Melika Bass on “Shoals,” “Waking Things”

Melika Bass on the set of “Waking Things.” Photo by Jared Larson.

Melika Bass on the set of “Waking Things.” Photo by Jared Larson.

Watching a Melika Bass film is like falling deep into a rapturous fever dream, chockfull of sensory pleasures that render time itself irrelevant. They seem to last mere minutes—only afterwards do you realize that an hour has drifted by. If you’re the sort of person bored by frantically empty summer fare, you’ll swoon at at the layered nuances and hypnotic wonderment of Bass’s experimental marvels. Viewing her work in a gallery or on Vimeo is perfectly fine, but the chance to see it on the big screen is a cause for celebration.

On Thursday, July 18th, two of Bass’s 2011 films will be screened at the University of Chicago’s Doc Films. “Shoals” explores the sheltered lives of three young women who live in an isolated sanitarium presided over by a cult leader (played by Chris Sullivan, director of the stop-motion epic, “Consuming Spirits”). “Waking Things,” shot partly in Logan Square, centers on the seasonal rituals of a mysterious family in the woods. Bass, a Chicago-based filmmaker from North Carolina, spoke with Indie Outlook about her remarkable work, her love of working with non-actors and her recent video for Sigur Rós.

Q: What initially sparked your interest in history?

A: I wouldn’t call myself a history buff, but I did grow up going to museums, and I also did a lot of reading. I’m also Southern [laughs], and my family is full of ministers and teachers and various kinds of social service workers. Southern literary traditions are usually very steeped in history, and maybe that’s where that interest comes from. I’m an only child and I spent a lot of time in my own world and imagination as a kid. That involved imagining scenarios about neighbors or places where I would wander around and haunt. There’s some sort of childlike imagineering going on, a sense of coming up with a fiction that may be rooted in childhood playfulness or role playing.

Q: In your installations, you’ve found additional ways to immerse visitors into your world by accompanying your film with “found objects.”

A: I worked on “Shoals” for a couple of years and a lot of time was spent on the soundtrack, building it slowly by doing field recordings. I did all the foley myself. I do have a background in theatre and dance, so one of the ways I get to still perform is by reenacting all of the actions through foley. It’s a kind of reanimation of the performances, I jokingly call it “dancing with objects,” so there is this fetishization of objects or physical labor. It premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art because I got an invitation, and my installation was a response to the space. It was a black box screening space with an unusual orientation for looking at the screen, and I broke the film into chapters with text that was supposed to be from the point-of-view of the half-baked cult leader. I also had white-walled space just outside of the gallery, so I was responding to the museum as a place, much like how I’m drawn to a location, imagining what kind of histories could’ve been there. That becomes the situation for the narrative.

I envisioned the “Shoals” installation as an amusing play on the “cabinets of curiosities,” or a roadside rinky-dink museum where you go in and there’s a rocking chair, a comb and a frying pan next to a sign saying, “These are the original settlers of this county.” It’s kind of pathetic, and you get the sense that artifacts may or may not be the originals. I liked the idea of poverty representing history and putting it in this really clean, highbrow museum, but it also gave me the opportunity to extend the narrative out a little bit more, suggesting things through what the objects were. I thought, “What if the place in the film were real and it had collapsed or burnt down and was abandoned? Some kids from a nearby farm could’ve broken in and found a bunch of crap and it eventually would’ve ended up in this museum.” History-making is a kind of mythology. It’s a way that we try to make sense of very complicated human behavior, so I think a lot of what I’m doing is playing with that. A lot of it is almost a cognitive fascination with how we narrativize everything so that it has a beginning, middle and end with [motivations] and major players. The films themselves don’t provide a lot of answers, so there’s another side to that coin too.

Q: In both films, you get a sense of the world lying just beyond the enclosed location, represented by a train whistle in “Shoals” and gunshots in “Waking Things.”

A: Yeah, that’s a cool comparison. In terms of a film reference, I’m probably pulling from some Bresson films like “Diary of a Country Priest” or “Mouchette,” where there are these characters in these small towns that are a bit trapped or struggling with their ability to break free of some kind of cultural norm or repression. But then you get this reminder of freedom, which is represented by a train car or horses’ hooves. I really love the power of sound to imply something outside of the frame, which also relates to why both of those films are in 4:3. That boxy aspect ratio increases the feeling of being able to pressurize the image and the world, so that there’s this compression of the sound inside the space instead of this expanse. I loved the perversion of making a landscape film in 4:3. The characters are more or less free to escape, but they choose not to because they’re indoctrinated in some ways.

Q: Did you see Andrea Arnold’s recent remake “Wuthering Heights”? She also shot that film in 4:3.

A: Yeah, I love that film. The darkness of it is super-bold and exciting. It’s one of those rare instances where handheld camerawork has a really emotional power. It’s totally coming out of the characters and this weird surging energy of the story. For me, handheld camera can be so ubiquitous. I like the idea of motivated camera movement, and I thought her film was pretty incredible in that sense.

SHOALS by Melika Bass (preview) from melika bass on Vimeo.

Q: Tell me a little more about your sound design process.

A: On both of these films, I worked with a man named Mathew Paul Jinks, and we’ve been working together for a few years. For “Shoals,” he did all of the production sound, but then I spent an additional year waiting for spring and summer seasons. I would go to rural areas in Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and South Carolina, and I was basically looking for different kinds of insects and wind. I was intrigued by this idea of musical, rhythmic, percussive, almost dissonant combinations of sounds and layering them. It was really the first project where I found myself standing in a field and waiting for a cicada. [laughs] I would find the bush where the cicadas hang out and go there at ten in the morning, come back at 3 and then at 7. The pitch would change depending on the time. It got to be really fascinating and I started nerding out looking at the wave forms. I was looking for different kinds of connotations or emotional suggestions in different timbres of sound.

The idea that I could make a horror film in broad daylight was appealing to me in “Shoals,” and I wanted sound to do a lot of that work. The situation itself has tension and weirdness and creep factor for sure, but I think the sound compresses the situation. I already have this bleached out sunlight that makes you feel sweaty and exposed, and I wanted to combine it with a sense of the elements being rabid or out of control or relentless. The male “leader” is applying a self-taught system of cataloguing or controlling the [women’s] bodies or what they’re harvesting. I was playing with the idea of early American utopias where there is this last kind of weird, wonderfully American opportunity. We have this land and we can do whatever we want on it. We can make up our own religion, our own business, and we can have this weird ambiguous relationship with these women.

I do have this fascination with coded, self-authored culture that’s connected to the fictional anthropology of the objects in my installation. People are speaking in a weird, coded way and are ritualistically or habitually behaving in a way that might not make immediate sense, and I drop [the viewer] into their world and ask them to try decoding it and deal with all the possibilities and ambiguities, as well as the discomfort of not having it totally clarified. For me, it’s an experiential realism. [laughs] In a lot of social situations, there is this repeated, coded behavior that we accept as normative, but if a foreigner or an alien were dropped down into it, it would have this complicated, arbitrary quality.

Q: You’ve found actors with fascinating faces. The blonde woman in “Shoals” has a striking resemblance to The Lost Girl in David Lynch’s “Inland Empire.”

A: Oh yeah! The blonde is played by Emily Irvine. She’s an artist as well, and lives in New York now. I think this was the first time that she had a major role in someone else’s film. For “Shoals,” I wrote the parts for those people and talked them into being in the film. I love working with non-actors because they give these behavioral performances instead of some sort of method-y thing, especially since the roles are largely nonverbal. Only Chris had acting experience, having done performance art in the ’80s. I respond to a place and imagine what could have been there, and then envision its inhabitants as figures or archetypes that operate with the innate energies and tendencies that the [actors] already have. These are sort of quasi-documentary approaches. I worked in documentary TV for a little while, and there is an investigative approach where you go into a place with a hypothesis of what you’ll find, but you have to remain open to what happens. It leaves room for real life to creep in, in all of its awkwardness.

Q: Chris is a fascinating artist in his own right. What made you want to collaborate with him?

A: We both teach at the Art Institute and I’ve known him for years. I loved his work and found it pretty inspiring. There are some overlaps of themes or atmospheres in our work, but the approaches are polar opposite. [laughs] My stuff is really minimal and his stuff is this sort of wonderful, maximal stew. I like working with people who are artists in some way because they have good ideas and they frequently have good instincts. These are both scripted films, so they are sequenced and framed on paper. They weren’t storyboarded, but I visually mapped them out in advance. I love that part. For these films I made aerial shot maps for camera placement, lenses, and framing. During shooting, I frame the shots. There’s a lot of visual planning and control in that sense, which hopefully allows a kind of wooden naturalism to come out, when combined with the performances.

WAKING THINGS (excerpt) from melika bass on Vimeo.

Q: How big a role does intuition play in your artistic process?

A: I do a fair amount of rehearsal, and a lot of that time is spent developing things that are not in the film, to give actors a sense of their characters’ [routine]. Because these are non-actors, it helps give them a sense of authorship. The setting is sort of a treatment center for young women, so I spent a fair amount of time talking to the actresses about how their characters got there and what had happened to them. It helped give them some sense of identity. I’m definitely someone who’s very specific, but I like to create a structure that allows for these natural performances to happen. I have a list of things that I need to get in the shot, but if I see something—especially when dealing with nature or shooting in light or if there’s some dynamic that bubbles up—I’ll let the camera roll and try something on the fly.

Q: How did the theatre group, Every House Has a Door, end up as your performers in “Waking Things”?

A: I knew Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish from the Art Institute. Lin’s in the performance department and Matthew teaches in the writing department and they had a performance group prior to “Every House” called “Goat Island.” Their new group invites artists to collaborate with them on a project by project basis, instead of having a set group of people that you work with on everything. They were working on their first performance called, “Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never,” and they asked me to make a film with the performers and gave me total freedom to do whatever I wanted. They also let me come to rehearsals while they were working on the show. I didn’t really know the actors but I was shooting video and hunting around for framings and gestures, getting a sense of these different people through the camera. Then I started doing some research on the Hanseatic League, which is a northern European trading league from the Middle Ages [laughs], and that became a big part of the context for these characters.

From the performance, I pulled four gestures [to reference in the film], because I liked the idea of making connections to the live show without remaking it in any way. I worked with the individual performers one-on-one over the course of two years because the Croatian [performers] were here sporadically working on the live show. Unlike the actors in “Shoals,” they’re performers who are trained and have a lot of experience. I realized pretty fast that I wasn’t going to be using the same approach as I had in “Shoals” because they already had a lot of skills and tools. I actually chose to push the theatricality of everything in order to work with what I was given. I kind of joked that it was a low-budget ’80s BBC period piece. [laughs] You weren’t really sure where or when “Shoals” was set, so on “Waking Things,” I wanted to go whole hog and suggest something quasi-medieval, although there are some red herrings in there. They’re both films about cults, these surrogate families or communities, but that’s just a way to explore relationships and dynamics and behavior in terms of creating culture.

Q: Were the title cards bearing character names also a part of establishing a mythic quality in “Waking Things”?

A: Yeah, I definitely wanted to play on Grimm faerie tales and those old books that have extremely elaborate lettering at the beginning of each chapter. Joey Carr did the titles for “Waking Things” by hand and based them on a font that I always use in my work. [laughs] The naming was also a way to suggest some of the animal qualities that a few of the characters have. It’s somewhat subtle, but it also depends on how you read the performances, as well as the xenophobia in the film. So when Stephen Fiehn’s character comes in at the end and he has this absurdly long title name, “Stephen of the Hansa, Seed of the Mercantile, Ever the Soft-Boned Son,” you get the sense not only that he’s an outsider but that he’s privileged in some way. And then the hierarchy in the house changes. It was interesting to suggest interior and exterior with that film. I went from blazing sun in “Shoals” to a lot of darkened interiors in “Waking Things.” I like to switch it up between light and dark as I go from project to project.

Q: You also directed the Sigur Rós video, “Varðeldur.”

A: That was an invitation. I have a friend who I worked with some years ago who helps distribute some of their musical films and documentaries. They were putting together the Valtari Mystery Film Experiment and he sent them some links to my stuff. They were handpicking people to commission for the project. Their manager saw “Shoals” and thought that the mood and approach would fit well with the Valtari album. There were 14 films commissioned and they gave us all a pretty small budget and total artistic freedom. I never had to send in the rough cut or get approvals or pitch an idea. They just wanted the file, so it was kind of amazing. [laughs] Because I had a pretty short time frame for turnaround, I chose to work with Selma Banich again, who’s in “Waking Things.” She’s Croatian and an amazing movement-based performer and dancer. I had never made a music video before, but I definitely had a background in dance.

Working again with Mathew Jinks, I decided to break the song into metronome tracks. I absorbed the emotion of the song but I didn’t want to illustrate it. The music is very beautiful and powerful in its own right, so I wanted to make something that also had this very distinct feeling. I sent Selma several ideas and asked her to generate movement based on those ideas. We ended up choreographing together over the interwebs. The location was also very emotive visually. I knew that once I got her in that extremely intense space, other things would start to happen and she would start to seem possessed by the space, which has a lot of weird energy in it to begin with.

I’m not very superstitious, but it was one of the most psychically scary spaces that I’ve ever been in. I had nightmares every night for about a week. It had a really low ceiling, no ventilation, and it looks like something may have died in there or s—t all over the walls. You just don’t know what happened in there. It looks so scarred, and going back to the idea of histories being contained in physical spaces, I thought it would speak from its physical surface. I knew that it was a weird, experimental piece, so the idea of putting it in this mass online setting was also a pretty interesting experiment in and of itself. All of the arguing back and forth in the YouTube comments has been very gratifying. Some people really love it and other people think it’s really boring arty tripe. I just love the fact that people are opinionated about it at all.

Q: I think many people are aching for art that goes against ADD-fueled mainstream entertainment.

A: Some people have told me that it’s the way I slow time down that’s appealing in some way. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s sort of interesting. I’m definitely invested in creating the active viewer or asking for an attention to detail or some sort of engagement that is visceral. That’s where a lot of the sound concepts come in for me, invoking physicality in something that’s very dead and electronic and a total mirage. I like the tricksterism of the suspension of disbelief and shadowplay and whatnot.

Q: The shot that still haunts me is the one in “Shoals” where Emily walks into the churning waves. The shot is framed in a way that made me feel as if the waves were about to come crashing on my head.

A: Oh that’s awesome. We could only do that once because we couldn’t wait for Emily’s hair to dry or do it all over when the light was right. She was pretty scared because we didn’t know where it would get really deep, so we had no idea how long the shot would take. [laughs] Both of these films are shot on a 16mm Bolex and it’s motorized so I can do these really, really long takes. Lori Felker, who’s another wonderful Chicago filmmaker, shot both films, and we’ve been working together for several years. She was standing in the lake, and I told her to keep Emily in the center of the frame. That was a handheld shot. Lori was standing knee-deep in the water, so it had a real kind of tension to it. I collected the wave sounds from other sources and played with frequencies to try and create that tension. The sun ended up coming out in that amazing moment where it kind of bleaches Emily out.

Q: What’s up next for you?

A: I’m working on a longer project called “Summer Stock,” which is going to be shot partially around Chicago and partially in North Carolina. It’s something I’ve been researching and writing for some years, and it’s a little bit more personal. It’s about a heritage play and a town creating its own history and this tension between the religious community and the theatre company. It’s going to be playing with religious performance, theatrical performance and the “everyday performance” that we all give. It’s going to be funny and absurd, hopefully. That will either be a feature or a longer project broken up into installations and a short film over the next few years.

Melika Bass will be present for screenings of “Shoals” and “Waking Things” at the University of Chicago’s Doc Films on Thursday, July 18th at 7pm. For more information, visit the official Doc Films site. For more info on Melika, visit

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