Interview by Katya Yakubov
Award-winning filmmaker Jeff Desom talked with us about his work, Rear Window Timelapse, a shorter version of a video installation he did for the Exit 07 space in Luxembourg. Creating a composite video from appropriated background scenes of Hitchcock’s classic thriller Rear Window, Desom weaves together a self-contained world that toys with ideas of scale, duration, and what kind of narrative can be brought to the foreground of a white canvas.
Image from Desom’s “Rear Window Timelapse”
You were born in Luxembourg, a small country but with so many languages and cultures in one place. And yet your focus is on narrative, almost American cinema. Could you talk about what the film culture is like in Luxembourg and what your early influences were leading up to this film?
You’re absolutely right there. I grew up on American cinema and was really engulfed in American pop-culture. Luxembourg itself certainly has a very strong cultural heritage that reaches back for many centuries, yet its very hard to escape the American pop culture. So that’s always been an influence for me. Whenever I think in terms of filmmaking, I always pull from the movies I grew up with, the usual suspects of the 80s: E.T., Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Jaws, Terminator, Back to the Future… all the films I saw as a child.
Image from Desom’s short film, “X On A Map”
I’m curious, do many films get made in Luxembourg?
Yeah, more and more so, but it’s only really been since the 80s that public funding has allowed filmmakers to produce films here. We are a very small country, so everything that is produced here, every Luxembourgish film in the Luxembourgish language, is only going to be seen by so many people. So the interior market is very small and there is no studio system that can sustain itself. What you have now with the government funding really allows films to be produced that don’t have to be a commercial success.
Yes and in some ways, even internationally, narrative filmmaking is moving away from a more classic studio system; there are more independent cinemas, more independent filmmakers, the structure of funding is changing, all sorts of innovative financial routes like Kickstarter are being used, social media and other alternatives all help to produce work. But I did want to touch on the fact that the narrative films you’ve made are all in English, so you do have a larger audience in mind, outside of Luxembourg and the French-speaking culture there?
Yes, definitely. I think most of the films I’ve made I had to write myself. And Luxembourgish, though a very rich language, is very hard to write with, to write drama with it; it sounds very strange to me. I think English has always rung much truer. It’s weird, really, but I think Luxembourgish works very well for comedy. The other factor I consider is that you will only ever reach so many people with it. Unless it’s an artistic choice, if you really want the language to seem foreign and choose to work in Luxembourgish, otherwise I think it’s easier for me to write in English.
Image from Desom’s short film, “X On A Map”
I know that a bar venue in Luxembourg approached you to make the original 22-minute installation, from which the shorter Timelapse was then made. I’m curious as to what guidelines they gave you to work with, or were they very open in terms of what you could bring to the table?
Yeah, they were. They just gave restrictions of the blank canvas and its dimensions, and so it had to fit that and had to be loop-able. It’s actually a rolling exhibition; they ask a new artist every other month or something like that to do something for the canvas.
Is that strange, for this bar to be so artist-friendly?
It’s actually a government-funded bar. I think it came out of when Luxembourg was the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2007; that’s when the bar started, and it was the initiative of the Luxembourg government. After that Cultural Capital year was over, they decided to continue with this venue, to keep it going and couple it with an art gallery that is attached to the bar. It’s a venue with concerts and theater work, so it’s all mixed into one. The bar is the central hub of it. They also curate other things there. It’s called Exit 07.
Was it the size of the canvas that led to the idea of using images from Rear Window?
Yes. I thought of doing a big cityscape and filming my own stuff, all different apartments, snippets of windows, and then compositing the whole thing into this giant cityscape, where you could see day and night shifting. As I was trying to map that out, I quickly realized that it was going to be way too expensive. So I thought of other ways of doing it. I watched Rear Window, as an inspiration. My intention wasn’t really to remix the film like I ended up doing, I just wanted to see what was happening in the film, because it’s pretty mundane in terms of the scenes shot out the window. It’s just daily life, nothing unusual happens. And I think as I started watching the film I thought, wait, you could stabilize those shots and paste them all together into one giant panorama. Then I did a test to see if it would work, and that’s when I got very excited.
Image from Desom’s “Rear Window Timelapse”
Just as you were saying, the activities of the scenes shot out the window are mundane, mere backdrop and details that are in some sense superfluous to the main story with Jimmy Stewart, yet this is the centerpiece of your film. In the process of working with stabilizing and compositing these scenes, watching them a hundred times in the editing room, did these seemingly background characters take on a life of their own for you, and even enrich your experience of the original film?
So the part with Jimmy Stewart I skipped working with completely because I did one big scrub over it where I would extract the background scenes, dump the rest, and never look at it again. Apart from the murder scene itself, which is I think in the central apartment, and whose plot is much more closely intertwined with the main plot, we have the other apartments, which are related with the main plot, but not as obviously. They mirror different states, and different versions of Jimmy Stewart’s life, different variations it could take, but it’s all very subtle, and not as obvious as the murder plot which is very much emphasized. But Hitchcock paid just as much attention to those details and background characters as he would to the murder story or anything else. They are just as important to him.
So if they are a subtle variations of Jimmy Stewart’s character, was that why you worked linearly, having your film parallel the plotline of the original film in terms of the sequence of events that happened in the background? And is that how you came to have a 22-minute loop that is essentially a sped up version of all the background scenes in the original Rear Window?
It wasn’t so much that I had the intention to emphasize it. My primary stimulus was to see that it was technically feasible. Aside from that, I think I was so deep into it, I couldn’t see the wood from all the trees until I was finished, and I was able to see the whole thing moving. Then I realized what I had done. Because it was really hundreds and thousands of layers, and it took ages to layer out. I never saw it moving in one continuous loop. It was only after the fact, that yeah, there actually is some
meaning you could extract from it.
No, absolutely, on a strictly aesthetic level, it looks amazing, and I can only imagine how great it looks as a large-scale installation. That being said, I’m looking forward to seeing it on the big screen at the festival. Was this then the first time you conceived of a project as an installation, and do you see yourself moving into that realm? I know you do a lot of music videos, a lot of narrative film, but now that you have dabbled in this large scale video installation world, do you see yourself conceiving of projects that would benefit from being installed in a space?
My thoughts have definitely taken a turn towards that side of things, and I probably never would have gone into that territory if this Rear Window thing didn’t happen. The other work I did is this Ghost Piano live projections piece. I’ve only shown it at a few venues because it’s pretty complicated to set up and pretty expensive, but it is a live show that I do with Hauschka, the pianist, and it involves projection mapping onto a white piano, while he’s playing to it. I’ll send you a link. (http://jeffdesom.com/ghost/) But that was the first time I was asked by curators to do something that didn’t necessarily have to do with my narrative work. And that’s the first time I started thinking outside the strict narrative box of my previous works. But I’ve definitely been thinking more about work that could go into a gallery setting.
Image from Desom’s collaborative performance piece with Hauschka, “Ghost Piano”
Talking about different venues, when I last checked, over a million people have watched Rear Window Timelapse on Vimeo alone. You also won the Vimeo REMIX award with this piece. But I assume when you were making the film, you weren’t thinking about the internet as being a primary venue for the work. How do you feel about showcasing your work on the internet now? Do you think of it as stepping stone to expose your projects, and possibly be able to show in more prominent venues?
I think I would have never had the type of exposure that I did through any other circuit. I mean the first time I noticed that internet’s possibilities, it really threw me on a tangent that I never thought possible. So early on in one’s career, it suddenly constitutes an alternative to the festival route. I realized that a few years back when one of my videos was staff-picked by Vimeo. It was the first thing I ever uploaded to Vimeo, and it got staff-picked, and suddenly it boosts and exposes you in a direction that I don’t think would have been possible before. You’d have to go through festivals, and travel, make those contacts in person.
So did you feel that things were coming to you once the video went viral on the internet, instead of you reaching out and finding venues for yourself?
Absolutely. Yes, I found that last year, the flow was reversing. I had definitely an increase in requests and doors that opened up that previously were shut. I couldn’t think of what I would do without the internet as a means of propagating your work.
Right. And actually that is how the Video Art and Experimental Film Festival found your work. We had seen your work online and were able to reach out to you for this year’s event. I don’t know if you are aware, but our program actually consists of two parts, one with works submitted through an open call submission process online, and we also have a section of the festival where our curator team reaches out to emerging and working artists and invite them to screen here. So you were part of that program. Our inspiration and part of our goal is to show how the internet is a platform to bridge up-and-coming artists with curators in the art and film establishment. It has the potential and in many ways already is a community, a democratic place where there is a back-and-forth dialogue occurring. It’s an exciting place.
Image from Desom’s collaborative short film “Tears” with director David Altobelli, with a score by the band HEALTH
I know that you collaborate a lot and music videos are one of your main interests, but I feel as though things are much more fluid now in terms of what kind of artist you can be, in that a gallery-artist can submit work to a film festival, or a filmmaker can make video installation such as yourself, or a narrative filmmaker can make music videos; things are much more fluid in that sense. Particularly because filmmaking is such a rich medium that you could do so many different kinds of work with, I’m curious how you conceive of yourself as an artist, where you interest lies, or if you worry about these labels?
I still haven’t really found a definition for things I do apart from the general tag of ‘filmmaker.’ I guess I think music videos are definitely going to be one of my main interests, at least for the next few years. It’s a spontaneous medium, you can experiment a lot with it, a project is wrapped within two months, and you are allowed to make mistakes in it. But then, with those installation type things, a lot of doors have also opened up in my consciousness around ideas that I would like to explore, which I hadn’t thought to explore before. So I really don’t know where it’s going to lead me and I’d like to just wait maybe for the next curator who might ask me to create some particular work, because it’s only with that type of pressure and with a given budget that I can afford to explore these ideas, and invest time into it, and create something that isn’t necessarily a music video or isn’t funded by a label or band.
Image from “Morgenrot,” a music video for frequent musician/collaborator Hauschka
And I do get a sense that you are much more adaptable in terms of the projects that you do engage with; it’s very much a “what comes to you” kind of thing, the people that are around you, who you collaborate with, like with the musician Hauschka. You embody this new idea of a filmmaker working within a few fields, making the best of all of them. I wanted to also ask what your feelings are about Rear Window being an installation and then having it be screened as a shorter piece in this film festival. What does the venue brings to the piece, having it shown in a black box theater, having people sit through its beginning, middle, and end, rather than it being part of a space where people can kind of come and go?
Yeah they are two different pieces actually. The time-lapse version of it, it was really tailor-made for the internet. I thought, this has to be short, this has to be snappy, so I’ll briefly explain the process of how I did it so you’ll understand it within the context of the original Rear Window film. And the loop, the video-art installation, is a different beast. I’m always happy to see it on the big screen in an installation space. It’s a completely different experience, and couldn’t be any more different from the time-lapse version.
I could see how the installation version is almost like this giant that lives in the background, but lives with you through the same duration, the same time-continuity; you’re sitting at the bar having a drink and the characters are there, also going on about their lives. Yeah maybe they are sped up, but it is more of a coexistence with the characters and with the piece, as opposed to when it’s screened at a film festival, with the shorter version perceived more of as a spectacle. The focus then is more on the spectacle of the effect itself, more so than the experience of sitting with it, near it.
In that sense I was always happy with the large scale version, if it is shown at a museum or at an art gallery. And I like to go there and look at it myself again, because I so rarely get the opportunity to do so. It’s twenty minutes long, but it becomes longer, because the scale of it never lets you watch the whole thing at once. You always have to concentrate on one thing and you’ll miss the thing going on at the other side of the screen.
Image from “Tears”
Right, you are almost editing the canvas with your eyes as you’re watching.
Yeah. I think all sense of time also disappears with it.
That’s lovely. Well thank you so much for your time, and good luck with your future work. We’re looking forward to seeing your work on Tribeca’s large screen in February.
Thanks so much.