“We just need empathy: that’s what movies are for”
From his debut Some Kind Of Hate through to 2019’s Daniel Isn’t Real director Adam Egypt Mortimer has established himself as a leading voice in genre cinema for thought-provoking representations of mental ill health. Now he’s back to challenge audiences again with superhero crime flick Archenemy, arguing that a cosmic canvas is the best place to tell intimate stories.
Mental illness is a key theme across your filmography: what are your favourite examples of how it’s represented in cinema?
The use of mental illness in movies to make an interesting film is not the same as an accurate or helpful presentation: those are very different things.
Psycho is a great movie about psychosis, but I don’t know that there’s anything accurate or socially redeeming about it. Fight Club is a movie I love – I watched it 18 times in a row when I was getting ready for Daniel Isn’t Real – but I don’t think there’s a single person in all of human history who’s experienced the symptoms that movie suggests: it’s deeply inaccurate, but it’s using the idea of alienation and depersonalization to talk about how modern society makes us all kind of crazy.
Mulholland Drive has this incredible sense of breaking from the self: it’s a really interesting way of depicting what an extreme experience might feel like from the point of view of the person having the experience, but again it’s not necessarily looking to accurately represent mental illness. Memento is another one that puts you in the experience, using cinema language to make you feel like you don’t have a short term memory.
A good movie about mental health is Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, which is about depression, grief and self hate and then finally everybody figures out we should love one another; maybe A Star is Born, which is about depression and alcoholism; or All That Jazz where he’s obsessive and then goes into a hypnagogic state and dies of a heart attack. I think a lot non-genre love stories are a positive look at mental health. I just watched Beyond the Lights: she attempts suicide and realizes it’s because she hasn’t been living authentically to herself, and when she finally does she’s healthy.
The thing with Daniel Isn’t Real and Archenemy is that both of those characters are not schizophrenic: they have totally impossible genre situations, where one of them is possessed by a demon and one of them is from another dimension, but their circumstances make them feel like they’re crazy and they’re questioning their reality. I’m interested in exploring the feeling that we all have, like the ground is melting under us and we’re all going to die.
So it’s two totally different ways that cinema can explore it: mental illness as a metaphor for how we all feel and the actual quality of having the ailment.
Genre films can be reductive when portraying mental health, though Lars von Trier’s Melancholia plays with genre in an interesting way to represent depression.
That’s a great example. There’s been so many times over the past couple of years – and at the beginning of this pandemic – where I’ve thought about Melancholia: it makes this beautiful point that if you feel alienated and depressed by regular, smiling society then when things really go wrong you might well be the one to rise to the occasion. The dynamic that Kirsten Dunst has with her sister, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, once the Earth is about to be destroyed: she’s like “Well, let’s just deal with it”, whereas getting married in a mansion drove her to complete insanity and depression.
I love that you brought brought up that movie: the way it begins with this imagistic hypnagogia and then becomes grounded in what it would feel like. And telling that story from the point of view of a viciously depressed character: it starts with the apocalypse of the soul so that the actual apocalypse changes things around.
That movie has a lot of empathy and it feels like your films do too, positioning themselves from the point of view of people who either are mentally ill or are perceived as such: is that intentional for you?
Oh, absolutely. Empathy is the thing I’ve really discovered as I’ve started making movies. I’m interested aesthetically in this very dark material – I’m somebody who growing up was in death metal bands – but I got to a point before I was able to make Daniel where I realized that the aesthetics of nihilism are meaningless. Something I’ve said many times is that right before I was going to make Daniel the 2016 election happened and Donald Trump was made President, and suddenly everybody was like “The world is fucked”. And I thought “I don’t need to make a movie whose central point is ‘The universe is evil’, I need to make a movie asking ‘How can we still find empathy?'” And that really became the spark that unlocked what Daniel was about. We just need empathy: that’s what movies are for.
Archenemy is a superhero movie, and although in the last 13 years we’ve had the MCU this felt more of a piece with darker, indie takes on those types of stories.
Unbreakable is probably my favourite superhero movie, or something weird and scruffy like Darkman which has the tropes of a superhero but also is a Universal-monster-kind-of-creature.
You can do so much with the mythology of superheroes: why can’t we treat these characters in a more abstract, juicy, darker, stranger way? Since the 80s comic books treated their audience with incredible levels of sophistication: when you look at things like Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller’s Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love and War, and things that Grant Morrison started doing, they’re saying “You’ve already read thousands of comic books about superheroes so we can take them and completely deconstruct the aesthetic of it: we can tell the stories backwards, we don’t have to give you an origin story, we don’t have to show him vanquishing evil”. I started writing Archenemy in 2015 and was thinking “Maybe now the moviegoing audience has been so saturated by superheroes that we can treat them in a sophisticated way too, and I can do a movie where a guy will mention that he used to fight intelligent black holes and we’re already there with him – we don’t need an origin”. There is an origin in the movie, but it’s questionable and psychedelic.
I definitely think superheroes are not a genre or style of filmmaking. It’s like with Westerns: you can make a Western that’s ridiculous and insane, or one where nobody gets shot and it’s just dramatic. You can do anything with it. With Archenemey, it’s a crime movie, like Point Blank.
As with Daniel Isn’t Real, Archenemey has a protagonist battling an otherworldly threat and these cosmic, imaginary spaces are contrasted with the grounded experiences of a person who is marginalized by society.
I’m really obsessed with this idea that we carry a connection to a vast cosmic thing inside of us: I don’t fight super villains or demons, I get up in the morning and wonder what the fuck I’m doing with my life. I’m all about how you translate these very small, specific, personal feelings into things that feel like a large cosmic battle, because I think in some ways we’re doing both all the time.
On a meta-level with cinema you’re transporting audiences into this imaginary plane where we do battle with issues around mortality and morality, and then we hopefully come out with some level of transformative hope at the end of 90 minutes.
I think you’re right: it’s like it projects out of your head and the beam expands into a bigger and bigger canvas, starting from “I feel lonely” and then as it gets onto the screen it becomes “The universe is a terrifying place and we have to fight it”.
What’s next for you?
I’ve written a movie with Brian DeLeeuw – who I wrote Daniel Isn’t Real with – about witches and the roots of capitalism and we’re hoping to figure out how to shoot that this year. So that might be the next thing: I hope it is, we’ll see.
Donald Trump repeatedly said there was a witch hunt whilst also being the arch capitalist.
We’ve had these years of hearing “Witch hunt! Witch hunt!” but the reality is that witch hunts were created to steal common land from people, murder women and create the labour class, so I’m trying to tell that story in a way that’s a fast moving and exciting, and not a history lesson. I’m fascinated by those issues.
ARCHENEMY is available now on VOD and DVD.