Transgressive Cinema from Canada
An Interview With Mitch Davis (DIVIDED INTO ZERO)
This interview was conducted by Louis Vasquez and Daniel Schoessler for the German filmmagazine Screenshot at the screening of Mitch Davis Short feature DIVIDED INTO ZERO at the Exground film festival in Wiesbaden / Germany. Some addition were added later by Micth Davis on January 10th, 2005, in order to get this interview in proper shape for the booklet of Sazumas brilliant 2-DVD-set of the films...
Please give us any biographical information that would serve as an introduction of your work, anything you would like our readers to know about you.
Okay, well, I’ve been a film maniac since I was about
6 years old. I’ve always been attracted to horror, in film, books,
paintings, music, comic books, Disneyland. Seeing the Haunted House in
Disneyland when I was a toddler really made an impact on me. Blame it
all on the Mouse! I am a wimpy animal lover and an industrial hippie punk
pacifist. I have no formal film education and am entirely self-taught.
As a teenager, I learned a good deal of what I know from analyzing the
scenes that affected me the most. I watched the first ten minutes of NIGHT
OF THE LIVING DEAD a zillion times, studying the editing, camera placement,
lighting, and pinpointing exactly what it was that made me feel what I
felt, and when exactly I felt it. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, SUSPIRIA and
MARTIN were my film school, along with set reports in Fangoria and American
Cinematographer. If I had to run off a
I can’t begin to express how much that means to me, and it really has changed the way I feel about a lot of things. It reconfirms the fact that contrary to popular opinion, there ARE large, young audiences out there with a thirst for films that challenge, without tons of pacifying jello and without stars to carry them. It really gives me hope for the future, and I feel great getting so-called marginal films in front of huge audiences. Besides thhe festival, I’ve recently written chapters for ART OF DARKNESS: THE CINEMA OF DARIO ARGENTO and TEN YEARS OF TERROR: BRITISH HORROR FILMS OF THE SEVENTIES, both published by England's FAB Press. Mags I’ve written for in the past include FLESH & BLOOD, DELIRIUM, SCREEN MACHINE, DIABOLIK and some others. I also do selected monthly programming for Cinema Du Parc, which is Montreal’s last living repertory cinema. As long as I am doing this, there will always be a place to see THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and THE WICKER MAN on a big screen in Montreal! In the coming weeks, I’ll be shooting a photo series with a local fetish model named Isabelle Stephen. No idea where that one will go, but it should be interesting. The most exciting news is that the feature I produced for Karim, SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY, has finally been completed after six years of production. We’ve struck one single 35mm Dolby print, which has thus far played at the Sitges and Stockholm Film Festivals, and has recently been sold to the Japan, Scandinavia and the UK – and the Japanese DVD will also have ZERO on it. Reactions have mostly been terrific. It’s a very intense, sadistic and misanthropic film that is at the same time visually stunning and disarmingly poetic. It was designed virtually as an act of cultural terrorism so we had no idea how large audiences would react. After all these years, you could say that we are very relieved! I feel very strongly about making films that force audiences to feel more than they bargained for. In most cases, the filmgoing act has become such a passive one, that it’s bloody important to remind people of just how powerful a force cinema can be. I love film too much to sit by and watch people associate the medium with bland, forgettable mulit-plex canon fodder. They see these movies and they don’t dislike them, they don’t like them, they forget them as they’re watching. In the end, they feel unsatisfied and a little cheated, and are a bit less likely to bother going back the next time. Fuck that lukewarm shit. I would rather see people have a film experience that they will HATE, but never be able to forget.
Your movie DIVIDED INTO ZERO was shown at the Exground
It was barely even a question of that sort of thing, really.
It was more about total, raw expression. I wrote the bulk of the film
during a two year period of depression and self-destruction that would
probably make you run away from me if I even began to get into it properly.
I’m not being at all hyperbolic when I saw that ZERO was written
during the worst period of my life. My girlfriend of many years had left
me, and I just fell to pieces. Among other things, I crashed head-first
into serious depression, drug addiction and almost total isolation. I
couldn’t be comfortable around anybody. I would pass out crying
and wake up on emotional fire. I loved this girl so much, it was just
unbelievable, and all I could do was cut myself to pieces over how I felt
I’d taken her for granted and driven her away. I really wanted to
make myself suffer, and was probably a hairline away from burning my eyes
out with a Bic lighter. I couldn't believe this was happening. I mean,
this was completely not like me, and I really scared myself, but it was
just unstoppable. After a few months of this, it felt like it was never
going to end - as if the 20 odd years that I’d lived before this
had all started had been a dream, mounted on a foundation whose bridges
gad been burnt to the ground by sheer unforgivable ambivalence. Several
of my friends got into the harder dope scene with me, and I watched people
that I loved, friends of so many years, become addicts, liars, opportunists
and thieves. I mean, these were the coolest, kindest people you could
imagine, and they just became selfish, soulless consumption machines.
After a few months, I couldn’t stand to be around anyone, and I
became very reclusive, spending most of my time alone, getting high and
being miserable. This went on for over two years, and I really thought
that I was going to die. During this time, I founded my production company,
Infliction Films, and began producing a 16mm feature by the name of SUBCONSCIOUS
CRUELTY. SUBCONSCIOUS is a surrealistic anthology / horror film written
and directed by Karim Hussain, who was the lighting D.P on ZERO, but more
on that later. I finally got my strength back and like a total fanatic,
quit everything – even cigarettes. I was sick as a dog for a while,
but I forced myself through it, and began writing again. I had directed
several shorts on video before all of this craziness had begun, and now
I felt ready to shoot on film. Given my state, the only story I was able
to write with any degree of honesty was about a man who loses his entire
life to series of cycles and repetitions that he completely understands,
and has analyzed, dissected and rationalized with horrible precision,
yet can’t for the life of him control. All of this knowledge and
understanding still leaves him helpless. There is an incredible poignancy
in that, and at the time, it was all that I related to. So if anything,
I would say that DIVIDED INTO ZERO is a film about addiction and crippling
depression. I definitely didn’t want to make another addict movie
– I mean, we’ve already got CHRISTIANE F, BAD LIETENANT and
DEAD RINGERS, and Christ, just this year’s
I had people showing me scars from where they’d cut
themselves, telling me some incredible rough stories, giving me mix tapes
of music that they listen to when they’re feeling kind of bad. It
was very emotional and it was just a fantastic, touching experience.
Considering the content of the film (pedophilia) you probably had a hard time raising money for the picture. How did you get the production started, continued and finally finished?
Well, production began when I had four hundred dollars,
a finished script that I was happy with and a small group of friends who
liked the project and wanted to get involved. We shot a single weekend
with six cartridges of Ektachrome 160 Super 8 stock, a small rented light
kit, a dolly, a friend’s near-empty home and my old Beaulieu camera
– which began acting “funny” on the second day, and
flat out died by the end of Sunday. We finished the weekend on Karim’s
old Elmo camera, which I continued to shoot with for the three years of
production that followed. By the end of the weekend, I had the room of
cadavers, the black van, the closing mirror coda and the opening blue
bathtub sequence in the can. Then we stopped for months while I tried
to raise more money and work out casting for the two children and the
old man. We never had any sort of corporate investment or government assistance
with ZERO. I mean, the Canadian government has made it very clear that
they are not at all interested in funding projects like this. If David
Cronenberg or Atom Egoyan were starting out today, with scripts like
CRASH, VIDEODROME or THE SWEET HEREAFTER, I doubt that the government
would go near them. Times have changed, and funding bodies like SODEC
and The Canada Council are terrified or any sort of public embarrassment,
and would rather fund 70 minutes of animated sand than anything that might
push any real buttons. So I began shooting the film with whatever money
I was able to pull together, and just went on shooting in stages, whenever
there was enough money and available time for everyone to regroup and
continue. By the end, the Elmo camera died too, and Kodak discontinued
the Ektachrome 160 stock that nine tenths of the film had been shot on.
The project felt cursed. I had to finish on reversal 16mm, so I chose
to shoot on 7250, which is bar none the grainiest color 16mm stock you
can find. So it was really shot in sporadic bursts, with a final cost
in the neighborhood of $8000 Canadian dollars. It’s a very strange
way to make a movie, especially one that is so personal, and so specific
to a certain, temporary frame of mind. I had begun mapping the film out
when I was just sobering up and getting over being thoroughly out of my
mind! Three years later, as ZERO was finally nearing completion, my writing
was being published regularly, I had been sober for years and I was doing
the FanTasia festival, accomplishing things I’d never dreamt
What was working with the actors like, especially with the young girl and boy?
The kids were actually very easy to deal with. The trick
is to never condescend, and to always treat them like adults. I mean,
kids aren’t idiots. Max Firatli was probably the best and most professional
actor on the shoot. He’s a very intense person, and he’s very
serious when he’s working. Total focus and ommitment, with an instinct
so natural that it’s almost frightening. When he wasn’t on
camera, he would sit quietly in a corner, smoke cigarettes and study the
shot lists. He was twelve at the time. Shortly after we wrapped ZERO,
he flew off to Cuba for a supporting role in Atilla Bertalan’s BETWEEN
THE MOON AND MONTEVIDEO. Stephanie Kepman was a different story, only
in that she was younger, and needed more reassurance and time. We had
to go out of the way to keep the on-set atmosphere
The cinematography and lighting (especially the use of primary colours) of DIVIDED INTO ZERO has a dreamlike, almost surreal quality. It reminded us of the films and photographies of Richard Kern, David Lynch and the early films of Dario Argento. Would you agree that these strategies still offer powerful concepts to undermine the standardized storytelling in contemporary cinema?
Definitely, yes. I think that it’s very important to play with film language, and I am almost unbearably particular when it comes to frame composition and lighting. Emotions can be colour coded on an abstract level that a viewer will detect but not always be able to rationalize, and this can be a great device. We pretty much all agree that colours can be Hot, Cold, Angry, Dreary, Cheerful, Peaceful or whatever. It transcends spoken language and culture, and it is a purely instinctive reaction. I think that there are ways to use colour, and surrealism in general, to engage a viewer on a deeper or at least a different, level. And it can be interesting to make these levels, of intellect and emotion, clash. There are times where we chose to use colours that went against the logic of a scene, but worked 100% atmospherically. At other times, I used colours more literally. A good example would be when the man pays the woman to piss on him. Both characters are gelled cold blue, but the woman’s legs and crotch are lit with hot amber, which almost glows over the man’s torso, as the voice-over speaks about the woman bathing him in her warmth. As the intensity of the scene builds and it begins to intercut with images of the man alone in the room of cadavers, pissing blood off a dead face, the corpse is crucified in front of a sheet that is backlit with hot, white light. By the end of the scene, as the tone gets angrier, the white backlight is replaced with a seething deep red. This sort of thing is very literal, and some might argue, over-stylized, but I think that the effect can be unbelievably startling and effective – as long as you don’t shoot it like a bloody music video! Besides, films should never look generic. There should be a voice in the visual aesthetic, and not just sheer practicality. At least when it’s called for. I mean, if I were shooting a period drama, I wouldn’t go as far as I did with ZERO. Even then, that sort of think can work – look at Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS! As for whether this sort of thing still has resonance with today’s audiences, I think that it does. The right kind of surrealism forces the audience to work with the film, and not just watch it in a thoughtless stupor. For me, as a viewer, there’s more involvement, more experience, more soul, as long as there is some sort of tangible philosophy in the mix. I think that we need that more now than ever before, and even in the wake of the style-flooded MTV generation, it can strike nerves. For ZERO’s lighting, I’ve got to give loads of credit to Karim, who lit the film, and set all exposures. He’s a brilliant filmmaker in his own right, and an excellent technician. We pretty much grew up on the same diet of influences, so it was ideal working with someone like him. I could talk about a scene from KILL BABY KILL and he would understand exactly the sort of patterns and atmosphere that I wanted. It was like a unique new cinematography code – the code of film obsessives!
In how far is the discontinuious narration, the fragmented perception of the protagonist(s) the result of wanting to tell this specific story?
I felt that a fractured voice-over would if anything, convey the sense that this person is literally lost in the shadows of his dementia. That at whatever stage of life we might be seeing him in, he is always suffocating in the same place, with the mousetraps of his mind snapping for all eternity. At age 7 or age 70, his thoughts are obsessing over the same broken self-explorations, with the same level of maturity. I couldn’t think of any better way to convey this. Believe it or not, at one point, I didn’t want there to be any voice-over in the film at all. If people think that the finished version is tough on audiences, the film as it was initially conceived would have played like a brutalizing Rorschach pattern, and that could have been amazing. It would have been interesting to force people to study this life in the most voyeuristic and subjective way possible, but then I snapped out of it and realized that nobody would have understood a damn frame of the thing!
Surrealism according to André Breton arises when dream and reality collide. In DIVIDED INTO ZERO the boundary between dream and reality seems to be vanishing, if it exists at all. How would you describe the aesthitic concept of DIVIDED INTO ZERO ?
I guess I would describe it as being a melodrama with the
Nightmare atmosphere of a ghost story, told through an obliterated chronology.
What a pretentious-sounding mouthful! But really, that’s what I
would say it is. Even if the circumstances are all very reality based
– a botched cesaerian, a destructive
Perhaps you could tell us about concepts concerning the soundtrack and sounddesign of DIVIDED INTO ZERO.
Well again, this goes back to the child’s nightmare
thing. When I think of the sound designs that really worked for me in
other people’s films, I think about THE SHINING, INFERNO, LOST HIGHWAY,
VAMPYRES, PHANTASM. You know, droning tones, low frequency noise, unnatural
pitch bends, filtered whispers. These sorts of ambient sounds create an
incredible sense of dread, like a wavering atmosphere of abject “wrongness”.
I think the effect is almost always hypnotic add unsettling. It connects
to our inner child, and shakes it to the ground. Anyhow, I knew exactly
the sort of sound design that I wanted, but never in a thousand lifetimes
would I have been able to come up with what David Kristian did for the
film. David is a pure electronic genius. He is one of the world’s
leading experimental electronic musicians, with material ranging from
Beats to 74 minute long soundscapes that chill listeners to the bone and
send kids at raves into throttling bad trips. He recently did tones for
a film with the Penderecki
Related website links, if you like:
Thanks to Daniel and Louis for allowing to use this interview!