In 2018, at the Berlin Film festival and then later at Fantasia, a wildly sophisticated student film by the name of Luz, flabbergasted moviegoers and blew some minds.
The story of a demon attempting to possess 'the girl that got away' by way of police hypnosis/interrogation session is equal parts Dario Argento, Christopher Boe, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but wholly its own, demented thing. It is difficult to believe it was a student project, and the result was a quite successful run on the festival circuit, and a domestic theatrical release that begins on July 19.
It was some time ago, and well past midnight in a cluttered back office with a kitchen on the Concordia University campus in Montreal, when I met up with director Tilman Singer and his production designer and producer Dario Mendez Acosta. We were generously provided a bottle of thick, dark Nova Scotia Rum, and we jammered at each other about school, cinema and the things we love, in a gentle frenzy of drunken camaraderie.
The three of us were prone to talk over, and gleefully interrupt, each other at points. Tilman Singer is nothing if not enthusiastic and generous. The conversation below has been gently edited and condensed to the minimum professional standard of coherence.
Screen Anarchy: So this is your student graduate film, could you tell me a bit about the process of getting that all together? I should say that it looks way beyond what a student film typically looks like.
Tilman Singer (TS): Dario and I met when we started at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. It is not a film school, it is an art school. It is very cool, and I like to do advertisement for it, whenever I can because nobody is aware of it.
It is a school where you can do whatever you want, there are no study programmes. You do not apply to become a cinematographer, or photographer or whatever, you just apply with a creative/practical application. And if you get in you just specialize in whatever seminars you do. You have three main projects. It can be anything.
Dario did a lot of sculpture art, and I just did movies. All of my projects were movies. I did two short films, and a feature at the end, but we both did them together. I was really frustrated by how other students did their films. It felt like everything was no style, only substance. Our first short film was just a nonsense movie where the script eats itself, just a weird spectacle. We were just trying out a film language.
That is what short films are for.
TS: Yes. Exactly! That is what studying is for too.
Dario Mendez Acosta: We tried to make something that was about using this medium. Several other students had a ‘topic’ and it was about ‘what they were telling.’ Why this medium? The question comes up, why are we doing movies?
TS: This is the question that was so on my mind, “Why does this have to be a movie?” We can only tell this audio-visually. And so with Luz, the first thing was the interrogation scene, that is what I built the movie around. I knew I wanted to go a little longer, but I didn’t know we would go to feature length. Up to this point, our short films were fragments, no story was really told, but pieces where you had archetypes of characters, some kind of thriller-y thing. This is some kind of romance-spy thing. This time we wanted to tell the story longer.
We applied for a funding in North-Rhine Westphalia, which has a 20,000 Euros, you don’t have to pay it back, you just get it. For a student film this is exactly what you need to buy film stock, to get the art department going. You get everything else from the school, the camera, the anamorphic lenses (for no fucking money!) which was awesome, because today you have these Hawk lenses that everyone is using on an Arri-Aexa chip. I think that is a new thing, our cinematographer said he didn’t even know if there were a lot of Anamorphic lenses for 16mm film back in the day, because if you shot Ananmorphic, you shot 35mm. But now you can do that.
It was really clear that we had a main team, Dario as production designer. Me as director and writer, and then our musician friend Simon Waskow which scored all the music. I have been making music with him since I was 14. Paul Faltz was the DOP. Also, our head of sound design, Henning Hein. We were allowed to do whatever we wanted, that that is a very special, very awesome thing from the school. You get a budget, and they pay for the film stock and processing - it is awesome to shoot of film for no money!
I wrote it, and I brought it to my professor, and he looked at it and said, this is not 30 minutes. Count a minute per page, this is very difficult shit you want to do, this is probably 50. And by the time I was done writing, it was up to 70. So, OK, what can we do for 70 with a super-limited budget with a lot of friends? At the school there were maybe 300 people, and about 150 of them got involved. So we a really strong work-force that would be so much money on the free market.
For me, the idea of an interrogation where you kind of see and hear what the person is questioned on. That is very filmic. I spent a lot of team researching police sketch artists. It turns out there is no such job. It’s just a random guy, a freelancer. There wasn’t really a story coming from this, but from this research I got into interrogation techniques, and then hypnosis, which actually has been practiced and still is.
I did find an FBI website, where they talk about hypnosis questioning techniques, which are bullshit, because it is just suggestion. If you are willing, then you take everything that is suggested to you. There is a therapeutic value, definitely. But this is a fantastic set-up for a drama scene. Someone who is giving suggestion into a person that should be objective, but is not.
LUZ seemed less a hypnosis, and more of a reverse exorcism. More a prepping of someone for the entrance, rather than the expelling…
TS: Yes, someone who instead is forcing a conversation in a different direction. And at about the same time my Colombian wife, then girlfriend, told me about her past when she was visiting a Catholic school for girls as a child. And as a child she pretended to be a very devout, at 8 years old. Because she wanted the Nuns to give her stuff.
What amazed me the most is that she turned from the most horrible manipulative child to the kindest adult. Just about taking care of others. What she went through is the reverse of what many normal children do, in that they go from honest child to lying, or manipulative adult. Which is nice. But we joked, the devil has definitely seen that and it doesn’t matter, when she dies she is going straight to hell.
And from this stupid joke, I thought, yea, if there is a devil, he would definitely hang around Catholic schools to pick up the best of the worst there. That idea got mixed up with the ideas on interrogation, and it just was kind of laid out. The whole romance thing, well, I just really like romance.
Can we talk about the seduction scene between the Therapist and the German girl in the bar? There is something pure about two actors on one set flirting with each other. When I saw that scene, sure they were talking, but the body language and the weirdly complicated drink they are talking over just adds to the rhythm, but in reality, they were fucking. I was hooked.
TS: This is kind of the undressing. The whole drink thing is really the whole bullshit tequila thing with the salt, that some advertisement company came up with at some point that has no tradition, but there are all these drink things that have a choreography, like a ritual behind them.
Our friend Fabian Podeszwa, he is also a director, great director, but he did our props. He researched this tea that changes colour when you put hot water with sugar, and he announced it was ‘really healthy’ to the actors. But I saw the look on Jan Bluthardt’s face, the actor who plays Dr. Rossini. The first time he drank it, he said, “healthy my ass, it tastes like soap, it tastes like chemicals.”
DMA: It is the Devil’s Ass.
TS: Did he say that?
DMA: No, but it makes sense.
TS: I really tried with the first third of this movie, to ‘filter the audience’, no that isn’t exactly right. I wanted with the first third of the movie you know if the rest will be for you, and you can either walk out or stay. And at the end of the first third, you’ve sat through very long shots, maybe pulsating and sexual, maybe not natural, people seem to have very differing opinions.
I look at it as a heightened naturalism
TS: And at the same time. all of that room, that bar, was completely built by Dario. The room was completely empty.
This is funny, because after the movie was out, there were several of us discussing the movie, and half of us believed that bar exists. We’ve seen bars like this. But the other half of the group was like, maybe it was a set…
DMA: It was empty and super dusty with very high ceilings. It didn’t make sense to clean it. We put holes in the wall and cable, and dropped lights.
What was the idea behind the late 1980s setting?
TS: Because that was the era of the stories of my girlfriend. For us, it is not exactly the late 1980s, it is the early 1990s. It is not really important, because, I don’t know how, it’s always about an ‘ish’ with the period. We try to cover it with various elements that make the audience unsure of when exactly it was. I mean the film was made for modern audiences, but we put in things from the different periods.
DMA: The graphic department made this beautiful ad that plays on the tv for a cola. It’s very 1990s. Our spy-romance short also plays on the TV.
There is a character in the film, the interpreter / technician who is recording the interrogation, who is kind of an audience surrogate. There is kind of permission for the audience to be freaked out a bit when you watch how much this guy freaks out…
TS: Because he has no idea what is going on. We fell in love with this actor, I was even ashamed, once I noticed just how good he is, just even in the way looks around, at the therapist, and and the detective lady with the gun… he did a perfect job, and yea, this is us. Even though he starts take a stand, a Christian stand. But even then, he is like us.
DMA: When Tilman was writing that character. We have this really nice term in Germany, that translates to ‘tired of life’ Lebensmüde. We even tried to do this with his clothing.
TS: Yea, like he doesn’t give a damn. Every other character has something evil to them. It might not come out clearly with the detective but…
Let me stop you there, I kind of thought of the detective as the Renfield character, from Dracula. She feels complicity, but...
TS: Oh. To me, she feels kind of like that authority figure that has absolutely nothing under control. She is there, its late at night, she is at some weird political fundraiser, and she is supervising everything very fast. This real disgusting authority figure.
That puts her on the ‘evil side.’ The interpreter is there just to do his job, he doesn’t have any moral ambiguity. There is a moment when he just pulls down the curtain, and I hope that people get the feeling of “what is going on?”
I have read a bunch of things online, they say the movie is about love. I only see it as sex or lust. I am curious as to where your motivation of the entity. Obviously everyone has their own interpretation, but I’m kind of weirded out when everyone sees this as love.
TS: I agree with you. I truly agree with you. I meant to write more about love. I meant to write more about a demon in love. But in the process, I found out that this demon doesn’t have a body, and he goes into people and possesses them. Is that not the most toxic relationship that there is? That was my idea.
When I came to that conclusion, there is not really much space for love. This is about getting that thing you want. I drifted off the romance party. I think elements remain, particularly with Luz, but there is this problem with this schoolmate of hers, this Fata Morgana. But they are not in the main action.
DMA: I think also, it is important that in our generation, 1st base is sex, and 2nd base is when it is sunny outside and just call them and say, do you want to do something ? First comes this egoism - I just want to have a body next to me - and…later it is like it is no big deal, should we meet and like go to the cinema. Let’s go full date, something to eat and a movie.
TS: Can I jump in here? when I was talking to my wife about dating and love. And how we in Germany have such a different version of dating. I don’t know the social convention of dating, We meet someone at a part, and maybe later hook up and then have a nice time together. But in South America there is lot of like, let’s meet for a date. So I don’t know. When I wrote Luz, I was already like completely immersed in my relationship and very happy.
The standard exorcism is one of corruption. But this movie is not the standard, it is kind of the reverse, but funny enough, that is ALSO corruption.
TS: Of course. But still at the end it is very ambiguous. I am amazed that nobody asks me about the forced kiss. Is this the grand plan of the demon? It takes her, and kisses her, but the human form is dying. And she just wants more of it. Maybe the desires are of her past.
There is a French phrase for orgasm, petit mort, ‘little death.’
TS: Yes! Awesome. This was so cool. Thanks.