Indicibles entretiens #15, part 1

Today, let’s meet Huan Vu, German director of the movie Die Farbe, a great adaptation of The Colour out of Space.

Hello ! Thanks again for answering my questions ! Could you please introduce yourself ?

Hello ! My name is Huan Vu, I’m an indie-film director, writer and producer from Germany. I am currently working as an art director for interactive educational videos near Stuttgart, which is mostly known for its automotive industry, but also one of the visual effects hub of the international film industry, I studied here at the University of Media where I met « Die Farbe » co-producer and 3d artist Jan Roth. Our film began as a graduation project in 2007, but we then decided to make it one year later, right after our studies, on our own terms, which was a very good decision. We didn’t have help by our university, but we could take our time to finish it properly.

How did you come to film-making ?

I started making short films with my friends using a Mini-DV camera that I bought from my salary during my community service year (it’s the alternative to military service year, which was mandatory back then). It was naive but I really thought we could make real movies with these new cheap digital cameras and using home computers for editing and effects. And so I moved on and being a huge fan of Warhammer 40,000 I started « Damnatus » which would become a very big fan film project. That was in 2003, even before I started to study. It took us several years and we faced legal issues with Games Workshop, the company behind the tabletop game, but we completed it during my time at the university. I learned a lot about filmmaking and loved it. And since we couldn’t release and promote « Damnatus » for free on the internet, a new film had to be made.

Which directors could you quote as your main influences ?

Always hard to answer. I guess this also depends on when you are asking and for which kind of aspect of filmmaking. My most terrifying horror film experience was « Alien » when I only had been six years old. You can bet that something like that stays forever in your mind. Thank you, Ridley Scott, for messing me up !

During my early filmmaking years Peter Jackson probably played a big role, since his LOTR trilogy felt like a DIY indie production and its many making-of videos taught a lot about filmmaking. So that’s the production spirit side. « The Matrix »taught me a lot about world-building and using mythology in films. In the late 90s and early 2000s we also had a wave of mindfuck films with new ways of storytelling like « The Sixth Sense », « Memento », « Fight Club », « The Machinist », « Requiem for a Dream » and « Donnie Darko ». These films taught me that you could create something mesmerizing and mind-bending just by telling it the right way, you don’t necessarily need big budget for that. And those films spoke to me, they felt right in a time when the world became less clear and more complex and confusing.

When you ask me now, I would name Denis Villeneuve, James Grey and Darren Aronofsky as directors I admire. I love how they master and push forward genre films. But there are many others, too, films like « Inception », « Pan’s Labyrinth », « The Fall », « Upstream Color », « Nocturnal Animals » that stayed with me and became part of my inner thinking. Lest not forget animated films, my favourite film of all time since teenhood days is « Akira » and I am a big fan of Satoshi Kon’s work.

So in a nutshell — mythology and mindfuck, that’s what I seem to be drawn to most times. Which fits well with H.P. Lovecraft I guess.

When and how did you meet H.P. Lovecraft texts for the first time ?

I met « Die Farbe » co-producer Jan at university and he gave me some books. That’s how I got into the cult and why we decided to make « Die Farbe ». I heard of Lovecraft before that, playing the board game « Arkham Horror » with friends or reading about some influences in « Alien » and « The X-Files » series, but I hadn’t read anything before that. So it was like « Wow, this is the source of all the good things ! This guy started it all !»

What’s your favorite HPL’s story and why ?

It’s really « The Colour Out of Space » (and Lovecraft himself agrees on that, too). It sticks out for me, because it is about an alien lifeform that is so incredible alien, far away from all those humanoid bipedal aliens we see in so many other stories by other writers. And it is so vastly alien that it transcends the human conceptions of good and evil. Lovecraft really reached a new milestone in this story since he doesn’t directly tell the reader through the narrator about cosmic horror, the smallness and unimportance of humanity on our little planet — we feel it right through the story itself. Wondering and shuddering. And that’s much more elegant than in some of his earlier works.

How did you get the idea to adapt The Colour out of Space ?

Looking for a fitting film project I tossed around ideas with Jan and since we both loved « The Colour Out of Space » we quickly decided on that. But I think it wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been the idea early on to shoot it in black and white and only give the creature a colour. That’s the number one question and we solved it from the beginning, which gave us a lot of energy throughout the whole production — since none of the film adaptations before us tackled this story in the same way. It’s always good to have that feeling of being a pioneer, or to think that you’re the first one who really understood how do it properly, how to give it justice.

That idea probably didn’t come out of nowhere. I watched the French animated film « Renaissance » shortly before that, that had a very strong black and white style. And then there is « Schindler’s List » that was shot in black and white and used red colour to highlight a Jewish girl in few moments. And let’s not forget « Sin City ». And all those expressionist 1920s film classics from Germany’s golden age of film we analyzed in film history lessons in university.

Landscapes in Lovecraft’s novels are a character on their own, they participate in creating a weird mood. Where was your movie shot ? Did you do a lot of locations before finding the right place ?

We had our locations very quickly, which was another crucial factor how « Die Farbe » came together. I knew a lot of possible locations for historic settings in our region due to another film project about the failed German Revolution of 1848/49 I tried and started during studies. Most of the film was shot in an open space museum with real historic rural buildings that were transferred there.

But we really had to find the right spots and angles to make it creepy. Our talented cinematographer, Martin Vincent Kolbert, luckily has a very similar taste and that’s why those old German homes and their gardens and fields are painted in a very different light in our film. In reality they are quite cozy and families flock to visit on week-ends and holidays.

Was this project difficult to set up ?

In retrospective it wasn’t a very hard project, but everything looks easier in the rear-view mirror, I guess. For us, back then, it was a huge challenge. But it was just the right size and scope, luckily. As young filmmakers fresh from university we did know a lot of the obstacles and hardships in advance, but.not all of them.

What were your main obstacles ?

Always the money ! It’s funny to look back at the problems we had, since we’re not students anymore. To go over scheduled budget by 500 EUR drove me crazy back then. Today it’s also bad, but we can manage. We have more money and safety nowadays thanks to our professional careers and the big crowdfunding we received for « The Dreamlands ». But our ambitions and quality standards have risen, too, so in the end nothing has really changed. It is still very hard.

We discovered that it became harder to find crew people or helpers, too. Our friends grew older with us and it’s much harder for them now to find free time amidst job and family duties. There are new young people and film students emerging out there, but many people tend to stay in their bubble. And we still can’t pay anyone.

How long did it take to shoot the film ?

We had two blocks of shooting, altogether a bit more than 30 shooting days. Which is kind of normal for a small TV production, but very fast for a small inexperienced crew with a shoestring budget. Post-production went on for two years. Most vfx shots were completed by Jan and me on our computers at home. We didn’t see many people or attended a lot of parties during that time.

In the original novel, the colour is something one can’t describe. Was is a difficult thing to deal with ?

I think we wouldn’t have made the film if we didn’t have the visual concept right from the start. So after that we could focus on all other parts. Therefor, from my perspective it wasn’t difficult. It was like « The only way I could imagine it would be like this » — and then it’s only about : Can you pull it off or not ? And you don’t know how the audience, how the fans will react. But that’s the life of an artist. You have to trust your idea.

The film begins in the 1970s. Why did you decide to ad this context ?

We wanted to bring the whole story closer to now. One reason was to help Lovecraft’s horror reach and bleed into the present time. If the strange things happened more than 100 years ago and there is a reservoir with a dark past since 80 years it feels too distant. You have to think about that « The Colour Out of Space » was written in the 1930s, so for Lovecraft and his first readers it all happened very close to their present time.

Another reason was of practical nature. The deeper you go into the past, the harder it is to find locations, costumes and props. That’s what I learned from my 1848/49 project. The two World Wars destroyed and changed a lot in Germany, everything beyond 1920 is hard to get.

I chose the 1930s for the main / flashback story because I had that image of American GIs running away from the colour. I didn’t really know for sure back then, it was just a gut feeling, but later on, in retrospective, it makes a lot of sense to juxtapose the colour from outer space with the impact of Fascism in Germany. I remember that I instructed my actors who portrayed the Gärtner family to think of the isolation and apathy Jewish families had to suffer in the early years before the Nazis completely took over the country. I said to them that I don’t want to stress that comparison too much. Today, I would say, that I can’t stress that comparison enough. Which doesn’t mean that you have to read the film like that — but you absolutely can, if you want to.

I then chose the 1970s for the other time level, also more out of a gut feeling. The clothes, the cars, no modern communication devices. But it fits, since it was a time of change. People talked about skeletons in the closets, Germany had to face its dark past in earnest. A lot of thing had been buried and resurfaced.

The 1980s wouldn’t have worked quite as well. Not only because of the clothes, but also because people thought it was all over and started to look away again. As you can see in Stephen King’s « It » which I love very much, too. There, the present is in the rather peaceful 80s and the protagonists are surprised to find out that Pennywise will return again. It would feel very differently if King would have placed it into the turmoil of the 70s.

Your film is included in the Ultimate Edition « Die Farbe aus des All ». How did this happen ?

Well, the publisher Koch Media wanted to have us and so they asked. It’s a great idea to include the very different adaptations of this story and the final product looks very pretty. Maybe I should quickly make « Dunwich Horror » too, so that we can get on board of the next Ultimate Edition again ?

To me, Richard Stanley’s version of The Colour out of Space is very graphic, while yours, I think, is very successful in creating a unique and very lovecraftian sense of weirdness.

Do you think that horror can come from what is NOT shown, from the « unspeakable » as would have written HPL ?

Definitely ! I could even imagine a film adaptation of « The Colour Out of Space » where you never ever see anything and people are only talking about it. That would be quite close to Lovecraft’s writing, very pure, but also quite artsy. It really depends on what you want to convey and how you want to use film language. Richard Stanley’s version focusses more on what the colour does while we focussed more on what it is and means. Apart from huge budget differences that’s why his film is more graphic than ours. We wanted to hide the creature for a long time, but felt we had to unveil it at the end. Only if we show it in its open nature and full form, it becomes possible for the viewer to grasp it. To see how all the « baby » colours fly away into space is a crucial shot. It wouldn’t be the same if there only was an old man telling you that. Still, you cannot rely on that everything that you saw is the truth thanks to our Lovecraftian screenplay structure — or that it already happened. Maybe that memory was a vision of the future ? That’s the great thing about films — they are like dreams. Very real in the very moment, but rather uncertain if you start to think about it. So I think horror can also come by showing something and then inducing uncertainty by questioning the perceived reality. You as a viewer become part of a puzzle and you get the sense that some things may be way larger than us to really understand.

There’s another great movie that reminds me of HPL’s The Colour out of Space, it is Annihilation (based on Jeff Vandermeer’s book), although it isn’t based on a Lovecraft story. What do you think of this movie ?

I really like it. I love the finale in the lighthouse. Such a fantastic weird scene, great direction, writing and performance. It rewards for the shortcomings that are scattered throughout the messy first half e.g. clunky dialogue and underdeveloped characters. It is a very heady film though, with its theme about self-destruction and self-transformation, not easy to grasp. Maybe I would relate more to it if I had suffered from something similar in my life ? It’s one of those films that really draws from personal experience very heavily.

It’s not an official adaptation of « The Colour Out of Space » but I think it’s also part of the family and we can be very glad about its existence.

Part 2 next week !

Les indicibles entretiens de l’Association Miskatonic sont sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

L’association Miskatonic organise à Verdun en octobre le Campus Miskatonic, une convention dédiée à l’oeuvre de H.P. Lovecraft.