China Moya is a Spanish filmmaker based in London. Known for commercials and music videos for the likes of St. Vincent, Hurts, Will Young, and Ladytron, his first feature Undergods is screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2021. A sprawling anthology film embracing sci-fi and dark fantasy as it interweaves various narrative across a strange, dystopian world, it poses many questions. We liked the film when it screened at Fantasia Festival last year, so we contacted Chino to see if we could get some of those questions answered.
‘[Undergods] came out of my overall feeling about the current state of things, probably. A lot of the things I’ve been interested in or exploring,’ says Moya. ‘And also, my influences, films and books and things like that. I’ve put a lot my ideas into it, and a lot of my concerns and worries about the world in which we live and with our era of western society. Especially about man and masculinity as well and the failed societies that western man have built for themselves.’
Interestingly, this “current state of things” doesn’t refer to the current pandemic, even though the film is full of the imagery and sensations of the Covid society; empty streets, isolation and loneliness. There was no hint of what was to follow when the film went into production.
‘[Covid] didn’t even exist!’ he says. ‘Even in an earlier version of the script, [the characters] talk a lot about this plague, this pandemic that was very present in this dystopian world and was killing a lot of people! But a lot of this was taken out of the final version of the movie. We started filming a couple of years before the pandemic so we had no idea what was coming. We actually finished mastering the film the week before the first lockdown.’
Most of the filming took place over the space of a months at various locations around the Serbian capital of Belgrade over the course of a month, with some further extra shoot done later in Estonia. The architecture of the late Communist period was perfect for the film’s brooding atmosphere.
‘Half was the location, and half was the work of the effects team,’ Moya explains. ‘We did a very thorough scout of Eastern Europe and found most in Belgrade and one in Estonia. Kind of brutalist locations with brutalist housing blocks built under Communism.’ The issue was those old blocks were built to last, so some effects wizardry was necessary to reduce the cityscape to rubble for its chilly post-apocalyptic setting. ‘They were normal streets, streets with traffic lights, cars parked, some of them had shops,’ he continues. ‘Lampposts and people walking past. So basically we filmed at those locations, and then we cleaned them up in post-production. We removed all the modern elements – the traffic lights, the people, the cars, and all of that – and then we destroyed the buildings in post, extended the architecture of some buildings and then added other buildings. But the layout was definitely there.’
If the atmosphere seems reminiscent of the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, that is partly by design, and partly a happy accident: ‘Bits of it were shot in Tallinn, Estonia where some scenes of Stalker were shot. I didn’t know all of this. The local crew told me. I was really excited. But unfortunately, when I got to the location, what was an old warehouse had been turned into some kind of hip café. But there was a little plaque that said Tarkovsky filmed here. The buildings were still there, but now a hangout for young, cool Estonians. But Stalker is the movie that has always influenced me the most since I saw it for the first time in my early ‘20s. It’s the main frame of reference for the movie.’
Undergods is a difficult film to get a handle on. The various stories meld into each other, seemingly across geography and time, from desolate cities, to suburban domesticity, to foreboding office blocks, to squalid factories and concentration camp conditions. For Moya, this fluidity is a comment on the fragility of our civilisation.
‘All these things that we take for granted, like freedom and democracy; we are still not free. Even in the US they’ve just experienced this. We’re seeing it with populism, even in this country. It only takes one large chunk of the population to completely change their mind on certain things for things to start going the wrong way.’ Moya’s point of view is informed by time he has spent travelling, and also by his upbringing.
‘I spent some time in Israel and Palestine twice for different projects and it was really interesting to see how the first world and the third was divided pretty much by one wall,’ he explains. ‘In a place like Jerusalem, you can go to a nice bar and eat Japanese food in a cool restaurant. Then you can take a cab, and in 10-15 minutes – pretty much in the same city – you’ve reached a wall. And if you cross that wall, you’ll be in Palestine. It was interesting to see how these two worlds could be so close to each other. And I guess that there are other things. I was born in Spain right after Franco died, after 40 years of autocratic rule and before democracy started. There were two or three years of political limbo and I guess being born before democracy, but after a dictatorship, I got a sense of how close these two things can be. I think that also informed the movie. It definitely came from different life experiences. Both the experiences in Jerusalem and Palestine, and the specific period of Spanish history I came from tells me how close that totalitarianism can be, and how easy it would be to fall into that again. You can see that what happened in America, even within the last year can show you what happens if we take things too much for granted; democracy, the rule of law and all of that.’
Lightening the mood are a raft of great performances from numerous well-known faces like Kate Dickie, Ned Dennehy, Hayley Carmichael, Tanya Reynolds, and Géza Röhrig. Moya was after a very specific type of actor to convey the very specific tone he was after.
‘There were a lot of auditions. But a lot of [the actors] were people I had seen before in movies that I love. Most of the leads were people who I had seen before. People like Kate Dickie and Géza Röhrig, the lead from Son of Saul. It was a difficult one to find everyone to fit into the universe of Undergods. That was the most difficult thing to find. We came across some really good actors that could have played the roles well, but for whatever reason wouldn’t have fit into the universe of Undergods.’
That specific tone includes a streak of jet-black surreal humour that never undercuts the film’s tougher scenes. Although, sometimes that sense of humour is perhaps buried a little too well.
‘I always intended to have [humour], but not everyone has seen that side of it,’ Moya says. ‘It’s also interesting how the characters and actors mix. That’s why it was important that they brought a certain sense of humour to the characters. It would have been just bleakness. Some people saw it, but a lot of people didn’t find it funny. Also I recognise that what I find funny, not everyone does. Fair enough.’
Given that the stories contained in Undergods are so varied across location, intensity, and structure, were there any segments that stuck out as a favourite?
‘Yes and no. I guess it’s a bit like having a favourite kid,’ he laughs. ‘I suppose the last one is the most structured, and is the one that has a beginning, a middle, and an end [in which Dickie’s presumed dead ex-husband returns home after 15 years, much to the dismay of her current spouse]. All the other stories, because they are at the beginning or the middle of the movie I left them a bit unfinished. I guess in terms of story, the last one has more of a conclusion and three acts. Then on the other hand I feel like I would be betraying the other ones if I said that was my favourite. The good thing is that not everyone unanimously prefers one story. That made me happy as I was always worried about the possibility of everyone agreeing that one story was the best among the others. But not everyone does, which was very comforting. I feel very relieved.’
With the film being released later this year into an uncertain market, it’s possible that it potential audience may be limited if the pandemic continues. ‘I think we’re expecting a late Spring or Summer release so by that time hopefully some cinemas will be open.’ he says. ‘But if they are open, they’re not going to be as full as they used to be so the theatrical experience may not pay off as much as it would have in a pre-pandemic world.’ But it’s been clear during the various waves of lockdown that the availability of so many films on streaming platforms has been much needed, although the themes of Undergods may be a little too familiar. ‘The appetite for film itself is bigger than it has ever been. At least that helps. But an audience may feel that the subject matter is a little too close to home. Or they’ll appreciate certain aspects that are like what we are experiencing now.’
Whatever happens to the film in the short term, Moya believes that the impacts of the virus on the industry will be long-lasting:
‘I think it’s going to have a massive effect. For one thing, online viewing was already growing, but now it has exploded. And it’s difficult to imagine now a world where no one wears a mask and people queuing outside. I hope something like that happens, but I don’t see that happening, in the near future at least. I was going to cinema in that little window when cinemas were open and they were pretty empty. There were a lot of young people, and I think the older people who go a lot to the cinema had completely disappeared. But obviously, that’s understandable. [Who knows] whether the older people who feel more at risk will go to the theatre again? On the other hand, the comfort that film has given all these people throughout lockdown; I think the appetite for content is higher than ever. In that sense it’s very exciting. But for the theatrical experience, I don’t know if it will ever go back to what it was.’
However long it takes to get back to some semblance of normality, having a lot of time on your hands can be useful. Moya has used the time to look to future projects. ‘I’m… at the writing stage with a couple of things’ he says. ‘And if lockdown’s good for anything, it’s writing. It’s been very productive, especially in the first lockdown. I’ve got an alternative history thing I’ve been working on for a while, and also this contemporary, post-pandemic horror that I’m also working on. I’m very excited about both. Although they’re not at the filming stage, at least they’re in some stage of development.’
Asked if he had any final advice for aspiring filmmakers now he had his first feature film completed and out in the world, Moya is unequivocal. ‘The main thing word is, “persevere,”’ he states. ‘After years spent sending movies to planning bodies and being rejected and hearing, “No”, I decided to write a movie I was going to shoot. Whether it was with an iPhone, it didn’t matter. I just knew that I was going to shoot it. I guess it was so clear that this movie was going to happen, that it actually helped us get proper funding, and a proper crew. Because it was so clear we were going to make it that helped. My advice is don’t waste many years applying for stuff, just make anything. Make a film with your iPhone. Make it with your friends with no money. Don’t waste years of your life!’
Undergods screens as part of Glasgow Film Festival from Fri 26 Mar 2021, and will be released nationwide later this year.