Handcuffed: Neil Bahadur on From Nine to Nine
From Nine to Nine is a remarkable debut feature from Neil Bahadur, a no-budget piece of DIY cinema that challenges what a film is supposed to be. A man is killed outside of a library. A young man (Beau Cooper) is arrested for the crime. Broke, handcuffed and hungry, he wanders Vancouver. How do we navigate cities, the world, ourselves? With intense influences—Straub-Huillet, Pedro Costa, late Godard, and contemporary Isiah Medina as much as masters of the past like Griffith, Chaplin and Ford—Bahadur’s sensibility is one deeply informed by an understanding of the building blocks film form and its political dimensions. The figure in From Nine to Nine, oppressed and trapped by his surroundings, moves through capitalist and communal spaces—and eventually a private space. Where exactly he belongs, if anywhere, is uncertain. With minimal resources, Bahadur crafts something that feels urgent, ambitious, and new.
Its world premiere takes place on July 15th as part of KINET.MEDIA PROGRAM 06 at Spectacle.
Adam Cook: What was the starting point of From Nine to Nine? I know it sort of begins with a novel by Leo Perutz you never finished reading, about an impoverished student in handcuffs.
Neil Bahadur: It first started as a work conversation with a colleague about making a movie with as little money as possible, and I had been reading a Erich von Stroheim biography which had mentioned the Perutz text as something he had wanted to adapt at some point in his life (I believe around 1928?) but was unable to get around too. And I had read very little, but it dawned on me that the central conceit of having a figure in handcuffs wandering around the city would be perfect for a project without a budget, far more suitable than what I had been working on at the time, which was more classically narrative and had many characters. It seemed ideal to use that conceit to explore city spaces, and explore the juxtapositions made between the figure within handcuffs, and these spaces themselves.
It seems that the Stroheim biography may have been inaccurate, an essay by Bill Krohn noted that F.W. Murnau was in fact developing the project, something that seems far more likely as the text is far more attuned to his sensibilities.
And of course, making a film without a budget was very attractive to me, and I wanted to make a film as soon as possible. I had a lot of drive and hunger, too much!
Bahadur: I honestly don’t even know the exact amount! I’d estimate we ended up spending about $250-300. We did spend $100 to get an interior location, which we were very lucky to get at that price. But that scene, in the first cut is a 12-minute dialogue sequence, and now it runs only about 30 seconds! We also spent about….$200? On insurance for lighting kits – which again ended up only going into that one scene…which is barely in the film now. But it ultimately just didn’t work. Most of the film was made on the grace of friends willing to share their time and their equipment. So I’m rather lucky!
As for how much *should* it cost, I don’t know if I know the answer to that question. But I did learn that with the amount I did have, one is capable of much more than I had realized at the time. With that kind of setup, you’re capable of a lot if you have the focus and the discipline. And while I’m proud of the work, I know one could do a lot more if they can think economically, which I wasn’t able to at the time. But then, this is really a film from the scrapheap.
Cook: If you had to introduce the film to someone, how would you describe it? Aside from being from the scrapheap [laughs].
Bahadur: This is a difficult question. I would say, perhaps, this was a film made by a 24-year old with no money in Vancouver, lucky if he could eat two meals a day.
Cook: You and I both grew up in Vancouver in modest families just outside of the city, and I recognize the Vancouver you show here, as one a part of and separate from my surroundings, that we do and not have access to. Can you talk about what Vancouver is to you and what you wanted to show?
Bahadur: Vancouver is now a city where it is impossible to live below the line of upper-middle class. It’s either that and above, or you do not have a home. Furthermore, it is increasingly difficult to navigate these waters. And part of that is anxiety – the anxiety of capitalism. Even if you know the concept itself to be a false one, it is exceptionally laborious in itself to not feel that you are only worth as much as what is in your pocket. That’s something I’d like to explore in the next thing – the social navigation of these systems within casual relationships and friendships.
And that’s something that’s universal. So the next film is not set in Vancouver. Actually, the idea was always that the city was always meant to a non-specific, universal one – a bit like Sunrise or City Lights. But most who have seen the film think it as a very specific portrait of the city! Then again, films take on their own lives too. In the long time that’s passed since finishing the film, I realized that because Vancouver is so often used as backdrops in Hollywood films, I may have instinctively tried to film areas that were not often seen in these works, since they’re always doubling for other cities, and inadvertently made a work that is very specific to the city.
Cook: There’s a stunning sequence involving a man, played by you, outside the library, and a cop. Can you talk about the scene?
Bahadur: That’s an odd sequence I ended up really making on the spot. The original idea was to do it with Green screen, the library appearing as though rear-projection backdrop. But then the first DP (there ended up being five, including myself) was very uncomfortable using it, so it went outside. And then the DP that actually shot it WAS into using green screen but he didn’t have the studio access the previous one had. But that was still one of the most fun shoot days. It was an experiment in blocking, ultimately. Oh, and because I was in the scene, it was a nice challenge to direct without seeing the frame. And Jake, the DP/Camera Operator, framed it wonderfully.
Cook: And the library itself is such an important space in the film.
Bahadur: Well, its a personal, special place where I read many books and became acquainted with many films. I’d honestly reckon a full year of my life has gone to spending time in libraries. In the film, on the inside it’s an innocent place – Beau just wants to read a book. But the outside is far more unusual, the architecture can be decontextualized into many things. I wanted to make the space give the sense of a Roman Coliseum. And in a narrative context, I liked the idea of having this, the safest, special place you know, becoming not necessarily oppressive, but the place where suddenly your innocence dies.
Bahadur: Because the film’s shooting processed so slowly, approximately 11 days of shooting spread out over four months, I had been already well into editing as we would enter another shoot day, I had a lot of time to reconsider what direction the film would go in. Had I shot it over a more regimented schedule, the film would be much simpler – the film as written is a very easy to follow narrative. I had also been watching a lot of films by Hollis Frampton and Marguerite Duras, and I became uncertain about making such an overtly subjective work. And then there was Isiah’s film, 88:88, which was always inspiring, but became even more so as I shot the film. It’s hard to pinpoint where specific influences end up though, but becoming very invested in these made me want to do something a bit more distancing. I thought of Sternberg’s Anahatan and classical Japanese benshi narration, and I liked the idea of a narration that worked not necessarily as commentary but in juxtaposition with the image. I wanted it to assist the viewer in watching the film analytically, and reject identification.
Cook: Can you talk about the approach to narration and the excerpts you use? [Full disclosure: I am a narrator in the film].
Bahadur: As the edit progressed, it was hard not to move into something approaching a bit of didacticism, as the montage started to get a bit more abstract. But its difficult to talk about because it came very intuitively — some sequences, like the mall, use it to contextualize the space within history, while later in the club, we go straight to sound bites from other films, now applied to these images. The section in the club is from Joseph Losey’s remake of M. Otherwise, the quotations are just spoken within the narration – bits from Too Early Too Late, They Live By Night. But there’s actually more derived from text – full poems from Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a chuck of text by Marx from Das Kapital. There’s something here and there from just a Straub & Huillet interview. And there’s also something from Tag Gallagher’s book on John Ford! Which I like a lot, it makes me very happy to incorporate a quotation from film criticism into a film.
The film excerpts also fall into this I suppose – they come in mostly in the latter section of the film, though with the one sequence in the mall, they were deliberate juxtapositions where I hoped to set a kind of link between historical moments. But later they become more intuitive. And I like how it works for me but I’m not sure I’d do it again! Again, it comes down to discipline — when you’re working intuitively it can be very hard for an outside viewer to understand what you’re doing. Not that intuition is bad, I would just be more careful. All the people who like the film so far are people I know personally. We’ll see how the screening goes!
Cook: The world has already seemed to change a lot since when you made the film.
Bahadur: Though the cut we have now was finished this year, the base cut – the one where we nailed down the rhythm of the film — which was done with the assistance of Isiah Medina, which I’m very grateful for — was completed in July 2016. Everything afterwards came down to streamlining. So, there’s a sequence (which I used also for the trailer) where a title card says “2016” in the film. At first I was like “Well, might as well change this to 2017” but it felt disingenuous. The “2016” title card ultimately stayed, because I’m very certain this film would have been different had it been shot in 2017. The mass public (and that includes myself) was not fully aware of the existence and extent of worldwide right-wing populism. I joked with a friend that I wouldn’t have even made the film, I would have just submitted the Criterion blu-ray of Monsieur Verdoux around to film festivals under a different title.
But I don’t necessarily believe that the world changed a bit, it just revealed itself. The difference was that I was not as aware as I thought. Now, its just hard to tell if this is a repeat of Verdoux’s ‘criminal times,’ or it’s logical extension. There are also more personal reasons for keeping the 2016 title card. A lot of my relationships with people in the film changed. So the 2016 title card is also because the film is a bit of a time capsule for me, it reminds me of a time where life seemed much simpler. That’s why the club sequence is maybe a bit overlong, it makes me happy to revisit that innocent naiveté. Maybe that ideal was a false one, or an illusion, but I experienced it.