[NB There are multiple spoilers within this interview for Identicals]
Identicals is definitely one of those films that you get a lot more from when you watch it the second time around…
I hope so. That’s the kind of film it was designed to be. I think I was always looking to have quite an elliptical narrative, send you away with questions but hopefully interesting questions.
How did Identicals – or Brand New U as it was originally known – come about?
The film came from an obsession with the amount of multiple identities around in the world now – we somehow live multiple lives, living in different places, different cities – but also how that’s something uneasy for us, because it’s somehow corporatized as well. It’s both an interesting liberating thing but also a potentially exploited thing.
I was teaching in the States at the time and watching some of my students on social media and how some people have multiple identities that they shape.
I wanted something that sounded like it could be the brand of a company and a slogan and a self-help slogan – a bunch of things all together. It was interesting because when the film was bought and distributed in Japan, it became really clear to me, no one was ever going to translate the original title – it’s a very English title. It was never going to travel. So in a funny way the film got its own identity makeover!
What was it translated into in Japanese?
How did the project itself go from concept to movie?
I think it came out of a whole set of observations. I was travelling a lot. I was living in lots of different places: I live in Holland but I work a lot in England and America. At that time I’d moved relationships, I’d changed cities. I was spending a lot of time between places so I got very interested in how much our lives embraced that kind of constant transition. And I guess there was the core of a very classic genre idea: a man is sent to kill someone but that person turns out to be himself. I was driving through London and went past my old apartment – what would happen if I knocked on my old apartment and I was still there?
I’d always liked the John Frankenheimer movie Seconds, which was a touchstone quite early. That film is very much about Sixties anxieties – it’s about a middle aged guy having the chance to be young and groovy and hip, and does he want that or not?
All those things came together. I wanted to make a film that was about multiple identities, about the different set of anxieties that we have now, about how we manage all these multiple selves that we have, about how we make sense of all these multiple histories with serial lives, serial jobs, serial relationships. How do we keep track of ourselves in all that?
It’s an interesting question. I think I always start with some key moment that fascinates me.
Identicals I worked from a core scene – the notion that finally after a long journey, a man has gone on a journey where he needs to kill someone and he finds himself at the end of the journey… The last section of Identicals was the hub of it. It’s different for different films.
What makes it tricky as a film narrative is that it’s a narrative about total breaks in someone’s world and when you have a break in the world, in a way you have a break in the narrative. It felt important to have three worlds: the first, this very intimate world; second, the cold impersonal world; and then the hotter skyscrapers almost-1950s world. It was carefully planned out in that way.
One of the concepts behind the film was: what would happen if you took a series of scenes that are somewhat recognisable from the movies and put them together in an entirely unconventional structure? Sometimes people at festivals have talked about feeling they’re in a memory of another film, and that was something that interested me – you’re walking through memories of other films but they’re joined together in a dislocated disconcerting way that makes you think about those scenes. There are a lot of scenes like that – when the gun dealer arrives and gives Slater the guns out of the suitcase: on one level that’s a genre scene, but on another level I think it’s quite strange.
I was definitely trying to construct this world that had all sorts of parallels. I guess I was trying to get that sense of strangeness that we have in our non-narrativised lives where strange juxtapositions happen.
Were there avenues that you started to go down that you decided couldn’t or didn’t work?
I think keeping it organic, although it had these different worlds, was one of the big battles. There were things that I explored in different drafts of the screenplay – there was a moment when you found out that Brand New U was a much more parallel-religious organisation. But that felt a bit unwieldly in a way…
Exactly. It felt like that was a separate idea and the ship was going to capsize if I added that cargo to it. There was a stripping away of certain things.
In a funny way it has quite a simple structure, even though it’s quite elusive and strange. Because it makes big jumps, it meant there were certain things you had to take out to make it simple enough to make it viable.
As writer and director, you had three times to work on it – the screenplay, the filming and then the editing. How different are those three versions?
We spent a long time cutting, but it was not so much large structural changes…
The changes were mainly tone and pace. How reflective should it be? You could make it a much faster, helter skelter film, but we chose to keep it quite lyrical. For me, it has a definite foot in European science fiction as much as it does in American SF.
I would say it’s far closer – it feels European in tone.
I was reading recently that Last Year in Marienbad is in fact a science fiction film, and once you understand they’re all trapped in this hotel that might be a spaceship, might be anything, it’s a film about shifts in time.
I was interested in those very elliptical European films as much as more classic sci-fi, which makes sense – in terms of books, I’m a big Ballard, Aldiss fan, and that new wave science fiction is contemporary with that new wave of European films. There’s something quite tied up there: the writing of Robbe-Grillet and Ballard are quite close. I was trying to keep that European quality in the film as well.
It’s had mixed reviews: what’s been the take that people brought away from it that surprised you most?
I’m curious that people get very anxious that they don’t understand it. Actually I think they do understand it, they just don’t like what they understand so much. I think the “not understanding” comment, which is something in the more negative reviews, is a safe space where people hide. I think it makes them anxious that Slater is so de-centred, what it says about being a person is maybe not all-encouraging….
I was surprised, I guess, that it touched that nerve that strongly. I was not expecting that.
Any film that challenges people and makes them think people maybe don’t want.
If it doesn’t slip down smoothly, without any questioning friction, for some people, yes. I think the film seems to be a love it or hate it. The people who get it seem to like it a lot and the people that don’t get it dislike it quite a lot. In the end you have to live with it that when you’ve made a film.
What’s interesting about this film is that the thing people don’t like is at the very core of it.
People are being held up a mirror and being asked questions of themselves that perhaps they’d rather not be asked…
Yes and I think that causes some anxiety and therefore some flak. Although that’s never enjoyable, I feel that I can live with that for this film because in a funny way that’s what this film is about.
Exactly! My surprise was that people are more anxious than I thought they would be. This notion of people saying they don’t understand it when it’s perfectly clear that they do understand it: that I find interesting.
It may well be that they’re looking for the proverbial black cat in the dark room that isn’t there… Because it’s not a palatable message, there has to be something else there…
Yes. That’s what I think. It’s one of those “then the answer is no answer” kind of paradoxes.
One of the things in the film that I felt quite strongly made it a modern take on a film like Seconds is that it’s not in the end proposing that there’s a bad entity that’s attacking us normal folk and as soon as that’s dealt with we’ll all be okay again. It leaves that unresolved – it says this cycle will go on and on and on. The three cycles we see of Slater isn’t even necessarily the last cycle – he may go through that cycle again. That’s not a particularly comforting ending.
It’s like people complaining about the end of King’s The Dark Tower series. It’s clear from the books that this is how it’s meant to go, but there were people who expected it to be a triumphant ending. People want their stories to have endings, they don’t want it to be like life.
They definitely want it to have a clear ending and everything is ticked off at the end. I consciously resisted that and now I have to take my medicine on that front!
The film premiered in the Michael Powell Award competition in Edinburgh, which I was very happy about as I love Michael Powell’s films. In some ways the biggest thing that happened was Samuel Goldwyn Films seeing it there and picking it up for the States, which gave it a high profile for the scale of film it is. I think that was a really interesting experience.
For me, USA, Japan, UK was a good triptych: I understand what the film is now. It’s out there. They’re selling other territories, but my head is very engaged with the next project…
Identicals is out now from Arrow Films