How did you come up with the idea of intercutting four stories into a single narrative?
At first this movie was going to be more than four stories. There wasn't this clear idea of just how many stories would be incorporated into the movie. But the idea that the stories would not be directly related to each other was there from the beginning. They weren't characters who knew each other... They weren't even characters that had anything to do with each other...They appeared almost by happenstance. My wife, Julie, read in Connoisseur magazine about Rodney Brooks, the insect robot guy. She was fascinated by the article, fascinated by him and for years she kept telling me to get in touch with him. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Rodney works at MIT really, just down the street. So when I started to put the movie together I did call him and went down and talked to him. George Mendonça I had known about for only a short time before making the movie. I had always wanted to shoot in a topiary garden with a topiary gardener. And then I found out that there was this topiary garden right around the corner, in Rutherford, Rhode Island that had animals made out of privet and boxwood. And I thought: this is better than I could have ever hoped for. It fits in perfectly with this series of deeply weird animal stories, namely, animals out of privet, insect-mammals, wild beasts in the circus and robotic insects.
You show the four characters in isolation: either in their worlds or in the studio.
At the center of this is the device I have created for conducting interviews on film: the Interrotron. The idea is that there is something very important about eye contact, about someone looking you straight in the eye, certainly in human communication and in communication in general. If you ask me, it is the difference between the first person and the third person. In fact, when you say that Ray is looking directly at us, it is that kind of eye contact, when he says I know you are, you know I am." It is that kind of an exchange that occurs, and one of the things that struck me over the years is that, the way in which interviews are filmed prevents that sort of thing by its very nature. I was trying from the very first film I made, "Gates of Heaven," to create that feeling of eye to eye contact.
In "Gates of Heaven," what I did was put my head against the head of the camera, and often I would get so close to the camera that my hair would be seen in the edge of the frame. The cameraman would have to grab the back of my head and pull it back. But if you know where to look, you can see the side of my head in the movie. And the frames are wide enough, that is the image size of the person is small enough, so that they can be looking at me, and given that I am so close to the lens, you have the feeling that they are looking directly into the camera. I now call that the faux first person. Over the years, I kept imagining how I could I get people to talk directly to the lens, but maintain that human connection, that eye-to-eye connection, one person to another, one beast to another if you like. I first came across the idea of the Interrotron as a joke. What if I modify a set of TelePrompTers, which really are television sets and half silvered mirrors? What if the person I am interviewing and I are looking directly at each other? Not in some traditional sense of you and I sitting in a room, talking to each other, looking at each other, but looking at each other's live video images. Imagine a camera that has a half silvered mirror in front of it, and that camera, the A-camera, the interview camera, has my image on a half silvered mirror directly in front of the lens: my live video image. The B-camera, which is the camera which is on me, has the image from the A-camera on it, so that essentially, the end result is that we are both looking at each other's live video images, but at the same time we are looking directly into these camera's lenses.
This is a real first. There is something strange about it, because for the first time, there is this direct eye contact, or even more important, there is the possibility of direct eye contact. People don't have to have their eyes on locked on each other. There are moments, in fact, most of the interview, when the person is not looking directly at the interviewer.
But it as at that point that it becomes psychologically telling...
But there are moments where there is that connection. The lack of connection and moment of connection and the moment of disconnection all become dramatically important.
Was there some single guiding concept for the film?
No. I wanted to avoid that kind of thing. I thought: here we have the ultimate "low concept" movie, a movie that would utterly resist the possibility of a one-line summary. You couldn't look at this assemblage of characters and say, definitively: "It's about this..." or "It's about that..." It defeats that sort of thing by its very nature (four seemingly unrelated stories) and because the themes in the movie are complex and elusive.
I am fascinated about how we project images of ourselves into the world. Animals provide a canvas on which we can examine how people see themselves. The mole-rat photographer says it explicitly, "This is not science. This is not a form of scientific observation. It's a form of self knowledge."
"Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" has its own visual style...
My cinematographer, Robert Richardson, quite independently of me, had been thinking about film as a kind of painting, a kind of collage. When I first started making movies, my dream was to shoot in 35mm. I didn't have the money to shoot in 35mm and everybody knew how much better 35mm looked than 16mm. So, the idea was to shoot 16mm so carefully, that the 16mm would look like 35mm.
That would be the argument. I guess the ultimate expression of this sort of thing is Doug Trumbull's search for higher and higher resolutions, higher frame rates. Why is film better than television? Film has more resolution than television.
But that's true, of course...
But most directors of photography will tell you they spend a lot of their time degrading their images. Much of what is great in photography is in what the photograph or image does not show, as well as what is presented. Richardson has capitalized on this idea. Namely, you should employ all of these textures and resolutions in a movie. Fine grain 35, grainy 35, 16, Super 16, High 8, Super 8, video transfer to film, infrared, black & white, color reversal, color negative. You name it. The kitchen sink approach. Anything goes. There is a whole palette, not just of colors and shapes, but textures, as well.
Each of your characters has become obsessed with something odd, but also something wonderful...
Yes. Four odd relationships: a gardener who, Sisyphus-like, labors endlessly to create animals out of privet; a lion tamer obsessed with Clyde Beatty, a mythic lion tamer and movie hero, now dead, who himself was a recreation of some faded nineteenth century idea, the European explorer conquering the wilds of Africa; a photographer in love with cold-blooded vermin and a robot scientist who has put his faith in silicon-creatures that he believes are designed to replace us and all the rest of carbon based life on the planet. And so, the movie allows me to explore these characters fantasies, their dreamscapes, these worlds that they have created for themselves. It is a world of pure ideas.
Did you have any narrative principle that you either had before or developed as you worked on it, thematic, narrative, logical or something else...?
The mole-rat guy, Ray Mendez, says it explicitly. He was in a childhood entomology club, and they would sit around and talk about bugs all day and dream of finding a world in which people lived like insects. I am not sure why this was his dream, but it was one of those great 50's ideas of our society being dominated by insect people coming from outer space.
I like these guys. They are four dreamers who are not different in kind from myself or anybody else for that matter.
And that they spend more or less a lifetime bringing into reality.
There is something self-defeating about them, something ephemeral about them. The case of the lion tamer... He tells you at the very end of the movie that this is a world on the wane. It soon will not exist any longer. Clyde Beatty is dead, but he didn't die by being devoured by wild beasts, which I guess is the way all great lion tamers should go. He died of cancer. He went not with a bang, but a whimper.
You show it visually, too... There is the unbelievable footage of when Dave Hoover comes out of his trailer home kneeling down to play with his kitty-cat.
It is interesting to put that next to Rodney Brooks' conclusion, where he talks about the success of robotic life...
But it is the success of robotic life only at the expense of life as we know it. Rodney Brooks has modified the line from Faulkner's Nobel Prize address. Not only will Mankind not prevail, who says it should even endure...
Yes, he has created a world at the expense of extinguishing the world as we know it. It is unbelievably melancholy.
If all of these stories are about bids for control of our world, in some very deep sense, it is not simply the control that comes from being able to tell people "do this" or "do that." It is a control that comes from being able to construct the world for your own purposes, hospitable, inhabitable. In the case of the topiary gardener, it takes him fifteen years to make the bear.
Through years and years of planning and effort, you nurture it until it grows and blossoms into this thing, whether a giraffe, or a camel or an elephant or a rider on horse back or an armchair. But he also tells you it is ephemeral. There are hurricanes, insects, blights, birds, wrong equipment. And there is his own mortality. There is the very simple fact that there may not be any successor to him, who wants to do what he does, who cares what he does, and so when he dies that may be the end of it all. What takes him fifteen, twenty years to build may be destroyed in a day. Yet he persists in doing it anyway.
Yes. And in the case of both the robot guy and the mole-rat man, they believe their worlds to be worlds that will replace ours and replace them at our expense. After all, the mole-rats are far better, equipped to deal with adversity than we are. Ray Mendez says quite explicitly in the movie, that what we tend to do when faced with adverse circumstances, is to let everybody die. The mole-rats are far more practical: they are perfectly willing to let one of their fellows be exterminated in favor of the group: The expendibility of the individual. What hope do we have against the mole-people?
And with the robots?
This is where I think the irony of the movie comes to a head. Here you have a guy who is an archetypal Dr. Frankenstein figure, a guy who wants to create his own form of life, which is perhaps the deepest and greatest idea of control, ever. If we as life forms are at the mercy of the unseen, unknown, unknowable forces, if we can create some kind of life, then perhaps we have stepped outside of the vagaries of our own existence, the vulnerability of our own existence, and have become in some deep sense, immortal. But what an odd kind of immortality...We all die in the process, and these Frankenstein-life-forms we have created live on. It is control and self-destruction at the same time.
It was very much intended as an elegy. There are things dying out as we speak, things that are coming into being. In a deeper metaphysical sense, there is the feeling of growing older and of the world changing and of loss. On the very simple level, the loss of my parents and how the world for me is really a different place--completely different without them. I'd like to think of these four characters--these two backward-looking characters and these two forward-looking characters. Preservationists-people who are trying to conserve the past in some way--George, the gardener, and Dave, whose circus world may be near an end. And there's a sadness, a definite sadness on both their parts. On the other hand, you have a guy who talking about shit-eating rodents, cold-blooded vermin that are perhaps gonna do better than we do in the future. After all, they're less concerned with the individual at the expense of society as a whole. Maybe they'll replace us. And of course it is explicit with the robot guy when he says when the robots leave this building they'll take over. There may not be enough room for us or any other carbon-based life form on the planet. It's not just the end of the circus, it's the end of the carbon-based circus. And Rodney is celebrating it and he's not bemoaning the fact that the world may come to an end. It's 'hey, way to go." It's something to be embraced rather than feared.
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