By Don Simpson | June 21, 2012
With Beyond the Black Rainbow, first time writer-director Panos Cosmatos (son of Rambo: First Blood Part II director George P. Cosmatos) crafts the sublimest spectacle this side of where the pyramid meets the eye — the eye of providence, that is — taking us on a fully-immersive LSD freak-out as cinematographer Norm Li’s head trip in every scene visually assaults us with one gorgeously framed shot after another. Everything from the lens flares and colored gels to the hypnotic layer cake of images creates a hyper-stylized majesty that oozes with oh so sweet eye candy. The visuals work in perfect tandem with the lucid stream-of-consciousness of the narrative and the pulsing-pulsing electronic soundscape by Jeremy Schmidt (of Black Mountain) creating a masterfully oblique film.
It is overtly obvious just how fanatically Cosmatos loves fantastical cinema — specifically science fiction, fantasy and horror. Beyond the Black Rainbow is for all intents and purposes a stylistic mash-up as if Cosmatos thought about everything he ever loved about cinema and placed it in a blender. The resulting aesthetic — which exists somewhere in the acid-drenched ether between the worlds of psychedelic and avant garde — is going to be a tough pill for the masses to swallow, which leads me to believe that Cosmatos never intended for this film to be consumed by the mainstream.
What is Beyond the Black Rainbow about? I have no frackin’ idea. Smells Like Screen Spirit telephoned Cosmatos just prior to the film’s theatrical run in Los Angeles, to see if we could unravel the mystery behind this surrealist rabbit hole of mind-blowing proportions. (Also be sure to check out our 8 out of 10 review of Beyond the Black Rainbow from Tribeca 2011.)
Don Simpson: What does the year 1983 mean to you?
Panos Cosmatos: Once I decided that wanted the film to be set in the 1980s, the themes and the story elements that are rooted in the 1960s began to grow organically out of that. On a purely logical level, I had to figure out the ages of the characters going back to 1966 — and 1983 basically came out of that. As opposed to 1982 or 1984? My feeling about the 1980s was that 1983 was a year when the 1980s were changing into something else. Also, 1984 is such an iconic year — the Orwell book, the Van Halen album — so, it was funny to me to set this film one year before that.
DS: Do you see this film as a comment on Reaganism and the politics of the 1980s?
PC: I wanted to put little hints to that, but I didn’t want to make a film that was too specifically about that. The hints are to allow the audience to extrapolate as they desire. I feel like the film ultimately represents the hippie generation’s decent into self-indulgence and madness.
DS: And it also plays upon the paranoia and propaganda of fear — fear of the other and of the unknown — that was so prevalent in the 1980s.
PC: Exactly. The fear of annihilation. I remember constantly being afraid in the 1980s. There was a movie called Testament by Lynne Littman, that is the most bleak and depressing movie ever made. It is about the aftermath of a nuclear attack, but the people are far enough from the explosion that they suffer from radiation sickness and their entire infrastructure breaks down. That was the most terrifying movie I had ever seen in my life because it was so believable. It frightened me more than The Day After, which is an ABC television movie that is horribly melodramatic. That is scary in a way, but I would rather just get blown up than have to live with radiation sickness in some shitty town where people are fighting over batteries — that seemed like the worst possible outcome. [Laughs.]
DS: What was your approach to the design of the film?
PC: I just tried to let the aesthetic elements that appeal to me come to the foreground during the process of designing the film. I always wanted to have the film drenched in color. At the time I started writing it, films had become really monochromatic and bleached out, and fucking boring and depressing to look at. The antagonist in me just wanted to go in the opposite direction. I wanted to make a film that was saturated in grain and color and texture, you know? But I wrote into the script certain logical explanations for the film to look like it does, like “night mode,” “day mode” and “restricted mode.”
DS: The film is almost like a living being, with its light and sound pulsing like a heartbeat.
PC: I always wanted to make a film that was very dense with sensation. There is a sub-genre of what I call “trance film,” and I really wanted this film to fall into the trance or dream genre without it being specifically a dream. I wanted it to feel like a lucid dream state. The whole time you are probing forward, deeper and deeper into an unknown world.
DS: It also feels drenched in obscure [and obscured] visual references.
PC: I tried not to look too specifically or too long and hard at anything that I thought might influence it because I wanted the influences to come out in a more abstracted, vaguely recognizable way. There are definitely films that did influence the style of my film, that I did reference pretty heavily. The films that inspired me the most were probably Phase IV by Saul Bass and George Lucas’ THX 1138. The gliding architectural shots were inspired by Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad — I have always loved the way that film explores spaces in a very meditative way. The 1960s flashback was inspired by Begotten by E. Elias Merhige. That whole film is a very primal dreamlike nightmare and it is shot in very high contrast black and white. I realized that was a perfect look for the flashback because I wanted it to feel like a fading and decayed artifact. The acid trip within the flashback is inspired by the film within the film of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, that they refer to as the “Battle of the Gods.” It is just rotating sculptures and I love the idea of depicting something epic in a very detached and sculptural way.
DS: How did you choose Jeremy Schmidt as your soundtrack composer?
PC: As soon as I knew that I wanted the film set in the 1980s I immediately knew that I wanted a juicy, thick, old school, synth score. Through luck, a friend of mine is friends with Jeremy and she played me his Sinoia Caves project. That completely floored me. Hearing it, I thought I was listening to the soundtrack for my film. I showed him a rough cut of the film and he totally responded to it. We were both totally on the same page. It was in his wheelhouse, sort of speak — the era, the instruments. I gave him some guidance about what vibe I wanted for specific sequences but I just let him go for it.
DS: What came first — the completed score or the final edit?
PC: We were editing and he was writing the score and Eric [Paul] has started to work on the sound design. We were working for a long time with super rough temp sound. It was a very prolonged editing process that took about a year. It took a long time to balance all of the different elements.
DS: But, the editing has such a rhythmic pacing…
PC: I try to edit by the images and the rhythm of the shots, the facial expressions of the actors. I think there is a lot of subtle character detail and plot revelations that happen in very microscopic ways that I just wanted to live in a moment of time on the screen.
DS: This film obviously was never intended for the Hollywood mainstream audiences — who is your intended audience?
PC: My intended audience is…me. [Laughs.] I always felt that there would be a small group of people who would get this film and everyone else would just write it off. I have been pleasantly surprised by how positive the response has been, gradually over time. Early on, the response was kind of muted and sometimes downright negative. Tribeca 2011 is where I felt like people really started to get it — people started to pick up on the more esoteric aspects. Early on, people were just approaching it as a science fiction film and being like, what the fuck is this?