There’s a strange tension and an air of unease that populates the frame of Reece Daniels’ experimental dance thriller BONGO, about a homeless bongo player and a mysterious masked individual who takes an interest in his pulsating rhythms. It’s a tension that occurs as a result of Daniels’ clever use of his filmic components; the application of an abstract and unsettling narrative populated with unknown masked characters and a frenetic sonic palette. These elements combine to create BONGO’s unique atmosphere, and even though you can draw a clear conclusion of the social/political dynamics at play, it still remains broadly interpretive as a piece. DN is proud to premiere BONGO on our pages today alongside a chat with Daniels about the film’s beginning as a remake of a previous short, the cautionary societal themes at its core, and the challenge he found in creating tension through diegetic sound.
What is the origin story of BONGO?
BONGO is a remake. In the summer of 2020, I had just transferred to NYU and took my first film class, remotely. We were making films and presenting them nearly every week or two, but my films weren’t eliciting the response I was hoping for, usually just golf claps and a few comments. Then, as a mise-en-scene exercise, I made BONGO. The original film was locked down on a tripod, in an extreme-wide shot at a train station, just the Dancer and the Drummer, and had almost the exact same premise and story structure, the biggest difference was I was the Dancer. My classmates and professor noticeably responded to it and felt immersed in the interaction between the two characters. I showed more people, and I received the best feedback I had received for a film at that point; as a new filmmaker, it was an exciting feeling.
I don’t consider it a nihilistic film but a cautionary tale, forewarning what happens when we trust too freely.
Was there a moment where the story of these two characters came to you?
The film was conceived while I was dancing nonsensically with headphones on, wearing a suit, like the dancer in the film. At the time, we had just bought a prop gun for a different short film, it was nearby so I picked it up and continued dancing with the gun in my hand. And suddenly, the entire story came to me. I don’t remember thinking about it; it was a lightbulb moment which I love. From there, I had to hash out what it meant and honed in on the core of the film.
There’s a clear dynamic at play between the characters but there’s also no explicit exposition either. What is BONGO about, for you?
To me, BONGO is a film about false connections and toxic relationships of any kind. Within the relationship between the two characters, there is an imbalance in what each can provide the other. The Drummer can make music, the Dancer can give him money, but the most potent currency the Dancer provides is validation. When we’re starving for validation, we aren’t picky with the deliverer of that validation, and the resulting clouded judgment can lead to danger, be it emotional or worse. Even if the Drummer can sense peculiarity from the Dancer, he ignores it as long as he can, so long as it means he can keep drumming for someone to listen.
From the sound of it one of the main changes from the original version is the more free-from camera movement in the remake. What drew you to restructure the story through that approach?
With BONGO, I wanted to create a uniquely visceral experience with the free-moving camera and hone in on the relationship and betrayal between the two subjects. This film strikes a nerve because false connections are so common in our current society, be it companies making misleading progressive commitments or even just someone telling you they love you. The experience depicted in BONGO is hyperbolic, but I believe we’ve all been the Drummer once before. I don’t consider it a nihilistic film but a cautionary tale, forewarning what happens when we trust too freely.
What challenges arose when you began production on the short?
The biggest challenge of this film ended up being cut out but the film was supposed to open with the train pulling up to the station and a few bag-headed extras getting out and commencing the opening blocking. We had done a location scout and calculated where the train would stop, where to position the camera, and which station prior the train came from so we could put some extras aboard the train. I was even one of the train extras; luckily I had the dream team duo of DP Kim Johnson and Camera Operator Clint Pang so I could comfortably leave them to capture this film. We ended up cutting it because the train’s position kept changing; we would pull into the station and see the whole camera and sound crew running after us; it was funny honestly.
I wanted to create a uniquely visceral experience with the free-moving camera and hone in on the relationship and betrayal between the two subjects.
How was the rest of the shoot? And how long were you shooting at night for?
The best part of this shoot was how prepared we all were, so our confidence was in the clouds, we all had a blast, and we had a marvelous AD Aashish Joshi, keeping us on time so there were no worries. For a film like this, the enjoyment of the cast and crew really was so vital. We did around six or seven takes of the entire sequence over four hours. Everyone kept the energy up in each take, especially the Dancer and the Drummer, Jivensley Alexis, who was also our producer, and Kyle OBraitis, who was acting for the first time ever by the way!
Part of the unsettling atmosphere of BONGO is down to the music of the bongo player, how did you find the challenge of creating that tension diegetically?
Ensuring there’d be strong enough tension was an initial concern going into production. Fortunately, our drummer, Kyle, is a professional metal drummer, so his sensibilities align with fast tempos and more complex rhythms. We worked together to have the drumming increase in volume, speed, and complexity, almost like a pot sitting on the stove, reaching its boiling point. I wanted it to get as close to boiling over as possible before the dancer could intervene each time; the pacing of the film itself was all calculated, we did hours of rehearsal just to nail the timing so we’d be satisfied with the tension.
This film strikes a nerve because false connections are so common in our current society.
I think a lot of the diegetic tension also comes from the combination of the drumming and the dancer’s feet on the concrete, which also gets more intense as he starts to dance harder and harder. It creates an isolating effect because these two people are the most dominant sounds in this quiet, nearly empty train station.
How was it capturing the short at night and ensuring that you were able to capture their interaction as imagined?
I had a very hands-off approach to the camera side of things. Once I explained the movement and dynamics of the camera I applied more focus on performance direction. I asked my DP Kim Johnson the same question, he said “Shooting at night created some technical challenges for sure, such as making sure there’s enough light to illuminate the scene, especially since we pretty much relied entirely on the street lights. The biggest challenge was mostly picking an f-stop that worked for the entire scene, even though some areas had completely different exposures than others. Outside of these technical struggles, I feel like capturing this scene at night was honestly pretty relaxing, since there were not that many people around other than our crew.”
What’s next for yourself, and for Kairon Pictures?
We have a few music videos coming up with some exciting artists and we’re rounding out the year with a pretty big project, a short film by Jivensley which I’ll be producing. It’s called Debts of Affection, it’s essentially a film about the anxiety caused by having to have a private, personal conversation in a very public space. If all goes well we may be back here soon.