Transgressive Cinema from Canada

An Interview With Mitch Davis (DIVIDED INTO ZERO)


This interview was conducted by Louis Vasquez and Daniel Schoessler for the German filmmagazine Screenshot at the screening of Mitch Davis Short feature DIVIDED INTO ZERO at the Exground film festival in Wiesbaden / Germany. Some addition were added later by Micth Davis on January 10th, 2005, in order to get this interview in proper shape for the booklet of Sazumas brilliant 2-DVD-set of the films...

Please give us any biographical information that would serve as an introduction of your work, anything you would like our readers to know about you.

Okay, well, I’ve been a film maniac since I was about 6 years old. I’ve always been attracted to horror, in film, books, paintings, music, comic books, Disneyland. Seeing the Haunted House in Disneyland when I was a toddler really made an impact on me. Blame it all on the Mouse! I am a wimpy animal lover and an industrial hippie punk pacifist. I have no formal film education and am entirely self-taught. As a teenager, I learned a good deal of what I know from analyzing the scenes that affected me the most. I watched the first ten minutes of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD a zillion times, studying the editing, camera placement, lighting, and pinpointing exactly what it was that made me feel what I felt, and when exactly I felt it. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, SUSPIRIA and MARTIN were my film school, along with set reports in Fangoria and American Cinematographer. If I had to run off a
list of influences, I guess that that they would be Jodorowsky, Bava, Lynch, Argento, Romero, Ken Russell, Nic Roeg, Shinya Tsukamoto, Buddy Giovinazzo, the paintings of Joe Coleman, the photography of Diane Arbus and the writings of Charles Bukowski. Anyone who’s ever made me feel so much more than I ever wanted. I’ve always been a sort of celluloid masochist, in that I really love the films that flood my emotions and make me feel horrible and haunted for hours or even days. I love films that hurt me. In 1997, I became the co-director of International Programming for the FanTasia Film Festival, which has become the biggest international horror / action / bizarre festival in North America. It’s really incredible because in the midst of the “big” titles we can take low-budget, highly personal films like ANGST, DUST DEVIL, METAL SKIN or CUTTING MOMENTS and show them to crowds of a thousand people – a thousand people who are completely open-minded and into it!

I can’t begin to express how much that means to me, and it really has changed the way I feel about a lot of things. It reconfirms the fact that contrary to popular opinion, there ARE large, young audiences out there with a thirst for films that challenge, without tons of pacifying jello and without stars to carry them. It really gives me hope for the future, and I feel great getting so-called marginal films in front of huge audiences. Besides thhe festival, I’ve recently written chapters for ART OF DARKNESS: THE CINEMA OF DARIO ARGENTO and TEN YEARS OF TERROR: BRITISH HORROR FILMS OF THE SEVENTIES, both published by England's FAB Press. Mags I’ve written for in the past include FLESH & BLOOD, DELIRIUM, SCREEN MACHINE, DIABOLIK and some others. I also do selected monthly programming for Cinema Du Parc, which is Montreal’s last living repertory cinema. As long as I am doing this, there will always be a place to see THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and THE WICKER MAN on a big screen in Montreal! In the coming weeks, I’ll be shooting a photo series with a local fetish model named Isabelle Stephen. No idea where that one will go, but it should be interesting. The most exciting news is that the feature I produced for Karim, SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY, has finally been completed after six years of production. We’ve struck one single 35mm Dolby print, which has thus far played at the Sitges and Stockholm Film Festivals, and has recently been sold to the Japan, Scandinavia and the UK – and the Japanese DVD will also have ZERO on it. Reactions have mostly been terrific. It’s a very intense, sadistic and misanthropic film that is at the same time visually stunning and disarmingly poetic. It was designed virtually as an act of cultural terrorism so we had no idea how large audiences would react. After all these years, you could say that we are very relieved! I feel very strongly about making films that force audiences to feel more than they bargained for. In most cases, the filmgoing act has become such a passive one, that it’s bloody important to remind people of just how powerful a force cinema can be. I love film too much to sit by and watch people associate the medium with bland, forgettable mulit-plex canon fodder. They see these movies and they don’t dislike them, they don’t like them, they forget them as they’re watching. In the end, they feel unsatisfied and a little cheated, and are a bit less likely to bother going back the next time. Fuck that lukewarm shit. I would rather see people have a film experience that they will HATE, but never be able to forget.

Your movie DIVIDED INTO ZERO was shown at the Exground
Filmfestival in Wiesbaden as part of a shortfilm-program compiled by the American underground filmmaker Peter Hall. DIVIDED INTO ZERO was recognized, by those who stayed and didn‘t leave the screening, as highly controversial and challenging. What was your ambition/intention in doing a movie that goes far beyond the traditional concepts of good and evil and forces the viewer to question his/her moral categories ?

It was barely even a question of that sort of thing, really. It was more about total, raw expression. I wrote the bulk of the film during a two year period of depression and self-destruction that would probably make you run away from me if I even began to get into it properly. I’m not being at all hyperbolic when I saw that ZERO was written during the worst period of my life. My girlfriend of many years had left me, and I just fell to pieces. Among other things, I crashed head-first into serious depression, drug addiction and almost total isolation. I couldn’t be comfortable around anybody. I would pass out crying and wake up on emotional fire. I loved this girl so much, it was just unbelievable, and all I could do was cut myself to pieces over how I felt I’d taken her for granted and driven her away. I really wanted to make myself suffer, and was probably a hairline away from burning my eyes out with a Bic lighter. I couldn't believe this was happening. I mean, this was completely not like me, and I really scared myself, but it was just unstoppable. After a few months of this, it felt like it was never going to end - as if the 20 odd years that I’d lived before this had all started had been a dream, mounted on a foundation whose bridges gad been burnt to the ground by sheer unforgivable ambivalence. Several of my friends got into the harder dope scene with me, and I watched people that I loved, friends of so many years, become addicts, liars, opportunists and thieves. I mean, these were the coolest, kindest people you could imagine, and they just became selfish, soulless consumption machines. After a few months, I couldn’t stand to be around anyone, and I became very reclusive, spending most of my time alone, getting high and being miserable. This went on for over two years, and I really thought that I was going to die. During this time, I founded my production company, Infliction Films, and began producing a 16mm feature by the name of SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY. SUBCONSCIOUS is a surrealistic anthology / horror film written and directed by Karim Hussain, who was the lighting D.P on ZERO, but more on that later. I finally got my strength back and like a total fanatic, quit everything – even cigarettes. I was sick as a dog for a while, but I forced myself through it, and began writing again. I had directed several shorts on video before all of this craziness had begun, and now I felt ready to shoot on film. Given my state, the only story I was able to write with any degree of honesty was about a man who loses his entire life to series of cycles and repetitions that he completely understands, and has analyzed, dissected and rationalized with horrible precision, yet can’t for the life of him control. All of this knowledge and understanding still leaves him helpless. There is an incredible poignancy in that, and at the time, it was all that I related to. So if anything, I would say that DIVIDED INTO ZERO is a film about addiction and crippling depression. I definitely didn’t want to make another addict movie – I mean, we’ve already got CHRISTIANE F, BAD LIETENANT and DEAD RINGERS, and Christ, just this year’s
brought us killers like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and Charly Cantor’s BLOOD, which everyone on this planet should see! The great addiction films have been made, and I didn’t want to make another, and besides, I’m not a very literal kind of writer. With ZERO, I decided to start on a very personal foundation, then build and build until I was barely there anymore. I mean, I can’t imagine being compelled to hurt a child, but I was able to relate to nearly every word that my film’s protagonist speaks, and every self-critical feeling that tears through him. Note that he never once actually speaks about abuse. In its heart, it really is an addiction film, albeit one that doesn't bother addressing drugs in any traditional sense. It's about the mindset, that terrible sense of pre-destined damnation that so many addicts feel, and often use to convince themselves that they should just give up and give in. That "once an addict, always an addict" bullshit which is complete garbage but is always an easy and lazy way to preempt any attempts towards real change. A person who is a junkie is often made to feel like the lowest low in society. So when I began writing the character for ZERO, I spent time thinking, "well, what kind of person would be even further down on society's ladder of acceptance". And I decided that this character should be a child molester. Because I'm a very tolerant person, and I can accept a lot of bad in certain people when I can also see enough good in them, but I have no sympathy whatsoever for somebody who could victimize a child. When I read about these kinds of crimes, I get so, so angry and depressed. I practically want to fucking kill. So the idea of taking this kind of character, who the audience will hate, and then taking the audience through his life and mind in the most surreal, subjective and abstract way we could design, so that we never actually have to see the worst details of his crimes onscreen, yet the overall tone and symbolic imagery could be so strong... I wanted people who saw the film to be sick to their stomach while at the same time being forced to listen to this character's constant self-explorations on the voice-over, to be confronted by his loneliness and his own very strong horror at what he has somehow allowed himself to become. I wanted to create an ultimate cinematic depiction of what it truly feels like to be a longtime addict living with this deep sense of hopelessness and self-disgust. The genuine asphalt horror of it. Anyway, I think that it’s very important to infuse your writing with something that is almost unspeakably personal and if need be, painfull, to ensure that things stay honest. Even if a viewer has no idea where you’re coming from when they see your film, they will sense that there is something very honest going on. Also, you can set out to make your film knowing that you are the only person on the face of this earth who can direct it the way it should be done. It’s funny how mixed the reactions have been. It’s won two prizes, in Chicago and Paris, but it’s banned in England and New Zealand. Actually, when it played its Paris dates at L’etrange Festival, the reactions were unbelievable. During the screenings it was so quiet I was terrified that the audience had fallen asleep, but when they were over people came up to me and told me the most incredible things.

I had people showing me scars from where they’d cut themselves, telling me some incredible rough stories, giving me mix tapes of music that they listen to when they’re feeling kind of bad. It was very emotional and it was just a fantastic, touching experience.
Still, at the same festival, someone freaked out and actually called the police, claiming that she had seen an old man masturbating into the face of a crucified little girl. Now, you know the scene in question, and I’m all for the power of abstractions, but what the hell was this person talking about?? If this was in fact what was going on in the scene, then it was done with such tasteful subtlety that it even went over the head of the fucking director! I would never even want to imply something like that with an actor. We went through such efforts to use rotted plastic dolls and abstract dream images to convey the nastier aspects of this character without ever having to get too literal. And in this scene, nothing sexual is happening at all. Nothing sexual happens in any scenes with the kid actors, not even in an implied sense. To think that anybody could imagine they saw... It's just incredible. Nothing like that happens in my film. To take it further, I even made a point of keeping her character's death offscreen. I didn't even shoot her getting HURT onscreen, just the aftermath, which is plenty distressing an image in and of itself. I specifically wanted to take the audience right in to this horrible moment where she's already been abducted and injured, literally nailed to the wall with this man kneeling in front of her staring into her eyes. I can't imagine a more nightmarish situation. And the entire scene is about unbreaking eye contact and a subtle power exchange that evolves, as the girl's seething anger at this man becomes stronger than anything he has inside of him. He studies her with the look of the damned, certainly not with any kind of intensity or even hostility. He studies her with guilt. She stands before him as a confirmation of how low he has become, that he's truly hit rock bottom as a human being, and neither can look away from the other. By the end of the scene her eyes are so much stronger than his and we see him swallowing in shame. She's clearly the stronger of the two yet she's the one who's nailed to the wall. A symbol of the baggage and recklessness of older generations decimating the young before they even have a chance, setting the world on a doomsday course through their unbelievable acts of selfishness. When the scene opens, we see that he has put razor blades between her fingers and in her lip, after we've learned over the course of the film about the unshakable fixations he has always had with these implements. It's a visualization of his having lost to his inner demons, allowing them to hurt the people around him in the outside world. It's an angry fucking scene. Anyway, back to the Paris screenings, not only did this audience member call the cops, she also called the The League Against Child Abuse – can you believe that?! Several days later, a few hours before the third and last screening, four smut cops arrived to do an investigation. They looked VERY serious and I was pretty stunned. They grilled the festival director, gave me grim looks, saw the film, laughed and told us that we had nothing to worry about, then left shaking their heads. Go figure. Now, between the Paris incident and the two bannings, the film’s got this reputation for being extraordinarily extreme and violent, so people are seeing it with these gorefest expectations and getting bored to tears. But I have heard from people who were genuinely moved, and that makes me very happy. I’m still a little surprised that the film can be understood by anyone who isn’t me!


Considering the content of the film (pedophilia) you probably had a hard time raising money for the picture. How did you get the production started, continued and finally finished?

Well, production began when I had four hundred dollars, a finished script that I was happy with and a small group of friends who liked the project and wanted to get involved. We shot a single weekend with six cartridges of Ektachrome 160 Super 8 stock, a small rented light kit, a dolly, a friend’s near-empty home and my old Beaulieu camera – which began acting “funny” on the second day, and flat out died by the end of Sunday. We finished the weekend on Karim’s old Elmo camera, which I continued to shoot with for the three years of production that followed. By the end of the weekend, I had the room of cadavers, the black van, the closing mirror coda and the opening blue bathtub sequence in the can. Then we stopped for months while I tried to raise more money and work out casting for the two children and the old man. We never had any sort of corporate investment or government assistance with ZERO. I mean, the Canadian government has made it very clear that they are not at all interested in funding projects like this. If David Cronenberg or Atom Egoyan were starting out today, with scripts like CRASH, VIDEODROME or THE SWEET HEREAFTER, I doubt that the government would go near them. Times have changed, and funding bodies like SODEC and The Canada Council are terrified or any sort of public embarrassment, and would rather fund 70 minutes of animated sand than anything that might push any real buttons. So I began shooting the film with whatever money I was able to pull together, and just went on shooting in stages, whenever there was enough money and available time for everyone to regroup and continue. By the end, the Elmo camera died too, and Kodak discontinued the Ektachrome 160 stock that nine tenths of the film had been shot on. The project felt cursed. I had to finish on reversal 16mm, so I chose to shoot on 7250, which is bar none the grainiest color 16mm stock you can find. So it was really shot in sporadic bursts, with a final cost in the neighborhood of $8000 Canadian dollars. It’s a very strange way to make a movie, especially one that is so personal, and so specific to a certain, temporary frame of mind. I had begun mapping the film out when I was just sobering up and getting over being thoroughly out of my mind! Three years later, as ZERO was finally nearing completion, my writing was being published regularly, I had been sober for years and I was doing the FanTasia festival, accomplishing things I’d never dreamt
possible. It was very difficult for me to get back into the proper spirit to finish the film in a manor that was true to its beginings. I mean, this film was personal beyond words, and I barely connected to it anymore. The crazy thing is that it now forces me to explain myself for who I was years ago, and I’m a very different person. I’m actually quite happy these days, and I feel mostly good about things. I don’t think I’ll ever be what you’d call an optimist, and I doubt I’ll ever have a successful relationship again, but I’m well past my acute deathtripping stage. People tell me that it’s great that I’ve found an outlet for everything but really, independent filmmaking is just another self-destructive act!


What was working with the actors like, especially with the young girl and boy?

The kids were actually very easy to deal with. The trick is to never condescend, and to always treat them like adults. I mean, kids aren’t idiots. Max Firatli was probably the best and most professional actor on the shoot. He’s a very intense person, and he’s very serious when he’s working. Total focus and ommitment, with an instinct so natural that it’s almost frightening. When he wasn’t on camera, he would sit quietly in a corner, smoke cigarettes and study the shot lists. He was twelve at the time. Shortly after we wrapped ZERO, he flew off to Cuba for a supporting role in Atilla Bertalan’s BETWEEN THE MOON AND MONTEVIDEO. Stephanie Kepman was a different story, only in that she was younger, and needed more reassurance and time. We had to go out of the way to keep the on-set atmosphere
very light around here, particularly for her crucifiction scene. She was very unimpressed when we slopped corn syrup on her. And she had incredible patience with the whole process. It's a shame she hasn't done much other screen acting - I think she stayed in theater - because she had really good instinct as a performer. She used her eyes to sell her pre-death scene scene to a degree I never thought an actor that age could do. She blew us all away. When I got the footage developed and saw it for the first time, her performance in that scene actually gave me chills. It made my heart sink.
Both kids were brought to me by my casting director, Ayala Piron. Ayala reps some really strong Montreal-based child actors and thankfully, she trusted me enough to get involved. I’m positive that the parents trusted me that much more because we were meeting in Ayala’s office, and not at a corner coffee shop! The contract I drafted stated that a parent had to be on-set at all times. Griffith Brewer, the old man, is a fantastic local actor who’s appeared in over three decades of Canadian film and regularly acts in Montreal theater. The cool trivia for horror fans is that he was in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. Griffith was very brave and went all the way. Several times he asked me if I wanted him to appear naked and to this day, I can’t understand why I said no. Philippe Daoust is actually a psuedonym for a local filmmaker who’s a very dear friend that is afraid to sign his name to the film. I wouldn’t say that he was difficult to direct, because he was really very good, but he definitely had hang ups with some of the material. He was VERY uncomfortable when it came time for Andrea Hardy to stand over him and simulate pissing. It was all water and tubing, but he was tripping. Actually, that was the very day that “Philippe Daoust” was born! Still, he pulled the scene off beautifully. He’s an exceptional actor and I certainly don't blame him for thinking twice about some of what I was asking him to do on camera, although I could think of worse things than having a gorgeous naked 20 year old standing over me for an afternoon, even if she was spraying water into my face for half the day. Pseudonym or not, he was very brave to have taken this role, and the power of his performance amazes me to this day. Speaking of Andrea, she had a terrible toothache the day of the shoot and she did the scene in spite of it. She was a really good person, not to mention completely brilliant with dark art and activist sensibilties. I was very lucky to have everyone that I did. We were all very supportive of each other. I couldn’t have directed just anyone through some of those scenes.


The cinematography and lighting (especially the use of primary colours) of DIVIDED INTO ZERO has a dreamlike, almost surreal quality. It reminded us of the films and photographies of Richard Kern, David Lynch and the early films of Dario Argento. Would you agree that these strategies still offer powerful concepts to undermine the standardized storytelling in contemporary cinema?

Definitely, yes. I think that it’s very important to play with film language, and I am almost unbearably particular when it comes to frame composition and lighting. Emotions can be colour coded on an abstract level that a viewer will detect but not always be able to rationalize, and this can be a great device. We pretty much all agree that colours can be Hot, Cold, Angry, Dreary, Cheerful, Peaceful or whatever. It transcends spoken language and culture, and it is a purely instinctive reaction. I think that there are ways to use colour, and surrealism in general, to engage a viewer on a deeper or at least a different, level. And it can be interesting to make these levels, of intellect and emotion, clash. There are times where we chose to use colours that went against the logic of a scene, but worked 100% atmospherically. At other times, I used colours more literally. A good example would be when the man pays the woman to piss on him. Both characters are gelled cold blue, but the woman’s legs and crotch are lit with hot amber, which almost glows over the man’s torso, as the voice-over speaks about the woman bathing him in her warmth. As the intensity of the scene builds and it begins to intercut with images of the man alone in the room of cadavers, pissing blood off a dead face, the corpse is crucified in front of a sheet that is backlit with hot, white light. By the end of the scene, as the tone gets angrier, the white backlight is replaced with a seething deep red. This sort of thing is very literal, and some might argue, over-stylized, but I think that the effect can be unbelievably startling and effective – as long as you don’t shoot it like a bloody music video! Besides, films should never look generic. There should be a voice in the visual aesthetic, and not just sheer practicality. At least when it’s called for. I mean, if I were shooting a period drama, I wouldn’t go as far as I did with ZERO. Even then, that sort of think can work – look at Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS! As for whether this sort of thing still has resonance with today’s audiences, I think that it does. The right kind of surrealism forces the audience to work with the film, and not just watch it in a thoughtless stupor. For me, as a viewer, there’s more involvement, more experience, more soul, as long as there is some sort of tangible philosophy in the mix. I think that we need that more now than ever before, and even in the wake of the style-flooded MTV generation, it can strike nerves. For ZERO’s lighting, I’ve got to give loads of credit to Karim, who lit the film, and set all exposures. He’s a brilliant filmmaker in his own right, and an excellent technician. We pretty much grew up on the same diet of influences, so it was ideal working with someone like him. I could talk about a scene from KILL BABY KILL and he would understand exactly the sort of patterns and atmosphere that I wanted. It was like a unique new cinematography code – the code of film obsessives!

In how far is the discontinuious narration, the fragmented perception of the protagonist(s) the result of wanting to tell this specific story?

I felt that a fractured voice-over would if anything, convey the sense that this person is literally lost in the shadows of his dementia. That at whatever stage of life we might be seeing him in, he is always suffocating in the same place, with the mousetraps of his mind snapping for all eternity. At age 7 or age 70, his thoughts are obsessing over the same broken self-explorations, with the same level of maturity. I couldn’t think of any better way to convey this. Believe it or not, at one point, I didn’t want there to be any voice-over in the film at all. If people think that the finished version is tough on audiences, the film as it was initially conceived would have played like a brutalizing Rorschach pattern, and that could have been amazing. It would have been interesting to force people to study this life in the most voyeuristic and subjective way possible, but then I snapped out of it and realized that nobody would have understood a damn frame of the thing!

Surrealism according to André Breton arises when dream and reality collide. In DIVIDED INTO ZERO the boundary between dream and reality seems to be vanishing, if it exists at all. How would you describe the aesthitic concept of DIVIDED INTO ZERO ?

I guess I would describe it as being a melodrama with the Nightmare atmosphere of a ghost story, told through an obliterated chronology. What a pretentious-sounding mouthful! But really, that’s what I would say it is. Even if the circumstances are all very reality based – a botched cesaerian, a destructive
sense of sexuality, molestation, parental suicide, loss-of-self – the frenetic displacement that comes from the character’s life span being trapped in the same obsessive cycles of thought validates an otherworldly and almost supernatural tone. Because the man is literally haunting himself, and dying in his past. As
the character grew old in his childhood, and more or less died there, I tried to give the film the sense of a child’s nightmare. More than anything, I wanted the film to feel like a cry for help from the other side of the grave.

Perhaps you could tell us about concepts concerning the soundtrack and sounddesign of DIVIDED INTO ZERO.

Well again, this goes back to the child’s nightmare thing. When I think of the sound designs that really worked for me in other people’s films, I think about THE SHINING, INFERNO, LOST HIGHWAY, VAMPYRES, PHANTASM. You know, droning tones, low frequency noise, unnatural pitch bends, filtered whispers. These sorts of ambient sounds create an incredible sense of dread, like a wavering atmosphere of abject “wrongness”. I think the effect is almost always hypnotic add unsettling. It connects to our inner child, and shakes it to the ground. Anyhow, I knew exactly the sort of sound design that I wanted, but never in a thousand lifetimes would I have been able to come up with what David Kristian did for the film. David is a pure electronic genius. He is one of the world’s leading experimental electronic musicians, with material ranging from Beats to 74 minute long soundscapes that chill listeners to the bone and send kids at raves into throttling bad trips. He recently did tones for a film with the Penderecki
Quartet. This man prides himself on creating sounds that nobody has ever dreamed of and when we met, it turned out that he was also a big fan of horror films. A lot of his early music was inspired by John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream scores, and he has always had a strong love for the sound designs of Alan Splet. He even released an experimental album as an ode to the FORBIDDEN PLANET soundtrack! Needless to day, we got along really well. We’re both obsessive and focussed when we work – something that certain types find totally annoying – and when we’d chill down, we’d talk about films, books and comics with the passion of fifteen year olds. It was great. I spent close to two weeks at his place, and the sound design just came together like electrical demonology. Since then, David came back and did the sound design for SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY. His involvement is a true blessing. More than anyone I’ve ever known, David understands the sounds of nightmares.

Related website links, if you like:

Infliction Films –
FanTasia Film Festival –
David Kristian (with loads of sound files!) –

Thanks to Daniel and Louis for allowing to use this interview!