Notable Festivals: Toronto (Special Presentation)
By 2011, director Francis Ford Coppola was well into a new phase of his career, a phase that saw him financing his films independently with the profits from his lifestyle brand, Francis Ford Coppola Presents. This approach resulted in the reinvigorating success of 2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and 2009’s TETRO—so naturally, Coppola was keen to go a similar route for his next project, 2011’s TWIXT. The idea for TWIXT came to Coppola in a dream, where he encountered the author Edgar Allan Poe in a gothic, wooded setting. After working through his idea a little more, Coppola ended up with a story about a washed-up author of horror fiction who finds inspiration in a series of nightmares he has during a book tour stop in a mysteriously sleepy town. But just as Coppola’s unabashed adherence to his vision cost him in the form of several failures throughout his career, so too does TWIXT—a pretty terrible film any way you slice it—become a large stumbling block to progress in Coppola’s delicately nascent indie phase.
The story of TWIXT begins when has-been horror writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), described as a bargain basement Stephen King, stops in the sleepy town of Swann Valley during a humiliatingly ill-attended book tour of his latest work. Standing watch over the town is a giant clock tower, each wall adorned by a giant clock. Each of these clocks tells a different time, so no one quite knows exactly what time it is in this town. Hall is approached by a grizzled Sherriff named LaGrange (Bruce Dern), who happens to be an aspiring writer himself. He proposes a collaboration with Hall—a new book based on a story he’s concocted about a series of murders that occurred in the town. Hall is intrigued by LaGrange’s concept, and spends his days trying to hammer out an outline while trying to convince his publisher to forward an advance to his nagging wife (played by Kilmer’s real-life ex-wife). When night falls, however, Hall finds himself transported to a Gothic dreamscape, populated by ethereal children, a ghostly young girl named V (Elle Fanning), and his own literary idol, Edgar Allan Poe. Through these nocturnal encounters, Hall uncovers the dark secrets of the town while stitching himself into the very fabric of its mysteries.
As the washed-up protagonist, Val Kilmer ably projects the aura of a has-been alcoholic with the requisite middle-aged bloat and a truly disgusting ponytail. TWIXT is the first time to my own eyes where Kilmer truly looks he’s aged tremendously, and to think he played Batman/Bruce Wayne in BATMAN FOREVER only eighteen years ago. There has to be some sort of voodoo curse on him, because even working with a world-class director like Coppola can’t save the movie from going straight to video in America. He gives a spirited performance, but he can’t transcend the messy mise-en-scene around him.
As V, Elle Fanning spends the movie bathed in an ethereal glow and heavy makeup. She’s initially presented as a sweet, ghostly young girl with a giant set of braces on her teeth, but her true nature as a vampire is revealed in a not-surprising twist. Bruce Dern plays Sheriff LaGrange, a backwoods cop who brings a lot of comedic relief despite his serious intentions.
Rounding out the cast is Alden Ehrenreich, who previously starred in TETRO for Coppola. In TWIXT he plays Flamingo, the goth/punk leader of the vampires who hang out “across the river”. And finally, Tom Waits—a regular performer in Coppola’s canon—appears via a brief voiceover narration at the beginning. However, his inclusion is a little odd considering his narration never occurs again for the remainder of the film.
Like Coppola’s previous two films, TWIXT is shot digitally by returning cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. While their first two films together were gorgeous works of art that showed off the beauty that digital is capable of, TWIXT is unilaterally awful-looking. There’s no excuse for how bad it looks; how can this be the same cinematographer who shot Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous 2012 film THE MASTER?. It’s overly crisp, overly lit, and completely fake-looking for the grand majority of its running time. It’s as if the backgrounds were digitally inserted using entry-level compositing software—it’s THAT bad. Counteracting with the bland static of the “reality” sequences is a stylized nightmare dreamscape. These sequences were obviously shot during the day and color-timed after the fact, with Coppola adopting a silvery-cobalt monochromatic look punctuated by bright crimson and unnatural oranges. The biggest strike against TWIXT’s visuals lies not in Coppola’s clearly imaginative inspiration, but in the execution— specifically, the visual effects. Most of the effects are of such a shoddy bargain-basement quality that they look like they were ripped from a 90’s PC game. It’s so bad that that it has to be intentional—there’s no comprehensible reason a world-class director like Coppola would let such shoddy work slide.
TETRO’S Osvaldo Golijov returns to score the film, this time collaborating with Dan Deacon to create a cheeky gothic score. It’s deliberately cheesy, like a low-budget schlock film you might find in VHS in the 1980’s. I suspect that the score is the sole part of the film that’s accurately conveying Coppola’s intentions. If his intention was to create high art out of low-brow direct-to-video horror trash, then he’s certainly pulled it off—and we’ve been reading the film totally wrong this entire time.
Coppola’s directorial style wasn’t built on aesthetic conceits like most of his contemporaries. Rather, every choice he makes is informed by a constant goal: to find new cinematic vernaculars, new ways to express ideas on-screen. One of the main reasons Coppola even made the film was because of an idea that would innovate the film-watching experience using the new tools that digital filmmaking had to offer. He wanted to redefine what it meant to watch a movie unfold, live in the theatre. To this end, he worked out a plan to literally “remix” the film live, responding to the audience in real time and adjusting his edit on the fly. Perhaps this conceit was a little too ambitious, as he could never quite figure out a way to make it practical. There’s no telling if the concept would’ve caught on had he been successful, but if it had, he would’ve revolutionized the way we consume movies and imbued the dying institution of the movie theatre with a newfound life and relevance. Unfortunately, this was not meant to be, so Coppola was forced to edit together a definitive master cut of the film culled from the various pieces he had shot, making for consistently un-even viewing experience.
By embracing the independent realm, Coppola has empowered himself to make intensely personal work that would otherwise be compromised in the studio system. TETRO was very clearly about Coppola’s Argentinian roots as well as his own immediate family. TWIXT, however, takes more of a literal tack, with Coppola incorporating a subplot in which Kilmer’s character is haunted by the death of his young daughter, who died on a boating accident that he could’ve prevented had he not been too hungover to go along. In real life, this is almost exactly what happened with Coppola’s eldest son Gian-Carlo, who was killed in a boating accident in 1986 at the tragically young age of 22. Coppola had always felt responsible because he could’ve been there and prevented it, and TWIXT provided a conduit in which he could own up to his regret and maybe even forgive himself.
To put it simply, TWIXT was a huge failure for Coppola. The fact that he financed it himself meant that he stood to lose a lot from a flop, and he did. But that’s the price you pay for creative freedom. His next project has yet to be announced, so it’s hard to ascertain as of this writing whether he’ll continue the independent route. Given his conflict-laden history with the studios, I’d stand to venture that he does keep on self-financing his work. Even if they’re all failures like TWIXT, their very existence is valuable because they are the manifestations of a true visionary’s unchecked creativity.
TWIXT is available on high definition Blu Ray from 20th Century Fox
Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Roos
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola
Director of Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr
Production Designer: Jimmy DiMarcellis
Edited by: Kevin Bailey, Glen Scantlebury, Robert Schafer
Music by: Osvaldo Golijov, Dan Deacon