Fear Itself: An Interview with Charlie Lyne

May 2, 2016

by Adam Nayman

In Charlie Lyne’s Fear Itselfwhich makes itswe Canadian premiere this week at Hot Docs, a disembodied female voice narrates over top of scenes culled from a century’s worth of genre movies. But the film is hardly a survey of horror tropes: Instead, Lyne–who previously directed the teen-movie essay film Beyond Clueless–uses a string of carefully chosen clips to frame an abstract meditation on memory and anxiety. It’s a marvellous, thoughtful piece of Internet-age film criticism–a fit complement to Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 even as it omits The Shining entirely (making the possibility of a double bill even more ideal).

charlie lyne

At 24, Lyne is already an emerging name in UK cinema. Earlier this year, he prodded the British censor boards with Paint Drying, a silent, crowd-funded project showing exactly what its title promises–and nothing more–as a protest against regimented classification practices (the film was deemed “suitable by all” for a ratings board that watched it in its entirety). More than a mere post-modern prank, the ten-hour sit is the work of a young filmmaker interested in expanding the conversation around censorship and exhibition–topics we touched on during an interview in Toronto on the eve of Fear Itself‘s first local screening.

There are a lot of very famous horror movies excerpted in Fear Itself, but also some that are conspicious by their absence, like The Shining. How did you go about selecting the movies that you were going to use?

This was a constant battle with the people who commissioned the film: the battle between the obscure and the iconic. My vote was to always treat them equally, on their individual merits, instead of trying to be willfully obscure, or making sure it was stuff people would recognize. I was trying to let myself be led by the themes and pick whatever worked best to illustrate them.

So the choices weren’t dictated at all by fair dealing? Or did you actually license the clips?

UK fair dealing law used to be more restrictive than the American fair use laws. Six months before I started to make Fear Itself, the laws were completely rewritten, and they became modernized. They introduced some new definitions that opened things up beyond the old fair dealing cliches, you know: “a man walks towards a cabinet,” whatever. You end up being reductive that way. Any critique of a clip seems less valid, because you’re getting in the way of it. The revolution for me was that we got the all-clear from the BBC legal team to critique by implication rather than by direct comment. There are sequences where the films aren’t being specifically referenced, or the action on screen isn’t being specifically referenced, but hopefully whatever is being said or explored affects the viewer, and lets them be their own critic. Also, there was no money to be clearing things…

Was there anything that almost didn’t make it, for any reason?

We had free reign. The one thing that looked like it wouldn’t work was that the BBC had some twenty-year old rule about online content and how it wasn’t supposed to feature any direct view of genitals. Given the violence in Fear Itself, it seemed so silly that one scene with some guy’s cock in a long shot would be an issue, so we had to get a commission from up on high. The scene was from The Tenderness of the Wolves, where somebody just happens to be nude. Nothing shocking about it. In the end, the BBC was cool with it. So yes, whatever you see is whatever I wanted to use. 


One of the most interesting things about Fear Itself is that the narration, while written by you, is delivered by an actress–and she’s playing a character who is not you. Where did the idea for this distancing effect come from?

The choices were coming from all three of us (Catherine Bray and Anthony Ing). They contributed a lot as well. Some of the stories and memories and anecdotes that filter in from the collaborators are my own, and some are theirs, and some are complete invented! Ultimately, it felt as though a purely autobiographical take on horror would be limiting. My scope of experience didn’t cover as much as I wanted the film to cover. From there, as soon as we decided to fictionalize it a bit, I wasn’t comfortable performing the voice. I’m not an actor. In terms of gender, that was always up in the air, right up until casting. It was written as genderless, and the script still is. It was kept open for a long time. There are things I like about it being a woman’s voice rather than a man’s, but they’re mainly cosmetic. I like that it marks the film out from the vast majority of documentaries about horror, which are tediously authoritative genre histories led by middle-aged male voices. There were some suggestions for narrators from the BBC that were much more in that bracket. Nothing wrong with any of those people, but we thought it would give the wrong impression of what the film was.

fear itself

In a way, I was reminded of Sans Soleil and how Chris Marker invents two fictional personas to frame his footage. I also thought that Fear Itself is much more of an essay film than a documentary, and that its inclusion at Hot Docs is heartening, since it doesn’t play by a usual set of rules…

The movie encourages you to think about cinema in a scrutinizing way, and to recognize that not everything in it is true, that it is performative to some degree. It would be disingenuous to pretend that this was my intention going into it, to play with fiction and non-fiction. That wasn’t the reason for the film to exist. It had to become that in order to explore as widely as I wanted it to. If you have any kind of memories of fictional material, you’re already in a space between reality and fantasy. In a setting like Hot Docs, it’s a bit weird. It was made for BBC’s online platform, which was supposed to be for stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else, for broadcast or programming. Something that is between modes is a good fit for them. In a doc festival, it means something else. It makes more sense here at Hot Docs because they have this midnight strand where they’re encouraging a kind of documentary filmmaking encouraging fiction and fantasy. I’d also say that there’s a huge amount of documentary in horror, and of reality in horror. I’ve always been drawn slightly more to recognizably real-world horror. Going through this process made me think “what else is there?” Even the most bizarre, otherworldly horror, you still look at it and there’s so much tying it to our lives.

 “The vast majority of documentaries about horror… are tediously authoritative genre histories led by middle-aged male voices.”

Most of your scene selections show people moving towards something that’s going to frighten them when it’s revealed. As a result, there aren’t really a lot of money shots in the movie, or reveals that you would count as “classic” horror movie moments. It seems like your choices are all about the anticipation of fear.

It’s not something I clocked while making the film. It’s interesting because essay filmmaking is always thought of formal, and far away from intuition and impulse. At the time, though, there were a lot of instances where I didn’t know what was drawing me to a moment in a film. The sequence in Jaws before the dead body floats in… I didn’t mean to fuck with people by cutting before the money shot. I was just more interested in that part. I thought the BBC might be annoyed… those were the parts that felt more true about horror, and how we emotionally relate to cinema, the part that’s more ethereal and abstract and uncertain. One of the things we worried about and which people have criticized is its lack of tonal variation. Large swaths of it stay in this murky, uncertain place and there aren’t a lot of highs and lows. In a weird way, that felt right, like it was the crux of it, because that fugue state is where you’re most liable to drift off. Not to say that you’re bored, but your mind wanders. It’s not the down time of exposition. It’s not the peak of drama or intrigue, or the reveal, or gory stuff. That unease. Those moments in Fear Itself where the narrator goes off-course were the most satisfying for me. Increasingly, that’s how I feel I get a lot out of a movie–if I end up thinking about other things while watching it. There’s a humble instinct in filmmaking sometimes, that the movie is not the most important thing in the world. There was an event recently in London where they showed a number of Apichatpong’s movies as an all-nighter at a gallery, which seems perverse–watching these sleep inducing movies at 10 pm. His synopsis said that he welcomed people falling asleep. I think that’s great. Anything where cinema becomes an aspect of our lives, where we have a fluid relationship with it, rather than something in a solid state that we just appreciate, is good.

Things have gotten pretty fluid these days, though, with people bringing cell phones into cinemas, or the possibility of this new Screening Room service turning living rooms into first-run movie theatres.

I’m in a minority group when it comes to respecting the temple of cinema. I’m not immune to being annoyed with people chatting during a movie. But I’m wary of that Alamo Drafthouse style, mandating the right way to watch a movie. I like the idea of film as more fluid than that.

I wonder if some of these same impules are behind your experiment with Paint Drying.

That came from a place of pedantry getting in the way of people’s desire to interact with cinema. When I made Paint Drying, I saw that those pedantic rules and regulations have already been undermined by culture at large. When I was a kid, it wasn’t viable yet to download a 15+ movie, but the idea of having to wait years to see it was a laughable notion anyway. There’s a lot of different groups trying to set parameters on cinema right now.

Do you think of Paint Drying as a work of art beyond its function as a kind of an institutional irritant?

I’ve already had it compared to Warhol, and to “slow cinema,” and to Wavelength, and all of that. It’s very flattering for people to suggest it’s in the same space as those. I never envisioned it as an avant-garde film, but that doesn’t matter. It can be avant-garde anyway. I did think of it as a work of art, although in my mind the work of art was the performative act of the censors watching it–the ten hours of them in the room with the film. I’m counting on the fact that the work of art happened without me. It’s a film made for one set of people. There was an internal memo that said “treat this like any other submission, we’re not going to cut corners.” They were also told not to comment on it in any sphere. There was a written statement in response to it, sent to media outlets. But I went on radio shows with listenerships in the millions, and the raters didn’t send anyone.

paint drying

Would you ever try to show it anywhere else?

I’d like to show it somewhere else. In a pragmatic sense, it’d be good for people to talk about it, to show it and have some sort of debate around the issues.

It seems it’d be interesting, since people could claim it’s not a work of art while not caring about the significance of the ratings debate, and also vice versa.

The two are linked. Anyone who’s interpreted it as an avant garde film has still done so based on who it was shown to. It’s not as if, as a joke, I’ve just released a film of paint drying. People have done stuff like that before, as a joke on critics…

There’s that line in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves where Gene Hackman compares watching an Eric Rohmer movie to watching paint dry…

I didn’t even know that reference until I saw this video essay series by Arte called Blow-Up. I was in France showing Beyond Clueless, and everyone told me to watch these videos, and they had one on paint drying – a ten minute thing deconstructing it. That video pointed out the Night Moves connection, but it was news to me.

The thing in Night Moves is it’s not like Arthur Penn doesn’t like Rohmer; the joke is on Hackman’s character and his ignorance, in a way. But you’d never have a joke like that in an American movie now, where a character makes a reference to Wong Kar Wai…

The closest you get is Peter Parker having a Blow-Up poster in his bedroom.

Or how the characters on Friends have a La Dolce Vita poster in one of the apartments…

The production design on Friends is the one element of the show that’s at all ironic. The show is so sincere and straight and never questions the lives its characters are leading, except for the production design, which seems to say they don’t know why they’re hanging this shit in their apartments. There’s an episode where Joey’s girlfriend wants to hang a bunch of Anne Geddes portrait, and Joey objects to it, and it’s the one scene in the show where somebody expresses a reason for hanging something up. This person who wants to hang Anne Geddes portraits has this agency, whereas Joey, who wants to keep the same stuff that’s been up there for six years now, has no real reason for what he wants. He has no affection for it.

I always liked when Joey showed Rachel The Shining, because there’s now way that in the Friends universe, they’re watching Kubrick’s weird, arty, dead-air version of The Shining.

They’re watching the popular concept of The Shining. I wish there had been a reverse shot and you saw one of the lesser known scenes in The Shining.

Like when Shelly Duvall is in the kitchen, just opening a tin of canned fruit and watching TV.