Exclusive interview with Stéphane Piter, producer and special effects artist:
Was this your first introduction to Michael Mann, or had you already previously seen some of his early work such as Thief and other TV work? What triggered your fascination to find out more about this elusive film?
Since I was a child, I have been fond of the fantastic genre and visual creation – the arts. It was very natural that I quickly became interested in cinema. Three films unleashed my inventive desires in this field.
When I was around 7 years old, I discovered Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and it was a splendid discovery. I wondered how this animal had been crafted? And the sets? The frames? Make-up process? Besides, I made up my first ‘costume’ of the beast at that time! Cocteau’s film exposed the beast in a splendid way; it was extremely rare to expose such a character in the panorama of the French cinema. This film enabled me to discover the real power of dreams and the ‘desires’ of creation in cinema and make-up artistry.
The second work was George Lucas’s Star Wars, which undoubtedly marked many people, and finally the third, the cornerstone and my Holy Grail: Michael Mann’s The Keep in 1983.
I had already read Paul Wilson’s book, upon which the movie is based, several times. I strongly appreciate the setting of themes of the opposing sides clashing in a Second World War background, a very disturbed period.I remember discovering the first images of the film through a magazine about the fantastic which covered the cinematographic issues. Radu Molasar, the malefic creature of the film was on the first page and I must say I found it very tempting and powerful from an aesthetic point of view. Reading this excellent magazine, I could discover splendid and very aesthetic images, expressionistic frames with a clear, dominant blue steel light.
The aspect of the castle was monolithic and totally different from all the fantastic images of castles used until then in such works as the Hammer Films. At the cinema, it was a true revelation, a powerful shock and definitively inspiring to me. The Keep inspired me with the desire to continue in this trade: visual creation for the cinema. The cinema made it possible to invent worlds which do not exist and to give them a very concrete reality.
The decorations, the film’s music, lighting and the way of filming gave birth to what I am now. I did not know Michael Mann before The Keep, I was more accustomed to other well-known directors in this field. The vision of Mann does not echo the worn stereotypes used until then. It was a new vision, aesthetically and intellectually different. Finally, the fantastic in particular surpassed the limiting film framework of ‘genre’ often rejected by critics. I always thought that fantastic film directors had a more acid view of the world than others. On purpose, they choose the fantastic as a metaphor of life and the world. To choose the fantastic is to ‘improve’ a little or change the often disappointing world, to escape from our Cartesian and mundane reality, to create magical characters, extraordinary worlds and, in this way, to live forever with this artistic signature.
In this category, I can only quote to you some ‘superstars’ of the cinema of the fantastic, who were for a long time run down and criticised for their cinematographic ‘lightness’. Steven Spielberg put all the world in agreement following Schindler’s List, James Cameron with Titanic, Ridley Scott with Kingdom of Heaven. Guillermo Del Toro is also a director that I appreciate; Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterpiece. They are film-makers anchored in the fantastic cinema but they are deeply human.
After The Keep, I was strongly interested in Michael Mann the director, and the man, and his themes or rather his theme: human choices that we make in life and their repercussions. I discovered a very cerebral but aesthetically rich cinema then. Michael Mann has a very particular relationship with music, a very intimate relationship. It is a great part of his speech.
The cinema is such an emotional and pure experience. The use of digital cameras for Collateral and Miami Vice is an illustration of this fact. It is Mann most of the time with the camera in hands. To be closer and more intimate with the story and the characters. To be in the film.
How did your Journey begin with The Keep? How many years have you put into collecting and collating this information?
I discovered The Keep in theatres in 1984 and it was an amazing invitation – I was 11 years old and this positive shock was fertile for my artistic, professional and human life choices. The film works like daydreaming, Molasar made a very great impression on me – of power, the incarnation of an energy. It was the aim of the cinematic direction of Michael Mann. However, the film presented very long sequences and magnificently clipped video images and others where the time lapses were violent. The coherence and course of the story seemed to me too fast at times.The jumps were not always justified and I always thought that the film released in cinemas was only the immersed part of a monstrous iceberg. Especially if you compare it with the book of Paul Wilson, whole sequences are missing. It was not possible that one could film images and sequences for the story and maintain coherence.
At a precise point, from 1984, I started to try and gather magazines, images and documents around The Keep. The disconcerting thing is the current assembly running time of editing, which led to a simple reflection: does the production have time to lose these scenes for free? The more I sought answers, the more The Keep revealed its true and real face. Of course, at the beginning I was young and my means were limited, but I always kept an open space in my brain for this research, and I’ve now gathered rare documents and originals related to the film for more than 30 years. Like a huge puzzle, my actions are aimed towards a very dedicated and respectable tribute to the original version wished by Michael Mann. The actual 96-minute version is a producer’s assembly for exploitation. Michael Mann’s original film approaches 180 minutes. So, try to imagine, in 1983, a 180-minute fantastic movie! Such an ambitious project! Only Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia or Gone With the Wind can boast such a running time. The Keep grows in maturity with me and revealed its secrets, and still continues to reveal them. As I said before, The Keep largely influenced me toward my current profession. I carried out my studies in the fields of fine arts, pictorial and cinematographic arts – BA of arts and letters, cinematographic film editing option. Indeed, I am currently a special effects make-up chief, special effects director, artistic guest speaker of cinematographic arts and history of art. I wrote various works at Arts University.
Can you describe how different the 2.35 : 1 ratio widescreen experience is to that of the pan and scan VHS?
The cinema is a very different experience to that of television. Michael Mann always emphasised the cinema experience and not the small framework in TV. The film was realised in anamorphic focus 2.35 : 1, a very specific method and image in relation to the film’s theme and comprehension. I have many versions of the film, it is very disappointing to discover the film in its pan and scan version because the entire film was absolutely not thought of in this direction and process! An image of cinema is like a painting of Delacroix, da Vinci or Caravaggio. Each element has its place and particular informative purpose. Could you imagine Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, Raphael’s The School of Athens, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Scene or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica cut in a very small frame? Absolutely not! It is the same thing here. As the film has already been re-edited from its original running time, it is sometimes difficult to follow the history in a coherent way. Then if other information disappears from the framework it is still worse! I am disgusted by the way in which the film was treated in the video transfer – its stereophony became mono and the image was not corrected at all according to the shot sequences. Here are some of the most representative examples. When Glaeken (played by Scott Glenn) meets Eva for the first time in the hotel, Glaeken does not have any reflection in the mirror behind them, only Eva is reflected. In the video version, the framework is done on the two actors in the foreground and we do not distinguish the mirror in background at all! It is however important information for the story, directly referring to the myth of the vampire not having any reflection in the mirror! This idea is present in the book of Wilson, and let us not forget that the story takes place in Carpates, in Rumania. This is the only scene shown at length on the whole film in which Glaeken does not have any reflection. Addressing Eva in this direction in another cut scene, Glaeken talks about his loneliness and feeling of non-existence.
In the original Michael Mann film ending, (yet again a cut scene!) after the combat with bare hands with Molasar, Glaeken sees his reflection in the lake below The Keep – and becomes ‘human’. In another compromised sequence in pan and scan, Glaeken was carried out by Germans at the entry of The Keep; a long shot shows Eva in tears kneeling at the edge of the bridge, but with the extreme right-hand side of the framework non-existent, she literally disappears! The pan and scan process can be considered like a butchered TV exploitation. Only Stanley Kubrick’s films could resist and pass well through the process of pan and scan, because Kubrick liked to film in 4 : 3 and composed things in this process. The pan and scan system loses 40 to 50% of information in an image of the cinemascope.
Among your many talents, you appear to be a very public figure in France. How have you managed to interweave your journey into talks on The Keep?
The Keep belongs to me closely: I feel myself very near the artistic universe of the film, the taste and atmosphere of the film – the very air with vaporous, cloudy and foggy parts. I carve many stone pieces and like old stones. I adore the mountains and lived in the French Alps. Molasar’s throne in the middle of my other creations represents the crystallisation of my artistic desires. For me the ‘fantastic’ is an important aspect of cinematography! The creation of unreal things: how to make creatures or characters credible and realistic? The Keep is above all a whole fairytale for adults. There are particular reference marks to consider when you see the film, its very visual form in particular.Since 1999 I have thought that it was high time to make all my knowledge profitable and to try to present part of my personal collection around The Keep. What also pushed me to create www.the-keep.ath.cx was the fact that many journalists wrote all and anything on the film. I was at the same time frustrated and disappointed by these writings, not counting on having my own words literally deformed or diverted by not very scrupulous journalists.
The second reason was to show Paramount Pictures my sincere investment in The Keep; my site is almost a direct dialogue with them if they take the time to read it clearly. I have a very strong desire to have the opportunity to be involved in and take part in the creation of an official DVD edition worthy of its name for The Keep. My ideas are very clear and ready – in my mind a 4 or 5 DVD Prestige Edition is possible, with the knowledge and the documents in my possession. The Keep is a cult movie, a thing that Paramount does not seem to take in or understand. There are thousands of fans who love the film around the world, the creation of my website has revealed that.
At the beginning, my prime motivations were to please myself and to rectify the errors written in the newspapers around this film. People know me now as a kind of ‘guard’ of The Keep: it was time for me to shout out the love which I carry for this film. In many public meetings, festivals, and special effects exhibitions, members of the public always ask me to explain the film. People remain surprised at the name of Michael Mann because they know him for other good and successful films: Heat, The Last of the Mohicans or Miami Vice. Moreover, if one observes the whole of Mann’s filmography well, The Keep is integrated completely into its topics of good and evil, the oppositions. What pushes me every day is my passion for film and the fact that Michael Mann is one of the greatest, current directors. All his films are well thought out and reflective. The Keep, in its original version, does not deviate from the rule. My discoveries confirm this idea and I do not see why one would leave it in darkness at Paramount. A film which finally deserves to find the light. The Keep in 1983 seemed too ambitious and could not yet be sufficiently controlled by Michael Mann at that time. I do not speak about how the filming was carried out but about his exploitation. Michael Mann did not have the final cut on his film. There are many other films which underwent a bad butchering, I think of John McTiernan’s The Thirteenth Warrior.
It may not be wrong to assume that The Keep stands as probably Mann’s most ambitious film. Considering his success in TV, he must have felt compelled to do something on a larger scale. If you look at Mann’s filmography as it stands today, it’s a classic example of a success and failure upheaval. A series of peaks and troughs. Manhunter was his second flop after The Keep – that has slowly built momentum over the years too. It looks as though he decided to return to TV after The Keep, where his success had begun, to concentrate on developing his feature film ideas and growing as an artist. Perhaps The Keep came too early for him in his career?
I have the greatest respect for Michael Mann, especially as I received a letter about his part in www.the-keep.ath.cx, saying that he approved my continuous passion for The Keep, that he was happy that his film, even incomplete, could inspire me so much. For my part I find this very positive, for the creator himself does not disavow The Keep and invites me to continue. I would indeed like to reveal to the world what Mann had in mind and filmed in 1982/83 at the age of 40. The Keep was a most ambitious project for this period for Mann, the film-maker likes to try and go forwards, to test new techniques and processes and to propose an experiment to be lived with the cinema. You will note that Michael Mann does not have a composer of film music appointed, like Steven Spielberg with John Williams for example. With each film Mann seeks the tonality which represents best the sound and the feelings/emotions of that film.
The Keep was ambitious in its scope for it goes against the current of all the fantastic stereotypes of the genre. In place of Gothic symphonic music the director uses something experimental and avant-gardist, but in total agreement with the images (German mechanics and repetitive music for the main title. Molasar is energy – synthesis and synthetic music of human evils. The oneiric aspect, tale and dreams with the loan of Walking in the Air by Howard Blake…).I honestly think that Paramount at the outset did not seize and understand the ‘artistic’ way that Mann considered. It is enough to see the merchandising around the film, in particular with ‘The Keep game’ where a German fights Molasar in the castle. Could you imagine Steven Spielberg carrying out merchandising with Schindler’s List? Mann ran up against many technical barriers at the time, such as in the optical special effects, and, unfortunately, Vally Weever’s death during post production. The Keep was originally for summer 1983 but it was postponed to December. All the plans were filmed but were not assembled according to technical specifications. Molasar in particular was to be much less physical or real and more energetic. Besides, he is not the principal character of film; the current assembly presents the thing on the fantastic side whereas Molasar and the ‘magic or supernatural’ effects are there only to illustrate and reinforce strife between the men. Molasar is only the concretisation of faintness and the evil.
They also had to present powerful optical effects for all the sequences of final combat. Add to that the tensions between powerful technicians; production and logistical problems; and the weather’s effect on sets and on the decorations. And going beyond the budget that Mann filled with his own wages (Isn’t this a real form of investment? … All that belonged to the folklore of shooting and does not shock me at all – they are the risks of film-making. I see that all the time. A director needs and wants a sequence, then the technical crew must offer this plan to him, even if it is tea-time (A cultural tradition in England)!
What remains is that Mann assembled his version at the end of post production, as envisaged but it was presented to some Paramount ‘public test projection’ in the USA with an arbitrarily indicated public. The fate of the film was sealed at this point and it was cut by half, to answer some public requirements, to normal theatre exploitations running time. I am completely against these public test projections, they show absolutely nothing about public reaction – they are not representative of a true public! The public is so adaptable. With the current developments of optical special effects, supervising main special effects that are missing or were carried out poorly at the time is currently completely possible. I take the example of Robert Wise’s Star Trek DVD (also a Paramount Pictures film) – he himself saw cleaned and assembled sequences of vacant special effects in 1979.Then my questions. What do Paramount Pictures make? Is there some real segregation between films? Isn’t Michael Mann an interesting director? The rebirth of the film [The Keep] in its entirety would be certain of success, if you sought somebody for this task. I am volunteering!
Many other full-length films have drawn largely from sets of themes and aspects in The Keep: Ridley Scott’s Legend has an end in total harmony with Michael Mann’s original script; Renny Harlin’s Prison, Michele Soavi’s Sanctuary, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser …The Keep was badly perceived in its time, misunderstood by the production and the final ‘butchered’ film cannot inevitably, logically, be liked by the public since it’s incomplete. All that we do forms an experiment. If Mann had not made The Keep in his time, it would not be there today. (Do you understand fully what I want to say?) It is a foundation stone of the complete building. I do not disavow what I made when I was younger, that belongs to my history and my evolution. It might not have succeeded as we would have liked, but if it is there then if there is any possibility of presenting what was there in the beginning, why not do it? It is always difficult to give form to an idea, and I know what I’m speaking about. Michael Mann carries out very fine cinema, as it is a dialogue and a relationship with the public audience. It does not take you by the hand and does not explain all; it is an exchange. There is a lot of information within the framework and it is enough to look at and to search this historical document to understand more deeply. Metaphors, allegories, the image created by Mann is like a painting. What is on it shows that Mann was constantly experimenting. He was the first to offer Hannibal Lector to us, to the cinema, and if you look there, Molasar is not far away in this film.
One can find many plans similar to The Keep. (A long list of credits – Thief, The Keep, Manhunter.) It is very curious to see the remake of Manhunter called Red Dragon, the entire first half of the film is based on that of Mann’s version. The remake is even proud to have used the same director of photography again! I am happy that Anchor Bay repurchased the rights of the DVD editions of Manhunter because three collector’s editions were released and, of these, the long version of the film was supervised by the creator himself.
F. Paul Wilson’s interview is one of the more detailed of the memory interviews on your site. He says that Mann did not build character in his original script, although I think the communication between Mann’s production and what he thought was adapted made this difficult. We both know that this was a pure and visually fantastic film and that this did not necessarily need constant relation to characterisation to an in-depth degree. Do you think he was trying to achieve fantastic cinema on a wider commercial scale and make it an acceptable form to a mass audience?
It was very legitimate and extremely interesting to contact Paul Wilson in connection with The Keep since he is the original creator of the story. I did it in all sincerity and without any spirit in favour of my share because I like the book and the film as they are two different mountains. For my part the whole story remains complementary because for those who do not understand the film completely, the book makes it possible to comprehend the missing cut scenes. Being a visual person, my affection will go to the image bus. Mann tried to exceed the book in order to create a tale for adults on humanity. I have a very good relationship with Paul Wilson and I know very well that he has no affection for the film because ne never had access to the long version of film. Let us not forget what is written in the credits of The Keep: ‘based on Paul Wilson Story’. It is not a faithful adaptation but a free interpretation of the story by Paul Wilson. The author had largely given his ‘point of view’ on the work of Mann. The creation of www.the-keep.ath.cx made it possible to discover new images of the initial assembly, and for the public and the author to understand that another film exists somewhere – a film much nearer to the original story. People don’t always agree, inevitably, about the depiction of Molasar in the film (a vampire in the book), but Mann wished to go further and to give birth to an evil more general, an entity of the evil and not a vampire. Moreover, in the film the victims are devoured on the level of the heart, the energy. No blood, it is not bloody. The Keep is an author film, not a ‘commercial’ film, within the strict definition of the term. The complete original script of film has been kept and the current missing scenes give information on the psychology of the characters, and especially their relationships/motivation. It is curious to see that very recently The Keep was adapted in comics (IDW Publishing) in five issues.
It seems that Paul Wilson himself was confronted with another medium other than the writing. How to give an image to a text and words? It is not so simple and unfortunately the solution is to cut many details of the original story for adaptation for comics. In the first issue, the illustrator takes again, visually, almost the same plans as Mann for the cinematographic version. A book is inevitably always much denser than an image. You make your own film in your head, it is infinitely more powerful and richer, but is this filmable? Can we make it in three dimensions?
I am happy to have a very good relationship with Wilson, in spite of my very great passion for Mann’s film, that shows a very large broadmindedness and intelligence. He could have rejected me from the start. I think that Paul Wilson is as keen as me to finally discover the long version of The Keep. But there will be always a difference between a book and a version or filmic adaptation of this work. Look at Stanley Kubrick’s Shining– one cannot say that Stephen King agrees with the result. What are Frank Herbert’s thoughts about David Lynch’s Dune or the John Harrison adaptation? It is definitely necessary to stop making comparisons between two different artistic sources or the concept of ‘taste’ and artistic preference. In each interpretation there are points of view, affectivity, subjectivity. There is no doubt that Michael Mann succeeds in creating a really singular atmosphere with The Keep, far from that of the book which I appreciate too. The Keep resembles a brain where conscious and unconscious ideas, feelings and emotions emerge and clash. Where morality, doubt, survival, desire and treason meet, your worst nightmare could well be yourself, for it emerges from your unconscious like the image of Molasar confronting Kaempffer.
If the final version is released and it fills in the gaping holes, do you feel that Wilson may accept it as a Michael Mann film, that simply used Wilson’s book as an inspiration and not as a direct source to use? Do you think Wilson has seen any of the lost footage?
Wilson can indeed accept another point of view and consider that it is ‘cinema’ and aesthetic film. I think Paul Wilson is completely aware of the difficulties that Mann met during the shoots and that another film exists somewhere.
The question is also to know which were the rights and options requested by Paramount on the work of Wilson because the writer could have been more involved in the project via contractual clauses. I don’t know exactly the terms of the options bought by Paramount. In fact, Michael Mann took ‘bases’ on the story; it is not a linear and faithful adaptation. It is another point of view of the story or the topics. One can appreciate or not, but criticism must be constructive – that’s why my ambition is to reveal what I never doubted on behalf of Michael Mann, a coherent film taking again a certain broad outline of the book and all the while integrating aesthetism and undeniable formal beauty there. Paul Wilson currently works with a possibility of a remake, a TV version with the opportunity to convey far more details of the story on the screen. It would undoubtedly be best if the writer took part as an advisory artistic guest. Wilson has a vision of his work that nobody else can have. In fact The Keep is a frustration for many people: the writer who inevitably does not find his work, the director who has to cut his film, the public audience which has patience to discover the true film finally.
The studio currently reacts like a ‘studio’ and simply looks at its catalogue of films and their success at the box office. The Keep, having not refunded half of its budget, is considered to be a minor work and without interest. Why invest again then? The writer did not ever see the long version of film, but he was invited to visit the Shepperton studios during film-making in 1983. It was magic at the time; Wilson saw the sequence where the two soldiers open the wall to release Molasar from his prison. The writer then discovered the butchered version in cinemas like all the spectators. Reactions were positive for the first part of film, but much less so for the second. However, during a USA TV broadcast of the film, the author was surprised to discover a big section of a cut scene illustrating a great passage of his book: after the combat between Glaeken and Molasar, Eva returns to the basements of The Keep, to find the inanimate body of her lover who then reanimates. After this we discover the reflection of Glaeken in water.
We are well aware that some parts of film were not used. What I also wish to raise here is that the duration of the TV film was well in excess of 96 minutes, like the running time in the exploitation movie theatres. It seems that the film cannot exceed a precise running time, but that, within this time, we can add or remove other sequences. In this particular American broadcast, three other known sequences had disappeared for the release of the alternative ending sequence. The result is some completely incomprehensible, incoherent film. I can only, once again, express my strong revulsion for the lack of respect for the work.
For my part, I took all possible steps to contact the eligible party. Michael Mann is well aware of my existence and my quest, and I hope in the future to have a very sincere discussion about the film. It should also be well understood that in 1983 The Keepwas a real suffering, a frustration, since the current assembly is not his vision. My greater fear was to be viewed as one of those fans who are almost fanatical, whereas my motives are sincere and my objectives are professional. The creative department of Paramount Pictures also knows my quest and wishes. When could we have a real collaboration? I remain open to all possibilities.
If I had had the opportunity a long time ago, I would have repurchased the rights of the film! Superman II has just come to us in DVD, I refer to the version by Richard Donner, refused by Warner. This film dates back to 1978. The DVD includes a whole luxury of supplements of all kinds. Last time something along these lines happened was with Exorcist: the Beginning, a Renny Harlin film that was followed by the previously unreleased and ‘abandoned’ version of the film Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader. Peter Jackson remade the mythical lost sequence of the spiders in the pit of Skull Island. It is enough to really want it on behalf of the studio.
The DVD market has a very rich potential, especially for special editions, as the public is on standby for these. It is not for me to say that Paramount Pictures, one of the biggest studios in the world, would keep all the files of film of a 1983 movie with a budget of some 6 million dollars …