Matthew Lessner is an American-born filmmaker and visual artist who last fall presented an iteration of his long-term project 'SAINT Y2K' in Stockholm; an immersive exeperience born out of an interest to expand on abilities developed in relation to filmmaking and further them into the physical space. "I would love to have more opportunities to create work that cultivates a direct interaction with an audience; offering the opportunity for the audience to step into an alternate universe, even if just for a few minutes, to turn their phones off for a few minutes, and just be present in the space.", says Lessner.
Matthew Lessner. Photo: Jake Michaels
C-P: In an earlier interview with you, Ottessa Moshgfegh wrote that “Every Matthew Lessner film functions as a porthole into another dimension.” I’m going to throw that right back to you and ask you to comment on that; what do you suppose she meant by that?
M.L: I guess in a practical sense, each film or project I’ve done has become its own world in that I tend to work in an immersive way. For my first feature The Woods I moved to the woods with the cast and crew for a month while making it. Similarly, Automatic at Sea was set on an island and the cast and crew were living on that island while we were shooting. With my current project SAINT Y2K there’s been an almost ritual-like process where the cast and crew have gotten together over a period of years and have kind of created this world that we step into; creating this alternate universe that has its own set of rules and rites and behaviors. And what we are trying to do here in this space, where we are now, is to invite the public to take part and step into that. Maybe now in a more direct way than I have been able to do with the shorts and features, because here you are physically allowed into this space we have created, so you can actually interact with the work and the characters that are present in real time.
The Woods (2011), directed by Matthew Lessner
C-P: I watched your short film By Modern Measure which clearly references La Nouvelle Vague and French filmmakers like Truffaut and Godard. On that note, say, in your teenage room or at school, as an aspiring filmmaker, what are some early influences that you’ve departed from and that inspired you?
M.L: I think two films that I saw at film school that really changed my world were Werner Herzog’s second film Even Dwarfs Started Small and Alejandro Jodorosky’s Santa Sangre. I grew up in a small town in Oregon in the US and just wasn’t very exposed to much culture. The cinema I could interact with was limited to whatever I could find at the local video store. And then I ended up going to a film school outside of LA that was very much focused on producing Hollywood oriented films and the kind of films they were educating about were very traditional Hollywood-structured productions. Both of those films I stumbled across by chance in the school library and they made me realize that these other sorts of fantastic worlds, which I never could have imagined, were possible. Both films felt like they existed in a different dimension that I had never experienced or conceived of before. Godard’s Weekend made a big impact on me around that time too. The two first Terrence Malick films; Badlands and Days of Heaven as well. There’s something about the humour in those two Malick films, which I find both hilarious and disturbing, which I think is perhaps a throughline between all the films I’ve mentioned.
By Modern Measure (2007), directed by Matthew Lessner
C-P: By Modern Measure like your first-feature length, The Woods, seems to depart from the idea of a younger generation of today disillusioned by the world’s many genres of problems. I definitely see what you are saying about humour. Both these projects, like another short, Chapel Perilous play on injecting humour through what I would describe myself as trippy and offbeat situational absurdity. Do you look at yourself as an existential filmmaker, by way of instance of humour and horror as device?
M.L: I think each of my works are representative of where I’ve been in my life as an individual when I’ve made them. In my 20’s I think I was more focused on the desire for change in the external world. The Woods is very much about not being happy with how society is functioning, and wanting to do something about that, but not knowing how - so these characters go and attempt to create their own society in the woods, but they fail because they have no idea what they are doing. They’re exclusively focused on changing the external situation, but they bring all of their unresolved internal problems and shortcomings with them, which for the most part they’re completely unaware of.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that the task that is more immediate and essential for me is attempting to grow and develop as an individual, attempting to obtain some degree of self-awareness, and self-mastery, as opposed to being overly concerned with changing what’s outside of myself. I hope that if I am able to become a kinder, or more tolerant, or more generous person, that that might reverberate out into the external world. So, over time the works have become more internal in a way and have reflected an aspiration for personal growth and change. And a lot of that is reflected directly in SAINT Y2K; endeavoring to face those internal psychological fears which one might otherwise spend time trying to avoid, and attempting to engage with them more directly, and hopefully to ultimately transmute them into something positive.
Automatic at Sea (2017), directed by Matthew Lessner
C-P: Of your second-feature 'Automatic at Sea' you’ve said an objective was to make a straight-forward horror film, having experienced that 'The Woods' might have to some been too alienating from a narrative perspective. Many have described this film as revolving around the idea of hyperreality which perhaps sits well with our times where the boundaries between subjective and objective truth and fact and fiction increasingly dissolve.
M.L: Ha, yeah, it feels like it's getting harder and harder to tell. That comment was meant as a bit of a joke, because I don't think I really succeeded in my objective, I'm not even sure if you could say Automatic at Sea is a horror film in the end. I've definitely struggled at times with being straight-forward in my work, as well as with discerning fact from fiction, real from unreal. And yeah, I think that's only become more complicated over the past few years, the last year in particular.
I live in Amsterdam at the moment, and I haven't been able to return to the US for over a year now, and it really feels like over that period of time I've come to inhabit a different version of reality than many of the people I know and love back home. I lived in Sweden for a number of years before moving to The Netherlands, and my partner is Swedish, and so it's just been really fascinating to kind of triangulate the ways these different cultures have responded to the events of the past year. For example, doing this SAINT Y2K show here in Stockholm has been really surreal, because something like this would be completely impossible in the US right now. It's even caused a certain amount of guilt, because even though we're following all the guidelines and regulations here, I have this underlying, perhaps irrational fear that we're doing something wrong or dangerous. I haven't even really wanted to publicize it or discuss it with people back in the US, because everything just feels so loaded and potentially volatile right now.
Matthew Lessner, SAINT Y2K, 2020, installaton view, Stockholm
It's really confusing because, I remember the first day I got into Stockholm I stepped onto the metro with my mask on, because its mandatory in public transportation in The Netherlands, and no one in the entire train here had a mask on, and I feel like people were even kind of looking at me like I was crazy or an idiot or something, I felt like I had just walked in from some different reality. And yeah, I don't really know what to make of that. People are doing things here that in other countries are deemed completely irresponsible, and unthinkable, yet everyone isn't dead here. I saw like a 90-year-old woman who could barely stand on her own inside a crowded cafe without a mask on or anything, and she seemed like she was having a fun time. So yeah, I don't know. I don't know what is right or wrong, or real or unreal, but it's very strange to experience directly, to step between these different worlds where people are increasingly operating under completely different frameworks. It feels like this splintering of reality that's been going on for a while now is just becoming more and more pronounced. It's a wild ride.
Matthew Lessner, SAINT Y2K, 2020, installation view, Stockholm
C-P: Putting a label I’d say the notion of off-beat film and cinema comes to mind at times. You were saying before to me; “Hit-or-miss”; and not for everyone. Yet you feel very conscious and informed by visual aesthetics and seem to place a lot of emphasis on the visual identity and fashionable production value, not that one thing contradicts the other but mentioning it just as a keen observation.
M.L: I hear what you’re saying, I think that’s a fair assessment. I try to be conscious of my aesthetic choices, and the visual identity of my projects, while maybe producing a kind of work that you wouldn’t immediately associate with such an awareness. I think I can be kind of obsessive about that stuff at times, to the point where it can almost become problematic in my personal life. Certain, like light bulb choices can leave me really unsettled. I think my work, and probably SAINT Y2K in particular, has created a really positive outlet for these personality traits that might otherwise be a bit of a drag. Like, I can put my neurosis to positive use within the work.
The immersive nature of this exhibition has allowed me this particularly amazing opportunity to step into this role of a kind of new-age shopkeeper, where suddenly I have the opportunity to focus on every little detail of the experience, aesthetic and otherwise, not only in terms of what’s in the frame, on the screens, but also in terms of what people are experiencing, seeing, smelling in the physical space. I’ve really strived to create an environment that’s comfortable, and welcoming, and aesthetically pleasing; custom crafted incense, properly charged crystals. I’ve spent an absurd amount of time lint rolling these white carpets inside the copper pyramids by hand after each guest has gone through the experience. I can find a certain amount of peace in that process.
Matthew Lessner, SAINT Y2K, 2020, still image
C-P: You’ve been successful in the festival circuit with your films, earning recognition through Sundance for instance. What can be said of your experiences in this realm and in terms of the consequent distribution and reaching out to audiences.
M.L: I feel like in terms of my relationship to filmmaking, I came up around this transition from 90’s independent cinema to the Internet Age, if that's the proper term. Before anyone could easily put anything on the Internet, film festivals were one of the main ways an unknown filmmaker could hope to connect with the larger world, and in my universe Sundance was like the pinnacle. As a teenager that was my goal in life, to make my first feature film in my mid-twenties and take it to Sundance, and then to hopefully be able to show my films in theaters.
I ultimately managed to achieve the goal with Sundance, which certainly increased exposure and helped to open a lot of doors, but it was also a kind of wake up call, because I realized that even though we had had the opportunity to screen the film in theaters at the festival, and then with a limited theatrical run in New York and LA afterwards, in the end probably 99% of the people who ever saw the film saw it at home on their computers on iTunes or Netflix, which was not really what the film was designed for, or what I was imagining when I created the film. For me the experience of actually going to the cinema has always been a really powerful and visceral experience. Obviously the Internet has transformed not only the way filmmakers connect with audiences, but also the way that audiences consume that media, but I'm not sure I fully grasped the magnitude of that change until I went through that process myself, and realized that even at that level so few films actually have the opportunity to really spend time in and be seen in theaters.
Matthew Lessner, SAINT Y2K, 2020, still image
I realized that even if I was lucky enough to take my films to these higher profile festivals, that for the most part they were still going to be seen in isolation on people's little screens at home, and I think I started wondering if that's really what I want to be doing with my life energy, making more content for people to consume alone on their glowing screens. There are already so many things people can do on their screens, and I don't really know if I want to do anything more to encourage people to spend time in that space. I have a limited amount of time here on this earth, and I'm much more interested in trying to give people memorable experiences in the physical world.
And that’s what’s drawn me to create this experience right here; trying to think about how I can continue to use certain skills and abilities I've developed in relation to filmmaking, but then extend those out further into the physical space, in order to be able to invite people to have actual real-world experiences. I would love to have more opportunities to create work that cultivates a direct interaction with an audience; offering the opportunity for the audience to step into an alternate universe, even if just for a few minutes, to turn their phones off for a few minutes, and just be present in the space.
Matthew Lessner, SAINT Y2K, 2020, still image
C-P: SAINT Y2K is something seated in a more contemporary and institutional art realm than some of your film work and is your first venture into an immersive and VR-reality realm. How do you see yourself navigating in this realm which is different from where you might have been before? A tangible new chapter of sorts.
M.L: I think my desire to explore in this realm has had a lot to do with the contemporary film consumption landscape that I alluded to before, where the vast majority of films made today are being viewed not in cinemas, but in people's homes, on their computers, phones, etc.
I've often wondered if some of my favorite films would have had the same appeal they did when they first came out if they weren't being seen in theaters, but on people's laptops while they were also cooking spaghetti or something. At least for me there's a kind of compact, or silent agreement I enter into when I go to see something at the cinema, where even if what I'm watching isn't immediately rewarding, or doesn't immediately connect with me, I'm still going to stay and give it a chance. I'm not sure the same is true when people are watching things on their own at home. Furthermore, there's just no way to impact or influence the experience beyond the film itself, which for me, in the cinema, has always had a slightly magical, ritualistic quality.
It occurred to me that presenting my work in more of an art context might be a better way to create and share a more immersive, holistic experience with an audience. I feel that even if presenting a project like SAINT Y2K in a setting like this means that fewer people will get to see, it still means that those who do will see it in a way I intended for them to, and hopefully as a consequence they will have a more memorable and meaningful experience. And that to me feels like of greater value than going for the widest possible demographic.
As for SAINT Y2K and how it continues from here, we will continue shooting material for at least another year, which will be incorporated into the project. Hopefully that will happen regardless of what turns await. I would also love to work and collaborate with a space or established institution that could help the project reach more people.