By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

Almost an underground legend by own merit, Dennis Cooper is not only celebrated today for his outstanding novels like CloserFrisk or The Sluts, but also as a culture vigilante, famous for his ten-year blog of writings, which was temporarily deleted by Google in 2016. In his second venture with filmmaking, Cooper joins talented visual artist and long time friend Zac Farley for their second film Permanent Green Light, a raw yet poetic beautiful view on alienation and adolescence. We found Dennis and Zac online for an interview, in which we discussed their collaboration and everything about their latest films.

Desistfilm: Can you tell us, Dennis and Zac, how this collaboration between you began? What made you realize that you could work as a two-man operation in your first two films?

Dennis Cooper: Zac and I met around 7 years ago. We immediately felt a strong personal kinship, and our interests as artists were very similar. So we started doing collaborative projects right away – a strange book about Scandinavian amusements parks and a documentary film about the Japanese fog sculptor Fujiko Nakaya, both of which are still in progress. I had written an experimental, high-concept porn script years before that no one was interested in producing. The German producer Jurgen Bruening apparently heard about the script through the grapevine and asked to read it. I asked Zac if he was interested in revising the script with me and then collaborating on the film should it get made, and he was. We rewrote the script, eliminating most of the explicit sex, and Jurgen agreed to produce it. He cobbled together $40,000, and we somehow managed to make what became our first film, Like Cattle Towards Glow. It was a total experiment for both of us. Zac is a visual artist and had made video works, but he’d never visualized anything narrative before, and I had never worked in film or video. We loved making it, and we were so happy with it and with the response that it just felt natural and compelling to continue making films together.

Zac Farley: Our collaborations started really organically, with friendship, and weren’t strictly limited to the realm of film. Before meeting Dennis in Paris I had read and was really influenced by his work, and his blog was a kind of second Art school for me. Once we decided to work together on Like Cattle Towards Glow we already shared a language and a set of interests with respect to film and to art. We also each have a particular set of skill-sets that kind of magically interlock in a way that is ideally suited to making films. Our exchanges about the work are therefore really simple and feel very productive. I also think we share an approach to making work that is rather experimental: not emulating or reacting to anything pre-existing but to try to create something really new that tests the characteristics and limits of the medium we’re working in at any given time.

With each successive project we’re setting up new challenges and goals for ourselves, ones that may be just beyond our reach, and that is making the work really rewarding. It has been such a pleasure and honor to collaborate with Dennis, and to continue doing so into the future. 

11×14, James Benning (1977)

Desistfilm: Architecture plays a pivotal role in Permanent Green Light. You’ve talked about Benning’s Landscape Suicide as an influence, could you elaborate on that? 

Dennis Cooper: We screened Permanent Green Light in a two-night event centered around the film at Film Society at Lincoln Center recently. Dennis Lim, the director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, asked us to select and show two films that we felt resonated with ours, and we chose Benning’s Landscape Suicide and Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac. So it was more about finding resonance, and I can’t say that either of those films was a direct influence on Permanent Green Light. It’s safe to say that Benning’s work in general is an influence since Zac and I both love his films, and I suspect there’s a tenable connection there. I think if there’s a particular Benning film that influenced my part in Permanent Green Light‘s realization, it would probably be 11 x14. That’s my favorite of his films, and it had a great impact on me as an artist in general.

Zac Farley: I first discovered James Benning’s films when I was studying at CalArts, where he teaches, and they blew my mind and I’ve been hooked ever since. The way his films highlight and critically address the boundary between film space and actual space (landscape, time, the built environment, thought) has had a huge and continuing impact on me. In particular, the way Landscape Suicide structures the relationship between these two crimes, or rather the individuals who committed them, and the environments in which they took place, and the resonance in the film between that relationship and the relationship between the narrative import of the actor-read depositions and the near anti-narrative quality of both the film’s sound and the attentive framing of the locales and architectures in which the events took place critically re-anchors them and strips them of the sensational and judgmental discourses they typically invite.

While we weren’t thinking or talking about Landscape Suicide specifically when making Permanent Green Light, that’s the kind of indebted-resonance we hoped to establish in screening them alongside each other at Lincoln Center. When making Permanent Green Light, the very fact of locating the characters in the physical world was a challenge, and we did it with great care, seeking to find and configure locations not for their capacity to contain and ground the film but to augment and propel it beyond our wildest dreams. The mass-produced and austere architecture of the structures we filmed in and around at once provides a rather bleak and neutral background against which the performers transpierce, all the while suggesting a strange emancipatory potential for that architectural program.

Desistfilm: Now that we’re talking about architecture, the molding of the performances in the film also seems to be very structural, it’s like we’re in the presence of a Bressonian acting method again. How did you work this way of performing with your actors?

Zac Farley:  We were incredibly lucky to find and work with such a wonderful, talented and focused group. We didn’t want them to act in the sense of projecting a state to be interpreted-as something by a viewer (a practice I find ineffective at its best and manipulative at its worst), but to be very present, focused and embodied. They really delivered.

I’ve been lucky to witness the working process and results of the collaborations between Dennis and the great theatre director Gisèle Vienne for the past few years and find the way they have of working with performers to be incredibly unique and exacting. I think the performances in Permanent Green Light are beholden to their 15+ years of work and research. Two of the performers in Permanent Green Light, Katia Petrowick and Sylvain Decloitre, have in fact appeared in Gisèle’s pieces.

Dennis Cooper:  I would say the performances are Bressonian in the sense that Zac and I wanted the ‘acting’ to happen inside the performers rather than on their surfaces. We wanted what they were feeling and going through to be private for them but to be accessible, and as accidentally so as possible, to viewers if they were sufficiently attentive and interested to search the characters, especially their faces, which are given a lot of time and respect in the film. With the performers, we chose them based not on what they could display via acting but rather because of who they were naturally, how intriguing and appealing and charismatic they were.  The characters in the script were pretty much blanks, so we weren’t looking for people who conformed to preset physical types or personalities. The performers we chose invented the characters.

Other than Benjamin Sulpice, who plays Roman, and Théo Cholbi, who plays Tim, none of the performers had any previous acting experience at all. Getting the performances we wanted involved paying close attention to them and mostly just fine-tuning their instinctual behaviors so they would do their best to hide what they were feeling and thinking at any given moment. It was a matter of getting them to understand that what they were being asked to say was revealing enough and that they just needed to trust what they were saying and speak believably. In a way it was a matter of determining when they were the most unsuccessful at guarding themselves, and then helping them stay in that register.

Permanent Green Light

Desistfilm:  The issue of suicide killings as a phenomenon of terror is already a touchy subject in America. I know you wanted to play the suicide as more of an attempt of disappearance but one can’t help to relate this fact with what’s occurring today in the world. Is there a parallelism between terrorism as a political act and suicide as a personal act of terror? Does your film deal with this abstraction?

Dennis Cooper: The resonance between Roman’s wish to disappear in an act more important and spectacular than his resulting death and suicide bombers’ wish to die for a cause that they feel is more important than their lives is there, of course, but we aren’t examining or exploring that in the film. I realize that that tangent is inescapable, and my feeling is that viewers who build that comparison will not necessarily lose sight of the film’s intentions, but I think it’s more interesting that the film evades that reading. I think suicide bombing’s only real relevance to the film is how it is referenced within the film – that the phenomenon causes suicide bomber vests to be a known quantity, which occasions the character Leon’s fascination with them as collectible things, and which causes that method of self-disintegration to be uninteresting to Roman due to how loaded with specific meaning they are. He wants to achieve a spectacular, non-ideological, meaning-defiant nothingness, and they offer the opposite.

Zac Farley:  Of course, that line of thought isn’t entirely escapable. And while suicide bombings are indeed a touchy subject, in America and everywhere else, it is also one that obliterates all thought, that renders thought impossible and inadmissible.

There’s a mostly-fiction book by Jarett Kobek I’ve been completely obsessed with since it came out called ATTA. To oversimplify, it looks at the events of 9/11 through the lens of Architecture rather than through religion. Fiction has the potential of touching on the unspeakable in different ways, and of getting us closer to the individual and inner lives that typically get swallowed in simplified myths or political projects. If anything, Permanent Green Light puts a lot of pressure on that parallel you speak of in an attempt to render it insufficient. It takes a different route.

Roman, the main character of Permanent Green Light, isn’t interested in harming anyone. He’s also uninterested in, and perhaps terrified of, suicide — of his action being read only as a suicide. His project aims to eschew that reading, and, by extension, the film does as well. The film gives Roman complete freedom to research and execute his project: rather than leaving a trace, he wants to completely and radically disappear. Whether or not he succeeds is another question. 

Desistfilm:  Can you talk to us a little bit about your choices in music? They seem to be so particularly integral to your universe proposal. I’ve seen that you guys went through some particular choices, remarkable underground bands like Shit and Shine, Destroyer, etc.

Dennis Cooper:  Permanent Green Light is a very quiet film, and its sound is very important to how it works. We wanted the music choices to be impactful and almost like characters in the film rather than decorations or enhancement techniques, so we chose very little — three tracks — all of which are played within the film and are heard by the characters. The Destroyer song, ‘Don’t Become the Thing You Hated’, was in the script. From the beginning, it was an important and pivotal aspect of the narrative and the film, and we just hoped/dreamed that Dan Bejar, who is Destroyer, would let us use it, and, very luckily, he did. The track that plays in the club scene where the character Guillaume is shown crying and dancing – Thomas Brinkmann’s ‘PSA’ – was chosen both because it’s extremely difficult to dance to, which we thought was exciting, and also because its chaotic sounding but highly controlled rhythmic structure and jarring silences works as a kind of compressed reflector of the film’s overall build and structure. For the third track, we wanted something that would interrupt the film’s tempo, which has a nervous, drifting quality at that point, in a jarring way, and we wanted a harsh metal track, and Pig Destroyer’s ‘Permanent Funeral’ had the right combination of thrashing and strict control.

Zac Farley:  We’re pretty allergic to the role of scores in most films and tried building a different relationship between the tracks and the film. The Destroyer lyrics become an integral part of the film’s text: they could almost have been spoken to Roman in an alternate version. And, as Dennis said, the Brinkman track works as a kind of formal/structural prescription. Absolute silence is one of the main building blocks of a track that manages to also be the loudest and most intense ever. Something to strive for.

Desistfilm:  Piñatas, suicide vests, they all seem like random artifacts of non-consummated desires. Was this a random choice, to pick certain objects like those? 

Zac Farley:  Roman is really thinking with and through these objects. He’s got this one obsession, and everything he or his friends interact with becomes something to consider and help him develop and decide how to proceed. Through this lens, everything in the film is extremely deliberate.

Dennis Cooper: There was nothing random about those choices. For the first stretch of the film, the viewer isn’t certain what is happening. They know the main character Roman is thinking obsessively about something and that a related project is evolving, but its exact nature is only gradually revealed to him, to his friends, and to the viewer. Everything in the film is something he’s noticing and studying in regards to his project, and certain things in his surroundings stand out and fascinate him, and they form a deliberate through-line, a ‘trail of breadcrumbs’, as it were – the collapsing building, the rock taken from the ruins, the piñatas, the recreation of the collapsing building’s sound, the board game, his notebook of drawings, the dead boy, the suicide bomber vests, the GIF, the coffin, and so on. If one wants to pay attention to the accumulation of the things Roman is interested in, they are a kind of supplementary way of revealing what’s developing in his head that he isn’t revealing verbally.

Permanent Green Light

Desistfilm:  Can you talk us about the importance of the WORD in cinema? This seems to be something really central to this particular film, the importance of what’s being said.

Zac Farley:  I’m fascinated with the possibilities of language as I see them in experimental fiction, contemporary art, music… And cinema sometime seems to take language less seriously. We’re really demanding and precise with the language in the film.

Dennis Cooper: Language, and what is happening in the language, and how it’s used, is extremely important in Permanent Green Light. I would even say the majority of the film occurs there and in the faces of the characters when they’re speaking and listening. And what’s said is often elusive and suggestive and complex. For me, I’m a writer who works with language in a similar way in my novels, so it feels totally natural to ask words to do a similarly large amount of work in our films, and it’s very strange to me how unusual that approach turns out to be. But it’s true that it’s the very rare current film that puts so much stock in language. Even in films that are stylistically daring and aesthetically rigorous, language is almost always left behind, treated as something functional and intended only to seem realistic but edited for length. Or, at most, the dialogue is given an erudite, literary veneer, but it’s almost never used in a multiplicitous, sculptural way. When I try to think of newer filmmakers whose auteurship extends to the wordage in their films, I draw a blank. Harmony Korine, Ryan Trecartin, … ? Mostly when current films are impressive it’s despite the fact that the characters’ verbal skills are rote. Language has been allowed to become the least interesting fabric in films. I have no idea why that’s the case, but it is.

Zac Farley:  I would add Steve Reinke to that list. He’s an artist working a lot in video who is really doing such incredible things with language. I was lucky enough to study with him and it really opened things up for me about the ways in which language can be such an important and integral building block of film or video, equipollent with sound, image and time.

Desistfilm:  Are you working in new projects now? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

Dennis Cooper: Zac and I have recently finished writing our next film, which will be titled Room Temperature, and we and our producer are in the early stages of raising the funds to make it. I don’t want to reveal too much about it, but it concerns a family that turns their home into a haunted house attraction and charge people to walk through it. We’re also writing a three-episode television series for the ARTE channel that will be directed by my longtime collaborator, the theater director/choreographer Gisèle Vienne. And I’m slowly working on a new novel.