SUE DE BEER with Jessica Holmes
MARIANNE BOESKY GALLERY | JUNE 21 - AUGUST 3, 2018
For the past twenty years, Sue de Beer has been using, challenging, and subverting the tropes of horror to make experimental films that are by turns unsettling and beautiful, and infused with a sly-eyed humor. Her sixth major production centers in and around a medical clinic located on a remote island off the New England coast, whose doctors, nurses, and patients all hold their secrets, and are possibly not what they seem. De Beer has long wished to make a werewolf film, and on the occasion of her fourth exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery, I sat down with her to preview and discuss her newest piece, The White Wolf.
Jessica Holmes (Rail): So how is the installation going?
Sue de Beer: It’s good, it’s coming along. Have you seen The White Wolf yet?
Rail: No, I haven’t.
De Beer: Would you like to watch it right now?
[The film begins]
De Beer: It’s two projections. The music was written by a friend of mine, Andy Comer, who has done music for several of my previous films. When I was working on the edit for The White Wolf I found recordings that Andy made for me in 2005, so all this music is from a thirteen-year-old basement recording session. We had recorded the audio for The Quickening, but I had put it to the side because it sounded too Hitchcock. I used a lot of rear projection when I was doing the shoot for The White Wolf, so the Hitchcock feeling seemed to make sense for this film.
Rail: I was going to ask about the music, because I was reading that music rights have hindered you from making your films more accessible in the past. I was wondering if you were thinking of ways around that.
De Beer: The music for The White Wolf was done with all copyright free music, except a moment in the film where an Andrews Sisters song plays.
Rail: How did you go about casting for this film?
De Beer: I had an idea that for this particular film that I wanted to work with dancers. I thought the athleticism of dancer’s bodies, would bring an interesting physicality to the project–partly because it is a werewolf film. My friend, the curator Khary Simon, had a contact to Tadej Brdnik from the Martha Graham dance company. Khary reached out to Tadej, and Tadej suggested a few of the dancers with the company who he thought might be interested in working with me.
Rail: How long have you been thinking of making a werewolf film?
De Beer: This film was made in part with my Guggenheim fellowship. I had written a very simple proposal for that, about doing an occult horror, a werewolf film. I have been working on this project for two years now.
The research phase of my work tends to take me to expected places as I develop my concepts and imagery. And certainly werewolf lore has a very long history. The more I researched werewolves and their appearance in culture, the more the layered the subject became for me.
On the screen now is Yuka Honda, who plays the doctor. She’s a musician.
Rail: She’s in Cibo Matto, isn’t she?
De Beer: Yeah, she is so epic, an exceptional person. What we are seeing here right now are her hands doing werewolf shadow puppets.
Rail: How did you connect with Honda? She is the central character of the film, right?
De Beer: Through Jon Spencer. Initially I interviewed dancers for the role of the doctor, but I couldn't find one that was able to convincingly speak the doctor’s monologues, which are quite long and difficult texts. The dancers that I met with struggled with the text.
I have worked musicians in the past because they have trained voices and can bring a text to life. I kind of hit a wall with my dancers and these texts, and so I reached out to Jon for help. I remembered Yuka Honda from when I was in art school in the 90’s. Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman had just come out and I remembered this album had a very abstract, poetic quality. I wondered what Yuka was like now. Jon put us together and I met her in a cafe and I had her read and she brought the text to life. She is a fascinating person.
Rail: Do you have a vision what the set and costumes are going to look like before you begin filming?
De Beer: A little bit. The sets for me are the most spontaneous thing. I tend to have a color palette in mind. One of the settings in the film is a medical clinic and I really wanted to work with this cool green for the clinic.
Rail: Who is this tap dancer on screen?
De Beer: This is Kazu Kumagai, who is a band mate of Yuka. They perform together in an experimental, electronic music group called ‘Limbs’. Yuka plays keyboards, and he taps as percussions. He is quite a well-known tap dancer.
Rail: He is incredible.
De Beer: His steps sound like rain.
Rail: The amount of control that you need to have in your body to be able to move like that is something that was always beyond me.
De Beer: I know, I am so jealous.
[The Andrews Sisters song “Daddy” begins to play.]
De Beer: So this is the copyright protected piece of music; the Andrews Sisters song. The dancer you see here goes by the stage name of Gin Minksy. She’s a burlesque dancer, who also went to art school. Her burlesque is related to her artwork. I couldn’t bring myself to remove the song because I felt it would change the work.
[The film ends.]
Rail: Thank you for showing me the film. What else is included in this exhibition?
De Beer: For this exhibition, I also decided to show images from my first body of work, from 1998, which were included in my first solo show with my gallery in LA, Sandroni Rey Gallery. They are a series of large-scale photographs, and they represent the first time I had used a constructed set. They are fairly violent. When I was working on the sets for The White Wolf, I was thinking of these. I can show them to you, they’re around the corner.
Rail: And these are film stills, or straight photographs?
De Beer: Yes, they are photographs, early work from when I was in my twenties. Each photograph would take several months to produce. I built an upside down set for this photograph, and I would just go in to the studio and photograph myself in there. That's me in this image.
Rail: An upside down set also makes an appearance in the film.
De Beer: Yes, it does. This photograph over here is one of me as well. I was having a hard time asking other people to sit for me back then. But this one over here was the one where I got the courage to ask someone else to be in a photograph.
In this one, when I was building the set, I had cut everything in the room in half. I tried several times to shoot in it, and the photos look terrible. Then I cut her in half also, and that made the image make more sense.
Rail: It’s interesting to see how cleaving the image actually fused it together.
De Beer: [Laughs.] There are little bits of humor in the work, I think. In my werewolf film, the topics are so serious—I thought you needed to laugh in order to address these kinds of larger questions.
Rail: There is a long, rich history of wolf tales. How much research did you do into werewolf folklore?
De Beer: I was specifically looking for a story that had a female werewolf, in part to see if there were any. The title of my film comes from The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains, a novella by Frederick Marryat that was published in 1839. The wolf figure in the story was a woman. And interestingly, that story had a structure to it that I recognized from a few films that I was interested in and thinking about, where there is someone passing through a town where something strange going on. There is a mystery, and the story works to uncover it. I had been interested in The Birds for example, and there is Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film The Man Who Lies that also has a similar structure. So I was thinking about all of those, using them to create a narrative structure. But really, the narrative is just a framework for these larger questions.
Rail: There was a line from one of the monologues that really struck me. “A person is not a body, he explained. On the contrary a person consists in two aspects, those of spaciousness and form. Spaciousness exists inside form like air inside a balloon. The body that we’re born into is one possible form. But it’s not the only one.”
De Beer: Yes—this is my favorite scene in the film.
Rail: What sort of questions were you asking with this? What was percolating?
De Beer: Well, what sort of questions came to your mind?
Rail: To me, the idea of transformation seemed to course through the film, which the metaphor of a werewolf embodies. How does that play in your making of the film?
De Beer: Yes, the film is about transformation and I think—at the end of all of my reading and research—that is why werewolf stories exist: to look at the human body and the way that it transforms outside of personal experience, outside of the individual. The stories exist to examine a moment when the physical body itself sits outside of human control and just transforms involuntarily. During a lifespan this will happen to everyone multiple times and I think that there’s a way that that’s connected to being that I have a lot of questions about. My work is all of these questions, those early photographs are as well.
Rail: There’s something in the film that is also suggestive to me of memory, another thing that transforms over time.
De Beer: Nothing changes so much as the past.
Rail: Right. Can you talk to me a little bit about your use of color? You mentioned earlier that the colors you used were one of the first things set in your mind, and the palette is indeed so striking.
De Beer: The mint greens.
Rail: Yes, the reds and purples crossing the doctor’s face.
De Beer: Something for me that’s outside of language—color—it’s just beautiful. I think about film and filmmaking as a sculpture and part of the way that the sets are built is about a kind of sculptural expression of a moment in time. Color is connected to that. I’m not sure why—I love this baby pink and the mint green. I have a friend that had meningitis as a kid who had spent some time in the hospital and he remembered this kind of mint green of the hospital walls. He told me about it and the story stuck in my mind somehow.
Rail: Colors can also evoke really powerful memories, like this story of your friend, for example.
De Beer: Maybe we’re all defined by the color palettes of our own memories, or place memories.
Rail: I’ve spoken with other filmmakers and photographers about a proclivity for sculpture. What is it to you about the medium that goes hand-in-hand with filmmaking?
De Beer: I don’t know if it does. It makes no sense what I do. I think film people like my work because it is unusually raw. When I studied in art school, I would make photos and films, but would be embraced most freely by the sculpture departments. I think like a sculptor, although I produce in many media.
Rail: Several years ago, when her film Women Without Men came out, Shirin Neshat said in the pages of this magazine that she wanted her film to be seen in commercial theaters because “It’s useful and productive if visual artists can also be participants in the popular culture beyond the doors of galleries and museums.” As someone who incorporates a lot of pop cultural references into quite renegade films, I wonder how you’d respond to that idea?
De Beer: It’s something I also think about quite a bit these days. But I think these divisions are breaking down somewhat, possibly because of the influence of social media.
Rail: Much is often made of your allusions in your work to Italian giallo films. In what ways do you make use of the tropes of that genre; or, in what ways are you possibly subverting them in The White Wolf?
De Beer: I love the color of giallos, and the objects in them. They informed my lighting quite a bit. I also like the clothes in giallos. My stories are pulling from a literary history as well though. This film also references Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Rappacini’s Daughter,” for example, in the final monologue text.
Rail: It’s fascinating that you tracked down the first literary work to feature a female werewolf character. It seems that gender is a persistent, yet subtle underlying theme in many of your films, and especially so in The White Wolf. Can you tell me about its function in the film?
De Beer: That wasn’t the first—it was just one of the few. There was another werewolf story that was female driven, The Were-Wolf by Clemence Housman, published in 1896, which is similar to Marryat’s werewolf story. I don’t think my work is about gender. I just write and film stories about people. This film is a story about wolves and people.
Rail: Let’s backtrack a little and talk about your beginnings and up to now. You began as a photographer, is that right?
De Beer: Yes, with those works that will be shown with The White Wolf.
Rail: How did you migrate into film?
De Beer: Well, one of the first video works I did was Making Out With Myself. I think I may have shot that in 1997.
Rail: Is that when you were in graduate school at Columbia?
De Beer: I shot that video in graduate school. Then after school I did a project with Laura Parnes called Heidi 2 that was the sequel to Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley’s Heidi, an early work. One of the nice things about that experience was that, because it was a collaboration and because as a young artist who was quite shy, I had really not wanted to be in front of the camera—collaboration gave me the courage to ask people to really join me in this searching process. Before that, I had a hard time asking people to step in front of the camera for me. I play a lot when I shoot and I don’t really have a clear idea of what I’m going to get when I start, so I used to have a very hard time asking people to trust the process. Then I received a grant from the American Academy in Berlin and I went there and did my film Hans & Grete, which was in the Whitney Biennial in 2004. That was my film about school shooters.
Rail: I was going to ask you about Hans & Grete. I kept coming back to this film in light of the rash of school shootings over the last several years and even in the last couple of months. Has your perception of the film changed in light of all of these school shootings we hear about so frequently now?
De Beer: I've changed so much since I made it—I mean, I'm in my forties now. I just saw the writer Laurence Rickels, and he told me he wrote a chapter on that film for a book that was published a couple years ago, Terror and the Roots of Poetics. I had never seen this book before, and I was able to find it online. His text was a nice way to re-visit that work. I had never seen the book, so I went and got it. Alissa Bennett wrote the monologue for the shooter character, and the text really cut close to the bone. That film is not on the Internet partly because of the music I used and I don’t know if I would ever want that film simply available on the Internet just in case kids watched it and felt that the film is encouraging that kind of violence. Alissa captures something real about the way kids are and the way they can think about immortality. As an older person it’s a position that, over time and experience, you really come to understand how false immortality is. But as a young person—especially a very young person—it has a lot more traction in your imagination.
Rail: I think it refers to Kip Kinkel, doesn’t it? I don’t want to say that he was the original school shooter, but he seems like the tipping point. The Columbine shooting happened a few months later and that shooting sort of ended up overshadowing Kip Kinkel’s crime.
De Beer: I was friends with the writer Dennis Cooper when I was working on Hans & Grete and he wrote a novel called My Loose Thread that is based on Kip Kinkel’s life. For some reason that story really moved me. I created a lot of cross narratives, which I do in The White Wolf as well—it's a structure I use in many works—to ask people to look at different perspectives, and to think about the ways that they're the same and the ways that they're different. That piece, also I shot it shortly after September 11th. There was so much violence going on in the world then. I had been in New York when the towers fell, and then I was in Europe when the US invaded Iraq. The US was also rendering people to black sites—torture sites.
I became interested when I was working on that film in western European terrorists and their presence in mass media. Specifically I was looking at the Red Army Faction – the ‘Baader Meinhof Gang’. In Germany, there have been many films made about them. They're often presented as Robin Hood figures in mass media, so I wanted to unpack that, and the ways in which kids look up to these figures and create their own narratives and fictions about these things.
The film I did after that was Black Sun, which was really about the way that people kind of seek out love in different forms at different ages. The Quickening, which is my Puritan film, followed that, and then I did The Ghosts, about an occult hypnotist.
Rail: I did want to ask you about your film prior to this one, The Blue Lenses. You shot on location instead of in a studio. Is that right?
De Beer: Part of that film was shot in Westbeth here in New York and then I shot part in Abu Dhabi. That piece was a constant series of surprises. I shot in New York first and thought I shot full script but then when I looked back at it, I realized that I hadn’t. I had been given this opportunity to work in Abu Dhabi and I thought, well I’ll shoot the other half there and see what happens. So I went thinking I would just build sets there and work like I normally do. But laws around real estate in Abu Dhabi are very different and I was there for four to five months and wasn’t able to really get a space set up, so I had to shoot on location. The good thing about that was that I had to interface with the city in a real way. My line producer, Amani Alsaid, was a young Syrian filmmaker, raised in Qatar. We would go out and we would do location stuff together. I’m always asking people I work with to repeat back what I say to them. So, when we were choosing locations I showed her my work and we talked about the script, and she would say back to me what I planned to do there and it would always end up different than what I expected. So it was an interesting process, a surprise and a challenge.
Rail: Have you always been intrigued by horror and noir genres?
De Beer: I think so.
Rail: Was it an interest of yours growing up?
De Beer: I think it’s just being raised in Salem, Massachusetts and probably too many witch trial field trips as a kid. You know, even New England’s architecture has a specific look. Of course, as a New England child you’re also given a lot of Nathaniel Hawthorne and H.P. Lovecraft to read, and Edgar Allen Poe is the local poet. The term for Herman Melville and Hawthorne—the literary genre is dark romanticism, and that was a lot of fiction and imagery that I was exposed to as a young person. That genre certainly developed my imagination, and then of course in Boston at the time, in the early 1990s, there was a great music scene. A lot of hardcore and heavy metal, and I think the music also celebrated that kind of look. Then later, when I was living in Berlin I became really interested in Rainer Werner Fassbinder and these German filmmakers that used very low budgets. They would talk about important ideas while the wheels were falling off the car as they were filming. I was interested in the structure of that way of being.
Rail: How was it filming at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City?
De Beer:I wanted to shoot The White Wolf on sets. When I shot my film prior to this one, The Blue Lenses, New York real estate had gotten so expensive, I had to change the way that I worked in order to get it made. And I love that film, but for The White Wolf I really just wanted to work on sets. In New York. Mana generously offered me a space, so I could work in this way. They also have a cinema room and I had wanted to do back projection, because I was really thinking a lot about Alfred Hitchcock. They had a beautiful projector there, and I was able to make that happen. I’m very grateful to them for that.
Rail: When you’re imagining these sets, how involved are you with getting them actually up and built?
De Beer: I had three rotating assistants, but I was there the whole time. It’s important to me that the sets look handmade. There are a lot of things about them where my hand really needs to be in it. It’s this funny form of meditation for me. The biggest challenge in this film was the bar set.
Rail: The bar set was stunning.
De Beer: When I pulled it off, I was like, “Yeah!” I am very proud of that bar set.
Rail: Can you tell me a little bit about your working process? I’ve read that you work collaboratively with your whole crew, and the writers who compose the monologues. Tell me how that all worked and came together for The White Wolf.
De Beer: Maybe it’s recognition of the limits of my own experience or anyone’s unique experience. If I let people tell me how they interpret my idea, the more complex the world is that I am able to present back at the end of the process.
Rail: So when you are making a set for example, are you open?
De Beer: Well, okay, I am very controlling when I am making my sets. That is also true of the some of the costumes. I bought the nurse dress that dancer Cara McManus wears, on Amazon. I gave it to Cara and said, “Well, if you want to alter it, ok, maybe that's better.” So she and my assistant went to the bathroom and they cut it very short, and they came back out, and I said, “That's what you want? Great!” And then she left for the day, and I went on Amazon and bought the dress again. [Laughter.] And I cut slits up the sides so she could move her legs, but kept its original length.
The physical presence of the sets is very important to me—maybe because these places are based on real memories, and I have a personal relationship to them. Also this piece is a love letter to New England, and my New England childhood. With some other things I am more open. With Yuka, I had her over before we began shooting and we worked together on her clothes. She introduced the wig she uses in the film. She found the wig as we were shooting and felt that her character would wear a wig like that. You have to really be a rock star to be able to take off a wig like she does in the film!
Rail: Another aspect of transformation too—you put on a wig and you become something else. A small gesture that seemed really potent.
De Beer: I agree.
Rail: The spoken language is also really lovely. Who wrote the monologues?
De Beer: Nathaniel Axel, who is an artist I have worked with before. He shows at KARMA gallery. He’s great.
Rail: How much back and forth did the two of you have?
De Beer: A lot, but also, he’s also very autonomous. He’s interesting. I can see in this text how he put in references from previous films of mine. The end monologue is both “Rappaccini’s Daughter” from Hawthorne, and then the end line is very similar to the end line from The Quickening. It’s almost identical. There are themes in the final work that have been in previous works of mine. Nate knew my work pretty well when we started working together. He’s very interested in imposters, and I love that. He also wrote the texts for The Blue Lenses, which is all about an imposter.
Rail: Dance is an art of making a story through the physical use of human bodies, and in The White Wolf there are several memorable dance segments. In what way did casting dancers shape the film?
De Beer: The people cast in this film were all creators in their own right. I cast them because they are interesting people, and because they reminded me of the written characters somehow. Kazu I think feels at his most relaxed when he is tap dancing. It is his natural state. Cara can be quite polite when you speak to her, but when she moves she shows her complexity—there is a wildness and a freeness in her movement. I love that duality in her as a person, and as a performer.
Rail: What draws you to depicting violence?
De Beer: It’s American.
Jessica Holmes is a New York based writer and critic who contributes regularly to Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.