A gangster lies in a spacious, dirty apartment, languishing in his own negative thoughts. Committed to crime, abuse, murder, and more, he is visited by a fly – representing both his past and his potential future. Through propulsive editing, innovative camera movements and bold, expressionist lighting, Director Kai Kurve, making the transition from commercial work, provides a unique, dance-infused, voiceover-heavy take on the gangster genre with CORNERBOY, closer in tone to David Cronenberg than Martin Scorsese. A dark night of the soul that’s as much a prophecy as a condemnation, the innovative format allows the director to embrace both experimentation and flair – giving great insight into both the pitfalls and the allure of gangster life. We had the chance to talk to Kurve about his collaboration with Choreographer/Dancer Piotr Simba Abramowicz, using a new Munich-based technology for moving the camera and his opinion about the enigmatic, bitterly ironic ending.
To me, this is an experimental take on the gangster film genre, using a rather different approach to express the pitfalls of living the life. Have you always been inspired by these types of films and how did you want to subvert it?
My personal taste is very eclectic. I love almost all genres as long as the films within that genre are original, unique, and surprising. Not just check-boxing the genre-specific ingredients with no new thought to it. I chose a darker topic for my short film due to my commercial director background in advertising. I wanted to do something that I would never be able to do within the advertising film world.
What was the writing process like? Did you do a lot of research into drug dealers and how they see their life? I imagine there must be a fair amount of nihilism there.
No, I haven’t researched dealers. And I didn’t want to make the statement: “All dealers are rotten to their core.” I just wanted to outline a very bad person. A betrayer, a snitch, a person that kills his friends, abuses girls. A person with a big ego and vanity based on nothing. For me, it’s also a revenge film in its own way. If you look closely you will see my black humour in it. It’s not drop-dead serious. It’s not so much nihilism; it’s just sarcasm.
I’d love to know how you came up with the idea of the talking fly!
I worked the other way around this time. At shooting time we only knew that he would be possessed by a voice which is doing these things to him. But at one point I thought I needed a little representation of this evil spirit in the frame. I didn’t want to show a monster walking in and talking to him so a fly is a very good representation. Maybe it’s just the pet of the evil spirit: in films, flies often come into play when it is about dead people or poop. This strategy counts for the off-voice too. This was written after the edit was done. I also decided if he is half a victim (usually in genres like this, a product of society) or to let him be just a natural born bad person. I decided on the last route. That was the moment it became more of a revenge film.
Piotr understood the idea of being possessed and put this into dance very well.
The dance movements are frantic yet controlled, getting us into the headspace of the character. What was it like to work on the choreography? How much input did you have?
Piotr Simba Abramowicz understood what I wanted and he just delivered. We never rolled out a complete choreography. We just tried things on the spot. I only gave emotional topics to him and he danced to them. Piotr understood the idea of being possessed and put this into dance very well. He is the dancer and the choreographer. I worked with him before as a choreographer for a commercial but I watched some of his dance reels and I thought there is more to him and his style; unique and diverse at the same time.
The music is certainly propulsive, helping to make this an intense experience. I’d love to know more about your collaboration with the composer.
I am a longtime fan of Moderat’s music and as we tried to find the right music we used only two tracks. One was New Error and the other one is Porc#1 – both by Moderat. I decided on Porc#1 because of its intense build-up. Even so, it’s a pretty old track from 2007 and more of an interlude within this album than a real track. But it served all needs. There is voodoo inside, a great maniac build-up; some sounds are even like a fly. We were then able to create the edit because of this track. My Licensing Partner Sizzer, from Amsterdam, sent the first edit over to them. They loved it and gave it to me for almost nothing. That was fantastic and added to the production value enormously.
There is also an onslaught of narration, which is almost constant throughout the film. Were you always intending to overwhelm the viewer? How did you think about the narration here?
Yes, it is. I think this urgency in the narration is what really drives the film. I wanted to create a feeling of breathlessness. I wanted to tell a story with pressure. I wanted ‘the rush’ when the roof over your head is coming down. On a meta-level, this is also about the inner dialogue or monologue that some of us have when we start punishing ourselves in the middle of the night for something we did: a feeling of rushing thoughts and inner stress.
I wanted to create a feeling of breathlessness. I wanted to tell a story with pressure.
The stress level that the viewer experiences is intended to create urgency. But it’s not the narration that does it. It’s the combination of three voices that creates this overload. There’s clearly the voice that you hear, that informs you about the circumstances. But then you have the body language of Piotr which is also telling you something about his emotional state and then you have the music, which speaks on an emotional level. It’s all of this at the same time. That is actually what gives you the experience of being overwhelmed.
What I also really enjoyed was the way the camera constantly moved, the sleek editing and the use of vibrant colours. What kind of camera equipment did you use and how did you think about the cinematography?
We shot with an Arri Alexa. The camera is always moving to create action. I often work with static cameras, which I also love, because there is something like the perfect angle. This time I want to have movement to support the action. For that, we used a very interesting device to move the camera. It’s kind of a new invention called Nu.Tron by a company from Munich called Cintica. It’s basically a more capable version of a jib-arm/crane.
I just wanted to create this world with its own rules and throw the viewer into it.
Yes, there is a concept of red, yellow, blue and dirt colours. I love to create visual worlds that have their own look. We had a lot of different locations. And especially light colours helped to make this one universe over the full course of the film.
I enjoyed the open-endedness as it finishes, as well as the tonal shift with the upbeat jazz music. Did you always want to keep it ambiguous? What do you think our hero’s fate is?
This is kind of the idea. Is he already in hell? Is it looking like something familiar to him instead of a cave of fire and lava? Would that have been even meaner? Forever in your living room? The fly asked him in the end how often they have to do it before he understands that this is his eternity. So maybe he is already in this entirety and this is his hell. I didn’t want to answer all questions. I love leaving things in a mist because it always fails when you try to give earthly answers to something supernatural. I just wanted to create this world with its own rules and throw the viewer into it.
You’ve previously worked as a commercial director? How does this inform your current work?
Luckily I am in a position where I kind of shoot interesting stuff as a commercial director. So it’s not about showing how stupid commercials are and how good the stuff I pull off on my own is. It is just the case of not being able to do everything you want in a commercial. So I made it come true myself.
What are you working on next?
Shooting some commercials to recover financially from CORNERBOY but it was worth it.