The Body and the Frame: Award Winning Director Camille Thoman on Her Latest, 'Never Here'

Mireille Enos (Photo: Julian Cautherley / Prodigy PR)

In theatre, film and performance work, "Everything is very much based on the notion of sending certain signals to both the conscious and the unconscious mind of the spectator," says Thoman.

Camille Thoman's sophomore feature Never Here helps to construct what is seemingly a body of work weaving between fiction and documentary. Beginning with her narrative short Falling Objects (2006) followed by her feature documentary The Longest Game (2014), Never Here returns her to narrative fiction.

Never Here

Director: Camille Thoman
Cast: Mireille Enos, Sam Shepard, Goran Visnjic
US Release date: 2017-10-20

Although oddly, and is an often seen paradox in cinema, The Longest Game is set for an official release February 2018.

Installation artist Miranda Fall (Mireille Enos) creates a voyeuristic form of art, following her subjects and exhibiting their physical form, their material possessions as well as chronicling their day to day lives. When her lover witnesses a violent incident outside of her apartment, to protect the secrecy of their relationship she contacts the police posing as an eyewitness to the crime -- an act of deception that becomes a catalyst for a new work of voyeuristic art.

Never Here is an intriguing thriller with shades of haunting horror, whose thematic drive towards the voyeuristic nature of art, the artist and the role of the subject, lends the film an intelligent inclination. Mireille Enos' seductive performance channels an internal and external juxtaposition between youthful naïveté and adult maturity, while Thoman's direction shows an appreciation to subtlety as she creates a film that has an art house presence, yet is not wholly removed from mainstream narrative.

In conversation with PopMatters, Thoman reflects on a lifelong interest in the arts motivated by the human body and structuring her work around a conscious and unconscious communication. She also discusses the technological evolution of the cinematic aesthetic and how a film captures a snapshot of its contemporary reality, before discussing the inherent instinctive and spiritual nature of film that offers an ambiguous transformation.

Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

I have been drawn to the arts all my life, and I have memories of being very young, four or five, and knowing that I wanted to direct and perform. So it was always about theatre and film from a very young age. I think that's because there's something about working with bodies that are very inspiring to me, and in theatre and film I am literally working with the bodies of the actors. There's something about art where all of my life since honestly I've been able to speak, that bodies as instruments have always particularly drawn me.

While stories can be contextualised as prisms for us to reflect on human nature, the audience are instruments upon which the film is playing to create its sound. Your point about the body is interesting because of how it translates to our experience of a film created by the artist, and how all of these layers are synchronising.

Yeah, and also within the frame, which is obviously not a body. The way humans are interacting and the words they are using to tell their stories, the primary instrumentation is still the body, and then there's a secondary instrumentation, which is the frame. And then it is ingested like any art form through our human body.

I recall speaking with Italian actress Claudia Gerini, who had to play a character that bared herself both physically and emotionally. She offered an opinion that being naked is not a true nakedness, rather the soul is our naked form. So while we may feel that we are seeing beneath the skin of a person, there's the impression of what we think we see versus the actuality of what we see. What's interesting is the divide between the conscious and the unconscious and the way the layers go together makes this point of perceived versus actual nakedness an intriguing one.

Now you're talking about something very interesting.

It's philosophical.

Well, it's the primary way I think about film -- that there's a conscious layer and then there are the unconscious layers. That's precisely the way I've designed all the work I've ever done -- the theatre, the film, and the performance work. Everything is very much based on the notion of sending certain signals to both the conscious and the unconscious mind of the spectator.

I believe a film, in spite of being in a permanent form, is impermanent. Our response can differ each time we watch a film based on our current mindset and the memories it stimulates. Further still, no piece of art is locked in a state of permanence because the subjectivity of the individual defines it in any single moment. Picking up on your point about sending signals to the spectator, how would you respond to this idea of permanence versus impermanence?

I would agree with you that every experience we have is so subjective and so contextualised by where we are in our lives, and the myriad of other things that are going on in our lives, that it's utterly subjective and totally impermanent. At the same time, I do feel there is something about film that has branded upon it a context of its era, more so than a book or a painting. I think that's because it was invented in the late 1900s, so it has just been around for the time it has been around, and we'll see where it goes in the future with VR and stuff.

If Casablanca (1942) were made today I would say: “Gosh, the dialogue is a bit stilted", whereas when I watch it now I think: Oh wow, how remarkable. I take the film in the context of the era it was written, whereas if I read a classic like Ulysses (1922) or even something like Wuthering Heights (1847), I experience it much more as a work, and less than in the context of the time it was written. I do believe that's true.

Do you believe that's attributable to film as a visual medium?

Totally! It's about the technology and the fine differences in the technology that each era creates.

Speaking with Agnieszka Holland about the changing aesthetic of cinema, and whether it is a shift in technology, she said: “I think it is something that is more mystical -- a mystery that is included in the particular film, and which doesn't age." The inference that there is perhaps what we could call a 'ghost in the machine' is intriguing, the idea of a mysterious spiritual like presence that cannot be contextualised through words. Do you perceive a spiritual dimension to cinema?

Well for me, deeply spiritual, and to build on that, I would think the collective unconscious really shows up in cinema, because cinema makers are recreating the realities of their times in the best way they know how. So the way people talk, the words they are using and the very gentle gender stuff that's going on, and the not so subtle gender stuff, and the race stuff… Everything, the framing and the whole aesthetic is a summation of the cultural unconscious of the time period it comes out of.

I think that's true and I'm struck by the way women's voices sound in the films from the early '70s. They did a thing like: “Hey, hey there." They all sound like this, and even when something really bad happens they are like: “Hey, don't do that!" It's always striking to me because [I wonder], is there something about how women were viewed at that time, that comes out literally in the way the women were speaking, and in the actual sounds they were making? It's interesting.

In as much as cinema may be a depiction of the reality of a specific period, films are not separated by time. Never Here makes a bold initial impression, both visually and musically. I took away the impression that the film is a product of a filmmaker in touch with cinema and comfortable with their own creative voice -- merging influence and inspiration with individuality. Listening to you talk suggests there are a number of influences or approaches feeding into it, and so would the film best be described as a pool of influences?

Yes, I think that's a great way to view it. I'm inspired by images that come into my brain, which I am very much faithful to. They are like a guiding light to me and I really let the films, and in the past the theatre that I have made, talk to me. I'm just a servant, and I go out there and I try to be as faithful to the image that's in my head as possible.

When I was constructing the plot, I was inspired by The Conversation (1974) by Francis Ford Coppola and Don't Look Now (1973). Those were probably the two primary inspirations from a plot level, and I was also very inspired by Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy (1985-86) -- the way he created the detective story on one level, and then on another level was creating a story almost about the art of creation. I remember the moment in which he references the reader in the middle of this piece of detective fiction. I was so shocked and so reached by this gesture, that he would reference me in such a way that was viscerally arresting, I made the conscious choice this was something I wanted to do in cinema. But the rest is really about being open to receiving images and staying as faithful as possible to representing them.

So is it important for you to create the backbone of the plot that gives a sense of direction and purpose? Does this then allow you to go on a journey that is more visual, where you bring in images to attach to the structure?

Yes. It doesn't interest me to only entertain an audience; that doesn't feel like a worthwhile thing to do. I think that entertaining an audience is absolutely vital, but what I really want to do with my work is to ask the audience to reflect on their own lives. I want to move an audience in some way, in the traditional form of the word "move", to create some setting in which they can reflect on their own lives.

It just feels that's the point of art, like you said, to create a mirror. So just taking the audience on an entertaining ride alone doesn't feel like it's enough of a mirror, and so I wanted to do both.

My argument has always been that if you only seek to entertain, then the experience dies at the end credits. It will only be a momentary and hollow experience because the best moments in life are those that stay with us.

Watching Die Hard (1988) recently, while it's a straightforward film, there's an evident beauty in its surface simplicity, yet the humour, action, dialogue, performances all show a meticulous attention to detail. While it's one of those films you may dismiss as pure entertainment, even a family film such as Home Alone (1990) could be interpreted as a subversive genre piece. It can be a quite unexpected realization in the films that resonate beyond entertainment, but this is something that you're seemingly conscious of in your approach to filmmaking.

Conscious is a funny word because yes, I guess I am, but at the same time it's what takes over almost naturally. When I first started writing this movie I thought I was making a super commercial, old-fashioned film. I knew there were old-fashioned thriller elements, but I thought it was really straightforward and commercial, and this other desire in me to create a richer dialogue took over. But I totally agree with you and I would say Titanic (1997), for instance, is one of the great pieces of cinema for me. A piece of cinema doesn't have to be complicated to resonate, and a lot of those movies you mentioned, and there are a lot more films that are simple and funny, just live in our souls.

Is the process of learning to make films structured around honing one's instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?

Absolutely! I think it's a deeply instinctive process that's grasped onto a very rigorous structure. Even if you are going to be on set the way someone like Jill Soloway is, which is extremely flexible, or Kelly Reichardt, and you are going to have a very flexible set with just a few people, there's definitely a structure to it. So for me it's about always listening to my instincts and then understanding what is possible in the structure that we have.

There's a wonderful Paul Auster quote where he says something along the lines of: “Everything that happens just goes on happening." That's the crux of the film, which is when we experience what we think of as objective reality, we are experiencing an elaborate construction based on our interpretation. Ultimately this film at its crux is about how we construct our own identities and our own reality.

Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl, he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

Well, every film is such a mountain; such an experience. I don't have children yet, but I imagine it's like a birth. It's such a huge event that it's hard to explain to anyone who has never made a film, or is not in the film industry what it means to be in production -- how massive an experience it is to make a film, and what it requires in terms of the energy you have to put in. So I think inevitably, as with the great experiences of our lives, with those various mountains we climb, we do emerge changed from them. But I wouldn't know what exactly changed for me, I just know that I loved every minute of it [laughs].

Is the purest essence of change that which cannot be contextualised, but just exists, and it's not until a period of time has passed that you can begin to see those phases of yourself.

You know what, exactly! That's a great a point, and listening to you talk, what became clear for me is that when you make a film there's a lot that can be required of you, and you have to rise and meet the occasion, or not I suppose. And so when I look back on the two films -- because my other film is a documentary that is coming out in February 2018 -- similarly, it just felt that there were things required of me. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do them, and then I did.

It's just like what you said. At the time I'm not aware of it, but when I look back I see, Oh, I met the occasion, and so that's where the change happened, in the moment I had to do what was there. It's everywhere else in life, but it's just somehow more obvious in that kind of situation.

Camille Thoman (photo: Prodigy PR)

Sources cited:
Risker, Paul. Interview with Agnieszka Holland. Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film & Visual Narration (MSJ), 29 Dec. 2016.

—. Interview with Christoph Behl. FrightFest Gore in the Store, 24 April 2015.
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