“Beyond the Black Rainbow”, the feature film debut written and directed by Panos Cosmatos, delivers a surreal expression of science fiction at the 10th TriBeCa Film Festival. Set in the landscape of an imagined 1983, Mr. Cosmatos transports us to a world mesmerizingly futuristic yet hazily retro, where the quest to harness the powers of the mind leads to dire consequences.
Founded by Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), the utopian-like Arboria Institute uses techniques such as “energy sculpting” and “benign pharmacology” to study and delve into the deepest parts of the human psyche and release mankind’s untapped potential. Yet within the confines of this state-of-the-art facility, things are not as they seem. Head research scientist Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) is preoccupied with the progress of one patient, the beautiful and taciturn Elena (Eva Allan). As the story unfolds in a dream-like state of color and sound, Barry’s obsession grows dangerously all-consuming, and Elena is forced to accept her own power and confront her captor before it’s too late.
Suffused with an analog synthesizer score by Jeremy Schmidt of “Sinoia Caves” and “Black Mountain” and brimming with haunting images filmed in vintage chromatic splendor by cinematographer Norm Li, “Beyond the Black Rainbow” opens the gate to another world. Inspired by the memories of a childhood in the 1970s and 80s, it immerses the viewer in pools of nostalgic, subtle beauty and quiet, creeping dread. Mr. Cosmatos’ bold and courageous visual storytelling style leaves a deep impression long after the film is finished.
COOL sat down with Panos Cosmatos during the TriBeCa Film Festival to discuss his new film, his own experiences with mind expansion, and what gave him nightmares growing up…
I went into this film completely blank, not knowing anything about it, and afterwards I read your director’s statement about how you were not allowed to watch R-rated horror movies as a kid. I had the same experience growing up. I also loved horror movies, I could watch anything, but the cockroaches in “Creepshow” were too frightening. What terrified you as a child?That’s a really good question… I remember my parents would often watch horror films after I would go to bed, and there was this one time when I woke up and quietly walked around the corner, I could see the TV in their room, and they were watching “Squirm”. I came in right in time for this part where a guy falls off a rowboat into the lake, and then he comes up out of the water with worms eating into his face. It was a totally traumatic experience. I was really skittish about graphic imagery as a kid; I was easily scared. I remember I watched a movie “Timerider”, and at the end the villain gets chopped up by a helicopter. It’s a PG movie, but it cuts to a shot of his boots that are cartoonishly shredded at the top and there is blood gushing out of them…it was horrifying to me. It was only later I became desensitized [laughs].
I don’t think you are desensitized. Your film is has a great sensitivity. While watching I thought, “Oh, this is experimental film”; and again, afterwards I read that your father was a film director and your mother was an experimental artist. What was the atmosphere like growing up?It was tense [laughs]. Just kidding. It was strange because my father made these “popcorn” movies so it was a very direct, industry-like environment where he was on the phone arguing with producers, and my mother was this very internal experimental artist who made these strange, haunted pieces. I always felt that both their presences were an influence.
You spent a year in Mexico growing up. What do you remember about that?Mexico was a very strange experience because I felt scared while I was living there. It was Guadalajara. I don’t know if it was the actual environment that was scary or if it was because my parents seemed really nervous about crime the whole time. I had alot of really strange dreams when I lived there. I had grown up with the official “Star Wars” action figures, and in Mexico there are all these bootleg versions that are the most surreal interpretations of them. That always stuck with me: a surreal interpretation of an official thing.
Wow. And so from that atmosphere to Vancouver?We moved around alot when I was a kid. I was born in Rome, we lived in Greece where my father is from, we lived in Sweden where my mom is from, we lived in London for awhile, and then I think they wanted to come to North America but they didn’t want raise me in USA for some reason, so they went to Mexico, and then eventually up to Canada, which is where we settled. Looking back I’m sure my mother wanted to raise me in a much more sedate environment, so we ended up living in the suburbs of Vancouver Island.
Do you remember the Vancouver night sky? One of the shots that I love in this film is when Elena looks up at the stars.I think the inspiration for that is maybe my teenage years when I was smoking alot of dope, and would love to just lie in a field and look up at the sky in the summer.
Your film explores the idea of expanding consciousness. What’s your experience with meditation, spirit journeys, shamanism, or things like that?As my mom got older she got more and more into New Age religion. I did take LSD in high school, I don’t do any kind of drugs anymore, but I did feel like I had a couple experiences with it that I guess you could describe as a “spiritual experience”. Ultimately it’s probably an illusion.
You take your time to tell the story of “Beyond the Black Rainbow”, which is so great, especially in this age of very quick cuts and edits in filmmaking. Could you talk about your choice to allow the story to tell itself visually?I wanted to make a movie where the audience could feel like it could breathe in it. Obviously it is a reaction to films these days being so rapidly cut, almost as if the rapid cutting has no sense behind it. There’s nothing wrong with effective rapid, quick editing, but most of the time it feels random. That bothers me. And then I watch something like “Somewhere” or “Electroma”; it’s this incredibly beautiful sensation to watch a film like that, where it feels like the film is completely allowing its world to breathe.
Visually the film is stunning, filled with many scenes that I felt I could keep watching forever, for example: Elena climbing across the shaft-way. Could you talk about working with Norm Li, your cinematographer?I interviewed alot of cinematographers in Vancouver trying to find the right person for this movie. Norm was open to experimenting, which is the main reason I hired him, combined with the fact that he’s incredibly capable technically. I think of that scene you mentioned in particular as sort of a Hammer or a genre-land “haunted castle” sequence.
Most of the film is shot with only a single character in the frame. There’s only a handful of scenes where two characters appear in the same shot, and in most of those scenes one character dominates the other.The through-current of the film is about control, perceived control and trying to control other people, strange power dynamics, artifice, feebleness and loneliness.
The character of Dr. Barry Nyle seems to get his power from being closed inside of the Arboria Institute, whereas Elena connects with nature. In those terms, how do you see the future of society? The future of humans’ time on the planet?Jesus…[laughs] I think I’m a bit of a cynic, I don’t have much faith in humanity. I do think people are capable of amazing things, but I think we’re fucked.
The film begins with a video, dated 1966, of Dr. Arboria promoting the Arboria Institute as a place to “find your Self”. What do you think was Dr. Arboria’s original intention? And what happened?I look at Arboria as kind of naïve. He had the best of intentions of wanting to expand human consciousness, but I think his ego got in the way of that and ultimately it turned into a poisonous, destructive thing. Because Arboria is trying to control consciousness and control the mind. There is a moment of truth in the film where the whole thing starts to disintegrate because it’s stops being about their humanity and becomes about an unattainable goal. The idea of letting your humanity suffer to achieve some unattainable goal…like making a movie [laughs]. That is the “Black Rainbow”: trying to achieve some kind of unattainable state that is ultimately, probably destructive.
There were times that my mouth was hanging open in awe while watching what was happening on-screen. Your vision is unlike anything I have seen, and yet there was something about it that felt familiar. It wasn’t until the end that I thought of David Lynch. And then I thought, “Ah — he could do ‘Dune’!” Would you re-make “Dune”?I’m not against remakes, but “Dune” is titanic, it’s huge.
[laughs] Thanks! I don’t know I could survive making “Dune”. I really like the Lynch “Dune”, despite it’s obvious problems. It’s too rich to be remade. It’s a shame it’s not longer or as he wanted it, but I think alot more time should go by before they try to remake “Dune”.
text & photo by Joseph Reid