Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s excellent debut film Suture has been re-released by Arrow Video in both the UK and in the US. It’s a thriller about identify with aspects of science fiction in the vein of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds and it came out during the independent film boom of the early ’90s. I had the great pleasure of ringing them up at their office to discuss the film, Steven Soderberg’s involvement, their influences and the upcoming projects they are working.
Suture owes a lot to Seconds and The Face of Another, How did you discover these films and how did they inspire you?
David: Well, we… neither of us went to film school. I was a teacher, and Scott was going to be an academic—he was doing Japanese film studies in the Rhetoric department at Berkeley, and we knew each other through Scott’s sister Kelly, who has production designed most of our work. And the specific film archive in Berkeley which is connected to the Berkeley Fine Art Museum has an amazing collection of postwar Japanese cinema, and we used to go watch movies with—this was sort of pre-digital film—we would watch the films on reels on a flatbed in the back of the BFA. It was kind of a formative experience for us, so we were watching a lot of postwar Japanese films and one of them, some of them were the films that Teshigahara made, and one of those was The Face of Another, so that’s where that comes from. And at the same time, also sort of connected with Scott’s work at school, we were looking at American paranoid thrillers, sort of cold war-era paranoid thrillers, and that’s where Seconds came from.
Scott: Also around that time, there was kind of a renewed interest in Frankenheimer. We were discussing it that The Manchurian Candidate had a re-release around that time or shortly thereafter…
Scott: So we were thinking we actually may have watched them together at the Castro [Cinema] during the re-release period,
And I guess because of Rock Hudson’s death, all his good films were being re-evaluated around the same time as well…
Scott: Yeah, I guess that probably had something to do with it, it was a little bit after that bit, but not a super long time after that, yeah.
So you had the Rock Hudson Home Movies documentary and stuff which weirdly doesn’t use much of Seconds because there’s so much in that film which you could say about Rock Hudson.
Scott: Yes, it’s true.
And he considered it one of his only two good films.
Scott: I’d be much kinder to Rock Hudson, than Rock himself, but Seconds is a really fine performance and yeah of course all the kind of self-evaluation and the thinking about identity that his character does in that film, it’s interesting to watch Rock do it, knowing more about his biography now.
And the drunk scene where he reveals that he’s actually a “Second” to everyone, he actually was drunk in that.
David: Yeah, I read that recently. You think like “acting drunk” would be the easiest thing in the world to do, you wouldn’t think you’d need to be really drunk to pull that off. But I did hear that they actually were drinking.
But it is one the great drunk scenes of cinema—it’s like that and James Dean in Giant are the two great drunk scenes.
Scott: Well, I’d like to know if the director and the cinematographer were drunk also.
Well, Frankenheimer probably was!
Why did you decide to cast the half-brothers with two very different looking actors rather than two who looked more similar?
David: Well, the ideas that came out of watching… we were interested in kind of exploring stories about identity, We started writing, we started working out a kind of more straightforward noir-ish story, I guess. And the idea of casting a black guy and a white guy who look exactly alike—or, within the frame of the story, people address them as if they look exactly alike—was just one of those sort of slightly hairbrained ideas that wasn’t really based in anything other than a kind of associative springboard for thinking about the identity, the exterior, the fade of consciousness, that sort of stuff.
What was the biggest challenge in making the film? And also, was there a deliberate choice not to use fisheye lenses?
David: You know, I don’t think we ever used a fisheye lens in any film we’ve ever made, have we Scott? I don’t think we’ve ever had that question before!
Scott: No, that’s so specific. I don’t know, whatever the psychology of our characters really asked for them, but I don’t think we ever really talked about it either. And uh, that’s sort of a difficult thing to try something new… What was the most difficult thing, David?
David: Money. The most difficult thing was always having money and time. Yeah.
I assume that’s still always the issue to this day?
Scott: Money and time. We’re just starting the budgeting process on a film that we’re hoping to make this fall, and the first thing we said to the guy who’s doing the budget—a very accomplished accountant and producer—was we’ll give up every bell and whistle to preserve as many days as possible. Because time is so precious when you’re attempting to do something interesting.
And you’re not Roger Corman, so you can’t do a film in two days.
David: No, you can’t do a film in two days.
Scott: Rather than go and shoot it in the time we could afford given the money we’d raised, we ended up shooting it with the time we thought we needed. That was definitely foolhardy, and it took us a really long time to raise a finishing fund. We were screening the film for potential investors, and it wasn’t until a friend of ours that’s a director interviewed Steven Soderberg that he came on as executive producer and carried on with us. He was screening it for potential investors and even he was having a hard time raising the finishing fund. I only did it through a French distribution out of Cannes, he was in Cannes with King of the Hill.
Why do you think Soderberg liked the film so much?
David: You mean beyond the fact that it was really good? [Laughter] That was a joke. I don’t know—he responded to the look and feel of the movie, I thik. Stephen likes stylistically interesting stuff and I think we were going out on a limb with that with Suture. We felt really flattered and happy.
We had a kind of crazy, funny screening with him. Alison introduced us and we set up a time with him and he was the only person in the room. He says he doesn’t remember this, but I find it’s hard to believe it’s true. Steven can be very cheeky that way. Basically, the film had to be stopped and restarted three times over the course of the screening. Initially there was an oval gate in the projector so we had to stop and start it again. And then at one point the film broke and we had to stop and start it again. And at another point two of the reels were out of order and we had to stop and start it again. We just thought it was… well, it actually was technically the worst screening we’ve ever had. But afterwards all that Steven he just looked at us in that kind of inscrutable way he can look sometimes, and said “well, when would you like to speak?” And we set at the time the next day in our cutting room, and we thanked him and he left. And we were sure he was going to come in and tell us, you know, “best of luck, if I can help in some sort of rudimentary way, or give you some notes or something,” but it was the opposite, we wound up just really being a pal to us in terms of introducing us to lots of people, coming to screenings and introducing the movie and wearing our silly Suture T-shirts. And juts being a champion of the project.
Did he have much influence on the editing? Because I know he’s done that for quite a few people, because he’s also an editor as well.
David: You know, we looked at the film together editorially with him a couple of times and he made some suggestions about cuts, but for one, it wasn’t an easy thing. We were cutting on film, the only time we’ve ever cut a feature on film, so it’s a more cumbersome process. You can’t just quickly make four versions of something, So there was that. We sat and talked about the movie quite a lot—small changes that he definitely had an influence on. But the movie was pretty close to its form now when he saw it, so there wasn’t a lot to do with it It wasn’t like we’d shot half a million feet of film, we were pretty limited in how much footage there actually was. I think maybe we were the first people he had actually helped that way.
Yeah, I double-checked and you definitely were the first
David: He has gone to help a lot of people after us. He helped Greg Mottola and helped directly produce Daytrippers. He came in so late in the process on Suture that the main thing he could do for us was raise money, and he did. But it wasn’t fast—it look like four or five months of screenings. And like Scott was saying, he was again King of the Hill and he was having dinner with Michhel Halbersom, they have a company called ARP.
How did they see it?
Scott: I think Michelle came over to the US and we showed it to her They helped us finish it, and it premiered at Telluride over here.
Why did you choose to use voiceover by a doctor in this film? Since [voiceover] can go very badly or very well—obviously it worked quite well in this film…
Scott: The film we talked about before making it, we were talking about Ruby Gentry. And that film also was narrated by this authoritative figure who was trying to claim ownership of the narrative somehow. And then you got the feeling that his narrative didn’t quite jibe with what you were seeing. And we liked that idea that the narrator could open up this ironic space, because it kind of rubbed against what you were watching to make this ironic space open up for the audience. And that was really the idea. We lucked in casting Sab Shimono who has such a beautiful voice and did such a nice job with that language, but the idea really came from Ruby Gentry.
The film was obviously about identity. How did that affect your decision to have a Black actor playing what is basically a culturally “white person”?
David: Um ,well, I think I may have answered that in that we in exploring issues of identity, talking to reconstructive surgeons and doing research about amnesia, you wind up thinking a lot about the relationship between your self schemata who you think you are and how you’re perceived. That idea of making a literal difference on the surface just came out of all that other stuff we were messing around with.
I’ve read that you were interested in adapting a Patricia Highsmith book as a film, but when you sent her a copy of Suture her agent she sent it back. What’s the whole story there?
Scott: We really loved that story, that was the first script that we wrote after suture. I don’t think it’ll happen again. She was still alive when we were trying to do that was still alive when we wrote that. She was resistant and we sent her, I think we had a video tape of Suture at that point it had gone through Telecine so we tried to get her interested in the movie and invited her to Telluride but no-no she wasn’t interested in that but she was interested in some of Soderbergh’s work she said so we sent her a copy of sex, lies and videotapes but then no-no she didn’t like that. We just kept going at it and we eventually did get the rights, but we never got the film going. Now when we think when you think about that story without updating it or doing something more dramatic with the plot itself, it seems a bit out of fashion to us now it terms of the type of story that people may be interested in.
What was the biggest challenge in the look of the film?
Scott: The biggest challenge in terms of the look of the movie, was printing in black and white in 1993 when we were working on that. the laboratories just weren’t producing black and white film anymore. In a way they just weren’t that good at it they weren’t that experienced and we ran into some technical problems because we shot super 35 there was a lot of blowing up involved to get the wide-screen anamorphic frame that we were projecting and that created some more complications, the thickness of black and white film stock is different from the thickness of colour film stock and those minuet differences were causing a soft image which we struggled and struggled to correct.
David: At the same time Steven Spielberg started doing tests for Schindler’s List and Janusz Kaminski was processing very differently to we were. And I don’t know that much about film photography but time and temperature is sort of how you control contrast in black and white so all of a sudden the bath was slightly hotter or colder I can’t remember which but all of a sudden we were getting very hot images really much more contrasty slightly grainy, so we were just tearing our hair out a little bit.
I guess that’s the one plus side of digital that black and white is easier to do
David: Yeh (laughter) it’s pretty easy now, just hit a button, a black and white button
Well then it gets to the new print, how does it feel to have one that actually looks really solid for once?
David It’s still a pleasure it was a pleasure getting to do it and we really enjoyed working with Arrow for one thing they’re a terrific company. It was nice to go back through it and make little changes that you could never make on film but you can make digitally, so it was kind of fun.
To you think to some extend the reaction to the rerelease will be different because people have seen seconds and face of another and what not?
Scott: It’s going to be interesting to see how people react to it, I mean one thing that we were really surprised about when we came out in 1994 was how little people wrote about the issue of race, people would refer to it mostly just as colour blind casting, we were like it’s so not colour blind
Yes it’s very deliberate
David: Did they think that we were just being really magnanimous in the net that we were casting? It just seemed weird. It’ll be interesting especially with everything that’s been going on with issues of race socially you know and politically in the last year, I mean I wonder how much critical attention it’s going to get, but it’ll be interesting to see.
I know there’s a screening either in Manchester or London when someone’s doing a Q and A about it before, which should be interesting.
David: Yeh I think it’s screening at the ICA
Scott: in a couple of weeks or maybe a week. Where are you based Ian?
Leeds so I won’t be down there
Scott: It had a screening at Home previously, maybe two or three weeks ago something like that.
Oh that’s a great cinema, it used to be called Cornerhouse it was the big independent cinema for decades and decades and then they rebranded it in the last few years.
Is there any particular story of why it’s coming out now? And not previously?
Scott: I guess the rights eventually reverted back to us, you know, as the producers after about 20 years was it David?
David: I don’t know but they reverted back to us.
Scott: So yeh there couldn’t a re-release until those rights came back to us as producers, and then Arrow reached out to us it was their interest that generated the remastering.
Arrow half the time the quality of the print and stuff is better than Criterion, a lot of the time which is saying something.
David: We had a great experience working with them, they were not compromisers they really made sure everything was exactly the way it should be, the way we wanted it from the box art to the printing of the film, the remastering of the film itself they were really terrific.
I know they’re really hard-core about getting the right encoding and everything and I think they’ve had one cock-up in the last five years, which was on the release of Shivers which took a while for them to sort out which is impressive for any company to have one mistake. What recent films new or old have you seen that you’ve liked?
Scott: I really liked Jacques Audiard’s movie Dheepan. Which got almost no attention over here and I think it’s terrific, I mean I’m a big fan of his. I mean he’s so consistently strong as a film maker, he gets terrific performances, he’s always doing something interesting visually, stylistically so, I thought it was a good movie
What are you working on at the moment?
David: We have a couple of television projects that we’ve been working on for a while, a couple of years. Ones an ongoing series and ones an original ongoing series, that was inspired by an unpublished novel that a late friend of ours wrote. The other is actually a dramatization of a documentary that was nominated for an academy award called How to Survive a Plague.
Is that the AIDS one?
David: Yes it’s an AIDS story but it’s the story of an organisation called Act-Up. Which is an acronym for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and specifically about a small group within act up guys who are mostly HIV positive they were kind of the smarty pants set within the organisation and in a way they taught themselves to be scientists and the work that they did in helping to reorganise the FDA and the NIH and the actual research that they did was a big contributor to the discovery of the combination drug therapies that ended up keeping millions and millions of people alive including many of them and it’s a story about what happened with the AIDS crisis or within the aids crisis that people don’t know. I mean people like us, we lived through that, we didn’t know that story till we’d seen the movie. It’s a really memorable film and a great story it was made by a first time film maker called David France who was a journalist before that, so we’re dramatizing that with David.
Have you considered another stylised project in the same vein as Suture?
David: There’s a script that we wrote around the same time that we were finishing Suture. Which was, it was going to be a feature-length sort of end note to the Fallen Angels anthology series, and we eventually decided to write it as just a straight feature, and it’s something that has kind of a long tortured history to it but it’s a script that we’ve always loved and that’s always had a lot of fans. We’re in the middle of doing a rewrite to it it’s a sort of unrequited sort of hyper real love story set in 1963 in Los Angeles, it has a very heightened sense of the world or the real world, so that’s the closest thing in terms of something stepping outside the bounds of reality that we’re working on right now.
Is it an adaptation? because I know some episodes were based on short stories
David: It’s actually an adaptation of a script and it’s a unfinished film script that Horace Mckoy wrote in 1950ish. Horace Mckoy is a novelist, who wrote They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? you know that Sydney Pollack film, that’s based on that. So Horace Mckoy wrote this script in the late 40’s early 50’s.
Scott: We sort of used the first half of that script, for our script so it is an adaptation but of a screenplay.