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Directors Interview: Brothers of the Head

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If the 21st century has taught us anything so far, it’s that reality is expendable, and in a media-saturated age, all too easy to shape. Thus, the time is perfect for the arrival of perhaps the best ersatz documentary ever made—one, ironically, striving to capture the stripped down, truth-telling ethos of punk music.Brothers of the Head, based on the novella by British sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss, tells of conjoined twins Tom and Barry Howe, and their grooming as a musical novelty act of the 1970s, a “novelty” that becolm is directed by partners Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who were no strangers to real documentaries. The pair are best known for Lomes something altogether grittier, before flaming out right before the Ramones and the Sex Pistols put punk on the map to stay.The fist in La Mancha, their record of director Terry Gilliam’s own tilt at windmills as his production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote fell apart.The screenwriter of the quixotic Quixote film, Tony Grisoni, was the one who gave Fulton and Pepe the book. Its themes—how “two heads,” as it were, make art together—along with the “fake documentary” style of the source material, written in a series of interviews, seemed perfect for them.But the result isn’t a single-thread mockumentary like Spinal Tap, or the solo films of Christopher Guest, but rather, a multilayered contrivance: Brothers is structured as a modern-day, BBC-ish doc about the Howe brothers’ Icarus-like rise and tragic crash, with interviews of the older “survivors” of the episode. This is intercut with “found” contemporaneous footage, shot in the ’70s, by an “Eddie Pasqua,” (played by actor Tom Bower), a sort of Frederick Wiseman/Les Blank-style by-your-bootstraps American documentary maker.The Pasqua footage is used to let the Howe brothers’ story unfold, and is itself intermingled with “Super 8” footage shot by the twins, as well as “scenes” from a purported Ken Russell film made about the duo, called Two Way Romeo—the Howe’s snarling signature tune—and falling, presumably, sometime after the (very real) director made Tommy, though before he shot Gothic. Indeed, Russell himself is seen on screen talking about his “movie.”So with all this layering of reality, how did Fulton and Pepe work with their crew and key heads (get it?) in creating an authentic “found” look for their movie, a kind of filmic bricolage that wouldn’t look “shot” but rather “assembled?”In fact, it was the work of their cinematographer, British-born but Denmark-dwelling Anthony Dod Mantle. Mantle was chosen because of his work with fellow Danes Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in such films as Dogville and The Celebration, precisely because of the Dogma school ethos, positing that film should not look like film. Should not, to take Brechtian theatrical notions and apply them to the silver screen, strive to “fool” people with spectacle and artifice.Perhaps the reason was far more prosaic: “A good friend of ours from film school is Danish,” Fulton offers, and “Anthony shot a film for her.” He was the perfect DP, she assured them, to understand the images they were after.In this case, there were five color-coded “levels”—borne of going through the “entire script with magic markers,” as Fulton says—each with its own attendant look. So Mantle got busy with various filters and pushed exposures to create, or replicate, the various “historic” types of footage—including using a mini-DV, played back on a plasma monitor, and then shot off that in16mm—all to recreate the “Super 8” used by the twins.Sound man Tim Barker had it much easier, since he was actually able to appear on screen—dressed in ’70s clothes, armed with a fake Nagra recorder, holding a boom mike that appeared to be used by the Pasqua character, but which was, in fact, recording digital tracks for Pepe and Fulton.There were other icons and implements of period sound, including a “period amplifier” in the rehearsal and pub performance sequences, though the “non punk” secret, Pepe reveals, is that time was spent “cleaning up the sound quite a bit” in post, as well as “smooth(ing) out the vocals a little.”The two directors also initially nixed the idea of exhibiting the film with “surround sound,” since they had no desire to replicate the aural experience of a George Lucas film, or—referencing the ’70s again—an Irwin Allen disaster opus. But then, hearing a test, they relented, since the system “gives you the feeling you’re in the room.” The “room” in this case being one of the pubs in which the Bang-Bang duo performed during their short, storied career.But the notion of “on camera” below the elements—sound amps for live recording, boom operator roaming around—expanded radically when it came to the set. The house where most of the film unfolds is an English country house given to the Bang Bang and their band, handlers, and adherents to rehearse in and create material (think of The Band’s Big Pink transplanted to Blighty).Production designer Jon Henson, who Fulton describes as “an up and coming production manager,” had to come up with what Pepe describes as a “continuous set. We wanted the mansion to feel gothic.” And when it came down to being able to dress the corner of the house’s main room, versus being able to afford rain for a film-within-the-film scene with actor Jonathan Pryce, the directing duo optioned to “dress the corner of the house.”And then, it rained when they were filming outdoors with Pryce.Other crew members “making their bones” on this production included prosthetic designer Aaron Sherman, aided by makeup assistant Sarah White, both of whom, Fulton notes, worked on hard on keeping real-life twins Harry and Luke Treadaway appearing conjoined at all times.Sherman originally concocted a prosthetic device—joining the twins in the midsection—that would work for specific angles, or single shots, but Fulton told him “we need (the twins) to play a gig all day long!”So Sherman developed industrial-strength prosthetics, allowing the twins to twist, turn, sweat and smoke for shot after shot, while never dissolving their bond. In one scene, where the pair poses for their first album cover with their shirts off, for maximum shock effect, their “torsos are entirely fake,” so that the Treadaways would be free to move—such as they could—without worrying about lens angles, or the long-term viability of makeup FX.It all worked, and the band—ill-fated, totally contrived, utterly convincing—played on, waiting to be captured by the “documentary” cameras of directors Pepe and Fulton.

Written by Mark London Williams

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