In 1978, painter/filmmaker Hugues de Montalembert was attacked when returning to his New York apartment. During the resulting struggle, one of de Montalembert attackers threw paint thinner into his face, permanently blinding him. Unwilling to be undone by this life-changing experience, de Montalembert traveled to Bali alone the following year. He wrote about these experiences in the celebrated book, “La lumière assassinée” (known in North America and the United Kingdom as “Eclipse”).
Director/composer Gary Tarn uses the interplay of images and sound in his documentary Black Sun to different ends. He succeeds in a better understanding of his subject than traditional documentary techniques alone could convey by using a series of remarkable audio interviews as a foundation for distinct ways of seeing the world around us.
Jonathan Marlow: Using Hugues de Montalembert’s ‘Eclipse’ as a starting point, Black Sun expands on your usual expectations of a documentary film both in its approach and its construction. It deviates greatly from customary aspects of narrative filmmaking. Does the film owe much to your initial reading of the book?
Gary Tarn: ‘Eclipse’ was written a couple of years after the attack and it is really about his process for those first couple of years. The film, made twenty-five years later, is about a very different period of time and has a much more philosophical edge to it. I certainly agree that it is not a traditional documentary but it was never my intention [to make a typical documentary]. The idea was to see what you could do within the documentary context and what I could do to push the medium a little bit.
Hugues de Montalembert: ‘Eclipse’ is a story and the film, Black Sun, is not a story. That is an enormous difference. It is a meditation, a reflection, an illustration of thinking. It is like a Ping Pong game played between someone who talks and someone who visualizes what he is talking about. Gary had total freedom. I didn’t have anything to do with the visualization. I am only responsible for the words.
Marlow: The audio recordings predate the period when you were traveling and filming the images. I presume that you used these words as a guide for your photography?
Tarn: The text that you hear in the film was carved and edited out of a couple of interviews that we did when we first started [in 1999]. When I met Hugues, we started recording interviews quite quickly, just as you and I are talking now. Just the two of us in an apartment; in a very casual, relaxed environment. Once I had a few hours of talk, I took those transcribed interviews and went off and started shooting.
De Montalembert: I must correct something. I do not talk about the subject in a casual way. I write my words in my head. Gary may think it was casual but, for me, the subject is never casual. It is fully formed in my head as a result of hundreds of hours of meditation and thinking. If you are attentive, you can tell this in Black Sun. It is not like a conversation in a cafe. I cannot talk about it in that way.
Marlow: As a filmmaker, you refrained from representation as much as possible. You interpret the area around the dialogue without creating a direct visual representation…
Tarn: There really is no point in doing that. That seems to be telling the same story twice. I don’t know why people do it. On occasion, if I can bare to, I watch documentaries on television and I think, ‘What is the point of this? This would work better on the radio.’ I don’t get it. If someone is talking about a shipwreck and I’m seeing dodgy images of a shipwreck that don’t even look as good as a second rate movie, what is the point? Show me someone leafing through a book of beautiful 18th-century boats while you’re talking about it. Find some other way of attacking the story. I think the viewing audiences of a lot of television are given a lot less credit than they deserve. I think that people are not quite as stupid as broadcasters believe them to be.
Marlow: Agreed. And yet your film is perhaps the most unique and innovative work that many of these folks will have seen on television in quite some time. Black Sun is almost subversive in its use of counterpoint between the images, your music and Hugues’ dialogue.
Tarn: I think you’re probably right. That HBO will show a film like this might actually give some filmmakers a little bit of hope and inspiration to be a bit more risky in what they’re making.
De Montalembert: I think that you used a very good word—’counterpoint.’ The film is based on the counterpoint between the words, images and music.
Tarn: It depends on who you’re working for. With the Quays, our relationship is very giving and open. They had written and cut the film to music [by Zdenek Liska] which they found they weren’t able to use due to copyright reasons. They came to me and said, ‘Look, this is what we’ve done. We’ve cut it and we can’t use this music and we don’t want to re-edit the film. Are you interested? We don’t want you to do a carbon copy version. Do your own thing.’ That’s how they left it with me and I went off and scored my own version, looking at the beats and the tempos of what was there. And then they really didn’t like all that I’d come back with! It was too big and too full. They wrote me a lovely letter saying, ‘Dear Gary…my goodness, it’s not quite right. Do you hate us, do you never want to talk to us again? Or shall we come to your studio and have a look?’ So I said, ‘Come down and let’s have a play!’
They came down and we pulled the tracks apart and discovered what they really liked. I was very happy that they found I had just over-scored everything. If we pulled three or four of the tracks out, we were left with a very simple score that had the essence of what I had been writing. I basically took that and worked the rest of the score around it. But I was very much left on my own, which is quite rare. Normally, when you’re composing for someone else, you get quite constrained. Those narrow margins literally destroy the soul of a composer if you don’t like working in that way. You feel like you’re basically at someone’s beck-and-call and tend to have to please a larger audience. The Quays, though, were great. It was right after that piece that I was convinced to get on with Black Sun. It reminded me that I actually quite liked writing music and I like doing something where I have a little bit of freedom.
Marlow: You shot this footage in 16mm?
Marlow: Given the intricacy of the film, you assembled Black Sun on a computer?
Tarn: In Final Cut. I don’t think that I could be making films if I didn’t have my Mac.
De Montalembert: It makes you lighter. I used to make films in 35mm. It’s very heavy. Now you are very light. I go around with my little computer and I can write and I have a little camera.
Tarn: It is doable. I literally scored the whole film and edited the whole film inside a Mac. Twenty years ago, it would have just been impossible. There was no real way of doing all this yourself.
De Montalembert: Plus some thousands of dollars.
Marlow: At what point did Passion Pictures, HBO and Alfonso Cuarón step into the process?
Tarn: It was very late. I had a rough cut of the film and I knew Alfonso socially because he lived around the corner when he was in London making Harry Potter [and the Prisoner of Azkaban]. One night, I gave him a DVD and said, ‘Here you go. Just have a look at it. I’m curious about your comments.’ He didn’t know that I was making a film. Around the same time, I had given the film to John Battsek [Producer & Head of Film at Passion Pictures] who had won an Oscar for One Day in September. John was a friend-of-a-friend who asked to just give him a call. We went and had lunch and talked about it. John loved the film. He offered to help because I didn’t know much about distribution or film festivals or how the whole process worked. I knew up to the point of making the film but after that was a bit of a mystery. It was great to have somebody who was at the top of their game and come in and give it a little stamp of authenticity. Similarly, when I told Alfonso that John was on-board, he rang me and said, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help…’ In fact, Alfonso and I spent a few evenings going through the film scene-by-scene on a DVD just before he started filming Children of Men. We had about a week to get together and he gave me a lot of useful notes and comments, most of which were things that I hadn’t noticed because I had been too close to it. It was really useful having a filmmaker that I respect look at it. No one else had given me any real feedback apart from friends who would say, ‘Oh, it’s really good.’ It’s very nice of your friends to say, ‘It’s really interesting; it’s not what we expected,’ but I needed somebody to be a little more tough. It was fantastic to have John and Alfonso’s support. Without them, perhaps it would still be sitting on my hard drive.
Tarn: It’s possible. It’s quite possible. It’s all very well to do something on your own but, at some point, you need to spread it out to the world and make it a bit bigger. A lot of that comes down to who you know to open doors. HBO came on much later. BBC bought the film and we sold it to quite a few other markets. That was after we premiered at Toronto. Then the London Film Festival and Tribeca. That was around the time that people started getting interested in picking it up.
Marlow: What was your experience premiering Black Sun in Toronto?
Tarn: Toronto is an amazing town! The festival takes up the whole city. Every single shop has some poster in it. The screenings are absolutely sold-out for even the most obscure film in the most obscure venue. It is great just to sit in a room and watch the film, to see the film in a completely different way, with an audience. We had a great experience in Toronto. We had fantastic press out there. People were really waiting for something. I remember getting off the plane and the first morning I was having breakfast and they showed me the festival paper and we had the front page and a lovely, lovely review. It was all very exciting.
Marlow: You revisited a number of the same locations that are described in the voiceover but it is definitely not from a tourist’s point-of-view.
Tarn: I think that if you travel somewhere with a 16mm camera, you’re not a tourist. The camera actually gives me a reason to go somewhere. I’m not a very good tourist. I love picking my 16mm camera up and having to go somewhere. Often, the prices of traveling are a great catalyst for getting things to happen. You’re moving around and seeing things.
This interview was originally published in February, 2007.