Shadows Dancing: David Robert Mitchell Discusses "Under the Silver Lake"

The American director talks about his fantastic noir vision of Los Angeles and how his movie's antihero is a very unhealthy voyeur.
Annabel Brady-Brown

David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake (2018) is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing from March 15 - April 13, 2019.

David Robert Mitchell

“All these holy trinities of women, thriving like plants under the heat of the city’s male gaze. Three, three, three…” So monotones a performance artist at a rooftop club named Purgatory, where guests are greeted by bikini-clad women proffering cherries. On stage the band Jesus & the (three!) Brides of Dracula sing their mysterious hit, while we eyeball a dancer in a figure-hugging bodysuit, adorned with balloons.

Yup, the symbols are flying thick and fast. “But what does it all mean?” howls Sam, the louche antihero—himself drawn from a backlog of slacker and noir antiheroes—at several points in Under the Silver Lake. David Robert Mitchell’s third feature, after his sweet coming-of-age debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), and his break-out, the slick horror It Follows (2014), sees the writer-director tackle the L.A. noir, an enigmatic genre that is steeped deeper in the storied halls of cinema than any real geographical coordinates.

Purgatory—the space of divine cleansing betwixt heaven and hell—is thus a fitting arena for disheveled, anguished Sam (Andrew Garfield). A man-child knight-errant, Sam decides he must search for his hot neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) after she vanishes overnight—a decision we can attribute to self-aggrandizing chivalric delusion; to his need to instill purpose in an otherwise drifting, aimless existence; or to blue balls. 

Among the only crumbs left in her emptied apartment are a pair of diamonds painted on a wall, a symbol that by the end of Sam’s odyssey we identify as “hobo code” for “KEEP QUIET.” Lured in by this tantalizing whiff of conspiracy, he scours the decadent bowels of the city for her, haphazardly crashing exclusive parties, clubs, and secret music shows, while rarely bothering to shower. 

The code—which Sam learns about from a bug-eyed zinemaker (Patrick Fischler), and which really was, as he says, a hieroglyphic system developed by the homeless and railroaders during the Great Depression—is just one in the bounty of signifiers Mitchell teasingly saturates his film with, encouraging interpretation. Red herrings, coincidences, and pop culture references playfully proliferate—egging Sam (still clutching a Polaroid of Sarah) onwards. A neighbor’s parrot chirps a cryptic word; a map in an old copy of Nintendo Power Magazine leads him closer. Such “clues” fuel the thick mood of obsessive paranoia, but—despite the zeal with which fanboys have unpicked them, and which Mitchell has encouraged—ultimately go nowhere. Belief in any overarching meaning to the universe is understood to be a sham.  

Though far from a new take, Mitchell’s riff on this undergrad brand of po-mo cynicism is fresh and energetic. For those still fond of Richard Kelly, or who, when sufficiently inebriated, might ‘fess up to owning a Pynchon-inspired muted horn tattoo, there’s much to like here. The writing is at its most seductive during Sam’s meeting with The Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), a wrinkled Biff Tannen look-alike responsible for the zeitgeist-tapping pop hits of several generations, from grunge anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to doo-wop ditty “Earth Angel.” This is a wicked vision of the back-end of cultural production. The Songwriter caws, “There is no rebellion, there’s only me earning a pay check,” before Sam bashes his head in with Kurt Cobain’s Fender Mustang. 

For the most part, Mitchell’s overtly sunny movie obscures its moral or political agenda, so that when the scruffily cute Sam declares he hates the homeless, violently beats up a kid, or endlessly ogles women, the absence of consequences (other than the endless stream of women falling into his lap) makes it hard to actually laugh. Rather than satire, the film sticks so close to Sam’s point of view that it pivots toward chilly pastiche. The horror is located not in some alternate outside reality, but lurks in a world we recognize and inhabit. 

This gambit means the film risks perpetuating the culture of ironic sexism it seeks to critique (a reading which drew the ire of some critics upon its Cannes debut). At several points though, Mitchell shows his hand as he ruptures or throws back Sam’s stifling male gaze—including the cathartic moment Sarah learns he’s been devotedly searching for her, and can’t stop a hint of creeped-out ridicule from sneaking into her voice: “But you hardly know me.” As it turns out, she doesn’t even want to be rescued; Sam’s damsel-in-distress fantasy tumbles before his eyes. The game is up.

I spoke with David Robert Mitchell after the premiere of his film at the Cannes Film Festival.  

NOTEBOOK: I’m a little mystified by the reception the film’s received, I loved it.

DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL: Yeah, that is disappointing. Some of it feels like a bit of mystery. But what can I say? I was talking about this with someone earlier. I was joking about the fact it’s a long film, it’s almost as if people took a bathroom break during the drone scene [in which Sam and a friend use a drone camera to perv on a woman undressing in her bedroom, when she inadvertently kills the mood by asserting her subjectivity and bursting into tears] and missed that. I feel that’s certainly commenting on some of the things they have disagreements with. 

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to start by asking about L.A. It’s a central subject of the film, and is archly presented to us through Sam’s POV. How real is this version of L.A. to you?

MITCHELL: It’s a nightmare version of a particular neighborhood, at a particular moment in time. It’s very much dark fantasy. Someone who lives in L.A. will recognize these things, these landmarks and types of spaces. But the film is a mystery… it’s a mystery on multiple levels: about the journey this character takes, and then also the mystery of this character. But essentially it’s a fabrication. 

NOTEBOOK: You’ve been living in L.A. for a while?

MITCHELL: Quite a few years, yeah.

NOTEBOOK: Does the film, even as a fantastic vision, reflect your feelings about the city?

MITCHELL: I mean, sure. The script was… writing about things that were around me. And distorting them. I definitely have a deep love and affection for Los Angeles, and then I also have contempt for it. And the film also has elements of satire. It’s impossible to live there and to not have these mixed feelings about so many elements of life there.

NOTEBOOK: It also situates itself as part of a tradition of L.A. noir. Your two earlier features handle genre so well. I’m curious, did you go into this thinking, “I want to make the L.A. film”?

MITCHELL: I wanted to make my version of a L.A. noir. A L.A. mystery. To me, film is about exploring all these different genres. I’m interested in trying different things, and moving between the things that interest me. I love movies from the creation of cinema—from single-shot silent films, to serialized films in the teens, Fritz Lang, and a million others through the twenties—basically, I have a love for cinema through all the decades, from all over the world, from the highbrow to the lowbrow. I’m interested in exploring these, trying to reinterpret them and put a personal stamp on them.

NOTEBOOK: Genre-wise, the film echoes dystopian L.A.-set titles like Mulholland Dr. or Inherent Vice—but you’re doing something different here. Even though there’s a floaty, timeless quality to its setting, the film taps a contemporary mood.

MITCHELL: It is, it is. In my brain, there are specific dates in the film. It’s supposed to be set in a fictional summer 2011 in Los Angeles. Which is not that different from now. We’ve reached this point where, because of the Internet, everything from all eras in terms of imagery and sounds is accessible at all times. I don’t know when it started, it’s been at least ten, fifteen years where all things are available to us. Like, in terms of designing fashion—I don’t want to offend anyone, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a brand new look, even though they’d probably disagree with me. And in terms of music, film, the arts… everyone is attempting to shift and do unique things but the influences of the past are always there with us.

NOTEBOOK: Which is very much in the dressing of the film. Sam’s house is littered with old film posters, VHS tapes, there’s a DJ playing nineties pop songs… It’s all mashing in a way which throws off the audience, but also reflects that experience.

MITCHELL: It is a specifically, fairly contemporary moment in time. My previous two films were hinting at a general time but were much more vague. We tried to avoid various very specific pop culture elements. We created our own.

NOTEBOOK: Like the one phone in It Follows?

MITCHELL: Yeah, the shell phone. We were doing things to blur the lines about the era. There are bits of that in this one, but here we really embraced dating the film. It was the opposite: we’re going to bring all of this in, try and define this moment, so that as the film ages it will feel like that particular moment. It’s a celebration—and a questioning—of all the very specific pop culture elements from this character’s past. 

NOTEBOOK: Tonally, there’s an air of decadence, or even naive innocence. Right now, it feels like culture’s being closely examined through the lens of Trump, and we’ve been thrown into some very sincere, horrified conversations. 2011 is arguably before that hit. Of course, terrible things were also happening in America then, but…

MITCHELL: I wrote this in 2012 and kind of set it aside. But I had felt it was something we should put out as soon as possible. In the sense that there was a feeling, as I was writing it, of a shadow rising. That’s a feeling within the film. We’re at a point now where it’s no longer rising, these shadows are covering us all. They’re dancing. And it’s nightmarish. But yes, it’s that feeling that these elements are there, in the corners. Whereas now, certainly in the U.S., they’re out in the open. 

NOTEBOOK: In interviews for It Follows, you mentioned liking the way cinema allows you to play with elements to make the world feel like a dream. As you said, this is more of a nightmare. Could you talk a little about that desire?

MITCHELL: You’re taking the camera and aiming it at a particular thing, and you’re able to choose what you fill the frame with. Essentially you’re creating moments within a world, and that world doesn’t have to be… you don’t necessarily have to achieve naturalism. And often [naturalism] is not all that interesting… So you can build the world however you want, depending on budgetary restrictions and what’s accessible to you, but what you choose to put in the frame will suggest elements of that world. The ground rules can be whatever you want. Here, a lot of it was about using things that exist in our world, that we’re familiar with, and then adding fictional elements—Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, the “Turning Teeth” song—some things that are outside of our reality but that merge with the other. There are fictional and sort of built clues that are suggested to be real-world elements in the film, and that interact with real physical, pop cultural elements that we may actually have, or have had in our own life. It’s not impossible that many people have owned that Nintendo Power Magazine Issue One. If they have it in a box somewhere, they can actually go and open up that map in there and our puzzles truly interact with those things. It’s about merging the two, the fictional and the real.

NOTEBOOK: This extends to the way the characters don’t feel quite real.

MITCHELL: Correct. Sam is somewhat unknowable. To start to understand him, you can really only get there by re-watching the film, looking for small clues, and then connecting things through intuition. It’s similar with Sarah—there are hints, but we don’t fully understand her. And the others, we only get hints of the characters Sam is interacting with through his journey. They’re like representations of things in a dream, or ghosts.  

NOTEBOOK: Some critics here have taken issue with the film’s representation of women, but this was less an issue for me precisely because none of the characters feel real. We’re so clearly trapped inside a claustrophobic male gaze.

MITCHELL: I guess what I would say is, we’re seeing this film through the eyes of a very unhealthy voyeur who is—you know, he is objectifying women, he is doing things that go against the way that… he is certainly not a role model. Anybody would be a fool to fashion their life after his behavior. Again, just look at the drone scene and maybe give it some consideration... I think it’s just a very dark view of humanity across the board. I’d have to think about whether there are any characters that have redeemable qualities, or are shown in a positive light. It is both men and women.  

NOTEBOOK: When did Andrew Garfield come into the project for you? Was he always Sam?

MITCHELL: Usually when I write something I don’t write with a particular actor in mind. But I’ve always been a fan of his work, I think he’s a phenomenal actor, and I had a feeling he’d be great in this role. Andrew has a certain charisma, there’s something very likeable about him, and we have this very fucked-up character—it’s all the things we said: he’s objectifying women, he’s beating the shit out of children, there’s a sadism and an anger to him, he’s mocking the homeless, he’s also about to be homeless…

 NOTEBOOK: And doesn’t seem too fazed.

MITCHELL: Yes. We have this very dark and disturbing character who we have to follow through this strange journey. My feeling was Andrew has enough of that charm and likeability that he could pull the audience through this nightmare.

NOTEBOOK: Even with his dirty clothes and hair—please wash your hair! I was getting so distracted.

MITCHELL: [Laughs] Yes! And he’s very sweaty, and… Yeah they were doing a lot of make-up to make that happen. He does change his clothes at some points in the film, but there are long stretches, several days go by with some of the same outfits!

NOTEBOOK: In terms of the clues sprinkled throughout the film, I have to ask: is the bird saying a particular word? While watching, I was convinced it was “Hollywood.”

MITCHELL: The truth is that I can’t say. It would be wrong to comment on it at all. That’s my comment.

NOTEBOOK: I know you always have ten scripts in a drawer. What’s next?

MITCHELL: I’m writing something that I’ve had in my head for a couple of years, but I’ve been busy, and I hadn’t had a chance to put it all on paper until now. If it’s that one, then it’s a pivot in a very different direction. That’s what I like doing. People were surprised when I made a horror film. And then after that, everyone thinks you’ll make another horror film. I think people are surprised I made an L.A. noir, and I’d like to continue to surprise people. I’m hoping I’m on the planet long enough and am able to consistently make films enough to do a round of all the things I really want to do.

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