From Bresson to video art: the influences on mind-bending thriller Remainder

Director Omer Fast reveals the influences on his elliptical and original debut feature.

Remainder (2015)Chris Harris

In Omer Fast’s brain-bending adaptation of Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, an unnamed protagonist (Tom Sturridge) struggles to reconnect with himself after a freak accident results in catastrophic memory loss, and uses his pay-out to stage increasingly elaborate recreations of the snatches of memories he has retained. As a narrative, it’s deep and demanding, playing with psychological notions of time and identity. As a film, it’s gloriously cinematic, Fast ensuring that every on-screen element – cinematography, production design, the evocative score — places the viewer in the same disorienting fugue state as his protagonist.

It’s a bold debut indeed, and here Fast discusses the inspiration and influences that went into its making.

Remainder (2015)

On first read, Remainder may seem an impossible novel to adapt for the screen. Did you always see its potential?

Depending on how you look at it, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder can either be seen as a very cinematic book, or a very anti-cinematic one. Early on, the unnamed protagonist, increasingly frustrated by his own inauthenticity and gracelessness, compares himself rather unfavourably to Robert De Niro, whom he praises as ‘seamless, natural and authentic’. He’s talking of course about the young De Niro of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, not the ageing De Niro endlessly playing pastiche versions of his younger self, which arguably has even more to do with Remainder on a meta level, despite the fact that De Niro’s late-mannerist phase was not yet really in full swing when the book was written. Nevertheless, as cinephilic as he seems to be at outset, the protagonist later bans the use of all cameras in his proto-cinematic endeavours. He allows his fixer-producer Naz (played by Arsher Ali) to apply for a film permit to stage one of his reenactments, but only if the latter guarantees that no filming will be involved.

I think this pro/anti cinema paradox is central to understanding what Remainder is about. Cinema is immaterial and hyper-real. Life, by contrast, is spastic and inauthentic. In seeking authenticity, the protagonist and his growing team of assistants and performers repeatedly recreate selected moments from his past and, later on, from his present and future. These perfectly controllable situations allow the protagonist to literally step into the frame and become director, actor and spectator. On a symbolic level, the absence of the camera represents an elision that de-technologises the process and collapses art into life. This is wonderful, sexy, highfalutin stuff, and I was particularly inspired by a few key works while turning Remainder into a film.

The Third Memory (2000)

Artist: Pierre Huyghe

The Third Memory (2000)

Pierre Huyghe’s brilliant two-channel installation follows John Wojtowicz as he reenacts his 1972 robbery of a Brooklyn bank. Famously, this same robbery was already dramatised for the screen in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, in 1975. In Huyghe’s recreation, filmed 25 years later, Wojtowicz, now middle-aged, stout and very voluble, describes in detail what happened on the day of the robbery, while constantly referring to and occasionally relying on details from Lumet’s film. Huyghe literally maps out what happens when an individual’s own biography has been subsumed by cinema. (After all, Al Pacino played Wojtowicz…) The robbery recreation plays out simultaneously on two adjoining screens, a kind of doubling that alludes to the merging of event and recreation, memory and movie. With its untreated MDF furnishings and texture-less surfaces, the bank set Huyghe employs is a perfect background for Wojtowicz’s meandering memories: minimal, makeshift and highly theatrical. I was hugely inspired by this work.

Win, Place or Show (1998)

Director: Stan Douglas

Win, Place or Show (1998)

Filmed in 1998, Stan Douglas shows two dock workers in their claustrophobic apartment on their day off. One reads a sports newspaper while the other chats him up and gets on his nerves. The conversation is relatively forced, the setting theatrical and at some point, inevitably, the two men start to tussle. But their violence is fleeting and expends itself quickly. There’s a shift in dynamic, something or someone gives up, and they drift apart and recompose. Before you realise it, one picks up the sports paper and the repartee starts again with the scene repeating, word-for-word, action-for-action.

Only it doesn’t exactly. Something weird’s going on. Like a TV melodrama, Douglas shot the work in a studio from several cameras and angles, each running for several takes. Unlike conventional TV, there’s a computer sifting through all available takes and shots while you watch, re-editing the story in real-time, continuously stitching together entirely unique edits from all available footage. According to Douglas, there are so many possible permutations that it would take centuries for one unique edit to repeat itself. This is not just some navel-gazing sci-fi geek stuff; there’s an uncanny déjà-vu effect at work. While watching the two dock workers, one is keenly aware of their story repeating itself, without ever being sure when or exactly how. It’s like watching something that keeps changing while watching yourself remembering that something as it changes. Chris Marker and Samuel Beckett should be acknowledged here. When in doubt, double.

Pickpocket (1959)

Director: Robert Bresson

Pickpocket (1959)

Bresson’s heartbreaking masterpiece needs no summarising. When I first read Remainder, I was struck by how similar the two protagonists are; Pickpocket’s Michel (Martin LaSalle) is young, educated, but somehow unwilling or unable to work. We’re not privy to his backstory, but he, too, lives a solitary marginal life, going about the city, blank and zombie-like, as if he’s been through some trauma. And, very much like Remainder’s protagonist, he’s not content with his lot, so he develops a method, a system and an art to redefine his relationship to productive, ordered society; pickpocketing. He does this on his own terms and with a zealot’s disregard for social norms.

To outsiders, his system is criminal. To him, it’s literally a means of putting himself in touch again – in very intimate proximity to others. There’s also the obsession with repetition. One of the most striking scenes shows Michel honing his skills by picking a watch off the leg of a table. He does this over and over until he’s perfected his craft. But unlike any old parlour artist (myself included) he breaks through the fourth wall and takes his craft into the real world and audience of unwitting collaborators. Again, it’s about a radical intrusion of art into life. Pickpocket is the only movie I asked Tom Sturridge to watch before we started shooting.

Remainder was backed by the BFI Film Fund.

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