Premiering on DN’s pages today Man in the Morgue from cross-cultural interdisciplinary architect-turned-filmmaker Omar Kakar, takes an urban gothic noir trip into the disorientating world of a NYC embalmer whose discovery of a mysterious memento mori on his mortuary table infuses him with a renewed sense of life. A mysterious black and white cross-genre film with minimal dialogue which intentionally embraced a ‘less is more’ ethos in its construction, Man in the Morgue brings its protagonist (and us along with him) to the terrifying yet perhaps ultimately comforting realisation that death is only ever just around the corner. Perhaps a sign of his architectural mindset, Kakar is able to craft a genre-straddling mystery which raises interesting questions in the mind of the audience, yet never leaves them adrift in a sea of confusion. You can discover this yourself below, after which we dig into Kakar’s detailed process of re-creating his key location as a 3D model to save time during the shoot, his trust and faith in the emotional intelligence of his audience and the delightful magic he finds in the editing process.
What was the genesis for the mind bending story of Man in the Morgue?
Oddly, the initial concept was born from another unrealized and unrelated project. I had finished directing a short film written by a talented writer friend of mine that dealt with heavy and taboo subject matter. The momentum of that collaboration immediately carried over into another script, a science fiction short about sophisticated A.I. intimacy partners. To put it bluntly, sex robots. At the time the script was not resonating with me, however one small detail about the main character intrigued me, an embalmer working in a morgue. I decided to pivot away from the fantastical sex robot elements and instead explore an intense psychological character study of this man in the morgue.
From there the architect in me took over, world-building with genres, concepts, and emotions I gravitate towards as a filmmaker; Mystery, enigmas and unexplainable feelings. Gothic literature, German expressionism, film noir…Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Rumi, subjectivity vs. objectivity. And finally, experimenting with this paradoxical möbius strip, the experience of waking time intertwined with dream time.
How were you able to take such a cerebral concept and mix of ideas and craft them into an engaging narrative which didn’t become confusingly out of reach for viewers?
Synthesizing my ideas in narrative form is a puzzling undertaking, I’m embarrassed to say, it’s still beyond my full understanding. I’ve surrendered to this notion that architecture transcends the architect, in this case it’s cinema that transcends the ‘cinematographer’. Meaning when I work on a design, the design also works on me, and far better, developing in an accumulative and ordered way not fully predetermined by my conscious self, like I’m discovering a sort of cinema crystallization. My film is a presentation of pre-existing elements and influences filtered through my perceptions and feelings. Major influences come from the atmospheres created in the works I have a personal affinity for, by the likes of the aforementioned Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and Rumi.
I trust in the audience’s ability to engage with this kind of ambiguity.
Luckily during this phase of the process I had a creative collaborator, Screenwriter David Mar Stefansson, to help keep my methods, ideas, and all-around wackiness in check as an audience surrogate. Because I secretly wish for the work to be just ever so slightly out of reach because I think anything unknown has a kind of visceral pull to it, an atmosphere of mystery that can offer a level of abstraction that’s far more fascinating than if everything could be clearly understood. I trust in the audience’s ability to engage with this kind of ambiguity. I’m of the belief that people’s emotional intellect transcends their cerebral intellect.
After nailing down the high conceptuality of the script how did you move forward into the more practical elements?
I essentially talked out the main beats of the story in one sitting with my writing collaborator late one night in the middle of Washington Square Park. Soon after co-writing ensued. Realization was approached by defining and keeping track of the different realities of this world while fleshing out the lives of the characters beyond the words on the page. Towards the end of this process, I would layer and hybridize my personal interest and sensibilities in the script and later in the film edit; cross-pollinating my cultural influences from the eastern and western worlds.
We received a small grant from the Jack Larson Foundation through Columbia University. With a hard-set deadline for production, my producer and I scrambled to cast, assemble a team, and find locations during the dead of winter. No rehearsal with actors, instead preparation was more one-on-one conversations; allowing the actors to talk out their understanding of their characters and their interpretations of the enigmatic nature of the story.
Realisation at this phase was a fever dream experience for me, because during shooting I fell terribly ill, at one point I carried around a little trash can I was vomiting into. On top of that, I was in a late night car accident in the equipment van, resulting in waiting outside for hours in freezing temperatures for the NYPD to report. So there was a wild run-and-gun, by any means necessary, spirit to capture this film in New York City. We had one day to shoot in a real morgue. I was able to briefly visit the morgue prior to shooting to measure and photograph the space, to later build a scale 3D digital architectural model. So that I could familiarize myself with the space and make note of potential camera setups to be cognizant of, in hopes to save time on the day of shooting, since half of the production was freewheeling, seeing locations for the first time on the day of and immediately composing and blocking shots on the spot.
How much scope do you allow your actors for freedom in their performances as compared to what’s on the page?
As a director my goal is to make the actors feel safe and above all trusted in their performances, especially with a project of this subject matter, by engaging in deep honest conversations about the understanding of their characters and the world of the film. I wish not to give directions like a road map, but rather chart out a map with the actors of their character’s emotional and psychological terrain. Then allow the actors to comfortably inhabit their characters with the flexibility to navigate for themselves. I find this freedom builds upon what was written, adding dimension.
I’m intrigued about the building of a 3D model of the morgue, is this something you have done previously and how did it help you to prepare for the actual shoot?
Yes, I do this every time when the circumstances allow for it, as my aim is to always shoot in real world environments. We shot in a real morgue and in order to familiarize myself with the space and gain new perspectives, I built an entire 3D digital model of the location to scale from a few reference photos and measurements. This sort of planning helps me anticipate an actor’s blocking and opens me up to spontaneity, capable of making adjustments on the fly without losing a sense of place. Settings are so important to the world of a film, I consider them characters as well, and a 3D architectural model allows for a relationship with the space akin to working with actors.
This sort of planning helps me anticipate an actor’s blocking and opens me up to spontaneity, capable of making adjustments on the fly without losing a sense of place.
Once you were on set, what gear did you use to capture that planned out vision?
Equipment both behind and in front of the camera were vital. Since we were not on sets, instead shooting in real locations, we kept crew equipment small. Thankfully our brilliant DP was willing to adapt to very minimal camera and lighting equipment, in order for us to move quickly. We shot on the ARRI Amira camera and Cooke prime lenses, with the exception of a few shots on a zoom lens intentionally planned for narrative reasons.
As for equipment in front of the camera; to achieve a level of realism and authenticity in this world, finding and/or creating appropriate props was a challenge. Tools and equipment shown in the insert shots in the morgue such as the embalming machine were difficult to find, my producers luckily found a replica prop somewhere out of town I believe (I still don’t know where we found it). The mortuary tables, fixtures, and equipment were all real. The advertising panel in the subway cart, which was mysteriously occupied with the poster stencil of the möbius strip in the film, was a real installation shot in camera. It required me to discreetly participate in some guerrilla street art in order to install the print without the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority knowing. All of this was shot over four very-very cold winter nights in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Roosevelt Island in New York City.
Most of the editing process was a continual stripping down of the film in order to carve out the ideal form and spirit of the story, embracing a more pure cinema.
And how was the post-production process?
With funds depleted, post-production was a solitary process. An opportunity to work with a sound designer fell through, so I was ultimately the editor and sound designer of the film. Fortunately, editing is my favorite phase of the process. The highlight of this stage was participating in a private workshop with American film editor Carol Littleton. I was connected to her through academia, this film was a thesis-level project at Columbia University’s MFA Film program, and I was fortunate enough to be selected for a private one-on-one editing workshop with Carol Littleton.
To gain a second pair of eyes from someone of such experience and expertise, especially on a film of this nature, was a gift. Her wealth of knowledge was invaluable to the film and my confidence in making choices when finessing the final cut. The first cut of the film was nearly twice as long, with much more lines of dialogue. Most of the editing process was a continual stripping down of the film in order to carve out the ideal form and spirit of the story, embracing a more pure cinema.
Your affinity for editing really shows through in the flow of the final piece, why does this part of the process appeal to you so much?
There’s an alchemy to the editing process that I’m forever fascinated by, I’m smitten by its magic, I love it. I find the act of sculpting time, and experimenting with spatial-temporal relationships and planes of consciousness within a linear narrative timeline to be intoxicating. The most compelling quality of the editing process is how it operates similar to dreaming; when sleeping our subconscious pours out a series of spliced together visual vignettes, thoughts, and emotions. Editing is being a dream weaver for my conscious waking state.
Where did the choice of black and white come from?
Black and white photography’s atmospheric quality can be mystical, feeling otherworldly, heightening the surreal experience. I naturally envisioned black and white from the start. The duality of this binary color palette was a befitting aesthetic representation of the Gothic double and life and death preoccupations of the film. Additionally, I take pleasure in being transparent with my influences, taking cues from German expressionist cinema, film noir, and The Twilight Zone. All make beautiful use of the black and white chiaroscuro style to achieve haunting imagery.
What are you working on next?
Myself. My feature. At the moment I finished a short script/pilot I’m looking to shoot; a dystopian romantic dark comedy following a young Afghan American woman navigating her complicated work/home/play life in a hyper-perverse techno-capitalistic world.