The Movie Waffler Interview - OPUS ZERO Director Daniel Graham | The Movie Waffler

Interview - OPUS ZERO Director Daniel Graham

opus zero willem dafoe daniel graham
Filmmaker Daniel Graham discusses working with Willem Dafoe on his feature debut.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

Writer/director Daniel Graham's feature debut Opus Zero stars Willem Dafoe as Paul, a composer who has travelled to a remote Mexican village where his father recently passed away. While there he gets sidetracked into discovering the fate of a missing woman which ultimately leads to his coming to terms with his father's death and the uncertainty of his own future.

Ahead of its UK release on August 9th, we spoke to Graham about working with an acting legend and the themes of his enigmatic film.

opus zero poster

How did Willem Dafoe get involved with the film?

It was Carlos Reygadas, who I worked for on Post Tenebras Lux, who sent an early draft of the script to Willem Dafoe. The two of them are friends. Carlos suggested Willem talk with me and he did just that, phoning me one afternoon in late 2012. He seemed very interested and engaged by the script and over the following three or four years remained so even when, at one rather desperate point, it looked like the project would fall through. Finally, in October 2015, when the movie was green lit, we were all systems go. If it weren't for his commitment to the film and his belief in me I doubt it would ever have been made.

What was it like working with the man who once played Jesus?

Challenging, educational and revealing. I visited him in Rome in August 2016, three months before shooting, to read through the script with him. On day one he immediately started drawing through the dialogue with a pen, editing it to suit his style. I must have looked a little shocked because he said to me, "If you want this dialogue performed exactly as written then you're going to need a better actor," which I thought was a pretty remarkable thing to hear from the man who, as you say, played Jesus, not to mention TS Eliot, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Max Schreck. Much later I was thankful he didn't perform my dialogue as written for it would have resulted in a pretty tedious character. Willem's magic was to take ownership of my dialogue and make it sound like his own thoughts. That's why he carries the role so well. Even when wrangling with some weighty ideas he still manages to make it sound effortless and natural and not like an actor wrestling with a text that is dense. I can't honestly say I did much 'directing' of Willem; he did that mostly himself and he was probably right to, most of the time. Had it been up to me we would have probably spent half a day contemplating something that Willem already had an answer for based on his many many years experience in cinema and in theatre. By this I mean both practical things and theoretical matters. For me it was like a crash course in advanced filmmaking. Of course the argument could be made that if a director casts their film well enough you shouldn't need to do a great deal of directing. I did find however that actors, being highly instinctive and not necessarily intellectual in the application of their craft, prefer concise directions rather than speculative, esoteric ramblings. You can do that during rehearsals and prep maybe, but when shooting you need to get on with it.

Willem certainly didn't enjoy rehearsing a great deal. He preferred to wait until we were on set so he could 'inhabit the role' and react to the real space we were shooting in as opposed to a hotel roof terrace, for example, which has an entirely different kind of energy. On set there was high tension at times. An actor's psychology I think is a complex thing. They are vulnerable and emotional and can sometimes be very needy. You have to understand this in order to know how to work with them and get the best out of them. Opus Zero was a high expectation, high pressure film to shoot. I learned a great deal from Willem but my favourite nugget of wisdom was this - "Don't pull apart a woollen jumper too much to find out what it's made from because eventually you'll have nothing left." In other words, don't over analyse. Prepare well but don't over analyse.

I notice in the film that works of art - both paintings and music - feature prominently. The film is also shot in a seemingly deliberate chiaroscuro style. I wonder if you could talk a little about the stylistic choices of Opus Zero and how they support the film’s thematic intentions?

The chiaroscuro was certainly a conscious decision of mine that the DP, Matias Penachino, carried out with great artistry and technical brilliance. Early on I asked him to avoid sunshine and blue skies since we were shooting a movie in the Mexican desert. I also asked him to be moving the camera whenever required which was another challenge given Real de Catorce (where we shot) is a very unevenly cobblestoned village. Matias' work on the film was simply magical. He's a brilliant craftsman and along with Willem was the person I learned the most from on Opus Zero. The 3:1 ratio you see wasn't my first choice. I needed some convincing this was the right choice but after we visited Real de Catorce it became obvious that the space around the characters was as important as their actual movement within the frame. I wanted to put across the idea that we carve our way through this world thinking we're discoverers when in fact we're simply treading the same paths as though who went before us. What they leave behind, whether practical or theoretical, kind of sticks to us like dust and the spaces around the characters in Opus Zero are like the invisible receptacles of these lives. I'm not talking reincarnation here, but simply recycling. The thing with the exchange of paintings that Willem does, replacing Arnold Böcklin's 'Isle of the Dead' with Diego Rivera's 'The Mathematician', could be interpreted as Paul replacing symbolism with realism, imagination with empiricism. Of course he only stumbles across the Rivera painting and the Böcklin was his father's and not his own, but nonetheless it happens at a time that seems as though it were meant to happen. You also have the scene in the amphitheatre, which is lit in a completely theatrical manner, an irony seemingly lost on Daniel who earnestly seeks answers from Paul without first understanding what prompted the questions.

I could rabbit on all day about the language of the film but what it all boiled down to was an attempt to make the written word, the ideas behind them and the placement and movement of the camera to be sort of dancing with each other, asserting their dominance but then receding when their opponent gains the upper hand. I also wanted to step in and out of the movie, to temporarily abdicate the primacy of my own role as director, or at least to give that impression. The movie is one big sleight of hand I guess you could say, hopefully done with some humour and lightness despite the nature of the subject.

As I was watching Opus Zero (specifically the bits when Paul was thinking about his composition), I was reminded of Roberto Casati and Jérôme Dokic’s 'Philosophy of Sound', in particular the bit which goes, "[However] … classifying sounds as qualities gives rise to a difficulty: if sounds are qualities, then they are dynamic qualities, qualities that change over time; but the ordinary concept of quality rather applies to static entities. It is also possible that no definitive objection exists against the concept of dynamic qualities." How far do you think this is true of the film’s ideas surrounding sound and space?

Opus Zero is both concrete and water. There are immovable objects like death and history and big mountains that weigh millions of tonnes, and there are impermanent objects like the human body, ideas, words and sounds. I tried to place one on top of another and see what dynamic resulted from it. Perhaps Paul is water and Daniel is concrete, despite appearing to be the opposite. I think rather than saying sound is a quality, I would say that sound has a quality, or qualities. On this subject I would recommend the curious reader to look for Luciano Berio's 'Remembering the Future'. He talks about this subject far more eloquently and convincingly than I do. Indeed, his writings on music and art exerted an immeasurable influence over Opus Zero. In addition to being a brilliant and very clever composer he was a supremely important thinker on music, art and time.

Film is in an interesting place at the moment. There is an argument which suggests that the Disneyfication of cinema - all big franchise crowd pleasers - is detrimental to  the smaller, artier end of the industry. Yet I personally feel that films have never been so available, and streaming services like Mubi and Netflix are a viable lifeline for films that may have reduced cinematic distribution. Where do you see a personal film like Opus Zero fitting into the modern filmic landscape?

Personally I find the large majority of superhero movies to be infantile and moronic although they're not the only genre of film that could be described this way. I'm not sure they're detrimental to art house cinema in a direct way but in the UK I've definitely seen a degradation of the audience for art house movies over the past 15 years. This might be attributed to various sectors of the film industry but the audience chooses what it wants to see at the end of the day. For example, Lucrecia Martel's marvellous film Zama will never have the same audience numbers as Avengers Assemble and that's all there is to it. It's a matter of taste and personal preference at the end of the day but I do agree the platforms through which cinema is consumed have certainly changed viewing habits. It's a broad subject and a complex one and by no means necessitates a pessimistic outlook on the future of art house cinema. And besides, these things are often generational in that each generation likes to feel it is discovering the world for the first time and on their own terms. It seems, for example, that more people know Tarkovsky's work today than when I first saw his films 30 years ago, but I could be wrong. We need only look at today's masters of cinema to be reassured that art cinema is alive - Claire Denis, Alexander Sokurov, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Carlos Reygadas, Bela Tarr (please make another film) and others. It has its place and its place seems secure, for now. The one thing I would bemoan is the absurdly short period of time that some of these movies have on screen at the cinema. There is simply no time allowed anymore for an audience to make its way to the cinema. You either go the first weekend or, as the industry seems to believe, you won't go at all.

If we're talking influences, I would cite Welles, Antonioni, Claire Denis, Bela Tarr, Angelopoulos, Bresson and Kubrick. They each create worlds of their own that seem entirely plastic in nature or granite-like in their form and function. Either way, to create a world so distinctly your own in a medium as intractable as filmmaking is a sign of true vision, resilience and some madness.

Like I say, I really enjoyed Opus Zero. But over to you now: why should The Movie Waffler readers take a chance on this beautiful abstraction?

I like to think that cinema as an art form is alive and well and that audiences, especially younger audiences who have great curiosity and are open minded, will eagerly enter the world of Opus Zero and be compelled enough by its visual language and philosophical occupations to feel they've spent 84 valuable minutes moving through a world of shadows and echoes, of dust and wind and of Willem Dafoe and his commedia dell'arte charm.

Opus Zero is in UK cinemas August 9th. Read our review here.