In an excerpt from a forthcoming print feature, Barney and Noé discuss The River of Fundament, Barney's latest largescale project.
On the eve of Matthew Barney's and Jonathan Bepler's "River of Fundament" world premiere at BAM, Barney spoke over the phone with Paris filmmaker and long-time friend Gaspar Noé. This is an excerpt from a longer conversation, which will appear in BOMB’s next print issue as well as on this site.
Gaspar Noé Have you ever tried 3D?
Matthew Barney I haven’t. I remember the last time you and I hung out, you were taking some pictures on the Bowery with a 3D camera. My interest in filmmaking is probably less connected to technology than yours is.
GN Actually, I don’t like technology but it allows me to work with people who are really good. Have you seen Gravity?
MB No, I haven’t.
GN The first two takes are twenty minutes each, but you’ve never seen such a visual roller coaster inside a movie theater. Those two opening takes are incredible, also because the background is all black and you really have a sense that you’re in space. The camera is spinning around the astronauts, and it’s all computer-generated imagery. The result is incredibly mind-fucking. Everything is fake but it looks so real. I’m sure you’d be amazed by that movie.
MB This sounds like the type of film that I could never imagine making, because my addiction has to do with performance, with creating a very real situation and then dealing with all the physical problems surrounding it. I spend much energy trying to realize situations and occurrences physically before I give in to digital effects. In that way, digital effects for me always feel like a compromise but not unrelated to the kind of compromise that one faces as a sculptor. You know, on the classical level, a figure often needs a third leg to stand. Or the material problem you set up for yourself fails and needs an additive or an adhesive to make the material survive on its own, or to stand on its own. Compromise is so much part of the process of making film, or the process of making sculpture for that matter.
GN I would say being an artist or a performer or a director is also being a magician or a wizard because you use every trick you have in your pocket.
MB Have you ever worked in theater or with live performance?
GN No. Actually somebody just called me because they want film directors to direct operas. They proposed it to me but I have never done anything like that. You’ve done opera yourself.
MB What I’ve been working on recently is a combination of cinema and live performance, and these live scenes have all of the ingredients of opera. I can’t say it’s an opera, but it certainly relates. So it’s definitely something that’s been on my mind, and, in a way, this hybrid approach has resurrected my interest in filmmaking which I had lost for a while after working in Japan, where I made a film that dealt with many of the same problems I had worked with in the Cremaster cycle. I felt like I hadn’t found a new problem to solve. So when I began working on River of Fundament, I started by setting up these live scenes and filming them. The final film is a combination of documentary photography and cinematic photography. That’s quite different from things I have done in the past, but it has definitely clarified what interests me in live performance and what doesn’t. Early on in the project, I presented a preliminary sketch onstage and learned that stage doesn’t interest me. A kind of site-specific situational theater is a more natural fit for me.
GN You’ve never played the same play onstage twice?
MB That sketch I made was part of a festival in Manchester and was part of the writing process for this piece. I found the stage problematic. You know, as a moving-image maker, I felt the loss of the close-up and the loss of the macro-view of textural changes and material behavior. I felt like I couldn’t exercise that quality or use that tool from my toolbox. I felt crippled. The fixed perspective of somebody sitting in the theater also seemed very limiting to me. Stage performance is such a different discipline. It’s interesting to me that there are so many people out there who move back and forth between film and theater when they are so utterly different.
GN But River of Fundament is a film?
MB Yes it is. It’s five and a half hours long. It’s being presented in opera houses and proscenium theaters with a couple of intermissions—like an opera. The majority of the work I’ve been doing over the last seven years was for the live performances in the production. The cinematic work has been done over the last two years. And what I’ve ended up with is a hybrid between the two. The aspect of filmmaking that I’m most interested in has to do with creating a live condition, where something is actually happening in real time, and then filming in response to that. To a certain extent I’ve always done that—the Cremaster films were full of situations like that. It’s not a very economical way of making a film—to set something up and to shoot it in real time and then edit it down.
GN How many cameras did you use for this project?
MB For some of the live scenes there were ten or twelve cameras rolling—from hotheads in different positions that were controlled remotely. Trying to make the camera position invisible to the live audience is a very difficult way to make a film. You often feel that the camera is not in the position you want it to be in, and you can’t adjust and move the camera the way that you would do on set. A good example is the scene where the audience group was positioned on a barge pushed by a tugboat out on an industrial river in Detroit, and, while under way, they came upon a crime scene. The barge went into a hover in the current, while the investigators called in a crane barge to pull a submerged car out of the river and land it onto the larger barge in front of the audience. The investigators were ferried from the shore to the barge on a smaller boat, and the investigation continued. From a filming perspective, there were several, stacked layers of action which needed to stay in line for the cameras, and the tugboat was struggling with the current and the wind.
GN What about the music?
MB It’s nearly through-composed with live music, and the singing is often carrying the text to the story. Like I said, it certainly has a lot of the elements of opera but I’m hesitant to call it an opera because its convention is not something I’m committed to.
GN Did you compose the music yourself?
MB No, I collaborated with Jonathan Bepler, who did a lot of the Cremaster music. So we worked on it together from the start and did a lot of the writing together. It’s a long project in collaboration with somebody, which is both completely rewarding and challenging at the same time.
GN Have you ever thought of directing a fiction film, based on a novel or a personal story?
MB Well, River of Fundament is based on a Norman Mailer novel called Ancient Evenings. So in that way, having the novel as a text to work from, toward a script or a libretto, is completely new to me. And I’ve enjoyed that very much. You know, I would not say that it’s a traditional narrative film by any means, but it has aspects of filmmaking that I haven’t worked with in the past. There are scenes with dialogue carried by professional actors, and I worked with an editor who comes from a commercial filmmaking tradition. While it’s a step in the direction of traditional narrative film, I still don’t know if I could actually do one. Technically I could, but my interest in storytelling relies so much on experimentation with structure—and this is one of the reasons why I like your films so much.
GN I think there’s something very square about how scripts, and movies in general, are written now. You see one or two and you’ve seen them all; you can close the thought inside your head, like, “Oh, I understood that, it goes from point A to point B and from point B to point C.” There are not many movies that stay in your mind, like the way nightmares stay in your mind. When people ask me what my favorite movie is, I say the two I can watch the most are Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Buñuel’s An Andalusian Dog. I can watch them over and over and don’t get bored by them. 2001 is narrative but at a certain point it reaches a level that toys with a part of your mind that doesn’t read events but reads symbols. What are your favorite movies?
MB For sure The Shining is up there. I like films that are trapped in one location—Das Boot or Jaws or the ’70s “cabin in the woods” horror genre films—where the location often becomes the main character. I also loved early Cronenberg. The Brood, in particular.
GN If you haven’t seen it, you should check this film called Wake In Fright . It’s an Australian movie from the ’70s. It’s very sick.
MB A lot of my favorite films are actually commercial films. I mean, I love the spirit of experimental films, but I’ve been influenced much more by commercial films. It has something to do with the fact that my development as a filmmaker has come from a performance background. It started by performing an action by myself and having one person hold the camera and simply document the action. That slowly evolved into storytelling, and into something that resembles a filmmaking practice, but my interest was never in cinema from the start. I was a bit of a tourist with cinema, but I had an interest in horror from an early age.
GN Are you a fan of Lon Chaney?
GN I think he’s the best actor ever. "The man with a thousand faces" and in each movie he plays another cripple—his face is burned, his legs and arms are missing. For his time, he was the master of transformation.
MB When I first started working with performers other than myself, I was thinking about something along the lines of Lon Chaney, like how can you, as a director, put a performer into a situation that can overcome their tendency to act? In other words, how do you restrain somebody from acting in a mannered way? It was the kind of thing I was doing to myself as a young artist—I was putting myself into situations where my body was restrained, as an attempt to change my behavior, the behavior of my art-making gestures. So once I began working with other people, I started restraining the actors. And it led to very interesting situations for sure, experimenting with prosthetics and costuming in the development of a character, and for sure Lon Chaney was always a model for that.
GN Do you always work with the same makeup artists?
MB I’ve done a lot of work with Gabe Bartalos in California, the makeup artist who did all of the Cremaster work. And with Keith Edmier, who is a sculptor based in New York, who worked in the makeup FX Industry when he was younger. I just did this last project with him after not working together for almost twenty years, which was really fun. For obvious reasons I’m very interested in prosthetic makeup artists because their process is so similar to mine as a sculptor—the casting and the mold-making and the experimentation with material behavior. The alchemy in that interests me very much.
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler's River of Fundament opens on February 12 at BAM in New York.