The Removals, the first film from writer-director Nicholas Rombes, simultaneously occupies a number of bold artistic territories. It’s a speculative work about an underground organization revisiting and re-enacting moments from history to change society to their own end; it’s a paranoid thriller about members of that organization growing disenchanted with it; and it’s about the troubles can come when you attempt to revisit the past. (In this film there are echoes of everything from Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York to Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder.) Rombes has already explored film from a literary side, from his novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing to a number of nonfiction works. I talked with him about a host of topics, from the influence of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation to Jeff VanderMeer’s involvement in the film.
At the heart of The Removals is an organization that restages moments from the past. When did this idea first come to mind? Was that the first aspect of the film that came to you?
It was a memory of watching dubbed movies on VHS in the late 1970s and 1980s. I think this is something that all movie buffs from my generation (I was born in 1965) did. This was back when VCRs were becoming affordable and we’d rent movies at U-Haul, before official “video rental stores” began to open up. We figured out how to dub rented movies onto blank VHS tapes. So for instance I’d rent Blues Brothers, dub it onto a blank tape, label it, and then, to save money, I’d eventually dub another movie that I was more into at the time—like De Palma’s Dressed to Kill—over the previously dubbed movie.
This is a long way to say that the result was imperfect, as there would be traces of the previous movie—or movies, for tapes that had multiple dub—so that you could never really “remove” the originally dubbed movie. It bled through in spots, or because the lengths of the dubbed movies were never exactly the same the most freshly dubbed movie would end and then the credits for the previously dubbed movie would come on.
At one point, a character compares the restaging of past events to the way that Fascist organizations became a part of daily life in Italy. When did that particular historical comparison come about?
I’d been reading a book—The Anatomy of Fascism—for another project and was surprised to learn that during the 1920s and 30s in Germany and Italy the Fascists deliberately went about creating “parallel organizations” that would slowly and eventually duplicate and replace existing organizations, thereby easing their transition to power. Mussolini’s Blackshirts, for instance, as an independent paramilitary “police” force, or the Gestapo in Germany. But they also did it on more subtle levels, creating parallel social organizations, youth organizations, schools, etc., all of which were designed to slowly replace the existing organizations so that when the Fascists officially took power, these organizations would already be in place.
Given that characters quote from The Conversation, I think it’s safe to say that The Removals comes from a long line of intentionally ambiguous, paranoid thrillers. How much more than the central characters did you know about the shifting allegiances and betrayals that ran throughout the film?
That’s a great question, and one I’ve wondered about regarding films like The Conversation, The Parallax View, The Tenant, and other paranoid films from the 1970s. The Removals was adapted from a fairly long story that originally appeared in Berfois, and so I had to cut a lot out and find a new balance between narrative clarity and ambiguity. This is something Eric Obenauf (the film’s producer), Mike Shiflet (cinematographer), Jeff Wood (the male protagonist) and I talked about quite a bit. So I had a full sketch of the organizational structures and alliances in my head, but I wanted to restrict our knowledge of this and so went with voice-over narration from Kathryn’s (played by Milly Sanders) point of view. My reference point was first-person narration in fiction and video games like Metroid Prime, where the reader/player is largely restricted to one character’s limited understanding of events, circumstances, and the larger narrative shell.
What was the process of shooting The Removals like? How did people react to the symbol that shows up in street art form in various locations throughout the film?
Well, I learned that the creative community in Columbus is extremely generous and vibrant. Nearly all of our good, visually arresting locations—a vintage store, the basement of a record store, a greenhouse—were the result of people kindly letting us “take over” their space for a day or so.
Kathryn’s voiceover, and the way that it fits into the overall narrative, becomes a big part of the film. Was that something in mind from the outset, or was the use of non-diagetic sound a way to take advantage of working on a lower budget?
I’d always thought of the story as being Kathryn’s story—that’s how I heard it in my head. There’s a scene in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) where Sissy Spacek voices over a remarkable, utopian scene when the outlaw couple (she and Martin Sheen) have escaped into nature. I’ve loved that moment, probably too much, and there was a time—when I first got the movie on VHS—when I watched it over and over. This was when Malick was a less prolific and more obscure director and he was a real mystery to me. And like you suggest, you have more control over non-diagetic sound, and we were fortunate that our cinematographer, Mike Shiflet, also happens to be an accomplished musician with his own home studio. So a lot of that non-diagetic sound was created there.
When news of The Removals first appeared in 2013, Grace Krilanovich was announced as the director. Did shifting roles from writer to writer/director change any aspects of how you conceived the film?
Very much so. When Eric called me and asked me if I’d direct I was so terrified I almost got sick on my shoes. But then I quickly came to my senses, choked back my fear, put on my best Midwestern game face, and said, “Sure.” What I realized is that the term “director” is a lie. If anything, the film directs you. Unlike writing, it’s an intensely collaborative effort. Many of our decisions about camera angles and shots, for instance, were not the product of one person’s vision, but rather were dictated by the constraints of the location. You arrive at a location—even after having scouted it out—and there are variables that you couldn’t have anticipated. So you make adjustments as a team. Eric and Mike were as much directors as I was.
What was the process of designing the look of the film like? The credits mention an object called the “Insect Gun,” which appears briefly and disconcertingly in one scene.
Grace Krilanovich’s husband designed and 3-D printed that insect gun. From the beginning the idea was to have several bold, iconic objects—like the red cones—to ground the film visually and help balance some of the film’s abstractions. These simple objects were designed to function as political symbols, like the Italian Fascists’ use of the Roman fasces, a bundle of wooden rods with an axe.
Jeff VanderMeer is credited as a creative consultant on the film. What were his contributions?
Jeff and I have talked about novels and movie adaptations, spurred in part because Alex Garland is adapting his Annihilation, from The Southern Reach trilogy, into a film. These back-and-forths helped shape, creatively, some of the decisions that went into the film, especially regarding withholding information rather than revealing too much. This was such a tricky and delicate tight-rope walk with The Removals, as you suggested in your earlier question: how much do you let the audience know about the super-structure of the story? One of the great achievements of the Southern Reach novels is how they manage not to over-explain or reveal too much about the forces that the characters react to.
Several of the cast members, including Scott McClanahan and Jeff Wood, may be best-known to literary viewers for the books they’ve written. How did you go about casting the film?
The casting was largely Eric’s doing. Although Jeff lives in Berlin he’s from the Columbus area, and was back in Ohio during the summer we filmed. Both he and Milly Sanders, who’s a friend of Grace’s and who flew out from LA for the shoot, were the only professional actors. The idea was to make the film with a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, sort of in the Cassavetes way, and see what happens. In the script, the Accountant (played by McClanahan) is described as “a sweaty fellow.” It turns out that the basement with the cage where we filmed Scott’s scenes was hot and humid and we were all sweating.
As someone who’s written abundantly about film, has working as a director altered the way that you view films made by other people?
I think I’d only sensed abstractly how collaborative the process of making a feature film is. The film is shaped so powerfully by the spontaneous problem-solving that happens day to day on the set and during post-production editing. What impresses me now, when I watch a film, is the level of faith and trust that the people making it must have, because there’s really no way to know for sure how it’s going to turn out. So much of the mood and atmospherics comes in post-production, with the addition of music and the pacing of editing. At some point, the film becomes its own, living, organic thing: it tells you what it wants to be, and your job is simply to help it become that.
Image: Two Dollar Radio