Alistair Banks Griffin is an American screenwriter, film editor and director. His feature film debut Two Gates of Sleep premiered at Cannes' Quinzaine des réalisateurs, BFI London, Tokyo, São Paulo and CPH:PIX, where it won the New Talent Grand Prix.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Alistair Banks Griffin discusses Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel and Werner Herzog, the landscape of the South, how minimalism gives way to impressionism and his next film, The Wolf Hour.
FILMATIQUE: Two Gates of Sleep follows a tendency that has become more prevalent in independent films from the late 2000s— a return to "regional" films. How personal was this choice for you? What does the Southern landscape evoke for you that is particular, and what motivated you to bring these elements to screen?
ALISTAIR BANKS GRIFFIN: I don't recall subscribing to any particular trend at the time, though David Gordon Green's George Washington had certainty opened a door for me in the way it brought the scale of big lyrical/transcendental-style 70s cinema into the micro-budget realm.
The southern landscape, to me, is a dangerous and beautiful place. The forests and swamps are massive graveyards of animals and soldiers. The ground has a unique color of orange— white sand beaches with tea-colored rivers cutting through ancient pine forests. There is a simultaneous sensation of not ever feeling like you're alone even when you're in the deepest, quietest parts.
In terms of the landscape being personal, the place seen on film was essentially my backyard. As middle-class children, my brother and I encountered other kids in the woods that we knew lived almost completely off the grid and always wondered what their lives might be like. Years later I heard that their mother had passed away, and there was some controversy around how they wanted to deal with her remains.
The whole region of Southern Mississippi and Louisiana still fascinates me decades after moving to the Northeast, so much so that it just felt like a natural backdrop for the first films I would make.
FLMTQ: As much as it is a story of two brothers, the film equally functions as a demystification of the relationship between these characters and the natural space. What role do you believe nature, its scents and its rhythms, plays in the internal landscape of the characters, and how did you seek to capture that dynamic cinematically?
ABK: I'm a fan of Werner Herzog's philosophy about the disharmony of nature. I very much wanted to create a discordant world for these characters that seem to be at odds with their natural surroundings. Jack sits and listens to the sounds of different trees with his mother but also works at a logging yard chopping them up. Ultimately, this landscape chews these characters up and turns them into dirt and ghosts.
FLMTQ: Though upsetting at times, the score perfectly expresses the tense relationship the characters have with each other and their natural surroundings, making dialogue, which is scarce, unnecessary most of the time. Did you envision minimalism as essential to the narrative milieu of this film from the beginning?
ABK: Minimalism was at the forefront of every decision that was made; how to strip performances down to just glances, how to tell a story with the least amount of information. And in that sense the minimalism gives way to impressionism.
FLMTQ: There is an almost direct connection between the unconventional space in which the narrative unfolds— the near stillness of the images, and the overall pace of the film— and the works of Lucrecia Martel (especially The Swamp, 2001 and her most recent Zama, 2017) and Lisandro Alonso (Freedom, 2001, Jauja, 2014). Did you intentionally enter into dialogue with these films? If not, do you see a generational trend?
ABK: I would say there is a dialogue there. I am a huge fan of both Martel and Alonso and I would especially add to that list of influences Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygades and especially Alexander Sokurov.
Jody Lee Lipes (my cinematographer) and I watched Alonso's Los Muertos more than once together in prep. I think this trend is a form of finding a place between experimental and experiential cinema of the nature that Bresson and Tarkovsky were aiming at in the 60s and 70s.
FLMTQ: The beautiful color palette, the characters' placement, and the lighting remind me of paintings, close to the work of some Japanese and French filmmakers of the 1960s. On the other hand, the brothers' journey downriver to lay their mother to rest evokes the ambiance and storyline of William Faulkner's iconic Southern Gothic novel As I Lay Dying. What were your influences for this film, either from cinema, art, literature or otherwise?
ABK: I started out as a painter as a teenager and went to art school with the intent of heading down that direction. Along the way a painting mentor, Alfred De Credico, encouraged me to hybridize my work with the moving image. That felt like the most natural state for me.
I hadn't read As I Lay Dying until leaving the South but when I did, everything came into focus about that part of the world that I had previously been unable to put a finger on. I loved that he gave a deliberate, poetic voice to a culture that speaks very little. Around that time I was discovering Tarkovsky, Bresson and Bergman and I found they had a lot of parallels to Faulkner. I was also looking a lot at memento mori (or vanitas) still life paintings and photographs of Thomas Struth.
FLMTQ: Brady Corbet and David Call's performances are unconventional and very intense. I was particularly struck by the strong connection Jack has with his mother— despite the almost total lack of dialogue, both his devotion to her and his anxiety about her well-being are expressed through his eyes and physicality. How did you work with the actors to convey the intricacies of a script that was relatively austere? Can you share any particular anecdotes regarding how the actors prepared for their roles?
ABK: The idea was all about impressions. There were many scenes we shot just for the silent moments that followed. Actors naturally have a tendency to emote and perform; what we did was a process of deconstructing the performance from a physical perspective. I asked them to restrain from moving body parts as much as possible and to keep facial gestures to a minimum. When you do that, a small twitch or glance starts to speak volumes.
FLMTQ: American independent cinema is a very saturated industry, a landscape associated both with certain storytelling tropes and daring new voices making films that are genuinely different. Do you identify as an independent filmmaker? If so, was it your choice since the very beginning of your career? How do you see the near future of indie cinema in the US?
ABK: This is a difficult question that I might have answered differently a few years ago, before becoming so cognizant of what it takes to acquire funding for larger projects. I have also had the opportunity to work a bit inside the European system and see how each government goes about selecting the projects they choose to fund, which is fascinating.
I'm not sure there is any such thing as an independent filmmaker except in the sense of perhaps someone who walks around alone with a camera. It takes such an army of artisans, organizers and patrons to achieve a film. An independent film can have a 40 million dollar budget. I don't know how to distinguish my thoughts on the subject other than by observing that audiences accept the scale of your film based on the first few frames they see of it (or the trailer) and adjust their expectations accordingly.
FLMTQ: What responsibility do you believe artists, and filmmakers in particular, have to tell particular types of stories given the uncertain age in which we live?
ABK: There is so much happening now that is falling through the cracks because the media is cranked to 11, and one of the worst effects of this is that the constant outrage creates a numbness. Creating socially conscious work in this landscape is equally difficult but it's imperative that it happens, even if it doesn't permeate this particular moment. Think about how surreal and fascinating it is to watch All The Presidents Men now, or even something like Night of the Living Dead and its subversive messaging on Communism. All you can do is tune out the noise and keep your head in the work.
FLMTQ: Tell us about your upcoming film, The Wolf Hour. What aspects does it share with Two Gates of Sleep, and how does it diverge?
ABK: If Two Gates of Sleep was an impressionistic vision of a part of my youth in the South, The Wolf Hour is a reflection (albeit distorted through the lens of the 70s and from a female perspective) of my adulthood in New York City. It deals with similar themes of alienation and societal anxiety, and how these feelings contrast with even the most isolated of humans' need to connect on a physical and spiritual level, whether they live in a forest or an urban matrix. Naomi Watts delivers one of the most mesmerizing performances of her career.