Adam Roberts's Remake (2011) is Georges Franju's horror classic Eyes Without A Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1959) stripped down to the essence of its haunting narrative structure. However, instead of reverting to the French original, Roberts reshoots scene for scene Anton Giulio Majano's Seddok, l'erede di Satana (1960), the Italian Grindhouse take on Franju's masterpiece. With no actors performing and the dialogue lifted from an American dubbed version of the soundtrack, Roberts puts the focus on the locations and objects, creating an austere, textured and enigmatic world.
In February 2012, Close-Up hosted a double bill screening of Eyes Without A Face and Remake, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker.
Question: We've just seen Eyes Without A Face and your film, Remake. Could you tell us a little about the film that comes in between?
Adam Roberts: Eyes Without A Face was made in 1959. A year later, the Italians – as was their way – made a really poor remake called Seddok that turned out not very successful. Then the Americans dubbed the movie and released it four years later in the US under several titles, of which the best known is Atom Age Vampire. They changed the plot in the dubbing, so there's been a process of degradation of the material, starting with the sublime Franju and gradually getting more and more degenerated, as it happens with remakes. And so I've tried to produce the ultimate degeneration of the material.
Q: Your motivation for making Remake was the ultimate degeneration?
AR: The idea of the remake is very fundamental to the way the film industry kind of "eats" itself and constantly plunders the past. We take it for granted that we know what the word "remake" means, but I don't feel I know what it means. I know what "pastiche" means, maybe. I know what "replica" means or "facsimile. But "remake" is kind of odd. What is it that seems to persist from one remake to the next? There's the interesting Psycho remake which was called "shot-for-shot", but which wasn't at all, really. There's lots of inserted material, and it's in colour and there's interesting play with who you cast and so on. There's a whole world to explore in the concept of "remake". It's a form and content split. Removing the actors and leaving a kind of receptacle... perhaps that might reveal something about what persists form-wise from one incarnation to the next.
The other thing was that I had made a lot of dance films, and got rather weary of following bodies in motion with cameras. The choreographers were always making movement which they interpreted as defining and creating a space around this bodily movement, so I thought well, as a filmmaker, surely the space should have value in itself. So another reason to make this film was to work with the idea of a kind of a container, a space, and see whether or not the camera carried on doing these things with focus-pulls and camera adjustments and so on, whether you might, in your minds' eye, populate it with a physical presence. Then a friend of mine told me that Gorky was very interested in cinema when he first saw it, in the silent era, the Lumiére era; he said what Gorky couldn't get on with was the fact that people were captured in film and that they would become ghostly apparitions forever. So I thought, if I remove the ghosts, what would be left, and would that reveal something?
And I enjoyed another side of it, which was making film with TRI-X film stock – I've tried various different films, and this is pretty much what looks like "bad" – what they call "down prints". During the 1960s movies were made in 35mm, but they were often reduced to 16mm prints through a very poor optical printing process, and then, by the time I got to see them on VHS, it was in an even more degenerate form. So I've tried to reproduce all of the "decay" of the image that produced something that actually I fell in love with. I feel that we're living in a digital age and people might forget what those kind of pictures look like. It's the same with the bad soundtrack, the poor quality soundtrack, and all the rest of it. So this is a kind of memorial as well.
Q: ...A memorial of the remake. Of Eyes Without a Face, Franju said he didn't want the filmmaker to do his dreaming for him. In Remake – I've only seen excerpts of Seddok , but it seemed a little more salacious than Franju's original. In your film, by removing the actors, the horror is actually heightened. You actually recapture some of the spirit of Eyes Without A Face.
AR: I think there's a horror in objects. There's a horror in absence, and there's a horror in the persistence of human emotion, and cinema is all about those things.
Q: There is also the absence of the plot. Obviously you cut down quite a lot...
AR: Maybe there's a subplot about a young man tirelessly seeking to trace and rescue his love... Obviously I found that completely tedious. I'm only interested in men who are completely convinced they've found the secret of animating beauty in women. I wonder what that reminds you of? That's a sort of metaphor for filmmaking, for glamour, cinema...
Q: Who is the Italian filmmaker? Is it Dario Argento?
AR: No. Argento's obviously well known and much loved. This is what's called an "orphan film" now. I've had a terrible time, because I cannibalised the soundtrack and I needed to clear the rights. But unfortunately everyone who worked on the film is dead. All the producers are dead, the production company's defunct; bankrupted and dissolved years ago. Nobody has the rights, nobody controls them. I've had to open a bank account and put some money in it, in case somebody comes along one day and says, "How about some money?" The only way it exists is on YouTube. If a film doesn't have a commercial life then it becomes invisible and they call them "orphan films" because, if you can't exploit it, then nobody will release it, and if it's unreleased, it becomes non-existent. Whereas Argento's films are all available now, more or less uncut and in good versions. And thank goodness for that, really.
Q: At some point I thought there was more than one film involved here on the soundtrack. What do you think people who haven't seen Eyes Without a Face, or any of the remakes, would make of your film?
AR: Well, that's like the Italian original. It's quite sloppy because it was made on a very small budget. And I've tried to make it even sloppier – that's important. But, as for people who haven't seen anything, any of the progenitors, either Franju or... Majano, they seem to get it because it's so generic. It's so generic that it's a kind of recognisable. For me it feels like there are all these traits which are all familiar.
Q: On the soundtrack?
AR: Well, yeah. The whole style of it is so familiar in that you feel like you've seen the antecedents even though you haven't.
Q: Did you set out to film each shot, and each sequence of shots, according to the original... well, one of the remakes?
AR: Yeah. I've not been too slavish but broadly, yes. But in reality it's not a purely a strict exercise. It's got the latitude that remakes are usually allowed.
Q: Would you consider remaking your remake?
AR: Funnily enough, I have got film stock sitting in the cupboard and I thought of doing a remake of the remake but it would reach such a level of... well, perhaps it would be good to do.
Q: Is the reason that you didn't use actors at all related to the actual film itself, or is it something that you might have done if you had made another remake? And if it has a relation to the Franju film and the remake of that, what is that relation?
AR: Well that's a good question. I like the phrase "lost in translation". I thought, if remaking is a form of translation then what could get lost? For a dance film project, I was going to make one film with dancers and one without, but identical, as an installation with two screens. In the end, I just made the one with dancers. And for some years I thought, actually, that was a shame. I wish I had done both. That thought persisted and, here, I did it. The "lost in translation" notion seemed to explain, or at least support that as an idea. I don't know, perhaps in the end it's for you to judge. It seemed so logical to me, but for you... I don't know.
Q: I haven't seen the remake of Franju's film, just because it's so much about the body horror. I was wondering whether it was these horrific stories that made it interesting for you to do it without the actors.
AR: I suppose these are the sorts of films that get stuck into the remake process. And the other thing is, with horror, the tendency over time and through remakes is to make things more explicit. I wanted to travel in the opposite direction though, to see where that goes. If you think of the remakes that have been made recently of some of the horror films, whether it's...?
Q: Dawn of the Dead?
AR: Dawn of the Dead. Perfect example. In a way the rubber heads and the very bad gore effects of the originals are being replaced by seriously realistic effects, which seem to lose the delight of the originals. For me, that's a kind of regrettable direction of travel. So here I've gone in a conceptually opposite direction. Did it work for you?
Q: It did have a chilling... watching it directly after the other film, it has a chilling kind of feeling when you see those empty beds and you know what's happening behind… it has a creepy, chilling feeling just hearing the sounds.
AR: Well, it's true. When Close-Up suggested this double bill, I just thought, how excellent! I'd never actually seen them as a double bill until tonight. And of course we were all covering our eyes in the surgery, the face-removal sequence, it's absolutely horrific. But I was amazed because, I hadn't seen Eyes Without a Face for probably about 20 years, and I was horrified to see... they're such similar fundamental situations. It was more of an echo than I had realised. You see scalpels in a dish in my film and the second time he requests a scalpel – when you know he's going to be cutting the eyes – is an unbearable moment. Pleasingly he just views the eyes of the nurse and the doctor, but it is true, it carried right through across, so your mind's eye was filling in what isn't shown. That's the great thing about removing the actors. For me it was a huge discovery just how much you actively populate this film world and it seems good to discover just how active and vital the act of viewing is.
In film, the way film conventionally looks at things, there's such a hierarchy of what is worthy. So for instance, if somebody is sipping tea, the person sipping tea is more important than the cup, and then if they put the cup down, the cup is more important than the saucer, and the saucer is more important than the table and the table is more important than the floor. I'm interested in the despised, unnoticed level of reality that is in the film all the time. I suppose it's that prioritisation of the human face and its action, and the human body's actions over the objects. My favourite images were things like the corners of chair cushions, where a face would be actually expected to be found, but that corner suddenly became rather beautiful to look at, for me. And I felt like I've redeemed these details.
Q: How many locations did you actually use?
AR: Well, it was put together from lots of different places because I had to beg and borrow three different houses, for interiors and some exteriors. And the operation theatre is in my home.
Q: That's your home-operating theatre.
AR: It is. I do some operating on the side.
Q: You've got to get by, it's a tough world.
AR: It's on an amateur basis...
Q: Talking about the locations and the corners of pillows, it was interesting that the rooms and the objects are all static. If we hear on the audio that somebody's opening a curtain, for instance, the curtain doesn't move, it remains closed. What were you trying to achieve by deliberately keeping these things static, in spite of the action?
AR: Well, that's kind of a decision that had to be made. What was going to happen if a door closed or shut and you hear it: do you close or open that door? I took the choice not to have anything move because there's no human agency, there's just a camera and its agency, and its relationship to spaces. So the camera could move, but the door couldn't. Grain moves, but things don't move. I hope that was the right decision. There is an uncanny quality you want, because you want your mind to tell you that door's shutting, but for it not to move. And in your mind you move the door, you shut the door. And that's how you actually make the film in your mind as you go along, just as you put people into it etc. So, in a way, I'd quite like you to be haunting the film, in a manner of speaking.
Q: Talking about removing the actors from the film, do you view this as "taking away" something and revealing what's underneath, or do you view it more like in the original film where you're covering up and you've just got the eyes left? Do you view it as masking and just revealing the little things you can see through the eyelids, or do you view it as a kind of reducing things to the bare essentials?
AR: Well, that's a really good question. I could kind of say yes to both. Before I did it, I tried to explain to somebody what it was going to be like. I said, "Imagine a film where the cast was vampires and you're filming it in a mirror, then this is what it would look like." But I suppose that doesn't really answer your question, that's just treading water. I don't know the answer to that. I've got your email, I'll write to you. It's a good question. But I suppose that's the fundamental question.
Q: I suppose it makes no difference in the end, really. Because watching the film I drew the parallel between the mask on the face and, at the end of the day, it's still just the eyes that you see. It's whether you choose to see it as a masking or an unmasking.
AR: Yes. I was just about to remember something Nietzsche had said which would be so marvellously clever and you would be astounded but unfortunately...
Q: It's absent. It's something you're going to fill in with your heads in the same way.
AR: Yes, something about... No, I can't remember what it is, but it's something about what humans find most alluring or beautiful – I can't remember quite what he said – is something that persists after an unveiling. If only I could've remembered it, you would have been astounded. Look it up: Nietzsche, unveiling. Google it. It'll come up straight away, I'm sure. I think that's the word: unveiling.
Q: Just to ask, or re-clarify: is the main idea of this the idea of a remake, or... how important is the actual original film? Is the idea of remake and the degeneration of the film the most important thing, or where does the Franju film stand?
AR: I suppose the word "degeneration" is unfortunate, because in a way I wish to celebrate its texture. I like it. I like film grain. I like film damage, as far as it goes. There's an aesthetic appeal to me. To call it Remake slightly detracts from the specific reality of this particular piece of work, so I suppose it's an unfortunate thing. At one point I was going to call it "Atom Age Vampire" in quotes so that it would be a quote of that film. But that didn't seem quite right. And the more I tried to come up with a title, the more I failed and in the end, I stuck with Remake. I tested it out with friends, and they said Remake was good. They liked it on its own.
Q: It's more like a "take", isn't it? Like a Take 3 or Take 13 or...
AR: Yes. It is a version of something. It feels like that.
Q: But in terms of your feeling when you made the film, was that idea of remaking it the most important thing, or...
AR: It was in my mind, because I was looking at the original and preparing shot lists. So it is, I suppose, absolutely remade. But on the other hand I was fashioning something. I mean that's the endless complexity about a copy of some kind; a copy is still something in itself. Everything is unique in a sense, so how do you establish the concept of replica or copy or imitation or facsimile? I was thinking, with painting there was a time when artists would make versions of their own paintings to sell. So there would be a painting done by the hand of the original painter, so is the copy more or less valid? And then there would be copies produced by others, and sometimes there'd be an etching copy of a copy and images would circulate in that way. I've seen etchings of Titian paintings by the hands of an unknown artist that are really extraordinary. And I've seen others which are just terrible and which you wouldn't look at twice. The question of value, what is the inherent value of something, is quite a difficult one, probably way too difficult for me to make headway with.
 Our eyes love a beautiful thing because they "remain fixed on what remains veiled, even after the unveiling." Nietzsche, Friedrich (1999): The Birth of Tragedy, section 15, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, paraphrased by Alexander Nehamas in The Return of the Beautiful: Morality, Pleasure and the Value of Uncertainty, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58(4), 2000, p.402