Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to films from emerging artists. This month we bring you Requiem by Michael Burgner. A family drama set in a remote house in rural America, Requiem is a quiet and unsettling morality tale.
Requiem (2014) is outstanding as a thesis piece. It does more than showcase a great deal of ability of the filmmakers, it goes so far as to take a stand on what sort of film those filmmakers would like to see even in the already extensive block of narrative dramas. Combining the experience and tastes of the filmmakers creates something which is at once familiar and also new. Requiem became a film which brought its filmmakers into the festival scene.
Michael Burgner finds a sure narrative voice in Requiem, one which he discovered as a kid in Oregon and honed at school in Chicago. But the power of this work extends beyond the nuts and bolts of narrative filmmaking. There’s a statement about what narrative drama should be which keeps this film fresh years later.
This film focuses on a certain brand of zealotry and puritanism as extant in society today. Folded into the story of a broken family in rural America are paternalism, music, religion, mortality, and womanhood. In approaching these themes Requiem comes across as singularly original. Today Burgner is a writer in Los Angeles, so we felt it was important to ask him to reflect on Requiem more retrospectively.
FACETS: Requiem is a film you finished three years ago and gaining distance on a piece is usually a profound learning experience in itself. You’ve gone through every aspect of production and turned your attention to the next project. How does Requiem influence your work today?
Michael: I spend most of my time, today, writing features as well as TV scripts. Clarity of story is critical. You want the audience to be focused on the emotional journey of the characters, not the mechanics of the plot. Looking back, Requiem could be clearer in its story, and I find myself thinking a lot about shot composition, coverage, and directing performance to more clearly convey information, visually and behaviorally. While Requiem has its flaws, it taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t when telling stories on screen. And I am nonetheless proud of the darkly atmospheric tone we were able to create, and the themes that we explored.
There’s strong paternal themes in Requiem and the film does not shy away from showing abuse and theology intersecting around that point. It’s bold. Even so, these aren’t new themes or devices for narrative film. What helped you avoid clichés on Requiem?
The short answer is specificity of character.
The flash fiction story that inspired the film established two girls living in isolation with their father. They were regularly beaten in the name of their sinfulness, and they dreamed of fighting back. That was it. There were no reason given as to why they lived in isolation, or why they were beaten, and there was no resolution. It was all theme, but as a writer I approach a story through character. Themes may be universal, but the characters need to be specific. So I gave the father an occupation, violin making. That allowed them to live alone but also complicate his character, giving him an artistic/sensitive aspect. I had the mother die in childbirth to justify, at least in the father’s mind, why the girls must suffer, and of course to explain why she isn’t there. And menstruation made for an inciting incident that also shows us just how disconnected Lily is from her body, how inculcated she is by religion’s demonization of natural processes. Left in this way it’s still a story about patriarchy using religion to subjugate women. I added the resolution of them killing him in the end—and today women are standing up for themselves like never before—to introduce the theme of mercy.
I think mercy gives the humanity to this story. The father uses religion to justify his grief and the beating of his children. But our protagonist, connected more with nature than the Bible, realizes that mercy is the defining human impulse in nature, where suffering is common place. The father has been driven mad. He suffers. He is already dead inside. His daughter puts him to rest when she poisons him. Morally perverse from a religious perspective, but an act of compassion from the point of view of putting an injured creature out of its misery. In many ways religion, and patriarchy more broadly, are about control. The notion that women fight back to shuck this control is an important message. But it’s more interesting to me that they rebel because they have a moral inclination to do so, to end the father’s suffering, and not merely vengeance or righteousness for wrongs perpetrated against them. The protagonist’s decisions become active in this way, not reactive. She has agency. She is an individual. Again, looking first at who she is as a character helps personalize these otherwise universal themes. We avoid cliché by rooting for her, and not merely her cause.
On the other hand we see a grasp of many cinematic conventions, particularly ones consistent with the social realist dramas coming out of Scandinavia in recent years. By now these cinematic conventions have made significant inroads in American film too. What conventions do you try to embrace?
In approaching Requiem I looked to the works of Michael Heneke like The White Ribbon (2009), Jane Campion like The Piano (1993), and the father of Scandinavian cinema, Ingmar Bergman especially The Virgin Spring (1960). Like some of those films Requiem utilizes longer takes and sparse dialogue and single camera setups. Diegetic sound over a musical score. We should feel as isolated as the girls do. This is a world where they aren’t allowed to speak unless spoken to. There’s tension in this kind of silence, and the subtler interplay between the religious world and the natural world is embodied by the constant sound of wind, and the images of snow, and dead animals juxtaposed to Bible readings. A girl on the verge of womanhood in a frozen world. Life and death in precarious alignment. I embraced these conventions because the material called for it. I can’t say I’d embrace the same conventions for other projects.
Finally, considering all these different pieces at play in Requiem, conventions, original takes on profound themes, and so on, where do feel the need to turn your attention in stories you want to tell in the future?
I continue to explore death and religion, though not quite as overtly as in Requiem. That being said, I have outlined a feature version of this story, with a boy and girl twins instead of two girls. Their dynamic is more fun, think Jem and Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). It adds much needed levity to an otherwise dark story. I’m looking forward to returning to this script when a few others have been cleared from my slate.
I’m currently working on two projects that both happen to involve teenagers on the verge of adulthood, asking questions about what it means to be a man, a woman, an adult, etc. in an uncertain world. One is a Sci-Fi story and the other a heist thriller. Both of these figure heavily on plot, but again, it all comes back to character. In a world that often rewards being bad, I suppose I’ll always be telling stories about the characters who are trying to learn why and how to be good.
Be sure to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain until our servers dissolve.