2018 brings us a promising new horror film about two scientific researchers (William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson) isolated in nature, scouring lands that were once populated by members of a trippy death cult. This is They Remain, the new picture written and directed by Providence-based filmmaker Philip Gelatt. The first feature-length film adapted from a work by master storyteller Laird Barron (his short story –30–), They Remain is a formidable movie on a low-budget scale. Drawing sometimes unlikely comparisons with classic art sci-fi and contemporary premiere Weird Fiction, the work is hopefully a sign of things to come for Gelatt and those who populate the same sub-genre. I recently had a talk with Phil about They Remain, the current state of the Weird, and more.
Diabolique: So Phil, tell me a little bit about why now is a good time to interview you. By which I mean, you have a feature film currently doing the festival circuit, and are most likely working on future projects. What are you currently thinking about?
Philip Gelatt: Joe, it’s never not a good time for us to be talking! But specifically, yeah, right now I’ve They Remain in little indie theaters around the country and then out on VoD May 29th.
But mostly the work I’m thinking about is what’s coming next. I’ve been doing a good bit of for-hire screenwriter work in the last year and I’m looking forward to getting that done with so I can take off my professional hat and jump back into things that are weirder and more personal to me.
Diabolique: There are some pieces of literature that are by virtue cinematic, that just lend themselves to adaptation. Did you have that feeling about “–30–” that you just knew it would work out well?
PG: Honestly, there was no lightning strike feeling when I read the story. I didn’t immediately know if it would work on screen. In fact, my first read of the story left me feeling frustrated by it. I could tell there were things going on there off screen (if you will) but the story was doing its damnedest to hide itself.
Then I read it again. And I started to fall in love with the way it used that frustration to its advantage. I started to think “oh this could be something.” And once I had that first inkling of an idea of how it could be done, I started to really hone in on all of the things I thought could be cinematic about it.
If I’m to be totally honest, I think the thing that really got me excited was that the story didn’t seem to be playing by any set of rules other than its own. There’s no clear act breaks. It’s narrative structure is odd and difficult. Its characters are oblique and not particularly likable. There is no monster or cult on screen. It’s ending is basically a question with no answer.
All of that shit made me think: “Yes, this might not work but it would be a great challenge to try to get it to work.” So I did.
Diabolique: Some critics have mentioned that They Remain has a similar tone to classic art sci fi like Stalker. What are some more obscure films that influenced you, if any?
PG: Ha. Yeah. The New York Times did say the film had a sizable debt to Tarkovsky. And yeah, Sean (my DP) and I did talk a good deal about Tarkovsky. Though Sean’s more of a Solaris fan than a Stalker fan, I think.
As for other films that influenced me in this… there were a lot. I don’t know how obscure any of these really are but they were things like: Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, Saul Bass’s Phase IV.
To be honest, I’m basically always thinking about Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s early work. It is a bit of an obsession of mine.
I am a fan of Polanski’s cinema and his influence runs through the film in a certain way. I re-watched Death and the Maiden and The Tenant before filming. I also had a long think about Kubrick’s The Shining (hardly obscure, I know) but I remain fascinated by the way that film works and doesn’t work. I tried to come up with a loose set of rules for the film, in the hopes that would help it evoke a certain mood and tone. The film’s pretty plot-less, so it needs to rely heavily on style and tone for it to have an effect on the audience.
Diabolique: How do you even define “the weird” in the first place? Are designations like “the new weird” even needed? How is it different from the old weird?
PG: The Weird is in everything! It’s so hard to define. But let me try.
It’s a sub-genre, though specifically a sub-genre of what is hard to say. It almost always contains some element of horror. Though the source of that horror can be just about anything from an actual monster to an off-kilter personality or even an object out of place. Occasionally it contains science-fiction.
I would, actually, put it right next door to the classical Surreal. Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico are Weird artists to me. As Weird, not Weirder, than Lovecraft or any of the obvious names.
The cumulative effect of The Weird should be a sense destabilization in the reader or viewer. You don’t enter a Weird narrative space to find answers or comfort or catharsis… you enter those spaces in order to feel lost and bewildered. And you bring something strange and altering back out of them with you.
Because it tends to be an elliptical, mysterious genre, it tends to push the reader or viewer to become active participants in the text. The story isn’t going to help you find your way.
As for the “New Weird,” I like the term. Though I think of it more as a kind of branding idea more than anything else. I don’t think that it is really different than The old Weird except in that it has been produced more recently.
The Weird is, the Weird was, the Weird will be.
Diabolique: How weird is weird enough? Is Alien amongst the weird, or does something need to be on the level of the book Ass Goblins of Auschwitz?
PG: Alien is for sure Weird Fiction. The Space Jockey is a fundamentally Weird image and idea (now since lessened by the bullshit that was Prometheus). Ass Goblins is more of a Bizarro piece, which is it’s own sub-genre that I’d put more akin to punk in the way it fetishizes being cheap, fast and shocking.
You can detect there the difference between weird and Weird.
Diabolique: There seems to be a recent frustration among critics and makers, where some horror fans get upset if a film is too intelligent, or art house fans try to make excuses for horror, using words like “elevated.” Where do you stand on this debate?
PG: I feel vaguely annoyed by it, to be honest. Look, I love horror and I think it is a big tent genre. There’s room there to make art films, and there’s room there to make exploitation faire. And there’s room there to make artistic exploitation faire.
That’s why horror is the best genre, to my mind. It’s malleable and adaptable and it’s capable of saying so much about the human condition in different ways.
But in terms of the specific debates you mention, I’m basically against all sides. Audiences should want their films to be intelligent and challenging. AND they should also be honest about the fact that horror IS horror, whether they dress it up by calling it “elevated” or not.
Diabolique: Would you ever like to adapt another Laird Barron story, or perhaps work by another author? Who?
PG: I absolutely would adapt Laird again. His work goes to so many interesting places and contains so many fantastic characters and conceits. It’s a treasure trove, honestly. I’d encourage other filmmakers to get in there as well.
As for other authors, absolutely. I loved the process of adapting and there are so many amazing things happening in literary horror right now. People should be out there reading (and adapting) people like Livia Llewelyn, Nadia Bulkin, Stephen Graham Jones, Victor LaValle, M. John Harrison, Orrin Grey, Scott Nicolay… I mean the list goes on and on.
Diabolique: That last story in Llewelyn’s Furnace comes to my mind. Also, I think Gemma Files’ and Mike Griffin’s work would lend itself to the screen–then I realized they were both on that panel we were on at NecronomiCon (which was mostly just Richard Stanley rambling, not that I had a problem with that).
PG: Haha yes! Gemma Files and Mike Griffin’s work both would be amazing. And, side note: the world needs to be brought into the proper configuration for Richard to make another feature.
Diabolique: How did you feel about the commercial and critical success of horror/fantasy films in the past year (Get Out/Shape of Water, etc)?
PG: I feel great about it! I want the genre to thrive and I want it to be popular. Do I love all of the films coming out right now? Not really, no. But I love that they’re doing so well. My hope is that it will open up the way for strange and more challenging things to come out of the genre.
Diabolique: Has it been more than that one person at the Lovecraft Festival who said They Remain is similar to Get Out? Honestly, I see no similarities aside from the protagonist’s skin color, which doesn’t even factor in much in your picture.
PG: I’ve had that said to me one or two other times. It is always a little startling to me. There are very few, if any, stylistic similarities between the two films. If They Remain deals with race, it does so in the same way it deals with many other real world issues: in an oblique way, that is meant to leave the viewer questioning what is there and what isn’t.
Diabolique: What is the status of The Spine of Night? Tell us a little bit about it.
PG: Ah! The Spine of Night is a rotoscope surreal fantasy epic that is currently being hand-animated by a small team of artists and it is so very close to being complete. We’re hoping to finish principle animation this year and have it out sometime in 2019.
It is very much in the spirit of the Heavy Metal magazine of the 1970s, of Ralph Bakshi’s Fire & Ice, and of low fantasy like Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane. I’m so excited for people to see it. It might just be the doom metal infused, sword and sorcery epic the world needs.
They Remain is now available to pre-order on itunes, where it will be streaming at the end of the month.