The Review/Interview/

15,000 Sparklers Were Harmed in the Making of This Film

Winnipeg filmmaker Matthew Rankin on his strange and beguiling short The Tesla World Light Project

Jan 11, 2018

In art, as in life, it’s a rare gift to encounter a True Weirdo. Winnipeg filmmaker Matthew Rankin (who now makes his work and life in Montreal) is one of Canada’s great eccentrics. His recent live-action, hand animated, shot-on-celluloid short films Mynarski Death Plummet and The Tesla World Light (selected for the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, playing January 14 as part of Shorts Programme 2) investigate, respectively, the historical trauma in the lives of Canadian fighter pilots and infatuated electrical engineers with a burning cinematic urgency. While Mynarski used a combination of classical and avant-garde animation techniques (including stop-motion, bleaching, scratching, hand-painting, and rubbing letratone patterns directly on the celluloid) to create a fantastical aviator melodrama uniquely pulled from a real-life moment in Canadian history, Tesla has one-upped the filmmaker’s facility for creating new forms of cinematic language from outmoded traditions.

Shot on black-and-white 16mm with an elaborate light-painting technique engineered by the filmmaker (it involves 15,000 sparklers, cross-processed in a tiny office at the National Film Board), Rankin’s short film investigates a factual episode in the life of inventor Nikola Tesla (Robert Vilar), who, while begging his former benefactor J.P. Morgan to finance his dream of a worldwide wireless communication system, falls in love with a magnificent pigeon that lands on his windowsill. This unusual love story becomes a pulsating symphony of electric synthesia as Rankin pairs his avant-garde animation techniques with haunting sound design by his collaborator Sacha Ratcliffe. As the romance swiftly turns into revulsion, the film draws upon the traditions of early animation, the work of Japanese animator Takashi Ito, and the director’s own formative years as a then-adolescent member of the Winnipeg Film Group.

Rankin is currently in post-production on his debut feature The 20 Century, a Canadian historical biopic (of sorts) about a particularly trying period in the early life of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, which he describes as “one protracted humiliation scene.” (The Larry Sanders Show may be a covert influence, and Toronto actor/comedian Daniel Beirne, of Space Riders: Division Earth and FX’s Fargo, plays King.) We interrogated Rankin during TIFF ’17 about the role artifice plays in his work, movie-making as a physical endurance test, and his position of identifying as an outsider artist even as Tesla screened this year at Cannes and TIFF.

The filmmaker himself questions the label: “What would it mean to be an ‘insider artist’ as a filmmaker? I think that would mean making really sleek, cool stuff with, like, celebrities, and then maybe you'd make a lot of money or something. I can’t really do anything sleek, I’m naturally awkward, and the films I make are also awkward, so I will inevitably be on some sort of a periphery.”

Once you see Rankin’s work, you’ll see the ways in which that statement is untrue. Here's the Canadian filmmaker on how he pushed himself past the breaking point to make the strange and beguiling The Tesla World Light — and potentially got asbestos poisoning in the process.

What was your state of mind after you made your previous short film, Mynarski Death Plummet? What kind of film did you want to make next?

I think my real feeling was that I wanted to make something less complicated. Mynarski was a really hard movie to make. We live in this era where everything is so digital, so I did all this hand-painting that took months, and I remember when we showed the film at Sundance, the first question from the audience was: “What plugin did you use to get all those weird effects?” So I thought, “I can’t spend years painting on celluloid anymore.” I had wanted to make something simple, but I don’t think my brain is capable of that, so I ended up making Tesla, which, truthfully, is the most complicated shoot I’ve ever had to do. So, that was my state of mind — which was immediately sabotaged!

How did you devise the light painting and animation? It’s such an integral element.

I’m a big fan of the Japanese animator Takashi Ito, who made this one film I really love called Thunder that’s got all these little light-painted ectoplasms streaming through it. Even in Mynarski, there's a little bit of light painting. I thought that because the raw material of light animation is, of course, light, there was a formalism that leant itself to a film about Nikola Tesla. We built all these little machines to facilitate the light painting and I used all sorts of different sources: flashlights, LEDs, but the sparkler is definitely the most pathological light you can create in a long exposure photograph. So I ended up burning close to 15,000 sparklers in an enclosed space [Rankin’s production office at the NFB] over the course of two weeks, which really can't be good for you. I think they're made of asbestos, or something.

Do you always approach filmmaking like it’s a physical endurance test?

Well, I'm a big believer in the Gertrude Stein maxim: "Why do something if it can be done?" That was always really meaningful to me, so I like for things to be really hard. I like to make images that are difficult, where I’m not sure if I can make them. I like to run the risk of monumental failure, which I find to be a sublime state, so I'm doomed to do things that are overly complicated.

It's an extraordinary film, where the lighting and production design almost feels like its own hyperbolic state of mind. What role do these things play in your work?

The thing I'm interested in is artifice; I like to take a more theatrical approach to filmmaking than a realistic one. There's something about early cinema and the handmade element that is pre-digital, cinema that you really feel is made by humans. I feel like often when we use light, often when we build sets, most of the time when we make films, it's about making things credible. In narrative filmmaking, often artifice is seen as a barrier, but it’s very much a part of the experience that I personally love. In Mynarski, I didn't shoot any fire, it's all hand-painted and entirely artificial. But the idea was to see in that if I could create a new emotion in that, that a realistic representation could not produce.

That’s interesting, because that is the weird crux of narrative film, isn’t it? Cinema is fake. You're trying to replicate a reality that will never exist, and you're doing it with fake stuff, pretending it's real.

I just feel like 90 percent of our images are cute and unthreatening, and we make them again because they're easy to make, you know? It's like the movie Dogville, which some people really hate, but I think is really interesting because it is an experience of transcendence. The whole film unfurls with these people justifying why they must be cruel to Nicole Kidman. Then, it turns around and you feel this great catharsis when she enacts vengeance upon them because they've been so mean and awful. You're really pulled into this world where you become cruel, and what I love about it is that at no point does the film allow you to be totally absorbed. It's telling you how fake it is all the time. Throughout the whole process, it's saying: "This is happening, but don't forget — it's all entirely artificial." Still, you're just helplessly revelling in your own cruelty! (Laughter) I just feel like artifice is particularly ecstatic when it takes you beyond the artifice.

You've often been called “the next Guy Maddin.” Do you find that kind of label restrictive, or freeing?

I feel great about it. Of course, I love Guy Maddin’s films and I am from Winnipeg. I think all Winnipeg filmmakers have a debt to Guy, there's no question about that. What I love about the Winnipeg filmmakers — and Guy is certainly a master of this — is that they’ve taken the limitations of making films in a place like Winnipeg and created a new language out of that.

That's what I love about Guy’s work: his use of artifice to make personal films with this reprocessing of abstract cinematic language. I feel like you can see that in many Winnipeg filmmakers: John Paizs is referencing '50s-era Hollywood musicals and industrial films, Astron-6 works on these B-movie fetishes, and of course, Deco Dawson is fascinated with Bolshevik propaganda.

In Quebec, there are obsessions the filmmakers [there] return to and there’s a heritage that has made it very coherent. I don't really sense there's exactly that in Toronto in the same way. There are amazing filmmakers in Toronto that I love, but I feel like there are coherent obsessions bringing the Winnipeggers together. I think of it almost like a national cinema.

Where do you feel you fall into this community? What’s your role to play?

The past couple of things I’ve done have been [about] working on outmoded cinematic languages, which certainly is closer to Guy's work. But my next film is going to be an all-Persian [Farsi] Iranian movie, which I feel is very much coherent with the Winnipeg tradition, but on a totally different register. In the case of Tesla, I actually feel closest of all to a Winnipeg filmmaker named Solomon Nagler. His great passion is reworking the cinematic language of the avant-garde and abstraction into a narrative and emotional space, and Tesla is very much along those lines.. So, I feel my contribution is to use a language that is normally associated with formalist work to nonetheless build a narrative, build a character, and build a feeling.

The Tesla World Light (2017)

And also: to tell a love story between a man and a pigeon.

You know, that's about as Winnipeg as you can get! Winnipeg is, of course, a lonesome and alienated place where having deep feelings of love for a bird becomes just very normal.

And when the pigeon's head goes all the way around, is that an Exorcist homage?

Yes — yes, it is. (Laughs)

With Mynarski and now The 20th Century, your upcoming debut feature on William Lyon Mackenzie King, it’s tempting to compare your work to a very cinematic and demented Heritage Minute.

Yeah, I would describe my feature as a "Heritage Minute on acid." It's taking the detritus of Mackenzie King's life and driving it into total abstraction — I'm hoping it will really annoy my history professors. I've always wanted to make a Heritage Minute and I actually pitched one to them about [Olympic sprinter] Ben Johnson, but it was categorically rejected. I still want to make it as an independent film, but it will be like a Heritage Minute. You know, it will be one-minute long…

At the end, the loon will come up.

Yes, sponsored by "Charles R. Bronfman Foundation." In 1988, Ben Johnson won the gold medal for Canada. I was a child at that point but was conscious enough to have some bizarre feeling of simultaneity and pride just because we shared citizenship; and then, of course, Ben Johnson [turned out to be] blitzed on steroids. It was a wonderful crime against national dignity, and I like that. That's what’s driving this project on Mackenzie King too: the whole film is just one protracted humiliation scene on a national scale.

You continue to shoot on celluloid at a time when its very existence is under threat. What is it about the materiality of film that you love?

Tesla was shot on 16mm black-and-white film, in-camera for the most part. When I was colour timing it, the colourist said that now that he typically works in digital people are always asking him to add grain, but when everyone was shooting on film, everyone always asked him to remove the grain. Now that we have this Spielbergian gloss of 4K digital, I just feel like film will have to radicalize. It’s the same way painting had to radicalize with the emergence of photography where it no longer became the reserve of figurative portraiture.

Now that we can get these gloriously clean images on digital, it forces us to go deep into what film can do and what it can do alone. And that is its materiality, its chemistry, its dirt, its fibre, its grain, its detritus.

And how do you feel when you watch a movie projected from film?

It's just sublime — especially when it's, like, all screwed up and stained and splotched and ravaged. It's just a beautiful, beautiful thing.

There's a scientist who made some study about analog vs. digital signal. I’m perhaps paraphrasing his results, but he said that the digital signal connected directly with the logical part of the brain and the analog signal directly connected with the emotional. Whether that's true or not, I believe it… Don’t you?