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‘Miasma’ director Andreas Aicka Thomsen on experimental horror, and the fear of the unknown

For years now, we have been driven into the depths of isolation, while unseen forces swarm about us. To that end, experimental horror Miasma seems to be the perfect articulation of the wordless horror that is our pandemic Zeitgeist – but the film’s creation pushed the film’s crew to its very limits. Director Andreas Aicka Thomsen spoke to Indy Film Library about mass extinction events, Nordic rituals, and the dangers of filming in the mountains.

As an experimental filmmaker, does it bother you when people ask you to explain your work (and if so, apologies for the following)? Or do you enjoy discussing it with them?

Being a fine art student, one becomes more comfortable talking about artworks as time passes. I absolutely enjoy the conversation if enthusiastic minds question me, I can invest myself profoundly if I feel a mutual understanding. A constructive attitude is the most energising, it’s vital not to direct the focus towards whether one likes it or not, but rather towards what the artwork brings, if the execution is precise, etc.

It has become a habit of mine to create works which have a non-forced narrative open to interpretation. At times it does bother me if people do not find merit in the work, but then I remind myself how I can be no different, and how the world is full of unique interpretations, which ultimately is what makes it.

The best horror we have encountered at Indy Film Library – works like Saturation or Eat the Rich – has been experimental in its format. What is it about the two genres that sees them complement each other so well?

Fear of the unknown could a denominator. The experimental genre allows undiscovered areas to be incarnated through new combinations of expression.

Artistic scientists testing unsound theories within uncharted territories.

One element which I find bothersome when engaging with the horror genre is the tendency to reveal the unknown, to reveal the pieces, to let it take form. Once the monster is out of the bag and pinpointed, it tends to lose much of its unnerving atmosphere, enabling one to visualise and analyse the previously unknown. The familiar aspect is habitual, safe, comforting, and by definition dull.

The Shining is an excellent example of the unknown in what was perceived as safe and familiar. Kubrick turned a loving family affair into a horrid scenario in which the ‘monster’, resting, shackled and dormant, was always there, undisclosed within a circular time.

The psychology of consciousness and the subconsciousness tend to make the horror. The creators of horror just have to find a few buttons to trigger. The horror is there to be explored, exploited, discovered. Ultimately, we tend to fear that which we do not know and the experimental genre explores precisely this area.

As was mentioned in my review of Miasma, it seems to blend elements of Nordic and cosmic horror. What were the main influences, in or out of the cinema of your style?

Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness likely played a role in this development. As did The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. Not to mention the numerous documentaries about daring, horrendous expeditions to Antarctica.

Most of all, however, I’ve always been fascinated by the fear of that which is invisible to the senses. Ghosts, unnerving states of the mind, cemeteries, supernatural stories, traditional folklore, elves, trolls, etc. Growing up in Denmark, Nordic atmospheres were prevalent and numerous. I’ve been familiar with Nordic rituals all my life. In a sense, I’m rediscovering my childhood emotions, fear being an important piece. In discovering the horror and the psychological reaction to fear, which at times produces illusions, I’m also experiencing strong nostalgia in the attempt to comprehend the roots of my own fears.

Do you have an earliest memory of a particular work or artist which really impacted you?

I didn’t grow up intellectually at all, so I had to absorb what I could. When I was about eight years old, my family started reading to me aloud The Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart. Contrary to most other pedagogical children’s stories, it was full of complex, fantastic worlds of horror, desolation, violence and severe beasts, among adventure and love, of course. It was important in establishing a strong internal fantasy world.

Whenever we went to church, I always enjoyed the organ tremendously, especially when you could sense the powerful libido, the force of passion raining down on the semi-pious plebeians from above. I was struck by seraphic lightning in the purest awe.

With those ominous mountains hanging over our heads throughout Miasma, shrouded in fog, how important do you think the landscape of Norway was in coming up with a story like this?

When living in Bergen, ranked 12th of the rainiest cities on the planet, with the fog and the clouds constantly looming blanket-like above, nature tends to hazily encapsulate the psyche and the body in the ever-surrounding mountains.

Recently, I took the train from Oslo to Bergen and, whilst looking out the window during the seven hour journey, I experienced a sort of fantastic flashback to the same area in some archaic time, much before civilisation. And when I imagined traversing the mountains, the forest, the fjords, in the shrouding darkness and the heavy rainfall, I could fully comprehend the power of nature, a third-party, the domineering control, the titanic force reverberating invisible in the air, inviting one to become suddenly spiritual and god-fearing in utter powerlessness.

From my observations, I’ve only perceived how the weather and our environment alter our psyche, our energy levels, our spirits, our time. Nature is old, or rather, humans are new. Nature has a long history before our time as well as after our time.

Miasma takes its name from a historic medical theory that a rotting mist could cause disease. It also seems to centre on the crumbling psyche of two people living in acute isolation. After two years of lockdowns and airborne pathogens, I have to ask if the pandemic era played a role in forming this story?

It might have. Frankly, I cannot say. When the pandemic began, I started researching mass extinction events throughout history, global catastrophic scenarios, etc. Perhaps a word such as Miasma would have found its way into my vocabulary.

Perhaps a nuanced perception of anthropocentrism spawned globally, a change of old patterns much in need of revision. The world is a place both wonderful and strange, and occasionally it is lethal. The illness, the bad breath, can be found through many portals, in open areas, in narrow corridors, the miasma becomes a symbol when placed in a different context. Humans may be miasma themselves. Miasma may be the devil, the devil may walk and talk, and the devil may be non-visible.

In regards to the isolation, a film production is a lot less complicated when fewer people are involved, especially isolated from interference. Yorgos Lanthimos has been a solid inspiration in this regard. Kynodontas is complexity within simplicity.

Do you ever worry that your avant-garde style could mean your intentions are misunderstood by audiences?

I expect it to be misunderstood, similar to how I misinterpret the world in my own fashion. It’s one of the beauties and atrocities of reality. “What does it all mean?” is typically the core question we receive in the world of fine art. It worries me less and less, I would say. At times I do worry that I may face a severely negative backlash from the public due to an artwork or a method, in which case I may have to explain myself. Testing the untested is a risk. Risks are very enjoyable, I find, they make one feel alive.

In my philosophy, the most important is a strong character, to execute the full extent of your desires, to go commando and bring the pure integrity of yourself into the world as much as possible, while being aware that every action has its consequence. It’s important to take responsibility for whatever one does.

Astrid Haugesen and Jonas Erboe don’t seem like they’re exactly dressed for the weather, running through the snow in their orange-red suits. Was the cold ever a problem for them during the production?

The environment was undoubtedly a difficult factor, perhaps the most difficult. Running around outside in red suits was in itself bizarre. Astrid and Jonas were tanks and did a terrific job. Hiding the impact of the freezing cold while being filmed, the shaking hands, the runny nose, is a valuable skill.

There was this one time when we were forced to cross a 60cm deep stream of running water, wearing regular winter shoes, ice cold water just thawed from the mountain top, at 10pm in the darkness, while carrying a load of equipment. The other two weren’t too fond of that, and the incident landed me some well-deserved critique, mentioning something about a ‘health hazard’… This wasn’t a job for anyone, and I did thank my performers profusely for their sacrifices.

Besides the freezing cold elements, what were the biggest challenges you faced during this production, and how did you overcome them?

I came up with this type of project because of the challenges we would face. I wanted to get right into the tough parts, learning the hard way, not comfortable in a warm studio. Being inside in a controlled environment is an entirely different experience than being outside, constantly having to consider the cold, the rain, the wind, the snow. I wanted to experience the force of nature and allow us to be influenced by it. To let it swallow us whole.

The fire scene almost failed to happen. It turns out that there are only so many locations where it’s acceptable to light a fire at night, not to mention transporting two sacks of firewood to the location, through a layer of snow reaching your knees, and setting fire to the wood in minus degrees, expecting it to burn with vigour for hours of pure filming. To cut it short, we had to compromise a lot. I felt as though I was Werner Herzog pulling the steamboat across the mountain in Fitzcarraldo. Nothing ever quite works as expected, while the initial dream naively remains, unable to distort itself to the newly found realities. How impractical of the world.

Then there was the rain. Filming in pouring rain is not amusing, especially when you’re one person doing all the technical work. All equipment must be covered completely, this a challenge. The rain makes sound difficult to capture as well. Fortunately, the forecast changed to our favour in the very end. The weather was perfect. The gods cast their glance upon us with sympathetic eyes and smiled upon our audacious endeavour.

You also produced the score that accompanies the film – and did an excellent job, I might add. In an area of such natural beauty, another director might have opted for natural sound instead, though. What were you hoping to add to the story with the music?

There came a time when I realised the audio in my mind and in my fantasies was more powerful and indicative of the images than the audio from the environment. I’ve been stealing a lot from German Expressionism in the 1920s. The atmosphere which captures an emotion can be unnervingly strong, almost divine, diverse and intense beyond words. Each of us has our own atmosphere, our own sounds, tempos, while usually linked to our environment, the dimension captured by our senses. Reality is a far-stretching dimension full of nuances, emotions preceding the most profound of phrases and vocabularies, there to be unveiled.

Our review noted its seething bass line, mixed with eery choruses and fearful shrieks. You have obviously found a unique and accomplished ‘voice’ of your own, but it’s reminiscent of Goblin’s score for Suspiria, John Carpenter and Ennio Morricone for The Thing, and Jóhann Jóhannsson for Mandy among others. What are your musical influences when it comes to film scores?

Thank you for saying so! All of the above artists certainly have been. There is an unbelievable number of artists from which I’ve been influenced throughout time. To name a few important ones, it would be Hans Zimmer, Trent Reznor, György Ligeti, various church choirs and symphonies, Zbigniew Preisner, Jesper Kyd, Eduard Artemyev, Angelo Badalamenti, Vangelis, Jonny Greenwood, Ryuichi Sakamoto and of course Hildur Guðnadòttir.

Some very early influences were scores from films such as First Blood by Jerry Goldsmith, and The Package by James Newton Howard. Their scores far preceded the quality of the films, in my opinion.

Do you have any advice for first-time filmmakers looking to make avant-garde or experimental films?

I believe obsessions are vital, to a spiritual level. Nothing is beyond reach to any person who’s located their goal while being adequately daring. Passion is the perfect drug.

Finally, do you know what your next project will be, and how it will be different from Miasma? (And is there any way our readers can support you and your work?)

Currently, I’m in the research phase of several film projects. The next one will likely be shot in monochrome, at night, full of heavy contrast, and revolve around distortions of reality within a Kafkaesque circle, drawing similarities to Le Locataire by Roman Polanski and Europa by Lars Von Trier.

I would appreciate it very much if some film fund would finance my projects, without any limits. For the moment however, as far as supporting me, anyone is free to follow my IG @andreasaicka for any future content.

Miasma played as part of the 2022 Indy Film Library Experimental Showcase. Andreas Aicka Thomsen was awarded Best Score and Best Cinematography for his work on the film.

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