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Interview : In Conversation with horror master Vincenzo Natali – Part 1

The director behind ‘Cube’, ‘In the Tall Grass’, NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ and much more discusses his debut album and lessons learned from a life in filmmaking.

As a life-long horror and sci-fi fan who was thoroughly obsessed with the original Cube as a kid, it was a delight to grow old enough to the point where I was actively aware of the people behind my favourite movies and could start seeking out more of their work.

That’s exactly what happened for me with Vincenzo Natali, the American-Canadian director and screenwriter behind mind-warping films like SpliceNothing and the Stephen King / Joe Hill short story adaptation In the Tall Grass. He’s also directed episodes of some of the greatest genre television of the last decade, including episodes of Hannibal, Hemlock Grove, Orphan BlackWestworldAmerican Gods and CBS’ recent adaptation of The Stand.

It should be no surprise that somebody with such a taste for the weird, wonderful and frequently out-there has a natural inclination to expand their creative horizons into other mediums; experimenting with the unique properties of different art forms and seeing what sticks. That’s very much the creative process behind Vincenzo’s debut album, Origins, as he recently explained to me in a generously in-depth interview.

Origins is a hypnotic, aural journey across ten tracks composed by Natali using as minimalist a canvas as possible –  in this case, just his iPad and the surprisingly powerful tools it offers. He’s incredibly humble about Origins, suggesting that he expects absolutely nobody to listen to the album, let alone purchase it (it’s available for streaming on all the usual platforms, as well as on BandCamp at a name-your-price cost).

I reached out to Vincenzo to discuss the creative process and, well, the origins of Origins. We certainly covered that as you’ll see below, but I hope you’ll agree this ended up being a fascinating reflection on his experiences in the independent film business, the obstacles and promise facing young creative people going into the future and much more.

Stand by for part two of this conversation with Vincenzo Natali!

Vincenzo: It looks like you’ve got a pretty good collection over your left shoulder.

Oh, yeah. I love my books, my movies, a little bit of everything. Perhaps too much of a collection, it’s beginning to spill down the front!

Vincenzo: Eh, what can you do? I know the feeling.

To be honest, I had to set up an entire bookshelf in the other room for my Stephen King collection. So I really appreciate your The Shining Zoom background.

Vincenzo: So great! Are those some old EC Comics down there?

Yeah, I love them! It’s a special box set.

Vincenzo: I have some of these. It’s so beautiful.

It’s the complete collection of The Vault of Horror. These were really foundational for me growing up.

Vincenzo: I actually have that very one. I had a crazy experience with those. They were published when I was a kid, but I was too young and it was too expensive. My mom is liberal, and I’m sure she would have disapproved. But I had this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and of course I couldn’t take advantage of it, but I went into a used bookstore. Someone had died, and their whole collection of these comics had been donated. They had them all, and they were all available for sale. It was more than I could afford so I just got a couple, but they’re so beautiful.

They really are. They’re timeless. I just devoured these as a kid; they opened up a whole new world.

Vincenzo: Yeah, they’re just incredible. And I can’t believe that they were ever published. No wonder they had the Comics Code!

It doesn’t surprise me at all. From those I moved onto the Tales From the Crypt TV series, and from there, my life has been horror. I’ve got to say, Cube was a foundational film for me as well.

Vincenzo: Thank you.

I would go to the video store and rent that out and re-watch it over and over, so we’re kind of coming full circle here.

Vincenzo: Oh, that means so much. Thank you.

Vincenzo Natali’s feature debut Cube (1997).

So, let’s talk about Origins! I’ve listened to it in full a few times now with good headphones, and it really does make great use of them. What was the general vision you had for the album going into its production – is the name the key? Was it more of a collection of soundscapes to you, or is there a concept running through it?

Vincenzo: No, I’m really a monkey with finger-paint doing this stuff, as you can probably tell when you hear it. But that was what was so pleasurable for me; to not have any restrictions and not to have the knowledge of how bad I am. It really was freeing, because with the other things I do like drawing or making films or television, I do have a certain level of competence. I’m very self-judgmental, but doing the music I have no pretensions whatsoever. I know that I don’t know anything, and I kind of relish in it. It was purely pleasurable for me. So what you hear in the album is really a distillation of stuff I’ve been playing around with for the last four or five years.

So if it has a shape to it, or some sort of form to it, it was somewhat by accident and sculpting things in a very organic way until they seem to fit in the right way. Its sort of lack of direction for me was its direction. I’m very shy even talking about it, let alone even putting it out there, because as I say, I have no pretensions. I truly don’t know what I’m doing, and probably no one should have to suffer listening to it. But you know, it kind of evolved to a point. 

I had this wonderful sound mixer, Lou Solakofski, who I work with on my films. He offered to mix it for nothing during the pandemic, because he had some time. So I thought, well, it does have a certain kind of polish thanks to him, and maybe it shouldn’t just sit on a shelf. And of course it’s so easy to distribute this stuff now, and inexpensive. I mean, to put music out on virtually every streaming platform costs virtually nothing as long as you mean certain technical specifications. So it became a very easy and low-cost affair.

If anything, I feel like it’s an example of what’s great about the time that we live in, because this device that I’m speaking to you through right now is my iPad, which is where I made the whole album. It’s where I do everything virtually now, like all of my artwork. It’s all done on an iPad, which is a consumer item, but it’s so powerful. I used GarageBand for the entire thing. Just touching one key and I have an orchestra literally at my fingertips. It’s a powerful machine, and a powerful tool, and therefore it’s tremendously empowering. And I think if Origins is about anything, it’s that.

Finding your footing and see what works, what doesn’t, not caring either way.

Vincenzo: Yeah, that’s the title in a way.

It’s neat that you were able to do so much with so little, because I was wondering about the instrumentation. You’ve got modulated vocals, you’ve got strings and orchestra sounds, lots of drum beats. It shifts a lot in mood from track to track, and it’s fun because it’s almost like a soundtrack to a film without an apparent narrative to it.

Vincenzo: Oh, thank you for saying that. I was a little bit inspired by what John Carpenter has been doing. Not to make the comparison, because I’m not remotely on that level, but it strikes me that he’s a guy who’s either given up on making films or finds it difficult to get them made. So he’s kind of started making movies through music. I look forward to every album he puts out, because it’s got his indelible stamp. 

As you say, there’s kind of a movie in there, a cinematic experience even though it’s just music; it’s clearly a wonderful outlet for him. I get the feeling that it’s something that he really enjoys doing. For anyone who’s ever attempted to make a film, at the best of times it’s an incredibly arduous process that involves many voices and is vetted by a lot of people. By the time the thing actually comes out, it’s been through the wringer. What’s so great about something like this is that I wasn’t answering to anybody. There’s no notes, I’m not having to negotiate with anybody, there’s no presentation – you just do it. That’s an incredibly exciting, invigorating opportunity for somebody who doesn’t normally get to do that kind of thing.

Lucy Liu and Jeremy Northam in Cypher (2002), directed by Natali.

Especially with being about to just release it on Bandcamp whenever you like. Between that and the streaming services, it’s just out there – people can listen to it immediately. There’s no rigmarole of having to set up advertising and do press junkets and all that jazz.

Vincenzo: Yeah, exactly. Which probably means very few people do listen to it [laughs]. But in this case, that’s fine. For me, the pleasure really was in the making of it, and never at any point did I think that I’d actually put it out there. But then at a certain point, I thought “well, why not?”. I’ve had some very nice feedback from it, it’s really been great. 

You find when you do these things that you connect to people like you. We’re at this time where, especially making movies, it’s a hard process. It’s hard for everybody, and I think it’s particularly hard for young filmmakers compared to when I started. There was an infrastructure for young filmmakers to get their movies shown and seen; there was a very vital, independent film distribution network. People actually went to movie theatres and paid to watch independent films, and that doesn’t really exist anymore. 

There is a form of that on VOD, but those movies – generally speaking – aren’t promoted. They don’t have the kind of infrastructure that supported people like me when I was coming up in the 90s. So I think that’s what’s hard for the new generation, but what’s easier and exciting for them is that they have tools available to them that I didn’t have: they can make movies on their iPhone, they can make an album on their iPad, you know? I also just finished doing a graphic novel on my iPad. Again, I don’t know if anyone is actually going to see it, but you can do these things as long as you have the time and you can afford to somehow feed yourself while you’re doing it. So in that regard, it’s a magical time. It’s extraordinary.

I have a film that I was an executive producer on that was made by an incredibly talented guy, who was also inspirational to me because he’s a musician, named Anthony Scott Burns. It’s a movie called Come True that was made – not on a micro budget, but a low budget, but it doesn’t look or sound that way because he can do everything. He wrote, directed, photographed, edited, composed the music and did the visual effects for this movie. The thing that’s amazing about him is that not only can he do these things, he can do them better than anybody else – or at least as good as anybody else. So his film is extraordinary, and that was not possible when I was coming up.

Natali is an executive producer on Anthony Scott Burns’ sci-fi horror flick Come True, which released March 12.

So I think that for the people that have that drive and that ability, you can conjure something from nothing. Whereas when I was doing it, in most cases you were having to find at least a substantial amount of money to get it done, for even a small film. You can now get it out there via these various networks, but there just isn’t the systemic infrastructure that helps get the word out.

Doing things like this album and this comic book was an opportunity for me to dip my toe into these realms and break the chains of conventional filmmaking, where you were always beholden to somebody else to give you a green light and the permission to do anything. And now, thanks to the iPad that I’m talking to you on right now, I don’t need permission.

Yeah, exactly. As you say, it’s easier than ever to produce things, but actually getting those things noticed in the world is another whole story. That’s why I greatly appreciate the curation you get with some streaming services like The Criterion Channel and MUBI, as well as film festivals.

2020 was my first year covering any kind of film festival as press and not just attending as an audience member, and that’s really expanded my horizons as far as what kinds of films are actually out there. Through talking to creative people involved in the process day-to-day like this, you learn how complicated it is for a single piece of artistic work to even come to life, let alone find an audience. And I think online infrastructure is helping a lot with that, especially now that we’re using things like Zoom a lot more.

Vincenzo: Isn’t it so interesting? I mean, I’m prepping something right now that will eventually be boots-on-the-ground. But it’s very ambitious and requires people all over the world. A large portion of it’s being done on Zoom – the prep, of course. So we’ve definitely turned some kind of corner and I don’t think we’re ever going back. Even after the pandemic passes, I think that we’ve learned a little bit from it, and in some of the things that we’ve learned we will not be able to unlearn them whether we like it or not.

It really kind of forces your hand in some ways. But that may actually have its benefits.

Vincenzo: Yeah, I think so.

I recently spoke to a director who directed a short film in the US, but he’s actually from London. Right before the first big lockdowns began last year, he had decided to go on holiday to Paris since it’s so easy to travel there for him. So he’s in his hotel room, and suddenly they go into full lockdown – he’s basically trapped in a Parisian hotel. There’s worse places to be trapped, but still.

He was pitched to do a short film for a talent agency, and the next thing you know, he’s doing it from his hotel room. He directed it via FaceTime, so there’s behind-the-scenes footage of him where he’s just a face on an iPhone attached to a tripod – they’re carrying him around and showing him the monitors while they shoot. It’s wild to see people finding new methods.

Vincenzo: It’s very interesting, isn’t it? I did a little bit of remote directing on The Stand miniseries that they just did, because we got shut down one day before wrapping. So there was a little bit of stuff that had to be done a few months after that, and I did it just like this interview and it actually worked surprisingly well.

I’d much prefer not to do that, but it was possible and it’s very interesting. Going back to the music end of things, I feel like the music industry always precedes what’s going to happen in the film industry because it’s a medium where it’s a little cheaper to make things, a little easier to distribute, and so on. I can see how maybe distributors are going to start to be a thing of the past in the same way that I did this album. I’m sure a very, very small group of people ever listened to it, but it went onto all those major platforms and it costs nothing.

So for me, the investment was zero. Practically zero. It was just time. I guess we already are doing this with Amazon – I think you can upload your films onto Amazon Prime. And I don’t know if it’s the same with iTunes. But if you had somebody like Anthony who I’ve just worked with, somebody who’s very talented and already has a following as a musician and is a filmmaker, I can see how the right people would end up seeing those films. And when you have the festival circuit supporting it, that’s really how the smaller films reach an audience anyway. You sort of start to question whether a distributor is going to do all that much for you, unless they’re prepared to send the tens of millions of dollars to the studio. But you don’t do that with independent films anymore.

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