What the Soul Remembers

Memories lost and regained in Claire Carré‘s post-apocalyptic Embers

God love the post-apocalypse.

It’s a bottomless well of ideas for storytellers. A blank slate. An uncashed check. A whirring kaleidoscope of imaginative potential. Yet, in these latter days, when the world really does feel as though it’s on the brink, the popularity of Year Zero variants—such as the serial zombie drama and the Mad Max feminist motorhead reboot—tease our anxieties to make for widely applauded commercial amusements. But they don’t leave a particularly profound impression once the visceral thrills have faded away.

There is another dimension, however, in which filmmakers discover elegant and personal approaches. Action gives way to philosophy—or poetry. Things do not blow up spectacularly, if at all. The dynamic is more minimalist, with enough open psychic space to allow the audience room to think. Such films may have been made with a scarcity of means, their low budgets reflected in their rigorous frames. But that itself becomes a creative tool: This is the place where sci-fi goes lo-fi.

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No better example exists this year than Embers. The drama unfolds in three alternating segments some span of time after a cataclysmic event. A viral epidemic has decimated the planet—robbing its victims of their short-term memory. There’s no prelude or narration to explain what happened or how. The movie begins, and the filmmakers leave the audience to unravel the mystery—much as the main characters do: a pair of lovers (Jason Ritter, Iva Gocheva) who awake in an abandoned house; a little boy (Silvan Friedman) who wanders into the care of a scientist (Tucker Smallwood); and a young woman (Greta Fernández) who chafes at the isolation imposed by her father (Roberto Cots), who has kept her sequestered in a remote bunker.

The film came out of nowhere last fall to win the top prize at the New Orleans Film Festival, the kind of off-season regional fest where critics often make real discoveries, where gems that missed their anointment at Sundance or SXSW can shine a little brighter in the absence of the branding and the industry hype machines. In fact, Embers had premiered only a few weeks earlier, in the northern German town of Oldenberg. It was a pure outlier from a filmmaker team you’ve probably never heard of before.

“It’s my first movie, and I wanted to make it about something that was important to me, and also represented me in some way,” says Claire Carré, whose debut comes after years of making music videos and commercials. She co-wrote with Charles Spano, who produced, and is both her professional partner and husband. “I kept coming back to memory. What is uniquely me in the world that I do not share with anyone else? Memory is definitely one of those things. My experiences, how my brain remembers those moments, that’s different than anyone else in the world. The next question is: If that is uniquely me, who would I be without that?”

Spano and Carré are sitting across from me at a café in New York’s West Village on an early afternoon in March. The sun is blazing outside, and the table is crowded with coffee mugs and various platters of Eastern European brunch assemblages. Spano is the more static conversationalist of the two, for when Carré speaks, her hands are in constant motion, conducting her ideas, guiding the traffic of her sentences.

Embers is a thought experiment,” Carré continues. “It takes one element of the human experience we take for granted, and removes it from the picture. How does that affect everything else in our lives?”

The filmmaker is evoking the grand old science fiction saga premise “what if …?” She is also referencing Ursula K. LeGuin, the visionary author of The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Word for World Is Forest.

LeGuin wrote: “The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrödinger’s most famous thought experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world. Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”

The connection drawn isn’t random. LeGuin, now 86, is the daughter of anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber. She carried that family influence into her writing, which in turn reshaped science fiction. “She is an inspiration as someone who engages in science fiction in a really ethnographic way,” says Spano, who holds a degree in anthropology. “My background has informed how I look at characters and the world we put them in.”

A passing observer might want to fast-forward through the part of the recording where we all geek out together over our favorite speculative geniuses, from Octavia Butler to Philip K. Dick. Spano, effusively: “Instead of taking an element and looking at the experiment, he takes 10 elements at once and sees what happens when you pour everything into that chemistry lab.”

Although likewise fed on an epic Netflix spree of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the example of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, and their abiding devotion to Andrei Tarkovsky—the great Russian auteur-mystic who created elegant twilight zones of magic, loss, and nostalgia in films like Mirror, Solaris, and Stalker—the filmmakers more or less backed their way into the fantastical elements of their story.

“We didn’t set out to make a science-fiction film when we made a film about memory,” Carré says. “But some subverted take on science-fiction became the best way to do it.”

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PART 2

What in the living hell, Claire Carré might reasonably have wondered, am I doing 10 stories underground in the pitch-dark oblivion of Europe’s largest bat sanctuary? At least she wasn’t alone, there in the abyss, which had been built by Germany before World War II as its eastern line of defense: a series of concrete bunkers served by a massive underground tunnel system that snaked 33 kilometers through the countryside of what is now Poland. Unable to echolocate like the site’s primary residents, Carré kept close to actress Greta Fernández. A strange sort of fog settled upon them. “We sat there for 10 minutes to get her in the right headspace,” the director recalls. “There were miles of darkness.”

In the third section of Embers, Fernández is Miranda, one of two inhabitants of a retro-futuristic compound where her character has seemingly spent her entire young life. Each morning begins with a quiz administered by a computerized voice designed to test her memory. Day after dull day passes, punctuated by cello practice and meals with her father, who can live only in the memory that no one in the outside world seems to possess. Miranda strains to break free, even at great risk. One easily imagines how a descent into the bowels of the MRU—the Miedzyrzecz Reinforced Region, as it is known to the locals—might prove inspirational for the role.

“We were the first Americans to shoot there,” says Carré, who was encouraged to set up shop in Poland after the film’s director of photography, Todd Antonio Somodevilla, got the Polish production company Papaya involved. The movie also makes great advantage of a power plant in Łódz to create the haute-dystopian look of the bunker’s interior. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” Spano says. “Papaya saved the day.” The resourceful use of locations is one the film’s most impressive aspects, yet also part of a necessary design imposed from its conception.

When they had their script ready in 2013, the filmmakers didn’t want to lose time chasing funding for an entire feature. Instead, they shot the film in segments and bankrolled each one as they went along.

“I have a certain level of Herzogian gusto,” Spano says, alluding to the intrepid German filmmaker Werner Herzog, known for dragging the fearsome actor Klaus Kinski into the perilous Amazon jungle twice, among many other calculated insanities. The true filmmaker, after all, must be a thief at heart.

“Let’s do this without asking permission, and having any gatekeeper let us in or not let us in. We don’t have any money? Let’s make the film, we’ll find the money. Let’s do it. Without any apologies.”

That philosophy, and some adroit location scouting conducted by Carré on the internet, led them to Gary, Indiana. There, a helpful, one-man local film office showed them parts of town that were truly post-apocalyptic: crumbling remnants of a once-prosperous “Steel City” that had joined neighboring Detroit in post-industrial decline.

“It made for amazing locations,” Spano says, “but it’s a tragedy for the people who live there. There were hundreds to thousands of empty houses and buildings.” Some of the locations were in such bad shape that the crew had to repair and refurbish them back into a state of more recent abandonment.

Meanwhile, there was also real hardship involved. It was still very much winter during the April 2014 shoot, using interiors with broken windows and no heat. “It was below freezing” Spano recalls. “Between scenes Jason and Iva would warm up at the funeral parlor down the street. That’s also where we had lunch.”

The grim backdrop made a deep impression on the filmmakers. While in Eastern Europe, they paid a visit to Chernobyl, site of the 20th century’s most-fabled nuclear meltdown, and now one of the most extreme examples of post-Iron Curtain history porn. “It was kind of like Gary with Cyrillic letters,” Spano says.

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Nonetheless, the ailing city, where Michael Jackson was raised, was ideal for a day in the lives of two lovers, played by Ritter and Gocheva—actors for whom the parts had been written. Carré has known Ritter, son of the actor John Ritter, since they were little kids, and later, classmates at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica. (As was Dominique Swain, who has a small, memorable turn as an eccentric in the film.) Gocheva, herself a talented filmmaker, was a former New York roommate.

Together, the actors play through a tender scenario that speaks to the Sisyphean dilemmas and endurance of romance. The couple wakes, as one might assume they do each morning, confused about their relationship to each other, yet aware of an uncanny bond symbolized by blue ribbons tied around their wrists. Their day unfolds as a pas de deux between impulse and skepticism, passion and perspective. “The characters of the lovers in a way recapitulate our relationship and style toward each other,” Spano says. “The girl is very thoughtful. She’s got it a little more figured out. She’s cautious. She questions if what they’re doing is the right thing. The guy, he’s saying, ‘Let’s go for it! We’ll remember this place.’ We hadn’t realized we had written characters to reflect our personalities.”

As we first spoke, Carré and Spano were a week away from their fifth wedding anniversary, which they celebrated—appropriately enough—as Embers screened at the Brooklyn Film Festival. They met in 2009 under intense conditions. “It was an around-the-world PSA job,” Carré says. “The entire crew was me, Charles, and Todd [the same DP who shot Embers].” The team hopscotched the planet for a solid month, sharing close quarters that foster either hatred or affinity. “By the end, Charles and I liked each other,” she continues. “We finished in Casablanca,” Spano says, “got an apartment in Paris, and went there until the money ran out.”

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PART 3

Paris, of course, is the landscape for what many would argue is the greatest science-fiction film ever made. Even greater than 2001: A Space Odyssey, and likely budgeted at a fraction of the Kubrick epic’s catering tab. The film is Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a 1962 love story about a man dispatched from a post-apocalyptic future, who is haunted by the memory of a beautiful woman and the mysterious death of man on a jetty at Orly Airport. So deft and imaginative is Marker’s touch that the film even dispenses—for most of its 28 minutes—with the very thing that defines the cinematic art: the moving image.

“It’s made with still photographs,” Carré says.

La Jetée went on to seed films like Twelve Monkeys, The Terminator, and Back to the Future, sharing its poetic concern for memory, mystery, love, and genre tropes with Marker’s fellow Left Bank filmmaker Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, Je t’aime, je t’aime).

“I love special effects extravaganzas,” Spano says, “but the ideas in science-fiction are so rich, you can apply them to films that have a little more freedom not to be driven by plot.”

Carré runs with the thought. “Blade Runner is one of my favorite films of all time,” she says. “Even though the cinematography and art direction are beautiful, and there are flying cars, the moments in the film that touch me the most are moments of conversation between two characters.” She ticks off two or three, including the film’s most memorable scene. “The moment Roy Batty dies, the ‘Tears in Rain’ monologue of all those things his eyes have seen that no one will ever see. Those moments aren’t the moments that have epic production poured into them. They’re really just moments of beautiful writing and performance.”

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With Embers, Carré and Spano find their place in that continuum. Jason Ritter, who describes the project as “beautiful and weird and wonderful,” willingly endured its rigors for the pleasure of navigating its terra incognita.

“I’ve spent most of my adult life making independent films, and this made those look like giant studio movies,” Ritter says. “It was exciting. It actually made me feel like I was back in school again. Let’s go out and make something! It mimicked that in a lot of ways, not just in the not-having-any-money way, but also in the feeling you get of ‘We’re 10 people and a dream!’”

Then again, as he thought back to elementary school, Ritter recalls that things haven’t really changed so much. Give or take the actors and crew.

“Claire was always super-creative,” Ritter says. “The main thing I remember, aside from my two best friends having a huge crush on her, was we would all gather around her at recess and lunch. Instead of running around and playing, there would be a group of us who would just stand around and watch her draw these weird characters and worlds. We’d just watch her draw for the entire break.”

 

Volumetric Self-Portraits by Claire Carré
Photogrammetry by Selftraits