The POV Interview: Peter Mettler, Part Two

47 mins read

It’s fitting that Peter Mettler is a dual citizen of Switzerland and Canada. His sensibility strikes one as being a classic combination of European abstraction and Canadian verité-style rough and readiness. Mettler’s acclaimed cinematographic work has the clarity and brilliance one would expect from someone Swiss while his roaming wanderlust, traveling towards the Arctic Circle to shoot the Northern Lights (Picture of Light) and journeying around the world to film ecstatic states (Gambling, Gods and LSD) and is representative of a typically hardy Canadian traveller.

Mettler’s cinematic practice shows him astride differing filmmaking genres. He has moved easily between experimental films, narratives and documentaries—a journey that few other directors could envision, let alone accomplish. For Mettler, it’s the exploration that’s important, not how the end result is categorized.

In this, the second part of a career-spanning interview with Mettler, his work is discussed from early days as a cinematographer for such narrative filmmakers as Atom Egoyan and Patricia Rozema through collaborations with producer Niv Fichman and theatrical genius Robert Lepage to the creation of his bold documentary features Picture of Light and Gambling, Gods and LSD. (Click here to read part one of this interview)

POV: Marc Glassman
PM: Peter Mettler

POV: In the early ’80s, you were a key figure in the Toronto New Wave. You shot Atom Egoyan’s first feature Next of Kin, Patricia Rozema’s short Passion and Bruce McDonald’s Knock! Knock! And did camerawork with Ron Mann and Jeremy Podeswa, too. What was it like back then?

PM: Oh, it was great. It’s all we wanted to do—make films. We were working outside of the industry in most cases, and were able to get good talented people to work on the crews and make films efficiently, and relatively unfettered. It was a very inspiring situation.

I learned all sorts of stuff about the way crews work together, about the psychology of bringing an idea to visualization. It was a great process to be involved in, helping to articulate the visions of other directors. It was not me imposing my vision, which I have to deal with in making my own films, rather it was serving to help find the essence and character in support of someone else’s film. And that was so constructive for my own work as well, down the road. It’s much more “fun” than making your own film, which is, you know, blood, sweat and tears and dealing with everything—including your own identity and your own issues. Being a cinematographer is a great job.

POV: What was it like to be working with crews, even small crews, but the kind that one has for a narrative film?

PM: I love it. I love the small society that grows out of a film project. I was just on a set the other day and I thought, “This is amazing.” How everybody’s tuned in. Nowadays you see them talking to each other on headsets, right? Thirty or 40 people are there but it’s totally quiet because everybody’s whispering into their mic. But things are getting done and you’re thinking “How’s it happening? Nobody’s talking.” And boom, the shot is done. Wow.

But it depends on what kind of film you want to make. What are you after? What level of spontaneity do you want to engage in? And what level of improvisation? Making The Top Of His Head was, for me, the first time stepping out of small production into a kind of factory system, the factory being the film project. The production is divided into scenes and the scenes are divided into hours of shooting and the actors’ time is all slotted. When your budget is limited, you can’t go beyond those bounds. Ironically more money, more infrastructure, can also mean less time, less flexibility. It’s an art form in itself, planning and budgeting a shoot, and you want to find the happy balance that will let you catch the magic while still being efficient and organized.

We lost a fairly critical scene, which was nobody’s particular fault. It’s just the way things go, you know. Time escaped us. But we lost that scene and had to find a way to rebalance the film without it in editing. To me, that seemed kind of absurd, given that it was a scripted piece.

POV: Peter, can we move backwards a bit? You made Scissere at Ryerson and it premiered at the Festival of Festivals (now TIFF). Which was amazing—an experimental feature from a graduating film student. Then you did your stint as a cinematographer. But you made a second film during that time, Eastern Avenue, before Top of His Head. It’s quite different from the narratives you shot before—and Top, which you directed soon after. Why did you do it?

PM: It was a diaristic film. For me at the time, it was an exercise in improvisation, and a form of preparation for Top of His Head. I used a bunch of short-end film stock in an old camera, engaging with things as they unfolded during a trip I made to Berlin, Portugal and Switzerland.

I used the camera as an instrument of subjective vision—like a musician might use their instrument. And sound as well, I made lots of wild sound recordings. The shooting ratio was 1.1 to 1.

I lived on Eastern Avenue, which is why I called it that. It was the point of departure and the point of return. The Eastern Avenue sign was the last shot.

POV: Do you think that it’s been liberating for you to do documentaries? Does it allow the poetic voice to come through?

PM: Oh yeah, very much. But to me documentary is just a term. I don’t really feel that I make documentaries exactly. But compared to the industry models of “drama”, I’ve found there to be more flexibility in the creative process in “documentary”.

I would have been happy to continue making films with crews and actors and creating a vision that way, but I felt it difficult to explore. Exploration, mysteries and surprise discoveries are very important. Documentaries, sometimes like ‘experimental’ films, allow you to say, “This is my topic, and I want to explore it in a number of different ways.”

POV: The film you made after Top of His Head strikes me a bridge between narratives and docs. Tectonic Plates is a creative documentary dealing with a really complex individual, Robert Lepage. What are your memories of working on that one?

PM: Well, for me, what makes Lepage’s theatrical works so fascinating is that they borrow so much from cinema. But if you just shoot that one to one, it’s not that interesting because it looks ordinary in a film. My question was “How do you make it as compelling for the cinema viewer as it is for the theatregoer?” How do you blend the two language forms of theatre and cinema?

Lepage worked with a group of actors and their experimentation was extraordinary. It was a lot of fun. The work was communal. It’s not just Robert, everyone is involved in developing ideas, finding characters. And I was just another component. You feel like you’re part of a bigger organism. And that’s a really good feeling.

POV: And working with Niv Fichman as producer? It’s interesting that you made Top of His Head and Tectonic Plates together. Did he try to give you space to figure out what you were doing?

PM: Niv is very passionate. He’s not so much a “nuts & bolts” producer. Niv is conceptual: he sees ideas, he sees combinations of people, he sees themes. And he’s very good at finding the right people and putting them together to allow something to happen. He’s a creator in that way too, but he wants his directors to be themselves. So he supports them however he can to pursue their artistic ways and vision.

POV: After Tectonic Plates, you made your first pure documentary, Picture of Light. What was the inspiration for you to decide to shoot this fantastic project—looking at the Northern Lights?

PM: I was in Switzerland showing Tectonic Plates when I met Andreas Zuest at a dinner with some mutual friends. He was an odd, eccentric character, completely obsessed with meteorology and art. Over the course of the dinner, we talked about Canada and he said, “Oh, that’s a great place for the Northern Lights.” He had always wanted to get the Northern Lights on film somehow, but Andreas knew nothing about filmmaking. He asked whether I would be interested in making a film about the Northern Lights. Having only spent two hours with him, I figured that this was an unlikely reality, but I said, “Yes, of course, it’s a great subject.” By the end of the dinner we agreed that if he could get the financing, I would make a film about the Northern Lights.

Just a few months later, he called me from Switzerland and said, “Okay, I have some money. We can go”—to Churchill, Manitoba! I decided to just go with it and started a filmmaking journey. Andreas was very flexible too; he wanted me to make the film in my own way. He would support it however he could, mostly with his scientific knowledge and polar experience.

The money for the first shoot came from Andreas’ friend Sigmar Polke, who’s a successful German artist. Subsequently, during editing, Andreas inherited some money, which allowed us to finish the film. So it was a completely privately financed film. Which is amazing.
So was our process. We explored and filmed the Northern Lights and that environment, slowly building the film. Right from the beginning, it could have been a 15-minute film of lights only. Or it could have been a feature film for the theatre. Or it could have been an hour for television. All of that was open. We had the unique situation where the subject and the experience of making the film determined its own form. Which is how most art works.

POV: Right. But not necessarily cinema.

PM: No, especially not cinema. That was fantastic, to be able to engage in that kind of process with cinema, which also for me was a totally logical step, especially if you track it back to the evolution of my earlier films. It is all the same exploration of that creative process in relation to how you see and interact with the world. Trying to catch that human state, that perception, that state of consciousness.

POV: I remember seeing it early on and thinking, “this is so incredibly poetic.” But what surprised me was seeing it for a second time with the public and watching them react to the comedic elements in the film. You know, the craziness of the cabin fever in Churchill and shooting a hole in the motel wall. What did you think when you saw a public screening?

PM: I was very aware of the comedy, actually. There are other things I wasn’t aware of that were happening with the film, but I was aware of that. I was aware of Andreas being a comedic figure as well. And I was aware of the absurdity of what we were doing and I played on that. To me, it offered … cheap isn’t the right word … an easy level of interacting with the audience.

Getting a laugh helped the film move along. I enjoyed shooting the scene in the motel a lot, and it turned out to be quite important for the success of the film. I didn’t know upfront that Picture of Light was going to become an essay about mediated images or mediated experience, which is a central theme of the film. That was born out of the process.

POV: How important was the editing for you? Was it clear by the time you were finished shooting but before you started editing, what you’d done?

PM: No. A lot was discovered in the editing. Also, we did two shoots, right? When we had technical problems in the first shoot, it was a blessing in disguise because we had good insurance. It paid for us to go back a second time, a year later. And it also meant that during the year, we could look at all of the material and start to build upon ideas. We got to expand on those during the second shoot.

So we were structuring the ideas … but the realization of the theses came about in the editing. And the super simple structure of leaving Toronto, going up North, shooting the lights and then coming back wasn’t clear to me until well into the editing. It’s so obvious now, but it wasn’t clear then.

POV: Picture of Light is a philosophical, almost mystical film. Were you thinking about your process while the editing was taking place?

PM: Yes, being placed out there in that majesty of nature with our quaint recording devices really made me think about what we were doing. And then Brian Ladoon, the hunter, started talking about blood bathing, which is this compulsion to hunt for no good reason. And I felt that, as a person working with images, as a filmmaker —“What is driving me to film this? To film that? To capture all of this stuff? Where is the meaning, and can you go off balance with it?” That’s exactly what he was doing, questioning himself, as a hunter. “Where do you draw the line between needing to kill something for your nourishment and just killing because it’s what you know how to do or for “visual satisfaction”—as he put it. That kind of reflection about the process could only happen by encountering somebody like him. By exploring.

POV: Since exploration is so essential to the way you make films, do you find it difficult to get producers and funders on board when you’re working on something new?

PM: It can be a problem. When you’re on the brink of starting a project, your process isn’t being fed much yet. It’s hard to articulate to a funder; you have to imagine what something could be before it’s actually happened. “Well, it’s a film about the Northern Lights. But I’m going to discover a whole bunch of stuff about them and discover a lot of interesting tangents from which some interesting new themes will develop. And I can’t tell you about them now because they can only be found within the process.” Getting lots of research from the Internet and making a presentation based on that is still only information—not experience.

POV: Did you realize that you’d be encountering Native life? That it wasn’t just the lights up North, but there were people down below the lights who were actually leading lives?

PM: I was dimly aware … [laughs] … that yeah, there would be something to do with Native culture up there. I didn’t research it a lot, mostly just in relation to the Aurora. It was another big part of the learning experience. To see the Inuit and the Natives and the white man, all merging in this area that is Churchill—and how they lived and how they related to the land before, but not as much anymore. And how technology is altering their relationship to the land, which is demonstrated by the Inuit guy who freezes his toes after his skidoo broke down. Again, these are some of the things that one is dimly aware of, but that you actually start to learn from experience once you’re there.

POV: Did you do research on films that had been shot of the Northern Lights?

PM: Yes, we were able to obtain stock footage from NASA. You see quite a bit of it in the film. Like, the astronaut standing above the earth with his finger on the mic button trying to describe what’s going on with the Northern Lights. What more could you want, you know?

They also sent us footage of an incredible atmospheric reentry of the space shuttle, not through the Northern Lights, but with a similar visual effect. These three little human astronauts out there, wondering “if our video camera understands this.” We intercut that with our return journey on the train through the snowy tundra. Somehow we were on parallel missions.

POV: With Picture of Light, you can go tell somebody in advance, “I’m going to make a film about the Northern Lights.” But I remember when we talked about Gambling, Gods and LSD before you started doing it, and what you said to me was, “I want to film what you can’t see.” The ineffable. How do you film the ineffable? How do you film luck? How do you film an LSD experience? How do you film things that you know in your heart exist, but which are not physically there? It’s at the moment where you’re taking the interior that’s always been important to you and you’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to try to somehow exteriorize this. This is going to be the subject.”

PM: It began with this ineffable human characteristic of wanting to transcend. Of either wanting to depart this reality or embrace it in an ecstatic way. And it could be looked at as an escape or as a union. That specific ineffable thing was what drove that film from the beginning. And then it splintered into other themes, which all related to it.

A few of us researched around that central theme and built all sorts of possible things that could be filmed. However, I wanted to go through a process that was like Eastern Avenue in that I wouldn’t know what I was going to film in spite of the fact that I’d spent 10 years researching it. So you can see my binders of research with very specific people and subjects and locations and … you know, filmable things. But in the end, I ditched it. They were more like the nourishment that tuned a kind of vision—and themes—which allowed me to react in the world to what I would discover as I was making the film.

POV: Surely some things were planned, Peter. What about the destruction of one of the classic casino-hotels in Las Vegas?

PM: One of the things I’d looked at in research was CDI, Controlled Demolition experts. I was really interested in doing something with them. But then when I was in Vegas, shooting other stuff, I saw the Aladdin Hotel had a big sign saying “Content sale.” And I snuck in with the camera. I started shooting the empty casino and all of the weird stuff that had been left behind in there. And I found out that the Aladdin was going to be imploded soon. “Well, who’s imploding it?” “Controlled Demolition.”

So I got back to them and said, “Can I film you guys doing this?” Then I booked a hotel room across the way with a good view. This is like, four weeks in advance to when they would do it—so that I would have that perspective at least. I didn’t know about the woman [Justine] with the tattoo at that point. It is, actually, one of the only forced scenes in the film. A staged scene, if you will, but still discovered along the way.

POV: So it was researched and a fortuitous circumstance did help you out. It’s my favourite scene in the film, as you know.

PM: I’m happy that the film had the effect that I was trying to get, that it became a subjective experience for the viewer. For some, it was a meditation, which allowed them to discover something about themselves, in communion with the film. It’s not that I was presenting a thesis or an argument so much. It was rather about engaging the viewer to see more deeply—or more by association—and to find their own themes as well within that process. And that has happened with audiences more than I expected.

I also got the other extreme where people were extremely angry at the unfamiliar approach. I would get verbally assaulted sometimes—you know, “Well, what is this? Where are you taking me? How dare you do this for three hours, this aimless journey around the world? You’ve got to be crazy.” So, both extremes. Complete epiphany and complete agitation. Which I think is great.

POV: You’re not through with Gambling, Gods yet, are you, Peter? I know you have hours and hours of footage.

PM: I had initially wanted to make the film as a series, in a way. As a long thing, with many components to it. But it didn’t seem like that was going to fly, right? So working together with the producers here and in Switzerland, we decided to just package it as a film.

But when it became packaged as a film, it had this time limit on it of ninety minutes to two hours. I was kind of uneasy, going along with it, but the model of going to places and exploring, reacting, building… I felt we might be able to do that in two hours, but I wasn’t sure. It felt uncomfortable.

Then, sure enough, when we got the material back, it was even more extreme than I had imagined. When we did the assembly, it was 55 hours long with 100 subjects! And by that, I mean, a subject can be a place or a person or an event. It was immense.

I didn’t shoot anything twice. I was shooting situations and characters, gathering them, and not really being aware of how much of it was actually usable. But there was much more usable stuff than we all thought there would be. I think the real representative Gambling, Gods is actually a very, very long film. Much longer than three hours.

POV: How difficult was it for you and your co-editor, Roland Schlimme, to cut the film?

PM: It was hard [laughs]. Part of the reason it took a long time to edit was because we didn’t have enough money to finish the film in any way. And it seemed the film needed to be longer than two hours. So we had to make a case for a greater length. And in doing so, we had to edit stuff to make a case for the film. So we spent a good year editing components and then invited the television people in Europe to our loaned-out editing farmhouse in Switzerland to screen the film.

It was quite a momentous occasion. People drove from France, a long way, and from Zurich, and then watched five hours of material. Afterwards during a late lunch, they were saying things like “Okay, great. What do you want?” They were totally sold on it. It was such a great moment, in a sense, because we were showing the essence of the film in the way we wanted. And they were agreeing to it. The Arte people [art broadcasters in France and Germany] were saying “Just don’t make it over five hours.”

But, of course, that didn’t fly with Alliance, who was our theatrical distributor. For them, the utter max was three hours. So that’s where we landed with the film. Three hours. But we got the financing to finish everything. That’s part of why the editing was extra long, because we didn’t know what format we were cutting to until we had the commitment from all of the partners. And there was this weird in-between stage of trying to cut things in a multi-purpose way.

POV: How did you meet Roland?

PM: Well, it was through Mike Munn, who had done editing on my previous two films. Mike couldn’t go in on something as intense as this. Initially Roland was going to come on as kind of an assistant editor. To prep and archive stuff. Get it going. He’d seen Scissere at Ryerson and that’s how he first knew of my work. So, we started in Canada when the first footage was coming in and then he came over to Switzerland and it was decided “Okay, well. You might as well cut it.” I’ve never lived together with anybody as intensively as Roland. We were there working day and night. We both edited. He edited the day shift and I’d edit the night shift and we’d converse and show each other things in-between.

POV: Let’s talk about your working process, especially in terms of the last two big docs, Picture of Light and Gambling, Gods. How was the research done? In both cases, did you work with teams?

PM: In the research I didn’t do a lot of traveling.

POV: I seem to remember you going to Vegas at one point.

PM: Yeah, I went to Vegas at the end of Picture of Light after screening at Sundance.

POV: And of course, you went to Switzerland because you were going back and forth. But not India?

PM: Uh … I went to India, also to screen Picture of Light.

POV: Okay, I got you.

PM: Okay. You’re right. You know more than I do. It’s funny, though. I guess I did go to those places, but it didn’t feel like research. But it is, in a sense, because you’re exposing yourself to those environments, which are feeding you somehow. It’s true.

Still, when I think of research for Gambling, Gods, I do think more of the books I read, the notes I made and the binders of the different places I assembled. It’s where I am now with the new project End of Time. One of the hardest parts is organizing your interests. Organizing your thoughts. Like, I’ll have a heading called “Strategies”. And the strategies are about the filmmaking process.

For example, a strategy could be letting other people decide where you’re going to go next. Or looking at the thing that’s beside the thing that you’re apparently interested in, or following water. Any number of ideas or methods that pertain to how you’re actually going to go about the filming. I keep track of those kinds of ideas. Of course there are also lists of subjects and their connections, cross-references.

I also keep track of narrative possibilities. Structures for a film. A film in four parts. A film in twelve parts. A film of chapters. I might give chapter headings for a film that doesn’t exist. Those headings help me organize my thoughts.

POV: Give me a chapter heading for Gambling, Gods. A working chapter.

PM: Water Clock is one that I remember.

POV: And books you read?

PM: Chaos was one that figured prominently. The Way Of The White Clouds was another big one for me. Gavin Connor, who researched extensively in the early stages, referenced a lot of anthropological sources. I still have a lot of those books somewhere.

POV: What are in the binders?

PM: With Gambling, Gods, I wanted to say “there’s four cultures. I’m going to take a journey into the unknown in each of these cultures, looking through the four filters which I determined to be the themes, which were transcendence, the illusion of safety, the denial of death and our relationship to nature.” The binders were collections of clippings and references, images and notations.

So with those four thematic filters, I would go to Las Vegas and explore. And you know, the inside of the Aladdin hotel. That’s speaking to me. This guy I meet at the poker table with his deceased wife. That’s speaking to me, I want to explore it. I didn’t know he was going to pull out the bones. That’s not a part of my predetermined decision. That happened as part of the attraction to the denial of death and the relationship to nature.

POV: True, but it also operates as a metaphor, doesn’t it, for just the idea of how far you can bring the notion of luck.

PM: Yeah, exactly. The fact that they’re playing poker and they’re Buddhist and the wife has just passed away … it all fits. But I don’t know what I’ll find until it happens.

In my next film, End of Time, I want to find the poker player now—ahead of time. I still don’t know where it’s going to take me, but I want to say “I want to go visit this poker player.” And I imagine this poker player fitting into section Eight of the film. That’s how I’m approaching it. I’m writing a script, of sorts, that has different components.

In Gambling, Gods, I would often spend only half a day with a number of the subjects. And I’d be shooting—more like in a research mode. That’s why it was so surprising that so much worthwhile footage came out of it. A lot of it was just the initial contact and it didn’t go further than that. I’d like to spend days with a protagonist and go deeper with that one particular person.

POV: Did you find a lot of material that was good but not up to the quality of the 3-hour final cut of Gambling, Gods?

PM: That’s what I was expecting but it’s not what happened. And that was what was so confounding about the 55-hour assembly. I’m not saying that all 55 hours is brilliant, but of that, much of it was quite interesting, good and usable. That’s what surprised me. And then I thought “Well, it’s just me because I shot it.” But, you know, I show it to people and it is. It seems to be good. There seems to be something quite compelling in the casual spontaneous nature of it.

POV: How did you structure sections in Gambling, Gods?

PM: One of the only editing rules we had was to stay relatively chronological. Within that chronology we’d look for bundles of meaning. Take a look at Las Vegas from the beginning to the end. We start in the desert, go into the construction—the illusion—of Vegas, see an implosion of a hotel and watch as things go back to dust. We’ve listened to a woman speaking of the tension of her life between heaven and earth. Then you come back to a poker table where a man is showing us the bones of his deceased wife. So at some point I decided “Okay, this section of the film, the main idea is impermanence.”

POV: Do you use file cards on boards to create structures and patterns?

PM: I do groupings of possibilities on a wall. Slowly, the groupings do start to reflect the structure but it’s more about cross-references than it is about structure. Screening the cuts to friends and collaborators is also important. We watch the film together and I have a chance to see through different eyes what is being perceived. The producers Alexandra Gill, Ingrid Veninger and Cornelia Seitler were vital to this process.

POV: So the structure builds itself more … how?

PM: In the edits. On the editing table and in the computer. And then there are versions, which are outputted and notated. I end up with a structure A and a structure B and a structure C—and at some point in the process, I go crazy! And wonder why I spend so much time trying to organize material when what I’m really after is that sort of direct connection I had in Eastern Avenue. A cinematic capturing of the way life and experience unfolds!

Or that connection that I have when I’m mixing images live accompanied by [guitarist] Fred Frith. Because a characteristic that goes through all my films is how the qualities of performing music can be transposed into the act of making a film.

And that’s why I like operating a camera a lot. Because when you’re doing a single camera situation, that’s the realm you’re in. You’re with the camera, you’re reacting, you’re dancing. And when it works, you become one with the subject and you’re recording it.

So to preserve that essence all the way through the editing for the viewer to experience is what truly excites me. And that may just be because I started all of this by playing the piano. It’s very possible. When I was seven years old, my parents made me take piano lessons. I would wander away from playing the prescribed compositions and just play. I would see things. I would see scenes and images evoked by the sounds, harmonies dissonances, little narratives—that my fingers chose to play. And that’s why the leap to making films in high school was so quick. Because it was “Oh, this is what I’ve been doing already, but it’s tactile, it’s tangible. Actual images and sounds. Everything is already here. I can actually make film.”

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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