Our editor-in-chief, Adam Ray Palmer, caught up with Discreet director Travis Mathews at the Berlinale yesterday.
Below is an interview about his latest film as they discuss the choice of music in Discreet, why Travis wanted to make the movie and his favourite films.
A review of Discreet will be available on Cineroom shortly after the world premiere has taken place on Saturday.
ARP: If you could describe what Discreet is about in one sentence, what would it be?
MATHEWS: An eccentric drifter seeks vengeance on the source of his decades old trauma, only to be thrust into the same system that originally abused him.
ARP: You use a lot of wide angle shots in Discreet and a mixture of close-ups and shots from a distance, is there any particular reason for this style?
MATHEWS: Once we started to understand the character of our hero, Alex, almost everything was in service of creating a cinematic experience to reflect him. Because the film is really a character study, I wanted the audience to embody Alex’s experience in all its dark complexity. To that end, the creative and editorial decisions were all about him. He’s an eccentric drifter who is isolated and working through past traumas with primitive tools. The mix of close ups with wide landscapes is meant to show the extremes in his character, his desire for closeness within an alienating and distant landscape he can’t escape.
ARP: The film is quite conversational towards the viewers, even though we aren’t there. It’s like we are there to help, or at least listen - like a counselling session. Was this intended? What did you want audiences to take away?
MATHEWS: That’s interesting. I’m curious how you would have offered help to Alex in different moments. I never thought of it that way, but I can see how it feels conversational, especially with the YouTube personality of Mandy who in certain moments speaks directly to the screen which Alex is absorbing.
It wasn’t intended as a counseling session as much as a cautionary nightmare. Alex is unwell and the movie is an invitation to settle into his psyche. The cautionary part gets to the political heart of the movie.
ARP: There’s a wide choice of music used in Discreet, from classical sounds to a few crooning country tunes. Why did you choose an array of music genres? And perhaps more in particular, the choices of songs?
MATHEWS: I tried to choose songs that are honest to the characters and locations. Honky tonk is a staple in much of Texas, almost as much as conservative talk radio. They’re not married to each other, but it’s also not uncommon to find people switching between the two. There are a lot of Texas signifiers meant reinforce a mythologized masculinity -white, straight and rural- and music is a piece of that.
That said, this is my first film to really embrace a score all the way through. I’m really happy with the cold synths and eerie soundscapes that support Alex’s internal experience. It helps in shaping what is essentially a minimalist thriller. We were all so excited with Mark Deli Antoni’s score that we’re planning to release a vinyl soundtrack sometime later this year.
ARP: A follow-up question would be about the use of sounds throughout over the top. There’s bacon frying, loud snoring, a stopwatch going off etc.
MATHEWS: Part of Alex’s character appeared to me after hearing about a real-life guy in Texas who makes a living off of posting youtube videos of things like bacon frying or rain on a tent. His videos are meant for relaxation because of the repetition of sound and video, and he has millions of views. I was fascinating by this guy but didn’t want to know anything more about him.
Around the same time, I was becoming a casual viewer of ASMR (Audio Sensory Meridian Response) videos. ASMR is this massive online community where, mostly women, whisper into 3D microphones as they pretend to do anything from brush your hair to fold your clothes. It’s never sexual, but done well, it feels way intimate and somehow inappropriate. I was surprised to learn that a couple of my friends secretly watch ASMR videos to go to sleep. My friend Heather watches a video of girl who is always applying make-up on “her”, and in whispers!
I basically merged the idea of the guy who films bacon with the ASMR whisperers and created Mandy, the YouTube personality in the film. She functions as Alex’s guide “toward vibrational peace”. And because Mandy, along with Alex to some degree, is a product of this world I’m describing, it made sense to put a premium on sound design and 3D sound in order to really capture the sounds of bacon sizzling or Mandy whispering into your right ear. It’s less about keeping the audience on edge and more about dropping you into their world.
ARP: I noticed you studied in Psychology, has Discreet been a project you have wanted to do for a while?
MATHEWS: Not at all. It’s me leaving the bedroom and listening in to the world around me. America is in a crisis unlike any I’ve experienced in my lifetime. As I sat down to write this I couldn’t ignore the world around me, especially while being in Texas.
Discreet was a distillation of my usual interests with an ear to this emerging alt-right populist movement that continues to thrive. Once I digested all of this and mixed the pot, I had a psychological thriller with political overtones. It helps that I studied psychology and have made films exploring masculinity, but the inspiration for Discreet came from the outside in.
ARP: What films or filmmakers were your biggest influences when making Discreet?
MATHEWS: Cache, Taxi Driver, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Repulsion, The Tenant.
ARP: Finally, what are your three favourite films?
MATHEWS: Don’t Look Now, Halloween, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Thank you for your time Travis, enjoy the Berlinale!