In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
In Conversation - FILMMAKER AS AUTHOR AND AUDIENCE: BABAK ANVARI ON UNDER THE SHADOW
If impatience should be associated as one of youth’s negative traits, then Babak Anvari’s debut feature UNDER THE SHADOW is a strange beast. An accomplished exercise in suspense, the cultivation of suspense, terror and fright that define it as a slow burn horror of merit is executed with a meticulous patience.
Ahead of the home entertainment release, Anvari in conversation with FrightFest looked back to the significant influences of film and comic books in his formative years. He also discussed the process of filmmaking, the symbiotic relationship of instinct and preparation, the subtle surprises of the actor and how he looks upon the experience of his feature debut ahead of his sophomore Hitchcockian Neo-Noir feature.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I guess I was about ten or eleven when I was watching Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton films. I was obsessed with them and that's when I literally thought, yeah, this is what I want to do. I want to tell stories through images.
What was it about those films in particular that captured your imagination?
All of those films had great stories and so I think it was just that they took you to another world with that sense of escapism. I also grew up being obsessed with comics, but not necessarily Marvel or DC, more the European comics like TIN TIN. I would always say that was another source of inspiration because the telling of all those fantastic stories, of all those detective stories through colourful images had this entrancing effect on me. I used to be obsessed with them, reading and rereading each book over and over, each TIN TIN book. So I guess it all started from there.
Thinking about the influence of the image in those formative years, do you write through images or are the stories thought out through words. How does the process work for you?
It always comes from certain images in my mind. The process of the rough story taking shape and the images happens simultaneously in my head, and then I try to think how I can shape it into something I would enjoy if I were watching it as a viewer. That's always my mojo and I start from there - how can I surprise myself and how can I create something compelling out of this rough idea or image.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Do you agree and is the process one of discovery leading up to the final cut?
Yeah, I completely agree with that. Although I would actually say for me that the edit part is less because once it's shot you roughly know what you are going to get. Obviously you can experiment in the edit and create new meanings, or trim down a story, but you roughly have an idea. From the script stage to the actual shooting, you never shoot a hundred percent of what you had in mind because things change. You picture a character in a certain way, but then you meet an actor who looks different and they can do a much better job. Or there is a budgetary issue and you can't have the certain thing you wanted to you have, so things change last minute. I would say the difference is slightly more when it goes from the script stage to the shooting stage, than the shooting to the edit.
You've spoken about how you look to surprise yourself. How did the actors surprise you in their interpretations of the characters that may have differed from your original conception?
I guess it depends on the situation. But it could almost be a little thing like when you block a scene with an actor, and when it comes to the shoot even a slight facial expression or looking in a certain direction could change everything. It is really hard for me to explain this. Just a minor adjustment can really transform a scene and so those minor adjustments are how an actor can surprise the filmmaker. And that only comes if they truly understand the characters they are playing, but it needs to happen naturally.
I've spoken with filmmakers that have remarked that on low budget films there is not always enough time to prepare, and actors generally like having the time to research and prep their characters. On UNDER THE SHADOW how restrictive was the budget in this regard?
It was quite a low budget film and so in that sense we didn't really have the luxury of time. We had to shoot the whole film in 21 days and we only had one or two days of rehearsals with the main cast. But my main actress Narges [Rashidi] spent a lot of her own time researching her character. We had a good three, four weeks before the shoot and during that time while she was prepping, we were constantly Skyping and going through the script together. If she had questions she would call me or e-mail me and I kept sending her loads and loads of information about her character’s background. So she was slowly prepping as we were in the film’s pre-production, and so by the time she arrived on the set she was ready to go, which was helpful. But she did a lot of the work on her own, especially as she's based in LA and I'm here in London, and so we could only communicate by Skype, phone or e-mail. So yeah, in that sense she did have a certain amount of time to prepare, but I always think it's better to have more and I think planning is very, very key for a low budget film. So if anyone is thinking about or is getting into making a low budget film, from the very early stages they need to start planning what they want to do, even before the pre-production because that planning will pay off later when you literally have two or three weeks to shoot the whole thing.
Picking up on your point about planning, speaking with filmmakers and actors one of the common ideas expressed is the reason for preparation is to allow you to work more instinctively. Do you see instinct as being crucial to the filmmaking process?
I think instinct is the key part of filmmaking because no matter how much you plan, things will change last minute and so you do need to follow that instinct. You need to know the spine of your story and whenever you are distracted just go back to, what is it I want to say? What is this scene about? So instinct is a major part of any type of filmmaking and even working with the actors, I never rehearsed any scenes with them during those few days of rehearsal. I merely talked through the background of the characters just to prepare them because I thought the acting needed to happen naturally in front of the camera. I didn't want to tire them or make it all mechanical and choreographed when we were shooting. By knowing the backgrounds of their characters they had to use their instincts and make certain judgements. So yeah, I think as a whole it is a major part of filmmaking.
The film has left me contemplating how claustrophobia in cinema is not strictly defined by the spatial. Of course it can be, but here it's a feeling. You use the war, the oppressive Iranian society, the character’s grief and anger to create a feeling of claustrophobia that moves beyond the spatial.
Ultimately it's about the character who's trapped in this world that is changing around her. So it was never necessarily just about the space that she's trapped in, but as you said the atmosphere. And we tried to do that even as we were crafting the film. The beginning of the film has a social realist drama feel to it, and my DP and I always spoke about as the film starts the camera movement is more fluid, roaming around with the characters and trying to find moments. Then as the film develops and we get more and more into the minds of the main characters, the camera movement and angles become more and more expressive, and the lighting has more contrast so as to create that dark claustrophobic feeling. And we did the same with the sound where at the beginning of the film it is more external. You hear a car in the background, an ambulance in the street and as the film develops and we again enter the minds of the characters, bit by bit the sound becomes more and more internal. We used all of these tricks to create that feeling of claustrophobia and entrapment, and that was really key.
Having successfully made a piece of suspenseful cinema, how do you and your generation look upon Alfred Hitchcock and his place in cinema as the Master of Suspense?
For me he's still a master and he will always be one. It doesn't even matter what generation the filmmaker is from because he’s the father of suspense, and he had a major influence on me. The second film that I am actually working on is heavily influenced by Hitchcock. I would say it is an Hitchcockian Neo-Noir thriller, and so yeah that was key. But there were other masters in the 60s and 70s that really influenced UNDER THE SHADOW, one of them being Polanski’s early films, REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE TENANT, three films that are all set in the apartment. Obviously there are others and Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS was also a major influence. Any filmmaker should try as much as possible to be a cinephile and to revisit these old masters and classics because you can learn a lot from them.
We can watch a film as spectators and say how suspense is crafted onscreen, but to go and execute that for yourself and to understand the actual mechanics of suspense. What has UNDER THE SHADOW taught you about suspense and do you appreciate it differently now to before the film?
It has made me appreciate films as a viewer rather than as a filmmaker because that's what made me get into filmmaking in the first place. I want to get that surprise and that emotional engagement. I want to see something that makes me feel sad, happy, excited and to put on the edge of my seat. For me it is always to watch the film as the viewer and then later to think about how the filmmaker managed to do certain things, or managed to engage the audience. If I need to study that then I revisit the film to focus more on the technique and the craft. But every time I watch a film for that first time, I just let it wash over me because I think that's when you are truly inspired or influenced because it just effects your subconscious.
I'd argue that here's a film that once it's finished you have to go away and put the pieces of the film together. What role does the grief and the anger play? What role does the woman of science versus the woman of faith play? You digest all of this information while watching the film, after which the film needs completing.
One hundred percent and as I told you, those are the types of film I enjoy – films that I watch once and I can't get them out of my head. Or I have to watch them again and I then get more out of them later. I was always trying to do that with UNDER THE SHADOW, to layer it with certain themes or even certain clues. The audience will ask me certain questions, for instance, “What was the significance of the pattern on the cloak that the Djinn is wearing?” There's a clue in the film, but I purposefully didn't want to make it obvious. I think that's part of the fun of viewing it, where once the audience leaves the cinema, once they've finished the film they keep thinking about it, and the film doesn't leave them. I think that's when you have successfully made an interesting film.
On the idea of the film staying with the audience, do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process where you are a different person to the one that started the film?
Yes I do. I think I've changed since I started making the film up until now. On a very basic level it was a huge learning curve for me. I learned a lot and I am just hoping I use this information later on for future films. I even feel more mature having gone through this process. It's funny because you have all of these thoughts and ideas in your head, and when it comes to the execution you think, will the audience get it? Can I execute this in a way that when I am finally share it with a wider audience they'll enjoy it and get it? You constantly reexamine your thoughts and your ideas, and I think that process is very transformative because it teaches you how to re-think and self-edit in your head. So yeah, instinctually on a general level, yes, I do feel changed, but there are so many different elements that I can't really put my finger on it. But I can feel I have changed throughout this process.
UNDER THE SHADOW is available to own on DVD now courtesy of Vertigo Releasing.