Luca Machnich Talks About The Eve And Independent Film-making
Simon is an eight-year-old boy who seems to have everything from life. He’s a handsome child, he’s rich yet unhappy. He senses that there’s something wrong with his life and this leads him to wander off thanks to his fervid imagination. His greatest wish is to leave the materialistic world behind since he isn’t fond of it. That’s why the only present he wants for Christmas is for Santa Claus to take him away to live in his fairyland toy factory. At the same time, a secret that his family has been keeping for a long time suddenly comes to the surface and it is feared that the worst might happen soon. The expectation for the stroke of midnight on the night before Christmas is transformed into reality for everyone on the eve of something truly different. Something terrible that might happen.
Let us begin by how it started. Please tell us about yourself. When did you become interested in making films, and how or from whom did you learn how to make films? Did you work on other projects before making The Eve?
My mother’s family has been involved in the cinema from way back. She appeared as an actress in films of different genres, working with the great master of Italian horror films Lucio Fulci, and with Carlo Lizzani, a director of films of noteworthy social and political relevance, to name just some of the most renowned film-makers she came into contact with, while her father had studied developments in colour film, advances that he proposed to the Technicolor company, and her grandfather, back around the turn of the century, was one of the first film-business pioneers to open movie theatres in Italy, under the name "Cinema Volta". In his home city of Trieste, he made the acquaintance of the great writer James Joyce, convincing him to become a partner in the opening of a first-rate movie theatre in Dublin, which I believe was the city’s very first, although it was not a huge success. Later he opened one (if not two) theatres in Bucharest. One of them, the Volta Buzesti, stayed in operation until the late 1980’s. He may have been too far ahead of his times for the early 1900’s. He would tell of how in Romania, when some especially striking image came on the screen, some of the less sophisticated filmgoers would run away screaming, "It’s the devil!" (laughs). As for myself, from the age of thirteen I was constantly making films with my Super-8 camera, together with my sister, who appears in a cameo role, dressed as an elf, towards the end of my short film, though unfortunately she passed away just a few years ago, after the film had come out.
Before becoming a director, I gave expression to my love for Italian horror films by writing an encyclopedia entitled "Spaghetti Nightmares". It was well received by the critics, but when an English version was published in the US, two-thirds of the content had been cut, without my consent, resulting in a dreadful edition that I no longer consider my own.
Next I studied directing at the Los Angeles Film School and took courses at UCLA. More recently, I have contributed to the campaign to finance "Insects" by the surrealist genius Jan Svankmajer, a film based on the 1922 theatrical piece Pictures from the Insects’, a satire by the Czech brothers Karel and Josef Čapek.
The Eve begins with a Christmas atmosphere, one that is always associated with happiness and joyfulness. But what Simon experiences from the beginning is not pleasant at all. He's scared, and through music and a rapid montage, we sympathize with what Simon is feeling. Is the fear of Christmas and Santa Claus rooted in your own childhood?
No, I don’t have any bad memories of Christmas. Simon is a child who was illegally purchased from a poor, mentally disturbed woman by a well-off couple who can’t have children, though their desire for one has less to do with affection than wanting to keep up with the other families. They do not treat the child well, and though Simon has no direct knowledge of the situation, he can feel that something is off, that some deep-seated anguish haunts the family, and it affects him. Children understand a lot more than we think.
How much of the film comes from your past feelings and experiences?
(SPOILER ALERT) A psychologist friend of mine who knows my family history told me, after he had seen the film, that the child represents my own loneliness, while Santa Claus, when he kills his wife, is playing the role of my negative father, who broke up my family when he left my mother, throwing my life out of kilter.
It is usually that case in experimental cinema that we see de-familiarization of clichés and situations, all with a new angle. How difficult was it to show the world through the eyes of a child? What are the advantages and disadvantages of reliving the world through that lens, and how liberating can it be to you as a filmmaker?
I didn’t find it hard to film through the child’s eyes. Of course, I had a child psychologist who assisted me, but everything was relatively easy, perhaps because, deep down, I’m still a child myself, so I actually find it more congenial to shoot the film from that perspective than as an adult . I felt freer. Maybe I’m a bit of a Peter Pan at heart?
Tell us about the process of finding the idea for the film, and writing the screenplay. Where did the initial idea for the film come from and how long did it take to find its current form?
The idea comes from a subject by the writer Nicola Lombardi, a friend of mine. What immediately drew me in was the story’s intense black humour, centred around encounter between the child and Santa Claus, a device that worked well on paper, where it proved unpredictable, only I was afraid that a direct transposition to the screen would give away the ending, and so I made the dialogue less ironic and threw in the plot twist of the child being sold, though there is always the possibility that the real mother might return and try to steal him back again from the parents, just to keep the spectators guessing. I wrote the screenplay in only three weeks.
To capture a terrifying image of Santa Claus, his face is not shown early in the film and on top of that, he has a terrifying voice with an accent. Everything turns him into a stranger in this house. We understand early in the story that there seems to be a similarity between Simon and Santa Clause. They are both strangers in a sense. Simon in his family and Santa Claus in the house. Were you ever influenced by Existentialism? Where did the idea about the characters being strangers come from?
Yes, they are both strangers in that home, but that’s an inevitable consequence of the original story. The actor who plays Santa Claus, Ulf Kusdas, is also an opera singer, a baritone if I’m not mistaken, and he has a fairly heavy Austrian accent. I tried using an American actor to dub him, but after screening the film, I realised that a normal voice would rob the character of its imposing aura, to the point of almost making it disappear, and then my dialogue coach, an American woman, suggested that I leave the original actor’s voice, observing: "He could be an Austrian who’s emigrated to America... and besides, a northern accent goes quite well with Santa Claus, who’s a native of the ‘far north’, right?" (laughs).
What kind of freedom and autonomy can independent filmmaking present to the filmmaker? As an experimental filmmaker, what solution do you have in mind to have your film reach a wider range of audience? Can festivals fulfill the needs of experimental cinema and, in other words, help these films to reach a larger audience?
That’s my great worry, and I have trouble answering the question. You should put it to the directors of film festivals or to film distributors. When I see that a genius like Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom I consider to be one of the last of the great living visionary film-makers, cannot find a producer for his brilliant, non-conform projects, or that "Surviving Life", Svankmajer’s next to the last film, and his best yet, if you ask me, was rejected for the competition at the Venice Film Festival, well, all of that leaves me terribly puzzled, and certainly does not bode well for the future.
My own upcoming projects are turning out to be slightly less experimental, a mixed approach, much like Von Trier’s The House that Jack Built.
Although elements of fantasy are almost dominant in the narrative, the film ventures into the realm of surrealism at times. How were surrealists influential for you, especially with this film?
There may be a distant echo of Luis Buñuel, in the toy factory scene, for example. And there could also be something of David Lynch, when the clothing dummy yells. Quite some time after I shot that, I realized that I had probably been influenced by his short film Six Figures Getting Sick, which I saw a number of years ago, though all the surrounding touches are mine.
The line between the real and the fantasy is paper thin in your film. What strategies did you have in mind to highlight the line between the two?
To quote a master film-maker dear to my heart, Fellini once said: "Nothing is known, everything is imagined". In my fantasies, there is no boundary line between the real and the unreal. Life is a great mystery. Does it make any sense? Especially since we don’t even know what to expect once it’s over.
Tell us about working with your cast, especially the actor who plays Simon. How did you cast him and how long did it take to make him ready for the role, especially preparing him to do the voice you had in mind.
I chose Mary Wall for her spontaneity, as well as her rarefied, eighteenth-century-like beauty, which was perfect for the flashbacks and also helped me win a number of awards. My main reason for choosing Maurizio Rapotek was that he does not look very Italian, whereas Ulf Kusdas has that cold, hard look of northern European fables, ideal for his role. I worked well with all of them. I had to put a little more effort into directing Valerio Santosuosso (the boy), because, while he turned out to be quite a disciplined young performer, he was a bit cold compared to the sad, sensitive child he was supposed to be playing, so I had to get him to go against his own nature.
(SPOLER ALERT) Actually, I was afraid he’d be scared by the story and the blood, as were some of the other, smaller children, but that was not a problem with him.
What was the reaction you received from those who watched The Eve? Did those people unfamiliar with experimental cinema understand the film and its complex structure?
At the first test screening, the second part was completely misunderstood. Some people even thought (SPOILER ALET) - that the wife of Santa Claus wound up dismembered on the ground because her dream had blown up (!). And they didn’t get that the trick played on Simon had also been played on the other children in the neighbourhood, - so I had to reshoot a number of details, plus the sequence where he gives the neighbourhood girl the gift, only that meant that I had to do some cutting, seeing that the film was already running pretty long for showing at festivals.
Will cinema in the post-Coronavirus world be a more difficult place for experimental and independent filmmakers?
I don’t think so: I’m optimistic. The vaccines are on their way. We’re going to pull through!
What are you working on at the moment? What is your next project?
Another dark fairytale that involves innocent children, cynical adults and an evil, masked entertainer. The killer always returns to the scene of the crime.