Panos Cosmatos‘s first film Beyond the Black Rainbow, which premiered at last week’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York, is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Or, it’s reminiscent of many things you have seen.
Like a faded memory, an amalgamation of every sci-fi/horror between 1970 – 1985, Black Rainbow is an exercise in aesthetic and genre. Set in a futuristic 1983, the film stars Michael Rogers as the leader of a secret laboratory, running tests on a telepathic child in an effort to – wait. No. Watching the events unfold in Black Rainbow is half the fun, the other half being entirely unsettled by the creepy visual style and piercing audio track. It’s engrossing.
I sat down with Cosmatos to talk about bringing Beyond the Black Rainbow, the inspiration for moody throwback and creating a world that’s both familiar and completely unique.
First, how has the Tribeca experience been thus far? The film seems to be playing quite well with audiences.
It’s been great.
Were you working in or making films at the time?
Well, I had been just kind of in my house…
Just chilling. I’ve been watching films and reading a book on bio life ever since I was a kid. I’d just been sort of experimenting with different art forms and patchwork films for many years.
Is there something specific about the medium that incited your interest in telling stories through film?
Yeah, well I think…I grew up around it.
Did your parents…?
My dad was a movie director [note: I believe this is George P. Cosmatos, director of Tombstone and Rambo: First Blood – Part II] and my mother was an abstract or experimental artist. So I’ve always been around that kind of stuff. But I think the two films that triggered or crystallized for me that I wanted to make films was a film, I guess, in the late ‘80s that I watched – After Hours and Evil Dead 2 basically back to back. And I guess they both made sort of blatant counter-moves. They sort of like crystallized for me what exactly it was that a movie director could do.
There was also an attitude behind them that I felt like I hadn’t experienced before that was sort of almost like a punk-rock attitude behind After Hours and Evil Dead 2.
You mentioned that your mother is an abstract artist and your father was a filmmaker – do you think this rebellious attitude comes from a desire to combine those two interests? Lose common narrative structure and dabble in the experimental?
Well, I think if you’re telling a story, a three act structure will just naturally emerge out of it. But I also love it when a film doesn’t feel like it’s anchored too rigidly to that structure and you feel like anything could happen. And that’s like, I think, for me, like the most exhilarating feeling I get watching a film, when you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Do you feel like a mood alone can carry a film?
Absolutely. I do.
”Mood pieces” are a hard beast to tackle. How do you go about preparing and executing the film so you feel confident that it’ll work?
Well, I think it’s important to have some kind of a narrative engine that pushes the audience through the landscape. But I love films like Apocalypse Now, which is a very mood driven film. It’s a magnetic force that’s pulling them through.
They have an end thing that they’re building toward.
Yeah. And that’s what that is. That’s the structure of that film.
So where did your narrative ideas begin in this film?
Well I wanted to make a film that’s like a trance film, like Apocalypse Now or Last Year at Marienbad. So I wanted it to feel very dreamlike, but I also wanted it to feel like…in a way, the structure of the film is actually very episodic. But I wanted an episode to sort of fluidly merge into the next one.
Did you feel the narrative grow from genre and mood?
Yeah. Sort of the basic storyline and the setting emerged from sort of just vague memories of sensations of watching those films. But I consciously made an effort not to go back and look at anything that I might have internalized and was influencing it.
You purposefully avoided being referential or turning Black Rainbow into an homage.
That’s why I make a point of not watching anything I suspected I might have internalized or was influencing it. That way if the influence came out, it would come out in a much more abstracted way, not as a direct reference.
Do you think there’s a danger in making films that spring from our cinematic obsessions? The current wave of Grindhouse films comes to mind, films that are born from “yeah, I loved that stuff when I was young!”
Well yeah, I’m hyper aware of that, the sense of that. And I thought there was a chance people would sort of lump it in with that. But I did feel, also, this is something that this is a little bit subtler than that, you know?
Absolutely. And from kind of a techie point of view, how did you pull off some of these older school aesthetics? This has a distinct look of old school futurism.
Well, you know, the cinematography was done in a way to enhance the grain of the film, which is really important to me. I just love sitting in a theater watching a film and the grain is like boiling and it feels completely alive like an organism almost; like an organism made out of light [laughs].
But yeah, there were certain styles of things that I wanted to use to give it that feeling, like lifted blacks that made it seem a little bit faded, but not in a very overt way.
Geometry seems to play a very important role in your design.
Yeah. I thought it sort of visually fit with some of the thematics about identity and control, which are sort of two of the main themes of the film—identity and control and regret. You know, I felt like having a very rigid geometric world fit perfectly with those themes and a character very knowledged, trying to create a very controlled environment to give himself a feeling of power.
Do you want to continue to make films that evoke a look and feel of the past? Is that a priority?
I think all my influences are from the past, so I think there will always be an element of that. But I like the idea of making films that take place in our world. It all depends on the story I think.
Some might see this film and logically assume you’re aiming to do bigger, mainstream projects. Is that a goal for you?
I mean all different kinds of filmmaking are appealing to me. But it just depends. It depends totally on what it is specifically.
Do you plan on pursuing more science fiction?
I don’t know if I’ll make another science fiction film…uh…next [laughs].
[laughs] You need a break.
Yeah. Well I don’t think of myself as like a horror or science fiction filmmaker. I just think of myself as a filmmaker…
Yeah. Or creating worlds. That’s how I think of it.
Piggybacking off that, do you have your next project in the works?
There’s a couple things I’m writing. And I’m writing them sort of simultaneously. I’m waiting for one of them to take over and become the…
Sure. Black Rainbow felt like such a clear vision…do your films derive from a single idea, concept or piece of imagery or do they stem from all over the place?
It’s kind of hard to pinpoint where a seed of an idea comes from. But one day you just find yourself with this idea.
You wake up, cold sweat…
[laughs] Yeah. And then everything starts to sort of grow around that. The way I work is…I will just collect hundreds of reference images that I feel suit that sort of feeling of what I want to create and create playlists of music that I think are like the sort of unofficial soundtrack…
Was there an official soundtrack to Black Rainbow?
Dare I ask who was on it? A few examples?
There was a lot of video game music on it, actually.
Are you a big gamer?
I play a little bit, yeah. I tend to like the games of the player of the open world games. Grand Theft Auto or Fallout or something like that where you are free to wander around.
You’re telling your own story.
Black Rainbow is a unique cinematic experience – do you think there’s a proper way to watch this film?
Well I think the best way to watch a movie is to know as little about it as humanly possible. I think that people want to know a lot about a film before they see it now. I kind of feel like the best way to watch any film is with zero foreknowledge of it.
I won’t give too much away!
If you dare to, check out the trailer below: