It’s May 2014 and I’m on set with the production crew at a film studio in Bromley-by-Bow, staring at a tiny black-and-white monitor on which live footage is playing of the action taking place to my right. Four men in white jumpsuits and thick stocking masks run into a room. Shots are fired: someone’s hit. The action stops, comments are made by the director, makeup is touched up, cameras are reset and then the process repeats. The film in production, two-thirds into the shoot, is Remainder, an adaptation of Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name and the first full-length feature to be directed by established Berlin-based artist-filmmaker Omer Fast. The scene I’m watching is the recreation of a bank heist that takes place towards the end of the book.
It’s easy to see how a feature film project might appeal to Fast – whose short films, often including elements of scripted dialogue and linear narrative, already have a strong cinematic feel – and why McCarthy’s story might resonate with him. Remainder’s partly conceptual narrative is driven by its unnamed thirty-year-old protagonist, who suffers the trauma of a freak accident that not only crushes his body but also wipes most of his memory. As his body heals he drives himself to increasing extremes to try and regain his memory and so repair his mental as well as physical sense of self.
Fast has explored similar ideas about trauma and regeneration, often in relation to conflict or war, in his own work. For the 65-minute Spielberg’s List (2003) he interviewed Polish extras from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 holocaust movie, Schindler’s List, some of whom were actual survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. Footage of these people talking about their experiences of both being in the film and being in the camps is edited together with film footage of the remains of the camps constructed for the film, increasingly indistinguishable from the remains of the actual camps themselves. What Fast foregrounds is how fact and fiction, historical events and their subsequent retellings, recreations and reenactments, can become equally real and equally authentic.
It’s not the drama of the historical reenactment in itself that’s of interest to Fast, however, but the ways in which it can be sabotaged
Fast often employs the interview process – interviews with porn actors and a former US military drone operator have also been the starting point for works. In the three-part film installation Nostalgia (2009), based on an interview between the artist and a West African asylum-seeker, multiple viewpoints and screens are used to play out repeated versions of a narrative, where roles reverse and the same character is played by different actors. The result affectingly depicts how the physical wrenching away of people from their homeland can cause their memories and connections to that place also to unravel. It’s not the drama of the historical reenactment in itself that’s of interest to Fast, however, but the ways in which it can be sabotaged.
Fast is no stranger to complex, accomplished and powerful filmmaking, but back on set during a break for lunch I ask him what effect the different context in which he is making this film is having. “There is an obvious shared element between my work and this film in that I have an interest in the creative thinking that is part of the process of trying to reconfigure or reconnect to language, relationships or society after a traumatic event, but the development process is very different. It’s not that I’ve felt hampered, but there is involvement from other people in the script and a lot of input into what kind of story it is, where that story’s going and what kind of film it’s going to be. The artworld is blissfully free from that, but the flipside is that you do have more limited means.”
“It’s difficult for me to think that Remainder is for cinema and not necessarily for art... Now that I’m aware of both worlds, there just seems more of a possibility of making work in both.”
The most high-profile artist-turned-moviemaker of recent years, Steve McQueen, has been awarded both an Oscar, for 12 Years a Slave (2013, also a book adaptation), and the Turner Prize, but is probably now perceived to be more of a Hollywood filmmaker than an artist. McQueen’s forthcoming six-part BBC TV drama set in London’s West Indian community may shift that perception again. For Fast, however, the separation between ‘art’ and ‘film’ is problematic. “It’s difficult for me to think that Remainder is for cinema and not necessarily for art. The structures may be very different and the timescales much longer in film, but in terms of a single person making and thinking about things, having ideas and trying to realise them, it certainly feels strange to have this fragmentation. Now that I’m aware of both worlds, there just seems more of a possibility of making work in both.”
As a consequence of those lengthy timescales, it’s almost 16 months later, in late August this year, that I catch up with the artist on the phone from Berlin, after I’ve just seen a preview screener of Remainder, ahead of its scheduled release date at the end of 2015.
There are differences from the book, but in its depiction of a real location in which ambiguous and uncanny events can occur, Remainder does feel both very much like an Omer Fast film and a believable representation of McCarthy’s tale. And without giving too much away, the film’s looped structure also succeeds in making both the protagonist and the book’s more conceptual ideas about time and temporality convincing. Both of these aspects are a challenge, as in print what the character goes through is described more through his thoughts than via speech or actions. It’s a credit that Fast is quick to share with Tom Sturridge, the rising British actor who plays the role, and whose onscreen presence and ability to convey vulnerability, loss and at times an explosive frustration at his predicament is compelling. “It wasn’t a character with a rich palette of emotions. In the book he chews your ear off, but in the movie, for the most part he’s quite reserved,” says Fast. “But Tom did a lovely job. Even when he’s just sitting looking at a cardboard model of a house, he makes you want to know what’s going on in his head and what he’s feeling.”
If there’s an aspect to the film I wasn’t quite expecting, it’s how strong the element of underlying suspense is – something that for Fast was very much in the book
If there’s an aspect to the film I wasn’t quite expecting, it’s how strong the element of underlying suspense is – something that for Fast was very much in the book. “The book wasn’t written as a thriller and I don’t think the film is either, it’s more of a portrait, but very early on the protagonist realises that there’s a crime scene outside his front door. In the book it’s just a detail, but as far as the trajectory of what he undergoes in the film – in part to accommodate the looped structure – there’s very much a sense of trying to figure things out in terms of a crime.”
Remainder is scheduled to premiere at the BFI London Film Festival (LFF) – validation from the filmworld, then, but there will also be an acknowledgement of Fast’s credentials as an artist, as the first screening is programmed to take place at Tate Modern, as part of its LFF collaboration, rather than a London cinema venue. Fast acknowledges that there is a gesture in this decision that the public will have an awareness of both his own work and the book – McCarthy already being known in the artworld for various activities, among them the semifictional International Necronautical Society (INS). But I wonder what his feelings are about how the film will be presented – as an Omer Fast vehicle, a Tom Sturridge vehicle or even a Tom McCarthy one? “I don’t think it matters to either Tom or myself how the film is marketed. The important thing for us is that it finds an audience, wherever that is.”
At the time of speaking, Fast is in the process of finishing his latest film project, which will be shown in the artist’s forthcoming solo exhibition, Omer Fast: Present Continuous, at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. It’s another adaptation, but this time of one of his own works: the 40-minute Continuity (2012). This film depicts three versions of a narrative in which a middle-aged couple pick up a young soldier from a train station, perhaps their son, though things turn out to be not quite what they seem. It’s not another feature film, but Fast is expanding the work to feature length, including more characters and new scenes. “Again it’s about absence and yearning and the productive pursuits people engage in to make up for something ineffable that’s been lost.”
This article was first published in the October 2015 issue.