Jun 13, 2013


the Film Text

Q&A with Abigail Child, writer and director 

of Unbound: The Life of Mary Shelley 

Mary Shelley's Dream -- Still from Unbound

The following comments were made by avant-garde film maker and writer Abigail Child, following the New York premiere of her 2013 film, Unbound: The Life of Mary Shelley.  They are based on a recording of the Q&A with audience members that followed the film’s screening at the East Village’s Anthology Film Archives on May 31.  These comments have been amplified, added to and edited by Child, in collaboration with myself, over the last few days following the premiere.

The result are answers to audience questions that reveal the challenges as well as the beauty of filming/designing an experimental feature film abroad with few financial resources, in which the resources become the architectural sites of Rome, the ancient city and the sea, and a supportive local community of the arts.  Child’s answers here also reveal the creative potentiality in an imaginative and experimental use of digital film media and its editing software.  In a supplemental question posed by email, Child also responds by talking more deeply about the use of the “explosion” process in this film – and technological “error” – in which time, history, and story are transformed beyond audience expectations, in which “the machine” makes the human more real. – LH


Q:  How was the script for the film composed?

A:  I’m using Mary Shelley’s diary and [her step-sister] Claire Clairmont’s diary, combining them into one voice. I’m drawing from [Percy B.] Shelley’s poetry as well, which I am “mashing” –in that he wrote long poems from which I have selected lines.  I would love some of his poetry, and then back off the extended rhymed verses. There’s also some parts of the voiceover that I wrote myself.

Claire is more open in her diary than Mary, more free with her feelings for Percy and for Mary. Additionally, I kept some of the pieces of the recording by the actress, when she makes mistakes or errors… it’s part of the way we tell a story, remembering and circling back.

Q:  Where was the film shot, and how was it financed?

P.B. Shelley with racket -- Still from Unbound
A:  It was filmed in Rome -- all in Rome, or just about.  I rented a boat in Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber 20 minutes west of the City for the closure.

I really had no money at all.  I worked with Academic Fellows, who were at the American Academy in Rome as academic scholars where I was a Fellow in the Visual Arts. The scholars would give me only mornings or afternoons. Often we would film in the mornings, and then [the fellows/actors] would go back to their own research and writing in the afternoon. So, when I saw the carousel on the Tiber one evening, I said, “Let’s do it.” We organized the cast and shot during one sunny afternoon that next week.

The Academy was incredibly open with its spaces, allowing me to film in all of them. The villa standing in for Diodati [Byron’s residence in Switzerland] is the Villa Aurelia, one of the Academy’s properties. The gold room on the second floor was the stage for a lot of live classical and operatic music, fantastic in that venue. And famously, or infamously, this is where Tom Cruise had his engagement party.  [Audience laughter.] What was great is they let me have it for the day.  I had looked at Joseph Losey’s film on Mozart, which was photographed in a villa north of Rome, to figure out how you fill up a few thousand square feet of space with five people!  It was challenging. I brought the characters and furnishings up close to the camera. Then, I opened doors throughout the rooms so the vista was long behind them.

The film was shot all over Rome –in the Borghese Park for the boat scene, by the Castillo for the carousel, at the Baths of Caracalla, in the Museo Palacio and at the Academy itself, which had a lot of different available spaces and buildings. For example, the scene of Claire’s nightmare was filmed in a hallway of the main Academy building that was three-feet wide and 100-feet long– the most insane hallway, like something out of Kubrick movie.  I said, “I have to film here.”   So it was that kind of finding, throughout my 11 months in Rome, in which I would see something and think, “This would be great for a set.”  At the Villa Aurelia—another instance— there were these lights on the trees at night that they put on for parties.  I asked Academy staff if they would turn the lights on one evening so I could film my Frankenstein character lurking in the woods, and they did.

It was a fantastically communal and improvisatory way to deal with shooting and locations. I felt this film was the most improvisatory piece I’ve ever done.   I wasn’t at home in Rome—didn’t have film colleagues, equipment, labs, assistants around,  so I had to go with whatever was available.

Q:  Can you talk about the relationship between sound and image?  In your work, I know that musicians have often performed live to the film, but in this one the sound was composed. How are you putting those together?

I shot silent footage with my Beaulieu, a silent l6mm camera. I knew later that there would be voice-over and music, plus sound.   I contacted Zeena Parkins when I returned to New York —with whom I
have worked previously (on Mayhem, 1987, and Surface Noise, 2001) —and she began to give me themes with which we would work.  At one point I would tell her to dirty them up, or give me some synthetic sound to make it more discordant.

Mirrored Lord Byrons -- Still from Unbound

As one person who watched the film said: there’s an anachronism in every shot.   It never stays in one historical time zone, one solo period. So we would play with that in sound, as well….adding the engine of a motorcycle or car, sirens going off -- that kind of anachronistic play to undermine the fictional space of the story.

In terms of the music, I cut up some of Zeena’s themes and layered them. At one point, in Final Cut, because of technical issues, the sound slipped further, something like in Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia  where the voiceover is on the wrong photograph. Here the sound was suddenly stretched and the disjunction began to accelerate.

The way that one thinks about memory and storytelling and truth -- the slippage seemed an authentic part of the process, of going through time, in time.  Somebody said at one point, which I felt was true, that going through the machine made the time more humane.  Suddenly, with slippages, there was repetition and there was re-membering. There were these "mistakes."  You can almost see the film as a series of mistakes, as “off” the synchronous, off the logic of continuity.

What is your concept of "exploding" or an "exploded film"? Can you say more on your use of this term, and the technical as well as conceptual ideas behind it?

This is technically complex. At one point the film was single screen. I was moved to make it double screen —conceptually so the screens read as a book, to mime the Claire/Mary dichotomy/obstruction, and to suggest as well the Mary/Monster split and identification. This doubling is the significant gesture. Suddenly I had l6mm film, dvcam [the small amount of black and white registering mainly the casting of the film], stills, plus "quicktimes" of sections of edited film  -- which I had made in order to go to the double screen in the first place —and these 4 originals each had different originating sizes. This meant that the numbers to fill in were all different when they were set to size in double screens. I believe we had 8 sets of numbers that were carefully recorded to get the two-screen version to work.

Originally, there had been an issue with the Italian transfer. They had made every frame of film into a tiff that was then brought back into a film sequence in Quicktime. I was given wrong information here and brought the film back at 29.97 (frames per second/fps: this is the video format). This meant it was actually going too fast. It should have been 23.97 to keep it compatible with the way it was shot at 24 fps (the film format). I didn’t realize this until I had made the two-screen version which was accepted into the Rotterdam Film Festival for 2012.

I thought I could press a button and get the 23.97 version. I couldn’t. This is when I began to paste the fine cut into different sequences with different time signatures——not sure how else to describe this as it has never been done before. The result was strange, what I am calling exploded: I was watching the computer search among my fim rolls for material that would match numerically but it was impossible…. I was forcing the computer to match up a piece that was suddenly 20% longer (24fps vs 30 fps). There were all kinds of lovely coincidences and excisions and surprises. I knew then that the mismatched result—the exploded film— was a “gate” or opening to edit the film. I didn’t have time to work more fully on this then as the film was due for Rotterdam within a week. Also it was very unstable technically; it would crash the machine or freeze.

Q:  So the sound in this version is “exploded”?

Yes, it’s exploded.  In the sense that the sound was brought onto the editing timeline in new places [as described above], and that I layered the tracks again with anachronistic sound and with additional synthesizer sound. Cage would call it “reading through the text” and here it was reading through the film source materials—both visual and aural. It fragmented this material, cutting it off at unexpected places, re-realizing the film score if you will. Everything was recognizable but not exactly where it had been previously.

At one point more recently I asked Zeena if she could perform the film live. She commented on how hard it would be to recreate this new version. I should add however that the “carousel” sequence and “silent letter in English” sequence were taken from the two-screen version (A Shape of Error ) and inserted into Unbound as is.

Q:  You’re working a lot with a dual image, a mirror screen.  Can you comment on this?

A: At one point, as I said earlier, I felt I needed to move away from one screen:  for visual reasons relating to the “pages of a book,” and conceptually, relating to Mary’s projection onto Claire and onto the Monster, and all the doubling in her Frankenstein.  (The wife of Dr. Frankenstein is Elizabeth which is the name of Shelley’s favorite sister; the child who is killed is called William, which is the name of Mary’s child;  and both Byron and Shelley were writing poems based on the Prometheus myth). It is the very fact that there are two screens that allowed the “explosion” or "derangement" to happen.  As I noted, there are four, five, six sources in the film each with different ratios of sizing. That confused the computer. It was those variables that provoked the machine, you could say. I had always wanted it to have more rhythm and playfulness, so that’s how I arrived at the double screens.

I should add that I was attracted to this story because of the sex and politics. The sadness of the reality—of the Shelleys’ flight and the multiple deaths that surrounded them— was somewhat a surprise. I suspect it is because the film uses the home movie theme that these domestic realities began to surface and surface again. Also, there were many children at the Academy when I was there and this sense that children were in Mary's and Percy’s life constantly was overpowering. It explained a lot, potentially Shelley’s interest in other women for one thing.

Regarding the mirroring effect, I had used this in other films (first in The Future is Beyond You, 2004, and then in Mirror World, 2006). Here it is most often used within the landscape, because the mirroring made the landscape feel grand, wide, large – more the way the landscape actually felt, in "real life," which a single screen couldn’t capture.  And, of course, it also becomes ominous a bit, that ominous suggestive quality.

Q:  Yes, there’s mirroring towards the end when you get to the scene of Shelley’s sailboat out on the sea…

A:  It’s as if there is death at the center, but there’s this breathing movement happening, which I really appreciated: this sense of stillness on the ocean, the water moving the sail only slightly, everything quiet then, breath-taking, propelling us into the final exhalation -- which the sail itself mimes in its subtle movement.

I shot at Cinecitta at one point [the commercial film lot of Rome where Fellini movies were shot, among many other Italian classics]. Somehow they let me film.   There was another group of professionals, maybe 5 people, trying to shoot, and they forbade them. I was with my little Beaulieu camera and I guess it doesn’t look real, so they just let me keep shooting.  The images at the end were sound blankets waving in the wind hiding the rough construction behind. This image of the black “sails” and constructive artifice behind them, this sense of illusion and artifice out of the simplest reality, is what interested me in filming memory and biography, in examining storytelling.

What I aimed for was the Shelley party's idea of hallucination and dream. They were living in that place, exploring their own dreams, their illusions, they were pushing themselves.  They were living with the sense that whatever happened was part of their novelistic fiction.   They were living their lives under that rubric.

Unbound is the first part of my trilogy – on women and failed ideologies.  This film is a meditation on 19th-century Romanticism and Mary Shelley. I’m hoping to do one on Emma Goldman and 20th-century utopianism, and then a 21st-century film on women and science.  The Emma Goldman film will be shot in New York. I want to shoot the 21st-century film in Tokyo.  I don’t have a woman for that third film, but I’m actually thinking "she" should be anime – that "she" should be a virtual heroine.  I’m looking at the Hikikomori, the Japanese kids that stay at home all the time living on their computer. Tokyo would be my Alphaville of the 21st century.   Perhaps I should say Betaville to reference the computer? That’s the dream.

Photo stills courtesy Abigail Child.

Abigail Child is a filmmaker, poet, and writer who has been active in experimental writing and media since the 1970's.  She is the creator of more than 30 film / video works and installations, most recently Unbound (discussed here): A Shape Of Error (2011 – also a feature film on Mary and Percy Shelley); and The Suburban Trilogy (2011).  She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Award in Film, as well as the 2009 Rome Prize.  She is also the author of 6 poetry books. 

Child is the author of a Mermaid Tenement Press chapbook, which can be ordered by clicking this link and scrolling to title CounterClock. 

Laura Hinton is the main writer and editor of this blog.