Where did the original idea for Quiet Zone come from?
KARL: We’ve worked together for many years, mainly in our performances and concerts with Godspeed You! Black Emperor. David also did the soundtrack for Passage, a film I made in 2007. The plan to co-direct a film developed gradually over a number of years through conversations we would have during downtime while touring with Godspeed.
DAVID: We specifically talked about making some sort of experimental documentary together, combining Karl’s visual sensibility with my interest in street/field recordings and making radio documentaries. We knew we needed some sort of window to climb through; a space for us to start gathering sound, dialogue and images. I stumbled upon an article about a community of people suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). They had migrated to a small town in the National Radio Quiet Zone with the hope of lessening the intensity of their symptoms. I showed the article to Karl and we both knew right away that this was the window we had been looking for. We sat on the idea at the centre of the film for at least two years before really diving into the project.
Had you ever visited the National Radio Quiet Zone before you began doing research for the film?
DAVID: In 2003, I spent six months living in my van with my girlfriend at the time. We drove through rural sections of the United States, bypassing the cities. While in the mountains of West Virginia, we crested a hill and this massive radio telescope from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory completely dominated the horizon in front of us. The contrast between this wild, rugged and remote landscape and the blinding whiteness of the radio telescope was completely surreal. The sheer scale of the thing is breathtaking. There is such a strange energy in this part of the mountains. And it all looks like a blown-out science-fiction movie set. I ended up walking around the observatory, and it was then that I learned about the National Radio Quiet Zone.
How did things unfold when it came time to work actively on the film?
KARL: I pitched the project to Julie Roy at the NFB. She said yes right away, which is amazing given the radical nature of our proposal and the creative process of a musician and a filmmaker co-directing a film.
DAVID: There was an element of vagueness on our part for sure—most of it intentional. I could understand how a real lack of specificity when starting this kind of project could make a producer uncomfortable. Julie had to take a leap of faith, because with this type of collaboration you are working without an actual script. It’s more like a laboratory where you conduct a series of experiments and lots of them end in failure. Inevitably you place trust in some invisible guiding hand that will eventually lead you to where you need to go. We didn’t have any kind of synopsis to show her.
I was surprised to see both of you and Mathieu Laverdière listed in the credits as cameramen. So all three of you shot the film?
KARL: In the summer of 2012, we headed down for the first time and shot our first footage. Mathieu came along, and we brought three cameras. There was an Aaton Super 16, which was Mathieu’s main camera and which I used for a few shots. We also had a Bolex, a small 16mm spring-wound camera, which was David’s main camera and, again, which I used for some shots. Finally, Mathieu had a Canon 5D as well. David and I went down twice more, in October 2013 and February 2014, and we both used the Bolex. So the film includes images captured during the three trips and shot with the three cameras.
David, you’re known as a musician and a sound designer. Was this your first experience behind the camera?
DAVID: I think that the credits and the description Karl just gave exaggerate my role as a cameraman. I’ve taken photographs for years and am definitely drawn to that. For me, gathering footage for this kind of film (both audio and visual) is sort of like fishing: cast your line and see what you catch. The basic visual look, though, results from how the material was processed and chemically manipulated after the shoot, and that was Karl’s doing.
KARL: Although the images are obviously reworked, the nature and origin of these original images still carry meaning and resonate on a conceptual level. During the project, we did consider shooting in Montreal, but we soon decided that all the images had to come from the Zone. As a result, we had to go back down and get more footage. In fact, I more or less did the same thing for [my 2010 short film] Mamori: I gathered sounds and images in the Amazon and reworked them later.
DAVID: There is such a crazy confluence of energies colliding in this part of West Virginia. A strange magnetism in those mountains for sure. There is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory with their radio telescopes mapping the solar system and looking for signs of extra-terrestrial life. There is also a secret military installation called Sugar Grove. They have radio telescopes as well as an underground surveillance bunker where the NSA is based. In the 1960s they used to monitor Soviet radar and radio signals that were bouncing off the moon. Currently, this is where they listen to everyone’s cellphone conversations. Then the idea of a National Radio Quiet Zone almost echoes Tarkovsky’s Stalker somehow. Plus a road trip often seems to act as a magnet for strange occurrences. Heading into these mountains just seemed like a good idea, and that confluence of energies definitely had an influence on the images shot, and also gave meaning to them.
KARL: We were way out in the country, so there were no motels. We’d booked rooms in a B&B, but we arrived in the middle of the night and couldn’t find anybody around. We crept through the big dining room and the library looking for our room keys.
DAVID: It was like a New Age version of The Shining.
KARL: Finally, an old man appeared out of nowhere and showed us to our rooms. We later found out that the place was also a research centre for the paranormal. The people there studied ghosts and parallel worlds and had friends working with Naval Intelligence on military espionage programs involving remote viewing using extrasensory perception (ESP).
That’s so strange because I really think some of that ended up in the film. Quiet Zone sometimes feels like an old sci-fi movie. As viewers, we suddenly have the power to see the invisible, to see electric currents rippling through space and waves passing through walls. The waves are like ghosts surrounding us, or invisible entities threatening us.
DAVID: I can’t speak for Karl, but the overarching sense of this being like a science-fiction film was there from the beginning for me, as soon as I read the article that sparked the idea for the film. I immediately felt for these people who were suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, but I also imagined their universe as a sort of parallel world. It really felt like a J.G. Ballard novel or the setting for a Tarkovsky film.
At the same time, the film has a documentary dimension that constrains our relationship to reality. This is a trap because the film isn’t a documentary in the traditional sense either. We focus on two people: Nicols and Katherine. Nicols is a fairly typical documentary subject in that she suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity and lives in the Radio Quiet Zone. My interviews were done with her quite traditionally. Katherine, on the other hand, isn’t typical at all. She lives in Montreal and doesn’t see herself as suffering from EHS, though she experiences many of the same symptoms. She can also see and hear spirits. We conducted a series of experiments together during the recording of her dialogue. She was adjusting to a new medication and was interested in completely isolating herself in my recording booth for hours with the lights off while responding to questions, words and sounds that I would direct toward her. Her responses often bordered on stream of consciousness. Katherine also travelled to West Virginia with us to meet Nicols and felt a real connection to the place.
KARL: Katherine brings a poetic dimension to the film that it wouldn’t otherwise have. She’s an articulate woman who speaks of isolation, waves, energy and so many other concepts in very precise terms.
How many people did you interview before finding your two protagonists?
DAVID: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity has become a bit of a hot topic for journalists lately, and there has been an endless stream of them descending on West Virginia looking to interview people. Many of the locals have had bad experiences. They’ve been mocked, called liars and regarded as crazy. Not surprising then that there is a certain level of distrust in this small community. At the same time, they feel it necessary to bring attention to this illness, which is still not recognized by the medical community. What ends up happening through repetition is that they develop a sort of set script, which they rarely deviate from. In these circumstances, it isn’t easy to move beyond clichés.
KARL: In documentary filmmaking, we always say that the more time you spend with people, the better your chances are of building trust and breaking down barriers. That proved true with Nicols, who gradually opened up over the course of our three trips down there.
DAVID: There’s something a little parasitic in making documentaries, because you often feed off other people’s suffering. Or it can feel that way. During our first trip, we met with Nicols but hadn’t earned her trust yet. She was suspicious and standoffish. We met with her again during our second trip, but we didn’t document anything. Didn’t interview or film at all. We just hung out in this shack she was living in at the time and talked all night. There was no power so we cooked over an open flame and ate dinner by candlelight. By taking it slowly, I think we gradually won her over.
KARL: During our third stay, we slept over at her place. We made a meal together, and Katherine was with us. It was hard to leave Nicols at the end of our stay because we knew that we’d completed the film shoot and were probably never going to see her again. We had all developed a real fondness and affection for each other.
What was your approach to sound design? What kinds of sounds did you use?
DAVID: I recorded hours of ambient sound down there, but didn’t end up using much of it in the final mix. I did use a lot of wind and air tones. I wanted the sound to be fairly minimal with lots of quiet passages. I’m not sure I succeeded. The sound design does get quite dense. As we are talking about the electromagnetic spectrum―frequencies, essentially―I chose to work with pure tones. Oscillators. Electrical pulses. However, I did record Nicols playing piano in her cabin. I ended up slowing the piece down and used it as a skeleton to build up a new composition. It became the musical passage during the final scene of the film.
And how did you go about processing the images?
KARL: I was initially inspired by an image from the series Women in the Woods by American photographer Deborah Turbeville. She used different chemical processes, and with this idea in mind I sought out my own formula. A colleague of mine, Charles-André Coderre, introduced me to Process Reversal, an American collective involved in preserving creative works on film. Its website details different processes. I decided to use mordançage, a process developed in the late 19th century and updated by French photographer Jean-Pierre Sudre in the 1960s. It’s a technical process traditionally used in photography, but seldom used in filmmaking. When it was used in the past, it was essentially for black-and-white film. So I did a series of tests to find the right formula, but it remains totally unpredictable. For example, if you take the same formula and apply it to three identical strips of film, you’ll get a different result each time. This randomness is therefore extremely important.
The film exists in digital format, but also on 35mm film.
KARL: Yes, this was in fact the first time in three years that the NFB made a 35mm copy of a film.
You worked with an editor, Mathieu Bouchard-Malo. In experimental film, it’s fairly rare for filmmakers to bring an editor on board. However, Mathieu had already worked on Mamori.
KARL: Well, first, I’m not very good with computers, so editing the film myself on Final Cut would have prevented me from focusing on the content. And second, Mathieu has an incredible knowledge of filmmaking and an excellent eye.
David, were you involved in the editing?
DAVID: Karl and Mathieu worked together, and I saw the edit and shared my thoughts. Conversely, I worked on the sound with Olivier Calvert, and Karl gave us his feedback at the end.
With Nicols Fox and Katherine Peacock
A film by
David Bryant and Karl Lemieux
Animation and Hand-Processing
Sebastjan Henrickson (Niagara Custom Lab)
Marc Boucrot (Film Factory)
Jean Paul Vialard
Aldo La Ricca
William « Bill » Holley
Thanks (West Virginia)
Jennifer Wood Neupanee
Diane D. Schou
David Hughes Bennet
Susan Alexander Bennet
Michael J. Holstine
Collectif Double Négatif
Fortner Anderson (Videographe)
Alexis Landriault and Caroline Blais (Main Film)
French Animation Studio
© 2015 The National Film Board of Canada