An off-beat and beguiling journey into the dark corners of the mind, Go Down Death is something you haven’t seen before. It was shot on black-and-white Super 16mm and filmed in 14 days in an old abandoned paint factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The film feels like it was beamed from another plane of existence. It's an ensemble piece that takes place entirely on constructed sets of decaying buildings that are inhabited by amputated soldiers, tone-deaf bar singers, child gravediggers, and shape-shifting doctors, all surrounded by an unseen, foreboding presence existing outside the frame.
It’s also the kind of rare filmmaking that sticks with you. I found myself recalling moments from the film—like the howling sound of the wind or a character muttering the line “Ghost haunt me, but I’ll haunt no one”—days after I’d seen it. Perhaps the film’s lasting quality can be attributed to its grim subject matter. There’s a lot of talk of death, disease, and the breakdown of the body. It's all very exposed and vulnerable. You’ll probably find yourself feeling those qualities after the credits roll.
I sat down with director Aaron Schimberg to discuss his debut film, which begins its theatrical run tonight at Spectacle Theater.
VICE: Tell me how the movie came about in the first place. What was going on in your life?
Aaron Schimberg: It was partially inspired by a fever dream I had while on morphine following a fairly major surgery. The dream infringed on certain copyrights held by media conglomerates, so I had to remove certain details in order to transpose the material, which gave the film this kind of fractured, fragmented narrative.
Was this your first feature-length script?
No, I had written other scripts, but I thought they were too personal. This was something that was a little more mysterious to me. It was fragmented, and I was interested in withholding information. I think, in the end, it was also personal, but I was not totally aware of it at the time. It was difficult to write, and it was difficult to envision as a finished film, especially for a low budget.
How did you guys go about doing the actual production?
Because it’s ostensibly set in a small village, we thought about shooting Upstate, but the prospect of moving production there seemed impossible. We literally looked at 300 different warehouses and garages all around New York City, and they all wanted exorbitant amounts of money. We finally found a decent deal in Greenpoint. They gave us three weeks. One week to build everything and two weeks to shoot. And on the last day of shooting, we threw everything in the dumpster. Then we waited a week to get the final week's worth of footage back from the lab in LA, hoping that it came out. If it hadn't, we would've lost it, and we never would've had the means to rebuild the sets. But we got lucky, and it came out just fine.
Tell me about the musical elements in the film. You wrote all the lyrics to the songs that the characters sing, and a lot of the same lyrics are sung over and over.
I think that because we were creating a self-contained world. I wanted to write some songs that would function as folk songs from this particular world, as if it had this sort of pre-existing culture. People would be singing the same songs as if they were part of their heritage.
At times, the dialogue even reads like detached song lyrics. There’s scenes where characters are engaging in conversation but it feels like they aren’t really speaking to each other, almost like they're just talking to themselves.
We were using a lot of non-actors, so during rehearsals it was difficult for them to find a natural rhythm with the austere dialogue. But to me, all the dialogue could be tragic or funny.
I think you could potentially find the whole film funny.
I didn't want to make a movie that was just awash in misery. I wouldn't be offended if people were just laughing through the whole thing. In the initial cut, there were more outright comedic scenes in the film, but I removed them because I felt like they were hurting the scenes that were more subtly comic.
Is the final edit close to the original script? It seems like the kind of film where you could cut scenes but also reconfigure the order of scenes.
The final film resembles the initial version of the script. When we were editing, we had an eight-foot poster on our door with all the scenes written out, and we’d move them around. We’d edit for 12 hours a day for months on end. But Vanessa is an amazing editor. She wants a joke in everything. Every cut had to have a joke. To her, the film is hilarious. But she also went insane editing it. And she will kill you if you make her watch it again.
I don’t want to discuss the ending too much, but it’s almost impossible not to dance around it a little.
Let’s dance around it a little.
I think in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the ending would've come across as too calculated, but given the atmosphere you’re able to evoke for the previous hour, I felt like I was in trusted hands and I stayed with it.
Part of the challenge was striking that balance between something that felt real and something that felt stylized. I didn't want my film to be referential. I didn't want it to look like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but I didn't want to fool people into thinking it was real.
What’s interesting is reviewers keep using David Lynch’s Eraserhead as a reference point for your film, but I thought more of a kindred alignment was something like Inland Empire, where there’s these radical splits in the narrative threads.
And that movie is about trauma as well. To me, I thought of Go Down Death’s ending as a kind of trauma in and of itself. The world is a certain way, and then the world is a different way. And it’s a hard thing to accept in a film where you’re supposed to set the ground rules for what the reality of the film is. But life doesn’t necessarily work like that. You could wake up and some dramatic event changes your whole reality. And I think the ending is a cinematic illustration of that.
Personally, I took the ending as sort of a hopeful signifier of death and rebirth… Like, you may die, but there’s parts of you that are reborn or reincarnated centuries later.
[Laughs] That’s the most optimistic take I’ve heard so far. I welcome all interpretations. The film is designed so that anyone can project his or her own ideas onto it.
Well, there’s still plenty of negativity in the film. But what really stood out the most was that the whole thing felt like a very mature approach to death, especially for a first-time filmmaker. When you're young, there's an aura of invincibility with regard to your body, and then when you're older, things start to break down, and that wisdom doesn’t really come until you start to see it happening. The film is loaded with all these universal truths about what's actually going to happen to all of us…
As I mentioned, the initial dream I had for this film happened when I was in the hospital, when I was dealing with my mortality in a very real way. I’ve dealt with it throughout my whole life, really. I've spent a lot of my life at doctors, and I’ve cycled through depending on them and fearing them. I've had some close calls, and my body has failed me a few times. To me, the knowledge that I won’t live forever informs almost anything I do. I'm always aware of that. I've never felt very safe. [Laughs]
Go Down Death opens tonight in New York. Additional information and advance tickets can be found here. It will be released in additional markets in July by Factory 25.
Greg is a programmer at Spectacle. Follow him on Twitter.