Featuring Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and the Safdie brothers’ chaotic thriller, Uncut Gems
MOTHER!, DARREN ARONOFSKY (2017)
Aneil Karia: I know it’s a bit Marmite – it got some stinking reviews and some great ones. It’s highly stressful, and you’re taken to a state of high anxiety and suspense. But I actually found it almost giddily thrilling, because I just admired its decision to go to such a bonkers place and never let you go.
It’s complex, because it’s not necessarily enjoyable. If you’re in an edgy place, maybe you need to browse romcoms on Netflix. But when you’re in the right place, these films are an exercise in grabbing the viewer and completely defining their mental state for 100 minutes – and even beyond that.
I remember being an adolescent, and coming out of the cinema with certain films, and feeling uneasy for the rest of the day. The whole world took on a different, foreboding veneer.
mother! establishes a fantastical world early on, but Surge feels very grounded and realistic. I’m sure lots of people share Joseph’s mindset. Even right now, we both probably have a slight urge to end this Zoom call and go back to bed.
Aneil Karia: I think that’s what makes mother! more of a ride. Films like that and Midsommar exist in a very heightened place, and you can let go a bit. What I hope is interesting about Surge is that it’s an incredibly everyday setting. What you’re describing is intrusive thoughts: “Fuck this Zoom. I could just hang up, and never explain myself.” (laughs) That would be a relatively small transgression in life, but there are much bigger ones.
Those intrusive thoughts pulse through our brain a lot of the time. We become very adept at ignoring them. But what happens when you start acting truly on impulse? I hoped it would be exhilarating to watch someone actually live out those things.
ENEMY, DENIS VILLENEUVE (2013)
Aneil Karia: Jake Gyllenhaal is this depressed lecturer who comes across his exact doppelganger in the background of a film he’s watching, and he starts to track him down. It’s the complexity of what happens when they do meet. I know it’s got farcical, almost funny elements, but I love the really strong sense of dread throughout the whole film. The experience isn’t pleasant, but it’s very defined. And I enjoyed that.
Enemy has the most effective jump scare, in those final few seconds, that I can think of.
Aneil Karia: Completely. And it’s obviously talked about a great deal, that ending.
In contrast, Surge ends with very meditative Indian music. Without giving anything away, why did you opt for that, rather than something loud and pounding like Underworld?
Aneil Karia: It’s funny you mention Underworld. They’re probably one of my favourite musical acts. But I know what you mean. In a physical sense, Joseph is heading towards oblivion. There’s a sadness and heaviness to seeing someone do that. But I was adamant that in an emotional or spiritual sense, he’s soaring by the end. He’s liberated from the numbness we spoke of.
That’s an Indian piece of music that’s written to the gods. I think there was something fitting about bringing a higher realm into the world at that moment. It fit the tranquillity that he’s found by the end, albeit through difficult times. He’s reached a place of acceptance with who he is in the world.
If you’re an Underworld fan, would you name Trainspotting on your list?
Aneil Karia: I haven’t seen Trainspotting for a long time. It’s a fantastic film. I guess it’s stressful. You’re watching people hurtling towards oblivion in another sense as well.
FUNNY GAMES, MICHAEL HANEKE (1997 and 2007)
Aneil Karia: Obviously it’s a very famous film where two well-spoken, polite, young men turn up and subject this family to mental hell. There’s a lot of talk about how it’s a very smart thesis on screen violence, but I also just think it’s an amazing exercise in tension. It’s a pretty stressful experience. I don’t enjoy watching it (laughs). But I’m very impressed by it.
Which version are you picking?
Aneil Karia: It’s a frame-for-frame remake, so I’ll just say both.
Oh, I did want to say, I think it’s particularly interesting looking at a film like Surge, or stressful films, off the back of lockdown, because we’ve had a pause from the world, and the ferocious pace that the city brings with it. We’ve spent more time at home. The streets are quieter. Perhaps not anymore. It’s funny, the idea of having shot Surge in that febrile, chaotic London that once existed, and then coming back to its release in a very different pace and place.
And now, post-lockdown, people will feel safe enough to go outside and rob a bank.
Aneil Karia: Exactly.
UNCUT GEMS, BENNY AND JOSH SAFDIE (2019)
Was Good Time an influence at all? It’s also about a bank robbery, and has the dye pack exploding in Robert Pattinson’s face.
Aneil Karia: It’s really funny. A lot of people have talked about the Safdie brothers. There are parallels. But Good Time was the first film of theirs I saw, and it was quite late on in the Surge process, so we already had certain scenes, including that dye pack scene, in it. I thought, “Oh, God, maybe I need to lose that.” We talked about that and ultimately didn’t. But I really like the atmosphere they create. They’re incredible filmmakers.
Have you noticed that audiences seem to be craving stressful films at the moment? People really wanted to be subjected to Uncut Gems in a cinema.
Aneil Karia: Uncut Gems was so powerful. It seemed to transcend demographics. It became mainstream, which is amazing for a film like that. It’s highly stressful. You’re basically stressed for two hours. But it does it in this almost absurd, hilarious, thrilling way where it’s quite different to something like Requiem for a Dream. You’re leaning forward, on the edge of your seat, and hoovering it up. It blends two really difficult things, which is high anxiety and an amazing, hilariously relentless experience. You’re stressed, but there’s a giddiness to watching it.
When they can’t get through the door, and they’re banging on everything, it’s such a brilliant scene. It’s so annoying and hilarious at the same time.
‘BITTER SWEET SYMPHONY’, THE VERVE (1997)
Aneil Karia: It’s funny you’ve got (The Verve as your Zoom background). I didn’t even think about that through the process. As a child of the ‘90s, I loved that video. But you’re right. I can see it so much.
Were you inspired by music videos? Your original short with Ben Whishaw, Beat, is almost a music video.
Aneil Karia: I actually was, because I feel I didn’t really have a childhood that was steeped in cinema or film. What I was watching more as a kid was TV and music videos. We didn’t have Sky or cable, but a friend of mine had it. We’d watch MTV2 for hours. These music videos blew my mind. There was something very powerful about that combination of picture and music. I started buying those “Directors Label” DVDs – Chris Cunningham, Mark Romanek, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze. I watched them over and over.
THE APE, JESPER GANSLANDT (2009)
Aneil Karia: It’s a really quite uncomfortable but unique, Swedish film about a guy who seems to be having a very bad day. But the more time you spend with him over 24 hours, the more you realise that something truly catastrophic and hellish has happened in his life. He’s almost in a state of shock, but just carrying on his day as normal, as much as he can. He’s on the brink of losing his mind. Or maybe he’s already lost it. It’s not an easy film. It’s highly stressful.
Do you consider Surge to be highly stressful, too? To me, it is, but I imagine some will find it cathartic to see someone quit their job and go on a rampage.
Aneil Karia: I hope it’s walking that line. I can’t say whether it succeeds, but it’s trying to be an exercise in tension, and to create that sense of anxiety that comes, in a heightened way, with the city, and that complex mental space that he’s in. But at the same time, I hope it’s liberating. We’re constantly suppressing these urges as human beings to get back to something more primal, and to break out of this drone-like, “good citizen” existence.
I think everyone comes away from it differently. Some people have clearly just been stressed out, and even annoyed by it (laughs). And others have found this transcendence in it. That’s just cinema at the end of the day.