Under the Silver Lake features the opposite of Mitchell’s usual strong female protagonists – imagine It Follows, but told from the monster’s perspective
“I think it’s fucking ridiculous to assume that the media has just one purpose, right?” It’s a typically paranoid point raised by Sam, played by Andrew Garfield, in David Robert Mitchell’s trippy neo-noir Under the Silver Lake. “Maybe there are people out there who are more important than us, more powerful and wealthier than us, that are communicating things and seeing things in the world that are meant only for them, and not for us!”
Sam, then, is a conspiracy theorist. The dishevelled stoner spins records in reverse, decodes body gestures on Wheel of Fortune, and desperately needs a shower. LA is a city of dreams, and most of his take place indoors. Perhaps it’s a distraction from reality: the 33-year-old is unemployed, friendless, and about to be evicted due to unpaid rent. In a normal movie, Sam would hatch a get-rich scheme, or do something. Instead, our protagonist powers through Nintendo marathons, masturbates to retro magazines, and returns to those Wheel of Fortune reruns. When your days are empty, it’s invigorating to find meaning in the meaningless.
“The film is a code within a code within a code,” Garfield tells me, with feverish excitement, over coffee in Covent Garden Hotel. “The best art is mysterious, and the best stories are constantly interpretable and unfolding.” The actor is notoriously picky about projects – Under the Silver Lake is only his seventh movie since 2010’s The Social Network. He’s also, notoriously, a method actor. For Silence, he spent a year training with a Jesuit priest and lost 40lbs. Preparing for Sam, though, was easier. “I’m already obsessed with conspiracy theories,” the actor laughs. “I’m obsessed with hidden subliminal advertising. I’m obsessed with the idea that there’s a connected network of elite people in the world who are governing how we live. That’s who I am!”
We speak about the resurgence of people who believe that the Earth is flat. Are they, like Sam, comforted that the modern world still has mysteries left to explore? “But Sam is going towards something far more imaginative than the Flat Earther movement,” Garfield counters. “He’s looking for belonging. He’s looking for meaning. He’s looking for purpose. He’s also egotistical and looking to be a hero. He sees himself as Travis Bickle. He thinks he’s going to save womankind from the abusive clutches of Hollywood. But he’s deluded. He has no power, and he’s perpetuating misogyny in an unconscious way, anyway.”
What transforms Sam into an amateur detective – well, a pervy private investigator – is the disappearance of his neighbour, Sarah (Riley Keough). One day, they’re watching How to Marry a Millionaire in bed; the next, Sarah’s home is deserted, she’s reported dead on the news, and a strange symbol emerges on her living room wall. It could only mean one thing: a global media conspiracy. Duh. So Sam sets off on a surreal shaggy-dog tale, full of twists and turns, including an encounter with an elderly pianist who secretly wrote your favourite music: “Where Is My Mind?”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and even the theme tune for Cheers. “I find a used Kleenex,” the songwriter cackles maniacally. “I recycle it, and there is your wedding song!”
“It’s not a conventional three-act structure,” Mitchell says over the phone from LA. “One of the things it was inspired by was graphic-adventure games from the ‘80s and ‘90s. In terms of scene construction, you get seemingly common objects that you wouldn’t think have a purpose.” The writer-director explains the point-and-click premise of Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island series. “As the main character in the game, you assume that this object has a grand purpose. The truth is, sometimes it’s completely meaningless. And sometimes it needs to be combined with something in order to unlock something deeper within the story.” The first draft was written quickly, he says, on lots of caffeine. So the dream logic comes from his subconscious? “I certainly wonder about it. I like the idea of not completely understanding it.”
Under the Silver Lake is Mitchell’s third and most ambitious movie. It’s also his best. On the strength of his 2010 coming-of-ager The Myth of the American Sleepover and 2014 cult horror It Follows, Mitchell is one of the most exciting, singular voices in modern cinema. The director also doesn’t hide his influences. Under the Silver Lake openly references Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rebel Without a Cause, and, via a tombstone, Alfred Hitchcock. Plus, Garfield was asked to watch After Hours, The Long Goodbye and a list of Humphrey Bogart movies as homework.
“In relation to some of the things in the film that I think some people are offended by or hurt by, all I can say is that the entire film is built around this character, and from the point of view of this character. He’s a voyeur” – David Robert Mitchell
“I’m a huge fan of all those many decades of LA films and LA noirs,” Mitchell says. “That’s one inspiration, but there are many.” Like the existential angst of L’Avventura and La Notte? “Absolutely. Antonioni is certainly an influence in the character’s wandering quality. He stumbles through the city, and it’s a question of: what importance do all these things have to the central mystery?” So there’s your tagline: it’s Michelangelo Antonioni meets The Secret of Monkey Island.
For Garfield, embracing Mitchell’s unsolvable riddles was part of the fun. He binged the You Must Remember This podcast, gate-crashed “random art parties” around Silver Lake, and created Sam’s eccentric t-shirts, all to get in the mindset. But ultimately, the film is open-ended. For example, someone is murdering the local canines. Is it Sam? Garfield isn’t sure himself. He explains: “I’d do one take where I know I’m the dog killer, one take where I think I’m the dog killer, and one take where I have no idea about the dog killer at all. I’d let David pick what take he’s drawn to. It could all be a dream, it could all be reality. It’s up for grabs.”
The LA we witness is an expansive playground populated by weirdos and wannabe actors. The arresting, candy-coloured visuals leap off the screen (cinematographer Mike Gioulakis also lensed It Follows and Jordan Peele’s Us), the art direction is painstakingly elaborate, and the surreal sequences coalesce with precise, often hilarious musical cues. Take the scene where Sam and Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten) dance to REM’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” at a party; Sam’s exuberance matches the power chords, he mouths along to Michael Stipe’s apt lyrics (“I studied your cartoons, radio, music, TV, movies, magazines…”), and then his drugs-induced dizziness is choreographed to the flanged guitar solo.
“Of course the REM song was in the script!” Mitchell confirms. For the score, Mitchell collaborated again with Disasterpeace, the musician whose Nintendo-ish synths were laden over It Follows. “There are elements of electronic music,” the director notes, “but the starting point was noir stuff from the 40s and 50s, and certainly Bernard Hermann. The deeper we got into it, a classical orchestral score seemed the way to go.”
Within the film itself, music acts as a religion. So Sam hunts down the aforementioned pianist who ghost-wrote the defining songs of his generation. It’s a joke and not a joke. Behind-the-scenes figures like Max Martin and Gregg Alexander really do exist. But some artists are branded differently. So when Sam learns that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t written by Kurt Cobain, or even on a guitar, he’s heartbroken.
“It’s such an interesting debate,” Garfield says. “Drake’s music is undeniably catchy and artful and unique and specific. You hear that he has 100 different people writing it. Does that make it any less pleasurable to listen to? Not for me.” Michael Jackson is another matter, though. “Michael Jackson was my guy growing up. He was everything to me. So deeply inspiring: musically, performance-wise, all of that. And then you watch Leaving Neverland, and you get first-hand accounts of who he was, and it does change. I have to skip his songs now on shuffle. I can’t. I just can’t. I believe that I’m able to separate the art from the artist, but right now, I’m surprised to find I’m not able to do that with Michael Jackson.”
Fans of Mitchell’s previous films should take note: the genre-bending, nostalgic thrills of It Follows are present, and so is the late-night melancholy of The Myth of the American Sleepover. The latter is even recreated, by budding actors, at an open-air cinema. But Mitchell is, admirably, taking gigantic risks here, and it’s hard to imagine a more love/hate movie this year. For 139 minutes, every scene is spent with Sam, a defiantly despicable human being. He punches children in the face, openly hates the homeless, and is physically unpleasant to be around – a skunk leaves a stink that literally won’t go away. Moreover, the camera emulates Sam’s warped perspective and reflects the sleazy tropes of his beloved LA movies. The film’s very male gaze has, let’s say, divided opinions.
“Ultimately, however people see a film or a work of art is up to them,” Mitchell says. “In relation to some of the things in the film that I think some people are offended by or hurt by, all I can say is that the entire film is built around this character, and from the point of view of this character. He’s a voyeur. There are very brutal waves of sadism. He’s struggling with feelings of misogyny. These are the core elements of what the film is about.
“The camerawork is more subjective than what we did with It Follows. It places you in the mind and eye-line of Sam. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable, and that’s the point. If that resonates with people, that’s cool. If some people are offended, I understand that, too.” The director adds, “No one should be modelling their life after his actions. These aren’t my personal beliefs, these aren’t my personal actions. I made two films with very strong female protagonists, and I thought it’d be interesting to have a very weak male protagonist. That’s probably hard for people to watch, and I get that.”
On Sam’s more unpleasant characteristics, Garfield refers to a scene involving Sarah’s vacated home. Sam climbs through the window and discovers a box. Inside it is a photo, some chewing gum, and a pink vibrator. Garfield had a thought. “I was like: ‘fuck, what would he do?’ This guy is going to pick up the fucking vibrator, and he’s going to not want to smell it, but he’s going to really want to smell it. He’s alone, and he’s going to do it.”
So Garfield suggested the action to Mitchell. “I said to David, ‘This feels like a real thing that this guy would do. I’m not judging him for it, because maybe there’s a part of me that would do that too if I was private and really attracted to a girl. It’s an animal thing. But it’s not a likeable thing. Are you OK with this?’ He was like, ‘I love it.’ So it wasn’t about trying to be unlikeable, but it was about allowing all the impulses to happen without judgement. So beating up the kids – all of it. There was no judgement of him. It was trying to be as honest as possible.”
“I made two films with very strong female protagonists, and I thought it’d be interesting to have a very weak male protagonist” – David Robert Mitchell
Mitchell mentions that he’s written several scripts he would love to shoot one day. He describes to me Ella Walks the Beach, a tender break-up drama that was nearly his second feature; when financing collapsed at the last moment, he made It Follows instead. He recently did a rewrite on Hiro Murai’s upcoming Man Alive, and hints at his own future projects. “Just like my three films have been different, the fourth one will be different in its own way. The only thing anybody can expect from me is that I’ll never make the same film again.”
Next up for Garfield is Mainstream, a film he’s been developing with director Gia Coppola for several years. “It’s about social media and celebrity and how things seem instead of how things are. It’s about finding your voice as an artist. It’s about the toxic waste we’re force-fed on social media. It’s about following the wrong people. It’s about trying to find your path in a world that is trying to keep you off your path. Palo Alto was such a beautiful, tender film, and Gia’s really got a finger on the pulse of youth culture. She’s dying to capture the anxieties, the depressions, and the longings of what it is to be young right now, especially in America.”
Some of those themes, I notice, overlap with Under the Silver Lake’s obsessions. Maybe that’s because I can’t get the film out of my head – it’s a movie that encourages repeat viewings and wild theories. I have my own: it’s It Follows from the zombie’s perspective. Sam is the monster who slowly ambles down the streets in search of the blonde woman he once met. Or maybe it all comes down to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, a song about falling out of love with pop culture. At the party, only Sam knows the lyrics.
“The idea of (the REM) scene is that Sam is surrounded by the younger generation,” Garfield explains. “It’s ‘old music’ night. But ‘old music’ night is 90s and 00s music. It’s a vintage throwback to ten years ago.” After the chorus, the realisation hits Sam: he’s if Peter Parker wasn’t bitten by a spider, he’s if Eduardo Saverin never co-founded Facebook. Garfield agrees. “It takes Sam the whole film to realise: ‘I guess I’m not cut out for this shit. I guess I’m a failure. I guess I’m ordinary. I guess I’m not special. And I guess that’s OK.’”
Under the Silver Lake is out now in UK cinemas and on MUBI