Karen Eng speaks to Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais of The Underground Film Studio on the creation of their latest film.
Rich with ancient alchemical archetypes, Biblical symbols and lurking fears, Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais’ latest film The Kingdom of Shadows drags the ephemeral, private cadences of personal dream worlds solidly into this one. With no dialogue but a silent cast of actors and dancers and a startling soundtrack, The Kingdom of Shadows features a creepy visual and sonic playfulness reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, woven with the primal physical expressiveness of Wim Wenders’ Pina.
The film, which Fawcett and Pais have described as “a personal reworking of the Adam & Eve and Cain & Abel stories,” made its world premiere at the Cambridge Film Festival in October 2016, featuring in its Microcinema strand curated by James MacKay. Over a lengthy email conversation, Fawcett and Pais offered insight into the unusual approaches they took to create this surreal gem of an experimental film.
The Kingdom of Shadows explores the dream world, and you’ve told me you meticulously record and explore your dreams. Tell us about the process of interpreting dreams to film — were the scenarios in the film direct translations of dreams, for example, or did dreams just suggest starting points that you then followed/unravelled?
We began recording our dreams a few years ago and had a period of a couple of years when we studied them intensely every day, we take our dreams very seriously and feel that they contain a great deal of wisdom. In 2011, around the time we were working on Savage Witches, our first film together, we both had some very significant dreams which we believe to have been the seeds of our work together. Daniel dreamt that he was an archaeologist working in a large open field in the shadow of a mountain, he dug in the earth finding ancestral objects, he broke the ground open in big chunks and revealed hidden rivers. Clara dreamt that she was in her family’s home, the one we filmed The Kingdom Of Shadows in, she searched through the house, looking in all the rooms, she went to the basement and cooked her grandfather in a giant saucepan.
We also started finding many connections between things we would dream and old fairy tales, alchemical manuscripts and the Tarot. At first our dreams seemed very strange and baffling but after some time we started uncovering the inner logic to them, which is not like rational logic, but more like a sense of meaning that unfolds infinitely when you try to unravel it. It is not our aim to make exact representations of our dreams on screen, dreams are just one part of the creative process. There are some scenes that are still quite close to the original dreams and others that have evolved and transformed through working with the images and digging into them. The very process of recording dreams and using them in the films is an act of interpretation, by choosing what to use, what feels relevant and what to leave out we are making conscious decisions and interpretations. Even though we tune into our instinct to make the choices we are still conscious, art is not made unconsciously but it can’t be entirely rational, art is the meeting place between worlds, where the spirit world takes form in the physical world.
You mention the film was a process of discovery. Did you film all the sequences at once, in order, or did you go away and come back to it? Did having access to your grandmother’s house allow you to slow down the filming process?
We didn’t shoot in order because we didn’t know how all the pieces would fit together until we started editing. The shoot was relatively short, we only had two days in the house as many of the performers were only available for short amounts of time, the rest was shot in short periods ranging between one to three hour sessions, I think in total we spent about ten days filming with performers. This was a very quick project really, from the initial planning and fundraising to the screening in Cambridge it took about one year.
Did the house itself suggest ways it wanted to be woven into the narrative?
The house that we filmed in had been closed up for many years, it was very strange to be in a space that felt like it was trapped in another time. It was Clara’s family home and this is certainly of a central significance to our film. Many of the costumes that the performers wear in the film were found in this house and belong to Clara’s relatives, the Grandfather character wears her grandfather’s suit, the Mother her mother’s clothes and we also used several objects from Daniel’s family such as his grandmother’s pearls. Every object you see in the film has a personal significance, a history and a story. Nobody watching the film will know these stories but they are present, somehow we feel something comes across.
I understand that you film with no sound, then construct a soundtrack afterwards. Can you talk about that process? I’m particularly interested in how the musicians, chorus, and so on approached scoring this film — and whether they worked with you on sound effects as well, because they seem purposefully woven together with the music.
We created the sound and music in the same way we created the images. We had an idea of the instruments we would like to use, we thought of these as if they were characters and set about casting them as we would actors, the chorus is a character, the trumpet another character, the drums another, etc. We then arranged to have short improv sessions with each of the musicians, usually lasting about three hours for each player. We’d go scene by scene and describe what we felt the scene needed, and they’d then try something out and we’d direct them from there. Each instrument was recorded separately often without hearing the other tracks that it would accompany. In some ways it was a miracle that all the tracks worked together but then we believe in miracles so we trusted our instinct and let all fall into place.
We created the sound once the edit was locked, we don’t often record sound on location, for us it is more creative to compose it in the studio, sound is used as we use images – to activate sensations and spark connections in the mind of the viewer. We are particularly interested in sounds that create physical sensations, closely recorded noises that make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck or that make your heart beat faster. We really enjoy doing the Foley, it’s fascinating to create every sound from the footsteps to the body movements and the breathing, coughing and sighs. This enabled us to study every moment, every frame and spend time moving and creating physical connections between ourselves and the characters. We liked the idea that our breath, the storyteller’s breath, would breathe through all the characters, it roots this kind of filmmaking in a tradition that reaches back to our earliest ancestors.
A lot of The Kingdom of Shadows relies on movement and focus on embodiment. Could you say a little about your cast, how you found them, and how you directed the movement involved in constructing the narrative?
None of the performers in The Kingdom of Shadows are trained actors, we have dancers, poets, filmmakers, musicians, comic book artists but no actors, but each one of them was incredible and we can’t imagine anyone better for the roles! We didn’t do any auditions or rehearsals, we cast on instinct and chance, waiting for people to turn up at the right moment, a couple of the performers we didn’t even meet until the day of filming. The characters in this film are all archetypal, and to a certain degree the personalities were quite vague so that when we found performers we wanted to collaborate with we could allow for their personality and physical form to shape out the character. We wouldn’t say this is a dance film but we have a great interest in the language of gesture, how a movement can express an entire history, a whole inner life, a vast psychological condition. Each character is a manifestation of our personal history, the performer’s history and then the history of that archetype in our culture.
Not recording sound on location allows us to direct as if making a silent movie, we talk the performers through their actions, telling them what to do and where to move to but it is certainly not that they are puppets, each performer brings so much to the role, it is a magic moment where as they move we react and direct them to do more or less of something, in these moments we have to be completely in tune with each other, feeling our way through the scene in a mystical dance between us all.
The screening of The Kingdom of Shadows at the Cambridge Film Festival was the world premiere of the film. What was your experience of seeing it on the big screen, with an audience, for the first time? Were there any surprises or revelations?
Yes, it was the first time we had seen it projected and it was wonderful! We make films to be seen in cinemas and when we have the chance to watch it on the big screen it confirms to us why it is so important. Our films need to be immersive, they are not just stories, they are experiences and the bigger and louder the experiences the better! The problem of watching films on TV’s or laptops is the ease of being distracted but in the cinema one can sink into the world and go on a journey. Cinema is magic!