(Re)search my Trash, “Savage Witches Interview”, by Michael Haberfelner, March 2015


Originally published by (Re)Search my Trash, 29 March 2015

MICHAEL: Your movie Savage Witches – in a few words, what is it about?

DANIEL: Savage Witches is a film about creativity, it is about two girls who use their imagination and the magic of cinema to break free from the prison they see around them and it’s about two filmmakers breaking down the walls of their own idea of what cinema is. It is a spell to stir up the creative spirit and unleash it onto the cinema screen.

MICHAEL: What were your initial inspirations for dreaming up Savage Witches? And to what extent do you identify with the “witches”, actually?

DANIEL: The film started with a conversation between Clara and I when we first met about the kind of films we wanted to make, we both believe cinema is an art form that has the power to have a transformative effect on us both as makers and as viewers and we wanted to create a film to find out what this really meant. Our films are about the exploration of ideas and experiences rather than statements from a fixed perspective.

CLARA: Our intention was to make a film to celebrate all that we loved in movies – the artifice, the playfulness, the theatricality and magical quality of cinema. We wanted Savage Witches to be a truly cinematic experience, where creative freedom and formal experimentation were in an equal marriage with content and narrative. We wanted the film to be a work of poetry rather than a product.

DANIEL: Our discussions about all this evolved into a story and within two weeks we had written the script for Savage Witches. From the beginning the project’s whole purpose was to make a film in which we submitted to the creative spirit, the imagination led and we followed, we didn’t want to be tied to script or shooting conventions, we wanted only to dance through our story exploring every nook and cranny to see what we would find.

CLARA: And of course we do identify with the witches, we are the witches too, this film is a ritual that we initiated.

MICHAEL: As far as I know, you did have an actual script for Savage Witches, but abandoned it early on for a more organic approach – care to elaborate?

CLARA: The early versions of the script were more conventional and soon we found them restrictive. We always knew the script was just a starting point but we didn’t know at the beginning how much we’d change it, especially the form of the script itself. Also we were getting such interesting things from working with Christina and Victoria, especially when we tried things that were unexpected for them, that we just had to go with that. We took from the script all that was relevant and let everything else go, in the end we had a few pages of poetic dialogue and a list of key scenarios, locations and technical experiments we wanted to try. Savage Witches is a film that found its form in the edit rather than through writing.

DANIEL: It was such a liberating way to work, it has changed our relationship to writing ever since. We do still write some scripts that look like scripts but we feel less restricted by the form now. We also have scripts for feature films that fit on a single sheet of A4 paper and others that use images as much as words. What we have found is that the form of your script directly affects the form of your film so it is necessary to find the right form and process for writing the movie you are making. I am sure that if more filmmakers experimented with the form of their scripts it would lead to much more variety in the kind of films that are being made, there is something very conservative and restrictive about the page per minute, courier font, three act script. There is nothing wrong with it if it is the right form for the story within you but there are many other ways of writing no matter what the so called scriptwriting gurus tell you!

MICHAEL: What was the collaboration between the two of you like while shooting Savage Witches? And how did you first meet, actually?

DANIEL: We met when Clara wrote an article about Stan Brakhage for a film journal I used to run. We started on Savage Witches pretty soon after meeting. We work together in a very easy way, it’s very equal and collaborative. We both throw everything we have into the pot and cook up a good ol’ stew. There is a lot of good stuff that comes from working like this, you let go of feeling that you own your ideas, it has helped me to understand that we don’t have to try to have power and control over our art but that it is a force that speaks through us, we are the condition through which creativity speaks.

CLARA: We’re both intuitive so the way we work is we feel the film is somehow a thing that exists between us which we have to uncover and give shape to, like we’re mining materials and then sculpting them. I think this helped us take things always one step further, ideas didn’t belong to either of us, first and foremost we served the film and we just knew when something was right. If we disagreed on something it was never a matter of one person being right and the other being wrong, it meant there was still a better solution that we had not yet seen, it is a sign that we have more work to do, this approach always pushes you to be more creative and leads to exciting and unexpected places.

MICHAEL: What can you tell us about your lead actresses Christina Wood and Victoria Smith, and what made them perfect for their roles? And what was working with them like?

DANIEL: Savage Witches would not be the film it is without them, I can’t even say they are perfect for the roles because it goes beyond that, they were not just actors playing roles, the film came out of them just as much as it did from us. The film is a document and portrait of us all in that moment exploring what cinema is, what performance is, what creativity is and what we needed from it. We had a tough shoot, a bit of conflict here and there but also a great shoot because what they were giving us was magic and we were making a movie, which for us is one of the most exciting things in the world!

MICHAEL: Do talk about the shoot as such for a bit, and the on-set atmosphere!

DANIEL: Most of the shoot was just the four of us so it was intimate, creative and explorative but it wasn’t really like being on a conventional film set, we were just moving through it, trying to remain open but also with a goal in mind hoping that it would come together in the end and be something we felt was worth showing.

CLARA: A lot of it was more like playing than being on a film shoot. We believe play to be very important and like to create space within the shoot for us to explore through play without the pressure of knowing if or how it will be used in the final edit. A lot of the time we’d be improvising and experimenting in response to scenes from the script but there were also sequences that were more planned, a few of the scenes were shot several times in different ways and in different locations. We shot most of the film in Sussex during the summer so we spent a lot of time outside in the parks and woods, camping and exploring and creating scenes in response to the locations.

MICHAEL: You shot Savage Witches in a vast variety of different formats, and using all kinds of techniques. So please go into a little detail about this, and what was the purpose behind it?

DANIEL: That’s right, we used Super 8, VHS, digital and analogue stills, mini DV and HD plus some hand drawn animation. Each format has a very different look and feel and in turn each can be processed in many ways resulting in an endless variety of images. We played around a lot with projecting footage shot on one format and re-filming it on another. All this experimentation was part of the reason post-production took 7 months.

CLARA: We are still working on ways we can use this in new projects, it’s an under-explored tool of cinema, filmmakers talk a lot about how different formats have distinct feels, how film supposedly feels better than digital or vice-versa but very rarely do they consider that they can use a combination of these formats in a single project. The same goes for sound design, there is not just one way a film should sound, different qualities of sound create different sensations and experiences but if you listen to the sound design of a lot of films you’ll find they all sound the same. We have so many options of technology and processes available to us now, all this should be a part of the filmmakers pallet.

MICHAEL: You also have to talk about the film’s music and sound design for a bit, and what was your collaboration with Fiona Bevan (composer) and Simon Keep (sound designer) like?

CLARA: I am so happy we worked with both Fiona and Simon, they were really excited about the experiments we had been doing with the image and were keen to do similar things in the creation of both the music and sound design. Once we had a first rough cut of the film we got together with Fiona and talked through the whole film, the process we’d gone through, the experience we had, the ideas behind each scene and then we left her to it while she created a first draft of the music, after that it was a back and forth process until we had music that we all felt was right for the film. Fiona is a very creative and talented musician, she understood on a deep level what the film was about, she could empathise with our witches and give her voice to their journey in a sensitive way, sometimes bold and lively, sometimes contemplative and haunting. I was excited to see how she experimented with ways of recording and processing the music that mirrored what we had done with the image, using different mics and recording devices, I think quite a lot of it was recorded on her phone.

Simon was the very last collaborator to work on the film and it was an utter joy for us, we felt like little children in Simon’s studio as he started creating the layers of sound and bring Savage Witches fully to life. The film had been shot mostly silent, we had recorded voice-overs and some dubbing while we were editing but the rest of the sound was created by Simon.

MICHAEL: The $64-question of course, where is the movie available from?

DANIEL: We have a few limited edition DVD sets available through our website but we are planning on releasing a standard edition later this year.

CLARA: But we are always looking for opportunities to screen the film as the best way to see it is to experience it in a dark cinema space with a big screen so you can just sit back, let yourself go and enjoy the journey!

MICHAEL: What can you tell us about audience and critical reception of your movie?

CLARA: We’ve been very pleased, we made the film for ourselves and hoped that if we made something that we loved then there might be others out there who’d enjoy it as well. We have now screened the film at about twenty festivals and film clubs and the audience response has been amazing, we have had so many lovely emails and conversations with people who said they have been inspired by the film and some that it has inspired them to make a film so we really couldn’t be happier.

MICHAEL: Any future projects you’d like to share?

DANIEL: I’m currently in the final stages of a new film called Splendor Solis which is a 60 min twin screen film compiled from footage that I have shot over the last 17 years. It’s a real work of self-exploration, a sort of self portrait of my first 17 years as a filmmaker. We are hopefully starting on the music in the next month or two and aim to have the world premiere in September.

We also have several other feature films in the pipeline, a film inspired by dreams, alchemy and fairy tales called All My Heart’s Desires and another film inspired by a dream I had in which Richard Wagner came to me and told me to write a film inspired by his opera Tannhauser. But the film we are probably doing next is called Us & the Darkness, which is a meditation on darkness, creation, eternity and all the things that happen between sunset and sunrise.

MICHAEL: What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

DANIEL: Looking back now it seems that it was inevitable that I became a filmmaker but I didn’t know it until it happened. When I was a teenager I wanted to be a painter and I started making films alongside this on a lovely little Hi8 camera. At first I started filming my paintings and studio, some of this footage can be seen in my new film Splendor Solis. I never had any training, I just read a lot of art books and applied what I learnt to the films, I was filming for a few years before I started thinking of what I was doing in terms of cinema, before that it was more just an extension of painting.

CLARA: Cinema has caused such an impression on me since such an early age that it seemed there was no other option but to just give myself to cinema for life. Luckily as a teenager I went to an art school where besides making films we also did drawing, photography, weaving, metal and wood work, ceramics, graphic and web design and writing. It was there I first learned about the different parts and aspects of making films and because it was an artistic context we were really encouraged to think of all these aspects like any other art project. So I think it was there that I started to see that the really interesting thing about filmmaking is that it can be a tool to explore things, life and myself, not just to create products but to discover and develop.

MICHAEL: What can you tell us about your film work prior to Savage Witches?

DANIEL: My first feature film was Come On Thunder which was shot in Essex where I grew up, it’s a portrait of two characters and a place, it’s set over a single day. It’s a film about isolation, a quiet film that wants to scream, a film in which the landscape is as much a character as the actors. It’s never been seen but I am now preparing it for a release later this year, only 9 years after it was made! My second feature was called DIRT, a film about three friends stealing boats, playing pirates and having adventures in the English countryside. Alongside the feature films I have been filming constantly for 17 years, I have amassed a large amount of footage on various formats from Super8, Hi8, DV, HD etc. I never really knew what all this footage was for but it has now all come together in the form of Splendor Solis.

CLARA: Savage Witches is my first feature film, before that I had made a few short films and student works and then had a period of working on some independent films in London while I was doing uni, trying my hand on different aspects of filmmaking so I did camera, editing, lighting, sound recording and even 1st AD and production managing. But while doing all of this I felt increasingly dissatisfied with filmmaking, I felt that the focus in all these productions was in all the wrong things and the films that came out of them were not very exciting, I aspired to make films like those of Maya Deren or Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Vera Chytilova. In a way these frustrating experiences fuelled the starting of Savage Witches for me and were one of the reasons behind the radical process we had on that film. Now I see that clearly I just had to get on with making my own work and learn on my own terms.

MICHAEL: A few words about your production company The Underground Film Studio, and the philosophy behind it?

DANIEL: The Underground Film Studio is a banner we use to cover a variety of film related projects. Alongside our own films and the films of our collaborators we also run a film festival called CINE-REBIS which first took place last 2013 in London and Porto, it is currently on hold as we are focusing on a couple of films that are needing all our time but there are plans to relaunch it again in the next year or two. We also write about cinema and publish a magazine called FILM PANIC, the first issue was released in 2013 and we are planning to release issue 2 later this year and then after that it will become a bit more of a regular release.

MICHAEL: How would you describe yourselves as directors?

DANIEL: I want the film to take me in its arms and lead me beyond what I currently know or understand about myself or the world around me. When I make a film I try to create an arena where the unconscious can break through. For me the director is not a god who has power over the film, he is more like a shaman and must submit to his visions, he is the guardian of the film, he doesn’t own it, he is there to make sure that it reaches the screen on its own terms.

CLARA: I love making films and being on a shoot, it doesn’t matter how difficult it is sometimes, trying to keep everything and everyone going, underneath that there is a fire burning in my belly that keeps me going and tells me what a wonderful and magical thing it is to be making a film. When we were making Savage Witches both Daniel and I let go of our rented rooms so we’d have enough money to make the film, we stayed at a friends house, Daniel slept in a makeshift bed on the landing and I slept in a cupboard under the stairs. That sounds crazy I suppose but what I felt at that moment was that this film needed to be made and we had to do whatever was needed to make it happen.

MICHAEL: Filmmakers who inspire you?

We share pretty much the same cinema influences and passions, there are hundreds of films and filmmakers we love but here’s a list of a few guardian angels and guiding lights, ones whose work we return to again and again:
Derek Jarman, Jeff Keen, Vera Chytilova, Nic Roeg, Ken Russell, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Douglas Sirk, the Kuchar brothers, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean Cocteau, Sergei Parajanov, Agnes Varda, Powell and Pressburger, Pier Paolo Pasolini…

MICHAEL: Your favourite movies?

Here’s a list of the films we come back to and watch over and over:
City Of Pirates (1983)
Celine And Julie Go Boating (1974)
The Garden (1990)
Fellini’s Satyricon (1969)
Daisies (1966)
Fruits of Paradise (1970)
Altered States (1980)
Stalker (1979)
Possession (1981)
The Book Of Days (1989)
El Topo (1970)
Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966)
Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors (1965)
La Belle et la Bête (1946)
Cléo From 5 To 7 (1962)
Le Bonheur (1965)
Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Gone to Earth (1950)
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Die Nibelungen (1924)
Walkabout (1971)
Bad Timing (1980)
Key Largo (1948)
Mad Love (1978)
White Dust (1972)
Here’s To The Health And The Barley Mow (1955)
Hausu (1977)
Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
this list really could go on and on but that will do!

MICHAEL: … and of course, films you really deplore?

DANIEL: Any film that’s faking it, that gives us lazy thoughts and insincerity but I won’t call any names because the thing about films or any art and music is we just don’t see the whole story. Some film I detest and really don’t get may fall before the eyes of someone else and change their life, for them it is just what they need in that moment and it resonates with them on a deep level, we need to not interfere with this. This is why I am against all forms of censorship, who are we to judge what other people need to see, all creativity is valid.

MICHAEL: Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

DANIEL: I would like very briefly to mention a couple of filmmakers who are working now that I think are making some interesting and exciting films that readers might want to check out.

In India Pankaj Purohit has made a really great documentary called Belly Of The Tantra about the Aghori, a sect of Hinduism who eat human flesh.

In the USA Kelly Hughes has recently released a documentary called Heart Attack! The Early Pulse Pounding Cinema Of Kelly Hughes which is a personal look back at the making of his no-holds-barred trash soap opera Heart Attack Theatre and his other equally exciting films.

In Ireland Rouzbeh Rashidi and his friends at the Experimental Film Society are carrying the flag of experimental cinema and are doing great things. The guys are hugely prolific and are fearlessly following their own path, there always seems to be something new coming from them. Rashidi has just released a new film called Ten Years In The Sun which I am very much looking forward to seeing.

Also coming out very soon a new film from another Irish director, Sean Garland, called Banshee Blacktop, looks like it’s going to be fantastic, a rural folk horror ghost story. I haven’t seen it yet but I know Sean well and I’m sure it’s going to be awesome.

OK that’s it.