Interview : In Conversation with horror master Vincenzo Natali – Part 2

The second instalment of our interview with horror master Vincenzo Natali.

Whether you caught the first part of our conversation with horror director-writer legend Vincenzo Natali, or you’re needing to catch up (seriously – don’t miss out!), there’s plenty of fascinating insights into independent filmmaking and the creative process to be found below as we conclude this two-part interview series.


You’ve chosen to do a little bit of everything over the years between film, television, art and now music and graphic novels. It’s nice to see the pool get larger for those mediums, but it does make it more difficult in terms of getting noticed in that pool. But to be able to dabble in a bit of everything and see what works for you and what’s fun is just wonderful.

Vincenzo: And you can’t undervalue that. I mean, I’m getting on in years, so I have a little bit of perspective of these things. I would say that the most dangerous thing about the film industry is not the “no”, but the “maybe”.

There’s a very famous Dorothy Parker saying, that “Hollywood kills you with encouragement”. I think what’s meant by that is that there’s a carrot that’s always dangled in front of you, and you can go on for years chasing that carrot with nothing happening. For somebody who’s creative, or for anybody, really, that’s soul-destroying.

I think that my message to young filmmakers would be to allow yourself to engage in activities that permit you to exercise your craft, whether it’s making a film with your iPhone, or doing a drawing and putting it on Twitter or Instagram. On a daily basis, just doing something that gives you pleasure; the act of creation alone.

I’m getting very new-ages, but the actual creation alone is a reward. It’s actually the best part of the whole process. Ultimately, I think what I’ve realised is that unfortunately, by the nature of how expensive it is and how many people are involved, filmmaking tends to blind you to that fact. I’ve sort of come around a little bit to this place of: well, yes, movies are my life, and they’re incredibly important to me. But I can do other things and get tremendous satisfaction from them; sometimes more. 

I like the instant gratification of doing one of these tracks on the album. Most of them were done on an aeroplane, because I don’t like to fly and it’s the best way to pass the time. They take a few hours, whereas a movie can take me ten years to get made. I’ve had cases where I’ve worked on films for decades. You need something to kind of bouy you through that long, slow process. So yeah, I think the key thing to remember is that if you’re making movies, you’d probably a creative person and therefore you need to be doing creative things.

Keep those juices flowing, that spark alive, and all those cliches. They’re true, though!

Vincenzo: So true. And as I get older, I think: well, I don’t know how much longer people are gonna let me do this. I mean, it’s a cruel, cruel business. I’ve always imagined that maybe in my later years I’d just do comic books, which would be very gratifying unto itself. So it’s kind of a way to gently put my toe in those waters.

Vincenzo’s third feature film, ‘Nothing’ (2003).

And once you get a little more comfortable with that idea, maybe you can see what new directions that experimentation might take you in.

Vincenzo: Yeah, I think so. The other aspect of making films that can be restricting is that because you have so much invested into a film, it can make you risk-averse. That’s what movies these days are all about – risk aversion. Look at what goes on at Marvel and Disney and so on. Not to denigrate those movies, but they are based on budgets that are many hundreds of millions of dollars, and if just three of those things failed it would probably sink most studios – maybe not Disney.

So it’s all about reaching the most people with the most branded material you can find. The result is stuff that’s – for a lack of better words – kind of corporate. 

They run a tight ship.

Exactly. There’s a very good essay that Martin Scorsese wrote recently about exactly this subject, that film is art. And if it doesn’t have a personal vision, then it kind of becomes what they like to call movies now, which is ‘content’.

I’ve really enjoyed that particular online discourse! It seems to kick one off any time he says something about movies, these days.

Vincenzo: Yeah, exactly! Again, I like big, dumb Hollywood movies. Nothing wrong with them. But the problem is that that’s all there is; there’s very little room for anything else because of the system dysfunction of the movie industry. It’s literally a dinosaur. The only way these studios can survive is to get bigger, bigger and bigger. At some point, you become so big that you cease to function as an organism.

What I’m trying to say is that doing these small things, these little projects, allows you to fail without people losing millions of dollars. When you fail, or when you go into something not trying to succeed, with that child-like, explorative, open-mindedness that I did with this album, sometimes really cool stuff comes out of it. That experience can filter into other things that you’re doing, and I’ve found that there’s a kind of cross-pollination.

This all presupposes that you have a means of supporting yourself and feeding yourself, and if you have a family, feeding them. But if you do, then I think it’s really, really great. And even if you don’t, maybe it’s really great to do that anyway.

Vincenzo’s fourth feature film, ‘Splice’ (2009).

Whether it’s your big thing or if it’s just a little side experiment that never leads anywhere, sometimes it feels good to do something just for the sake of doing it.

Vincenzo: Yeah. I don’t want anyone to pay for my album. I’m shocked at how generous some people are. They don’t have to, but people are actually paying for it on Bandcamp, which amazes me and I’m very touched by it. But I almost don’t want that, because I feel like I’m not worthy. All I’m asking in return is your time, and you can shut it off anytime you want if you don’t like it. So it seems like a very equitable transaction.

Everybody wins in this case.

Exactly.

It’s exciting to see you branching out into music and enjoying the experience. I’d love to see you make more.

Vincenzo: It’s so much fun. Even when making films, one of my favourite – if not my absolute favourite – parts of the process is sound. It’s sound for a variety of reasons, but chiefly because sound is really 50% of the experience of watching a movie. It’s just the 50% that you’re not necessarily conscious of. It sort of hits the audience on a subconscious level, and it’s an incredibly powerful tool. So doing this is somewhat of an extension of that, and I love soundscapes.

I mean, what I did, I barely even call music. It’s more like sound editing or something. But you can really get lost in it. I do drawings, and there’s a thing called synesthesia where you kind of smell colour, you know? It’s the same sort of thing. I think sound has a shape; I can draw a visual correlation with a sound. I’m comfortable manipulating images, and in a way I can interpret sound as an image. So it’s like sculpting a little bit in that way.

I can totally see myself doing more of it, because it’s such a vast, open environment to work in. When I was doing a lot of these tracks, I tried not to use too much stuff that was just out of the box. I tried to sample things and create my own sounds. And that’s just so amazing – just sampling my kitchen drawer opening and closing, then slowing it down and playing it backwards. I could do that for hours. It’s incredible.

Vincenzo’s fifth feature film, ‘Haunter’ (2013).

You can make entire songs out of just those few elements.

Vincenzo: You really can, it’s absolutely incredible. Again, if it’s for commercial consumption, then it becomes this whole other thing and it becomes burdened with all sorts of expectations. But if it’s just you messing around in your kitchen, the sky’s the limit.

One of the things I enjoy most about the album is the little motif that starts each track as a seed, and the track spirals out from there. Like in the track Loss, it gives you some idea of what you’re working with, and then it branches out from there. There’s sounds of running water, and modulated voices, and a lot happens from just those small samples.

Vincenzo: Yeah, it’s like found art. It’s like finding something in the garbage and then building a Marcel Duchamp sculpture. Turning it into a teacup covered with fur [laughs].

It’s so much fun. I’m just working with GarageBand, and there’s a whole universe that’s available out there beyond that, but I’m almost terrified to have more. Having less to work with is probably better, it would probably be overwhelming if I had more tools.

And I think the other thing is, as compared with making movies and dealing with narrative, narrative is highly structured. Any screenwriter will tell you that it’s not really about writing, it’s about structure. It’s a fascinating process in itself, but it’s so formal in a way. There aren’t a lot of screenplays that are stream-of-consciousness, because frankly it gets boring. There are examples of that, but generally speaking, most movies fall into the three act structure, let’s face it.

Playing with sounds, there’s no structure. I don’t feel beholden to anything. If anything, I fight my tendency to try to create structure. I was surprised that I was as much a prisoner to my own conservative desire for structure, so that I wouldn’t just float out into the aether doing craziness. I kept reeling myself back in. But as compared with writing a screenplay, you’re just messing around and it’s just pure play.

Natali’s most recent feature film, ‘In the Tall Grass’ (2019), adapted from the short story by Stephen King and Joe Hill.

That’s got to be so healthy for you, in a creative sense. It’s not something you can really do with a screenplay, as you say. But if you can flex that muscle in another creative medium, I imagine it must feed back into the process when you’re doing other things too.

Vincenzo: I think so, a little bit. Long ago I had the very great fortune to spend time with Terry Gilliam – I made a little documentary about the making of one of his films. I remember he said, “you just have to start with the line. And then you react to the line. You draw the line, and then you react to the line”. And that’s how you make anything, really. It’s funny; that seems like such an obvious, simple statement, but it took me a really long time to understand that.

So I think some of the more free-form, intuitive stuff that’s going on in that album has helped me, especially with writing. Writing didn’t come as naturally to me as drawing, and it took me a while to realise that we write in our sleep. It’s shocking how coherent our dreams are. I mean, dreams are not wildly coherent, but they are given the fact that you’re not actively trying to tell a story. It just happens naturally. It’s surprising how creative your brain is, and it’s utterly effortless.

I began to realise that with writing, there’s an element of that too. Even in the structure of a screenplay where you have an outline, there’s still an element of improvisation. You need to be sensitive to what you’re doing in the moment as you write, because if you become too aligned to some pre-designed plan, the writing tends to come out very flat.

But if you’re writing, say, a dialogue scene, and you’re kind of living the scene as you write it, it tends to become stronger because I think you’re just in the moment.

So I think I do agree – there’s a good sort of synergy between doing all these different things. And they are all weirdly one and the same. I think that if you do virtually anything well, that skill set can be applied to other things.


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