Fever dreams can be scarring. However, if you’re filmmaker Aaron Schimberg, you can take that harrowing dip into the subconscious and make it into the fine, singular work “Go Down Death.” His debut film follows a few lives in a desolate village ravaged by constant bombing and unending trauma, changing character perspectives frequently -- ranging from a child gravedigger to a disfigured gambler -- but always maintaining its utter strangeness. It’s also sort of an anomaly in the independent scene, having been shot on 16mm black & white and utilizing both sets and scale models. We saw it last year and raved about it, claiming it “will trouble and beguile the subconscious long after you’ve moved on.”
Recently acquired by Factory 25, the film opens this week in New York at the Spectacle Theater. We got a chance to talk to Schimberg, asking about the genesis of “Go Down Death” as well as his influences, the structure of the film, and its fantastic ending. For those not in NY, keep an eye on this page to find out how you can see this gem.
The Playlist: You mention the film being based on a fever dream you had. What was it about the idea that really pushed you to make it a reality?
Aaron Schimberg: One reason I made this film is that I’m self-sabotaging. I didn’t think I’d be able to make the film -- people would look at the script and say it was impossible, unfilmable -- and I probably wrote it for that reason because I was too afraid to make a film. And I also thought that my other scripts were very personal and I thought that this was a bit more detached. To me, I would actually say that the closing scene is probably more the kind of thing that I would usually write. It’s not exactly, but the other scripts I’ve written and tried to make have been more colloquial, more realistic, New York dramas or whatever.
That’s interesting. The placement of the ending gives it a myriad of different meanings and substance, as opposed to the scene itself.
I wanted to create a distance between the act of watching the film and remembering the film, so that by the time you could think about what you were seeing, it would be distant, like a dream or something. It serves as a kind of barrier. The thing I settled on was something like a second dream, like if you would wake up in the middle of the night from a dream and go back to sleep and have another dream but it carries over elements from the first one.
It can feel jarring, but it definitely does share a lot with everything that came before it.
The other thing is, a lot of the film is about trauma, and to me the ending acts a kind of trauma. The world is a certain way and then it shifts, like what a traumatic event does to your life. It’s a way of expressing that, having to deal with a new reality. Usually in films you’re supposed to set up the rules of the film and not stray from that, but that’s not how life works. An audience who rebels against it, they might be experiencing a kind of trauma.
You’ve likely heard Guy Maddin being tossed around in reviews as a comparison point to your movie. But what influences did you have when creating your film? Movies and non-movies.
I’m embarrassed, it’s like "The Da Vinci Code" guy saying, "Oh yes, I like Tolstoy and I like Shakespeare." It’s probably true but you don’t want to admit that. I’m too ashamed to mention my heroes because I fare badly in comparison. But it’s an allusive film. The title itself is an allusion, or just stolen outright, of the Spencer Williams’ film "Go Down, Death!" That’s a good film, and it’s neglected, probably because it's made by a black director and it doesn't fit neatly into certain auteurist views of cinema. Because it’s neglected, I can steal the title, I can reference it without fear of repercussions, unlike if I wanted to call it "Casablanca" or "Hulk." I would love it if my film could induce people to see Williams’ film.
You could’ve called it “The Village.” Or “After Earth.” Maybe “The Happening” or “Signs.” I guess “Stuart Little” would work. What else inspired you?
There's references to Ozu, Chantal Akerman, Ida Lupino, Fritz Lang, Charlie Patton, Memphis Minnie, Link Wray, Eck Robertson, Thelonious Monk, Frederick Douglass, Kafka...I stole things from all of them...Shakespeare, Tolstoy, the guy who wrote the Da Vinci Code...