Beyond the Black Rainbow is at times both gorgeous and horrific, slowly peeling back the layers of this young girl's twisted escape as though it were happening in a real-time dream. It looks as though it has been stored away in a time capsule circa 1983, the year in which these events took place, and it is a grand ode to VHS culture and video store artwork.
We recently caught up with Panos Cosmatos in New York to chat with him about the film, and his intent behind it. Here is our conversation.
The MGM archives just released Future World, and it has a similar opening shot, with the close-up of the eyeball. Were you inspired or informed by that specific movie, or is this simply reflective of the whole VHS culture? And are we going to see it released on VHS, like they did with House of the Devil?
Panos Cosmatos: I have seen Future World. It must be a coincidence though, because I haven't seen that movie since it came out on VHS. I've had a VHS collection for many, many years. But I would prefer to watch a movie in the best format possible. I hadn't thought about releasing (this on VHS), no. I would like for this to get released on Blu-ray (laughs).
Beyond the Black Rainbow is absolutely gorgeous to look at, and it does feel very much like an 80s movie lost in time. How did you achieve this look with such a limited budget?
Panos Cosmatos: You have to know your limitations, and how to get the most out of them. With this case here, there was a design that maximized the equipment we had. We used a combination of exposures, which made the blacks fade out. We had fusion, which elevated the grain. We lifted those blacks, which renders that mutable. We wanted the blacks to look less than the blues. Those are the primary ways, combined with the photography, that we got it to look this way. I like what you would call a trance, or a dream film. I think even Apocalypse Now falls into that category. Where you are drifting deeper and deeper into that world. I think this movie is a little bit episodic. I wanted each episode to flow into the next one in a very liquid, dream-like way.
What about the transition at the end of the movie? It sort of turns into something else in its third act...
Panos Cosmatos: I don't want to give too much away about the film, or it's ending. I think it's important to watch a film without knowing anything about it. The best way to watch this is to discover it as it unfolds. You want it to reveal itself as it goes along. The inspiration for this actually came from those old VHS boxes, and reading the descriptions on the back. When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to watch R rated movies or horror films. So I would spend hours in the video store, looking at the boxes and reading the descriptions on the back. That was the key inspiration for this movie. Remembering that. I was trying to make one of those films that I had imagined, just from reading that box.
Did any movie ever live up to its expectations once you finally got to see the movie you'd been imagining in the video store?
Panos Cosmatos: Often times, when I went back, I did see a lot of these films. And they weren't any better or worse. They were just so different from what I had imagined, from looking at a piece of artwork, or reading a brief description. My mind would go off on a different tangent based on those descriptions and images. Yeah. When I was writing this script, I made a very conscious decision not to go back and look at a lot of those films. There was a sense I had internalized. I didn't want any one thing influencing this. I didn't want to be that specific. I wanted this hazy memory of the VHS cover, not the actual films.
Its interesting that you set the events in Beyond the Black Rainbow in 1983, since this is a callback to that specific era in filmmaking. Did you pick 1983 because there isn't anything to automatically go to there, in terms of genre cinema? I mean, 1982 and 1984 are huge. You can rattle off titles left and right. But what did 1983 have? Return of the Jedi?
Panos Cosmatos: Yeah, I can't think of any either. 1984 is such an iconic, loaded year in so many ways. Just that number. To me, I thought it was strangely funny for our year to be just one year before it.
What about the New Age elements in the film? Are you against the New Age movement? Are you an advocatory of that movement in terms of the 70s and 80s? Cause it makes Beyond the Black Rainbow feel very icky. I felt queasy watching it.
Panos Cosmatos: I am not against it. But I am suspicious of all forms of New Age spirituality, and religion in general. I was fascinated by the 50s movement. They had all of these ideas, and that slowly got polluted. They became self-obsessed. The first step with this was hiring the right actor. Right from his audition, I knew that he was the right guy to play him. We discussed this main character in a lot of detail. Michael Rogers came away with this portrayal. On the day, it was about fine-tuning this performance.
The rest of the cast, as well as the clothing and the set design...It all looks like it was pulled directly out of this time period. It's almost too authentic in its nostalgic push.
Panos Cosmatos: Well, in terms of the costumes from that time period, they wouldn't have been exaggerated. They would have been very stripped down. I also wanted the film to have this feeling...The sets and the costumes were based on action figure play sets. Like Mego dolls. I wanted there to be a hint of a Mego action figure feeling to the costumes and the sets, as though they had been blown up to life size.
Is that why we see that last shot after the credits, with the Mego doll in Dr. Barry's uniform?
Panos Cosmatos: Yup. Exactly. You are the first person to bring that shot up.
What? Am I the only one who stayed through the credits?
Panos Cosmatos: (Laughs) I think, in a way, that shot can be the key to unlocking the movie. In one way. I think the movie can actually be interpreted in a lot of different ways. I tried to keep the story muted. I wanted it to be an open environment that the audience could enter, and interpret in their own way. Like a Rorschach, you know?
So, we can interpret this as a kid playing behind the couch with his Mego dolls as he listens to his dad watch Altered States.
Panos Cosmatos: (Laughs) Totally. It could be that. With emotional undercurrents that you are not aware of as a kid, and they are coming out now.
Tell me a little bit about the special effects in this movie. There doesn't seem to be any CGI, that I am aware of. But the stuff we see is highly affective. Some of it even looks better than what we might see in Thor, or any other big movie at the cinema right now...
Panos Cosmatos: I made a very conscious effort that the movie appear to be CGI free. All of the shaking effects were done in-camera. I wanted all of the effects to have the feeling of that (80s) era. All of the effects were done in-camera, with the exception of a few matte paintings. The skull was done by hanging it upside down and pouring slime all over it. A year before we even shot the film, I spent a year shooting cloud tank scenes. I did those in my house, for the acid trip.