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Sometimes, the chance to interview a director is more nerve-wracking than exciting. If you didn’t like their movie, it’s often better to make your excuses and wait for the next director. Such was the case with Suspect Zero’s director E. Elias Merhige (pronounced “marriage”).

I didn’t connect with the film emotionally, but images from the film stuck with me for days, and I had admired some of the craft, even though the trailer had ruined a surprise or two. I also (wrongly) assumed that Merhige was a foreigner because of what I thought was a naive use of signs and words.

A friend recommended I watch his first feature film, Begotten, to see where he was coming from. Begotten is the type of movie I had seen in film school. It could fairly be called “experimental” — it has no traditional storyline and no dialogue; visually, the film looks as though it has been stressed into high contrast; and the characters, such as they are, were credited as “God Killing Himself” and “Mother Earth.”

E. Elias Merhige
Director E. Elias Merhige finds inspiration in the big fat gray areas between good and evil

So how did someone who had created an experimental art-film project move into mainstream serial-killer movies (with only Shadow of the Vampire in-between)? Clearly Merhige was an artist (as a little background research confirmed). He also had a very organic sense of death, judging from the bodily, sometimes violent, deaths in his films. And what was up with those signs and words that made me think him a newcomer to America?

The only way to find out was to ask him, in an interview I was now looking forward to.

Marty Mapes: How do you get from Begotten to a mainstream serial killer movie?

E. Elias Merhige: Yeah, how did that happpen? My feeling is that it doesn’t matter whether something is independent, experimental or considered commercial. The most important thing is “does it express something very deep from within the filmmaker?” I feel that the revolution needs to take place within Hollywood itself. Here you have enormous amounts of money. You have all the cutting edge technology. And you have a great deal of resources and a great deal of talent. I just don’t see why a film cant straddle being a great piece of art and also being something that appeals to a wider audience. That doesn’t mean the widest audience, it just means a wider audience.

MM: Talk about your art background. It sounds like before Begotten you were interested in art and you did a lot of deep digging.

EEM: Yes.

MM: What did you find?

“It is the most powerful medium we have. But is it the greatest art form right now? That’s debatable. But I think the potential is there to create great art using the motion picture camera.”
—E. Elias Merhige

EEM: I found in what most museums or curators would call primitive art, which I don’t think is primitive at all. I think it’s art that taps into those universal-unconscious parts of ourselves. I look at film directing almost as one would look at a shaman: you are there to take the spirits that are at the periphery of the society’s vision, putting it all together in a way so that the entire village, the entire social strata, can really look at it and examine it, and then it becomes catharsis

MM: In all three of your feature films, I’ve seen death as a theme, but it’s not a sad death. It’s not about somebody’s consciousness dying, it’s more about the body going away.

EEM: I’ve always believed in the continuity of consciousness. I don’t think the body dying means it’s over. It just means that there’s a transformation taking place. So what we call physical death is not something that I think is some sorrowful loss. I just think that the entire universe is in a constant state of change and in its movement we’re kind of moving with it.

What I brought to the script and to the material was this idea of remote viewing. The Central Intelligence Agency and DIA and NSA and the Pentagon basically charged this group of gifted physicists and this group of gifted psychics to work together at a place called Stanford Research Institute and deconstruct how the mind is able to think in a psychic mode. So I found that to be very intriguing, and the idea that an institution as conservative as the military is coming up with these findings, is extraordinary to me.

MM: How does that tie in with serial killers. I see how it literally ties in. Does it thematically tie in?

EEM: It ties in mostly as a way of thinking how we’re all plugged in to one another, and how when something horrible is going on on the other side of the world, we think that we’re not part of it, but in fact we really are.

MM: You didn’t write the script. Was there a single thing in this story that made it stand out, that made you pick it?

EEM: For some reason, there was something going on in the story that made me think of The Secret Sharer, which is Joseph Conrad’s novella. A man, a strange man, swims in the middle of the night to this neighboring ship, gets up on the deck of the ship and talks his way to the ship captain. And basically you find out in the course of conversation, night after night, that this man is a murderer and he murdered someone on his ship, [which] wound up going down. The captain is sort of struggling within himself. Did this man act heroically? Because he says he was protecting the ship’s captain and protecting the crew. Or was he simply a murderer? There really becomes this interesting conversation on the deck of the ship at midnight where you have one man whispering into another man’s ears, and you wonder “Where is justice? Who is the good guy?”

MM: They find the case with the map. And on it it says “Information.” I thought “why would a man write ‘Information’ on a case and not something more specific?” And when you open the case, it’s painted blue with a wireframe of the United States, and it’s like the United States is an island because it’s all blue around it. Does it say something about the United States standing separately?

EEM: It’s creating the map of the United States as a state of mind. Because what he’s done is he’s created a map of the United States based on GPS coordinates where he has viewed either missing people or murders.

MM: Did you work on the case or did you leave it to the production designer/prop department.

EEM: I worked on the case. That case is something I put a lot of time into. The case represents the mind of America. The fear that something horrible and awful lurking in the most ordinary of places is everywhere. The boogeyman is the fear that is running around in all our brains, and the paranoia that separates us and keeps us afraid and keeps us stupid. And then we become insular.

MM: The case wasn’t inscribed with a rune or anything, just “INFORMATION”

“I’m exploring—in a sort of parable way—the issue of justice, the issue of evil, and the big fat gray area that really divides what we call good and evil. ”
—E. Elias  Merhige

EEM: What inspired the case was I saw this billboard. Not a billboard, an information board. And it had been up since 1981. It had staples in it, and people had torn off everything from “looking for roommate” to “missing dog.” All these different pieces of news were put up on this bulletin board. There was such a coldness of the word “Information” as it related to these entire lives that came and went and left their impression on the board. To me it was like a diamond bullet where I suddenly understood: This is O’Ryan’s mind. It has that antiseptic word “Information.” But inside it is just all of that horror.

MM: It’s interesting that you recommend 2001 as a marriage of science and poetry.

EEM: I think poetry, like science, allows you to penetrate deeper into the true state of consciousness. At some point poetry and science meet in a place where there’s no difference between the two. They go straight towards a dead center, there’s no question in my mind.

MM: And what’s at the middle?

EEM: At that middle is this profound “aha!” of what it’s all about, of that experience of existence. And it can only be understood through that marriage of opposites. If you look at Einstein’s theory of relativity, the key element of the theory of relativity is poetic vision: “What is it like to ride on a beam of light?” Couldn’t you imagine William Blake writing a line like that? But then to support that line of poetry with an actual mathematical formula, there you have this marriage of poetry and science where the two of them become one.

MM: You mentioned Werner Herzog’s documentaries. And in some of them he seems a little crazy. Does it take a madman to make art?

EEM: I know Werner. He’s not crazy, he just knows what he wants. Every director has their own way of accessing their own irrational part of what they want to express. You have to be willing to sacrifice your own comfort to investigate and go deeper into really excavating the human soul. And to do that, you have to go into the darkness. You can’t avoid it. And especially today, no way can you avoid the darkness. He’s a person that needs to personally experience something. He doesn’t want you to tell him what the answers are. He wants to throw himself into an experiment

MM: ... so that he can be a more honest director...

EEM: Exactly. And it’s the pursuit of personal experience to draw the poetry and honesty from that. I don’t think that’s mad, I think that’s actually something admirable. Whereas on the other hand you have so many directors who don’t throw themself into experience at all and they’re just like traffic cops; they don’t care what they’re doing. They haven’t created a whole aesthetic paradigm that they’ve meticulously worked out to bring the audience into some deep spaces. That’s my whole MO with Suspect Zero and that’s why I’m proud of the film: because there are moments that take you into a poetic reverie that you would not experience anywhere else.

  • Matt Munoz: Hello, I have a special episode of my Bakotunes Music podcast, featuring a story about how Merhige's film 'Begotten' saved a couple from a drug cartel, listen at the link below: October 13, 2007 reply