Fresh from its Best UK Feature win at Raindance, I spoke to the director of haunting psychological drama, Gozo, Miranda Bowen;
Miranda, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with Film Debate. I know this movie had a fascinating inception. Can you tell us where the idea for Gozo came from?
In a way Gozo had multiple inceptions that all contributed and evolved the story at each turn. Joe’s story, which he heard whilst staying in a lighthouse in Ireland, about the two lighthouse keepers who despised one another, living on a remote, uninhabited island and one going slowly mad when the other inexplicably dies, was the start of a story about two people cut off from the outside world and how their world turns inwards when alienation and isolation take hold. Then Leo felt that Gozo, a place he had family connections with and where he had spent many a family holiday as a child, would be the perfect place to set a film about the rancour of love gone bad. Steven came on board to write a first draft and he birthed the characters and the love triangle and the idea of Joe being a sound designer and paradise turning sour. And finally I joined the gang and joined the dots between the various ideas and the reality of what we could logistically realistically achieve. I lived abroad as a child so felt close to the world of being an outsider in a strange place, not speaking the language and the sometimes insidiously claustrophobic world of the ex-pat community. I love a ghost story and for me the island was haunting in its decaying beauty and rich mythology and I felt that the couple should be haunted by something – and the idea of Christie, the ex, became the engine for a metaphysical ghost and the island became the catalyst for the haunting.
This film was written and shot pretty quickly. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Are you happier with lots of time for planning and plotting, or do you work better under pressure?
I wrote the version of the film that became the shooting script in 13 days. It would have been less only my computer blew up in the middle which stalled things a bit. Steven had already written a couple of drafts which dramatically speeded up the process and before I sat down to write I had a pretty clear idea of the direction I wanted to take the script in. There was a very slim window that cast and crew were all available for so the pressure was on. I think I generally prefer to do a lot more mulling and research and sit with things for longer but there was a certain exhilaration that came with the pressure of knowing that there was a very finite amount of time. The whole process from script through to the end of the shoot felt a little like surfing a wave or being caught in a rip tide which pulled you along and which was quite high octane and you had no choice but to submit to.
This was a very close-knit and collaborative project. With such a small cast & crew working closely together on location, were there ever any times where you felt life was imitating art?
Often! All the cast and crew lived in three adjoining villas during the shoot and so sleep was the only respite from one another. Luckily no one went too crazy but it was headed that way towards the end. The island facilitated our shoot but also we found ourselves submitting to the same sense of claustrophobia and isolation that Lucille and Joe go through. There was a heavy sandstorm half way through the shoot which added to the surrealism and also Gadaffi was being hunted down at the time and Gozo is very close to Libya so armoured helicopters would pass over the island quite a lot during the shoot which definitely contributed to the sense of paranoia and messed with our heads – especially the sound man, Alex Altman whose similarities to Joe’s trajectory definitely were exacerbated during the shoot. He literally had bells ringing in his ears for weeks after.
One of the ex-pat characters says that the island has a kind of magic about it. But there is also a palpable sense of threat. To what extent do you think Gozo is a character in this film?
Gozo is a very beautiful and peaceful island which certainly has an innate magic about it. We manipulated the sense of threat for the purposes of the story. I guess threat or threatening feelings are subjective and I very much tried to subvert the beauty and sounds of the island to evoke Joe’s increasingly delusional perspective. He feels hounded by his guilt and paranoia so it felt right that that feeling is reflected in how he perceives the island. Gozo itself becomes a metaphor for Joe’s psychosis. It begins as a place of respite, an idyll where the past and the feelings connected with the tragedy of his ex are repressed, drowned out by the sunshine and the luxuries of a beautiful farmhouse and a beer by the pool but gradually becomes a threatening force with Joe’s descent into madness. The church bells actually start to ring backwards on the soundtrack and we looped some of the birdcalls to give the atmosphere a more maddening, oppressive feel. These things are subtle but hopefully contribute to the general sense of unease on an unconscious level.
I know you were heavily influenced by Don’t Look Now, and one of the things I loved about Gozo was the way in which it alludes to the supernatural, with references to classical mythology and strange occurrences, while remaining ambiguous. Do you see the film as a ghost story?
Yes, although perhaps not in the genre sense. What I loved about Don’t Look Now and I think what I will always seek to emulate is the sense of dread combined with pathos. You really feel very close to Laura and John in Don’t Look Now and empathise with the horror of their grief and their vulnerability. I think it is precisely when dread is thrown into this emotionally fragile situation that something very visceral and psychologically potent emerges. It is a ghost story in that Joe becomes increasingly haunted by his perceived part in the death of his ex-girlfriend.
Who or what are your other influences and passions?
Polanski, Lynch, Bruno Dumont, Fellini and Jane Campion always and for her pioneering spirit as much as her work, the Surrealists, Raymond Carver, my kids and husband, female empowerment, travel and a fine ceviche. That’ll do for now!
Although the setting is very beautiful, a sense of decadence pervades. The sound of insects buzzing on the soundtrack and the contaminated water serve as a kind of audio/visual memento mori. How important was symbolism in creating atmosphere?
The idea of the slow decay of the environment; the pool, the lack of water, the subsequent infestation of insects and dirt, the febrility of the festival and the underwater wrecks hopefully contribute to the atmosphere of a slow burn dystopia but also serve as a metaphor for Joe and Lucille’s disintegrating relationship as well as Joe’s fast unravelling mind.
Watching Gozo, I felt there was an element of ‘doubling’. Joe and Riley are fairly similar in appearance as are the missing girl on the island and Joe’s ex. Was that deliberate?
Yes absolutely. I read Freud’s essay on the Uncanny when I was at college and it has provided a cornerstone for much of my work. I am really interested in where psychological dread stems from. Doubling in Freud’s book is a harbinger of death, the double is abject and suggests a dissemination of body and mind. I felt that it also enclosed the world more – a world where people all seem to be semblances of one another is more threatening and claustrophobic and identity is further confused and threatened.
I found Lucille’s character interesting as much for the things she doesn’t say as the lines she does. Also a nice touch that a character associated with water is called Ophelia (Lovibond) in real life! Had you worked with her before?
No, I hadn’t. She came through Dixie Chassay, our casting director and she blew me away when she came in to read. I had only seen her in more comedy orientated TV drama so was really intrigued to see her approach something more psychological with such assurance. She brought so much to the character and provided an emotional ballast to the film. The fact that she was called Ophelia just made it seem like a forgone conclusion.
What is the one thing you’d like audiences to take away from your work?
I would like it to get under the skin and for people to wake up the following day with traces of the film still skirting their subconscious. I think film is at its most powerful when it not only moves and immerses you but also leaves you with a stain on the back of the retina, a ghostly impression of sounds and images that dance in your subconscious long after. That’s the aim anyhow!
Read Our Review Of The Film – Here!