The Sign of the Shining Beast – Interview

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FB: I’m here with artist John Cockshaw, one of Britain’s youngest and most talented on the scene, and writer Robert S. Malan. John is well known for his Tolkien art but today’s focus is on another exciting project, a short movie entitled “The Sign of the Shining Beast”. Tell us how you got the idea for this movie, John.

John Cockshaw
John Cockshaw

JC:  As an artist I’ve always side-lined in experimental film and video which in turn has fed into my painting and photographic work and vice versa. If I had to pinpoint where my love for experimental film and wider independent cinema began it was discovering Chris Marker’s 1962 black and white Sci-Fi masterpiece La Jetee, courtesy of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys [1995], as a teenager. This pre-dated my five-year period of art training and from this catalyst sprung a whole exploration of film in its full art form simultaneous to my adventures in Fine Art. The Sign of the Shining Beast is an extension of my fascination with two things: the capacity of film to unsettle, uplift and provoke contemplation of complex ideas – particularly film in its non-narrative form or where the storytelling aspects sit in the background and linger on the periphery in a very oblique guise; secondly, the parallel between viewing a film and the state of dreaming is well known, as is the inherent dream-like structure and logic in film editing. The notion that being in a darkened cinema enthralled by film is akin to dreaming is perhaps a romantic notion now and I would have to concede that contemporary film viewing habits on on-the-go devices do minimise the potency of this parallel. However, the parallel does remain and in a film we tend to project our own fears and desires onto what we see on screen which very strongly mimics a dream-logic in its structure through elliptical editing, point of view and jump-cuts, etc. These concerns are what shaped The Sign of the Shining Beast, a project that has been maturing as an idea for a decade. There are dark themes within to mull over, but only as dark as the viewer makes them and viewer interpretation is everything. Meaning is open-ended and whilst there is a denouement to the film’s structure it is intended to be left open. Similar to the late Chris Marker’s own body of work, much thought is given to memory and time by way of an unnamed individual journeying through a subconscious dream-state. And the nature of who or what the “Shining Beast” is poses a very good question indeed.

FB: The sequence of images tells a story. When did you decide that you wanted an actual narration?

JC:  The work was in a near complete form with accompanying music before I explored the idea of a narration. On its own merits the film possessed strong thematic ideas and story fragments but I felt it would benefit not only from a voiceover narration but something that was layered and quite fractured to match the visual style with plenty of enigma to boot. There was also the question of a spoken element that mixed well with the moody ambient soundtrack, part dreamy synth-soundscape, part homage to Philip Glass’ minimalist style. I enjoy collaboration and I sought to open up the latter part of the filmmaking process for someone else to come onboard; for a writer to bring a fresh perspective to shape its direction. Casting around for a collaborator brought me into contact with Robert.

The Sign of the Shining Beast
The Sign of the Shining Beast

FB: Robert, what were your initial thoughts when John approached you with the film? Did it immediately strike a chord with you?

Robert S Malan
Robert S Malan

RSM: Yes. Definitely. Right from the start it was important to me to see if I “got it”. It was clear that John had put a lot of time into this work and that it was a passion project; it would have been unfair for me to try contribute if I couldn’t find my way into the work straight away. The fact that he’d cited La Jetee as a major influence immediately intrigued me. I’m a huge fan of Terry Gilliam and 12 Monkeys, so I was keen to see what that had inspired in John’s images. I wasn’t disappointed. There was a haunting quality to it, and I immediately felt it burrowing into my psyche. What appealed was the Rorschach nature of them. I thought I was seeing one thing but after watching it again, there was something else beneath that – multiple reveals in each image. There was a genuine sense of mystique to the film. That’s something very special. In my own writing I like to layer my stories with deeper subtext – not the self indulgent type that’s designed to give a false sense of meaning where there is none – I mean things that you draw from deep within and layer onto the page. My personal view is that you have to leave your soul on the page as a writer. If you can’t draw from that well within then how can you expect anyone else to connect to it emotionally? So there was definitely a clear way in there. But to make sure that John and I were on the same wavelength, I wrote him an opening stanza:

“On winding paths through narrow plains, the shining beast stalks ever on. In wind and rain and earth and fire, in dark of night and light of day, a shapeless dream, never forgotten.”

It was really by way of setting a mood and a tone for what I intuitively had drawn from it. That then led naturally into the opening lines of the narration-proper which, as it turned out, we decided fitted perfectly for the trailer:

“At night I dream, the endless sleep, and it always ends as it begins.”

Once I told him what I had in mind, he was instantly on board. It was clear very quickly, the more we talked, that there was a real connection artistically. It took me completely by surprise but it was invigorating.

FB: The images you’ve made for the movie are certainly very powerful, John. What or who has inspired your style?

JC:  It’s a pleasure for me discussing my inspirations of style and I’ll jump right back to La Jetee, a film composed almost exclusively of still images, making its single moment of moving film one of the most startling and profoundly moving sequences of film history. Marker’s images are presented in black and white and possess a rawness that works well with the story. Many of the images depict the dark recesses of an underground bunker where the protagonist is subjected to time-travel experiments harnessed by his memories, in stark contrast the scenes of his memories are brightly sunlit scenes. The images in The Sign of the Shining Beast are intended to look like veiled, obscured pictures dredged up from someone’s subconscious like a kaleidoscope of nightmarish visions and, like Marker’s images, they are intended to be hypnotically dark with startling whiteness piercing through. With the general style being heavily influenced by Sci-Fi and to a lesser extent Fantasy, the influences range from the silent era masterpiece Metropolis [Fritz Lang, 1927] to Bladerunner [Ridley Scott, 1982] whilst encompassing the films of Jean Cocteau [Orphee, La Belle et la Bête] and Andrei Tarkovsky [Stalker, Solaris].

RSM: I actually picked up on a lot of those influences very quickly, especially Metropolis. So yes, you did well there.

The Sign of the Shining Beast
The Sign of the Shining Beast

FB: You mentioned the rawness of Marker’s images – that’s a quality we see quite prominently in The Sign of the Shining Beast. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

JC: I’m glad you picked up on that. They were intentionally created to disturb, a result of the method of production; a combination of old and new technology – photographic prints recorded to standard definition video ten years prior and taken through a high-definition editing phase in 2014 for the final finished form. I liked the idea of channelling the image quality of early silent film productions to create something visually imperfect with a grainy, degraded quality intended to visually represent the subconscious. It is as if the images are veiled by memory or an unreliable vision that is hazy one moment and clear the next.

FB: Did John give you direction on what route he saw the film taking, Robert, or how did you work that out?

RSM: Yes, he was a tyrant! No no, not at all. He gave me a very clear insight into the history of the film and what he was aiming for with it. But, quite remarkably, he was very keen to know what I drew from it and what I would come up with of my own accord. There was complete freedom given to me with the writing. It’s great to see someone so open to input. This was essentially his baby, and yet he encouraged my own take on it from the beginning. That really opened it up for me and, I think, for the project as a whole.

JC: Agreed. It worked wonders for the project. The film has been elevated in all kinds of ways as a result. I felt it was only right to offer free reign, with only small-scale guidance as to how it could be interpreted.

Sign of the Shining Beast
Sign of the Shining Beast

FB: So once you had agreed on what direction to take, how did you go about writing the narration? This isn’t your standard “write a script” kind of a film.

RSM: That’s what I liked about it. I thought it only natural to start with what my initial feeling was, of these being like a series of Rorschach images. So I sat and watched, and paused at, each individual image, and wrote a short verse for each describing what I thought I’d seen. That actually gave me a great skeleton for the piece. I was very conscious not to spell it out though, so when I set to writing the narrative proper I broke it up more. I did feel it was important to have at least a loose narrative strand, something to draw the viewer along, but at the same time, leave the interpretation open to them. For fear of spoiling the experience for anyone who may read this and then watch the film, I won’t elaborate on what that narrative is. However, we definitely wanted to imbue it with that sense of dream-logic that John’s already mentioned. Things don’t have to make sense in your dreams. One minute you can be looking at a man and then suddenly it’s a woman; someone you know and then, someone you don’t. I like that almost Zen quality to it. Zen masters were known for bending their understudies’ minds with seemingly contradictory statements. But the reality of what they were trying to achieve was to force the mind to unlearn what it had learned. We’re bombarded with secondhand learning from the moment we’re born. We forget to respond to what we see and experience in an intuitive way. So I was keen to keep that openness in what I wrote for Sign. It was important to gently guide the viewer along the path, but not signpost it too much. The narration’s purpose in that sense is to merely set a mood. Like half-heard whispers, or brief, fleeting glimpses of insight.

JC: One other thing to mention related to the narration is the point of the vocalists. As hard as a voiceover narration is to write for a time-based work such as this, finding the vocal ability to do it justice is another. For the project I felt that the writer and the artist, those with the closest familiarity with the text, would potentially work well. Rob and I undertook that task and this is what’s heard on the soundtrack. In conjunction with our voices a good friend, and previous colleague, Penny Hartley-Mathers came on board to record a reading of the text so that it became a layered interaction between three voices in its final form. Penny had always been on my mind as a strong vocal choice before the text was finalised by Robert. Having had plenty of experience with art/cultural projects and sharing a keen knowledge of film, it was an exciting prospect to have Penny’s input as a third vocal element to bring a very different quality of reading to the project.

An open portal
An open portal

FB: So what now? What are your plans for this collaboration?

JC: As of the time of writing we’re at an expectant stage of waiting, with the film at least; we’ve entered it into four film festivals across the UK including Edinburgh International Film Festival [EIFF] and Sci-Fi London Festival. Any success in being selected for screening is unknown at this stage. Regardless of what happens there though, we look forward to making it available to view on an online platform. This is also the first step in a project that will have a much larger life. I’m working closely with Rob to create imagery for an original short story of his titled Quest.  From this project other companion pieces are in the works and although I can’t predict what lies over the horizon I do have a follow-up short film to The Sign of the Shining Beast that may extend our collaboration further and wider. I’m also very interested in exploring the notion of transposing the work we’ve done and are doing together into a gallery setting as an installation of projected imagery, vocals and sound.

RSM: We’re certainly hopeful of generating some good buzz through the film festivals. As John’s mentioned, he’s creating original images for Quest. I’ve seen a few of them already and they look great. We’ve got a strong idea in place for what we want to do in terms of a multi-format Quest/Sign of the Shining Beast companion piece. It’s in development at the moment.

FB: Sounds great. Good luck with the next phase and thanks for chatting to us.