Cosmatos is a second generation filmmaker of Greek descent who has been making DIY short films in Vancouver, Canada for years, and with his debut feature Beyond the Black Rainbow, he's already channeling the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Stanley Kubrick to create a surreal and trippy film unlike anything else you've experienced, with a slow moody pace that often explodes with violence as it delves into the realm of science fiction and horror. Shock Till You Drop spoke to Cosmatos before when the film premiered at last year's Tribeca Film Festival and we decided to speak to him again with the film's theatrical release by Magnet Releasing.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: I saw this movie a year ago at Tribeca, so I'm glad it's finally coming out.
Panos Cosmatos: Yeah, me too. (laughs)
Shock: I really enjoyed it because I think I'm the exact right age to have seen the midnight movies like this one in theaters. I know you were influenced by the covers of VHS movies you saw at the video store but was there a particular idea you wanted to explore?
Cosmatos: The writing of it and the making of it was a little bit of an exploration, so it wasn't until right before we started shooting that I had a completely crystal idea of exactly the movie I wanted to make. I thought of the story of the film and the script was just scaled down just to grow all these strange plants, so the story is very simple, almost fable-like in its simplicity, but for me, that was the structure and I wanted to explore these moods and tones and themes that are within it.
Shock: With that in mind, there's a lot of sets, so did you spend a lot of time designing and constructing the world, so that played a large part in the writing process.
Cosmatos: Not really. When I was writing it, at the same time, I was collecting lots and lots of reference images that inspired me, but I sort of tried to keep my mind open during the pre-production process and let things that I wouldn't necessarily have thought of come to the fore and become predominant in the film. That's kind of the fun of it.
Shock: Like what kind of stuff?
Cosmatos: I think just the sort of absurdity of the Nyle character really blossoms in the designing of the film and in Michael's performance.
Shock: Michael's great and he's done a lot of stuff over the years, so was there something you saw him in that made you think of him to play the role?
Cosmatos: I just saw him in an audition and he immediately became my choice for the part, because he seemed to instinctually understand the attitude of the character.
Shock: Also, Eva Allan is very good and watching the movie again, I realized that she didn't say a word in the entire movie, and I don't think I've seen too many movies where a main character doesn't say a word. She's younger so did she understand some of the references you were making or did you have to show her some of the movies that inspired you?
Cosmatos: I actually didn't show her anything, and my whole approach with her is that I didn't want her to overthink the character at all. From her audition, she seemed to understand the sort of alien mind-set of the character perfectly, so I really didn't want to overburden her with things that didn't pertain to that.
Shock: You're from Vancouver, so did you actually shoot the entire movie there?
Cosmatos: Yeah, the whole thing was shot in and around Vancouver.
Shock: I assume most of it was on soundstages, so what was involved with creating the environment of the Institute.
Cosmatos: A lot. (laughs) We used a lot of locations, too, but the vast majority that takes place in the institute was done on these sets, and it almost like lighting a rock show in a way because we were doing all of the lighting changes in-camera so there was a lot of really complex lighting. We basically maxed out the electrical power of the building and we had to turn the lights off in the offices so that the stage could be lit.
Shock: I definitely got the impression you did a lot in-camera, which is interesting because it's easier to do something using CG and computers after the fact in post. Did you know from the beginning that you were going to do as much as possible for real?
Cosmatos: Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to do as much as humanly possibly practically and in-camera and we did a couple of brief shots that were computer-generated, but it was very simple computer animation. There was no rendering or three-dimensional worlds created or anything like that using the computer. I just felt it was key to the whole feeling of the film that it should have an analog feeling to it, for obvious reasons.
Shock: By doing so much stuff on-set, did it save time in post or did you still have to do a lot to create the mood using the music and sound FX?
Cosmatos: Yeah, yeah. The pace was something that I had from the beginning. I really wanted to have a very deliberate trance-like pace to it. I didn't shoot a lot of coverage. I storyboarded the film and then I basically shot that and I didn't shoot coverage of dialogue scenes, I would shoot basically what you see in the film.
Shock: What about setting the movie in 1983? I was curious about that because there's nothing technologically that makes it obvious that this is a period piece, because it's more other-worldly.
Cosmatos: Well, the technology is fantastical. I mean, it doesn't exist then, it doesn't exist now. The technology in our film is really just an expansion of the whole idea of new age religion sort of taken to a ridiculous extreme. Setting it in 1983, other than the fact that I wanted to set the film in a nexus of my nostalgia period, but also because the age of the main characters, they had to tie-in with the mid-60s. I knew it would be set in the early '80s and I just thought it would be funny to set it in 1983, which is the year before 1984, which is a more iconic recognizable year. (laughs)
Shock: Was the title "Beyond the Black Rainbow" something you came up with fairly early on? It's mentioned by Dr. Nyle, but it's not something that plays a large part in the narrative.
Cosmatos: Yeah, it came very early. Usually I try to find a title for what I'm writing well well in advance and just have an over-arching feeling to go by. A title is sort of a vibe to go by, and originally, I was just going to call it "Black Rainbow" but I decided to be a little bit more evocative even, but the line of dialogue you're talking about, the reason why I put a specific reference to a black rainbow in the dialogue was actually that I read an interview with John Waters and he said he always found it hilarious when the title of a film is spoken in the film, so that was kind of an homage to John Waters. (chuckles)
Shock: That is very funny. Considering the tone and the pace of the movie was so specific, what was the tone on set while making it? Was it similarly tranquil or was it a lot of running around to set up a shot and then you got everyone into the right mood. I can't even imagine what it must be like to shoot a movie like this.
Cosmatos: (laughs) Our schedule was really tight so it was just getting the shots done and very little else. There were some moments where we shooting some strange trance-like elements of the film, like the pyramid and things like that where it really felt like people were really mesmerized by the monitors, just watching a pulsating light. (laughs)
Shock: That's what I mean. The movie is so hypnotic at times that I can't imagine being on set making the movie since it just seems other-worldly, like this movie could have been beamed down from another planet.
Cosmatos: Well, it was funny, because there are these long sections of the film that are almost entirely with a red and black environment, and people were having a really hard time spending all day seeing nothing but red light, but I actually felt totally comfortable in it. I actually preferred being in the red light. (laughs)
Shock: I don't want to give away too much obviously, but the flashback sequence was interesting, first because you switched to black and white, but you do a lot of really amazing stuff that still seems like it was done practically. I'm not sure if you can talk about that without spoiling stuff, but the images were pretty trippy and I was curious how you did some of that stuff.
Cosmatos: Well, the black and white stuff, we basically just filmed in a white space and oddly enough, for that sequence in particular, I color-corrected that part myself on my Mac and then reshot it with a Red (camera) off my computer monitor to degrade the image further and give it a cold feeling and a bit of flutter. And then we took that footage into Technicolor and did a slight process to it. For making short films basically by myself for so many years, I guess I just felt comfortable with the whole idea of sort of experimenting and doing things all in-camera.
Shock: What about the transformation scenes in the other dimension? It's hard to describe but it seems like the experimental filmmaking we might see in the '60s or '70s, like we might see in a Pink Floyd concert movie.
Cosmatos: I really wanted to treat the '60s flashback as if it was that other dimension altogether. I wasn't even born in the '60s so I wanted to treat it like a strange mythological memory, a very faded, surreal memory, like an artifact.
Shock: What about the music? Jeremy Schmidt did the music and it was very distinctive, but it's hard to tell where music ends and sound FX begin, since there's so much ambient stuff going on which makes up the environment. What kind of direction did you give him for that?
Cosmatos: Me and Jeremy both love that era of music and that style of music. I honestly didn't give Jeremy that much direction of what I want, because he just understood exactly what I was going for, so it was only a few instances of me going "Tone this part down or enhance this aspect of it." I pretty much gave him free reign, but I think people actually mistake certain parts of it as score that are actually sound design. If it has any kind of melody or is overtly musical, it's Jeremy, but a lot of it is Eric Paul's sound design.
Shock: Was any of that sound design done beforehand so you could use it on set while shooting or was it all done after the fact?
Cosmatos: It was all done after the fact, and the sound designer is also a musician and he was hyper-aware of tempos and things like that so he actually designed the soundscape to reflect and merge with the score in a way that matched tempo and matched key and things like that.
Shock: The movie leaves a lot of questions open about what you've just watched and though I've seen it a couple times I'm sure I can get more out of seeing it again. Have you thought at all about doing more with the story or character or showing the 17 years that passed before the movie's opening?
Cosmatos: Well, I really hate prequels, so I've shown everything I wanted to show about what happened before and in the past, but yeah, of course, I'm intrigued by what might happen after the ending of the film.
Shock: It's been a year since the movie's been at Tribeca so have you been working on other things? What's your next plan?
Cosmatos: Ever since I finished, I've been working on one screenplay that hopefully will be my next movie and it's something I'd describe as a little bit more primal than this film, which is very reserved. If this movie is about containment and repression and regrets, the next thing I'm writing is more about aggression and primal emotions.
Shock: And that's sticking to the genre territory?
Cosmatos: I have no interest in making anything but genre movies right now. I mean, to me, genre films offer the most interesting framework for exploring other ideas.