The Tribeca Film Festival turned 10 this year and before this week is out I hope to post a batch of reviews of the movies I’ve seen since the festival began last Wednesday.  In the meantime, here’s a short interview I did with the director of one of the most striking movies I’ve come across in this year’s line-up.  The debut feature of Canada-based filmmaker Panos Cosmatos , Beyond the Black Rainbow is a fascinatingly odd mash-up of vintage ’80s sci-fi tropes and mise-en-scene that achieves its own distinct style.  There is a plot–one that involves a young girl with psychic powers attempting to escape the institution where she’s being held prisoner–but it decidedly takes a backseat to mood and atmosphere.  When Black Rainbow ends, you’re not entirely certain whether you actually saw a movie or just dreamed the whole thing and I mean that as a compliment.

Watching Beyond the Black Rainbow, it’s clear that you wear your influences on your sleeve.  I particularly felt the influence of John Boorman at work throughout the film.

Panos Cosmatos: Interesting.  Which film of his in particular?

Mainly Zardoz, both in terms of some of the production design and then just the overall feel of the movie, especially it’s dreamlike, hallucinatory structure.
PC: I think there are a lot of influences in this film.  I consciously avoided watching any of the films that I suspected were influencing me or that I internalized while watching as a youth.  So if the influences did come out they’d come out in a more fragmented abstract way and not as a direct reference.  I’m sure Zardoz is in there.  I do vividly remember watching Excalibur when it came out and being very disoriented and sort of disturbed by it.

Did that structure emerge in the editing process or did you go into the movie with that specific approach in mind?

PC: The movie was written as it is structured in the finished product.  I designed the shooting of it in a way that, with the footage I would have and the sound I would have, I could modulate it to highlight or mute the narrative aspects of it.  Then in the editing, we tweaked that to create a more open-ended sense of discovery.  I wanted the film to kind of function ideally as a Roarsharch test for the audience; it only comes to life in my mind if the audience is willing to project their own emotions and experiences onto it. It was very important for me to make them feel the mood of the film.  The entire narrative is there, it’s just presented in such a way that it might take multiple viewings to make more apparent.

Did you have specific emotions you wanted to make sure the audience experienced in each scene?
PC: No, I’d prefer for the audience to feel whatever they want while watching it.  I think of the environment of the film as a Hammer-esque haunted castle in a strange way.  I really like films that allow you to inhabit them with your own mind.  Take a movie like Belle De Jour, where they set up the sensation early on that anything can happen and then almost nothing does happen because it doesn’t need to.  You’re inhabiting it with your own imagination.

We always hear about how actors like to improvise during production and this movie in a way struck me as a kind of extended directorial improvisation.  I got the sense that you were trying new things throughout to see what would work and what wouldn’t.  Was that actually the case or was the film pretty planned out?
PC: No, it was really rigidly planned out; the thing was storyboarded down to the very last shot.  But to make a good film I do think you have to allow for things to happen that aren’t 100% planned.  In terms of the actors, I wanted them to have the freedom to really inhabit their roles.  I cast them in the first place because I felt they embodied the vibe I wanted from that character.  That’s a big part of it right there.  And then it comes down to modulating their performance and doing multiple takes until they deliver the exact feeling I wanted.

I also appreciated how you rendered familiar settings alien through composition and lighting.  It added to the movie’s dreamlike feel.

PC: That’s correct.  I wanted the institute to feel almost like an action figure playset.  The costume designs of the guards, for example, were sort of inspired by Meego action figures and I wanted them to resemble live-action scaled-up action figures inhabiting a playset.  That gives the viewer a sense of an unreal setting that you recognize but is hard to put your finger on.

Do you think the movie is best appreciated on the big or small screen?  It almost seems like the ideal viewing experience would be stumbling across it in the middle of the night while flipping through the channels.
PC: The movie is very textural so I think that visually and sound-wise, seeing it in a theater really adds to the experience.  The color gradations and grain of the film are very important to the feel of the movie.  At the same time, a video version takes on its own life and has its own feel.  I love the idea of someone stumbling across this on TV in the middle of the night.  I also love the idea of it playing at a mall somewhere.

Do you have a release plan in place?
PC: We’ve been talking to some distribution people right now.  It’s still early, so we’ll see what happens.  I definitely know there’s an audience for this film.  It’s just the industry is very fear-driven right now and that has an impact on what kind of movies get released.

Have you started on another film while you’re making the festival rounds with this one?
PC: I’m writing a screenplay right now that’s in its early stages.  I think it’ll be more of a crowd-pleaser.  If Black Rainbow is a strange electronic album from the ‘70s than this new one is more of a Black Sabbath record.  [Laughs]

Beyond the Black Rainbow has two more screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival: Thursday, April 28th at Midnight and Friday, April 29th at 11:30pm.