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A Very Ambitious Magician: Dennis Cooper Interviewed

Dennis Cooper interviewed by Chris Kelso.

3:AM: Your latest foray into cinema, Permanent Green Light, provides such a singular construal of detachment and nihilism — but were there any filmmakers or artists who inspired your particular vision or who motivated you stylistically? It really does stand apart from most of the things I’ve watched in 2019.

DC: It’s probably not unusual for a filmmaker to say this, but Zac and I were truly trying to make a film that was unique and our own. We didn’t have any roles models in mind. Robert Bresson is my favorite artist, and I’m sure his influence is in film, although the numerous comparisons of our film to Bresson’s films really overdo the relationship there. It’s common for a new artist’s work — and, even though I’ve been making other kinds of work for forever, film is new to both Zac and me — to immediately be cross-referenced to the works of known artists. It’s a strange habit people have of looking for something already familiar in the new rather than exploring what’s unfamiliar about it.

When I was first publishing books, critics were always saying I was the new Burroughs or Genet or whatever until they finally figured out what I was doing and let my work name itself. So, there are no guiding light films or filmmakers for our film, or not consciously at least. I would imagine there are impactful traces in the film from filmmakers that Zac and I both particularly like a lot: Bresson, James Benning, Chantal Akerman, Straub/Huillet, Terrence Malick, and others.

3:AM: Your George Miles Cycle is often described as a semi-autobiographical work. I was wondering, are there any emotional or psychological echoes between you and any of the characters in Permanent Green Light? The film seems quick to denounce any cultural connections to terrorism (or any notion of ideological purpose). Instead there’s a rather romantic view of teenage angst, and suicide in particular (in the sense that it’s played very clinically, honestly, and without analysis). Would you say you’ve ever been obsessed with suicide or death? Were you a morbid adolescent? I suppose we’d all love to go out with a memorable explosion.

DC: No, not that I know of. Zac and I don’t really think of the characters as real people equivalents. They’re just the most present and influential elements of the film at large to us. So, no, the film isn’t autobiographical. I also don’t think it’s true the film is romantic about teenage angst and suicide at all. I think the film takes the characters’ ideas and feelings and actions very seriously, and that’s a very different thing.

I’ve written about suicide and death very frequently since I started being an artist. I don’t think I was morbid when I was young. I wasn’t suicidal or anything like that. I just wanted to understand things that were very confusing and powerful to me. There was a fair amount of suicide around me. My great friend George Miles tried to commit suicide twice as a teen and did finally kill himself. My uncle blew his brains out. A close friend of my family killed himself in our house. So that was there, and that surely influenced my fascination with writing about suicide as a way to figure out the reasoning behind it and its heavy impact.

Roman, the main character in Permanent Green Light, doesn’t intentionally commit suicide. That’s not his interest or goal. Others around him do, and he studies those suicides for his project. He wants instead to disappear in a way that has the most spectacular effect on the world that’s possible. He decides that his death is the way to achieve maximum impact, and his goal is to die without triggering any conventional, personal reaction to death, and to his death in particular. He’s trying to create a death/disappearance that erases him entirely and just uses the natural, inherent impact that suicide has as a powerful effect. He doesn’t long to die. He’s more like a very ambitious magician, I think.

3:AM: How did you and co-director Zac Farley first cross paths and when did you decide to collaborate?

DC: Zac and I met about 7 years ago. We just felt an immediate affinity and connection, and we started collaborating on projects very soon after we met. The opportunity arose for us to make our first film Like Cattle Towards Glow because I had written a script years before that no one was interested in producing, and, years later, after I’d met Zac, a German producer heard about the script and wanted to make it, which we did for extremely little money as a kind of experiment. So filmmaking just kind of fell into our laps. Zac is a visual artist and had made video works, but never a film, and I’d never been involved in making a film before. We loved making the film, and it got a very good response, so we fell in love with filmmaking, and now we hope to continue making films together.

3:AM: The indie film landscape is looking pretty healthy right now (to an outsider like me), but was the pre/post-production or filmmaking process a complicated one? Was it easy to get Permanent Green Light produced and distributed? It seems like a tough elevator pitch.

DC: I would say the indie filmmaking landscape is a very mixed bag at the moment. If you want to make a stylish but basically conventional indie film — especially if it fits into a popular genre or addresses trending social issues in a very fore-fronted way — it’s a good time. If you want to make films that are adventurous and try to do something deeply new and fresh and original that doesn’t look or sound like a standard narrative indie film, it’s actually a rough time. The indie film scene is quite conservative these days, I think. Most of the films that critics and people go ape for and consider adventurous tend to just play the game with a bit of a personal stamp on them. In most cases, if you don’t have an at least minor “name” actor in a main role or use a score by a buzzy rock member or composer or use a lot of artsy color saturation in your visuals or make a film that costs or looks like it cost at least a million dollars, you have a hard time getting films made and then an even harder time getting them programmed in film festivals much less released in theaters.

On the other hand, there is a growing scene around experimental film right now. There are a lot of very interesting and daring young filmmakers making films for little money, and there’s an increasing support system for showing and publicizing that work: venues, magazines, festivals, and so on. But it’s an entirely separate scene from the standard film festival circuit and media coverage for indie film. That’s very exciting and promising.

It wasn’t hard to get Permanent Green Light produced. The head of a French production company, Local Films, saw and really liked Like Cattle Towards Glow, and he gave us the opportunity. And the budget for our film was pretty low, so we were able to raise the money through government grants, here in France and a foundation in the US. It hasn’t been an easy film to distribute for the reasons I mentioned above. It doesn’t fit in, which is the film’s strength, I think, but distributors and festival programmers, while always saying how much they liked the film, didn’t know what to do with it because it doesn’t have a pre-set marketable tag, and that’s what they want. It got distributed in France, and it had a tiny theater release in the US where it’s on some good streaming platforms. But that, and continuing screenings around the world, are it so far. Zac and I think very long term about these things, and we feel confident the film will have a long life with increasing visibility and acknowledgement. So, given the tough situation, we’re actually very happy with how it has gone for the film. The response to the film from people who’ve seen it has been really fantastic.

3:AM: I know Todd Verow adapted Frisk into a sort of cold-porn drama in 1995, but would you like to see any of your other books translated onto the silver screen? There is something inherently ‘literary’ about your work.

DC: That awful Frisk experience soured me on letting my novels be adapted for film. I’ve been extremely cautious ever since. Honestly, I’m not interested in my books being filmed, and I’m pretty happy that almost all of them would be impossible to adapt. They’re very much literature and books. They’re all about what language can do and the relationship between written text and the imagination of a person reading them one-on-one in complete privacy and what can happen as a consequence. They’re finished. They’re not interim things waiting for a different kind of representation. So, yeah, the film adaptation idea isn’t something I’m interested in. But if a filmmaker wanted to adapt one of my works and had a very interesting reason for wanting to and had thought carefully about what would happen if the work became visuals rather than words on pages, I would definitely be interested in talking with him or her or them about the possibility.

3:AM: You’re a big fan of world cinema. You relocated to Paris: why did you decide to move there and, ultimately, to make a movie in France?

DC: Well, living in Paris was a lifelong dream of mine. I’ve been a Francophile practically since I was born. Technically, I moved here because my boyfriend was Russian, and he couldn’t get a visa to enter the US, but he could travel to France easily. So I came here to be with him. My books were published and known here, and that made the move seem easier. Also, I had just started collaborating with the French theater director/choreographer Gisèle Vienne, whose works I’ve been writing since 2004, and living here allowed us to work together closely. So that was an impetus too. As far making films here, that just happened because I live here and Zac is French and lives in Paris too. Also, it’s much easier to get funding for films here than in the US. Much, much easier. I love Paris. Moving here is definitely one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

3:AM: Music plays such a huge part in your work: do you foresee working on any projects within that medium? I’d love to see you team up with Guided by Voices to produce a concept album.

DC: Collaborating with Guided by Voices is a mega-dream idea, but the big problem is that Robert Pollard is a genius lyric writer, so there would be literally nothing for me to do in the collaboration. I love the idea of collaborating with musicians. Stephen O’Malley of the band Sunn0))) writes the music for Gisèle’s pieces, so I get to collaborate with him through her. The electronic music artist Puce Mary, whose work I love, is doing the sound/score for Zac’s and my next film, so we’ll be working with her in a close and intricate way, which is exciting. But, yeah, I’m totally game to collaborate with bands and musicians. If the opportunity arose, and if it made sense, I would jump at that.

Chris Kelso is an award-winning, multi-translated genre writer, editor, and illustrator from Scotland.

More Dennis Cooper in 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 21st, 2019.