Michael was somebody that I found in auditions. We didn’t really approach any name actors, mostly because of cost but also because I thought the universe of the film would really benefit from everybody in it being unrecognizable. With him, it was the way he read a line in the audition with such perfect, hilarious, smug arrogance—that really made him immediately become my first choice.
Eva [Allen] was tougher, actually. We auditioned more people for the Elena character than anybody else. Physically, she has this amazing, kind of alien quality to her. She had studied at a school that really focuses on emotion and physicality, so she just seemed to really understand what we wanted. Part of the audition process was seeing how she’d be affected by the power of this crystal pyramid that’s in the film. A lot of actors didn’t really comprehend that, but she immediately seemed to understand what it means to be attacked by an invisible energy field. [Laughs.]
Another person involved with the film who’s incredibly important to its impact is Jeremy Schmidt, the composer. When collaborating with him, what sort of directions did you give him? The film has a great, synthesizer-heavy ’80s vibe, so there must have been some specific influences.
Well, I didn’t want it to just be an imitation of that era. There are many sound elements in the film that I think are very reminiscent of ’70s experimental synth stuff. We both love that kind of music, so he really understood exactly what I was going for, and I didn’t have to give him too much guidance.
A huge part of my writing process is listening to music as I write, almost creating an unofficial soundtrack to the film I’m working on, a sort of playlist. But the specific songs change rapidly as I write. The song can act as a doorway into another room, and once I’m in there I realize that the previous song has served its purpose; then, I move onto a different song and enter a different part of the story. With this film, I wasn’t too focused on period music—I wanted music that would inspire the kinds of images that I wanted. And, strangely enough, a lot of what I used during the writing process was the Half Life 2 soundtrack.
Oh, the video game?
Yeah. That’s how I discovered the music for Beyond the Black Rainbow, honestly: just from playing that game so much. [Laughs.]
I was listening to past interview of yours, and in it you briefly mentioned that you actually wrote and shot more scenes that developed the story and gave the characters more expository dialogue, but then you cut the scenes out to focus the finished product more on mood and visuals. What was the thought process behind that?
Yeah, there’s two things. One was that, I treated the story in the film almost like a musical element, where you could turn it up and down in the mix depending on the scene. I filmed it in such a way that I could turn the story up if I needed to; I wanted to keep it as quiet as possible, so that everything you needed to know was there, but it wasn’t in the foreground.
There’s one specific sequence that was in the script and it was very long, but I felt like it sort of the most extreme end of the spectrum, being that it really explained all of the technology that’s happening in the film, but once I edited it I decided that it was unnecessary, and I wanted to focus on the more fable-like quality of the story. I’d written that scene to, like, have it there in case I needed it, but I figured out early on that I wasn’t going to use it ultimately.
Would you prefer that people focus more on the film’s visuals and less on the story, then? It’s nearly impossible to experience Beyond the Black Rainbow any other way, to be honest, but is that OK with you?
The primary intent of it is to create a sort of trance-like dream state; ideally, I’d like for people to project their own emotions and memories onto it. I know that’s a lot to ask, though. [Laughs.] I know that it’s a very slow-paced film, even with the dialogue, and that was absolutely done to create this very trance-like, waking-dream-like feeling. I wanted there to be a lot of empty space in the film to allow the audience to sort of fill it in on their own.
It seems like it’d be difficult, from the filmmaking side of things, to sustain a trancelike feel for nearly two hours.
Well, that was my intent from the beginning, and that was really the only thing I wanted to achieve. It just became a matter of fine-tuning things in the edit room, deciding on how to long we’d let certain things linger for.
Many directors have tried to shoot a film that looks and feels like something from the past, but most of their movies seem too forced. How’d you make sure Beyond the Black Rainbow wouldn’t suffer the same fate?
It was complex, but it was just a matter of focusing… I think of it as a stripped-down version of that aesthetic. I don’t think it’s a genuine replication; in a lot of ways, I see it as a film that takes a lot of the key elements of that old aesthetic that appealed to me personally and then stripping it down to its core essence. And maybe that’s why it works.
The idea of creating a quote-unquote “retro” world isn’t all that appealing to me by itself. I wanted to take that and boil it down to a very potent brew version of that. I was trying to create a nightmare, heightened version of that retro aesthetic.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)