In continuation of RTL Today’s series on Christian Neuman’s Skin Walker, a CALACH FILMS (LU) and CAVIAR (BE) production, today’s piece provides some insight into the mind of director Christian Neuman, the creative mind behind this mind-bending, surrealist thriller.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and density.
Fellow journalist and editor Steps started us off with this interview with main lead Amber Anderson, speaking about her experience as a female actress, playing a role that requires a fair amount of emotional and physical input as well as her impressions of Luxembourg.
Talking hours later than planned due to – who knows? Technology, miscommunication, life, the demon that is 2020 – we finally got together across transnational waters, and explored Neuman’s brainchild, making film in Luxembourg, and creating atmospheric tension.
What I find often happens with creative ideas is that along the development process they can change a lot, whether it’s due to difficulties with access to key locations, creative differences, resources, or I don’t know, some freak circumstances, like a global pandemic. Aside from the release date, did your film transform a lot from conception to production? Were there any sacrifices that you had to make, or any influences and input that you incorporated along the way?
CN: Well I’m very interested in having creative universes and my work is pretty stylised, so I always try not to leave anything to coincidence, and to work with all departments to get my vision across properly. I believe in using colours, textures, atmosphere and emotion to bring the storyline forward, so I approached each department with tons of preparations, notes and references.
There is a give and take but you have to make sure the production design works in favour of the light, which works with costume design, and so on. I’m quite strict on that. Well, maybe not strict… Of course, you need to leave room for creativity to happen to some extent, but I very much have a set visual and narrative concept for my work and it turned out pretty close to what I had envisioned.
Some scenes, such as Regine’s [the protagonist] life in the city, well, if I had included more of these shots the film would have been even more surreal and abstract. The film would have been more experimental, and during the editing process, we decided to not include them and as a whole it works better, there is a better dynamic.
“Killing your darlings” is such a cliché but it’s really true, isn’t it? When you’re creating something, you can become really attached to certain things, whether it’s scenes or a piece of writing, or even ingredients in a recipe. But that’s the job of the artist: creating something that is palatable for an audience and that works, no matter how attached you might have become to certain aspects of it, right?
CN: Yeah I mean, killing your darlings is something you have to learn as an artist and as a director, and I don’t have a problem with that really. You sift through things and ask yourself “does this really have to be there?” so even though I love more experimental film making, it wouldn’t have worked.
The dialogue is quite sparse withing the film, so you rely a lot on imagery to move the plot forwards. And considering how the themes of the film are thematically and visually linked, could you tell me more about how you created a certain atmosphere, and what it was you were trying to convey?
CN: It can be a French thing to rely mostly on dialogue, and you’re right, there isn’t a lot of talking in the film, there tends not to be in my work. I think good dialogue should hint at something but never really address it. I am much more of a visual storyteller, and the film is a lot about the images and telling the story through them. I am also a painter so I think that is why I like to work with images.
You can code a colour with a certain emotion, and we certainly did that. We used red as a warning colour that is quite threatening to her, and linked it to this sense of reality and non-reality. So the colour red is really a guide throughout the film for danger and confusion, and then we worked with enhanced and colourful lighting when Regine’s world goes out of order. We also chose anamorphic lenses to transform shape, especially in close-ups, and we created the general of atmosphere of unease through soundtrack and elaborated sound design, so sound moves from inside to outside of the character’s perception, and there are voices in her head.
There are also some hidden clues in the film that [redacted] is [redacted] (this journalist is protecting you of spoilers!). There is a scene where reverse angles are shot the wrong way so [redacted]. But nobody’s noticed so until now I think…
At the beginning you can’t really tell what it is that she wants, and with mental health things just kind of start spinning faster and faster in these cycles. We avoided just showing a variety of symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia but actually take the audience inside the mind of the character.
Let’s get talking about the release. It’s been pushed back from the original date, so what’s it like to look back at it now? You’ve had a lot of time away from it.
I finished the film over a year ago so have a lot of distance to it now, and when we had the launch and all the promo… and I am so stuck in my new project that I am almost discovering it anew, some things I like about and some things that might not really work – almost the only good thing about covid is properly having the chance to go back to it.
How do you generally deal with a finished project? Some people let it go completely, others struggle and return to it. Are you always looking at how you could have done better or can you let a project just “be” – how does that work for you?
As an artist or as a film maker, you’re in a continuous process, and I think where I stand now, especially with film, is that you need to be able to detach and let it live its own life. You need to let go of it, because unfortunately there’s also the business side to it. Like right now it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it’s been sold so that’s weird, I can look back on it but technically it doesn’t belong to me anyway.
There are some directors who never watch their work, which is not what it’s like for me. I do feel a bit strange to look back at it now, maybe in a few years I can do it properly. When I look at it now all I see is the flaws, but I also think that if that stops happening then you won’t make anything interesting anymore. I like to challenge myself, but I think that’s the thing as an artist: you’re always hungry. That’s normal.
But then you also need to remember that you don’t make films alone. There are some aspects you learn to really appreciate, like creative collaboration. You can’t look at a film and say “that’s just me”, it’s always collaborative.
I love seeing it all come together, from concept to how it photographs and how it creates a universe. I am not so much concerned with portraying reality. This is a fantastic film so that universe is so important and all departments create it together. I also really love working with actors and guiding them to find their version of the character I have invented. It’s a great moment, when you see your characters coming to life.
In terms of making films in Luxembourg then – are there any particular struggles you as a director might face?
It can be really hard to make movies here, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful because I am. That said, you need to look at a film in the context of where it’s made and the resources that are available. Luxembourg isn’t on the map so much when it comes to creativity, we’re just not always an obvious choice.
Take for example our actors: I said from the beginning that I lived in the UK, I work in English, and I think it will reach a wider base. And it has to be said it can be more difficult to find actors here with a good level of speaking English, and we did try. So we did the casting in London, and when you want certain actors you need to go to big agencies. But then that can be difficult because we’re not necessarily their first choice either.
That seems to have worked in your favour though – I thought it really reinforced this clash of cultures, of before and after. You have the girl before the city, and after. It really puts an emphasis on leaving your home and growing up, and the alienation you can feel when going home.
Yeah so we had Udo Kier who is a fantastic actor – some of the stories he told us about his work were amazing! – but he has a really thick accent, and Amber is English and lived in Scotland for a while, and we allowed the different accents to work with the film. So with Regine you can see that she goes home and morphs back into the role of the woman in the village, and there are specific scenes that place her there, where she is washing dishes, or the kinds of clothes she wears.
In fact we didn’t want to introduce any obvious references to a specific time so it could be anywhere and anytime, so the whole set, the clothes and the phones and the car it just... well you play with the idea that this just is “a” car, and not a car in a certain time.
When I was in England I worked a lot in fashion and creative industries, and with aesthetics. I want my work always to be very stylised and beautiful, I like to think of it as a distinguished part of my work, as a way of recognising it and many people did see that when they saw it.
You tackle a lot of themes in your film, and some of them are pretty heavy. There’s mental health, trauma, sexual abuse… these are tough to tackle, especially in the current climate. What’s your focus, and why?
CN: One thing is “the alien the one that doesn’t fit in”. I really like subcultures because I often don’t identify with the mainstream, so that’s definitely also an element for me, and I hope that that speaks to people. So if you think of the people you see in the first scene, I hope those are the people that go and see the film. You make choices when you choose style and music, and that’s what I wanted to do.
Then there is the doctor who is her mum’s doctor, who is in love with her but it’s an abusive love. The idea is that it’s never-ending for her, there’s always an abuse. The hook of the film is a bit… well, the things you did in the past, are they gone, or do they poison you forever? Are they going to taint your life? There is just this cycle she can’t get out of it, something happened and psychologically it doesn’t let her rest.
I have a deep interest in understanding the weird minds, the dark thoughts, the things that make us appear evil. Because they’re there, everybody has them. That’s why people like watching, they’re real. Who sets those moral standards? I don’t like straight horror, I like psychologically challenging the audience. I think it’s important to have a story to tell but more to give an audience an experience to draw from. If I think of films that marked me, it’s more about specific scenes. I’ve never looked back to a film 20 years ago and thought “oh my god that plot line” – it’s always been a scene, or a song, or a moment.
And in the end, you make films for yourself. You make the films you have to make, and if you get an audience then that’s great. I mean you need to reach an audience, but you need to do your thing.