Panos Cosmatos, director of Beyond the Black Rainbow, a Magnet Release.
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
When Beyond the Black Rainbow played last year at Tribeca and AFI Fest, to say audiences were polarized feels like an understatement. Impassioned fans of the film compared the work of writer/director Panos Cosmatos with that of David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Stanley Kubrick, while others walked out. The Reagan-era fever dream, inspired by seventies and eighties midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons follows the young Elena (Eva Allan) as she tries to make her way out of the futuristic Arboria commune. The film releases this weekend at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles and in limited release around the country, so cult movie fans and adventurous filmgoers can finally experience the incendiary piece of filmmaking for themselves. Cosmatos will also be on-hand at the Cinefamily for post-screening Q&As. In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently enjoyed an insightful conversation with Cosmatos about the film’s inspiration and production. Here’s what Cosmatos shared with me about making a polarizing film, exacting a unique vision, and crafting Beyond the Black Rainbow.
Jackson Truax: Where did the initial idea for Beyond the Black Rainbow come from?
Panos Cosmatos: It was a gradual merging of different, disparate elements. The original idea I had kicking around in my head since, maybe the late nineties… It was actually more of love story, and the doctor (Michael Rogers) was less of a foreground character. But then at a certain point…I had this idea. Around the town where I live, I can see these empty storefronts with tables and pamphlets and books for religious sects. I just decided I wanted to rent a storefront for a month or two and create a fake religion. And set up a folding table and a chair in there and hand out pamphlets, and see what would happen, see what the reaction would be. Around that time I was expanding on this idea of the girl in the institute, and I was trying to figure out, “What is this institute all about? What is this place that she’s imprisoned in about?” I realized Arboria, which was the name of this fake religion I created, was divergently being created for the movie, without me knowing it… When my father passed away, I became reconnected with movies from my youth. All those elements started to show up.
JT: The movie is very driven by being so atmospheric, yet there is very concrete story at the heart of it. How did you approach writing the screenplay for the film?
PC: I decided to just write as straightforward as possible, then let the visuals and the look of the film bloom around something that was pretty straightforward. At the end of the day, I decided to bring down the story elements to allow the visual and the story elements to come more into the foreground, to make it more dream-like and less story-driven.
JT: The film is very specifically set in 1983. Did you know immediately that it would be? Why that year specifically?
PC: I knew immediately. At first I had idea of the girl in the institute. Then the Arboria element came into play. Once I started delving into the nostalgic movies from my past, once I realized the movie had to take place in that era, then organically out of that grew these themes of the baby boomers and the sixties. I’m sure on a logical, mathematical level it made sense. But also, I picked 1983 as opposed to 1984 or 1982 because I liked the idea of it being one-year off of the iconic year 1984. It was funny to me.
JT: Beyond the Black Rainbow feels very much like a movie about movies, and about childhood memories of certain movies. Were there any specific films or filmmakers you were consciously referencing?
PC: The overarching idea of the film was to try and crystallize this intangible idea of a remembered film that didn’t exist… The overall look I wanted to have the feel of something like Phase IV, or THX 1138, which would be more mood-driven… I also drew from stuff that’s more current. The sixties flashback scene was inspired by this movie called Begotten by E. Elias Merhige, which looks like an artifact out of a dream. It’s a very faded, high-contrast, black-and-white, feature-length nightmare. I realized that high-contrast would be perfect for the sixties flashback, which I wanted to feel like a faded document. The acid trip within the flashback, the framing was inspired a little bit by Contempt. There’s a movie-within-a-movie-within Contempt. There’s a sequence they referred to as the “Battle of the Gods” which is…just these static shots of rotating sculptures. I like the idea of presenting something as insane as the acid trip in a kind of detached, almost sculptural way.
JT: Once you settled on what the tone and the look of the film were going to be, how did you communicate that to your crew?
PC: It varied from department to department. Me and the cinematographer had a lot of meetings about how to create the look that we wanted. So that was one element. The set design, I hired this graphic design company called Studio Elementals and worked with them to design the look of the institute… You just have to remain diligent and focused on every detail.
JT: The roles of Elena and Dr. Nyle offered a lot of unique challenges for the actors. What was your process of working with them?
PC: It was different for every actor. With Eva, I felt that she instinctively understood how to approach the character in a physical, emotional way… I didn’t want to burden her with a lot of concepts or ideas or preconceived notions about what the character should be. So with her, it was mostly on-set, in between takes, guiding her into the right moments. With Michael Rogers, I think we talked a lot more beforehand. He’s a lot more methodical in his style. He wanted to know backstory. He wanted to know where his character was coming from so he could find the right angle from which to approach this guy.
JT: It is easy to read into the film and look for social or political allegories and messages. Was that intentional on your part?
PC: There are certain themes that are definitely in there about the boomer generation… But I tried to make them a little bit obtuse and not too specific, so that people can project their own ideas, or memories, or feelings about that onto it. So I wanted to hint at these things without getting to heavy-handed about defining them specifically.
JT: The film blends elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, drama, and has very social and political undertones. Both in writing and in shooting, what was the biggest challenge of combining all these elements?
PC: I tried to remain as open as possible to letting things take on a life of their own… At every stage, things are always fighting to take on a life of their own. It’s just a matter of trying to control when you let that happen and when you don’t.
JT: You’ve said that Beyond the Black Rainbow was about the films you weren’t allowed to see as a kid. Was Elena a stand-in for you in that sense, trying to escape someone who is trying to oppress your thoughts and feelings and actions?
PC: Maybe, I don’t know. I’m not sure. Possibly. Probably. I think all the characters in the film are pretty archetypical. Part of keeping with the simplified archetypes is that I wanted people to be able to project their own emotions onto the film, and put themselves into these characters.
JT: The film has a very specific score and sound design. How did you come to have Jeremy Schmidt of Sinoia Caves and Black Mountain write the music, and what was your process of collaborating with him?
PC: Once I decided that the movie was going to take place in 1983, I knew that I wanted to have a really juicy synthesizer score. Through a friend and I met Jeremy, heard his album, and realized that he is the most perfect person on earth to score it. His music is very specific, but also goes beyond that… We talked about music of the era. We listened to stuff on his record collection… I gave his some guidance about the tone I wanted for some specific sequences. But then I just let him go and do his thing. It was a real treat to hear it played back. The music ended up being half the movie.
JT: The film showed at some major festivals, including AFI and Tribeca. What was the experience of showing the film there?
PC: When we first started showing the film at festivals, I didn’t really actually have a lot of hope that anybody would ever sort of connect with it or get it. Or I felt the people that would get it were an extremely small group of people. Luckily, as the film has played at more festivals and is now playing in theaters, I feel like it’s finding its audience. It’s a very specific, divisive kind of movie. So it will always be the kind of movie that only has a small following of people who are really into it.
JT: Is there anything in particular you hope audiences will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
PC: I just hope that they go into as open-mindedly as possible, as just try to let is wash over them. Because I think that’s how this film works best.
Filed under: LiC Interview