Lorenzo Baldassari: Shadows [id., 2015] is different from your other works. It’s clearly autobiographical. How did everything start?
Scott Barley: The crew I was working with had to come up with an idea for our graduation film in university. We came up with what we all thought was a very strong idea. The lucidity and minimalism of Bresson was a huge influence on us. We worked on the pre-production for months, and then we were told by the university that we had to do a presentation for the film, and explain our idea to the class in two weeks. We began working on it, but in the back of my mind, I was losing faith in the idea. It didn’t feel like I was letting myself become vulnerable, or that I was risking something – and I think that is incredibly important as an artist. You must dare yourself to fail. Anyway, the presentation was drawing closer and closer and I didn’t want to tell the group how I felt, as we had already put so much work into it. Then, three days before the presentation day, I received a phone call from my mother. She was worried about Doris – my grandmother. No one had been able to speak to her on the phone. Nobody would answer. I quickly drove up there, and it seemed that her legs had stopped working, and she was trapped in the bath. We called the police and we waited. It felt like ages. I could hear my grandmother crying from upstairs, and I tried my best to reassure that everything was OK, all the while I was thinking, what if she has hypothermia? How long has she been trapped in there? Eventually, the police arrived. They had to break the glass on the kitchen window. We had access to Doris’ home, but Doris had left her keys in the lock on the inside of the house, so were unable to get inside. We rushes upstairs and carefully eased Doris out of the bath and comforted her. With a few hours, everything seemed OK again, but in the back of my mind, I felt incredibly guilty. I hadn’t seen my grandmother that often since embarking on my film course, and as is the case in these situations, it makes you truly value the moments you have with your loved ones. It wasn’t until that evening that the idea came to me of making a film about my grandmother. I rang up Matthew Allen – my friend and colleague – and told him what had happened, and what he thought about re-creating the trauma as a cathartic exercise. He approved of the idea, and so the following day, I came clean about my concerns to the rest of the crew about the previous film that we had been working on for months. We had just two days before the presentation. Thankfully, the crew were behind me on the idea, and we raced to create a script that would recreate the scenes I had witnessed only the day before. The aesthetics and overall “narrative” came very quickly. Almost immediately. I knew that the film had to have no camera movement, entrenching this feeling of entrapment and isolation. The camera would be a silent observer, remorseless and unrelenting to the scenes that unfolded. Repetition was another big point for us, to instil the sense of monotony when one lives alone and is unable to walk far, and so cannot travel outside. This would then build up to the bath scene, which as close to a re-creation as to what happened as we could do. It was all about authenticity. Human authenticity. We managed to get a good presentation together in 48 hours. The presentation went well, and Grace Mahony – who was one of the production designers from a different course that was in synergy with ours – could really understand what we were trying to do, and so she joined our group, and really helped realise the vision for Shadows.
I find the story behind the film really interesting and meaningful, because it shows that your life and emotions influence your work directly.
Yes. It may sound unrealistic of me, especially since I enrolled on a film course, but I don’t believe you should ever make something unless you really have something to say. That’s the problem with so many films. They are about nothing – and not in artistic, discursive sense, like Antonioni. They are mostly just empty spectacle. You can’t just want to make a film, you must feel like you NEED to make it. Shadows is not a film that I wanted to make, but the film that I felt I had to. I had no choice but to make this film now. That’s how it feels. For better or for worse… And it could not have been done in the style of my more experimental works. I wanted it all to be very low-key to let my grandmother come to the fore. She is what’s important and she is why the film was made. It was made for her, and only for her, out of a difficult, inexpressible combination of guilt and love… It has been said that we often make movies to remember, or to preserve. In this case, we are making a movie to help Doris forget. To help us all forget. To move on. To come full circle. The film is an ode to her; her grace. Nothing else matters to me.
Yes, I can clearly see that the film is also an act of love to your grandmother. Maybe it is your most touching film. You say that this film is stylistically very different from your other works. Nevertheless, you entitled your film “Shadows”. I think you’ll agree if I say that the title is paradigmatic of your poetics. Your cinema is obsessed with the darkness and the invisible. In Shadows, your grandmother is always in the dark. Is this a way for you to overcome realism and reach immediately the realm of interiority, conveying her inner feelings?
Yes, that is very true. It is one of the few paradigms that I have no desire to escape from. As for the darkness, I was interested in what chiaroscuro lighting could communicate in this sense. I wanted to represent Doris’ own home as a labyrinth of light and dark, where only dregs of light would illuminate certain objects. If you watch very closely, you will notice that in several scenes, the shadows actually slowly wander around the room. To me, this was representing the isolation slowly devouring my grandmother. The film’s darkness is made to create this sense of being lost within the familiar. In our own homes, we always turn on the lights, even though we are so accustomed to our surroundings. It is to instil a sense that the self – in this case, Doris’ self – does not fully correlate with her surroundings anymore, despite it being her own familiar home. Realism, or any other “ism” didn’t concern us when making Shadows. We weren’t interested in overcoming anything except the trauma itself. More than anything, we just wanted to be true. True to Doris, true to ourselves, true to feelings. I don’t think I consciously make films that convey inner feelings. It’s simply that I don’t have the capacity to do it any other way. I’m drawn to microcosms… ones that invoke the ontological and the cosmic… the mystery, the unknown, the insignificance of it all. The form developed seemingly with its own autonomy. We were true to the form and let the film flow as it felt it naturally should. If you were discussing the film in genre terms (something that I personally often tend to avoid) you could say that the first half of the film is a hybrid of expressionism and social realism, and then it suddenly jumps to a documentary interview style scene. That scene occurs at the apex of sadness: Doris is no longer able to look after herself and so she feels mortified because of simply being old and alone. That’s such a sad thing, I think. She is ashamed of being old and alone – two things that she has no control over; two things that are utterly natural and unavoidable. After the documentary scene, the film changes to, I guess what could be described as surrealism with the stars. The end, although it seems like a social realism sequence, is actually entirely metaphorical. Her being… her grace passes beyond the ether and into the stars, and now we return. The camera observes Doris lying motionless in bed, as we can hear the world’s future – [the sound of] children – playing nearby at a school. The world continues without Doris. It is nothing significant. The insignificance is the most beautiful and graceful thing about it all. It’s just a moment. A simple few moments of life and then a few more after a life.
In that sense, the ending of Shadows is quite similar to my other film, Nightwalk  – both end with a metaphorical passing. It’s all about a trajectory of life, entering the beyond, the unknown.
You said something about the off screen sound in the ending scene. I think that one of the main themes of your cinema is the relationship between the visible and the invisible. In Shadows, such a relationship is developed through the use of the off screen sound. The ticking of the watch, the sound of a cry… Sound is a fundamental element in the film. Why did you choose such an evocative, I would say almost Bressonian, sound? I’m thinking of one of your most important films, The Ethereal Melancholy of Seeing Horses in The Cold , that, instead, was completely soundless…
I think there have been two filmmakers who have really influenced my views on sound: Bresson and Brakhage. Of course, Bresson was in our praxis when making Shadows. He is unavoidable really. Shortly before making Shadows, I had been watching Une femme douce on repeat. It’s such a striking film. After a while, I was no longer watching but just listening. The sound is so minimal, and one sound effortlessly and so simply links one image to another. I think that L’Argent  and Une Femme Douce  do this best. The minimalism in Mouchette  , is particularly haunting though… particularly towards the end. With Shadows, I wasn’t consciously trying to replicate any filmmaker or style. I simply let the subject guide me, almost as if if someone was holding my hand and taking me somewhere dark and unknown… I just trusted it. But, just like I said, Bresson is unavoidable. His way percolates through into your very being. He’s one of the great filmmakers of understanding human beings, along with Tarr, Akerman, Bartas, Rohmer, Antonioni, Grandrieux et al. There are others, but those are the ones that come to mind right now. With Shadows, I wasn’t so much interested in linking shots together, but linking space. I worked tirelessly on using the 6 channels of sound to re-create Doris’ house. I wanted it to feel like you were there, in the dark house with her, implicit in the events. You can hear the clock in the kitchen from the sitting room – and where it is in reference to the camera. When one makes a film, we are limited to the space in the frame. In other words, we cannot see beyond the edges of the frame. What I wanted the sound to do, was act at conveying the surrounding space; the depth of Doris’ surroundings; what lurked within the shadows and beyond. I wanted the sound to convey more than the images themselves. On the other hand, I have made three films that are utterly silent: The Ethereal Melancholy of Seeing Horses in The Cold, Hours , and Evenfall . I remember being stunned at how monstrously powerful silence could be in Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes … and then on the other hand, how pure and mysterious it could be, in something like Commingled Containers. Nathaniel Dorsky is another. The lack of sound, combined with the rhythm of his films truly alters your perception of the real world. What particularly interests me about silence is its weight. Silence can be used to make a scene feel weightless, or feel like there is a “weight” that feels oppressive. I think that silence is a great tool in allowing oscillations that appear within images to come to the fore… metaphors, rhythms; they all fare so much better when under the weight of silence. The films which rely on these metaphors or rhythms the most in my filmography, are, naturally silent. Almost everything I do is based on intuition.
You said that you wanted the viewer to be able to feel as if he were in the dark house with your grandmother. Before, we were talking about the darkness in your cinema. I think that when one sees films like yours, or like Grandrieux’s, darkness helps the viewer to lose himself into the screen. I mean: you are watching Shadows in complete darkness, the screen is dark too, the sound is very powerful… You are with Doris.
Yes. To me, darkness is required to fully commit yourself to the world of the film. A spectator must give themselves over to the film, and darkness aids in that. I am a nyctophile. I feel more comfortable with my own being, under shades of darkness. In short, people need to embrace darkness to embrace my work. I think the same can be said for Grandrieux.
There is a phenomenon known as prisoner’s cinema. It is a phenomenon, where someone experiences a “cinema” of lights and images, despite no light entering their eyes. It seems to be both a physiological and psychological effect on the body, due to being exposed to darkness for a prolonged period of time. I want my work to feel like that. As if it is made of darkness, and submerges from the surface of black for a brief time, only to become invisible again.
Well, for sure your cinema achieves this effect. This is why your films are like a physical experience. You make the viewer experience the darkness, the “body’s night”, using an expression that Grandrieux used to describe “the insane horizon” of cinema.
One of the most important aspects of Shadows is the off screen world. Before, you said that there is nothing more beautiful than the insignificance. “It’s just a moment”, you said. In Shadows the main event (the incident) happens off screen. I find it a very powerful and ethically meaningful choice. An act of immense humanity. Which are the reasons at the origin of this choice?
Yes, I was going to use that term, “The Body’s Night” myself, although it would be arrogant of me to suggest an affinity between myself and Grandrieux. Yes, it was a very strong decision. A similar thing occurs with the window being smashed. We don’t actually see it being smashed, but the spider-webs of cracked glass appearing as shadows on the kitchen cupboards inside the house. It is about retaining that human dignity despite feeling like there is none, I think.
Then, there is the sequence in which your grandmother is crying, that is one of the most touching in the film. The hands that we see are yours, right? I think that the fact that you are present in the film, in that very sequence, is an act of great honesty. In that way, you seem to declare your emotional involvement in what you are doing. This sequence is a sort of assumption of responsibility. What do you think about that?
Yes, in that scene it is my hand comforting her, and yes, I completely agree with you; it is accepting a responsibility, accepting the guilt I felt, but also re-affirming that all of this, the film, everything is for Doris, and Doris alone. Again, to reiterate what I mentioned earlier, I am drawn to creative endeavours that make me feel vulnerable. Shadows was a very difficult experience because it was very raw for me, and for my grandmother. I remember when we came to filming the baths scene, and the camera and lights were set up, and it was just me and her. Nobody else. All the crew waited outside, and the bathroom door was closed. I helped her into the bath. I felt the whole weight of her fragile body on my arms and shoulders, as I eased her into the water. I felt like I was a terrible grandson. I could see the fear in my grandmother’s eyes. She was reliving the hours she spent trapped in the bath. I almost cried as I helped her into the bath that evening. I felt like I was forcing her to relive the trauma. But she was amazing. We managed it together. If you don’t feel vulnerable, I simply think it’s not worth it.
That’s very touching, Scott. Doris’ performance is very touching too. I think she had great courage, because the film is about her. For example, Doris’ husband is a constant presence in Shadows. When your grandmother is asking for help, you shoots in close-up his photo on the wall. In the end, the same photo is lightened by a ray of light.
Well, in these details I can clearly see that the film is also an act of love to your grandmother. Is the film about that, the memories and the importance of affection?
The film is about memories, definitely. The film begins with several photographs, each documenting a particular time in Doris’ life, from her as a young child, through to a young adult, her with her children, her grandchildren, then her in her seventies when my grandfather, Raymond was still alive, and finally, her alone again, this time old and frail. It’s all about communicating how much is lost through time. The clocks never stop ticking in the film either. There is the constant reminder of time, and I think that memory is part of that. Affection is another important aspect, but more so, for me, it is about the lack of communication. Also, an aim for Shadows was conveying the grace in solitude, even when that solitude is loneliness. Mutually, everybody is alone – that’s what unites us – but loneliness is something quite different. I think that Doris carries a grace about her despite being lonely. I think that manifests itself in something as simple as how she dresses, and the scenes in which she applies makeup. For lack of a better term, she puts on a brave face for the world, even though she is isolated from it. Her loneliness is her world.
I think that your film succeeds in communicating all this, with great humanity. Now, the last question: could you tell us anything about your next projects? Your carreer seems to be growing.
Thank you. Well I am currently finishing The Sadness of the Trees , which is a collaboration film between myself and the filmmaker, Mikel Guillen. I have several other as-of-yet unannounced projects – some of which are further collaborations – which I will be disclosing more details on soon. I am also working on Too Young to Die , which is my most ambitious film. I wrote a novella that utilises stream-of-consciousness, poetry and prose, and that is the basis for the film. It is about depression, self-sabotage, and again, the insignificance of it all. It will be most haunting and intense film, and will be my first piece to utilise some of my own music. About twenty minutes of the film is already completed, but there is still so much work to do.
Lo Specchio Scuro would like to thank the director Scott Barley for his kindness. Here is an excerpt of notes from one of his upcoming projects, Too Young to Die.
Her neck. A throbbing pulse between palms. Silence a white ring. Silver and ghosts moved through crawls of space hung hunched over echoey dark pools. And he spoke to me… I want to swim in the pitch-black pool …I want you to swim in the pitch-black pool. Silver and silence casting iron around my ears. Casting iron in screams. Like a weight. Like a dream. A hammer. A stone. A ripple. Discarded. Skin like sky blue. Sorry. So blue. So blue like bruises and crimson like bleeds. Dark residue. Shadows are everything. Thin so thin like trees. No despair. Almost nothing. Light. No light. Just distance. A colour. A draining colour. Rumbles are distant and always feeling. I woke up from distance and only noticed the thunderstorm that had raged for hours. What is this light? Waves of sea crushed the stone. It crushed my skull. I felt the ocean in me. Sea in me. See in me. Ebbing away were spiderwebs, a silver, a black ink of night that crushed into mud, putrid residue has some hollow warmth like disappearing breaths echo on a cold surface. Monstrous clouds swirled in storms blew past my ear. Shrieks. Moon trill. Yes, the moon was out. So slight yet so absolute, laceration to canvas. Drive away. Driving away. And the birds swarm a green skyline. A needle nestled within more needles of black. It hums like the birds, stitching the evil. I see faces that are not my own. Nerves are cut dried up. I’m far from home. Now but the deer walk beside me. The sounds of breathing in cold gloaming light. Now there is no light. Always driving. Forest trees. Forest black. Lights on tails. Get out! Get out! Shovel and earth. Shovel and earth. Shovel and earth. Sweat and palm. Sweat and palm. Swirling maelstroms of black grey and white always circling, screams and shadows, whispers, stories of ghosts. The man sees a face. But it isn’t a face. There are no eyes or nostrils. Just a hole where the mouth should be. A hole amongst a hunk of scarred flesh. The hole grows larger. It salivates. It engorges. The hole grows wider. Swallowed into a void of black. Swimming through the black. Swimming through the void. Finally stars are seen. A monstrous swirling rage. A maelstrom of the stars and the trees. The moon and water. Stars again but just on their own. Abstract more intense – the experience of death and infinity. Black.