Dez Vylenz: Directing The Mindscape of Alan Moore

Review: The Mindscapes of Alan Moore

With the (hopeful) March, 2009 release of Watchmen, a lot of talk is starting to generate about creator Alan Moore. As such, the release of the DVD The Mindscape of Alan Moore through Disinformation on September 30th couldn’t be more timely. (Click here for a review.)

The set not only treats us to a two-hour talk from Moore himself, but also includes a second disc of extra content including interviews with past Moore collaborators like Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd, Melinda Gebbe and comic book historian Paul Gravatt. Documentary creator Dez Vylenz also gives a number of insights into the making of the film.

So, when an opportunity to interview Vylenz was offered, it was hard to turn it down.

Born in Surinam, one of Vylenz’s earliest memories is fighting for the newspaper’s comic section with his father. He was a successful political cartoonist by his teenaged years. At the time he was also working in theater and film. Vylenz also had friends who would go to Europe and come back with tons of Western comic books. Among the works that inspired the young man was Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen.

In the 1990s, Vylenz relocated to Amsterdam, where he got a Bachelors degree. He then followed it with a Masters in English Linguistics and Literature at the University of Amsterdam. He also studied film in London International Film School. In 2001, he formed his own production company, Shadowsnake. Mindscapes is not only the company’s first film, but Vylenz’s feature length debut.

At present, he is jumping from one point of the European continent to another as a consultant. This interview was actually conducted by phone while he was in Spain.

Here’s what he had to say:

Newsarama: Alan Moore is not known for granting too many interviews these days. So how did you get him to consent to this film?

Dez Vylenz: I contacted him first. I pitched the idea of the film to him. The way I did it was by saying that this wasn’t a film about comics. This is actually a film about magic and what it means to an artist in the 21st Century, or actually the 20th Century, which is when I started it.

The premise was the Artist as contemporary shaman. Some people might feel that’s a bit airy fairy or far fetched. In fact, the reason I chose that parallel was I realized that as I was trying to come to terms with myself as a filmmaker and a writer what exactly Alan was doing was similar to what a shaman did in some places. Shamans are mediums to the spiritual world and the spiritual world. That was the main premise.

I think that caught his attention as a thing he wanted to explore. So he called me up and we made the trip to his place.

NRAMA: One other British comic book writer, who is a recognized friend of Alan, said getting to him is difficult…saying that he prefers to sit in a dark corner and complain about the world.

DV: I don’t think that’s necessarily true though. I think that’s a big misconception. There are always two extremes. If you approach somebody as a real ass-kisser fanboy, which probably happens a lot to him, you are going to receive a bit of resistance. On the other hand, if you give him the treatment that a lot of corporations have given him, being disrespectful to his craft and to him as a person, you’re going to hear tell you to shove off. But if you treat him as someone who has something interesting to say, and you are proficient with his works and his talent…what people forget is above all else he is a writer, he prefers to be down in the trenches writing. So that’s how I approached him and we hit it off immediately. In fact, most people who have ever really met him will tell you that he’s really a real gentleman.

A lot of people say he’s a recluse and all that, but writers have to write. I think Henry Rollins told me one day that people watch too much TV nowadays, and you get less genius because of it. People are just getting too distracted. He said if you are a writer, stop talking about it, dig a hole in the ground and write.

NRAMA: How many sessions did you do with Alan?

DV: It was a few all-day sessions. There were also some sessions where I had to explain what I was doing with the film. Then there were some later sessions to get some quotes that didn’t come out right or getting some sound bites so we could structure the film into a much more workable form.

The actual filming of him, though, was only one day. We actually filmed him in 2002, which at the time he was in one of the busiest stages of his life. He was writing about five or six series a month.

NRAMA: He was doing the whole ABC line.

DV: Exactly. That was driving him crazy. He was really focussed on that. So he took about eight hours for us. We had to be very efficient.

Another reason we had to be efficient was because we shot the whole thing on film. The reason for that was I felt if I was going to capture a legend like him, I wasn’t going to do it on video. So we actually shot in Super 16. That gave us a much more fluid motion as opposed to working with pixels.

With that in mind, we really had to come in very structured. We didn’t want to shoot a lot of film because of the budget. I think it worked out really well. We can thank Alan for that as well. He knew the direction the film was going to take. He knew the topics that we were going to discuss.

NRAMA: So he did his best to work for the camera.

DV: Well, yeah. We did a lot of shots in one take.

NRAMA: He does seem like he knows how to handle the camera, that’s for sure.

DV: He really knows film history. He knows film technique and editing. In that sense, it’s an absolute shame that he gets this kind of treatment from Hollywood.

NRAMA: Well, considering Hollywood and its ways, does Moore accept that films based on his writing are dependent of the vision of the director?

DV: He’s got nothing to say on that because then they just become property. They don’t belong to him by that time. It’s a complicated thing, actually.

NRAMA: What about the other people you got for the interviews? Dave Gibbons, and Alan’s other collaborators?

DV: That was much later, actually. We got them as we started gearing up for the DVD release in the UK. At that time, we got a few offers from various distribution companies. Most of the time, I had a feeling right understanding of the pitch. There were a number of companies that wanted to put superheroes on the cover, you know? While they are obviously important to highlight comics main genre, that still really didn’t tell his tale as a writer or as a creative force. For that matter, it wouldn’t have explained what it takes to be an artist and a magician. That’s because most of these people have a real mechanistic world view.

Once the DVD actually did get into post-production, I realized it would have been very interesting to show a whole other spectrum of artists he worked with. They all have very different styles. I think Dave Gibbon actually saw the film when it debuted in London. He loved it, actually. What was actually quite funny is I once sat between David Lloyd and Dave Gibbons at a screening. They were constantly elbowing me and each other. So after that I made sure to get their numbers and keep in touch.

So from there, once the production was started, I called them and they were willing to do it. Luckily, they were also good talkers. Particularly as I believe the interviews are really about a collaborative process about how the whole comics medium works.

NRAMA: These days films are under the big cape of Batman and other superheroes. Obviously, some films like Road To Perdition and History of Violence do break out, but do you feel that in the future more films by Alan or creators like Grant Morrison will ever get to screen?

DV: I’m sure that as of right now, Alan won’t allow any more books owned by him for the simple reason he was he was burned so much in the past. All you have to say is League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. About the only thing that film shared is the title.

The problem is he works very specifically for a certain medium. So what he does, for example, is put on a performance. He utilizes those characteristics and strengths of the medium. I always say that Shakespeare came up with his work with the stage in mind. So, of course, I get the feeling that Alan is also a good writer for the screen. That means there are some things that can’t be done when going from comic to screen. Yes, films do share some comic book characteristics, but it’s still a different medium. Comics are a combination of pictures and words. With film you also add motion and audio. It’s a hard thing to get into.

NRAMA: So with this in the can, what are you working on these days?

DV: I’m working on a film about my native country, Surinam. It’s kind of a Caribbean jungle thriller with a lot more shamanistic feelings. It’s actually a fictional film. It will have martial arts, a lot more visceral.

I like films like the old Iron Monkey with Cheng Pei Pei. Films by Cheng Kang. I’m more old school that way. I don’t like too much wire work. I’m more into whatever is happening on screen really is possible and if you train hard enough, some of those things are actually possible. Bruce Lee films and so on, the realistic kind of fighting. It’s a bit more complicated, but just enjoy it.

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