New York-based Indie filmmaker Onur Tukel’s most recent release, That Cold Dead Look in Your Eyes, arrives on VOD this week, and it’s quite different from his other works. He usually makes black comedies, often starring himself, but this film is a different creature altogether. It’s black and white, populated with zombies, mysterious technology and painful introspection. It’s also bitterly funny—and it’s in French.
Franck Raharinosy stars as Leonard, a chef who can’t get a break. Everyone hates his food, his girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) wants him to move out of the apartment they share, and he’s having bizarre hallucinations. Is it stress or the effect of mysterious theta boxes that are popping up all over town?
Here’s what Onur had to say about it.
What was your inspiration for creating this puzzle box of a movie?
First thing I had was a conversation with an ex-girlfriend when I was around 40-41 years old. She was around 33 or 34, and she said, “You know what? I don’t trust any man who is 40 years old and has never been married. They’re probably repressed. They’re probably gay, and they’re holding out for other experiences.”
I thought that was really interesting, and I wondered, “Is that why I’m afraid of relationships and afraid of commitment?” I put that aspect of sexual ambiguity in the movie, when Leonard’s talking to Dennis (the gay photographer) about his own sexuality. It was a catalyst for the whole thing in a lot of ways.
Being middle-aged and feeling the shame and the guilt of not having a family and not having a steady job. Like independent filmmaking is not a steady income. It’s not something you can retire from, you know? All the insecurities that come with that, and the dread of getting older—that was an inspiration for the movie as well. Leonard is getting older and he’s going through all these things.
In terms of Dennis, the photographer in the film: he was somebody 20 or 30 years ago. Now he’s a has-been. That’s kind of how I feel in my life. Maybe my best films are behind me, or the films that could’ve put me on the map, like Catfight. Here I am, four or five years later. I’m making smaller films that are not as well-known or not as widely seen.
I hope I’m not in the twilight of my career at the age of 49. I don’t want to feel like my ability to make compelling art is waning. People loved Dennis’s work 30 year ago, but the guy in the gallery doesn’t like his new stuff at all. He thinks it’s tame; he thinks it’s safe. So that’s how he starts doing the photography with all the male nude models.
You have to wonder: “Is he trying it to be shocking? Is he trying to get attention? Is it something he’s always really wanted to do?” This is something I wanted to do with this film. It’s very different from my standard brand of dark comedy. It’s like a reaction to this very space, this fascist place we’re in, where you’re not allowed to say what you really mean, you know? Whether you’re a racist or a homophobe or a litany of different things people can call you.
So why did you make it in French and black and white?
It’s in French because the financier who came to me wanted to make a movie with a particular actor he wanted to use. [The actor is] a friend of mine, Franck Raharinosy. He’s fantastic. He’s been in a few of my movies. I love him as a human being and as an actor. He has a very, very thick French accent when he speaks English, so I thought it might be better to make it all in French. He’d be able to express himself better in the French language.
I probably would’ve been a better director had I done it in English, you know? But it also gave me a chance to do something new. It was really the challenge of doing something in French. I want to make movies in other countries. I’d like to make a movie in the Turkish language, but I don’t speak Turkish.
Why’d we do it in black and white? A couple of reasons. Because it’s a kind of puzzle. You’re not sure what’s reality and what’s not. Is the man dead? Is he alive? The black and white led to those themes. Is Leonard dead? When he turns 40, his youth is dead. His own confident self is no longer alive. It’s existential dread.
Black and white kind of played into those themes. And when you have a low budget like we did, you don’t have a lot of money for production design. Shooting in an apartment with white walls just screams ‘independent film.’ When you shoot it in color, white walls just look cheap. In black and white, it just looks much grander than it is.
Plus the exteriors looks fantastic. It reminded me of Manhattan from time to time.
Yeah, in black and white? Eric LaPlante, the DP of the movie. He was really the heart of this movie and he basically did it for free. We shot it in 15 days. He was really an intelligent guy—about how we shot the movie; how it should look; the lenses. About the actual context and the relationship to the photography.
And Michael Montes’s score. It’s like another character in the movie. It really draws you in. I’m so grateful to have both of those guys on the film.
So the theta boxes. Is this a slap at technology?
Yes, in that we can all become slaves to technology. There are cell phones, our computers and our streaming services… We tend to blame technology for our own shortcomings. I was thinking about this the other day. In New York, you used to walk around in your own head, but now you’re tethered to people. Instead of taking a 20- or 30-minute walk thinking to yourself, you’re now consuming this information—or misinformation.
I’m talking about the “dumbing down” of the population. Way back in the 1980s, Neil Postman wrote a book about television and radio and these supposed “soothsayers.” The problem is that they’re on the air preaching the gospel 24-7. The theta box represents that inability to think for oneself. It’s some kind of excuse. It represents conspiracy theories, and why we’re so hallucinatory.
The movie is supposed to make sense the way Mulholland Drive makes sense. Does it make sense to you? A movie like Vanilla Sky—does it make sense to you? A movie like Hereditary? You don’t quite get it, but you piece it together and enjoy it.
If I can get the audience to link together images and themes, I like that a lot. I gotta tell you, we didn’t get a lot of love from festivals all over the world. People said, “Why are they speaking French? Why are they in New York?” There have been so many weird movies that have been made like this, so I don’t understand why they don’t see the fun.
This was quite a departure for me. To keep evolving, you have to try something new. The audience should accept that it’s about something new. To me, it’s all about being 40. All these different things, including your sexuality. And at the end of the day, losing your delusions of youth.
Dennis, in a weird way, could be a version of Leonard. Maybe he picked up his camera and that wasn’t supposed to be his food. Maybe Leonard is the gay photographer, and that was a life he had…or could have had.
To make a movie in a language you don’t speak…yeah, I’m proud of the movie but I’ll never do it again. It doesn’t dissuade me from doing something in the Turkish language or the Polish language. I would just go about it in a different way.
I gravitate toward movies that mix genres. I like movies that surprise me a bit. Whether they’re scary, funny or existential. Comedy, romance and whatever. I like to mix genres.