"It was meant to kink your head."
In Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan's directorial debut For the Plasma, Charlie (Annabelle LeMieux) joins her childhood friend Helen (Rosalie Lowe) in a remote house on the coast of Maine to help repair the surveillance cameras she uses as a fire lookout. Helen informs Charlie she's also been interpreting the CCTV images of the woods to accurately forecast global economic trends. Charlie tells her about the shit-eating bug featured in the Kobo Abe novel she's reading. Then things get weirder.
Skirting genre conventions to develop its own allusive (and elusive) tone, For the Plasma has the kind of highly specific, confident direction that inspires viewers to sit back and let their brains be scrambled. As I looked at a digital projection of Bryant and Molzan's 16 mm footage of CCTV images of a forest in Maine, I found myself acutely aware of the act of watching and by extension of myself, inside and outside the film. That rare heady experience encouraged me to invite these young New York directors to sit down and talk about the tension between narrative and interpretation, their film's offbeat soundtrack, and Korean filmmaker Hong Sang Soo's art of simultaneity.
Nicholas Elliott How did you two come to direct a film together?
Kyle Molzan We met as ushers at Film Forum. Bing was in school for literature, and I had graduated from film school, and I was just not going to make a movie unless Bingham wrote a script. That turned into Bing and I co-directing.
NE For the Plasma feels very specific shot by shot but also wanders down a variety of paths both narrative and formal, inviting the viewer to do a lot of interpreting. How much leeway do you want us to have?
Bingham Bryant Despite the film being linear, those linear paths it takes are just about opening up new interpretive and thematic spaces and elaborating an atmosphere, a world within which you see a fiction taking place. But what's more important than the fiction itself are the things around it. We're drawing connections, maybe not directly causal ones, but by virtue of being within the film, and through various other formal maneuvers, everything is in conversation. I think this way of filmmaking is also tied to our way of viewing films—as universes unto themselves that one can take different routes through—and it's also a reaction against the "puzzle" film, in which there's a single solution. Before making the film, I had been watching and thinking about Hong Sang Soo and wondering how to digest everything this filmmaker was beginning to mean to me. That's also why he appeals: it's not because there are alternative universes, but because there's a simultaneity. Not one and then two, but one and two both at once and in relation to one another.
NE What was your idea for the music?
KM Bing and I, we're always in tune. Our main goal was getting someone that we idolize, someone who can make some sort of digital, exotic element out of the soundtrack. So Bingham got in touch with Keiichi Suzuki.
BB The whole conversation happened over email. We explained to him why these two guys on the other side of the world were obsessed with his music. Keiichi Suzuki comes from a really fertile period in Japanese pop music from the mid '70s to mid '80s, when a lot of figures somehow managed to find mainstream success and parlay that into really wild experimentalism. Suzuki’s band, The Moonriders, played music that had this strange approach to fusing opposite emotions, dramatic ideas, and kinds of instrumentation. They were always mixing synthesizers with traditional instruments and older musical forms, and they created...
KM Very intelligent pop. There's enough space and experimentalism that you get ideas from listening to it. And it’s music on the forefront of technology without being '70s Prog.
BB He's also doing something here that sounds very organic, and even maritime in a way that suits the film.
KM We talked to him about the Beach Boys—like, Brian Wilson with technology behind him and no goofiness. And some German people like Kurt Dahlke. It was really fun because we told him what we wanted by writing a paragraph for each song, and he went through them one by one.
NE You told him exactly where you wanted the music to go?
KM Yes, exactly. We always had that in mind.
NE You shot in 2012 and finished editing in 2014. How did things evolve from the script stage to the editing room?
BB Those numbers can be misleading, because we weren't editing for two years.
KM There's a ghost year...
BB For one year, the production had run out of money, and the 16mm negative was sitting undeveloped in our fridges.
KM Through Hurricane Sandy! Nothing was developed. We had the entire movie in our fridge and were just hoping that our DP got it. But the script had happened relatively fast. The genesis of the film wasn't forever.
BB We were so conscious of what our raw materials were in terms of the locations, the actors, the film stock, and we were trying to make something that was somehow larger than those, not in production value, but in richness and depth. So the script went through some changes but was basically locked when we started shooting. We shot exactly what we needed, with almost no coverage.
KM What we hadn't planned was how to edit what we called the "essays."
NE These "essays"—what's their function?
BB They are composed of images of spaces and locations and things, some of which you're already familiar with in the film and some of which you won't be until later. They're non-narrative images inserted into a narrative context, to raise questions about interpretation. It's an idea built into the movie from early on. We were conscious of creating something that did at first appear very linear, and we needed some way to interrupt that, to insert some dangerous element of chance—a non-narrative element that threatened to disrupt that. In many ways, the film's visual design imitates that of a CCTV camera, or the easily interpreted digital images with central compositions, etc. But then this design undermines itself in strange ways.
KM And an effort was there to not just do montage or B-roll. It was like, "Now the audience can digest the movie again," and refer back to what it's gone through. It was meant to kink your head.
BB And to suggest some things that are going on around the narrative, sights and places and objects that might not otherwise have a place in it. It reminds the viewer that what is strictly necessary for the narrative might not be the only thing significant to the film. It's the same idea behind the trip back up the hill—
NE That scene shows the two women walking down the hill, the camera tracking smoothly in front of them. Then they pass the camera and it switches to handheld and moves back up the now empty hill. What were you after there?
BB We were always trying to find ways to break from a single, fixed perspective on the characters and the world around them. So the trip back up the hill was one of the ways we found to do that, and of executing a poetic gesture.
KM You could be watching and be like, "Man I'm tired of the movie," then you get to see that and you're back in. It starts again. It does jolt you to see something so preposterous.
NE It also felt like a bridge to the film's more abstract second half. What was the overall idea for the structure?
BB The beginning of the film delineates its territory, but then atomizes it into smaller scenes, shorter sequences, scenes that have their own discrete formal ideas and that are less fully integrated into the overall plan. We wanted a film that established itself on firm ground, with a relatively straightforward story in a very real place, that then breaks down not into chaos or poetic allure but into smaller and smaller pieces, each of which offer their own possibilities.
For the Plasma opens at Anthology Film Archives in New York on July 21, 2016.
Nicholas Elliott is the New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma and a contributing editor for film at BOMB.