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Categories: Interviews

Thomas Humphrey interviews Michael Madsen, director of the documentary-style film “The Visit: An Alien Encounter”.

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Michael Madsen is a Danish director known for his provocative and profound documentaries, such as Into Eternity (above), which followed the construction of a nuclear waste repository in Oikiluoto, Finland. 

His latest film, The Visit: An Alien Encounter, was selected for Sundance 2015, and deals with the hypothetical situation of mankind’s first contact with alien life. Interviewing government officials, college professors and scientists, Madsen explores the unravelling of a situation that hasn’t even happened yet. 

Thomas Humphrey sat down with Madsen to discuss the ideas behind and the process of making The Visit

As a filmmaker, you seem very drawn to questions of “what if?” and subjects which almost transcend the possibility of human comprehension. Would you agree? 

Yes, I think for me filmmaking is a tool of exploration, and I’m interested in the nature of human understanding of reality. As a consequence, I’m very interested in what are the limits of what we can understand or comprehend. With Into Eternity, I think nuclear waste – this by-product of perhaps our finest technological achievement – and its ability to last 100,000 years as a fire that we’ve ignited but we can’t put out – I think that defies human understanding. 

I think it’s the first time we’ve created something that will have such a lasting consequence for such a huge number of generations. Things like genetic modification can do that in a way we’ve never been able to do before too. Plus it’s happening in our time, and I’m very interested in questions of, “what is the time we live in?” 

Discussing unfathomable things seems like a really interesting place for documentaries. Rather than documenting facts, you’re actually documenting a process of speculation and imagination. 

I’m very interested in Robert Musil’s book, The Man Without Qualities. In it he talks about the sense of reality, and the sense of possibility. He doesn’t differentiate between the two things. He doesn’t say, “this table in front of us is more real than something I think of, dream up or imagine.” To him, that information is just as real. Conceiving it also installs reality. I think documentary has a quality in it that allows us to discuss this link to reality or this interest in reality and what reality is, and that’s what makes it such an interesting genre to me. 

Do you find it very difficult to discuss such ideas in film? Is it hard to match images to things or concepts that don’t yet (or may never) exist? 

Yes, it’s very difficult – and in many ways I also think that film is a very crude medium, because the camera shows surfaces. If we had a camera filming us right now, it would let us see you and me talking, but it wouldn’t register what we’re thinking or what I’m feeling and dreaming about. Or perhaps I wouldn’t be able to achieve in this medium the film I wanted to make with The Visit

Are you telling us there’s things you wish you’d done differently with The Visit

As a filmmaker it’s hard to get the kind of detachment necessary to answer that question. For a long time, for example, I was convinced that Into Eternity was a very bad film. I tried to keep my friends from seeing it, because I thought, this is going to be so embarrassing for me. I really genuinely thought that, because I’d been looking into Into Eternity for so long trying to solve some of the narrative problems. Eventually I did realise that it wasn’t all that bad, though. 

I think with The Visit it’s more that there were visual aspects that were recorded, but which we couldn’t get to work in the film. It seemed that while we were doing it, the complexity just rose or took away the energy and attention of the viewer. I had also been talking with the crew about creating the film as a sort of documentary made by an alien at first. Like a documentary to be taken back to his galaxy as a sort of blockbuster in their world. 

So The Visit really is a completely alien film, and I think that’s quite a compelling premise. If this film truly was made by an alien entity, what would it look like? It would not probably be edited as it is. That’s the problem: this is a terrestrial film. It cannot be too alien, because then we could not comprehend it. Although, that might have made for a really fantastic film, if we had managed to go completely all the way with that approach. 

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How would you have tried to achieve it, do you think? 

Initially, we intended to have a two-camera setup throughout. Like when you close one of your eyes, you realise that the two eyes have been producing slightly different perspectives. We were going to try to achieve this kind of destabilisation of the perspective by not having a single view point, and therefore not just a single entity as observer. After all, perhaps an alien would have just such an ability to be in, and see from, many places at one time – like a cubist painting. But when we did try that, we found that the results would potentially have given people an epileptic fit. That’s how intense it was – but it was an interesting experiment. 

Equally, we contemplated editing the film using a computer algorithm. We considered doing this to get us away from any human hands and normalised perspective, because our editing would inevitably lead to a kind of psychological editing in the viewer. I didn’t want any such human psychology in the film. But can you achieve that as a human? No, of course you can’t. Though you can perhaps try to push against it somehow. 

Do you often go back to pre-existing sci-fi films when you’re looking for ways to create these kinds of images? 

No. I’m interested in sci-fi, because I think good science fiction is all about negotiating what is reality. Very often there is a point of breakthrough in science fiction where we experience revelations about what we had perceived to be reality. We realise the world we inhabit isn’t actually the whole world, but a generation ship drifting through space, for example. It’s almost always about this kind of existential breakthrough. So sci-fi suggests that reality can have a different nature to what you might suppose and take for granted. In fact, if there’s one thing that I’m scared of when it comes to reality or to filmmaking, it’s taking things for granted. 

And would you ever take this attitude that you’ve kind of developed through your documentary filmmaking and apply it to a fictional film? 

I hope so! I’m actually planning two different pieces. One is derived from documentary material, but I think it can be better realised as a fiction. Then I also have another project which is purely a fictional project. I’m interested in fiction, because I think it would allow me a higher degree of visual precision and also narrative precision. 

The Visit is a film made without a script, you see, all the interviews are improvisations. Improvisations about what you would do if somebody came to this world and could actually speak English, and you didn’t just run away. I was very determined to do this so as to not be tainted from the outset by my own sort of saturation in Western popular imagination or narratives about space invasions. 

Though you are still listed as a writer-director for The Visit, so what elements of the film are scripted? 

In this case, with this kind of film, I think it’s sort of a custom that you are credited as the “writer,” because this film didn’t have a script. Into Eternity did, but this film only ever had a treatment – and we only wrote that because when you want to get a film like this funded sometimes, in fact always, you have to demonstrate that somehow it will be comprehensible to an audience. 

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With these improvised dialogues, the theme of dialectics and of having a discussion also seems very important in your films. 

Yes, I suppose I would have to agree with that. It’s not something I intentionally design, it just seems that the sort of imagery I’m attracted to is to some extent quite detached from reality. There’s a distance built into them. I’m very attracted to the films of Antonioni actually, as I can see that quality in his work too. I’m also very attracted to stylisation, but for me that’s all a tool or means by which I can see this world in a different way. In fact, it’s what enables us to see the world at all. 

What about when you write, or improvise, the voiceovers to your films, are you also very consciously thinking about the poesy of your lines? Is that part of the way you stylise reality? 

You know, for The Visit particularly, the voice over was very, very, very difficult. It just didn’t work, for a long, long time, just as the editing didn’t for a long, long time, because you almost couldn’t figure it out. The editing was all trial and error, you know, let’s try and put those images together, or this with that. Whereas normally in film you usually know that this or that will work, but with this film we really struggled to figure it out. 

Though of course if it is poetic, which I would like it to be (because that’s what I like myself), then the voice over was an important but problematic device in achieving that. I think at the very least you really need to know why there’s a voice over in your film, and what the talking position of that this voice over is. So in The Visit, the voice over is almost like a content declaration, like something you’d find on the packaging for food. It tells you: this film documents an event that hasn’t taken place. The voiceover therefore tells you things flat out as they are. 

Now often a voiceover can be like a handrail intended to keep the audience on track, but in The Visit it’s very much about keeping them safe, and I suppose pointing out the things which it is important to pay attention to or think about. But it was very, very difficult to write. It took us a month, with lots of different takes and recordings. So it’s very difficult to find the right balance, and maybe poetry is an important part of that. Perhaps what I’m seeking to achieve is a space which, in a poetic way, doesn’t tell you what to think about what it expresses. 

You can rent The Visit: An Alien Encounter on Vimeo On Demand

Thomas Humphrey

A freelance film journalist and acting director of the Nottingham Alternative Film Network. This network aims to champion short films, and tries to bring great features which UK distributors overlook to the city.

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Posted on Oct 5, 2015

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