative wouldn’t have survived. So I was thinking of video imagery, and also that Paintbox computer program from the late ’80s. “Christabel” was a hybrid production.
When I got to “Jerusalem,” I’d done video stuff like “Christabel,” but it was very computer-processed. I wanted to flip the process upside down. I was going for this weird, pirated, public access-type thing.
SW: I’m a huge proponent of holding on to your VCR, because so many movies are hard to get in any other format. Beyond that, sometimes watching them in an antiquated format is more authentic, or chilling.
JF: That’s what I was going for.
SW: How’d you get the idea to shoot dialogue that looks deliberately out of sync?
JF: “Christabel” and “Esophagus” were shot in sync, but when I began layering them, the sound got fractured. When I started on film, working on a Moviola, image and sound were, to me, separate worlds unto themselves that I was synchronizing and merging together. Everything had to be broken down and reunified.
In a lot of older films, like from the 1930s and ’40s, which is what I watched a lot of, the sync could be very loose, which really is just part of the filmmaking process anyway. Like many things with filmmaking, it hasn’t changed. I thought, “People don’t really talk in sync, it’s not how we perceive the world or perceive sounds.” So when I started doing “Jerusalem,” I had that perception.
SW: Some of your films seem more like art installation pieces than feature films, especially the ones that have dialogue or images in a loop. Where do you usually submit the more installation-type works? Are there some films where you know immediately where they’ll be submitted?
JF: When I did “Hymn,” programmers said, “What do we do with this thing?” But it had credits on it, so I thought it was clear [that it was meant to be a film]. I knew nothing about the art thing at all and still really don’t. I’m more natural at movie formats. Even the most abstract ones have a film mindset to them.
But I think, through not knowing exactly where my work should go, museums started showing stuff, and galleries. The first time I got a film installed was at the Whitney Biennial in 2004. “Christabel” was in the film exhibition and “Families” was in the film program. They asked me to re-edit “Christabel” in an installation format. I took the credits off and let it just sit. And they looped it. It was originally broken up between 16mm and video intervals. From that, I was asked to do an installation of “The Mirror Mask” in Belgium, [at the 2005 Contour Biennial of Video Art]. And I said fine. I did it as a nine-channel thing, but I also did it as a feature film.
“Spine Face” played at Galapagos [former Brooklyn art space, moved to Detroit in late 2014] and then a gallery looped it. I said, “OK, if that’s what you wanna do.” But generally, I don’t do that many gallery shows. The recent stuff, like “The Given,” when that played at Microscope [Gallery], the screening room was a setup within the gallery, because I wasn’t interested in that type of installation thing.
SW: What was the specific assignment when the museum assigned you “The Mirror Mask”?
JF: I can’t remember it too clearly. It was something about The Tower of Mechelen, in Belgium, which at one point had something to do with royalty. The woman in control of the city was a patron of the arts. So the theme had to with this woman and art and power.
SW: I certainly got that impression. That movie is teeming with half-women/half-predator animals. There’s androgynous women with big ears. There’s plenty of sexual stuff–
JF: The criteria was pretty loose. I focused on Flemish art and iconography. I submerged myself for a year or two in the images of Flemish evolution, their paintings, and also Egyptian stuff, and collided them together. A lot of it was recreating those types of images. At the time, it wasn’t common to use computers to render images that way.
SW: Were the curators supportive of the end result?
JF: I don’t remember. But Cis [Bierinckx] is a great curator and has always been a supporter and friend ever since he was at the Walker [Art Center in Minneapolis].
SW: A lot of prominent New York City critics, like Amy Taubin and J. Hoberman at The Village Voice, championed some of your movies released there, like “Back Against the Wall.” Have you ever gotten a strong negative response?
JF: Yes. But things change. The responses when films came out are different from the response 10 or 15 years later. At the Spectacle and some more recent shows, there was a whole new audience of people, a generation younger. No knee-jerk reactions. “The Pearl” in particular wasn’t well-received when it played at Ocularis [former art space in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn] in 2003 or 2004. [NOTE: It was recently featured at The Museum of Art and Design and The Microscope Gallery].
JF: I really don’t know. I think the VHS elements being used at that time maybe disturbed people. Just as using 16mm or 35mm is perceived and used differently now compared to 20 years ago. This type of change will always happen. “The Zookeeper (Sleep Weep)” was brutally received when it came out.
SW: Is that the one with the “Fuck my abortion sewer” line?
JF: That’s right. The few reviews were brutal. It vanished right away. It hasn’t been shown ever since.
SW: Did you lift that line–which I love tremendously–or any other lines from porn?
JF: No, no, that was just me writing that character’s lines.
SW: But you were hoping for some kind of controversy to happen, with some of the more graphic films, right?
JF: No, I have no agenda to just be shocking or to anger people. I was just making the films the way I perceived them to be.
SW: In 2003, you told the Chicago Tribune, “Whether people are going to watch [my work] has never entered my brain. It still doesn’t.” Is that still the case?
JF: It’s not that I don’t care about the audience. It’s just that I’m fairly self-motivated and these are ideas I’ve had for years. It’s only natural that not everyone’s gonna like it.
SW: Besides the first three movies, which I know were eventually distributed by Facets Video, has anyone else distributed your work, or are you pretty much a one-man show?
JF: Well, Microscope puts out stuff, and Fandor is putting stuff out.
SW: Besides Carducci, Pettibon and Zellner, you have begun working with some pretty big-name artists lately. How, for instance, did you hook up with Thurston Moore, for the score on “Dignity”?
JF: I didn’t really know the Sonic Youth albums. But I know a lot of music people. I heard some of Thurston’s noise albums, through this sound engineer I was working with on “Christabel,” and I liked them.
The first time Thurston and I discussed something was for this film “Shattered.”That ended up not happening. When we did “Area Six,” he was gonna do the dream sequence music. He gave me some dream-oriented stuff, but nothing got shot for that. But he did this one piece I was fascinated with. And then, some of the elements of “Area Six,” including that score, I was gonna move into this science-fiction film called “Epsilon Indi,” which like I said didn’t get done. And I moved elements of that into “Dignity.” So we used his music for that.
SW: And how’d you link up with Joe Swanberg?
JF: We are friends. We’re both from Chicago. I actually didn’t register him in my mind as an actor until I saw the Webisode he did. But at that time I was doing a lot of abstract works and it wasn’t until “There” that I had more of an actual role, in a narrative thing, for him. I thought he did a great job.
SW: Have you yourself ever wanted to act?
JF: No. I mean, I’ve had my shoulder or my hand appear on-screen, that’s it.
SW: Have you ever written poetry? In “The Sky Song,” a lot of the actors seem to be reciting poems.
JF: No, I don’t write poetry. They were scripts. All the films, even the most narrative ones, are fragments that collage themselves together.
SW: In that film, there are a lot of random numbers recited, always three times in a row. Is this due to any superstitions you have about certain numbers?
JF: No, not at all. That was written very fast. That year, I was doing stuff very quickly. I have very little memory of what I was writing.
SW: After watching “Spine Face” and “Trinity,” I was wondering if you were raised religious at all?
JF: No. I went to Catholic grammar school and high school. My family wasn’t religious. They just thought it was a good education. A lot of those films were framed around religious painting.
SW: There’s a lot of biblical references.
JF: Yeah. To understand history, to understand language, you need to understand [the Bible]. It’s part of our history. The consistency of images through time–what’s stayed the same as opposed to how much has changed–is what interests me.“Trinity” takes a lot from early Christianity, the Agnostic scriptures.
SW: The first phrase uttered in “Trinity” is “Kol Nidre,” which is the Yom Kippur atonement prayer. Were there specific things about Abrahamic religions in general you were trying to criticize?
JF: No, I wasn’t trying to criticize anyone.
SW: Because there are images of terrorism as you hear some of these religious things.
JF: I was fascinated with the terrorist videos being shown on television [during the 2000s]. But no, I don’t pass that kind of judgment. A lot of what I was getting at in “Trinity” had to do with new technology. You go into a museum and you see old statues and paintings and then you see new crude CGI figures. It was about images and how they get updated. There seems to be a sanitizing that occurs, and then you go back and look at the original work and notice how visceral it was.
SW: How did you learn about Kol Nidre and was the “over and over again” a reference to how often that prayer gets repeated on Yom Kippur?
JF: To be honest, I wasn’t trying to be that literal. I work more instinctively. I read both Testaments, pretty heavily, around that time. I’ve always been very interested in religion and history.
SW: I have a few more random clarification questions. The ending of “Shattered” is a vast break from form for you. It looks like travelogue footage, it’s a bunch of Korean soldiers, or dancers dressed like soldiers, lip-synching “Lili Marleen”–
JF: No, they’re dressed like Nazis. I worked with Barney Rosset [the late Grove Press founder] on that film, and it was supposed to be an adaptation of a Beckett play, “Eleutheria,” and it mutated into this sort-of biography of Barney. It was very unfocused. To me, Barney’s life didn’t really lend itself to fiction like that. I was trying to find jumping points, like books he was interested in, or poems. I was trying to interpret his interests. And one thing he was very interested in was Thailand. He wanted to shoot there. He gave me all this footage he shot there, and in Mexico, and he really wanted that in there, the “Lili Marleen” drag performance. But he didn’t know where it was gonna go. So I’d sit with him and sort of coax out of him what he was thinking. I wanted it to end with this outer space-y vibe. I slowed down and manipulated the footage, trying to create an ambiance. He was very interested in movies and he was a really good editor. That’s what he was best at, putting things together, juxtaposing them and extracting meaning out of them.
SW: What did he think of the movie
JF: He was back and forth. At first he liked it. Then he thought it was too abstract. Then he liked it. Then he was ambivalent. Then he liked it again.
JF: The film is a hyper-artificial world. I used Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s “Imaginary Prison” prints as chapters, for the structure. Maybe the prison is in the characters’ minds, or maybe it represents their body and mind, as they are dying. Piranesi’s prints are these very technical, dream-like pieces, much like movies. There’s no space in cinema, it’s an illusion of space. When shooting, you are shooting into a space, but then it becomes something else, an illusion ultimately, when watching it. When we remember movies, we’re remembering places that don’t actually exist. That’s also what “Dignity” is about. It’s also supposed to resemble B-movies like Ulmer’s “Beyond the Time Barrier,” and other threadbare sci-fi cult cinema.
SW: Beyond Ulmer, Piranesi, the Bible and the many events, authors, painters, philosophers, poets and directors you’ve mentioned, I have seen summaries of your movies that cite Arthur Rimbaud, the Balkan Wars, Marcus Aurelius, John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Eakins, Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, among others. As with reading the harder books of James Joyce, is it necessary, or at least helpful, for viewers to know the works of these people to better understand your films?
JF: No, I don’t think so. A lot of people who liked “Dignity” don’t know about the Piranesi paintings. I feel the films that work best are complicated, yet presented in a simple way. I don’t feel films work well educationally or intellectually. What I try to do is restore the emotional energy of these works for the audience. If they want to explore them afterwards, great, but while watching the film, I’m not sure knowing about these works will affect them more deeply.
SW: The only out-and-out “adaptation” you’ve done is “Alice in Wonderland.” Was that your favorite children’s book growing up?
JF: No. I was trying to do a stagebound-type thing with backdrops of drawings. The music in the film is from the Henry Saville Clarke/Walter Slaughter children’s play of the book. I approached it in a similar way as I did “Christabel.” The play gave me a jumping-off point.
SW: Is there a kid’s book you’ve ever dreamed of adapting?
JF: I’m very interested in doing a children’s film. There’s no specific one that’s come up yet.
SW: Speaking of childhood, I was wondering what your childhood—or adult—fears are. Some of the recurring motifs in your films are quite nightmarish. There’s a big emphasis on disease, for instance—cysts and growths.
JF: [laughs] I don’t fear that much. I don’t have any real phobias that I can think of. I just think films work best in an allegorical way. When they become too intellectual, they don’t work as much. They work when things are in front of the camera to be seen, when they’re not esoteric. That type of visual representation is the most powerful, that type of genre film. I always felt comfortable in a horror-type place. I’m generally not that interested in documentary stuff, essay films, stuff like that. But I don’t fear illness or something like that. No more than any other person would fear those things.