Sandro Miller: John Malkovich, David Lynch and Plato

When you look at the collaborative work of American photographer Sandro Miller and actor John Malkovich you can see immediately that these two click. This unique partnership and sharing of inspired energy culminates in work that truly surprises not only in its grandeur, but also in the depth of its creation.

In their latest endeavour, Psychogenic Fugue, Malkovich portrays characters from David Lynch’s cinematic oeuvre, as well as the director himself. In this 20-minute film Sandro Miller and John Malkovich take you on a rollercoaster ride into the bizarre, trippy, intense and utterly entertaining world of Lynch through a series of riveting vignettes.

Psychogenic Fugue began as an idea between Sandro Miller and music producer Erik Alexandrakis who Miller had collaborated with on his award-winning short film HELL, also starring Malkovich, but more on this later.

Miller and Alexandrakis met with Lynch’s people about the possibility of doing a project with the director. At the time Lynch was immersed in the remake of Twin Peaks, but he sent Miller a message: “David had seen the homage to the masters work with John (Malkovich) and was very, very, very intrigued by it. He told his camp that he wanted to work with me on a project. He had this idea that maybe we could do something with his characters, recreate them”.

Lynch also wanted to know if Miller would be interested in directing a film that would help with the promotion of transcendental meditation, a practice Lynch is devoted to. In 2005 Lynch set up the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace whose aim is to teach children and adults all over the world to meditate.

Thrilled with the prospect of working with Lynch, Sandro Miller came up with the idea of a short film where the audience moves through a corridor with Lynch (played by Malkovich) as he makes these “profound statements on transcendental meditation”. Throughout the film the narration acts as a metaphorical door, which opens onto another of Lynch’s characters. It is a very powerful concept that has translated brilliantly to film.

“It was one of those projects that was intensively researched,” says Miller who is no stranger to putting in the hard yards and undertaking months of preparatory work. “I re-watched every David Lynch film, to really try and get into his head, to gain a deeper understanding of his characters, his way of directing, his lighting. I needed to do this research because the project was also homage to David Lynch, one of the greatest directors of our time. I wanted to be very honest and accurate in the way I presented his work. It was a bit daunting to know he had given me permission to recreate these characters and I wanted to do something that showed complete respect to David.”

Once Lynch had approved the script, Miller began to think about backers. As fate would have it, website solutions company Squarespace, who was already in talks with Lynch’s camp about funding a project, chose to support Miller’s film. “Squarespace gave us a fair budget to work with where I felt I could get the characters right and build the sets I needed,” says Sandro Miller. “It is amazing what Squarespace is doing, delivering their message not through mainstream advertising, but by doing these really interesting art projects. To me it’s a beautiful way to reach their potential clients, by helping artists reach their dreams. Without them this film wouldn’t have been made. It says a lot about the company and their philosophy. I was very, very happy to work with them. So they provided the funding and David supplied the creative inspiration. You can’t find a better man to be inspired by than David Lynch”.

Red Camera came on board too donating the film cameras and Red Moon Theater gave Miller the go ahead to use their massive 100,000 square foot warehouse for the shoot. “I found a great, great, great set builder too here in Chicago who recreated the film sets with unbelievable perfection,” says Miller who brought his A-team in hair, makeup, and costumes, the same crew he used on Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to photographic masters.

Miller, Malkovich and a team of around 70 shot the film over five “very, very, very long days. It was gruelling, but John brought everything to the party. For me it is the best acting that John has ever done in his career. To pull off eight different David Lynch characters and Lynch himself, with such perfection, I think he truly did an amazing job”.

For Malkovich, ‘Psychogenic Fugue’ also gave him the opportunity to play Frank Booth, a character he was asked to audition for when Lynch was originally casting ‘Blue Velvet’. As Miller tells, at that time Malkovich had just come off a theatre production where he had played a psycho maniac for three months and was exhausted.

Miller says, “When you see John play Frank Booth – in the scene where he’s putting the lipstick on – that had to be done in one take because the lipstick is such a deep, deep red, it would have taken hours for us to get it off! And he just nailed it! He was scary. I remember feeling all this tension running through my body when he was performing Frank Booth, it just blew my mind at how wonderful it was. And then in the very last scene (of ‘Psychogenic Fugue’) where he plays the Elephant Man, John had the whole crew in tears, it was such a beautiful delivery of the Lord is My Shepherd and he did it with such sincerity, it was so beautifully done”.

‘Psychogenic Fugue’ premiered at the David Lynch Festival of Disruption in October last year in Los Angeles. “We had a huge success at this Festival which David holds to raise money for his Transcendental Meditation foundation. The Festival, which is curated by David, runs for a whole weekend. ‘Psychogenic Fugue’ got a standing ovation and it was a wonderful feeling to know that his fans really loved what we did”.

Miller says the intention for ‘Psychogenic Fugue’ is to showcase it at various film festivals around the world in the coming year and to mount a travelling exhibition of the film’s stills. For now, those who are interested in seeing the stills can do so on the website at Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago. You can also check out the trailer (see links below).

And now to HELL, another of Miller’s short films, which is also the result of collaboration with Malkovich and Alexandrakis. HELL is currently on the international film festival circuit and screening in conjunction with the Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to photographic masters exhibition.

HELL sees Malkovich recite Plato’s ‘Allegory of a Cave’ direct to camera. Decked out in army fatigues, helmet, mirrored sunglasses and toting a military rifle, Malkovich’s flawless delivery is a spine-tingling watch; it is no wonder HELL took out the top prize at the 2016 New York International Motion Arts Awards. Miller has also created a stunning collection of prints from the film’s stills.

“This was one of those projects where the carriage came before the horse. I knew I’d have John in the studio for a couple of days, but I didn’t fully have the idea of what this film would look like until after I had John do the recording…. It was like ‘let’s have John recite Plato’s Allegory of the Cave…maybe I should dress him up while he’s doing it, maybe dress him in US army uniform holding an M16 and have him recite this?’.”

Miller shot Malkovich on green screen knowing he was going to do something in post-production that would accompany “this very, very long shot, an 8-minute camera move into John. About the time I was filming John doing this, we had another cop killing in Chicago. (On 20 October, 2014 Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African-American was shot 16 times as he was walking away from police). That stirred something in me…I thought about John reciting Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which is basically about ignorance and people in the shadows listening to one voice and accepting that as reality…So I was inspired by the shooting to show all of these atrocities that humans have done to humans starting in caveman times all the way to modern day”.

He continues. “I worked with this wonderful illustrator, Jonathan Caustrita. I sent him my wish list of atrocities that we have committed to each other and talked to him about the illustrations I wanted to have behind John as he was reciting. I purchased images from Getty Images too and we intertwined all of this imagery together to tell the story of Hell…We are living in a Hell right now – the way we treat humans has to be Hell. Plato’s allegory was written in 390BC and to me it could have been written yesterday because it is so relevant to what is going on in our world today”.

Miller worked with “an amazing” post-production house Utopic, to put together this very powerful message about what is going on, to ask why and how can we still be committing these atrocities on each other? “And now with Trump being elected it’s even more relevant than ever. It is so relevant and has so much meaning. It is such a powerful piece of writing and I thought it was very fitting to put it with these images and make it into this horrific message. We’ve learned nothing at all. I feel sometimes that we have gone backwards”.

As with all his work, this film “really came from the heart. If it does anything I hope it makes people realise what’s going on and to ask where is the love, where is the humanity? I think a huge percentage of people have beautiful hearts, but there’s so much going on that’s just puzzling. I hope this film makes a few people think ‘hey we really, really, really need to step up humanity and change the way things are”.

Miller concedes it is very difficult to change people and the way society thinks, but it’s not impossible. “I think films and photographs are great places to start. They’ve always made me think of who I am and how I want to act and how I want to live my life”.