Edmund Elias Merhige is an artist among hacks. Suspect Zero, the new thriller from the Brooklyn-born, Los Angeles-based filmmaker, employs a lot of elements of the serial-killer genre popularized throughout the 1990s, set in familiar noirish desert locales. Yet it's compulsively watchable, featuring a meticulously shaded performance from Ben Kingsley (who Merhige says became genuinely spooked by the intensity of his role's psychic "remote viewing"), complemented by highly stylized design.
Merhige is a hands-on guy. For his first feature in his early twenties, the bizarre 1991 film Begotten (which opens with a man disemboweling himself with a razor, and which Merhige humbly calls "a great work of art"), he spent nine months building his own optical printer out of borrowed parts, Frankenstein-style, to achieve haunting images you just can't crank out of an Avid. The effort eventually wowed writer Susan Sontag and filmmaker Chris Marker (La Jetée), who arranged a special screening in Sontag's living room to raise the film's profile. For the 1996 video for Marilyn Manson's "Antichrist Superstar" (mixed while Begotten, Manson's favorite film, ran on a repeating loop in the studio), Merhige dipped his original negative into an ice bath to make the film's emulsion crack to resemble a daguerreotype. The result led to a clutch of awards. Nowadays his imprint, even upon Hollywood pulp such as Suspect Zero, is impressive and largely unique. (He doesn't even flinch at the word "Fincher.")
Over oolong tea and Argentine chocolate, Merhige emerges as a gracious fellow who makes grim, ghastly movies yet can discuss them with beaming enthusiasm. Fans of Begotten or "Antichrist Superstar" need not wonder if he abides in a dank, dark fantasy world -- though he does call Manson "Marilyn" instead of Brian, to preserve his associate's larger-than-life persona. He also declines parallels with the mad, obsessive director Murnau or the "real vampire" Max Shreck in his amusing and disturbing Shadow of the Vampire. Merhige may throw himself (and possibly others) into the abyss of his work, and he's fascinated by the plummet, but he approaches it quite intellectually.
"When I first read [Suspect Zero], I thought, 'there are some very interesting elements here, and there's a lot here that we have seen before,'" he says. "It was like a great television drama." He reveals that the original script was very empirical, concerning police procedures between the disturbed FBI agent eventually played by Aaron Eckhart and the twisted nutjob played by Kingsley.
"I wanted to take it completely away from that and move it into something much more deeply psychological, something more intimate in showing the subjective relationship between these two minds." He brought in the process of "remote viewing," an espionage technique developed by the Soviets and modified by covert US operatives in the 1970s. (His documentary about this teachable, learnable sixth sense will attend the release of the DVD.)
"Remote viewing posits this idea that the mind is not something that's in your head," he explains, "that consciousness is something that insinuates itself throughout all nature, and what you call your mind is actually just a fragment, an awareness, or an aspect of that greater consciousness." This connection also gave him the means to convey the intimacy visually.
"Whenever I direct a film, I think of a snapshot. I think of something that takes me into that world: It could be a drawing, a painting, a poem, it could even be a memory -- just something that hits me in a certain way, and that's where I want to bring the audience. The thing that came to mind with this was to be found in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer. "
To Merhige, the nighttime conversations between Conrad's captain and his dubious stowaway cut to the heart of Suspect Zero, summoning the darkly codependent vibe he needed to continue. After the similarly symbiotic Shadow of the Vampire was out collecting critical kudos, he began reworking Zak Penn's screenplay for Suspect Zero with Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), before and after 9/11. That horror impacted the work, and especially Kingsley's character.
"At that moment it became so clear to me that stories that show clear good and clear evil are just lies, because the world as it exists today is just one big, fat gray line where good and evil just commingle and cross-pollinate."
Everyone has an awakening.
Merhige likens himself to a cook, stirring up a pot of disturbing themes that catalyze his creativity: He rattles off an ingredient list that includes statistics of shellshocked Vietnam vets offing themselves, of the thousands upon thousands of missing persons in the United States. To him, the ordinary world has been turned upside down: Letters are used as carriers for disease, airplanes are missiles. "I put all these ingredients together, these feelings that I have, and I look out at other people and I know they're feeling them too, and those are the things I want to liberate in the form of an allegorical story," he says.
His confidence unwavering, Merhige waxes on about doom and mortality and the desire to reveal immense beauty through film, which is nice except that it's hardly conventional to call his penchant for wanton slaughter "beautiful" in most circles. He also references the "fact" that "the true heart of an artist is completely amoral." Open to debate, that.
He's on a great roll, though, especially when talk turns back to monsters. "To me, a monster is meaningless unless it provides a mode of catharsis for the audience. A monster is all the emotions and feelings that exist on the periphery of society's vision. An artist's role is to give it an image, a mask, and to allow us to enter into the intimate space of what that monster is. And once you bring an audience into that place, it dissipates the fear in your normal life, in society's life. I look at films as a homeopathic way of healing."
Whether he's healing himself, his audience, both, or neither, Merhige is remarkably thoughtful. "I want to bring people to a higher ground," he says. "I don't want to just take people to dark places and leave them there, because CNN can do that."
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