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Above and Below, Nicolas Steiner

The documentary “Above and Below,”  the debut film from Swiss director Nicolas Steiner will reportedly be released in the US via Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Above and Below is a rough and rhythmic roller coaster ride seating five survivors in their daily hustle through an apocalyptic world.

Far, far away and out of sight, that’s where April, Dave, Cindy, Rick and the Godfather are creating life on their own terms. From the depths of the flood channels under Sin City, to a reclaimed military bunker in the middle of the dusty, heated Californian nowhere land to beyond the stratosphere where Mars now lives on earth. Each individual has been flung into periling circumstances on this rollercoaster ride called life. Through the hustle, pain, and laughter, we are whisked away to an unfamiliar world where we discover its inhabitants to be souls not unlike our very own.

Oscilloscope plans to release the film theatrically followed by a release on digital and other ancillary platforms.

Interview with director Nicolas Steiner via official film site

“Above and Below” combines  Mars, Earth and the subterranean. How did you come up with this unusual idea?
I’m principally inspired by pictures. My imagination functions better that way, rather than when I take my lead from formulated premises. In this case it was above all pictures by Joel Sternfeld; photographs of deserts and water parks taken in massive long shots yet with an air of the unnatural to them. They contain an element of the absurd. I also studied for a year at San Francisco Art Institute as[NS3]  a Fulbright scholarship holder, where I gave much attention to ghost towns. This was during the same period when the earthquake hit Japan. While surfing in Santa Cruz a presumably contaminated streetlight bearing Japanese characters floated towards us. This experience was decisive for the broader context of “Above and Below”

In what way?
As a director I consider myself something of a hunter-gatherer. My concepts and ideas initially overflow. Then I set about filtering them. I search for contexts that are only visible at second glance. At the same time, simple processes fascinate me. The more archaic the better. It was from such jigsaw pieces that the journey in the film, one from Mars to Earth and beneath its surface, finally emerged.

The so-called tunnel-people play a central role in the film. How did you hear of them?
I often made trips from San Francisco to the surrounding areas. I wanted to leave the city for a few days and visited Las Vegas. I had meant to relax, but the stay made me feel as if I were on steroids. It was all a garish sensual-overload. I walked numbly through the streets and saw in a water tunnel a guy in a nightgown with a chessboard. The idea for the film immediately became more tangible.

How did you come across your tunnel-people?
I made a five-week research trip to Las Vegas. I was initially with a journalist who had written about the tunnel-dwellers. I also studied old city plans of the tunnels and went off on my own to look for possible protagonists.

How dangerous was that?
Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t necessarily rush off to do it again. Inflamed by my idea I recklessly entered situations that might have turned out differently. Lots of the tunnel-people are very nice but also heavily addicted to crystal meth, which makes them unpredictable. I met my protagonist Lalo, for example, in one of the tunnels in which neither the journalist nor a city social worker had entered. I could hear Lalo growling “Who is it?” in the distance. Later, when filming, he told me that he was a former electrician and cage-fighter who was responsible for the death of two people “because of a stupid accident”. My cameraman and I had a €80,000 camera with us. So of course there was a certain uneasiness, particularly when Lalo wanted to know how expensive such a device might be. I think, however, that this recklessness was taken as bravery and won us respect. The research phase and shooting were intense. I hope this is apparent in the film. It’s important for me to share experiences so viewers feel they experienced them, too.

Did the police always just let you be?
We were arrested once. Of course the possibility had crossed my mind, since during research and filming I was perpetually entering fenced-off territory. And I was aware, too, that trespassing is a serious offence in America.

How did this come about?
We parked our transporter next to a tunnel and lugged a camera crane in black bags down into it. Somebody observed us and assumed that we were smuggling dynamite and weapons since under the tunnel there was a second one running between two banks. The police, once summoned, pushed us up against a wall and searched us. The interesting thing was the police officer shouted at me irritatedly, why don’t you shoot your film in Berlin? There are homeless there, too! Fortunately the officers were informed at that very moment of an ongoing armed robbery and headed out. That was more important than our case.

How important then is the topic of homelessness in the film?
Of course “Above and Below” does deal with poverty and homelessness. If my last film, “Battle of the Queens”, can be seen as a film about the homeland, then I have now made a film about “not having a home”. But nothing could be further from my actual aim than explaining America and its society to Americans. I didn’t approach the film thematically, but rather conceptually, although the focus is definitely on individuals. To me it was about cowboys, ghosts and aliens. The idea was to make a film leading viewers from Mars down to Earth, and thence into its bowels. The film might equally have played out in the desert of Dubai. Or in China. But try telling that to a furious police officer!

Could the film have been shot in Switzerland, too? Was that ever considered?
No, the film could not have been made in Switzerland. There is always something adventuresome about filmmaking. And I shot my last two films in my homeland, Valais in the Southern alps of Switzerland[NS6] . It was time to move on and leave my garden behind me. Furthermore there is a keyword for this film, an important one: DESERT. Aridity. The visual beauty of death and destruction. I found optimal conditions in America to deal with the themes, circumstances and socio-political views that interest me. After all, the film lives from these people and their bleak biographies, and these led me through its making.

How are your protagonists now?
I intend to show them the film at the given locations. I’m still in contact with Rick and Cindy, they are both clean now. Among the Mars-crew I’m most frequently in contact with April. She finished her geology studies and is continuing in research. Dave vanished a year ago but I’m still in contact with his daughter. He once called me after having swapped his[NS7]  old camper for a mobile phone. I’ll find him again. Things aren’t looking so good with Lalo. I don’t know if he’s still alive, he had potentially fatal abscesses back then and was in beaten-up shape.

How did you come upon the peculiar Mars-Society?
At San Francisco Art Institute I saw a picture in a magazine of a lonely astronaut in a red desert. I was confused since I knew that no one could be there. When I looked more closely I saw a garden hose, and that was how I met the Mars-Society, a non-profit organisation working towards exploring and colonising the red planet. Scientists, fans of space travel, James Cameron and a couple of millionaires founded the society in the 90s. I was interested by the science behind it, but the real attraction was the trashy-cum-absurd look of the Mars people and their equipment. And at the same time the terrain on which they simulate Mars expeditions is of a poetically wistful abandonment.

You rejected the classic talking-heads structure in your documentary. Why?
My intention and aim was to keep my protagonists un-coerced and at their ease in conversation. I don’t like classical interviews or Q and As. I prefer conversations. Which doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate well-lit faces and spaces, but I try not to employ them at any cost. I tell my team approximately where I want to arrive, but spontaneity and flexibility are important for me, too. I think talking-heads are a matter of taste and don’t suit every content. In “Above and Below” the audiovisual level was more important to me than just precise statements.

The film uses a conspicuously large amount of music
There are almost 50 minutes of composed music in total. The soundtrack leads the way through the film. It was created in part before shooting, using photos that I brought back from my research-trips. This meant that we could already use music while shooting. It was apparent to me during research that music plays a very important role, since some of the protagonists do play instruments – Dave, say, with his drum set in the middle of the desert wastes.

Lots of people know your abundantly prize-doted short, “It’s me.. Helmut”. What parallels, if any, do you see to “Above and Below”?
The short was a twelve-minute fictional project and “Above and Below” a two-hour cinema documentary. But both films are about life and death and transience. Everything is beautiful yet, equally, destroyed. Both films feel a little tragicomic and play by-and-large outside, in nature. In the one, it’s the mountains, in the other, the desert. And in both films I attempted to use sound and image to make cinema into adventure. In “Helmut” the backdrop vanishes, with “Above and Below” it’s swept away.

“Above and Below” is your film school graduation film. Will you remain faithful to documentary-making?
I very much enjoy documentary-making. It broadens the horizons. And the extremely intensive research periods are something I don’t want to do without. But as for fiction, I’m certainly not excluding it. Because at a formal level, feature films generally inspire me more than documentaries. And theoretically I’m now geared up to make a great thriller or drama about the tunnel-people. Particularly since the series “True Detective”, which features existential themes in a bare landscape and pleased me well.

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