The title of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness suggests several things at once: the primitive, the transcendental, a metaphor for cinema. In the triptych by 16mm film heroes Ben Russell and Ben Rivers, a man (composer Robert A.A. Lowe) searches for utopia: first in an Estonian commune, then alone in the middle of the woods, and finally performing at a black-metal concert. An epic experimental film, it’s a sumptuous visual experience that should only be seen projected on a large screen. FILM COMMENT caught up with the Bens while they were in New York for New Directors / New Films, where A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness screens on March 22 and 25.
Where does your sense of what to film come from? What drew your eye at the commune, for instance?
Ben Russell: We have different ways of shooting. I always think about what the image is before I shoot it, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to shoot with Ben, because I think he has a more intuitive relationship to recording the world and producing an image of the world. So in that commune, [to Ben Rivers] you probably shot more than I did, because I always just think about what it means, and what it’s going to mean. I’m several steps ahead of it, whereas Ben films it and thinks about what it means. I’m envious of his relationship.
Ben Rivers: I guess I feel a little freer to trust in my instincts and find images and not worry too much. If they feel right, that’s enough at that moment to then feel like they’re worth recording on film, and then readdress them in the edit. So in a lot of ways, the edit becomes that place where you understand the images.
Russell: But we did give ourselves license with the commune and the solitude, because we’re talking about the Beautiful in some sense, or an idea of the Beautiful, we gave ourselves the liberty to shoot a bit more.
Rivers: Especially with the commune, that was something a bit new to us. Firstly, having two cameras—we each had a camera—and also doing synch sound conversations, so we knew that we’d have to be a bit more liberal with the amount we were shooting. So that was different to the other two parts. For the solitude part [in the woods], we had one camera, and we would set up each shot together, and both look through the viewfinder, so there was more of a mutual consideration over each image. Locked-off images are very different types of images, different ways of keeping time. Then the last part was even more organized because we were bringing in an outside camera operator, so we had to direct him quite rigorously about the kind of images we wanted, where we wanted him to move, and the speed we wanted him to move.
What is that beautiful image? You happened to follow this woman walking, who then goes to see the man lying in bed with the baby on his chest…. or not?
Russell: Or not.
Rivers: We’re setting up parameters within which we can find those images. It’s about setting up a scene. You know if you point the camera here, and move it 90 degrees, you’ll probably be getting what you want because you’ve created the whole environment.
Russell: And we do treat them as images, not necessarily as actions. I’m not sure either of us are really after narrative, or “things that lead to other things” as much as we are after the way that the world translates into a two-dimensional picture plane, and how these things cohere, which isn’t to say that the film is “about” images. We’re thinking about what a body does in the center of a 16:9 frame: how that body moves through space, and how that space changes and opens up and allows other bodies to come into it.
Rivers: Yeah. But the setup does allow for some accident. We set up that shot with the woman walking into the bedroom with her partner and baby. We knew where she was going to walk, and we knew that they were going to have a little conversation when she got in bed, but we didn’t know exactly what they were going to say, or that she was going to give him a little flower. It’s about trying to set up these spaces so that you can then find these magic, beautiful moments within them, be receptive to them.
Russell: And the beautiful image is not a general idea, it’s a really specific idea. The kind of beautiful image that we’re after in that first section is really specific to a collective space, to a social interaction, to a particular kind of light. I mean, there’s no fundamental, essential Beauty—it’s the beauty of that moment in that place.
Rivers: Which is really different from the solitude beauty. We’re thinking more about the sublime, the scariness of certain images of beauty. And in a sense that can carry into the third section, which is less obviously beautiful, but it is kind of beautiful when Rob opens his mouth and there’s this amazing red on the inside of his mouth. It’s a really different type of beauty.
Can you describe how you went about creating the commune that appears in the film, setting up those parameters on a larger scale?
Russell: We looked for a while for an actual place that had people living collectively with the idea that we’d bring someone in, and one of them existed, but it wasn’t our ideal space, and we weren’t their ideal collaborators. [Laughs] So we ended up building something by bringing together a bunch of people who lived collectively in past moments in their lives, or in the present, so half of the people are from a commune-collective in Estonia, which I guess functions in a different way than we are familiar with in the U.S. or U.K. And then there are other folks we brought in, one of whom grew up in a Krishna community in Gainesville. They certainly didn’t understand the film we wanted to make, but they certainly understood that we were there to make a film and wanted them to participate in a certain way.
Rivers: We all lived together for a few days and just had conversations for a few days before we started filming, because we were there for a few weeks. So just like getting everyone used to living together, and getting into the flow of being in this place together, and with us being around. So we slowly started filming, and then the conversations started later.
Russell: And the idea was always to film the kind of material that was happening all the time, and then locate it around a series of conversations that we would ask people to have, not knowing what they’d say, but having an idea of where they might go with it. And the conversations got much better as time progressed, because they got more comfortable with each other, and with us.
Did you have a similar relationship to the black-metal guys? Was it a similar process?
Russell: Yes, exactly the same.
Rivers: Yes, basically the same. In the same way commune people come from other communes, these guys came from other bands, a sort of supergroup. Rob [Lowe, the composer] came out of being friends with Ben quite a few years before the film. He was kind of the beginning and the kind of—
Rivers: Lynchpin? Yeah. [Laughs] He was the lynchpin.
Did you have ideas of what you wanted to explore, and then you introduced Rob to certain situations, or was it the other way around?
Russell: We had a pretty clear idea of what the film was, and then we realized that the film needed to be complicated in some fashion, or that the way we were thinking about it wasn’t complex enough. And it became apparent that we needed to have a non-white lead character because of the various histories of black metal, because of the way collectivity has operated within the West, because of the history of the Romantic sublime—I mean, all of these things. So that was one consideration. But also we wanted somebody who was a musician and had a pretty profound, embodied relationship to performance, and Rob fit both of those poles. So when we were thinking of people to be involved, his name was immediately there. The fact he’s not Caucasian is important, but it’s not the only reason we cast him.
Rivers: Yeah. His performance came first. Originally this film was going to be made in Norway, and we were imagining some Scandinavian guy who lives in the wilderness.
Russell: I went and met an artist who lives like that, and it seemed too easy, too simple. When I was traveling around the Flotan Islands—I’ve told this story a few times—I was taking the bus because it was really expensive, and there were a lot of Afghani and Somali refugees there. They lived in that place, and it seemed like a much more complex relationship to place, and a culture.
Was there any sort of direction when you were working with Rob, or was it more of an idea of what to do?
Rivers: There was quite a lot of direction.
Rivers: The first part we filmed was the Finnish solitude part, and that’s totally directed. Rob’s not from the North of Finland. He’s not an actor, and we didn’t want an actor. We often talked about Bresson’s idea of the model, the blank canvas—you wouldn’t even call them a performer, they’re there, they’re present, embodied in that place. So one of the first things you have to do is have someone get rid of any of their affect, any kind of semblance of acting. It’s almost like anti-directing.
Russell: And that usually involves giving people things to do, activities.
Russell: Like, row a boat for 15 minutes, and only film a minute of it, and not really say when you’re filming it. I remember seeing Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance where this guy is playing ping pong for like five minutes, and the physical activity forces him to change: he goes from being an actor, to himself, to himself remembering he’s an actor playing. But ultimately it’s just gesture waiting to come out. It’s tougher in Finland because there’s not as much activity to do, but we did read for a while.
Rivers: Sit by a fire, smoke a cigarette. Try not to brush away the mosquitoes all the time.
How much film did you shoot? Because 16mm film feels like a precious commodity.
Russell: Yeah, it is.
Rivers: .It was different for each section. The solitude was, I’d say, five to one. The commune was quite a lot—
Rivers: No…! Not that much.
Russell: Twelve? I think we shot eight hours. I think 14 to one.
Rivers: Fourteen to one, that’s a lot. But then the black metal section was two to one.
Russell: The way of shooting was determined by the terms we were shooting in. We had them play two concerts, and that was all we had.
In that black-metal section, I read that you drew a map for the cameraman to move through. I’m interested in this idea of how you’re communicating these things to someone. What were you interested in getting in their performance, not just visually, but in terms of ideas?
Russell: We didn’t want to make a music video, and we weren’t so interested in the performers as musicians as much as individuals involved in an activity. [Bassist] Nicholas McMaster said, the experience of performing is a very individual and singular experience. And because there’s a subtext about the individual within the collective, ultimately the individual is the center of the film trying to figure out where he or she interacts or operates, it seemed important to film the concert in a way that the individual was highlighted. There’s never a shot where you see the whole group at once.
Rivers: Right. And the same goes when the camera goes out into the audience. The camera focuses on the individual experience of being—so they’re all experiencing this collective moment, but also a very individual moment that happens in the cinema and it happens in music shows.
Russell: But that’s why it’s been important to show it in cinemas, because that is the experience of cinema. I had worked with Chris Fawcett, the Steadicam operator, before. He’s great, his job is to do what directors want, so we told him to move as if he was in slow-motion, underwater, and to take into the account the space between figures—
Rivers: —to not be afraid of the black spaces in between people. Because his instinct as a Steadicam operator filming a band would be to move quickly from hands playing to face—
Russell: —to go from one “character” to the next, and we almost wanted the opposite of that.
Rivers: Yeah, the opposite. To film elbows, and then to glide over to the next person really slowly, even if it’s the set. So we drew a map for each track.
Russell: We had a few days of rehearsal, so we got to hear the songs and figure out how we wanted it to be while they were playing.
I feel like there are many moments were you’re embracing this nothing—when he’s in nature, as you say, in the spaces in between the band, and also the first shot of the movie. How did you decide to use that motion and that song to inaugurate the film? It perfectly sets the tone.
Rivers: The song came about through a lucky happenstance.
Russell: Like the same way everything. [Laughs]
Rivers: Because that’s the way we make films. We’re receptive to the gifts of the universe.
Russell: That’s why it’s such a bummer to have to write scripts and prefigure things [for funding], because we certainly didn’t at the beginning imagine that we would open with a figure-eight tracking shot of a lake at dawn-dusk where the trees become sound waves with an Estonian fire song. You’re in the process of filming, and spending time in the place opens you up to the possibilities of all of these things to happen. If you have it all predetermined, it’s like… pffft.
Rivers: You’re just illustrating. The way we make films is experiential.
Rivers: And so hopefully some of that is translated into the film itself.
Russell: We had gone at the very end of the shoot in Estonia to see a guy who had a Futuro Finnish UFO-ship house, this utopian architectural space, in his backyard. He had designed covers for an album of classic folk songs that have been rearranged by a contemporary Finnish composer, sung by a youth choir. And the first song on there was a fire spell, an old historic fire spell. For us, fire was always a determining feature of lightness/darkness, etc., and we used that. One of the exciting things of making a film is establishing a time for people to enter into, and the attention that you’re asking the audience to give. If people complain that a film is slow, but it opens with like a seven-minute tracking shot of a lake… they’ve been warned. [Laughs] You know? We always thought about it as a prologue, to the environment, to the emotional and sonic space of the film.
Out of any possible philosophical idea to explore with film, why did you choose to explore the utopian or transcendental together?
Rivers: Why something…positive?
Rivers: It’s so easy to be negative. I think that’s it. We weren’t talking about utopia at the beginning at all. It was something we realized we were talking about later on. We were talking about how to exist in the world with a positive relationship in the world and to other humans, how is that possible, how do you make that work. And thinking about it as something that isn’t necessarily fixed, you can’t necessarily pin down utopia, or whatever you want to call it, these are things you pass through, and you have to take into account the darkness as well to get to the lightness.
Russell: And vice versa.
Do you have any more plans to collaborate in the future?
Russell: We’ve got a spinoff film with the guy who tells the finger-in-the-asshole story. It’s like a psychedelic documentary portrait of him. Is that right?
Rivers: Yeah. Kind of a road movie—
Russell: A pilgrimage. A secular pilgrimage.
What’s his background?
Russell: He’s an artist and a poet. [Laughs] He’s a friend and his relationship to the world operates between the waking space and a dream space. The edges are a bit blurrier for him, and as a cinema subject, it seems like an exciting thing. But more than that, he’s a guy who is really generous and fun, someone we both really enjoyed spending time with, and want to spend more time with, as a human and an image. He’s a storyteller.
Do you have any personal projects?
Rivers: Personally, I’m making a film in Morocco.
Russell: What’s it about?
Rivers: It’s about storytelling. And the title is…
Russell: It’s already got a title?
Rivers: It’s called The Earth Trembles and the Sky Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers.
Russell: That’s a great title.
Rivers: It’s a big mouthful.
Russell: You should just call it The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers.
Rivers: Yeah, but I like the preamble. It’s something that Paul Bowles heard in a bar, just eavesdropping on a conversation. That’s my main project. I’m also making a film about an English painter called Rose Wylie.
Russell: And I just finished a short film—23 minutes and 33 seconds—about Atlantis. It’s a portrait of Atlantis. And I’m making a film about gold mining, and men who form temporary communities in difficult situations in Suriname and the Arctic North.