Interview: Room 237 Director Rodney Ascher
Rodney Ascher's documentary feature Room 237 (2012) is not only a search for hidden meanings within THE SHINING, it is also an exploration of our relationship with the films that we love and demonstrates how an exceptional film can inspire methodical analysis, even obsession. Room 237 also extends the techniques that Ascher experimented with in his first film, The S From Hell (2010), a documentary short about the Screen Gems title card from 1964. Both films rely on a series of unseen interviewees as narration, recontextualized footage from other films, a synthesizer score and superb editing. I talked with Rodney about eighties horror films, electronic music, Errol Morris documentaries, and of course, Room 237.
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I've heard you say that the first time you saw THE SHINING, you didn't stay in the theater very long - for me, I was only able to watch a few of the ominous tracking shots on my tiny black-and-white television before I had to turn it off. Since then, what has your personal connection to the film been like?
Long and complicated. What's maybe most interesting to me now is that I've lived with it long enough to have experienced The Shining as a kid and now as a father. In either case it really digs into some sensitive parts of your brain.
When I saw that scene with the giant Calumet can, I was immediately reminded of the milkshake scene in The Thin Blue Line (1988) for some reason - focusing in on that one single prop. I wonder if there are any particular documentary filmmakers (or documentaries) that have been particularly influential for you?
Thank you for being one of the first to make the connection. That film was HUGELY influential, mostly from its multiple-perspective but those sort of dry, diagrammatic reenactments, and meditative use of music. I'd also list 'In Search Of' for applying horror movie atmospherics to the documentary format, LA Plays Itself, and on and on and on...
There's already a ROOM 237 DVD available in the UK, but I'm wondering if for the US release we might hear more from the interviewees in a (meta-) commentary track or get some additional material via special features?
We're working on it now! Hopefully we'll be able to turn into a totally nightmarish self-reflexive feedback loop.
Between ROOM 237 and your earlier short, The S From Hell, there's some wonderful electronic scoring - in both cases, the synthesizer sounds tie into the subject matter. With ROOM 237, the composers were even using modular synthesizers similar to those used by Wendy Carlos in her Shining score. It seems like there's a renewed interest in synth scores - your film and Beyond The Black Rainbow (2010) are two prominent examples. What are your thoughts on the use of electronic music in horror films, not just in THE SHINING, but in so many of the horror films (big and small) that thrived during the eighties? Any favorites?
Obviously I love it, anything by Goblin, Moroder, Tangerine Dream, Carpenter, etc etc. There's a gut-level reaction which is largely about personal taste and pretty hard to intellectualize, but I also think there's something about that kind of music that raises the stakes to an almost metaphysical level. Plus for 237 in particular, I wanted to ground the aesthetic in the early 80s without aping The Shining's soundtrack too much in particular.
I was delighted to see you use some footage from the much-maligned Halloween III (1982) in The S From Hell. Any particular 80s horror that you'd like other people to know about?
Yeah - i LOVE Halloween 3, such a perfect stream of consciousness kids' sci-fi nightmare. I don't know that any of my other 80s favorites will come as surprises to you but I also love Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw 2, Videodrome, Saturn 3, Brain Damage, Night Train to Terror, Cat People and Body Double. Wait! Also Lair of the White Worm!
Many thanks to Rodney Ascher for taking time out from a very busy press schedule to talk with us. There are several excellent interviews floating around with Rodney, but my favorite is the hour-long one that he and producer Tim Kirk did with NPR - you can listen to that here. If you missed Room 237 during its theatrical run, it's currently available to watch on most of the major video-on-demand services - see the list of links below. And check out our trading cards for THE SHINING too!
The Room 237 carpet sample shown above is from Sal Gilberto's wonderful collection of wallpaper for iOS, based on carpet patterns seen in THE SHINING. Additional screenshots from The Thin Blue Line and The S From Hell.