Philip Gelatt on the Aesthetics of Frustration

Philip Gelatt, writer/director of They Remain, on the slipperiness of genre, the atmosphere of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the aesthetics of frustration first published by SciFiNow

Born in Wisconsin and resident in Brooklyn, Philip Gelatt is a comic book author and filmmaker who likes to take our expectations of genre and turn them on their head, creating a space in which the viewer can easily become lost. To celebrate the release of his second feature, They Remain (2018) on VOD (and a US-only Blu-ray), SciFiNow interviewed him about his work.

They Remain

Your other job is writing graphic novels, including Petrograd (2011), the Pariah series (2014, with Aron Warner) and Indiana Jones Adventures (2008, with Rick Lacy) – the last spinning off the Spielberg film series. Do you regard your filmmaking as a continuum of this? How different is it to write (and storyboard) a screenplay?

I do think of it as a continuum, yeah. When I look back at the comic work and film work I’ve done so far, I can see links and themes and character ideas that keep returning in slightly different forms. 

An example: one of the things I always have on my mind, for any project in any medium, is the usage of genre. 

I spend a lot of time asking: What is the genre at hand? What expectations come with it? How did it evolve to get where it is now? How could this project do it differently? How could we get it to say something new or interesting? Not to sound too up my own ass about it, but interrogating genre is something I really love. And that applied as much to the process on Indiana Jones as it did to They Remain

As far as the specific differences in writing processes… it’s sort of hard to talk about. They are almost exactly the same skill and yet also completely different. I guess the easiest way to pinpoint that difference is to say that for both you’re writing images but in film you’re writing in the active tense, there will be a flow to the image AND you’re writing a document that, if it is produced, will be read and picked apart by dozens, if not hundreds of people. And, necessarily, that effects the way in which you write a thing.  

With comics, you have to think in still images (which sounds like an obvious point, but it is actually kind of tricky). And your script is, I think, a much more intimate thing. It’s really just for your artist and maybe your editor to read. It’s more like a personal letter, in a sense. I love writing comic book scripts that are almost conversational in tone. That’s a freedom in style that one doesn’t normally feel in screenwriting.  

In your feature debut The Bleeding House (2011), a garrulous serial killer circles a tight-lipped local psychopath, and in They Remain, a talkative scientist (Rebecca Henderson) works with a taciturn woodsman (William Jackson Harper). What is it about the dynamic of loud and quiet that attracts you as a writer?

Quiet characters are such a wonderful opportunity to use the visual aspect of film language to build a psychology. It also helps establish a set of character rules. What will they talk about? Why don’t they talk much? Also notable, that I love directing mostly quiet characters. I love to watch characters think. Also, on a personal note, I’m a pretty heavily introverted person. So I relate to my quiet characters. 

And on the flip side of that, having a character with a proclivity for saying a lot represents a whole other way to build to a character. What gets them talking? Why do they talk so much? What won’t they say despite how much they’re talking? What might they be revealing that the audience has to pay attention to catch? You can hide as much in a talkative character’s dialogue as you can in a quiet character’s silence. And, on a personal note again, I also love to listen to people talk. 

I’m attracted to both extremes, ultimately, and also to the way that one plays off of the other. The silence makes the dialogue stand out; and the dialogue makes the silence stand out. They’re reliant on each other and they’re equally important. 

They Remain is adapted from Laird Barron’s short story -30-. What drew you to this, and how free did you feel to deviate from it?

Weird to say but I was drawn to the story because I was so frustrated by it. Its ambiguity made me mad. But through that anger, I was also intrigued. I kept going back to it and every time I did found something else hiding there, some other aspect I’d missed before. 

There’s a line towards the end of the movie that comes directly from the story. Jessica says to Keith: “You have no idea what this is.” Through the whole process that was the line I had in my head. I find it so chilling. So often in film and TV these days, the audience knows exactly what everything is. Going back to the idea of genres… I think they tend to coddle audiences a bit. You go in knowing what to expect. And I wanted to not do that. I wanted it to be frustrating and unclear. 

I felt very free to deviate from the original. I had Laird’s blessing very early in the process, which was important to me, and from there I sort of iterated on what’s in the actual story. Though, if you were to read it, you’d find that I did stick pretty close it in most places. 

They Remain is a difficult film to pin down. Is it a corporate conspiracy thriller? A tale of psychological breakdown? A historical chronicle of nature’s revenge? A Satanic rite of passage? What was on your mind when you were making it?

Trying to think how to answer this without giving the game away. I tried to have as many interpretations of the events in mind while making the film as I could. I wanted to load it, to fill its shadows, with possibilities and subtext and then let the viewers guide themselves through it. 

I really wanted to push viewers to pay attention and encourage them towards having their own opinion about what’s going on in the film. I tried to put details in there, both in the dialogue and the visuals, that could be parsed and picked over for possible meanings. My biggest hope for this film is that it will spark conversations and arguments between people as to just what really is going on. 

I have at times thought about the film as a metaphor for what it means to be alive in society today. We all have countless off screen forces and personalities vying for us to see the world their way. We’re all sort of lost, trying to make sense of things in our own way. It’s remarkable that any of us stay sane.

Part of what makes They Remain such an uncanny viewing experience is that it feels very pared down, and yet keeps its secrets. It has a strong sense of place, yet is utterly disorienting. What cinematic precedents were influencing its unnerving environment and atmosphere?

I am in love with the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. His earlier works (Cure, Pulse, Charisma) are triumphs of atmosphere and tone. They immerse the viewer in dread and terror. Those are always on my mind in terms of style and pace and how you build a film in which the audience finds themselves both lost and engaged.  

Sean Kirby (my DP) and I talked a lot about Tarkovsky, in particular Solaris. Sean would always say that the air itself in Solaris just felt toxic and he wanted to achieve a similar thing here. Like Kurosawa, Tarkovsky’s movies invite the viewers to look closer, to get lost in the work. The pacing is hypnotic. His narratives are simple, in a sense, but they hide an almost unfathomable depth.  

Unsurprisingly, I’m a big Kubrick person and thought a lot about The Shining in relation to They Remain. That was not so much in terms of style as it was in terms of narrative construction and overall effect. There is this great Kubrick quote about the lessons he learned from reading both Lovecraft and Freud that greatly influenced me. The gist of the quote is that in horror you should not try to find neat explanations for things, that the object of the genre is to create a sense of the uncanny, to spur the imagination of the viewer. That really struck a chord with me and became a kind of guiding principle in the way the film came together. 

Your leads are brilliant in difficult, slippery rôles, but their casting suggests some obvious polarities. To what extent did you conceive the collapse of their relationship as a clash of gender and race?

Those were certainly factors in how I was thinking about the relationship in the film. But they were not meant to be any more key or deciding in how that relationship pans out than any other one factor at play in the film. There are a lot of polarities in conflict in the film (things like: culture vs the individual, nature vs technology, company greed vs. scientific altruism), clashes of race and gender are meant to be present in that mix but existing as almost like a background layer. Like the hum of nearby electrical wires… they’re there throughout, contributing to the overall effect, making the truth of the situation harder to get at. 

I’ll add this: there were scenes in the script, and a few that we shot, that highlighted the racial element of the film and the gender element. But in early screenings people came out interpreting the film to be only about those things and so I cut them out as I was going for something else. I really love that you use the word “slippery” to describe their roles, I think that sums it up very nicely. 

What’s next? 

We all hope for the best and try not to lose our heads as we make our way through this crazy mixed up world…

But seriously… I have another feature that I’m hoping will be out next year. It’s called The Spine of Night and is, well, it’s a mouth full to say but let’s call it a psychedelic, rotoscope-animated, fantasy film. In spirit akin to the 1981 Heavy Metal or Bakshi’s Fire and Ice. I love the fantasy genre as much as science-fiction or horror and there is so so much that genre does in literature that it hasn’t yet done on screen. The Spine of Night is an attempt to do some of those things. It’s such a fun and strange project, I can’t wait for people to see it.

© Anton Bitel