Oh, how to describe first-time feature filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’s trippy, made-for-midnight-madness debut Beyond the Black Rainbow (which opened in limited theatrical release yesterday). First, let’s start with the story at hand: Set back in an unfamiliar, Stanley Kubrick/2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired incarnation of Reagan-era 1983, Beyond the Black Rainbow mostly takes places inside the facilities of the now-ancient Dr. Arboria’s research institute, where a young girl, the non-speaking, ethereal Elena (Eva Allen) undergoes a series of probing mental tests at the hands of doctor, and first-class creep, Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers). After a few tests go haywire, and Nyle loses his mind, Elena decides she’s ready to escape. And the fleeing, naturally, doesn’t happen smoothly.
As Cosmatos himself would tell you, though, Beyond the Black Rainbow isn’t really about what’s happening in the narrative sense. The power and singularity of Beyond the Black Rainbow lie in its otherworldly, horror-thick imagery and the enveloping nightmare mood, all presented with a retro aesthetic that brings to mind what those Dharma Initiative reels seen on ABC’s Lost would look like if viewed through a Fangoria filter. With an unnerving synthesizer score that’s straight out of John Carpenter’s ’80s movies, not to mention touches of telepathy, homicide, the occult, and cosmic dread, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a mind-fuck of the highest order.
It’s also a very impressive introduction for Cosmatos, the son of George P. Cosmatos, the Greek/Italian director behind the badass Sylvester Stallone flicks Cobra (1986) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1982). Complex spoke with Beyond the Black Rainbow’s visionary overseer to discuss the film’s background in old VHS horror tapes, how Martin Scorsese’s After Hours was a huge influence, and the notion of using story as a musical instrument.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
I’ve read that the origins of Beyond the Black Rainbow trace back to your childhood days spent inside a movie shop called the Video Attic.
Yeah. Well, that was back in the early ’80s, probably ’82, maybe ’83. After my dad passed away [in 2005], I started to really have these really vivid memories of the past, and as I was sort of exploring ways to approach this story, I recalled that memory being inside the Video Attic and looking at all of these VHS boxes of R-rated horror and science fictions films and how I would just daydream about the covers and the plot descriptions on the back. I just decided to use that as the foundation for the whole thing.
Are there any old VHS covers that stick out in your mind the most to this day?
The Brood is one of them, definitely, but when I was working on this film, I didn’t want to think about the memory too specifically—I just wanted to have that memory and use it as a starting-off point.
Were you already thinking about Beyond the Black Rainbow and its specifics before that memory came to mind, or did this project completely derive from that memory?
It was in sort of a dormant state before that; before my father died, the idea for the film had been in this dormant state for a long time. But that wasn’t really going anywhere. When I started to explore these memories, it brought this whole thing to life.
When you were growing up, did your father show you a lot of the movies that influenced him as a filmmaker? I’d imagine that growing up with a father who’s a filmmaker would lead to being exposed to movies all the time.
That was one of the things about growing up in that household: There was a constant exposure to all kinds of films. Even though I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated stuff, I was watching films from pretty much the day I was born. And my dad would tape movies off of cable channels in L.A., on beta, so he had an enormous collections of thousands of movies that I was able to dip into throughout my whole life, from every era imaginable,
Were there any specific films that you really connected with at that time?
Well, when I was really young and we lived in Sweden, the only films that were around at that point were… We had this collection of these super-8 highlight reels that they used to sell; like, they sold these super-8 reels that only had the best parts from a movie. So early on that’s what I was seeing. But the first movies I ever remember seeing were, I was in London and I went to a double feature: Pinocchio and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was probably only two or three-years-old, but that left these really vivid, ingrained memories of the octopus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the part in Pinocchiowhere he’s on the raft and he gets swallowed by the whale.
Much later than that, I always loved movies, but when it really became crystallized to me what a director does was watching After Hours and Evil Dead 2 back to back. The styles of those films are so exaggerated; the camera moves are so exaggerated and there’s a satirical, dark comedy feeling to them that’s so overt. At that point, it clicked in my mind that this was what I wanted to do.
Was Beyond the Black Rainbow always the first film you were going to make, in whatever stage it was in prior to that Video Attic memory motivating it?
Yeah, that was basically it. Over the years, I had written a few screenplays that I didn’t really show to anybody much, but then I started making short films just as a learning process, making them for myself to help me explore. And then my father’s death really lit a fire under my ass; time really seemed of the essence, and I had an image of myself not having done it by a certain age, and I couldn’t live with that. [Laughs.] So I just had to do it.
I’m really curious about the writing process behind Beyond the Black Rainbow. It’s such a visual film with a minimalistic story that’s really secondary to the visuals and the overall mood; was the writing process a long one?
Once the key pieces of the cosmic puzzle came into place within my head, it was actually a pretty sped-up process compared to everything that I’d tried doing before. I wrote it fairly rapidly, and then I moved to Vancouver once I realized it was going to be impossible to make it elsewhere. So I just moved there and kept going at it until the movie was done.
Were financers and outside people hesitant to hop onboard in those early stages?
Yeah, it was a bit of a process because nobody knew who the hell we were, and we showed up with this really weird script. It was a real process just to get a lot of the key crew to work on this film, and the budget was relatively low. A lot of people told us that we wanted to do for the money we had was impossible, but just from making super-8 short films and using my imagination, I just knew it was possible. I don’t know, maybe I was delusional. [Laughs.]
Clearly not, we have the finished product here today, and it’s extremely impressive considering that you nailed all of the visuals with a low-budget and minimal resources.
I guess a little bit of delusion can go a long way. [Laughs.]