Interview: Eduardo Williams on The Human Surge 3
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The Human Surge 3 (Eduardo Williams, 2023)
About a quarter of the way into The Human Surge 3, there’s a sequence unlike any I’ve seen in a movie before. At a glance, it’s a typical conversation scene, only filmed from a slightly elevated angle. It opens with a counterclockwise pan to capture an exchange between two characters, who stand at an exaggerated distance from one another in the middle of a street. They continue to converse as the camera then appears to rotate above them in irregular measures. If something seems off about the scene, it’s because the director, Eduardo Williams, shot it, as he did the entirety of the film, with an Insta360 Titan—a spherical camera that records high-definition video via eight lenses, and which allows footage to be framed with a VR headset in postproduction.
Williams, a 36-year-old Argentine filmmaker at the bleeding edge of modern art cinema, has experimented with different technologies throughout his decade-plus career. His first feature, The Human Surge (2016)—to which the new film acts as a sort of tongue-in-cheek sequel (there is no part two)—was shot using a hybrid of digital and celluloid formats, while the invigoratingly ramshackle short, Parsi (2019), was filmed with a GoPro 360, anticipating the fully realized, if still undeniably surreal, look and feel of his latest work.
Like its predecessor, which centered on a variety of precariously employed young people living in a trio of far-flung locales, The Human Surge 3 follows groups of shiftless characters as they laze away their days in Peru, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. Essentially plotless, the film wanders between countries, characters, and conversations (often of a strange, almost nightmarish nature, with topics ranging from fungi growing inside the body to a little blue egg and the mysterious man to whom it’s to be delivered) with a freedom previously unavailable to Williams, who parlays the daisy-chain construction of the first film into a fully fluid structure. Therein, multiple scenarios play out simultaneously (both on screen and off, and with the help of overlapping subtitles), in uninterrupted shots forged from the fabric of the unbound moment—or in sequences, like the one mentioned above, that sidestep such cinematic conventions as match cuts or shot/reverse shot editing to arrive at a truly immersive form of storytelling.
As in an RPG or VR experience—the film’s two closest aesthetic analogues—there are moments here that push the limits of the 360-degree technology, creating odd disjunctions and discrepancies in the image (which is oblong and misshapen as a matter of course): water-like ripple effects, figural refractions, and stutter-step rhythms reminiscent of a lagging video stream. But rather than disrupt the enveloping atmosphere or distract from the flow of panoramic landscapes, these imperfections only enhance the uncanny sense that the film is taking place in some suspended state of unreality—a space where the corporeal meets the cosmic, and the earthbound can take flight at a moment’s notice. Less futuristic than frighteningly current, The Human Surge 3 envisions a world where humankind hasn’t so much surrendered to technology as managed to transcend it.
In the days leading up to The Human Surge 3’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, Williams and I caught up over Zoom to discuss the film’s heterogeneous conception and the possibilities afforded by its innovative production process.
The Human Surge never struck me as a film that would necessitate a sequel. Were you always planning to make a follow-up?
It wasn’t planned. Like you say, The Human Surge isn’t a film you’d expect to have a sequel, so that was a good reason to do it. I knew I wanted to shoot in different countries again, because that’s still interesting to me. I think it’s better to do more of these films now, and when I’m old and tired I can do the one-country films [laughs]. Once I decided to keep the multiple-countries idea, it began to feel like a kind of continuation. But then I feel like all my films are continuous with the others; they’re not so different.
Did you learn anything from shooting Parsi with a 360 camera that you brought to the new film?
What I learned with Parsi is how to edit and frame in postproduction with a VR headset. I recorded my movements while viewing the images, so the framing was dictated by what I did with my head and my body. So that was very interesting for me, and I was curious about what I could do with it in a feature film, and with a higher-quality camera. My intention was for the viewer to sometimes feel the presence of the camera and the strangeness of the image, and to sometimes connect more with the people or certain situations and forget about the image and the camera. While shooting, I discovered many things in the image: robotic movements, errors, etc. Whenever I use a new camera, I try to figure out what the camera does and doesn’t let me do while I’m filming.
How did you come to choose these three countries? Did they offer something different thematically than the countries in the first film?
Not really. At the beginning I actually wanted to use more countries, but it was too complicated and expensive. My general idea about which countries to use is very basic: to begin with, it’s just connecting countries I don’t see connected very often in cinema, and then to try to go to places I don’t know very well, and to maybe combine these places with locations that are closer to me, like Argentina and Peru.
I had been to Sri Lanka before, and I discovered this neighborhood that’s in the beginning of the film, with the spherical houses. I learned they were constructed after a tsunami that destroyed many houses there. They were built that way because it’s much more resistant to a tsunami than a rectangular house.
For Peru, I had seen on the internet that there were people there living over water, in flooded neighborhoods. I discovered this neighborhood that stays flooded half of the year. It’s next to the Amazon forest. The people there are used to living over both water and earth, which I wanted to explore.
Taiwan was a bit different. The idea came from a producer who told me if I shot there that he could help me with funding. It wasn’t as specific as the other two countries, but I found a train station that I liked, and a couple other locations. In general, there’s only one or two things about each place that I’m drawn to cinematically. I’m more interested in seeing what happens with my ideas when I go there. It’s like choosing the camera: I’m curious about what could happen more than what will happen.
How do you typically find your performers? Are they all nonprofessionals? I noticed that some of the characters in this film show up in multiple countries.
They’re all nonprofessionals. In the first film, there are a few professional actors, but in this one, no. What was important for me in this film, which was different from the first one, is that I wanted to travel from one country to another with some of the performers. We traveled with two from Sri Lanka to Peru and two from Peru to Taiwan. It was important for me to share the experience with them, and for the spectator to also see them in one place and then another. I didn’t want it to seem like the film is the one traveling but not the people.
As far as casting, maybe the only new thing is that I was more explicit in looking for LGBTI people in each place. It wasn’t exclusive, but it was something we were encouraging during casting. Usually the people lived close to the shooting location. Only in Sri Lanka did we have to bring people from far away, because it was difficult to find LGBTI [performers]. So some came from bigger cities nearby. That’s a great thing about internet casting: it facilitated meeting people from different places.
In general do you write entire dialogues, or scenarios, beforehand, or do you work with the performers on that once you’re on set?
Before starting, I have a script—or something in the form of a script. People that are used to reading scripts would probably say that they’re not scripts [laughs]. But it has dialogue and situations, which are useful for me. Once I arrive in the first country, I start thinking of new ideas, and maybe feel that some stuff that I had written doesn’t work. Then when I meet the people, I tell them the idea. Sometimes it’s something seemingly simple, like kissing in public. But they aren’t always used to things like that, while in other places they’re very excited to do it.
Most scenes are a combination of scripted dialogue and improvisation. I like to see what the actors can remember and how they improvise after I’ve told them to memorize some lines, and then after shooting has wrapped in one country, I see what happened and I rewrite for the next country, and then again when I arrive in the next country. Some things disappear and some become stronger as it goes.
Can you talk about your interest in young people? Most of your films are populated by people in younger demographics dealing with situations typical of their age.
It’s a little deceptive: they’re not all so young. Maybe it’s because of their attitude, or maybe because we see the characters not working, or wandering, and so we think they’re young. I’ve read some reviews that say that the people in the film are not older than 30, but some of them definitely are. I think the reason they feel so young is because of their attitudes. But age relates a bit to one of the themes I’m interested in: the problem with jobs, and not having a job you find at least a little bit interesting, or one that doesn’t take up all your time. When you’re young, you might work, but you’re usually free to do other things as well.
Can you describe the practical aspects of the shoot, and how you physically operated the camera?
I learned to work with it as I went. The main thing was that I didn’t have to frame while shooting. It’s liberating, but it also brings new complications. We constructed a backpack to mount the camera over the operator’s head. So the person shouldn’t be super tall if they’re moving the camera, because you don’t want it to be too far away from the performers. Of course, not having a frame and instead having a 360-degree image meant that the technical team needed to be hidden. For the first days, I hid behind things, before we figured out other ways of staying out of view. Or in some cases not: we have shots where you can see me or the sound team, and I like that. We also noticed errors, like when a face was too close to the camera and the image would distort, or the star shape that appears where the camera stitches the eight shots together. But I also discovered how to use these errors in the film. For instance, I noticed that if you put a face where the star shape appears, then it would repeat three times.
Were you able to watch the footage as you shot, or did you notice this all after the fact?
I had an iPad that allowed me to look at the images, and I would edit after each of the shoots, so I would learn how to work with the footage as we went. One other thing I learned about the camera is that I could set it down and leave it shooting. That’s what we did for the long shot toward the end of the film in the jungle, where the monkey hops on the camera. A lot of things like that came to me in postproduction, when I was seeing the footage in VR. I could change where and what I wanted to look at, and how I wanted the image to move.
There are a couple of times where two scenes play out simultaneously, on and off screen, with overlapping dialogue. How did you conceptualize and choreograph these moments?
One of the things that was interesting for me was being able to stage these simultaneous situations without knowing if I wanted to choose only one. All the sound is separate, so I was very free to erase one conversation if I didn’t want to use it, but in general, when we were filming, I was more interested in the simultaneity of it. With the overlapping sounds and languages, it was challenging to figure out whether to subtitle it or not, but I liked the idea of multiple situations happening at the same time. And I like that there are a lot of subtitles and that it’s hard to keep reading them. Some people have suggested that it’s not necessary to read everything, and that when there’s too many subtitles, they just stop reading. I hope they do that; it’s what happens to me in films. Sometimes I pay more attention to what is said, even if I don’t understand the language. For me it was a simple way to suggest that you shouldn’t read everything, or that it’s not necessary. It’s also another way to illustrate the simultaneity of language and ideas.
A lot of people have compared the experience of watching the film to a video game or VR experience. Did you grow up playing video games or have an interest in VR prior to making the film?
VR, no. That’s something I only came to with these films. But I played video games a lot growing up. I don’t anymore, because if I do, then I can’t stop playing them [laughs]. Some people have also compared the look of the film to Google Maps, which I like, because it relates to the idea of seeing “normal” images in a different way. But these are things I discovered along the way, as I started to watch the footage. When we went to the mountain in Taiwan that you see at the end of the film, some of the performers said that it felt like a video game—I guess because it was a new place, a strange place, one they associated more with a video game than something in real life. I really liked how these ideas occurred not only in the texture of the images but also in different shooting situations.
If there was going to be a third Human Surge at some point, would there need to be a new technology available, or a new way of filming, for that to be something worth pursuing?
I don’t know. I’m always interested in how to use tools, but they don’t have to be new tools. I’m also interested in celluloid, and how to use celluloid after using other tools. In the first film we used 16mm, as well as a small video camera and a very big one. Having different sizes of camera affects the performers. So I don’t think I’d have to have a new technology, but I will always think about how to use my tools in new and interesting ways. I have an idea of what I’m going to use next, but I won’t say what it is, in case I don’t end up using it [laughs]. But it’s not something very new. It’s just this question of how to use it. In the first film I was using 16mm, but how do you use film when you’re used to watching YouTube videos shot on phones? Does that influence how you shoot? My question now would be how to use film or more normal cameras when I’ve used 360 cameras. Each experience with each technology and tool changes your mind, and changes what you think you can do and what you can’t do.
Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Cinema Scope, frieze, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Sight and Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.