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.]
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)