The short film “Radha” brings the Cosmic Horror, while leaving you room to dream

My dear unknown friend,

This past week I had the pleasure of viewing the short film Radha which will shortly make its premiere at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Providence. “Creepy, disturbing, and ambiguous,” were some of the words I saw being used to describe the film and after my viewing I couldn’t agree more. Nicolas Courdouan with his talented cast and crew  convey a sense of otherness and dismay that most feature-length films fumble. Thanks to Lovecraft eZine‘s Alexander Kreitner – he truly does keep the wheels on – I soon had Courdouan’s email in hand and was engaged in an interview that has only been matched by the one I conducted with the team at Gibbous for quickness and enthusiasm. I hope you enjoy it as much as I.

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LE: Nicolas first of all thank you very much for taking the time out of your schedule to talk to us. At this point I realize it has almost become a crutch that I’ve come to rely upon yet I find artist’s responses fascinating nonetheless. What does the term cosmic horror mean to you?

NC: Thank you so much for having me. Crutch or not it’s a great question, because you’ll probably never get the same answer twice. There are so many different ways to approach the genre, and its tropes have been borrowed and used in so many different contexts that I think we almost need to start using terms like ‘soft cosmic horror’ and ‘hard cosmic horror’ like they do in science-fiction… Joking aside, I suppose I would define it as a genre that pits the human mind against things that it is not equipped to understand. If you look up at the night sky, you can either experience a warm and pleasant sense of awe and marvel at how lucky it is that all those elements out there have conspired for billions of years to eventually bring you into existence, or you can lose yourself in this canvas of infinite darkness, and shiver at the idea that you are an insignificant little thing lost on an insignificant little planet in a galaxy that is only one in a hundred billion galaxies spreading apart to eventually dilute themselves into the void. To me, that shiver right there is the essence of cosmic horror. There has to be a mystery at the root of your story that your protagonist can only attempt to solve at the expense of their sanity, their life, or both. So there’s a very broad spectrum of fiction that I think would qualify as cosmic horror, and it goes from the crew of the Nostromo setting an alien killing machine loose aboard their ship to a group of teenage girls vanishing in rural Australia to never be seen or heard of again.

LE: Agree completely and it’s funny because even as I typed that question I found myself pondering whether or not to use the term existential horror in its place. Part of what I find interesting in this question is I wonder how many people are actually terrified by their own insignificance in the cosmos. Ray Brassier has written of “transcendental nihilism,”  when nihilism was first conceived it was terrifying because it literally tore down the foundations of civilization but now? Now it’s a liberating force. One of the things I enjoyed with Radha was how you were able to convey this sense of Otherness with very minimal means. How did the idea for the film first come to you?

NC: The idea that coming to terms with your own insignificance as a ‘liberating force’ is essential in Radha. Saoirse is in fact craving the annihilation of her own self as the only way to heal from the trauma that has been haunting her for most of her life. I started working on that story fresh out of film school, four or five years ago, and it started as a brief for a feature-length screenplay entitled ‘Scenes From A Memory’, which is about three young adults who grew up in a small Irish town and lost touch after the accidental death of one of their childhood friends. Years later they are reunited and we get to see how their memories of this traumatic event have influenced who they have become in very different ways. As the story brewed inside my head – read: ‘as it collected dust in a drawer’ – I started developing weirder projects, one of which would have involved a mysterious entity possessing the body of a dancer to create a performance going beyond the limitations of the human body, and eventually this idea and others were all incorporated into the outline for ‘Scenes From A Memory’. Once I felt I had all the elements I needed to get started, I teamed up with Lindsay J. Sedgwick, who is a much more talented writer than I will ever be, to write the feature-length screenplay for me while I focused on writing and directing a short film version of that same story. So Radha is essentially the first fifth of the overall story, reworked to offer some sort of closure at the end of its 20-minute runtime.

LE: I loved how the piece opened, it was ambiguous and open-ended from the very beginning and I felt that Sue Walsh was extremely well cast for that role, she projected a quiet strength that worked well for the film. What was the casting process like for Radha?

NC: Thank you very much. I wish I had a great story of uphill battles and tearing my hair out through auditions and recalls but the casting process was a smooth ride, as straightforward as it could have been. I usually start by creating a shortlist of candidates for each role by browsing the websites of local casting agencies, then meet the actors face to face to get to know them better and talk about the project. I’m not a huge fan of traditional auditions, I think an informal conversation over coffee is usually enough to get an idea of what somebody can bring to a role. Sue was the first person I met for the part of Saoirse, and I basically stopped looking as soon as the meeting was over. ‘Quiet intensity’ is the right way to put it, she really carried the weight of Saoirse’s traumatic past with her in every scene, whether she was pretending to be somebody else at a party or opening up to Radha in the later scenes of the film.

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In the case of Radha, Kojii Helnwein was my first and only choice for the part, I was so convinced she would be the perfect Radha that I used her likeness to storyboard some of the scenes before I even got in touch with her about the project. The only potential issue that was flagged was her lack of dancing experience but we organised an intensive workshop with our choreographer Dagmara Jerzak, who designed both dance scenes from scratch in five days – three for Radha’s performance and two for the beach scene – alongside both actresses. This was one of my favourite experiences throughout the entire project, it was incredible to see how much they accomplished over such a short amount of time. Dagmara and Kojii used the circular stage as a sort of spiralling timeline onto which they could tell the character’s entire back story through motion. I had to trim the entire performance down to about a fifth or a sixth of its runtime in the editing phase to maintain the flow of the short, but I could easily put together a 5-minute experimental short that would only feature Kojii’s performance and tell us more about who her character is and how she came to be…

Believe it or not but all the actors cast in the supporting roles – Ciara Elizabeth Smyth, Brendan Sheehan and Gerry Wade – were the first people I met for each of their respective roles. It wasn’t just luck though: Two of them were recommended by an agent after I sent her a small brief for each character and they turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. At the end of the day, casting the extras was the real challenge!

LE: How was it that you found Dagmara Jerzak? The dance sequences within Radha are so central to the whole project I imagine the search for just the right choreographer must have been key for you.

NC: I worked as a camera operator on a music video a couple of years ago, in which the leading actress was also a dancer based in Dublin. When the time came to find a choreographer for Radha I got in touch with this actress and asked her if she knew anybody who would be interested in designing this performance. The first name she suggested was Dagmara’s, and it took a fifteen-minute long meeting to convince me she was the person we were looking for. Dagmara has a lot of experience and she is fearless when it comes to rising up to a challenge – she wasn’t fazed at all when I told her that I would cast the actors based on their acting talents alone, regardless of whether they had any dancing experience, and that she would have to work around their limitations. She is also completely obsessed with movement, you can tell that she likes to experiment and workshop her way through a theme, a feeling or even something as basic as a word that resonates with her. It was crucial for me that our choreographer be engaged with the story and not just the two dance scenes, and Dagmara was exactly that: She loved the script and the relationship between these two characters, she asked me a lot of questions regarding Radha’s back story to find out how she would move or even breathe. It was never about creating a cool-looking scene, every single motion was motivated by an element of Radha’s personality or her true nature. She and Kojii added layer after layer to that scene, and I still find it hard to believe that it only took them three days.

LE: That is impressive. I found the sets to be very evocative as well. What was the process of location scouting/set dressing like for your production?

NC: We didn’t have a huge budget, so we never really had the luxury of having to choose between several options. We shot most of the short in and around two locations: A pub in the centre of Dublin’s famous Temple Bar district which also had a great performance room with black walls where we shot Radha’s dance, and a beautiful house which we used for the party scenes and Radha’s bedroom and bathroom. Initially we wanted to shoot the latter in a BnB or a hotel, since we wanted Radha’s residence to look very bare and impersonal, but our producer Anna Harris found this house which could be rented for a day or two and it had everything we were looking for, including that beautiful free-standing bathtub used in one of my favourite shots… Our schedule was just as tight as our budget so we often used what was already available as far as set-dressing was concerned. The biggest thing we had to build was the podium for Radha’s performance. Our production designer Donal Sinnott sketched a few different options and we settled on this circular stage with its top part covered with a highly reflective material, which allowed us to play around with camera angles but was also reminiscent of water, which is Radha’s element.

When it came to exteriors, the biggest concern we had was the beach. We shot the film during the first week of May and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Irish weather or not, but at that time the conditions were ‘Baltic’ as we say over here. It was extremely windy, with a temperature of around 25°F at night and I was very worried about the two actresses who had to have this lengthy conversation while walking up and down the shore and then perform the dance scene. I went there one night with the producer, just a few days before we shot the scene, and it was miserable, cloudy and therefore pitch dark too. How do you go about recreating the moonlight when all you have is a puny LED panel? We were so desperate that there were even talks of rewriting the scene in another location at the last-minute… Eventually we decided to go for it anyway, bought a lot of blankets and hired a camera that is very sensitive and works well in low-light conditions, and once we got there, I could not believe our luck: The wind had died down completely, it could not have been less than 45°F and we had that gorgeous, apocalyptic red sky. Our colorist Leandro Arouca told me in the grading suite that some people would probably believe the scene was shot against a green screen with the red sky added in later, but what you see on the screen is exactly the way it looked out there… Everything ran like clockwork and we shot until 4am without any issue.

On the last day we shot the very first scene of the film, where Saoirse buries the memories of her past life. That was another beautiful location that we found by accident while roaming around Dublin with Anna, looking for a remote and secluded place that would lend itself well to a burial. We spotted an overgrown patch right next to a river and decided to investigate. You probably saw the first season of True Detective, and if you can remember Carcosa from the final episode, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the place looked like: ruins from another time, tunnels of leaves and branches that we sometimes had to crawl through to get to the particular spot we had seen from the other side of the river… Donal and our DoP, Tess Masero Brioso, investigated a little further and found the precise spot where we shot that scene, which mirrored Saoirse’s journey so well – surrounded by water, with the ruins of her former life crumbling all around her.

LE: The use of music in your film, not only the original score by Colin McKenna yet also the songs by ghost_code, Deaf Joe, and others not only fit seamlessly within the film yet they underscore that feeling of otherness that Radha captured so well for me. How did you and your team go about the process of assembling the soundbed for this film?

NC: I find it very easy to go overboard with a soundtrack, there’s a fine line between a track that highlights and sustains a particular atmosphere and one that completely destroys it by taking over the scene, and the last thing I wanted was for Radha’s performance or any other scene in the film to turn into a music video. I got in touch with Colin McKenna long before we shot the film, because I had worked with him before and I knew that he gravitated towards the same type of soundtracks that I did: minimal sounds or drones that blur the line between music and sound design. I sent him a few references that I listened to continuously as I wrote the script (The Haxan Cloak in particular, but also Forest Swords) and he ended up creating about fifteen different tracks for the film. It was all very experimental, he never composed music to the actual film, in fact I’m pretty sure he sent me everything before the movie was even shot. Once I sat down and put the movie together during the editing phase I isolated the bits that I liked the most and played them alongside the film to gauge how well they went together. So it was an organic process which I really enjoyed.

In the case of Radha’s performance, I ended up going with Deaf Joe who was recommended to me by our producer Anna Harris. I was already familiar with his music but I didn’t know he was also creating soundtracks. He is a very talented musician, I sent him the scene once I was satisfied with it and we exchanged a few emails to go over all my requirements about the piece. I listen to music 24/7 but I have no musical background or technical knowledge about composing, but he was extremely good at translating my vague descriptions into workable directions for him to use. We also looked at the soundtrack for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, which I found mesmerizing but also strangely unnerving. I think he sent me three temp tracks and then it was only a matter of nudging them in the right direction with a little more of this and a little less of that.

Our production designer Donal Sinnott is actually one half of ghost_code. While I was editing the film, he sent me a link to his music and I really enjoyed it, so when the time came to choose a song for the party scene, I decided to give it a try and it ended up being the most fitting choice out of all my options.

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LE: I didn’t realize until I was pausing the film to write down the music credits how large your pool of extras was and suddenly I remembered your earlier comments. Was the finding of extras interesting for you on this project?

NC: It was probably the most nerve-racking part of the prep, because in some cases we needed a lot of extras (the party scene), in others we needed particular body types (Radha’s audience) and our budget did not allow us to use professional extras or casting agencies, so we mostly had to rely on friends and acquaintances, which can be a double-edged sword. A good few of them were found at the very last-minute, sometimes the evening prior to shooting a scene they were scheduled for. Fortunately, we managed to pull it off and we were very grateful to them for coming in and giving us a hand on such short notice. If you knew them, you would also spot a few crew members within the crowd in some of the scenes. Lindsay J. Sedgwick, the screenwriter I mentioned earlier who is working on my feature-length script, also makes an appearance.

LE: Radha while definitely staking its claim in the cosmic horror domain had that feel of otherness to it that reminds me of the direction that Scott R Jones at Martian Migraine Press has been exploring with When the Stars are Right and Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis. Who are some of the influences you turn to? Favorite films, books, stories?

NC: There is one thing that all the films or books that truly had an impact on me have in common, and I’m going to quote David Lynch here: They gave me room to dream. I don’t like to be handed a complete package that ties up all the loose ends, answers all the questions and anchors the story into a finite and therefore sterile world from which nothing else can grow.

To name but a few, Mulholland Drive (Lynch), Possession (Zulawski), 3 Women (Altman), Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave (Weir), Le Samourai (Melville) but also Mirror (Tarkovsky) would definitely top the list of my all-time favourite films. I also love David Cronenberg’s entire filmography. But my favourite film ever is and remains Blade Runner and I cannot wait to see what Denis Villeneuve will do with his upcoming sequel. I think he is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. Slightly more obscure and he can be hit-or-miss, but French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux is absolutely groundbreaking in the way he uses the camera.

I mostly read non-fiction like filmmakers biographies and essays on filmmaking. I revisit Poe and Lovecraft every now and then but I don’t read fiction as much as I’d like to. At this particular moment in time, I cannot think of a more exciting author than Laird Barron. My favourite short story is ‘Shiva, Open Your Eye’ and I asked Kojii Helnwein to read it to prepare for the role of Radha. My father was a comic-book aficionado so I grew up reading his collection of French and Belgian ‘bandes dessinées’ and still revisit the same authors or artists to this day: Enki Bilal, François Schuiten, Tardi, Loisel… And from the UK and US, Alan Moore and Ed Brubaker.

LE: You said earlier that Radha was the first fifth of an overall story altered to provide closure. Do you intend to continue on with this story in future work?

NC: Oh, absolutely. Scenes From A Memory needs to happen, it’s been inside my head for too long and it’s dying to escape. I feel like tackling any other project before this would be nothing but a distraction from what I really have to do. I think the screenplay is in a good place now so we will start looking for investors soon.

LE: I know that Radha will premiere at the upcoming H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Providence and also at the Portland festival in October. Are there other festivals scheduled for its screening at this time?

NC: Yes, Radha is also part of the official selection of the BELIFF festival in London and the Cine Pobre Film Festival in La Paz, Mexico. The film only entered the festival circuit, so hopefully there will many more good news in the coming months.

LE: Nick thank you so much for this interview. I think you have now tied the team at Gibbous for one of the easiest and most enthusiastic interviews I’ve done yet for Lovecraft eZine. I know film making is a long and arduous process but just on the off chance are there any projects of yours or others you’d like to tell us about?

NC: Thank you very much for your time, it was my pleasure. I’m not a superstitious person but I am working with a lot of other people who might be and who would think that it’s bad luck to talk about upcoming projects, so I won’t get into details. But I have other things lined up with Black Ostrich Entertainment, so hopefully we get a chance to bring them to you soon. And to mention ‘Scenes From A Memory’ one last time, I just want to say that it will involve many more elements that the fans of Lovecraft and cosmic horror in general will I hope appreciate, so the eZine will definitely be kept in the loop if and when the movie is made!

This interview was conducted by Acep Hale.

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