„Something strange is in these reels“

A conversation with Alex Monty Canawati, Director of „Return to Babylon“

Alex, is making a movie an act of insanity?


How do you stay sane in it … if that is possible at all?

This is the question of the century! I do the best I can.

The characters in your latest project „Return To Babylon“ had a hard time staying sane in the movie industry. Is everything in this movie based on real stories?

Everything in Return To Babylon is based on true stories.

What is your fascination with the silent movie era?

Silent cinema is film in its purest form. Cinema is still a visual medium. If you look at Hitchcock‘s works, there are plenty of 20 minutes sequences with no dialogue!

The ghost of that era still seems to haunt you in a strange way, considering what happened in the post production of your movie.

Rudy Valentino wonderfully haunts his old house Falcon Lair, which was used as Mack Sennet‘s house in Return To Babylon.

Do you want to talk about the paranormal aspect of your movie or are you tired of discussing that?

The paranormal invaded the movie; the ghosts and the holy ghost. No, it‘s okay, we can talk about it.

Were you aware of that right at the beginning or only in the post production? Can you describe what exactly happend?

People like actress Jennifer Tilly sensed the ghosts and were genuinely frightened. Her scenes in particular showed „unnerving“ anomalies. But they run rampant. I would not realize the extent until much after filming was completed and footage studied. The whole thing is baffling. The Biography Channel even did a special about it for their show „My Ghost Story“.

The end of „Return To Babylon“ already looks like a ghost story. Are those images part of the final cut?

Yes, those images are in the final cut and I intend to use as many as possible; they are not any product of special effects and works on a raw nerve to add to the theme: things are not what they seem.

They are certainly not. Do you have any explanation for what happened with these images?

The only logical explanation since Christ images are running amok, is that there is factual evidence the ghost / holy ghost world collided with the dead silent movie stars of the day and decided (for some reason Return To Babylon) to make a statement. They are a powerful and irreversible force. Once an actress has morphed, there is no way she can be „turned back“ to her normal self (a bit unnerving as an actress uses her image as her artistic instrument). This is very serious and scary stuff.

Also at the end there is a scene where people come out of an editing room and get caught up with lose film reels. The text says „Something strange is in these reels“. I guess that scene was an additional shoot?

Ironically, that editing scene was not an extra shoot.

A very strange coincidence indeed. Were you frightened by what you might have invoked?

I was totally amused, never frightened!

I asked because you were describing the ghost experiences as „very serious and scary stuff“.

Yes, overall – as a general outlook – it is very scary. You must ask yourself, what force is manipulating the images? And what is it that force wants? (besides obvious attention)

Speaking of attention: did anyone accuse you of creating all that just as a publicity stunt to promote your movie? Since the idea of ghosts fits the mood and looks of this movie so well.

People inquired whether this was a publicity stunt on my behalf, but I quickly pointed out it was not. The stunt would have cost a considerable sum of money: these „special effects“ would have easily been a lot more than the entire budget of the film.

Why did you decide to make all that public instead of maybe just cutting certain images out?

The images were too powerful. They added a much deeper dimension to the film. In essence, we‘re going backwards and forwards: silent cinema and new cinema!

So in the end it turned out to be a different movie from what you intended it to be?

Yes, the film turned a course I would never have imagined. I still retain the original story being told as much as possible (the segments: William Desmond Taylor, Barbara Lamarr, etc.).

Were the Bible quotes part of the original concept too?

No, the two Bible quotes are not part of the original story. It was my idea to use JOHN 8 v 12 for the closing and my editor‘s idea to use MARK 5 v 12 for the other. We felt it worked strongly together.

How did you come up with the name for the movie in the first place?

Return To Babylon was inspired by „The Birth Of Babylon“ (the William Desmond Taylor segment). The Birth Of Babylon started when we found a bag of black & white factory-sealed film on Hollywood Boulevard. My cinematographer, Scott Dale, came up with the Babylon reference, as the silent movie era is referred to as the „Babylon Period.“ When The Birth Of Babylon won an award at the Los Angeles film festival, it was inevitable that Return To Babylon had to be made.

You mean you had no choice?

With the success and positive feedback of The Birth Of Babylon, I was delightfully pressured into making „more segments.“ I could not resist, despite the fact there was no budget. In looking back at the project, its a miracle it got made. Maria Conchita Alonso was a catalyst in making Return To Babylon.

How did the amazing cast come together? Amongst others there is Tippi Hedren, who starred in two of the most iconic Hitchcocks movies.

Maria Conchita Alonso and I met at a party for The Birth Of Babylon. Once we announced that Return To Babylon would go into production, we received interest from many Hollywood royalty. The style of the silent film and the genre really interested them. I had already directed Tippi in my directorial debut back in 1994 so I knew her personally.

For the role of Rudolph Valentino – was there ever any other choice than yourself, Alex?

Yes, I had somebody else in mind. Then I decided not to do the entire Valentino story. But people were shocked. And one actress in particular, Blaine Dunham, told me that there was nobody else to play Valentino but myself. I don‘t like to direct and act at the same time (too strenuous), but I felt that I was best for the character after Blaine talked me into it.

Blaine Dunham appears in a blonde wig at the end of the movie. The scene where she‘s running screaming towards the camera reminded me of „Mulholland Drive“ – a very different kind of movie that also portraits madness in Hollywood. Also Laura Harring, who starred in Mulholland Drive, is a member of your cast. Is it just me or do you see a connection there?

You know, I never have seen Mulholland Drive in its entirety, but now that you mentioned it, there could be a connection! I have long been a fan of cast members/actors being self-relflective cinematically and addressing the audience.

How was the silent film look created? Did you use original old equipment or was that done in post production?

The silent film look was created by using original hand-cranked cameras and such. It was done during production. In some scenes, we added scratches in post.

Is it difficult for actors today to act „silently“?

Since I was working with a multitude of professionals, directing them „silently“ was not difficult at all. We rather had a lot of fun with it. It was this particular style that attracted them to the overall project.

Will you continue to do more silent film work and are there any upcoming projects you want to talk about?

At this point, I have no intention of doing another silent film. But you never know what the future holds.

Is there anyone specific that you would like to work with in the future?

I would very much like to work with Ed Norton.

What do you think is missing in today’s film industry or what would you like to see created?

What is missing in the film industry today is the general lack of quality films we use to have in the golden ages of cinema and up until the 1970s. It is the age of equals and sequals and they are usually not quality material. When was the last time you saw a movie that changed your life? That is the kind of stuff I‘m talking about.

I guess you would not have cast Edward Norton as „The Incredible Hulk“ then … Since you asked, when was the last time you saw a movie that changed your life or at least left a great impression upon you?

It has been a very long time since a movie left an impression on me. I would say the films of Pedro Almodovar (particulary his films in his golden period, like Matador) and the films of Roman Polanski that I watch in revival movie theaters.

Being a film director – what do you really think makes a great director?

What makes a great director? There are many facets to this! But one key element is the precise attention to details. And having suffered makes the director more passionate and in essence, more „great“.

Are you suggesting that you have suffered a lot yourself?

Am I suggesting I have suffered a lot myself? Yes, I have had some difficult challenges.

What do you think was the biggest challenge you had to face so far – in terms of your work?

The biggest challenge in facing my work was facing criticism under a great deal of stress. The biggest challenge I am facing right now is wondering/obsessing whether or not Return To Babylon will open up the doors of opportunity so many say it will.

Interview: Oliver Buchal / 2011

Screenshots from „Return To Babylon“, © Alex Monty Canawati