J. M. Stelly, thank you for having us! Congratulations for lending us such a gripping window into the darkness. In your director’s statement, you say: “It’s always my mission to make films that invoke thought. Sometimes linear, sometimes off-center, I enjoy telling stories about the human condition and the suffering of both external and internal issues. I have spent years crafting my look and storytelling methods, and while I know my work isn’t for everyone, it’s something I know that attracts the right eyes to it.” Would you expand on what is required to have the “right eyes” in your view?
I think in general for me the "right eyes" are not necessarily the same eyes that might be attracted to more mainstream fare. My films tend to focus on more lugubrious subject matter. I grew up on the works of Lynch, Carpenter, Kubrick, Fincher and Cronenberg. These were the filmmakers that really stuck out to me as a kid and even more as an adult. When I make a film, I’m making them not as some commercial money grab but rather to purge something inside myself. Doing that almost always pushes some people away while attracting others. I don’t think there is any sort of requirement but rather a taste in certain kinds of films and stories that attract the eyes who gravitate to my art.
The way you use lighting is just amazing. Interestingly, you would also use silent effects such as title cards and voiceovers. You say you were “inspired by films of the past and German Expressionism”. This is undoubtedly true of your deep shadows/chiaroscuro lighting and extreme camera tilting. Did Robert Wiene inspire you, and
perhaps his The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) in particular, as it is set in WWI? We assume that many “films of the past” have inspired your way of conveying narrative and emotion visually. Would you name a few? For example, are we right in seeing an apparent reference here to Franju? Did you intend to take inspiration from Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visages for your Seance scene with the white mask?
Thank you for the kind words. While I grew up watching films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as well as films like Eyes without a Face, my choices for the way it was filmed and the lighting we used was more or less all out of my head and inspired by our surroundings. I will say that silent cinema, especially those films, played a massive role of inspiration as to why I made a silent film. I had done a silent short prior called The Doctor’s Apprentice for a 48 Hour festival in New Orleans and always wanted to make a full feature SF using nothing but candle light again. I think there’s something unique about silent films most people today don’t really get to enjoy. You can’t just put it on as background noise, but rather you have to take the time to watch it and absorb what you’re seeing. Especially with a subject matter as deep as this.
We find some references to Norse mythology and The Game of Thrones! We see an allusion to gothic literature, even to Oscar Wilde’s only gothic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in the line “I am a reflection of your past and future” and the successive ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Do you agree?
I have always been of the mindset that people will extrapolate from art what they will. I don’t ever go into a project with literary or artistic references in mind. I don’t try to steal shots from other pieces of art as homages. However, it’s always nice when people see classic resemblance in my work. It’s flattering. There is definitely occult references and hidden occult meanings in the film. I wanted to make a film where you see new things every time you watch it and explore the material.
About your Chapter entitled The persistence of darkness, we feel like drawing a parallel to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the inspiration for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and a disturbing treatment of the darkness potentially inherent in all human hearts. Are you dealing with perhaps an apocalypse of life in your film?
The film itself is dealing with a lot of coming to terms with oneself. Between the addiction, the pain, the darkness and the subjective nature of death. Humans often talk about the end of the world not realizing that the world will remain while we all die. Death is an absolution. The Void in the film is something that lives in all of us. The darkness. It speaks to us everyday and calls to us in certain ways. In CotV, The Painter is dead from the beginning, stuck between life and death. Essentially purgatory. In that purgatory he is forced to come to terms with his undoing and find out the truth, all while The Void, the darkness is pushing him to understand oneself in the chaos of it all. There is no light, no God, no Heaven or Hell. There is just the eternal loneliness that comes with realization. Once that is accepted you are free and are able to forgive yourself and finally move on. Forgiveness is the “light” so to speak.
The main character is grappling with an addiction to opium. But we do not know if chasing the dragon is a consequence of madness or fear --“I feel a fear I haven’t felt since the war; it’s blinding”, or the cause of the mounting madness. “Has opium totally distorted the perception of my sanity?”. There certainly is a vicious circle at play. Is the Painter’s character comparable to Johnny Depp’s in From Hell?
It’s funny you mention that. From Hell and the character of Inspector Abberline has always been an inspiration to some of my characters and their motivations. My character in The Demonologist was heavily inspired by his performance in its original draft. With The Painter, it was inspired by many of the things I’ve seen with friends and family who suffered from drug addiction, while the symbol of the Ouroboros was meant to resemble the eternal struggle of time repeating itself. The Dragon is both a representation of addiction and suffering as well as the eternal repetition from within the void.
There is an immersion into the unconscious. Your work is very introspective, and Rorschach’s inkblots find their way into almost every tableau towards the end. Would you shed some light on using Rorschach’s projective psychological test?
I have always been intrigued by the nature of Rorschach. The idea that we can get a psychological glimpse into where the mind is by what they see in the abstraction of a Rorschach. In the film, The Painter sees a number of these as a means to come to terms with his own mortality and the inevitability of death. While at the same time, the audience can derive their own thoughts by what they see in the very same inkblots The Painter is seeing.
Call of the Void is a deep look at the horrors of the darkness within and the loneliness we face in the absence of our inner light.” Are we right in thinking that your film is a call for finding that inner light, eventually?
Absolutely. I think all people need to come to terms with their darkness in order to discover the light to officially be free of their own internal damage. This movie most certainly has a lot to do with my own darkness and how I’ve chosen to use art to paint a picture of that through the life of The Painter.
Care to share any upcoming projects?
I have two other films I completed around the same time as Call of the Void. One called ABACUS and the other called THEY ARE WATCHING. So I’m hoping to find distribution for those films. I have three other films I'm planning and hope to film those this year.
What is your vision of post-Covid Cinema?
I believe that long before COVID streaming services and direct to consumer films were already building in the industry. While the theaters continue to cater to the studios, what I think would be a change is allowing easier access for theatrical distribution to indie studios and filmmakers to create better profits and expand their audience. Theatrical showings are the way filmmakers want their art to be seen and now that we are coming out of a pandemic, what better way to celebrate film than for theaters to make it easier and better for indie filmmakers to share their work on the big screen.
J. M. Stelly
J. M. Stelly is a director from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Stelly directed his first film in 2009 "Within Madness". The film would go through years of edits and additional footage before receiving domestic distribution in America through LC Films. Stelly has also worked with Warner Music and a number of artists directing music videos for DOWN, COC, To Kill a Party and Jason Martin to name a few. Stelly has also directed a number of shorts with his film "The Prologue" receiving the most attention and being featured by Eli Roth's Crypt TV. In 2019 J. M. Stelly released “The Demonologist”, his biggest film to date, through Uncork’d and has recently finished his three latest features, ABACUS, THEY ARE WATCHING. and CALL OF THE VOID, the latter of which has won 13 awards to date.
© ITV 2023 Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich