Possession films have inhabited the minds of horror fans since the release of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Friedkin’s film shaped how we think of possession and, in turn, how we make movies about it. Possession films are judged for accuracy and quality not on their own merits but instead for how closely they resemble The Exorcist. The spinning head, the evil child, the blasphemy. But possession is complicated by the fact that one cannot be possessed until they are observed as possessed. What goes unnoticed in Fredkin’s film is Regan when she is alone. Fathers Merrin and Karras are more important to the process than the demon inhabiting Regan’s body.
Films have tried touching on this phenomenon. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) is as much a crime procedural probing the role of exorcists in influencing the possessed as it is a straight horror film. But, inevitably, these movies must themselves observe. We see the possession and confirm it based on others we have seen before that, based on what we have learned from The Exorcist. Friedkin’s film has suggested to us what all possessions must be.
Luz (2019) is an interesting film not because it conforms to the tropes of the possession film. It doesn’t. It’s too weird and takes too many detours to be a direct imitation of anything. What separates it from others is that it is about the process of possession, how we allow others to influence our minds and actions through seemingly pointless interactions. How we are never truly in control. How we are all possessed.
Director Tilman Singer took time out of his schedule at the Fantasia Film Festival to speak with Diabolique about possession movies, what scares him the most, and his new film Luz, which is opening in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
Diabolique: I think one of the things that makes Luz stand out is that it feels like a film out of time. A lot of modern genre cinema is concerned with imitating movies from the seventies and eighties using modern techniques, but Luz feels like a film made in a different era. The film stock, the fashion choices of certain characters, the music. The film is disorienting because it’s hard to place. Where did the concept for Luz come from?
Tilman: It was partially a concept, it was partially that it came organically. Me and my team, we always shot film, and we shot on 16 mm for this film. That alone gives you a feel you usually do not have today. I don’t think you can mimic that with digital filters later, but with that comes a different way of shooting as well. We had limited film material so we rehearsed everything before we shot. Then we shot it and it gave us an extra boost of energy. There’s also a lot of long shots we’re not really used to nowadays. This is all, of course, dictated by how much I like those things, but also that we had to maintain and calculate our film stock.
On the production design, we were going for it to be set somewhere in the early nineties. The production designer (Dario Mendez Acosta) did a cool thing where, everything you see in the film is built. The structure, the architecture, is real. We found old buildings, and everything inside those rooms was created and put there, so what he did is had this layering of decades. There’s sixties architecture, and then there’s seventies interior design, and then there’s eighties/nineties clothing and technology. Out of that you get this disorienting feeling of “When was this shot?”
Diabolique: The film is very striking visually. Obviously, there’s the 16 mm film stock which contributes to that, but one of the things I was struck by was the lighting. You use overhead fluorescent lamps which creates a stark contrast between what’s in frame and what’s not, so there’s always a shadow on the edges as if a demon is approaching. How did you develop the look of the film?
Tilman: I’m super close friends with the production designer and the cinematographer (Paul Faltz) and I gave them very early notes even before the first draft. We worked together while I was writing the story. The production design was immensely important even while I was writing because I was thinking of what things I might use.
The lighting, like so many great ideas in filmmaking, came not from what we wanted but what we could find. We found those old buildings, and there were a lot of fluorescent lights there. And the cinematographer and me, we’re neon light fetishists, so we knew we could make things look beautiful and ugly at the same time. Very atmospheric. But it also looks special by being super mundane. We’ve all seen those places. I think they create a feel, together, that works with the occult thing that’s going on. It gives you a weird, familiar atmosphere, that’s also heightened.
Diabolique: You mentioned how the characters were dressed and I don’t know if this was intentional or not but the actor who plays Dr. Rossini, Jan Bluthardt, bears a striking resemblance Edwin Leder’s character in the Gerald Kargl film Angst (1983), the lead character, who is also a psychopath. Were there references to other films in Luz? Did any other directors or films influence you while making Luz?
Tilman: I have not seen this film yet! I would say that were not direct influences, but there were influences. A lot of people might say giallo films and Cronenberg films, and while I would say this is true, there was no blueprint I was going by. There are a lot of things that we took, like when I’m writing a shot list with my cinematographer sometimes we’d see something in a different film or remember something and take it exactly like that. For example, there’s the cab ride when Nora, the red-haired lady, is in the backseat and the framing there was grabbed from Suspiria (1977) because they did it so well.
Diabolique: Another scene that stuck out to me was the interrogation. How did you go about staging that? It’s very intense. Was the scene rehearsed?
Tilman: Only on set. I think because my script was really, really detailed up to a ridiculous point, where I wrote down what sounds you cannot hear and what sounds you can hear, which made it hard to read but was important so the actors would understand. The actors really studied the script, not only read it, to understand what was going on. It then took us one and a half weeks to write the shot list for this scene and think of the blocking. I think it was the hardest part of the movie, but also the most fun part. It was hardest to figure out where people have to look all the time because the actors are all over the place.
Diabolique: Even though this is a possession film the genre elements recede into the background pretty quickly. The film is driven primarily by character interactions, dialogue, and sound design. It can feel like a stage play at times. Was this a choice you made before shooting Luz to make it distinct from other possession films, which can often be overly reliant on effects for scares, or did it evolve over into that over time as you developed the script and shot the film?
Tilman: I think it comes natural from what interests me. I’m a very big fan of scary stories and horror film — all kinds of genres. But none of them are inherently important to me. I just think there are great elements you can use for a story like that. I’m not scared by the hidden intentions of other people, so something like mundane vocal exchanges between are more frightening to me than a monster coming around the corner.
Diabolique: That’s interesting because, in Luz, characters tell other characters something that happened to them and then those other characters re-enact those events. Would you say that Luz is drawing a connection between concepts like interrogation and hypnosis to the idea of possession?
Tilman: That is actually what I was going for. Initially, I did research on police sketch artists for this story but nothing came of that. And then I went into reading about interrogation techniques and questioning techniques and then I came to hypnosis, which is used in questioning a lot, and then I went into hypnotherapy. When I read about that, it felt so shady. I think hypnotherapy is a completely valid technique of therapy, so I tried to read a lot about the subject. But to have that power and control over somebody. To suggest something that can become part of that person’s reality, is so demonic.
Diabolique: Would you say this is a horror film made from the perspective of a skeptic?
Tilman: It is. I am a skeptic. I’m skeptical of everything supernatural, but I also think it’s a great tool for storytelling. I’m not necessarily skeptical of hypnosis. I don’t think there’s anything magical going on. Either people are receptive to the suggestion, or not. It is a real thing. You can make people think something when you suggest it.