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Monday
Aug172015

BORN AGAIN: THE BRYN TILLY INTERVIEW

A fascination for the macabre courses through the veins of Bryn Tilly. Between penning horror short stories and overseeing the popular website Cult Projections, the Sydney-based New Zealand expat has been shipping his film, the vampire-themed short Umbra, to genre festivals worldwide. The surreal work has impressed fest organisers; having wowed Australian audiences at underground showings in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, the global rollout starts August 27 when it screens in London’s Film4 Frightfest, followed by a prestigious slot at SITGES 2015 in October.

SCREEN-SPACE sat down with the director and good friend (pictured, below) to recount his film’s journey from its no-budget origins in chilly Wellington to the horror industry mecca on Spain's sunny Catalan coast…

You are open about Umbra's past, and that this edit is a reworked, condensed version of footage shot in 93 under the title Penumbra. What brought about the resurrection?

After Penumbra was completed I shelved the film, only bringing out the VHS copy when I was drunkenly nostalgic and feeling a little tragic. There was some great imagery and genuinely atmospheric moments in the film. I began wondering if there was a way of salvaging those moments, of re-harnessing that vision. In early 2014, I invited my friend, editor Michael O’Rourke, to help bring it back to life. We judiciously cut it from half an hour down to just over five minutes, removing virtually all the dialogue and many elaborately shot scenes, yet still managed to keep the overall narrative arc. We treated the image, adding film scratches and grain, intending it to look like a lost Euro-horror from the late 70s/early 80s. My brother, Miles and I composed a new score. And I shortened the title from Penumbra (meaning “half-shadow”) to Umbra, which was perfect as it means “shadow”, but also “phantom” or “spectre”. The new film had finally captured the atmosphere and tone I had originally envisioned.

Were there key technical issues that had to be addressed when working with footage shot 22 years ago?

I had to locate the original master tape, since all I had was a steadily deteriorating VHS copy. After unearthing the U-matic master cut - yes, it was shot on three-quarter inch U-matic videotape, an almost forgotten format! - I had the footage digitized; thankfully I managed to find a service that still had a U-matic player. Although the tape appeared to be in okay condition and “baking” wasn’t required, the digitized footage did reveal weathering had occurred. Michael and I decided that the lo-fi look could work in the film’s favour, especially with the recent trend of retro-designed horror movies.

How hard was it for the happily married 40-something father of 2015 to reconnect with such darkness? Describe the experience of revisiting a vision created by a much younger version of yourself...

I’ve been a fan of dark horror and science fiction tales since I was a boy. Doctor Who’s The Ark in Space on TV in 1975 left a strong impression. Then there were the rather nihilistic and genuinely nightmarish experiences of The Omen and Alien on VHS when I was around ten or eleven, all dealing with birth/death/rebirth. When I wrote Penumbra, it was intended as a dark and macabre vampire tale. I wanted Umbra to be tenebrous, but I wanted it to be very dreamlike, surreal, invoking a kind of fever dream. Essentially the older me favoured a more subtle, expressionist approach, and it was a joy to see that Umbra reflected my truer influences as a filmmaker, even though most of my favourite vampire films now are the same ones I had when I shot Penumbra. (Pictured, above and below; scenes from Umbra)  

You open with a Poe quote that addresses the line between the present and the beyond. How does the film represent your beliefs in the afterlife and the mythology of immortality?

 I’m an atheist and a skeptic, but I’m a diehard horror romantic, especially when it comes to the supernatural. I want to believe. I love the essence of vampirism, the dual curse/gift of immortality, the sensualism and the fragility. What I especially love about the Poe quote is its ambiguity; it’s not just about the reality of life and death, it’s about the powerful fabric of dreams and nightmares.

Some imagery recalls Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire. You’ve mentioned Alien, The Omen, Doctor Who; what other authors/artists/filmmakers influenced you?

 Certainly Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were big influences back in 1993. There was a cutaway in the original that showed a bookcase with Interview on it. Murnau’s creepy 1922 classic Nosferatu and Herzog’s haunting 1979 remake were inspirations. Whilst editing Umbra, the works referenced most were David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno. I love their oneiric application, the dreamlike atmosphere and nightmare logic. Less obviously, French extremist Gaspar Noe influenced me, with his a penchant for pushing the camera into the darker corners.

It features a rich, vividly ambient soundscape. Describe the intent and intricacies of its construction...

 I had co-composed an original soundtrack for the 1993 production but I knew the new film needed new music. I wanted it to have a lush, dreamy vibe, but at the same time capture an ominous and menacing tone; reminiscent of the stuff Trent Reznor has been doing for movies. Miles and I have been collaborating on electronic music together for more than ten years. We took a brooding techno track we had already recorded and put it through a time-stretch software program, which slows the music down. We singled out the best sections, and then Michael and I layered those pieces into the film along with a few of the original sound design cues.

And Umbra's own re-emergence, it's own rebirth? What is its point-of-difference that has seen become a 2015 horror festival favourite?

 It is a narrative short with no dialogue, relying on stylised, almost iconic imagery. The pronounced ambient soundscape is an invisible character, intensifying the mood. Most significantly, the look of the film is a aesthetically lo-fi in a world saturated with High Definition. This grungy aspect enhances the nightmare edge, pulling the viewer into a mysterious yet strangely inviting place. Umbra looks and feels different than many of its contemporaries, but surreptitiously bridges the present and the past. It has a curious history, as a vampire film brought back from the dead. It has been reborn.

Umbra teaser trailer from Cult Projections on Vimeo.

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