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Jonathan Davies

Jonathan Davies
Cas, a shy young woman and apprentice musician, moves into her late aunt’s house in a small town near Los Angeles. She forces open the lock of a cupboard in which she finds an old box. Inside are a handful of mini-cassettes marked with mysterious inscriptions. Topology of Sirens begins with this enigma and relates Cas’ investigation, somewhere between fantasy and paper chase through the substance of sound that forms the world. Although they are eventually incarnated at the end of the investigation, the Sirens are above all an object of fascination shared by the heroine and the filmmaker, a common passion for sound experimentation. Slowing down the investigation, stepping away from the plot, Jonathan Davies makes way for a series of musical performances. Cas attends or joins in, and which further heighten her perception of her environment, sharpening her senses and curiosity. This wide-ranging, generous film is driven by an unbridled love of beauty, its conservation and its transmission, at all times and in all forms. Modern and ancient beauties, the refined elegance of interior architecture, the natural splendour of a landscape or the sophistication of an 18th century harpsichord. Beauty also in the names, such as those of the French vielle manufacturers who are listed, one after the other, in homage to the memory thanks to which they live on. For a filmmaker who has no shortage of ideas, this is no doubt the most decisive: exploring and developing sound matter as a temporal labyrinth, coupling his experimentation with sound to an exploration of its history. From station to station, from encounter to encounter, the topology of the sirens deepens and enriches the experience of familiar places, transforming a chic Californian suburb into a kind of tropical and musical Eden where water, light and the sounds of the world unite their vibrations in all encompassing musicality. Concerted birdsong, arpeggiated chords on a harpsichord and the metallic bounce of balls on baseball bats. At the end of this tale of learning, this is what Cas leads us to understand: happiness resides
in sound.
(Cyril Neyrat)

Interview with Jonathan Davies

1. Cas, the main character of your film, engages in a personal quest after finding mysterious mini-tapes. Following her quest, the film itself develops into an exploration of environmental sound and experimental music. What was the first impulse at the origin of Topology of Sirens ?

When I first moved to Los Angeles and started venturing out of the city for the first time, I was mesmerized by the big green hills and mountains that come into view as you drive out of the city, blending into the blue atmospheric perspective in the sky. These are very different from the hills you see in Hollywood, sparse but still dotted with small roads and patches of houses that seemed almost impossible to get to. To this day I still wonder, even if I rationally know the answer is very simple, what could be happening there, how do I get there? So the film is in large part an imaginary answer to that feeling.
Another big thing is that one of our producers Tyler Taormina, who directed last year’s Ham on Rye, and I actually have a drone duo called Fjords, whose music you can hear in both of our films. That
experience informed a lot of the film. That type of music was very comfortable territory for me at the time, so it seemed like a natural fit for a subject. I’d long dreamed of making a film that combines sensibilities of the cinema I love with 90s PC adventure games that I grew up on, which is something I don’t see in film too often. So I thought I’d combine all of these impulses and see what happened.

2. Most of the actors are either non professionals or musicians themselves, who perform their music in the film. The narration is thus punctuated by a series of music performances. How did you chose the musicians/actors of Topology of Sirens ? How did you work with them, direct them through the making of your film ?
There’s several performers in the film, but Sarah Davachi and Whitney Johnson (who records under the name Matchess) are the two musicians who are “acting,” though they’re really just playing themselves on screen. I had been a fan of their music and knew they were broadly interested in the same ideas that the film was interested in, so it seemed a natural fit and I think this is what drew them to the idea of appearing in such a film, not having done so before. In some ways it was a very hands-off approach with them as I did not want them to “act” so much as just react and convey certain ideas and topics in their own words.
Then there are people like Curtis Berak, the hurdy-gurdy collector who’s featured in the film, who I found by just searching around LA. He’s a walking encyclopedia on hurdy gurdies and harpsichords (the harpsichord hall in the film also belongs to him). The first time I met him, it was like getting a three hour personal class on the history of hurdy gurdies, it was great. So, I let him just do his thing and talk to Courtney, and I wish we could have included more as he’s a joy to listen to. Interestingly enough, he was also a teaching assistant for Manny Farber in the 70s and once regaled me with a tale of being personally tasked by Straub-Huillet to care for a print of The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach.
Courtney Stephens, who portrays the protagonist Cas, is not a professional musician herself but a non-fiction filmmaker in her own right – she co-directed The American Sector which premiered at Berlinale last year. She was an essential bit of casting not only because she’s the lead role, but her experience as a documentarian (and inquisitive conversationalist in general) made her a perfect fit to guide the other non-professional actors. The idea of casting her was recommended by a mutual friend outside a performance by the great noise artist Merzbow, which I always find amusingly fitting for the film.

3. Cas’ quest progressively turns into a time travel, an anachronic and fantastic exploration of the history of music, of instruments and sound technology. Can you comment on that ?
I had been listening to a lot of contemporary minimalist/drone music and early music when I was developing the film, as well as artists who synthesize those two influences, like Sarah’s own music does. There’s definitely a notable contingent of artists who follow this influence, this incorporation of early music composition, sounds, and aesthetics into a more modern context. So, I wanted to see if I could interrogate that a bit in my own environment. It wasn’t within my means to travel to Europe and document the proper origin of many of these things so I wanted to try my best to see what, if anything, represents this influence in my own surroundings. So, that’s how someone like Curtis ended up in the movie.
At a certain point I had collected a wide range of places, people, props, music etc. that spanned a wide range of time and realized it could be used as a structuring element in the film. I think for the most part,Topology comes across as a very “offline” film on a surface level, which is ironic because so much of how the ideas are put together in the film are a result of spending way too much time on the internet. A cinema of having “too many tabs open at once,” if you will.

4. The contemplative action takes place in a small California town, close to Los Angeles, still the places remain unnamed. Following Cas’ quest into sound, the locations seem to become more and more exotic. Can you talk about the choice of locations, explain how you conceived this topology ?
I had originally dreamed of shooting this in New England, near where I grew up. That wasn’t practically feasible, so I started looking for places in and around Los Angeles which somehow resembled New England. In retrospect, this was a foolish endeavor but it did ultimately lead to finding LA-based locations that still seem appealingly unplaceable. I’ve had people tell me the movie looks like it could have been filmed anywhere from Northern California to Florida to somewhere in Europe. At this point, even though the movie is not explicitly set there for the most part, I do emphatically consider it to be an “LA movie,” to show that LA movies don’t have to partake in the images that are often associated with the city on film, ranging from film noir to more modern Hollywood glitzy stereotypes. I do also think the sound design goes a long way in accentuating the exotic quality that you speak of. When you film in such a way that even natives of the film’s shooting location can’t place exactly “where” it’s happening, it’s easy to get away with taking sounds from all over the world and placing them strategically into the sound design. So there’s a lot of field recordings and ambiances from wildly varying origins that I spent a lot of time poring through sound effect banks to find.

5. The film consists mainly of long and wide shots, with a large depth of field. It enables a constant immersion of the characters in their environment, air and sound, and gives architecture and urbanistic design a strong presence. Can you comment on these choices ?
As mentioned, it had been one of my dreams to make a film that invokes the spirit, logic, and aesthetics of 90s PC point-and-click adventure games, which employ a similar visual grammar to the film. Games like The Secret of Monkey Island are just as important as any film to how I conceive of a visual language. So in some ways it was just a natural, instinctive choice. It’s this immersive quality that these games excel in, and so they were not only an influence on the visual design of the film but nearly every other element from the dialogue to prop design. And, with the music often blending in and out of the environmental sound, it was important to also see both “worlds” in equal measure visually as well. It often feels like this kind of master shot cinema has so much in common with these games that it blows my mind that these two spheres are likely in large part unaware of each other. Can you imagine if, say, Béla Tarr was secretly a video game nerd? It would make total sense to me, honestly. Perhaps we’ll all see a lot more of this, with the generation that grew up on games becoming more prominent as cinematic voices.

6. The film’s credits give the impression of a collaborative kind of production, with many key crew members from Ham on Rye. Can you explain how this film was produced, describe its economy ? For example, Carson Lund is credited as director of photography, editor, and also co-sound designer, with you. Cumulating these positions in the making of a film is quite unusual. Can you talk about these collaborations ?
Topology of Sirens
is the second feature in a collective group called Omnes Films, the first one being Ham on Rye. At its core, we’re essentially a bunch of college friends who still collaborate to this day. It’s a very DIY kind of thing, we’re always helping on each other’s films and take on many roles, which is why the producer credits are what they are. We all have day jobs so everyone kind of chips in to do the work that one producer would traditionally do in a larger budget film.
This approach also manifests in the post-production as well. As is often the case with these sorts of movies, much of the budget gets consumed by the production and not much is left in post. So, we’re kind of left to our own devices to become our own post-house. Carson, as you mentioned, was a key collaborator. I’ve known him for a long time and we’re good friends, so he knows my tastes very well and is easy to collaborate with. Even though he’s not a sound designer by trade, we did all of the sound design together since we knew what the film needed, and it seemed too much of a gamble to have anyone else dabble in that in a limited capacity, given our budgetary restrictions. But I feel like if anyone else was in the room with us also helping out, they could have just as easily been given a sound design credit as well. We’re all very hands on and attuned to each others’ visions.

7. Sirens, in greek mythology, are rather dangerous creatures, whose charm should be avoided. In your film, Cas’ quest and fascination for sound has nothing dangerous, on the contrary. The Sirens’ incarnation,towards the end of the journey, marks no drowning, rather an enlighted fulfillment. What are sirens for you, how does the word resonate in your film ?
Incorporating the concept of the sirens was one of the first ideas I had. Obviously Topology is not so interested in the specifics of Greek mythology or its legacy but rather a certain essence of what those sirens portray. The concept of alluring, mysterious sounds, it seemed like a natural fit. The way I originally wrote the idea into the movie was more in line with a traditional depiction, I would have had performers actually singing onscreen. But it eventually mutated into the incarnation you see in the film, in which I’d like to think they became their own thing, perhaps generating their own new mythology. The title also plays into this too. I’m no mathematician so I won’t attempt to clumsily explain this, but if you look into the concept of topology and apply it to the film by considering the concept of the sirens as a shape or topological space, it may be illuminating on why these two words, unrelated as they may seem, are included in the film’s title. And, I wasn’t aware of its existence until after we shot the film, but there’s a short story by Kafka called “The Silence of the Sirens” which pairs nicely with the movie as well.

Interview by Cyril Neyrat

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Technical sheet

USA / 2021 / 106’

Original Version : English.
Subtitles : French.
Script : Jonathan Davies.
Photography : Carson Lund.
Editing : Carson Lund.
Music : Sarah Davachi, Whitney Johnson, Micaela Tobin, Ben Boye.
Sound : Jonathan Davies, Carson Lund.
Casting : Courtney Stephens, Sarah Davachi, Whitney Johnson, Mark Toscano, Suzan Crowley, Samantha Robinson, Langley Fox Heming way.
Production : Tyler Taormina (Omnes Films).
Distribution : Jonathan Davies.