Talking Camilla & Two on Taħt il-Qoxra | Radio Interview (Maltese)

Though the bulk of this weekend was taken up by that annual and very much welcome celebration of rock, punk and metal in my very own adoptive hometown — Rock the South — I also got the chance to make a happy pit stop over at the national broadcasting studio to record an episode of literary radio show Taħt il-Qoxra (‘Under the Cover’), hosted by Rachelle Deguara and broadcast on Sunday on Radju Malta.

It is now online, and you can have a listen by clicking here.

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Joined by my co-writer on ‘Camilla’, Stephanie Sant (also the short film’s director), we delved into how the short film came to be; from my seizing of that rare and frenzied jolt of inspiration that led me to combine Clare Azzopardi’s subtle-but-cutting short story with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla‘ as I jotted down the treatment; to Stephanie lifting the lid — somewhat — on the historically intricate backstory that served as our ‘true north’ for two key characters.

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Asked about how the indigenous film industry can up both productivity and quality, we jumped on the chance to evangelise the importance of having a solid script, while lamenting the prioritisation of film servicing over production in the local sphere.

All of this is burying the lede somewhat for me though… since the interview had to be done in Maltese given the programme’s format, approach and target audience, I couldn’t exactly wing it. But a spot of rehearsal earlier on seems to have done the trick, and the ensuing interview flowed along quite nicely, I felt.

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Towards the end, I also got a chance to talk a little bit about my debut novel Two — which is about Malta but is in fact written in English — just a few weeks shy of its fifth birthday. I’m glad that people are still keen to hear about its evolution and what it means to me, which is a great deal, even if projects like ‘Camilla’ are shinier and more exciting right about this point in time.

On that note, watch this space for news on future screenings of ‘Camilla’ — more info as soon as we have it, which will hopefully be pretty soon.

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Watch the trailer for ‘Camilla’ here

Find out more about Two here

 

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[WATCH] Literature in the Diaspora & Interview with Nikola Petković

The National Book Council of Malta has uploaded two events that I was happy to be involved in during the National Book Festival, which this year took place — as ever — at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta between November 7 and 11.

First, there’s the recording of ‘Literature in the Diaspora’ — a conference on the subject that I chaired and which included an eclectic selection of speakers, among them Lou Drofenik (Malta/Australia), Nikola Petković (Croatia), Vera Duarte (Cape Verde) and Philip Ò Ceallaigh (Ireland). 

It is of course a huge subject to have to tackle, a fact that becomes even more challenging once you consider your time limit and the desire to accommodate the various viewpoints on offer. But the main take-away from it all, I think, is an embrace of the inherent variety that lies in the diaspora, and a need to resist cut-and-dried ideas of what narratives about nationality should be about, and how we should respond to them.

Next, I was happy to get a chance to ‘zoom in’ on one of the speakers at the conference — the Croatian author and academic Nikola Petković, during a chat about his novel ‘How to Tie Your Shoes’ — which was significantly translated into English by the author himself.

The dynamics of self-translation were one of the many subjects we touched upon, in a conversation which I’d like to think ran as wide a thematic gamut as the prickly, bitter and wrenching ‘confessional’ novel itself, which uses a heavily autobiographical story to touch upon the patriarchy, national identity and the fallout of the Yugoslav Wars.

When you’re done with those, do check out the remaining videos from this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival, uploaded on the National Book Council’s YouTube channel — an interview with special guest Naomi Klein conducted by my colleague Matthew Vella being among them.

Of course, it’s hard to deny that the highlight of the festival for me, however, was the premiere of Camilla, the short film that I co-wrote with director Stephanie Sant and adapted from the short story of the same name by Clare Azzopardi, with a dash of Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ thrown in to help the shift from page to screen and indulge our vampiric tendencies further.

Brought to sumptuous life by producer Martin Bonnici and his team at Shadeena Entertainment — a process aided in no small part by the National Book Council’s funds — it was a pleasure to finally debut the film to an enthusiastic audience on November 10, and I look forward to the next stages of its distribution. Watch this space.

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A representative sample of the team behind ‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant, centre)

 

 

Palermo & Other Pulp

Haven’t updated here for a while (he says, as if we’re still in Livejournal-world, as if our ‘updates’ aren’t energetically diffuse and many across various platforms now), though I’ve been wanting to for quite some time.

It hasn’t happened for the usual reasons — as ever, time and energy — though a meditative pit stop over at the blog would have been just what the head-doctor ordered (if I still visited one, that is, so this is all speculation).

Hectic times require a time-out, but sometimes a time-out is not possible because hectic time leaves very little time for anything else. As the current leader of our supposedly “free” world might say, “Sad!”.

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So while my nerves are in a slightly calmer state at this point in time, as I sit back at home freshly showered and returned from a long weekend in Palermo, the mind remains scattered, and this blog post will be scattered too. In fact, I will use it in an attempt to un-scatter the mind as much as possible. It will be bitty. It will be chaotic. But it will also be, I think and hope, true. 

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Speaking of scattered, ramshackle, shambolic and words of that type — pejoratives designating ‘chaos’, as the Pedant Mind would perhaps put it — I have thoughts on the Tom Hardy-starring Venom. Though this is mostly because I’ve been paid to have them, and the result of all that can be read through here at your leisure should one be so inclined.

But beyond what I thought about this uneven and certainly messy corporate love child between Sony and Marvel, the reaction to the film also gave me feelings.

A big fuss was made on how audiences and critics were divided on this one — with the punter giving the thumbs up while the boffins gave it a thumbs down — this isn’t really the talking point that impressed me the most. Though it’s certainly interesting that the divide was so great this time around, what got to me is how critics in fact kept bringing up the issue of ‘tonal consistency’ as the main problem with a film like this.

Colour me unconvinced, because tonal consistency is the last thing I’d expect from a film like this, and if that really is a sore point for you in a film about a gloopy black alien ‘symbiote’ looking for a human host to get psycho with (on? through?) then, you know, priorities.

If anything, tonal consistency is really something we could do with far less of in mainstream cinema. The Marvel Studios film may hit the mark way more often than when they miss, but it’s hard to deny that their over-curated approach hampers style and invention.

A recent example of the opposite approach worming its way into the mainstream is Gareth Evans’ Netflix Original feature Apostle. Sure, it’s a mess that outdoes Venom on the ‘grace and coherence’ front — feeling more like a mini-series cut down to feature length size (while remaining lumberingly sizeable all the same) and whose sudden shifts and escalations will have one believe Evans way maybe — just maybe — taking a teensy bit of a piss as he hammered out the script for his own feature.

But it’s also a delightfully bonkers ride that plays with your feeling with the same intensity it juggles genres. Anything can happen in the manic micro-climate that Evans has created, and very often it actually does.

It strikes me that ‘tonally uneven’ stories are actually the best suited format for popular narratives. Are the folk tales we told ourselves by the campfire for centuries ‘tonally consistent’, for example? (They may be formally rigid – but that’s another thing entirely.)

I want my mainstream blockbusters messy. Because anything the alternative appears to be a deliberate flattening of nuance and the random energy that seeps into a work and makes it its own.

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Hope does show up in strange places, though. Just as we were about to board the flight to Palermo, I decided to go against my usual habits and actually pick up those collated Panini UK editions Marvel appear to have designed specifically for airports.

One of these anthologised and slapped-together storied featured a Ghost Rider-Venom hybrid. Now that’s the kind of pulpy chaos that I wanna see in these things.

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Speaking of things that are best left messy, Palermo was an utter delight. One does not want to romanticise decay and deprivation too much, of course, but coming off from our own Capital of Culture year — an initiative that actually extols the opening of over 40 boutique hotels in Valletta as something positive — witnessing the crumbly decadence of Sicily’s capital city, especially during their own run at an international contemporary arts festival (Manifesta 12) was nothing short of inspiring.

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While similarities to Sicily and Italy certainly abound — though the climate is ever milder and the Arabic influence is very much felt in the architecture too, sliding into the Maltese language instead over here — my impression this weekend is that where Malta is over-curated, Palermo runs on a kind of studied neglect.

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I couldn’t imagine the Maltese artistic establishment to ever work up the nerve to display artworks in an exhibition commanding international renown with as casual and lax an approach that we found at Manifesta 12; weaving through palaces long past their hey-day, and — one assumes — walking a precarious tip-toe across health and safety regulations.

In Malta, we are perhaps a little bit too afraid to fail. But that fear clamps down any nooks and crannies of possibility that may open up.

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Back in Malta now though, and a crazy week of deadlines will hopefully give way to a long-awaited month to geeky opportunity and plenty. First out of the gate is a talk my dear friend and collaborator Stephanie Sant and myself will be giving at Malta Comic Con, concerning out short film ‘Camilla’, which you can read more about here.

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‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant) stars Irene Christ (left) and Steffi Thake, and premieres at the Malta Book Fair on November 10

But wait! The real hook here is that the event will also serve as the trailer premiere for our short! So should you be at Malta Comic Con this weekend — and you definitely should be, given that it’s the 10th anniversary edition of one of the most enthusiastically put together and consistently strong celebrations of comics and pop culture on the island — do stop by on November 3 at 15:00 to watch the trailer and hear us speak about the evolution of the project.

I will also have a table at the Con all weekend, and would very much appreciate chatting to whoever passes by (I mean it — despite my lowkey misanthropy still going strong after all these years, these things can get dull for long stretches, to the point where human interaction suddenly becomes a welcome prospect).

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More stuff! 

I will be chairing the Literature in the Diaspora conference at the Malta Book Festival on November 7 at 19:00. I will then be having a one-to-one live interview with one of the conference’s participants; the fiercely intelligent Croatian writer Nikola Petkovic, on November 8 at 17:30.

‘Camilla’ will then premiere on November 10 at the MA Grima Hall of the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. The show starts at 20:30, and also forms part of the Malta Book Festival.

And after that’s done, I jet off to Glasgow to see Slayer and a bunch of other nutcase-loud bands. But that’s a story for another day — should I survive it, and whichever shambolic shape I’ll be in at the time.

 

The politics of fantasy and the radical power of love | Antonio Piazza on Sicilian Ghost Story

One of the best things to emerge out of my admittedly truncated run with an MA in Film Studies at my alma mater was being introduced to filmmakers Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia. Not just introduced, but being put under a filmmaking wringer they helped crank up with inspiration and relish.

With the help of other equally acclaimed European masters in the field, the award-winning duo — of Salvo and latterly and spectacularly, Sicilian Ghost Story fame — helped us beat a script for a short film into shape, and eventually shepherded us through its production phase.

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Fabio Grassadonia (front) and Antonio Piazza (back) teaching ‘Screenwriting and the Art of Dramaturgy’ at the University of Malta (October 2015). Photo by Kenneth Scicluna

If nothing else, it made for a revealing look into the process of filmmaking. It certainly helped my writing from then onwards — their thorough, no-compromise understanding of the dynamics of story created helpful subconscious voices in my head that hammer through whenever I’m faced with a knotted plot problem or unclear character motivation.

So it was with great pleasure that I caught up with one half of that duo via Skype to talk about their compelling, harrowing and gorgeous sophomore feature, Sicilian Ghost Story, on the occasion of it finally reaching our shores on general release. Though I’d actually seen it just over a year ago when it made a ‘soft’ premiere in Malta as part of the third edition of the Valletta Film Festival, and I did not hesitate to subsequently name it the best film of that year.

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Star-crossed, never lost: Julia Jedlikowska and Gaetano Fernandez in Sicilian Ghost Story

We spoke about the film’s enthusiastic perception in the “Anglo-Saxon world” and how this denotes something of a cultural divide between that region and their native European south, about how ethical responsibility plays a big part in the duo’s representation of the mafia. But most importantly and urgently — at least, as far as I’m concerned — we discussed how misunderstood and misrepresented the fantastical mode often is in contemporary cinema and perhaps Western culture in general.

“Our films are more closely connected to the world of dreams, nightmares… hidden desires and visions. They beg for a more metaphysical contemplation.”

Check out the interview on MaltaToday by clicking here

On The Tee-Vee | Two & Some Favourite Books | Wicc imb Wicc

It’s been a bit of a strange month; something I’ll be delving into with cautionary coyness in a subsequent blog post. So much so that I’ve missed out on both writing some proper entries over here, and even simply putting up updates on cool stuff I’ve been involved in and invited to.

And one of these actually happened on exactly the day of the premiere of our last burlesque show — the latest thing I spoke about here in some detail before the hiatus. This was an interview for the television programme Wicc Imb Wicc (‘Face to Face’), put together by the National Book Council of Malta, recorded on the very morning of the premiere of Apocalesque. (In fact, beady-eyed viewers might just spot the remnants of hastily-removed cropse-paint eyeliner post-dress rehearsal the night before).

wicc imb wiccThe interview is now up online for all of you to check out, should you be up for hearing an extract from my novel Two — read out by the show’s host, the actress Antonella Axisa — and/or hearing me be interviewed by the same Antonella about some of the key themes and plot dynamics of the book itself. That’s all before my favourite segment of the show kicks in, however: talking about some of my favourite and most energising books.

Among them are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, and Moebius’ hallucinatory classic of a graphic novel, Arzach.

Find out more about Wiċċ imb Wiċċ here, and log on to the National Book Counci’s YouTube channel to watch previous episodes.

 

Utopia for whom? | Interview with Gregory Norman Bossert

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Detail from Kinzénguélé, 2003, Moukondo, Brazzaville

The new edition of the postgraduate journal Antae has come out earlier this week, and it features an interview I’ve had the pleasure of conducting with Gregory Norman Bossert — award-winning short story writer and pre-visualisation/layout artist for Industrial Light and Magic.

Though this is not the first time I’ve chatted with Greg for the purposes of an interview, this time around we had a specific — though certainly expansive — focus for our conversation, as determined by the publication’s theme this time around.

The subject was the nature of, and the possibility or impossibility of imagining what a Utopia would look like.

Going by previous interactions with Greg I’ve had in the past, I knew he would be an ideal candidate for this contribution, given his direct engagement with speculative fiction of various hues, as well as his thorough knowledge of the literary context in question.

“To propose a functional utopian reality is thus to propose the utopian person. In fact, following on my second point above, a functional utopian proposal must not just propose the existence of this utopian “for whom”, but their creation. And again, such works founder not just on the complexity of the social and psychological sciences, but on the brutal tradition of such attempts. The ties between 20th century Futurism and Fascism are an easy warning here.”

Read the full interview here

 

Designing the thrill ride | Editor and Publisher Ross E. Lockhart on Eternal Frankenstein

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Ross E. Lockhart

A hard-working and eminently likeable presence in the field of speculative fiction small press, editor and publisher Ross E. Lockhart takes a seat at the Soft Disturbances lounge to chat about Eternal Frankenstein – a 16-story tribute to Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking science fiction and Gothic horror classic – which he edited this year for Word Horde. He also delves into what makes this increasingly essential genre fiction publishing house tick, before letting us in on the Frankenstein story of his dreams…

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First off; why Frankenstein, and why now? Mary Shelley’s text has been a touchstone for quite some time, so what made you think that now is the right moment to put together an anthology like Eternal Frankenstein?

This summer was the bicentennial of ‘The Year Without a Summer’, wherein massive climate instability was caused by the 1815 eruption of Mt Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), blanketing the Northern Hemisphere in miserable weather. A young English couple – Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin – decided to escape the apocalyptic rain and constant cold (and majorly dysfunctional families) by staying with a friend in Switzerland, Lord Byron.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Percy and Mary brought along Mary’s cousin Claire, and Byron was attended by his personal physician, John Polidori. One stormy night, as the five sat indoors, reading ghost stories by firelight, Byron proposed a ghost story competition. That night, Mary had a dream that would inspire her to write Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which she would publish anonymously in 1818.

The book and its many adaptations fascinate me, and I believe the story is one of the most intricate and poignant myths of the modern era.

Beyond this anniversary, I’ve been a Frankenstein fan since I saw James Whale’s Universal films as a kid. The book and its many adaptations fascinate me, and I believe the story is one of the most intricate and poignant myths of the modern era. I also looked at things from a commercial standpoint, and I realized that (with the exception of Steve Berman’s Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists) it had been a long time since anybody had published an all-original Frankenstein-themed anthology.

As with other Word Horde anthologies I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the not-too-distant past, Eternal Frankenstein is a finely crafted piece of editorial work, with stories clearly selected to intensify certain through-lines and motifs: teenage angst, anti-communist hysteria and the reanimated automaton as a cog in the military machine, to mention just a few. How did you set about identifying these themes? And to deepen a bit further: why do you think the legacy of Shelley’s text accommodates these themes and images in particular?

Editing an anthology is a lot like building Frankenstein’s monster. You start by digging through graveyards, finding pieces, and seeing how those pieces fit together. You take chances. You invite authors whose work you enjoy, and you say “show me what you’ve got”. You tweak and you fine-tune and you experiment and arrange, and eventually a creature takes form, comes to life, and shambles out into the countryside, demanding a mate.

I work with authors who are constantly striving to produce the best possible work, and I’m willing to push those authors to do better.

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Given that Shelley’s novel continues to hold such an influential sway over our culture, was it actually easier to amass short fiction of adequate quality and variety for Eternal Frankenstein, when compared to other anthologies you’ve put together? Or did the process pan out in more or less the same way?

Eternal Frankenstein is my seventh anthology, and while these books are always challenging in their own way, and a lot of work, I’ve developed a system that keeps things on track in a more-or-less smooth way. I work with authors who are constantly striving to produce the best possible work, and I’m willing to push those authors to do better.

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

Ultimately, I want stories that are going to resonate with readers, stories readers will remember for the rest of their lives. One of the things that inspires me about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that she was trying to write a story that would be as powerful and memorable as anything written by Percy or Byron. And I think she managed, with Frankenstein, to outshine both of them.

There is an analogy I frequently use when talking about anthologies: The Thrill Ride

And on that note, do you have any iron-clad principles you adhere to when putting together Word Horde anthologies?

That it be fun. There is an analogy I frequently use when talking about anthologies: The Thrill Ride. Like the designer of a roller coaster or carnival dark ride, the anthologist is directing a reader’s experience. You carefully arrange things, the climb, the fall, the sudden turn, the loop. You seed in shocks and scares. You direct the reader’s view. But you also have to keep things moving. Always moving. Sure, readers jump in, read stories out of their intended sequence – that’s a reader’s right. But one must never forget that a book is best read from cover to cover, each story in conversation with the ones before, each setting the stage for the next story to come.

Word Horde is certainly becoming something of a standard-bearer for the genre small press. How would you say it’s evolved to this point, and what are your future ambitions for it?

I’m really happy with the way that Word Horde has been received. I’m currently publishing five books a year, picking projects carefully, and getting work out there that has something to say and shakes up the complacency so common in by-the-numbers genre fiction. If you’ve enjoyed what I published in 2016, you’re going to love what’s coming in 2017. And Word Horde may be a small press but we’ve got big ideas, so stay tuned.

Still from Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965)

Still from Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965)

Finally… what would your own Frankenstein story look like?

Just off the top of my head, remember Monster Island from the Godzilla films? I’d like to tell the story of Frankenstein Island. All the various cinematic Frankenstein’s monsters – Charles Ogle, Boris Karloff, Glenn Strange, Koji Furuhata, Phil Hartman, Robert De Niro –building a civilization on a remote island. Though I’m not sure whether that society would be a utopia, dystopia, or something in between.

Check out my Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon in all its entirety for reviews of each of the stories in the collection.

Please consider donating to the Patreon for MIBDUL – Malta’s very first serialized comic!

Do it for yourself | T.E. Grau | Interview

Horror writer T.E. Grau is slowly but surely carving a niche for himself as one of the most eclectic and artful practitioners of the genre in the American scene, as is borne out by his critically acclaimed debut collection The Nameless Dark — which we reviewed right here just a couple of days ago. Now the man himself steps into the Soft Disturbances interview lounge to give an expansive, generous and impassioned overview of what inspired him so far, and what we can expect from his upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore… 

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T.E. Grau

When did you first realise that you wanted to start writing fiction, and did you act on this impulse immediately?

From as far back as I can remember, I had an interest in writing, and starting in my early teens, I fostered a nebulous, long-range plan for engaging in the serious authorship of fiction at some unspecified date. But instead of hunkering down and just doing that, I spent decades dancing around the edge of the well, writing everything else but fiction, including music journalism, review work, two different humor columns, tech writing, ghost writing, and dozens of intensely mediocre screenplays.

I think what held me back was I thought I needed to write a novel to be an author, and I didn’t have any ideas for a novel that were worth a damn, other than some bullshit pseudo-Hunter Thompson tale about an American drifting to China to document the last vestige of the American Dream on the opposite end of the world. It would have been awful.

At the tail end of 2009, while I was writing one of those intensely mediocre screenplays – which just happened to be for a horror film for which I was brought in to “add in some Lovecraftian elements,” as I had read and greatly enjoyed HPL’s work back in college – my wife Ivy changed the course of my creative life forever. She’d read some of my scripts, and enjoyed some of the exposition (overly long as it was), but also saw that the medium wasn’t a good match on either end.

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Finally, as I was complaining about yet another round of ridiculous producers’ notes and re-writes on a script that probably wasn’t going to get made anyway, she said, “Why don’t you just stop with this screenwriting and write fiction?” That was it. No one had ever asked me that question before. Not in the 11 years I’d written scripts, nor the decade before while I’d written everything else, futzing around for local arts magazines and live music journals. The simplicity of her question – which hit my ears as a statement – was astounding. That I could just walk away from a medium into which I’d invested over a decade of my creative life but also grown to loathe, and finally pursue something that I’d always dreamed of doing. I “quit” screenwriting that very day, and Hollywood somehow plodded onward without me.

While reading and researching Lovecraft’s work for the script I’d just been working on, I’d discovered that there was such a thing as “Lovecraftian fiction,” stories written as pastiche, inspired by, and/or set in the universe created by H.P. Lovecraft. I had no idea this was a thing. But poking around a bit more, I found out that there were anthologies looking for short stories of Lovecraftian fiction, and that an editor (and RPG icon) by the name of Kevin Ross was looking for stories for his antho Dead But Dreaming 2, to be published by Miskatonic River Press (Tom Lynch’s outfit).

I think I’m a better writer because my journey to prose took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles

I saw that as my shot to break in. I didn’t need to write a novel to be a prose writer. I could write a short story, and ease my way into the fiction game. Find out if I have a knack for it, and then see what happens. I started writing ‘Transmission’, then started writing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ almost simultaneously. I pitched both to Kevin, and he vibed better with ‘Transmission’, so I finished the story and sent it to him, and he accepted it. My first completed, and purchased, piece of fiction. I held back ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ for five years, and first published it in The Nameless Dark: A Collection, even though it was initially written in early 2010.

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So, my journey to prose was a long time coming, but I think I’m a better writer because it took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles, and mainly due to the constant rejection one faces as a screenwriter. In film (not television), the writers are on the very bottom rung, and receive no deference and very little respect for their integral contribution to the content-making process.

That was important for me to experience, if only to get over myself and realize my fingers don’t weave gold with every keystroke. Ivy working with me as my editor was the other important factor, allowing me to finally understand that the fine tuning is just as or more important than the initial burst of creativity. That not every sentence (or paragraph or page) is precious and sacred. Defensive writers aren’t great writers. Confident writers kill their babies, because they’ll always make more. She taught me that, and I owe her everything because of it.

Why is horror such an appealing genre for you, both as a reader and writer?

I think you’re either born a person who digs the darkness or you’re not. And I don’t necessarily mean people who play Halloween dress-up every day, favor goth fashion, live as wanna-be vampires, practice Satanism, or something similar.

That’s cool and all, if that floats your boat, but what I’m talking about is someone who has a genuine interest, fondness, and deep affection for things that reflect a melancholy, a gloom, a doom, a general decay and reflection of mortality or pessimism. Things that are just a bit askew from the norm. The incomprehensible or the unexplainable. Liminal places of abandonment and decay. Rain clouds and fog. Desolate fields. Ruined buildings and oddly constructed houses. The vastness of outer space. Magnolias draped in Spanish moss. Mausoleums. Subterranean places. Attics. Abandoned barns and industrial sites. Vast stretches of trees. Cheap carnivals. Ancient caves at the bottom of the sea. The beautifully grotesque and the (Big G) Gothic.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

These are the essential salts, the foundation elements, of horror and fantastical fiction. It either appeals to a person or it doesn’t. You can’t force it, you can’t fake it (although some do try).

And while I’m a generally upbeat and affable person, my mind and curiosity and sense of wonder call out to those things, and when I encounter them, while most would be saddened or creeped-out or uncomfortable, they make me happy and content.

I feel at home. That’s what draws me to horror literature, and to those who can capture this sense of gloomy atmospherics, dread, and impending doom in the stories they write. There’s nothing quite like that. It’s a true power.

There are many definitions of the ‘weird fiction’ genre (which you’re also associated with). What’s yours?

I get uncomfortable with the various labels going around for what I like to call “dark fiction,” as I think people spend too much time trying to create then box-up subgenres of fiction for discussion or marketing purposes, or just for “team-ism,” which is rarely productive or positive. But I do like the term “weird fiction,” as it nods to the late 19th and early 20th century authors, including all of those amazing pulp writers, who added so much to fantastical fiction.

Weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death

Weird fiction to me is work of writing that introduces the unexplained – and usually unexplainable – into our rational world. It can – and often is – laced with the scientific, the religious, the historic, and the cosmic, taking real world facts and beliefs and twisting them just a bit, then setting them back on the shelf to distract our eye, as something just doesn’t seem right about them anymore. It’s peeling back a common facade and finding something unexpected and unknown underneath. It’s the odd, the uncanny. The bizarre.

Also, and this is just a personal opinion, but weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death. Weird fiction can be quite subtle, but no less impactful in terms of unsettling a reader.

Would you agree that Clive Barker and Nathan Ballingrud are among the most powerful influences on the stories collected in your debut collection, The Nameless Dark? If so, why?

Clive Barker certainly isn’t an influence, as I had never read any Barker until the stories for The Nameless Dark were either finished and published in other places, or already plotted out. I didn’t read Baker during his heyday in the 80s, as I was still geeking out over high fantasy and sword & sorcery. The closest I came to horror was Conan books.

Nathan’s work isn’t so much an influence either (as, similar to Barker, most of my stories for my collection were already either finished or plotted when I read his work for the first time in North American Lake Monsters), but his writing was and is very important to me in terms of what the genre of dark/horror/weird fiction is capable of in this new century.

No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud

So, in many ways, he’s not an influence so much as an inspiration, as the fearless exploration of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and generally horrible behavior that lies at the heart of many of his stories hit me like discovering a new color. I was floored when I read his collection. Still am. No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud. He’s also a genuinely scary writer, meaning he writes things that scare or disturb me. I rarely experience that reaction when reading anyone’s work.

north-american-lake-monsters

Barker is great (particularly his shorter work, like ‘In the Hills, the Cities’), and his Hellraiser universe is a horror staple (co-opted by Hollywood), but in many ways, I think Ballingrud is a superior writer to Barker, although I understand it’s difficult to compare based on time periods and conventions of the respective eras.

Long term, and deep down into my marrow, I’m probably more influenced by Hunter S. Thompson, Vonnegut, and Beatnik writers than anyone in horror fiction, although Lovecraft certainly influenced several stories expressly written for Lovecraftian anthologies, some of which ended up in The Nameless Dark.

The figure of Lovecraft looms over many of the stories too. Does the fact that there are plenty of Lovecraftian ‘markets’ open at any given time play a part in that? Or have you always been attracted to the core of Lovecraft’s work?

I covered a bit of this above, as Lovecraftian fiction was my entry into prose writing, and horror writing in particular. Regardless of how I feel about him personally, his work got me into writing fiction, which literally changed my creative life, and I’m grateful that he drew from and coalesced many of his influences (Bierce, Poe, Dunsany, Chambers, etc.) into the multiverse and mythos he created.

Cthulhu in R'lyeh by jeinu

Cthulhu in R’lyeh by jeinu

What originally drew me into his work was his sense of cold cosmicism, and a universe that is far more vast and malevolent and uninterested in our existence than our puny, needy human intellect can comprehend. There is no devil, no angels, no bearded man pulling the strings. There are no strings. Just endless voids, with the occasional Outer God and Great Old One brushing against our reality just long enough to influence primal cultures, establish secretive and murderous cults, and burst minds by their very existence. I loved this. It was very dark and menacing, very secret history and cryptozoological.

Growing up in a staunch, Evangelical Christian home, the stuff I was fed in church always chaffed at the back of my lizard brain. Stumbling across Lovecraft’s outlook on the universe was a revelation, and a breath of fresh, clean, pessimistic air. I was hooked instantly.

My most recent, current, and upcoming work doesn’t and won’t contain nearly the level of Lovecraftian influence, but his work will always feature somewhere in my writing, especially in my Salt Creek stories, a novel for which I’m slowly putting together.

A satirical edge is also present in a number of the stories, mainly focused on certain aspects of American culture that seem to irk you. Were there axes you needed to grind before you set out writing some of these stories? 

Before writing fiction, I wrote comedy for years, in various mediums with varying levels of success. I’ve been doing it much longer than writing dark fiction, so humor or satire is going to naturally bleed into my writing where appropriate (and maybe where it’s not).

I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture

I’ve never thought of my satirical viewpoints as grinding axes, per se, but I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture, and humanity itself. Hyper-religiosity, racism, misogyny, stinginess, greed, bad parenting, predation, xenophobia, and just general shittiness to others gather at the top of a very long list of grievances against my species.

Okay on second though, I’m grinding several axes. I’d guess dozens of axes are being ground at any one given time, depending on how many stories I’m working on at the same time.

Could you tell us something about your upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore? How would you say it builds on your previous work?

I always have a hard time summing up the novella without giving anything away, but here goes a weaksauce attempt: It’s a story about teenage obsession, conformity, parenting, class, and illness providing a backdrop for a somewhat jaundiced, slightly different take on the contemporary vampire tale.

I’m not sure how or if it does build on my previous work, although it is set from the POV of a teenage girl and follows her around in the world. In this way, it reminds me a bit of ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’, as it includes a bit of geographical wandering, which set the plot framework of ‘Tubby’.

they-dont-come-home-anymore-by-t-e-grau

I see it as something I’ve never done before (and probably won’t do again), marking my first and probably last vampire tale. Also, it’s my longest piece to date, which shows some building on my previous work.

And the cover – featuring artwork by Candice Tripp and cover design by Ives Hovanessian – is an absolutely stunner. I count myself incredibly fortunate to feature such a cover as the calling card for the novella. Candice is doing the artwork for my second collection, and we have another project in the works, as well. Crossing my fingers that I’ll be working with her for many years to come.

And finally… what advice would you give to writers keen to break into the weird fiction and/or horror scenes in particular?

First of all, write what you want to write. Truly. Honestly. Dig down deep, cast your gaze out as far as you can, and get it all out. Question everything, follow all leads. Don’t worry about genre or market or anything out of your control. Until you get paid for it as an employee with a parking pass, bathroom key, and benefits, don’t think of yourself as a “commercial writer.” Think of yourself as a writer, period, which means you write for you.

There are very few money-making fiction genres, and weird and horror fiction aren’t it

Make yourself happy and creatively satisfied, because if you’re writing weird fiction for money, a) you’ll fail in reaching your goal, because no one really makes any money, and b) your writing will come off as lackluster and passionless, which will make you even less money and lead to more failure. Don’t do that to yourself.

There are very few money-making fiction genres (and maybe one – romance/erotica, and I suppose whatever “literary fiction” is), and weird and horror fiction aren’t it. So, if you choose to write down here, crouched low in the shadows with the rest of us ghouls, do it for the right reasons. Do it for the love of the shade, the decay, the destitute and the forgotten. Do it to celebrate the beauty of the dark.

Then, get to work, and look for open markets. I’d hazard that with self publishing, online publications, and a recent proliferation of ‘zines and anthologies and fiction journals devoted to weird, horror, and dark fiction, it’s easier to place ones work these days than probably ever before in the history of written language. The markets are there. Write your best stuff and send it out.

And, in the end, if no one will publish you, publish yourself. Get your book on a shelf – YOUR shelf – and on Amazon, in indie bookstores and libraries, and build your legacy, if only for you and your loved ones. Gatekeepers are helpful, but they are not absolute. If you have the talent, the desire, and if you work your ass off, no one can hold you back from becoming a writer of whatever fiction you want to write, written however you want to write it. Very few of us are professionals, but a lot of us are writers. And there’s room for more.

Check out my own review of The Nameless Dark right here, and stay updated with all things Grau by visiting ‘The Cosmicomicon’

Read previous interview: Alistair Rennie

Featured image: ‘Swallowed by the Ocean’s Tide’ by Ola Larsson 

Authenticity: Richard Linklater, Woody Allen, Romanticism, Decadence

I’ve stopped giving much credence to birthdays over the past couple of years (I’m writing this on the eve of my 29th). Once the rites of passage in life become murkier – i.e., after you’re done with school and have no set ‘stages’ to go through any more – birthdays start to feel truly arbitrary.

But something strange, and just about wonderful is happening this year: right now I truly feel like there’s some kind of culmination of the recent experiences I’ve been through.

Part of all this is, of course, down to finally finishing and publishing the book, and I’m wary of how this feeling of relief mixed with euphoric uplift can be temporary and elusive.

But there’s other factors which have contributed to me feeling an increased sense of peace, and a receding of the persistent self-doubt which comes with – in a big way – from the very same arbitrariness that characterizes most of adult life.

It’s a hard-won sort of peace, though, and one which needs constant vigilance to be maintained.
I suppose the cost of growing up is, ultimately, the realization that bliss can no longer, at any point, come automatically.

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Increased self-awareness also means an increased sensitivity to what is authentic about yourself – what you should keep and cultivate, and what you should discard because it’s no longer relevant to you: a dead-end road.

Authenticity was always a bit of a thorny subject for me; one the one hand yes, I work for a newspaper – which, at least ostensibly, trades in remaining authentic – while on the other, my primary obsessions are concerned with both the production and consumption of fiction.

A recent ‘catch up’ marathon for three films I’ve been wanting to watch – the ‘Before‘ films by Richard Linklater, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (I know, I know) – put this in focus for me once again.

The trio’s breezy style clearly emerges as a result of consummate, carefully cultivated filmmaking, of course, but the way the films worry at concerns so delicate, intimate and – ultimately – relatable puts a number of cinematic attempts at the same themes to shame.

There is both a sensitivity and a kindness – as well as a dramatic dynamism, taking the shape of the best stage play’s effortless back-and-forth banter – to Linklater which made me think, first and foremost (and for whatever reason): Woody Allen is a fraud.

The comparison came to me just as automatically as that: finishing off either the second or the third ‘Before’ film, Woody Allen’s attempts at extrapolating home truths about sexual politics came to mind, and just didn’t ring true.

Where Linklater zooms in on an unfolding relationship between just two people – a thespian duo he clearly trusts – first by charming us with their idyllic romance but then boldly returning to his subject/s years later to shade that relationship, Allen props up his ping-ponging dialogue in the midst of cardboard cut-outs and facile plot developments.

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My own reaction came as something of a surprise, because in recent years I’ve developed an increased fondness for artifice – a resistance to the ‘organic’ creation of art so vaunted by the Romantics, in favour of what we could, I suppose, at a stretch venture to call a more Decadent approach which places increased value on form and ornamentation.

In retrospect though, I think this may have something to do with the fact that over the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to write my own fiction, TO MAKE MORE STUFF, and so the – broadly defined – Romantic idea of ‘waiting for inspiration’ or of dedicating your attention solely to the perfect subject that is closest to your heart was not really helpful.

Focusing on just putting the thing together, on the other hand, helped me to move forward, and so the opposing milieu became more attractive.

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Now that the novel is done, though, I have to confess that ultimately, its autobiographical elements are what kept me going – or, at least, that engine that whirred in the background, quietly fuelling me ahead as I scrambled to put the whole thing together.

Having a personal stake in something – anything – by its very nature adds urgency to a project, and one of the best things I’ve heard said about Two is that it made some readers – two of them, actually, as far as I know – “give me a hug”, because they recognized the emotional authenticity of the book.

Truth is a slippery thing; I will never understand it, not fully. People are constantly called out on begin ‘phony’ and ‘fake’; even a kind of manufactured authenticity seems to have pervaded our culture (see: Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and countless other celebrities presented as ‘just one of us’).
But I’ll be happy if I hit upon it, however fleetingly, when “it matters”.

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Some more coverage for Two:

The Times of Malta – A measured, well-written review I’m quite happy about.

The Malta Independent – An interview by Colin Fitz, also delving into my work as a journalist. Some of the quotes come across as a bit pompous, and I’m fairly certain I was more self-deprecating during the conversation itself. But whatever.

If you – my fine, illustrious readers – insist on doing something for my birthday, might I suggest you pick up a copy of Two, either from “any good” brick-and-mortar store if you’re in Malta and Gozo, or through Merlin’s website if you’re seeing this from abroad? Shipping rates have been reduced to normal prices, thankfully, so you can order away without too much of a burden on your pockets. Ta!

LONG READ: Joshua Oppenheimer on The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo by Daniel Bergeron.

Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo by Daniel Bergeron.

At the tail end of last year, as the film was screened in Malta, I had the privilege of interviewing Joshua Oppenheimer, one of the directors of the blistering, Oscar-nominated – and otherwise award-winning – documentary The Act of Killing. A print-friendly, compressed version of the interview can be read here, but with Mr Oppenheimer’s permission, I’m reproducing the full transcript of our interview below – hours before this year’s Academy Awards get underway. Enjoy.

First of all, congratulations for making it to the list of 15 documentaries at the forefront of the Oscar race. How does that feel?

It’s really great for film to come as far as it’s come, and to be in the company of such other wonderful films. But I think above all, even making it to the shortlist means that it made big headlines in Indonesia, where the downloads for the have increased by something like five-fold (the film is made available for free download in Indonesia). So any attention from the Academy is really constructive in Indonesia, so that’s what I’m the most pleased about.

Did you expect the film to have such an impact, as you were making it? Because surely you were aware of the fact that you were making something that could have a profoundly political, and even perhaps historical, impact. So I was wondering if maybe all of that was running through your mind as you were making it.

Well I think that the film itself… I guess you saw the 159-minute edit of the film, right?

Yes.

Yeah, in that cut of the film in particular the boundaries between the scenes that they’re making and our film, if you like, blur together, and our film becomes a kind of apocalyptic fever dream, an apocalyptic vision, and I think that to create a work that’s so unsettling and dark, of course on sme level you have to have a pretty bleak view, right?

On the other hand you could never sustain the energy to make such a work if at some level you weren’t also hopeful. The hope is that by forcing people or inviting people to look at the most painful aspects of who were are as human beings, that we would then somehow be able to confront our biggest problems. So there’s a kind of optimism that underpins the whole effort. Now I always had this hope, always had this sense, that my task was to create something that forces this confrontation with the truth.

But when you spend eight years making a film you have ample time for self-doubt, and you start to wonder if it’s gonna make a difference. And you know, when I started making the film Indonesians were barely using mobile phones, but by the time I was done they were on Blackberries and on Twitter and so on. So I said to myself: if Indonesia is moving on, why can’t I move on?

Maybe one of the reason for this change is that there’s a whole younger generation of Indonesian professors and academics coming into their careers now, who want to create an Indonesia which is genuinely democratic – they want to have control over their future, which should be case in any democratic society. Nor are they paralysed by fear of direct retribution. And they’re not invested in the status quo because they didn’t form part of the military regime – they’re too young for that.

So I think the film was also allowed to have the impact it’s had because this time has elapsed.

This is in fact what survivors and human rights groups suspected might happen when they saw the footage of the perpetrators boasting that I had originally filmed back in 2003. They told me to continue filming the perpetrators in particular – “you’re on to something terribly important”.

Behind-the-scenes shot of The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (far right). Pictured in car, left to right, Indonesian death squad members Safit Pardede, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

Behind-the-scenes shot of The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (far right). Pictured in car, left to right, Indonesian death squad members Safit Pardede, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

They told me that every Indonesian who sees this will be forced to acknowledge first of all that they’re all afraid, why they’re afraid and what lies at the rotten heart of this whole regime.

“Make film about the perpetrators, document and analyse their boasting, and you’ll create something that comes to Indonesia like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes: forcing everyone to confront the realities that they’ve hitherto found too painful to address.”

How much has actually changed in Indonesia since you started filming?

There was a significant political change in 1998, and it actually became possible to make such a film as ours in the first place. Before that, we would have been under a certain amount of surveillance which would have made it impossible for us to make it.

But I don’t think there has been anything like a kind of steady march towards increasing openness. On the contrary, in 1999 a new president tried to take a stance against corruption and tried to apologise for the genocide and for these things, he was thrown out by the military.

Now there’s another election coming up in next year and the likely winner is a man called Prabowo [Subianto]– an army general who has the dubious distinction of being the first person ever on a US State Department black list for masterminding torture and murder in 1998 against student activists, ethnic Chinese and East Timori citizens.

So all I can say is that while, partly thanks to The Act of Killing, there’s an openness to start a national conversation about the past, and the thuggery in the present, at the same time the regime is sliding backwards.

Every president since Soharto – except for the one who was thrown out in 1999 – would hold meetings with his high-ranking ‘preman’ (gangsters) to discuss skimming oil. Indonesia is an OPEC country, and here you have a gangster running the nation’s oil imports and exports. This guy skims around 10 to 15% of all the oil which goes through Indonesia – he steals it, then pays off the Indonesian president.

Every day in office there’s a meeting with the president to sign off a certain amount per barrel of oil. It used to cost one dollar and now it’s down to 60c – which still amounts to a total of $480 a day over a 10-year period. This is the beating heart of a military dictatorship which will never stop.

Although there’s been change on a superficial level – there’s talk of clamping down on gangsterism and corruption – until this high-level corruption stops, nothing will ever change. Pancasila is certainly not afraid of protest. Recently tens of thousands of people – among them sweatshop workers – were out striking out on the streets, and Pancasila was on the front lines hacking at the workers with machetes.

And they were all paid by a garment sweatshop that makes clothes… both for us, and Indonesians.

As you set out to make the film, were you at all apprehensive about the ‘heart of darkness’ you would by necessity have to confront? How did you prepare yourself, psychologically, for the experience?

It was difficult and painful. The very first perpetrator I filmed was from a plantation village where I started this journey. After I filmed him he showed me how he killed hundreds of plantation workers by beating them up until they were unconscious and drowning in mud. He demonstrated this in his living room in front of his wife and daughter. I was shocked, mostly because of the smiling, boastful tone with which he told the story. I walked across the road to this little village, back to the house I was staying in. About an hour later his wife shows up at the door with plate of fried bananas. And I felt profoundly afraid that she had come to my home… this woman I’ve just seen sitting next to her husband as he performed that horrific re-enactment.

And she came with a plate of fried bananas, and I accepted it, very politely, and got rid of her as quickly as I could, and I threw the bananas away. I felt that anything she made was tainted. And afterwards as I saw her granddaughter playing right in front of my house I started to think about that, and I began to regret having thrown the bananas away. I realised how easy it was for me to treat the whole family as radically ‘Other’ and tainted. And I decided I would never do that again, that I would try to empathise, to understand. Because I realised that the main reason I did that was to reassure myself that I was not like them. And while I hope that I would never make the same decision as Anwar made if I were growing up in the 50s, I know that I’m extremely lucky to never have to find out.

Ever since, I insisted that I would let myself become close to Anwar. Doing that meant the process was all the more difficult. I don’t know how to make an honest film about another human being without being close to them. And so I tried to become close, and as I became close it became harder and harder to conceal my feelings. For example you know the scene in which Anwar butchers the teddy bear? That scene was so horrific to film. When I was filming that I was only a metre away from him and to my alarm, I noticed that I was crying – it just caught up with me. Then at some point we had to stop to adjust a microphone or a light or something and Anwar noticed that I was crying and he asked, “Josh, are you okay?” and I said “yes” (though I wasn’t, really). And he said “let’s continue then”. And in my mind that was the start of eight months of very difficult nightmares…

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Carlos Arango de Montis.

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Carlos Arango de Montis.

It was painful. And when Anwar saw the finished film, he cried. Then he was silent for a while, and then he finally said, “the film shows what it’s like to be me”. And I was relieved. I’m relieved to finally have been able to show what these things have meant for me.

And he and I remain in touch – I wanted to make sure that there’s no physical reprisal against him after the film. And there hasn’t been – they’ve just blamed me. Which is fine, it just means I can’t go to Indonesia safely… but it’s good that they’re blaming me and not him. I think the other reason I remain in touch is to try and understand the situation beyond just the film. And I may never quite figure it out…

The scene with the teddy bear – which stands for a baby in that particular re-enactment – certainly shows a point of no return…

Yeah, it shows just how damaged Anwar is. The re-enactment becomes a kind of cinematic prism through which Anwar comes to recognise the meaning of what he did. But it’s not a linear journey to that point… it’s more like a pendulum that is swinging wildly, or a seismic vibration that grows greater and greater in amplitude.

For example, he goes into that scene as an act of despair – he moves from that re-enactment in which they’re burning down the village. He starts to feel remorse after that, and in response he despairingly turns to the worst parts of himself… as though to say, “yes it is still me and I did this and I can still live and be this”. And it hurts him, it’s painful, he hates playing that scene. We see him lying in bed with that wind-up chicken and singing the most self-pitying song… and through that self-pity he comes to play the victim. He doesn’t come to play the victim knowingly, but out of pure… simple… he’s just the victim. And then through playing the victim he experiences real trauma, and to wash the trauma away he proposes that ‘cleansing scene’ by the waterfall, this phony redemption… and I was so disappointed with him. Because I had hoped that maybe he’ll be waking up to something. And that happened again and again but instead he chose to run away – 180 degrees, completely the opposite direction. And I felt that the film had to faithfully show that. It might be easier to take if it was about a man who was coming to terms with himself… but rather, he’s zig-zagging – zig-zagging frantically.

To put it in a more concise way: the film bears witness to how the maintaining of the lies we tell ourselves leads to a moral vacuum. A downward spiral of evil and corruption. You now have to blame your victims – because that’s the excuse, they deserved it – and that allows you to oppress them, and you have to kill again. Because if the army tells you okay, for the same reason you killed the first group, now kill this second group… if you refuse the second time it’s equivalent to admitting it was wrong the first time. And so the reason you need to maintain the lie is not because you’re a sadistic monster, but because you’re human… and being human, you’re moral, and you know what’s right and wrong, and you don’t want to live with the tormenting effects of guilt.

You’ve mentioned previously that the film is about ‘a failure of the imagination’ – with particular reference to the way the West reacted to the massacre back in 1965. This may be a bit of a trivial comparison to make, but given how it’s more or less taken for granted that contemporary Hollywood is operating on a dearth of the imagination, would you say we are ‘at risk’ of this happening again?

Yeah, I think the film shows not the danger of violence in movies, but escapism, right? And our problems become more intractable as our crises deepen. We then become more eager to escape from our realities. And escapism, denial, is what inevitably leads us to a moral and cultural vacuum.

And I think… yes, I think as our crises – ecological, economic, demographic, political – deepen, the dangers of escapism become critical.

I mean, Anwar says that he got his methods of killing from movies, and while I believe that’s true to a degree, I don’t think it’s definitive – I mean I’m pretty sure he would have found ways of killing people bloodlessly without watching movies. What he does say… when he talks about coming out of Presley musicals, dancing across the streets, intoxicated by his experience of cinematic identification… and killing ‘happily’… Now, Elvis Presley musicals are not violent. They’re just dumb. But that’s the problem. So I think you’re right, I agree with you.

I suppose it’s more about the iconography of Hollywood, rather than anything to do with content. Which brings me to the more stylised moments in your film – particularly the central musical sequence, which appears to be primarily spearheaded by Herman Soto… speaking of wish-fulfillment and so on… was there any particular reason why Herman Soto insisted on being in drag during the re-enactments (I’m going to assume it was his decision…)?

Ah! Well the answer to that is rather prosaic. Herman was in a theatre troupe until 2003 – the paramilitary Pancasila had a theatre troupe, and being a military theatre troupe, all the roles were played by men – they would have men playing  women’s roles, like Shakespeare’s Globe back in the day, or like Japanese Kabuki theatre – and Herman would often play the comedic storyteller role, and Anwar loved that, and thought it would be wonderful for the film.

So he cast him to play the role of the femme fatale, a communist’s daughter who takes revenge on Anwar in that jungle sequence – a scene inspired by Anwar’s on nightmares, where we see Herman ‘feeding’ Anwar his own liver or also in the studio, when he’s seen ‘cutting off’ Anwar’s head.

Then there were two musical numbers. We filmed one – ‘Born Free’ – which you see in its entirety, and which came in the production in the same order that it appears in the film. As I said earlier, I was deeply disappointed that, right after playing the victim, Anwar proposed this grotesque scene in which the victims thank him for sending them to heaven.

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Joshua Oppenheimer.

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Joshua Oppenheimer.

Then the second number, which was filmed on the set of the ‘giant goldfish’, was a staging of one of Anwar’s favourite songs – Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is?’, where he substituted the spoken verses from the song with spoken verses from his own life.

And it was a strange… mysterious…. the ‘giant fish’ had been a seafood restaurant until the mid-90s (it failed during the Asian economic crisis).

As we passed by it one day Anwar said: “It’s beautiful – it’s embodied all this hope but now it’s just sad, it’s all gone wrong, just like my life.” He said it was perfect for the Peggy Lee musical number. But being a ballad, it was very long, so we interspersed these strange, dream-like sequences throughout – like the scene in the storm where Herman sings about the movies, and directs the dancing girls, shouting “more hot, more hot!” I would say that these moments in fact embody the poetic core of what the movie is all about. About how we as human beings get lost in our fantasies, or our stories.

It was a case of either/or for me. I could either just use the musical numbers by themselves – which were surreal and funny, but a little thin – or I could use these moments, which would in fact be more representative of what the film was about. Then I realised that I had no choice – I had to use these poetic moments, and I decided I would employ them to mark chapters across the movie. And it changes in tone, from sunny and bright to increasingly dark and frightening throughout the course of the movie, reflecting the film’s emotional journey.

Something I also noticed was that Anwar appears to be very sensitive to the art of filmmaking, or at least storytelling. For example there’s that scene in which he’s explaining to Herman that you can’t make a film tense all the time – that you have to insert moments of humour and so on. Did just you stumble upon this intuitive quality that he had, as you were making the film?

I loved that, yeah I loved that. I was always so charmed by it! He was a sort of cinephile, or at least a cinephile of those low-end Hollywood products that made their way to the region in the 60s. He would present himself as the authority. And I love that everything he said about the film was true. And it was proven to be true by The Act of Killing. He said in the film you need a love interest – which of course we had, and I’m not just talking about the fictional relationship with Herman in drag and so on but also the dynamic between Anwar and Herman themselves – they were like a old bickering married couple, they were ‘married’ to each other in a way. I had actually filmed some funny scenes with Herman and his actual wife, in the part of the film where Herman is running for office. But it was imp for me not to use these scenes. Because within the logic of the story, Herman can’t have a wife… he’s ‘married’ to Anwar.

So everything Anwar said about the film is true to the film – you know, it can’t be tense all the time, needs comic relief, a love interest… and he also said that this film will attract so much attention because no other film has ever used the real killer to play himself… and that is, of course, why it has attracted attention.

And he makes this wonderfully poignant point, doesn’t he, when he says, “why do we watch films about the Nazis? To see power and sadism.” And yes, that’s exactly why we watch films about the Nazis. You cannot say it better.

One last question: I’ll understand if you don’t really want to talk about it for fear of spoiling its ‘magic’, but I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about that final, uninterrupted shot of Anwar coughing and dry heaving, which appears at the very end of the film…

Well I’ll tell you the story to that shot. Going back to the first time I met Anwar… he was actually the 41st perpetrator that I filmed. I spent around two years filming them. All of them showed me how they killed boastfully, and I handed over some of this material to the Human Rights Commission so they could use it as evidence.

The very first day I met Anwar was the day he took me to the roof and danced the Cha Cha Cha [a sequence appearing early on in The Act of Killing], and then I spent five years with him, dramatizing, in a sense, everything that went on in that office. And I never could get back to that office: and I tried, time and time again, to gain permission.

What I wanted was for him to walk me through that office and tell me, “this happened here”; “we did this and that here”… but when we filmed for the first time he was remembering things as we went along and it came out rather incoherently.

Then, six months later and at the tail-end of the shoot, we met with some of the highest-ranking political leaders of the country. I saved this to the end because I knew that they could question why I was there and stop me from making the rest of the film. It could have endangered us and our production. And during the final day of that final shoot, I’m walking down that street… and I knew a shop had opened up on the site just that day, and the owner of the shop was a Chinese-Indonesian – he knew exactly what had happened there and was happy to let us come in and film.

I asked Anwar to go back to that office, walk through it quietly and tell me what happened. I told the cameraman: “There’s only one rule – we’re going to stay against the wall, we’re not going to step into the roof terrace at all, because that space belongs to the dead.” Because the first time we were walking on the roof felt like we were dancing on the dead, just like Anwar did.

And so we walk in. Anwar is trying to slowly walk upstairs and tell me what happened on my roof. I’m keeping my distance – we’re not doing any zooms or close-ups – and maybe Anwar felt I was holding back, I don’t know… when suddenly he’s caught completely off-guard by this dry heaving.

I felt it was awful. He had no idea what was happening, I had no idea what was happening… I wanted to put down the camera, come up to him say, in that stupid way we Americans do sometimes, that it’s all ‘going to be okay’, but then I realised… oh no, this is what happens when it’s really, really not okay. And when someone realises that it will never be okay.

The final shot of him standing by stairs was the moment that I realised I can never film this man again. If it were up to me, I would want to just get out of there as soon as possible. Get out of there and go home.

Why doesn’t he go down the stairs? What’s he waiting for on the landing? He must know that will never be free of this.