McKenna Bybee, eaten alive, Evening Flyer (USA, 2012). Following the rising of the dead, a handful of survivors search for a train rumored to be carrying the living to safety. Lucy (Bybee) leaves the group to find the train by herself and is devoured by zombies.
We were shooting in Pennsylvania in the Lehigh Valley. The old Lehigh Valley Railroad. It ran through an area that alternates between really desolate, barren woodland and really desolate, barren Rust Belt towns. But Dan [Clemenceau, the director] grew up in Richmond, Virginia and he had a spot there in mind. So one day he said to me, C’mon, we’re going to Richmond, and I was like, okay. We went to this railroad bridge that runs over the [James] river right into these lifeless woods. The thing I think that got to Dan, it definitely got to me, is these rocks. I don’t know what else to call them. In the river all around the bridge. They’re not quite islands. They just jut out a few feet over the surface. And a lot of them have these tiny dead trees or shrubs growing out of them. I don’t know the first thing about botany or geology or riverology. They looked like something that was left incomplete eons ago. It really felt like we were someplace where life had been stopped for a while.
Can’t imagine it was much fun working at an elevation like that.
There were two things that really had me spooked. One is that this is still a functioning train track. Trains run on it. And of course we got them to shut it down while we were shooting but I couldn’t get it out of my head. What if someone didn’t get the memo? What if we’re up there making our little movie with nowhere to go and here’s this Amtrak suddenly rocketing towards us? God. Anyway. The other thing that got to me is that this bridge is right next to a highway. We were shooting in the morning, for the grey light, someone’s supposed to be eating my innards and there’s a schoolbus going by. I saw these cars and I kept thinking about what was supposed to be happening to me happening to them. It was really strange, not in a good way. I don’t like location shoots where there’s a public involved. You stay in your world, I’ll stay in mine and we’ll all meet at the multiplex, how’s that?
But you just keep going, as they say.
Well no. But you do. [pause] Then the whole thing ended with me and Dan having this big league throw down. The sort of fight my mom used to call a toothcurler.
So after we’ve been up on the bridge for a little bit, I’m looking around, seeing these island-rocks and it occurred to me, fuck, if I’m about to be eaten I’d rather wrap my body around those than just stand there to be a snack. Make them work for their meal, damn it. I went to Dan and he held the script up. It says they’re on a bridge and she’s eaten. Period. At first he said, well, it might be possible. Maybe it’s possible. He said we’d both have to make compromises. But then later he pointed to the script and it was the debate-killer. I don’t know. Dan was getting a lot of noise from the producers. They’d see the rushes and wanted to make sure there was enough… spectacle, let’s call it. You know. When they put up the money they want to make sure you really do it. I guess jumping didn’t meet their needs. But I still voted for it.
You become aware of something when you work at heights, or at least I did. It’s a very tangible presence. It’s not-life. Maybe it’s because I was thinking about the trains, what if one came. Here is what’s inescapable. It’s big, you’ve got time to ponder it and it will destroy you. And so maybe you take a peek over the edge, try and assess the terrain below.
Yeah. And over the edge starts to become as possible as the train. And I haven’t even mentioned it but you’ve also spent the last eight weeks communing with what it means getting ripped apart. You have these plain and real fates and they feel very near. It’s the concreteness of them that felt like the thing of not-life. When I was a kid I was taught that everything has substance. At St. Scholastica they taught us impanation, Real Presence, all this stuff about Christ never not being there despite evidence to the contrary. When you learn science as a kid it’s pretty much being taught the names of things you can’t see. Everything is. And now here you are over this river, there’s four poor guys who’ve been in makeup since 2:00 AM ready and waiting, and you realize that there is a thing that is nothing. Nothing as a body with weight. As a real thing.
How do you know what it means to be ripped apart?
That’s basic. We all know.
I wasn’t aware.
No, we know.
It’s the history of the species. That’s how we know. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. But as soon as we’ve got enough cells to get out of the water we start inventing ways of smashing ourselves. It’s always been around, long enough that we just know it. We’ve all experienced it in some way. You can give the destroying force any name you want. Zombies, dinosaurs, AIDS, Joseph Stalin, bad credit, the wrong spouse.
Yeah, that’s the ticket. [pause] Oh God, did I really just say that?
Alex Pironescu, beheaded, Look at the Flames! (Uită-te la flăcări!) (Romania/France, 2013). The lives and affairs of a group of Romanian businessmen from the 1970s to the present. Following the fall of the Shah of Iran, corrupt and mildly psychopathic gas company functionary Anton (Pironescu) is betrayed by his colleagues and mistress and turned over to a group of vengeful revolutionaries.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been beheaded, is it?
Are you joking? Many times. This is about number seven. So many times it’s the only way I can see the world now. With some Arab or Visigoth holding up my head by the hair. They got some crazy shit they need to do to someone, they go get me. They need to have some guy get a stick of dynamite shoved up his ass. Let’s go get Alex. He’ll do that. Hey, this guy’s got to get his head cut off. Oh, Alex, can you come here for a minute please?
So how does the world look to you?
Things shine that aren’t supposed to. Many things have auras. It’s like shutting your eyes after looking into the sun. You see light over black. At first you feel like something important is going to become clear this way but then it’s just, Alex, all the assholes are glowing, and it’s making my chopped off head hurt.
Is that how it looks now?
All the time. All the fucking time. I have a little baby. I go to change his diaper and I go, Radu, bebe, why is your little baby shit glowing? And he looks at me like, why is your big fat head always getting chopped off? Christ our lord, there’s some evil fuck in Prague who’s got rich making plastic copies of my head.
Maybe they just keep using the same one.[laughs] You mean like over and over?
Ah. I had never thought about that. Hey, where’s Alex’s head this week? Have you got it, Malta? Is it with you, Ljubljana? Fuck, we’d better hurry and find it because it looks like the Zulu with the machete is getting bored.
You sound a little resentful.
What’s that mean?
It means you don’t seem happy about getting decapitated over and over.
Ginny Thorsen, stabbed, One Brighthaven Night (segment “The Man Who Taught Children Geography”), (USA, 2013). An anthology film of stories told by inmates of an insane asylum during an unspecified global calamity. In a story told by a girl with severe depression, Erin (Thorsen) is abducted by a man who tortures her while pining away for a coworker whom he secretly loves.
What was the deal with the cat? Where did you find her?
Sigourney! Oh my heart breaks. Wasn’t she amazing? She was just there when we showed up.
There’s an undeniably haunting quality to her.
Well maybe that’s because she was a very sick animal. The building where we filmed my scenes, where I’m tied up in the basement, it belongs to a friend of Nat’s [Waldner-Kirchstein, the director and star] parents. And when we got there and saw that there was this very friendly, tolerant cat we figured it had to belong to someone so Nat called the owner up but he said he hadn’t rented the place out in a few years. So either she was a runaway or she’d found a way into the building.
And waited there for a camera crew.
She’d walk up to us and just like intuit the situation. It was Nat’s idea to put her in front of the camera. In the first scene where she walks up to me—
After he’s done the needle routine on your stomach. She sits down at your feet.
Right and Nat’s standing right behind me with these liver treats. I don’t know whose liver but they smelled horrid. Like, somebody threw up, ate the vomit, then had diarrhea. That bad. [laughs] Nat thought she’d come up to me and be interested, want to sniff around, but she just sits down and starts scratching her ears. We got this lovely shot of me kind of slumping down and the cat stretching out to sleep. And it wasn’t as though we had a ton of time to debate her utility. We made this in a week.
But you’re used to working pretty quickly.
Yeah and on this we were aiming for four days but we’re not used to working with blood. That sort of put the brakes on. Or animal performers. Never done animals before. [laughs] I’ll confess now I was sort of agnostic about her.
Well like we had to shut everything down because we had no cat food. Sigourney wouldn’t budge and it was because we hadn’t fed her that day. So we had to send someone out to Petsmart. And meanwhile I’m bound up by my wrists in this basement and Sigourney’s just sitting there looking indignant. And I was just like, come on, bitch, just walk up to me so I can get down and Nat’s telling me not to curse at his star or he’ll leave me tied up there.
You and Nat have been collaborating for several years but you’ve never done anything like this.
Yeah. It’s been like nine years now. I think our fundamental interest is in economies between people, which is our highfalutin and probably technically incorrect way of saying romance. But saying economies I think more accurately gets the notion that when you have two people coming close, it’s a transaction. We’re interested in questions of debts, imbalances, capital, all coming about in the connecting of people.
How did you get talked into doing something for a horror anthology?
We were bored. We’d just wrapped up shooting on This is Grand, which will be coming out soon, we just secured distribution a couple weeks ago. But we were just kind of bumming around Chicago at the time. And Nat’s friends with Clay Ransohoff who kind of put the whole film together and did the segment, the one about, well he actually based it on “The Forged Note” by Tolstoy, the one about the knife. And Clay called us up said we could do whatever we wanted to, here’s a bit of money. Do it in less than ten days and you can use this cool Red HD camera.
And how’d you arrive at this story?
Well we started out thinking about spooky things that had happened to us personally.
Well like once I found a note in my bathroom that said “Look in the closet” and I never found out how it got there or why.
Nothing in there?
Nothing I hadn’t put in there. Nothing. But that closet was vacated until I moved.
Creepy. A few days ago I saw a homeless guy with pairs and pairs of baby shoes tied to his shopping cart.
Ooh, that’d’ve been good. Or we once lived in a building where there was this guy who hung out all day dressed in a security guard’s uniform. We didn’t know if he was loony tunes or a real guard, but after a while you began to think that no matter what the reality was, something wasn’t right. But every time we thought about it, started fleshing the thing out and coming to the root of it, it always came back to a relationship. We had the security guard keeping watch over the bodies of a murder-suicide couple in their apartment. And finally we just said, we said screw it, forget the creepy set up. Start with the amour fou. Just get back to where we’re supposed to be, only now we get to play with it from this wholly new angle. Let’s think about our earlier films, more standardly romantic stuff like Redhead or You First but now with razors and chains. Once we got started we knew. What’s more horrific than love? Seriously, it’s this… engine of wild, thermonuclear feeling, especially at the very beginning. And the idea of this guy who has this completely schizophrenic relationship with love, the totally different approaches to relationships with two women, it seemed like it was real and like it was the right model for what they were looking for.
So when Nat, who’s someone who you were in a relationship with, who you still collaborate with, is flaying the skin off of your knees, how much real feeling is going into that?
Well that’s what we used to do in bed so it brought back a lot of memories. [laughs] I think honestly, I can’t speak totally for Nat, I think I know him well enough that I think I’m pretty confident he feels this way, I think, for me, when I was bound up, you know, that wasn’t Nat. There’s absolutely personal material that we inject into our stories. And Nat, after he finished gagging me for the first time, he goes, why did it take me so long to discover this? But that’s inevitable. Stuff like that.
So this wasn’t you and Nat doing your own little Passion Play in disguise?
No. Not at all. I don’t want to be glib here. You see the documentary where Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, they’re filming breaking up for Husbands and Wives at the same time as they’re divorcing in real life. Or you see Burden of Dreams. Klaus Kinski’s gone so far over the rails that Herzog’s asking the Indians if they’ll kill him, kill Kinski.
I think the Indians made the offer to Herzog.
Right. You get what I’m saying.
I think so.
Communication happens in every conceivable direction.
Patrick Viers, disemboweled, Unspeakable (USA, 2015). A warlock casts a spell on a Roman centurion, giving the centurion immortality in exchange for eternally battling a demon who cannot be killed. Marco (Viers), a cleric, is slaughtered while defending a convent during the Renaissance.
You like the movie?
It was interesting. It surprised me in a couple of ways.
Because the opinions of guys like you matter to me. Guys who are fluent in darkened rooms.
It’s a strange take on the monster movie. I mean strange in a good way.
Once you know neither of them can die.
It subverts the usual sources of tension.
The usual questions won’t be useful.
It seems like that’s part of how they’re marketing it.
From what I can tell. Pitching it to seen-it-all kids as something new, something that changes the rules they’re used to playing by.
They’re going after kids with this one?
From what I understand.
When I was a little kid I fucking hated scary movies. All my friends wanted to watch Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Aliens. So we’d go into Mammoth Video, and the dudes who worked there would rent them whatever they wanted. We were ten, eleven years old. My friends would ask for American Werewolf in London or Return of the Living Dead and those fucking procurers at the store handed it right over. Shit scared me to death and kept me awake. I never got why my friends wanted to do that themselves.
Some kind of proving ritual. Boys a thousand years ago could stay up late looking for creatures on the hillside.
I remember praying that someone behind the counter would be like, Jesus, kids, this stuff is rated R and it’s gonna leave some marks on your brain. All I wanted was someone to follow the rules for once so I wouldn’t have go to terrorize myself or pretend I had to go home for occupational therapy and get called a pussy or a retard.
Not a pleasant decision, I imagine.
I still sort of expect to see monsters standing over me when I’m in bed at night. I’m 29 years old. What kind of grown man looks up from his pillow and thinks he’s going to see one of the aliens from Aliens standing there? I’m wondering in what ways that’s fucked up.
I think you may be underestimating how many men are haunted at night.
I’m sort of totally convinced it’ll happen. I could name to you the name of the toplining actress who was not especially sympathetic when I woke her up and told her not to open her eyes.
And you think this fear stems back to the movies you watched when you were younger?
Who the fuck knows.
Kids can be pretty cruel.
I fucking hated being a kid.
But you had acting as an outlet.
No. I didn’t act until I was much older. Almost at the end of high school. When I was a kid I was lonesome and depressed as shit. Were you happy as a kid?
Maybe. I don’t know that I want to get into it.
Being happy was like this weird kind of gymnastics I didn’t know how to do. I couldn’t understand how anyone could do it.
So much is mysterious when you’re young.
A few weeks ago I dropped acid for the first time in a very long time. I thought part of my bedroom turned into Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. A specific area: the corner above the dresser, the mirror, part of the closet door. He was performing all the structural roles of a room, the load bearing, the roof over my head, and I was inside it, inside him, and still subject to all the laws of being in a room. But he was also himself. He was a man, with a certain kind of haircut, who breathed and felt things. And parts of him had gone bug. A section of my room was a man who was oozing. [pause] Fucking scars. I’m living with fucking scars.
Ellie Tatnall, consumed by plague, The Plague (USA/Luxembourg, 2016). A loose retelling of Camus’ novel, set on the Jovian moon of Callisto. Marie (Tatnall) ventures into the quarantine zone where she is quickly and dramatically struck by the sickness.
Tell me about Colin Norwell.
That isn’t a topic I’m prepared to entertain.
I was told nothing was off-limits.
And who told you that?
Melissa. From Publicity.
Melissa from Publicity can come compel me.
Why don’t you want to discuss it?
Doesn’t the fact that something is closed off to discussion preclude any question of motive?
People use public grief to calibrate the effectiveness of their own. They check to see how it’s done on TV to make sure they’re doing it right.
Unless their full range of emotions was only a series of reaction shots to start with.
In which case as a widely seen performer you would be directly responsible for the psychic hygiene of millions.
If I see Melissa from Publicity I’m going to trepan her with my keys.
You have nothing you’d like to enter into the historical record? Nothing to say to those who listen?
Stay in school. Stay away from drugs.
In your acceptance speech at the Oscars last year you spoke with some poignancy about movies as more than a distraction from grief and a means of escaping the inertia of sadness. Near the end of the speech you described the movies as, hang on a moment, let me see, you described them as “a place to go on with doggy life,” which sounds like a fairly explicit reference to Auden’s “Musee des Beaux-Arts.” If that’s the case, though, then the connotation would be that life is a place of regular atrocity and at the movies we can “turn away quite leisurely from the disaster,” to quote Auden again.
I don’t think I was intending to sound quite so mordant. Or to yoke myself to such a bleak engine. That isn’t what. My thinking was askew then. All that week, the night of the ceremony. It was like my thoughts were being formed, then going through a transitory phase and coming into being as imprecise replicas as the originals. I was fully conscious of this. Explicitly, I said to myself, my thoughts are effigies of themselves. The speech that I gave didn’t exist. I’d thought one up, very deliberately, made alterations and revisions. But it never settled cognitively. It never solidified. Each time I returned the planned concepts had wriggled from their moorings or simply gone missing. And I would have to winch something back together. The Auden, the doggy life bit, that was meant to be “Aubade,” by Larkin. I’d wanted to talk about trying so hard to avoid “the love not given, the time torn off unused,” but when I reached the stage, reached that moment in my thoughts, all I had was the au syllable. Au what? Where was that leading? I saw for a moment, with all bright clarity, silence coming from me and knew that that could not happen. I took the first thing I could put my hands on.
But the Larkin reference may have been even more grim than the Auden.
That isn’t true. Not at all. It’s a less global, more intimate grief, but one evaded all the same.
I could tell you about sitting in a cinema in Brighton with Colin on a damp, blustery May morning but I hate stories.
What would you rather talk about?
Isn’t there a film or something I’ve just done…?
What made you decide to go in such a radically different direction from your last few roles?
The last two films I’d made [Northanger Abbey and Churchill’s Niece] were both profoundly restrained. I thought it was time I did something set in a universe where action was not guided by logic or narrative but by the twitchy urge for something new to happen. This script finds its way to me and it seems perfect. I mean, my face melts. How thought-heavy can it be? When I met with Javier Riga [the director] he said that if I was familiar with the book then I should forget it everything about it. Forget that there was ever a man called Camus.
Was that hard?
I had my script rebound with a new title sheet that read Having Your Face Melt is Bad. Once I did that, it wasn’t too hard.
Marie is the film’s arch-skeptic. She thinks the illness is a hoax to keep the colonial administration in power. In the end she essentially martyrs herself to her skepticism. Is this view of shadowed truths and layered plots something you can relate to?
Good God, no. I believe in the enduring, binding force of the status quo. My dad used to say “The hunters are coming so don’t let’s rearrange the furniture.” [pause] That really doesn’t make any sense at all, does it. [pause] Marie embodies the true, metastasizing energy that can eclipse any possibility of change. It’s like sitting in Starbucks and feeling certain every person who walks in is wearing a suicide vest. It’s as consuming as it is insensible. After a while you get tired of waiting, the pressure becomes too grave, to say nothing of the unmentionable possibility of being disappointed, so you go out and put on the Semtex yourself.
How was the experience of working on such a markedly different sort of film?
I was surprised at how austere a place the set was. Entertainment’s an odd and fearful art. You’re building a tenuous structure that must be as tall as the moon. Javier kept the mood very clinical, very precise. Jaap Oosterhuizen, our DP, had a little notebook where he kept a tally of every mistake. Every flubbed line, every misaligned shot, every lighting cock-up. I’m still waiting to find out its purpose. He never did anything with it other than document our failings. I suspect that at the end of time we’ll all be visited by Jaap and confronted with a full ledger of our sins.
I remember talking to Colin when Transmetropolitan came out. He had gone straight to that shoot from a stage production of I think it was Our Town. He couldn’t believe how disorienting the transition was.
Did he ever mention anything like that?
I do not recall.
Was it the sort of thing you talked about?
We never discussed acting.
We wouldn’t even see each other’s films.
Why not. Busman’s holiday. Violating the sanctity of the homelife. The joint understanding that nothing good could come of it. I don’t know why exactly but it never was a question or a problem.
Have you thought at all about watching his movies now?
Who’s to say I haven’t already?
What is it like?
What is it like. Why do you ask?
I can only imagine what it’s like.
You tell me first. You tell me what you imagine it’s like.
I really have no idea, I’m sorry.
Very well. [pause] Watching his films is like standing at a window in an unfamiliar room, unfamiliar but comfortable, with the right indentions of a comprehensible life, and looking out on the end of a day, the children sagging back to their homes, the walking dogs, the cars and their headlights, the red accretion of light overhead negotiating against the dark, and not having the slightest understanding of what anything is or why it is there.
—Or it’s like being visited by a presence, a spirit, call it, a being made purely of regret and existing without memory, whose touch transmits the sounds of the planet falling through space and the opening eyes of men at dawn who know contentments and serenity as the ends of half-listened to stories. [pause] Or, possibly, each one arrives a little weary, a little sluggish, and sits down, deposits itself on the floor and awaits repose. Or perhaps I haven’t watched any of his films. Perhaps none of this is true. Perhaps I don’t know what it means to mourn at all, and comprehend grief no more than I know the sweet and detonating voice of God.
Cliff Sammett, shot, Six Detectives (USA, 2012). In the 1950s six detectives are hired separately to solve the same crime, the murder of an industrialist’s daughter, and are themselves hunted by an unknown assailant. The oldest of the detectives, Stotland (Sammett) is shot in the abdomen.
You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve been talking all day to people like you. I’m very tired.
If I had a nickel for every one of these that started off that way.
You’d have what?
Enough money for a nice meal.
A steak dinner, maybe.
A good one.
Arthritic waiters in white shirts and black ties and aprons. Poor lighting deliberately.
Unsteady men talking over business deals that happened forty years ago.
Married couples who’ve eaten out once a year since Pope John Paul was shot.
Nostalgia that’s unaware time has passed.
You take yourself out of time at a certain point. You try to keep up, maintain an understanding, but finally you stop acknowledging that time is moving forward and plant yourself in at the latest possible date you can tolerate. When we met to do a read through for this I honestly didn’t know who two-thirds of the people in the room were.
Did that make things difficult?
It might have but evidently a lot of them are fans of my work. They gave me a wide berth.
The privilege of the eminence grise.
Call it that if you want.
What would you prefer?
Depraved indifference applies only to homicide but it still sounds right.
You’re completely out of the loop?
I am in a little house in San Luis Obispo. I have been rereading my Gibbon. My wife rides a horse and rescues shiba inus. Periodically a grandchild will visit. Periodically I will be summoned to take a load of buckshot to my stomach. While I’m clutching my ventilated guts I am thinking about what this grandchild likes to eat. What it’s like waking up next to a woman who smells like homeless dogs. I am in the loop but it’s one of my own construction. It’s a closed system.
What will you be doing next?
Something in Budapest. I believe there are exorcisms.
My first film was 44 years ago. This one, this one in Hungary, will be my 112th. What they are now makes no difference.
Whatever thine hand findeth to do…?
I hope you aren’t asking if I’ve become apathetic toward my work. This world, yes, it no longer has my attention. The heaving and splayed out-there. I can’t sustain it. But there is still a thing to be done. What I’m talking about is the ability to embrace and incorporate everything that comes along. Everything laden with some expectation and the force of needing to exist. When you start out you make yourself a part of them, listen to them, read their entrails for hints about your future. But I’ve done this for a very long time. Possibly too long. The people I acted with here, the ones who kept telling me how much they loved this picture I did fifteen years ago or that one from the mid-Seventies, could they tell you the first thing about my last few pictures? The one with the pop singer from Malaysia? The science fiction flick produced by the evangelical Christians? I look at these things from a very wide distance now. I can only remember much of what I’ve done in fragments, little disembodied moments. A line of dialogue. An incident in a shoot. They’re pushed into my head without prompting like rocks and debris washed on to a shoreline. I have no sight of the intact body they’ve broken free of. A very old man in a dim room, forgetting his line, says to me instead How do you like your blueeyed boy mister death? I imagine I’ll never have the chance to recall where that happened. That’s what I’ll have to take away from all this.
Do you plan on doing this much longer?
Do you plan on breathing much longer?
© Pete Segall
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan]