Fever dreams can be scarring. However, if you’re filmmaker Aaron Schimberg, you can take that harrowing dip into the subconscious and make it into the fine, singular work “Go Down Death.” His debut film follows a few lives in a desolate village ravaged by constant bombing and unending trauma, changing character perspectives frequently — ranging from a child gravedigger to a disfigured gambler — but always maintaining its utter strangeness. It’s also sort of an anomaly in the independent scene, having been shot on 16mm black & white and utilizing both sets and scale models. We saw it last year and raved about it, claiming it “will trouble and beguile the subconscious long after you’ve moved on.”
Recently acquired by Factory 25, the film became available this week on various VOD platforms, including iTunes and Amazon. We got a chance to talk to Schimberg, asking about the genesis of “Go Down Death” as well as his influences, the structure of the film, and its fantastic ending.
You mention the film being based on a fever dream you had. What was it about the idea that really pushed you to make it a reality?
Aaron Schimberg: One reason I made this film is that I’m self-sabotaging. I didn’t think I’d be able to make the film — people would look at the script and say it was impossible, unfilmable — and I probably wrote it for that reason because I was too afraid to make a film. And I also thought that my other scripts were very personal and I thought that this was a bit more detached. To me, I would actually say that the closing scene is probably more the kind of thing that I would usually write. It’s not exactly, but the other scripts I’ve written and tried to make have been more colloquial, more realistic, New York dramas or whatever.
That’s interesting. The placement of the ending gives it a myriad of different meanings and substance, as opposed to the scene itself.
I wanted to create a distance between the act of watching the film and remembering the film, so that by the time you could think about what you were seeing, it would be distant, like a dream or something. It serves as a kind of barrier. The thing I settled on was something like a second dream, like if you would wake up in the middle of the night from a dream and go back to sleep and have another dream but it carries over elements from the first one.
It can feel jarring, but it definitely does share a lot with everything that came before it.
The other thing is, a lot of the film is about trauma, and to me the ending acts a kind of trauma. The world is a certain way and then it shifts, like what a traumatic event does to your life. It’s a way of expressing that, having to deal with a new reality. Usually in films you’re supposed to set up the rules of the film and not stray from that, but that’s not how life works. An audience who rebels against it, they might be experiencing a kind of trauma.
You’ve likely heard Guy Maddin being tossed around in reviews as a comparison point to your movie. But what influences did you have when creating your film? Movies and non-movies.
I’m embarrassed, it’s like "The Da Vinci Code" guy saying, "Oh yes, I like Tolstoy and I like Shakespeare." It’s probably true but you don’t want to admit that. I’m too ashamed to mention my heroes because I fare badly in comparison. But it’s an allusive film. The title itself is an allusion, or just stolen outright, of the Spencer Williams’ film "Go Down, Death!" That’s a good film, and it’s neglected, probably because it’s made by a black director and it doesn’t fit neatly into certain auteurist views of cinema. Because it’s neglected, I can steal the title, I can reference it without fear of repercussions, unlike if I wanted to call it "Casablanca" or "Hulk." I would love it if my film could induce people to see Williams’ film.
You could’ve called it “The Village.” Or “After Earth.” Maybe “The Happening” or “Signs.” I guess “Stuart Little” would work. What else inspired you?
There’s references to Ozu, Chantal Akerman, Ida Lupino, Fritz Lang, Charlie Patton, Memphis Minnie, Link Wray, Eck Robertson, Thelonious Monk, Frederick Douglass, Kafka…I stole things from all of them…Shakespeare, Tolstoy, the guy who wrote the Da Vinci Code…
Speaking of reviews, certain ones just baffled me, assessing the movie as a sort of dare or provocation.
There’s nothing aggressive about the film. I’m not like Gaspar Noe. It’s a personal film. It’s a homemade film, made by me and my wife, and helped by a lot of people working for free or for very little. It’s not made to piss people off. It’s not that. But a few critics have said that it’s an act of provocation, so I have to go do damage control. It’s strange. There’s nothing I respect less than provocateurs. The film was not made to provoke. I want to move you, not provoke you. And if you’re unmoved, I apologize.
The film doesn’t exactly have a traditional through-line. How did you find the structure?
It was always kind of there in the script, but getting it perfect (assuming that it’s now perfect) took thousands of hours. One edit could change everything. We could put any scene in any order and have a film that still flowed together in a way that worked, because the whole film is associative. We often just labored over switching two scenes and how it affected the other 80 minutes of the film — we had a huge piece of paper with all of the scenes on them and shifted them around, thinking about movements, like in a musical piece.
How did you work with your cinematographer?
It was almost like shooting a documentary, you had to scramble to get the right thing, and we — myself and the director of photography, Jimmy Lee Phelan — had to be creative about it. We were just scrambling to get it down. The set would go up, we’d get the two actors together who never met before and I never got to rehearse with, we’d have a half hour to see how these actors related to one another, how the scene plays… Sometimes something wasn’t working so we just completely rethought our approach. I always went in with an idea on how to shoot a scene, but it wasn’t always possible. Which I was okay with. And if I drew a blank on something, Lee’s full of ideas. I’d rely on him when my own ideas failed me. So we were great collaborators. We have different approaches but we saw eye to eye on most things. He can work fast, and that’s how I like to work, so it was great.
Time was ticking, but also the sets were being built as you were shooting, correct? How do you think this informed the film, in the end?
In general I don’t really like to shoot close-ups, I prefer wider shots, but we didn’t have any space to move around in. If we pulled back, you’d see the small wall we had, and that it was the same wall in every other scene. So a lot of scenes are just close-ups and that was done out of necessity. But I think if you read the script, there’s a little bit of detachment to it. With all the close-ups you start to empathize with the characters more. People relate to them more than I intended them to, originally. I like that about it, but it wasn’t my original intent. And that comes directly out of shooting with the sets we had.
What made you so adamant about shooting on film?
Because I tend to root for the underdog.
What’s next on the docket?
I’m superstitious! It won’t get made. I’ll say this: It’s an answer film. It’s an answer to a whole genre of films. It’s my contribution to a certain genre of films. It’s like Rufus Thomas’s "Bear Cat" to Elvis Presley’s "Hound Dog." I’ll say, all of those films are kind of exploitative, and I want to address that issue. It’s called “Chained For Life.”
"Go Down Death" opens on March 28th.