On a Higher Level: An Interview with Brennan Vance
Brennan Vance’s The Missing Sun (2017) is an exciting, daring debut, part psychedelic investigation of the soul, part depressive character study. It follows a lonely woman trying to coax her addict husband’s soul back into his body, a transmutation she suspects is the handiwork of a local preacher. The power is out in the county thanks to a solar flare, and everyone seems to have trouble locating themselves in the dark, woodsy region. I spoke with Vance about placing the film in a spiritual and tactile context through its setting, photography, and the totemic objects scrutinized by the characters.
I had the sense that the artifacts in this film come from memories you have. They seem so rooted in a specific time and place — the crystal, the cassette tape (I worked in a record store for years and remember those new-age self-help tapes), that bare church. Can you talk about where the specifics of this haunted world come from? Did you have narrative ideas first that you filled in with detail, or did the objects sort of draw out the narrative?
I appreciate that you described the world of this film as haunted. I don’t have much taste for horror stories, and films with the stink of “genre” usually turn me off, but I suppose The Missing Sun is my crack at a ghost story. With every frame, I was trying to evoke a sense of Alma being untethered from her reality, of existing outside of time, of desperately reaching for her life but being unable to grasp it. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe many people out there feel estranged from their own lives, which I imagine is how a ghost would feel.
When I conceived of the film several years ago, I was in some ways experiencing this self-estrangement in my own life. My father had just been diagnosed with early onset dementia and was slowly disappearing into the disease. Watching his descent basically uprooted everything I believed about what it meant to be a self. I had been pretty attached to the idea of an everlasting soul, or some kind of self that survives death. But this became hard to reconcile with my father’s slow-drip demise. Every essential aspect of his being was methodically erased before our eyes — his memories, personality, identity, beliefs, sense of joy, sense of family — all gone. Do those elements magically restore themselves after death? It suddenly didn’t seem like it — and death took on a different meaning to me.
I was also doing a fair bit of esoteric reading at the time, which I approached with a sense of irony at first but then kind of gave myself over to eventually. I found the new-age literature about astral travel, near-death experiences, and mind-altering crystals to be not only fascinating but kind of comforting, relaxing, even inspiring at that time of grief. So when I started thinking about writing my first feature, I collected all the raw elements swirling around my life at the time — death, doubt, new-age spiritualism, family strife — and spun them into this kind of cosmic, aching, ghostly fable. And central to the film is a religion named Bhu’JanTi, which I fabricated simply to pull together the esoteric and existential themes I was preoccupied with.
I’ll respond to the micro first: how did you come up with the shape and perimeters of the religion? Were you parodying something in particular?
At first, I simply invented the religion as a kind of narrative device. I needed a source for the astral-travel cassette tape and imagined a new-age religion that simply specialized in producing these self-help spiritual guides. But when I realized Alma should seek out the author of this tape to help with her situation, I realized I would have to give the religion some real depth and contour.
Alma’s character is loosely seeking answers to the same questions I had years ago — is there a soul separate from the body? Can a person’s human traits be erased with death while some other essential part lives on? As I was trying to concoct a somewhat coherent new-age response to this, I recalled how many religious traditions equate the soul with light. Light, and all its mysterious qualities, seemed to offer a metaphor that was potent yet vague, which is kind of the crux for many spiritual metaphors. Divine light also related to the oblique sun-based apocalyptic themes I was exploring. And finally, it gave me a nice opportunity to include my beloved crystals, which, in the film, are supposed to hold souls of the dead, like an urn.
I must admit I wasn’t sure how this religion would play on screen. I was worried the ideas would be so far out there as to be farcical. But I credit Sally Wingert, who plays the Bhu’JanTi pastor, in giving these rather vaporous ideas some much needed grounding and humanity. I watched her on set in awe and totally believed that she ran this religion, believed these beliefs. She was amazing.
Both of your actresses have opposing but incredible, fierce energy. You know exactly what they are, you can kind of almost smell their lives on them — the houses and cars, the craving for a cigarette in Alma’s case, the sort of tea tree mixed with suburban spackle, the smell of those unchanged church buildings and old offices, the paint and old floorboards used in the master’s spaces. Can you talk about working with your actresses, and how you built the polarities of the film’s universe?
Ha, I might steal your tea tree and suburban spackle line for my next proposal. It evokes an accurate sense of the life and landscape out here. I live in Minneapolis, close to where we shot the film. Minnesota is mostly known for being the birthplace of Bob Dylan, for being the butt end of many Coen brothers’ jokes, and also where Prince lived and worked. Strangely enough, just down the street from Prince’s suburban compound is the world headquarters for a fascinating new-age religion called Eckankar. They have an enormous and quite beautiful golden temple out there amongst the swaying prairie grass, the strip malls, the sub-developments, and the eight-lane highways. Another ten miles further out, and you start to encounter that other side of Minnesota that I describe in the film, the world of Alma. I find Minnesota’s unlikely contrasts of modern and mundane, commercial and natural, industrial and spiritual to be endlessly fascinating. I’m forever trying to capture this strange ennui in my films.
Gera Pobuda, who plays Alma, has never been on screen before. She’s an oil painter by trade, yet she carries an energy and physicality unlike anyone else I’ve ever met. So when I asked her to be a part of this film, I knew the lack of acting experience wouldn’t be an issue if we could allow that natural, beguiling energy to shine through. She’s also a fighter; halfway through our production, she was hit by a drunk driver while riding her bike. She spent a few days in the hospital, had a few broken bones in her hip, but fearlessly decided to forge ahead with the role anyway. This is why her character limps in the film. She was on crutches between takes!
Conversely, Sally Wingert has been acting her whole life. She is Minnesota’s most prolific and most revered theatrical actor. Her passion and focus instantly made me a better filmmaker. She taught me a lot in a very short time. We didn’t have much time for preparation, so she just showed up on set and discovered, improved, and brought her character to life right before our eyes. It was incredible to watch — a true master at work. And despite their relationship to acting being so different, Gera and Sally had a deep reverence for one another. I think they saw in each other some magical quality that fed into their own performances.
That’s wild! If pressed, I would have guessed the experience levels were flipped. Can you talk about how you worked on the character of Alma with Gera, what conversations you had? How much of her own experience helped her get comfortable in Alma’s skin, if any? It’s such a heavy part; every step she takes around that little house, and definitely when she goes to church, seems to weigh a ton, I’m curious what was invented and what was second nature?
It’s a shame I didn’t pull a Dr. Strangelove and make this film into a dark comedy, because Gera has the most infectious laugh I’ve ever heard. She’s hilarious and witty and animated — but that’s not how we experience Alma’s character in the film. However, what Gera and Alma do have in common (and this is where I think Gera was able to sink her teeth into the role) is this seemingly endless fortitude and extra-human resilience in the face of adversity.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say Gera is a hero of mine. I won’t speak too much for her, but I think she wouldn’t mind me saying that she has the kind of life story that you simply can’t make up. If I told you how many near-death experiences she’s survived (remember the bike accident?!), you would raise a skeptical eyebrow. You wouldn’t believe me. I’ve actually been with her during one of her miraculous recoveries; she had a seizure while we were working on a project together in art school. The paramedic that arrived on the scene said he had never seen someone’s blood sugar drop that low and survive, much less enter into a coma. But where some people might understandably react to harrowing life experiences by withdrawing, she has only dug her heels in deeper and lived more honestly, openly, bravely. She’s an inspiration to me.
I would love to know about the decision to break your own aesthetic rules, which happens a few times in the film.
I did set out to create a formal aesthetic for the film that was very austere, very stripped down, and almost haunting in its simplicity. The pacing is very deliberate and meditative, the camera barely moves, the dialogue is sparse, the narrative is vaporous and really only serves the atmospheric and spiritual tones I was trying to create. Though I was pretty consistent with that approach, I did end up breaking each of these rules rather dramatically at a few points in the film. Many of those decisions happened in the editing room, where I realized my “slow cinema” aesthetic was becoming so slow as to not have a pulse. Believe it or not, the final version of this film is my “action” version, it feels like a Mission: Impossible kind of thriller compared to my first three-hour cut.
I picked up a Bergmanian spiritual self-investigation at work. Am I reading influence where there was none? The lovely black-and-white photography, the juxtaposition of churches, ominous natural scenery, and a claustrophobic family unit in an equally claustrophobic house — my mind wandered to Fårö Island.
In the weeks before production, I was watching a lot. Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee (2010). I would fall asleep each night by watching Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) on mute. I was hoping these films would function like those new-age self-help tapes — that I would soak in their essences on a subconscious, intuitive level. You mentioned Fårö Island, so maybe that means my method was working somehow. I’m not the world’s biggest Bergman fan, but I have in the past shared his interest in making self-flagellation and existential dread into a highly aesthetic experience. Now, when I wake up each morning and obsess over my artistic future, I realize my thoughts are shifting away from that Bergmananian sense of inevitable doom. It has everything to do with being a new parent, while also living in these strange times. Reading the news these days is like being forced to watch Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) on repeat; it’s a hallucinatory, barely coherent experience with lots of screaming and bed-sweating, and you get the sense the story doesn’t end well for anyone. Anyway, my point is that my art may not need to explore that zone of dread right. I think a lot about how I can very artfully address these same existentially rich themes but with a warmer touch, with more life-giving energy.
Brennan Vance’s The Missing Sun is now streaming on Kinoscope.