Recently, Cinema Chords caught up with British film and TV director Suri Krishnamma and it was a very rewarding experience. He speaks in great detail about growing up on the Isle of Wight and his controversial new film The Dark Tourist. He’s a thoroughly down-to-Earth and interesting person, so I hope you enjoy reading as much I loved speaking to him.
I’ve been doing a bit of reading about where you’re from; you grew up on the Isle of Wight. I went there once and it rained so I didn’t have a lot of fun. What was it like for you?
*Laughs* Well I was born in Shankin and grew up in Carisbrooke, or that area and spent the first 17 years of my life there. Then I left home and came to London. To me, it’s just my entire childhood and adolescence really. I grew up in the ‘60s when the pop festivals were part of my world because my parents had a hand in the organisation of them, so I was surrounded by the music scene. I was not particularly into music, I admit. I had a great time there, it’s kind of a place that may be called “too small” but, creatively, it’s a great place.
If I was thinking of places where people would get in to the film or television industry, the Isle of Wight wouldn’t spring to mind.
I think a lot of artists found the Isle of Wight to be a very inspirational in history. Alfred Tennyson, for example, famously there’s a monument on the tip of the Island named Tennyson’s Monument; it’s the highest point on the Isle of Wight. So, he wrote a lot of his poetry down there. I guess that little bit of water that separates it from the mainland creates a very distinct place. Not just geologically, but in terms of time and culture it is different because it is an island. I think that differentness is quite inspiring for the creative person.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t working in film or television?
That’s a really good question. My first answer has to be: I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, because I can’t. Writing would not be the correct answer, because I’d write anyway and I think that’s too related. I was very political when I was young and in another life I might have become a politician actually. That’s a bit dull, I know! But, I like arguing. I like a debate and a discussion. I love science and am studying for a degree in Natural Sciences at the Open University, so as well as teaching film, I’m a student as well. If I could choose and be really good at it, I would be Brian Cox.
Moving on to your film now, it has two names – The Dark Tourist and The Grief Tourist. This confused me…
Actually, it’s neither. It’s just Dark Tourist. It’s the only name I’m allowed to use now and it changed a few weeks ago, for good now. I mourn the loss of the old ones, but I embrace the new one because I actually quite like Dark Tourist as a title.
I’ve had a little read about it and watched the trailer. It looks a bit complex..What would you say it was about?
This is going to sound glim, and it’s not meant to sound glim, but I’ll explain it. It is a dark film about a tourist.
So, you’ve picked the right name, then?
*Laughs* That’s why I think that name’s perfect. It’s a dark film about a tourist. A grief tourist or dark tourist, if you look it up in a dictionary or on Google, is someone who spends their vacations visiting scenes of past horrors, disasters or sights that were important to the live of certain serial killers. So, it might include Jack The Ripper’s haunts, Ground Zero or a concentration camp. Anything that you would not, as a rational human being, choose as a tourist destination, but a dark tourist would. So the film is about this man who chooses a new places every year; a place of a different serial killer, and visits where they used to hang out or where they committed their murders and enjoys his vacation. Now, in our story he only visits one and the consequences of him visiting this particular serial killer’s place are grotesque and spiral into a very degenerate and violent, sexually violent, world that is conjured from his imagination. This is because of a traumatic past that he suffered. He is a man that is holding a secret, a demon inside, that he wants to repress but it ultimately comes out and once it does come out, it explodes in a pretty horrific and horrendous way. It comes out as a consequence of his fascination with a particular serial killer, who he likens himself to in some way. In fact, so much so, he conjures an image of this now dead killer, and is effectively visited, not by the ghost, but by the imagined image of this killer. Really, it’s about a man’s search for intimacy. His lack of care, affection and intimacy when he was younger, means he’s become a loner and introverted. He is someone that society forgot and didn’t fix and as a consequence of that, the damage that was done to him, grew in to something else.
Is doesn’t sound like the happiest film!
It’s a horrible film!
What was it about the story that got you interested? Why would you make such a horrible film?
*Laughs* It is a horrible film, but in a ‘horror’ sense. I don’t call it a horror film personally, it’s a psychological thriller. Nonetheless, some people do and I can understand why. I read the script and I saw the film very clearly, I then spoke to the writer Frank John Hughes for about 3 or 4 hours on the telephone. Really it was Frank that made me want to do it, because I realised that what he wanted to do was a very serious film on the subject. Not a slasher film or a gratuitous film that was cheap in any way. Also, I realised that he wanted to make a film where the violence and sexual violence in particular, was very graphic. He felt, and I think he was right, that to deal with this subject properly for a mature audience, you sort of have to see everything. Otherwise, it’s really hard to understand. This way the film can’t be appealing, unless you’re a complete weirdo *laughs*. You can’t be excited about what you see in our film and that’s intentional. We wanted to make it unpleasant. I was attracted to this film because it was an opportunity to work on a film that isn’t done very often, that takes some risks. It takes a lot of balls to write a film like this and to be in a film like this, because it’s controversial and not everybody is going to like it. Recently, we had a screening in Los Angeles and a woman threw up behind me. *Laughs*. That’s not typical, but a lot of people have said when they come out of the film, they feel like they’ve been kicked in the stomach. I’m afraid to say that my reaction to this is, “Good, that’s what we meant you to feel!” You don’t have to watch it, but you know what to expect, so be prepared. It’s very short, as well. Only 84 minutes.
You don’t see that too often, it seems many people think the longer they make their film, the better it will be.
I think some really fantastic films have been relatively short. I was watching Elephant by Gus Van Sant which is about the Columbine school shooting and I think that’s only about 75 minutes. A film should be as long as it needs to tell the story.
I’d never heard of Grief Tourism before, how did you come across the term?
I hadn’t heard it either until I was given the script. When I spent a bit of time thinking about it, the first think I thought was “God, that’s sick, dark and twisted.” I’m the last person who’d be a grief tourist. Then the other side of me thought, wait a second, aren’t we all a bit? Who doesn’t slow down at the side of a road traffic accident? Who doesn’t watch the television news when there’s a missing person or a killer on the run? Who hasn’t been to Ground Zero or Auschwitz or those kinds of places? Sure, we go for positive reasons to show our respects for the dead. I went to Dachau in Munich, and I was shocked that people were taking photographs. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to take a camera. Why would you want photographs of this? I was sick enough going there and I will never go there again or anywhere like it, but I knew that I wanted to go because I wanted to pay my respects. At the same time, you can’t deny that there’s a part of you that is curious and I think our film holds a mirror up; I think that we are all in danger of encouraging certain media. I get really sick when I see the media outside the recent Spanish railway disaster; we see the disappointment in their faces when the number of dead are not going to rise anymore. This film holds a mirror up and says, “There’s a grief tourist in all of us.”
I think that’s true. Schools take you to Auschwitz and other places where bad things have happened for educational purposes. I think everyone is interested in bad news and death, maybe it’s in our nature.
I think it is. I think the further back in history these things are, the more acceptable it becomes. There’s a great kids TV programme called Horrible Histories, it’s terrific for kids because it brings to them some historical stuff that they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in. Nonetheless, if you look at it, it’s about all the unpleasant things that humans have done to each other in the past.
How did working on Dark Tourist compare with your other projects?
This is probably true of most film-makers who still retain a sense of excitement about what they do, which is probably all of us, because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. I approach every film that I do as if it is the first time I’ve ever made a film and I’ve been making TV programmes and films for 25 years now. I always treat it as though I’ve never been on a set before, never cast before or spoken to an actor. I think that’s important. This film had certain challenges that I hadn’t faced before; there were logistical and production challenges. For example, we started pre-production on the film in New Orleans originally and while we were there, the financiers got into a mess. The film collapsed and we had to return home and a couple of months later the film got to its feet again and, this time, we were to shoot in LA. In a sense, I almost made the film twice. The subject matter was dark, like we’ve been talking about, making some scenes difficult to shoot but we found humour in the darkest of places. I don’t want to portray it as a miserable set, because it wasn’t, it was pretty lively and good fun. The hardest part, I suppose, was shooting it in a very short amount of time: 18 days. For a feature film, that is remarkably short.
The film has been compared to films such as Taxi Driver and Monster. Would you say you drew inspiration from these films?
I did not, but I totally understand and I’m, of course, hugely flattered by that comparison. I think it’s an exaggeration and I’m not being modest. Although someone did point out to me at the end of a Los Angeles screening and I have no idea who it was. He pointed his finger at me and said, “I want to explain why your film is better than Taxi Driver.” And I said, “Please do, I’d love to hear, because Taxi Driver is a masterpiece!” And he said, “Because you don’t let people off the hook, Taxi Driver opted out and created a strangely happy ending.” Extra material was shot for Taxi Driver in order to lighten it up and he said, “What you do in your film is, once you’ve grabbed the audience by the throat, you won’t let them go and that requires a certain determination. Your film is better because it’s more honest and it doesn’t cop out.” I was flattered by that, but I don’t think there is a comparison with those two films. I suppose the idea of a loner and stylistically there are a lot of similarities; the nourish feel that they both have. I’m a big fan of film noir, the classics as in Touch of Evil and The Third Man. What I like about film noir is, firstly, the day scenes feel like they’re night. I very much went for that in Dark Tourist, so when he’s in this motel room in the daytime, although it is light, when he’s outside I tried to put him in walkways and tunnels so I shroud him in darkness. Inside diners, I would try the classic venetian blinds and, in terms of angles, I went for lower and wider angles. Also, the Dutch tilt where you would prefer to line up with the vertical rather than the horizontal. It gives it a different feel without it being style over content.
You must have had to make sure you cast the right leading actor for this film as it must have been quite a challenging role to play. How did you find Michael Cudlitz?
Unfortunately, the truth of that is, he was on-board before I was because Frank John Hughes wrote it for him. They are both actors and both in the film The Band of Brothers and they have a very close relationship, so Frank wrote it for Mike and they brought it to me. The deal was, I was part of the process of casting everybody else, but the lead actor was already on-board. I didn’t know who he was, I had to do my homework and I saw there was a huge amount of talent there. When I decided to do the film it was after a very long conversation with him and to make sure his commitment to it was 100%. When you work with actors, to get the best out of them they obviously have to trust you and, the cliché is, you’re leading them to the edge of a cliff and they have to stand on the edge, close their eyes and trust you. I think what decided it for me was when he was talking about the script and the character and he clearly understood what he wanted to do with it. I said, “When I start working with you I want to make sure that I’m working with a blank page. I want you to forget about everything you’ve just told me, that’s irrelevant, I don’t want to know what you’ve thought about this. You’re a blank page.” There was a pause and he just said, “Great.” He was just so excited, because he felt a sense of freedom. As well as understanding the part very well, he realised this was a different journey.
You also have Melanie Griffith starring in the film. What kind of role does she have?
She’s pivotal in the story because she represents Jim’s [main character] opportunity to gain intimacy and to break out of the psychopath that he is about to become. She offers him this way out, she doesn’t realise she is doing that, but she’s crucial in the story for that reason. If he was capable of reaching the intimacy that she is offering him, then she could save him. She does an amazing job in the film; she’s an incredibly brave actress and I adore her. The last line in the film sees Jim look at her, having already abused her in so many ways, and says, “You’re disgusting” and she walks away in tears. It’s a powerful performance that she gives, she’s not in the film very much and does not have a main main part. She brings a huge amount to the film and is an incredibly talented actress. She works incredibly hard and is Hollywood royalty; she used to play with Charlie Chaplin when she grew up and she has Hollywood running through her veins, literally.
Apparently her husband, Antonio Banderas, said that Dark Tourist is the “greatest” film he’s ever seen.
Well, I wish we could use that! He did say that, but I wish he said something a bit tamer so we could use it, but we can’t because that’s ridiculous. He might be a little bit biased being her husband.
Sure, he’s not going to say that the film’s rubbish with his wife standing right there having been in it. But he didn’t have to be that nice.
He didn’t, and he made these comments to her and she has repeated them in press conferences and stuff. She’s an enormous fan of the film which is really useful to us.
As you’ve said, it’s been shown at a few film festivals already. What do you think of the reviews that have come from those, so far?
I’ve read a few. The word of mouth and reviews we get seem to be similar. People are very much split over it, some people hate it and you’ll see why. I mean, I couldn’t show it to my mum because she’d abandon me, I would imagine. A lot of people would not watch it. I think one reviewer said it was the most depressing film they had ever seen. What I find peculiar and what staggers me, maybe you’ll have something to say about this, unbelievably bad reviews in one journal and then in an equivalent journal, you get an unbelievably good review. I just don’t know how that can happen! As someone who loves movies, I know if a movie is good or not. I could well write a review and say it’s not my kind of movie, but I couldn’t criticise the direction or the quality of writing of a film or the performances, if they’re good. I just couldn’t. You cannot watch Dark Tourist and say anything other than, “Mike Cudlitz’s performance is sensational.” Not to talk about myself, but it is well-directed. It does have an incredibly brave and dark screenplay. There are lots of things that you can’t criticise. You can absolutely say, “Look, I only like romantic comedies so I hated it for those reasons.” So, it really puzzles me when reviews polarise it in this way, but they do.
With a film like this, a controversial one, maybe people are scared to say they like it because it may make them appear weird or strange. But, it’s okay to like a film if, like you say, it’s got good performances and it’s well-directed. People shouldn’t be afraid to admit they like a film, even if the subject matter is controversial, dark or quite depressing like this one.
Yeah, I think that’s right.
How do you think audiences will react when the film gets its general release?
We will find that out quite soon in America, at least, but I don’t know what the deal is in the UK yet. It’s coming out in Los Angeles, in New York and Chicago soon and it’s on VOD at the same time. It’s hard to tell what people will think, it’s almost impossible for a film to breakthrough in to a wide audience. I suspect it will do very well on video, because it seems like that sort of film. I’ll be very interested at the reaction at Frightfest because that will be to an audience of 1000 or more.
Yeah, I think it will be well received there because the right audience will be there.
That’s right. I think it’s the same with most things, if the right audience see this then they will love it.
You’ve just finished working on another film called Bad Karma. What is that one about?
That is a story about revenge and stars Ray Liotta and Dominic Purcell from Prison Break. Ray plays a drug-addicted criminal who has a heart attack and, as a consequence of that, decides to clean himself up. So, he disappears to Australia and is then pursued by his friend Yates who wants him to do another job for him, but he doesn’t want to. So, Yates says he owes him one and he can’t get out of it. Eventually, out of blackmail, decides to he will do the job and it’s all about the consequences of all that. It’s a fairly predictable story that’s probably been told 100 times, but to me it’s about how the past eventually catches up with you and you can’t pretend that you’re a different person. You have to face the consequences of what you do in the past. It’s also a love story between Ray’s character and an Australian woman. I like the film very much and watched it this morning because I did a live Skype link to a cinema in Australia. They were doing a special screening of the film there and they wanted to do a Q&A with the director of photography and me afterwards. It was fantastic, it was really enjoyable and they seemed to be pretty enthusiastic about it.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a few things, I’m not in pre-production or heading towards the starting line yet, but I am developing a few things. One thing I’m developing in particular is a story that is very close to me and about the Isle of Wight pop festivals between 1969 and 1970. I’m developing a film about that with the man who organised those festivals and is a friend of mine. We are actively in talks about that. I’m attached to, I guess, half a dozen other projects. Some based on novels and there are even discussions of a Dark Tourist 2 which I’m equally excited and terrified about. I’m not sure if it’s a good idea or not. I always quote Woody Allen when somebody asks me that question, “How do you make God laugh? You tell him your plans for the future.” Whatever you think you’re going to be doing, you probably won’t.
As hoped, Dark Tourist has received some great reviews when it screened at FrightFest over the weekend. If you like your films complex, dark and twisted then it’s definitely something you should check out. We’ll leave you with the trailer…