“I’m simply trying to turn something that means something to me, into something that exists, and how it is received is secondary to that” explains director Panos Cosmatos. His sophomore feature MANDY is set in the Pacific Northwest, 1983, where Red Miller’s (Nicolas Cage) once peaceful existence with wife Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) is destroyed by a cult led by the sadistic Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). This savage intrusion sets Red on the path of vengeance as he grieves for his dead wife. In conversation with FrightFest, Cosmatos discussed making films for a future audience, the importance of his own dreams and being satisfied with imperfection.
FrightFest: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Panos Cosmatos - Well, they were always around when I was growing up. When I was very young we lived in Sweden and there were no films on TV that I can remember. My father would bring back from London these Super 8 reels, the short or the highlighted versions of films. So all the early stuff I saw was the highlight reels of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C and THE THREE CABALLEROS, and the first time I saw STAR WARS was probably a shortened 30 minute version on Super 8.
I always loved film and my father had a huge library of Betamax tapes that he'd made up off cable television. The moment it clicked for me that I could be a director was when I watched Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, and Sam Raimi's the EVIL DEAD 2 back to back [laughs]. And it taught me about the stylised, mechanised way the camera moved in those films that made something in my mind click - I realised the director could express himself using the camera.
FF: How have the expectations compared to the realities of the experience on your first two films?
PC: For me making BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW was an almost an existential act. I wanted to make a film before I died, so that I could die a more honourable death [laughs]. My goal was simply to make the one film, and having done that I felt like I had achieved a personal goal that was extremely important to me. If I'd never made MANDY, I'd be happy with the fact that I'd made BLACK RAINBOW.
I never have expectations of the film being received well or poorly, or at all. I’m simply trying to turn something that means something to me, into something that exists, and how it is received is secondary to that. The fact that I've been able to do two of them I feel personally is almost like a miracle. So I am just happy to have made them, but In making these two films I feel like I was almost making them for a hypothetical audience 40 years from now. I like the idea of someone happening across these films in virtual reality in 40 years, and connecting with them then. The present doesn't really interest me that much [laughs].
FF: Films such as AFTER HOURS and THE EVIL DEAD 2 are still being watched and discussed. As a culture, it feels that we are lost in the immediacy of the present, yet film can exist beyond the moment, which conflicts with how we relate to time.
PC: The way I perceive the world currently is that we live in a future, a sort of dystopian reality, and I feel that time has lost all meaning to me. Maybe it has something to do with this living in the moment. There is a strange self-consciousness that has been brought on by social media that's making people hyper-aware of themselves in a way that is unhealthy. Why do child stars tend to go mental a lot? It's because they were made hyper-aware and self-conscious of their own image at an early age. Now people by the millions are becoming hyper self-conscious and what is that going to result in? But I think what you are saying is right, and it's more important than ever to have these objects, these films that fall outside of the normal spacetime continuum that you can almost breathe in again.
FF: Thinking about the natural fear of one’s mortality, does a film afford the filmmaker immortality?
PC: I think so. A big driving factor in wanting to make BLACK RAINBOW was to make some small contribution to the mosaic of cinema before I went in the ground. And having done that, I feel less afraid to die.
FF: What was the genesis of MANDY, and with it being such a strong visual film, did the images come before the story?
PC: It is a combination of both things, but with MANDY the story appeared very early to me. And in the case of MANDY, I find that a simple story can be the most powerful one, whereas a hyper-convoluted or complex storyline is sort of creating the illusion of complexity.
With this film, the first thought I had was that I wanted to make a revenge film that revolved around the essence of the person who was being avenged, instead of so much the avenger. And that the movie in a way would be like an album or a love song about that person; a concept album. After I had that thought, I started experimenting with different settings and different feelings, and because of the innate savagery of a story like this, the idea that it should take place in a forest and use barbarian movie elements came very naturally and pretty quickly.
FF: A common mistake is to assert that Mother Nature is in possession of conscious thought, when in truth it is our projection of consciousness. We impose a dark, ominous and frightening identity upon the world around us, specifically of spaces such as the forest.
PC: I feel that the thing with nature is that it doesn’t care about us. It's an elemental thing that we exist in and around, and I wanted the film to have that very elemental feeling about it. I wanted fire and water, wind, smoke and earth to be very present in every frame of the film, in a way that made it feel like these people were struggling in some elemental environment.
FF: Speaking of intent, how crucial is it in helping to guide you through what is a difficult and chaotic process to achieve your vision?
PC: The making of a film for me is an extremely intuitive process, and I rely a lot on my intuition and my instincts. It’s just a matter of following them in every single moment of the process so that nothing gets onscreen that doesn't feel right to me.
FF: Cinema lends itself to comparisons to dream logic, and sometimes we bring too much of our conscious awareness to a film that is counterintuitive to the experience.
PC: Well for me personally, my dreams are very important. When things are unclear sometimes clarity will emerge out of them. The black skulls were born out of a nightmare I had, and the casting of Nicholas Cage as Red was confirmed to me by a dream, where I saw the movie with him in it. In these two films I've wanted the audience to be able to follow them in a narrative and linear way, but at the same time, I try to leave certain elements weak enough that they are able to fill in the blanks themselves, or project their own imaginations onto it. I feel that allows for it to become a richer and more immersive experience than if everything is spelled out.
FF: Speaking with Carol Morley for THE FALLING, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
PC: Well it's interesting in the context of the modern age, where there are director’s cuts and films that are beloved and reshaped into something completely different by the directors after the fact. I find that action obscene, especially when they don't make the original versions available, because once you put a movie out there, it belongs to the people that are watching it. I feel that in a strange way it’s robbing them of that initial connection by saying you have a new version that is more what you intended.
FF: Interviewing Larry Fessenden, he spoke of how a film is abandoned. Is this a sentiment you would share?
PC: So far I have not found that to be the case; I don't feel like I abandon these films. I think there's a certain level of imperfection that I am comfortable with that allows a film to breathe, and to have its own life. At a certain point it becomes a neurotic obsession to try to keep on working on something, and yeah, I tend to think of these things as more the Super 8 films I made in the backyard with my friends. It’s an art piece and it's a gratifying and therapeutic experience to complete it, but then at that point I don't necessarily want to go back and keep obsessing over it anymore.
MANDY is out in UK cinemas October 12 and out on Blu-Ray® DVD and Digital Download October 29.